The time of thought

1. The opening of Badiou’s perfunctory remarks on Meillassoux’s After Finitude cites Bergson’s often-abused remark that any philosopher only ever explicates or repeats one idea (or what Deleuze would call a “concept”). This invocation should strike us as surprising for at least two reasons: although lip-service continues to be paid to Bergson in France, Badiou’s persistent polemics against vitalism seem to put Bergson in the same camp as Lévinas, i.e., as simply the wrong direction to go, even if the end is the same. It is also Bergson, unlike his almost exact contemporary Husserl (born in the same year, Bergson outlived him by only three years), who is an obvious exception to Meillassoux’s indictment of modern philosophy as being “correlationist” (as I have always maintained, especially against mid-twentieth century interpretations, Bergson is anything but a “proto-phenomenologist”).

Yet Bergson’s place in Meillassoux’s history of modernity is neither here nor there, except perhaps to suggest that Meillassoux’s is not the only way of stating the problem. That Kant’s attempt to circumscribe the unthinkable as unthinkable within the limits of thinking led to an explicit form of fideism is well-known (cf. Pippin’s recent work), but one is left to wonder whether the choice between Kantian fideism and pre-critical dogmatism/realism is a false dichotomy. Nor is the alternative open to philosophy to poeticize on the “human condition” of existential anguish or simply to insist on the psychological uniqueness of the “man of flesh and bone” (Unamuno) over against the abstract universalism of science. Meillassoux is right to point out that the “meaning” of science is not simply its “value” to you or I and the use we make of it (so-called “applied” philosophy in the form of ethics).

The essential modern question is, of course, the so-called foundation of science (or mathematics, although these are not isomorphic formulations): “the Galilean-Copernican revolution has no other meaning than that of the paradoxical unveiling of thought’s capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not” (Meillassoux). But there are two ways of handling this question but, while both take their cue from the Kant, they cannot be conflated. The split between the analytics and the phenomenologists occurs in the paths taken by Bolzano and Frege on the one hand and Brentano on the other. As I have suggested before, the difference is that between sense and discourse/representation. It is not so clear, at least to me, that the analytics were engaged in an effort of “the decentering of thought relative to the world within the process of knowledge”, even if there are those among them who were guilty of divorcing thought from logic and proceeding to call the former “psychology”. Nevertheless, if the danger of a rationalistic foundation for science consists in the ultimate occlusion of the absolute under the name of unthinkability, then Meillassoux is right to point out that the limit of the thinkable is not aesthetic but paradoxical. (And yet—might not the very essence of the aesthetic be the expression of paradox or, perhaps more accurately, contradiction?) One wonders, however, under what auspices Meillassoux heralds the return to the absolute—whether in the name of the certitude of science (for which scientists have no need), its veracity (against the fundamentalists), or the surrender of truth to the discourse of science such that if we are to deny that truth is to be revealed in religion, so too the only task left to philosophy is the verification of truths to which it has no primary access because there exists neither the ground nor desire for philosophical thinking once philosophy ceases to be reflective.

This is not, of course, to say that an ethical or political naïveté is a refutation. Meillassoux’s insistence on contingency and chaos falls squarely in the best tradition of the philosophy of difference and, to echo the words of Latour, one can at the least admire the courage of his political commitments, even as one might shy from its theological naïveté (viz., not every theology is a theology of being, but perhaps this particular assessment should wait for L’inexistence divine) or its barbarism.

2. Even if Meillassoux is right about the absolute, there is no legitimate sense in which this absolute constitutes a “foundation” for thought if for no other reason that there is no “progress” in philosophy. While philosophy is in some ways discursive (although it is better to say that philosophy is “historical”), philosophy is not, in toto, a discourse. If science is possible without Aristotle or Ptolemy, this is because science occurs as a (progressive) discourse. This is not merely to say that science is practiced a-historically, although it is revealing that the history of science is not itself science. Philosophy occurs for the one who understands (“understanding” in a sort of hermeneutic sense). If any two scientists can pull Snell’s Law out of the cupboard and use it, the same cannot be said of the philosophical concept. Each philosophical concept, each idea, must be experienced by the philosopher, just as each musician must experience music. Music has not “progressed” beyond Bach, for example. This is not to say music today is no different from Bach’s, nor is this to make a value judgment (e.g., “Bach is superior to Salonen”)—rather, the entire notion of “progress” is simply inapplicable. The student of music will never escape the necessity of learning (or playing) Bach; the student of philosophy will never escape Plato; the student of science, qua scientist, does not, on the other hand, study Cartesian physics. Philosophy is perennial not because of the antecedence of some eternal “human condition” but, rather, because of its very mode or style of existence, i.e., as that which is understood.

The return of the mythic

If only fascism were impossible today. There are, of course, those among us who would believe it so—for how could a generation grown weary of utopia find satiety in the promises of a universal kinship when there is nothing more treacherous than a Cain among us? Neither can we hear the voices of prophets when we have ceased to believe in theology. While we may instead turn to psychics for charts and divinations, we seek our fortunes through them only if we believe either that there is no future—for the future is only a prolongation of our present—or that the future is indeterminate (insofar as it is the product of our will). Caught, then, between destiny and freedom, the prodigal intellect shores up every defense it can muster against the nothingness that it is nevertheless forced to conceive—and calls the fruits of its labor “philosophy”.

But as the ancient injunction had warned us, it is impossible either to name or to think nothing. What remains is either a hypostasis or an Urgrund that is revealed to the rational spirit as the Absolute. Whence fascism: fascism is simply the attempt to give a name to the Absolute, whether ordained by pope or sovereign. (If we reserve the name “fascism” for the twentieth century and wish instead to speak of “absolutism” in the modern age, this is only because we understand that democracy is not the converse of absolutism but the obverse of it. The fascist is not simply the one who, bowing to a pagan demagoguery of earth and blood, would keep the barbarians outside the gates but, rather, the one who would keep them within.)

What would be easier, then, than simply to cease believing in God? If empirical psychology and phenomenalism have been able to teach us anything, it is that belief—including justified belief—is epistemologically agnostic. The kind of rationalist who would conflate belief and understanding must perform the most total and radical epoché—could such a person believe in the convertibility of mass and gravity or the consonance of the octave? Yet neither should we reduce belief to the caprice of desire: there is a logic of belief just as there is a logic of understanding; if the latter is the expression of the relation between thought and being, the former expresses the relation between thought and understanding. Or, in other words, it is not the soul tempted by addiction that is unable to witness the death of God but it is precisely the soul that is riveted to being that is closest to Him.

We need, then, to cease believing in God, not only to free ourselves from the illusions of grammar (Nietzsche), but from the reduction of the logic of understanding into the logic of belief. The post-Kantian Germans—from the idealists to the phenomenologists—turned the relation of thought and being into a problem not of logic (as the medievals had understood it) but one of discourse (this is explicit in Kant’s own notion of sense). Hence for hermeneutics and phenomenology the problem of understanding becomes one of “correlation”. Only then are we able to write a language where the names of being need not contain an implicit reference to God (arché, realissimum, etc). Such a language liberated the individual while subjecting him to a nauseating terror: “our century, more lucid than the last, … [has grown] alarmed: how, it asked, are we to rescue fear, restore its ancient status, recover its rights? Science itself took over: it became a threat, the source of terror” (Cioran). Yet Kant already knew this, and said as much explicitly. History, he said, was nothing other than the occlusion of this terror, ending in a philosophy that nevertheless left God a space at our table, only this time it is He who is our guest.

But it is not the closure of metaphysics that has ushered in an irrational and arrogant “return of the religious” for, if this were so, God had never left us. God was never external to thought, even if it had seemed that He was invoked ad hoc to establish harmony between matter and spirit, to give the universe its first push, and so on. It is thanks to science that “we can conceive of bothering about Him”. In this respect, the “new” mechanical science is not new at all, for Aristotle’s physics performed the same task—for God is not of nature, whether that nature is indifferent or voluptuous.

What modern language was able to reveal, however, is that the language of discourse, “emancipated from reality, from experience, … indulges in the final luxury of no longer expressing anything except the ambiguity of its own action. … Matter excommunicated, the event abolished, only a self still survives, recalling that it once existed, a self without a future, clutching at the Indefinite, turning it this way and that, converting it into a tension which achieves only itself …” This is the romantic-realist subject “curvatus in se”. “But I cannot [thus] comprehend our attachment to beings. I dream of the depths of the Ungrund, the reality anterior to the corruptions of time, and whose solitude, superior to God, will forever separate me from myself and my kind … Once time fades from our consciousness and nothing in us is left but a silence that rescues us from other beings, and from that extension of the inconceivable to the sphere of each instant by which we define existence”. But if for this reason there is no future of metaphysics—because there neither is nor can we think a future not reducible to a repetition of the same—is it not because of an infinite separation—the non-coincidence of self to self as well as the “great ephemeral skin” between us—that is also an asymptotic nearness to God? A theology truly of “our” time requires not only a God without being but the courage of the one who can think against oneself, that is, against the tendencies and habits that bind existence to the inertia of economy and the enjoyment of desire, in short, against all that one is.

If the rationalist dogma of the new science pretends to have invented a language with no name for God, this is not because pronouncing that name is forbidden by law but, rather, because it is an exceptional name—the name of an exceptional being, i.e., a necessary being whose necessity takes the form of a predicate or a category. Such a theology either conflates being and necessity into the same level of analysis or subordinates necessity to being when it should be the other way around: necessity is prior to being. It is not being that gives sense to necessity in the way an actual triangle is supposed to instantiate the formal reality of triangles. This is why Spinoza and Bergson are in agreement on this point, i.e., every being is necessary by the fact that every being simplyhas happened. Is not, then, the transcendental necessity of thinking—which resolves into the facticity of presence—simply agnostic on the necessity of being? More to the point, was it not the end of analytic philosophy after Kant to return thinking from discourse (the epistemic conditions of experience) to logic, which alone is able to express the (co)-relation of necessity and being (in the proper direction)?

Is this not, then, a mythic language insofar as the mythic is precisely that which does not attempt to pronounce the name of God? Myth knows no separation from God because in myth language is being. Hegel had already sublated myth into the speculative proposition; have we ever really understood this subterfuge?