Inordinate Knowledge

Espen Dahl cites Cavell on a register of passionate speech that verges on prophecy, or madness.  In such moments speech seems at the limits, inordinate, vastly profound, vastly ungluing, vastly elusive.  It is speech that seems addressed “to all and no one” (as Nietzsche famously imagines his audience at the start of Zarathustra). Here is Cavell, from his essay “Companionable Thinking”:

the right to enter such a claim universally […], has roughly the logic of a voice in the wilderness, crying out news that may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually. It is a voice invoking a religious, not alone a philosophical, register: it is uninvited, it goes beyond an appeal to experiences we can assume all humans share, or recognize, and it is meant to instill belief and a commentary and community based on belief, yielding a very particular form of passionate utterance, call it prophecy.

This quote, especially the opening sentence, invites (shall we say softly) comment or paraphrase.   […], has roughly the logic of a voice in the wilderness, crying out news that may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually.”  Let me try to unravel.

  • the right to enter such a claim universally”  —  I take Cavell’s invocation of a ‘claim to universality’ in this sort of speech to be an instance of the sort of claim Kant finds in aesthetic judgment.  It’s my invitation for all to consider my claim.  I exclude no one, and hence offer a universal invitation. Whether it earns universal assent is another matter.
  • news that may be known (inordinately)” — Cavell’s mention of inordinate knowing must mean that in this sort of passionate speech I cry out news that is known (if it is) outside ordinary coordinates of knowledge and intelligibility.  The reality I invoke in crying out is off the chart, off the grid of ordinary exchange – as in knowing something is terribly wrong but finding the right-wrong coordinates for such knowledge terribly elusive, and fearing that I may be alone in seeing something terribly wrong screaming before my eyes.
  • may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually.”  —  Leave out the “virtual” and we have something known to none and all.  Nietzsche addresses all and no one.  I am off the usual grids, and so perhaps the reality I sense and cry out is “virtual.”  Would this mean imagined, powerful, inescapable, seemingly not only imagined, first-personally?  I can have wild ‘mood swings’ between imagining that my target audience is virtually none, I’ll be utterly dismissed, or scorned, or only raise eyebrows of bewilderment – and on the other hand, imagining simultaneously that what I cry out can’t help but be heard by all, is inescapably true.

Does thinking and writing in philosophy (and the humanities) err if it strays into this domain of passionate speech, of prophecy — of “inordinate knowledge”?

[Dahl’s essay is “Seeing wonders and the wonder of seeing: Religion at the borders of the ordinary”]

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6 comments on “Inordinate Knowledge

  1. dmfant says:

    are we talking about something which needs to be shown not said, or the coining of some new metaphor, or____?

    • efmooney says:

      I guess I’d say this: speech used to be taken by positivist philosophers as fact-stating or theory-proposing or . . . yes, they’d say this, “nonsense.” So literature and ethics and politics and religion spoke nonsense. As if to escape this nihilism, Witt. and others said, Yes, nothing is said in those domains (they are nonsense) but something is SHOWN in the saying. Then that’s overcome by ‘ordinary language philosophy. Austin-Cavell on performatives manage to display sayings that change the world (the world is different after a promise or after dubbing a commoner into knighthood). Then Cavell introduced a contrast between performatives and instances of passionate speech (a term of art for him). Passionate speech is an “improvisation in the disorder of desires.” Now the next question is this: how is ‘inordinate knowledge’ linked to passionate speech or to prophetic speech? Is it that state where we surely know something in hearing MLK’s “I have a dream . . .” — know in our bones we’ve heard the truth — yet we know in our bones that this is no ordinary knowledge fitting on the usual cognitive grids. What is it? Well, outside the grid so ‘inordinate’. But what more can we say? We need an essay here.

      • dmfant says:

        sometime ago I was following a line of thought after Rorty’s reading of Davidson on metaphor via Kuhn, where in working out an experience/event of the un-conscious (the inchoate/intuitive/affective) one might coin a metaphor that reads as non-sense to the preceding epoch/logic, for instance the incarnation of G-d in/as man, but yet has the potential to shape the coming generations, a kind of gestalt-switch if you will, and than pace Heidegger the work is not so much to keep that initial spark conserved/foregrounded but to generate many uses of it for daily life.

  2. dmfant says:

    S.K., E/O:
    ” It would be of real interest to me if it were possible to reproduce very accurately the conversations I have had with Cordelia. But I perceive that it is an impossibility, for even if I managed to recollect every single word exchanged between us, it is nevertheless out of the question to reproduce the element of contemporaneity, which actually is the nerve in conversation, the surprise in the outbursts, the passionateness, which is the life principle in conversation.”

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