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, December 31, 2011

Eleven from '11

Top four most visited posts of 2011:

Bullshit again
Eucatastrophe vs. Yog-Sothery
Occupy Wall Street: the supply of demands
We have still never been modern

Seven of my own favorites, either because they got some good discussion, or because I got something off my chest, or just because:

The stone (on Holy Saturday)
Homeopathic immortality
Beyond alienation

No overlap. The public is an ass.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sir Michael Dummett, RIP

I learned from Brandon at Siris that Sir Michael Dummett has died.

It is too often the foolish caricature of Analytic philosophy that it contents itself with the question of the meanings and syntax of statements and has stepped back from the grand questions--the questions the "man in the street" thinks of then the word "philosophy" comes up: questions of the nature of space and time, of the relation between truth and appearance, and the meaning of life. Dummett--a student of Quine, a specialist on Frege--was unapologetic about the "linguistic turn" in one way; he maintained that
Other forms of intellectual enquiry seek to determine which propositions are true. Metaphysics seeks to determine what it is for them to be true. (Thought and Reality, p23)
This meant that metaphysics had
to unravel the nature of propositions – of the thoughts we are capable of thinking.(ibid.)
But Dummett did not believe we needed to stop there, and he provided over the years many explorations into the question of time, of ethics, and indeed of the existence of God, for which he resuscitated the usually scoffed-at argument of Berkeley. I'll add parenthetically that I consider this ability to make use of discarded and discredited arguments one of the signs of the catholicity of thought that philosophy requires--a feeling at ease with the whole stream of the millennia-long conversation and an indifference (which is not the same as hostility) to contemporary trends.

Somewhat presciently, he ruminated in his book on The Nature and Future of Philosophy that
It is by no means obvious that universities...should support philosophy but for historical precedent. If universities had been an invention of the second half of the twentieth century, would anyone have thought to include philosophy among the subjects that they taught and studied? It seems very doubtful.
Dummett attributed the continuing existence of philosophy departments to the inertia of tradition; but as the last few years have shown, when pressed down against the bottom line with the heel of the call for "results" on their throat, universities will be ready to cut loose from tradition without thinking twice.

He had a wide range of other interests. I remember my astonishment years ago when a friend informed me that Dummett had written two books of the tarot deck. I have read A Wicked Pack of Cards, and while I am not persuaded by him that there is no esoteric tradition behind the deck, Dummett makes a strong case that it was primarily a tool of recreation, not divination; and that it likely had its origin in the 15th century,pace the fanciful speculations of the 18th-century occultists (and their successors). (See his response to Frances Yates' review of The Game of Tarot.)

Maybe more significantly, Dummett did serious work in election theory; and he was for about half a century a champion against racism in the U.K. He and his wife co-founded the Institute of Race Relations in 1958. In 2001 Dummett was still at it, arguing that much European opposition to immigration was at least tacitly racist, this being particularly so in Britain. (When he was knighted, he called for the replacement of the entire staff of the British Home Office.)

I cannot of course demonstrate this, but I suspect that Dummett's work in this regard shared a root with his religious faith as a Roman Catholic, a confession he quietly maintained since the 1940's. Dummett was thoughtfully engaged with his faith in its doctrinal and its ritual dimensions. Staunchly in sympathy with the calls for a vernacular Mass, he was appalled by any number of other innovations that came in its wake. His essay on the matter (here) insists and laments:
Liturgy is an art form; one especially in the service of God, but an art form none the less.... [I am] one who for many years longed for the liturgy to be translated into the vernacular; and I was sustained by the thought that, when it happened, it would be carried out by people who would have such sensitivity to language.... Alas, it has been carried out by people with tin ears both for English and for Latin, who moreover thought themselves entitled to revise the liturgy when it did not please them, not just to translate it.
(This sort of thing will get knowing nods from the choir, and raise a "huh?" of incomprehension for the rest; that's fine.) Dummett did not restrict himself to questions of liturgical style. He defended the doctrine of Real Presence (while criticizing the Thomistic presentation thereof); he argued against the Roman church's position on contraception; he criticized modern philosophers for "worshiping" science and insisted that (as Ombhurbhuva reminded me in a comment on the last post)
the price of denying that God exists is to relinquish the idea that there is such a thing as how reality is in itself.
Dummett's colleague Philippa Foot, a professed atheist, recounted in an interview (included here) that she once asked him,
“What happens when your argument goes one way and your religious belief goes the other?” And he said, “How would it be if you knew that something was true? Other things would have to fit with it.”
But Dummett insisted his faith had experienced long periods of doubt, often brought on by reflection on the problem of evil, which, as he wryly conceded in his Gifford lectures, gave the atheists "a local argumentative advantage." In an autobiographical essay included in the book The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, he gives an account that will sound familiar to anyone who has done any of this wrestling:
I have undergone several periods when I have been overcome by such doubts; during them, I have not ceased to attend Sunday Mass, but have abstained from the sacraments. My doubts have always been global rather than local; my reasons for believing in God are philosophical rather than affective; they can suddenly strike me as unconvincing. ...But most usually my doubts have been engendered by what troubles everyone: can a world in which such suffering occurs be one made by a God who is said to love?...That world looks as if governed by uncaring forces. The pain of animals is a good example ...As for human pain, it is not its mere occurrence that has usually troubled me: after the Cross, no one can say to God, ‘You don’t know what it is like.’ ...What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyone’s soul is supposed to pass into eternity?
Dummett did not shy from the matter:
I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found...I remain a Catholic, and hope to die one.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ancilla theologiae ?

A word of clarification re. my theological posts. The subtitle of this blog is Open Letters on Philosophical Praxis. I take it for granted that philosophy is aimed at the cultivation of experience of a particular kind. There are plenty of snide ways of saying what philosophy is not (yawn yawn "grammatical analysis," "footnote-chasing," etc.), but it is obvious to me that these just name strategies of thought that have on occasion got out of their bottles; I'm not interested in breaking them on the wheel. What I [want to] do here is understood as keeping open the question of philosophy's status as ancilla theologiae. If it were not for the issue of "whose theology?" I would say there is no "question" about it; but theology proves itself to be both the willing and the unconscious handmaid herself of so many ideologies that considerable reticence is called for. In some moods, I would say that philosophy opens onto theology, that theology is the silent culmination of philosophy; but that leaves a great deal of talk which is certainly understood as theology, and this is the stuff I worry about.

In another mood I would suggest that, at least in our postmod situation, the handmaid is like Gorakhnath, and the onetime queen of the sciences is like Matsyendranath. These two sages from Medieval Indian lore are disciple and master respectively, but Matsyendranath once entered into a trance and is eventually found by Gorakhnath as an amnesiac prisoner in the retinue of the enchanting Queen of Ceylon (or is it 1,600 different queens? the stories differ). A brief recounting of this myth is found in a paper by Mircea Eliade here (reprinted as chapter VII in his book Myth and Reality.) The disciple disguises himself as a dancing girl and in a long and symbolic dance he recalls his teacher, by hints and gestures, to his right mind. (There is a whole range of hermeneutic and historical issues that this legend raises--questions about the roles of sex, sexuality, and gender in Indian religion, about the lineages of the Natha Sampradaya [an initiatic tradition, ascetic and in some cases tantric], its relation to Buddhism, and so on. You can see some of that explored in this post by Mike Magee, but I'm not getting into any of it here.) My illustration simply means; theology has forgotten itself. Philosophy is (in this analogy) a disciple; but its role today is in part to raise the issues that theology itself ought to; to convene theology; to call theology to itself.

This sets me apart from plenty of people whose work interests me quite a lot, I know. And there is of course a further tension: of its very nature, philosophy encounters aporiae which can be addressed by the response of faith, but to take this step is in some sense to leave philosophy behind. The philosopher would therefore always in some manner be aspiring to leave his own mode of existence qua philosopher. I do not think this tension can be resolved, at least not on its own level--the level (at least) of discourse. But it can be exploited, and exploited philosophically--that is, for the purposes of cultivating philosophical experience. By this phrase I mean, among other things, the entry into such tension or aporia fully, so that they inform ones whole life. This means, n.b., tha tone continues to "live"--to act politically, socially, and so on--i.e., without the caricature of "paralyzed thought" which supposedly skepticism brings on--though this may be a requisite stage, Socrates' stingray numbness (and let's face it, in one of its modes philosophy just is skepticism). Philosophy in the way I mean it (and this is the way the tradition going back--yes, pretty much continuously--to Plato means it) never lets go of the question quid sit deus?--but for philosophy at least, it remains a question.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

From Christmas to Easter, every Sunday

At Christmas Day Mass I can't help but be struck as was T.S. Eliot's Thomas Beckett in Murder in the Cathedral:
whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.
Eliot has Beckett remark to his flock, "Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion." But indeed, this is what the Church does every Sunday.

The Gloria in excelsis, called "a most ancient and venerable hymn by which the Church, gathered in the Holy Spirit, glorifies and entreats God the Father and the Lamb" in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, occurs in the entrance rites of every Sunday Mass. Its opening clauses,
Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis,
are of course the declaration of the angels before the shepherds, which Eliot has Beckett cite from Luke 2:14 (it can also be "peace to men of good will," depending on your translation). Commencing its worship with this phrase, the Church is already doing what it later declares expressly, "joining with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven," with which words the Mass proceeds to declare
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
The Sanctus comes as the final words of the preface for the Eucharistic prayer. That is: the Mass identifies the Church with the angelic choir, implicitly at its beginning, and again explicitly at the beginning of the Eucharist proper. There is thus a sense in which the Church is, with every Mass, recapitulating the distance and the conjunction between Christmas and Holy Week; and this sense is in some wise bound up with its angelic vocation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Václav Havel: "hope is not optimism"

As Advent, the "season of waiting," winds to its close, Václav Havel has died.
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. (Disturbing the Peace p 181)
This is a motif that runs through Havel's work from Letters to Olga to his many late addresses, collected in The Art of the Impossible. In the wake of Havel's death I have been turning this distinction over in my mind. I have said before that philosophy is in some sense optimistic, but Havel's "hope" is far closer to what I mean.

I know it's a strange thing to contend: that philosophy is "hopeful." But philosophy arises (in Greece at any rate) out of the question of whether life can be good. The tragedians were by no means sanguine about this, and Solon's famous warning ("Call no man happy...") is meant to resonate with the sad wisdom of Silenus: Best for man is not to be born, and next-best, to die soon. I believe Socrates means to counter this dour tale (and if I were writing a paper, here would be the place for all the stuff about Alcibiades' characterizations of Socrates as Silenus in the Symposium). Socrates says that life can be good, and he tells us what makes it so: "examination." He does acknowledge that life can be not worth living; but he believes he has found an answer to this, the one thing needful, which his fellow Athenians neglect, at risk of moral bankruptcy.

In the same place, Havel says that hope
transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable sign in the world. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can't--unlike Christians, for instance--say anything concrete about the transcendental.
In pointing beyond the horizon of the world to indicate the unspecifiable grounds of hope, I suspect that Havel is following in the steps of his friend Jan Patočka, whose essay "Negative Platonism" (included here) tries to show that the Socratic orientation of philosophy towards a horizon was inherent in thinking itself. Havel's reticence, his confessed inability to "say anything concrete," is the fitting response to a hope whose articulation would seem to take us even beyond the premises of the meaningful; and Havel is right to gently chide Christians who have been far too ready to wax loquacious on the street address of God, though it is difficult to see how one might entirely avoid "saying too much" here. Havel himself seemed to hold out interest in the Gaia hypothesis and the Anthropic principle, proposals which certainly risk at least as much in the way of trespassing beyond the articulable, at least when explicitly connected to "the transcendental."

Asked whether the death and return of Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings, was meant to suggest the passion of Christ, J.R.R. Tolkien demurred:
Gandalf faced and suffered death; and came back or was sent back, as he says, with enhanced power. But though one may be in this reminded of the Gospels, it is not really the same thing at all. The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write. Here I am only concerned with Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees. (Tolkien, Letters, #181)
Tolkien was of course a Roman Catholic and accepted some measure of our capacity to be explicit about hope, but this explicitness in the end turns out to be always framed by liturgical language and action. Art, he insisted, could not sustain the link between hope and the primary world; it required routing through the imagination.

Even here, of course, one risks a great deal, because the line between art and thinking in general is blurry. All such speech turns out to be a figure of speech.

I hear in the many voices which either expressly avow nihilism--some with a show of regret, others with a kind of unseemly and ill-concealed eagerness--or else impatiently wave it aside as a distraction from their empty triumphalism, a perverse celebration of the mortification of hope. In other quarters, the post-humanists offer bizarre anticipations of a kind of all-too-concrete "hope" of a different kind, not merely seeking refuge in just such a "secondary world" as Tolkien described, but seeking to make it the primary world; indeed to re-make this secondary world over into the primary one. This project will turn out to be the nihilistic one of erasing experience altogether.

One must be willing to (advisedly) risk "saying too much," in facing down the perverse celebrants of the mortification of hope. As Saint Leo the Great said, Inde oritur difficulas fandi, unde adest ratio non tacendi (The difficulty of speaking comes from the same source as the reason for not keeping silent.) I know nihilism from the inside, as does anyone with faith worthy of the name. if I did not, it would be hard to persuade myself that such an attitude is not an abdication of the life of the mind, but one of its essential forms, a necessary part of its life-cycle.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S. Eliot, "East Coker"
From imprisoned dissident to president of his country, Havel could have seen the course of his life as a pure vindication. But for millions of human beings who had the misfortune to, say, die in prison (Patočka was one) before the Velvet Revolution, this eventual historical denouement made no difference--at least none we dare name; the very attempt would tip us over into kitsch. The stature of Havel's character is shown by the fact that he knew very well, after his success, that such "turning out well" meant nothing in terms of hope. What counted was the surety--the faith--that it made sense. But the nature of that "sense" cannot be specified. One can at best try to hazard its grammar, not its content.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to avoid not thinking -- some non-foolproof tips

Harman, here:
Holism has now evolved from a formerly minority position into a sort of universally accepted cracker barrel wisdom, good for scoring easy points on fossilized and oppressive reactionary patriarchs who are supposedly naive enough to miss the way in which “everything is connected.” The problem is that this is an idea once but no longer liberating. Ideas have lifespans just like humans, and just like humans they can fall into a robotic decadence. My wager, as Badiou would put it, is that interconnectivity is a spent force, and that the intellectual theme of our time will be the recovery of a more robust and weirder model of autonomous individual things.

My first reaction to this was, "liberating" is not the first criterion by which I evaluate assertions. But I always question my first reactions.

There is a real sense in which formerly daring positions become substitutes for thinking. It is much, much harder than one thinks to escape from this. The feeling of "scoring easy points" seems to give validation, for defeating an opponent (or at least, in one's own opinion, taking them down a notch) is a fairly satisfying simulacrum of being right, and all the better if the opponent is one of the establishment.

My own way (certainly not foolproof) of navigating this danger is roughly threefold. Each of these modes carries its own risks.

First, I read widely, from no single school. I know I risk eclecticism in this way; a more grave danger is a kind of scatteredness or shallowness, a dilettantism. I'm not too afraid of this because I consider philosophy a matter of life and death, but it is true that one can't study everything.

Second, I avoid in-crowds where I can. I value friendship above most other goods and even think that the question of friendship is one of the few perennial philosophical matters; but I cultivate an allergy to the subtle allure of relationships in which mutual interest in the truth is eclipsed by a creeping disdain for all those poor benighted other sods who just don't get it. The risk here is a certain loneliness and (again, more dangerous) a chance of being broad-minded-to-a-fault.

Lastly, in those positions that rub me the wrong way, I try to find these in their strongest form. (This is at least half of why I am drawn to Badiou, for instance). This is of course a venerable technique of keeping oneself honest, and I have to admit I think it would do a few contemporary debates a world of good; but it too carries a danger, of remaining in polemical mode too long and failing to articulate a position of one's own.

I'm sure I succumb to all of these in different degrees. What I don't do is look for the cutting edge.

As for Holism, I consider Harman one of the strong points in the case against it. His strength does not lie in his characterization of it as no-longer-liberating. (And of course this is hardly the main thrust of his critique.) He's certainly right that it has become, in some circles, a default position. (On the other hand, there is also a case to be made that reductionism remains the ideological default mode of western culture.) Which position currently holds the attention of the doxa, in whatever circles, is not really the main question. The challenge is to formulate whatever position you hold in a manner that thinks. It is always worth asking oneself if one is scoring easy points. But that is because philosophy is above all a spiritual discipline, not just the construction of arguments.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Transformation, death, "Chinese" thought, and "Western"

At his blog Intra-Being, Andre Ling raises the question:
At what point does death pass from something inevitable and therefore quite acceptable to something violent and therefore more unacceptable [?]
This question intersected in my mind with a passage I recently encountered in François Jullien's The Silent Transformations. Jullien has seemingly become the Sinologist these days, at least in certain philosophical circles; I do not know what Asian studies departments make of him. His many books translated so far all tend to run the compare-&-contrast ploy: here's what our Western philosophical tradition, inherited from the Greeks, makes of such-&-such a matter; and what does the Chinese tradition say? In The Silent Transformations, the issue is the nature of change, and Jullien argues that Chinese thought tends to regards change as far more gradual and less catastrophic; and this has rendered Chinese philosophy more sensitive not only to small and incremental change, but also to processes that are cumulative and ultimately transformational.
To put it bluntly, there is even an inversion between Greek and Chinese thought in this respect, and the latter opens up an initial breach.... on the one hand Aristotlean nature, the phusis, is conceived as being a subject-agent: it 'wants', 'aims', 'undertakes', is 'ingenious' and sets up 'goals'. The Chinese sage or strategist on the ohter hand displays no ambition other than to 'transform' just as nature does (hua is their master word). (The Silent Transformations, pp 8-9)
I am by disposition suspicious of overarching accounts of "Chinese" or "Japanese" or "Indian thought", just as much as I am of "Greek" or "French" (There is as much difference between Kitaro Nishida and Kukai as there is between Malebranche and Deleuze), so I take all this with a bit of whatever cross-cultural seasoning is appropriate. (I note, e.g., that Jullien refers specifically to Aristotle, but contrasts him with the generic "Chinese sage or strategist.") I hasten to add that I am radically unqualified to question Jullien's scholarship; I merely protest that a culture rich enough to inspire a scholarship of such caliber must have more texture and variation to it that the repetition of what I can't help but consider cliches. After all, the various disputes between rival schools of Confucianism (let alone between Mohists, Buddhists, and so on) were certainly experienced by participants to be substantive disagreements. I raise my eyebrows when I come across a question like this one about the process of human ageing:
Would not this constant and silent passage which constitutes ageing, as undeniable as it is, teach us more about life itself; does it not definitely already let us glimpse what is effective, so widespread and discreet is it that it is ordinarily imperceptible, about all we project and busily construct about the End? But European philosophy has no less placed death as the gleam on the horizon, as a culminating, fascinating and apocalyptic point, towards which everything converges and will be suddenly resolved: the place where, tearing aside the veil, the anticipated Truth is finally to be revealed.... If philosophy had transferred its attention to the transition of ageing, as something which we are nevertheless faced with everywhere and which has always already started, it would undoubtedly have refrained from making death a point of scrutiny which definitively cuts off everything, an invitation, in a great game of double or nothing, to the wager of Faith or rather to the tragic hardening. It would have approached death as the ultimate result--the avatar--of ageing that begins so soon, no longer as a Rupture and a leap into the Indescribable, but in the dependency and continuation of ageing....it would cease to be an enigma and become an epilogue. (pp 58-9)
Suffice it to say that I have my doubts as to whether death is experienced as a non-enigmatic "epilogue" across the whole of Chinese philosophy.

However, these qualms aside, there is something worth examining here. And here, too, is where we intersect again with Andre Ling's question, with which I began. I won't unpack Ling's whole post, which is rather long and worth reading in full. He has recourse to some fruitful work of Tim Morton's which strikes me as interesting, in part, precisely by virtue of grounding a nonviolent ethic in the Harman-inspired trope of 'withdrawal,' i.e., the radical disconnected-ness of all beings (rather than the usual cliche--for which I still have some strong affinity--of pervasive inter-connection). (For a different take on this, look at Amod Lele's early post on Speculative Realism here). Ling takes up this notion and runs with it till he comes to what he sees as the problem:
Morton’s point seems to be that non-violence is the key to existence for any object: an object can only continue to exist if it is able to get along with itself and with others. This means that inconsistencies are not cancelled out but rather multiplied and amplified. It is the proliferation of inconsistencies that permit an expanding co-existence to take place. Violence, it seems to me, becomes a kind of icing on the non-violent cake of being. While non-violence is what makes being possible, that very being itself sustains a variety of violent encounters. In a sense, to the extent that the encounter between two objects is always between a real object and a sensual object – between a subject and a caricature – every encounter contains an inevitable violent dimension. The idea, then, that somehow the ontological necessity of non-violence for being translates into the possibility of perfectly non-violent existence seems to be difficult to uphold. ...How do I avoid merging the recognition that violence is an inevitable feature of the world (it also has an ontological foundation in the caricaturing that goes on in all inter-objective relations) with the idea that, therefore, violence should simply be accepted?
Ling's question is the same one that is made pressing (and left unresolved) by the Bhagavad-Gita.

To conclude, or rather suspend for now, two brief and provisional observations:

First, One might consider the birth of the philosophical mind in the West as the rupture from that participatory consciousness for which (by contrast) there had been a community with the dead, for which "the ancestors" had remained a part of the cultural conversation. Formerly, it had been actually experienced as meaningful to think of death as a transition, and there were even those for whom traffic across this border was considered risky but possible gambit. Is the distinction Ling draws--"beauty is when one object’s ego is dissolved by its encounter with another object. Violence is when an object is reduced to its traces"--pertinent here? Does philosophy begin in the conflation between beauty and violence --i.e., in the characterization of persuasion by beauty as unfree? (I myself want to draw a distinction here between the sublime and the beautiful.)

Second, Jullien contends that China proved somewhat resistant to giving inroads to Christianity in part because of its difference in its conception of time, and of death. But of course, the decisive divergence here is not with "Greek" thought but with "Hebrew"; the Biblical concpetion of time as tending towards an historical telos. And here what seems pertinent is the way the manifest and unmanifest worlds infer or implicate each other. The Chinese "Great Triad" of T'ien, Ti, Jen ("Heaven," "Earth," "Man"), is--despite Rene Guenon's stern words against parallel-mongering in the first chapter of his monograph--closely akin, not indeed to the Christian Trinity, but to the three points Franz Rosenzweig lays out in The Star of Redemption, a philosophical work whose Biblical inspiration I trust needs no belaboring. The difference, however, is that Rosenzweig delineates God, World, and Man insisting upon their confrontation of each other in a kind of ontological bruteness, as it were; he insists upon them as ontologically independent, their relationship unmediated; this is what Rosenzweig means by "smashing the All," in a move as emphatically non-monist as philosophy has seen. For Rosenzweig, God, World and Man are mediated by nothing-- by the Naught. In China, this naught is capable of a sort of paradoxical mediation, for (to quote Guenon, who I recognize is not a standard authority among Sinologists), "the Tao is simultaneously Non-Being and Being, while at the same time not really being anything apart from Non-Being". (The Great Triad, p 19, n.8) I bring in Rosenzweig here not only because he illustrates in a compelling way the philosophical consequences of a sustained encounter with Biblical thinking (and in a way not overdetermined by Christianity), but also precisely because he begins his great book with the subject of Jullien's paragraph above, the question of death.

There is a great deal more to say--on inconsistency, the naught (= the void in Badiou? withrawal in Harman? etc.), decision, and so on.... but enough for now.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Banalization of infinity

Thinking further re. the Nirenbergs' critique of Badiou which I referred to last post, it strikes me that the oddest part is their casting of his equation mathematics = ontology as politically motivated, as trying to furnish an iron foundation for a 21st-century marxism--their analogy is to Engels' Dialectics of Nature. This seems to me to get Badiou wrong in a subtle but important way. Badiou is up-front with his motives. Whenever he talks about the lamentable philosophical effects of neglecting the matheme, it is always with reference to what he calls Romanticism. Romanticism, in turn, is that school which makes definitive the thematization of finitude. Badiou's re-casting of set theory as ontology is a move intended to laicize and banalize infinity once and for all, to render it incapable of lending comfort to the obscurantism of crypto-theology; and, let's be clear, for Badiou there is no other kind.

Can we really be surprised at so-&so's Rabbinic Judaism, or so-&so's conversion to Islam, or another's thinly veiled Christian devotion, when nothing is said that does not boil down to this: that we are 'consigned to finitude' and 'essentially mortal'?...The truth is that this disentwining [between mathematics and philosophy] renders the Nietzschean proclamation of the death of God ineffectual. Atheists, we lack the wherewithal to be so, so long as the theme of finitude governs our thinking....The only way to situate ourselves within a radical desecration is to return infinity to a neutral banality, to inscribe eternity uniquely in the matheme, and to abandon conjointly historicism and finitude. (Conditions, pp98-99)

One could cite any number of other passages, but let this suffice. Badiou's casting of mathematics as ontology or vice-versa is simply a radical secularizing move, to deprive "Being" of any lingering penumbra of holiness The "Question of Being" is, in this way, to be answered. This is what Badiou means by "Heidegger as commonplace." (It's also, incidentally, one of the essential connections between Badiou and Meillassoux.)

Now obviously I don't see things this way. There is (or can be) a finitism without pathos. (And forcing the banalization of infinity as he does obliges Badiou to read Cantor quite against Cantor's own sense of himself.) Spelling this out would be another and much longer post. But while Badiou's politics are not beside the point, they don't motivate the project in the same way. Yes, Badiou's critique is heir to Marx. But as we know, Marx himself insisted that "the prerequisite of all critique is the critique of religion." In this, at least, I am on Badiou's side, by the way.