Two notes on Taoism

1. A recent translation of the Lao Tzu relies on the old scheme of “correlative cosmology” and nicely illustrates the persistence of what is apparently a lack of rigor between distinguishing Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist (meta)axiologies and cosmologies. But even if, for example, we succeed in distinguishing, e.g., the Tao of the Lao Tzu from the Confucian Tao of the I Ching appendices, the ambiguities in the term “correlative cosmology” seem to indicate less a mere problem of equivocation than a deficiency in the very structure of the problem. “Correlation” is a distinctively modern European concept—the very problematic simply does not exist for the classical Taoists; so too the notions of identity/difference, sub/object. This is evident from the very first lines of the Lao Tzu: nowhere does the Taoist need to posit that “difference is simply what there is (such that the problem is unity)” or, conversely, that “the world is my representation and idea”. The scholarly literature is abysmally lacking in this respect (with one notable exception): either we begin with a general apologetic for the incommensurability of conceptual schemes or we wax exotic about the “striking similarities” between the unified thought of the Axial Age from Greece to China. Both constitute, as opposite sides of the same coin, the fundamental obstacle for anyone trained in our philosophical institution really to read the Taoist texts and to say anything more than superficial about anything in common between Derrida and Taoism (Graham, Clarke), the “intrinsic ontology” of the Chinese language and predicate logic (Graham again), or presocratic necessity (Needham). A great step forward was taken by I.A. Richards (surprisingly!), Ames, and Cheng whose hermeneutics are especially suited toward the injunction “to seek the way” in Taoism (see the “Great Appendix” to the I Ching). But what our philosophical institution will never be able to see is the Taoist thinker is not, strictly speaking, a thinker. The Taoist sage is not the one who has knowledge of the truth but also the one who experiences (and teaches) the good—and the only Greek equivalent here is Plato.

2. The real meaning of Cioran’s question—“of what use is Taoism and Buddhism to us?”—is not historical but, rather, political. The real contradiction is between politics—especially in its educative and moral manifestations—and Taoist solitude. This is not quite the romantic lament of a Rousseau with respect to the dualism of nature and culture but, rather, a structural contradiction between the silence of Taoist practice and the ideologies of discourse in any political practice. And what Cioran has said about history is also true for politics: for us, politics is compulsory—we cannot not be interpellated by the political demands precisely of those who are unable to make such demands because they have been reduced to silence and mark their existence in only a sob, a scream, or in banality.

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Images II

1. What is the scandal of thinking? If only our scientists would read Kant; if only our metaphysicians would read Gödel (Badiou); if only we could think the fact that we are not thinking (Heidegger); if only it were possible, through education, to open the American mind (Bloom, Adler); if only philosophy could move us to compassion (Rorty). Is there not a moral obligation to be intelligent (Erskine, Trilling)?

Or is not the task of thought to be done with thought—to flirt with the nothingness of thought in the heart of man, i.e., death, in the silence of nonknowledge (Bataille: “language, stubborn in refusal, is poetry, turns back on itself (against itself): this is the analogue of a suicide … Silence is the unlimited violation of the prohibition that human reason opposes to violence: it is divinity without stops, which thought alone disengaged from the contingency of myths”).

This would seem, to some, to be a retreat to the inner citadel—an evasion and, paradoxically, even a repression of existence that even the most ardent pessimist would revile. In this regard, Nietzsche’s most important teaching, if nothing else, is the lesson of courage—that all is not vanity (even if it is absurd).

2. If philosophy, then, is to transform the world, to critique the institution, to bring us to the leap, to think the possibility of freedom and revolt—what is the imperative for thought today when reflection hides its face under the mask of fascism (Bush’s Amerika), runs behind the gated walls of covenant communities, or parades its wares in the “marketplace of ideas”?

3. Metaphysics, Bergson says, is the language that dispenses with symbols. Bergson proposes an image of thought (i.e., intuition) that goes right to the heart of things. Here, Bergson finds, right down to the language of “dreaming”, an unlikely ally in Bachelard, who opposes the model of poetics (the image) to the concept (science, phenomenology, psychology).

“The cogito of thought can wander, wait, choose—the cogito of reverie is immediately attached to its objects, to its image. The shortest distance of all is the one between the imagining subject and the imagined image. … A kind of multiple cogito takes on new life in the closed world of a poem. Of course, other powers of consciousness are required to take possession of the poem’s totality. But the flash of an image already provides us with an illumination.”

[But—and here is my fundamental question—is the name of such an experience philosophy or art?]

“Suddenly an image occupies the heart of our imagining being. It seizes us, holds us. It infuses us with being … [The poet’s] being is simultaneously the being of the image and his commitment to the astonishing image. The image brings us an illustration of our wonderment. … In reverie on a simple object we experience a polyvalence of our dreaming being. A flower, a fruit, a simple familiar object suddenly insists that we think of it, that we dream in its company, that we help it to rise to the level of man’s companion [i.e., that we inhabit a world].”

And here there is yet another unlikely alliance: the law of Bachelard’s elements finds another expression in the Chinese wuxing—the phases or processes by which being is articulated (“even more than clear thought and conscious images, dreams are governed by the four fundamental elements”). We can go further: poetics is nothing else than the thinking of these images according to their immanent laws; the task of poetics is thus to break the representation of the word. Is this not also what we have in the Taoist wuwei (movement/non-movement)? Not merely the “disclosure” of a hidden Being but the very bringing into being of a becoming—is this not anything other than a thought?

“The poetic object, duly energized by a name rich in resonances, is a good conductor of the imagining psyche. For such conduction, we must call the poetic object by its name, its old name, giving it a just sonority, surrounding it with the resonances it will being to life, with the adjectives that will prolong its cadence and its temporal life … Each contemplated object, each creative name we murmur is the point of departure of a dream and of a line [a line of flight!], a creative linguistic movement.”

4. Gauchet has shown that the very possibility of reflection consists, first, in the separation of God from life and, consequently, the death of God. But to this we must add three (equivalent) corollaries: thought is singular; the essence of thought is not discourse; philosophy is not politics. And yet neither is philosophy ethics: even if one were to say that philosophy concerns the one who philosophizes, one must still ask who this “one” is (certainly not the thinker!).

5. The question or the image? Perhaps: philosophy is the opening of the question; music is the creation of the image.

Crises (10 JUN 2007)

1. The ideology of philosophy: The philosopher, it is said, is one who can simply “sit and think” about philosophical (read: human) problems—i.e., logic and reason are universally, essentially human. Is this not the hidden metaphysics of post-metaphysics that implicates not only the legislating subject of the Enlightenment but also, unfortunately, the counter-Enlightenment (Hobbes, Montaigne, Pascal, Rousseau)?

2. Yet we can only counter (oppose) something within a genus (Aristotle). Therefore, can one be willing to relinquish the name of philosophy? What else, then, does one do? Theory? Critique? The question is not only, a la Deleuze, what is the image of thought, but what is the name of thought?

3. What is most severely and desperately lacking today, if we are ever to move beyond a metaphysics (of the essence) of man, is a philosophy of nature.

4. The fundamental tension: Taoist silence (Tao) and mind (yi). It is not a matter of choosing between them but in the difference between them without hypostasizing this difference into an essence. What is a philosophy of nothingness (wu-wei)?