Thursday, May 27, 2010

Heidegger and Sartre in the 1930s

I just found out another interesting historical tid-bit about the philosophical environment of the 1930s, this time having to do with the movement of Heidegger's work into France.

I enjoy the work of Sartre but when looked at as a reading of Heidegger, which is obviously not the only way to look at Sartre, it always struck me as an attempt to import Descartes into Heidegger's overt attempt to decidedly move away from Descartes. Sartre is individualist and, arguably, from a Heideggerian perspective his obsession with radical freedom is just misguided. However, if you read my previous post about Heidegger in the 1930s, you will recall that I do believe Heidegger went through an overly individualist phase in which he too was obsessed with what, both before and after the 30s, he would consider a philosophically mistaken conception of freedom.

Now the historical tid-bit. The first work of Heidegger's Sartre read was Henry Corbin's translation of Heidegger's "What is Metaphysics". He read it in 1931, and it was given as a lecture by Heidegger in 1929. For a discussion of this fact see Ethan Kleinberg's Generation Existential from which I am drawing this information about Sartre. Not only is it fascinating that in "What is Metaphysics" Heidegger more directly questions the Nothing, which will become so central to Sartre, but for me it is interesting to note that this was the start of what I consider Heidegger's individualist period of the early and mid 30s, with an odd focus on individual freedom occupying a portion of the text.

Granted, I have not yet decided where "What is Metaphysics" falls in my interpretation of Heidegger's thought in the 1930s. I am going to go back and reread the work to clarify my own position on it. But if it fits Heidegger's more individualist freedom oriented position of, say, Introduction to Metaphysics or the Origin of the Work of Art lectures, rather than the final published form the work takes, then it is possible to say not that Sartre radically misconstrued Heidegger but rather that he read Heidegger at what I would consider to be his worst. Of course this wasn't helped by problems in the translation of Heidegger into French.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New York Times Philosophy Forum

Check out Arthur Danto's column in the New York Times' philosophy forum The Stone. He is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers of art and his column is about performance art.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Quotation for the Day" or "A Thought about Thought"

My recent discussions of Meillassoux and Thought-World-Correlationism has given rise to some discussion about the thinkable, unthinkable, meaningless and so on. I think these are very interesting questions, but in general I find the conception of "thought" which philosophy has tended to work with to be a fairly deceptive theoretical distortion. In this I follow Heidegger. If we look to how we make our way through the world on a day to day basis we find something rather different than the "thought" we find discussed in many areas of philosophy.

Here is a Wittgenstein quotation on the subject which may serve to change some of the recent tone of my blog. It is from his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics and calls into question which it means for thought or inference to be constrained. We might take it to be a comment on what we mean by the thinkable and unthinkable:

"And thinking and inferring (like counting) is of course bounded for us, not by an arbitrary definition, but by natural limits corresponding to the body of what can be called the role of thinking and inferring in our life... And I say further that the line between what we include in 'thinking' and what we no longer include in 'thinking' is no more a hard and fast one than the line between what is still and what is no longer called 'regularity'. Nevertheless the laws of inference can be said to compel us; in the same sense, that is to say, as other laws in human society."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Heidegger in the 1930s

In 1935 Heidegger taught the lecture course "Introduction to Metaphysics". In it he included a discussion of a chorus from the second act of Sophocles' Antigone and his own translation of this chorus. Heidegger had prepared, however, two different translations of the chorus. I find it absolutely fascinating that the tensions, and I would say mistakes, with which Heidegger was struggling in this terrible period are captured in the vast distance between the translations of the opening lines of the chorus. Here are the two translations in English, taken from a footnote in Letters 1925-1975: Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger edited by Ursula Ludz and translated by Andrew Shields:

"Manifold uncanniness reigns/ and nothing uncannier than man"

"Manifold the uncanny, nothing but / above and beyond man something more uncanny moves itself, moving"

The first translation is also the one which appears in Heidegger's later book version of the course Introduction to Metaphysics as translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt.

Clearly the tension between these translations rests in the question of whether there is anything uncannier than man beyond him, or whether man is what is ultimately uncanny. The first translation is consistent with the view, offered by Heidegger in Introduction to Metaphysics, that humanity is uncanny in two senses. First, it finds itself within an overpowering force (the Abiding Sway) which is other than it and determines it and, second, it is capable of a contradictory violence in the face of the abiding sway which pushes back against this determination and allows humanity to go beyond the boundaries of what is determined by nature and, perhaps, history. This also goes hand in hand with a focus on the power of individual poets, thinkers and political leaders as manifestations of the violent force of humanity which can push back against the abiding sway.

The second translation, I would argue, hearkens back to Being and Time and Heidegger's pre-Being and Time commitments as well as forward to the final published version of The Origin of the Work of Art. First, human possibilities are always the possibilities opened up by human history and language such that we can attempt to get a clearer and more honest grasp on history and language so that that we may more authentically understand it and take it up but we can never do anything like "push back" against it except insofar as history itself offers us, on its own accord, a new beginning. Second, specific individual humans do not represent an essential element of the struggle, strife or violence through which history develops and changes but rather it is the world and earth, the unconcealed and concealed of a cultural context, which are engaged in a play or strife within which any given history moment, individual, or people is constituted. Art can change worlds, but art understood as a larger historical event which alone makes possible the existence of individual art works or artists. In short, the first translation is individualist and decisionist while the second is historicist and anti-humanist. It is this first translation, I would claim, that is in sharp tension with Heidegger's work before and after the terrible period of the early and mid-1930s.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Some Thoughts on Meillassoux" or "The Correlationist's Return"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the central step in Meillassoux's After Finitude is the step through which he claims to have gotten beyond finitude. It is the move whereby he turns the recognition of the limits of human knowledge which is fairly widely accepted in today's philosophical environment into a discovery of an absolute ontological truth. Also perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my main worries about his work is whether he can make such a move.

How does he think he has done this? It is interesting that his move resembles a move made by Husserl. Husserl, following from Descartes and others, claims that there is a connection between what is imaginable and what is possible. The practice of imagination, or eidetic variation, provides us with an experience of the limits and laws of the transcendental ego's constituting activities. For example, we can't imagine color without it taking up space and this reveals a potential universal truth.

Interestingly, Meillassoux takes a different tone when discussing imagination (or rather, thought). He suggests, inspired by Hume's concern that our grasp of causality is based entirely on repeated observations of matters of fact, that there is a potential infinity of different ways in which we can imagine any specific event occurring (i.e. we can imagine any number of things occurring when one billiard ball rolls into another). Generally this has been taken to demonstrate that reason tells us nothing about what causal connections exist between things, and that thus all our causal reasoning is at best probabilistic. When you throw in the realization that reason also reveals that we don't know whether the future need conform to the past we are left with no sure foundation for future predictions. We have no reason not to think that tomorrow all the laws of the universe may be different.

This ability to think everything as different includes, of course, the ability to think ourselves as not existing. It is from this point that Meillassoux takes off: "... we are able to think - by dint of the absence of any reason for our being - a capacity-to-be-other capable of abolishing us, or of radically transforming us. But if so, then this capacity-to-be-other cannot be conceived as a correlate of our thinking, precisely because it harbours the possibility of our own non-being. In order to think myself as mortal, as the atheist does - and hence as capable of not being - I must think my capacity-not-to-be as an absolute possibility, for if I think this possibility as a correlate of my thinking, if I maintain that the possibility of my not-being only exists as a correlate of my act of thinking the possibility of my not-being, then I can no longer conceive the possibility of my not-being, which is precisely the thesis defended by the idealist." (p. 57).

The idea here is that the skeptic (correlationist) is trapped in a dilemma. Either we admit that we have access to some truth not relative to, and dependent upon, our thought, specifically we admit the truth that our thought could stop at any moment (i.e. we could cease to exist), or we must fall into idealism and admit that the dependence of the thought of our non-existence on thought itself makes the thought of non-existence an illusion. If we admit our access to a non-thought correlated possibility, however, we are admitting getting out of the correlationist box or, to put it differently, we are getting beyond the "finitude claim" that our knowledge and thought is always constrained within its own limits such that we can't "think beyond thought".

Meillassoux also formulates this point, see pages 58-59, by pointing out that the very tool the skeptic uses to get out of idealism and argue against the certainty of the theist or naive realist, the distinction between reality as thought and reality as it is in-itself, is accessible only insofar as we have gotten beyond it and thought SOMETHING absolute independent of human thought: "Your general instrument of de-absolutization only works by conceding that what the speculative philosopher considers to be absolute is actually thinkable as an absolute; or better still, is actually thought - by you - as absolute, since were this not the case, it would never have occurred to you not to be a subjective (or speculative) idealist." (p. 59)

The conclusion, then, is that the mind has access to one absolute truth, namely universal contingency. All things could be otherwise. Thus we are not caught in the skeptical position of stating that the idealist, theist and realist positions are all equally possible, rather we can firmly state that each of these positions is false to the extent that they assert any "reason" or grounding cause for things being the way they are and not otherwise.

Let me say that the inversion, here, of the Hegelian response to Kant is brilliant. Rather than assert that the thinkability of the distinction between phenomena and thing-in-itself demonstrates our surpassing of the distinction towards the realization of the necessary correlation of thought and being, he asserts that it demonstrates our realization of the non-correlation of thought and being and the absolute truth of universal contingency. I adore this conclusion, but I don't think the argument gets us there.

As my mention of Hegel should make clear, Meillassoux also rejects the Kantian claim that thought can recognize its own limits without surpassing them. The post-Kantian correlationist spin on this is the claim that thought can recognize the possibility, and perhaps even current formation, of its own limits without knowing, as Kant seems to think he can, their absolute necessity and stability.

It seems to me that, despite Meillassoux's use of the reflexive paradox here to demonstrate that the skeptic must assume the thinkability of the non-thought-correlated in order to craft his correlationist arguments, the inconsistency of the correlationist's argument, if indeed this has been demonstrated, does not constitute ontological knowledge.

What we need is a reason to think that the fact that we can think things as being different constitutes ontological knowledge of their contingency. This would require a rather extensive investigation of the nature of thought. What is thought such that it can provide knowledge of absolute truth, rather than simply taking (fallibly) various possibilities to be absolute?

Phenomenologically we do indeed experience various things as universal, particulars can show up in the mode of universality. But this appearance-as-universal does nothing to establish actual knowledge of universal truth. In the same way, the fact that my reasoning depends upon a certain assumption tells me nothing about the truth or falsity of that assumption. Even were it possible to demonstrate that all reasoning rests on a certain assumption it would not justify the claim that this assumption is universally true. A similar point can be made in relation to the supposed connection between imagination and possibility. Let me make this fairly basic point in a schematic way: in order to justify a claim to universal ontological knowledge we would first need indubitable ontological knowledge concerning the relation of human thought and reality.

There is obviously much more I want to say, and this is admittedly a fairly gut level response to Meillassoux's very impressive book. It also strikes me, for example, that the focus on understanding correlationism in terms of "thought" smuggles in quite a lot and is not necessarily an accurate depiction of a large class of supposed correlationists (including, I would claim, Heidegger).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book Chapter

I just received word that I am going to have a piece of mine published as a chapter in an upcoming book. The book is entitled Painting Mirrors: Essays on the Artist as Observer and Social Critic and is going to be published by Lexington Books. The collection is being put together and edited by Shawn Bingham and is expected to be published in the summer of 2011. My chapter will be entitled "Jean Genet: A Case Study of the Artist’s Explication and Alteration of Social Practice". Needless to say, I am very excited.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Quotation for the Day

"We must convert facticity into the real property whereby everything and every world is without reason. We must grasp how the ultimate absence of reason, which we will refer to as 'unreason', is an absolute ontological property, and not the mark of the finitude of our knowledge."

Meillassoux again. That is quite a task! I am still trying to decide what I think of his attempt and his reading of Heidegger. I will post more of a discussion soon. Also some comments about this years meeting of the Heidegger Circle will appear soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Heidegger Circle

I will be attending the Heidegger Circle at Stony Brook University in Manhattan this weekend. Sadly I am not presenting a paper but I will be chairing a session. If anything particularly blog worthy strikes me I will be sure to share it.