An old joke

Probably my readers have all heard the old joke: Mathematics is the second cheapest department to run, because all you need are pencils, paper, and waste bins. Philosophy is the cheapest, because you can dispense with the bins.

The implication is that we hold on to everything, even bad ideas and bad work. When I am in a good mood, I think this is probably true because we take even bad ideas and bad arguments as an excuse to exercise our craft, pointing out poor syllogisms and unwarranted conclusions, correcting fallacies, noting inconsistencies, and salvaging good bits lost to prejudice or superstition. Sometimes when I am feeling more cynical, however, I worry that it is because too many in the profession still preserve a notion of the discipline as “Here’s what I think,” legitimated only by degree, pedigree, or reference to an abstruse European philosopher. In some circles for instance, “I’m not convinced” still counts as a hefty counter-argument, as when discussions in value theory center around moral or even aesthetic intuitions.

I recently noticed a new book in the philosophy section by Anne Dufourmantelle, who had previously written a book with Jacques Derrida that I liked. Called Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy, at first I mistook it for one of those gag books like Harry Potter and Philosophy or Napoleon Dynamite and Philosophy, full of articles on “Tater Tots, Ressentiment, and the Least Advantaged,” “Wand Construction and the Sources of Authenticity,” and “Naming-Voldemort and Necessity.” I had to admit that this straightforward juxtaposition of philosophy and sex seemed like genius marketing however, since the type of person who buys those books is probably easily seduced by marketing and, well, sex sells. But no: this was a serious book.

I didn’t buy it and I’ve only skimmed it, so I won’t try to criticize the book itself. But I found a review online that seems to back my suspicions. Let’s start with the thesis:

Dufourmantelle’s thesis is that philosophers have been silent about sex.

It’s still common to complain that philosophy ignores or excludes bodies, and especially when we offer these charges to Descartes and the rationalists it has the ring of truth. But sex? I fear that philosophy has rarely spoken of anything more than sex. The traditional cannon includes a great deal of sex: going back to the Phaedrus and Symposium, Aristotle if you squint a bit, the Stoics quite obviously, the Roman rhetoricians, especially Ovid’s Amores, Augustine’s Confessions, and though there’s certainly a bit of a dry spell in the late-medieval and early-modern periods, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have their fair share of sex as well, and after Freud and feminism get off the ground, it’s like we can’t shut up about it. Oh, Dufourmantelle will note that all those texts are ‘about’ sex but not really sexy, not really instantiations of sex, or erotically charged celebrations of sexual encounters. She seems to be pursuing some idealized Sadean text, “Philosophy in the Boudoir does Epistemology,” or “Luce Irigaray’s solution to the Gettier Problem.” Yet just as Foucault noted, our current obsession with talking about sex is actually the flipside of repression, since our loquaciousness is every bit as mandatory as the previous censorship. Moreover, we are inundated with thinkers insisting that if we could only ‘say sex’ well enough or true enough, we’d all be free, there’d be no misogyny or rape, and the world would finally know peace and harmony.

According to Dufourmantelle, the great appeal of sex, like that of philosophy, is its liberating capacity. Where philosophy frees us from convention, sex frees us from isolation.

In sex, we try to overcome our separateness and to connect with someone else.

Perhaps this why philosophers who want to say that sex isn’t quite as important as justice or truth or (God forbid) the non-sexual Good are themselves allegedly in league with the forces of violence, misogyny and ignorance.

How do philosophy and sex incite us to freedom? Philosophy encourages us to avoid platitudes and question received opinion. Sex is a place of “danger for anyone who seeks to subject others”.

This last claim is what I’d actually like to see justified the most. As the reviewer also notes, this is an absurd assertion that requires a justification that properly addresses the criticisms of modern feminists, yet Dufourmantelle ignores that requirement. Sex may be ‘dangerous’ to rapists and misogynists, they may ultimately be prosecuted for their crimes or fall in love with their victims, but sex doesn’t seem to have properly ‘endangered’ the institutions of misogyny and rape. From the perspective of justice rather than from the perspective of sexology, rape and misogyny are some of the primary bads served by sex and sexual desire, and it’s precisely in light of this miniature ‘problem of evil’ that sex (or sexologists) have a lot of (self-)justification to do.

Perhaps feminists, our contemporary philosophers of sex, depend on outmoded conceptions of autonomy and informed consent? After all, the riskiness of sexual contact is that you can’t know what will happen until the sex is already underway. You may end up falling in love, developing a new fetish, or experiencing something extraordinarily traumatic, but because sex is an unforeseeably pure hazard, you can’t know in advance. Thus, the argument goes, sexual actors are liberated from precisely the kind of calculation and comprehensive ‘saying beforehand’ that would be required by a conception of autonomy that entails informed consent to risk and hazard.

In that form, this argument seems like a perfect candidate for the waste bin, if only we could afford one. Under the guise of some very unsexy work on determinism and compatibilism, philosophers have been working out a variety of theories of freedom that properly consider the problems of contingency, unintended consequences, and domination. I tend to side with Arendt and Pettit, but there are many ways of dealing with unforeseeable novelty. Not everyone throws up their hands and becomes an anti-humanist upon learning of the Freudian theory of the unconscious or being confronted by the moral luck paradox. But look at me: I’ve turned an opportunity for encounter and coupling into an argument about autonomy, sucking the sexy eroticism right out of philosophy again.

One thought on “An old joke”

  1. I am reminded of a truism concerning phone sex – talking about sex, even when your purpose is to get off, consistently devolves into pseudo-therapy.

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