The ‘Problem’ of Thinking?

The intermingling influence of both American pragmatism and French philosophy on my intellectual interests and cognitive style remains strong. In this short paper, Rabinow does a great job of explicating convergent perspectives among two exemplars of those traditions. Deliberative analysis is, at its core, connected to the process of posing and answering questions in relation to ‘problems’, or taskscapes – or, in the broadest sense, coping-with the situations and dynamics we find ourselves entangled with/in.
Taking up the attitude that conception is can only be evaluated in direct relation to its effects and efficacy for solving problems and navigating bio-socially rich worldspaces can (among other things) assist us in a) avoiding the logical dead-ends and contradictions of dogmatic thinking, b) open us to more humility and compassion in our discursive exchanges, and c) deploying thought in a more flexible, oscillating analytic and synthetic manner when  engaging any given field of possible action. Which is to say, conceptualization, problematization, and socially inflected action are intrinsically related – and adopting and cultivating intellectual attitudes that make this explicit and strategic can allow for more collaboration, cross-fertilization, innovation, and conciliation in our endeavors for more adaptive coping, relating, evaluation, and implementing.

“By ‘thinking’, I mean an analysis of what one might call the intensifying venues of experience (des foyers d’expérience), where are articulated one with the others: first, forms of a possible knowledge; second, the normative matrices of comportment for individuals; and finally, third, modes of virtual existence for possible subjects.” — Michel Foucault

Dewey and Foucault: What’s the Problem?

by Paul Rabinow

This article explicates a valuable but undernoticed point of contact between John Dewey and Michel Foucault. Both agreed that thinking arose in the context of problems such that the work of thought for both proceeds by way of working through and working over problems. Both affirmed that thinking arose in problematic situations; that it was about clarifying those situations, and that ultimately it was directed towards achieving a degree of resolution of what was problematic in the situation. Both agreed that thinking—or inquiry—was not fundamentally about the representations of a situation; either those produced by a contemporary thinker or as an exercise directed at historical materials. Both agreed that a history of ideas as autonomous entities, distorted not only the process of thinking as a practice, but also the reasons for which it had been engaged in, often with a certain seriousness and urgency, the first place: that is to say, such approaches covered over the stakes. Both agreed that the stakes involved something experiential and entailed a form of logic (or in Foucault’s later vocabulary a mode of ‘veridiction’), in which the thinker could not help but be involved… Both John Dewey and Michel Foucault were committed to avoiding polemic exchanges as a matter of ethical self-formation, as well as the best path to consistent scientific (Wissenschaftliche) rigor.

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One response to “The ‘Problem’ of Thinking?

  1. Rabinow is key, the Deweyites can’t stomach the tragic but that’s their loss as they are made ever less relevant by the times we live in:
    ““Consolation : comfort received by a person after a loss or disappointment.”

    In Hans Blumenberg’s philosophical anthropological assessment, consolation is a determining historical and anthropological practice. It makes the contingency of human existence bearable, demanded with respect to the intensifying contingency of life under conditions of modernity. Consolation is soothing, in Blumenberg’s assessment, and yet, on the other hand, constitutes an avoidance of thought for a clear-sighted thinker (with a modern ethos of self-affirmation) prepared to and capable of grasping and reflecting on historical and experiential loss and change.

    Michael Foessel’s book Le Temps de la Consolation (2015) questions such a claim, asking precisely how loss, consolation and thinking have been and could be configured. I would like to pick out just one element of the book’s introduction, in which he presents and opposes a pair of “figures”, conceptual pesonae I would even suggest: the inconsolable and the reconciled.

    These are figures who have both suffered a loss. The reconciled, in our vocabulary, is a comic figure, insofar as she produced for herself a (temporary) resolution through the work of being quickly sated, of replacing what was lost with something else such that she is no longer has to confront the state of loss. By contrast, the demand of the inconsolable is the restitution of the lost object of love, and the refusal to obey exterior demands to get on with the work of affective reinvestment. What seems interesting is that the inconsolable is not the “melancholic”, a tragic figure. Or rather, tragedy would be an excessive mode of the figure of the inconsolable. The inconsolable does not reject consolation, but rather keeps in view that consolation does not replace what is lost.

    The figure of the inconsolable seems to be a resource for thinking one modality of a “contemporary ethos”. The inconsolable avoids two extremes: (1) the first could be qualified as one form of modern ethos, the demand to quickly “reinvest” the present, to be sated by it and to disavow loss; (2) the second could be qualified as counter-modern, melancholic deploring of what has been lost. The figure of the inconsolable, and in this it seems to offer a resource for thinking about a contemporary ethos, holds in view, and in disposition, the experience of loss, and yet works (or endeavors to persevere) in working to take hold of that loss and to give it form. This figure is not tragic, or comic, and certainly not ironic, although aware of elements of each. It is a figure seeking repair, whilst knowing that restoration of the prior state is impossible, and who is simultaneously recalcitrant towards demands to “get on” with adaptation.
    There is much to be said about how these figures can be used to think the case of assisted suicide and of the relation of palliative care to breakdowns modern ethe in medical institutions.”

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