The philosopher-strategist and the philosopher-tactician: Hume and Žižek

I have been trying to work on an approach recently which makes an analogy with the construction of argument in terms of the tension between strategy and tactics in the prosecution of a war. As such, I have been trying to see whether the tactics of a philosopher can be shown to be integral to their overall philosophical originality, the speculative framework which they create being akin to a strategy in this light. It when I was rereading through Hume’s Treatise that I started thinking about this, and how often it is a single lightning insight of a given philosopher that anchors in our mind, such that I find myself saying things like “Hume basically tried to separate cause and effect“, as though that should be sufficient explanation of his position.

When I step back from this, however, I have to ask whether this is actually a fair characterization of what goes on in a philosophical work. Is there simply one idea, and everything else flows from this? This seems too narrow and too linear a description, surely, to do justice to the intricacies of philosophical argumentation. Consider then, the notion of the tactic and how it nests into the macro-scale concept of the strategy. A strategy can draw upon many diverse tactics, as well as cohering principles (a form of logistics in terms of supply lines and communications) which link these tactics together. All the while, however, there is the fact that the tactics exist for the benefit of the strategy. This is what makes a coherent strategy, when the tactics are made to serve a purpose via the whatever means are at your disposal.

This short post cannot give more than a passing outline of the elements that qualify and differentiate tactics and strategy (though I like this post which goes into detail to investigate difficulties with wholesale application of the strategy/tactics analogy). I want to briefly say what I consider them to be, and why I believe they can be applied to philosophy. First, I follow Liddell Hart’s definition of strategy as “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy”. By way of a concrete example, I refer to his history of WWI, where he uses the concept of strategy to explain what exactly it is that a Navy actually does: “The fundamental purpose of a navy is […] to protect a nation’s sea communications and sever those of the enemy; although victory in battle may be a necessary prelude, blockade is its ultimate purpose.” [B.H. Liddell HartHistory of the First World War, p. 37] I go from the theoretical definition to its practical relevance to illustrate that strategy and information is crucially about controlling the flow of information. Information we can define as food, supplies, people, or actual signals. Divesting this of its military regalia for now, how can we bring this to bear on philosophy? Well, consider the philosophical work as conducting a battle, for the purposes of proving (or disproving) an argument. The above picture outlines what the argument will say in terms of strategy, the tactics indicate how it will be said. The why I will touch on briefly.

Returning to Hume’s Treatise, and I noted that his particular favoured tactic strikes early. He says, when explaining his ‘distinction of reason’ that “the difficulty of explaining this distinction arises from the principle above explain’d, that all ideas, which are different, are separable.” [David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, OUP ed., p. 24] This does not admit of the possibility of a continuum. Difference is distinct. We find the rub of this earlier: “Were ideas entirely loose an unconnected, chance alone would join them.” [p. 10] And so there must be what he calls a ‘uniting principle’. It is this undertaking to discern such a principle that occupies Hume, and from this that we might proceed to his strategy, which is the prolonged interrogation of causality and its implications, rather than the tactic of effecting a dissociation of causality which is what people most often refer to (people being me) when discussing Hume.

His tactic resurfaces an numerous points, and functions as an illustration of our prowess of thought, and it remains crucial for the entire work as a strategy. This strategy seeks to pin down that which we use in thought habitually, to note that what we consider to be an a priori and necessary connection (of cause and effect) may be no more than habit, and consequently insufficient for rational thought. This habit of thought is ground into meal through his analysis of probability (a supplementary tactic [pp. 73 ff]) The strategy then draws out that which we assume to be certain, showing that it is anything but sure. Hume does this by the use of tactical arguments which interrupt our previous thought in mid-flow, such as in the section “Why a cause is always necessary“, where he sidesteps the habitual, linear flow of our thought processes, to propose “But as I find it will be more convenient to sink this question in the following, Why we conclude, that such particular causes must necessarily have such particular effects, and why we form an inference from one to another?” [p. 82]

This suggestion that his own way of thinking is ‘more convenient’ is a result of the strategy, the overall picture that Hume sees, and the direction in which he wants to lead us. There is not a direct one-to-one, linear correspondence of tactics to strategy, which is what often misleads such discussions. Indeed, if anything, it is a relationship which is emergent. This is one reason why I believe the tactics/strategy analogy works with regard to philosophical arguments, one which can account for the intricacies I referred to at the beginning.

There is, however, bound to be a tension between the tactics and the strategy by virtue of this emergent quality of argumentation. I believe this is so because we may hold up a tactic to be emblematic of the overall strategy. This I believe is found in the same section “Why a cause is always necessary“. Hume writes that “we shall find upon examination, that every demonstration, which has been produc’d for the necessity of a cause, is fallacious and sophistical.” [p. 80] This is actually quite a leap, and apparently points to a lack of rigour. Can one really say “every” here? Has he accounted for all demonstrations? Of course not, but the production of a closed-system of air-tight rigour is an impossibility. Even in the realm of logic, that most rarefied atmosphere of supposed crystalline purity, had its crowning glory, Whitehead and Russel’s Principia Mathematica muddied by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.

A leap must take place, then, to pass over the gap between tactics and strategy. This is perhaps one of the problems that must be engaged with. Is a philosopher to be interpreted primarily as a tactician, or as a strategist? I have made drawn attention in a previous post to Žižek’s approach in terms of Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox (I will revisit many of the points I have previously made in this post, but they are worth comparison). What I want to do here is to compare what he does to Hume. First, a quote:

This, incidentally, brings to us what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life to tell him: “Just wanted to let you know that our marriage was a sham, that I cannot stand the sight of you…” [Violence, p. 51]

This has all the hallmarks of Žižek. I need not point them out. What I will point out is that this ‘incidentally’ here is Žižek’s tactic par excellence. It is a throw-away aside in which resides a comment of such perversity, that only a masterful marshalling of the ideas being deployed here makes it possible. It contains within it the essence of his philosophy, which is that it is a philosophical performance (something Simon Critchley has previously intimated, referring to Žižek’s Stalinism as ‘mannerist’.)

It brings home that he can be regarded as the great librarian of theory; through him you can visit the stacks and early printed books, but only on his terms. He knows all of the major players (“my dear friend Alain Badiou”) and his decades-long Ljubljana sinecure gave him time to read everything (so it seems) and to shape the canon to his liking. This is not to judge his philosophy negatively (indeed, this is part of the issue) but to say he has not had an entirely salutary effect on philosophy, theory, or literary criticism. Basically, he reminds me of Harold Bloom. He has the same Falstaffian expansiveness, with which he dazzles us with all he has read and retained. Then there is the unshakeable sense that he has the conviction that what he says is right (and my god but he says a lot), thus intimidating us out of any engagement.

In my previous post I referred to this as his ruling fallacy, the proof by verbosity. I might equally call it his primary tactic. Indeed, it is his tactics that stick with us. These are the brilliant textual and rhetorical maneuvers we so admire. Žižek is as brilliant tactically as Napoleon often was, but similarly, we might question, where is the strategy, and the ultimate vision? Is he marching into a philosophical eastern front? The emergent notion I have referred to must be brought to bear once more, for we have to say that the strategy is indeed a what, but it is also connected to a why. For David Hume, we might refer to Paul Russell’s work on Hume (his Philosophy Bites podcast here, and section in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here). Russell ties together what I have called Hume’s tactic (how), through to the strategy of the Treatise (what), to something beyond the text, namely what he describes as Hume’s ‘irreligion’. This irreligious interpretation allows us to string on the one thread, tactic to strategy, finally to vision – why Hume said what he said. I quote from the OUP website for Russell’s book:

It is an established orthodoxy among almost all commentators that skepticism and naturalism are the two dominant themes in this work. The difficulty has been, however, that Hume’s skeptical arguments and commitments appear to undermine and discredit his naturalistic ambition to contribute to “the science of man”. This schism appears to leave his entire project broken-backed.

The solution to this riddle depends on challenging another, closely related, point of orthodoxy: namely, that before Hume published the Treatise he removed almost all material concerned with problems of religion. Russell argues, contrary to this view, that irreligious aims and objectives are fundamental to the Treatise and account for its underlying unity and coherence. It is Hume’s basic anti-Christian aims and objectives that serve to shape and direct both his skeptical and naturalistic commitments. When Hume’s arguments are viewed from this perspective we can solve, not only puzzles arising from his discussion of various specific issues, we can also explain the intimate and intricate connections that hold his entire project together.

So then, ask of Žižek, where is he going with these tactics? This is why I say it is difficult to actually judge his philosophy. His project thus far subverts it. Hume’s tactics fed into his strategy, and consequently his vision. The same can be said of Kant’s critique, and Hegel’s dialectic. Each of these great philosophers had tactics and a strategy which was on a par with their vision, and this is what made them great. It has yet to be seen if the same can be said of one such as Žižek. That said, at least I am finding this martial analogy to be of considerable heuristic use in approaching his work, as well as the work of others.

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3 thoughts on “The philosopher-strategist and the philosopher-tactician: Hume and Žižek

  1. Pingback: Mortal, All Too Mortal: Nihilistic Speculations From Dr. Lawgiverz-2 « Senselogi©

  2. Pingback: Second Assignment: ‘In what ways does Kant’s transcendental critique answer sceptical problems posed by Hume, e.g. about space & time, cause and effect, and distinct and continued existence?’ « Loftier Musings

  3. Pingback: Revised Revelation: Positivity | Her Sporadic Evolution

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