The time of thought

1. The opening of Badiou’s perfunctory remarks on Meillassoux’s After Finitude cites Bergson’s often-abused remark that any philosopher only ever explicates or repeats one idea (or what Deleuze would call a “concept”). This invocation should strike us as surprising for at least two reasons: although lip-service continues to be paid to Bergson in France, Badiou’s persistent polemics against vitalism seem to put Bergson in the same camp as Lévinas, i.e., as simply the wrong direction to go, even if the end is the same. It is also Bergson, unlike his almost exact contemporary Husserl (born in the same year, Bergson outlived him by only three years), who is an obvious exception to Meillassoux’s indictment of modern philosophy as being “correlationist” (as I have always maintained, especially against mid-twentieth century interpretations, Bergson is anything but a “proto-phenomenologist”).

Yet Bergson’s place in Meillassoux’s history of modernity is neither here nor there, except perhaps to suggest that Meillassoux’s is not the only way of stating the problem. That Kant’s attempt to circumscribe the unthinkable as unthinkable within the limits of thinking led to an explicit form of fideism is well-known (cf. Pippin’s recent work), but one is left to wonder whether the choice between Kantian fideism and pre-critical dogmatism/realism is a false dichotomy. Nor is the alternative open to philosophy to poeticize on the “human condition” of existential anguish or simply to insist on the psychological uniqueness of the “man of flesh and bone” (Unamuno) over against the abstract universalism of science. Meillassoux is right to point out that the “meaning” of science is not simply its “value” to you or I and the use we make of it (so-called “applied” philosophy in the form of ethics).

The essential modern question is, of course, the so-called foundation of science (or mathematics, although these are not isomorphic formulations): “the Galilean-Copernican revolution has no other meaning than that of the paradoxical unveiling of thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux). But there are two ways of handling this question but, while both take their cue from the Kant, they cannot be conflated. The split between the analytics and the phenomenologists occurs in the paths taken by Bolzano and Frege on the one hand and Brentano on the other. As I have suggested before, the difference is that between sense and discourse/representation. It is not so clear, at least to me, that the analytics were engaged in an effort of “the decentering of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge”, even if there are those among them who were guilty of divorcing thought from logic and proceeding to call the former “psychology”. Nevertheless, if the danger of a rationalistic foundation for science consists in the ultimate occlusion of the absolute under the name of unthinkability, then Meillassoux is right to point out that the limit of the thinkable is not aesthetic but paradoxical. (And yet—might not the very essence of the aesthetic be the expression of paradox or, perhaps more accurately, contradiction?) One wonders, however, under what auspices Meillassoux heralds the return to the absolute—whether in the name of the certitude of science (for which scientists have no need), its veracity (against the fundamentalists), or the surrender of truth to the discourse of science such that if we are to deny that truth is to be revealed in religion, so too the only task left to philosophy is the verification of truths to which it has no primary access because there exists neither the ground nor desire for philosophical thinking once philosophy ceases to be reflective.

This is not, of course, to say that an ethical or political naïveté is a refutation. Meillassoux’s insistence on contingency and chaos falls squarely in the best tradition of the philosophy of difference and, to echo the words of Latour, one can at the least admire the courage of his political commitments, even as one might shy from its theological naïveté (viz., not every theology is a theology of being, but perhaps this particular assessment should wait for L’inexistence divine) or its barbarism.

2. Even if Meillassoux is right about the absolute, there is no legitimate sense in which this absolute constitutes a “foundation” for thought if for no other reason that there is no “progress” in philosophy. While philosophy is in some ways discursive (although it is better to say that philosophy is “historical”), philosophy is not, in toto, a discourse. If science is possible without Aristotle or Ptolemy, this is because science occurs as a (progressive) discourse. This is not merely to say that science is practiced a-historically, although it is revealing that the history of science is not itself science. Philosophy occurs for the one who understands (“understanding” in a sort of hermeneutic sense). If any two scientists can pull Snell’s Law out of the cupboard and use it, the same cannot be said of the philosophical concept. Each philosophical concept, each idea, must be experienced by the philosopher, just as each musician must experience music. Music has not “progressed” beyond Bach, for example. This is not to say music today is no different from Bach’s, nor is this to make a value judgment (e.g., “Bach is superior to Salonen”)—rather, the entire notion of “progress” is simply inapplicable. The student of music will never escape the necessity of learning (or playing) Bach; the student of philosophy will never escape Plato; the student of science, qua scientist, does not, on the other hand, study Cartesian physics. Philosophy is perennial not because of the antecedence of some eternal “human condition” but, rather, because of its very mode or style of existence, i.e., as that which is understood.


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