I started asking philosophers about thought in interviews. Some reacted scornfully to my question, as if it were too naïve. Consider a senior professor with mainstream French philosophy credentials.
Ethnographer: I keep trying to understand [what ‘thought’ means]…
Philosopher: We’ve talked a lot about Aristotle, about Plato, about Descartes, about Spinoza, about Hegel, about Kant, about Derrida — everyone knows what it is, it’s philosophers and thinkers, it’s a perfectly identifiable object, these are people who have written original, interesting things, which help to understand their worlds, often in such a way — by inventing thoughts, words to express them, and who have a systematic vision of things which is complete enough. Never totally complete, but complete enough; much more complete than other people of their epoch.
Philosopher (with a tone of finality): All in all, that’s a sufficient characterization.
Ethnographer (trying to save face): —OK, thanks very much.—
Philosopher: It’s really not a strange object.
On this account, thought was indeed not strange. It was the familiar province of the usual Great Man. Here “thought” corresponds to a familiar set of canonized social actors — Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, Kant, Derrida, etc — who are classified as “thinkers.” What distinguishes and legitimates these actors is their relationship to the prevailing “vision of things” in their “epoch,” and the fact that the thinker produces something “systematic” and “complete enough.” Perhaps thought helps to understand worlds in “original, interesting” ways, but above all it seems to elevate the thinkers themselves, creating them as a group apart.
It is interesting to see how this system of distinction is reshaped in a second philosopher’s response — this time from a more marginal professor who was not trained in the traditional French academy.
Ethnographer: I wanted to start with this question of what thought is, what the mind is…
Philosopher: Well, there, you have to go back to Greek concepts… It’s where thought takes place, it’s the organ of thought. Thought, it’s a capacity to reflect on ends, to reflect on how things are possible, to reflect on oneself, and, consequently… it’s a capacity to put reality — what one calls reality — in suspense. Thought goes beyond reality…
There’s a point of view that exceeds the facts, which is the point of view of the mind, of thought. It’s that which is desired, which I’m trying to save in a context where cognitive capitalism seeks to annex thought to itself… Thought has become, thought is on its way to becoming — it was always a minor touch of soul [supplément d’âme], today it’s even more clear, the workforce today, of the reproduction of capital, it’s no longer the worker’s physical strength… There’s a major change in most of the developed world, the major labor force today comes from engineers’ brains, from those who are now working with computers, so there’s a major displacement.
Some of the Cartesian conventions were still in place. It was basically the human subject whose mind is the “organ where thought takes place.” And thought is something that escapes from empirical reality by “going beyond it.” But there is an interesting slippage here too: thought starts out as a “capacity” of the mind but soom gets reframed as having a historical life of its own. In a post-Marxian vein, this second interview portrays the pristine realm of thought as being actively threatened by historical developments in the mode of production — by “cognitive capitalism” in particular.
In this view, philosophical thought is fundamentally at odds with a capitalist knowledge society. Thought just might destabilize the drive to accumulation through alienated expertise that was at the heart of its economy. Fortunately, this image also offers the philosopher a hopeful and even heroic role: to try to “save” thought from capitalist degradation. In this somewhat grandiose view, thought is not just a professional activity; it has a world-historical mission.
If we read across these two examples, we see how polymorphous thought could be. At times “everyone knows what it is” and it’s too banal to talk about it. Other times it becomes a sharply political, polemical construct. There is no space here to retell the whole biography of this concept (nor am I a good historian of philosophy anyway). But we might note that radical philosophy in the 1960s and 70s had frequently been very meta and had thus aimed theorize thought and the production of knowledge. Michel Foucault had attacked humanistic images of thought in texts such as “What is an author?” and The Archaeology of Knowledge (both published in 1969). A decade later, Jean-François Lyotard had helped to legitimate Paris 8’s Philosophy Department by writing The Postmodern Condition, a study of knowledge production in the capitalist university (Rose 2014:201–215). A whole set of radical authors in these years were trying to contest what counted as thought, whose thought would count, and how thought could come into existence in the first place. Gilles Deleuze had put this dramatically in Difference and Repetition:
There is only involuntary thought, aroused but constrained within thought, and all the more absolutely necessary for being born, illegitimately, of fortuitousness in the world. Thought is primarily trespass and violence, the enemy, and nothing presupposes philosophy: everything begins with misosophy. Do not count upon thought to ensure the relative necessity of what it thinks. Rather, count upon the contingency of an encounter with that which forces thought to raise up and establish the absolute necessity of an act of thought or a passion for thinking. The conditions of a true critique and a true creation are the same: the destruction of an image of thought which presupposes itself, and the genesis of the act of thinking in thought itself.
One could read this as a quasi-anarchism — “thought is primarily violence” — that also puts contingency back at the heart of our understanding of thinking: thinking becomes a series of creative reactions to arbitrary encounters in the world, something that revises its presuppositions about its own process. Deleuze and his collaborator Félix Guattari — always breakneck writers — went on to elaborate an image of thought as a kind of motion among concepts. “The problem of thought is infinite speed” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994:36). That image of speed apparently became widely accepted; I heard it echoed decades later in newspaper interviews with Philosophy Department professors.
To think is to move in an extremely rapid fashion between the analysis of a reality such as it presents itself immediately to us, such as we refuse and critique it. The very movement of thought consists in this game of back and forth between contraries, the junction of opposites, which logic and rhetoric call “oxymoron.”
Thought then is something extimate, to borrow a Lacanian term: not radically apart from the world but enmeshed in an antagonistic intimacy with it (Dolar 1991). Jacques Rancière commented as well that “thought does not separate itself from what it works on, that it is present in the given and in the transformation of its own givens, and not in the enunciation of general theses on the world or on history, the fact that it continually transforms itself with its objects” (Rancière 2012:88).
These brief citations give us a point of departure. They sketch out a field of philosophical discourse that we can only sample. Let us be more concrete. If thought “transforms itself with its objects,” how did philosophers understand this process of transformation? I was generally told that it could only happen in writing.