The Modern Philosopher as Sophisticated Idiot

One thing that astounds me as I read certain contemporary philosophers or even sociologists is that their hatred of the humanities and humanism has left a blank in their learning curve, a kenosis – a devastating loss in a certain type of thinking and knowing. The humanistic world for all its illusions and foibles, its obvious anthropomorphisms, etc., that we as their heirs and despisers ( I say this facetiously, because I am sadly a part of this dying world! ) have for the most part in our attempt to overcome, bury, and move past their worldview, scholarship, and traditions lost many of the pragmatic mind tools they constructed (i.e., the world of language, rhetoric’s, and receptions ).

This came home to me as I’ve been reading Bernard Stiegler recently, who on the surface because of his immediate tradition in Heidegger/Derridean modes of thought, scholarly apparatus, and etymological overdeterminations has built up a Gothic Cathedral of thought so opaque and thick that to decipher it for a common or lay reader (i.e., for the average intellectual or journalist, etc.) is to transcribe, transliterate, transform, massage, and redeploy his acute verbiage into other forms, other simpler modes of thinking. And, yet, even Stiegler for all his careful and elaborate sophistication is totally or apparently ignorant of his own ignorance in return to certain humanistic traditions by other channels and modes.

What I mean is that as I was reading Stiegler’s Time and Technics  vol 1 I realized he was returning to that ancient art of sophistry, the allegorical transcription of ancient myths into conceptual thought; and, yet, he seemed apparently oblivious to the simplified use of those ancient mind-tools for the most part, and was actually in his misprisions and misreadings deploying a strangely uncanny rhetorical decipherment and embellishment that the medieval monks would have seen as superficial and at best overly simplified and duplicitous. Maybe that’s the truth even of Plato’s dialogues which use the ancient framework of myth and religion to relate his allegories of conceptual thought, incorporating the known techniques  of the Sophists against them in a bid to make Philosophia (The Art (technics) of Wisdom (Sophia)) the Queen of Scientia. Wasn’t Plato, after all, the great swindler, the man who set up the Academy in a bid to overtake the Sophists in their own game, making Philosophy the principle tool for the Aristocrats (Aristoi) of his City, Athens?

Philosophy (The term philosophy is taken from the Greek word, (phylos) meaning “to love” or “to befriend” and, (sophie) meaning “wisdom.”. Thus, “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”. Socrates, a Greek philosopher, used the term philosophy as an equivalent to the search for wisdom.) was once considered one of the modes of teaching humans how to think, and in thinking seek wisdom rather than knowledge. The key here is allegory with all its ancient power of encoding/decoding thought into levels of conceptual theory and practice based on compression, condensation, displacement, elaboration, etc. The heirs of these ancient and medieval traditions were the great literary critics and scholars of the various Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, and Modernist eras. The last great scholar of this form was of course Ernst Robert Curtius in his magnum opus European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. A work that is too elaborate, too scholarly, too much in that historicism of the day, and yet it was a summation of humanist learning. To read such a book today one realizes what has been lost to the contemporary scholar, all the linguistic tools, learning, and sophisticated apparatus. Reading such works is like seeing this vast tradition as what it was: a machine for producing texts of sophisticated ignorance and learning for a specialized audience, an elite of gamers – parodied by Thomas Mann (Dr. Faustus) and Herman Hesse (Magister Ludi – The Glass Bead Game). That world is dead for us, and yet we seem to be resurrecting it under other guises and tasks. Ignorant of its vast tools we are reinventing them in a slow and methodical game of blindness and insight.

One of those scholars that many on the Left despise and seem to overlook is Paul de Man (now despised for his wartime Anti-Semitis, hidden in his move to America as a scholar at Yale after the war), whose body of work brings to light the postmodern return to those ancient modes of ironizing and allogoreisis. In such works as Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (the notion that all writing concerns itself with its own activity as language, and language, he says is always unreliable, slippery, impossible – allegorical…), Resistance To Theory (the resistance to theory is inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself, and the real debate is with its own methodological assumptions and possibilities), Aesthetic Ideology (rigorous inquiry into the relation of rhetoric, epistemology, anesthetics, one that presents radical notions of materiality), and Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (each theorist while trying to explain the origin of the ‘work’ or of literature remained blind to what lies outside the purview of his theoretical system, because the very logic of theorization always excludes something).

Why read such books as these today? One simple and devastating reason is to open one’s eyes to all that has been lost, the other is to understand just what it is (if one truly is against it?) humanistic learning offered to its inheritors and transmitters. If one is going to truly attack, undermine, and defend oneself against a millennia old system of thought and practice one should invest the time knowing and understanding that world. That this world is past us, that it is already being forgotten, blamed, anathematized, and buried by the scholars, philosophers, and journalists in our current apathy without even an appreciation of its extant and viable mind-tools is to say the least stupid and is without doubt leaving a blank in the mind’s of young university students growing up under the didactic tutelage of scholars and thinkers that have themselves lost these ancient arts (technics).

The supposed scholar of today is not only ignorant of this past but in despising and anathematizing it has fallen into the sloppy illusion that she has surpassed it under the shibboleth of de-anthropomorphic thought, when in fact most of these present scholars have done no such thing and in fact have begun reconstructing the very Cathedral of humanistic learning under a new guise, and with all its habits and practices, errors and foibles. Ignorant of their predecessors many present scholars founder in the cesspool of these ancient modes of thought with little or know understanding of their return to these ancient modes. What I’m – pointedly saying is simple: we are building a Tower of Babel in the midst of glorious ruins of humanism, falling into what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the ‘crash space’ of senselessness and stupidity, of utter ignorance and unlearning, and all the time thinking we are doing something clever, something new. When in truth we are relearning ancient pathways of thought and being in a vacuum and with lesser insight into that ancient form that took generations of scholarly monks to accomplish over hundreds of years. We’re moving in circles of our own ignorance believing we are divesting ourselves of those worlds of human-centric learning and endeavor, when in fact it is returning with a vengeance an eating its children alive.

What we are seeing in our time is the re-centering of all this ancient thought within Information Theory and Datacentric Design. By this I mean that the sophistication of learning and thought over the past century has forced the vast systems of humanism into ever more machinic and artificial worlds, a dreamworld of thought and image fused in a new computational theatre of communication. We’re barely registering that we’ve all been migrating into these worlds that began with Kant’s inward turn. The virtual is the exteriorization of this internal turn of Kant’s epistemic. We’ve turned everything inside-out. We are out there now in all our technics, our memories, our desires are taking on a life of their own in sophisticated systems. We’ve begun to forget ourselves and enter into a new world of ignorance. As our machinic descendants in artificial life and intelligence become smarter we become stupid and forgetful.

One can’t so easily dismiss these ancient modes of thought and feeling. To do so is to become their prey, to be gobbled up by their systematic forms without even knowing that this is so. Most of these philosophical and pragmatic heirs who are trying to forget the philosophical traditions are actually being incorporated into their old paths in ignorance of this very truth. I’ll admit I didn’t even finish university myself. Tell the truth I’m an Autodidact. My whole life has been devoted to the search for Wisdom (Sophia) in the old sense of philosophia. It began after Viet Nam and never stopped… I also from my readings in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, Land, etc. have always had a hatred of a certain type of academic scholarship rather than of the Academy itself. It’s the dry and apathetic blandness of mediocrity I despise rather than the apparatus of learning itself. One must discern the difference between greatness and mediocrity in scholars as in life. I’ll admit after those critics from Emerson to Bloom that I read the vast ‘storehouse of learning’ for the “sparks,” “illuminations,” and as Walter Benjamin rephrased it after the great kabbalists, the “auras”. The indefinable element in a work that enlivens and quickens the mind to wonder and awakening to wisdom. Everything else is anathema; that is, facticity and factual knowledge rather than the technics (art) to use it.

The great literary critics were able to decipher what was alive and what was dead in thought and life. We’ve lost this art or technic in our readings today. My friend R. Scott Bakker has repeatedly laughed and seen my Swiftian enterprise as mere self-amusement, and I too agree that we’re all turning in circles of our own blindness and ignorance. Even ignorant of our ignorance, or what he terms “medial neglect”. Yet, we go on, must go on. I’m more of a minimalistic harbinger after Samuel Beckett. We persist, because we can do nothing else. It moves us… as Zizek quoting Galileo Galilei who muttered, “Eppur si muove” (“ And yet it moves”) after the materialist philosophy of Democritus and Lucretius and the swerve that makes a difference of difference. Even in circles we change, it moves, it changes; we go on, we move, we can do no else. (One could expound this at the quantum flux level of physics or with philosophical bric-a-brac, but it all leads to the same circle of concepts and notions, whether one uses math or language.)

In the end we are an animal aware of its own impossibility so that we’ve built vast Gothic Cathedrals of myth, allegory, philosophy, science, etc. to explain our fumbling existence in the cosmos. Some conclude a futility to this enterprise, others see it as the human predicament, finitude. Is there an answer? I doubt it. Yet, we persist in our ignorance to our doom or glory. As that old pessimist Kohelet (“the Gatherer”) in Ecclesiastes said of all human learning: “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity (etym: vain, futile, or worthless). And, yet, without it we would stand dumbfounded before the great emptiness and ourselves. In the old religious consciousness one waited and expected an answer out of this void, in the dispensation of the philosophers there was already that skepticism (a distancing and irony) of an answer coming out of an otherwise indifferent and impersonal cosmos. Yet, both agreed that even if one came the human could not answer it back with anything other than its ignorant tongue and speechcraft, and this was always and has always been something we could not accept so that we have remained stubborn in our emptiness, producing a realm of lack into which we have poured our songs and lies throughout recorded time. Maybe that was the original sin, admitting then denying our ignorance and trying to cover it over with our infinite pursuit of knowledge rather than wisdom (Sophia). Yet, this too, is but another allegory of the scholars, one I’ll refrain from explicating through divagation or exegesis – or, even in that hesitant and constant prevarication of the academic scholar who can never be done with his work.


Strangely the ancient Hebrew traditions held that the name Torah and the general word torah are usually translated with either law or teaching, and that would work on the proviso that what is taught is actually true (i.e. a reflection or adaptation of “natural” law). And it should be noted in these ancient traditions of the ‘People of the Covenant’ the convenant precedes formal law (covenant: Genesis 6:18; deposition of formal law: Exodus 20, but note man’s natural knowledge of law: Genesis 26:5, Romans 2:15); meaning that the relationship of God and mankind is not brought about by wisdom ( Sophianic. But that God is not “discovered” or found by looking for Him; Luke 17:20), but that wisdom is brought about by the relationship of God and mankind (God is found because He looked for us; 1 John 4:19).

In the gnostic heresies it would be Sophia (Wisdom) rather than God who came looking for the naked creature who had lost its way in the cosmos, seeking to impart her gift of wisdom to this naked animal and enlighten it with that spark of divine knowledge about the blind processes that have infiltrated and even now devour the cosmos and corrupt it with its dark and abiding ignorance. Reading these old myths under the guise of allegory one realizes that even philosophers such as Spinoza (who was indelibly stamped by his age!) knew of the kabbalists and Jewish magicians of the old gnostic inheritance (though this would be disputed by those of the ‘reception’).

All tales of various paths by which Wisdom has been accepted or rejected in the many cultures of the past. I’m sure one could discover other cultures on other continents with their own distinct tales of Wisdom. This is but the one between two segments of Western culture and its traditions, between Greece (Pluralism) and Jerusalem (Monotheism). The Greeks chose to show man as alone and tempted in his pursuit to discover wisdom, while the monotheists of the Middle-East chose to believe only their singular Big Other, God was capable of bestowing such a rare gift rather than anything men could discover or find. Between these two movements is the war between traditions that have up to our time divided humans into two opposing camps without resolution. There can be none. Does this spell our doom or the doom of these warring traditions? And along with them the cultures and languages that produced them? Maybe what the true apocalypse is will entail the obliteration and memory of Western Culture and its traditions, a forgetfulness and an ignorance that will come as language is transformed and changed, utterly. For without a language a people do not exist, for only in the shards of language is a culture produced and survives.

In that great black book of riddles, Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce would have one of his characters in the nightmare say,

[The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons shaping with mulicules while Coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira.]1

In parodic form through the punster’s bag of tricks, and the laughter and drunkenness of linguistic deathknells Joyce spoke of his ‘abnihilisation of the etym’ which would spell the doom of western traditions and languages that had over the centuries dominated us, made us, imposed and stamped upon us a Law and a Covenant of inscriptions and traces. Memory and Language made us, and in our time is unmaking us. Something new is being born, not yet brought to bare, but a sense under the prevalent mood of our distemper. A past along with its memories and langauges, a tale of forgetting that is allowing us to fall away for good or ill into other modes, other worlds. What we are saying goodbye to is not the literal human creature of finitude, flesh and blood; but, rather the figural and symbolic worlds of the humanities and humanism that has traveled through all the kingdoms of the centuries of time and molded and modeled the course of that history. That is dying out and being antagonized by the world of scholars, thinkers, activists, etc….

  1. James Joyce. Finnegans Wake (Kindle Locations 6118-6122). Penguin Adult. Kindle Edition.