PHILOSOPHY AND THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE GOOD
Virgilio A. Rivas
Paper delivered during the World Philosophy Day celebration sponsored by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines–Institute of Cultural Studies on November 27, 2012.
On November 15, 2012, philosophy was celebrated around the world to honor philosophical reflections, in corners of the world where philosophy has made its mark. Ten years ago, we were told by UNESCO to mark the third Thursday of the 11th month of the year as the day of philosophy.
Unfortunately, when an event like this is marked in the calendar rest assured that event is officially dead. Philosophy has officially died in the common era of 2002, the year the celebration began. The red mark in the calendar becomes a tomb, and the lapidary, in whatever way it is written, indicates that an event that has died can only be remembered through an appeal. This year’s appeal is addressed to the youth whose future ought to be philosophic. The ‘ought’ is not a command, rather, as I mentioned, an appeal.
Perhaps, Hegel is right that regardless of official date we are already in a state of mourning, mourning for the death of philosophy; or, following Heidegger, unable to admit that philosophy had died long ago. On the one hand, mourning results from a painful admission that something has died; on the other hand, melancholia proceeds from our non-acceptance, still clinging to hope, that something is never coming back. For Hegel and Heidegger, philosophy died in the hands of modernity.
We can only remember philosophy and by doing so we are doing philosophy, the only way to do philosophy.
In retrospect, the ancient Greeks started the tradition of criticism and self-criticism that was to become the building block of what today we call ‘love of wisdom’. Thales opened his mind to the scrutiny of his students and contemporaries who then continued the practice he initiated. For this alone Nietzsche described the ancient period from Thales to Socrates as a ‘republic of geniuses’. To be a genius means that a thinker must be a willing servant of criticism—criticism as the god of knowledge, if we can put it that way. Criticism, especially that which is directed at oneself, started philosophy. Without criticism, and without a god in the sense we have spoken, philosophy would not be born.
In the East, the same applied to the beginnings of speculative thought, yet in a different context. Criticism may not be a dominant virtue of Oriental thinking. Nonetheless, it was compensated by the appeal to intuition. Intuition gave the Orient a special structure of time which allowed them to peer through the veil of reality. If the West utilized criticism as a way of relating to what they were unable to comprehend completely, the Orient found refuge in the mode of revealing of time, slow but imposing in terms of its power to humble our claim to mortal greatness. Intuition preserves the mystery of time, its power to destroy as much as nurture our existence.
Centuries passed, Heidegger describes our mode of relation to time, among others, in terms of the idea of being in the draft. Ultimately, a being in the draft is the Human controlled by the current of time; a being who cannot change the course of time. This concept of time resonates in both Oriental and Western modes of thinking. The Orient preferred intuition over concept, mystery over logic, time over the conquest of space that the Western rather excelled in. But both share something in common—they chose different methods to reach the same destiny. The destiny is the awareness that Man is not the starting point. The proper starting point is the Real; the Real that precedes the emergence of the human condition; the reality that has the ultimate capacity to withdraw from human access. It is wrong to even suppose that if reality can’t be completely thought it can instead be adequately experienced.
We can wonder then if one can really have a self as the center of experience. Is there a thinker of the think, the dreamer of the dream, the conceiver of the concept? Thomas Metzinger, an emerging German philosopher who is working on the fringes of speculative realism that began in 2007, says, no! Gilles Deleuze would rather tweak the question like this–isn’t it that there are tiny selves rather than a single permanent Self? Or, a thousand tiny sexes rather than a fixed sexuality? Descartes is right when he doubts the existence of the self. Where he gets it wrong is in assuming that thinking can only discover a single indubitable self. The point is while we cannot answer these questions for now it doesn’t prohibit us from assuming there is a self, a single permanent self. The self is therefore a compelling postulate, which does not mean it is real.
As Alain Badiou would have it, humans are inconsistent nothings, unpresentable zeroes. The fact that we are zeroes illustrates that something magical happened before the emergence of the human species. But magical does not mean to presuppose a magician, much less a superhuman transcendent magician. Again, there is no self as there is no doer behind the deed. Nietzsche said it before. The magical that led to our emergence in the planet is a result of pure accident.
Reality is still largely unknown. Yet it is still unknown because we have been trained to utilize logic instead of creative imagination. To be logical does not mean to be philosophical. Quite the contrary because philosophy is for the most part the business of defying logic. In philosophy, we study logic in order to identify its limitations, in order to identify the options to exercise more freedom.
To this end, philosophy teaches us that reality is difficult to pin down. Logic can only scratch the surface. But Socrates was more direct. He knew that no concept can perfectly describe the essence of the real, all the more the kind that precedes our emergence in the prehistory of time. In the same manner, no concept can survive the future when humans will be things of the past. The only absolute future of our species is extinction.
Having said these, we seem to be looking into the future with unnecessary haste. A future is always given birth by its infancy, the age of its childhood, its youth, or what Sigmund Freud associates with the feeling of being adrift in the sea. Roughly, oceanic feeling is a feeling that one encounters when confronted with the question of one’s past. Freud’s oceanic feeling and Heidegger’s being-in-the-draft both point to the idea of being that is swayed by the course of something unpredictable and volatile.
True enough, Heidegger would describe the origin of the human as thrownness (Geworfenheit). Thrownness is the past of humanity. Yet any living entity will reach its end, its future. Even so, we believe that between past and future there is wisdom. There is the possibility of standing apart, which the Greeks call ekstasis, making a clearing between old and new, past and future. Wisdom in this sense is the present, the only desirable present. Intriguingly, what enunciates this desirability is the love of the impossible, the impossible being the attainment of wisdom.
Several thinkers put in their share of this impossible love.
In Spinoza, it is love for the absolute pleasure of being; despite the lack of sufficient reason for being, the lack of sufficiency of being becomes the sufficient reason to enjoy being to the fullest;
In Nietzsche, it is love for the death of false humanity;
In Marx, love for being-multiple;
In Deleuze, love of the body without organs, where organs are defined according to political semiotics, sexual and economic jargons that the body resistant to definitions internally rejects,
In Derrida, it is love of justice to come without the guarantee of the future;
In Foucault, love of oneself in terms of inventing a self;
In Badiou, love of truth without conditions;
In Laruelle, love of the true without truth.
In Harman, love for the mystery of objects, their quiet self-translations; their power to humble our claim to privilege, we being allegedly created in the likeness of God, because they preceded our emergence and will certainly survive our extinction.
Or, the love of the eternal by Mallarme; the love of whatever-space in Deleuzean terms by Gabriel Garcia Marquez;
Or, the impossible romance of Neruda; the incredible ambition of the spiders of Vallejo to become other than spiders, to become-human, to become-tourists, the becoming-other of whatever is and is not;
The love of the impossible by revolutionaries who are called revolutionaries because they have not won a revolution!
In general, love of wisdom takes the form of tragic awareness.
This is where Slavoj Žižek comes in. Žižek is known for his parallactic idea of reality, meaning, reality is not independent of us. In this sense efforts to understand the Real will always be thwarted by the same efforts to understand it because we are those efforts. All the while we are trying to understand ourselves, and in vain. Reality is the sum total of the failures of previous generations to understand the real that we inherit and reproduce.
Truly, reality is to be found within us. Yet it is within us not as a graspable item, but as a ghost, a phantom. Consistent with his Lacanian background, Žižek understands reality as a fantasy. Life is a fantasy. Similarly, knowledge is a fantasy.
All these do not mean that scientific knowledge is a fantasy-laden discipline. But yes, we actually mean it is fantasy with a necessary shift in semantics. Fantasy is more real than reality, the reality that we traditionally conceive as logical and rational. The way philosophy has been taught since the West began to dominate the planet has something to do with this standard orientation towards the real.
The keyword is the Greek term Logos. It is true that in Plato the Logos is associated with reason. What is rather ignored is that the Logos is not-all. There is the beyond of the Logos, which is the Good itself. Beyond our achievements in the realm of reason and the arts, the true and the beautiful, logic and aesthetics, is ethics. Nonetheless, it is not the kind of ethics traditionally taught in schools. It is the kind that I think Levinas was the first to recognize.
The ethical emerges out of the awareness that beyond knowledge, logical or artistic, is a real dimension to which humans have no access. Levinas describes it in French as il y a, there is. What is in il y a is the chaotic echo of silence, which is silent only because all words that describe it fall flat. It is also in this sense that Plato described the beyond of the Logos as the Good. It is the Good in the sense that the only thing left of us to pursue, after accomplishing much in knowing and creating, in logic and the arts, is to protect the species against Chaos, the absolute contingency that governs the known cosmos. Incidentally, Plato knew of an extinct civilization that lies beneath the Atlantis.
It is well thought out by science—given all things equal, the planet has only about 7 billion years to last. Granting that there will be humans 7 billion years from now, Plato urges us to continue creating myths, or noble lies to protect the species from the collapse of sanity. Ultimately, sanity means the awareness that there is no one to help us except us. This knowledge will be sustained by aristocracy. Yet bear in mind that Plato understood aristocracy as the rule of virtues, from the word arête which means virtue or excellence in Greek.
All in all, virtue is the knowledge that there is only the Good, that it is good knowledge to profess that we alone are capable of creating truths, necessary lies that sustain our tenacity as a species. For Plato noble lies have the function of telling lies to people, at the same time making them aware that these are lies but have social utility. Social utility in its highest sense means the mechanism to protect humanity from entropy, which may arrive earlier than its appointed time. It may arrive earlier if we continue to make life more complex. We all know how the Mayan civilization died by introducing complex patterns of life that required destroying Nature. In physics entropy is hastened by the introduction of more complex patterns of determination within a closed system. Imagine this closed system as the planet itself.
The more complex we choose life to be the earlier we invite extinction. Here, complexity means our inclination to believe that there is truth, that there is truth other than extinction, such as life after death. This standard knowledge led to crimes against humanity—the massacre of human population, also, destruction of ecological domains resulting from conquest, all in the name of the belief in life after death. Yet it doesn’t only apply to sacred religion. Secular religions such as National Socialism, social realism and militant forms of national democracy have tried to duplicate the passion of the crimes of religion.
Nowadays, we have seen less propensity of humanity for genocide. Nonetheless, it has been replaced by consumerism that attracts entropy more economically, which means more favorable to extinction. We see how technology, sustained by market economy, has increasingly made our lives more complex: More cell phones and ipads, high tech-savvy consciousness without acquiring the knowledge proper to 21st century existence. Our century teaches us that ecological disaster can only be properly handled by the right kind of scientific consciousness, not religious consciousness, sacred or secular, not the new religion in the guise of the technological industry. The right kind of knowledge is the knowledge that celebrates mortality, at the same time prepares the better part of existence towards embracing extinction, with happiness and contentment, and better, with enlightenment, equality and the desire for justice.
In retrospect, Plato urges a return to proper fantasy, the knowledge that there is no reality worthy of knowing other than our givenness to the laws of extinction and entropy. This means the necessity for science and philosophy, but more so, the necessity for an ethical kind of knowledge that teaches us to embrace extinction. For Plato the tragic relation between science and philosophy, between myth-making and truth-telling, constitutes the key to enlightened humanity. Nietzsche inherited it from Plato despite his claim to overcome him. He calls it tragic consciousness.
Nowadays, we see the extent to which science is being made hostage by religion by lobbying against the teaching of evolution, the only science that makes us aware that we are not a privileged species. Nowadays, we see the extent to which philosophy is being made hostage by religion, that which ironically supports philosophy degree programs. In these institutions philosophy becomes an apparatus of scholarship, of logic and the arts, of aristocracy without knowledge of the Good, the knowledge that all knowledge is nothing, without ontological merit, without a Creator, without the guarantee of redemption in the face of the Real.
Granting we can still see our mistakes, we are already seeing the extent to which this mistake is threatening humanity with extinction, but first with escalating ignorance and apathy, with climate change that imperils food and human security, which adds more to the burden of the global poor.
Humanity is endangered with ecological disasters whose pure chaotic silence it seems only things can hear besides Levinas.
May he truly rest in peace.
 Brent Adkins, Death and Desire in Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
 Karl Popper, The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).
 R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche: The Man and his philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
 Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
 Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, et. al. (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1983).
 Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York and London: Continuum, 2005).
 Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion (New York: Classic House Books, 2009).