Words and reason

1. Perhaps the greatest embarrassment to Enlightenment philosophy is the persistence of the extremism of stupidity that we must suffer as one effect of the proliferation of social media. On the one hand, according to critical philosophy, the free individual is identical to the activity and substance of the World Spirit that has no other meaning except the existence of politics as historical existence (which distinguishes modern from the ancient state). On the other hand, Ronell has brilliantly demonstrated that stupidity remains equally embarrassing for empiricist philosophy: “as concerns its need to observe and experience the idiot, it crashed against the wall of the real” since any attempt to describe the non-discursive non-disclosivity of the idiot forces us to postulate the natural that, ostensibly, the idiot simply is. Free from the corrupting influences of culture, the serene idiot would never pass into civility and would remain forever dumb. Thus “nature, like idiocy, is an effect of the erasure of naturality, a figure of lost literality” (Ronell).

2. And as both Ronell and Nancy have shown, Kant duplicates this circularity of culture and idiocy within pure reason (both theoretical and practical). On the one hand, pure practical reason only appears, empirically, in the silent will of actually virtuous individuals who possess virtue “as a gift from the gods” (Plato, Meno), quite indifferent to any (philosophical) account of it. On the other hand, Kant’s own self-conscious failure as a writer leaves critical thought “scrambling, ever searching to write itself” as neither philosophy nor literature (Nancy); Kant could never arrogate to himself the name of the monstrous genius of the Third Critique that “gives the rule to nature” at the cost of being so intimately bound to it. Since Kant’s renunciation of literary finesse, “beautiful writing has been feminized and homosexualized, as so many attacks on theory reveal (or try to conceal). Kant, for his part, openly struggled with two heterogeneous entities: philosophy, on the one hand, style and elegance, on the other, feminine, one” (Ronell). Kant writes the limits of reason by a parody of the idiot. Hence Nietzsche: “I have some idea of my privileges as a writer; in a few cases I also know the extent to which familiarity with my writings ‘spoils’ your taste. You just cannot stand other books any more, philosophy books in particular” (Ecce Homo). What Nietzsche’s imitators failed to grasp is that style is not a disguise for thought but its very language. The idiot has no style; in response, the philosopher and the postmodernist make equivalent mistakes, i.e., either to renounce style or to substitute style for form. Style is, rather, the ability “to communicate a state, an inner tension of pathos, with signs, including the tempo of these signs” (Ecce Homo)—and is not this passion the origin of all philosophy? The inequality of thought and experience moves the philosopher from complicity to speech and any philosopher worthy of the name speaks to be heard for a single reason: that to remain silent would be an affront to those for whom experience has been neither just nor magnanimous.*

*This is also why, moreover, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a book “for all and for none”: how does one speak to the idiot? “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. At the end of the day, this has been my usual experience and, if you will, the originality of my experience” (Ecce Homo). But where sense passes into non-sense, Nietzsche no longer speaks as a philosopher but as an artist.

Some critical orientations

1. If there is at least one lesson to be learned and retained from phenomenology, it is the irreducibility of consciousness and of conscious experience. Consciousness is not primarily cognitive, however, but affective.

2. There is no such thing as a purely “literary” criticism. Criticism is not defined by its objects (just as science is not defined by the objects of its study); nor must criticism begin from the presupposed unity of a genre. The dependence works in the other direction: the definition of a genre requires a particular critical orientation. For this reason, despite himself, Leavis more than anyone has understood that the supposed rivalry between literature and philosophy concerns the right to pronounce on matters of value. Criticism is not a third term between these two (since criticism is not itself a genre) but, rather, is a method. The error of continental philosophy is to assume that philosophical criticism must resemble literary criticism in either substance or style (whence the perhaps irreparable damage to the good name of continental philosophy by the sycophants of deconstruction). The rigorous definition of criticism as method remains the unfinished task of continental philosophy.

3. Where the logic of critical philosophy was dialectical, that of philosophical criticism is chiastic.