The unfinished system of knowledge

1a. When Schopenhauer declared that the in-itself of phenomena is Wille, the nihilist mistake is therefore to conclude that the appearance of good masks a fundamental blindness, forgetting that the third aspect of Schopenhauer’s account is dedicated to showing that the Platonic Idea is the “adequate objectification of the will”. For Schopenhauer music was the direct expression of Wille but if we take the Platonic moment seriously, what we should actually notice is that the idea of the good remains the real of thought. This is why, among the semantic and logical paradoxes, it is actually some version of Moore’s paradox that provides an interesting site for the convergence of metaphysics and ethics: the relevant propositions are not of the order “the world ought to be good” (nor even “the world is not good”) but, rather, in a sentence whose significantly paradoxical structure is masked by grammar: “the world is good but I believe it is not good”.

1b. Crossing the gap between the appearance and the real(ity) of the good is not simply a matter of “having more knowledge” (if we only knew which companies from which to buy, for example) or even being more “self-conscious” since fundamentally the problem is not that of making better choices if for no other reason than that, as we know, the kind of knowledge that would be required to do so is impossible.

2a. The positivist fetishism of facts has distorted our capacity to inquire into the conditions for how knowledge is possible.* If only we knew, for example, the facts behind Nike’s labor practices in Indonesia we could make “more informed choices” because our intentions are good.

*So too, for that matter, the insistence on the “sublimity” of the postmodern condition.

Yet having “good intentions” is more difficult than the subjectivists realize. Similarly, the phenomenological mistake is to mistake intentionality for an arrow when it is more like a field. To take seriously the material conditions for knowledge—which are not themselves objective but the convergence of the subjective and objective—what we require is not “pure reflection” (here Sartre has moved too quickly) but the possibility of what we might call a purifying intention.

2b. “The problem with philosophy is the passage from the knowledge of limited objects to the knowledge of the entirety of what is” (Bataille). This gap is the common source of philosophy, mathematics, and science, even if within each the beginning and destination are often reversed (in, e.g., romanticism, axiomatics, and unified theory).** We falter in the search for knowledge not by failing to bridge the gap but in misunderstanding the character of this putative totality. The insight of speculative philosophy consists not in the identity of thought and being but, more precisely, in the speculative unity of thought and being through the morphism from the system of objects to the system of knowledge.

**Equally interesting is that, contra Schopenhauer, Bataille’s observation is perhaps the one thing that can not be said of either art or religion.

Despite recent innovations in continental ontology, we should keep in mind that while every network is a system, not every system is a network. This is also a useful heuristic to distinguish information from knowledge: there are networks of information but it is the systematicity of knowledge that marks the difference between a database and consciousness. This is why, among the intellectual disciplines, philosophy (or logic for Husserl)—until the twentieth century—has been the science of science*** and why, despite the recent suspicion of totality inherited from Marx, Lévinas, and Derrida, we must learn that not only is it possible to think totality without violence but that it is imperative for us to do so. This is the tendency of recent work in Merrell’s semiosis or, in different but perhaps more familiar terms, it is also the lesson of Rancière’s analysis of the homology between aesthetics and politics in le partage du sensible.

***This is also, incidentally, why the sciences require philosophy (although the converse is also true but for different reasons): the psychologist who can identify instances of fundamental attribution error does not thereby have knowledge of the problems of egoic identity or effective agency. To put it simply, empiricism always misses the transcendental (just as the transcendental always misses the empirical).

Rancière’s question here is for critical theory what Badiou’s project is for ontology: what are the structures of intelligibility that constitute the world of life that we must interrogate both because of but also despite them? What is the invisible truth of the real that demands expression (through what Badiou calls “torsion” or—I suspect equivalently—Henry calls the “Internal”)?

2c. The danger is that this truth may turn out to be nothing. But there are two kinds of nothing: there is the nothing of inconsequence—that nothing happens or that nothing will happen. But there is also the “pure zero” of which Peirce spoke: the “nothing of not having been born. There is [here] no individual thing, no compulsion, outward nor inward, no law. It is the germinal nothing, in which the whole universe is involved … As such, it is absolutely undefined and unlimited possibility—boundless possibility”. For Peirce, the mediation between this freedom to the determination of the individual is quality—the determination of this or that possibility. What is surprising here is that he further insists that “a quality is a consciousness. I do not say a waking consciousness—but still, something of the nature of consciousness [emphasis added]. … A possibility, then … is a particular tinge of consciousness”. Rather than a mystical pantheism, Peirce’s quale-consciousness denotes the material sympathy between mind and object as the ground for unity (“unity” in the sense of a category) but, more importantly, perhaps also how we might approach the possibility of a purifying intention—not as a mental act but precisely in the abstrusion of the mental (or the obstrusion of the cognitive in what Varela has called “enactive structures”). Intentions remain impure as long as we succumb to the fiction that the seat of cognition or identity is in the head, the individual, or the ego. But beyond the materialist fascination of the genesis of the individual from the pre-individual field (Deleuze, psychoanalysis) of metastable equilibria (Simondon, Stiegler)—which at the least does not seem to account for the dialectic between the activity and passivity of thought—the purification of intention consists, foremost, in laying thought bare against the conditions of its impossibility.

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