Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Welcome to WordPress . . . I think

With this post, I am attempting to switch this blog from Blogger to WordPress and locate it on my own web site. Please bear with me as I configure the new format. To see my previous posts on Blogger in their original format and full functionality, go to:


The new blog location is designated:


Wish me luck.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Pragmatism Blues

". . . the Americans are worlds behind in all theoretical things, and while they did not bring over any medieval institutions from Europe they did bring over masses of medieval traditions, English common (feudal) law, superstition, spiritualism, in short every kind of imbecility which was not directly harmful to business and which is now very serviceable for making the masses stupid."

— Friedrich Engels, Letter from Engels to Friedrich Albert Sorge, 29 November 1886, in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Correspondence 1846-1895: A Selection with Commentary and Notes (London: Martin Laurence Ltd., 1934), p. 451.


The current revival of pragmatism, as a cover for contemporary irrationalism and a vehicle for the ethnic diversification of American professional philosophy, ought to be held in the highest suspicion. If we trace this back to its social origins in the late ‘70s, we see Richard Rorty as its prophet, the consummate liberal narcissist coming into his own just as social liberalism is collapsing into irreversible ruin. Before that, you have the scientific wing of pragmatism embodied in analytical philosophy. This too postdates the heyday of classic American pragmatism, which is seen by Brian Lloyd as comprised of irrationalist (James) and scientific (Dewey) wings. In celebrating the revival of pragmatism, especially with ties to popular culture and other ideological fashions, we ought to be critical of just what it is we are supposed to be celebrating.

But there’s more. Every cultural strategy, every ideology, is both enabling and disabling. It facilitates functioning in a given social environment while disenabling alternative perspectives and strategies. Hence, a national tradition in philosophy is not to be unequivocally celebrated as an organic indigenous phenomenon, a wholly legitimate expression of the national character. A nationally dominant philosophical trend could equally be held under suspicion just because of its social function. Perhaps as an alternative to celebration or self-indulgence, an internationalist or at least comparative perspective would better serve the nation’s needs. This is especially so in a nation so fundamentally infused with hucksterism that its most organic intellectual might well be the man who coined the phrase, there’s a sucker born every minute.”

By contrast we could mention Engels’ early essay on the condition of England. Engels has an international perspective, albeit one confined to the three major players on the world stage of his time: Britain, France, Germany. In each case he analyzes the motive forces and the strengths and weaknesses of the national philosophical configuration. One can be utilized to criticize another or show it in a different light. This is a notably different approach from the current pragmatic revival.


Anderson Douglas R. Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006. Table of contents.

Schroeder, Steven. Review, Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2007.

Anderson is concerned about the gap between professional philosophy and the popular mind. He seeks to address this gap by evoking familiar American cultural themes—wandering, gambling, popular music—and the history of American thought including its most characteristic products, transcendentalism and pragmatism. Anderson cannot be unmindful of the impossible task of making philosophical reflection at home in an anti-intellectual culture, so he indulges in this incoherent and useless exercise in sympathetic magic by playing off ideas mimetically to the cultural environment of which they are alleged to be an organic expression. Unfortunately, such prestidigitation reveals the bankruptcy of a prospective for American society and thought. Kinda like the Democratic Party.


Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Table of contents. Publisher description.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. teaches religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, editor of the anthology Is It Nation Time?: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism and co-editor with Cornel West of African American Religious Thought: An Anthology.

The publisher’s description of the book as well as the author’s religious concerns and association with Cornel West is a prescription for intellectual insipidity and opportunism. Glaude . . .

. . . makes an impassioned plea for black America to address its social problems by recourse to experience and with an eye set on the promise and potential of the future, rather than the fixed ideas and categories of the past. Central to Glaude’s mission is a rehabilitation of philosopher John Dewey, whose ideas, he argues, can be fruitfully applied to a renewal of African American politics.

According to Glaude, Dewey’s pragmatism, when attentive to the darker dimensions of life—or what we often speak of as the blues—can address many of the conceptual problems that plague contemporary African American discourse. How blacks think about themselves, how they imagine their own history, and how they conceive of their own actions can be rendered in ways that escape bad ways of thinking that assume a tendentious political unity among African Americans simply because they are black, or that short-circuit imaginative responses to problems confronting actual black people. Drawing deeply on black religious thought and literature, In a Shade of Blue seeks to dislodge such crude and simplistic thinking, and replace it with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for black life in all its variety and intricacy. . . .

In other words, provincial, hollow, worthless rhetoric, following in the footsteps of Cornel West’s vacuous “prophetic pragmatism”.

Peddling such shoddy goods, America’s intelligentsia has obviously reached a dead end.

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Selected Bibliography
American Philosophy Study Guide
The American Hegelians and Related Topics: Selected Bibliography
Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe
Black Music & the American Surrealists: A Bibliography
The Ins and Outs of Lloyd’s Left Out
Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge
Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”
The Condition of England. I: The Eighteenth Century by Frederick Engels

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Borges Revisited (14)

Gracia, Jorge J. E.; Korsmeyer, Carolyn; Gasché, Rodolphe; eds. Literary Philosophers?: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. Contents.

I begin with skepticism about centering interest in Borges around postmodern concerns, but I am on the lookout for analysis relevant to my interests. I have no specific objections to raise here, if only because I can't remember whatever minor irritations I experienced.

The question of what genre Borges fits into, the differentiation between literature and philosophy, is an interesting one, though it's more of a conceptual issue of what philosophy is than anything else. The essays on this subject are of interest, but in relation to this general issue, not really important for analyzing Borges himself. . .

. . . That is, as long as one recognizes that Borges' philosophical content has philosophical as well as literary motivations. Sometimes the postmodern obsession with meta-issues, self-referentiality, etc., tends to distract from the fact that authors from a previous time were interested in more than just commentary on textuality, narrative, etc., themselves, and that this very self-conscious preoccupation was motivated differently than it is now, when we are beyond taking refuge in abstraction from the thrall of the empirical world, as we can't do anything else, because we live in abstraction, and the empirical world seems more remote than our abstractions.

The essays of greatest interest are "Borges' Monsters: Unnatural Wholes and the Transformation of Genre" by Lois Parkinson Zamora, and "Mimesis and Modernism: The Case of Jorge Luis Borges" by Anthony J. Cascardi.

Zamora provides a very useful perspective in explaining the transition from Borges' early avant-garde literary experiments, which he later tried to suppress, and the evolution of his fiction into the 1930s and attainment of his unique approach to fiction in the 1940s, with the context of the problems of Argentine letters in mind. Zamora argues that Borges' obssession with idealism is a result of his worries over literary form. She provides details to construct a persuasive argument as to how and why this evolved. However, something rebels in me for indefinable reasons, perhaps because I see Borges' ideological motivations as more than literary.

Zamora sees Borges' engagement with idealism as the outcome of a struggle between "realistic particularity and universalizing idealism" (57, 68). While I can see this, this should be the stepping off point for a whole new line of inquiry. It is important to see, beyond the scope of this essay, that Borges' brilliance and originality are intimately, dialectically bound to his limitations, reflecting a lifelong impasse in finding a new way to relate to his society and the world. Borges did something brand new in ironizing idealism, making it useful at last for other purposes by taking it to its logical, absurd conclusions without having to defend the political hegemony from which idealism issues. Yet, the standpoint from which idealism is ironized is not materialism, but rather a mourning over an inability to reconcile nominalism and realism.

Also of great interest is the reconfiguration of the mythic, which also involves Borges' relation to Ortega y Gasset. I've never read a word of Oretga, but now I'm intrigued.

Cascardi's analysis of mimesis is also quite illuminating, and is directly applicable to the metaphysical anxiety of Borges' work. But as I've been arguing, this metaphysical anxiety over mimesis is also an anxiety over Borges' relation to social reality, a train of thought inspired by last summer’s lecture by Bruno Bosteels. (reviewed 21 December 2006)

Bosteels, Bruno. “Borges as Antiphilosopher,” Vanderbilt e-Journal of Luso-Hispanic Studies, vol. 3 (2006). [article: HTML] [article: PDF]

This article merits close study, for its general analysis of antiphilosophy, and for its specific treatment of Borges. Here is a summary of my reactions.

(1) Bosteels’ characterization of antiphilosophy is very neat, summing up very well what I don't believe in. Luckily, he left Marx out of his roster of antiphilosophers: while Marx is accused of abolishing philosophy, he would not fit in very well with this crowd.

(2) If reality is not verbal, what does Borges have to say about it, except negatively?

Thus, speaking of one Quevedo’s most famous sonnets, the one written in his Torre de Juan Abad, Borges asserts in Other Inquisitions: “I shall not say that it is a transcription of reality, for reality is not verbal, but I can say that the words are less important than the scene they evoke or the virile accent that seems to inform them” (40); or as he writes in his essay on Leopoldo Lugones, “reality is not verbal and it can be incommunicable and atrocious” (62). There seems to be, then, a dimension of reality, or perhaps it would be better to say a dimension of the real--whether cruel or not--that forever remains beyond the scope of language.
One might phrase the problem differently, but apropos of Borges' work: what is real beyond the scope of logical paradoxes? What are the consequences of Borges' thought experiments for an understanding of reality beyond unworkable metaphysical conceits?

Perhaps Carnap was right: metaphysics is bad poetry . . . which Borges transforms into good poetry.

(3) Aesthetic fact as radical act:

In fact, in this last sentence we can begin to see how the antiphilosophical search for a radical act--in this case an aesthetic one--allows us to redefine truth itself, rather than to jettison it altogether. It is, then, a question of intensity. What matters is the experiential content or effect caused in the subject, particularly as speaking subject.
I'm trying to absorb this, which is different from these other leaps of antiphilosophers.

(4) Happiness via literature or philosophy or neither:

Happiness, as distinct from mere satisfaction, according to these lines would always seem to require, and not interrupt, the active study and agreeable consciousness of the philosopher. But perhaps this is precisely the part of Boswell’s phrase that was improved to the point of perfection by Hudson. For, in the eyes of Borges, between philosophy and happiness there can be no reconciliationat least not at first sight. Borges, like most antiphilosophers, thus typically discredits philosophy’s claims by appealing to the intensity of a subjective experience, the thrill of which alone is capable of producing actual happiness.

And yet, as early as in his youthful essay “Happiness in Writing” (“La felicidad escrita”) from El idioma de los argentinos, Borges reveals his doubts as to the capacity of literature to come any closer than philosophy or metaphysics would to express happiness in the present, as opposed to the mere promise of happiness to come or the elegiacal remembrance of happy times past. “It seems disheartening to affirm that happiness is no less fleeting in books than in real life, but my experience confirms this,” Borges begins by observing (41), only to conclude with the following words in the end:

We usually suppose that literature already has stated the essential words of our lives and that innovation comes only in grammaticalities and metaphors. I dare to assert the opposite: there is an overabundance of minute belaborings but a lack of valid presentations of the eternal: of happiness, of death, of friendship. (47)

Literature, in this sense, is found equally lacking as philosophy when faced with the task of presenting actual happiness.

Because the real eludes literature as it does philosophy?

(5) Note:
In a subtle rephrasing of the myth of Ariadne, the poem “The Fable’s Thread” (“El hilo de la fábula”) from his last book, Los conjurados, actually suggests the possibility of a reconciliation in the final instance:

The guiding thread is lost; the labyrinth is lost as well. Now we do not even know if what surrounds us is a labyrinth, a secret cosmos, or a haphazard chaos. Our beautiful duty is to imagine that there is a labyrinth and a guiding thread. We will never come upon the guiding thread; perhaps we find it and we loose it in an act of faith, in a rhythm, in dreams, in the words that are called philosophy or in pure and simple happiness. (61)

May this final encounter serve by way of a tentative reply to the tiresome and inevitable objection coming from the front row. At the end of this short journey through the purple land of antiphilosophers, there is in fact a form of happiness to be found even in the study of Borges and philosophy. I, for one, like to think that this constitutes one of his more provocative lessons for the twenty-first century.
I do not understand this conclusion. But I am also not convinced by Borges.

Let's backtrack a second.

(6) Is Borges committed to the same sort of project as other (anti)philososophers?

Borges, I will argue in the following pages, can be situated profitably in the context of this debate: his work will then turn out to have been in large part the work of an antiphilosopher, one who is indeed ironically opposed to the universality claims of truth but one who is also forever in search of a radical gesture that would be able, if not fully to replace, then at least continuously to compete with the prestige of truth in philosophy.
I see this, but Borges seems to be working ironically, on a meta-level beyond Wittgenstein and the rest, because in the end they really are out to prove something, whereas Borges maintains an ironic relationship to his own thought experiments. Your pest in the front row doesn't realize that this may make Borges much more interesting than all the others.

Incidentally, this vacillation also helps explain the deeply narrative potential involved in the "essential scepticism" that we have come to identify, perhaps somewhat lazily following the author's own statements, with the case of Borges. By this I mean to refer not only to the fluctuations between nominalism and realism, or between scepticism and mysticism, that can be found from one text to another, but also to the narrativity involved in the comings and goings of certain positions within one and the same story or essay. Following this line of reasoning, we might even be able to come up with a better definition of what really constitutes the logic of a "fiction" or an "inquisition" in Borges's sense.
Now, do any of these others do what Borges does?

Philosophers, even anti-philosophers, are all on a power trip, so to speak, in that whatever they say, they are out to win in their field.

Borges' perpetual vacillation--"I, alas, am Borges"--has a twofold character: (1) it is ultimately sterile; (2) as an admitted reductio ad absurdum, it questions its own project, in a way I don't think applies to Wittgenstein. Borges tries to commit himself to his own idealism, but he cannot, nor can he abjure it. He chases round in a circle forever because he is not professionally obligated to be top dog as a philosopher. Instead, he chooses to live in this hypothetical metaphysical world of his own creation knowing of its impossibility, and speaking of the real world throughout by his constant evocation of Argentine empirical realities. ("The Congress" seems to be the perfection of this technique.) In this way he tilts toward the literary side of whatever mysterious border divides literature and philosophy. He can live in perpetual vacillation between fictional metaphysics and the real, making that his project, even attributing his political conservatism to anti-politics.

Bosteels' essay outlines the logic of all these antiphilosophers very elegantly. I never would have thought of this because I dislike them all. But Borges is different: in his ironic non-identity he propels us beyond his own sterility and the dead end of idealism. (reviewed 27 December 2006)

There is one other article in English in the same issue of this journal:

Liberato Santoro-Brienza, "Chaosmos of Labyrinths" [HTML] [PDF]

Borges en Esperanto
Borges Revisited (12): New Refutation of Time
Borges (1): “Borges, Politics and Ethics” lecture by Dr. Bruno Bosteels
Bruno Bosteels, Associate Professor of Spanish Literature
Vanderbilt e-Journal of Luso-Hispanic Studies, vol. 3 (2006)

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