Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Struggling with Philosophies of Culture

I've been to a couple of conferences (mostly Germans, mostly Kantians) in the past year where philosophies of culture were a hot topic. I have mentioned here before that cultural studies lose me quite often, even when they have a philosophical approach.

One distinction that came up at both conferences was between philosophical approaches to culture and anthropological approaches to culture. I do understand this distinction. Whereas philosophies of culture are concerned with "acts of the human spirit" (the transcendental stuff of culture), anthropology seeks answers about the human animal. Kant treats both approaches to culture, and though I think he only uses the word "transcendental" in reference to culture but one time (I think his most famous and recurring use of "transcendental" was for describing that space between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, in trying to figure out how things like math can possibly apply to the real world -- and that's not how these guys are using it), that seems to be the word that some neo-Kantians have latched onto for cultural philosophy's use. At the "Kant's 5 Questions" conference at UIC last November, one presenter read a paper with "Trancendental Anthropology" in the title, which slapped the two together and just confused the hell out of me. I wasn't the only one there who didn't think what he was doing was very rigorous. But at last month's Chicago Area German Philosophy Consortium conference at DePaul I started to get worried that I wouldn't be able to follow the paper when "trancendental" surfaced again in reference to culture.

Of course I know what transcendental means in a few different contexts, but it gets confusing when the culture philosophers all seem to use it differently. Or at least these guys writing the papers do. I don't see it used in any of the Kant/Kantian quotes on the presenters' handouts. Sebastian Luft gave a paper titled "From the Critique of Reason to the Critique of Culture: The Concept of Culture in the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism." So I knew going in I'd be confused anyway. The paper was mostly about Cassirer.

Here are some interesting points (some from my notes, some from the handout):

The relationship between culture and science, including science as a culture. Cassirer seems to sort of demote science to a kind of culture, equal to all the others, and therefore it is to have its concepts determined by that great over-archer of human endeavors, philosophy. I love that science is in quotes, like it's less real than either culture or philosophy. The bold parts are what I took away as the meat of the thing.

"This one basic factum -- the equivocation of the notion of 'science' in culture -- proves the necessity of philosophy. This is the definition of philosophy that it sublates this equivocation, that it in principle determines the concept of science, that it points out the constant factor of science in all directions."

Luft seems to be very interested in the science problems, yet he kept saying "I'm no philosopher of science" during the Q & A. Maybe he should be, because he likes to talk about it! One consideration that he made, and that his commentator asked for some expansion on, was that Kant's excitement about Newtonian science fueled his discussions on science, and that now that Newtonian science has been asked to roll over by several new "sciences," maybe someone needs to start from scratch instead of latching onto whatever bits of Kant still make good sense and trying to build on them, like so many neo-Kantians seem to want to do.

Next, here is Cassirer talking about a philosophy of culture and what it should do, which, even if he didn't use the word, sounds like something the neo-Kantians would call "transcendental."

"[Philosophy as a critique of culture] seeks to understand and to show how every content of culture...presupposes an original act of the human spirit. Herein the basic thesis of idealism finds its true and complete confirmation."

So anything that calls itself (or is called) a culture is essentially idealistic. I can dig it. More in that vein...

"Idealism in all its various forms rejects the conception that mind submits to an outward fate. Mind must realize and actualize its own freedom in order to possess it, and the whole work of culture is this very process of self-actualization."

This last quote is a little problematic because it requires culture to be sort of mentally or philosophically active and/or progressive, and to think of itself as necessarily autonomous. Cassirer says he wants to resist Hegel, but he can't totally shake the progressive spirit thing -- the ghost of the geist. Today someone might argue that Cassirer's above passage poses too stringent requirements for what can be classified as a culture, and that this is not a very pluralistic view of culture. Luft argued throughout that Cassirer was a die-hard pluralist, and some of the professors in the audience took issue with that. I was kind of on the fence, because, really how pluralistic can we expect someone to be after they've fled the Nazis. As the commentator brought up, Cassirer's concepts of culture may be a little dated, coming from an us-and-them era. That's nothing to hold against him, but it might be a clue that his philosophy needs some updating or expanding upon. If culture really is progressive, than its philosophers must be progressive as well.

Another possible objection brought up (but not held by) the commentator was that Cassirer's repeated references to forms would bring charges of "formalism" against him by "the postmodernists." That's a pretty big group to lump together, and a pretty trumped up charge, but I wouldn't put it past them to make such charges, if I might (for a moment) jump on board with generalizing about "the postmodernists."

I don't have too much trouble with Cassirer's work on man as the symbolic animal and his system of symbolic forms. I've read enough stuff like that to be able to manage it. It's all this transcending, neo-Kantian, philosophy-to-culture relationship stuff that confuses me, and I'm not sure what the point of some of it is, i.e. whether it's supposed to be liberating or what.

Finally, Cassirer is interesting to me because he and my buddy Heidegger were at odds for some time. At one point Cassirer demanded that we "escape the concepts Heidegger bequeathed us and get on with the unfinished project of modernity." (Actually that line was in the commentating grad student's paper so I don't know if he was quoting it or if he wrote it. It has a nice ring to it, even if it is un-Heidegger!)

This last conference was cool because all the commentators were young and nervous. A professor would give a paper and some doctoral student from another school (so they're critiquing a professor with whom they don't have a working relationship) would have lots of questions and some polemics prepared for them. Luft's commentator was a late-20s kid from Northwestern complete with round spectacles and a bowtie, who had just about finished his dissertation. His suggestions and objections brought a lot of these confusing things into focus, even if he was a little funny to watch. A caricature of a junior philosopher.

Well these are some things I learned, some things I can talk about, and some things that I don't know where to begin in order to be able to talk about them. I don't have a big question to end with, because honestly I'm at the stage where I'm not grounded enough in philosophies of culture to even ask a good question. I bet I could bullshit a paper on some of these things, but I certainly don't feel confident in discussing them with anyone intelligent. Now that I've blasted my confession out into the ether, maybe someone can embarrass me with some answers to any questions I might appear to be nebulously posing.

Also all this German immersion has me embarrassed about not "having any German" as Nietzsche puts it. Even the Victorian girls in the novels have some German. They love to read their Schiller. Really all the German I know is from philosophy, so if you have some aufhebungen or a dasein to discuss, that's cool, but don't ask me if I spreche.


  1. Probably the best book on the science as a structure and society is by Kuhn.

  2. Sebastian Luft contacted me (!) and clarified some things about his paper. I will have to do another write-up on this soon.

    He also suggested I quit the English game and go to Germany, learn German, get degreed in philosophy instead. I will tire of the "fluff" of literary criticism, says he! Quite a nugget for thought.

    (My son had me define, redefine, and explain all the shades of meaning for "nugget" today. Then he suggested that logs are actually tree-nuggets. Thank you, chicken nuggets, for illuminating our day and giving me a word-of-the-week.)


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