Monday, June 12, 2006

Voice, Mind, Heart, Spirit

I first became aware of Arthur Danto while going through Nietzsche studies. His 1965 Nietzsche as Philosopher, despite Walter Kaufmann’s earlier efforts, did the most to make anglophone philosophers aware of Nietzsche as a serious philosopher, or rather, a philosopher to pay attention to. Danto was an able and up and coming analytic philosopher at the time and related Nietzsche to English-speakers by taking him to have philosophical theses that they recognized. I since found out that Danto was an aesthetician and art critic, though I also found a little book of his called Mysticism and Morality which covers Eastern philosophy for Westerners. Obviously a well-rounded guy. The other day I picked up a recent book of his used, The Body/Body Problem, which is a collection of essays. I was particularly excited to read it because its last essay was called “In Their Own Voice: Philosophical Writing and Actual Experience”. This is an area I am particularly interested in.

The essay itself is fairly tricky. Firstly, I should apologize to every teacher, friend, TA, or critic who has yelped at me for being easily distracted and side-tracked—to which I normally respond, “Oh, quiet! It’s part of the larger plan, man! Off my case!” I now know what they mean. Danto moves over several topics in the course of the essay and it’s not entirely clear that they all involve one another. They all do relate to each other, but Danto’s movements are so quick that you don’t realize until later that while he’s talking about blind submission now, he used to be talking about Cavell. So I apologize for snapping at anyone over my penchant for following my mind wherever it goes.

Danto begins his essay with some interesting talk about the difference between philosophers who have to submit papers to editors and philosophers who are requested to give papers. He says that Donald Davidson once told him that he’s never had to submit a paper to editorial review, and comments, “Instead, those parts of his papers which an editor might peremptorily have written ‘Clarify!!!’ next to in the margin have given rise to mighty rivers of commentary and analysis, and doubtless have seen more than one critic through to tenure as a specialist in the philosophy of Donald Davidson.” (228) Danto continues his musing on this topic by noting that, possibly since most of these star philosophers write papers to be read before audiences, they are filled with devices designed to hold an audience’s attention. These interesting insights continue until Danto reaches Wittgenstein (and Heidegger and Dewey), reckoning that the strongest philosophers have the strongest styles, styles others wouldn’t dare try to imitate, at which point he asks, “Does that mean that philosophy and philosopher are inseparable? Or that there is a deep connection between philosophy and voice?” (229)

I tend to want to answer in the affirmative. Ever since Rorty tossed off the locution “philosophy as a kind of writing” while further implanting the latent notion (that only Toulmin pulled out explicitly) of “philosophy as a kind of autobiography,” I’ve been excited and energized by the idea. I take such a slogan to infuse many of the other philosophical positions pragmatists take. However, from those same readings, I know it's not entirely true. Or rather, Danto’s questions cannot be answered entirely in the affirmative. Pragmatists are suspicious of anything deep, especially anything related to that amorphous subject “philosophy.” You can’t help but define philosophy by the very activity of doing it, but every definition eventually bites you in the ass. But if there is something deep about philosophy, it would be the connection between philosopher and philosophy, philosophy and voice, but still—how deep is that?

By moving to Wittgenstein, Danto proceeds very slowly to answer those questions negatively. The rest of the essay is basically a long, drawn out and unfinished, slowly spoken “Nooooooooowell, maybe.” He moves by first telling us in a parenthetical, after writing “Wittgensteinian ‘truths’”, that “I am employing quotation marks because I want to leave the reader a bit edgy with the idea that there are such things as Heideggerian or Wittgensteinian truths rather than truths which happen to have been uttered by Heidegger or Wittgenstein”. This indeed leaves me a bit edgy. This raises the specter of truth distinguished from rhetoric, the Platonic distinctions that Rorty and Pirsig tell us got us into all of this footnote trouble in the first place. Rortyans would prefer to say that, maybe there aren’t Wittgensteinian or Heideggerian truths, but there are truths we began to speak only after we began to speak Wittgensteinese or Heideggerese.

But still, Danto isn’t entirely off point here. There is a difference between the style a truth (or point) is made in and the truth (or point) that is made. This has to do with translatability, in the ability of a particular point to be made in different styles or vocabularies. We see Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Dewey all making the same points when we translate them all into a vocabulary that houses them all, which is what Rorty specializes in. However, not all truths or points can be made in every vocabulary, which is probably the point at which we can call them false. And Danto’s style of making this point, the language or vocabulary, probably makes me suspicious because of his penchant for making the distinction too coarsely between truth and rhetoric. Danto does this, I think, because he takes much more seriously the notion of “representation” than do pragmatists. Danto is at odds with pragmatists over this issue, but Danto, despite being an unrequited user of it in the face of antirepresentationalists like Rorty, seems to use it an ameliorated sense that raises less problems for pragmatists.

The next section of Danto’s paper sees him bridge from Wittgenstein to Stanley Cavell on Wittgenstein, providing a tremendously illuminating commentary on Cavell and his style of writing. He eventually makes the point that Cavell mirrors Wittgenstein in that his writing style embodies the philosophy put forward. The style of the Philosophical Investigations embodies Wittgenstein’s suggested attitude towards philosophy (one of therapy) and Cavell’s writings, particularly A Pitch of Philosophy, embodies Cavell’s suggested attitudes towards philosophy (one of dialogic conversation). “…what is the connection, if any, between the what and the how of saying? The philosopher may be the writing, which means that to discipline the writing is to regiment the philosopher. But is there any internal connection between the writing and the thought? Can, that is, any thought be expressed in any voice, even if not all styles will embody or exemplify it?” (238) I have already answered this last question in the negative. Not all thoughts can be expressed in any voice, that is, not all things can be said in every vocabulary. To answer the question positively, as Danto intimates he would, would be to fall for Plato’s fantasy of universal truths that underlie all ephemeral ways of speaking. Rorty’s point in creating what his student Robert Brandom has called the “vocabulary vocabulary” was to dissuade us of such a notion.

But Danto continues by quickly bridging to the topic of blind submission. His comments here, again, are very illuminating. I won’t cover them (except to say that Danto half-imagines a case of blind submission in which a star philosopher writes in defending his own philosophy and a lesser philosopher writes in defending the star’s philosophy, and both of them are equally cogent to the point of flipping a coin over which one to blindly choose for publication—a situation, I have to confess, I daydreamed myself being in with Rorty) and instead skip to the end. One could imagine from what has come before that Danto will land in favor of blind submission—what, afterall, could matter if truth is divorced from rhetoric?—but Danto actually lands a bit on the other side. “The reason voice is relevant to philosophical writing is that philosophical writings by a single person form complex systems and constellations of ideas—they have pasts and futures as well as presents—and the reasons we are interested in voice are those which explain our interest in philosophical creativity. Creative philosophers do not do philosophy by producing atoms of bottom-line ‘good’ philosophy. What they write carries what they have written and what they hope to write as the aura of a total vision.” (242-3)

I have my suspicions about “total vision,” but I see what Danto is talking about. And he’s quite right. “This means that suppression of our facticities results in a distorted representation of the world, the world according to Nobody. And this makes bottom-line philosophy abstract and distorted and surrealistic.” (244) We see Danto’s latent realism rising up again, but his conclusions are resonant: “Philosophy in its professional practice has loosened itself more and more from the world as we really experience it anyway, in our embodied and historical natures, in its drive to secure something disembodied and timeless. And I think a dreadful price, the price of irrelevance, is paid for this: nobody reads philosophy but philosophers. … Let blind review continue, but blind philosophy might to everyone’s profit stop being written. Philosophers should be encouraged to speak in their own voice about the world that means something to them. The freer the voice, the better the philosophy. For now, that is the only connection I see.” (244-5)

That’s not the only connection I see and that’s probably because of Danto’s seeming realism, but I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on Danto (least of all through his roaming essay), but I feel like his heart is in the right place—if that is to be discerned from the last pages of a piece. But if that were true, I would have to accept “Good is a noun” and there’s no way I’m swallowing that. But perhaps there’s a difference between a person’s heart and their spirit and perhaps Pirsig’s spirit lies elsewhere from his heart. Mind, heart, spirit: the written lines, the written conclusion, and everything else in between—the lines or otherwise.

This lands us in the lap of translation, or interpretation (which is how Davidson translates that Quineanism), which is where I left us with voice. “Voice” is a metaphor that pragmatists can get along with. Ever since Gadamer and Sellars, Dewey and Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Nietzsche, it’s been harder and harder for philosophers to just assume that we can break away from language, harder for them to use bodily metaphors, and harder for them to use theological metaphors. If Dennett is to be believed, the “mind” isn’t all we thought it was. If Susan Neiman, then the “heart” must include more than good intentions. If Bloom, the “spirit” just is what we make of it. However, I think all three combine to make up the “voice” of a philosopher. This is all like Davidson’s triangulation of world-person-community, which, translated into textual interpretation, plays out into text-writer-reader. Understanding a language takes Davidson’s triangle and understanding a philosopher takes it, too. Interpretation is the collusion of the three parts, and no part can be understood separately.

A philosopher’s voice includes her mind, her heart, and her spirit. It includes how she’s getting to a place, where she’s going, and where she will end up being—the now, the little bit later, and the far into the future. Not all minds are cogent, not all hearts good, not all spirits living—not all arguments sound, conclusions useful, or philosophies engaging. But the philosopher, the voice, includes all of these. Not all of Pirsig’s arguments are successful, not all of Pirsig’s conclusions are acceptable, and not all of his philosophy is interesting. But Pirsig’s voice is powerful and inimitable, capturing our attention still. And though Pirsig’s voice may cease to echo someday, that voice will still be a sharp, loud thunderclap for those who discover him, if one delivered in a room with bad acoustics.


  1. hi friend !
    amazing attempt .. i'm an ameteur in western philosophy, kindly suggest how to start up .. by de way interested in indian philosophy ? visit my bog ...

  2. The only suggestion I have for getting into something as big, amorphous, and heterogenous as "Western philosophy" would be to pick up local writers on particular writers.

    For instance, the stuff in my posts all presuppose a certain general knowledge of Western philosophy, and particularly Richard Rorty and/or Robert Pirsig. If you don't have that basis, it can be hard to get a handle on (or care about) what I write, the topics I choose to discuss, the terms I throw around, the allusions and references to other writers. So if you have a general knowledge of Indian philosophy (as it would appear you do), you can angle your way into Western philosophy by picking up Indian writers on Western philosophers, because their frame of reference for talking about, say, Plato's talk of "dialectic" or the "Form of the Good" or Kant's talk of the "transcendental standpoint" or the "noumena" will be concepts, terms, and writers common to Indian philosophy--which you're already familiar with.

    Just jumping into its midst can be difficult. My way into various Eastern philosophies is the same way I just described: Western writers writing about Eastern philosophy. You can also read Western writers on Eastern philosophy as a related way in. Hearing them talk about stuff you're familiar with can give you insight into the background they're coming from.

    One series of collections I'm familiar with is the East-West Philosophy Conference proceedings. It's held in Hawaii and attracts huge numbers of philosophers from both sides and they write about each other and other cross cultural conversation. If you have access to a university library, you can probably get a hold of them.

    Otherwise--I have no good suggestions other than if anything you see around in my writings (or anybody else's) about various people piques your interest, follow up on that. Philosophy is just so huge that there are an infinte number of ways into it and any ways I suggest will be parochial, ways I find interesting, but you may not.

    But if you still press me--read Plato's Republic. As Whitehead said, us Western philosophers are all just footnotes to him anyways, so knowing about Plato certainly helps.

  3. James says:

    The ultimate philosophy must not be too straight laced in form, must not in all its parts divide heresy from orthodoxy by too sharp a line. There must be left over and above the propositions to be subscribed, ubique, sempre, et ab omnibus, another realm into which the stifled soul may escape from pedantic scruples and indulge its own faith at its own risks; and all that can here be done will be to mark out distinctly the questions which fall within faith's sphere.


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