August 13, 2010

Reflections on Philosophy: David Pitcher Interview

“The philosopher is the one who considers wonder's lack of linguistic expression a deficiency or form of ignorance, and is pressed to render this experience in language, so that it might be understood, communicated, and related to concepts and other truths. Philosophy, then, begins in wonder and ends in ponder.” 
“Philosophers are not merely clerics of language and servants to concepts - they must always be capable of returning to the source of signification, and guiding others to return to the same source. A good work, then, would, out of these deep and tortuous clouds of symbols, fulgurate down to the ground like a lightning strike, and make the world shine brilliantly for a scattered audience, if only for a moment.”

Brent Vizeau: First off, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation. I want to begin by asking, where does philosophy begin? I will preface this by making clear that I don’t mean with Thales or the “Greek miracle”. Rather, I mean to ask about the motivation for doing philosophy at all, and for taking the approach/perspective that you do? I want this to be able to go a number of ways, so I will suggest a few ideas to help hone in on the sort of place I think this question could go.

It is often thought that philosophy begins in “wonder” or curiosity. Simon Critchley argues, instead, that it begins in disappointment. It has been pointed out to me that philosophers like Hegel have “one great obsession” that colors their whole approach. Do you think that there is this kind of pre-philosophical element at the beginning of philosophy? If so, what gets you going? What is your experience of first moments/motivations?

David Pitcher: I agree with Plato that "philosophy begins in wonder." On my understanding of the initial moments of moving from practical life to theoretical life, one is confronted with an object (concrete or abstract) from which a truth or meaning is derived, channeled or experienced, but only in an inchoate, "felt" form. It is merely sensed, perceived, but not made explicit or coherent. Some folks may prefer to leave it at mere marvelousness (as in aesthetic enjoyment), and some may declare it a revelation or an oceanic feeling (as in "religious" experience).

Psychologists invoke it as catharsis and scientists call it serendipity. Poets may refer to a moment of acute awareness and problem-solvers exclaim that it is insight, inspiration or intuition. The philosopher is the one who considers wonder's lack of linguistic expression a deficiency or form of ignorance, and is pressed to render this experience in language, so that it might be understood, communicated, and related to concepts and other truths. Philosophy, then, begins in wonder and ends in ponder.

It follows from this emphasis of wonder that wonder is a necessary condition but not sufficient condition for the spawning of sophistry. This is the point at which discussions of curiosity and disappointment emerge - philosophers seem to have some kind of need for explication and a demand for elucidation. It may seem that I am begging the question by defining a motive in terms of a need, but the idea is that regardless of this need, wonder is the starting point. Human motivation is far too varied, obscure and irregular to consider any particular motive essential to any behavior, including philosophizing.

For example, one might be tacitly guided by her father's love for eloquent expressions, leading her to desire paternal recognition by mediating wonder with ponder. Another may succumb to bitterness and paranoia to the extent that, out of his hallucinatory psychosis, he creates a fantasy world that is masked by its sole tie to reality, viz. an indubitable fundamental truth. A vengeful yet cowardly individual may be dissatisfied with a priest's dogma, and channel his frustrated anguish into emotionally expressing his profound experiences.

So, there are a whole breadth of complex motives, many of which we are unaware, that lead us to our passionate search for truth. Nevertheless, if we are considering the utter beginning of philosophy, then it must be said that the first moment is wonder, and that other moments (grounded in myriad motivations) mediate the transition to ponder.

BV: Do you take a systematic or principled approach to tracing out your initial motivation, obsession, or curiosity? If you are able to articulate a kind of beginning to your philosophizing, do you have a deliberate way of following through? Or is there a reason to avoid such a structured way of going forward? Perhaps, the assumed teleology of the question is problematic? 

DP: We might think that the first moment of philosophy is like the acorn to the oak tree - that the seed stores the genetic code that directs and guides the final product the whole way through. If the first moment is wonder, then, descriptively speaking, the history of philosophy proves that the reality is quite the opposite. Discussions of wonder appear only as tangential remarks, in unrelated aphorisms, or after a brilliant display of logic and reason about non-admirological [Note: as you will see below, “admirology”  is DP’s name for his philosophy of wonder] concepts in order to reassure a reader that the inquiry isn't wholly disconnected from reality (e.g. "it's amazing that my conclusion is as such"). When there is a systematic approach, it is performed in the name of non-admirological concepts such as reason, God, observation, and so on. In other words, the object that is revealed in wonder is conserved, but the experience of wonder is itself forgotten. 

So, it is always prima facie unclear that wonder has any normative value - that it ought to guide our inquiries - or any justificatory value - that it provides a measure for the results of our pondering. The mode of revelation of objects and their conscious genesis drops out of mind, leaving the revealed objects for us to play with and manipulate. However, I contend that philosophy begins on wonder and should proceed with wonder, for if the machine that revealed the most brilliant objects, truths, and concepts of humanity turns out to be faulty and designed for delusion, then the greatest work in philosophy would be but beautiful castles floating in mid-air, and our literature would be but a history of marvelous failures.
Philosophy should proceed with an analysis of wonder itself and a preliminary assessment of wonder's epistemological role. This is admirology - the systematic study of wonder - which would need to be performed so that our measures could measured.

BV: What would you say the work of a philosopher consists in? Is it our job to create, polish and present ideas? Is it enough to learn for ourselves? I suppose I’d like to uncover some of the ideas we have about what we ought to be doing. There may be a number of perfectly legitimate occupations of the philosopher, and perhaps a number of illicit ones.

DP: Supposing the starting point of philosophy is wonder and the method is an analysis of the legitimacy of transitions from wonder to ponder, then the role of the philosopher is to, firstly, responsibly mediate this transition and, secondly, guard against exclusive wondering or exclusive pondering. In the first role, the philosopher must ensure that signifiers signify the signified, and do not signify anything else. This responsibility involves univocity - using only one word for each object or idea - and clarity, such that ideas and objects do not flow into each other via vagueness. Further examples of this responsibility can be found in Locke’s discussion of language in the Treatise Concerning Human Nature, and Husserl’s Origin of Geometry

Regarding the second duty, if a philosopher stands between wonder and ponder, then the philosopher must ensure that philosophy does not tilt excessively to either pole. In the first case, the philosopher cannot merely wonder and scribble words that make us wonder similarly, that are merely beautiful but hardly accurate, precise, or descriptive - for that is the work of a poet. In the second case, philosophy cannot become a field resembling Lacan’s symbolic order, insofar as it cannot become an incestuous chain of signifiers that derive their meaning only from other signifiers in the chain, infinitely disconnected from an impossible Real. Philosophy would become but logical connections piled upon one another, composed of consistent concepts and rigid rationalizations.

However, philosophers are not merely clerics of language and servants to concepts - they must always be capable of returning to the source of signification, and guiding others to return to the same source. A good work, then, would, out of these deep and tortuous clouds of symbols, fulgurate down to the ground like a lightning strike, and make the world shine brilliantly for a scattered audience, if only for a moment.
In Husserl’s language, the philosopher must be able to reactivate, reanimate, and revive the original sense of a word, and thereby bring to consciousness the original self-evidence whereby the need for naming it came about. 

Lastly, the philosopher must transmit this knowledge from one generation to the next, without merely transmitting words, which would give rise to equivocity and a loss of sense. Philosophers are thus guardians of both sense and source, and must demonstrate not only syllogisms but the phenomenal reality of their terms.

BV: Would you say that you have a philosophical – in the sense of doing the work of a philosopher – program? For instance, one might have the goal of producing polished ideas to the public based on their philosophical interests. This might mean that one works on writing articles. Maybe you start with a research phase, followed by a write up, followed by a new research phase in a linear fashion. Some might write when the motivation strikes them, but never according to a work program. What do you do? And what would you like to do in this regard? 

DP: The way I go about writing philosophy is consistent for each academic essay, article, or chapter I produce. I brainstorm excessively for long periods of time, and ensure that I have everything I could possibly need to discuss in one place. This preparation involves excessive research, massive lists of fruitful and pertinent quotations, and a breakdown of the topic. 

The next step involves a method from cognitive psychology called an incubation period. An incubation period is time spent after pondering a riddle, a logical puzzle, or a problem for long amounts of time to no avail. I might go for a walk, play a video game, or watch television. The basic idea is to distract one’s consciousness from the problem and allow unconscious processing to keep working on the problem. Eventually, unconscious processing discovers the solution to the problem, and presents it to consciousness. I’ll refuse to write until this occurs.

As soon as the incubation period is over, I write without stopping for as long as needed until the essay is complete. To use an example with a shorter incubation period, one might attempt to understand the phrase “time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” I’ve seen folks understand it immediately, but some do not until they forget about it and require the “aha!” moment or moment of insight to which incubation periods are conducive. 

This method is the way I go about writing and the way I feel I ought to go about writing - I despise forcing myself to write. I, so to speak, “wait for the planets to align” before I work.

BV: I’m also wondering about philosophical communities. We work in spatial proximity to other philosophers (or students of philosophy, however you want to demarcate this), but rarely it seems do we work in close intellectual proximity. What do you make of this isolation? Or do you disagree that there is a lot of isolation from others in our field? Would you rather a different kind of community to work in? If so, are you able to begin articulating what it might look like?

DP: The fact that philosophers work in spatial proximity to one another (in, e.g., philosophy departments at universities) is an administrative accident and a financial convenience. There is no need for these philosophers to actually collaborate and strive to emulate good teamwork. The reason that philosophers can be both eremite and erudite is that the philosopher’s primary engagement is with experiences, ideas, and history - with truth, not people. Should we claim that intellectual isolation is a deficiency in the current system, and thereby desire a “community of philosophers,” we would be forcing teamwork and feigning affinity, thusly producing a most atrocious affectation in academia.

We would be emphasizing living, present philosophers, when it is a matter of irrelevance whether or not the author of an idea is alive or dead, present or absent. Furthermore, there is nothing to be gained from other philosophers that couldn’t be gained by delving into the history of philosophy, the written work of other philosophers, and living a full life. So, it seems that instead of bringing them together, we ought to disperse them further.


  1. David, I agree with your idea of de-emphasizing the originators of ideas instead of treating them as if they 'owned' their concepts. When I was an undergraduate I had a stimulating discussion of this issue with my philosophy reading group. The issue was around whether or not ownership of ideas hindered the pursuit of truth.

    The argument for the opponents of ownership was that, owing to the natural human drive towards possession, establishing claim to an idea with one's name makes seeing the truth harder, as attacks on that idea become attacks on one's property, and by extension oneself. Here I am reminded of the old justification given in England for the brutal executions dealt to 'coin clippers', people who shaved slivers of silver off of the English coinage. The argument was that, because the coinage bore the image of the kind, clipping the coins were equivalent to attacks upon the kings face. A fanciful and ludicrous justification for judicial torture, but illustrative. Another example would be parents and their children. While they make rebuke their childrens errors in private it is painful for them to hear their children rebuked, believing that it is they themselves who are being attacked.

    The advocates for ownership of ideas hold that the cut and thrust of dialectic is driven onward and refined by such attachment. A debate is far more likely to be well fought and well developed if the advocates for both sides are actually attached to their positions and willing to fight for them. If ideas were treated as purely neutral, without originators or owners, then debate might stall. I consider this argument to be similar to Invisible Hand arguments in economics, that the selfishness and smallmindedness of actors brings out great dividends for the public, in this case interesting and well developed philosophical positions.

    I myself lean more towards the ideal of neutral ideas which are merely advanced or discovered by those philosophers, while others advance other ideas. What do you think?

  2. Sant Ritz's charming address offers a world of opportunities for your little ones in the future.the interlace condo