The solitude of the inner citadel: the epoché of suffering

0. One cannot call oneself a philosopher today without blushing, not from indignation at Thracian laughter, but from shame. Philosophical logoi seek only the truth, Socrates said, but within institutions and practices that reproduce the contradictions between truth and reality. These contradictions simmer both within philosophy and at its discursive and disciplinary boundaries, whether in the willing masochism of its subservience to the mastery of the sciences – or, on the other hand, its resentful ordination of its own wisdom as superior – its timidity in the face of liberal and neoliberal ideologies of domination masquerading as “opportunity”, or in the simple falsity of an ideal of rationality whose Balkanization of the discipline seems to be irresistible.

Like all power, the work of philosophy in this regard is both conscious and unconscious. On the one hand, the institutions of philosophy speak with what Yancy (following Fred Evans) has called the “oracular voice” that not only itself maintains the boundaries of philosophy but is the voice from which all philosophy pretends to speak (at the lectern instead of the pulpit). “Philosophy, on this score, becomes a universal substantive, unaffected by context, history, language, custom, sentiment, prejudice, geography, and so on.” Even the tokenizing attempts at “inclusivity” become ways in which “the oracle voice can engage in discourses that celebrate forms of pluralism and diversity that further obfuscate its maintenance of power”.

Even when we recognize this shame, however, the difficulty of proper reflection is that the operation of power is to be both that to which we are subjected and that from which we are enabled as subjects, i.e., we are always subjects in both the passive and active senses simultaneously. Thus, often, our attempts at addressing the sources of our guilt remain blind to the way in which those attempts reproduce our errors.

In a recent series of essays on the problem of implicit bias, analytic philosophy has attempted to acknowledge the ontological, epistemological, and metaphilosophical problems of (cognitive) implicit bias and stereotype threat. The concluding chapter of the first volume of this series attempts to intervene in the present configuration of the philosophical institution by observing it. Participants in a series of studies were asked about their associations between maleness and philosophy. Yet the approach, borrowed from the social sciences, itself fails to interrogate beyond the fact that such an association may or may not exist. This failure is, ironically, reproduced implicitly by the authors’ explicit and repeated bewilderment over the fact that the longer women remain within philosophy (which often tends not to happen beyond an undergraduate major), the less they associate philosophy with maleness (which is the opposite tendency for men in the discipline).

By contrast, Marguerite La Caze has developed Le Doeuff’s method of excavating the philosophical imaginary that is both excluded from the work of philosophy and yet constitutive of its possibilities to define an “analytic imaginary”, i.e., both the images, analogies, and metaphors of philosophy themselves and the philosophical imagination at work in their construction in the service of the conceptual analysis that arguably remains the core of analytic philosophy. This imaginary is one that “instead of fostering an atmosphere of interdisciplinary excitement (the “open-ended” philosophy envisaged by Le Doeuff), the analytic imaginary reflects “closed-off” philosophy, a narrowing within the discipline of philosophy itself”, ultimately, one might add, to the point of cannibalism; or, as in the above example, the substitution of philosophical analysis with experiment. In general, however, the subordination of images to concepts is merely a symptom of the fundamental structure of a form of thinking that undercuts its own possibilities while, eo ipso, producing itself by means of this exclusion. If Hegel has taught us anything, surely it must be that a non-dialectical resolution of this contradiction can end only in self-destruction and terror.

Roughly contemporaneously with the more famous description of the philosophical image of thought – and whose relative unrecognizability confirms her argument – Le Doeuff’s method is not merely one that champions the necessity of images for philosophical thinking but also one that refuses the anonymity of the kind of thinking blind to its false universality. Just as Laclau and Mouffe (long before another, more recently famous account) proposed that the construction of any polity or discursive formation capable of articulating the demands of power by virtue of its construction will always generate the possibility of its de-construction by what it has excluded in its demands, the situation of philosophy today is one in which we can no longer pretend that we are innocent of reproducing the same violence that the philosopher has suffered at the hands of the sophist and the misologist. Since Kant, philosophy’s suspicion of the supersensible has nevertheless not stifled the desire to make that other world its home (to see the world with “the view from nowhere”). The present emergency of thought – not only for the sake of the philosophical institution’s continuation but the unavoidable guilt of its primitive accumulation (i.e., its archive) – demands the collapse of metaphilosophical questions into nothing other than the practice of philosophy itself. Here Deleuze follows Nietzsche in his insistence on the becoming-active of thought against the tendency of reactive thinking beholden to what is always considered to be exterior to it (a “pure” thinking in imitation of the unmoved mover). The forces that make thought active do violence to it (in what Nietzsche called cultural education) by breaking the identity of the true and the good (i.e., against the “natural” impulse to truth). Yet the loss of this identity is not mere relativism since the violence done to thought is directed at its purity: we are forced, perhaps against our will, to confront our guilt in the manner in which we exist in the world; as Yancy says, a critical pedagogy that teaches us how to think is one that shows us that “philosophizing is inextricably linked to those problems and conundrums that have been historically inherited and that the determination of the nature of a philosophical problem is not given a priori; rather, it is tied to and evolves out of a lived historical tradition”. In short, before we can arrive at the truth, we must pass through justice. Philosophical reflection, therefore, can only be directed inward by first being directed outward. Just as Sartre’s investigation into intentionality showed that every movement inward throws us back, inexorably, out toward the world, turning the philosophical gaze outward allows us to see our faces, which are unobservable from the inside.

1a. In his explanation of transcendental apperception in the B deduction of the first Critique, Kant dissolves the problem of solipsism: the awareness that I have of myself is only possible because I exist in a world of perceptions that cannot be subtracted from me, even by an act of thinking. Existential anguish, that simultaneously personalizes and anonymizes, is only possible because of a self-delusion and a forgetting of this insight, i.e., the illusion that solipsism is the truth of reflection or that it is possible for an act of thought to strip the universe bare of reality. The true subtraction is the one that was unthinkable for Descartes. If, ex hypothesi, contradictions are unthinkable, the I am was a tautology for Descartes: I could not conceive of myself without existence and it is impossible to think “I do not exist”. On the one hand, the ego rebels against the absurdity of this proposition; on the other, the ego always has one eye turned toward this absurdity in its secret desire to languish in the tumultuous ocean of existence and perhaps even to drown in it.

But as Hume observed, “I” do not exist. We cannot subtract existence from the world, nor can we remove ourselves from the world (even by an act of thought), but we can ask what it means to be a world. But here the language and grammar of modern subjectivity are beholden to an inappropriate image. To say that we are “situated” or “in” a world, retains the structure of the “inner” and the “outer”, such that reflection becomes an “inward turn” or “introspection” or even “bracketing”. If, instead, the topological structure of the subject and its world is conceived as a Klein bottle, then transcendental reflection is that which grasps the traversals of affects, forces, and perceptions of the knot of subjectivity, similarly to the way in which Maturana has described perception not as sensible contact with an “external reality” but the “specification” of reality according to the particular mode of interaction between the living system and its medium (where “boundaries” lose rigorous meaning in favor of structural relations). Maturana embraces the immediate consequence of this account: all living systems are cognitive systems, such that those living systems that contain nervous systems are capable of internal modification as well as the physical modification of its unity with respect to its equilibrium. (Admittedly, what remains underdeveloped in Maturana’s and Varela’s account of the biological basis of cognition, which is currently being explored by Thompson, is the distinction between cognition and what we might call “mind”.)

We can go further: the fundamental drive of thinking, as an expression of life, is not merely stasis but the refusal of limits (what Nietzsche called “will to power”). We may call this drive ambition, the desire for immortality (or simply to be God, in Sartre’s language), or the intuition of the totality. The paradox of philosophical reflection, however, is that this desire for the infinite has not yet liberated itself from the images of subjective finitude that seeks to go beyond the horizons of understanding that it discovers.

Kant repeats the illusion that produces this paradox when he finds the infinite in the power of reason itself, whose infinity is greater than the objective infinity of the sublime. It was Hegel who dispels the illusion in the dialectical imbrication of the infinite within the finite, not only as a spatial but a temporal moment of totality. The same onto/logical gesture is repeated in what Butler describes as Hegel’s “temporalization” of the universal. Against propositional conceptions of abstract universality – such that the universal would be reducible to what is “common” or capable of universal predication – the concrete universal only exists speculatively, i.e., in the dialectical unity of thought and being, which is incapable of strict isomorphism because the identity of thought to its object is nothing other than their mutual transformation. Thought attains the universal only in its activity or its becoming-active.

1b. The temptation of finitude is the ultimate expression of the philosopher’s desire for solitude, which no one has ever found. Descartes is always haunted by the existence of an other – the skeptical reduction of existence to the primary sense of the I am presupposes the possibility that I am not the reason why existence is doubtful – and Stein has shown that empathy is sui generis. The other always resides in the silent heart of the epoché. In his metacritique of pure reason, Hamann locates the original capacity for thought not merely in the receptivity of sense-impressions but a sensibility of the passions (in what we might call a passio essendi) expressed in the angelic language of joy and praise, as opposed to the discursive language of human understanding.

So too the inner division of the subject, which is always discovered by what Sartre called impure reflection or any objectification of the subject, forecloses the possibility of solitude. Turning the gaze inward reproduces the psychological antagonisms within us, both empirical and transcendental, even in our quest for silence (or Buddhist emptiness). Where there is silence, as Cage discovered, we are always confronted by the persistence of our own heartbeat and the limit of its regularity such that we are always alone with ourselves.

2a. Like Kant, Freud insisted that reason is only possible as an embodied capacity, describing the ego as the “projection of a [perceptual] surface”. The duality of the activity of the ego, at the boundary of the conscious and unconscious, “falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’”. We inhabit not only a perceptual world, however, but a world in which we are confronted by the living bodies of others. In his analysis of the psychic pain at the loss of a loved one, Nasio notes that the disruption of the ego occurs not only intrasubjectively but also intersubjectively: the attachment is not only in the unconscious fantasy of the other: “this part is not confined to the interior of our individuality, it extends into the space of the in-between (entre-deux) and attaches us intimately to his or her person”.

Nasio’s insight into the pain of mourning and melancholia is that the loss of the physical presence of the other brings us too close to the chaos of the drives, which is ordered by the fantasy of the loved one. Pain is the final resort of the ego to prevent its collapse into the id. The symbolic representations of the loved one function as the unconscious joining of the subject with the real desire provoked by the loved one. But, importantly, the other also has an imaginary presence in us. Nasio provides a striking image of this presence: “the body of the other is duplicated by an internalized image. … The imaginary other is thus simply an image, but an image that has the particularity of being itself a polished surface on which my own images are permanently reflected. I capture my own images reflected in the mirror of the internalized image of the loved one. This image has the ability to be simultaneously the image of the other and the mirror of my own image”. Like a Leibnizian monad that has been everted, the internalized image of the other reflects not the multiplicity of the world but the multiple perspectives of myself (Nasio notes that “the psychical mirror of the image of the loved one in my unconscious must not be conceived of as the smooth surface of a lens, but as a mirror broken up into small, mobile fragments of glass on which confused images of the other and of myself are reflected”).

In the loss of the real presence of the other, “we also lose the rhythm according to which the real force of desire vibrates. To lose the rhythm is to lose the symbolic other, the limit that gives the unconscious its consistency. … [W]e lose the cohesion and texture of a fantasy indispensable to our structure”. To compensate, the ego can overinvest into retaining the image of the other, almost to the point of identification with it. But what this pain reveals is that what appears in solitude at the loss of a loved one is not the absence of the other but the continued presence of the other in its violence. The other remains within us; but when we cannot see or feel the other as ourselves – i.e., in the protective fantasy of the loved one that structures my desire – we see not ourselves reflected in the image of the loved one (on “introspection”). What appears in this solitude is the withdrawal or abandonment of the other and the nothingness that I am without the other. As Rimbaud says in his famous letter, the poet suffers the torture of “all forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself” and ultimately finds that “Je est un autre”.

3a. Yet the suffering of solitude is, as Nasio reminds us, also protective. There is both the involuntary loss of a loved one but also the possibility of self-withdrawal. The temptations of solitude are especially alluring not when others are lost but when their presence is overpowering or oppressive. “Freedom is the possibility of isolation”, Pessoa says,

You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory, or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendors of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant, but you’re not free. … To be born free is the greatest splendor of man, making the humble hermit superior to kings and even to the gods, who are self-sufficient by their power but not by their contempt of it. … Tired, I close the shutters of my windows, I exclude the world, and I have a few moments of freedom. Tomorrow I’ll go back to being a slave, but right now – alone, needing no one, and worried only that some voice or presence might disturb me – I have my little freedom, my moment of excelsis. Leaning back in my chair, I forget that life oppresses me. Nothing pains me besides having felt pain.

Pessoa’s pessimism, like those other more famous pessimisms, consists in surrendering to the photo negative of Sartre’s famous formula: we are condemned to unfreedom. Under particular social, economic, ideological, and affective configurations, however, such unfreedom is either slavery or simply the restlessness (l’inquiétude or desassossego) of thought, i.e., either political or ontological (even as late capitalism attempts at every turn to collapse the distinction). On the one hand, our tranquility is always traversed by the forces of the earth:

After the last rains left the sky for earth, making the sky clear and the earth a damp mirror, the brilliant clarity of life that returned with the blue on high and that rejoined in the freshness of the water here below left its own sky in our souls, a freshness in our hears. Whether we like it or not we’re servants of the hour and its colors and shapes, we’re subjects of the sky and the earth. Even those who delve only in themselves, disdaining what surrounds them, delve by different paths when it rains and when it’s clear.

Those paths are simultaneously external and internal. Pessoa continues: “each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways”. The multiplicity of being extends all the way down into the depths of thinking wherever it goes. Thinking is always a disturbance because the multitudes in me cannot be contained; each one resonates to a different fundamental frequency, only sometimes in consonance.

3b. The conditions for restlessness, however, are both subjective as well as objective. If I cannot escape the burden of (my own) existence, the allure of solitude is not merely a flight from others – which too is impossible since I am nothing but the other’s presence in me – but the desire to make what is unconscious conscious, i.e., to construct a fantasy of the other independently of their real existence (as in the usual sense of the term “fantasy”) and, thus, to “find myself” without the response and responsibility (the “validation”) of the other. The retreat to the “inner citadel” (Berlin’s term) is the final attempt to evade the only choice we have: refuse or acquiesce to the terms and conditions of the world into which we have been born.

Yet madness awaits in every direction; the payment can be delayed but the bill will always become due. However, we can neither refuse to exist in our world nor welcome what is intolerable, particularly when the reality of injustice permeates and infiltrates us. We are de-sensitized by the banality of oppression. In a recent interview, Arundhati Roy asks:

what do you do when a people have lived under … the densest military occupation in the world for 25 years [referring to the Kashmiri]? What does it do to the air? … What does it do to people who don’t know when their children will come home? Now you see schoolgirls throwing stones at the army. … And, crucially, what does it do to the Indians, who are not protected from this war? They are fed these atrocities … with a soundtrack of applause, and we are supposed to swallow this absolute cruelty and keep it in our stomachs, much as you are expected to celebrate every time the U.S. government goes and destroys a country, you know, and you’re all supposed to stand up and applaud. But what does it do to us to hold that in our stomachs?

We today have already mourned the death of God but have not yet atoned for the fact that it is we who have, in our righteous fury, killed him. The repression of that guilt compels us to see the face of God in the other, with the consequence that we can only love our neighbor by restaging the Oedipal scene in every glance, judgment, and deed. Yet even as our capacity for cruelty is ubiquitous, our restlessness is the conscience and consciousness of oppression. Thought that insists on its purity, rising above the pettiness and triviality of the mundane, is not only to be mistrusted but guarded against as the instrument of banality.

4. We cannot demand honesty from others, however if we cannot first be honest with ourselves. While we cannot avoid illusions, the illusory quality of our representations need not be falsifications but, rather, fragmentations of reality. What must be resisted is the tendency to reconstruct the totality glimpsed only in its facets.

The moonlight seen through the tall branches
Is more, say all the poets,
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches.
But for me, oblivious to what I think,
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Besides its being
The moonlight seen through the tall branches,
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight seen through the tall branches. (Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Sheep XXXV)

The world demands no justification. Only we, the thinkers, stand in need of it ourselves.

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
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”.]