Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844-1900)
A perennially misunderstood thinker and author of over 15 books, Nietzsche is today primarily remembered according to generally naïve interpretations of his concepts of the Will to Power, Übermenschen, Eternal Return of the Same, the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, & the Death of God; as well as by accusations of his alleged syphilitic madness, contradictory incoherence, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and his widespread ideological adoption by the National Socialists.
Perhaps most damaging to his reputation is the widespread belief that Nietzsche was an overly-serious proponent of Nihilism. Against this, it should be remembered that he was much more of an advocate of the affirmative experiences of music, play, art, childishness and laughter.
Naturally, there is much more value to his work than tends to be supposed. His masterful use of the metaphoric potentials to be found in the German language (as well as the French, Italian, Greek and Latin) allowed him to invent concepts which transcended the limitations of metaphysical philosophy as he encountered it. The intellectual development his oeuvre demonstrates is one of a kind: it promotes and propagandizes less the argumentation behind certain truths or insights than a defense of the innovative artistic spirit inherent in man. The person who embraces himself as an attentive and inventive individual, he finds, once equipped with the philosophy of affirmation and love of life, can induce him or herself to experience, accept and play with a) a multiplicity of variable perspectives, b) the free will one finds in the childlike attitude towards discovering the world and one's place in it, and c), what he calls the 'transvaluation of all values'. Ultimately, his is a philosophy of freedom which allows one to shake the bonds of the prescriptive ideas which form our ways of thinking and living; to rise against the rampant reductivism of modern Western society which lessens ourselves and what we can do with our time together; & to inspire ourselves to live our most inventive and atristic-poetic lives, creating the life (and its products) we will for our own reasons and in our own ways. That is to say: with him we can recognize the power we have to be, if not gods, ourselves.
Ludwig J.J. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Child prodigy, architect, soldier, engineer, hermit, logician, schoolteacher, designer, gardener, mathematician, patron of the arts, attempted monk, pharmacist, one-time sculptor, Freudian, aeronaut, and philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein was the kind of man who defies any quick-and-easy categorization. Which is just as well; the man spun no mere set of philosophical definitions but a method of conceptual therapy which allows the patient to see things much more variously than the steadfast delineations we're so seduced by.
Wittgenstein, whose many writings have been compiled into about 11 extraordinarily dense works, is widely considered one of the most important (if toughest) philosophical authors of the last 500 years; and this from a man who tried not to read philosophy and told his students to abandon the subject for something practical!
Hailing from Vienna but teaching and writing at Cambridge University, he does not fit easily into either the 'analytic' nor 'continental' philosophical tradition, though many of those in the former camp are often quick to claim him as their own. Much to the detriment of those who have inherited his work, this overbearing adoption has led many to believe that his philosophy of mind and language is one of an objectivity-styled rule-following sort. And it is true: a selective reading will no doubt illustrate the most revolutionary thought of the analytic-logical kind.
The alternative to this view (though there are in fact many) would suggest a much more freedom-oriented brilliance. Having come into Berlin's mid-19th Century method of engineering education, which emphasized physics, Wittgenstein was influenced early on by the scientific philosophy of Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Boltzmann. The pair of their efforts emphasized the way in which theoretical scientists create pictures for themselves which lead one to speak and think of objects in certain ways. That is to say, if when we attempt to learn the nature of something like "force" we start to use language which (illegitimately) suggests to us the way such a 'state' or 'thing' works (which assumes that it is worth imagining as a 'state' or a 'thing'), we quickly start running around ourselves in circles, asking certain questions endlessly which will have no definable answers. Wittgenstein would come to call this kind of linguistic persuasion 'grammar', something to be both followed and avoided, depending on the predilections it sets within us.
What we do all-too-often in science and philosophy (and even in religion, psychology, economics, aesthetics, mathematics, etc.), Wittgenstein found, is to get stuck using certain 'grammars' and pictures which have convinced us that the only available answers and discoveries will look and sound certain ways. His early work (The Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus) presents itself an elaborate symptom of such a flawed mindset. It is a closed, fully-systematic attempt to show the only verifiable ways in which language, description and logic can make sense. Later on he would determine that this was a masterpiece of 'wrong-headed' vertical thinking. His subsequent work, inspired in many ways by Freud and Goethe (among others), acts as a therapy to this way of thinking:
“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably."
"What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a certain concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it."
Once one learns to think variously and to use language and pictures in ways that go beyond 'pinning down the facts', as it were, it becomes rather easy, to use the popular phrase, 'to think outside of the box'. What Wittgenstein shows us is the power of continuous attempts at pluralistic description over the apparent benefit of having any one neat and tidy explanation. We can attune ourselves to all sorts of aspects, not only tried-and-true definitions, and can learn to recognize the culture- and context-dependent nature of the use of our language and imagination, as well as their inherent adaptability. What could be more freeing than that?
Jacques (É.) Derrida (1930-2004)
In 1930, then-French Algiers bore a man of letters so prolific that numbers and measurement become completely defied by the written word. For one thing, counting his books would make a mockery of his recomposition of the basic idea behind the 'book'. For another, the mere attempt would be to forget that his philosophy is one that methodically capitalizes on being excessive. Among (literally and figuratively) countless other things, his many works demonstrate what it is to take things beyond their limits, to extend past any naïve total –– as well as, conversely, what it is to include what was once thought of as external, irrelevant or ancillary.
In any case, this essayist without measure brought his reputation much more than he may have bargained for when he wrote his now famous philosophies of 'deconstruction'. There is perhaps no more controversial or indeed reviled philosopher of the 20th Century. He has for most in the discipline become much less than he deserves –– and ever the more as a mockery-inspiring emblem of what gets called post-Modernism. Consistently derided as an 'obfuscationist' –– someone who would much rather confuse and overcomplicate than clarify or elucidate any systematic truth –– he has, for his own part, coined more words and invented more concepts and uses for them than any of recent generations: uses which have indeed opened up more avenues for clarity and systematic invention than perhaps even he would or could give himself credit for. For many this makes him the most complicated philosopher one could possibly approach –– somewhere between pointlessly illegible and erudite beyond compare.
Much of this was done by dismantling and destroying the basic (especially linguistic) tenants of the major Western philosophical systems. This is what is popularly called 'deconstruction' (though he was never quite in love with the term). While this is what Derrida is best known for, the deconstructionist-critical leg of his work is not what dominates my particular interest in him. Rather, what interests me is what comes after (or during) the work of deconstruction. Sure, you've pronounced so-and-so incoherent, contradictory and biased (who isn't, at bottom?)... but what then?
The secret is in affirming these so-called problems as the source of all worthwhile composition.
Simply put, this is writing: what is rather (and has always been) an inventive kind of writing that has to figure out what to do with the bits and pieces of what is left once one has deconstructed some system. This 'second leg' can be rather neatly fit under the name and rubric of what is called 'grammatology' –– a name sometimes given to the prospect of a 'science of writing'. As such, Derrida's work often has very little to do with philosophy, and more to do with a method of poeticization derived from an analysis of hieroglyphics, the history of language, signatures, puns, autobiography, examples, narrative, models, psychoanalysis and the institution of new sciences –– as well as, of course, pictures.
Derrida's authorship represents only one (if exemplary) demonstration of grammatological innovation. To an incredible extent, the theory behind his technique is one based in punning and kenning –– the relationships already extant between certain words, names and ideas as much as those one is willing to invent. That is to say, grammatology capitalizes on something as 'weak' and 'irrelevant', so to speak, as rhyming: the use and abuse of similar sounds –– the homophonic.
To make a long story short and to point in my own general direction, much of my work attempts analogously to learn to exploit comparative rhyme between images, forms, shapes, diagrams and gestures –– that is to say, the homomorphic.