The History of Philosophy as Perversion: On Karmen MacKendrick
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The History of Philosophy as Perversion:
On Karmen MacKendrick

It surely must be the case the Karmen MacKendrick has been lied to many times. I know this because I, too, have been lied to many times. Let me be clear, the lies have always been good-natured and well meaning, attempting to make us feel better. I am sure that she has been asked many times about the project on which she is working. To which she must have replied sometimes, “Oh, I have this project on medieval philosophy” or “the history of Catholic doctrine (focusing primarily on medieval texts)” or “Augustine.” And then comes the lie: “Oh, that sounds really interesting.” It is well intentioned, meant to make those of us who spend most of our time on a period that is, in point of fact, of very little interest to the world of Continental philosophy feel welcomed and appreciated. However, I know that it is a lie because none of the leading journals in our field seem to welcome pieces on medieval philosophy, not to mention the history of Catholic doctrine. And when was the last time you heard a discussion of medieval philosophy at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy?

I do not want simply to call people out for having lied to us. I do appreciate that they care enough to make us feel welcome, even if not entirely [End Page 404] “normal.” Rather, for me, and I suspect also for MacKendrick, the lie that is told to us actually speaks a great deal of truth. One of the most important lessons we have to learn from her work is that the texts from the history of philosophy and from Western culture more generally are not nearly as stable as we would wish them to be. Why has our tradition largely passed over Augustine, Aquinas, Avicenna, Scotus, Ockham, and Suarez? It is because most assume that we know what they say, and what they mainly say is essentialism, asceticism, religious orthodoxy, and so on. We know that that is an old and very boring story, made old and boring, so I must assume, because we have progressed well beyond that kind of philosophical nonsense. Yet it is this “progressing beyond” that is precisely the question we should keep asking. It is interesting that many of the great figures from our tradition, Heidegger, Arendt, and Derrida, just to name a few, were returning over and over again not just to Plato, Aristotle, and then Descartes but to the entire tradition that is ours. It does not stop there; the works of Deleuze, Agamben, Althusser, and Nancy are filled with deep appreciation of the tradition that spans between Aristotle and Descartes.

But this is not simply to argue that we should pay attention to this tradition because the heroes of Continental philosophy did. Rather, there is a deeper lesson to be learned from MacKendrick’s work. The very discussion of having gone beyond, of having surpassed, may be nothing more than a symptom of an incredibly deep suppression, if not repression. That is, what if our contemporary forgetfulness of these difficult texts and authors forgets, to borrow from MacKendrick’s Fragmentation and Memory, its own forgetfulness?1 In this way, the forgetfulness of this aspect of our tradition risks a repetition of its worst aspect, risks a repetition of a disaster. In other words, MacKendrick’s work challenges us to think about what we lose by passing over the Middle Ages in silence and what we take up, silently, from the Middle Ages because we have passed over.

The issue in Fragmentation and Memory is the question of the relation between unity or wholeness and difference or fragmentation. The argument could be put quite generally and abstractly: wherever there is a drive for unity or wholeness, there fragmentation will always and necessarily be found. More specifically, MacKendrick argues that it is fragmentation that is, in fact, primary and that the obsession one finds with unity and wholeness is, in fact, derivative of this primary fragmentation. The key to this is memory. In a sense, memory as always fragmented remembers this primary fragmentation: “Multiplicity...


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