Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Styles of antagonism

And often with our love we want merely to overleap envy. And often we attack and make ourselves enemies, to conceal that we are vulnerable.

“Be at least mine enemy!”—thus speaketh the true reverence, which doth not venture to solicit friendship.

If one would have a friend, then must one also be willing to wage war for him: and to wage war, one must be
capable of being an enemy.

One ought still to honour the enemy in one’s friend. Canst thou go nigh unto thy friend, and not go over to him?

In one’s friend one shall have one’s best enemy. Thou shalt be closest unto him with thy heart when thou withstandest him.
--Nietzsche, Thus spake Zarathustra Book I, 14, "On the Friend."
We find our antagonists in more than one way. For me, there are some whose position is so much like my own in so many ways that when they veer off, it's in a manner or direction that is clearly both very plausible and very disastrous. There are others whose entire project, from starting point onward, is either alien or antagonistic.

As to the first, Badiou comes to mind. Badiou's reconvening of Platonism was such a welcome and obviously right move, that I had to take special care to understand the point at which he (as I see things) veers -- his foreclosure of the religious ("not an event, but a fable about the event," as he puts it). Badiou sees very clearly the allure of Romanticism, and he wants to make it impossible; he wants, as he puts it, to sever the connection between meaning and truth. In other words, he wants to loathe what I cherish, even though we stand on the same, Platonist, ground. I see very well why he makes these critiques, and I admire his chutzpah in wanting to push them, but of course I consider it ruinous. In Badiou I see, not just a tremendous attack on my position, from very close to home, which needs to be parried and turned; but also a mistake to be understood, for it is, as it were, the sort of move I might have made.

With Brassier it's another story; it's his position I think is wrong. He hasn't made attacks on any particular stance or argument that I happen to hold; rather, he articulates, with tremendous force and consistency, a stance I can only find antipathetic more or less from beginning to end. He welcomes with nonchalance positions I find untenable in the extreme (e.g., eliminiativism), and has a kind of grim and (to me) unsettling enthusiasm for an aesthetics of horror to which I am largely unsympathetic. Above all, I stand amazed and chilled at the way he would make a virtue of nihilism. This is not to say that I can't imagine going there. I know those cold winds from my own experience. But when I imagine believing what he believes, it doesn't feel like a slight (albeit decisive) veering; it feels like a capitulation; or better, an inversion.

Badiou, to put the matter far too coarsely, is a secularizing philosopher; he wants to transpose the themes of the infinite, of meaning, and of love (or, we might say at the risk of a too-neat parallelism, the true, the good, the beautiful) into the laicised terms of a thinking after-the-death-of-God. In his instincts he is post-Christian; he wants to inherit the legacy of Christianity and divert it to ends more worthy than a venial superstition and a servile alliance with statecraft.

By contrast, Brassier is pre-Christian. Secularization is meaningless to him. His instincts in Nihil Unbound are pagan -- specifically, Lucretian. He belongs to the stream of thinking that has always seen human aspirations as mildly pitiable; a tradition for which the one glory of the mind is to be able to see that life is accidental -- and so, pointless.

This is not a reading of Nihil Unbound in its argument, but rather in what I take to be its esprit. But for myself, I regard Brassier's position as a capitulation to the sad wisdom of Silenus, that "best for man is not to be born." But Socrates' avowal of the examined life, that "to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good," is an express rebuttal of this. Philosophy from the beginning is a repudiation of nihilism.

To be sure, Brassier sees rightly that there is a kind of nihilism that can arise out of "believing in truth," as well as nihilism that is a denial of truth. Brassier's nihilism is not Nietzschean, though it is noble. It is a self-conscious falling on his sword. It is despairing and proud, and I would say honorable, if such a word could have any meaning in the light of its own values. But it is not the drinking of hemlock, discoursing to the end about the Good.

A Sellarsian vocabulary of the "Space of Reasons" does offer some modal possibilities for talk of values of a sort. It is possible Brassier will yet articulate an account of the Good, albeit maybe as a local (and necessarily besieged) epiphenomenon. His political commitments are serious, and he has not yet written an ethics.


  1. Thanks. Great post.

  2. I like this, Skholiast. I think your description of the first type of antagonism fits very, very closely with my attitude to Ken Wilber. His project is mine in so many ways, but he still goes off the rails with it.

    There are a lot more who could fit in the second category for me: I could name Rawls, Derrida, Dennett...

    That seems unsurprising to me. Fellow travellers, even antagonistic ones, can be hard to find in philosophy; and far more so for someone who's spent his life as an intellectual outsider. (Which reminds me, did you see my recent post on my father? http://loveofallwisdom.com/2012/09/an-outsider-who-sees-the-whole/ I think it might resonate with you.)

  3. Thanks, Skholiast, great account of the virtue of being-an-ennemy (if opposed to cowardice).

  4. Thanks, Amod. Oddly, that's sort of how I think of Wilber too.

    Great post about your father, by the way. And yes, I can see why you guessed I might find it personally relevant. I'm not much of a joiner either, for instance.

  5. Thanks, Elisa. I hoped the Nietzsche passage at the beginning would underscore the point in an oblique way.