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Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Tsung-Yun offered an interesting comment on my own reply to Magpie and Howard Berman, and I should like to take a little time to clarify what I was driving at.  Here is a part of Tsung-Yun's  comment:  "[First quoting me]  My own guess is that were [Freud] to return now and discover what could be done with brain scans and MRI's and CT scans and the rest, he would be thrilled and delighted. The one thing he absolutely would not do is retreat into literary theory or ideological critique as a sanctuary protected from the latest advances of hard science."  Then his [her?] comment:  "I find this comment to be puzzling. In an earlier post on the Sokal hoax and analytic philosophy of science, you affirmed a Kuhnian stance with regard to the social construction of scientific facts and the groundlessness of the positivistic conception of scientific progress. Here, you seem to be criticizing literary studies for refusing to accept neuroscientific progress. The achievements of cognitive neuroscience in the decades since Freud's death do not warrant a physically reductionist philosophy of mind, which seems to be what you're suggesting (please correct me if I'm wrong). Reductionism - e.g. identity theory or functionalism - is both dangerous and demonstrably false."

First, let us be clear that I was trying to describe how Marx and Freud themselves actually went about their work.  In the case of Freud, I was speculating about how he would respond to recent work in neuroscience, were he alive today.

But underneath these historical and biographical observations was a more general point, and that is what I wish to talk about here.  I have enormous respect for serious thinkers who spend a great deal of time -- perhaps even their entire lives -- working hard at the details of the subject they are interested in.  Marx spent endless hours in the British Museum reading the periodic field reports of the Parliamentary Factory Inspectors.  [I have read some of those reports, and they give us a fascinating window into the reality of factory work in the first decades of the nineteenth century.]  Freud spent a lifetime, as I pointed out, seeing patients six or eight hours a day.

I really do not think one can speculate philosophically about complex subjects like capitalist economics or psychoanalytic treatment of neuroses or the neurophysiology of the brain without immersing oneself in the latest research on the matter.  What would we think of someone who watched a bit of a baseball game on TV and then started to pontificate about the Ontological Significance of Sport, remarking along the way that the part of a baseball game that he liked the best was the halftime show?  Or the aesthetician whose mother took her to a Fourth of July performance of the 1812 Overture by the Boston Pops and thought that was enough background to offer opinions about the ideological significance of modern performances of classical music?  We would mock them, and we would be right to do so.

At the moment, I am reading The Art of Being a Parasite by a French biologist, Claude Combes [which, my sister says, has the best illustrations she has ever seen in a scientific book.]  Parasites are not exactly a sexy subject, but they are fascinating and important if one wants to understand how living things actually flourish and develop.   Just as an example, a billion years ago, give or take, a little bacterium made its way into a primitive ancestor of a cellular creature [a Eukaryote, as Biologists say], looked around, decided it was a nice place to live, and set up light housekeeping.  When the cellular organism reproduced, the bacterium did also and each of them went along for the ride.  Fast forward one billion years, and almost all animals, plants, fungi, and such like have these mitochondria [as they are called] inside each cell, serving as the source of the chemical energy that fuels life.  This is pretty big deal stuff, but that is not what Combes talks about, for the most part.  He goes on at length about little buggers that parasitize bivalve mollusks and such like beasties [complete with diagrams.] 

Every page of Combes' book rests on lifetimes of research that he and vast numbers of other biologists have done, research without which we would simply not know in any detail how living things actually function.  You don't have to be a research scientist to think philosophically about the nature of life or about the status of scientific theories.  But you do have to know a very great deal of real hard science before you pop off on those subjects.  Sokal was ridiculing people who had no hesitation pontificating about those things when they could not even recognize an obvious send-up masquerading as a serious discussion.  That really is the equivalent of not knowing that there are halftime shows in football, not in baseball


Chris said...

What do you think accounts for this rise in post-structural literary theories, where theorist are blending Althusser-Marx-Freud-Lacan-Butler etc, into grand theories that have zero verifiability, and seem completely uninformative?

Jim Westrich said...

I found reading the testimonies of Parliementary Inquiries into factories and work very moving. The testimony of Patience Kershaw (#26 on the link: was made into a very moving song by Frank Higgins and performed heart-wrenchingly by the Unthanks:

(It's not Bach but it was arranged with some lovely strings).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, I listened to the Patricia Kershaw testimony rendered as a song. It is extraordinary!

Chris, that is a big question, and I am afraid my inclination is to offer snarky responses. The first, which goes back to my paper, The Future of Socialism, is that the failure of even WW I and the Great Depression to bring about the overthrow of capitalism took the wind out of the sails of the great movement, and like Saruman and Grima Wormtongue, theories of world-historical power were reduced to scaring little Hobbits in the Shire. The other factor is the complete divorce of the theory classes from the laboring masses. But this is a very long, complex matter that would require more than a comment on a blog.

Chris said...

Well when I read these literaty theorist or post Marxist types (I think of Zizek, Badiou, Butler, etc), it seems to me that all their work can be reduced down to roughly the same logical fallacy: appeal to authority. All the arguments run along the line of, Isn't X exactly what Y (e.g., Lacan), was referring to?

When I broach this with my philosophical colleagues they aren't always pleased. But I'm a classical Marxist, and they aren't pleased with that either :/

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I searched a list of emoticons and could not find :/

What does it stand for?

Oh yes, I feel as you do about the other stuff. :) [that is the only one I know]

Chris said...

It- :/ - mean an uneasy feeling

Tsung-Yun said...

Dear Prof. Wolff:

Thanks for the detailed reply. I agree that it is important to study the sciences in detail before speaking about them and that pontificating about a subject while being ignorant of it is an intellectual crime. I now see that you reproach Nagel just as much as you do literary studies for not living up to this obligation.

However, I would like to insist on extending the analytic norm of charity to all discourses - even one such as literary studies that so many Anglophone philosophers find repugnant. My insistence is addressed as much to Chris as to Prof. Wolff.

To dismiss someone's work before reading it in detail would be to commit the same intellectual crime that Prof. Wolff rightly reproaches others for committing.

Tsung-Yun said...

Dear Chris:

It is obvious that you have not even read Badiou's major work, Being and Event, because you accuse him of doing nothing except argue from authority when the first book of L'Être et l'évènement reproduces a bunch of proofs for ZF set theory. You might disagree with how he interprets or uses ZF set theory, but he's clearly not arguing from authority in that instance.

It's okay to have principled and informed disagreements with philosophers - but only after you have actually read and engaged with their work!

Can we just stop doing the dismissive philosopher thing? Please?

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

Michio Kaku and Walter Isaacson have said in their writings that Einstein's ideas of relativity came to him while working in a patent office in Bern in 1905. Einstein's ideas came first as mental pictures in his head while working at Bern. Isaac Newton had a mental picture, in the late 1700s, of an apple falling, and he believed that the same force that fell the apple also worked to keep the moon in orbit. Again, Dr. Kaku wrote that the only real solution to Unified Field Theory is someone coming up with the answer, as a mental picture, and only doing the math afterwards to fit the idea.

The obvious question is how much math a person needs to know to make a valid advancement in science? If you compare Newton and Einstein's complex theories with the initial math and science they originally knew, you could say that they created complex ideas so expansive that they nullified their initial knowledge taught to them beforehand.

You could say that practice does make perfect, but there always exists that 1 out of 10,000 guy or girl who is a natural at any art or science. And that makes quite a deal of headway. E.g Mozart.

Magpie said...


"However, I would like to insist on extending the analytic norm of charity to all discourses - even one such as literary studies that so many Anglophone philosophers find repugnant. My insistence is addressed as much to Chris as to Prof. Wolff.

"To dismiss someone's work before reading it in detail would be to commit the same intellectual crime that Prof. Wolff rightly reproaches others for committing."

As Prof. Wolff touched the subject of the Sokal Hoax at my request, I've been following his posts on this subject with great interest.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I don't think he dismissed literary criticism in toto. His criticism, it seems to me, was directed quite specifically at those individuals directly involved.

Magpie said...


I had never read those reports. Thanks for mentioning them and for the link.

Also, thanks for the Unthanks link.

Chris said...

I've read two books by Badiou. I even have a book review published in a journal on one of his books. I've also read quite a bit of Zizek. So, despite your erroneous accusations, I did not come to these conclusions by ignoring their work, but instead by engaging with it directly.

Tsung-Yun said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for correcting my mistake. On the basis of skeptical considerations about induction, I invite you to make claims only about what you have read instead of about all the work written by author x.

Tsung-Yun said...

Hi Magpie,

Yes, Professor Wolff did carefully distinguish between bullshit on the one hand and literary criticism on the other hand.

Chris said...

Tsung, you don't need to "invite me to only talk about authors I've read", because I explicitly made that claim in my post:

"Well when I read these literaty theorist or post Marxist types (I think of Zizek, Badiou, Butler, etc), it seems to me that all their work can be reduced down to roughly the same logical fallacy: appeal to authority. All the arguments run along the line of, Isn't X exactly what Y (e.g., Lacan), was referring to?"

Notice the first three words...

Tsung-Yun said...

Hi Chris,

You misunderstood my request. I asked that you restrict your claims to work that you have read and refrain from making judgments about work you have not read.

You stated that you have two books written by Badiou; I can assure you that he's written more than two books. Therefore, I invite you to speak only about what you have read, not about "all their work."

Please note the fact that the universal quantifier appears twice in your very own quote.

Chris said...

Right, when I do read these authors, there is a common trend: the appeal to authority. That's all I said. Which implies that I have read them, and am commenting on what I've read.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tsung-Yun, why not address Chris' claim directly? Is he right that they repeatedly appeal to authority? By the way, I have in fact not read these authors, so I have no opinion on the matter at all.

Kevin said...

I might just add that Badiou's book on Wittgenstein is atrocious. It is the only book that I have read by him, but it doesn't contain a real argument. It is an aesthetic rejection of Wittgenstein's "small philosophy," an extended complaint about it as a genre of inquiry. But at no point in the book does he actually suggest a genuine *critique* of Wittgenstein's arguments.

I think this is part of what Chris is alluding to. Because people who then cite Badiou's "critique" of Wittgenstein don't seem to realize there is no there there.

Tsung-Yun said...

I'll just talk about Zizek, because that's what I've read the most of. I've never read Butler's work, and I've read bits and pieces of Badiou here and there; not enough to make an informed interpretation.

The charge of argument by authority suggests that Zizek is or ought to be making a deductive or inductive argument - that's how I read Chris' critique. But that's not what Zizek is going for. He's more of a collage artist in that he draws on a very heterogeneous range of materials, including newspaper articles, economics, sociology, philosophy, film criticism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. When he puts it all together, an overall Gestalt emerges: a new interpretation of the world.

As an interpretation, the collage should be judged by hermeneutic criteria: what phenomena does the new interpretation disclose or obscure and how well does it tie together all of its elements into one coherent whole? If it turns out that it performs rather well on those criteria, then that is good reason for believing that it is true. In any case, in many of his citations, Zizek seems to be relying on what he takes to be a result previously demonstrated by another author - e.g. Klein, Boltanski, Chiapello, Lacan, Hegel. Not having read the works he references, it's possible they fall short of being convincing.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tsung-Yun, despite not having read the people under discussion, I will weigh in with just one comment. In your third paragraph, you suggest that if the collage, as you call it, hangs together well and discloses or obscures certain phanomena, then it ought to be judged as true. I am very nervous of such a claim. Nothing any of these folks write, surely comes close to the majesty, the scope, the power, the capacity for integrating a wide diversity of elements that is achieved by Roman Catholicism. Really, it takes very little imagination or generosity of spirit to acknowledge the extraordinary power of the Catholic synthesis. The only trouble with it is that it is not true. It seems to me that ought to trouble you just a tad.

Tsung-Yun said...

There are many phenomena that Roman Catholicism either passes over or fails to make sense of. Take for, instance, Christianity in its medieval European incarnation, in which the clergy were putatively the most spiritual of all entities in the chain of beings. This understanding of being was unable to make sense of the fact that the western Church was increasingly and blatantly oriented towards collecting monopoly rents in the form of indulgences, etc.

By the way, my epistemological claims about interpretation are inspired by the Heideggerian method of formal indication in Sein und Zeit.

Tsung-Yun said...

Oops, I meant to write that the men of the Church were the most spiritual of all earthly beings in the medieval chain of beings.