Scoop Review of Books

Defining Philosophy and Non-philosophy

What is Philosophy? – Michael Munro (Punctum Books, New York, 2012)

Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

This is a refreshing book, mainly because it is not exactly a book for it is freely obtainable online, thus optionally printable only – and if you wish to donate to the cause of Punctum Books, you also have another option. Such ‘Open Access’ publication is now a burgeoning trait in the online kingdom of speculative realist philosophies, such as the case with this title.

It is also a refreshingly downloadable and printable file not simply because of this format, but also because of its content, for Munro has made absolutely no claims to be a ‘professional’ philosopher, or indeed to be any sort of philosopher per se. As he says on what could be the back cover – He has no university affiliation, no awards, nor other publications. His work is approved by the Interzone Bureau of Vagabond Thinker Lovers.

For Munro has no intention to even begin to define exactly what philosophy is. More, he is seemingly more interested in ruminating and rather extensively quoting from a myriad of historical and contemporary figures, as to what philosophy might be, what philosophy is not, and how philosophy is a constant contradiction of itself. So, Munro cites copiously from Giorgio Agamben, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jacques Derrida, Alfred North Whitehead, Walter Benjamin, Quentin Meillassoux, Alexander Nehamas, Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aristotle, Umberto Eco among a whole floating raft of others. Indeed such is his predilection for the many words of others (for several of his quotations are rather extensive) that his bibliography runs to six pages, his voluminous references cover a full 18 pages – themselves replete with quotations – and the ‘actual’ text sprints quickly through only 33 pages. With this latter section divided into three parts, Munro takes us on an interesting tour of deliberate contradictions and asides. He commences with asking What is Philosophy, and follows up with further contradictory metonyms in the sections entitled On Argument and On Not Knowing.

Munro also delights in writing somewhat cryptically himself and it is the koan-like strategy he employs that gets one having to ruminate for oneself as to what philosophy might be – for, as noted, there are certainly no hard and fast conclusions here given as to what it ‘essentially’ is. As just one example is his early line – Philosophy is defined by what takes place in the question of philosophy itself.

One is often left scratching one’s head reflecting on what Munro is trying to say – which, on further cogitation, is exactly how he wants us to comprehend philosophy; it is, after all, a process of wonderment. And these two highlighted nouns recur frequently throughout. As do their brother nouns like potentiality, another vital element of what philosophy is. From one’s avowed ignorance one also sights interesting and previously unregistered ideas, for, as Munro writes – What makes something ‘evidence’ is not evident on the face of it. Nor is it necessarily incontrovertible. Therefore, like Meillassoux himself, Munro polishes to his definition: philosophy is the invention of strange forms of argumentation. Philosophy, then, is all rather oppositional and paradoxical, for such strange forms incorporate and furthermore conjoin what is relevant to what is irrelevant in philosophy. Another koan.

Therefore also, Potentiality adheres in actuality…because it is as such ceaselessly active in it, affected by it without reprieve.

And further The unknowable is the gift of knowability. In that gift it is saved.

For Munro, then, for philosophy perplexity rules. And his deliberate way of writing like this is to stir the reader into discarding any preconceived notions whatsoever! The key to Munro’s style or some may say lack of style, is in the blurb for another of his ‘books’, also published by Punctum, under the aegis of ‘dead letter office’ – entitled Of Learned Ignorance: Idea of a Treatise in Philosophy.

It is problematic (in the Kantian sense): It is an attempt at exemplifying what it talks about [my emphasis]— and what eludes it: A series of footnotes, with blank (transcriptive) pages, effects something like the integration of a differential, the reciprocal determination where the sources enter into in relation to one another in order to produce a paper, essay, or (inexistent) (chap)book…in facing down a problem, [it] makes a wager; it courts failure; it puts it all on the line. All, yes, for love — a kind of love … (of wisdom?).

In other words, Munro’s deliberate way of writing tangentially and digressionally, parallels what he is writing about: the multifold quotations enter in relation to one another in order to produce a – whatever you can make of it! And learn from it. Thus, Socrates is introduced as well in the sense that he embodied exactly what Munro himself is attempting throughout this hard-and-soft-at-the-same-time copy – a living enquiry that may well never ‘succeed’ in finding any solution anyway. Muses Munro at one stage: reflection and self-knowledge are not products, but processes, or rather activities. One does not, in thinking about Socratic questions, typically get a final answer, one get – at best – understanding of possibilities.

Ultimately, then, Munro’s conclusion is as mysterious as is this process of philosophy: it is NOT a joining of wisdom and love (of wisdom) but rather the incongruous result or issue of these two elements. Philosophy then is ‘actually’ a disjunction congruent to the one between these two nouns and thus as similarly mysterious. Similarly, this entire ‘tome’ is – seemingly – as disjunctive.

So, rather than try to tie down Munro into nicely stratified syllogisms and clauses – possibly an impossibility – for his back cover that isn’t a back cover blurb further resonates with – Nor may the individual pieces that compose this book be so developed (i.e. as a ‘book’), I feel it is much more in keeping in his own style to quote from him even further. For me, the key sentence is quoted as below:

Philosophy is in the business of doing (at least) two things (viz. disputing and being relentlessly self-critical) but doesn’t appear to be in the business of doing them in conjunction (being relentlessly self-critical about this disputing.) – from Brian Ribeiro.

Philosophy doesn’t know what it is doing and no amount of meta-philosophy will escape this dyad. Because meta-philosophy is itself just an elaborate extension of the mystery of philosophy and its continued argumentation – it is the philosophy of philosophy after all!

So, if I was pushed to be more cogently approachable in this review I would turn towards the very interesting and seriously underrated Non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle, an obscure French ‘philosopher’ recently resuscitated by Ray Brassier.
His discipline is the science of philosophy, which it treats as a laboratory specimen, scientifically and objectively.

Now Munro never mentions Laruelle, although he does have a good grasp of Quentin Meillassoux’s deleterious disavowal of Hume, which – along with being ‘published’ by Punctum, shows the speculative bent here. But Munro does, early on in his small book, or extended essay, point out the following –

To be a philosopher is to first be capable of the non-philosophical life. In other words – To be a philosopher is to feel the absence of the philosophical life bear on one’s own.

He also quotes happily from Gilles Deleuze about the requirement that philosophy be addressed to non-philosophers too. One not only needs to also be a non-philosopher to even be a philosopher, one can be a non-philosopher without ever being a philosopher!

Laruelle’s notion of radical immanence is significant in any grasp of Non-philosophy. Philosophy – because it is philosophy – disavows this notion and cannot ever incorporate it, for philosophy always necessarily divides itself into schismatic oppositional categories such as différance and presence, from Derrida, as just one example. This is for Laruelle the constant stance of philosophy – a dialectical splitting of the world in order to even be able to grasp this world. We can immediately see the tenor of speculative realism here – that man is too central in philosophy to be able to see he is too central. As Munro himself discerns – That to which the self perceives itself to be assigned and to which it must always adapt itself so that there is inevitably the assignation of that self to enquiry…everything in philosophy transpires between a self and the rigors of its enquiries – and, inevitably, to further disputes and disagreements. Thus the requirement is to stand above philosophy, and for that matter, mankind. Thus Non-philosophy. I quote from myself online in 2012, here – philosophy will never accommodate an understanding of the Real by virtue of the fact that philosophy itself attempts to analyze the Real by something other than this Real e.g. by ideas, concepts, language. Similarly, for Reid Kane (Kotlas), online in 2009 – For non-philosophy, philosophy itself becomes the empirical phenomena to be explained, experimented with, and theorized.

In other words philosophy aims to explain the world without resort to anything immanent or transcendent. And this is where Munro steps up to the mound, for his analysis of philosophy shows that indeed philosophy cannot discern or dissect or self-discipline itself.

Michael Munro’s What is Philosophy is after everything else, rather superbly summarized by Reid Kane, albeit he is not directly referring to this non-book. Thus, he writes – Non-philosophy does not wish to put an end to philosophy, but to liberate it from its self-imposed strictures.

Michael Munro in his own playfully dedicated way is non-decisional, non-authoritative and non-philosophically scrutinizing this beast called philosophy. In so doing his aim is to liberate philosophy from itself, its eternal exponential backbiting and inbuilt contradictions, and in so doing, to free up ourselves by seeing what Kane, again, describes as philosophy’s endless reproduction of itself.

To conclude conclusively, a quotation from the endpaper of this non book of non-philosophy, which is the closest Munro is ever going to come to a rigid definition of his role – W… dreams of a thought-army, a thought-pack, which would storm the philosophical Houses of Parliament…Lars Iyer.

# # #

Vaughan Rapatahana is a poet, philosopher, educator and novelist. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications in Hong Kong and New Zealand. He also reviews for the Scoop Review of Books.

Vaughan’s publications include: