Adventures with dead German guys

ello friendly people of the world. I greet you from my bedroom, where I am trying to avoid the omicron. I have done nothing and gone nowhere since the omicron started to omicron.

Had a great holiday break. Did a lot of reading. Our baby is in a stage of her development where one can get rather a lot of reading done while watching her: she’ll spend minutes at a time playing with laundry or looking through her books or whatever it is she does on her own.

My plan after finishing Kant was to read Hegel, but somehow I got distracted by this book by Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, which is essentially a recap of contintental philosophy since Kant, and how it’s grappled with the idea of what Habermas calls "the philosophy of the subject" (essentially the notion that all a person can know is what comes from their own reason). For two hundred years, philosophers have attacked and undermined reason, and Habermas traces two essential lines of argument, which terminate essentially in Foucault and in Derrida. Foucault looks at the uses to which ideas are put and how they maintain certain power structures. Derrida tries to reconstruct the history of ideas and the things that are contained within those ideas in order to find out how their meaning was constituted. Habermas concludes that both of these approaches are sterile, because they rely on reason to undermine reason, and as such can’t really escape from "the philosophy of the subject".

It was really complicated, and it entailed numerous detours to figure out what exactly all these other guys were talking about. In this regard, I found the OUP’s series of Very Short Introductions to be very helpful. I believe I read entries on Heidegger, Hegel, Habermas, and a few others.

One philosopher who was missing an entry was Husserl, who created the phenomenological branch of philosophy: the study of consciousness from the interior. It’s very hard to explain, but I read a book of his too, Ideas, which essentially is a response to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In it, Husserl tries to look at how ideas are formed and what grounding they have in experience. He inverts our usual categories (which is usual for continental philosophers) and says that everything we think and feel is what we know to be ‘real’ and everything we recieve as sensation is ‘transcendent’ (i.e. related to objects outside ourselves).

Philosophers have a lot of trouble with the concept of the ‘I’. Who am I? What am I? Ever since Decartes said Cogito Ergo Sum, philosophers have been trying to say "But what is thought? What does it mean to think? Who is doing the thinking?" They keep getting bogged down in language, because the structure of our language implies a subject for the verb ‘think’, but does the idea of a subject have any meaning in reality?

Husserl attempts to cut through this by defining conscioussness as attention. Our consciousness focuses on different things in succession. Sometimes it focuses on statements, which can indeed be ‘I’ statements. Other times it focuses on images or fancies (he’s fond of using the image of a flute-playing centaur as his image of something imaginary). And that focus is, to him, the essence of consciousness. The book is long and abstruse and much of it is about breaking down the kind of relations that things can have to each other. He has to create his own terminology, and he tries to talk about how our mind uses sense to create objects–we see some stuff, for instance, and we constitute that stuff as ‘a tree’–and then we have various judgements about this tree. The judgement is the ‘real’ thing, because we know our judgement exists. For instance, if our judgement is ‘this tree is a hypothetical fancy that I am using in a daydream’ then the part that is absolutely true is that you are daydreaming about the object, even if trees don’t necessarily exist in reality. It’s kind of complex, but the point is to break down what it is possible to know with absolute certainty. And what you can know with absolute certainty is what you think about a thing, even if your judgement doesn’t hold empirically or if the thing itself isn’t real.

This all seems kind of useless, I know, but it has an odd artistry to it. A lot of philosophy from the past two hundred years is very concerned with the question "What is it possible to know?" And for many philosophers the answer is, essentially, either "nothing" or "nothing that a person can put accurately into language". So to be able to pry loose any kind of knowledge from the realm of the unknowable is a real achievement.

Anyway so I read that book, and now I’m reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s rewarding, but extremely slow going, and I don’t think I can summarize right now.

In terms of writing news, everything is great. Have a call with my editor this Friday to get back notes on the YA novel. Am still waiting to hear from my agent about the literary book. It’s quite nice to have childcare again and to be able to set aside some dedicated time to work. I wrote a lot of short pieces–mostly shortly stories–over the last month, and now I need to put some order to the mess and figure out what is worth submitting.

Hope you all are staying safe, and that if yo have the Omicroms (as apparently something like a quarter of the people in America do) that you have a mild case!

Comments (



  1. Jenny Burman

    I wasn’t aware of Oxford’s summaries — thank you for introducing me to them. What a candy store! For real! Hope you dodge the omicrons!