Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014

On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.


The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices. Continue reading

Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61

By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] Continue reading

Soviet architecture: Notes on its development, 1917-1932

by Berthold Lubetkin, 1956

Image: Lubetkin’s trade pavilion
for the USSR, Bordeaux 1926


Note: The following brief essay by Berthold Lubetkin, a constructivist architect and comrade of El Lissitzky who moved to Britain in the early 1930s, is actually remarkably lucid in its presentation of the theory-praxis problem so central to Marxism. I find the longitudinal distinction between “philosophies of East and West” a bit crude, but this is to be expected from a popular presentation intended for a British readership. Of course, Marxism (and Hegelianism, which is central for Lubetkin) had originated in the West, but by the time Lubetkin was writing this they had been driven out of mainstream Western political and intellectual discourse. Positivism, empiricism, and pragmatism appeared in its stead.

Lubetkin certainly wouldn’t deny the historical importance of Kant or Hume for the development of philosophy culminating in Hegel, but would instead emphasize the regression signaled by recourse to these figures after 1850, and the epistemological skepticism this entailed toward notions of causation. He was fond of quoting Hegel’s (and Spinoza’s before him, Engels’ after him) dictum that “freedom is the conscious recognition of necessity,” and always stressed the dialectical legacy of Marxist thought.

One of the recognizable dividing lines between the philosophies of East and West is gnoseology, and relates to the interpretation an generalization of the observed phenomena of life, and the coordination of the results into coherent theories and systems. The West, partly, no doubt, as a reaction against medieval dogmatism with its a priori, unverifiable order of things, and the consequent futility of scientific enquiry, partly as a reflection of its economic structure, shuns assumptions and principles, mistrusts generalizations, proceeds empirically to the point of denying the validity of law, of causality in nature and in society.

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Berthold Lubetkin photographed in 1933

Under the influence of Kant and Hume, experienced facts are regarded as the ultimate finality, and are incapable of linkage into systems. The mere sequence by which one phenomenon follows another does not justify the conclusion that they are in causal relation, but rather that they coexist in our expectation, in our experience.

Through all forms of contemporary Western philosophy (relativism, empiricism, pragmatism, positivism, etc.), the disbelief in causality stands out as a common factor of decisive significance. In analyzing the interaction of phenomena, the objective character of laws is reduced to psychological necessity, regularity is equated with the particular case of accident, and the notion of objective truth is altogether eliminated, so that scientific results appear as a system or framework with no other end in view but that of convenience, utility, and economy of thought.

The West is thus basically skeptical, hostile to theoretical generalizations, to historical motivation, to the embodiment of experience into binding conclusions with the validity of objective laws.

The resulting intellectual atomization and fragmentation finds its counterpart in economics, in the crisis of productive relations, and it is revealed clearly and hauntingly in the manifestations of our art. Continue reading

Karl Korsch's Marxismus und Philosophie

August Thalheimer, “Book Review: Karl Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie

Leipzig: C. L. Hirschfeld, 1923

Image: Cover to the first edition of Korsch’s
Marxismus und Philosophie (1923)


Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012

The first English translation of August Thalheimer’s 1924 review of Karl Korsch’s seminal work, Marxism and Philosophy, appears below. The review originally appeared in the Soviet journal Under the Banner of Marxism(Pod Znamenem Marksizma, 4-5 [1924]: 367–373). For an earlier discussion of Korsch’s book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), and the original translation of Karl Katusky’s review of Korsch that was published in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012).

Reposted from The Platypus Review.

The task that Karl Korsch sets himself in the article comprising the first part of his “Historical-logical Studies on the Question of the Materialist Dialectic,” boils down to the elucidation of the problem of the interrelation of Marxism and philosophy.[1] The article begins by pointing out that the importance of this question has not been recognized until the present day, and that this ignorance characterizes the bourgeois school of philosophy as well as circles of Marxist academics. “For professors of philosophy, Marxism was at best a rather minor sub-section within the history of nineteenth-century philosophy, dismissed as ‘The Decay of Hegelianism’” (52).

As for the Marxist theoreticians, including also the orthodox ones, they too failed to grasp the importance of the “philosophical side” of their own theory. True, they proceeded from different considerations than the professors of bourgeois philosophy, and even assumed that in this they followed exactly the footsteps of Marx and Engels, because ultimately the latter two would sooner “abolish” than create philosophy. But this attitude of the Marxist theoreticians — the leaders of the Second International — to the problem of philosophy can be considered satisfactory from the viewpoint of Marxism precisely insofar as Feuerbach’s attitude to Hegel’s philosophy satisfied Marx and Engels. Shoving philosophy unceremoniously aside, the cultivation of a negative attitude toward its problems did not occur without impunity and resulted in such curiosities as the confession of faith by some Marxists in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Continue reading

Painting of Trotsky by Henry Schnautz, 1950s

Some hitherto untranslated sections of Trotsky on Nietzsche (1908)

Image: Henry Schnautz’s Trotsky (1950s)

Here are a few preliminary, still very rough translations of passages from Trotsky writing on Nietzsche not available in English. There is probably some background required to know the various philosophical and literary (idealist and symbolist, respectively) movements he’s talking about, but I think that Trotsky makes a few essential points that are in line with later interpretations advanced by Adorno.  Which makes me wonder, did Adorno et al. perhaps read this essay? Was it available in German, even if not in English? The essay’s title in English would be “Starved for ‘Culture'” or something like that, from 1908.

Note the succession in the last paragraph: Nietzsche, Kant, the Marquis de Sade! Recall the second chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, where precisely these figures were juxtaposed with respect to the morality of the individual under enlightened bourgeois subjectivity.

Our impoverished “decadence” of the 1890’s was not the first declaration of aristocratic, or even intellectual-bourgeois aestheticism. But from the outset, how gutless (even cowardly) it was! It scarcely dared stammer on about the absolute end-in-itself of the aesthetic (though principally erotic) “tremor” [«трепета»], or of its protest against “tendentiousness” — i.e., in practice, against the grand morality of political obligations, which gravitated toward literature and strove to give the appearance of struggling against moralizing populism. This helped it come under the aegis of the journalistic Marxism of the time, which was of little interest to the Decadents taken on its own terms. They were both still psychologically connected, if you will, by the fact that both proclaimed a “new word” and both were in the minority. The Petersburg journal Life, a combination of third-rate Marxism and kitschy aestheticism printed on good paper for an inexpensive price, was the fruit of this strange coupling. Increasing colossally overnight, the vogue appeal of Gorkii developed in the same period. According to the current definition, the tramp symbolizes the revolt against petit-bourgeois philistinism. Untrue! On the contrary! For broad groups of intellectuals, the tramp turned out to be precisely the symbol of the sudden rise of petit-bourgeois [мещанского, also connotes “philistine”] individualism. Off with one’s burdens! It’s time to straighten one’s back! Society is nothing more than an imperceptible abstraction. I — and this is me! — here came to the aid of Nietzsche. In the West, he appeared as the final, most extreme word in philosophical individualism because he was also the negation and overcoming of petit-bourgeois individualism. But for us Nietzsche was forced to perform a quite different task: we smashed his lyrical philosophy into fragments of paradoxes and threw them into circulation as the hard cash of a petty, pretentious egoism…

Наш жалконький «декаданс» 90-х годов — и был этим первым провозглашением не дворянского, а интеллигентско-мещанского эстетизма. Но как он был по первоначалу робок, даже труслив! Он едва смел заикаться об абсолютной самоцельности эстетического (главным образом эротического) «трепета» и своему протесту против «тенденциозности», т.-е. на деле против больших нравственно-политических обязательств, тяготевших на литературе, старался придать вид борьбы против морализующего народничества. Это помогло ему стать под защиту тогдашнего журнального марксизма, который сам по себе декадентов мало интересовал. Их, пожалуй, еще психологически связывало то, что оба провозглашали «новое слово» и оба были в меньшинстве. Петербургский журнал Жизнь, комбинация из дешевого марксизма и дешевого эстетизма, на хорошей бумаге и за недорогую цену, явился плодом этой странной связи. Колоссальная, в 24 часа выросшая, популярность Горького — явление той же эпохи. По ходячему определению, босяк был символом бунта против мещанства. Неправда! Как раз наоборот! Для широких групп интеллигенции босяк оказался именно символом воспрянувшего мещанского индивидуализма. Долой ношу! Пора выпрямить хребет! Общество — лишь неуловимая абстракция. Я — это я! — На помощь пришел Ницше. На Западе он явился, как последнее, самое крайнее слово философского индивидуализма и потому — как отрицание и преодоление индивидуализма мещанского. У нас же Ницше заставили выполнять совсем другую работу: его лирическую философию разбили на осколки парадоксов и пустили их в оборот, как звонкую монету маленького претенциозного эгоизма… Continue reading

Radical Bourgeois Philosophy Summer Reading Group

I am eagerly looking forward to the Platypus Affiliated Society’s New York chapter reading group for the summer, which will focus on “Radical Bourgeois Philosophy.”  Having already completed the main readings that lay the theoretical foundation for the group’s political outlook, I feel it will be profitable to better acquaint myself with the texts of classical liberalism and political economy.  Marxists, in their rejection of liberal democracy and bourgeois ideology, all-too-often forget the genuinely progressive legacy of liberalism and the revolutionary role played by the bourgeoisie in history.  This legacy is nowhere better illustrated than in the texts of some of their foremost thinkers — Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, Ricardo, and Nietzsche.  Marx’s own deep, if critical, respect for these thinkers (minus Nietzsche, who came later) cannot be ignored.

The following is the reading list and schedule for film screenings related to the subject:

Reading group and History of Humanity Film Screenings & Lectures

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 [PDF]

June 26 – August 21
New York University Puck Building
295 Lafayette St. 4th floor

We will address the greater context for Marx and Marxism through the issue of bourgeois radicalism in philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Discussion will emerge by working through the development from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, but also by reference to the Rousseauian aftermath, and the emergence of the modern society of capital, as registered by liberals such as Adam Smith and Benjamin Constant.

“The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possi- bilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . . As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.”

– James Miller (author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, 2000), Introduction to Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)


June 26 | 1PM

Chris Cutrone, “Capital in History”
Robert Pippin, “On Critical Theory” [HTML Critical Inquiry 2003]
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Film screening | 4:30PM

Marie Antoinette (2006)

June 30 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity pre-1750”

July 3 | 1pm

Rousseau, selection from The Social Contract

Film screening | 4:30PM

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

July 10 | 1pm

Adam Smith, selections from The Wealth of Nations
Volume I
Introduction and Plan of the Work
Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement…
I.1. Of the Division of Labor
I.2. Of the Principle which gives Occasion to the Division of Labour
I.3. That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market
I.4. Of the Origin and Use of Money
I.6. Of the Component Parts of the Price of Commodities
I.7. Of the Natural and Market Price of Commodities
I.8. Of the Wages of Labour
I.9. Of the Profits of Stock
Book III: Of the different Progress of Opulence in different Nations
 Of the Natural Progress of Opulence
III.2. Of the Discouragement of Agriculture in the Ancient State of Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.3. Of the Rise and Progress of Cities and Towns, after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.4. How the Commerce of the Towns Contributed to the Improvement of the Country
Volume II
IV.7. Of Colonies
Book V: Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth
V.1. Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth

Film screening | 4:30PM

Danton (1983)

July 14 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1750–1815”

July 17 | 1pm

Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns
Kant, “What is Enlightenment? ,” and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Film screening | 4:30PM

Amistad (1997)

July 24 | 1pm

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Kant, “On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, But it is of No Use in Practice” [HTML part 2]

July 31 | 1pm

Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128]

Film screening | 4:30PM

selected scene from Gettysburg (1993) “No Divine Spark” Glory (1989)

August 4 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1815–48”

August 7 | 1pm

Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History for Life [translator’s introduction by Peter Preuss]
Nietzsche, selection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

Film screening | 4:30PM

Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human (1999)

August 14 | 1pm

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic

Film screening | 4:30PM

Reds (1981)

August 21: Coda | 1pm

Marx, To make the world philosophical, Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978) pp. 9–11
Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existingMarx-Engels Reader pp. 12–15
Marx, Theses on FeuerbachMarx-Engels Reader pp. 143–145
Marx, On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish QuestionMarx-Engels Reader pp. 26–52
Marx, The coming upheaval [see bottom of section, beginning with “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass”] (from The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847), Marx-Engels Reader pp. 218–219
Marx and Engels, Communist ManifestoMarx-Engels Reader pp. 469–500

Lenin’s critique of the politics of spontaneity in What is to be Done?

IMAGE: Agitprop poster, 1920s:
“Without revolutionary theory,
there can be no revolutionary movement.”


In preparing my presentation on Lenin’s What is to be Done? this week for the UChicago Platypus reading group, I found myself returning again and again to his description of the so-called “spontaneity” of the masses.  It was on this supposed spontaneity, of course, that the Economists pinned their hopes of social revolution (should there be one at all).  I noticed that in his critique of the notion of the working class’ spontaneity, Lenin employed a number of categories borrowed from classical German philosophy.  All of these categories pertain to consciousness, and constitute an epistemology of sorts.  I found, moreover, that this seemed to provide a theoretical link to Lukács’ later account of reification.  Though this began as little more than a meditation, I brought it up at the reading group and found that it was well received.  Afterward, Sunit encouraged me to elaborate on this notion and submit my thoughts online. Continue reading


I’ve diligently read through F.H. Jacobi’s 1785 Letters Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Conversations with Lessing and Mendelssohn and K.L. Reinhold’s 1789 The Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge over the last two days. From here I’m going to proceed to G.E. Schulze’s 1790 Aenesidemus essay, which harshly challenged the claims of Kantian-Reinholdian philosophy from the perspective of Humean skepticism. After that I can finally advance into Fichte’s and Maimon’s contributions to the fate of the Critical philosophy in the 1790’s.

Nothing really new from me today. But you can expect something along these lines in the next couple days. I’m quite confident that this study I’m making will prepare me well for an inquiry into François Laruelle’s notion of “the One.” Perhaps a comment on the new Speculative Heresy blog is in the works.

In the meantime, however, I’ve received the latest revision of my paper on Spinoza and Leibniz from Boston University’s Arché magazine for undergraduate philosophy. This piece will appear in the forthcoming issue. Check out the current articles on their site, however; they have an interview with Jaako Hintikka!

From Kant’s Critiques to the “Spinoza Controversy”

Today I finished reading Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  This was my first reading of this work in its entirety; it has been my goal (now accomplished) in the last three weeks to read all three Critiques from start to finish, chronologically, interrupted only by reading his essays “What is Enlightenment?”, “Perpetual Peace,” and “Speculative Beginning of Human History.”  While all these works are excellent, the third Critique might be my favorite.  Kant didn’t even realize how good it is.

Now I plan to begin exploring in earnest the famous “Spinoza controversy” that involved Lessing, Mendelssohn, Jacobi and others in the 1780’s and, along with the presentation of Kant’s critical philosophy, dominated the philosophical scene therein.  As a preliminary measure, I’ve been brushing up on Spinoza’s Ethics.  From there, I hope to finally familiarize myself with Jacobi’s work from this period.

Quite happily, my reacquaintance with Spinoza might complement nicely the project that I have been asked to join with regard to Laruelle’s notion of “non-philosophy.”  In revisiting Spinoza’s concept of the One, I might better be able to understand Laruelle’s non-philosophical emendation pf it.

Francois Laruelle Non-Philosophy

Thoughts on François Laruelle’s Preface and Introduction to Principles of Non-Philosophy (as translated by Fractal Ontology’s Taylor Adkins)

Taylor Adkins, from Fractal Ontology, has graciously shared with me some advanced rough drafts of his continuing translations of François Laruelle’s work from French into English. This morning I read one of the more introductory, programmatic pieces he sent — the preface and introduction to Principles of Non-Philosophy. This outlines in broad strokes Laruelle’s notion of “non-philosophy,” which, from what I gather, is one of the central themes of his work. The work exhibits an uncommon originality in its interpretations of traditional philosophical (and extra-philosophical) problems, accompanied by a casual erudition which appeals to my tastes greatly. Personally, I do foresee problems (or at least significant obstacles) which will present themselves to Laruelle’s enterprise, which may be dealt with more or less adequacy. Given the competence and ingenuity he displays in this short piece, however, I have no doubt that he will make an honest go of it. It would be ridiculous, in any case, to demand an exhaustive treatment or solution to these problems from a work which he openly admits is propaedeutic in its function (i.e., it only aims to be “the most complete introduction to non-philosophy in the absence of its realization”).

What follows are my initial thoughts in response to this piece. I will refrain from idle speculation into those sections which exceed my topical familiarity at present, and focus mostly on some of the references and implications which I take to be most plainly evident in the text. In this way I might perform some small service of gratitude to Taylor for offering his work for discussion, contributing the occasional insights my background makes available for those who are interested. It is quite possible that my own take on what Laruelle is trying to say is mistaken; aware of this fact, I welcome criticism and correction from all sides.

Departing from the continental orientation toward questions of ontology (the logic of Being) and its differential corollary of alterity which has predominated in recent years, Laruelle grounds his exposition of “non-philosophy” in its (ontology’s) traditional rival, henology (the logic of the One). This classification is misleading, however. For Laruelle’s conception of the One is highly idiosyncratic. It differs in many respects from the object of the classical Platonic, Stoical, and Spinozistic henologies — the One(s) which philosophically ground(s) the order of appearances in their modal correspondence and community with one another.

On this point we may elaborate. Specifically, Laruelle seems to take issue with the place the One occupies within philosophies and mystical tradition, as something which is accomplished or realized through the relation of its subsidiary modes. This holds whether the One is reached by speculative/dialectical ascent (as in transcendental and Hegelian logic) or through revelation or religious vision (as in mysticism). This is why categorizing Laruelle’s thought as henological is potentially confused, because any “logic” which is thought to articulate the One cannot be conceived as literal. It can appear only in scare-quotes, since the One “is immanent (to) itself rather than to a form of thought, to a ‘logic.’”

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