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.


  1. The concern over the unthinkable involves not only the binary of thinkable/unthinkable, but also truth/untruth and being/nonbeing. First, to address the issue of the speech act and the thinkable we can to Nietzsche in which he asks, “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” (On Truth and Lies in the Extra-moral Sense). I answer in the negative. Nietzsche explains the way in which we desire that there is truth in order to master over life and all of its contingencies, uncertainties, and danger. It is through establishing a truth that we constitute the ‘real’, you could say, or what can be said of existence. This will to truth covers over the very fact that we desire truth and do not allow for untruth as a condition of life; we cover over what is unthinkable by willing that what we only acknowledge what is thinkable. As Foucault so eloquently explains, it is “As though the will to truth and its vicissitudes were masked by truth itself and its necessary unfolding” (The Discourse on Language). In this sense, the will to truth covers over (in a Heideggarian sense of truth) that there is the unthinkable; that there is untruth, as Nietzsche would put it. Nietzsche then suggests that we must recognize untruth as a condition of life, in that these uncertainties, unthinkables, and accidents are a condition of life.

    There are some experiences that are at the level of what Kristeva would call the semiotic; what is pre-linguistic, meaning that they are prior to the possibility of being placed within the symbolic function of language. For example, we could take the experience of the abject, the disaster, madness, and trauma. In a Lacanian sense, once we enunciate the abject or trauma, it is placed within the symbolic order that covers over the “real” experience of trauma. Lacan by way of designating trauma as tuché, the encounter with the “real” as the object petite a, the specific object of desire (which in this case is Truth, the truth of…) that we continuously desire and seek, implies that there is an association of the tuché with the impossibility of language to access and express this experience. The tuché is occupying the position of the “real” as behind the lack of representation, and thus the tuché is different than speaking of the tuché. In this sense, the tuché is not reducible to a purely symbolic phenomenon. Thus, we cannot speak of the object petite a as it is. Within this enunciation, the encounter with the “real” always escapes us; it is the moment of breakdown in the symbolic, which questions the possibility of a language of the experience of the encounter. That is, that the cause of the abject, disaster, and trauma is an accident and occurs at the level of the semiotic and we cannot know of this cause since it is only “known” through the symbolic order. If an individual is to describe her experience of trauma, she does so within the confines of a specific language. Yet, others lack this encounter with the real, and thus despite the use of metaphor or a structured scientific language, she cannot access the object petite a, as noted above the tuché is different than speaking of the tuché.

    See next post...

  2. This is evidenced in scientific discourse (constituting the scientific gaze, we could say), which Foucault suggests is established through highly specific irreversible contingent events; relations of social, political, institutional, economic, behavioral practices; system of norms, techniques, classifications; sentiments of the public; modes of characterization; and a complex, multi-level web of multitudinous discursive relations in operation in which out of these relations “practical knowledge” and “explanatory principles” were born through the practice of interdisciplinary discourse. As he explains in Madness and Civilization, once madness was identified, studied, organized, and then observed, these processes transformed into a positive science of madness in which at a deeper level formed a rigorous, formal system of knowledge contingent on the “faultless” discourse. This discourse is what instantiated the “truth” of madness as well as its own faith in itself; “a kind of reason in action.” And within this discourse, the description of the nature of madness, its manifestations, and internal structures is what signifies it as truly madness. Thus, madness becomes an object fashioned in language. With the background of an irrefutable logic and the, one could say, gaze of Reason, madness was seen, then, as a deterioration of nature and “reason’s debate with itself.” Language then becomes an “instrument of segregation,” in which madness (trauma, abject, disaster) is treated in terms of truth and error. In this case, as Foucault puts it, unreason’s defeat is inscribed in advance, suggesting that language which is, as Nietzsche argues, is “a uniformly valid and binding designation…invented for things…[in which] this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth” (Truth and Lies) embodies the notion of the law of contradiction which suggests that something cannot be true/’real’/exist and be untrue/’unreal’/not exist at the same time. However, paradox is a condition of life, and it is precisely this paradox which escapes the possibility of expression: for Nietzsche, logic is a fiction.

    see next post...

  3. Michele Foucault can help to clarify that we cannot isolate the statement of what exists and is true within the performance of ontology because it is centered on what is speaking and what is seen within a specific local space. If we are to overlook the performance of ontology, the historically situated activity of seeing and speaking, we preclude any possible critical reflection on the specific relations of vision and language and the site, or space, of such a performance. In this sense, performing ontology, we fail to see what vision and speaking are doing and tend to focus on solely what-is and what counts as truth, that is, we fail to consider that in performing ontology we do not think the unthinkable. This activity of seeing is invisible to us when we study being; that is, we do not see what is speaking and what is seeing, or that we are seeing. Thus, we may overlook that seeing, speaking, and space are fundamental components of ontology as a visual regime that privileges some visions as a hegemonic way of organization of sights and perspectives, implicit standards, to where the eye is habituated to expect these visions and not others. (What Lacan signifies as the gaze, the object petite a, then, plays as distinctive role in ontology. However, due to space, I will leave this issue alone for now.)
    In The Order of Things, Foucault provides an example that asks us to confront our inherited ontology and furthermore stresses the significance of historical context and discourse of such adopted performances manifested within local practices. He references a Chinese Encyclopedia cited in a passage in Borges that lists the division of animals as a category: …animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

    The example of the Chinese Encyclopedia presents another system of thought, one that demonstrates our own limits of thinking and the “stark impossibility of thinking that”. For us, the modern Western audience, it is impossible to think, to see, the common ground that provides the juxtaposition of the Chinese list of animals. We have a language, a system of thinking that composes a common ground in which we can enumerate categories of animals inherited from a long tradition of discourse, arranging and placing them within a specific grid of knowledge, demarcating ‘things’ and their relation. This exemplifies our lack of language for the common ground that we would share with the Chinese, in that if we could experience that ground, our own categorizations that provide the very possibility of juxtaposition of a Western taxonomy of animals is destroyed. This demonstrates that this common ground can only exist within a local, historical site of its ‘authors’. The difficulty for us to see and speak of the categories, the division of ‘animals’ and their similitude constituting the ontological grouping in the Chinese Encyclopedia, is because the ‘space’ in which this juxtaposition of the Chinese enumerations exist is in the “non-place of language”. We would have no language for such a ground, especially since the Chinese categorization of animals includes descriptive terms and immediate performances, such as “fabulous” and having “just broken the water picture”. This way of accounting for what exists within a different, highly specific space of vision and language is what we cannot think.

  4. The analysis of the primacy of vision, language, and space within the performance of ontology opens us up to possible critical reflection of how we have come to think of and speak of ontology and provides the open space of how we can come to think the unthinkable. Foucault’s archeological, historical analysis of discourse and its multitudinous relations, rules of statements, discursive relations, and practices allows vision to be experimental and playful rather than tethered to a particular way to see, speak, and examine what-is through one coherent, linear language. We find that our knowledge is documented and testified through discourse as a practice and further we relate through discourse, through λόγος. Yet, Foucault notes that the space where vision meets language is man; man is “the fulcrum upon which all these relations turn…” (OT, Chapter II, 22). In this practice, the observed and observer take part in a ceaseless exchange; no gaze is stable. Therefore, process ontology is performance of studying being and in this sense we can subject it to the critical historical, transitory eye, in which we recognize that we cannot exhaust all of the possibilities of what one experiences; that is, the possibilities of existence, and therefore, there is always the unthinkable. However, as suggested, this unthinkable lies outside the symbolic order and discourse that is always-already in operation. Foucault argues, “We are doomed historically to history, to the patient construction of discourses about discourses, and to the task of hearing what has already been said” (The Birth of the Clinic).
    I have gone on for too long, and so I will leave us with this question, is artwork, the pre-linguistic, an open a space for the unthinkable?

  5. Wow Natasha, thanks. I feel I should save all your comments and post them as their own guest blog rather than leaving them in a mere comments section.

    There are so many questions/issues your comments raise. First a comment about Nietzsche and Heidegger on the nature of language. I absolute agree with Nietzsche that language is not the adequate expression of all realities. But I would amend that to state that any language, as it currently stands, is not an adequate expression. In other words, all languages are finite, but that does not mean there is something beyond language which language in general can never touch. Each living language has its limits, but that does not necessarily mean language in general is limited. Which is where Heidegger comes in. Nietzsche's attitude towards language, at least in "Truth and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense" is that language is something akin to an artificial construct thrust upon Being. Heidegger, in "The Origin of the Work of Art", suggests that this leaves the origin of language as a bit of a mystery. It is not sufficient to say that language is fundamentally a lie, we must also say something about why it is the type of lie it is and why that type of lie is adequate for making human life possible. In this sense, then, we get to the Heideggerian perspective that language is both concealing and revealing.

    See next comment...

  6. So, the major question that leaps out at me is also the question which underlies my entire post, namely whether the thinkable and sayable are the same and whether the sayable and experiencable are the same.

    I am not entirely decided on this point and Heidegger himself moves back and forth as to his own position on the matter, but for the sake of my post I forced a decision upon myself. I sided with Wittgenstein and with some of Heidegger's work in which thinking and speaking are inescapably united. But, language is finite and limited and thus so too is thought. Language grows, decays and changes over time and so too do the possibilities of thought. The unthinkable, then, is constituted by the changing structures of language and and vast social complex of practices in which and throughout which language weaves.

    As you can suspect, I therefore have some objections to Kristeva's conception of the bodily as pre-linguistic. From my perspective (at least as of this instant) there is no "pre-linguistic" although there can be the non-linguistic. Kristeva, at least as I read her, would understand language to be a structuring and molding of bodily drives, but the drives themselves are more primordial than language. I am far more Lacanian on this point, the drives are always the drives OF a certain linguistic-social structure. They are constituted by, or as part of, that structure. The same goes for the body.

    I do like the way Kristeva conceives of the semiotic in language, and I understand it very much along the lines of Heidegger's strife between world and earth. The semiotic is the earth of language, the bodily materiality upon which language depends, but it is always also an element/effect of the given language. I like how the semiotic makes clear that language will never be absolutely clear and transparent, language remains metaphor and expression, and thus all language remains poetic. But I don't like the temporal implication that there is something which comes before language.

    The unthinkable, then, is always the unthinkable of a language and culture and not the unthinkable generally. But, this unthinkable is present within the failures and breakdowns of the language/culture in question. It is this which both Foucault and Heidegger concern themselves with, the fissures and cracks within the history of our language and culture. These are important because they are the openings to new languages and ways of life. In a Hegelian sense, the internal negation of one phase becomes the truth of the next. This is ontology in my sense, a study of the History of Being which also attempts to open up new arenas of Being-Meaning.

  7. As for your closing question, is artwork, as the pre-lingusitic, an open space for the unthinkable? This seems, in a sense, to be precisely where Foucault is going especially in the Appendix to "The History of Madness" entitled "Madness, the Absence of an Oeuvre". There he points out that the rise of modern medical sciences of insanity has divided insanity from madness. Madness, in turn, has drifted closer and closer to art and especially, he claims, to literature. He discusses literature, then, in terms of the fourth type of the unspeakable as noted in my post. The type of the unspeakable where something seems to use the everyday regime of meaning while also constituting within itself a new way of being understood which opens up a new regime of meaning. Art, then, is not an open space for the unthinkable as much as it is the space in which the unthinkable-unsayable becomes thinkable-sayable. This often occurs through violent breaks with previous limitations in language, practice and thought.

  8. Thank you for the remarks. I agree with you on the concern over the pre-linguistic and semiotic with Kristeva. In my earlier post I collapsed those two together rather recklessly as opposed to attending to them in detail and independently. I agree with your point that there is no "pre-linguistic" but a non-linguistic. I too am much more of a Lacanian on this and would even hesitate to really claim what is more primordial, in that, as you know, I think we need to always be cautious of looking for "origins".

    And I agree on the idea that it is the cracks, gaps, fissures in history (and thinking) that allow for a new space of thinking (I am specifically using the work thinking to signify an on-going activity rather than a singular act, or rather product of action, the thought). We could apply this to what I brought up before in that the abject/trauma/etc. is a crack, gap in the symbolic, and thus allows for a space to confront new meanings. It is when our old "worlds" (I am going to use this term lightly as to not suggest a specific Heideggarian or other concept) break down through cracks, shifts, discontinuity, etc., whether violent or not, that we are able to *see* two things: 1) there is a new space for meaning because this breakdown shows us that 2) meaning is fragile, without a strong permanent structural ground of arches, and thus shifts. I would say the same of language; there is always a new space for language and language shifts. When I think about this I cannot help, though still limiting, imagine tectonic plates rupturing causing mountains, valleys, earthquakes, and volcanoes. There is always a space for that-which-is-not-thought, or taking *place* in the activity of thinking, and this space, the unthinkable, shifts with the movement of the plates. (My metaphor is not the best because language, meaning, and thinking are in such a highly culture-specific, complex, multi-layer web, that it cannot be captured in the image of a horizontal plane. This is what is presented in Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge). Lastly, I think we cannot necessarily even demarcate solid distinctive boundaries to what is thinking, speaking, and meaning.

  9. And as for your response to the question I brought up about art and an open space for thinking/meaning/speakable, I am down with what you presented. This just reminds me that I need to re-read that text. Looking forward to your next blog or further comments, and those also from the peanut gallery--eh??

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  11. The peanut gallery - that would be my cue. I cannot speak quite within the terms presented here, not being fluent in the discourses used here (Lacanian, Heideggerian, etc). I am more comfortable speaking as an artist/poet. I'm particularly drawn to Natasha's view that there is always a space for the not-thought. I might hazard the wholly unphilosophical statement that whether one characterizes the unthinkable as culture-specific or general, the experience of it is perpetual and perhaps the same in either case in the sense that no present moment can ever capture it: there is always a surplus of meaning. As for the role of art, specifically: picking up on your observation, Bill, that the "unthinkable is present within the failures and breakdowns of the language/culture in question" - I would say it is also present in its successes, in terms of art - great poems, for example. However, I agree with you that "Art, then, is not an open space for the unthinkable as much as it is the space in which the unthinkable-unsayable becomes thinkable-sayable." The success of art is also its failure in this sense: one feels, while writing the poem, the exhilaration of flying into the unthinkable (although that overstates it! - I am talking about how it feels), but once the work is in the world and sees success in the form of readers, accolades, influence, etc it becomes merely the thinkable. One then considers that all language is inherently poetic (as you also pointed out), and one can either take the stance of considering poetic practice itself as an extravagance or indulgence, or one can instead embrace its momentary beauty. Artworks, in this sense, are no more significant than wildflowers. They come and go, and are perpetual. But I, for one, would not want to live in a world without wildflowers.

    Finally, I am reminded of how Foucault began 'The Use of Pleasure': "There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all." (this is a few pages into the introduction) Perhaps this need, if we can call it that, motivates both philosopher and poet. In any case, do we know what makes those wildflowers shine? Wittgenstein wrote, "in the sense in which I cannot fail to will, I cannot try to will either."