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.

The minor imperative

Williams’ accusation that morality is a “peculiar institution” is no more evident than in Schopenhauer’s reduction of freedom to guilt and accountability. The determination of will in an empirical character accounts for both the phenomenal individuality of action and, therefore, its (empirical) necessity while at the same time remaining fully within the Kantian solution to the antinomy of freedom: insofar as we regard ourselves as noumenon our reflective experience manifests as will and yet transcendental freedom is real only as a particular feeling.

Kant was fully aware, however, of the highly mediated nature of self-affection. Morality is only possible by virtue of the weakness of reflection and a fundamental passion first proposed by Shaftesbury. For Shaftesbury, the moral sense is a reflective affection: not the capacity for generosity, e.g., but the affirmation of such a desire. The capacity to be so moved, Kant argues, however, is itself an act of reason. Yet Kant insists equally on the mind’s receptivity, e.g., to the moral ideas as the condition for reason’s activity. Similarly, in the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant observes that the mind must be “attuned” to the feeling of the sublime in a way that requires the influence of culture (even if it is not produced by it) “in something that, along with common sense, we may require and demand of everyone, namely, the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to moral feeling”. Unlike the beautiful, the inadequacy of the sensibility to the infinite requires the “dominance” of reason “for the sake of expanding it [sensibility] commensurately with reason’s own domain (the practical one)”. The role of such an elevated sensibility is not cognitive but, rather, conative since its object is not found in nature (or, for that matter, even the idea of nature); instead it is the terror of the infinity of reason’s practical task itself that morality must transform from fatalism to action. The binding force of the categorical imperative requires

the determinability of the subject by this idea—the determinability, indeed, of a subject who can sense within [herself], as a modification of [her] state, obstacles in sensibility, but at the same time [her] superiority to sensibility in overcoming these obstacles, which determinability is moral feeling—is nevertheless akin to the aesthetic power of judgment and its formal conditions inasmuch as it allows us to present the lawfulness of an act done from duty as aesthetic also …

The Christian passion gives us an image of this conatus that explodes the encircling tendency of self-affection in the agony of the one who must suffer for the love of humanity. Such love is one of the moral feelings that made the mind receptive to the imperatives of duty, which appear simultaneously as if from the outside (from desperation and weakness) but also as if from the inside (from the strength of will to be moved from a noble self-respect). The will moved from duty is moved irresistibly by the appeal of humanity’s fragility and the horror of its reduction to bare life and such a will is ultimately bereaved by the passion of suffering.

But if the possibility of morality were predicated on actual suffering it would not be transcendental. The appeal of suffering has its power not from its exceptionality but rather in its ubiquity and invisibility. The cry of anguish reveals suffering too late and morality passes too easily into retribution for the fact of suffering or else we are moved merely by pity. Suffering has a transcendental role when precarity transforms cosmic fatalism into a love for humanity.

Yet humanity is never given; it must be perpetually constructed. This is why the sublime is propaedeutic for the impossible task of the transcendental imagination: to experience the inadequacy of its own power to cognize the ideas of reason as the necessity of acquiescing to reason’s practical task: “the imagination thereby acquires an expansion and a might that surpasses the one it sacrifices; but the basis of this might is concealed from it; instead the imagination feels the sacrifice or deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is being subjugated”.* Kant insists that the sublime is primarily not to be found in nature—and especially takes pains to warn us against adolescent awe at the night sky as diminishing us to insignificant specks (for such judgments are teleological and not aesthetic)—but in the formality of the idea.

*Or: “the object of a pure and unconditioned intellectual liking is the moral law in its might, the might that it exerts in us over any and all of those incentives of the mind that precede it. This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation—though one that serves our inner freedom—in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee).”

This formality is necessarily dialectically incomplete: “aesthetic purposiveness is the lawfulness of the power of judgment in its freedom. [Whether we then] like the object depends on [how] we suppose the imagination to relate [to it]; but [for this liking to occur] the imagination must on its own sustain the mind in a free activity” (translator’s interpolations). But, thus undetermined by experience, the reflective mind is faced by its own fundamental passivity, which, however, is logical and not temporal: it is always inferred from its effects. The liberation of ideas from sensible experience makes possible pure acts of expression whose constraints are not the usual conditions of discursive consistency but the endurance of an imagination whose activity is never applied to the given. The constants of expression are suspended and thought is turned from appearances toward the shadows: not to be dispelled but varied according to our points of view (or what Løgstrup calls a “sovereign expression of life”). Here, in this transcendental singularity, the imperative of the moral idea refuses the refuge of certainty either in conviction or in the constancy of sense; without the assurance that the ideas of reason are real—and thus where negation can lead only to nihilism—we are left only with the possibility of creating their reality: it is for this reason that “becoming-minoritarian as the universal figure of consciousness is called autonomy” (Deleuze). Thought’s practical task neither begins from nor arrives at the given but, rather, passes through existence as insufficient to satisfy its fundamental drive.

From farce to tragedy

1a. In a remarkable letter written five years after his presidency, Madison praises the state of Kentucky for its commitment to the provision of public education, observing—in language that precedes Marx’s (and Engels’ independent text) more famous phrase by thirty years—that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both”. Madison’s enthusiasm is directed specifically at the fact that the state is constructing a plan for education

“embracing every class of citizens, and every grade and department of knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty and superficial view of the subject: [i.e.,] that the people at large* have no interest in the establishment of academies, colleges, and universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.”

Here Madison has his vision fixed a century into the future since, prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, less than two percent of the population received schooling beyond high school (and these naturally being the sons of wealthy landowners). He continues:

“If provision were not made at the same time for every part [of society], the objection would be a natural one. … It is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expense for the education of his children, it is certain that every class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every country its trust and most durable celebrity. Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most vociferous opponents of higher education today are also those in the process of retracting the promises of civil liberties for which our predecessors suffered through their very lives and bodies, whether through proposing the largest cuts to state funding for education in the history of this country or through explicit denunciations of “the academic left” (that follow an easily identifiable historical genealogy from the infamous McCarthy trials).

But in addition to the arguments advanced a century later by Dewey to the effect that the possibility of democracy is predicated on an educated citizenry, Madison also observes that such governments require not mere politicians but statesmen:

“[Schools] multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just and equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.”

The democratic provision of the public good, however, requires not only the presently favorable desires of majority opinion. Representation is not of majority opinion; rather, majority opinions ends at representation and the task of the statesman is to deliberate about the possibilities of justice in the face of present needs. Here Madison agrees with Plato: the statesman requires a specific form—and not a specific content—of knowledge, which had broadly speaking been the task entrusted to liberal education not as the reception of information but the capacity to ask, frame, and understand important (viz., ethical and political) questions. (One of the primary complaints of contemporary educators is the inability of students to “think critically”, i.e., to frame appropriate questions, identify their stakes, and establish criteria for their resolution.) Instead of the “right to have an opinion”, education demands that the right be earned by the capacity to know how to ask the right questions.**

**This too was Dewey’s point in an address to a conference of scientists: “the trouble with much of what is called popularization of knowledge is that it is content with diffusion of information, in diluted form, merely as information [think the “intelligence” required to participate in Jeopardy!]. It needs to be organized and presented in its bearing upon action” (i.e., as system). That, Dewey insisted throughout the end of his career, is the “supreme intellectual obligation”: to mobilize knowledge as knowledge and not mere information for moral and social improvement. If there is anything pragmatism understood correctly—and what its critics have misunderstood—it is that knowledge is useful when it is true (it is not, as the more decadent pragmatists would say, true because it is useful).

This critical capacity, Madison argues, must be acquired broadly under pain of plutocracy:

“Without such institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information everywhere possesses. … Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a system which unites with the more learned institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the common purposes of life.”

Madison proceeds, again, to address a future he could not have foreseen, viz., one in which the US lags far behind several western European countries in terms of economic mobility with the one decisive factor being education (45% of people in the bottom 1/5 of the economy who do not graduate college remain in their present economic location whereas only 16% of those who graduate remain):

“Why should it be necessary in this case [of the provision of education] to distinguish the society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of academies, colleges, and universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry [an observation unfortunately disqualified by the succeeding history of the republic] … and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendents; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.”

Yet at no point does Madison aver to the propensity of education to improve the material lot of oneself or one’s family. At best, as Adler cogently argued, the material benefits of education are corollary or subsidiary: they are not its primary function. Madison again:

“Throughout the civilized world, nations are courting the praise of fostering science and the useful arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and blessings of representative government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free government [emphasis added, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, that their political institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter … are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

If Madison is right about the mutual constitution of liberty and education, then the continuing and persistent degradation of liberty (ironically in the name of liberty itself, recognizable as such only to those who can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion) should come as no surprise. In an analysis of transcripts from presidential debates, where the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas occurred at an eleventh to twelfth grade literacy level, the Gore-Bush debate of 2000 occurred at a sixth (Bush) to seventh (Gore) grade level. Political speech, in other words, is addressed to adults with the literate capacity of children.

1b. Madison ends his letter with the remark that, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, that provision should be made for the study of geometry and astronomy since “no information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the globe we inhabit, the nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travelers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings”. Against the clichés of humanistic education that claim to provide insight into “discovering oneself”, Madison’s point here is that we must always understand ourselves as situated in the world and that ours is one among many ways of seeing, doing, acting, and living. Absent cognizance of the world and its other inhabitants, we are easily tempted by the narcissism of enjoyment. “Any reading not of a vicious species,” Madison concludes, “must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the laboring classes”. The vulgarity of such amusements (in large part what contemporary theory calls “spectacle”) is not intrinsic to any particular content but to their familiar effects: e.g., the silencing of discourse, the banalization of injustice, and the sublimation (in the chemical sense) of ethics into enjoyment (i.e., the reverse of Freudian sublimation).

The two activities of leisure in both ancient Greek and western bourgeois society were none other than politics and education. Both required a certain kind of autonomy from economic and material necessity. But instead of the reward of such freedom and the ability to “do nothing”, leisure imposed a grave duty, against which the ideology of “free time” has given seemingly inescapable means and opportunities of squandering for the sake of enjoyment.

2a. In the Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre analyzed the ways in which the everyday as the structural condition for life is at the same time the principal way in which the modern individual is alienated from her life. While Lefebvre was encumbered by the simultaneous mobilization of the everyday as both an ontological and sociological category, the Critique remains the standard account for the simultaneous collapse of leisure into the temporal repetitions of the everyday and the idealization of leisure as an escape from the everyday.

On the one hand, Lefebvre shows that the everyday is never simply given but constituted through the accretion of social and cultural signification.*** But he also shows (as Adorno and Horkheimer had also pointed out) that “the town and the factory complement one another by both conforming to the technical object [which Lefebvre in the middle of the twentieth century had already observed simply defined the everyday mode of existence]. An identical process makes work easy and passive, and life outside work fairly comfortable and boring. Thus everyday life at work and outside work become indistinguishable, governed as they are by systems of signals”. The word “signal” here is deliberate and appropriate: a signal, unlike a sign proper, has a meaning incapable of higher-order signification and functions structurally equivalently to Pavlovian response.

***I disagree with one of my own teacher’s remarks, however, that given this aspect of the everyday, as that which organizes experience and the world through certain spatio-temporal forms, it “becomes harder to endow it with an intrinsic political content. The everyday is robbed of much of its portentous symbolic meaning” (Felski). While on the one hand I accept her general corrective to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” endemic to cultural and critical theory, intrinsic to critical philosophy since Kant is conviction that the primary (and perhaps only) task of thought is not to take its conditions as necessary or as (enabling) limits.

Lefebvre finds examples of such a network of signals and conditioned responses in mass media (again, remembering that he is writing these particular words in the late 1950s):

“Day in and day out, news, signs and significations roll over [the individual] like a succession of waves, churned out and repeated and already indistinguishable by the simple fact that they are pure spectacle: they are overpowering, they are hypnotic. The ‘news’ submerges viewers in a monotonous sea of newness and topicality which blunts sensitivity and wears down the desire to know. Certainly, people are becoming more cultivated. Vulgar encyclopedism is all the rage. The [sociological] observer may well suspect that when communication becomes incorporated in private life to this degree it becomes non-communication.”

Aside from current concerns about “attention saturation” from cognitive psychology, Lefebvre continues to describe the mechanisms of the alienation that results from the uncoupling of signification from significance:

“Radio and television do not penetrate the everyday solely in terms of the viewer. They go looking for it at its source: personalized (but superficial) anecdotes, trivial incidents, familiar little family events. They set out from an implicit principle: ‘Everything, in other words, anything at all, can become interesting and even enthralling, provided that it is presented …’ The art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly skillful [Lefebvre has, in fact, described reality TV forty years before it existed]. … At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call ‘the great pleonasm’: the unmediated passing immediately into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is in the everyday—the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness—the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the ‘news’ never contains anything really new.”

Lefebvre thought that this “extreme point” of closure between communication and information was “still a long way away”. It turns out, however, that thirty or forty years is not so long. “At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with ‘world’ current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial. What is more or less certain is that they are dissociating an acquired, traditional culture, the culture of books, from written discourse and Logos. We cannot say what the outcome of this destructuring process will be.” But it seems that we can: the impossibility of philistinism because of the total absence of a culture about which to be literate (a parody is no longer a parody when it cannot be understood as such).

The obsession with difference after May ’68 in French thought can be interpreted as a refusal of this eternal repetition of the same on which mass culture insists as both the cause and the cure for existential boredom. It is for this reason that Lefebvre calls for the critique of the everyday because “to know the everyday is to want to transform it. Thought can only grasp it and define it by applying itself to a project or radical programme of radical transformation. To study everyday life and to use that study as the guideline for gaining knowledge of modernity is to search for whatever has the potential to be metamorphosed … it is to understand the real by seeing it in terms of what is possible, as an implication of what is possible”. Despite the disagreements between Lefebvre and Goldmann, so too the latter would insist that “the possible is the fundamental category for comprehending human history. The great difference between positivist and dialectical sociology consists precisely in the fact that whereas the former is content to develop the most exact and meticulous possible photography of the existing society, the latter tries to isolate the potential consciousness in the society is studies: the potential [virtuelles], developing tendencies oriented toward overcoming that society. In short, the first tries to give an account of the functioning of existing structuration, and the second centers on the possibilities of varying and transforming social consciousness and reality”. Of course, these two enterprises are not opposed; the second is the consequence of the first, which shows us the necessity of such an overcoming. As Foucault would say—a point that critics of postmodernism such as Furedi have never grasped—the moment power/knowledge is grasped as historically constituted it is recognized in its contingency and the possibility of political action and change (Foucault’s word is “destruction”) is realized.

2b. Kant contra Hegel (and Nietzsche). In a series of what are generally regarded as minor texts, Kant anticipates the stark differences that would separate him from the idealism he resisted in Fichte and what would become the absolutism of Hegel on the notion of history. Kant insists that history is not the continuous improvement of humanity or, in short, that we cannot say in fact that humanity is always improving. Rather, the perfectability of humanity is a sort of regulative ideal of practical action: that we must assume that the improvement of humanity is possible or else, if we were to believe that every triumph of virtue is simply negated by a corresponding tragedy, “it may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce [emphasis added]. And even if the actors do not tire of it—for they are fools—the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will go on in the same way for ever” (Kant rejects, in short, the doctrine of amor fati).

What Kant (nor Nietzsche for that matter) did not anticipate was the ways in which nihilism would be made not only tolerable but the primary object of desire for civilizations in which no other alternatives are presented as either possible or necessary. Against the popular maxim there are actually three inevitabilities: death, taxes, and inevitability itself parceled in distraction and enjoyment.

2c. In Kierkegaardian terms, Kant tries to establish within the structure of practical reason itself the priority of the ethical over the aesthetic. There is no existential decision to be made for Kant because the moral law is simply a fact of reason. On the one hand, Kierkegaard accepts Kant’s rejection of heteronomy: “the person who says that he wants to enjoy life always posits a condition that either lies outside the individual or is within the individual in such a way that it is not there by virtue of the individual himself”. But Kierkegaardian authenticity has nothing of the character of Kantian autonomy if for no other reason than for the singularity of the “infinitely concrete” self that does not exist prior to the absolute choice to be who one is. What leftist critics of Kierkegaard (and existentialism generally) resisted was the propensity for the certitude of authenticity to remain inner in the complicity of the ethical self for an aestheticized existence, even if such aestheticism is transformed into the spiritual immolation of guilt.

Ethical guilt leads in the opposite direction of political action, which is predicated not on the identity of the subject but, rather, in the dereliction of subjective pride in the suffering of others (even if one is oneself the subject of oppression) in what Lévinas and Derrida have nominated as “responsibility”. The standard political distinction between responsibility and obligation consists simply in the fact that responsibility is not chosen and that my responsibility extends beyond my power of knowledge or even of satisfaction, e.g., in the fact that I can be responsible for injustices I never intended to commit. In a certain sense, then, the autonomy of my ethical responsibility is conditioned by the absolute heteronomy of my identity as one implicated prior to my decisions since those decisions must be made within a situation I have inherited.

3. Just as we have inherited the world of our predecessors, the critical political task is to be conscious of the futures we both prohibit and create. In this light, the fundamental imperative of education, Adorno said, is that Auschwitz should never happen again. What he meant, of course, is that education must form minds that are not pliable to the forces that lead us to fascism. What his hyperbolic statement has unfortunately made possible, however, is complacency with any injustice not commensurate with the most radical evil in recorded history (Abu Ghraib, for example, just “wasn’t as bad”). In a sense, politics always happens too late and the mistake of utopianism is to posit the possibility of redemption as the end of political action.

What criticism must resist at all personal and material costs is the reduction of politics into farce and the tragedy of recognizing that the necessity of criticism comes too late, i.e., when “the unthinkable” remains unthinkable because it has already become our modus operandi and when injustice can be recognized only the in the cold****, ironic laughter of those who can be persuaded that “it’s all good”. The real meaning of freedom (or Kant’s “autonomy”) is nothing other than a separation from reality and the given: “truth has no place other than the will to resist the lie of opinion. Thought … proves itself in the liquidation of opinion: literally the dominant opinion. This opinion is not due simply to people’s inadequate knowledge but rather is imposed upon them by the overall structure of society and hence by relations of domination. How widespread these relations are provides an initial index of falsity: it shows how far the control of thought through domination extends. Its signature is banality. … The banal cannot be true” (Adorno).

****We should not forget that Adorno explicitly claimed that Auschwitz was made possible by those without the capacity for love.

À la Lefebvre, though, it is not simply the content of opinion that is false but the very structure of opinion that criticism must interrogate. The fundamental insight of critical philosophy is that the given (the everyday) is never merely given but always (socially) mediated (this was, incidentally, Fichte’s insight into the possibility of ethics, which preceded Hegel’s formulation of the state as the “ethical substance” of the subject): the habits and routines of everyday life are both sedimentations of cultural meanings but also, ipso facto, a necessary condition for (self-)identity. The relation between the everyday and the extraordinary, as Felski argues, cannot be reduced to the opposition between the material and the ideal if only because the everyday is the materialization of the ideal. There is, therefore, no single “everyday” experience apart from specific histories, which constitute such experiences as gendered, economic, etc. The everyday, consequently, cannot serve as the final court of appeal against the demands of the extraordinary but, like the state, precisely because it is a condition of life must also be subjected to unrelenting critique. As Felski points out, the everyday is necessarily caught in a fundamental ambivalence: disdained and even mistrusted for the ways in which the political, economic, and biopolitical forms of power have normalized the inequalities of reality while at the same time our subjection is also that which creates our possibilities as subjects.

The everyday thus presents us with the perennial choice between immanence and transcendence: Foucault and Deleuze represent the most radical attempts at an immanent critique of the given. Contemporary criticism, however, has learned that, properly speaking, our choice is not “between” immanence and transcendence since, as both Derrida and Badiou have shown, despite being otherwise irreconcilable, immanence only manifests through a presentation of the transcendental. The chiasm from the immanent to the transcendent passes through the unpresentable singularity of that which, from the side of the immanent, can never be given “all at once” and, from the side of the transcendental, exceeds the circulation of discourse (e.g., Derrida’s transcendental signifier or, equivalently, his notion of justice as the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction). The sympathy of criticism, politics, education, and art consists in the insufficiency and contingency of the present and what is presented as affirmative in character.

On perjury and consequences

1a. “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Adorno wrote at the start of one of the most remarkable texts of early critical theory. How is it possible, he asks, from* the false world of a “damaged life”, to speak truth? Similarly, Aristotle had asked a similar question with a similar answer: is it possible to be virtuous in a wicked society when the moral habits require both subjective and objective conditions of possibility.

*The English translation of the title is extremely infelicitous here. The reflections are, yes, on damaged life but they are at the same time from or out of it [aus dem beschädigten Leben].

But perhaps the most remarkable trope of our present state is the Christian notion of original sin. The interesting aspect of original sin is not its hereditary nature. As Calvin points out in the Institutes, for example, “… Augustine, though he frequently calls it the sin of another, the more clearly to indicate its transmission to us by propagation [against the Pelagians], yet, at the same time, also asserts it properly belongs to each individual” (emphasis added); not only, moreover, to each person but to every creature, groaning under the weight of a burden it neither chose nor incurred (Rom 8:20,4). The unchosen responsibility for a guilt that defines our very mode of existence—and our fate—is the task that we can no longer ignore under the auspices of Enlightenment naivety.

1b. What the Enlightenment finds so unpalatable about original sin is its apparent fatalism. Similarly, Adorno and Weber are often dismissed for their unremitting pessimism: is there not good in this world, after all? Should we not affirm, as a certain bumper sticker proclaims, “life is good” or that we should “look on the bright side”?**

**I was once asked by a student why critical theorists and modern (avant-garde) artists were so “depressing” and why they couldn’t just take a moment to see the beauty in the world.

The scandal of the modern world is that what appears as good necessarily makes the suffering at its root invisible. Benjamin had famously remarked that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism and, as common wisdom goes, that history is written by the victors. The present situation is worse, however, than even he had imagined: it is reality itself that is created by those with the power to do so. Should we not celebrate the fact that we now have access to exotic grains from around the world at Whole Foods when the very fact that we are importing quinoa from Bolivia is raising prices so natives who depend on the crop for food can themselves no longer afford it and are being driven into malnutrition while obesity continues to rise in America? How many factory workers have to die or be poisoned, underage teenagers exploited, or rare minerals mined in war-torn countries to produce our “unlimited” iPads and e-readers? By how much do we mortgage future generations so we can drive on average thirty miles a day? Or while everyone was worrying about emissions and thought they were being green by buying nice electric cars, no one noticed that the environmental damage in the production of those cars is (or has been) more harmful than that of conventional cars (or that the original electric car batteries were more toxic to dispose of than nuclear waste).

Benjamin’s concern was that the conditions for the existence of evil would be forgotten and that the critic’s task was to rescue the missed and forgotten possibilities in the laughter of those who were now dead at the hands of a history that must march forward. As Arendt has shown, however, we are already too late: evil is now banal. Banality is the brother of irony: what the ironist accepts as unavoidable the other simply doesn’t notice because it is taken for granted: a radio announcer can just assume that women want to lose weight, for example, and proceed to offer special deals “for the ladies” or the culture industry can continue to feed off audiences’ demand for the ornaments of affirmative culture while works like the Thälmann Variations—written to offer hope for the future of the people—remain unpublished and unavailable.

The optimism of the 90s when this ideology of “the good life” found its final expression is no longer tenable. Neoliberals and conservatives alike continue to promise that the very conditions that not only caused the financial collapse and its continuing global repercussions remain the status quo but also that they continue to blind us to the lie behind the notion that “life is good”.

2a. Justice demands not only action but the tenacity to refuse the ideology of hope: that what was once an honest attempt has proven itself to be among the most catastrophic failures of recorded history. In one of the most reasonable things Zizek has said in recent years, “perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing”; to do so, however, we must first render visible what the ideology of “the good life” denies existence. To borrow a Heideggerean sentence: what most calls for thinking is the fact that, despite everything, we are (still) not thinking. Justice must wield not only the sword but also the scales.

2b. And this is the present task of thought, which is imposed not only from the objective conditions of existence but from within thought itself. In short, this is the Kantian point of no return: there is no metaphilosophy. The material and social conditions for thought are either subject to philosophical method (which concern the possibility for thought as such) or there is something transcendent to philosophy. To put it perversely, il n’y a pas hors de l’histoire.

A "fundamental" perplexity

A century before Hilbert, in his Beiträge, Bolzano proposed with astonishing prescience the autonomy of mathematics from transcendental philosophy. In a few brief, lucid paragraphs, Bolzano proposes a simple criticism of the Kantian project: not all objects that appear (to us) must have a form but only those that appear as external. Couple this observation with his definition of mathematics as the “science which deals with the general laws (forms) to which things must conform [sich richten nach] in their existence” and mathematics is effectively inoculated from the grounding mechanisms of transcendental philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.

In one sense, then, it should not be surprising that around 1961 the man who made Hilbert’s program so problematic should declare that there is something fundamentally correct about Kantian philosophy: i.e., that the construction of new mathematical theorems that cannot be derived from a finite number of axioms requires new intuitions. Yet Gödel avers here not to a Kantian notion of intuition—which he admits is unclear at best and, as Bolzano had already noted, simply false for a large part of mathematics outside geometry—but to Husserl and claims that in phenomenology philosophy for the first time meets the desiderata established by Kant. That is what should be surprising since the gulf between Kantian and Husserlian intuition seems too wide for the easy leap Gödel wishes to make.

Perhaps the missing link may in fact be Bolzano. Objects of perceptual experience, Bolzano claims, must have a form but also—unlike, for example, mathematical objects—sensible matter (as he says, something which “occupies [erfüllt] this form). Instead of the usual word “matter”, however, Bolzano asserts that these are also a priori forms (as space and time are for Kant), “except that the range to which the former relate is narrower than that of the latter, just as the form of space has a narrower range than that of time”. We are here well on the way to Husserlian hylomorphism; yet the later genetic phenomenology abandons the constitution of sense hylomorphically. As Henry has shown, for example, and as Husserl himself declares in the lectures on active and passive syntheses, hyle is ejected from its status as the blind content of the real into the life of the monad within which “a unitary nature and a world in general is constituted genetically … according to a constant process of attestation” (Husserl). Is this not the pathos of truth and the impossible ethical problem explored by Sartre insofar as, in his language, the “essence” of the for-itself is nothing other than relatedness (relation to itself, to being, and to others as three aspects of the same transcendental structure)?

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.

More thoughts on immanence

1. In a fairly late text (Tentamen Anagogicum, 1696), Leibniz declares that there are two “kingdoms” in nature that “interpenetrate without confusing or interfering with each other”: power and wisdom. The former denotes the “interior” relations of forces and efficient causes (i.e., physics) while the latter denotes the architectonic domain of final causes (the totality of formal determinations), i.e., metaphysics. The doctrine of pre-established harmony has the consequence that the reality of possibility is simply thought itself (Mercer reminds us that the doctrine of pre-established harmony is an extension of the sympathetic participation of each individual with the divine essence). Only a small but important difference separate Leibniz and Berkeley here: for Leibniz, ideas are not real beings but collapsing the distinction between ideas and spirits simply radicalizes Leibniz’s immanentism: individuals do not “have” or “contain” ideas but simply are ideas. An intentional idea is at the same time a reflexive idea just as the productive understanding of God is self-understanding.

But because Leibniz refuses the absolute immanence to which his doctrine is compelled, he must explain the difference between the confused and highly mediated understanding of the individual from that of God. And it is here that he introduces the notion of a “point of view”: the monad simply is a point of view. But instead of the optics so important for Descartes and Berkeley, Leibniz gives us topology (analysis situs). Berkeley’s optics raises space to the status of a third thing between perceiver/d; Leibniz’s conception of geometry provides us with the formal analysis of form as an account of perception in the monads (qua phenomenal) that, at the same time, explains their irreducible multiplicity (qua ontological): “the theory of similarities or of forms lies beyond mathematics and must be sought in metaphysics” (“On Analysis Situs”).

Yet perhaps the place Leibniz reserved for transcendence is merely a sign whose mode of signification is exactly how he would describe its referent: i.e., whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In a letter to Mason, Leibniz affirms the principle that “a living being cannot die unless the whole universe dies (or perishes) as well”. But the theodical doctrine should not be read merely as a moral principle: this world—as the “optimal” possible world—is thus necessary. Yet it is Leibniz and not Spinoza who is ridiculed for his commitment to the necessity of the world when both men are committed to the doctrine of universal determinism as the ultimate the condition of possibility for the intelligibility of the world. If there is transcendence in Leibniz, it must consist in the possibility of rigorously differentiating the monad he calls God from any other monad.

2. The idealist tradition after Kant recognized that his decisive maneuver in the critical turn was to provide an account of transcendence only on the basis and possibility of immanence, i.e., that the restrictions on the use of concepts are legislated by reason itself: the immanence of thought and the transcendence of world (which goes under the quasi-religious name of finitude). Every idealist—and, for that matter, materialist—after Kant has repeated and re-affirmed this observation: that transcendence (to be beyond being, for example) must be immanent to itself and that immanence, being “in-itself”, must transcend itself (else it is not “in-itself”). To escape this dialectical solution, Deleuze proposes to conceive of immanence not as being-in-itself but as difference. Yet at the same time he declares the univocity of being as a redress to the Kantian legacy: philosophy concerns not the thought of difference (Hegel, Heidegger), which in any case must lead to idealism. Philosophy itself is nothing other than the expression of difference; the “method” of philosophy is deterritorialization or virtualization. This is why the plane of immanence is “the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” (and why the domain of the concept is the virtual while, importantly, the “discursive power of the function” pertains to the actual). The plane of immanence—as the critical point between the virtual and the actual—names the volatile unity of thought and being. Philosophy—this movement toward the virtual—would not be possible if the virtual were merely thought as “potential” or, similarly, if becoming were thought as the movement from the virtual (to the actual). The attempt to identify being and the event destroys philosophy. The plane of immanence names the condition of possibility for philosophy by the non-reversability of the lines from the virtual to the actual and in the other direction—because we must pass through the event. This and nothing more is meant by “materialism”: the plane of immanence not as a substratum but as the duality of thought and nature, neither in-itself (being) nor for-itself (act, entelechy), but affection or life.