Toronto’s man-made flatness

A common complaint about Toronto concerns its flatness – there are large swathes of it with no obvious geographical traits at all. A city fo Euclidean ideality may be great for cycling (if it were not for the traffic, the lack of safe bike lanes, and the awful paving), but it also gives the impression of living in an under designed video game – hey, Grand Theft Auto has better hiking than this place! Well surprise surprise, – the flatness of Toronto is not entirely natural:

Crawford Street passes through Trinity Bellwoods Park over a graceful triple-span concrete bridge which still exists, but is now buried beneath the street. The bridge once crossed a ravine carved by Garrison Creek as it flowed from north of St. Clair Avenue into Lake Ontario near Fort York. Crawford Street was first extended over the ravine on a wooden bridge in 1884. In 1914 and 1915, R.C. Harris, Commissioner of Works, had the old bridge replaced with one made of concrete. (A visionary, Harris was responsible for the Bloor Street Viaduct, 1918.) The bridge’s spans, railings, and lampposts captured Harris’s flair for dramatic public architecture. Both Garrison Creek and the Crawford Street Bridge now lie hidden beneath this park. By the 1880s, the creek was so polluted that it was gradually channelled underground into a brick sewer, built through here in 1885. Portions of the ravine were then filled in, here with earth from subway excavation in the 1960s. The bridge was buried up to its sidewalks and roadbed, and its railing and lampposts were removed. In 2004, the original sidewalks and roadbed were entirely rebuilt, but the remainder of the bridge rests intact beneath the surface.

The Crawford street bridge fill is not a exceptional project – Vancouverites might be surprised to learn that Main Street once travelled over a substantial bridge between the Downtown Eastside and East Van (in the days when False Creek was more than twice its current size). But, unlike the false creek fill project, the filling of the Garrison creek serves no useful purpose other than to prevent people from having to wrestle with a bit of nature. And – it’s buried this lovely bridge!

Oh Toronto, why do you hate hills and pretty things so much?


de Sousa on Emotional Truth

Ronald de Sousa‘s “Emotional Truth” seeks to expand the realm of truth from its restriction to belief and belief-like states to include emotions and emotional states. On DeSousa’s view, an emotion can be “true”, or “false”, but not in the sense of being “flat-out” true or false, rather in some matter of degree. To use one of DeSousa’s favorite distinctions: whereas the truth of beliefs or belief-like states is “digital” (something is either true or not true), he contends that the truth of emotional states is analogue. Analogue truth is the realm of “more or less”; we feel that something is true not (generally) with certainty, but with degrees of confidence. Aside from the analogue/digital difference, emotional truth differs from the truth of beliefs in that its satisfaction conditions are not semantic, but evaluative:

Emotional truth, then, refers not to semantic satisfaction, but to success. I follow widespread practice in saying that fear’s assessment of p or t as dangerous consist in some sort of evaluation of p or t. Success is tied to the correctness of that evaluation.

We might also remark that emotional truth is less “cognitive” than epistemic truth – the truth of an emotion is not simply “in my head”, but in my engagement with the world  (“Success” refers to transformations which really happen to me, resulting from the play of the relation between the emotional states I bring to the world and how the world fulfills them or fails to fulfill what they intend).

The claim I wish to make here is to argue that “emotional truth” in DeSousa’s analysis is taking up the same theoretical space as Heidegger fills with the notion of truth as “unconcealing” or “revealing” – as the wider circle which grounds and makes possible traditional truth as correctness or correspondence:

To say that a statement is true means that it discovers the beings in themselves. It asserts, it shows, it lets beings “be seen” (apophansis) in their discoveredness. The being true (truth) of the statement must be understood as discovering. Thus, truth by no means has the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a corresponding of one being (subject) to another (object). (Being and Time, German pagination 218-19)

According to Heidegger, truth as disclosedness, (alithea, literally un-covering-up) is the basis for our modern understanding of truth as “the agreement between things objectively present” (225). Despite many reader’s perceptions that Heidegger is “against” traditional theories of truth, his framework actually allows for both to co-exist. The negative emotion towards traditional truth has a real motivation, however – from the fact that this conceals the originary nature of truth, and obscures the question of the meaning of being in general. Since correspondance truth buries over the nature of truth in general, we come to understand truth as agreement between objectively present innerworldly things, and therefore to assume that Being itself is simply objective presence (225).

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“Hyperstylish Objects” and Things

IMG_9943Walking through Old Montreal with my Mother, popping into galleries filled with 5000$ paintings (and people buying them!), we came across the strangest store. Called “Hyper-Stylish Books and Objects”, it was superficially a book store. But, unlike any book store I’d ever seen before – all of the books were wrapped in plastic. So, you purchase the books without even flipping through them! And then I looked at the pricetags – for a large collection of golf course photographs the cost was over ten thousand dollars. Books on the shelves looked not so different from the bookshelf at an art gallery bookstore, except again, all covered in plastic wrap.

The answer is of course, that it is not a book store but an object store. None of these books are for reading – they are for decorating rooms, for looking at, mostly at the spine.

Is this so strange, today? That books might be used as objects of style, of decoration, of “comfort”? No. In fact, the store fit in perfectly with the art galleries – perhaps art is being consumed in the same way – as decoration, as style, as prestige. Not as transgressive, evocative, form engendering. Or is this opposition now false? Is art’s fully authentic, magical act something sold by the yard? If so, would not this hyperstylish object store be the epidomy of such a commodification?


I am not averse to the ownership of fine things – what might be in some interpretation “hyperstylish” objects. Aside from a stack of IMG_0252library books, desk is cluttered with a piece of dinosaur egg, a stone sculpture, an orange solar lamp, an art-nouveau stainless steel french press, even a 1930’s copy of “The Floating Republic” – a historical chronicle of the British Naval mutinies of 1797. What is the purpose of these objects, these idols? These ideals? Is it not to comfort, to show off, to dwell alongside?

Is it perhaps that the quickly observable superficiality of the plastic-wrapped bookstore conceals a common essence to things and our relationship to them? All things of this sort gather us, reflect us, bring us home. Things are what we want to be, which in late modernism is always also how we want to be seen – but not only this! We really are how we desire to be seen – there is no “fooling”, there is only a re-inscription of reality in terms of pure appearance!

The question for ethics here, for “how ought one live” is whether there is any measure which allows us to judge one set of things from another – whether one persons idols are more soulful, more genuine than those of another? I do not see how, without positing a set purpose for such objects/things/idols, any such measure could be drawn.

But does this mean that we should pay no heed to what we surround ourselves with? Does this mean we should, because of this lack of a standard measure, stop judging others by the content of their house rather than the content of their character? Of course not (although I would caution against the latter). Rather, we should concentrate on being mindful of the purposes of our idols, our objects, our things, such that proper measures can be drawn given the uses, values, purposes, and directions that draw us to acquire and tend to things.


values-basedWe all have them. They’re what drive us, what we strive for. What we sometimes have to give up. What we set up as provisional ideals, goals, projects. What guide us through difficult decisions. What we ponder over. What we die for (or from).

When our ideals differ from those of others, we have values for then too – tolerance, respect, sensitivity, engagement. Collaboration, argument.We share some values, so we don’t have to share others.

Do we believe in our values? We can change our values. Our values are ourselves, we identify with them. If we choose our values, do we choose ourselves? We (should?) take responsibility (a value) for our values.

Are values inherently individuating? (A value). Is that a good value? Can values be evaluated?

Are values up to the challenges of our time? Isn’t “Challenges of our time” a value? Or at least the notion of “Challenge”, and the “ownership” of a time?

Is the question – “Which values are the right values to hold?” or “are values the right way to think our ideals?”?

What would it mean to give up on values? How would that not be a value?

Point Roberts – International Boundary Vacation Zone

Last weekend I had the good fortune to be invited to a friend’s beachhouse in Point Roberts, just across the border from Twassen, British Columbia. The border, viewed from Google Maps is quite a distinctive sight – full modern development on the north side gives way to 50’s beach houses and forest cover just south of the border. This distinctive difference is felt much more intensly in person. Crossing the border is always a magical experience – both sides are already halfway to the other, a kind of in-between space where everyone is on the way to somewhere else. But Point Roberts doesn’t even conform to this odd norm – once you cross the border you are already at your destination. Sort of an American Canada – you purchase fuel in US dollars, but in units of liters rather than gallons. The residents have no choice to submit to a sort of perpetual invasion – the clerk may have an opinion on some visitors’ poor understanding of English – but it seems futile, like a shopkeeper in occupied France complaining about the German soldiers’ poor grasp of French.

The border itself is guarded but not fortified. At the beach, we sat and floated in the water literaly less than 100 feet from the Candian border. The borer is not marked with a fence or even an angry sign – just a concrete lighthouse like structure emblazened with a “C”. If one didn’t know this was an international border, there would be no reason to assume that the “C” stood for the name of a country or that it was anything but a navigational marker.

The point is home mostly to summer cottages. I thought initially that this was pointless – why have a cottage in what is effectively suburban Vancouver? Boy was I wrong – the international border makes certain not only that development on the south side of the line is more New England than Suburban Vancouver, but also that a strange force isolates you from the rest of the lower mainland. While you may be able to see the Alex Fraser bridge, it is disconnected from your reality – like East from West Berlin standing next to each other, no wall, but the same mysterious groundless arbitrary yet perfect and unchanging borderline.

Summer Ponderings, Existential Crisis, Meaning and Purpose

“Back in touch”

This summer I have not spent much time reading and writing. In other words, I have not done much philosophy. I’ve found myself wondering, “What is the point of philosophy?”, “What is philosophy for?”. Of course, easy and bad answers to these questions exist. The usual solution is to posit some principle which you accept as unconditionally valuable and true and them demonstrating some sort of philosophy as a means to it. For instance, if you think politics or global warming or math or physics is really important, I could probably show you why we need philosophy. But this isn’t, and can’t be a serious way of responding to the initial question, “What is the point of philosophy?” because philosophy has in it the notion that all values and beliefs must be put into question. Therefore, attempting to justify philosophy externally requires either an infinite regress, or a suspension of philosophy. In other words, if philosophy is putting everything, even one’s most deeply held beliefs into question, what can the purpose or value of philosophy be? The answer is not difficult – philosophy is valueable in itself and without it, nothing has value. This truth is preserved in worn out catchphrases like Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and Kant’s “Know thyself”.

But the value of philosophy cannot be discovered through catchphrases anymore than the safe operation of complex machinery. In each case what is in question is a practice much more complex than the simple labels we use to refer it. And if the value of philosophy is knowable only through the practice of philosophy, we should not expect to be able to express it adequately in writing. We should not be able to refer to it, but only engage in it.

And yet, this summer has been a summer of abandonment. Perhaps philosophy is only important and fulfilling as long as one continuously engages in it. But in that case, is it just a cult?

It is not as if I’ve stopped doing philosophy because I’ve found some more worthwhile practice to engage in. Or even to consider engaging in. When people ask me, “What would you do if you weren’t going to grad school?”, I haven’t the slightest idea. Very few professions seem worthwhile enough to engage in today. I can’t help but ask myself – sure, being a railway engineer or an architect or an environmental planner are important, but what serious difference would be made in the world if I took up any of those professions? And – to examine the unjustified assumption therein – what is the point of making a difference in the world? To make it better? Who’s “better”? Is that a desire or an obligation?

The answer I come to in these lines of questioning is that without a transcendent Purpose held above all others the value of which is not put into question, whether that be called God or the universal salvation of humanity or continued progress and the end of poverty or freedom or democracy or preventing global warming, then no purposes or values retain the kind of solidity we unjustifiably want when we try to give our life meaning. Meaning does not actually reside in ends but in ongoing activity, our day to day practices, our vacations, our social, intellectual, emotive life.

It is worthwhile to ask what we mean when we say “X gives life meaning”? Do we mean life means X? It seems rather it means life with the addition of X, life gains the quality of “worthwhileness”. But what is worthwhileness? Is it only the absence of existential crisis!?

In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that we fill our life up with occupations, everyday busyness and tasks, and thereby come to ignore that it is us with reference to which these are meaningful. The ignorance of the self as the locus of value is associated with inauthenticity and avoiding existential angst. So, according to that, worthwhileness looks very much like the stuff we fill life up with in order to avoid the fundamental mood of man’s existence.

So, the opportune question arises – is philosophy merely another means of busyness by which to avoid the unpleasant angst which collects man whenever he cannot preoccupy himself? Is it merely the most enlightened way for those that know of God’s death to wait for their own?

A response that has quite a bit of popularity is a sort of back-to-the-land movement in philosophy: “Theory must be grounded in reality!”. This is stupid for two reasons – first because reality is through and through theoretical, and secondly because traditional philosophy wanted nothing other than to know the really real (i.e. for Plato the most real thing is the forms, and the purpose of philosophy is to become acquainted with the forms). (Contemporary physics is incidentally fully Platonic – they are only interested in the forms matter takes on – its shapes, its properties – what is measurable in essence. The idea that the ideal or the formal is disconnected from the real and “abstract”, spoken from contemporary materialism, is nothing but ideological hypocrisy).

My summer has largely been characterized with trying to get “back to the land” in its own ways – traveling across the country by van (and soon by rail), visiting friends in Vancouver and Victoria, spending time at the cabin. Taking the road less traveled has been the watchword – trying to notice the quality of where I am. Trying to find where we are in history, what is history? What is the past? Where is it for us? Where is the future? Always, always trying to find the future. Doing philosophy by doing, in other words is, perhaps, what I’ve been doing. What have I learned? Not nothing. To start I’ve learned that our time is obsessed with its history, usually only insofar as it can remain mysterious and not understood. Perhaps for us history is characterized by wonder. Perhaps wonder at the non-eternity of the present – even the lingering of the past in the present, the non-ability of the present to cover over everything, demonstrates the contingency of the present and hints at the future.

My summer has been a summer of content. Doing things, seeing people. Although, since I haven’t been working very hard I sometimes find that I have less to talk about. Since the “less” I have to talk about is philosophy, this probably makes me more likable.

As I’m writing this entry, the Dayliner is about to arrive in Victoria station. Summing up then – have I come to any conclusions? The purpose of philosophy can’t be anywhere outside philosophy, but philosophy is over. The obvious solution is to become some sort of teacher of philosophy (they teach dead languages after all), although this solution is nothing like “correct” since it requires positing values like “awareness” and “sharing” which themselves can be interrogated and lack stability. A summer of content leads to less content (cries of “get a job!”).

But then, the solution appears immediate and obvious – the purpose is flourishing. This cannot be argued (although many try). Community’s of reciprocal capability – this is the point of a department/office/social network. The key is, without the recognition that the subject is the value-er, the origin of value, one remains in a continuous search for transcendental justification (philosophy). But since all transcendental signifiers – purposes which cannot themselves be put into question (i.e. God or the salvation of mankind) make the basic mistake of pushing the origin of meaning outside the subject they remain engaged in curiosity, occupying oneself to cover up the angst which is man’s basic emotive attitude towards his own location in the nexus of meaning as value-er.

The main objection to solution as “flourishing” – for the Greeks eudaimonia is not “flourishing” because it applies immediately to the eternal and only derivatively to being-in-activity inasmuch as being engaged in an activity can be thought analogously to be aeonic (eternal time, time of ages) as opposed to chronic (clock time). Counter objection: eternity and the chronic are both contingent modalities of temporality. No reason “being well” must be thought primarily in any particular temporal modality. Today, “well” replaced by value, by normativity. Today eternity replaced by future as primary authentic modality. Today, flourishing must be futuristic – but what is the future today? The past recapitulated? The radical new? (Here – more space for thinking).

Form inside matter

The AGO currently has an exhibit in its Italian gallery of beams of wood carved away to reveal the heartwood. Literally starting with a building material, the artist is able to reveal the tree inside it – in other words, in something whose form has been neutralized, made identical (one beam is the same as any other), he finds a particular shape.

The work reminds me of Aristotle – who says the wooden bed is not natural insofar as we consider it a made thing, something whose end (telos) is a human activity – however, it is natural if we consider it the kind of thing which in the right environment will rot or even from which could sprout a new tree. But, the work is not the same as placing a bed in mud and waiting for it to rot – the from revealed in the tree has much more endurance, it is not rotting – it looks as if it might last in its current form eternally.

So, the work is about form in matter-for-production, but without being about the generation and corruption of matter. Rather, the beam shows up the form in the wood as something natural yet eternal, which fits with the modern concept of nature as fixed lawlikeness. But, this fit is only analogous – we think nature as fixed process (i.e. gravity is a law which holds the same everywhere), but here we have a shape of a tree frozen in time, revealed, and put into museum conditions which will enable its permanent endurance.

So, the work is about something in between form in the Platonic sense (i.e. geometric forms), and form as a contingent particular (i.e. the shape of this mud field after a rainstorm). Or, perhaps it is traditionally Aristotelian – form is permanent, what matter shows up as, yet non-mathematical.

Another reason the piece is interesting is that it is a hands-off piece according to the directions given by the Artist to the gallery. But, since the piece is so clearly hands-on, security guards constantly need to tell people to not touch it (photography is allowed, however, unlike in the rest of the gallery). The artist is certainly bright enough to know the work is a hands-on work, so the only reasonable conclusion is he is including an ethical-political dimension in the work about law as the order of authority, for the sake of maintaining the perfection of the work – which is being lent to the gallery. In other words, the market value of the work requires it to be maintained in identical condition (which is part of the work). The parents telling their children not to touch the work enacts the authority of the permanent over the flux inherent in human engagement with nature. The security guard I spoke with seemed to understand this – he agreed at least when I made the point that the work is a hands-on piece regardless of what the artist or gallery say – the relation between the work and the audience is determined by the work itself, not by what someone says about the work.

The work is being loaned to the AGO with no fixed end date. I encourage anyone in Toronto to go see it, especially on a free evening when the extra people and extra security should bring even more clearly the dynamics here described into your experience of the piece.

Serra’s Shift

Yesterday morning my father, myself, and a few roomates and friends piled into my new one dollar van to drive north of Toronto to see Richard Serra’s early site-specific work, “Shift”. Although I first heard about the piece four years ago in a course on late Heidegger, a lack of private transportation meant this was my first time seeing it – a very appropriate first use for the new van.

The piece is set into a field, but not the field next to the road. Instead, there is a field of mud and soybeans between the sculpture and the road. This, and the fact that it is unpublicized, is an essential part of the work – it comes from a period of artists removing themselves from the gallery scene. (However, I don’t think it would be awful in the future for the work to become public, a small interpretive centre, gravel walking paths etc…)

The work is set into a farmer’s field which is in use, so around the piece is planted a crop (soybeans we think, and from all the corn lying around it is likely on a rotation). The farmer is surely using a very large machine, and thus can’t cut too close to the sculpture – which means most of the concrete is hidden underneath wild plants. Mostly, you don’t literally see the sculpture, but more of a hedge of wild grasses and flowers encircling it. My father was quick to point out that this hedge of wild in the middle of a cultivated field isn’t wasted space – it actually benefits the farming activity by being a natural habitat for bumblebees, and generally increasing the field’s biodiversity.

What these hedges cover is a series of concrete walls extending horizontally along a falling slope until they reach a certain height above the ground, at which point they drop to the ground and begin extending horizontally again. The work represents the way the field appears on a topographical map – in other words, representationally, according to concept, idea. Perfect. Demonstrating the topographical representation in a concrete medium allows the actual field to show up in its organic, sinuous character – which differs essentially from the rigid straightness of the representational line.

At first, then, not being able to see the concrete lines appears to detract from the work. But soon enough one can see that the overgrown hedges are actually part of it – they help bend the concrete flatlines into the curve of the field.

In this photo it’s easy to see the curve in the lower section of this part of the work. It’s not an illusion – since the ground is curving, the height of the grasses that surround the concrete do curve – the concrete stays flat, and is only exposed at the end (bottom left). You can also see these curves reflected in the rows of planted soybeans. Except – these are not the same curves at all. The curves in the rows of plants are actually representational curves, they are planned out geometrically by the farmer who wants to plant the field in the most efficient way, to extract from it the maximum number of calories or dollars. Whereas, the curve in the wild hedge has no perfect linearity or pre-planning or expected function – the plants grow up and recoil back by the law of the propagation of life, rather than a system-thinking.

Shift is a wonderful piece – it provides a place to reflect on representation and nature, on farming and efficiency, on publicness and the secret, and on the possibility of spaces that are somehow excluded or exempt from the all-domination of the market. Yesterday was my first trip to it and I hope to visit it many more times in the years ahead.

Heidegger’s Nietzsche Volume 1: The New Interpretation of the Sensuous. P212-213

“The sensuous in itself is directed towards overview and order, toward what can be mastered and firmly fixed”

The sensuous is form engendering – it finds in itself a “direction” towards abstraction, idea, for the sake of getting a hold on, fixing. The sensuous grasps and calcifies, sediments. The direction is towards enhancement as an increase of preservation – the increase in mastery is fixated and becomes part of the base. What is the sensuous?

“What lives is exposed to other forces, but in such a way that, striving against them, it deals with them according to their form and rhythm…”

Life is exposed, but not as a brute passivity. Live is exposed in that it can’t but strive with forces. Striving opposes. But not diametrically – striving is sensitive to the form and rhythm of forces. Exposed live strives in “accord” with the form and rhythm of forces – it takes up those rhythms for itself. But why?
“…in order to estimate them in relation to possible incorporation or elimination.”

Life strives in the exposure to forces in accord with their rhythm (form and rhythm is only a way of saying being and becoming – but since ‘becoming’ is itself a fixation, we can leave out form – as it serves to help us forget that all grasping is fixing), but not for no reason. This accord has the purpose of “incorporation or elimination”. Being as life has the character of will to power, preservation-enhancement, for the sake of willing. Since stagnation is already a decline, every striving must either incorporate or eliminate the force that opposes it. Thus striving could never be diametric opposition, glorified stasis. “Opposition” only for the sake of enhancement (incorporation) or preservation (elimination)!

“The angle of vision, and the realm it opens to view, themselves draw the borderline around what it is that creatures can or cannot encounter” (Lizard example)

We are now in a position to interpret transcendence according to Nietzsche’s notion of life as the sensuous. It means: interpretation is primordial. There is no force which life encounters prior to life grasping that force’s form and rhythm in a striving for the sake of culminating in an adoption or elimination. The encounter is itself the striving in accord with rhythm for the sake of adoption/elimination. Life does not first encounter the force and then gear into the accord. Life’s “gearing into the accord” (which certainly does happen) is only possible because it already had a (provisional) grasp on the rhythm. The angle of vision does not first open a view, and then draw a borderline around what it can or can’t encounter. The idea of a being which it cannot encounter is a third person abstraction! Being is nothing but encounterability, and “a being” is nothing about the encountered. Grasp the Lizard example more primordially: we can only grasp the lizard as not encountering the gun shot because “not encountering” is an interpretation of the accord we find ourselves in striving with/against forces. Inadequacy of Lizard example: makes it appear to be the case that the Lizard has a view out towards the real which only allows in certain beings, between “borderlines” – actually, beings are only that which show up within these angles of view! Beings (things) are not prior to Being (angle of view). These borderlines are the limits of the sensuous, the limits of the accord between beings striving against each other in accord with the rhythm of forces, each with the purpose of eliminating or adopting the movement/shape of the other. These limits are ontological.

“Now, in the “organic” there is a multiplicity of drives and forces, each of which has its perspective. The manifold of perspectives distinguishes the organic from the inorganic. Yet even the latter has its perspective; it is just that in the inorganic, in attraction and repulsion, the “power relations” are clearly fixed. The mechanistic representation of “inanimate” nature is only a hypothesis for purposes of calculation; it overlooks the fact that here too relations of forces and concatenations of perspectives hold sway.”

Organic/Inorganic is a “hypothesis for the purposes of calculation” – it is a way we get a grip on the rhythm of forces in order to preserve/enhance. But the inorganic is just as “alive” according to the essence of life – angle of view, perspect, point of force, accord in strife. When we see points of force (beings are always in strifing-accord with forces that oppose them) as a fixed set of relations, we call that comprehensible, fixed, inorganic. Deleuze calls all of the organic essentially inorganic, “abstract machines”, “assemblages” for precisely this reason – they are complexes of forces which can be entirely fixed, and understood in abstraction of the particular instantiation those forces find themselves in. Where the power relations are fixed, we find the inorganic. Since “becoming” is itself a fixation, everything grasped as organic, as a power relations “in becoming”, is potentially graspable as inorganic. But Heidegger moves here in the opposite direction – the inorganic is organic. Organic thus does not mean “internal relations”, i.e. something about the relations is not abstractable, thus the complex of relations is not an assemblage. Rather, organic means life/perspect/the accord in the striving between forces. Distinction is not epistemic. Or rather, the distinction organic/inorganic is epistemic (inorganic is a hypothesis for the purpose of calculation), but the organic is not determined by the distinction. The organic is the essence of the real:

“Every point of force per se is perspectival”

“The sensuous is no longer the “apparent”….Semblance itself is proper to the essence of the real.

Can a Philosopher have friends?

It’s been contested on occasion, to myself at least, that spending the majority of one’s time learning to think the thoughts of obscure German philosophers makes one think in a way unintelligible to normal people – or even worse, might distort one’s moral character beyond recognition. While I don’t think this is right, it’s not impossible to see how the idea might arise. For this reason, it seems like a topic worthy of some consideration.

Philosophers often debate the question “What is Philosophy?”, but this accusation demands asking a slightly different question, “What is a Philosopher?”. A Philosopher is one who does Philosophy is a possible response, one which tries to include the question “What is a Philosopher” inside the question “What is Philosophy?” – this would make the philosopher simply the activity of Philosophy enacted, a simple correlate to the activity itself. Like many “answers” in Philosophy, this isn’t incorrect, but it rides on an uneasy presupposition – the idea that bringing something into activity is the simple part of a question, and the difficult question concerns the activity itself. In other words, it demands we concentrate on the abstract and, and supposes the concrete will clearly play itself out. But is not this exactly the kind of emphasis on abstraction which might cause the Philosopher to be perceived as monstrous, as ‘other’, as unrecognizable to the everyday person?

So, I ask again, “What is a Philosopher?”. We could give another answer, “The Philosopher is the one who practices Philosophy” – ah, but what is a practice? Does the Philosopher practice philosophy as the dentist practices dentistry, as the architect practices architecture? The analogy appears apt – isn’t a philosopher one who is paid to “do” philosophy, what is the difference in a capitalist economy, after all, between the “practice” of philosophy as teaching and research, and the “practice” of dentistry as caring for patients? Both produce a result, both are considered socially valuable in varying degrees, both are a service provided in exchange for a fee. Both are highly skilled services, requiring years of training. So, is a Philosopher like a dentist?

If a Philosopher were like a dentist, we might reasonably look to how the employment of being a dentist might affect the worldview and moral character of the person who becomes a dentist. For one, dentistry school is quite expensive, so the dentist will likely become pre-occupied with money to pay back his loans, and subsequently might get used the high level of income. Having more money than others, this might effect how he seems him or herself in society, and how he or she perceives others. Also, a dentist must put people in painful situations, day after day – he or she might begin to think in an extremely logical way about pain, might become better than others at recognizing how much pain people are in, how to minimize that pain, how to weigh the benefits and costs of more pain-suppressants against their side effects, etc…

Having outlined possible effects of a dentistry practice on a dentist, might we think similarly about a Philosopher? A Philosopher reads strange books, day after day. Sometimes a philosopher will consider his real friends to be all dead, because no one alive excites him as dead book writers. Might the philosopher then not become alienated from the existing world, since it pales in comparison to his philosophical one? Also, if his world is all words and reasons, might the everyday moral world we live in be replaced by a world of strange words and concepts, which exist only in the heads of philosophers, which they project and expect other people to understand as well, at least in meaning if not in name.

If Philosophy were like dentistry, then this would be a convincing condemnation of anything but the most contemporary and scientifically/socially informed contemporary philosophy. But, Philosophy is not like dentistry, it is not like other academic disciplines. Why? Because all other disciplines have a specific subject matter, and for this reason are an external practice, a techne, like cabinet making. The dentist finds his subject matter in the teeth-bearing people. The historian finds his subject matter in historical events considered as causal sequences. The architect finds his subject matter in his buildings. All these subject matters stand outside of the intellectual worker. Since the thing being worked on is external, these workers require monetary compensation.

Philosophy, if it is not simply another form of knowledge-work, is distinguished by the fact that in Philosophy, the thing worked on is the Philosopher himself. Certainly, a philosopher writes books and articles, contributes to discussions, and teaches students. But what is the most proper activity of Philosophy? Why thinking! And what is the purpose of thinking? Thinking finds no purpose outside of itself – a philosopher philosophizes in order to think, in order to further enable thought. A philosopher might hide his best work away for centuries if he believes that will foster the most essential thought.

But wait, on the one hand, I’ve said that the Philosopher works on himself, and on the other hand, I’ve said the philosopher works on thinking. But, is thinking something external to the Philosopher? Is it not external when someone else is doing it? Isn’t thinking like every other activity, like running for instance? If a runner wishes to foster running in others, that fostering does not foster something in himself (or does so only by a secondary effect), but fosters the running in others. If Philosophizing were like running, then thinking would be an activity which belongs to the philosopher who is thinking. But can we not think the same thought as someone else? If any comprehension is possible in any aspect of life, it is possible, to some extent, to share thoughts.

If any communication is possible at all, then thinking does not belong to us like running does. Thinking is not “indexical”. Rather, my thinking belongs to me, but not exclusively. When I think, I think a thought which is thinkable by anyone. So, does foster thinking simply mean to tell others our thoughts, “Penny for your thoughts”? No, because a thought is not a being, it is not like a tomato. But, what is a thought? Sometimes Greek can clarify questions of this sort – in Greek, a thought is a noema, which means an intellectual grasp, a having-a-hold on something in thought. It co-responds (answers-at-at-the-same-time-as) the nomematon, the “thing represented”, the thing which the noema has a hold on. If a thought is this having-a-hold on a being, then it is fundamentally distinct from beings themselves (noemata, the represented, the objects) – it differs from them by having an inclination towards them, which they have towards it, but not towards each other. The inclination is the direction, the movement, of reference, or of signification. The thought “signifies” the object by pointing it out.

But, if the Philosopher is simply the one who thinks, and we define thinking thusly, does not everyone think? Is not everyone a Philosopher? In certain sense, of course everyone is a philosophy, everyone loves sophia. Sophia is just the knowledge of those things whose principles don’t change, those things which endure, which stay the same – and we all love this knowledge. Even if we don’t do science ourselves, we love its results, which means we love what sophia gives us (knowledge of those things which present themselves to us in a stable fashion) – this stability enables all science, and by extension, all modern conveniences.

But we have arrived at a strange conclusion – the Philosopher is the one who seeks the knowledge of those things which don’t change, we call that knowledge science – so does that not mean the true philosophers are the Scientists? Ah, but I’ve made an error – I’ve confused “love” with “desire”. Desire, in the sense of wanting more and more of something, is the relation Scientists bear towards “facts”, but Scientists do not love facts in the sense of wanting to tarry alongside them. This means that while Scientists preserve our resevoir of thoughts concerning those things that don’t change (of course, any physical process is a description of change, but the process itself doesn’t change, or if it does we understand that only based on another formula which expresses the meta-stability of the change with a knowledge of principles that doesn’t change), that Scientists do not “think” these thoughts in the same way Philosophers think.

So, what do Philosophers do? I’ve attempted to clarify what a thought is, and that a Philosopher is one who thinks rather than collects thoughts. But what is thinking? Thinking is an activity, it is something I do, but it does not belong to me (like running), because it can be passed on (otherwise, why teach or write?). The philosophical thinking is that thinking which thinks thoughts in a free manner. But have I not just added another term, and insulted the Scientists by calling them “unfree”? What I mean by freedom is that, for the Philosopher, the task is to think the inner potency of a thought – to think the same thought as others means to experience the same potency of the thought, it does not mean anything like “coming to the same conclusions” as others.

But what do I mean by the “potency” of a thought? It should be relatively easy to convince anyone that thoughts are potent in our world today – we live in a world where ideas have given us power (the gasoline engine), have given us power over nature (evolution), have given us power over people (psychology, propaganda), and have given us power over ourselves – both individually and together (drugs, democracy, participatory politics). But these might all be understood as material implications of thoughts – a thought is powerful insofar as it ‘changes the world’ – in this sense, are any philosophical ideas potent at all? Why does a Philosopher insist that Nietzsche’s thought of “Will to Power” is the most potent thought? How many washing machines has it built?

Philosophy is called “abstract”, and rightly so. But it is crucial to understand what “abstraction” means. In one sense, abstraction means to generalize, to make simple, to leave out the particulars. I can abstract from all the particulars of a basket of apples and say “there are five apples here”. In this sense, abstraction is required for all communication – because we never communicate the absolute particularity of the world, we communicate it only abstractly, through estimations, or through poetic allusions. But abstraction also means that which I don’t yet understand, that which I can’t get a handle on. The thought is “too abstract” is a complaint often leveled against philosophers. But this is not an accident – which we can see by relating the two thoughts, abstraction as condition for any possible comprehension, and abstraction as non-comprehension, that the Philosopher is the one who tries to comprehend in the highest sense, and for this reason is everywhere dismissed as too abstract.

The philosopher, traditionally, thinks the thought of Being – what does it mean that something is? What “is” Being? Being is everywhere, everything that is is in Being. Even things that aren’t, i.e. unicorns, seem to exist in some sense because we call talk about them and understand each other. Being is the most abstract thought, it tries to grasp everything in terms of one idea, “Being”. To call something a “being” does not set it off from any other beings – at most, Being is set off against the nothing. But the “nothing” is also a being, also has being, in a certain sense, if we can refer to “it”, does it not? When I say something “is not”, I do so only on the basis that things exist – so while the no-thing might not subsist itself, it not-subsists only on teh basis of the subsistence of other things. Non-being relies on being for its non-being.

If Philosophy thinks the most abstract thought, the most universal thought, is it not trying to comprehend the world in the highest sense, to think the highest thought in Sophia? To think the world as a whole in its stability? But for what do we need this thought – and besides, isn’t this what String theory tries to do? What is the need for Philosophy?

But, the purpose of this essay is not to determine that there is a social need for Philosophy, not to determine what Philosophy is, but to determine what the Philosopher is, and what moral/civic implications becoming a philosopher might have on one’s own being. We have determined that the Philosopher is the one who thinks, and since thinking is not an activity with an external end, there is no need to compensate the Philosopher as one must compensate the dentist (although, the Philosopher must live, if he wishes to philosophize). (This is not meant to prove Philosophers should not be paid, but rather that Philosophers do not become Philosophers because it pays better than some other employment). We have determined that thinking is having a grip on things, and is thus distinct from a being – again, a difference between the subject-matter of philosophy and the subject matter of all other disciplines. Thirdly, we have attempted to get a hold on what thought the Philosopher thinks, considered in its potency and its universality. But, what are the implications of this on the philosopher him or herself?

We might say, the Philosopher is much more likely to be affected by his or her profession than the dentist, because the thing being worked-on is him or herself, rather than an external thing. However, does this not mean the Philosopher is more cognizant of its effects? But, this is meaningless if we do not determine what these effects are. The content of the thought of Philosophy – the abstract thought – is where we should go next. It might be contended that because philosophy thinks the most abstract thought that the philosopher will learn to hate particulars, to be unconcerned with everyday life, with particular human problems – he will be “blind to the world”. But is this not a silly way of understanding abstraction? We know already that all communication requires abstraction, but the philosopher studies abstraction itself, as such, in studying the most abstract thought, in thinking the hardest thought abstract itself is thought. But does this not mean the philosopher will be the most cognizant of what we are doing all the time, of abstracting, and therefore conscious of the benefits and costs of abstraction. Will not the philosopher be more conscious of the way everyone is thinking all the time, because he is forced to think about thinking itself? How could this bring the philosopher farther away from everyday life – would it not rather torment him by making everyday life thinking comprehensible as one modality of thinking?

We assume, and sometimes rightly so, that the abstraction of the thought of the philosopher brings him away from the world, towards crystalline castles in the sky. However, the very same thought can bring the philosopher ever closer to where we already are – since all thinking is “building castles in the sky” – all thinking posits ideals, universals, none of which are appropriate to this world. Nietzsche said nihilism means “the uppermost values devalue themselves”. Nietzsche also said, “for us, being is a value”. What does this mean? This is the thought only a philosopher, or philosophically minded person, can think – and it is the kind of thought which can bring us closer to where we already are, because it thinks where we are as where we happen to be – it thinks what we do as what we happen to do. We should expect that anyone could do this, in the same sense that we expect that anyone could do partical physics – given the dedication and training, and time devoted to the study, anyone could participate in this thought. It is a mistake, I think, to believe that philosophical thinking is somehow any more immediately comprehensible than thinking in abstract math, poetry, or modern art – all these fields, like philosophy, require years of specialized training. Of course, some things in any of these fields can be immediately communicated, and others cannot – why would it not be the same for philosophy?

Philosophy sees what is necessary for us, and in its disclosure as necessary, shows up as contingent. Philosophy reveals what we do, in the most abstract universal sense, and by formulating what we do as a proposition, immediately, unintentionally even, begets the thought that we might do things differently – it plants the seed of revolution wherever absolute hegemony is found. Revolution, here, is meant in the literal sense of “turning-around”, Philosophical thinking allows us to turn-around from where we are, and see it as where we are, rather than just being-where-we-are, as we are – initially and for the most part unconsciously.


The question initially posed remains – so far we have clarified what the Philosopher is in his activity – an activity which is thinking, which is a certain form of questioning. We have differentiated the Philosopher from the dentist by noticing that the subject of his or her practice, for the philosopher, is inside oneself (thinking as such), and not external (people with teeth). We have made preliminary remarks concerning the self-reconnaissance this might grant the philosopher, but we have still said nothing about whether the Philosopher will be able to have friends?

If we try to answer the question empirically, we see some philosophers are solitary and some have many friends. We see some who thrived in intellectual communities, and others who lacked compadres, forced by circumstance to work alone in huts. One thing we always see, however, is that Philosophers share the highest friendships with other philosophers, or with people they dialogue with Philosophically. We can see in Heidegger’s letters to his wife that his love for her was strengthened by her understanding of this philosophy – which can’t be accorded to specific training or genius on her part, but patience and persistence on his part to communicate his essential questions. Interestingly, it seems from these letters, that Heidegger’s wife understood his thought quite a lot better than Arendt, even though Arendt was a philosopher in her own Right, and Heidegger’s love for her (Arendt) certainly made him wish she could understand him.

What this small biographical matter indicates to me is that the communication of difficult thoughts to another does not require that the other has extensive training – but that patience and empathetic clarity can overcome great chasms, like the one between Heidegger and his wife in matters of philosophical reflection.

This can certainly not stand as an empirical “proof” that Philosophers can speak philosophically with their friends – because one instance does not a rule make, and because my interpretation of the letters could be considered contentious – and most of the letters are not even published. But the letters do seem to suggest hope, hope that difficult thoughts are not incommunicable when love is present.

But, what can this philosophical marriage tell us about friends? The analogy suggests that empathetic communication enables philosophers to communicate philosophically with non-specialists. But what about everything else, can a philosopher stop philosophizing? If a philosopher interprets every situation philosophically, will he not drive his friends batty? Is not the “philosophical interpretation” of a situation often at-odds with the everyday interpretation of it?

These concerns are real – any specialized training will make the world show up in a certain way to the one trained – but unlike other trainings, which concern a specific subject matter, philosophy concerns “being itself”, the most universal thought – and as such, nothing lies outside its subject matter. This is why philosophers have opinions on Science, Ethics, Politics, moral matters, Art, Food, religion, culture, planning, etc… This would be fine – doesn’t this simply mean a philosopher is a Renaissance man? But, in every case, the philosophers view concerning the issue, will (likely) be informed by an entire stream of thinking which is absent, or present only unconsciously, in others. So, a philosopher thinks he is always trying to make explicit what other people think implicitly about issues, or, think rationally what other people think irrationally concerning these issues. This means in many cases, the Philosopher’s view will appear as a radical over-turning not only of other people views, but of the grounds of the questions on which those beliefs are formed as responses. Many of their positions, in other words, will be not a critique but a meta-critique of other positions. It’s no surprise, therefore, that their positions will look unintelligible to those unwilling or unable (due to lack of clarity on the part of the philosopher) to grapple with the meta-critique. Any of these positions of meta-critique could in principle be empathetically clarified by the philosopher and understood by others, but the work required in time both on the side of the philosopher and the readers is not trivial – and often, especially in certain kinds of online communication, people are in general not willing to deal with any position which is not immediately comprehensible. The fact they might be more willing to deal with the non-immediately comprehensible if it was coming from an expert scientist speaks to certain biases in our culture, but is relatively beside the point here.

So, can a philosopher have friends? This depends on the philosopher, and on the friends. I’ve tried to clarify some reasons why a philosopher might have much difficulty engaging in conversation with non-philosophers, and these problems are probably fatal if they happen continuously. So, how could they not be fatal? Probably a mixed approach is neccesary. On the one hand, the philosopher must be cognizant that his or her approach to questions makes their positions relatively unintelligible to others – which means they should be offered with as much background as is feasibly possible, but it also means in many cases they must accept not being understood, and in some cases, it might be better to say nothing at all rather than be misunderstood. The friends of a philosopher, if they wish to be his or her friends, need to be alright with not having everything said to them be immediately comprehensible – in other words, they need also to be sensitive to the difficulty someone who thinks at the most abstract level will have communicating his or her views. If they want to be friends to whom the philosopher does speak philosophically to, they also need to communicate why they mis-understand a certain position, and not simply that they do not understand it – at least concerning those issues that interest them. Generally speaking, they should also recognize how that the alienation they feel when speaking to the philosopher-friend is not unrelated to the alienation that philosopher likely feels most every moment of their lives.

Above all, Philosophy should not be understood as “neutral” – understanding is not neutral. Both because the understanding could be profoundly wrong, and have disastrous political consequence, i.e. “Those who think great thoughts risk great errors” – Heidegger on his political involvement with the Nazis. But is it a risk we can do without? Thinking is always risky because open thinking, thinking where nothing is closed off in advance, could lead anywhere – which means it could lead to particularly horrible places. But, thinking which closes those places off in advance is no longer free thought, an initial stifflying of thought’s potency. One aspect of this risk is political, and another is social – and it’s the social risk of Philosophy – “Can a philosopher have friends?” – that I’ve tried to elucidate here.