Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
In response to a thread at An Und Für Sich regarding what books had recently "grabbed" readers, I tried to articulate something about what it means to me to have my attention seized by a book.
One kind of book that seizes me makes me say, “Aha–” (or more rarely, “Thank God!”) “– now I can go on honestly; now I see a way forward.” Needless to say, this need not have much to do with agreeing with an author. It is of course possible for a book to address itself to a dilemma one knew oneself, more or less, to be in: this is a staple, of everything from self-help books to those philosophy texts that preach to their choirs of idealist or eliminativists or marxists or whoever. Such readers want a book that will help them to refute the latest crop of objections from the other side. The best such books formulate their position very convincingly, doing as much justice as possible to their opponents and showing both why alternative views arise and why they can better be dealt with in the terms the book proposes.
But such an exclamation as I mention is only elicited by a stronger sort of work, one which does not start out with a particular opponent in mind, but simply articulates the force of a single insight or group of insights, and shows how this reconfigures the landscape. Badiou's Being and Event proved to be this kind of work for me, notwithstanding the fact that I am not, by a long shot, anything resembling a Badiouan. In fact, it was more an experience of seeing the view I strongly disagree with put forward in a powerful, coherent and robust way, a way that not only let me see (again) why one would see anything in it--i.e., as close to my own stance; but also helped me to see it whole, in a way that let me formulate much more precisely my own stance, the points on which I differ.
Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics was somewhat different; in this case it was a book that formulated a set of problems that was nagging in my mind for many years, mainly about the difficulties of formulating a relational account of reality. While I was not completely persuaded by Harman's answers, I was very impressed with the way he snapped the questions into focus for me, from a vague cloud of concerns that had been sort of buzzing in the background, to a well-defined set of questions--almost, one could say, a research program.
Already in a thinker like Badiou, the concern is existential, not just intellectual. But then, there is a different sort of book, aimed primarily at the soul and not just the mind. Be it ever so tightly reasoned, one discerns in such a text that its argument is intended on a different level (and this often, in fact, leaves it open to a number of obvious objections that still seem somehow to miss the point). Such a work--when it succeeds--shows you to be in a dilemma you did not even suspect. This sort of book makes me say: “Fuck, now I have to either lie and pretend I never read this, or live differently.” Nietzsche, Simone Weil, Martin Buber, Wendell Berry, among others, have all written books that did this to me.
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that they stand in a venerable tradition, going back at least to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. First he sets up the demands of the Law (wretched man that I am...!) and then opens a crack to an escape route. Convince you that you are facing an unappealing prospect, then offer you the way out.
Such books tend to be tendentious and pointed, full of fight and not long on nuance, and the way to critique this is still to assert that the alternative is a false dichotomy. (It is also a standard way to critique much less fiercely armed books-- just argue that they are responding to a non-issue.) It's easy to shake one's head over Weil or Nietzsche (to say nothing of St Paul) precisely because they frame their concerns in such uncompromising [anti-]moral terms, insisting, at least between the lines, that their purport implicates you.
But when you can see all the ways and reasons for evading the dilemma proffered, and still regard the solution as the way forward-- this is because you are (and know yourself to be, in some sense) persuaded, won, even seduced. You see a new way of being that is more interesting now, and you can choose it freely instead of feeling compelled. Such moments are a kind of conversion or of falling in love.
But-- and the fact that these authors are obviously of more than one mind makes this question all the more pressing-- is there a manner in which one can authentically keep open a "back door" or an escape clause in such conversions--without compromising?
Saturday, August 21, 2010
In the Meno, Socrates faces this objection from the titular character: if you are seeking anything (say, a definition of knowledge or justice or love), you don’t have it (otherwise you wouldn’t seek it); but in this case, you cannot recognize it if you do find it, since in order to recognize it you must already have it (recognition being the comparison of what one finds with the mental image or concept of what one sought). Socrates of course replies, that's why you do recognize it.
Harman remarks (in his Atlanta speech, and elsewhere) that this paradox of Meno’s is also a correlationist dodge (or rather, that the correlationist move can be mapped onto Meno’s): you can only find what you already have. He opines that it's a sophistic excuse for laziness.
It's notable, I think, that in this dialogue, Socrates never actually refutes the paradox. Moreover, he responds with the myth of anamnesis: a "likely story" that makes all knowledge into a sort of memory and all learning into recollection, which in a certain measure grants the critique, but tries to turn it on itself. This is really remarkably close in spirit to the famous remark from Pascal's Pensees which I quoted recently: "You could not seek me if you had not found me, and you would not have found me had I not drawn you," God says to the seeker. Harman suggests that referring to what one does not know directly is perfectly possible; we do this all the time, he says, by way of allusion. We allude to what is nor present and perhaps what cannot be present. This does not cause it to be present, but it elides the distance (even the insurmountable distance) in question.
Such ontologies as this are inevitably "likely stories." They are more or less compelling--and clearly, many of us are finding them more so, of late--but they do not amount to a refutation of correlationism any more than does Socrates' myth of anamnesis. They are, rather, alternatives to correlationism.
Meillassoux's effort to push correlationism to a radical inversion of itself, via mathematizing the in-itself, is a different alternative, and may seem closer to being an actual refutation. But its force depends upon granting the status of trump-card to the mathematical move against the interpretive one. As I read him, Meillassoux follows Badiou in rejecting hermeneutics. For Badiou, hermeneutics is the last stage of romanticism, which is in turn the last refuge of religion. The decision for the ostensible pure rigor of mathematics, and against the blur of interpretation, is thus a move with a polemical impetus. Meillassoux in likewise opting for the purely mathematizable "primary qualities" as the in-itself is seeking to make philosophy inhospitable for fideism, since the latter colludes, willy-nilly, with the worst forms of superstition.
Now, Socrates' recourse in the Meno to mathematics does not stop with the doubling of the square. He goes on to argue that this ability of Meno's slave boy to reach this mathematical conclusion, guided only by Socrates' questions, points to the reality of anamnesis. But this is, very clearly, an interpretation, not just of a particular mathematical problem but as it were of mathematics itself: of the fact that we can access truth in this way, can see it as undeniably true, even if our explanation of how we know has to stop somewhere (just as Wittgenstein says).
Harman says someplace (I've lost the reference, sorry) that although he doesn't agree with Meillassoux, he doesn't want to push his critique too far, because he likes what Meillassoux is coming up with anyway and doesn't want him to stop. Likewise, I feel about object-oriented approaches that while I don't see these as watertight arguments with irrefutable QED's at the bottom, they are gorgeous ways of thinking, with many beautiful and exotic ramifications, every bit as perplexing and provoking as the notion that all learning is an accessing of knowledge we had already. Does this myth on the Meno skirt an infinite regression? Yes; if all learning is remembering what we “already knew,” then when did we learn it? (And this already resonates with Meillassoux's invocation of Badiou's laicization of infinity.) But this infinitude is what compels us to have recourse to something other than pure mathematics: to a praxis that is more ad hoc, whether this be language, or some other manner of negotiating the obdurate realities with which our thought must deal. Such an improvisation can be very extensive and intricate, and such (I suggest) is speculation on the life of objects via allusion, which likewise flirts with infinite regress.
Allusion, moreover, is precisely the meaning of the trope metalepsis. "In a metalepsis," Harold Bloom clarifies (if it is a clarification), "a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope, so that a metalepsis can be called, maddeningly but accurately, a metonymy of a metonymy." That is, the previous trope is only alluded to. (Wikipedia usefully offers the example: “I’ve got to catch the worm tomorrow.”) But metalepsis in the philosophical sense alludes, as it were, to a trope that was never given. It is as if one listened to an opera in a foreign language, with no sense of the meaning of the words. One senses, one assumes, that there is a context in which the words are meaningful; one might say that they are given as meaningful; but this context evades one. Mikhail Emelianov a while ago snarked that the notion of the withdrawn object was like the claim that “my toy soldiers come alive at night.” I've mentioned before that I sort of like this comment--minus the snark, it is not too far from my own take: one cannot know this infinite depth within the thing, but one can evoke it.
One can in fact sometimes evoke it quite exactly. The well-known Cantorian diagonal proof, that elegant gesture of numerical self-surpassing, is a study in miniature (if one can use this term for something infinite) of how to do this. A list of all the whole numbers is paired one-to-one with “all” the irrational decimals. Then one uses the diagonal procedure to generate a new number that is, by definition, not on the list: one takes the first digit of the first number and changes it, the second digit of the second number and changes it, and so on. The resultant number thus differs from the first number on the list in at least the first digit, from the second number in at least its second digit, and so on, and thus is different from every number on the list. In this way one has encountered the first transfinite quantity, an uncountable quantity (whereas the whole numbers are, precisely, countable). The mind thus encounters an infinity that obviously exceeds its algorithmic procedures; which is not surprising, since infinity itself already exceeds “one, two, three…” in the same way.
As I mentioned to Timothy Morton a bit ago, a propos his application of Gödelian strange loops to ontology, the withdrawal/availability "split" of OOO seems to me closely analogous to the diagonal proof, in the way one infinity veers off from another.
Now, what are the ethics of this metalepsis?
It is quite striking that while Levinas figures in After Finitude as a paragon of irrational fideism for Meillassoux--precisely the sort of philosophy that must be overcome--he, too, recurs to a thinking of infinity. Indeed, the difference between Badiou and Levinas can be summarized in saying that for Badiou, infinity will be the object of technique, whereas for Levinas, it is always what is intimated through technique. (Using "technique" in the sense I did in the post linked to above, on faith.) The Cantorian procedure would be, for Badiou, a technique that finally shows the infinite as a completely mundane quantity, inexhaustible but wholly of this world, the only world there is; a natural infinity, since there is no alternative to the natural. This is why Badiou also wants to have done with interpretation; interpretation is the trope by which one would reinstate the supernatural, because interpretation is always contestable. To the endless improvisation of various stances of availability to the open which hermeneutics strikes (and Levinas is not so far in some respects from this), Badiou wants to respond with a different directive; that of truth. The infinity of the face, for Levinas, comes before any interpretation. It immediately involves us in being (in an obviously loaded figure of speech) beholden. Thus Levinas often cites Dostoevsky: "we are all guilty before everyone, and I more than the others."
In my rant on the BP oil spill, I had occasion to cite this, and also Solzhenitsyn's similar remark that "the line between good and evil runs through every human heart." But there is a problem with this sort of line, often noted: the claim that we "are all guilty," very easily colludes with ideology and the status quo. From the assertion that we are all tainted, it's but a short step to the suggestion that there's nothing one can do to make it better--so why not just throw one's hands up and go buy something else-- or even better, click here on this box to "give" to a charity, to "make a difference" in a way that is precisely like everything else you do that makes no difference at all.
The comparison arises: isn't Solzhenitsyn's (Dostoevsky's) universalization of guilt, easily used to occasion complacency, like the sophistic paradox of Meno? I.e.: we can't escape the hermeneutic circle, so then, go ahead and get into it. This is more or less the move Harman decries in ontology, and it is even worse in ethics: to try to re-cast the problem as the solution--isn't this the height (or nadir) of being co-opted?
But of course, this is not the only way to respond to the dilemma. Levinas is right-- the face does make us beholden. But this should not paralyze us, it should galvanize us. Kierkegaard says in Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing: "The Eternal with its 'obey at once' must not become a sudden shock which merely confuses the temporal. It should, on the contrary, be of assistance to the temporal." This is quite a lot, coming from Kierkegaard, who after all did not go out of his way to make things easy; but above all, he knew that merely being confused was precisely to make things easy on oneself. (Think of Skimpole in Bleak House, who affects to find anything complex--i.e., anything that would make demands upon him--over his head, thus justifying his dependence on the charity of his friends because he cannot be bothered to keep track of things like money; "I am a child," he protests over and over, a kind of nasty parody of the Christian call to "become as one of these little ones," while his own children and wife must fend for themselves.)
Socrates, in the Meno, is compared to a stingray, and the shock he gives is indeed one that could either merely stun or confuse, or "be of assistance." In every single moment, there is an encounter with the infinite that calls on one to respond anyway. One cannot evade philosophy just by turning to "practical" matters; one can only do it badly. Philosophy is the coming-up-short of every technique. But this does not excuse us from having to discern, again and again, which flawed technique to use this time. I think the best ethical abbreviation of this is the Kantian rule of thumb that "ought implies can;" with the proviso, however, that this "implies" is precisely by metalepsis: an allusion, every bit as compelling, and every bit as problematic, as Socrates' story of knowledge as recollection.
Monday, August 16, 2010
Mainly at Larval Subjects and An Und Fur Sich, the debate rages again over Derrida. You’d think we’d have moved on by now, but clearly, something about Derrida makes him a magnet for this sort of controversy.
Unlike many people, I find a lot of Derrida a pleasure to read, and quite rigorous. In particular I loved (and still do) “Envoi” in The Post Card, and Limited Inc., —not everyone’s favorites. Thankfully, I fairly quickly gave up the bad imitations of Derrida’s writing that I attempted.
One thing always puzzled me about his ultra-enthusiasts, though. What was the point of arguing about Hegel, or Austin, or Heidegger, or etc. etc., unless what Hegel (or etc.) said mattered? And if it mattered, how did it matter? It mattered because the books Derrida was commenting upon engaged the world. This was what I often felt was lost upon those who were busy impressing their professors with how they could twist the text du jour to say what it didn’t mean. You could argue with puns and eloquence that black was white, or that the whole binary opposition was untenable, or whatever, but this was boring, boring, boring, unless there was black and white (whether distinguishable or not); if instead you were arguing about bregh and shmilv, I won’t care. Why? Because what the hell are bregh and shmilv? These dada terms are here a reductio meant to show that, whatever Derrida may be taken to have meant, he did not mean that language was all there was. Derrida could make one listen about Hegel on the family or the Trinity, about Heidegger on technology or spirit, about Husserl about the origin of geometry, because we can do things with these terms—whether “there is” spirit or not, the term “spirit” signifies; it hooks into all sorts of practices, in a way that “bregh” and “shmilv” do not. (Though I have no doubt Derrida would have taken this argument and turned it on its head.)
Was Derrida a realist? Wasn’t he? Did he think the whole question was a pseudo-problem? I think it is fair to say that Derrida cultivated ambiguity, not out of mere perversity (though he would probably say that there was nothing “mere” about perversity), but because he thought that ambiguity was of the essence of questions like this—and indeed, of the essence of what the questions were about. Yes, Derrida is a renegade phenomenologist, and phenomenology was supposed to point us “to the things themselves;” but for Derrida, at least the Derrida that enchanted me (which is not to say that I stayed enchanted forever) the notion of “itself” is precisely what needed to be questioned. What this means in the current context is that the very notion of Derrida having one position, “deconstruction itself,” is crying out for deconstruction.
But it is certainly fair to say that Derrida was not often read as “a realist” for a very long time, by either his detractors or his defenders (at least, not in America, where for a generation he was read more by literature majors than philosophy students); and was indeed often read as an idealist without the idealism.
Whether Derrida’s was “really” a realist is in one sense obviously a matter of conjecture now, and in another sense, a shockingly unDerridean question, no matter what answer you’re angling for. Convincing readings can be made in many directions, as should not surprise a Derridean; so much so that, I admit, the question of what Derrida’s “real position” was seems idle to me. What is of interest is whether one can make use of Derrida’s formidable oeuvre in a way that abets the realist cause (if that’s what you want).
But partisans of Derrida (and I am one) are in no position to argue that anyone merely “misreads” deconstruction, since the practical upshot of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as the reading of a text. We don’t need to be in such a position, because we can just as easily counter that we have a more interesting reading, and we are free to use words like “truer” or “more faithful” for “more interesting,” precisely on Derridean grounds. The way to make a “realist”-friendly view of Derrida more common is to show it in practice: not to argue “this is what Derrida really meant,” but to show how the resources of deconstruction make possible interesting realist engagements with the world.
And the thing is, as the defenders of Derrida from the infamous charges of "textualism" have been showing, that's really not so hard to do.
In my opinion the really interesting question is, what makes Derrida still such a strange attractor for this sort of argument? And I think it has to do with what I mentioned before-- his intimation that there's a radical ambiguity in the very heart of the real. This is more unsettling than just irrealism or anti-realism. It's the hint that the real itself could be indescribable in realist terms.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
This is re-posted from Speculative Heresy.
I am fairly sure that no philosophy bloggers out there get their news straight from me, but on the off-chance you haven't heard yet, Pete Wolfendale (Deontologistics), Reid Kotlas (Planomenology) and Nick Srniceck (Speculative Heresy) are planning a blog event on:
Science and Metaphysics
The announcement runs:
We are caught at the nexus of two different historical trends. First, we accept that with regard to certain questions, empirical science is the arbiter of truth. This is not to say that science is a unitary body of knowledge, but that the only standpoint from which to challenge the authority of scientific theories is from within science itself. Secondly, we accept the bankruptcy of positivism. There is more truth than that over which empirical science has dominion. Metaphysics is something other than science. Nonetheless, we cannot admit that metaphysics is completely beyond science’s authority. We cannot do this without also denying that in some sense, they have the same object – reality as it is in itself. We must thus acknowledge that there is a relation between science and metaphysics, wherein the one must somehow constrain the other, even if this constraint is somehow mutual. The question is then what exactly is this relation, and what are these constraints?
We invite submissions of 1500-2500 words on this general topic. Issues that could be addressed are:
- The methodological constraints science places on metaphysics.
- The metaphysical implications of specific aspects of modern science.
- The positive contribution of metaphysics to scientific inquiry (both in general and in particular).
- The nature of naturalism (e.g., methodological vs. substantive naturalism).
- The nature of materialism (e.g., materialism vs. physicalism).
- The necessity of concepts such as nature and matter.
- The viability of mathematical ontology (e.g., Badiou, Meillassoux, etc.) and the relation between mathematical and empirical science.
- The role of the philosophy of science in general and its relation to both scientific practice and metaphysical inquiry.
The deadline for submissions (1500-2500 words)is September 17th. If you wish to submit something (1500-2500 words), contact the organizers at: speculativeheresy[at]gmail[dot]com
Sunday, August 8, 2010
In response to a comment by Elisa, I hazarded that in ritual or liturgical practice, not only do the sampads come to the fore, but that by applying oneself to this mode of being consciously one can cultivate participation. This is a large claim, and I want to nuance it a bit.
First I should clarify that neither "ritual" nor "participation" are for me terms of automatic approbation. The critique of consumerism, for instance, as hinging on a mode of "participation," an identification of buyer with product, is one obvious and plausible way of spinning Marx's account of commodity fetishism. Politics is full of "rituals," and most of them lend their objects, or the process itself, same spurious authenticity as commodity fetishism. I have not thought through my whole take on the way late capitalism intersects with the correspondences (though Agamben and Foucault, not to mention McLuhan, give some possible starting-places), but it is clear to me that advertainment is full of invocations of them, in its implication of a richer, fuller life with the dose of mana promised in the rich lifestyle each glittering product signifies. This might seem a tired old critique, but what it implies in the present context is that there’s a way to distinguish between the superstition of consumerism, which is unconscious and alienated participation, and a “third way” that would navigate between or beyond both this superstition and the scientism that stands opposed to it, by engaging participation consciously.
However, this too needs to be more carefully thought. I had written:
"...ritual tends of its nature to privilege its own moment. Thus every sacred spot tends to acquire a numinous aura which does not "really" obtain....that there is nothing in the temple that is special, but that the temple reveals the world, shows us that the world itself is holy, or destined to holiness."At the grave risk of misunderstanding (above all by myself), I might very tentatively compare the temple, in this respect, to the scientific laboratory. There, too, the world is revealed, but no special claim is made for the laboratory itself as different in kind from the rest of the world. It is just that the lab is structured in a certain way, a way that makes this revealing possible. Now of course I would argue that it is not that the temple is a laboratory but that (as the old alchemists knew) the laboratory is a temple; the temple, also, structures experience within it in a particular way, and the temple is the more general type of which the laboratory, like the house, the seat of government, and garden, and the factory, are instances. (Calvin Coolidge said: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there.” I realize one cites this at the risk of forever tarring oneself as an apologist for capitalism; I trust folks will know this isn’t where I am coming from.)
It is this structuring, this balance, that is the essential thing. Every human context does this balancing, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. One could call it a sort of feng shui, a weighing of one factor against another, one real thing against another real thing, in such a way that something about reality as such can show through. Thus, for instance, one sits in meditation--comporting one's body and mind in a certain way--in the faith that by doing so one can achieve a realization of the nature of mind per se. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for the way the aspects of a work of art (say, in theater, the actors' words, the scenery, the stage lights) work together to open onto a world beyond the stage. Or again, the way a liturgical event plays scripture, music, incense, silence, architectural space, off of one another in a semi-scripted balance, a play of sampads, to (possibly) reveal something that makes every human measure take on a new and unforeseen meaning that was always meant for it.
But if, as I noted, any attempt to make such a third way risks collapsing into mere wishy-washiness (i.e., hedging one's bets), what can prevent this? Here Elisa offered a useful synopsis:
not to engage actively in the third way (since this would automatically destroy it and make it vanish into superstition) but to leave one's doors open for receiving it. Of course, this needs a preliminary faith that the world is in fact holy and only expects a proper locus to manifest itself as such. Prayer and external attitude may facilitate —although not cause— it.At the risk of severe oversimplification, i think we can see this as somewhat akin to the curious identity/difference of samsara=nirvana. If samsara is nirvana, what’s the problem, right? If the Tao is realized when we stop distinguishing good and bad, then…. is it good to realize the Tao? And indeed, how is it that this realization can “come about” at all? What is the difference between this realization and it’s lack?
An encounter recorded in some versions of the Platform Sutra speaks to this. When Huai Jang came to Hui Neng (the story goes), Hui Neng asked him where he had come from. “From the mountain of Sung Shan,” Huai Jang replied. Hui Neng regarded him, then asked: “But what is this thing, and how did it get here?” Huia Jang was discomfited and said nothing. For eight years he applied himself to Ch’an, striving to awake, asking himself this question over and over. When, suddenly (if “sudden” is the word for an eight-year process) he attained enlightenment, he went to Hui Neng and told him he had experienced an awakening. “What is it?” Nui Neng asked. Huai Jang replied: “To say what it is like is not to the point.” Still, Hui Neng pressed him: could this thing to which he had awakened, could his awakening itself, be cultivated? Huai Jang replied: “Though its cultivation and experiencing are not uncalled for, it cannot be tainted.”
I take this to indicate that “cultivation” remains worthwhile, despite the fact that what such cultivation may give one access to (if at all) not only does not depend upon such cultivation but in a certain manner has nothing to do with it. (Compare this, incidentally, to Findlay’s ontological disproof of God: the notion that the religious absolute, as an utterly necessary being, has no bearing on any contingent realities. To the early Findlay this seemed to suffice to show that such a radically necessary entity could not exist. One could hazard--admittedly playing fast and loose with significant cross-cultural differences--that Huai Jang seems to grant Findlay’s logic but dispute his conclusions nonetheless.)
All very well for Huai Jang, perhaps; after all, he became the seventh Patriarch of Zen, after Hui Neng. But for me, I who am not enlightened, how do I mouth such paradoxes without this turning into mere bullshit? This is the technical term Harry Frankfurt uses for the utterance of remarks without regard for whether they are true or false. I sometimes think I catch the waft of such bullshit from the breezy “if-you-meet-the-Buddha,-kill-him” pronouncements of the catch-all newage. After all, if my creed or my practices might be shown (or indeed are assumed to be destined to be shown) to be just “fingers pointing at the moon,” to use another too-flippant phrase, how do I engage them mindfully?
Frankfurt is mostly concerned with bullshit when it is directed outward; when the bullshitter is merely trying to advance an agenda and to persuade others. In another age, this was what was called sophistry; it was, for instance, the art of “making the weaker cause appear the stronger.” When deconstruction was compared to sophistry by its detractors, this was part of the case they were making. In fact, the comparison runs quite deep. While I hold Derrida to be a pleasure to read (at least certain books, and not always the usual suspects), too many of his imitators in the late ’80s and early ’90s excelled in simply avoiding saying anything, and doing so at great length. An uncharitable interpretation of this would be that such writing was bullshit through and through—indifferent to any truth-claims whatsoever, it was intended only to advance the author’s career. Of course, one can only do this so long before one is bullshitting oneself as well. This is all the more dangerous where the religious is in question, precisely because here the issue is far more worth caring about than one’s academic advancement. Though I have reservations about the Sartrean way of speaking of authenticity, Sartre’s critique of bad faith in Being and Nothingness ought to be read and memorized by anyone who would guard against such self-deception.
In short, one must know that at every step one risks mere pretense, and one must, in contrast to the bullshitter, care very deeply—care so much that one would “stake one’s soul” on the matter. This is what Tillich calls the “ultimate concern” which is the object of faith. Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.
But I would rather say, perhaps, that the realization I have in mind is that one has, as it were, “staked one’s soul;” one sees not some new value to which one must now give assent, but rather the pure clarity of what are the values to which one has already assented. (Pascal: “If you had not found Me you would not seek Me.”)
Realization cannot be forced; it cannot be compelled; it is not the object of any technique, but comes after all the techniques have run out. Even in a Buddhist context a language strongly suggestive of “grace” starts to be heard around this. In a recent post I again had recourse to Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between problems and mysteries. In Being and Having, Marcel writes:
A problem is something which I meet, which I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity. A genuine problem is subject to an appropriate technique by the exercise of which it is defined; whereas a mystery by definition transcends every conceivable technique.But openness to realization can be cultivated. It is cultivated, even, in the very devotion to understanding by means of these imperfect models—these crystal spheres, these cycles of prayer, these tables of elements arrayed in ascending order of atomic weight—knowing that these models will need revision and more than revision. This is (I have urged), the whole secret of the tradition known by that hoary word “philosophy,” whether “philosophers” know it or not: there is a trope by which one’s model incorporates the collapse of the model.
And yet. And yet, for all the gravity and fear and trembling, there’s a lightness to faith that belies any sanctimony. All of one’s arrangements of ceremony and correspondence, all one’s synchronized crystal spheres arranged with perfect feng shui, all one’s techniques, may well, indeed shall, turn out to be a great stage-set of skillful means. (There have always been critiques of the sampads, and always someone is clearing their throat to remind us that the lion and the horse do not picture God this way). Even this well-tuned neuronal system of ours, our theatre of sensation and emotion and memory, could meet the same fate: it too may be an ingeniously-contrived (albeit fortuitous) amalgam of techniques. But all of these nonetheless cultivate and give some fleeting glimpse of reality, this thing of which we cannot say what it is like, because this is not to the point.
As I was finishing the edits on this post a commenter sent me the link to Simon Critchley's most recent philosophy column in the NY Times, on Kierkegaard's Works of Love. A sample:
Faith has the character of a continuous “striving … in which you get occasion to be tried every day.” This is why faith and the commandment of love that it seeks to sustain is not law. It has no coercive, external force. As Rosenzweig writes, “The commandment of love can only proceed from the mouth of the lover.” He goes on to contrast this with law, “which reckons with times, with a future, with duration.” By contrast, the commandment of love “knows only the moment; it awaits the result in the very moment of its promulgation.” The commandment of love is mild and merciful, but, as Kierkegaard insists, “there is rigor in it.” We might say love is that disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality so something new and inward can come into being.The contrast drawn here is akin to the one I see between "technique" and whatever comes after or despite technique, and I commend this article by Critchley precisely as a rumination on faith by one who stands self-consciously outside any creed. And, as I read the (inevitably, tiresomely, automatically) acrimonious comments, I am painfully aware (and I say this as a believer who was not always one) of how much like bullshit faith--or at least, talking about faith--looks, from the outside.
This acrimony plays its role in why, as I wrote last post, I tend to be more conciliatory than combative, more interested in synthesis than attack. But it does not trouble me too much. It is not for no reason that the language of faith very often has recourse to metaphors (sampads?) of seeds and sprouting. Faith may be precisely the faith that even the bullshit is there for the sake of (precisely) cultivating something else. But this presumes, of course, that one has planted something other than bullshit.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
In a comment a couple of posts ago, dy0genes writes:
One strength that a religious life gives is a sense of certitude. Religions solve real problems for people, give them answers and directions that they need. Many also develop a sort of tunnel vision in which they cannot see any other way of life as being capable of answering those questions....This type of bias ...extends to any deviation from the "one true path". ...I take quiet pleasure in seeing their shock that my children are happy, well adjusted and getting along just fine without their "necessary" principles....They assume that my life must be hollow and full of secret despair. How could my children be so loved if I could accept that we must eventually part? How could I be happy without their community or certainty? Why don't I need to be forgiven and saved? I know they will never have answers to THESE questions. The best revenge is to live well and show that godlessness is not a terrible fate. Only by living well can I show that godlessness is not nihilism full of angst and gnashing of teeth.As I read these finely written remarks, my responses dovetailed in my mind with some reflections on the sometimes snippy comments on blogs (I'm mainly speaking of philosophy blogs), as well as other polemical engagements. I have written a few of these myself, and I don't hold that conflict has no place in philosophy (after all, Empedocles would say it's half the story of the cosmos itself). But I notice in my own responses to various philosophers that I am constantly resonating with their own constructive arguments, while I wince at the swipes they take at others. The more acerbic they become, the more I lose interest. A thinker can be as different form me in spirit (say, for instance, as "reductionist") as they please, if they are constructively so, and still hold my interest; sometimes, indeed, the more different, the better. It's when they begin to try dismantling the opposition that I start to get antsy.
Doubtless this says more about me than it does about the pursuit of the life of the mind. I am dispositionally conciliatory, perhaps to a fault, and don't enjoy arguing except in certain circumstances. (In this, if in little else, I am like Deleuze, who seems to have preferred to just change the subject.) My own bent is towards synthesis, even at the risk of mere eclecticism. I have some justifications for this which I believe to be well-grounded in integrity as well as pragmatism, but I may merely have made a virtue of my prejudices. Nonetheless, I far prefer to see what I can make of a thinker's projects, than to rip it apart, or dismiss it as just the thinking of so-and-so from 50 years ago, redone in the latest style.
This has some relevance to some recent hoopla (again) on the way to conduct disputes; on how ones tone comes across, and so on. All the cautions I read out there (I'm thinking most recently of a clash of opinions on Levi Bryant's blog, but fill in the blank with whatever the latest argument was) are well taken. I'd go so far as to say that in many ways philosophy feels to me to oscillate between being somewhat conflict-avoidant, and all too trigger-happy. What needs to be embraced are controversial topics, not condemnatory tactics.
This means that I get a good deal out of reading very disparate things. In the past week, for instance, I have been reading Hermes Trismegistus (whoever that was); Meillassoux (again); the Platform Sutra; St. Thomas Aquinas; and Pascal Boyer. It is obvious from the word go that these guys aren't going to agree about things. That isn't the point. The point is to be able to make within the theater of one's own soul a place where they can speak to each other. One still must decide, tentatively, where one comes down oneself, but if one is honest, this is an open-ended and corrigible process.
My attempt to re-invigorate the word metalepsis is a conscious effort to give warrant for a kind of perspectivism for modes of life. There is a blinkered way of seeing (or rather not-seeing), described quite well in dy0genes' comment, an incapacity to imagine that things could be otherwise, that one could live in any other way-- or, at best (since empirically, human beings live in many other ways), a presumption that all these other ways must somehow long for "what we have."
While I don't believe, with Sam Harris, that science is in any position to abolish the is-ought gap (and I can only describe my reaction to the notion that it could as incredulity), I nonetheless think he's right to suggest a topological metaphor for possible optimum ways of being human, with multiple peaks and valleys. (I also think science is obviously strongly relevant to how such mapping might be attempted; I just don't think it can get us there. But that's a different argument). This plurality of possibilities is axiomatic for me. Ever since I had the epiphany that I did not believe that Jesus was coming back soon, I've known it was possible to inhabit at least two different worlds. Whether this was true or false, it was not possible for me to believe otherwise. God would have to save me some other way.
"Two different worlds? But which is the real one?!" Could there be some "fact of the matter?" The question certainly is important when we come to practical issues. Could it possibly be that homosexuality and meth addiction are somehow, "spiritually," analogous? Or, say, abortion and genocide? Some of these questions are easier to laugh at from the outside than others, and in fact I am far from shrugging them off. It is possible that in some revelatory next life, there will be more reasons forthcoming to consider. But in this life, my gut faith (again, what I can't dismiss and still be me) is that the Enlightenment got this one right: tolerance. This answer is no panacea (it does not give some failsafe for dealing with religious minorities, or indeed abortion), but it does wonders for the working-out of questions like "but how can you possibly be happy living that way?" The answer is not discursive, but in praxis.
There are important differences between my conservative religious relatives' disagreement with me (I have them, just like dy0genes), and philosophers sharpshooting at each other, but my allergic reaction to both feels the same. I am interested (not automatically persuaded, but open to hearing about) anyone's positive positions, and this is far from a polite nodding and smiling, nor of keeping everything comparative and saying "thanks for sharing." I genuinely hold that these things matter. I am not so much interested, though, in why the other guy must be wrong. I don't say that one must eschew talking about falsehood, but the more one focuses on this, the less useful I find the engagement.
Leaving it here, all "theoretical," will not solve everything. This final point may seem to stretch my argument well beyond the philosophical or even religious context of the beginning of this post, but I see these considerations as progressing step by step. If I (or they) happen to want to not immunize my/their kid, leaving each other alone doesn't suffice. Or, suppose, if I want to home school? Live off the grid? Not eat genetically-engineered crops? Live in a whites-only neighborhood? Assert that the Apollo moon landings, the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, is a historical fraud? There are limits to pluralism, and I don't mean to minimize these. But to hope to find them workable when we get to them, we need (I think) not to start with them.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Dismissing questions as “pseudo-problems” was the standard move against metaphysics in the early 20th-century, but it has antecedents going back very far. It was the tactic of the humanists against the Medieval scholastics; one might even say it was a ploy of the Epicureans against their opponents. One might understand this move, the notion that the right theoretical stance can help one be free of certain besetting perplexities, in the context of the history of philosophy as a therapy. However, it rings false in an era in which “the therapeutic” has come to seem self-explanatory and has displaced or subsumed an entire realm of the spiritual. (On this, see Philip Rieff). It is one thing to say that, with the right shift of perspective, your problem resolves itself. It is another to snicker or sigh that someone is merely caught in a grammatical mistake. Although Wittgenstein (who did speak of his philosophy as a kind of therapy) is often supposed to have given this non-response a new sort of respectability, this is a serious misunderstanding. At every stage of his career, Wittgenstein is always quite explicit that mistake or no mistake, a metaphysical puzzle is in any event not a stupid mistake. This is why he insists that one may well talk nonsense, “but you must pay attention to your nonsense.”
One finds this misguided critique of Wittgenstein frequently in After Finitude:
What will be the reaction of many contemporary philosophers…when confronted by Hume’s problem, or by the question as to why there is something rather than nothing? Generally speaking they will try to find the easiest way to shrug their shoulders. They will try to demonstrate to you that there is nothing enigmatic about your question, because it does not even need to be raised anymore. Thus, they will endeavor, in a spirit of charity—tirelessly repeating the Duchampian-Wittgensteinian gesture—to make you understand that there is no enigma, because there is no problem. These philosophers will claim to have dissolved your “naïve” problem—“naïve” because metaphysical, dogmatic, etc.—by unveiling the (linguistic, historical) source of this vain questioning. Ultimately what they are really interested in is finding out…how it is still possible…to be perplexed by these ‘pseudo-problems.’ ( A.F., p 109)I believe Meillassoux is very wrong to attribute this stance to Wittgenstein, for whom a metaphysical question was not an occasion for such condescension. At the same time, I am, if it were possible, more eager than Meillassoux to make the allegation of “pseudo-questions” a thing of the past. As a rhetorical ploy it is, at best, a hyperbolic enthusiasm for ones own perspective; at worst it is a denial of the other’s, and amounts to superiority, bullying, or ostracism. (N.b., I’m speaking within the narrow compass of philosophy here; I am far from claiming that one has the right to demand that ones interlocutor be interested in one’s own questions.) These different readings of Wittgenstein are of course only symptomatic of a deeper disagreement. What I applaud in Meillassoux is his wanting to recoup genuine questions from so-called pseudo-problems; what I object to is his reduction of these questions to mere problems.
In fact Meillassoux has his own maneuver by which to answer the question of why there is anything at all rather than nothing, and, as he reveals on page 110, it is really quite simple, every bit as simple in its way as the dissolution of the pseudo-problem. For what reason is there something instead of nothing? The answer is—are you ready?—for no reason!
Lest one find this a little bit of a letdown, Meillassoux is quite prepared to defend it:
The response “for no reason” is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like “Where do we come from?”, “Why do we exist?”, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies “From nothing; for nothing” really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions—and excellent ones at that. (p 110)This bathetic denouement comes as the result of Meillassoux’s readiness to give over the principle of sufficient reason, i.e. that there is always some reason for anything to be the case, even for the fact that there is such a thing as “being the case.” Wittgenstein of course will say that here one has illegitimately extended a way of thinking about particulars (the "ontic," in Heidegger’s terms) beyond the setting where it is pertinent—to “Being itself,” Heidegger’s "ontological." In fact, despite his rhetoric, Meillassoux is extraordinarily close to Wittgenstein (I will leave Duchamp aside for now), in likewise arguing that the application to the Whole is what makes this step illegitimate. Meillassoux differs from Wittgenstein in asserting that there is no question here of any “limit to thought” (or language), since the question of the Whole, which is always generative of the paradoxes that drive the Tractatus on towards its ambivalent avowal of silence, has proven to give way under the rigorous mathematical apparatus of Cantorian transfinite set theory.
Be that as it may, I am struck by the sense that with friends like this, metaphysical questions do not need enemies. We have come far indeed from the wellspring of philosophy if we imagine that Socrates would have been satisfied with such an answer as “for no reason at all!” If this is not a shrug of the shoulders, I do not know what is.
Now note that Meillassoux’s claim to the high ground of realism is based on his insistence that he is thinking of how things are “without me”, whether or not anyone thinks of them, whether or not there is anyone to think of them. The move here is to haughtily reject the need to think the questioner along with the question. In this fashion, the questioner indeed becomes just an accidental feature of the perplexing issue. After all, it would be possible to ask—and this is indeed what the “question of being” does, in a sense—“even if I were not here, there would be something; So, why?”
But of course, in the absence of the perplexed questioner, there is no question anymore. This means that this question can only be asked in a circumstance that gainsays it.
A temptation here that is every bit as much a piece of trumpery (to use Harman’s recent coinage) as the dismissal of pseudo-problems, is to say that this observation just makes the “standard correlationist move” of confusing epistemology with ontology or of assuming that there can only be knowledge of phenomena, or some such. But if we decide not to fall for this, but instead stay with the question itself, we can ask: what is a question anyway? What is this questioning we feel in the face of phenomena? Why do we believe they even call for “saving?” And above and beyond all such quantifiable and delimitable issues, is what William Desmond names metaphysical perplexity, which “precedes determinate curiosity and exceeds determinate cognition.” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. x.)
This inquiry is not just a sneaky way of meta-insinuating the human subject back into the equation. What is a problem, after all? Let us for the moment stipulate, that a la object-oriented ontology, a pencil (for instance) exists “in itself,” even though I may be blissfully slipping over this dark riddle as long as I can write with it. Suddenly the lead snaps—then suddenly I am propelled headlong into the encounter with the vorhanden . Here is Harman’s (Heidegger's) tool-being, the pencil withdrawing and me suddenly realizing that the pencil withdraws. Well, then. I sharpen the pencil, and we are back to the zuhanden, except that I may be vaguely troubled by the awareness, now, that the pencil has its own strange life stirring imperceptibly in my hand. But let’s say I move past this disquieting metaphysical moment and go on with my math. What am I working on? Why, the venerable Pythagorean puzzle of deriving the square root of two, of course. Now, is there a problem of deriving this square root? I mean not, does the square root of two exist, but rather, does the problem of deriving it exist?
Here we are far closer to something more indubitably like Barfield’s rainbow-example. The problem does not exist in itself, it exists as an encounter between my finite mathematical skills and the intractable abstract reality of the set of numbers. Take either one of these away, and the problem of deriving the square root of two vanishes, just like the rainbow vanishes if the viewer or the sun or the raindrops are taken away. Any problem is an interaction between my own desire (and incapacity) to know the square root, and the mathematical “itself.” Moreover, the resolution of this is also the “vanishing of the problem.” The problem no longer exists; it has been changed into a procedure; the puzzlement has disappeared, like a slipknot.
What makes this more than a passing semantic diversion is that this is almost precisely isomorphic with the present-at- and ready-to-hand. When the hammer (or the pencil) breaks, yes, then a problem presents itself, just as when a cliff-face suddenly looms along my planned path. But when the tunnel is completed, the problem dissolves. The hammer-head once more fitted to the handle is now again ready-to-hand, the cliff fades into the background; Harman would say in either case that the object withdraws. But the square root of two? Well, certainly I never finish its digital expression, so in some sense it too is never present; neither of course is any mathematical entity, say, “the equilateral triangle.” I only get “close enough” for my purposes. (For that matter, natural processes which employ tensegrity do not find any ideal triangles either, as Buckminster Fuller emphasized; a point which I offer as a corroboration of at least some object-oriented intuitions.)
But while the square root of two doubtless (to tip my Platonist hand) exists (and evades me), the problem of deriving it is different. For the problem is to approximate it, not to write it out to in infinitesimal precision. Before I understand the algorithm, the “how to do it,” this problem sits as intractably in front of me as a lead safe before Superman’s gaze. But once I “get it,” I see “how I can go on,” as Wittgenstein would say, and the problem is gone. (Where…?)
A problem does not exist in the same way that a tree (or a mathematical entity) does, then, though either of these can figure in a problem. Of course, for Barfield, a tree does not exist either, except for me—and indeed it has a mathematical form (on many levels), and inputs and outputs in terms of energy and information. But when a problem is solved, it ceases to exists except retrospectively or hypothetically.
One can juxtapose, however, the problem to the mystery. I’ve touched on this before.
A problem can be solved as such. This is what Meillassoux means when he asserts that the question “why is there anything?”, and other such, are seen to have really been problems, “excellent ones” at that, because they have answers. Or, as Wittgenstein says, “If a question can be put into words at all, then it is also possible to answer it.” (Tractatus 6.5) This is why for Wittgenstein, the metaphysical question is indeed not strictly possible to phrase—but our vain attempts to wrestle with the “limits of language” nonetheless “point to something.” As I would say (following Gabriel Marcel), these questions are mysteries, not problems, because they are not definitively answered. A mystery remains after an answer is given it, and remains because any answer reinstates it. So, for instance, no matter how scientifically tractable the description of my body may be, the relation between "me" and my body will remain, after every conclusive demonstration, as riddling as before, not despite the scientist's best efforts but in fact by virtue of them. Here I should like to point to the excellent post by Jeffrey Bell whose title, riffing on Nagel's now-immortal bat query, inspired my own. Bell's conclusion is different from mine, but thinking about this post and several others at his blog has spurred many of these thoughts. (The other writing that has influenced this meditation is Michel Meyer's--all too under-appreciated--Of Problematology.)
I can ask, “What is it like to be a bat?” since a bat has an existence that is independent of me; but not “what is it like to be a problem?” because a problem exists only for me and not in itself; it disappears without me as the questioner.
As to “what is it like to be a mystery?”—is there any need to ask? Gnothi seauton.
For a mystery does not disappear. Indeed one can perhaps say: the object is “real” insofar as it is a mystery, and vice-versa. This is the “eternal” face of any entity, the form that does not come into being, at least not within time, though it might be said to be “eternally created,” if we are speaking in a theistic mode. Pascal Boyer notes in Religion Explained (see esp. chapter 2) that all “supernatural” entities in folklore or myth always have some natural qualities (e.g., a ghost may be able to walk through walls, but it still communicates in time, and moves from place to place). But the converse is also true: the “natural” entity always has some “supernatural” quality—this, insofar as we are speaking of how the entity is conceived. Insofar as the thing is known, and also insofar as it remains unknown, the thing is beyond or other than the natural, for knowability and being are other than natural. As, too, are goodness, and beauty, for instance. For this reason, philosophy is inherently “mythological” in a sense (and vice-versa, as should be obvious; one need not be steeped in Iamblichus or Porphyry to see a story like the conception and birth of Dionysus, or (to jump cultures) the jealousy of Rudra against Prajapati, as a cosmic speculation).
So I would argue: insofar as one can ask “What is it like to be…”, one is talking about a mystery. But this means that one has reinstated a kind of participation, and vaulted the impassable border between object and object, not by virtue of knowing it but by establishing oneself as likewise unknowable.
Graham Harman, at work on a book on Quentin Meillassoux and in Paris, and reading Meillassoux’s unpublished dissertation L’inexistence divine, remarks on Meillassoux’s “hilarious reversal of Anselm:”
For Meillassoux,(Harman remarks) God is the only entity that can be proven for sure not to exist.Everyone who knows the ontological proof knows that it was argued against almost from the day it left Anselm’s scriptorium. But Meillassoux is in a fairly select group in arguing not only that Anselm didn’t prove what he set out to prove, but that the opposite can be proven on (onto)logical grounds alone.
It is not quite, however, a set with only one member. Harman’s post reminded me of a 1948 article by John Findlay called “Can God’s existence be disproved?” Findlay is one of the more unjustly neglected figures of 20th-century philosophy, a prototype for today’s belated attempts to “bridge the Continental-Analytic divide.” A younger colleague (and eventual critic) of Wittgenstein, he visited Carnap in Chicago (when Wittgenstein learned of it, he asked not to have Carnap’s name mentioned again lest—they were sitting in an ice-cream parlor—he “lose his milkshake.”) Should these qualifications as an analytic philosopher seem insufficient, Findlay also taught Arthur Prior, the founder of tense (a.k.a. “temporal”) logic, and secured him his first jobs. Yet Findlay also translated Husserl’s Logical Investigations, wrote what was for decades almost the only book on Meinong in English, as well as works not only on Hegel and Kant, but (especially in the Gifford lectures and in Ascent to the Absolute numerous themes from Indian and Chinese philosophy; the epigraph for the second volume of Gifford lectures reads:
How oddFindlay’s ontological proof of the non-existence of God comes from early in his career. Any object of religious devotion, he argues, would (having unsurpassable superiority as Anselm’s God does), be such that its non-existence is logically inconceivable. Thus far, Findlay is on orthodox Anselmian grounds. God's existence would then be inescapable, if and only if He is a necessarily existing being. But according to Findlay, there are no necessarily existing beings.
As Findlay wrote in a later synopsis:
Existence…has sense only when general descriptions have an extra-linguistic application; to say that things exist is a roundabout way of saying that their descriptions apply. And…ifwe could give sense to the necessary existence of anything, we should at once make anything we said of that thing empty and unmeaning. For the nature of necessary truths is that they hold whatever the non-necessary circumstances may be, and this means that there could be no saving or redemptive or consoling implications in the necessary existence of a religious absolute. On all counts then, the implications of modern linguistic philosophy as of Kantianism are that religious absolutes are not things that possibly may exist: they are things or putative things which certainly do not exist, since reference to them involves either a violation of the forms or rules of logic. (The Transcendence of the Cave pp 85-6)Thus, from the definition of God as a necessarily existing being, and the stipulation that there are no such beings, he draws the logical conclusion: God does not exist.
It was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof, (he wrote in his 1948 paper); For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence.The hinge of this argument, it’s easy to see, is in the minor premise: there are no necessary entities. Now bearing in mind that Meillassoux’s magnum opus remains unpublished and untranslated, still one can glean from After Finitude that this is also Meillassoux’s contention. There is of course a difference. Findlay is arguing from Kantian and from Wittgensteinian grounds that the necessity in question is nonsensical: instead of an ex hypothesi necessity, to the effect that Q is necessary because we have posited “if P then Q,” it is a rather an arbitrary stipulation of the necessity of Q all on its own. This necessary existence, divorced from all contingent P’s, is what Findlay says must be barren of consequence for any contingent beings who also happened to exist (say, you and me). This is close in spirit to what Wittgenstein says about all necessary truths being tautologies. Meillassoux on the other hand rejects necessity as such, with the sole exception of (as his subtitle says) “the necessity of contingency.” For Meillassoux, the notion of any necessity is itself contradictory. This is of a piece with his rejection of the principle of sufficient reason, which of course is the move by which Meillassoux means to undo the itch for absolutes, and thus the warrant for fideism (=strong correlationism) (See A.F., p 82).
Now Findlay later came to hold that, as he put it, that
one can work the argument in reverse. If, instead of holding a necessity of existence to be impossible, one holds it to be conceivable, then one is at once able to conclude that it is actual and necessary….[in this case,] the only way it can avoid existence is in fact by being at some point internally inconsistent or otherwise impossible. (ibid, p 89)This is more or less what Gaunilo had tried to argue against Anselm, in making God analogous to an island, and Meillassoux seems to hold that to treat the Whole as an intra-whole object is to treat it as an island or something like it. As Findlay remarks, the argument depends on whether one sees necessary existence conceivable or inconceivable:
If one’s ideas of the possible are not unclear and muddled (as they always to some extent must be), one cannot merely be dubious about a necessary being: one must either reject it or accept it outright. (p. 90)The upshot here seems to be, that the only reason one could have for being tentative on this score is being unsure on the degree of clarity in one’s ideas of possibility. So of course it remains of some interest that just as Findlay’s conclusion at this stage in the argument was an “attitude…of tentative acceptance” of God’s existence (he later developed it into a more full-fledged “rational mysticism”), so Meillassoux, in a very different key, also reaches a sort of accommodation. As is well known from his article “Spectral Dilemma;” the assertion of God’s ontological impossibility is (in Harman’s words)
true only if God is identified with the Whole, which Meillassoux does not do. There’s actually plenty of room for the virtual God in his system.This virtual God, thought rigorously under the rubric of possibility, may come to be someday, and be in this way innocent for all those terrible ills guilt for which (Meillassoux thinks) the most tortured convolutions of theodicy has not delivered Him. Meillassoux’s rejection of the Whole is part of what he takes on from Badiou’s “Platonism of the multiple.” I am not myself convinced by this argument, which is often said to depend upon Cantor, but actually rests on a particular and not at all self-evident reading of Cantor. (Gödel for one, I think, did not hold to it.) But Meillassoux’s weird future-oriented virtual theology remains one of the most provocative aspects of his thought; his science-fiction god is just an index of how provocative supposedly highfalutin’ metaphysics can be.
These parallels between Findlay and Meillassoux are not moves in the idle game of “find the antecedent.” (Neither were my comparisons between Meillassoux and Barfield.) Antecedents there are aplenty, for nearly any pronouncement. What is interesting (and insufficiently remarked) in philosophy is when very different thinkers stumble upon a similar configuration of thought. As John Shade wrote:
If on some nameless island, Captain SchmidtFindlay, the semi-Wittgensteinian neo-Platonist, and Meillassoux, the scourge of correlationism, have both glimpsed the same most perfect island, though perhaps respectively (it would seem) from the windward and the leeward side.
Sees a new animal and captures it,
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth.
(Pale Fire ll.759-762).