Apology for Obscurity

Obscurity, indeed, is painful to the mind as well as to the eye; but to bring light from obscurity, by whatever labour, must needs be delightful and rejoicing. – Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, sect. 1

And yet philosophy, to me, has always been about an attraction to obscurity. If ever I’ve had a religious impulse, surely that is it. But I’ve always experienced religion as expressing an attempted escape from the obscure, rather than  an attraction towards it. Art, on the other hand, yes; mathematics, yes; natural science, indeed; philosophy, certainly. 

If I feel any kinship to Bataille, it must be on this particular score – with obscurity as the excess of cognition. Like anyone with a penchant for ‘continental’ philosophy, I’ve been exasperated with the sheer ignorance evinced by most accusations of “charlatanery”, “postmodern relativism” and the like. But behind it, something else. Dan Sperber has, quite soberly, characterized as “the guru effect” the machinery behind the transformation of obscurity into perceived profundity. I won’t argue with his description as such, but merely say that it is written from the perspective of restricted economy. From the Pythagoreans, to Newton’s physical and alchemical preoccupations, to Freud and Lacan, there is surely something positively excessive and obscenely desirable in the intimation of obscurity, something well beyond the economy of “relevance”. This is what I found and cherished in Deleuze, the emphasis placed on the necessity and importance of the obscure distinctness of problems rather than the clear confusion of solutions. To write, and think, “only at the frontiers of our knowledge”, in the twilight of obscurity, Dunkelheit. To be honest, this is the affective reason I cannot fully appreciate the philosophy of object-oriented ontology and its account of the withdrawal of objects. My innermost desires and ambitions seem to draw me towards the obscure rather than the withdrawn. To me, nothing seems more worthy of exploration, as an object of theoretical interest and as a felt necessity and basin of ambivalent attraction. Like Borges and Lovecraft charting the affects of cognitive excess, or Werner Herzog’s encounter with the jungle, the Conquest of the Useless.

All I ever really wanted was a jungle, and a jungle I got. -Aesop Rock

And here I am, with a ph.d. fellowship in philosophy at the University of Oslo, about to embark on three years of research on Kant’s theory of inner sense. How fitting, then, that my main contention is the centrality of clarity and obscurity. What is clarity and obscurity for Kant? According to me: Logical symptoms of inner sensations, resulting from the self-affection, by our other faculties, of the faculty of inner sense. Sensations of consciousness, in both senses: Consciousness is a kind of sensation, and depending on its strength this sensation renders our representations relatively clear or obscure. But the reality which this sensation is a sensation of, is consciousness – that is, our faculty of consciousness, apperception.

Inner sense is famous for being one of the most obscure aspects of Kant’s theoretical philosophy. And the role of obscurity (and clarity) in Kant’s philosophy is practically unknown and uncharted. In other words, through some stroke of luck it seems my object of theoretical interest and my basin of attraction converge, and I can make a living pursuing it.

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