James Schmidt: Persistent Enlightenment

Sapere aude: incipe!
qui recte vivendi prorogat horam,
rusticus exspectat dum defluat amnis;
at ille labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.
— Horace

Just came across James Schmidt’s (Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science at Boston University) blog, Persistent Enlightenment . I already learned something from his first post about Kant’s use of the term from Horace: Sapere aude: incipe! For many of us this has always been translated as Dare to know! But after reading the professor’s short post I discovered a new twist, and one that I think took even him by surprise (having learned from another professor, Sean Goodlett) that the term “Dare to be wise: begin!” was the exact translation of this passage. Of course you’ll need to read the full post to get the details.

I love this sort of anecdotal posting, it gives you something to bite, in snapshots that allow you to want more, to open your mind to retrace the steps and reread such philosophers as Kant in a new light, knowing that what one at first presumed may have had other meanings altogether. This is what a good writer (in this case historian) should do make us think and go back to the originals and rethink their thoughts in a new light, with a new slant of tone and meaning. Our horizons are changed by a nudge if not by a hammer.

The Task of Philosophy: Deleuze and the Pluralist Tradition

“The philosopher-comets knew how to make pluralism an art of thinking, a critical art.”
— Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

There seems to be in our present generation a need to overthrow the recent dead in philosophy, to clear a space and move forward into the ‘great outdoors’ as certain speculators would have it. Yet, one wonders why? Why is renouncing the recent work of such philosophical originals as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, to name just two of the recent great philosophers of our previous generation, done with such dismissive gestures. We love labels for some reason, we love to peg certain labels on the proverbial donkeys tail; or, should I say, philosopher’s hind. One wonders if such dismissal misleads our present generation? “Stupidity and baseness are always those of our own time, of our contemporaries, our stupidity and baseness.”1

Deleuze, like his progenitor, Nietzsche, always considered philosophy as both critical and untimely: “This is why philosophy has an essential relation to time: it is always against its time, critique of the present world (107)”. Philosophy is the great dymystifier: its task is the rooting out of stupidity and baseness in the present age. There are moments when I need to remind myself of that. Sometimes I forget that philosophy has a task:

Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. (106)

Have we lost the art of thinking in our time? Have we all become stupid and base, forgetting the task of philosophy? One doesn’t have to go far to hear certain – so called, new philosophers, decrying critique as if the task of philosophy is no longer critical but is something else altogether. Why is that? What are these so called philosophers up too, anyway? These new philosophers put me to sleep, their thought is dead, it does not quicken me into active thought, but instead hands me a noose and kindly says: “Go hang thy self.” These – so called, philosophers are the great mystifiers, the bringers of grand illusions, utopianists of reality. They offer only to guide the unthinking into a deeper labyrinth of mindless dribble. Instead of such strange speculators who would lead us astray we should all return to such philosophers as Nietzsche and Deleuze not because they offer some great wisdom or knowledge, but because they exasperate, they confound, they awaken us from our slumbers and give us the one thing we need most: thought that is alive and resilient – the figure of the philosopher, thinking. Their thought goes against the grain, against time, it makes one restless and full of life, it disturbs us in our sleep and makes us uncomfortable with the status quo. It expounds on the stupidity and baseness of its age and teaches us to do the same.

This kind of philosophy makes us all travelers of thought, frequenters of tropical zones “frequented by the tropical man, not temperate zones or the moral, methodical or moderate man (110).”

1. Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche and Philosophy. trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Columbia University Press: 1962)