Category Archives: Phenomenology

Parallax and intentionality

I had been using the metaphor of parallax for a couple of years before Zizek’s Parallax View came out. The entire book turned out to be structured around the parallax metaphor and he used it essentially the same way. At that point in my life I was inclined to interpret that kind of coincidence as either an inevitable rediscovery of core esoteric truths or as some sort of synchronicity.

Once I learned about the connection between Hegel and Marxism, though, I realized parallax is one of the most univeral and obvious examples of the dialectic form (thesis-antithesis-synthesis). If the dialectic form is a pre-existing cultural entity – and not a minor or obscure one, either – it is possible that the “rediscovery” of it was a lot more guided than it seemed to me at the time. I may not have been taught it explicity, but it is not difficult to see how it could be absorbed passively.


The key to understanding passive cultural absorption is realizing objective conceptual thinking is only one of several forms of understanding a mind has available to it for interrelating and unifying the multifarious parts and aspects of its experience.

Naive thinkers are marked as such by their incapacity to distinguish the objective form of thought (which is ontological) from the objective being of a thing “thought about”. This observation is itself not “objective”: it exists as what I have been calling an intellectual move, or “the dance”. It’s the fundamental insight of late Wittgenstein and the Pragmatists.

Maybe I picked up the the Pragmatist dance from following along, trying to understand – trying to think-with a philosophical author, as opposed to thinking-about the apparent subject matter presented by the author in my own way, by my own pre-existing habitual moves. Maybe having been raised Unitarian-Universalist, which was a major tributary of Pragmatism, made me receptive to thinking in that way. Maybe there was a temperamental predisposition. At any rate, later, when I learned the counts and the names of the steps and the history of the dance’s invention and development, it was a factual consummation of something super-factual.

It gave objective form to a transmissible form of essentially subjective truth. It made it easier to share. Before, I’d have to demonstrate it, or indicate it with strange analogies.


I had this thought last week and forgot to write it down:

Can we learn essentially subjective (that is, existential) truths from other subjectivities, or are we limited to objectivity – learning objective facts about subjectivity from one another?

Are we subjectively inert, sealed inside our own temperaments, and our own experiences?

Another big question: If we can learn essentially subjective truths from one another, is that best achieved through talking about subjectivity – through psychologizing? A theme I’ve encountered repeatedly among thinkers working from the Pragmatist and the Phenomenological traditions is intentionality: that there is no such thing as thinking without an object of thought. Thinking divorced from intentionality is nonsense.

Perhaps sharing a problem with another subjectivity, a problem that involves coming to a deep understanding for the sake of being able to collaborate on solving the problem is a more direct route to subjective learning than psychologizing.

I’ve even wondered if psychologizing isn’t ultimately a defence against sharing psychology – a counterfeit intimacy used as a block against authentic intimacy with the other – a sterile mutual self-exploration where shared experience is founded on sameness. Otherness is distant, sealed on the far side of an experiential membrane – never pursued, never approached, never welcomed. The radical other is an object of fascination, or fear, or mystification to be contemplated or classified but never touched.


I see art as essentially bound up with subjective sharing.

Lesser art depends on recognition. It calls out to those who already know. Art decays into nostalgia and then pastiche.

Great art makes new knowers.

Philosophy is thought-art.

“Metaphysics Precedes Ontology”

If you’re curious about what’s wrong with me here’s a clue: I’ve been struggling with the same passage from Levinas’s Totality and Infinity since the middle of last week.

A sample:

The primacy of ontology for Heidegger’ does not rest on the truism: “to know an existent it is necessary to have comprehended the Being of existents. ” To affirm the priority of Being over existents is to already decide the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with someone, who is an existent, (the ethical relation) to a relation with the Being of existents, which, impersonal, permits the apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of knowing), subordinates justice to freedom. If freedom denotes the mode of remaining the same in the midst of the other, knowledge, where an existent is given by interposition of impersonal Being, contains the ultimate sense of freedom. It would be opposed to justice, which involves obligations with regard to an existent that refuses to give itself, the Other, who in this sense would be an existent par excellence. In subordinating every relation with existents to the relation with Being the Heideggerian ontology affirms the primacy of freedom over ethics. To be sure, the freedom involved in the essence of truth is not for Heidegger a principle of free will. Freedom comes from an obedience to Being: it is not man who possesses freedom; it is freedom that possesses man. But the dialectic which thus reconciles freedom and obedience in the concept of truth presupposes the primacy of the same, which marks the direction of and defines the whole of Western philosophy.

The relation with Being that is enacted as ontology consists in neutralizing the existent in order to comprehend or grasp it. It is hence not a relation with the other as such but the reduction of the other to the same. Such is the definition of freedom: to maintain oneself against the other, despite every relation with the other to ensure the autarchy of an I. Thematization and conceptualization, which moreover are inseparable, are not peace with the other but suppression or possession of the other.

A philosophy of power, ontology is, as first philosophy which does not call into question the same, a philosophy of injustice. Even though it opposes the technological passion issued forth from the forgetting of Being hidden by existents, Heideggerian ontology, which subordinates the relationship with the Other to the relation with Being in general, remains under obedience to the anonymous, and leads inevitably to another power, to imperialist domination, to tyranny. Tyranny is not the pure and simple extension of technology to reified men. Its origin lies back in the pagan “moods,” in the enrootedness in the earth, in the adoration that enslaved men can devote to their masters. Being before the existent, ontology before metaphysics, is freedom (be it the freedom of theory) before justice. It is a movement within the same before obligation to the other.

The terms must be reversed. For the philosophical tradition the conflicts between the same and the other are resolved by theory whereby the other is reduced to the same — or, concretely, by the community of the State, where beneath anonymous power, though it be intelligible, the I rediscovers war in the tyrannic oppression it undergoes from the totality. Ethics, where the same takes the irreducible Other into account, would belong to opinion. The effort of this book is directed toward apperceiving in discourse a non-allergic relation with alterity, toward apperceiving Desire – where power, by essence murderous of the other, becomes, faced with the other and “against all good sense,” the impossibility of murder, the consideration of the other, or justice. Concretely our effort consists in maintaining, within anonymous community, the society of the I with the Other – language and goodness. This relation is not pre-philosophical, for it does not do violence to the I, is not imposed upon it brutally from the outside, despite itself, or unbeknown to it, as an opinion; more exactly, it is imposed upon the I beyond all violence by a violence that calls it entirely into question. The ethical relation, opposed to first philosophy which identifies freedom and power, is not contrary to truth; it goes unto being in its absolute exteriority, and accomplishes the very intention that animates the movement unto truth.

The relationship with a being infinitely distant, that is, overflowing its idea, is such that its authority as an existent is already invoked in every question we could raise concerning the meaning of its Being. One does not question oneself concerning him; one questions him. Always he faces.

Moral anxieties

Some catch-all mystical categories seal what is beyond I in glass, where it glows silently and harmlessly and provides evocative mood-lighting to an undisturbed world.

In regard to one another, we are beyond.


It is hard to tell if hostility to God is what makes us hostile to one another, or hostility to one another is what makes us hostile to God. Maybe one day when my theology liberates itself from liberalism I’ll see a difference. Meanwhile, I am going to look for a conservative who has come even that far. (First up: Frithjof Schuon.)


I am beginning to suspect that “overcoming metaphysics” is a euphemism for solipsism.


It is possible to acknowledge the existence of the metaphysical and even to orient one’s life by the metaphysical while remaining a solipsist in practice.


When I am offended by someone invariably an examination of that offense leads me back to where I have committed that same offense against another.

Reading plans

I finally finished Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology late last night.

Thinkers like Kant, Guenon, Hursserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Bernstein and (to some extent) Voegelin tend to clarify and articulate things I’ve already tacitly practically grasped. Reading them helps me account for myself to others. (This is important especially for work. I am never coming at things from the normal angle, so I always have a lot of explaining to do, at least until I win the trust of people I work with. My dream situation is to be that guy who is called in where people are unable to find any angle at all by which a problem can be grasped. There isn’t even a question that can be asked, much less answered. That’s home for me. As Wittgenstein said “A philosophical problem has the form: I don’t know my way about.”)

However,  the rarer thinkers who really nourish and energize me are the ones who throw me into states of alternating disorientation and insight that demand words, pictures, poems, myths. These are the thinkers who change you, sometimes radically, when you understand them… as a condition of understanding them at all. They keep the whole intellectual project firmly rooted in Why.

I’d planned to jump into Richard Rorty next, but now I think I might need to do a tour of Nietzsche again, and see how he reads for me now that I’ve acquired new modes of understanding and articulating. I do not believe he will blow me apart into inexplicable ecstatic insights like he used to. That makes me a little sad, but at the same time I am satisfied that I am making real progress.

Practice precedes theory

Practice precedes theory. Practice is wordlessly active. Theory is the verbal ensurfacing of practice.

Hermeneutics is the practice of performing the ensurfacing practice in reverse  (most obvious when performed in the intellectual realm). It is the reconsititution of wordless intellectual practice guided by the theoretical content, treated as artifact, but not as the essential content of the writing.


I read Nietzsche hermeneutically, but it took me nearly four years to explain how reading Nietzsche was unlike other kinds of reading. It took me all this time to find the descriptive language for a practice I’d already mastered, but mastered mutely.


Genuine philosophy is not factual: philosophy presents its factual content like a starry sky, by which the reader/listener can navigate his understanding. The navigating is the essential philosophical act. But most people look at the star-charts and confuse navigation with astronomy.

You cannot summarize philosophy. You cannot factually transfer it. Philosophy is not reflections, it is reflecting. Philosophy must be coperformed, or it degrades into mere fact.


What has made Nietzsche such a controversial and perpetually fascinating writer is this: much of his content is strictly artifact, often the opposite of his own private opinions. He leaves it to the reader to apply the intellectual practices he teaches; it is up to the reader to apply this practice to his own content and to reach his own conclusions. And he assumes his reader will need to reach his own conclusions because precisely the readers Nietzsche wants (of whom and to whom he wrote frequently) will find the content of Nietzsche’s apparent philosophy, his factual philosophy, completely unacceptable, offensive. But you have to stay with him, anyway, all the way to the ugly end. If you try to cut to the conclusions, you will miss everything.

Nietzsche’s ideal reader – out of the deep, intense urgency – will apply Nietzsche’s practical philosophy to the goal of escaping Nietzsche’s factual philosophy – to the refuge of his own conclusions. And just when you think you disagree with him, Nietzsche winks mischeviously and compassionately.

Remember: Nietzsche called himself the first Dionysian philosopher. Dionysus/Siva: the dancing god.


The consciousness of appearance. — How wonderful and new and yet how gruesome and ironic I find my position vis-a-vis the whole of existence in the light of my insight! I have discovered for myself that the human and animal past, indeed the whole primal age and past of all sentient being continues in me to invent, to love, to hate, and to infer, — I suddenly woke up in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am dreaming and that I must go on dreaming lest I perish: as a sleepwalker must go on dreaming lest he fall. What is “appearance” for me now! Certainly not the opposite of some essence,–what could I say about any essence except to name the attributes of its appearance! Certainly not a dead mask that one could place on an unknown X or remove from it! Appearance is for me that which lives and is effective and goes so far in its self-mockery that it makes me feel that this is appearance and will-o’-the-wisp and a dance of spirits and nothing more, — that among all these dreamers, I, too, the “knower,” am dancing my dance, that the knower is a means for prolonging the earthly dance and thus belongs to the masters of ceremony of existence, and that the sublime consistency and interrelatedness of all knowledge perhaps is and will be the highest means to preserve — the universality of dreaming and the mutual comprehension of all dreamers and thus also the continuation of the dream.


I would only believe in a God who could dance.

And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity — through him all things fall.

Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we kill. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!

I learned to walk; since then have I let myself run. I learned to fly; since then I do not need to be pushed to move from a spot.

Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now a god dances through me. —

Thus spoke Zarathustra.


Spoiler: Dionysus is wordless practice, dance doing its dance. Apollo is theory and everything else that belongs to surface. Dionysian philosophy is doing, faithfully, what philosophical urgency (not curiosity or ambition) impels one to do. Only afterward – as  consummation – the accomplishment, which is known only in hindsight, is articulated. This is Nietzsche’s “overcoming“.


This might be a pretty good scholarly paper.

Pragmatist inkling?

I’m beginning to suspect praxis is knowledge viewed from the inside… the essential counterpart to what is apparent when knowledge self-reflects or presents itself as knowledge. Consider this possible developmental process: 1) knowledge begins as an instinctive response to a novel situation, 2a) then the response is iterated and refined within the same and similar situations, 2b) and the refined response is demonstrated and imitated between subjects who participate in the interation and refinement process, 3) then the response is reflectively stabilized through analogies and models, and becomes a verbally communicable practice then finally 4) vocabulary is developed for the practice.

I’m sure I’ll see this in Rorty once I start him, because practically I began thinking like a pragmatist back in 2005, when I had to imitate Bernstein’s manner of thinking in order to follow him (learned the steps of his intellectual dance). That is the only way to understand philosophy as such. Since then I’ve applied Bernstein’s ideas and style to many problems – including design problems and political problems I’ve encountered at work. I’ve also found that same style of thought in Wittgenstein and the smattering of pragmatist thought I’ve read. Now I am interested in learning the vocabulary and the ethics of the pragmatist community.


I’ve worked intensely and uninterruptedly for 40 months, to be able to say this (relatively) clearly: Hermeneutics is spiritual pragmatism. By spirit, I mean the intellect, but not the intellect that is the mental dimension of an essentially corporeal reality. Spirit is intellect acknowledged as the ground of reality.

Reading hermeneutically is navigating the author’s subjectivity by the objects of his inquiries. The real goal of hermeneutics is not to acquire facts, nor even to uncover the structure by which the author orders his factual reality, but rather to learn to think with the author through his work, and eventually to be able to approach problems as the author would approach them. Such practical knowledge cannot be transferred mind-to-mind across the membrane of individual subjectivities as reflective theoretical knowledge can. It requires gradual merging of wills, until one’s intellectual movements spontaneously mirror or at least play off the movements of the other, and understanding flows in without sharp anomalies or blurry romantic notions.

Hermeneutics is intellectual dance; it is spiritual pragmatism; and it is trans-subjective transcendental phenomenology. It all takes place in the borders between whole and part, mastery and tentative participation, insidedness and outsidedness, in knowing how to know when you do not yet know, and knowing the kinds of knowing one might have or not yet expect.

I set out to account for what it was exactly that Nietzsche did to me. He taught me the dance of dances.