July 14, 2010

Origin Stories

I suppose the first post on a new blog is always somewhat awkward. With no audience and no inertia, I face what Graham Harman calls the worst enemies of a writer: zero and infinity. Lucky me, however, as I have something to say right out of the gates. Instead of discussing the beginning of a blog, I'd rather share some thoughts about the beginnings of philosophy. I'm not so much interested in the pre-socratics or the 'Greek Miracle', as I am in something that I've actually had some trouble articulating.

It seems to me that what I've wanted to explore are two thoughts: first, how is it that one becomes who they are as a philosopher? How does one find their voice, or view, or lense, etc? In other words, before Heidegger was Heidegger he was just another reader of philosophy. At what point did he become "Heidegger" the philosopher. Throughout a productive and interesting, albeit "colorful", career, Heidegger was always Heidegger. Before and after "the turn", he would still take the same general approach to whatever random problem you put before him. You can say the same of Derrida, Badiou, or whichever other major figure of philosophy. No, I don't think this is exclusively a characteristic of the famous thinkers as it is entirely likely that many unknowns have a distinct philosophical perspective and actually have ideas. It is this last point that I think most crucial.

It seems to me that great ideas do not happen by accident. It is true that ideas come to us in ways that we cannot account for, but the really great ideas don't just pop into the minds of the fortunate. Rather, it is my wager that it is earned, and a consequence of deliberate effort. Well organized thought patterns, hard work, trial and error, and a sense of adventure are necessary (perhaps not sufficient) for one to have great ideas (maybe, as Heidegger says, "one great idea"). A part of this wager is that I think that one has to have the subjective shift from one who likes philosophy, who would like to have a good idea, to one who believes that they can have a great idea. One has to believe that they can have something to say before they actually have something to say, or they'll never find what it is that would take them from Phil Major the student of philosophy to "Phil Major" the philosopher.

The second thought I've been kicking around with respect to origins has to do with how to proceed? If one comes to the maturity of a philosophy who can have a great idea, how is it that one should begin? Of course this whole line of questioning is open to the deconstructionist point (a valid one) that whatever I declare as my first step will actually be the next step in a line that has always already begun. Fair point. What I mean to say is that if we can take deliberate measures to achieve a well-reasoned, original, and lasting perspective, stance or system, how is it that I can go from one who has already begun their journey, so to speak, to one who is beginning their journey as mature philosopher in earnest? I will try to give some more detail to the kind of suggestion I have in this regard in a coming post. For now, it seems to me that a good first question to ask is "what is really important to me?" What blows your hair back? What sorts of things do you keep coming back to? Identify what is already there to work with and then examine it. Really give it the full treatment and see what assumptions are weak or unfounded, what needs to be in place to make sense of your intuitions and convince others?

This may seem like an obvious point, but it looks to me like many (myself included) proceed in a haphazard manner that doesn't seem to lead anywhere in particular. This may be a great way to discover new things and cover terrain unseen from a more rigid approach, but it falls victim to a kind of ironic stagnancy. I'd like to both learn new things, things beyond my desired trajectory, but also have a trajectory. I'll try to balance both and move forward, in part by writing here.


  1. I'm not sure you are, though obviously I know you as you're reading my MS, but a couple of points. First, congrats on starting a blog! I believe that it is above all imperative to engage with others to discover who you are. We discover who we are by undergoing alienations in others that progressively reveal the virtual proper being of our own being over time. This is a long process, fraught with uncertainty, with lots of fits and starts. As Latour likes to say, there is no *pre-established* harmony, but only *post-established* harmony. Knowing who you are is an artificial product of a variety of encounters and unfortunately you never catch up with yourself.

    Second, trust your instincts and follow what interests you. Those reading instincts are telling you something. You might not know what at the time, but they will certainly be productive in the long run. Don't be afraid to create your own canon and follow the obscure. Your job is to define your own space of production. There is no environment as such, but only the environment you define and allow yourself to be influenced by. From a professional perspective it might seem smart to follow the trends, but this will also mean that you're not necessarily making contributions. It's better to be the weed that creates a new species than one that follows and orthodoxy. Apologies for my paternalistic advice. It's just advice I wish someone had given to me years ago when I was starting out. Drop me an email and let me know who you are.



  2. Levi,

    Thanks for the kind words. This is exactly the sort of thing that I appreciate hearing, and I try to pass along to my fellow students. Much in the vein of Harman's advice posts, you have personal experience to draw upon, and your sharing it with us is generous and welcome.

    There is a sense in which I want to use this blog space to consider what it is I want from philosophy, and how to get it. I know that I envy the community built up around Speculative Realism, so I'm trying to take the lessons I see from a distance and use them in my own community building efforts. Coming up, I will post some casual "interviews" with a few of my colleagues as a way into more discussions about philosophical topics, but about how to do a good job, and enjoy working in this field.

    Anything you have to share is always welcome.