Notes on Contemporary Philosophy (I): A Class Guide


Most of us in our early years of engaging philosophy had been led to believe that philosophy is concerned with the process of acquiring wisdom and the tools of reasoning that are deemed essential in dealing with the problems of existence. The all but perfunctory integration of the terms philo and sophia which imposes on philosophy a facile meaning has been rarely treated with a grain of salt.

This is one proof that within the tradition of philosophy philosophizing is characterized by the demand of integration, synthesis and unity of terms. There is nothing wrong with that because philosophy utilizes terms to convey concepts except when we confuse philosophy with synthesizing concepts into an independent coherent structure that is transcendent to philosophic activity. Since its early beginnings in the Milesian school, philosophy has proved itself an anathema of totality and transcendence, of rigid unity and positivistic identity in favor of the free variation of thinking. Even still, and at its best, philosophy is considered to be a different approach, a different way of understanding reality.

Its distinctness may be said to rest on two mutually opposing terms, love and wisdom; opposite in the sense that as the ancient Greeks understood it darkness is the opposite of light, emptiness fullness, mystery illumination. This intrinsic opposition is exemplified by the philosopher herself. In Plato’s time, a philosopher is seen as someone who is different because only a philosopher has made it her business to nurture the power of paradoxes, one who is inclined to preserve the integrity of equipollence such that between two alternatives of the same weight, validity or effect upon human judgement a way out is consciously suppressed, not without the pain that comes with restriction on finality and closure. The point is to back away from making a definitive or conclusive judgment about reality. This explains, for instance, the aporetic nature of the Platonic dialogues whose original inspiration is no less the Socratic exercise of the dialectic where opposites are played out for their own sake, avoiding the possibility of harmonizing contradictions in the guise of a transcendent category, such as the many examples of bad faith in philosophizing which Jean-Paul Sartre once lamented. We speak of the ‘transcendent’ in its original Platonic meaning, a meaning that contrary to popular interpretation of Plato really defines the heart of the dialectic, a meaning that favors the vigilance of skepticism. The ‘transcendent’ is something that awakens reason to its limits, its mortality and proness to error. That ‘something’ is always the question of origin or the first beginning that reason can only approximate in terms of the useful fictions of the mind.

I have noted in my introduction that philosophy is distinct in the sense that it flourishes in some type of a conscious awareness of contradictions. This contradiction is very well emphasized in philosophia, love of wisdom but since the collapse of the Academy years after the death of Plato this point has been looked down as a minor concern. Even still, the erotic (love) foundation of the pursuit of truth is something that philosophers from the Presocratics to the systematic thinkers of recent date intuitively agree. That ‘thinking’ itself is inspired by the material power of the sensual or the aesthetic root of knowing is also well noted in scientific disciplines, especially those that study the phylogenesis of reason, such as the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, but also those belonging to so-called quasi-scientific adventures such as of Sigmund Freud’s and Jacques Lacan’s. In recent philosophy, inspired by a renewal of Kantian doctrines, this is officially enucleated in the term ‘immanence’ which roughly means the ‘order of the possible’, the possible as the human condition. Beyond the possible lies the category of the transcendent.

But the transcendent is not a positive category of being that is superior to immanence. The transcendent is what remains after the “saturation of the field of phenomena.” In the language of deconstruction developed by Jacques Derrida, this transcendent reveals itself as a ‘trace’, a trace of something that reason fails to contain. It is therefore a trace of failure. For as early as the time of the Platonic Socrates, this failure already beckons to something other than reason itself, or in the language of Emmanuel Levinas, otherwise than being, that is, being as a positive category. In Parmenides, an important Platonic dialogue, this otherwise than being is described as the Good, the Good beyond Being that exceeds the category of being and also that which awakens being to its finitude, to its limitation and mortality. Again, the limit to finitude is not something that overwhelms human existence to the point of defeat; rather, it is something that interrupts the claim of reason vis-à-vis the task of understanding and mastering reality.

Going back to our earlier point: if wisdom can be attained in and through the activity of the erotic (love)—very obviously, philosophy chooses no other activity than the erotic vis-à-vis the goal of knowing, which is wisdom—then it may be argued with equity that wisdom, the highest form of knowledge, can be achieved in and through the adventures of the otherwise than rational. The non-rational, love itself, initiates the process of achieving the rational. Clearly, in this format, philosophy is a process of differentiation, otherwise than rational, of nourishing differences. Philosophy is difference itself. Needless to say, a philosopher is someone who is different.

Presumably, a philosopher is different from the rest who value unity, synthesis, and false transcendence. This marks the difference of philosophia from doxa, public opinion and superstition. For the ancient Greeks, specifically, the “republic of genuises from Thales to Socrates,” or the Platonic Socrates, philosophy is “thinking without presuppositions,” a type of discipline akin to the free association of phenomenology, and to a certain extent of psychoanalysis, or the free variation of the discipline of the arts. But what makes the ancient freer than its modern counterpart lies in the vigilance of the Greeks against the illusory aims of modernity in terms of the facile demand for harmony, totality and transcendence. These values were widely sponsored by the polis, the precursor of modern political rationality, against the fundamental aims of philosophy which promotes a logic of discontinuity in defiance of the totalizing project of the polis. This logic of discontinuity is what the late Gilles Deleuze described just about as difference engineering, a conceptual generation and regeneration of the structures of reality in ways that resist dominant forms of understanding, even so, of the hard and fast logic of constructing new concepts and demolishing outdated ones. The philosopher is thus a difference engineer. But as an engineer of difference, the philosopher is not involved in construction, even demolition. These activities belong in history. The philosopher is concerned rather about the presuppositions which motivate construction and destruction, of inauguration and dissolution, etc. It is as if the philosopher does not know the actual and real presuppositions. But as Socrates exemplified during his time, the practice of the maieutic, a variant of the dialectical procedure, can help one attain a deeper awareness of the intentional pressuposition of the human act. The intention behind the act is otherwise than rational which may be interpreted in terms of fundamental materiality.

The closest material presupposition of the human act is the erotic that traces its roots in human desire. For one thing, this provides the background to the Lacanian structure of human nature as a desiring machine. But as early as Plato, philosophy is certain about the presupposition that humans rather than completely rational species are a bunch of desiring bipeds. In this light, we may consider the Aristotelian concept of human nature—that Man is a rational animal—as an anomaly, a scandal within the tradition of philosophy. Thinking is not perfectly synonymous with the rational. At the root of thinking is the erotic. It is this eroticism that rationalist philosophy, initiated by metaphysics, consigns to the darkness of evil whose intention is molded by the supposed lack of order and decency, and a clear absence of logical structure of the human instincts. Rationalist philosophy departs from the original erotic intention of philosophy in favor of order, harmony, totality, finality and closure—altogether the appeal to transcendence which in the strict history of philosophy began with Aristotle.

These modern values are celebrated in terms of enforcing ridiculous terms of discipline, and also in terms of reduction, categorization, and positivization carried out by the use of force, speed, and the utilization of the connective and synthetic power of the public that dissolves individual differences into statistical values which threaten autonomy and uniqueness. In the actual shape of things, autonomy is the autonomy of difference, that one is primordially unique, free and different as the other is equally so. The danger of totalization, synthesis and reduction is that it can sacrifice the autonomy of difference (immanence) in favor of the autonomy of the whole, of the One, of Society, of the State, of God, thus, the autonomy of transcendence. One of the dangers in living in modern times is that we are compelled to sacrifice autonomy of difference in favor of the autonomy of transcendence. We are compelled to value the freedom of the non-human and of the non-being as a key to attaining human happiness. This explains humanity’s obsession with money, power, stature, and fame, which are all non-human and non-being for the simple reason that these terms of happiness are extraneous to the erotic, the erotic as the being of Being, the ultimate structure of reason, the otherwise than rational structure of the human condition that reason will always fail to contain and saturate. What therefore truly underlies rationalistic philosophy is that real happiness is not of this world. We can only rationalize happiness by means of supplicating the erotic with gifts, toys, bank accounts, and a chance to ventilate desire by exercising power within the corporate ladder and political bureaucracy.

That is why for Kant what is not of this world belongs in the noumena. But the genius of Kant lies somewhere else. The noumenon accounts for the trace of what reason fails to contain. But the noumenon is not a transcendent category that reason invokes when it meets a snag. What reason fails to saturate the otherwise than rational can address. It cannot be addressed within the terms of reason responsible for the historical emergence and sustainability of the transcendent. For Kant the ethical, the otherwise than rational, can alone address the trace, the remainder of what is—that remainder being the ‘ought’ of ethics. But even Kant is very much a child of his time, a child of the indisputable transcendence of history that limited his understanding of the task of philosophy. For him the task of philosophy is to lay bare the rationalistic foundations of the human condition and how in actuality these foundations are otherwise than rational. In the end Kant exposed the otherwise than rational foundation of transcendent categories such as God, immortality and soul, previously held to be metaphysical categories. With this Kant believed he had achieved a non-metaphysical because otherwise than rational justification of transcendence.

Kant was an immanentist in the sense of radicalizing the transcendent power of human freedom, its capacity to immortalize without depending on the belief that there is really God out there. Kantian philosophy is also a rationalistic metaphysics which in the end was put to the service of justifying the secular aims of religion. But these secular aims, as Kant himself recommended, should not be made known to all. Like Plato’s noble lie, God must still be held an object of mystery. Philosophy must not betray this secret. It is incumbent upon philosophy to justify the existence of God to the public where unfortunately reason does not play a dominant role. Reason rather belongs in the realm of knowledge, contemplation, and absolute singularity that is attained through the perfection of wisdom and virtue. The public task of philosophy is to educate, to lead people into the path of reason, into absolute singularity though it will take time before they can accept that God, or any powerful image of transcendence such as the State, is merely a useful fiction. The public task of philosophy is to teach people how to suspend rather temporarily their membership in the totality molded into being by the noble lie to regain their individual autonomies where reason can be pursued with much concentration. To this end, Hegel attempted to complete the task by once and for all putting an end to transcendence.

The Hegelian murder of transcendence is actualized by history. Human history takes the place of the noumenon, the trace of what reason cannot contain. History dissolves the density of the noumenon into the transparency of the phenomenon. We speak of density in terms of thickness which suggests of impenetrability and the unfathomable. The common opposite of these terms (impenetrable and unfathomable) is penetrability. Penetration dissolves thickness and darkness. In Hegelian terms, penetration is carried out by the light of reason. Reason illuminates the space formerly conquered by darkness symbolized by the night where, according to a familiar Hegelian metaphor, all cows turn black. In the light of day, cows turn up in their colorful variation. It is in this sense that history is the active power that encloses Being against non-Being, against Nothingness, against Emptiness and the Void. It is history that decides that Being is, and Nothingness is not. Contrary to popular interpretation, Hegelian philosophy is a practical philosophy. What makes it practical is that Hegel dismissed as mystical all philosophies that articulate the transcendence of the unknown in favor of the knowability of the phenomenon. What is passed for as noumenal is simply for Hegel the state of obscurity of the phenomenon in the absence of the light of reason.

Even still, Hegel’s project of putting an end to transcendence leaves much to be desired. It may be recalled that Kant proposed an and-time as a saturation point to all human endeavors, presumably a point at which all questions of life are resolved. The end-time concept is a necessary postulate to justify hope and also essential in terms of rationalizing the provisional necessity of transcendent categories such as God. However, Kant was unsure which time is it—human time or objective time? It may be argued that Kant was not thinking of human time—he earlier postulated that time is a mental construct—otherwise end-time would mean the necessity of suicide. He would have not thought of ending time as objective because following his internal logic time is the infinite noumenal that no reason can contain. It may suffice to say that after all Kant was simply playing along with possibilities in the hope of plugging the gaps that his philosophy had created.

Instead of end-time Hegel proposed the end of history, the saturation of the field of phenomena. Hegel therefore proposed an end from within, not from without, not from time which remains outside of phenomena. The perfection of the phenomenal world is enough to put an end to transcendence, to time. Devoid of a world to effectuate upon, transcendence and time lose their integrity. God becomes alone in the universe He created. Alone God is practically non-existent. God is dead. Transcendence is dead. Long live the immanence of humanity. Even still, immanence happens to be a crowded place, and a place defined by conflicting human interests. Karl Marx inverted this Hegelian immanence in terms of saturating the plane of immanence with a universalizable interest of the collective, a universal emancipatory category that brings with it the promise of ending the conflictual essence of immanence. In the end Marx like Hegel wanted to start with a clean slate, with a new immanence to replace the immanence of the old. Altogether, they avoided the possibility of transcendence, of going beyond immanence consistent with their mutual anti-Kantian doctrines which emphasize their refusal to accept the noumenal nature of transcendence, that transcendence cannot be perfectly contained unless time ends from without as Kant nearly suggested.

Post-Hegelian philosophy will be characterized by a reaction to the horror of murdering transcendence exemplified by the rise of National Socialism and to a greater extent by the modern totalitarian ideologies of Stalinism and Maoism. With the exception of Heidegger who joined the Nazi party, post-Hegelianism, such as of the reactions of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre are attempts to reintroduce philosophy, attempts to rephilosophize the tradition of philosophy and possibly rescue it from the seduction of modern forms of rationality. In a nutshell modern rationality favors transcendence over immanence, totality over autonomy, unity over difference. But the clearest emphasis of modern rationality is the imitation of transcendence which is then concretely applied on the plane of immanence. It may be recalled that Plato started this critical tradition of interrogating the mimetic adventure of rationality in his criticism of poetry. For Plato the danger lies in imitating a transcendence that does not exist apart from the manifestation of a necessary illusion that the mind initiates and proposes.

It is clear for Plato that to philosophize is to unmask the pretensions of transcendence which to him is not only restricted to the pretenses of poetry but also extend to social, cultural, and political spheres of human existence. Unexamined pretenses can become extremely powerful and pervasive. However, to examine these pretenses is not an easy thing to do. And to examine them by means of philosophizing is even more difficult. As Heidegger stressed:

“[According] to its essence, philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult. And it does so not just incidentally, not just because its manner of communication seems estranged or even deranged to everyday understanding. The burdening of historical Dasein, and thereby at bottom of Being itself, is rather the genuine sense of what philosophy can achieve. Burdening gives back to things, to beings, their weight (Being).” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 12)

Though Heidegger’s philosophical journey was tainted by his corroboration with the Nazi, we could not care less about his acute analysis of what philosophy can achieve. It may suffice to say that even a philosopher such as his stature can become a victim of a false transcendence. This also reveals the difficulties and dangers of philosophizing. Philosophers are seemingly elected by the things themselves, to give back to them their weight that has been ignored by history, by humanity’s obsession with transcendence. For the reason alone that elects philosophic activity to the task of giving back the weight of things to things themselves, philosophizing has never been more pressing and exceptionally demanding within the tradition of philosophy. Needless to say, to philosophize is to be responsible for the future of philosophic tradition.

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