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Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Spontaneity

I started my course on contemporary philosophy. It is a big overview of five intertwining traditions of the twentieth century with their developments in the 21st. I start with the marginally analytic Kantian tradition going from Sellars through McDowell towards speculative developments in Brassier and Meillassoux. Then we go to Whitehead and Deleuze to arrive in Latour. The third tradition is Husserl and Heidegger towards object-oriented ontology maybe going through Tom Sparrow. Then we move to a mainstream analytic tradition started in Wittgenstein read by Wettstein and moving towards the Kripkean and post-Kripkean discussions of reference, essence and direct denotation. The last tradition is one that started with Levinas (and is sui generis in many respects) and goes towards Derrida and helps to understand the work of Malabou.

The first class was a general one on correlationism and the myth of the Given. I drew on Kant's use of the word 'spontaneity' in contrast with receptivity. The transcendental subjects starts something when she deploys concepts, conceptual capacities appear as starting a causal chain, a causality by freedom - which is associated to autodetermination. The problem with the Given is that the transcendental subject has spontaneity, that is, she's autodetermined and does not follow whatever else happens in her perceptual surrounding. In other words, the transcendental subject has some sort of measure of importance, for her a fact is placed in a connection with her perspective on things. She modulates what she experience in a way that cannot be taken as merely following what is brought to her from the world. This transcendental spontaneity (and is transcendental in the sense that it is not up to any empirical subject) gets in the way of what is given to us, our senses are placed in an unavoidable context where importance matters throughout. Spontaneity (which is related to the perception Leibniz ascribes to all monads) is related to what Whitehead calls creative activity. It is, arguably, an ingredient of agency; transcendental subjects act and this is what gives rise to the myth of the Given.

What I wonder now is that from a Whiteheadian perspective the Given cannot be conceived in the sense that no interaction between actualities can ever happen without creative activity, without spontaneity. Efficient causation, for Whitehead, is a form of perception. If, for Hegel, human knowledge is constituted by mediation (by concepts), for Whitehead all interaction is constituted by mediation (by different senses of importance). The myth of the Given can be generalized in a speculative manner: spontaneity is what gets in the way of any possible receptivity. Whenever there is agency, there is no Given.

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