Philosophical Rhetoric and Reflections of the Self

"It is remarkable," he said, "how a man cannot summarize his thoughts in even the most general sort of way without betraying himself completely, without putting his whole self into it, quite unawares, presenting as if in an allegory the basic themes and problems of his life."


Settembrini says this in
Magic Mountain, responding to some very suspect comments that had just issued forth from the mouth of the young Hans Castorp. I remembered this passage recently as I was casually musing over some recent thoughts and conversations about philosophy, analysis and methodology. I have been thinking recently about the apparent arbitrariness of much of what I have been reading, and, moreover, the arbitrariness of philosophy itself. I keep coming up against 'methodological projects' and guiding principles -- it seems so arbitrary how the principles of symmetry, simplicity, elegance are tossed about. Some projects prefer one over the other, some attempt to use all of them, some cite Occam for justification, some cite history for foundation -- but it always seems arbitrary. Why, after all, do we assume that there will be law and logic and order?

It is no secret here that I am deeply concerned with explorations of the self, knowledge and aesthetic experience, and I think that those three large, general interests are the underpinnings of how I approach new fields of study, new texts and new artworks. I am interested in what they might reveal about my self, my experience, my methods of knowing, and my methods of finding some sort of excellently aesthetic understanding of the world. I understand and accept that much of what I learn and come to know is dependent upon the sort of knower that I am particularly. I also happen to think that that's what makes knowledge and art interesting -- the variety of experiential qualities. (In the sense that not only can there be many kinds of knowers, but also that a single knower, a personality, may undergo many ways of knowing throughout her life).

These underlying assumptions of mine have always made it easy to maintain a certain sort of skepticism about grand empirical and metaphysical projects -- I have a difficult time seeing how anyone can come to believe in that sort of project as anything more than the outgrowth of a personal project (understanding that there can be a sort of shared intentional set between people, allowing for 'group projects,' as it were. I think that is probably what many human projects actually look like).

Feeling a bit lost at sea I opened my Whitehead anthology and read through some of his opening remarks in Process & Reality. He outlines his project as "an essay in Speculative Philosophy" and defines the latter as such:

Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. By this notion of 'interpretation' I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and, in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate.


This I can understand, I think -- it is at least explicit about its endeavor. It will construct an entire metaphysical system, it will enumerate the laws, the substance, the logic, the wonder. It's massively flawed I'm sure, but like the systems of Plato, Leibniz and many others, it at least attempts to say it all and say it through. It draws no narrow scope within which to confine its thoughts and forestall objections and criticism. It seems to me that so many of these papers feel obligated to define their narrow little scope, and then there are the responses to the papers, which take only one small point out of the already narrowly-circumscribed scope -- and so on, rings of concentric, nested circles, each narrower than the previous. None of it helps!

And this brings me back to the excerpt posted by Mr. Waggish some time ago -- on Donald Verene and Philosophic Rhetoric -- this seems to me, above all, what one should be most aware of when one writes -- how so much of it is a singular outpouring of one's self and one's set of aesthetic preferences. I think too many philosophers write papers in the attempt to forget their own rhetoric -- to forget just how tenuous their position is, how narrowly set it is, how much it rests upon.

Narrative is the speech of memory. Philosophies are essentially narratives. All great works of philosophy simply tell the reader what is the nature of things. The arguments we find within such works are meaningful within the structure of the narrative they contain. The narration confers meaning. Questions of meaning always precede questions of truth. Philosophical arguments do not stand on their own. They cannot profitably be removed from the narrative that informs them and evaluated as though they had independent value and truth.

Philosophies, like all narratives, act against forgetting. To forget is to leave something out, to omit or overlook a feature of a subject matter or of the world. Philosophical speech is memorial speech because it reminds us of what we have already forgotten or nearly forgotten about experience. The speech of philosophical narrative can never become literal-minded because to act against forgetting is to attempt to hold opposites together. The narrative is always based on a metaphor; a metaphor is always a narrative in brief. The narrative is also the means to overcome controversy, because for the self to overcome an inconsistency of its thoughts it must develop not simply a new argument but a new position, a new narrative in which to contain any new argument.

The self makes itself by speaking to itself, not in the sense of introspection but in the sense of the art of conversation, which is tied to the original meaning of dialectic. On this view, philosophy is not rhetorical simply in its need to resolve controversy, nor is it rhetorical simply in terms of its starting points for rational demonstration. Philosophy is rhetorical in these senses, but it is further rhetorical in its total expression. Any philosophy commands its truth by the way it speaks. Great philosophies speak in a powerful manner that affects both mind and heart. It is common, in the Dialogues, that, after engaging in the elenchos, Socrates says he is unsure whether a claim that seems to be true really is true. His answer is to offer a “likely story.” All philosophies, on my view, are likely stories, which originate in the philosopher’s own autobiography and are attempts to move from this to the autobiography of humanity, to formulate the narrative of human existence in the world and to speak of things human and divine.