A philosophical education

1. Paraphrasing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (where Cicero is himself paraphrasing Plato), Montaigne gives us the famous remark that to philosophize is to learn how to die. We prepare not only by banishing the fear of death through understanding, however, but because in contemplation per se we are most acquainted with death. While initially Montaigne calls contemplation a withdrawal from our bodies, contemplation is a sort of resemblance or mimesis of death by which we are ultimately liberated to our bodies (not from them) in the pleasure of life.

We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good. This is why, for example, Spinoza insists that one who is free “thinks of nothing less than death” (E4p67). The paradox is that thought is like death but it can never be of death.* The liberation of thought from death consists in being (of) death without letting death appear before us, which is why for the Epicureans the thought (of) death manifests as ataraxia instead of Angst, i.e., an affect of life as a dialectical negation of death (to think (of) death is only possible by not thinking of death).

*Significantly, in his allusions to the third way of knowing, Spinoza never satisfies his promise in the Ethics to discuss that part of the mind that remains after the body perishes.

2. If we learn how to die (which, instead of a “preparation” for death is actually learning a desire for the good) by thinking, it is necessary that we learn how to think. It is not surprising, then, that the same duality in thinking (of) death is that which we find in those who teach us most purely how to think. There is always and necessarily a sort of trickery involved in that lesson: we are led to believe that we are learning “about” something (else) when, in the end, we realize that the (real) object of our thought is simply “how” to think. It is true that philosophy per se enjoins us to think—by convincing us that we must think when and because we usually are not—but there are those who grasp that we cannot say that what we’re thinking about is how to think on pain of reflexive failure. Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.

Consequently, the problem of philosophical expression is intrinsic to the attempt to think. There are many ways—not all of which may be successful but a significant step is taken by the recognition of the problem—of thematizing the possibility of philosophical expression (e.g., (eidetic) intuition, the speculative proposition, more geometrico). The tendency toward mysticism results from a fundamental confusion either between (1) the limits of thought and what is actually constructive of it or (2) the relation between thought and being. The proposition that “the True is the Whole” or the ontotheological thesis of the One-All mistakes a reference to or representation of totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought because of the timorous conviction that that which cannot be thought must be other to thought (which is correct) and whose otherness must fall on the side of being (in other words, the mistake is to posit that that which must be thought for thought to think “itself” is not itself, yes, but neither is it on the order of being). What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.

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2 thoughts on “A philosophical education

  1. 0. Love this, obviously.

    1. “We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good.” 😀 One way of filling that out is “by preferring something even to the continuation of life at any cost”, but I bet that you have other realizations in mind also.

    2. “Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.” I take this to be the radical lesson of the return of the signifier @G, but I’m not sure whether that tracks your conception, because that would lead me to back off a little bit from the “we’re only learning how to think” claim. (I.e. in diagonalization, reflection is snagged on a weird object, its own freedom compromised, etc. etc.) So I wonder whether, in the guise of saying something I recognize, you’re actually abandoning materialism here…

    3. I’d need more on the first aetiology of mysticism to understand what you mean there.

    4. “…totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought” Two ways of taking the mistake here? The diagnosis of absolute idealism seems actually closer to the letter there. (This and the following lines, e.g., read like you’re aligning with Hegel’s appropriation of the antinomies as immanent structures of thought.) If you’re leaning that way, rather than toward the thesis that the totality is a contradiction irrespective of whether you try to locate it inside, outside, or as thinking, then this is a new move of yours (afaik), and I’d like to hear (much) more about it.

    5. “What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.” Is this your preferred (or proffered) answer to the riddle of the other day? Is it to be distinguished from what Whitehead might have meant by the same line?

    • In re 0: Well to give credit where it is due, you are of course both directly and indirectly responsible for this experiment.

      In re 1: Yes, naturally by “life” is implied a “good life” but in that paragraph I was really intending to highlight the activity of thought as the transformation of an affect–hence emphasizing the “desire” for the good–as a way to dodge the problem that I see your work addressing (an “idea” of the good).

      In re 2: I see the danger but if you get to object to the vocabulary of transcendence and immanence (which I’m not quite ready to stop trying to appropriate), I’m going to resist the terms of idealism and materialism. That said, I don’t know if I am committed to the “only” in your paraphrase. If push comes to shove I’d probably take refuge in a Spinozistic duality of thought and being, whose chiastic structure I think is equivalent to your schematization of diagonalization and gets us out of the problem of referential closure while avoiding both self-identity and master signifiers.

      In re 3: I’m going to dodge this question too just by saying that I don’t mean anything special by “mysticism” here except the naive identity of thought and being (which I suppose is what leads you to your reading in (4). So,

      In re 4: I acknowledge the problem and may have to accept the accusation you’ve leveled depending on how you take the following claim. When I say that thought does not think “itself”, negating the immediacy of the “itself” need not throw us against the exteriority of being nor capture thought recursively. In the end I will probably try to claim that what is exterior to thought is the Parmenidean “nothing” as neither thought nor being as the reverse of the speculative unity of the two.

      In re 5: Yes and probably not. I know I owe you more (on all of the above) and hope you’ll take a promissory note.

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