On the Dangers of Philosophical Spaghettification

Well, it has been a large job, but the philosophy book is now drafted and ready, more or less, to be sent off to the publishers; and I’m relieved that it is done. The book, which is to be called Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling, and which will appear some time next year, takes up some of the themes in my earlier Finding Our Sea-Legs, but perhaps in a rather less free-wheeling fashion. Much of the book is a somewhat close reading of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (who was a huge influence on Sea-Legs) as a storyteller and as, at the same time, an anti-storyteller, a thinker who set himself against the telling of stories. It is the closest to a monograph that I’ll ever get, despite a few very un-monograph-like jokes along the way.

As a book, this one will probably be for enthusiasts only (what I like to think of as the abridged version, The Snorgh and the Sailor, is more suited to a general audience); but despite the small potential audience, this is material that I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a decade, and throughout this time I’ve found thinking about Levinas immensely enriching and illuminating. My interest in Levinas has not just been an intellectual interest, but something that has had an enormous impact on how I go about leading my own life, not just how I have gone about thinking, but also how I have gone about acting; and for this, I am extraordinarily grateful.

Nevertheless, I’m glad in the end to be moving on to new territories. In many ways, the book feels more like a farewell note to Levinas (and to some of his fellow phenomenologists) than it feels like the initiation into a life of faithful Levinas scholarship. But this always seems the way with me: I’ve followed a curious kind of trajectory over the years from the study of art and art history, to anthropology, to a long engagement that never quite led to a marriage with Buddhism, to phenomenology, to Chinese thought, with large doses of fiction and storytelling along the way; and I’ve never quite persuaded myself to settle down.

I suppose, in the end, that when it comes to thinking, I fear ploughing one single furrow. And it occurs to me now that I am more interested in where I am going to move to next than I am in going over old ground. Particularly when it comes to philosophy, it seems to me that often philosophers are like black holes. They have an enormous gravitational pull. If they argue consistently and determinedly and with a degree of panache, it is hard to resist them. I know people, for example, who have wandered into the depths of the Schwarzwald that is Heidegger’s thinking and who have found themselves still wandering those maze-like Holzwege ten or more years later. I have met courteous, diffident Husserlians who have become so preoccupied with practising their eidetic reductions that it is astonishing that they manage to get dressed in the morning, or eat breakfast, or keep appointments at the opticians. I have stumbled across Levinas scholars who have gone so far beyond the event-horizon that is Otherwise than Being that they emit no further information, only surges of radiation.

I have always feared getting sucked in to any one system of thought, and the philosophical spaghettification that inevitably follows. This is, no doubt, consistent with my fear of weight and my love of lightness. And if philosophers are like black holes, it seems to me that the trick of navigating through philosophical space is finding a course by means of which you can come just close enough to use the gravity-well of any one philosopher to impart further momentum to your travels, but not so close that you fall into the well entirely, never to emerge again. For me, philosophy is at its most exciting, in other words, when it can hurl you outwards on new trajectories, or can precipitate you in new directions…

Image:  Giorgio Conrad (1827-1889): Spaghetti-eater. Wikimedia Commons

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