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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, September 11, 2010


The single example of self-knowledge of the will as a whole is the idea as a whole, the whole world of perception. It is the objectification, the revelation, the mirror of the will.-- Schopenhauer, THE WORLD AS WILL AND IDEA.

In Part 1 I reiterated Susanne Langer's term "gesture" to signify the process by which human beings formulated emotional conceptions so that they were no longer expressive of a particular emotion brought on by a real event, but became formalized so as to call up the essence of the emotion at will. Langer associates this cultural action with the proto-religious rituals from which primitive man formulates religion. But it's just as easy to see how the same cultural action may have deeper roots in the process of human storytelling, whether the stories convey emotions associated with what purports to be real-life accounts ("You shoulda seen the one that got away!") or the stories told to give human context to the inhuman world around primitive man.

Langer is also much concerned in NEW KEY with the process by which humankind makes sense of what German thinkers have called the "Gestalt," the total form of the world which is naturally elusive to mankind on a purely perceptual basis, and which must also be approached through the only methods primitive man had for pulling together "the blooming, buzzing confusion:" art and religion. Langer writes:

What we should look for is the first indication of symbolic behavior [in man's predecessors the anthropoids], which is not likely to be anything as specialized, conscious, or rational as the use of semantic. Language is a very high form of symbolism; presentational forms are much lower than discursive, and the appreciation of meaning probably earlier than its expression... It is absurd to suppose that the earliest symbols could be *invented;* they are merely *Gestalten* furnished to the senses of a creature ready to give them some diffuse meaning."-- NEW KEY, p. 110.

Now, one meaning of Gestalten is not just "the whole," but the notion that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Art and religion are fundamentally attempts to put forth narratives by which the audience achieves a sense of meaning, whether it is "diffuse" (that is, accomplished through presenting gestural symbolic forms) or something more rationally articulated (through discursive symbolism, arguing an idea out to its conclusion). A given meaning may not demonstrate "wholeness" in any sense but an emotional one, but art, unlike religion, need not prove that it has any bearing on reality beyond its ability to articulate emotions. Ironically, though, for Schopenhauer it is the contemplation of art, not religion, through which one can both gain an understanding of the Universal Will's nature and at the same time gain a measure of control over the Will's demands on the human subject.

In my next essay I'll return to the subject of how presentational gestural symbols are at the root of narrative's tendency to perpetuate certain "given" circumstances for the sake of a story-- or rather, for summoning the emotions the story involves.


Charles Reece said...

Haha, I found the debate that's been the basis of your recent posts. It's sort of bizarre, where Plato is seen as an idealist (he's not, but a realist) and many are arguing against your hatred of Barthes (I agree that you're completely wrong, of course) based on the inherent totalitarianism of idealism when Barthes and all the poststructuralists came out of Hegelianism qua Kojeve. I guess I'm say you're all wrong. But I certainly agree with you that idealism isn't the bullshit your opponents have made it out to be. Kant certainly doesn't fit into some controlling ideology leading to fascism (in fact, many refer to his epistemological theory as Kantian humility).

Gene Phillips said...

Actually the board-debate (somehow I knew you would be curious enough to go looking) only influenced one recent post, THE PRESENCE-AND-ABSENCE-MINDED PROFESSOR.

If anything has influenced my most recent spate of essays it's probably that Tim O'Neil blogpost about "rules" in fiction. However, as I'm going to observe in an essay-in-progress, I've been writing about genre expectations on this blog pretty much since I started it, so it's been a longtime concern even if I just introduced the Langer terminology last month.

I'm not clear if you're saying that Barthes et al were influenced by Kojeve's reading of Hegel. Wouldn't K. be a little too far to the Right for RB and His Friends?

In a perfect world we'd confine everything to a duel of Rationalism and Empiricism, and leave all the other labels in the dust. "Realist" in the Platonic sense would be one that has outlived its terminological usefulness.

Monsieur Barthes, he sock ze donkey ballz. And he sock zem hard.

Charles Reece said...

But all the guys y'all are discussing critique the humanism inherent in both rationalism and empiricism. They're all weened on idealism, much more than realism. It's a screwy discussion.

Plato was a realist, in the same way the term is used today by philosophers. Reality isn't mind-dependent, hence the Forms. Again, Derrida and all those guys are far more the idealists than Plato or Platonic thinkers like Frege.

And, yeah, there's Hegelianism in guys like Derrida, Lacan, etc.. Modified, critiqued, etc., of course, but it's there, particularly if you compare them to modern analytic philosophers.

Charles Reece said...

Also, Derrida practiced all kinds of sophistry to defend his pal Paul de Man (not to mention Heidegger), who wrote anti-semitic comments for a collaborationist newspaper back in WW2. The notion that he's some kind of empiricist defender against totalitarianism is risible.

Gene Phillips said...

Charles, I'm sure that if I look up "realism (philosophy)" on Wiki I'll find a lot of stuff identifying Plato and similar types as "realists."

What I'm saying, though, is that outside the philosophy department this is a dead use of the word, which has come to mean something more like "empiricist" while "idealist" means anyone who seems to promote concepts outside the range of sensory input.

Isn't William James the one who made the definition, "Rationalists are men of principles; Empiricists are men of facts?" No matter how he meant that, colloquially "Idealists" and "Realists" have to come to be regarded roughly the same way.

For instance, Paul Krassner's magazine THE REALIST was not devoted to talking about the phenomenology of the Archetypes. It was a magazine that purported to deal in facts.

Nor, I see by the light of Wiki, is Krassner even the first to use that word to mean something other than Platonic "realism." I noted that there was another "Realist" magazine around H.G. Wells' time, whose project was labeled "scientific humanism."

Therefore I see no percentage in insisting on the term "realist" when someone deems Plato an "idealist." I like exact terminology as anyone, as this blog should testify, but there's no point in perpetuating a term that's passed its shelf-date.

Re Hegel: I know you're aware that his philosophy-fanboys split into "Hegel-Left" and "Hegel-Right." Without having researched the matter myself to any great extent, I would've put Barthes in the first department and Kojeve in the second. Do Barthes and Lacan ever care about things like "the bloody battle for supremacy?" (Quote approximate.)

That's an interesting datum about Derrida.

Charles Reece said...

If you're arguing philosophy, not what hippies call idealism, then these terms aren't all that different. Certainly there are nuances that have accrued over time, but always from philosophers working from the tradition (Putnam is a realist, but nearly like Plato). As Berkeley demonstrated, empiricism isn't the opposite of idealism. This is something Kant is entangled with. The main point that's at the basis of that discussion is thinkers who believe ideas influence the shape of the world and those who don't. The old distinction is perfect for this. And post-structuralists aren't realists. Nor are they empiricists, since percepts/affections/etc. are not believed to be directly constitutive of our concepts/ideas/etc.. Using what some guy on the street thinks of idealism or realism or rationalism (if he even uses that last term) will only lead to the confused mess that discussion is. For example, our Founding Fathers were "idealists" just like Hitler was an "idealist" -- but that has shit to do with whether Hegel leads to fascism.

And, yes, there are left/right versions of Hegelianism and Heideggerianism (see the works of Richard Wolin for the similarity between the two branches of the latter if you want a good read), Kojeve major innovation that affected just about all of the big French philosophers of the postwar generation on were reading Hegel through Marx and Heidegger. I don't know that I'd call that right-wing, but he's certainly not as radical as Sartre was in the 50s and 60s. Anyway, my point was that idealism clearly had a strong influence on all those being cited as hard-nosed "empiricists"/"realists"/anti-idealists in that thread. The notion that thinkers who assert the primacy of the Structure (ideology, language, etc.) over "things as they are" is neither a realist nor an empiricist.

You and that Paul guy both insist on your own definitions without ever engaging each other. I guess you're happy with that.

Charles Reece said...

"on WAS reading Hegel through Marx and Heidegger"

Charles Reece said...

oh, fuck it, there's all kinds of misstakes in that. just fill in the grammar.

Gene Phillips said...


Charles, Eric Cartman called. He wants his signature word back. I'd give it to him if I were you.

If you think you can do any better than I in trying to get the board-opponent in question to abide by even basic PHILOSOPHY 101 terminology, you have my enthusiastic encouragement to give it a try.

That insurmontable mount aside, it's true that I myself don't care if the discussion follows Philosophy 101 guidelines. It's true that I can't make much intellectual headway with either Goofus or sort-of-Gallant, but next to the level of discussion during my last months on Comicon.com, this is like the Algonquin Round Table.

IMO you don't "engage" with a guy like Goofus. You let him spew his prepared spiel and have some jollies taking shots at it. That's about all there is, but again-- feel free to find out for yourself.

Perhaps it's that "neither fish nor fowl" that makes me dislike most post-structuralists. I have no problems envisioning Roland Barthes as a Doodang.

Charles Reece said...

You remind me of a friend of mine who was recently telling me how miserable he is in New York, and was now planning on moving to Southeast Asia. He moved to NY to escape the misery of LA, which is where he had turned to escape the same feeling in Seattle. I asked him if he ever thought about what's constant to his experiences.

Gene Phillips said...

Not going to take your own advice, then.

Gene Phillips said...

Just for a laugh I googled the terms "Platonic realism" and "Platonic idealism."

The first had 16,100 results.

The second, 67,200.

The first term may not be dead everywhere but it's not prospering either.