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.

Fragment of a note on experience

Identity collapses into ontology the moment a claim to universality displays its falsity by its failure: another universality makes opposing demands. In this moment of undecidability, it must be possible to think of identity neither under the mode of what one is (ontology) nor what one must choose (ideology) but as what one might be (temporality). The critique of ideology must then have a twofold character: 1) to show that futurity is collapsed into the present and 2) to show that the future is named as ideology itself—i.e., as that which “is not” in the very name of negation. The name of negation under the operation of ideology is time: i.e., what “is not” as negation taken either as immediate (perception) or mediate (experience). To say that experience occurs “in time” is, strictly speaking, redundant: experience simply is time, not insofar as time is (passively) constituted but, rather, given that there is experience at all in the (double) phenomena of consciousness and subjectivity. Time is existence. Thus, strictly speaking, things do not “exist” (neither do they simply “exist-for-consciousness”). Existence is simply not a term that applies to objects: only consciousness exists. The idealist question “would the world exist without perception?” is nonsensical in just the same way “what time is it on the sun?” is.


(The following is from an e-mail sent to a colleague that attempts to make sense of Agamben’s notion of “infancy” and, more generally, the earlier works.)

At the end of Language and Death, Agamben says that the point is to conceive “of the Voice as never having been, and it no longer thinks the Voice, the unspeakable tradition. Its place is the ethos, the infantile dwelling—that is to say, without will or Voice—of man in language. This dwelling, which has the figure of a history and of a universal language that have never been and are thus no longer destined to be handed down in a grammar, is that which remains here, to be thought”. Right after this passage, Agamben mentions the Eleusinian mysteries again with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology and says that “every beginning is, in truth, an initiation, every conditum is an abs-conditum”.

It is precisely at the moment where the disparity between what is said and what is meant opens up that Hegel introduces the Eleusinian mysteries such that the impossibility of saying what is meant becomes the very condition of possibility for the power of language to (re)present reality in/as experience. This would be the “divine nature” of language as the experience of death (negativity) according to which death is both the limit of knowledge even as this horizon is surpassed by virtue of the mystery wherein the unsayable remains at the heart of language in its universality and, more importantly, also in the sense in which the divine/universal sublates death and negativity into the experience of presence in consciousness. (This is what makes the very idea of “beginning” problematic in the Phenomenology—the “initiation” into the mysteries is a “beginning before the beginning” where the condition for the conditioned is a condition precisely by withdrawing or subtracting itself as a condition.)

In Infancy and History, infancy is described as a being-silent about its knowledge, or “standing guard” over knowledge in silence (un silenzio da custodire). Here the cue is taken from Benjamin’s analysis of the poverty of experience and the problem of recuperation the very possibility of experience. The point is not a memorialization of experience/history, which would take the form of a speech or discourse (say, of the Holocaust) or a giving voice to the invisible or disenfranchised—to bring them into the totality of history, which is to say, within a conception of experience that is still transcendental or idealist, which Agamben wants to move out of by the “linguistic turn”. In this sense, I see the idea of infancy as a critique of the Hegelian-Marxist solution to the “destruction of experience” insofar as the latter’s conception of experience is basically that articulated in paragraph eighty-six of the Phenomenology. The idea of a fundamental passivity in modernity (of “undergoing” experience without the possibility of negation or critique in thought) isn’t to be resolved by recourse to dialectical or transcendental subjectivity but rather in attention to the subject of language.

But this sub-ject “of” language is one that is displaced in the abs-conditum of language, which cannot be “handed down” in (memorializing) speech because it is that which cannot be spoken and, moreover, is forbidden to be spoken of (the initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries were forbidden to speak during the nighttime ceremonies and also of what occurred during them). As long as language continues to be thought on this basis (Voice, system/structure), then we will never experience history in a way that does not result in things like the World Wars (nihilism, violence, etc). Here infancy is the silence, the non-speaking, the without-Voice that can make experience possible.

Hence this is a non-memorialization, a being-outside of history (what “has never been”), which is related to the “whatever-being” of The Coming Community: “the antimony of the individual and universal has its origin in language. … Linguistic being is a class that both belongs and does not belong to itself … The example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all”. But the example is also this particular (singular) thing at the same time. “Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called”, i.e., in the name. “Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. … These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. … They are exemplars of the coming community”. This might, like Nietzsche, simply be nominalism grandly stated, but I take the point to be that experience requires the possibility of a new naming (in the “infancy” analogy, it’s the fact that it’s prior to naming that the infant is an infant, i.e., one who cannot (yet) speak). But this isn’t a naming in the sense of a singular demonstrative reference (e.g., Hegel’s “diese”), since that obviously puts us back into the problem of the Voice. But this is where I don’t know what Agamben’s positive program would look like. The idea seems to be that we will always fall back into this problem of the Voice, but the point is to look for the possibility of new articulations, of new voices or radically other voices, such that we continuously face the problem of infancy, perhaps as a new mode of critique.

The only thing I can think of that might provide a clue about this “new voice” is the quasi-mysticism in Agamben’s work on poetry. In his poetics, Agamben says that the model of knowledge he’s developing is one that “has provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity [the Benjaminian point], and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of emblematic form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflection on the sign [recalling that infancy is also cashed in terms of structure as well as history, which ultimately seem to be equivalent]”. Yet Agamben’s analysis of poetry, as far as I can tell, seems to be something like an erotic mysticism that produces something like divine ecstasy: a “topology of joy, of the stanza through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain unappropriable”, which is nothing other than the vision of God in medieval writing such as Dante (whom Agamben analyzes).

Or, on the other hand, I don’t yet see that infancy isn’t just Nietzsche’s historia abscondita (GS 34) or the child of the third metamorphosis.


Habermas: “… a progressively rationalized lifeworld is both uncoupled from and made dependent on increasingly complex, formally organized domains of action, like the economy and the state administration. This dependency, resulting from the mediatization of the lifeworld by system imperatives, assumes the socio-pathological form of an internal colonization when critical disequilibria in material reproduction–that is, systemic crises amenable to systems-theoretical analysis–can be avoided only at the cost of disturbances in the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld–that is, of “subjectively” experienced identity-threatening crises or pathologies.” (Dump the functionalism, and one gets either Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Deleuze.)

Example: On 4 October, a pair of Wal-Mart employees in Ohio exchanged marriage vows in the lawn and garden section of their store “amid the retailer’s flowers, shrubs, and lawn chairs”, so reported the news story.


If there is any indication that the concept of surrealism has lost its world-historical significance, it is in the habitual application of this term to any fantastic intermingling of the mystic, representation, and the narrative of disaffected everydayness. No surrealist—nor for that matter a true Camusesque existentialist—could weep at the absurdity of ‘a wild sheep chase’. The existentialist, rather, would laugh, which is precisely what never occurs, what is excluded, from this kind of pursuit—the pursuit of nothing other than the weakness of one’s own spirit that remains opaque even as one struggles desperately never to surrender finitude for world-historical meaning. Time, rather, “is surely passing” for yet another—one wonders why we need more—alienated soul who can neither lose himself in everydayness—in a world of universal anonymity—nor transcend this everydayness through the standard retreat (“spirit quest”) into the inwardness of heaven (“the wind’s private thoroughfare”). All that is left is the trace of a melancholy catharsis that would be nostalgic were it not for the fact it has no object when one’s culture itself has been interrupted by war.

Images III

In the middle of an astonishing text (and no less remarkable because it is particularly damaging to my recent defense of Deleuze), a friend wrote the following:

“… The evental function here separates us from the sterile transcendental illusion, and from the need to desire destruction.

If meaning or the possibility of experience require contrast, then with what would we contrast the real except the impossible? God or the impossible par excellence serves the most vital function not just for elucidating existence (philosophically) but for experiencing existence. This is not something that “belongs” to philosophy as a therapeutic interval, and gets discarded in a return to life. This is philosophy’s belonging to life, as its meaning. The meaning of existence is still meaning, though the meaning of meaning is existence.”

(Full text posted on 18 October at the link to the right.)

Indulge me an oblique approach: Every image, Nancy says, is sacred. But this can equally be said of the concept insofar as religion is the attempt—in good or bad faith—to form a bond with what is separated, absolutely other, unnameable, unpronounceable. Hence, I propose two exemplary religious images: (1) the Tetragrammaton. So inviolable was this word (Word) to the ancient Hebrews that it was soon lost and now exists only in the memory of a few Qaballic mystics. And (2) the Om. Man does not speak the Word; either one articulates the sound of a Brahman mantra or utters, simply, “Mu”. The Word is not the ordering vessel of the world (logos spermatikos). The Word does not “divide being” (Cratylus). Neither does the Word divide us “from” being (or even bring us “to” being). In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, for example, we read: “There are two [!] Absolutes, Sound and Silence … Inundated by the Absolute-that-is-Sound, one arrives in the Absolute-that-is-Silence”.

The danger of these images, as we know, is that on their basis religion becomes the surest path to the death drive, one species of which is the frenetic and ascetic quest for mystic intuition of “ineffable experiences” into immortality. Neither, however, can we oppose (rational) philosophy to religion if for no other reason that, as the same friend who said the above has observed, it is a mistake to confuse the death of God with the end of history. Philosophy, rather, since the time of the presocratics has always been (i.e., is originally) religious.

This origin of philosophy is not, as those such as Freud and Jaspers have suggested, a primitive feeling of the divine within us nor its mistaken call. The origin, deconstruction tells us, is always double. The identity, the in-itself, of the origin immanently implies a reference to itself (qua origin and not to another division of itself) from which productivity and expression emerge as world, as logic, and as subject. Religion is thus immanent to philosophy itself insofar as this origin is unnameable (or “dark”, as Desmond would say) from the point of view of its world. Religious thought occurs neither in the space of mediations nor immersed in the darkness of the origin but, rather, in the space between these.

The conceptions of thought as edifying or therapeutic are extraordinarily varied and might even include some whom we might initially not want to cast in these terms (in addition to the assorted conservatisms around like Nussbaum, Hadot, Strauss, et al). One is Marx insofar as the function of philosophy is demystification of ideology (seeing through ‘distorted communication’, etc) for the sake of the material construction of free humanity. Another is Kierkegaard insofar as the function of thought is to negate totalization and edify the soul against skepticism by the construction of ideal structures for linguistic and cognitive reduction for the sake of an abstract existence (that thus requires the supplement of Christian faith to prevent a lapse into full-fledged nihilism).

In both cases—and their possible source of redemption—one sees a curious intermingling of the aesthetic and the religious that fails to live up to its promise. The one implants us by the feet and the hands into the earth and tells us that no height, no ecstasy is forbidden. The aesthetic here is what Nietzsche and Deleuze would call the affirmation and the immanence of life: not an affirmation of being because being is purely this power, this conatus essendi. Nietzsche’s/Zarathustra’s naïveté, however, consists in the doubling of this affirmation: the child’s affirmation of the affirmation. And yet this is not quite an excess. The master of excess reminds us that one only finds a real excess—that is, the explosion of an essence that pierces the sky, the limit of existence—in naked eroticism, in death.

Death is sunken into the earth, into the rhythms of nature and, thus, into life itself, just as the light of the sun pierces the earth’s skin. One often forgets the subterranean forces of decomposition and generation. But this immanentism of death forbids any commerce with any beyond of being, since all being refers either only to itself or to its conatus essendi, its will to power.

But power cannot be its own justification: the affirmation must be affirmed. This used to be the work of God (Aquinas, Leibniz, etc), particularly insofar as Being and the Good were identified (and evil consisted of a simple privation of being—Derrida, among others, has demonstrated the political consequences of such an error); and then by the autarkic moral consciousness (Kant et al). This remains the problem of religion today between fact and meaning. We cannot be done with religion (partial response to Gauchet) because the sacred, the unnameable, the impossible is the real, as Lacan as said. The real is that which is in-existent, that which is excluded from thought by thought itself, the invisible of the visible. God is unnameable precisely because he is everywhere and nowhere. (This is, of course, more than the impossibility of contradiction (NB: contradiction is one species of impossibility) and less than either a Hegelian dialectic or a leap to an other logic [logos].) The real is on neither side of the double origin; the duality of the origin (of the Absolute) is impossible—the two sides must be rigorously separated, which means that the double function of the origin cannot be limited.

What experience (taken in all of its philosophical senses) requires, thus, is not religious faith but religious thought in its perennial task: the thinking of the infinite.

Tragedy II

We are all looking for a good time. Life is too short and there is no day but today (time flies, time dies). If we are all born into sin, then redemption can only consist in the denial of sin by taking the sin of someone else’s failures onto my own soul—into me, eating of this bread, swallowing your pride. But always someone else—not “you” but “that one”, another one … no one.

“Don’t hate me for my beauty!” How can I give you a mile when all I have is an inch, caught between me and you, between me and myself? If I wanted to show you my nakedness, I wouldn’t wear fishnet. “Look! LOOK AT ME … and let me disappear.”