Tuesday, October 16, 2007

We Scholastics: Or, Disciplining Thought

Spinoza tells us that there is a kind of joy associated with thought, a joy based on the affirmation of our own power to think. For me this joy comes in moments where I am thinking on my feet. Sometimes this happens in the classroom and sometimes it happens when writing or reading, but somehow things click and I can see things coming together in a new way. It is probably the reason that I am in this business, the reason that I sit through departmental meetings, grade piles of papers, and have given up any control over where I get to live.

These moments have been few and far between as of late. This is in part due to the classes I am teaching this semester. For example: one class I am teaching this semester is Medieval Philosophy. It is the first time I am teaching this course, and I do not have the background or confidence to really entertain any new interpretations; so I stick to my notes. Of course this is in some sense keeping with the spirit of the medieval philosophy, which was in some sense all about respecting the established authority of not only scripture but whoever came before, the endless commentaries on Aristotle, Porphyry, Lombard, etc.

I do not want to be too glib, but there is an odd similarity between the medievals and us. We too have our commentaries, our volumes of writings that exceed the originals. I am teaching Boethius’ and Abelard’s commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge (itself a commentary on Aristotle) while I at home I am editing essays that discuss Negri’s commentary on Spinoza and so on. I would be tempted to make some kind of meta-comment about the particular social and historical conditions that produce such insular self-reflection.

What keeps me from being too glib, and hopefully keeps this post from being from another rant against the collapse of philosophy into commentary, is the second class I am teaching this semester. I am also co-teaching an interdisciplinary freshman seminar on “consumer society.” This should be the opposite of “medieval philosophy,” modern, cutting edge, and interdisciplinary. However, I am co-teaching this course with an economist and a professor from English with a background in cultural studies. What I am finding is that this is not without its particular constraints, and disciplining effects. Often, I am called upon to speak “as a philosopher.” In the last few weeks, the economist and I both lectured about Marx, which raised the question how does Marx the philosopher differ from Marx the economist. This is a question that is difficult to answer. It is hard to fit Marx into any generic definition of a philosopher. However, the class more or less requires those of us teaching it to differentiate ours specific approaches. So I end up trying to say something about the philosophical problems underlying “commodity fetishism.”

This has lead me to conclude two things about interdisciplinary and the disciplines of philosophy:

1) Disciplines cannot be simply placed in relation as if they were independent things, because each discipline has its own internal relations to others. (I have to admit that this point is stolen from Althusser’s prescient critique of interdisciplinary research in “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists”: an essay that would perhaps be read more if it did not have such an ungainly title). To take Althusser’s example: one cannot simply combine philosophy and mathematics, since mathematics exists as an internal point of articulation of philosophy. I would add that the same applies to other disciplines. Philosophy may not have a theory of literature as an internal condition, but it does have myriad ways of interpreting texts and reading. At the same time other disciplines cannot be separated from “their spontaneous philosophy.”

2) There is no philosophy in general. Every philosophy worthy of the name rewrites the basic rules of thinking, argument, and articulation. This statement applies not only to such maverick philosophers as Marx, Foucault, and Deleuze, whose philosophy is clearly grounded in other practices of knowledge, but even such “philosopher’s philosophers” as Spinoza and Hegel.


  1. Nice! I wonder if we have not left behind the interdisciplinary and should be more interested in the trans-disciplinary which relies on the disciplines as a conduit to reveal an aufhebung of a sort synthesizing the interconnectedness of disciplines (in terms of foundational quest for knowledge, or whatever you want to call it) and the singularity of each disciplinary approach or method (and here we may have hybrid interdisciplinary or intradisciplinary approaches). Anyway, just a thought!

  2. I think that is a good point, but I fear that all too often the "inter" collapses into the subdisciplinary. By subdisciplinary I mean the basic skills of critical reading and writing that various disciplines have in common. This is especially true of introductory seminars. While in general I have no problem with this, I would be the first to admit that much of what I am teaching in intro to philosophy is close reading and constructing arguments, I also think that adding disciplines can only exasperate the problem; everything gets reduced to the lowest common denominator.