The desire for the absolute

In some religions, practitioners are advised not to look upon the dead and when confronted with an image of death to avert their gaze. In some cases, such an aversion or refusal to look is shameful or ascetic. Yet not all sacred practices are normative; some might be considered, instead, aesthetic. What is at stake in the prohibition against the viewing of death is the formation of a certain kind of body, which is to say the condensation of some habits over others, the formation of potentialities along some orientations over others, and the creation of certain tendencies of moving, acting, and doing that reproduce the conditions for life. But in every case, this diamagnetism is specific to the living material. In some sense, we might say with Aristotle that there is no such thing as pure matter—not because matter must be wedded to form but because the material is always multiple and always presents itself in composites (which has been a tenet of every materialism since Leucippus). Life itself is the complex of relations that comprise these composites.

This is the intuition to which the French spiritualists (after Bergson) attempted to give expression against the dialectic of the absolute while, ironically, surrendering to that very dialectic by taking it too seriously. Lavelle, for example, insists on a “pure experience” of existence or an “experience of real presence” that is made concrete in determinate consciousness, which itself creates an interval between the cognition and presentation of its objects. It is on the basis of this sympathy for existence that vitalism has always thought that the thinking of death was merely naïve and, consequently, that life should tend toward the fulfillment of eternal life (which, equivalently for Hegel or Lavelle, means achieving the original unity of thought and being).

We see this desire for the absolute disguised in various ways in philosophy. For example, the greatest pretension of philosophy is that thought should have an effect on the world (whereas the gambit of religion is the opposite—i.e., that thought is impotent against the destiny of a contingent world). Under the guise of a persistently naïve empiricism (to which Carnap, despite the genius of his Aufbau, must have recourse since for him there is only one domain of objects), analytic philosophy has simply renounced the task that philosophy has arrogated to itself and, without an account of its conditions, will continue to fiddle while the world (and itself) perishes. On the other hand, continental philosophy has yet to realize that philosophy must be about something other than itself. In both cases, however, we are caught within the temptation both to affirm and to deny the unity of thought and being, i.e., that there is no such unity (else the philosophers would rule the world) or that it is only on the basis of that unity that philosophy exists at all.

Yet between philosophy and religion—i.e., between a material or a spiritualist thinking—perhaps what we need to affirm is not only that “the gift of thinking to itself is betrayed by a thinking that insists only on thinking itself” (Desmond) but also that the very attempt for thinking to think itself is impossible. What is impossible, however, is not simply a negation of the possible, for the possible is itself the negation of the necessary. That thinking should find it impossible to think itself is not the condition but task of thinking. Every philosophy that fails in this task is unjust.