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Fr. 571

October 8, 2014

Yet the most persuasive rhetoric meets with the same challenges illustrated by Leiter above, even in the absence of discursive hygiene’s officiating: the masses do not want to think, at least not in the terms framed by philosophical rhetoric. This leads us to the third and final element of our evaluation. Does Leiter’s interpretation provide enough capacity for synthesis such that we can make sense of the actual state of discourse?

However sensitive some interlocutors may be to discursive hygiene, rhetoric framed by discursive hygiene is unlikely to sway those given over to emotivist appeals. Indeed, the philosophical corpus contributes much in the way of confirmation on this point. Beginning with the Allegory of the Cave, if not still earlier, philosophy has conceded at regular intervals that genuine thought is, at best, a difficult enterprise and, at worst, an undertaking beyond the public’s capacities. From this list, we would like to call attention to two instances with which we are more well acquainted.

The first is drawn from the writings of Novalis, the German Romanticist, who sought to sow the seeds of higher thought (magical idealism) in broader society through the use of fragments. When confronted with the fragments qua self-contained thoughts, individuals were to come to a higher consciousness of themselves and, in time, take their place amongst a class of philosopher-poets. Yet Novalis’ writings are never entirely class as to the make-up of this class, i.e. whether it was to be a class open to all or merely a class of elites. A charitable reading would hold that, while recognizing the potential for such a transformation in all, Novalis would likely admit the actual conditions for such a transformation to be limited in scope and number.

The second concerns Gilles Deleuze and his diagnosis of the beginnings of thought. For Deleuze, genuine thought begins with a feeling, a nagging incomprehension before that which resists our understanding. At this initial stage, we cannot perhaps not even speak of this as a something for the problem is merely felt and remains to be defined. It is with time and considerable effort that we begin to make sense of that feeling by grasping certains “points” that constitute the problem in some sense or other. Only following this grasping does the problem take on form for us in an articulable way. Unsurprisingly, many refuse the call to feel and never pass to the stage of thought and concept formation.

In short, though distinct from Leiter’s discursive hygiene, genuine thought as admitted by these authors proves inaccessible to broad swathes of the public. Indeed, it is easy enough to imagine that a number of philosophers would concur on this point, whatever their conception of thought and public discourse. Bearing this in mind, we must ask what hope there is for both Leiter’s tempered optimism concerning discursive hygiene’s future and the feasibility of parallel or separate discourses.  

From the beginning, we might worry that the need for two discourses, one for philosophers and another for the public, belies the optimism underlying the paper that discursive hygiene may hold some broader role in public life in some future. If public philosophy as presently understood is to be made private in some sense, it remains to be seen how its now private ends can be brought around again to exert some pressure of public discourse.Herein, we see the tension between Leiter’s broader points above (point 1 vs. points 2 and 3).

Certainly, some do genuinely want rational positions which articulate their underlying sense of some issue or other. Yet this proceeds on a merely ad hoc basis and seems difficult to articulate in any meaningfully regular sense independently of concrete situations. In this way, Leiter’s own lucid assessment of the problem provides reason to limit further application of discursive hygiene following his own limiting claim on public philosophy as presently conceived. In the end, further investigation is required to determine the precise articulation between discursive hygiene, philosophical rhetoric and rhetoric, public and private discourse.

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