In what sense is philosophy time-bound?

What I would like to propose here is more like a project than an actual answer; it’s a field of investigation that appears when we approach the history of thought/philosophy from an accelerationist perspective [1]. Having just finished writing and thinking about the meaning and purpose of philosophy and its effects, the nature of the concept, it is now impossible to avoid the question of the evolution of thought itself; that is, what it means to look at concepts as historically situated beings and to ask oneself, not only why it is that certain concepts thrive and other don’t, but what it means to thrive in this peculiar plane of existence. What’s at play here is the temporality of the history of philosophy. To begin to engage with these questions, it’s necessary to specify some starting points that allow us to get some foothold on what’s at hand.

First and foremost, we must explain what exactly we are talking about. In a brief summary, what we are trying to describe has a twofold nature. On one hand, we have a straightforward history of philosophy, where concepts are created, discovered, developed (depending on your favorite metaphilosophical theory) in a linear fashion. Earlier concepts are surpassed by later concepts in ways that make those concepts appear as historical artefacts left to dust in museums. According to this understanding, there is not only a progressive nature to these transformations, but a certain irreversibility in the deployment of time

We might look at Kant’s invention of the transcendental, Descartes’ uncovering of the cogito or even Plato’s splitting of the real into an intelligible and a sensible reality as examples of paradigmatic change in the history of philosophy that make it impossible to go back to how things were before. Paradigmatic change, or shift, is understood here as a sort of conceptual development that derives its strength from its capacity to infect and stick to further conceptual creations [2]. In spite of this, we are not ready to say that these paradigm changing concepts have anything in themselves that make them ‘superior’ to other concepts or that takes as a given the ability to infect and stick to the history of philosophy. And we say this precisely because, as we’ve said before, this is only one aspect of the temporality of the history of philosophy.

In this regard, the concept of immanence and its eerie history [3] might provide a more fertile ground for the approach to this problem, due to its inability to establish itself fully as a paradigm. If the concept of immanence interests us, it is not only due to its philosophical strength, but due to its problematic history from the moment Lucretius announces in his De natura rerum that there is nothing else beyond the atoms and the emptiness that exist. What’s interesting here is that even though we might be aware of the possibility of conceiving the real without any appeal to a transcendent reality or any onto-theological grounding since Lucretius, this possibility has been constantly thwarted throughout the history of thought. It is at this point that we arrive at the second nature of the temporality of philosophy, which is its ghostly nature. This means that concepts live beyond their first material formulation. Even though the concepts need a point of inception (we might actually go as far as saying ingression, to keep the whiteheadian “vibe” on), it certainly doesn’t mean that they are completely limited to their initial formulation [4]. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to trace the manner in which certain concepts pass through a variety of formulations (incarnations) without ever ceasing to have a single (and changing) thread [5]. I’m not saying that concepts “stay the same” (if that were the case, they wouldn’t be interesting entities), but that they maintain themselves in a continuous thread despite the changes that every specific mediation demands so that it can attend to the problems at hand. What is at stake here is the very transmissibility of a concept, which is something that’s historically observable. It might be possible to extract from this transmissibility of the concept a difference between the material reality of the concept (its formulation or expression, generally in some canonical text) and the ideational reality of the concept (the expressed, the sense) [6]. This difference is the first step to understanding the ghostly nature of the concept.

But that is not all there is to this strange being. It’s also necessary to talk about the fact that concepts haunt other concepts. Concepts, as Deleuze and Guattari have shown us in What is philosophy? tend not only to be formed by other concepts but they tend to exist in a coordinated set of concepts and in a coordinated set of problems. It might be possible to extend the deleuzo-guattarian concept geography into a full blown hauntology and posit that specific concepts never cease to be haunted by prior (or future, as we shall see) concepts. Aside from  direct influence (which is an explicit form of transmission), we can say that concepts are in many ways affected by other concepts that either shouldn’t be there or that are nervously kept at bay. With this in mind, we can talk about at least two forms of haunting [7], which can be briefly described as a form of return of the undead and the other as a demand that has remained unattended. To understand what is being said here, it is necessary to remember what was said above about the progressive manner in which concepts develop themselves in history. Concepts develop over time, creating limits of irreversibility, thresholds, in which old problems are dissolved and new problems are created. It is the existence of a causal progression of concepts as background that allows the ghostly nature of concepts to operate and disrupt the linear time through the appearance of unwanted concepts.

The first type of haunting is a result of the paradigm changes through the history of philosophy and what happens to concepts once they are surpassed. The radical transformation effected by Kant’s critical theory is exemplary in this matter. It is quite possible (and some people certainly act like this is true), once we have absorbed Kant’s critique, to view all prior philosophy as a mere exercise that lacked fundamental conceptual distinctions that allowed for philosophy to begin. All prior concepts rendered immediately obsolete for exceeding the limitations of thought carefully demarcated by Kant. But it is not as if concepts invented before Kant simply disappear. Their corpses are still visible (something must be taught in the universities!). But that is not the end of the story: what happens is not that prior philosophy ceases to exist, but it attains a new form, a ghostly form. What this means is that, even though they do not fit in with the new established paradigm, they nonetheless retain the capacity to affect new concepts and new problems. We can see this clearly in the way that german idealism attempts think spinozistic concepts through the kantian limitations, since even though its original formulation may be dated, the problems and questions it poses remain not only unanswered but alive. In this sense, the capacity to live beyond the material formulation of the concept is precisely what allows it to transcend and cross over (returning) these paradigm boundaries. Never being quite alive (limited to its primary instantiation) makes concepts undead.

The second type of haunting is not unrelated to the first kind, though it comes not from the past, but from the future. If there are certain concepts that seem to become obsolete at certain points in time (changing the nature of their existence) there seem to exist concepts that haunt philosophy from the future. As if these kinds of concepts were never allowed to be fully developed and established as thought changing paradigms. The evolution of immanence in western philosophy seems to make this kind of haunting clear. Since its initial elaborations in the thought of Lucretius – more in the form of the promise, than a concept (we might be forced, now, to say) it is not hard to see how numerous philosophers (like Plotinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Deleuze) have made efforts to determine the necessary conceptual framework to shelter the possibility of absolute immanence [8]. That is why an unattended promise might be the best form to describe this haunting from the future. The very positing of a conceptual possibility seems to be enough to drive philosophers in their activities, making history more than a simple linear progression [9]. In a warburguian sense, it is as if this promise of a concept, however subtle and weak the initial hypothesis, is enough to allow this underdeveloped form to travel through history, forcing itself to be thought once the occasions are ripe.

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These conceptual hauntings seem to have a disturbing effect on the straightforward causality of historical development, and it is for that reason that they interest us. Only a brief sketch was provided of the problems that start to appear when we begin to think about the strange nature of conceptual time, but it’s more than enough to warrant further investigation.

*

[1] What this perspective entails is something that I must develop and expand in a further post. For the moment it suffices to say that the more I fiddle with unconditional accelerationism (u/acc), the more I’m convinced that that the question of time (in a metaphysical sense) can only be approached through the patterns of transformation in bodies (be they ‘material bodies’ or ‘mental bodies’, for lack of further clarification).

[2] This does not mean that the concept has a magical effect, that from the moment it’s created it necessarily exerts its force. Concepts, as any body, have histories and depends on networks of transmission to assert itself in this weird place that we are calling the history of philosophy.

[3] Being constantly underthought, banished, outlawed and neutralised after its inception. When I talk about the concept of eerie, it must be said that this concept comes from Mark Fishers’ The weird and the eerie, though it would be unfair not to admit that it has been Xenogoth’s blog that have made it stick inside my head.

[4] “[T]he meaning of ‘survival’ becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start thinking of the survival of the system of ideas in the circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas.” (Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an ecology of mind, p. 467)

[5] As an example, staying close to Whitehead, the concept of the monad is one of those concepts, which has, at the minimum a dynamic unity through its appearances in Leibniz, Gabriel Tarde and Whitehead.

[6] A further explication and justification of this difference will be addressed at some later point.

[7] Other types of haunting may and should exist.

[8] With Deleuze and Guattari, in What is philosophy?, even suggesting that the elaboration of this immanence is the goal of philosophy.

[9] Though we haven’t even sketched this yet, there is also a negative sense to this haunting, that is observable in the manner which some philosophers will try and keep this conceptual promise at bay. Without getting too much into it, Freud’s silence about Nietzsche seems like an instance of this unwanted contamination.

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2 thoughts on “In what sense is philosophy time-bound?

    • Wow, that seems great. I’ve been meaning to read his book on immanence for a while. This will certainly be an easier start. Thanks.

      Like

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