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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

That man was no learned exegete, he did not know Hebrew; if he had known Hebrew, then he might have easily understood the story of Abraham.


Christia Mercer has recently published an article about, let us say, the history of history of philosophy, and responding to it is apparently all the rage. So I am reviving this abortive blog to add my response.

It is more than a little absurd for me to respond, as I have read only some parts of the article in question (principally those quoted by my at-least-Facebook friends Charlie Huenemann, Martin Lenz, and Eric Schliesser[1]Oh, OK. May your page rank continue to flourish.). Still less have I done the kind of research that would be necessary for a full understanding of the work: there is no proper critical edition of the article; I have no access to Mercer’s earlier drafts; I have not poked through her personal correspondence or her wastebasket. Maybe somewhere on a discarded scrap of paper she has written a note that would change everything (and maybe she has destroyed such a scrap, on purpose, as Kierkegaard claims to have done).

My familiarity with the scholarly literature that forms her subject matter is, moreover, not very deep. When I have dipped into it, I have found it at times helpful in one way or another, other times not. Even in the former case, the experience of reading it is for me always uncanny (i.e., unheimlich), and I suspect this is the deepest reason that I tend to avoid it. Whatever indicates, by its very existence, the advent of a philosophy without self-knowledge — a philosophy which calls forth both “history of philosophy” and “metaphilosophy” as special disciplines: a zombie philosophy, one might say; a philosophy naturalized not only objectively but also formally, such that its body continues all mechanical functions, the spirit having departed — whatever indicates this fills me with dread.

Nevertheless, absurdly, I have something to say in response.

To Mercer, this literature — namely, that vast output of secondary literature, written by and for increasingly specialized experts, which our field has produced beginning, approximately, in the 1980’s[2]In English, that is: somewhat earlier in German; also, somewhat earlier in the case of ancient philosophy. — seems a great improvement on what came before. (She does not, as far as I know, explicitly take note of the fact that what came before was not a different kind of specialized secondary literature.) This improvement she ascribes to the widespread adoption of a new criterion of scholarly work, which she calls the “getting things right criterion.”

Now, this principle, that things are to be got right, is the principle of the divine will, by which the world was created. Mercer is very familiar with at least one version of it under the name “principle of sufficient reason” or “of sufficient ground.” The getting things right criterion is proper to beings as such (i.e., transcendental). To claim it as the property of some particular school of historians is an act of rather extreme appropriation.

Does this show, then, that no one can ever get anything wrong? On this point I refer to the usual solutions to the problem of evil, which tend to be effective as metaphysics but personally not very consoling. To appropriate somewhat from one of those philosophers who has so unfairly — and who can say why? could there possibly be any reason? — monopolized the sacred high ground of JHP:

This Harmony makes it such that things are conducted to grace by the very ways of nature, and that this globe, for example, must be destroyed and repaired by natural ways at those moments when the government of spirits demands it, for the punishment of some and the reward of others. (Monadology §88, Phil. Schriften ed. Gerhardt, 7:622)

The true is the whole. The whole will get things right. But we, our philosophical tradition (or indeed our species), considered in isolation from the whole, may, or rather certainly will, get things wrong. And we will pay eventually for our wrongness, that is, our partiality, by our destruction. The event may be upon us.

It is fitting, moreover, that our destruction should be heralded to us by a scholar of Leibniz. Leibniz has something to say about those of his predecessors, such as Descartes and Spinoza, who, in the quest to get things right, had resolved no longer to appropriate, or in other words to disappropriate, to disavow, their own past. He says that they have made a political error. Descartes recognizes well enough that a wholesale refusal to appropriate either the old buildings or the old institutions of our city would be disastrous, even though we have certainly not got either the buildings or the institutions right. But he claims that no such inconvenience will attend on an analogous act with respect to his own private opinions:

It is true that we do not see anyone throw to the ground all the houses of a city with the sole design of remaking them in another way and rendering the streets more beautiful; but we do see many taking theirs down in order to rebuild them . . . . On the example of which I persuaded myself[3]Note that this “I persuaded myself” is the very act in which the ego cogito will catch itself when it first self-appropriates: imo certe ego eram, si quid mihi persuasi. Heidegger might say: when it first propriates (so that this would be, not an Erlebnis, but the Ereignis). Thoreau says it in English: “and here I will begin to mine” (Walden 2.23). (That, incidentally, is one of the few passages Stanley Cavell ever explained to me outright. There were more secrets in his trade than in most men’s.) that it would truly not be proper [qu’il n’y auroit vertablement point d’apparence] that an individual [un particulier] form a design to reform a state, by changing all the foundations and overturning it in order to rectify it, nor even to reform the body of the sciences or the established order of teaching them in the schools; but that, as for all the opinions which I had received until then into my credence, I could not do better than to undertake, once and for all, to remove them, in order afterwards to replace them, either with other better ones, or indeed with the same ones, when I should have adjusted them to the level of reason. (Discours 2.2, AT VI:13,13–14,1)

To which Leibniz replies:

And finally, by this theory [ratio] [that is, Leibniz’s appropriation of the doctrine of substantial form], both the truth and the doctrines of the Ancients are consulted. And just as our age has absolved of contempt the corpuscles of Democritus, the ideas of Plato, and the tranquility of the Stoics in the optimal connection of things, now, too, the traditional doctrines [tradita] of the Peripatetics of forms or entelechies (which have been deservedly seen as enigmatic, and scarcely rightly perceived by the Authors themselves) will be recovered to intelligible notions, as, indeed, we deem it necessary rather to explain this philosophy which was received for so many ages, so as also to make it consist with itself (where this can be done to it) and, further, to illustrate it and augment it with new truths, than to abolish it.

And this plan [ratio] of studies seems to me most accommodated both to the prudence of teachers and to the utility of students, that we neither appear more desirous of destroying than of building, nor be daily thrown, uncertain, into the midst of perpetual changes of doctrine, by the pride of audacious geniuses. (“Specimen dynamicum,” Math. Schriften ed. Gerhardt, 6:235–6)

Whatever you conclude in your own private speculation, even if (like Descartes, or like Socrates) you claim not to be a teacher, you will teach, and you will teach the more powerfully the more power is in you: for Leibniz, that is a matter of metaphysical necessity (for Leibniz, indeed, active power is nothing but teaching). And so the will that throws down, i.e., refuses to appropriate, the doctrines of centuries, in order rather to make room for its own new plan, is as much a tyrant as a Nero who burns Rome.

But Leibniz has perhaps not anticipated our historians of philosophy. The imperative to get things right, as they understand it, does not manifest in pride and audacity, but in a cautious rooting about through archives — and even this they dare not undertake without an elaborate display of credentials and citations. (As the old joke has it: if Descartes were alive today, and were going on the job market, he could not list “Descartes” as an AOS, because he lacks sufficient familiarity with the literature.) Leibniz, I say, has perhaps not anticipated these historians: Nietzsche has anticipated them. The antiquarian function of history (for that is the function we have to do with here), in its healthy state, is, he explains, a function of appropriation:

The small, the limited, the decayed and obsolete receives its own dignity and sanctity [Unantastbarkeit] thereby, that the soul of the antiquarian human being has settled [übersiedelt] in these things, and has prepared for himself therein a homelike nest. The history of his city becomes for him the history of himself. (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, Part 2: “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben,” Werke (Leipzig: C.G. Naumann), 1:303)

And so, if we were to ask: why have those few figures so monopolized JHP, would not the answer be: because their words are our words and their questions are our questions? Because we cannot speak without causing their lips to move in the grave? To the point where we cannot emit even so apparently harmless a piece of commonplace chatter as “the getting things right criterion” without at once invoking the good that is beyond being, ἔτι ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας καὶ πρεσβείᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ὑπερέχοντος (or, in a more Aristotelian mood: the bonitas sive perfectio transcendentalis).

But, as with the other functions of history, this antiquarian function — again, in its healthy state — involves a kind of injustice to the past:

Spoken with a certain freedom of image: the tree feels its roots more than it can see them; this feeling, however, measures their size according to the size and power of its visible branches. And if the tree already errs therein: how will it be in error about the whole forest round about it! Of which it knows and feels anything, only so far as [that thing] hinders or furthers its own self — but nothing beyond that. (305)

And, as with the other forms of history, its degeneracy sets in when the historians themselves — could it be due to a sudden widespread flowering of the virtue of justice? (Nietzsche says not) — notice the injustice and try to correct it:

Here a danger always lies very near: finally everything old and past that still comes at all into the circle of vision is simply received as equally venerable. . . . Antiquarian history itself degenerates the moment the fresh life of the present no longer animates and inspires it. The piety withers away, the scholarly habit persists without it and turns egotistically–self-satisfiedly about its own center. Then may one behold the unfortunate spectacle of a blind frenzy of collection, a restless scraping together of all that has ever been. The human being encases itself in mustiness; he succeeds, by the antiquarian manner, in demoralizing even a more significant disposition, a nobler need, into an insatiable curiosity [Neubegier], or, better: a lust for the old and for everything [Alt- und Allbegier]; often, he sinks so low that, in the end, he is satisfied with any fare, and devours with pleasure the dust of bibliographical minutiae. (306)

And who indeed could live on such dust? Or what tree could take root in it?

Thoreau says:

There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once — for the root is faith — I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say. (Walden 1D.23)

No doubt, as he implies, I am at least as uprooted (deracinated) as Mercer or Descartes or Spinoza, and, no doubt, my uprootedness is my despair (or “quiet desperation”), that is, my lack of faith. But this helps me very little, because — I cannot understand much that he has to say. There are moments when Thoreau breaks the surface like a loon, and, following Machiaveli’s advice to the audacious tyrant, makes a sudden, rare, terrifying display of his power. Of these, one of the most terrifying of all, at least to me, is when he says: “I love better to see stones in place” (1D.13). Build no city, he says. Or: throw down the city you have (though it be no city of mere Luftgebaüde), and never rebuild (“Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries” [14.15]). The ground is no principle. The ground suffices.

But this pitch of philosophy is too high for the likes of me. I remain in my despair, in my sin. There is much that I cannot understand. I do not understand Abraham. Perhaps the learned exegetes will understand him. Nail elyë hiryva.

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