Notes toward a manifesto for philosophy in the 21st century

1. Philosophy today is divided between two contrary – and both false – commitments: (1) to the insistence that there are “enduring questions” of human life and (2) that there should be “progress” in philosophical discovery (the paradigm for such progress, of course, being the natural sciences). On the one hand, the formulation of any such “enduring questions” is necessarily either (onto)theological or nihilistic; on the other, we have only confused (mostly linear) models of progress. The illusion of “enduring questions” consists in the fact that philosophical questions repeat and we mistake repetition for sameness. The demand for progress is often confused with the demand for “answers” to these “enduring questions” of humanity.

2. Art, Langer claims, is not merely the expression of feeling but of the idea of feeling. “The illusion, which constitutes the work of art, is not a mere arrangement of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern; it is what results from the arrangement, and is literally something the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction. To produce and sustain the essential illusion, set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality, and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living, is the artist’s task.” A few pages later, when discussing the visual space of a painting, she observes that “pictorial space is not only organized by means of color … it is created; without the organizing [Kantian] shapes it is simply not there. Like the space ‘behind’ the surface of a mirror, it is what the physicists call ‘virtual space’ – an intangible image. … Being only visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which we live …”. The autonomy of painting consists, then, not in the fact that the painting is not a tool and thus excluded from the motive space of action; rather, the painting exists as independent (virtual) reality that is not merely derivative or reducible to the material or the sensuous.

2a. Similarly, philosophy is the expression of the idea of an idea or, more precisely, the formal constellation of ideas. Both Spinoza and Husserl, in their own ways, insisted on the emergence of ideas from affectivity. Thought is a sort of bending or folding of affect, which forms both its ground and its effect. Philosophy responds to the emergency of thought in a double sense. (1) Thinking emerges from transcendental, formal, and political conditions for which philosophy must not only account but create (Fichte contra Kant) and atone (Benjamin). (2) We must ask not only what “calls for” thinking but what demands cannot be ignored or unheard.

3. Previous centuries have had their own figures of philosophy: the peripatetic, the cynic, the statesman, the monk, the courtier, the German professor, the writer. The figure of the philosopher in the twenty-first century is the dissident.

3a. Philosophy must refuse the temptations of “relevance” for, if successful in the endeavor, would merely affirm the status quo. The primary task of contemporary philosophy is not to be “relevant” to our lives but, rather, to give expression to the distortions and abjections that make these lives possible, impossible, plastic, beautiful, and diminished. To that end, the paradigmatic objects of the philosophical gaze must no longer be tables and lamps but states and dollars.

4. In a surprising remark at the end of his reflections of the status of political philosophy in the analytic tradition, Williams asserts that “in its insistence, at its best, on the values of unambiguous statement and recognizable argument … its patience … its willingness to meet with the formal and natural sciences … in all this, and despite its many and often catalogued limitations, it remains the only real philosophy there is”. Among his observations of analytic philosophy’s fraught relationship with value theory and often its explicit Balkanization, Williams redeems the impurity of political philosophy in the sense that even within the terms that settled the collapse of the fact/value distinction, any analysis of meaning (à la Davidson, for example) must be determined by empirical constraints at the risk of being “indeterminate and pointless” (Williams specifically accuses Wittgensteinian philosophy for its rejection of the latter requirement). But in this sense, philosophy is not only impure but normative (perhaps even in the ancient sense) because it is itself an expression of a shared life. In this sense, then, philosophy is innately political, not because speech forms the common basis for both, but because sympathy is among its fundamental affective conditions.

4a. Just as Langer famously proposed to think of a philosophy in a “new key”, the genres of philosophy are related like musical modes. What in the same essay Williams called the “systematic demands” of philosophy is not merely the need to “apply” fundamental philosophical concepts to politics but to hear the political in the ontological, the ethical in the logical, and the beautiful in the transcendental.

4b. Philosophy need not choose to be political; the choice to be apolitical is not only a performative contradiction but a surrender to sophistry. But the normativity of philosophical thought is not the same as a “plan of action” (in the same way that a painting is not merely a duplication of the real, a philosophical idea, e.g., of justice, remains virtual). Philosophy constructs the possibility of a life worthy of love, for which we must fight.

The melancholy of resistance

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive. …

 

when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomes
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

 

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive. (Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”)

 

Today we learned that hundreds of lives were damaged and silenced in one of the few enclaves of acceptance and celebration for those whose movements are policed by laws targeting their bodies, whose speech and gazes are censored by the fear of judgment or violence, and those who until recently were often prohibited from building a home in their own houses. As a human being, I grieved for the fallen. As a minority, I trembled before the violence that looms over all of us. But as an academic I was stunned by the imperative not only to mourn but to think about what happened – not merely to explain the events (the psychological motivations of the shooter, the social, political, and legal conditions that made the shooting possible, etc.) nor simply to ruminate about the devastation of lives and families but to respond.

Of course, we must act. We must comfort the bereaved and offer our support, solidarity, and condolences. We must sign petitions and donate our blood. We must not merely pray; we must act. But we must also think. These moments remind us that it is not a matter of making thought political but recognizing that thinking is always already political not because of any particular commitments but because thinking “has a place” and occurs with others and in response to them.

We often find it easier to respond to injustice. We can name the mechanisms of injustice and trace its conditions. But when we are faced with hatred and terror we are paralyzed and shake our heads in resignation and frustration. It is not that we must find a way to reason with the unreasonable; nor is the appropriate response to violence a vacuous appeal to “peace” as a mere absence of violence without an understanding of the material and social conditions that make violence possible.

Something like this impulse to understand is expressed in the Buddhist response to hatred not with anger but compassion. Such compassion for an enemy is not to feel pity but to refuse the banal imputation of “evil” to a nature and seek to understand that such souls are themselves suffering and to ask what has caused such suffering to manifest as violence and hatred. Hatred is not so much “learned” as it is fomented by certain conditions.

These conditions are varied and must be resisted in different registers; they can be political (e.g., in the lobbies that contravene the majority will for gun regulation), rhetorical (e.g., “protect the babies”), religious, or ideological. As thinkers, we refuse the epithet of “senseless” violence as a form of resignation or excuse to respond in kind. The regulative ideal of thought in response to violence is that peace is possible only if the conditions for violence and hatred can be known.

Hatred is a form of life but, like all forms of life, therefore subject to construction and deconstruction. Compassion thus demands the courage to resist the expressions of hatred that normalize violence against the disempowered. We must invite the marginalized out of their solitude, speak against the casual slur, refuse the legitimacy of forms of discourse that incite violence (carrying people out on stretchers like “in the old days”), or simply have the vigilance to change our own language not to speak in the grammar of the oppressors. We must have the courage to face not the barbarians at our gates but the ones who are within and with whom we must share the life that remains.

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.

For the love of the world

Kolakowski tried to claim that “truth as a value different from effective applicability is … a part of a myth which refers the conditional empirical realities to an unconditioned universe”. What Kolakowski calls the “myth of Reason” we might instead call a sort of eidetic intuition of a world (what Dante called God in the Paradiso and what Borges described as the Aleph where we see, chiastically, the Aleph in the earth and the earth in the Aleph). In these intuitions we “encounter” the One but of course we know that there is no such One. There is no “myth of Reason”* simply because the impossibility of providing consistent expression to this intuition is the condition of possibility for thought to occur; the impossibility of the coincidence of completeness and consistency constitutes the infinitude of thought, i.e., that there is thought at all. Thought does not ground itself because such a “pure” thought is always radically impure in its transcendence, embedded in ambiguities, contradictions, contexts, situations, and interests. The task of reflection is thus to do justice to the concrete infinitude of thought in and of a world.

*There is, however, a myth of the world.

A philosophical education

1. Paraphrasing Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (where Cicero is himself paraphrasing Plato), Montaigne gives us the famous remark that to philosophize is to learn how to die. We prepare not only by banishing the fear of death through understanding, however, but because in contemplation per se we are most acquainted with death. While initially Montaigne calls contemplation a withdrawal from our bodies, contemplation is a sort of resemblance or mimesis of death by which we are ultimately liberated to our bodies (not from them) in the pleasure of life.

We prepare for death not by thinking about death but by a desire for the good. This is why, for example, Spinoza insists that one who is free “thinks of nothing less than death” (E4p67). The paradox is that thought is like death but it can never be of death.* The liberation of thought from death consists in being (of) death without letting death appear before us, which is why for the Epicureans the thought (of) death manifests as ataraxia instead of Angst, i.e., an affect of life as a dialectical negation of death (to think (of) death is only possible by not thinking of death).

*Significantly, in his allusions to the third way of knowing, Spinoza never satisfies his promise in the Ethics to discuss that part of the mind that remains after the body perishes.

2. If we learn how to die (which, instead of a “preparation” for death is actually learning a desire for the good) by thinking, it is necessary that we learn how to think. It is not surprising, then, that the same duality in thinking (of) death is that which we find in those who teach us most purely how to think. There is always and necessarily a sort of trickery involved in that lesson: we are led to believe that we are learning “about” something (else) when, in the end, we realize that the (real) object of our thought is simply “how” to think. It is true that philosophy per se enjoins us to think—by convincing us that we must think when and because we usually are not—but there are those who grasp that we cannot say that what we’re thinking about is how to think on pain of reflexive failure. Yet such reflection is precisely what essentially philosophical thought accomplishes, i.e., to show that ultimately what is thought “about” is (thought) itself but only by making it not “about” itself. In short, thought thinks thought (Metaphysics 1074b35) not by thinking itself.

Consequently, the problem of philosophical expression is intrinsic to the attempt to think. There are many ways—not all of which may be successful but a significant step is taken by the recognition of the problem—of thematizing the possibility of philosophical expression (e.g., (eidetic) intuition, the speculative proposition, more geometrico). The tendency toward mysticism results from a fundamental confusion either between (1) the limits of thought and what is actually constructive of it or (2) the relation between thought and being. The proposition that “the True is the Whole” or the ontotheological thesis of the One-All mistakes a reference to or representation of totality as if it were something other than (discursive) thought because of the timorous conviction that that which cannot be thought must be other to thought (which is correct) and whose otherness must fall on the side of being (in other words, the mistake is to posit that that which must be thought for thought to think “itself” is not itself, yes, but neither is it on the order of being). What all the pure thinkers (of) thought have grasped is that there are no forms of thought but there are only performances and repetitions.

One and nothing: free variations (continued)

4. The distinction between Greek mathematics and modern mathematical analysis allegedly turns on certain discoveries of properties of infinite series. What this characterization obscures, however, is that we need not think of the problem of number as one of enumeration or, more generally, that the problem of multiplicity be confused with that of a series. The work from Bolzano to Cantor recognized the latter fact with the well-known consequence that there are perfectly good ways to speak of actual infinities. But the mortgage that set theory had to pay—and here the original problem returns—is, broadly speaking, an account of the structure of multiplicity, toward which we cannot remain indifferent and which has both logical and ontological consequences (the former, for example, being an effect of the reflexive problem exposed by Löwenheim-Skolem and the latter simply a consequence of the trivial fact that there is no reflection arrow for the empty set).

The turn toward intuitionism in mathematics, viewed in a certain light, is a return to the problem of Platonism not only in the ontological (Brouwer) but also the epistemological sense, which is the explicit difference in the treatment of number between, for example, Plotinus and Proclus (but which remains a difference in aspect only). The question of number takes place not at the level of unity and multiplicity (one and many) in the order of being(s) but, rather, in the passage from being to non-being where the latter is understood not as the negation of being already counted as one under the category of quantity but as a transcendence of being (i.e., the non-being of the One, for example, is already a double negation: a negation of the first negation of being as nothing). The typical theological mistake has been to conflate Platonic cosmogony/ology with ontology.*

*Here Heidegger’s account of onto-theology has severely limited our capacity to understand the terms of anti-Aristotelian metaphysics.

Proclus’ ideal (eidetikos) number or Plotinus’ substantial (ousiodes) number are principles of the intellect understood as the ontological expression of what is prior to being and nothing other than the activity (energeia) of being. Proclus in a sense ‘domesticates’ Plotinus’ account of substantial number in the intelligible by locating it as a sort of category in the soul; but this account nevertheless is supposed to explain how mathematical number is possible within the Platonic account of number as substance against the Aristotelians. The significance of the monad in Platonic metaphysics is that it is the principle not only of the unity but also the limit in being: the monad is not itself (counted-as-)one, which explains how the dyad participates in the monad in different ways (i.e., how the dyad is both clearly discrete and continuous). The persistent mistake of Aristotelianism has been to insist that the difference between number and monad be quantitative and to fails to understand that substantial number does not count substance.

5. The ambiguity of the substantial and the mathematical one is, however, necessary insofar as it expresses the duality of thought and being; or that thought and being are expressions of substance considered under different attributes à la Spinoza; or that thought is the reverse of being and vice versa. Modern mathematics has simply given rigorous formulation to the perennial Pythagorean proposition: not only that being is number but that being is number as structure. The absence of structure has been nominated variously as One (Plotinus), as zero (Peirce), or as void (Badiou). Everything turns, however, on how we interpret the nature of this absence and that we should not be misled neither by the nomination of the transcendental,** the confusion of number with enumeration, nor the conflation of the One with the “all” (as universe, the whole, the set of all sets, etc).

**Badiou is exemplary here: “I say ‘void’ rather than ‘nothing’, because the ‘nothing’ is the name of the void correlative to the global effect of structure. … The name I have chosen, the void, indicates precisely that nothing is presented [emphasis added], no term, and also that the designation of that nothing occurs ‘emptily’, it does not locate it structurally”.

6. The symbol of the monad is the circle since it “preserves the specific identity of any number with which it is conjoined” (Iamblichus), just as the void can be added to (and/or subtracted from) any set. For the Pythagoreans, the monad was also the intellect insofar as it was seminally (“potentially”) all beings; the circle has therefore long been the geometric expression or symbol of infinity.***

***See, for example, Augustine’s famous image of God or, more interestingly, Spinoza’s curious remark that “number is not applicable to the nature of the space between two non-concentric circles. Therefore if anyone sought to express all those inequalities by a definite number, he would also have to being it about that a circle should not be a circle”.

While the monad is often characterized as stability (monad is derived from “menein”, “to be stable”), stability is distinguished from nothingness as nascence (or, as before, harmony is only possible by forgetting a fundamental disharmony):

“[T]his incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat superior to creation … and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself; but in vain; for that which is made instructs how to make a better.” (Emerson, emphasis added)

This is the real (ethical) meaning of transcendence or the “moral fact of the Universe”: that the given is never sufficient and that “every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series”. The very condition of possibility for thought is its inadequacy to being, which thus constitutes its fundamental imperative: to recognize this deficiency not in itself but in what is given to it. “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” The weakness of thought—its inadequacy—calls not for its mystical renunciation but a persistent refusal of that temptation toward cessation, whether in its annihilation or defeat by the overwhelming burden of totality or its pacification by the illusory satisfaction of identity—“I’m just me” or “I’m only human, after all”. The Pythagorean monad is the limit of being only as a self-limitation (which is the only way to account for the priority of the monad with respect to the dyad) and in a certain sense thought is nothing other than the (reflexive) expression of this “self”. This expression, however, betrays itself only through negation: just as the Pythagoreans called the One “Apollo” (from a-pollon, “not many”) and harmony requires the impossibility of complete unity, “the one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle” (emphasis added). Thought fulfills its destiny not only when it ventures into the unknown but takes the leap into what, in principle, it can never know.

[Cf. the previous post from March 2010 “Dialectics at a standstill”.]

The unfinished system of knowledge

1a. When Schopenhauer declared that the in-itself of phenomena is Wille, the nihilist mistake is therefore to conclude that the appearance of good masks a fundamental blindness, forgetting that the third aspect of Schopenhauer’s account is dedicated to showing that the Platonic Idea is the “adequate objectification of the will”. For Schopenhauer music was the direct expression of Wille but if we take the Platonic moment seriously, what we should actually notice is that the idea of the good remains the real of thought. This is why, among the semantic and logical paradoxes, it is actually some version of Moore’s paradox that provides an interesting site for the convergence of metaphysics and ethics: the relevant propositions are not of the order “the world ought to be good” (nor even “the world is not good”) but, rather, in a sentence whose significantly paradoxical structure is masked by grammar: “the world is good but I believe it is not good”.

1b. Crossing the gap between the appearance and the real(ity) of the good is not simply a matter of “having more knowledge” (if we only knew which companies from which to buy, for example) or even being more “self-conscious” since fundamentally the problem is not that of making better choices if for no other reason than that, as we know, the kind of knowledge that would be required to do so is impossible.

2a. The positivist fetishism of facts has distorted our capacity to inquire into the conditions for how knowledge is possible.* If only we knew, for example, the facts behind Nike’s labor practices in Indonesia we could make “more informed choices” because our intentions are good.

*So too, for that matter, the insistence on the “sublimity” of the postmodern condition.

Yet having “good intentions” is more difficult than the subjectivists realize. Similarly, the phenomenological mistake is to mistake intentionality for an arrow when it is more like a field. To take seriously the material conditions for knowledge—which are not themselves objective but the convergence of the subjective and objective—what we require is not “pure reflection” (here Sartre has moved too quickly) but the possibility of what we might call a purifying intention.

2b. “The problem with philosophy is the passage from the knowledge of limited objects to the knowledge of the entirety of what is” (Bataille). This gap is the common source of philosophy, mathematics, and science, even if within each the beginning and destination are often reversed (in, e.g., romanticism, axiomatics, and unified theory).** We falter in the search for knowledge not by failing to bridge the gap but in misunderstanding the character of this putative totality. The insight of speculative philosophy consists not in the identity of thought and being but, more precisely, in the speculative unity of thought and being through the morphism from the system of objects to the system of knowledge.

**Equally interesting is that, contra Schopenhauer, Bataille’s observation is perhaps the one thing that can not be said of either art or religion.

Despite recent innovations in continental ontology, we should keep in mind that while every network is a system, not every system is a network. This is also a useful heuristic to distinguish information from knowledge: there are networks of information but it is the systematicity of knowledge that marks the difference between a database and consciousness. This is why, among the intellectual disciplines, philosophy (or logic for Husserl)—until the twentieth century—has been the science of science*** and why, despite the recent suspicion of totality inherited from Marx, Lévinas, and Derrida, we must learn that not only is it possible to think totality without violence but that it is imperative for us to do so. This is the tendency of recent work in Merrell’s semiosis or, in different but perhaps more familiar terms, it is also the lesson of Rancière’s analysis of the homology between aesthetics and politics in le partage du sensible.

***This is also, incidentally, why the sciences require philosophy (although the converse is also true but for different reasons): the psychologist who can identify instances of fundamental attribution error does not thereby have knowledge of the problems of egoic identity or effective agency. To put it simply, empiricism always misses the transcendental (just as the transcendental always misses the empirical).

Rancière’s question here is for critical theory what Badiou’s project is for ontology: what are the structures of intelligibility that constitute the world of life that we must interrogate both because of but also despite them? What is the invisible truth of the real that demands expression (through what Badiou calls “torsion” or—I suspect equivalently—Henry calls the “Internal”)?

2c. The danger is that this truth may turn out to be nothing. But there are two kinds of nothing: there is the nothing of inconsequence—that nothing happens or that nothing will happen. But there is also the “pure zero” of which Peirce spoke: the “nothing of not having been born. There is [here] no individual thing, no compulsion, outward nor inward, no law. It is the germinal nothing, in which the whole universe is involved … As such, it is absolutely undefined and unlimited possibility—boundless possibility”. For Peirce, the mediation between this freedom to the determination of the individual is quality—the determination of this or that possibility. What is surprising here is that he further insists that “a quality is a consciousness. I do not say a waking consciousness—but still, something of the nature of consciousness [emphasis added]. … A possibility, then … is a particular tinge of consciousness”. Rather than a mystical pantheism, Peirce’s quale-consciousness denotes the material sympathy between mind and object as the ground for unity (“unity” in the sense of a category) but, more importantly, perhaps also how we might approach the possibility of a purifying intention—not as a mental act but precisely in the abstrusion of the mental (or the obstrusion of the cognitive in what Varela has called “enactive structures”). Intentions remain impure as long as we succumb to the fiction that the seat of cognition or identity is in the head, the individual, or the ego. But beyond the materialist fascination of the genesis of the individual from the pre-individual field (Deleuze, psychoanalysis) of metastable equilibria (Simondon, Stiegler)—which at the least does not seem to account for the dialectic between the activity and passivity of thought—the purification of intention consists, foremost, in laying thought bare against the conditions of its impossibility.