Month: February 2010

Another category

Thomas G. writes in with a comment suggesting a third category for underrated: (3) philosophers who may be popular but are treated as literary figures. Nietzsche quickly comes to mind, though i would even add in philosophers who are usually just used for quick quotes, like Benjamin, rather than dealt with in a more systematic way.

Most Underrated?

Speculum Criticum wrote in with a comment:

But the really interesting question, i.m.o., would be, Who is the most *under*-rated philosopher?  The Over-rated question is just an invitation to polemic. The Under-rated question could bring all sorts of interesting neglected figures to light, & possibly be quite fruitful.

Such begins the split-off from the original question Harman raised about the most overrated philosophers. I was thinking of this question when he asked about the most overrated, but I’m not even sure how to begin answering the questions. (1) You could name the most slandered philosophers who is clearly influential and for good reason. Hegel comes to mind, since for so long he was treated as proto-totalitarian (he thought of a System and you know where that goes…), but is crucial to understanding any of the main figures of the past one hundred years in Continental; or (2) there’s the philosopher whom no one except you and your reading group over at the Rotary Club have heard of, who would change the intellectual landscape if anyone but you was reading him or her.

More interesting would be the most underrated books, and this is where there’s a good pedagogic moment for all of us is available: what work has really changed the way you look at philosophy, yet few people pick it up to read it?

Meillassoux and the Realist Sense of Statements

I’m reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude in order to teach it next week in the realism seminar (note to those who saw Harman’s post linking to my site: I am badly behind on updating it, and plan to do so when it’s needed). I am not arguing myself for an anti-realism (in Michael Dummett’s sense) but I’ve always thought the weakest part of this work is the chapter on ancestrality, but that’s like saying that I really enjoyed the new car you gave me for the holidays but I didn’t like the bow you put on it. Basically, Meillassoux offers a not-very-good rendition of phil of science after Popper, and not a very good linguistic theory to back it up. I’m leading to a sincere question, fyi, and I’m only a short way through, so i’ll likely post more:

1) He argues that there is a “real sense” to scientific statements. (I don’t have time to summarize the work for those who haven’t read it. Here’s a summary review I published a year ago.) He then says that, of course, after Popper, no one thinks science is anything but revisable, but that the meaning of its statements are real, if contingent (they can be proved wrong). But this would seem to lead to an infinite deferral of a real reference: you’ll have to wait for it to be proved conclusive, and thus for now we can say “as of now, according to x, y, and z scientific theorems, this is the referent for this statement” … Again, I am not an anti-realist, but it does seem that Meillassoux’s argument here has built-in a number of problems a good phil of science class would drive right through.

2) Ok, so then comes in the problem of the referent .Now, here’s where Dummett can be brought in. (Never thought I would write that.) Realism would be any discourse that claims a “literal” and “real” referent. Ultimately Dummett claims that one can test the truth claims of a conceptual scheme without this referent (and in fact, the more one leans on reference, the more one has to give up on truth–but that’s another matter), but what’s important is that Meillassoux claims there’s no compromise between the correlationist and the archifossil (I would cite the English version page numbers, but I only have the French version in front of me). The ancestral statements, he writes, have a “meaning only on the condition that its literal sense is also its ultimate sense” (p. 35). I’ve marked in my own text a number of places where Meillassoux’s implicit linguistic theory is employed. In any event, he says that the ancestral statements have “only a realist sense.”

The whole relation between reference and meaning is something I’ll leave to the Fregens Fregians readers of early analytic philosophy, but it’s obviously fexed and Dummett owes quite a bit to revisiting Frege’s work. My question, though, is more straightforward: doesn’t Meillassoux’s claim about the ancestral apply to all sorts of discourses?

Let me cite the example that would irk him the most, I think: the Freudian unconscious, just for discussion’s sake. (1) it can never have a sense except as a referent beyond the statement since that in the strictest sense is exactly what it is; (2) it cannot be made the correlation of any perceiver; (3) yet it is said to be “real.” One can thus say there is no “compromise between the correlationist and the archi-drives of the unconscious.”

Of course, then you’ll say to me, but there’s a difference. And I’ll say, well, you were talking about sense and reference, and if that’s the case, all realist discourses are analogous: they take their conceptual schemes and add one crucial statement (just as the correlationist adds one crucial statement to all scientific facts): all this and these statements refer to a non-given, independent reality. (But the stuff on donation and 1st and 2nd meanings is pretty knockdown of Heidegger saying scientific statements are “secondary” to the object’s ready-to-handness.) How are we not left with a circular “but mine comes with set theory, no matter what mathemes Lacan would start using…”? Again, I’m not arguing for an anti-realism, but opening up a question…


Harman has a funny post up on a philosophy book he’s reading that’s all about science. I guess what people generally think is that Continentals don’t respect science or something. In fact, I would say that I respect it too much to keep reading really bad science in the work of certain philosophers—stuff that never gets past what you learn in a second year undergrad course. Scientists spend their time doing amazingly creative stuff like figuring out how to isolate one cause from another, or trying to build an apparatus to measure some really subtle change. I can’t do that. The people I read can’t do that. But they like sounding more authoritative, so they peer over the shoulders of the people that are actual, working scientists like a strange voyeur.

Repetition Compulsion

Just a quick follow-up to the last post on Levi. He writes: “I could never escape the impression that Derrida is a one trick pony that created three or four concepts (differance, supplementarity, and trace) that he then monotonously repackaged with different terms in text after text from there on out.”

I’m not going to disagree with Levi for the moment, since that’s not interesting. But I do wonder what philosopher isn’t robustly repetitive. I think the early Derrida is just moving through different philosophers to show a similar metaphysics of presence, and that will appear to be a one trick pony (has anyone seen a one trick pony? I mean—a ponyt could be pretty cool on its own, so being adorable and able to do a trick would seem a good thing). Hegel’s dialectic could appear repetitive—and thank goodness, since it’s that “repetition” is the only way one could get through the Science of Logic and understand anything. In fact, I think that’s what makes a particularly good philosopher: having a certain “system” (or anti-system or what-have-you) and showing it off in different contexts. The bad philosophers are the ones who can’t keep it straight from one text to the next, or are those for whom you can’t recognize any repetitive system of thought at all. And that’s good, since reading someone like Badiou would mean relearning the wheel (strange metaphor) with each new text, which would obviate the need to work through the two volumes of Being and Event.

But Apart from all that, what has he done for us?

Levi Bryant has a great post up responding to the go-round on overrated philosophers. I would agree with him about Badiou. I think, just to add a point, that the Badiou boomlet hasn’t been all that long (has it?) and I don’t bump into card carrying Badiouians all that often, thus it’s tough to call him overrated. There are a lot of people influenced by his work, especially his writings on politics, and I think his writings have really led to a fruitful evaluation of politics, but unless I’ve missed it, I don’t see people making claims for him that people would do at times for Derrida or Heidegger. The part about Derrida is interesting:

Derrida definitely fits the bill of overrated philosopher in my book. I actually wrote my masters thesis on Derrida and desperately wanted to find something groundbreaking in his thought, but I could never escape the impression that Derrida is a one trick pony that created three or four concepts (differance, supplementarity, and trace) that he then monotonously repackaged with different terms in text after text from there on out. I’ve just never gotten the obsession some have with Derrida, even if I do think his deconstruction of metaphysics is valuable.

This reminded me of the Monty Python bit about the Romans… but other than that what has he given us?

Overrated overrateds

At first this struck me as one of Harman’s better parlor game type questions, though actually I think it’s the least helpful of his and thought provoking: who is the most overrated philosopher? I think the questions he uses to get to the answer are quite good, but I just don’t know who anyone does hold up as as something like the “greatest philosopher” from the 20th century. Paul Ennis has a good post up, but since I disagree that Sartre is (now) overrated or even rated at all, I can’t agree. I guess the test is whether or not there’s a philosopher that people usually write “As s/he explains” and introduces their quotes with a similar variety of “they are authorities” type enunciations.

I did meet someone at an APA who told me that Plato wasn’t a good philosopher and no non-modern philosopher could be considered such given the rather dated information they had. So for some, I guess the quest would be to reverse Harman’s categories—since the most overrated is going to be the least ‘modern’ and thus is still read despite being so out of it anyway. So, I guess then Plato would get that vote. But for those of us who think of philosophy as more than a handmaiden of science, it’s hard to think of 20th century peeps who have such a wide reception. I have a feeling for some it might be Wittgenstein as the most overrated. He’s constantly batted around by all sides and yet he’s a constant touchtone. It can’t be a Derrida or Heidegger or even a Russell, since there’s widespread dislike for them, so most overrated would have to be someone who actually rates outside of certain circles.

Letters from Descartes

Leiter links to a story in the Chronicle on a letter found at Haverford that is believed be from Descartes and notes perhaps three sections of his Meditations that he excised before publication: Descartes wrote the letter in 1641 to his friend Marin Mersenne about his major work published that year,Meditations on First Philosophy. According to Mr. Bos, who has done extensive research on Descartes’s correspondence, the letter provides an abundance of new information about how the thinker completed his book.

The contest now would be to figure out what three sections you would add to this founding text of modern philosophy. Perhaps Meditation 2, section 2: “The Evil Genius also ruined my relationship with my father”? Maybe Meditation 1, section b: “It is my height, not the skeptics, that fills me with me with self-doubt”?


Lori Watson, who’s a great colleague, popped into my office and I know that her secret love is philosophy of biology, so I asked her about neuroplasticity. A short, wonderful lecture later, I’m a bit less sure of this immanentist notion Malabou attaches to it. To cite one book, The Brain that Changes Itself by N. Boidge, it’s not the case that the brain changes all by itself but changes always in relation to the other. But that’s a side point to how we’re seeing an upending of phil. of mind about programmed conceptions of the mind, including the idea that, say, gender is programmed, when in fact that is a particular formation of the brian in realtino to certain dynamic systems.