Tuesday, June 29, 2010

From Nietzsche and the One to Heidegger and the Nothing

"The impasse of the Parmenides is that of establishing that both the one and the others [i.e. the many or multiple] do and do not possess all thinkable determinations, that they are totally everything and that they are not so. We are thus led to a general ruin of thought as such by the entire dialectic of the one." Alain Badiou Being and Event

One could assert that a major element in the history of philosophy stretches from Plato's dizzying Parmenides to a moment in Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. Although Nietzsche is not directly invoked, Badiou certainly sees his work as taking off from a realization that the thinking of the one and the many has been at the very heart of philosophy since its appearance in Plato as inspired by the Pre-Socratics and that, generally, we have not escaped from the manner in which Plato presented the problem in the course of his works. It is this escape that Badiou wants to stage drawing, fundamentally, upon a failure in the way that the Parmenides conceived of the problem.

The reason I suggest the history of the problem could be read as stretching from Plato to Nietzsche is because Nietzsche's unparalleled assault upon the two world dualism, which he sees as the heart of almost all metaphysics, can be read as a version of this same problem of the one and the many. Indeed, there is a way to read the conclusion of both Plato and Nietzsche's grappling with this problem as indicating, against each of their conscious wills, the way to jump out of the dialectic. It is, I would argue, precisely this point which Heidegger sees when he suggests that the challenge for philosophy now is to think the Nothing.

The Parmenides ends with an exhausting attempt to think out the speculative implications of positing the existence of The One and The Many. The conclusions, roughly, are that if The One exists it must be the only thing which can be thought to exist and all difference and plurality must be illusion. One of the main ideas here is that similarity and difference between things, such that we could compare The One to others, requires that parts or elements be discernible within The One and thus present or lacking in the others. However, if The One is truly one it has no parts and no elements, no characteristics which can be divided from its oneness. So, if The One exists we do away with similarity and difference, and thus with plurality. But, if this is the case, then oneness becomes meaningless and unthinkable.

"Thus if one is, the one is all things and is not even one, both in relation to itself and, likewise, in relation to the others." Plato's Parmenides

On the other hand, if The One does not exist we are left with an unthinkable multiplicity. This multiplicity is unthinkable because, again, similarity requires some level of oneness which is, in some sense, not total oneness. In other words, for the multiplicity to be a multiplicity of things we need a way to think the oneness of a thing and the oneness implied in sharing something with other things. The communion required for similarity itself requires oneness. This leads us to the ultimate conclusion of the dialogue:

"If one is not, nothing is."

It is possible to read the dialogue as a defense of the Parmenidean point that the ultimate truth of reality must be that change and difference are illusions. The one must be, but if the one is it must be all. However, as Badiou reads it for example, the dialogue actually demonstrates that the relation between the one and the many is the reef upon which the ship of thought is ruined. But, as our discussion should suggest, this reef is really the problem of similarity and it is this reef, I would claim, upon which Nietzsche built his entire life's work. (Think I mixed metaphors there? I rather think I didn't. If ever there was a thinker who willfully sought to build a perpetually changing and endangered edifice upon shifting submerged reefs of thought it was Nietzsche.)

If we look at some of Nietzche's early work we find a thread that continues throughout the course of the rest of his work. This thread is found, for example, in Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense when we are told that similarity and, eventually, truth are built out of the basic "lies" created through the limiting nature of our senses and the metaphoric nature of thought and language. All sameness, unity, stability and generality are constructed, artificially, through basic illusions overlaid on an actual flux of change and difference. Reality, then, is the unthinkable multiplicity without similarity or continuity and all else is a poetic creation. This same point is repeated throughout Nietzsche's work surfacing, for example, in The Gay Science and finally in Twilight of the Idols. If we look at the section "'Reason' in Philosophy" in Twilight of the Idols we see very clearly the presentation of reason as precisely this lie, or metaphor, constructing collection of instincts. However, it becomes clear that the drive to posit similarity goes beyond the construction of our everyday experience of the world. It eventually gives rise to the complete rejection of this world precisely because we STILL find, after all our processes of falsification of experience, too much change in the world. This leads to the positing of another world, the Real world, which is stable, unchanging and in comparison with which the world of experience and multiplicity must be rejected. We can see as well, here, the connection between this artificial origin of similarity/relation and the positing of a final, ultimate, singular perspective which would count as the Truth about any given subject. To achieve Truth is to see things from that perspective from which all difference and change disappears as illusory. From the rejection of this view we get Nietzsche's perspectivalism.

There is, however, a problem with the very chain of ideas I have just presented for Nietzsche. The problem is that the original insight that similarity is artificial arises from a Real World vs. Illusion dichotomy and, indeed, in Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense Nietzsche is at his most Schopenhauerian and metaphysical. For him, at that time, there sometimes seems to be a hidden ultimate reality, a thing in itself, which is something like chaos, flux or Will to Power. I believe Nietzsche ultimately does not hold to this commitment, but it is necessary in order to get into the viewpoint I have been presenting. The rejection of two world dualism, then, originates from a two world dualism.

It is precisely this point, in a lovely echo of Plato's Parmenides, that Nietzsche presents so clearly in the section of Twilight of the Idols entitled "How the 'Real World' at last Became a Myth". There we see how the two world dualism of Plato eventually leads to its own overcoming, just as the positing of either The One or The Many eventually lead to the collapse of both. The end of the story, likewise, is the same as the end of the Parmenides. Specifically, we end with a very troubling paradox.

"We have abolished the real world: what world is left? the apparent world perhaps? ... But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!"

This same paradox leads both Nietzsche and the characters in the Parmenides to the same conclusion:

"If one is not, nothing is." Plato

"The characteristics which have been assigned to the 'real being' of things are the characteristics of non-being, of nothingess -" Nietzsche

Although not seemingly the intended meaning, both moments in the history of metaphysics point us to the necessity of thinking the Nothing and its relation to being. What would it mean to reject the One, and thus the Many, and instead assert Nothingness? What does it mean to say that the characteristics of being are precisely those of the Nothing? This is the question which Heidegger believed could get us beyond nihilism and which Badiou, in a totally different manner from Heidegger, also seeks to answer.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Philosophy Department Abolished in New Jersey

Trouble in my home state! This is VERY disturbing. Here is the comment from Leiter's blog which discusses the subject:

"I recently discovered your blog almost by accident. I teach philosophy at Kean University in New Jersey. Kean is public, with 15,000 students, mostly undergrad. My Dept, Philosophy and Religion, was abolished by the Admin a year ago, along with four other Depts. Nothing so dramatic ever occurred in the many years I’ve taught at Kean. However, for the time being our major program remains, with two faculty “reassigned” to Political Science and three to General Education. The Admin’s justifications for abolishing our Dept were declining overall enrollments, a deficit of $500,000, and few majors. Except for the last--a half-truth at most--those allegations were entirely false, as it took much time and effort to establish (Admin controls and does not readily share data).

I discovered your blog when I read an article in the Chronicle quoting Wendy Lynne Lee. The article was included with some others in a recent University document announcing that all Dept Chairs will be eliminated at Kean, effective this June 30, and replaced with appointed administrators, who will be paid more than faculty. I suppose that article quoting Wendy was included in that University document to show that drastic steps are being taken all around the country, not just at Kean. Anyway, after reading her quoted comments in that article, I Googled Wendy’s name, and found your blog.

The big event in NJ public higher ed occurred sixteen years ago, in 1994, when ex-Governor Christie Whitman abolished State “oversight,” i.e, abolished the Chancellor, Board, and Dept of Higher Education. As a result, there is no State supervision of the publics, except that tuition levels are regulated. This means that each institution’s Board of Trustees is the highest authority, and there is no appeal from their policy decisions. Therefore, there are no system-wide policies because there’s no system. The Boards are, of course, political appointees controlled by the State Senator representing the district where the Board sits. Is it a coincidence that in this set of circumstances some of the Admin’s have gone on building binges, accumulating “capital construction debt burdens” in the hundreds of millions in just a few years while shortchanging most everything else (such as numbers of full-time faculty). At Kean, the debt burden is approaching half a billion (up from less than half a million just a few years ago), while numbers of FT faculty are steadily declining and reliance on PT/adjunct faculty is rapidly rising. Those who must pay off that debt burden are the students, mostly working-class, first-generation students, often with families to support.

The other part of the story at Kean has been the tyrannical character of its Admin, led by a Pres who is a former Kean faculty member. (Google his name--Dawood Farahi--and you’ll find a few things. One interesting article is entitled “Potemkin University.”) Farahi seems determined to practice every oppressive administrative policy under the sun. Some believe this is motivated by sheer vindictiveness against the faculty at large based on God-knows-what, but maybe partly on the fact that his colleagues many years ago tried to have him fired when he came up for tenure. For example, one of his stunts was to have a subordinate recommend that most of the untenured faculty be fired. Make them relive what Farahi himself went through in his time. As for professional staff, who work on multi-year contracts, he has forbidden supervisors to give unqualified recommendations for renewal. Any supervisor who does so will get it back with instructions to downgrade the rating. And he isn’t above reprisals against students as well. For example, when Social Work undergrads circulated a petition to the Board a couple of years ago protesting Farahi’s imposition of a new class-schedule on the campus without consulting students (faculty weren’t consulted either), Farahi ordered their program, the BA in Social Work, abolished, even though it had 150 majors. In addition, he seized control of the Kean student govnt’s bank accounts, turned its elected officers into his part-time employees, and also eliminated the student-run newspaper and replaced it with a newspaper he controls. And so on and so on and so on. The list of atrocities over the past seven years would take a week to recount. We have a faculty/staff union (AFT/AFL-CIO), and we’re trying to fight back, but it’s a long, hard slog. Complaints to State officials are essentially ignored (speak to your Board we are told).

Now, this is all just at Kean, not at any of the other seven institutions in our sector of NJ public higher ed. So, although my Dept is one of several abolished a year ago, this is not part of any larger, system-wide plan. Indeed, the decision to abolish five Depts a year ago apparently sprang from retaliatory motives against particular faculty members in the targeted Depts. For instance, I circulated flyers criticizing Farahi for attempting to sneak through a “Professional Code of Conduct” under which faculty and staff would have no rights of due process whatsoever if accused of misconduct. (“No rights of due process whatsoever” means, literally, that they wouldn’t even know they had been accused of anything until after they had been convicted and sentenced, and then, and only then, would they be allowed to put forward a defense, but only in writing--a scheme that would have delighted the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland.”) Another philosopher helped students send ex-Governor Jon Corzine thousands of postcards protesting the new class schedule (Corzine had no public email address as Governor). Still another philosopher filed grievances protesting new work rules unilaterally imposed on all faculty by President Farahi. So the decision to abolish the Dept of Philosophy and Religion at Kean seems to be a matter of punishing faculty who have dared criticize this President publicly, just as the decision to abolish the Social Work program was a matter of punishing students who dared circulate a petition. And so forth in the case of the three other abolished Depts.

What initially caught my attention in your blog was all the talk about some larger scheme in your PASSHE institutions of abandoning the humanities, indeed abandoning the traditional teacher-student-classroom arrangement, in order to move in a different direction more aligned with corporate imperatives. That caught my attention partly because of the uncertainty on my campus about why we are being subjected to such persistently oppressive administrative abuse, but mostly because of the impending replacement at Kean of faculty Dept Chairs with appointed administrators. That innovation will no doubt translate into substantially increased administrative control over all academic programs. What is the Admin going to do with that control?

And then there is the fact that Wendy kept raising the question of what you folks in PASSHE are going to DO about your situation. We at Kean also have that question. What the hell ARE we going to do? Suggestions welcome.

Peter E. Pezzolo, Professor of Philosophy, Kean University, Union, NJ"

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Eugene Delacroix and the Unthinkable

One of my favorite painters is Eugene Delacroix. I have a small volume of selections from his journals which I enjoy randomly picking up from time to time in order to read a few days of entries. I was doing so this morning over breakfast and came up a moment of reflection about the unthinkable. This is Delacroix at the age of 26, from Lucy Norton's translation of his journal:

"...I should like to write a kind of memorandum on painting, in which I could discuss the differences between the arts. How in music, for example, form predominates over matter. In painting it is just the reverse... This art, like music, is higher than thought; hence it has the advantage over literature, through its vagueness."

He also has a word or two to say about philosophers. This is following the death of Gericault which hit him very hard:

"Ignorant middle-class people are very lucky. Everything in nature seems simple to them; things are as they are, and that is explanation enough. And really, are not they more reasonable than the dreamers who go so far that they begin to mistrust their own minds? A friend dies. Because they believe that they understand the meaning of death, they do not add to the sorrow of mourning him the cruel anxiety of being unable to explain so natural an event. He was alive, he is alive no longer; he talked with me, we understood each other; nothing of all this remains, except this tomb. Is he lying in this cold grave, as cold as death itself? Will his spirit hover about his gravestone? And when I think of him, is it his spirit that stirs my memory? Familiarity with an idea reduces us all to the level of the common herd. After the first shock we realize 'he is dead' and the idea no longer disturbs us. Wise men and philosophers seem to be far less advanced in this than the ignorant, since the very thing that should serve them as proof is not even proved for them. I am a man. What is this I? What is this thing a man? They spend half a lifetime in verifying, and pulling to pieces bit by bit, something that has already been discovered. During the other half, they lay the foundations of an edifice that never rises above the level of the ground."

I find this to be such a striking passage for many reasons. Not the least of these reasons is the sense that, despite his admiration for the common herd which finds itself no longer troubled by death simply through familiarity, Delacroix himself fails as much as the philosopher to simply accept death or man. You can feel him here both asking and wishing to escape the questions he points to in others. I also rather admire his implicit definition of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy is precisely this, the refusal to grow accustomed to the things which once disturbed us, the refusal to allow familiarity to stand in for understanding or an answer.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rilke on the Unsayable and Sayable

From the tenth of the Duino Elegies as translated by David Young:

"Ah, but what can we take across to the other realm when we leave?
Not our perception learned here so slowly and nothing
that's happened here. Not one thing. So that means we take pain.
Take, above all the heaviness of existing, take the long
experience of love, take truly unsayable things.
But later under the stars why bother?
They are better at the unsayable. After all, isn't what
the wanderer brings back from the mountain slopes to the valley
not a handful of earth that no one could say but rather a word
hard-won, pure, the yellow and blue gentian?
Are we on this earth to say: House, Bridge,
Fountain, Jug, Gate, Fruit-tree, Window -
at best: Column... Tower...?
but to say these words you understand with an intensity
the things themselves never dreamed they'd express. Isn't the earth's
hidden strategy when she so slyly urges two lovers on
that each and everything should be transformed by the delight
of sharing their feelings? Threshold:
what it means to two lovers that they too
should be wearing down an old doorsill a bit more
after the many before them and before
the many to come ... lightly.
Here is the time for the sayable, here is its home.
Speak, bear witness. More than ever things fall away from us
livable things and what crowds them out and replaces them
is an event for which there's no image. An event
under crusts that will tear open easily
just as soon as it outgrows them and its interests
call for new limits. Between the hammer strokes our hearts survive
like the tongue that between the teeth and in spite of everything
goes on praising.

Praise the world to the angel, not the unsayable,
you can't impress him with sumptuous feelings - in the universe
where he feels things so fully you're just a novice.
Show him, then, some simple thing shaped by its passage
through generations that lives as a belonging near the hand, in the gaze."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Limits of Thought and the Histories of Madness and Being

My recent posts touching on Meillassoux and Wittgenstein led me to contemplate the concept of the unthinkable. It seems worth asking what the limits of thought, if there are any, really tell us.

The idea of the unthinkable in one form or another crops up in many philosophical contexts. As we have seen, for Meillassoux the fact that the contingency of any given state of affairs is thinkable is a particularly important point. The distinction between the thinkable and unthinkable, then, clearly carries a lot of weight here. In a very different context, John McDowell in Mind and World presents the Kantian view that a thought without representational content would not be a thought at all: "For a thought to be empty would be for there to be nothing that one thinks when one thinks it; that is, for it to lack what I am calling 'representational content'. That would be for it not really to be a thought at all, and that is surely Kant's point..." Our discussion of the unthinkable, then, includes the question of what is required for something to actually be a thought such that anything lacking this bare requirement would not be possible as thought at all. This subject has traditionally also come up, for example within logical positivism, as the distinction between the meaningful and the meaningless. You could, for example, state a meaningless sentence but if thought deals with something like bringing to consciousness various meanings, whether this means representations or something else, then a meaningless sentence can not be thought even if it can be said or written. We might also recall the absolute idealist as presented by Meillassoux who claims that being without consciousness is unthinkable. From this perspective I can state something like "The world can exist independent of all consciousness" but I can not imagine or bring to consciousness what the world would be or would be like independent of consciousness, and so I can not think the world without a consciousness that is aware of it. Elsewhere I have also suggested that we might want to distinguish the unthinkable from the unimaginable.

I had offered a Wittgenstein quotation in a previous post in order to suggest that the limit of thought, that which determines the thinkable and unthinkable, need not be a characteristic internal to thought in the sense of logical laws or formal characteristics. In fact the limits of thought need have nothing to do with some natural or supernatural faculty of the mind called reason or the internal capabilities of the mind. Rather, the limit of thought could be determined by the way of life and history within which one is thinking. In order to make this point Wittgenstein unifies thought and speech/action. This should come as no surprise for someone who suggests that meaning is use, and specifically use in social practices involving others, and not the possession of an inner mental entity. This unification of thought with speech and action allows Wittgenstein to suggest that the limits of thought are derived from what one can or cannot say or do in a social context and still achieve one's goals. The limits of thought are found, then, in social practices and traditions. What is unthinkable tells us about "how we do things around here" and not about the ontological truths of the universe.

The last sentence of my last paragraph is overstated, however. If we read Wittgenstein as a naturalist (which, I admit, I don't often like to do) we see that the limits of a way of life tell us about the environmental conditions in which that way of life developed and the setting in which it still lives. A way of life is not arbitrarily structured, but rather tells us something about the world. In this sense, then, we have simply complicated the way in which the limits of thought tell us about the world. The unthinkable is not absolutely-unthinkable but it is also not without meaning and importance. In many cases it may be unthinkable for a reason.

As I considered this interpretation of Wittgenstein it struck me that the needed addition to this story is Foucault, particularly Foucault's History of Madness which talks about the shifting formation of the limits of thought through a social-political history. What is unthinkable, then, tells us something about the power structures of inclusion and exclusion which have constituted western rationality. This shift to Foucault also serves to present us with the vast body of text which constitutes the record of the unthinkable/unsayable. By this I, of course, mean the collective documentation of the speech and writing of the mad or insane.

It is those originary moments when society formulated or shifted the exclusionary boundary between the mad and non-mad that Foucault is concerned with. About the event of the constitution of a fundamental exclusion Foucault states:

"That is not yet madness, but the first caesura from which the division of madness became possible. That division is its repetition and intensification, its organization in the tight unity of the present; the perception that Western man has of his own time and space allows a structure of refusal to appear, on the basis of which a discourse is denounced as not being language, a gesture as not being a oeuvre, a figure as having no rightful place in history. This structure is constitutive of what is sense and nonsense, or rather of that reciprocity through which the one is bound to the other..." (History of Madness p. xxxii).

In an appendix added to the text in 1972 Foucault will point out that exclusion and transgression of exclusionary boundaries can occur through action or through speech/writing. He further suggests that the history of madness involves a movement from a focus upon transgression through action, in the medieval and Renaissance period, towards a focus on transgression through language in the rise of the modern concept of insanity and especially in the appearance of psychoanalysis. He also points out that these two forms of transgression are not direct reflections of each other. Rather, "that which must not appear on the level of speech is not necessarily that which is forbidden in the order of acts. The Zuni, who forbid the incest of the brother and a sister nevertheless narrate it, and the Greeks told the legend of Oedipus. Inversely, the 1808 code abolished the old penal laws against sodomy, but the language of the nineteenth century was far more intolerant of homosexuality (at least in its masculine form) than the language of previous ages had been." (History of Madness p. 544-545)

The exclusionary decisions, then, which constitute the limits of speech and thus the limits of thought are organized, Foucault suggests, into four groups. First there are the laws of the grammar of the language in question. Here a failure to conform most overtly appears as a failure to achieve meaning. Next we have cases of blasphemy, where something can be grammatically said but is considered taboo. Following this we have the class of things which are not obviously blasphemous, and are also not grammatical failures, but which remain excluded from general discourse. This is the realm of censorship, where something may not be taboo but it may be political or socially repressed. Finally is the realm which seems to interest Foucault the most, specifically those forms of language which appear to conform to the first three requirements and yet which also can be read on a self-constituted register of meaning of their own. This is a speech which constitutes a surplus of meaning, and often an entirely different realm of meaning, which endangers the realm of the meaningful constituted by previous exclusions.

In this way, then, Foucault provides us with strategies for analyzing the constitution of the limits of thought in terms of important political events while a certain reading of Wittgenstein pushes us in the direction of seeing the limits of thought and, arguably, political structures as naturalistic outgrowths of environments. These two positions, of course, need not be exclusive but Foucault's work does problematize what access we could ever have to the "naturalistic lesson" of political structures and changes insofar as we are always caught within, and limited by, the political structures which have come about because of these changes. The "natural" becomes very problematic here to say the least.

It is at this point that it seems necessary to look to Heidegger's project of the History of Being which attempts to trace the various ways in which it has been historically possible to speak the nature of Being. What each of our previous considerations reveals, when viewed from the lens of Heidegger's History of Being, is that ontology is the study of the ways in which the ultimate nature of being has been able to be spoken/thought. This study, however, reveals an epochal structure through which different exclusionary realms of the sayable-thinkable have been constituted and closed off. Granted, I have been painting with an exceptionally broad brush throughout this blog post and I will now do so even more, but we might hazard to say that contrary to naturalistic hopes there is no single unified foundational story to tell about the truth of being, but rather a shifting diverging history, and yet the study of the political history of the thinkable is ontology. (This is one reason I get annoyed when people fail to see Foucault as a profoundly ontological thinker. I believe he saw this last point, under the influence of Heidegger, perfectly well.)

This would mean as well, as an aside, that Meillassoux's presentation of the realm of the arch-fossil and the attempted absolutization of facticity are ontologically important but, as historically constituted and contextualized, not the absolute truth of Being.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Two Items of Interest

I came upon two items of interest amidst the inter-webs and figured I would share them. The first is borrowed from the the blog Enowning http://enowning.blogspot.com and the second from Continental-Philosophy.org http://www.continental-philosophy.org

The first item is a blog dedicated to the discussion of an up and coming book by Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus entitled All Things Shining: Reading the Western Canon To Find Meaning in a Secular Age. The blog can be found at: http://allthingsshiningbook.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/when-things-began-to-shin/

The other item of note is an article by Etienne Balibar discussing whether or not the European Union is a dead political project: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/25/eu-crisis-catastrophic-consequences