Notes toward a manifesto for philosophy in the 21st century

1. Philosophy today is divided between two contrary – and both false – commitments: (1) to the insistence that there are “enduring questions” of human life and (2) that there should be “progress” in philosophical discovery (the paradigm for such progress, of course, being the natural sciences). On the one hand, the formulation of any such “enduring questions” is necessarily either (onto)theological or nihilistic; on the other, we have only confused (mostly linear) models of progress. The illusion of “enduring questions” consists in the fact that philosophical questions repeat and we mistake repetition for sameness. The demand for progress is often confused with the demand for “answers” to these “enduring questions” of humanity.

2. Art, Langer claims, is not merely the expression of feeling but of the idea of feeling. “The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction. To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.” A few pages later, when discussing the visual space of a painting, she observes that “pictorial space is not only organized by means of color … it is created; without the organizing [Kantian] shapes it is simply not there. Like the space ‘behind’ the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call ‘virtual space’ – an intangible image. … Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live …”. The autonomy of painting consists, then, not in the fact that the painting is not a tool and thus excluded from the motive space of action; rather, the painting exists as independent (virtual) reality that is not merely derivative or reducible to the material or the sensuous.

2a. Similarly, philosophy is the expression of the idea of an idea or, more precisely, the formal constellation of ideas. Both Spinoza and Husserl, in their own ways, insisted on the emergence of ideas from affectivity. Thought is a sort of bending or folding of affect, which forms both its ground and its effect. Philosophy responds to the emergency of thought in a double sense. (1) Thinking emerges from transcendental, formal, and political conditions for which philosophy must not only account but create (Fichte contra Kant) and atone (Benjamin). (2) We must ask not only what “calls for” thinking but what demands cannot be ignored or unheard.

3. Previous centuries have had their own figures of philosophy: the peripatetic, the cynic, the statesman, the monk, the courtier, the German professor, the writer. The figure of the philosopher in the twenty-first century is the dissident.

3a. Philosophy must refuse the temptations of “relevance” for, if successful in the endeavor, would merely affirm the status quo. The primary task of contemporary philosophy is not to be “relevant” to our lives but, rather, to give expression to the distortions and abjections that make these lives possible, impossible, plastic, beautiful, and diminished. To that end, the paradigmatic objects of the philosophical gaze must no longer be tables and lamps but states and dollars.

4. In a surprising remark at the end of his reflections of the status of political philosophy in the analytic tradition, Williams asserts that “in its insistence, at its best, on the values of unambiguous statement and recognizable argument … its patience … its willingness to meet with the formal and natural sciences … in all this, and despite its many and often catalogued limitations, it remains the only real philosophy there is”. Among his observations of analytic philosophy’s fraught relationship with value theory and often its explicit Balkanization, Williams redeems the impurity of political philosophy in the sense that even within the terms that settled the collapse of the fact/value distinction, any analysis of meaning (à la Davidson, for example) must be determined by empirical constraints at the risk of being “indeterminate and pointless” (Williams specifically accuses Wittgensteinian philosophy for its rejection of the latter requirement). But in this sense, philosophy is not only impure but normative (perhaps even in the ancient sense) because it is itself an expression of a shared life. In this sense, then, philosophy is innately political, not because speech forms the common basis for both, but because sympathy is among its fundamental affective conditions.

4a. Just as Langer famously proposed to think of a philosophy in a “new key”, the genres of philosophy are related like musical modes. What in the same essay Williams called the “systematic demands” of philosophy is not merely the need to “apply” fundamental philosophical concepts to politics but to hear the political in the ontological, the ethical in the logical, and the beautiful in the transcendental.

4b. Philosophy need not choose to be political; the choice to be apolitical is not only a performative contradiction but a surrender to sophistry. But the normativity of philosophical thought is not the same as a “plan of action” (in the same way that a painting is not merely a duplication of the real, a philosophical idea, e.g., of justice, remains virtual). Philosophy constructs the possibility of a life worthy of love, for which we must fight.

The melancholy of resistance

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive. …


when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomes
but when we are silent
we are still afraid


So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive. (Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”)


Today we learned that hundreds of lives were damaged and silenced in one of the few enclaves of acceptance and celebration for those whose movements are policed by laws targeting their bodies, whose speech and gazes are censored by the fear of judgment or violence, and those who until recently were often prohibited from building a home in their own houses. As a human being, I grieved for the fallen. As a minority, I trembled before the violence that looms over all of us. But as an academic I was stunned by the imperative not only to mourn but to think about what happened – not merely to explain the events (the psychological motivations of the shooter, the social, political, and legal conditions that made the shooting possible, etc.) nor simply to ruminate about the devastation of lives and families but to respond.

Of course, we must act. We must comfort the bereaved and offer our support, solidarity, and condolences. We must sign petitions and donate our blood. We must not merely pray; we must act. But we must also think. These moments remind us that it is not a matter of making thought political but recognizing that thinking is always already political not because of any particular commitments but because thinking “has a place” and occurs with others and in response to them.

We often find it easier to respond to injustice. We can name the mechanisms of injustice and trace its conditions. But when we are faced with hatred and terror we are paralyzed and shake our heads in resignation and frustration. It is not that we must find a way to reason with the unreasonable; nor is the appropriate response to violence a vacuous appeal to “peace” as a mere absence of violence without an understanding of the material and social conditions that make violence possible.

Something like this impulse to understand is expressed in the Buddhist response to hatred not with anger but compassion. Such compassion for an enemy is not to feel pity but to refuse the banal imputation of “evil” to a nature and seek to understand that such souls are themselves suffering and to ask what has caused such suffering to manifest as violence and hatred. Hatred is not so much “learned” as it is fomented by certain conditions.

These conditions are varied and must be resisted in different registers; they can be political (e.g., in the lobbies that contravene the majority will for gun regulation), rhetorical (e.g., “protect the babies”), religious, or ideological. As thinkers, we refuse the epithet of “senseless” violence as a form of resignation or excuse to respond in kind. The regulative ideal of thought in response to violence is that peace is possible only if the conditions for violence and hatred can be known.

Hatred is a form of life but, like all forms of life, therefore subject to construction and deconstruction. Compassion thus demands the courage to resist the expressions of hatred that normalize violence against the disempowered. We must invite the marginalized out of their solitude, speak against the casual slur, refuse the legitimacy of forms of discourse that incite violence (carrying people out on stretchers like “in the old days”), or simply have the vigilance to change our own language not to speak in the grammar of the oppressors. We must have the courage to face not the barbarians at our gates but the ones who are within and with whom we must share the life that remains.

“You must change your life” (Characters III)

1. The hand moves with the slightest and even unconscious impetus but the will refuses to budge, even with our best intentions. To explain how the mind moves the body is one of the easy problems; how, instead, is it possible for the mind to move itself? We resolve and yet we return again; we realize our true intentions and yet we persist; we notice that we have failed to satisfy our commitments even as we thought we had. “Whence this [monstrosity]*”, Augustine asked, that “the mind commands the mind to will, the mind is itself, but it does not do it”. The riddle and the solution are presented in a simple reductio: to move itself, the mind must be divided against itself and yet also, to be itself, unified as one mind. The conclusion – the “binding problem” – is inescapable: either we are called to act from beyond our will (perhaps even and especially in its desolation) or we must accept that the mind is not itself.

*Monstrum, which means both “monstrous” but also “wonder” in the sense of oddity.

Perhaps outside Freud, no one struggled with the reality of the divided mind more than Schopenhauer, for whom the human tragedy – which is not to say miracle – is the fact that consciousness arose from nature at all. There is perhaps no greater cruelty than the fact that whether by nature or freedom – it makes no difference which – we are never what we (think we) are, which is no mere hypocrisy but a necessary condition of our consciousness. This realization occurs in those rare moments when the spell is broken and we learn that every comfort has its price in complacency. These disappointments are often, however, not akratic but inertial: hours and weeks have passed blindly. Yet shame is a poor motivator and transforms the impulse to negate into the compulsion to repeat: we find that we are looking into the same eyes, after all, that we have returned to the same place, or that we are making the same confession yet again because we are incomplete:

for if the will were so in its fullness [plena], it would not command itself to will, for it would already will. It is therefore no monstrousness, partly to will, partly not to will, but a sickness of the soul to be so weighted down by [habit]** that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth. (Augustine)

Even when our reserves and our excuses are depleted, habit binds us inexorably to the existence in which we wallow, sunken into the past by persistent, unconscious recollection in every distraction and enjoyment. We “repeat backward”, in Kierkegaard’s formulation, seeking redemption for the past in the past as if what is missing can be brought to light as long as we persist.

**Consuetudo, which also can mean sexual intercourse.

There are moments, however, when we must stop, not because the next step is perilous but because it is not. “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking”, Camus observed. The nihilist and the misologist agree that thought is an arrest of life but for the wrong reason. It is not the ground itself that we must fear but we invite peril when we turn our gaze upward toward the sun. Life already tends toward death, particularly when we walk timidly with our eyes lowered. Thought endangers life by rejecting it, yes, but Camus’ famous remark that suicide is the only “truly serious” philosophical problem has often been misunderstood: the real danger is not that of a future devoid of meaning but, rather, that we may not be worthy of a future at all.

“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” (Adorno)

2. But is not the secret of redemption that we are never ready for it? “No one knows the hour” because the future – a true future beyond the sempiternal event of Christ – explodes ex nihilo not from the present but which is immediately captured by memory. We anticipate this future by what Kierkegaard called repetition: “when one says that life is a repetition, one says: actuality, which has been, now comes into existence”. Repetition inverts the causal order by transforming what was actual in the past into what was only possible until now – now, as we become who we were. Despair is simply recollection without repetition; death is life without redemption.

We can will (toward) death, certainly, but we must be called to redemption. But what calls for redemption? Our vocation is neither to preserve nor to care but, rather, to change.

Rodin torso

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not gleam like a wild beast’s fur;
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
[Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, tr. Stephen Mitchell]

The stone commands us, Rilke says, when we no longer regard it as a thing but when the divine idea “bursts like a star” as the objectification of the beauty of which we are capable, imago dei. The gods speak to us by speaking through us; but against the desire for unification (from Hegel to Feuerbach), the blessing of divine inspiration compels this alienation of the divine as sacrifice.

Yet Hegel was surely right to see that this alienation is an impossible separation, for it at once demands perfection while denying its achievement (as all erotic demands do). But we are not called not toward perfection (which would be unity and harmony) and the desire to be God is narcissistic and solipsistic at best. The force of the command consists in the fact that we do not know for what we must change because, after all, if we knew that much we would already be what we are trying to become.

We must change because we are not living rightly. But what demands this change is often not an experience of beauty but one of suffering. In both cases it is not my own life that calls for change but the face of another or the silence of the dispossessed: it is not they but I who am not living rightly. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”, Adorno observed, because we have no claim to happiness at the cost of responsibility. Yes, I must change my life, not to be happy with it but to be worthy of it.

What is a transcendental argument?

(The following is a brief note in response to this post.)

Rorty once suggested that the peculiar fate of transcendental argumentation is its independence from and even its opposition to transcendental philosophy. Since Davidson we have been rightfully suspicious of the distinction between content and schema that seems to be central to Kantian philosophy and which falls on its own terms. Instead, however, of the idealist separation of form and content, the minimal, irreducible difference on which transcendental argumentation turns is between what there is and what can be said about it (which holds for any recognizable transcendental argument from Kant to Wittgenstein, Strawson, and Putnam). But the price that transcendental argumentation must pay is truth as correspondence. In fact, any strictly transcendental argument must surrender the prima facie objective validity of any reference other than self-reference, where the latter functions as the essential logical form of transcendental argumentation (“you cannot reject X without presupposing X”) as well as the ultimate purchase of such arguments (which result in knowledge about but not knowledge of). Perhaps against himself – and against his absolute idealist critics – what Kant demonstrated was that we lack knowledge of our own subjectivity and, indeed, criticism consists in nothing other than the fact that subjectivity can always be called into question. But such questioning proceeds hypothetically (“if you say Y, then you must presuppose X”) and negatively, i.e., transcendental philosophy must reject any particular fact as epistemically basic since all such facts are subject to constitutive rules governing the possibility of their interpretation, viz., qua facts, but which themselves say nothing about the world. All transcendentalism is therefore a structuralism that insists on a tripartite distinction of language, thought, and world founded on the excess of each to the others.

Black cryptography: against “political” writing

            What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
            Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
            You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
            A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
            And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
            And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
            There is shadow under this red rock,
            (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
            And I will show you something different from either
            Your shadow at morning striding behind you
            Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
            I will show you fear in a handful of dust. (Eliot, The Waste Land 19-30)

1. Violence and art are the two desperate weapons of the dispossessed. If the domain of the political is structured by the right to appear and to be heard, the demand of contemporary politics in the name of equality is to reject the convertibility between the zoon politikon and the zoon logon echon. Given the choice between the acquisition of property and speaking the colonial language, the oppressed can only scream. Whence the political aporia of Occupy: it was both necessary and futile that the movement could not be appropriated by the political machinery because it could not state its demands.

The negotiation of interests and demands in the marketplace of ideas is only visible in the milieu of exaggerations, clichés, backgrounds, cues, and jingles that clothe our experience. The revolutionary tailors who fashion the emperor’s new clothes are betrayed by the innocence of a child. But, now, there are no innocents. Against the temptation to cover the nudity of real experience, the crowd must bear witness to its fragility.

“Ultimately, nobody gets more out of things – including books – than they already know. You will not have an ear for something until experience has given you some headway into it. Let us take the most extreme case, where a book talks only about events lying completely outside the possibility of common, or even uncommon, experience, — where it is the first language of a new range of experiences. In this case, absolutely nothing will be heard, with the associated acoustic illusion that if nothing is heard, nothing is there.” (Nietzsche)

But the converse is also true: the committed writer who insists on the problems to be solved, by virtue of her insistence, renders those problems invisible precisely because they have been expressed. Rousing the passions, laughter, and outrage of the youth elicits hope and resignation but never justice. The way to justice is opened not by inspiration but disappointment and dissatisfaction.

The desire to be understood “not only invokes the liberal fiction of the universal communicability of each and every thought and so inhibits their objectively appropriate expression, but is also wrong in itself as a principle of representation. For the value of a thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar” (Adorno). What the writer communicates is not an unknown fact or a new perspective but the falsity of our certainty and the anguish of resistance.

Malevich - Black Square

2. There is only one properly ascetic ideal: to deny the reality of beauty. Beauty, as Kant said, is only in the beholder, which is how it is possible for Malevich’s “Black Square” to express the pure transcendental object in the reduction of all possible content into pure substance, which contains the infinite variety of the universe. “Intuition is the kernel of infinity. Everything that is visible on our globe disperses itself in it. Forms originated from the intuitive energy which conquers the infinite. Hence arises variants of form as tools of movement” (Malevich). All harmonious relations dissolve in the black, which therefore contains neither beauty nor ugliness, neither form nor structure, neither unity nor diversity (or, for that matter, unity-in-diversity). Absent Newman’s zips, Malevich’s “Black Square” is resolutely a-theological and a-topological, presenting the object as pure potentiality. Instead of the decomposition of representation into pure sensation (Kandinsky), where no plan(e) and no design are nascent, the black square moves us from fear to necessity, grasped in the urgency of creation, even as all art must cease.

200,000 B.C: the creation of a world

            The world is dull penumbra and disorder
in the foreground where man is found.
But now the stars, concealing landscapes,
reveal the perfect schema of their [orbits].
            The current of time pools and gains order
in the numbered forms of century after century.
And conquered Death takes refuge trembling
in the tight circle of the present instant. (Lorca, Ode to Salvador Dali 45-52)

1a. Wittgenstein famously spoke of Lebensformen and Weltbilder as (quasi-transcendental) conditions of thought and practice. When he first introduces the term “world-picture”, his example is our certainty that the earth has existed prior to our own birth. The contrary idea need not be falsifiable but, rather, would require a radical conversion to another Weltbild (which may or may not have different truth conditions). Analogously to the way the arche-fossil sounds the empirical knell to transcendental philosophy, the critique of the (myth of the) given is simply the construction of a world at the chiastic intersection of the transcendental horizon of language and the material genesis of life.

1b. It is, actually, the second gesture of critique, qua genealogy, to ask what forces bind us to the given, presented as the objective against which the waves of desire and fantasy break. Against such historicism, the inauguration of critique is non-identity, which is mutually exclusive of the principle of sufficient reason (Schelling). A world is, therefore, not a gathering into an All but the totality of the invisible negation of the All, marked by the visible itself (as traces of the invisible), as that which is “behind” the visible in the structures of sense and sensibility.

“Becoming is always double, and it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth. The philosopher must become nonphilosopher so that nonphilosophy becomes the earth and people of philosophy” (Deleuze).

2. There must be only one ontological proposition: against the impossible (self-)coincidence of the One-All (or the identity of being and the good), we must affirm that being is not.* This proposition resides at the heart of the chiasm between ontology and logic, i.e., in language. Between Herder and Heidegger, we have in language not the form of reason but of being, precisely in the distance between the concept and the unity of sensation. Language is transformative not of experience (say, in poetry) but of the world itself through the name. “In the beginning was the Word.” A world in which a being can be named is made possible only in the nomination. “What’s in a name?” Perhaps, a world.

*Correlatively, a-theism must, against onto-theology, acknowledge the existence of gaps and gluts.

Therefore our valuation of a world ranges from empty to maximal because there are no facts (for the same reason that Schelling insisted that we cannot know, reflectively, the relation of thought to being). The sweetness is in the “rose”.

3. In some remote hypothetical catastrophe of natural history, the exuberance of life was suspended by the cacophony of thought. The most direct refutation of idealism, à la Moore, is the existence of a being through which being is (an)nihilated. The moment when humanity began to trample the earth was simultaneously creative and ruinous. The earth groans and rages beneath the weight of innovation and industry and takes its revenge in the anonymous death of thousands.

“A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common—their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present.” (Deleuze)

In “the time that remains” there is only one commandment: to love the world as oneself, which demands nothing less than the suspension of the ethical demands of purity of the will in the name of justice. The only possible repentance for the devastation of the earth is the creation of a world worthy of love.

Les Damnés

And the lightning stroke
that cuts men down before their prime, I curse,
but the lovely girl who finds a mate’s embrace,
the deep joy of wedded life – O grant that gift, that prize,
you gods of wedlock, grant it, goddesses of Fate!
Sisters born of the Night our mother,
spirits steering law,
sharing at all our hearths,
at all times bearing down
to make our lives more just,
all realms exalt you highest of the gods (Aeschylus, Eum. 968-978)

The price for justice is the promise of happiness, wherein lies the tragedy that Aeschylus foresaw in the day that we must renounce the Eumendies’ blessing. We may make no claim to happiness and tranquility when justice has collapsed under the terrible weight of corpses that lie unattended in the street and the heavy gasps of lives extinguished by a blind terror and loathing of that which reminds us of our original guilt. Injustice is mute; no pronouncement of law returns what has been stolen. The law preserves only two things: itself and the fortunes of fate. But for those betrayed by the demands of justice (Abraham was spared from the sacrifice of his child but Agamemnon was not), their hearths cannot be rebuilt with the master’s tools (Lorde). The Erinyes demand sacrifice: not of life but in poverty, madness, and sickness. Such pure violence is the “boundless destruction of boundaries” (Benjamin) where divine fury razes what civilization has built to expose the barbarism buried at its foundation. And from these ruins we must begin again.