Saturday, February 17, 2007


In today's cultural-political climate -- and that which has prevailed for most of my entire life -- there is a certain strain among the residues of "the left" which takes pride in a cynical and generalized anti-Americanism. America, it is sometimes thought -- not entirely without justification -- has a massively destructive foreign policy, consumes a massively disproportionate share of the world's resources, and has citizens that are not only apathetic and ignorant, but apathetic and ignorant about their apathy and ignorance.

To combat the dangers of cynicism in myself, and perhaps also a few friends who stumble across Impure Reason from time to time, I want to begin a list of all the things about America that I love and that are worth loving, in no particular order:

1) Bob Dylan
2) Transcendentalism (Thoreau, Emerson)
3) Jazz (Davis, Coltrane, Brubeck)
4) Pragmatism (esp. James and Dewey)
5) the liberal-arts college curriculum
6) the Constitution
7) Walt Whitman
8) Yellowstone National Park
9) Manhattan
10) hip-hop
11) baseball

Add your own in the comments below; I'll update the list as it grows.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pragmatism, Realism, Etc.

I've begun reading Putnam's Realism with a Human Face. It's a difficult book, a collection of essays on epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and history of philosophy, and it interweaves both highly technical discussions about quantum mechanics and logic with a sensitivity to broad cultural and social concerns. It's not that one cannot see the forest for the trees -- one can! -- but that there are so many trees.

In the first section, Putnam provides a quick sketch of two recent developments in quantum mechanics and in the logic of semantic paradoxes. In both cases he examines the temptation of providing a "God's-Eye View," a theory of the totality. In quantum mechanics this temptation expresses itself in the desire for a theory that includes the observer within the system under examination, even at what Putnam considers to be extravagant metaphysical cost (many world interpretation, Bohmian mechanics). In logic this temptation expresses itself in the desire for a resolution of the paradoxes of self-referential sentences.

Putnam concludes that both temptations stem from an evasion of the Kantian lesson: one cannot include oneself within the system, because -- to rephrase the Kantian point in Wittgenstein-esque terms -- the norms of representation are not themselves among the objects represented. Putnam builds on Kant and on Wittgenstein in developing further the failures of metaphysical realism and the turn towards the life of the agent, towards practice or praxis. But, also like Kant and Wittgenstein, Putnam is mindful of the allure of metaphysics.

What is metaphysics? Is metaphysics possible in any sense "after" Kant and Wittgenstein? If so, how?

Next: Hegel and Deleuze as rival versions of self-consciously post-Kantian metaphysics!

And: the secret affinity between Nietzsche, Carnap, and Rorty!

Immediacy and Mediation

Immersed as I've been in the Hegel/Marx tradition, and in particular "Western Marxism" (Adorno, Marcuse, and Debord), I tend to frame problems in terms of the relationship between "immediacy" and "mediation." (One can even see criticisms of Hegel in terms of this frame -- for example, by reading Deleuze as responding to Hegel's critique of pure immediacy.)

This frame of reference opened up for me a certain picture of Internet communication. It may seem, to the naive, as though the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, has made possible a new avenue of immediate encounter between human beings. And there is something both true and seductive about this naivete. But this must not be allowed to obscure the fact that I am sitting alone in my apartment as I type this, in a state of undress that would not be widely received in public, and that as you read these words under conditions entirely outside of my capacity to affect.

The situation is not dissimilar from writing in general -- and some theorists have argued for a causal relation between writing as technology and the cognitive transformation that made abstract thought possible -- but for the instantaneous character of Internet communications. The previously unimaginable speed of Internet communications have seemingly collapsed the distance between "the private" (me, in my apartment, lounging in a bathrobe) and "the public" (everyone else).

Yet the distance has only been transformed. When we talk with others in our real lives, the interplay of voices takes place within a context of somatic sounds -- sighs, breaths, pauses, grunts, sniffs . . . lively debates while eating or drinking result in a dialectic of what is going into one's mouth and what is coming out. (Sips of coffee or beer create the openings in which another may speak.) The art of writing removes the somatic cues and rhythms, but in all writing up to the Electronic Age, this was implicitly acknowledged; consequently there was an art of writing in which grammatical and rhetorical structures complemented the loss of somatic context. But the art was informed by a sense of time -- a sense that writing well required an investment of one's time, and that it took time also to read well.

In the Electronic Age, we do not read -- we scan -- and consequently we no longer write in order to be read. What is written is to be read immediately, thereby instilling in us a false sense of immediacy. The mediation is concealed.