Vox populi: philosophy and politics

1. Those who would wonder about the political relevance of philosophy—for example, by insisting that there is such a thing as “political philosophy” or by puzzling over Marx’s eleventh thesis—decline to recognize that philosophy, properly speaking, has always been political. This necessity was not forced on it from the outside (e.g., by sophism) nor simply from the existence of doxa (philosophy is not the antidote to either of these). Rather, politics as a form of life issues a demand that philosophy ignores at its own peril on pain of its obsolescence—that its time should come to an end (without ruin and recovery, for such a task is precisely the work of the philosopher).

We find ourselves, however, in a form of life that requires a new philosophy. However we might wish to designate our form of life, what is at stake is not the claim of “the part that has no part” in the systematic exclusion from what is properly political from politics. Under the ideology of a sham liberalism (a sham because it does not exist), whose proponents have never been more vociferous in their affirmation of deliberative democracy, what we witness in politics today is not only the inexistence of certain political subjects but the unintelligibility of their demands. This inexistence, which is more damning than simple non-existence, binds them to existence only in the mode of being declared, by fiat, not to exist. What is at stake in the fight for justice includes the sense of that justice, for justice is self-compelling to the ones who have ears to hear and, as such, cannot be the end of politics. The ellipsis preceding the phrase “and justice for all” defers justice indefinitely, which can indeed come too late for the ones who never see it.

When a politics operates under a systematic principle of exclusion under the principle of universality (e.g., protecting the “basic building blocks of society”), what is required for the construction of the political (subject) is a new thought. Philosophy is not politics nor does philosophy give a sense to politics—that is the work of the political subject. Philosophy consists in the creation of new thoughts or, more precisely, in new possibilities for thinking. This is, for example, what Gödel would endorse in Husserl: “[phenomenology] is … a procedure or technique that should produce in us a new state of consciousness in which we describe in detail the basic concepts we use in our thought, or grasp other basic concepts hitherto unknown to us”. But, as we know, reflexivity in the phenomenological method does not merely “leave thought as it is” but, Gödel says, moves us toward a “higher” state of consciousness (ein höherer Bewußtseinszustand), just as we witness the development of a child. This is, of course, what he said in his famous incompleteness theorem: that thought will always have an exterior to its own (reflective) determinations. Whatever name we might give to this procedure (phenomenology, dialectics, etc), only when thought can come to recognize its own inexistence* can we begin to think what for us now is impossible. Such is the political task of philosophy.

*We might be tempted to say that thought should be “woken” (Kant, Lévinas, etc) except that we might wonder why thought should not be allowed to dream (Bergson, Bachelard).

2. Philosophy, therefore, does not begin from but moves toward the everyday and consists in the construction and subsequent deconstruction of the everyday. We know, of course, that there are levels of sense (for example, there is “common sense” but there is also eidetic intuition), but the topography of thought is not hierarchical. The word “sedimentation” is misleading if for no other reason than that thought does not consist of strata but of fields and their relations (which are given by transcendental logic). To give an account of “the everyday” is to give an account of conditions, i.e., the conditions for thought itself. Conditions, however, are causes, which is why thought operates under the hypothesis of universal determinism (which implies logical monism**). There is no “everyday” until it is identified under a matrix of conditions, just as we cannot be ignorant until we are aware of our ignorance. “Common sense” has no sense until it is constituted, just as thought is not thought until it is thought (this must be what Kant meant when he spoke of freedom from our “self-imposed immaturity and servitude”). The dialectical faith is that in moving toward consistency, thought will always encounter its impossibility. It remains to be seen how we will handle this limit; so far, our responses to these situations have not been encouraging.

**The either/or should not be understood as a binary operation (which is obviously true in the syntax of disjunction in logic) but as a categorical one: a sort of synecdoche for the category (not “either/or” but, rather, either/or/or/or/or …).

Some notes on the limit

That it should be necessary for philosophy to think the notion of the limit which, as Théodorou correctly observes, is a “significant marker of our experience of the world, collective or intimate …”, comes as the result of a series of misnomers: the limit of reason, the limit of ambition, the limit of law. Philosophy and religion have erred in several familiar ways with respect to this notion: by positing it or dialecticizing it (and thereby abrogating it completely), by folding it into infinite interiority (e.g., existentialism), or quite simply by confusing limit with something like “boundary” or with some other negative definition.

To Théodorou’s comment we should add Legendre’s insight that the primordial form of the limit is time in the dual sense of subjective time and the time of civilization (or simply “history”), which is given dramatization—in a technical sense—in Aeneas’ fated departure from Troy toward the horizon of an unknown future. This dual aspect of time helps us distinguish limit and finitude in a way that existentialism could not. And, lest we fall into familiar errors, Jullien reminds us that, against the abstraction of “universal” time, the folds of time are persistently concrete in flesh and bone, in the qualitative differences of the seasons, that life is not what happens “between beginning and end”.

Instead of an extrinsic determination—e.g., in thinking that to be limited is to be limited by something—limit is the very principle of identity. But, as we know, identity is non-coincidence. What existentialism called “ambiguity” is something like this: the structure of the limit is a double movement of in/exclusion.