Thursday, July 23, 2015

Harming Stupidity?

When you reach a decision, close your ears to even the best objections: this is a sign of a strong character. Which means: an occasional will to stupidity. -- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

To harm stupidity.- Surely, the faith preached so stubbornly and with so much conviction, that egoism is reprehensible, has on the whole harmed egoism (while benefiting, as I shall repeat a hundred times, the herd instincts!) -above all, by depriving egoism of its good conscience and bidding us to find in it the true source of all unhappiness. "Your selfishness is the misfortune of your life"-that was preached for thousands of years and harmed, as I have said, selfishness and deprived it of much spirit. much cheerfulness, much sensitivity, much beauty; it made selfishness stupid and ugly and poisoned it.
The ancient philosophers taught that the main source of misfortune was something very different. Beginning with Socrates, these thinkers never wearied of preaching: "Your thoughtlessness and stupidity, the way you live according to the rule, your submission to your neighbor's opinion is the reason why you so rarely achieve happiness; we thinkers, as thinkers, are the happiest of all."
Let us not decide here whether this sermon against stupidity had better reasons on its side than did the sermon against selfishness. What is certain. however, is that it deprived stupidity of its good conscience; these philosophers harmed stupidity. --Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Deleuze, echoing Nietzsche, wrote that philosophy "is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought." (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 106).  Deleuze formulates the problem of stupidity most strongly in chapter three of Difference and Repetition, "The Image of Thought." There are, recently, some very strong resources charting Deleuze's argument on stupidity (see Jason Wirth's recent Schelling's Practice of the Wild, and Nobutaka Otobe's amazing dissertation, Stupidity in Politics), so I won't go over the argument here in detail. However, this is the space that Deleuze wishes the problem to be heard, "Philosophy could have taken up the problem with its own means and with the necessary modesty, by considering the fact that stupidity is never that of others but the object of a properly transcendental question: how is stupidity (not error) possible?" (D&R, 151). Deleuze wishes to distinguish stupidity from error, from nonsense, and from idiocy. Indeed, the idiot will be an important conceptual persona that allows for the production of concepts in What is Philosophy?. Stupidity has nothing to do with being bright, or the ability to reason logically, rationally, or rigorously. It might be a kind of gullibility, but not in the traditional sense of the term. For Deleuze, stupidity is, as Nietzsche tells us, "submission to your neighbor's opinion." It is a sort of incuriosity, a kind refusing to think. We substitute thinking with cliches, with "everybody knows..." and "no one can deny..." (D&R 130). Stupidity is then a kind of disavowal. It is not a lack or a passivity, but rather an active force, a will to stupidity. Stupidity takes place in the epistemic register that Donald Rumsfield infamously called "known unknowns." These are things we could know, that on some level we do know, but that we refuse to know. Like all forms of disavowal, stupidity is a kind of psychic self-defense against facing our existence.

When talking about stupidity and cliches, we are reminded of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (Otobe is excellent on the differences and similarities of Arendt and Deleuze).   She quotes Eichmann as saying, "Officialese [Amtsprache] is my only language." She would then explain:
But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché…Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. (48-49). 

Stupidity's safeguard and protection against reality should remind us of the distinction between the skeptic and the empiricist in William James' essay "The Will to Believe." Remember, the skeptic is the one who would prefer to not know the truth, as long as they will never be wrong. The empiricist is one who does mind being wrong, mind being made to seem stupid, if that means they will be more likely to know the truth. This brings me, I guess, to the point.

I worry that we thinkers, we knowers, believe we are in the business of harming stupidity. I worry because I assume we are all very, very stupid. In Malcolm Bull's Anti-Nietzsche, he challenges us to read Nietzsche as losers. To read Nietzsche as the herd animal, as the slave, as one of the many instead of the few. I think we should read Nietzsche as one of the stupid ones. Does our seeking out to harm the stupidity of others make us more or less likely to see the stupidity in ourselves (like when Derrida critiques Deleuze for being stupid on animals being unable to be stupid). Nietzsche says that we submit to our neighbors' opinion. But also, perhaps, it isn't always submission, but inhabiting the world our neighbor, of, as Arendt put it, "to think from the standpoint of somebody else." This is the tension of stupidity, it both disavows reality, but also forms the ground for a kind of empiricism. It both allows us to reject the world of the other, while forming the very common space and language of inhabiting the worlds of others. Deleuze warns us of a stupidity of cliches, while at the same time yearns after a kind of pop philosophy, and challenges us to write in slogans.

In one of Judith Butler's essays on Arendt, she writes:
But more than this, [Arendt] faults [Eichmann] as well for failing to realise that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims. In her view, no thinking being can plot or commit genocide. Of course, they can have such thoughts, formulate and implement genocidal policy, as Eichmann clearly did, but such calculations cannot be called thinking, in her view. How, we might ask, does thinking implicates each thinking "I" as part of a "we" such that to destroy some part of the plurality of human life is to destroy not only one's self, understood as linked essentially to that plurality, but to destroy the very conditions of thinking itself.

Perhaps the point of philosophy is not to harm stupidity at all. Perhaps its goal is to push stupidity farther still. To take stupidity to the point that it fosters pluralism. To take it to the point it stops protecting the self against reality, and instead opens the self up to the outside. Maybe we must get to the place where we stop thinking we are harming stupidity, but instead understand ourselves as profoundly stupid. Huh, maybe I am wrong. Everybody knows I don't know everything.