Month: February 2010

Overrated overrateds

At first this struck me as one of Harman’s better parlor game type questions, though actually I think it’s the least helpful of his and thought provoking: who is the most overrated philosopher? I think the questions he uses to get to the answer are quite good, but I just don’t know who anyone does hold up as as something like the “greatest philosopher” from the 20th century. Paul Ennis has a good post up, but since I disagree that Sartre is (now) overrated or even rated at all, I can’t agree. I guess the test is whether or not there’s a philosopher that people usually write “As s/he explains” and introduces their quotes with a similar variety of “they are authorities” type enunciations.

I did meet someone at an APA who told me that Plato wasn’t a good philosopher and no non-modern philosopher could be considered such given the rather dated information they had. So for some, I guess the quest would be to reverse Harman’s categories—since the most overrated is going to be the least ‘modern’ and thus is still read despite being so out of it anyway. So, I guess then Plato would get that vote. But for those of us who think of philosophy as more than a handmaiden of science, it’s hard to think of 20th century peeps who have such a wide reception. I have a feeling for some it might be Wittgenstein as the most overrated. He’s constantly batted around by all sides and yet he’s a constant touchtone. It can’t be a Derrida or Heidegger or even a Russell, since there’s widespread dislike for them, so most overrated would have to be someone who actually rates outside of certain circles.

Letters from Descartes

Leiter links to a story in the Chronicle on a letter found at Haverford that is believed be from Descartes and notes perhaps three sections of his Meditations that he excised before publication: Descartes wrote the letter in 1641 to his friend Marin Mersenne about his major work published that year,Meditations on First Philosophy. According to Mr. Bos, who has done extensive research on Descartes’s correspondence, the letter provides an abundance of new information about how the thinker completed his book.

The contest now would be to figure out what three sections you would add to this founding text of modern philosophy. Perhaps Meditation 2, section 2: “The Evil Genius also ruined my relationship with my father”? Maybe Meditation 1, section b: “It is my height, not the skeptics, that fills me with me with self-doubt”?


Lori Watson, who’s a great colleague, popped into my office and I know that her secret love is philosophy of biology, so I asked her about neuroplasticity. A short, wonderful lecture later, I’m a bit less sure of this immanentist notion Malabou attaches to it. To cite one book, The Brain that Changes Itself by N. Boidge, it’s not the case that the brain changes all by itself but changes always in relation to the other. But that’s a side point to how we’re seeing an upending of phil. of mind about programmed conceptions of the mind, including the idea that, say, gender is programmed, when in fact that is a particular formation of the brian in realtino to certain dynamic systems.

Sebastian Rand on Malabou

I’m lifting this from the comments, though you should read the whole entry. Also, note that Levi Bryant also has a comment there that gets to some of the worries–ones that I shared when reading What should we do with Our Brains?–that Sebastian addresses:

Three points are worth noting in closing: (1) It can seem that this sense of explosion [he’s referring to Malabou’s claim that plastique has an explosive element immanent to it] requires the claim that after explosion, no form remains. Since that claim is false (exploded things have lots of form), Malabou had better not be committed to it. But she is no more committed to that claim than Derrida is committed to the claim that we can never understand each other, that performatives are never successful, etc. Her claim that plasticity includes explosion is isomorphic to Derrida’s claim that conditions of impossibility are as important as conditions of possibility. (2) Plasticity in the sense of explosion contains the possibility of its auto-destruction, since to be perfectly plastic is to annihilate one’s form in general, and therefore to annihilate the “first two” plasticities as well (though see (1) above). This is a welcome feature of plasticity, since it bars us from understanding plasticity as providing the final answer to all questions in ontology and value theory. (3) There is an analogous use of “explosion” in formal logic, where a set of sentences (sometimes called a “theory”) is said to “explode” when it contains a contradiction (or when a contradiction can be derived from its members). It “explodes” in the sense that it no longer has any limits or form, since we can derive any sentence at all from a contradiction (and the limit or form of a theory in this sense is determined by its members). But this possibility of explosion is inherent in the conception of truth value, etc., at use in those formal systems susceptible to explosion, and thus in a Derridean way one could say that explosiveness is just as characteristic of these logics as their more well-publicized features (e.g., truth-preservation, bivalence) are. In that sense, the possibility of formal logic is also supported by an explosive possibility (and it is the mission of paraconsistent logics to develop deductive systems not susceptible to such explosion).

Plasticity and Explosions

I’m writing something up on Catherine Malabou and though I have an inherent interest and respect for what she’s trying to do, I wonder why she continues to mention that plastics have an “explosive” element to them since there are plastic explosives. Now, I don’t see the need for her to use this, since plastic’s reformability would be enough to offer her what she needs. But as far as I can tell from my viewing of bad ’80s movies, the explosive part—thank god, since it’s in the keys I’m typing on—is not the plastic, but, uh, the explosive elements introduced into other materials to make them formable. It’s an important adjective/noun difference, since otherwise I would fear the explosive power of my plastic garbage can.