Friday, September 26, 2008

Intelligence and Difficult Writing

In the last couple of years or so I have tried to read philosophy but haven't been able to make much progress. Of course most of these efforts have been half-hearted and unsystematic but after all my struggle (and in most cases resulting in failure) with the texts I have come to the understanding that there are two things which are at the root of the problem: first, the technical background of my education in which we deal mostly with the "formal language" (consisting of mathematical symbols or something which can be transformed into that) which merely sounds like everyday English and second, is that we are surrounded by a culture in which language is used for the most narrow and shallow commonsensical purposes, like describing something which is obvious or expressing some proposition which can be verified and falsified by facts, or at best to play some games and have fun and other such things.

What we don't use language for is to use it to represent the process of thinking itself. What we also don't use it is to question the very foundations of our "reality." The commonsensical language already assumes things which are not obvious to these philosophers and thinkers. I had for example copied a passage from Heidegger which (understandably I think) outraged some of the readers. His language is so strange because he is questioning the most basic of statements that we make with blase indifference (like the statements starting with "something is...").

I think it is ultimately the responsibility of the readers to make that extra effort and be prepared to struggle to understand the texts. I remember reading an article about German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was notorious for being deliberately obscure and difficult, which defended his style by explaining that he was merely trying to resist the commodification of language, commodification that is so endemic to our culture, which one can see in newspapers, advertising and all the popular culture which are all built around systematic abuse of language. I can't find the link now but it was probably an article by Judith Butler where she was responding to being awarded a "bad writing prize." To call these writers elitists and obscurantist to me is not fair (though some of them may surely fit the bill.) Also sometimes you do need language which is merely utilitarian (in the shallow way) like in journalism for example and in that case surely one must avoid all complexities and potential ambiguities. (The "Politics and English Language" Essay by George Orwell is deservedly a classic making the same argument.)

Then there is the idea of thinking itself. Again as a victim of a purely technical education we are merely taught this most abstract and impersonal kind of thinking. It basically involves these two steps. 1) Take the problem and transform it into a language consisting only of mathematical symbols and 2) Use all the symbol manipulation tricks you learned in the mathematics class to transform the problem to some problem which you have already solved or to a theorem you have already proved. That's the only kind of thinking one does. (If it sounds mechanical that's not surprising. A subtopic in theoretical computer science deals with automated proving.) The one who is most efficient at doing this is called an "intelligent person". Thinking which makes one question one's personal experiences in particular and extract some general essence out of them is a completely foreign concept. The same is a thinking which tries to question the most fundamental of assumptions about what our "reality" is.

Coming back to philosophy I think the main problem also is that one needs to treat it as a whole subject and start from bottoms up like one does in science and mathematics. One needs to learn how to philosophize (that is learn to read from all over again), then only one can grasp whatever is going on in those texts. I also think it is extremely important for technical people to learn to philosophize (and not just because it helps in living an "examined life" though that is of course the most important) but it also makes their lives more fulfilling. For example if you get into an argument about ethics with these people you will be asked for "data" or "empirical proof". This is exactly the kind of shallow utilitarian rationality that philosophizing can cure us of.


Kubla Khan said...

I am away for a few weeks, thought w'd let you know.

This piece is well written and i agree entirely. however, we need to know what an intelligent person looks like or thinks. Genet used to dress very casually and surprised everyone when Said received him at Columbia.

Philosophizing and being one are different things. Reading it different from other texts. one must have the tools but how can one acquire everything if you are not formally trained?

anyway, take care.

Alok said...

Yes that's what I was trying to drive at. We need to train ourselves to read and imputing political motives to writers who are obscure is not always fair.

you take care too...

Crp said...

>>If it sounds mechanical that's not surprising. A subtopic in theoretical computer science deals with automated proving<<

Well, in addition to some extremely naive techniques for computer-generated proofs (There has been no substantial progress on this since the sixties and we still don't know how to make a computer "discover" theorems in any meaningful sense of that term) you also have computer generated music and computer generated poetry. So should we conclude that music and poetry are mechanical pursuits too? :)

Alok said...

that might be just my ignorance then. I thought it was a well-established sub-discipline in Theoretical Comp Sc and Artificial intelligence.

I didn't really mean to trash mathematical reasoning but more and more at least in people with technical background I see that they take thinking to mean exactly the same - impersonal logical (deductive or inductive) reasoning. They have no clue about contemplation about philosophical assumptions. Give a typical IITian a book by Heidegger and he will scream what a bunch of bullshit. Talk to him about ethics and he will demand proof! That was my original starting point.

lalegini said...

Not necessarily should everyone know or learn the very language of philosophy. As you know well, language is a tool for communication. Some of us utilise it, sybolically, in a pre-Babelic fashion, some in post-Babelic, and some like James Joyce, according to Eco, applies it exactly in the middle of Babel! It is said, first, Hellenists and then The Latin of Roman Empire,created a satisfactory system of universal communication. The tow peoples that had invented the language of philosophy identified the structure of their language with the the structure of human reason.Greeks spoke THE LANGUAGE. All others were barbarians, which etymologically means "those who stammer." "We are the prisoner of the house of language!" As that great philosopher once said.

Alok said...

If I understood you correctly you see language just as a means of pragmatic, day-to-day communication but I think that's just *one* use of it. The way we use the language itself assumes so many things that modern philosophers question. For example the division between subject and object in a language is so common that nobody notices but when someone questions it, it feels strange only because we are accustomed to the habit of language. or we assume that all words stand for something concrete which is out there in the world etc.

And moreover the same kind of language is so corrupted by cliches of the culture industry that one can't but will a kind of "difficulty" if one has to retain authenticity and individuality.

Crp said...

Re Theorem Proving: I actually coded Buchberger's algorithm for proving geometry theorems in my first few months of grad school:) It is clever and fast in some cases but it's similar in spirit to a brute force enumeration of all true statements that follow from a set of axioms.

I think the creative process in math or any other field can't be automated.

But I do agree with you. It is sad that engineering colleges seem to mostly churn out a particularly annoying brand of philistine.

Alok said...

Agree, there is a creative process in Mathematics too... I should have been less categorical in my original post. It is ultimately not really linked to subject (though it is definitely more prevalent in people with technical education), it is just an attitude, a way of thinking. People can read poetry in the most impersonal, abstract, mechanical way too.

Cheshire Cat said...

I'm not surprised that we're so much in agreement on this issue... But perhaps some of the blame rests on those who insist on acquiring a technical education despite being entirely unsuited to it :)

I know I'll never escape the guilt and remorse of it. If there's any consolation, it's that things were no different for Broch and Gadda and Musil.

Alok said...

I think it is a problem with institutionalized education itself, which turns education into a commodity, something which is to be owned. The same thing happens in humanities as well.

Cheshire Cat said...

Well, I suspect the world of academic philosophy is just as commodified as the worlds, real or imagined, that it criticizes. The language of philosophy is a specialized language reliant on (rhetorical) tricks - not so different from technical language in that regard.

Alok said...

But it does give you the tools and vocabularies to think about these things. I mean the concepts like "commodification", "authenticity" come from philosophy too. The problem of self-referentiality will always be there...probably the reason why heidegger's language is full of so many strange words and phrases.

Cheshire Cat said...

That's true, but I do suspect the motives of philosophy. Might it not be that the very origination of these phrases is an implicit claim to the purer, higher ground of meta-language - an assertion by Philosophy of its own authority? While in fact we all continue to traffic in the muddied, muddled waters of language itself. And perhaps Philosophy does acknowledge this, perhaps it does find in self-awareness a salve for its conscience, and perhaps it goes even further, delighting in paradox, insisting on the inevitable assailability of our motives. And what have we achieved then? The Foucaults and Lacans and Kristevas of this world - colonizing medicine, terrorizing science; the farce of Social Text.

We enter a world where every utterance has its evil mirror-image. And if mostpeople choose not to navigate these thickets, why, that might be a form of wisdom.

Alok said...

yes that is self-evident actually. You can offer that kind of critique only from a position of authority. It is upto the reader to decide how valid this claim is. There is also I think "irony" which may do the same thing but that is less dependent on authority.

I know about the "trendy" and "postmodernist" thinkers and some of the abuses they have committed. But the arguments in their favour is that ordinary language and what we call common sense itself is a tool and a vehicle which serves to propagate the lies of culture industry and status-quo ideologies. And moreover common sense often hides philosophical truths and assumptions from us. they have no choice but to differentiate their language from the language of the newspaper op-eds, advertising and TV.

This is not supporting elitism, just recognising that for some things the reader has to make an is like doing some work to earn your freedom.

I see readers hankering for neo-victorian novels with their cute psychologizing and common sensical ideas and "well-written" but ultimatley utilitarian prose. Some of these get nominated for booker and win awards. This is what I will call conversatism and not colonisation of ideas by abstruse academics.

And you really can't say that these academics haven't had any influence outside academia. Just one example Judith Butler's idea of gender as performance (reenactment of social rituals) has become very commonplace and it is quite a remarkabe perspective through which one can see our contemporary world. and i haven't even read anything by her.

Cheshire Cat said...

It's just that when the issue at hand is the need for a critique, content becomes less important than orientation. And certain thinkers become important merely for what they signify rather than for what they say. There must be cultural theorists who have interesting things to say, but the obsession with trendiness concerns me. "Derrida" and "Agamben" are used in a similar way to "Gucci" or "Versace".

Also, I wonder in what sense one has to earn one's freedom? What captivity afflicts us now - if anything, it is the captivity of too much freedom, characteristic of a capitalistic system. I don't subscribe to the notion that reading Heidegger or Habermas could liberate us - at most, it could make us cultists. We do have the tools to think our way through things. Some are motivated to use them, others aren't, and I find nothing abnormal in this state of affairs.

Alok said...

that's the nature of capitalism, the gradual process of commodification. But it is ultimatley we as readers who should be aware and responsbile so that we don't treat them just as brands. I hope this blog doesn't do any such thing... (although I fear it does to a little extent)

What captivity afflicts us now - if anything, it is the captivity of too much freedom, characteristic of a capitalistic system.

yes but those freedoms are illusory freedoms and they don't interest me. It is like telling someone imprisoned in a cage that he has all the freedoms to choose the colour to paint his wall, ANY colour! What I am interested in is to get out of the cage itself and not the choice of colours.

Reading these thinkers has made me realize a lot of things and even though I haven't done much, I am now at least aware of the possiblity of freedom. I now know how complicit I am in my own self-commodification and I can also see through the mind-numbing stupidity and falseness of most social discourses in popular media. Now I am also very suspicious about unconscious ideological impulses even in the most innocent looking cultural products... these are just some of the things these thinkers have to teach us.

Anonymous said...

"In the last couple of years or so I have tried to read philosophy but haven't been able to make much progress."

This pretty much summarises your abilities.

Alok said...