By Javad Heirannia

Praxis better suits philosophical writing than style: prof.

May 26, 2018

John Lysaker, Professor of Emory University says “writing should be regarded as a praxis and not a techne, which opens it to the kind of deliberation Aristotle champions in his ethics.”

Author of “Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought” also adds that “praxis better suits philosophical writing than style.”

He also argues that “texts can be written (or read) as wholes if one gathers how they relate to thought's unfolding, their addressees, and their historical moment.”
Following is the full text of the interview:

Q: What has been your main question in the book of “Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought”?

A: The book takes up several questions along the way, and not always in a linear, let alone systematic fashion. But it does gather at certain key points.
My initial question concerns the literary-rhetorical dimensions of philosophy and results from the following observation. One can write philosophy in multiple ways: aphorisms, autobiography, blogs, dialogues, essays, professional articles, treatises, etc. My book asks: how should one decide among them? If one were to deliberate about such a matter, what would one take into account? But the question does not rest with genre. Most of the genres I've named allow for a variety of logical-rhetorical operations like examples, quotation, irony, voice, and formal patterns of argument like modus ponens. How does one decide among them? What questions should one ask oneself when electing to write philosophy? (Initially, I was not at all sure how best to reply.)

A second question lurks behind the first, and it also begins with an observation. Many if not most readers take the Socrates of Plato's dialogues to function as an image of philosophy, one that works by way of exemplification. Socrates' behavior shows us what philosophy is by showing us what philosophy does. But isn't this true of all philosophical texts? Doesn't each one exemplify a certain way of doing philosophy? I thus wanted to think about what we exemplify when we philosophize through particular genres and logical-rhetorical operations, and in a way that would not only make us more deliberate writers -- and that is one thing the book seeks, an account of deliberate writing -- but also more deliberate readers. While this question also concerns the literary-rhetorical dimensions of philosophy, its deeper currents, which concern the conduct of life, flow into ethics and what it means to account for oneself.

A third question also orients the book, and it addresses the history of philosophy. What kind of book would result if I allowed the thematic and performative dispositions of a diverse set of authors to work together in one book? The principal set includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Georg Lukacs, Walter Benjamin, and Stanley Cavell. But others are also germane such as Friedrich Nietzsche, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler. In a way, the book, at least in part, is about each of these authors relative to my first and second questions. I address those questions in part through them. But I also wanted to engage the history of philosophy, to think historically by way of inheritance. In my case, that involves a repetition of various line of thought within an evolving, multifaceted whole. And this led to a book that moves between the essay and the aphorism, but in a manner that tries to establish a whole that is greater than the sum of several parts that nevertheless stand on their own as moments of thought. (I wouldn't term that whole a "dialogue," but it tries to harness some of the performative and pedagogical energy of that genre within a voice that aspires to responsiveness.) The book thus embraces an epistemology of the fragment, which simultaneously refuses to subordinate particulars to general types while insisting that each particular has the character it does only because of the relations to which it is bound.

Q: What Hypothesis did you use to answer this question? What is your central argument?

A: My first argument is that writing should be regarded as a praxis and not a techne, which opens it to the kind of deliberation Aristotle champions in his ethics. (And I argue that praxis better suits philosophical writing than style.) I then argue that deliberate writing should concern itself with at least three kinds of questions. First, how will a given genre and/or logical-rhetorical operation influence how one's thought unfolds? The question arises because philosophical writing does more than report results. It is a process of discovery in its own right, and the process unfolds differently in the aphorism than it does in the essay, and differently through irony than through the counter-example. (Along the way, I argue against strong form-content distinctions, claiming that each influences the other.)

After considering the ways in which various genres and logical-rhetorical operations influence how thought unfolds (with an extended section on irony), I turn to a second question that I find essential to deliberate writing. What kind of relationship does a given genre and/or logical-rhetorical operation establish with regard to addressees? As with thought's self-relation, different genres and logical-rhetorical operations prompt and solicit different responses from readers, a point I argue in various contexts, including the polemic and the professional article, and with regard to the elusive phenomenon of voice.

Thinking, text, and reader meet in various historical contexts, and thus deliberate writing must ask: how will these acts, namely, genres and logical rhetorical operations, play in my historical moment? Is the footnote elitist or an essential reminder that insights are indebted to others, have histories, and are almost never contested? How might aphorisms function in a period of commodified thought and anti-intellectualism? In developing this point, I stage extended encounters with DuBois's Souls of Black Folk and Benjamin's One Way Street in order to explore books that strove to be "equal to their moments," to use Benjamin's phrase? What does this mean as an aspiration for writing? And how we might gauge the relative success or failure of a venture?

My final argument is that texts can be written (or read) as wholes if one gathers how they relate to thought's unfolding, their addressees, and their historical moment. When read (or written) in this manner, a text images philosophy. More particularly, it exemplifies a way in which philosophy can inhabit and contest the histories to which it belongs and to which it inevitably contributes. A text is thus something like a character in a discursive and material polis, exemplifying a certain way of life.  

Q: What was the necessity of writing this book?

A: Few enter philosophy fired by the dream of writing journal articles. Philosophy seems to demand more vital, engaging forms of presentation. Because the journal article is the default mode of professional philosophy, and because it became so through something other than deliberate choice, I wanted to articulate a space in which philosophy might proceed otherwise, and without the conceit of "the general reader," which I find an abstraction that only finds its home in marketing. I began this project of performative expansion in After Emerson (2017), which tries to offer a kind of essay that embraces the demands of scholarship and rigorous thought within a living, singular voice that proves responsive to its subject matter, its language, the texts it engages, and its various limits. But what began there needed its own manner of presentation, and that lead, after several stops and starts, to Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. I also wanted to exemplify a particular way of philosophizing that embraces both knowledge of and care for the self in the company of others, which led to a phrase that recurs through the book: you and me in the company of us. In the context of philosophy, this forced a confrontation with writing. Writing is intrinsic to philosophy, and thus I needed to explore that relation, building upon, by presuming, Derrida's advances, which take "writing" to move within a decentered and disseminating, semiotic field that overdetermines authors and readers. But once I acknowledged that result, questions about how to write persisted, and so I took a deliberate turn into the questions that orient Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought. However, I hope that the sense of deliberate writing, which the book outlines and performs, carries with it  a kind of responsive polyphony that is recognizably mine while occurring though very concrete relations to others.

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