Scavenging for cognitive toolkits

by Frances Kafka

Quite often it’s useful to come up with rough binaries as a quick and ready classification tool. There are two general approaches that people have toward the inheritance of 2000 years of intellectual history, two attitudes which happen to be quite common. Suspended Reason has coined a rather useful pair of names for this binary: pro-lineage” and anti-lineage”. These are not quite two schools of thought, but rather two directions, which in practice are often mixed. Regardless, we can think of them as ideal types; some situations tend to put them in sharp relief. Philosophy offers a very good test case.

A common motif in Two-Cultures miscommunication, from the scientific side, centres on philosophy. For many science-oriented people who have a brief exposure to philosophy, there’s quite often horror at the apparent obsession with the past. Often it seems quite diseased that philosophers apparently seem to be studying what Kant, Hegel or Plato thought, instead of learning how to come up with real philosophy. (This is most common with Continental and traditional’ philosophy, which tends to be the most humanities-oriented side of philosophy.) Why are these people reading masters” like Plato and Hegel instead of moving on? Few in the sciences today would bother to read Newton or Einstein, Darwin or Bichat. This objection I am going to put under the anti-lineage” camp, while the philosophers themselves who defend a historical approach to philosophy I am going to put under the lineage” camp. The difference between the two hinges on the difference of the status of the lineage.

The lineage is history, it is the archive that is passed down from one generation to the next through writing. This archive is an archive full of holes and breaks, and is marked by a series of names which function as singular points. These are the great names” which the lineagists are concerned with. For them, ideas are inseparable from the contexts and the people who produced them. This is not a purely humanistic” orientation; there are many lineagists who are scientists and mathematicians, and we can find anti-lineagists in the humanities. The anti-lineagists are more ambivalent toward history, this archive, with some of them having a more iconoclastic response to this history. They would prefer that we throw out the rubbish, never mind if the wheel is reinvented. The raw material of the lineagist is not the opus or the author but the idea and the insight, which is detached and studied in isolation.

The lineagist remembers their history in order to have history and to make history” and dwell in history thanks to the specific nature of their cultural memory” (Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory). Instead of a weighing-down, an obstacle or handicap, history is the positive condition for novelty. The anti-lineagist does not simpy forget history, but has to actively find ways to negate its effect. The most common method is using mathematics; formal methods are designed such that ideas can be easily translated from one person to another, so to understand gravity doesn’t require having to read Newton’s Principia; any old physics would do.

Here I do not mean to take a stand for or against either side; I suspect that these orientations are more personal than intellectually derived, and arguments for and other each side are usually going to miss the point. What interests me is maintaining a plurality of such approaches, and trying to hash out a third space” where both sides can talk to each other cordially.

A preliminary bridge (though one more on the side of the anti-lineagists) is the notion of the toolkit. The toolkit is not a detachable insight” or idea” taken from a thinker, but rather perhaps a problematic core, a particular flip of perspective. Toolkits are not right or wrong, but are rather useful or not useful. They are not expositions or explanations, but rather puzzle-esque works that inspire and pop headcanons. Such toolkits can fluidly slip between lineagist and non-lineagist groups. They do not need a particular origin inside or outside a particular lineage. It is autonomous and is situated in a particular ecology of thought and practice. The significance of such a tool comes from how it is able to multiply perspectives, points of view.

As an attempt to link up lineage and anti-lineagist groups, I suspect that many ideas from the lineage can become useful jumping-off points for vibe-style intellectualization, which can be detached from its original environment while bringing in lineage-style insights into non-lineage environments. A toolkit is not a formal idea (like a scientific idea or pattern that a non-lineagist might like) nor is it a particular contextualized idea. It is more similar to an intuition of something. Working through the lineage is often able to give illegible” intuitions; a toolkit can be thought of an attempt to spark or reproduce this intuitive feel” outside the context of such a tradition. It is these which I plan on writing up for future posts.