From Formalization to Description: Towards an Ethnographic Philosophy
We seem to live in a time in which the so-called “end of philosophy” has been superseded: Badiou’s reappraisal of the task of philosophy as defender of evental Truth, Laruelle’s sublation of philosophy into a non-philosophical “science” of philosophy, or the new realisms, materialisms, and rationalisms that call us back to a Reason and a Materialism that they assure us is not old-fashioned. All of these “new ways” in one way or another pose themselves as superseding the sophistry, “relativism”, of post-modernism and other enemies.
But can we be so sure to have surpassed sophistry? What if the pervasiveness of media, advertisement, and sloganeering, still seem to force us into an all-too-political discourse of persuasion? This is not to simply raise another philosophical question concerning the polysemy of language. All three of the orientations raised above point to formalism and formalization. The concrete question is: what stops the purity of form from being a slogan? Will we be justified once we will have transubstantiated ourselves from continental philosophers to “working mathematicians”?
On the other hand, perhaps “techno-science” wasn’t a facile critique. In many ways, our era is much like that at the end of the 19th century – unbridled capitalism, rapid technological advancement, and a growing decadence and disorientation of culture. Would it be too “critical” to acknowledge this kinship, in particular then the kinship we are beginning to share with certain naïve scientific positivists of that age, incipient technocrats?
Formalisation means both the use of formal methods (mathematics, diagrammatics) and a serious intellectual investment in the meaning of formalization. This latter is what Husserl’s phenomenology tried to explicitly address during an age much like ours. He supplemented the vector of formalization with a vector of description. Unlike Heidegger’s phenomenology, this description remained persistently within a neutral and “scientific” space: each time reaffirmed by a rigorously carried-out epoché.
From this point of view, science can also learn to meet ethics – an ethics of speech. The results of a researcher are shared with a research community; their content takes precedence over form. An equality is established between subjects who are each taken as responsible for – and committed to – authentic observation and interpretation. A grand polemic of Reason is not necessarily needed.
Of course it would be wrong to deny that in certain cases, it can be useful to introduce a master-signifier, to unify a discourse and to build a movement. But in others, perhaps we might introduce more of an analytic discourse. Description, observation, patient elaboration must supplement formalization. This is not the same as simply noting that “the empirical” must meet “the formal” according to an old binary; this would be “still too philosophical” as Laruelle might say.
Rather, description should be an ethics, an ethics of relativization, just as the historicity of formalization affirms itself as a vector of relativization in its status as "Gallilean” and Copernican science. It is in this sense that philosophy deserves an ethnography: the descriptive and creative invention of its "culture." In truth, the ethnographer, the psychoanalyst, the phenomenologist – let them install themselves at the heart of philosophy: the ethnographer-philosopher, the psychoanalyst-philosopher, the phenomenologist-philosopher. Perhaps this is just non-philosophy, or perhaps it is finally philosophy “worthy of the name” (philosophy has not ended, but we are still looking for it).
To describe philosophy, and so to describe the human, the metaphysical animal. I think such is the task of an anthropology or an ethnography of philosophy – an ethical intervention, and a grounding force for flights of formalization. In Laruelle’s language, we might allow anthropology, or perhaps it would be better to say ethnography, to be the “scientific variable” whose material supplements philosophical transcendence. But we will not simply play with his formalism: let us aim to ground it.
And we might ultimately attempt to propose some hypotheses, more radical than Laruelle’s own, concerning philosophy. What kind of research can we perform on “man”? What can phenomenology, anthropology, psychoanalysis bring to forming a unified picture of generic human? What are the real, empirical investigations we can perform? This would be a “non-philosophy” that lives up to its promise of being a “material formalism” (that is, not merely a formal formalism). It would also be a “non-philosophy” that also was true to its promise not to deny philosophy or to supersede it. A vector of description will only deepen our metaphysical imagination.