Thursday, September 21, 2006

Agnes Heller and the Homecoming of Philosophy.

This is the first essay that I have written from an Internet Cafe in Manhattan (on 9/21, at 6:00 P.M.), as I observe the street traffic outside this window. I wonder what sort of music Puccini would write today for the denizens of New York's "Bohemia"?

This blog has been mentioned at: "CNN's Nancy Grace Under Fire Online, Did Legal Analyst Go Too Far ..."

There have been 27 intrusion attempts directed against my computer in the last few days. My most frequent attacker is: (NJ, OAE?) Images still cannot be posted.

Agnes Heller, Radical Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), pp. 1-51, pp. 134-187.
Agnes Heller, Beyond Justice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 1-110, pp. 273-320.
Agnes Heller, "Hannah Arendt on Tradition and New Beginnings," in Steven E. Ascheim, ed., Hannah Arendt in Jersusalem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 19.

Agnes Heller is a Hungarian-born philosopher who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York. The New School has become an internationally recognized center for the study of Continental thought in the United States. This university flourishes in a city that Colin McGinn describes as the "primary location" for the study of philosophy in the English-speaking world, thanks to all of the great universities within a small geographical area. If you love philosophy and you happen to live in New York, then thank your lucky stars. I do.

Professor Heller was a student of Georg Lukacs (whose great essay "History and Class Consciousness" should be read by Marxists and non-Marxists). I discovered that essay as a law student, after reading Duncan Kennedy's articles. Heller is often described as a "Hungarian dissident." Philosophers are always dissidents. She is the recipient of the Szechenyi National Prize and the Hannah Arendt prize. She has received several honorary degrees and is the author of dozens of books, including one that I do not have that seems especially interesting. The Time is Out of Joint: Shakespeare as Philosopher of History (2000). (See my essay on Shakespeare's Hamlet.) Colin McGinn's book on Shakespeare as a philosopher is my brithday gift to myself.

I wish to limit my focus to a few comments on key sections of Radical Philosophy, a book which is very accessible and a good place to begin to read Continental thought. The issues that I find especially interesting concern the relation between philosophy and science, reason and myth in intellectual methods, together with the idea of philosophy's "homecoming" and "wonder" or "astonishment" (taumadzein).

Professor Heller begins by suggesting that: "In the same way as art can no longer 'sing as the birds sing,' so philosophy has to wake from its 'dogmatic dream.'" (p. 1.) This awakening has to do with establishing philosophy's autonomy from and rejection of "myth" or religion" and its return of the "borrowed clothes" of science. Platonic pretensions to a metaphysical realm of abstract truths and scientific jargon are unacceptable. Professor Heller insists on the urgent human "need for philosophy." (p. 5.)

"It is ... difficult to deny that there exists a need for philosophy -- a need which is even growing and deepening. Today the social sciences are confronted with questions which are slowly making clear to them that they need philosophy. The scientists do not need philosophy to confirm their methods, since they can achieve these without any philosophy" -- scientists merely assume philosophical foundations which they do not defend explicitly -- "the activists do not need philosophers ... they can fight by themselves without philosophers. However, what is needed is a unitary [emphasis added] answer to questions of how one should think, how one should act, how one should live at all, and indeed an answer that is genuinely philosophical." (p. 5.)

Philosophy must stop trying to be a minor science or an assistant to the sciences, returning to itself ("coming home"), deploying "practical" reason as the questioner of the human world for ethical and political purposes. Here we see the influence of Marx. Heller is classified as a "Critical Marxist," with phenomenological leanings. I am not sure exactly what that means, but it's O.K. as a label, for now. T.L.S. Sprigge's creative reworking of idealism and pragmatism may be brought into dialogue with Heller's philosophy, allowing opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum to meet. A recent discovery (for me) is the work of Nicholas Rescher, some of whose writings I plan to study. Two points in Heller's essay seem especially interesting and controversial: I agree with the first; the second, I do not accept. First, I agree with the ethical nature of philosophy as truth-seeking:

"Philosophy seeks in all truth the true, in all good the good, and in all of them the unity of both. If it is said that the true and the good are unachievable, or that they do not exist, this does not matter. Even in these cases the conceptual scheme is the same: if the claim is that neither the good nor the true exist, or that still less there exists any unity between them -- to confess that the quest is pointless is still philosophy." (p. 8.)

Second, I can not accept that it is either possible or desirable to exclude mythic imagination or aiming at scientific rigor -- the two are related -- from philosophy's contemporary efforts. We soon find Professor Heller resorting to mythological language and images, then shifting to the objectivity of the laboratory or the faculty lounge:

"However, if one wants to consider what characterises all philosophies, then one must abstract from the differences between them in the criteria and the hierarchies and start from the criterion that is common to them all -- namely that they themselves constitute the true and the good they seek. To this extent, it is not quite true to say that philosophy does not know what form its Sleeping Beauty takes. Since every philosophy has its own Sleeping Beauty, it knows quite clearly what sort it is." (p. 9.)

"Sleeping Beauty"? So much for the effort to abandon "myth." But Professor Heller insists:

"[Myth] is the language of religion, of revelation. To wake the good and the true to life, every rational being through its own reason and its own autonomous thought, with the help of arguments and counterarguments, must reach the same truth." (p. 10.)

Philosophy must provide objectivity and universality. I agree with that much. I do not agree with Professor Heller's assumptions about where objectivity may best be found. For me, it is just the opposite of what Heller suggests. The objectivity and rationality that she seeks is located in that which "gives birth" (notice the metaphor) to both science and art, philosophy and religion. (See my essay on science and memory.)

"Philosophical objectification" requires that we make use of universals and concepts, of entities existing only in Plato's heaven or in our language schemes in the Lebenswelt. We immediately -- necessarily and unavoidably -- find ourselves mythologizing, whether the subject matter is philosophical constructs or scientific ones, even if we make use of those "legal fictions" having a tendency to escape courtrooms and universities, thus becoming "real" entities in society, like corporations that "sponsor" PBS programs or "express opinions." Think of what a corporation is, legally and politically, then explain what is meant by "corporate friends" or "corporate political campaigns."

The slippery and dream-like nature of language, Derrida reminds us, makes our daily social realities a kind of myth-like thing, a creative fiction. This is because we live "in" languages. (See my story "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Author.")

Moreover, values and valuing are found to inhere in languages, as part of what we mean by "rationality," as essential to thinking and philosophy. To live in language is to establish a relationship to (or with) goodness. There is no choice about this need for such a relationship because ethical reasoning is built into human languages. ("Why I am Not an Ethical Relativist.")

What is most real in philosophy and the purpose of doing philosophy happen to be linked to what is most mythical and fundamental in human reasoning, the search for truth and goodness:

"What ought to be is no illusion or fantasy, no mere dream only present in our subjective wishes, but rather the 'Ought-to-be' is precisely what matters, the measure, 'the true' or 'the most real reality.' ..." (p. 11.)

This leads to Heller's wised-up, postmodernist, Romanticism:

"The 'utopian spirit' is the spirit of philosophy." Compare Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, also Ernst Cassirer and John MacMurray:

"Every philosophy is utopian -- how else could one describe a construction in which what ought to be counts as the most real of all that exists, where whatever is counts as unreal in the light of ultimate reality, [the ideal?] and yet the former is deduced from the latter? ... philosophy is not merely a utopia but a rational utopia." (p. 13.)

Professor Heller's difficulties result from her use of the words "myth" and "rational" in constructing her argument. Does it occur to Heller that the mythic imagination is essential even to what she is calling "rationality"? Rational and mythical are not opposed concepts. In fact, they are inseparable. In an effort to separate rationality from the religious or mythical, she may be throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.

This rigid distinction between myth/rationality is the detritus of Heller's outdated Marxist vocabulary of material rationality and "scientific spirit," which she can now do without. Something in Heller's philosophical nature is attracted to the radical egalitarianism in the Marxist theoretical project. Everybody is. Something else in Heller's nature is just as attracted to freedom in philosophical imagination, which leads to an individualism that is opposed to Marxism. Aren't we all?

Why was it necessary to escape Hungary? Why be a dissident? How do we live between these alternatives? Can we have have both freedom and equality? The U.S. Constitution promises both. Do we still believe in that promise? It is increasingly difficult to believe that the U.S. Constitution is anything other than a hope or fantasy. Have any letters been deleted from these words again? ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State" and "New Jersey's 'Ethical' Legal System.")

Only if we are "childish," I guess, like John Lennon -- or "crazy," like me, can we believe in our rights. Heller undermines any Marxist division -- including her own -- between describing the world and changing it by challenging the fact/value distinction that is taken for granted by many Marxists and others. To describe the world is to change it because we live our global descriptions:

"Whoever claims that the rationality of philosophy is mere appearance (since what ought to be cannot be deduced from what is, and anyway philosophy only deduces what it already knows), measures philosophy by a non-philosophical criterion. This overlooks that the real function of deduction is the 'leading upwards.' Doubtless for philosophy the leading upwards to the unity of what is and ought [to be] appears as primary ..." (p. 14.)

It follows that the purpose of philosophy is to make us child-like:

"Astonishment ('taumadzein') does not exhaust the philosophical attitude. Philosophy possesses the wonderful ability and courage to pose childish questions: 'What is that?' 'What is that for?' 'Why must that be done like that?' 'Why cannot one act like that?' ..." (p. 17.)

Philosophical rationality is a kind of very smart child's perspective on life. I just saw "The United States versus John Lennon." Lennon seems to embody (for me) the child-like philosophical and political genius described by Heller. I am reminded of Salinger's classic "For Esme, With Love and Squalor." Philosophical genius is a "Leave it to Beaver"-like prankishness about the world. "Who are those people?" "What is good?" "Why am I here and not there?" "Am I awake now?" "When is now?"

You can see why this sort of questioning and questioner is annoying to dictators. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon could not stand a universe that contains simple joy and delight in love, such as Lennon embodied. They had to try to detroy Lennon, so as to make what they had become in pursuing power more acceptable to themselves. Senator "Bob"? Mr. Ginarte? Gilberto Garcia? Does this ring any bells?

This questioning of shibboleths always makes philosophers "dissidents," in Hungary or elsewhere, and it threatens their survival in every society. Philosophers are always disatisfied with the status quo. As a result, they often find themselves asked to drink some hemlock by those who profit from things as they are and who have no reason to want them changed. Stuart Rabner? ("Have you no shame, Mr. Rabner?")

Professor Heller tells us: "Every philosophy has autobiographical traits." (p. 23.) I concur. Heller also realizes that this philosophical attitude is endangered as never before, so she is drawn to protect the philosophical child in all of us. Agnes Heller is one of the women walking with her arms around a child into a concentration camp: "What today has become difficult is the philosophical attitude, and in different ways." (p. 21.) This gentle scholar is as strong as steel in protecting the right to think and speak freely for all of us.

Heller is advocating a return to a kind of play in interpretation as a mode of philosophical reception. This is how philosophers (and artists) find their Sleeping Beauty. A combination of play and astonishment at the wonder that we and the world are is the secret of great philosophy which always borders on a kind of madness or mysticism. It is the madness of the wounded child who sees a world of strangers and mysterious entities that hurt him or her, but who wishes to understand why?

What is the advantage for Hackers in altering the spelling of words in these essays? Or in blocking my access to this site? Why destroy someone's art or creative intellectual work? How do you "benefit" by doing so? Was it Carl Sandburg who said: "There is something about a bureaucrat that does not like a poem?" Or a poet?

The philosopher-child looks in one direction and sees what "is" (science), then in another to see what "ought to be" -- and even more, what ought not to be (philosophy and theology) -- and then realizes, sadly, that he or she is staring at only one reality. Worse, if he or she is a very great philosopher (Kant), the insight dawns on him or her that this one reality is only consciousness -- whether as language and/or thought yet infinitely and mysteriously also "Other" -- since it must be shared. Science becomes philosophy, which is also art and theology, but then philosophy becomes literature.

We see ourselves in all that is because we understand -- and not only intellectually -- that we are part of all that "is." The conclusion is inescapable that the freedom that we cherish implies the evil that we detest and must struggle against. You can't get the bonus without the onus. William James Booth, Interpreting the World: Kant's Philosophy and History of Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), pp. 55-163.

"Philosophy is homesickness said Novalis. All sentimental philosophy is homesickness, the longing for a world in which philosophy is at home." (p. 134.)

All philosophy is sentimental philosophy. All human learning is sentimental. To be human is to think and speak, for these are always hopeful acts. Even the Hitlers of this world will be desctroyed by the power of thought and speech, eventually, since what they say is examined rationally and soon shown to be what it is. What lasts in philosophy and literature, as in science, is only truth. When we think and speak, freely, we find our way home to truth and love, both of which must also be shared. We might use another word for what we come home to, it is a short word. ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

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