What is DISQUIETISM?
Wilfred Sellars once wrote that:
The ideal aim of philosophising is to become reflectively at home in the full complexity of the multi-dimensional conceptual system in terms of which we suffer, think, and act. I say “reflectively”, because there is a sense in which, by the sheer fact of leading an unexamined, but conventionally satisfying life, we are at home in this complexity. It is not until we have eaten the apple with which the serpent philosopher tempts us, that we begin to stumble on the familiar and to feel that haunting sense of alienation which is treasured by each new generation as its unique possession. This alienation, this gap between oneself and one’s world, can only be resolved by eating the apple to the core; for after the first bite there is no return to innocence. There are many anodynes, but only one cure. We may philosophise well or ill, but we must philosophise.
Quietism, as it is known within philosophy, is the idea that philosophical thought, broadly construed, is of a merely therapeutic bent. This consists in a dual claim: that the problems of thought are not real problems; and that, correlatively, philosophical thinking is not efficacious but is merely self-medicating. Philosophy becomes merely a palliative game: like a game, it creates its own a rules because it can only operate according to its own rules and vice versa. The solutions are inventions because the problems are invented; the problems are invented because only inventions can be solved. Thinking, doubly neutered, becomes the cure only to its own diseases. It cannot address because it can only redress.
With his talk of ‘anodynes’ and ‘cures’ above, we may think that Sellars is according philosophy a similarly therapeutic role. This, however, is not the case. Like quietism, which sees philosophy as both its own wound and its own bandage whilst accordingly rendering it as ineffectual, Sellars here talks of philosophy as both that which renders ‘alienation’ and also that which supplies the ‘cure’ for it. And yet, and for these very same reasons, Sellars draws the opposite conclusion to the quietist: for Sellars, philosophy is of utmost efficacy. The putative, anaemic self-reflexivity of philosophy, as reported by the quietist, does not damn it to the onanism of mere self-medication or ludic play; rather, philosophy’s basal recursivity is it’s most powerful component, allowing it to be a most direct and efficacious form of intervention. Thinking is intervention upon the subject: an act of self-surgery. In alluding to these images, Sellars strikes upon the core constellations of DISQUIETISM.
At heart, DISQUIETISM retains the name of quietism only by implying that philosophy is both its own cure and its own poison. DISQUIETISM disagrees in the utmost with quietism, however, in DISQUIETISM’s opposing postulation that thinking -and its pharmacological bent- is of utmost efficacy in the world. ‘We may philosophise well or ill, but we must philosophise’: this ‘must’ can only be a practical one. It is precisely this game of palliatives and poisons that impels thought onwards; lending it its razor-sharp efficacy as a tool for redrawing what is merely real. Why is this so?
Quietism presumes that philosophy is only remedial because philosophy, insofar as it is philosophy, cannot address problems that pre-exist it. This implies a strict cognitive demarcation of the theoretical and non-theoretical. DISQUIETISM, on the other hand, holds the opposite. Nothing is non-theoretical: to claim as such, is to be incarcerated by intuitions. Philosophy is what tears us -rending the prisoner from her prison- from the intuitive blindness of manifest perceptions. It is our emergence from our self-immured nonage to the merely given. As such, philosophy is freedom. Opening up an interstice in the dense plenitude of the Real (construed here, crucially, as both the domain of existents and our intuitional perceptions of them), philosophy carves for itself a negative space: a space that, moving beyond the claustrophobic immediacy of objects and percepts, can only be considered as instituting a space of maneuverability. Otherwise, vacuum-packed amongst the laminae of an utterly full perceptual-objectal world, thought cannot encounter itself or its objects. Philosophy’s interstitial aperture allows us, both as embodied computational processes and as rational agents, to intervene upon ourselves and our world. (NB: constitutively underdetermined by the plenitude of ‘what is’, this intervention thereby always outstrips the intentionality that embodies it, consequently troubling any account of freedom that tries to constrain it to any currently instantiated type of subjectivity, be it bourgeois, Western, or even merely hominid: this freedom doesn’t belong to ‘anyone’, it operates beyond any voluntarist tradition.) This is what can properly be called the initiation into the conceptual sphere. Here lies the efficacy of philosophy: for intervening upon ourselves ultimately allows intervention upon the world; bringing the spaciousness of the conceptual to bear upon the claustrophobia of what is. Action, in its most rudimentary form, is the rendering parochial of the ‘merely real’ in its comparison to the spacious concept. And so, this is the sense in which philosophy is ‘the cure’.
Being is overcoded and overdetermined; freedom is, therefore, lack of ‘full’ being. Freedom is lack. And this lack is the pneumatic chamber impelling philosophy ever onwards. And yet, nature abhors a void. What’s more, this chasm gets ever more vast every single time we successfully engage conceptual and abstractive resources to grant explanations to our world. As such, we recapitulate nature’s abhorrence of the void as the ‘haunting sense of alienation’ that Sellars captures so perfectly in the above quote, an alienation that Schelling referred to as an ‘accursedness of all being’ which reaches its current apex repetition in humanity. Thus, if freedom is a lack, then it is also a wound upon claustrophobic being: freedom, as lack, is a tragically double-edged sword. To make a biological analogy, homo sapiens -extreme in this regard compared to other primates- is born highly underdeveloped, both neuronally and physiologically: this gives us the essential adaptability and plasticity needed to dominate our environments, and yet it also makes us incredibly fragile in comparison to our organismic peers and, evidently, it gives us the capacity for untold cognitive anguish. This fact (our ‘neoteny’, our inheritance of a fatal freedom), reaches fever-pitch in philosophy: our conceptual under-determination, our space of maneuverability, grants thought its critical potency; and yet, it simultaneously consumes us from the inside. (What’s more, the interstice created provides a fruitful niche for colonising multitudes of memetic viruses.) Accordingly, we see that the ‘alienation’ that Sellars refers to resides in precisely this. This is the sense in which philosophy is ‘the poison’.
And so: in a perverse turn of the pharmacological, philosophy (the ultimate pharmakon) becomes both poison and palliative. Conceptual thinking is at once our catastrophe and our cure. This is what Sellars is talking about when writing of that ‘alienation which is treasured by each new generation as its unique possession’. In this sense, we can faithfully intone the words, “FELIX CULPA”: the acute catastrophe of our very specific intellectual moment is a fortunate fall (Greek ‘katastrophe‘ denoting that which befalls). Here we recall Sellars’s talk of ‘the apple’ and the ‘serpent philosopher’. We repeat -recapitulate- this cognitive catastrophe every time we become aware of ourselves as self-determining, self-manipulative agents. We must cleave to our most ‘unique possession’, and in turn be cleaved by it: clinging to it as the pinnacle of our individuation, our most unique gift, yet also using it to ceaselessly operate upon ourselves. Philosophy is the scalpel by which we inflict our freedom upon ourselves. Therefore, the most apt image for the operations of philosophy is the image of self-surgery: the surgeon that is his own patient, operating without anesthetic.
Regarding the specificities of our particular ‘unique possession’, our generation is inheritor to a particularly impressive endowment of ‘alienation’. We have plenty to feel alienated about. There is, accordingly, a renewed demand abroad for philosophy to stop being merely therapeutic; for it to do this it must begin addressing again, instead of merely redressing. DISQUIETISM thereby mobilises philosophy as cure for our alienation, but it also realises that philosophy is the enabling cause of alienation: at the most simple level, it argues for the efficacy of this operation we inflict upon ourselves, calling for the ever-expanding and ever-accelerating mobilisation of our unique gift: our pharmacological freedom. It makes this call against the self-immured vassalage and symbolic misery of contemporary culture. As Sellars exhorts, we must eat the apple to the core.
So, what is DISQUIETISM?
Like quietism, we see philosophy as both the poison and the cure; unlike quietism, we see philosophy not as only a cure, but as the only cure. And yet, in realising this, in positing that philosophy is the ‘only cure’, DISQUIETISM also sees that the cure is also a further poisoning: this is where the DIS- of DISQUIETISM becomes operational, denoting the disarticulation and dehiscence of ourselves that philosophical thought simultaneously engenders and accomplishes. As poison and cure, this disarticulation is both the enabling condition for philosophy (its motivation), and also its goal (the ultimate point it draws us towards). Only in everlasting destitution can we find ourselves: we will never find the philosophical Wohnplatz, the “permanent settlement”, for human thought that Kant sought; but still, this doesn’t mean that we can stop philosophising; indeed, it is for this very reason that we must keep philosophising. At core, thinking alienates us from ourselves, perpetually wounding our image of ourselves and the world, and yet our only option is further alienation, to further cleave the wound whilst cleaving to it. Philosophy is dehiscence, the opening up of wounds, and the only cure is to deepen the cut. ‘We may philosophise well or ill, but we must philosophise.’
DISQUIETISM is the conviction in the efficacy of thought.
Quietism believes that philosophy is only a cure; DISQUIETISM believes that philosophy is the only cure.