Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’


Dirty theory is theory mixed up with accounts of experiences or – at least – mixed up with real-life story-telling. Not every theory is rooted in experience. Many pieces of theorizing are theoretical inbreed. They are rooted in pieces of theorizing, in reading other theorists. inbreeding is what most philosophers do today. They write texts about texts about texts and lose touch with the reality that the first text originated in (and which the first writer had probably already eliminated). If philosophy has a poor reputation with the larger public, it’s exactly because of this tendency. If you haven’t read all the texts about which the text you are reading is, you don’t see why what the 13th theorist says is relevant. Maybe you don’t even understand. It’s not always your fault.

I’m thinking about renaming my blog.

The idea has been spinning around in my head for a few days. This usually precedes a blog post. I’ve got an idea I’d like to develop. I try not to forget about it. It then comes back to me all the time until I open my laptop and start writing (sometimes in online, sometimes in offline mode, this time in quick press).

Dirty vs. Pure Theory

Now, to get it out of my head: here’s the pitch of “Dirty Theory”. I love theory, that’s for sure. I think theorizing and reading theory are pleasures in themselves. And grasping conceptual differences makes your experience richer: where you saw one, you’ll see two if you found a new distinction.
For me theorizing is about creating, introducing or modifying concepts, but I think I mentioned that before.
I oppose Dirty Theory to Pure Theory.

I think I knew about this difference long before, I even wrote about it (all my quotes are excerpts I used in my Master Thesis about fragmented, Discontinuous Thinking and Writing, Aphorisms, Maximes). But it’s my last blog post that made me realize that Dirty Theory was really what I wanted to produce. In that post, I only slightly camouflaged the occasion of the distinction between memories as experience and as stories, ie. my having met an ex-girlfriend I was very much in love with 10 years ago for the first time after 8 years.

N.B. One of the reasons of doing theory of art and art-criticism where works and pictures play an essential role is that I wanted to get out of producing texts about texts about texts… . This is probably also one of the reasons why I co-founded a start-up.

So is pure theory always theory-based theory? No. You can write an original piece of pure theory that’s not dependent upon another piece of theory. It’s pure theory if you don’t account for the real-world experience from which it arouse. Pure theory is theory where the theorist only makes theoretical statements, sometimes complimenting them with invented examples.

Purity is gradual. Something can be more or less pure. If you use real examples remote from your own experience – like when you quote historical examples – is less pure than only using invented examples, like most analytical philosophers. If you don’t use any examples in theorizing, you practice totally pure theory. If you only talk about experiences and only hint at some concept, you are usually not doing theory at all. In fact, most of our stories (whoever the teller) include some theorizing, i.e. abstraction, conceptualization, generalization.


In terms of concision, the minimal form of pure theory is what the French call “La Maxime”. Something like the following is a typical Maxime:

« Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire. »

As it is proper of great minds to let you understand a lot with few words, small minds have the gift of talking a lot and to say very little. (La Rochefoucauld, François de : Maximes et Réflexions diverses, Gallimard Folio, 2002, Maxime 142)

N.B. This is a meta-maxime, a maxime about maximes.

Notice that La Rochefoucault – who made the expression and the genre popular – isn’t the only one to write Maximes, and that you’ll find Maximes with writers where you didn’t quite expect them, like here:

« On n’est jamais excusable d’être méchant, mais il y a quelque mérite à savoir qu’on l’est ; et le plus irréparable des vices est de faire le mal par bêtise. »

There’s no excuse for being evil, but there’s some merit in knowing that you are, the most uncorrectible vice is to hurt by sillyness.

This was written by Baudelaire (Baudelaire, Charles : « La fausse monnaie », Le spleen de Paris, XXVIII, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2000, 58), who is not usually a pure theorist in any sense. In most of his texts, the proportion of story-telling (accounts of personal experience) is extremely high.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, like Robert Musil, was critical of maxims (his “aphorism” is my “maxime”), but he himself wasn’t usually much better than the Karl Kraus he criticizes. Like most philosophers , he was somehow (strangely) trapped with the idea that his ideas had to be formulated in the most general and abstract form to be worth of reading.

He wrote some maxims like this one:

„Laß Dich nicht von dem Beispiel anderen führen, sondern von der Natur“ (Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53)

Don’t let yourself be guided by the example of others, but by nature. (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53, all translations are mine)

Now look how different the following remark ends:

“Es ist für unsere Betrachtung wichtig, daß es Menschen gibt, von denen jemand fühlt, er werde nie wissen, was in ihnen vorgeht. Er werde sie nie verstehen. (Engländerinnen für Europäer.)”

“It’s important for our investigations that there are people of whom someone feels that he’ll never know what’s happening in them. He will never understand them. (English women for Europeans).” (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 88)

This (very touching remark) is a minimal example of dirty theory for me. But this is Wittgenstein writing for himself. The Mixed Remarks have been published after Wittgenstein’s death. Looking at the works he actually published or prepared for publication, I’m positive that Wittgenstein would have eliminated the parenthesis had he wanted to publish this maxime (which is, once more, a meta-maxime, where he gives himself indications about the mindset that should guide his writing). Why the parenthesis? Well, I think Wittgenstein wanted to make sure he’d be able to go back to the occasion of his thought to check if the general principle he had extracted had been correct or if there would be alternative principles, maybe also to be able to develop an ambivalent statement in the right direction. I use this kind of notes myself.

There are writers that tend to be dirty theorists, others that don’t. Botho Strauss and Baudelaire are very dirty theorists, Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust are rather dirty theorists (but not always), Karl Kraus is a pure theorist in his aphorisms, a dirty theorist in his essays… . Wittgenstein? Even though he criticizes the aphoristic form, he is as pure a theorist as you can get (in his published works). Most of the Tractatus could be called a caricature of Pure Theory.

Why write Dirty rather than Pure Theory?

Now, what’s the point of Dirty Theory? Well, I think one of the main points is the one Kant (rather a pure theorist most of the times, but not always) famously made: Concepts without observations are empty.

This is not what Kant meant it to be, but it could be a principle for writing. Use observation and not only concept. Why? Because it will clarify your concept. It will show where it can be applied. And what observation could be better than the observation which gave you the idea of the concept?

Well, actually it seems like a fictive one  – from which all the contingent aspects of reality and the private implications have been removed -could be better. This is how most theorists (implicitly) answer this question. But there is something hypocritical to making up examples instead of just using the experience where your thought originated, and something doubtful too. In Musil’s Man without Qualities, this is one of the topics. I also tend to think that there’s a richness in your initial experience which the concept doesn’t necessarily account for entirely.

Like Musil, I also feel like it was somehow unethical to pretend that theory adopts the point of view from nowhere. And it’s much less fun. Obviously, for theory inbreed the question doesn’t really arise. But theory inbreed is not what I’m interested in.

As what I want to practice is Dirty Theory, well, I believe that renaming this blog is quite appropriate.


On reading and publishing of older philosophers

I personally like to read books or essays written by older philosophers. Having proved that they are able to comply with the rules of traditional philosophical publishing, they don’t feel that annoying urge to spell out every detail any more and thus they leave more room for my own thoughts.  This seems tremendously important to me not because I’m so vain, but because I firmly believe Schopenhauer is right to say that “in reading, our head is […] really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. […] Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it.” Books by older philosophers leave, I say, more space for your own thoughts, they are less obstinate, less eager to convince the whole world that they are right and thus more inspiring and, usually, their subjects are of higher interest to me.

There was a time when « to publish » was still a success-verb in a more interesting than the grammarians’ sense. At that time, philosophers would usually have to write a lot of highly technical or highly historical papers before they got to publish deep thoughts of their own. In the « Analytic »tradition, the « rite de passage » seems to have been (and within some contexts still is) the publication of very technical papers, in the « Continental » tradition, it was the historical kind which would give an author the credibility to think some thoughts of his own. It would be easy to illustrate this, but it’s not my point. You could pick nearly any philosopher who’s as famous as you can get being a philosopher in the 20th century. I just let you check Bertrand Russell’s and Martin Heidegger’s biographies to see what I mean.

After some purely historical or technical papers, wich were obviously philosophical enough to be accepted as philosophical works by those endowed with the power to accept or reject works for publication, they would write a few more of each kind, and fifteen years after they first sat in a philosophy lecture, they would start to express a few thoughts of their own.

Apart from the approach (technical vs. historical), there was (and still is) also a limited choice of subject matter that was (and still is) automatically admitted as being philosophical: with very few exceptions, if you wrote about Hegel, nobody would have contested that you were doing (Continental) philosophy and it was the same if you wrote about knowing that and knowing how if you were after a chair in Analytic philosophy.

And as you grew older, had written a couple of difficult books, been published (you used to be published, really!) in a couple of important journals, and held a couple of chairs, you would start to think about Art or Religion, or about more ordinary questions, like bullshitting. Maybe you would hold some lecture and eventually have it published in a book or you’d write an essay on a subject you had never treated before for a book edited in your honor.

You wouldn’t be as strict (with yourself), or as precise as in the first 30 years of your career. But you would be more fun and insightful, your books would presuppose less interest in history and less technical skills and your (at least potential) readership would grow. In terms of potential reader (or viewer-ship), the ideal would probably be to be interviewed, like Deleuze, because videos have the highest chance of having high impacts today. Videos also seem to allow for the lowest imaginable standard for philosophical comment, and are ideal places for bullshitting as when Deleuze “argues”: “My fundamental reproach to dogs is that they bark. Barking seems to be the most stupid cry I know.” This quote happens to exemplify Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, which he takes to be characterized by a speaker “not caring about the truth or falsity of his assertions”.

Now the good thing about being an older philosopher is that you would be happy spelling out some good idea, not feeling you needed to develop each and every one  of them into an academic paper. Most of the times this is actually very nice to read for the reasons stated at the very beginning.

Nelson Goodman’s later essays like « Twisted Tales » or « How Buildings Mean » or Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit itself are some of the works of older philosophers that I like. And even so: had Frankfurt written On Bullshit when he was still young, before Writing On Truth and on Descartes, he might have ended being a popular, but probably not an academically successful philosopher. As opposed to writing on bullshit when you are young, writing on bullshit when you are old is pretty cool. And probably this makes book a little famous, and definitely more so then it’s content. In this sense, it is different from “What is it like to be a bat?” – which could have been, but isn’t an old philosophers essay – which unites coolness and philosophical relevance.

Or wait! Harry Frankfurt would not have published On Bullshit, because nobody would have published young Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit – or so we can suppose. To be published was a sign of success when Harry Frankfurt (born 1929) was young. On Bullshit is fun to read, but it’s not as systematic or as dense as it would have to be to live up to the high academic standards of publishable-from-a-young-philosopher. But now, as publishing is not a success verb (« as being a sign of success ») any more, I can publish an essay on bullshit – or bullshitting – myself. I can do it here and soon. And so I will.

N.B. I cheated a little. I quite consciously mixed up being a young philosopher and being young when Frankfurt was young, which is, say, until 1969. In 2005, it might actually have been possible for a young philosopher to publish a book on bullshit and the very same book Harry Frankfurt published, just because it’s subject matter was fancy enough. But it would have been much harder to do for me than for him. Now, one could ask if that’s rightly so, as when Karl Kraus says (something like) « The quote was supposed to be from Hofmannsthal and it was bad, but it finally turned out that it was from Goethe and quite good. »

Sartre vs. Camus: the two big approaches in Marketing

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existence precedes essence”, according to Albert Camus “Essence precedes existence”. Sartre conceives of human-beings as “thrown into the world” without any sense so if they don’t want to get lost they have to give themselves a purpose, their essence, something to live for.

According to Camus, we are born with certain preferences. So the essence is already there when we come into being. Essence precedes Existence.

I think these are the two main ways to explain the relationship between Product-or Service-Development and Communications, Marketing, and Advertising.

The ideal Sartrian product or service already exists when you decide what you want to do with it, i.e. what you want its essence to be.

Post-it: A false Sartrian product

It could seem like the glue for the post-it stickers at 3M – where the engineers aimed at creating standard glue, but the glue was not sticky enough – was a perfect Sartrian product. But it really isn’t. The product came into being with an essence, it was glue that was sticky enough to make something stick to something else, but not so sticky that it would not go off without a trace if you pulled. It’s only that this essence was not immediately apparent and seen to be useful when the glue was created. The main creative act was not making the glue, but understanding it’s main property (it’s essence) and realizing what it could be used for. Once you understood what it did, you could attach it to paper, and then conceive the communications according to the product’s essence.

Coca-Cola: The real Sartrian product

The real Sartrian product or service doesn’t have any essence, known or unknown, when it comes into being. You randomly give it an essence. So here’s the process that yields Sartrian produts: You create something that doesn’t have any particular purpose or use. Maybe it’s just another soda that tastes ok. Then you start giving it an identity. You call it Coca-Cola or Sprite or Schweppes, you link it to Christmas and to beaches or to a certain sport and certain celebrities etc. and this gives it an identity, an essence.

Soda Pops: The real Camusian product

The ideal Camusian product has been thought through in every detail before it’s given birth. This is what happens with lifestyle-products supposed to fill a niche. You realize that there is a soda pop, a sweet highly alcoholic beverage, “based on Vodka”, with a “Russian” look and advertising, that sells pretty well,  and so you decide to create a similar drink that’s based on, say,  Rum, with a Cuban look and advertising. You determine what the product has to look, taste and “feel” like based on a precise preconceived idea about the niche it is supposed to fill. In this case the essence precedes the existence.

Webservices: Sartre and Camus combined

If a product has a certain complexity, like, say, a website offering a service, approaches are usually mixed.

Take twitter, which was created as a “micro-blogging” service, where people would tell their friends what they are doing. Like on a blog, the default was that everyone could read what everyone else wrote, it was enough to “follow” the other person. You didn’t need her explicit approval (she didn’t have to confirm you as follower like you confirm friends on facebook). But then it turned out that people used the service quite differently. It could be argued that the service’s essence was different from what it’s founders had thought it was. They had created something with a certain idea of it’s essence in mind, but they were wrong. So they changed the question and went from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

I conceive of my work at hypios mainly as trying to understand the essence of our service and then sharing my understanding with (potential) users. If some element has not yet been specified, we try to conceive it according to what we already learned about the essence of our service to try to maximize its coherence. I might seem a bit old-fashioned if I say that I like it substantial: I find products that actually have an essence which you can discover – rather than just an identity that someone gave it for no other purpose than making it into a succesful product – more exciting.

(an earlier version of this post was published on – the now defunct? –