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.