Be held in the gaze of the stone
13 June 2022
Stone Knife, Early Neolithic period, Manchurian Culture; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This is the text of the lecture delivered on the 10th of June at the children’s hospital in St. Denis, a suburb of Paris, where Bernard Stiegler had initiated a project of contributory research which involves philosophers, psychologists, scientists, nurses, and social workers. The lecture considers the concept of “negation” from the point of view of Anastasis. Negation and ‘the nothing’ in metaphysics relies on the law of identity, which renders the world as ahoratos or the unseen. The way to release things and the world from negation and nihilism is to thinking with new faculties which reveal the world as a non-totalisable effervescence. Thus philosophy begins again without metaphysics.
Each language has a distinct way of saying that something is not the case. In French “ne pas” says that something is not. (1) In English “not” does it, as in “this book is not red”. Then, there are other special kinds of negations.
In Greek “Alpha” as a prefix would negate a term under consideration and this convention is called “alpha privative”. For example, the ancient Greek term “aletheia”, which usually means “truth”, is derived through the alpha privative; it is derived through the negation of the term “lethe”, which in this context meant “hidden”. By adding the “a” the term “Lethe” is negated. Then, the negation of the hidden will yield the un-hidden, which we translate and also understand very differently as truth today. The alpha privative was perhaps a short nasal “a” sound, which is present in many languages even now, including the English “un-” and the French “in-”. The meaning of being hidden that is derived from Lethe is still present in the English term “latent”. However, “lethe” has other homological powers, or the powers to give different meanings through its etymologies.
We should look at one more word from Ancient Greek to get an intimate sense of this kind of negation. The word Ahoratos (ἀόρατος) is derived through the operation of the alpha privative on horatos, which means “the seen”. Therefore Ahoratos would mean the un-seen. In this case, the homological powers of the term horao (ὁράω) are perhaps more significant for philosophy than the term “Lethe”. Horao comes from the speculative root *wer-, which could have meant “to watch over”, among the other meanings which come from this root. This meaning of Ahoratos is present in the experience of children who feel that they are the un-seen, some times of their parent, and at other times of their teachers. It indicates the experience of abjection. It shows what was once experienced as being the un-seen of the gods. The terms which derive from this root reveal a family which show us a relation to the world. The English “Will” comes from it, so does the Sanskrit “Vara”, meaning wish or desire. The term “ward”, as in “hospital ward” where the patients are watched over too comes from it. But it also gave rise to the meaning of “to cover” in Pali, and in this sense it relates to “Lethe”. There is another path according to which *wer- gives the meaning of “to raise up” or “to increase”.
When we do pay attention to things and to people they are raised up, or they rise above the cloud of inattention. They come alive. Such coming alive through the raising of care is also the experience of love. Then, the un-raised are most things.
As we looked at the negations of these meanings something interesting appeared, a different relation to the world and to ourselves. If one is not alert to, or if one does not watch over something, it does not appear in vision. (2) That is, the un-watched or the un-cared-for are the most things around us. To be able to attend with care through which alone things, animals, and people are understood intimately. Then, the un-desired or the un-cared-for are most things. When we do pay attention to things and to people they are raised up, or they rise above the cloud of inattention. They come alive. Such coming alive through the raising of care is also the experience of love. Then, the un-raised are most things.
There is something important which we should keep in mind from these examples before we move into the generality of absences or privations. The privation of a meaning can still be another meaning; or, by not being some particular X, a thing is still some other X. This sense is found in our common experience of arithmetic. The absence of the number 10 in the number 18 is still another number. Or, when someone says “it is non-sense” it signifies something distinct, that such a matter should be not be of anyone’s concern.
When we speak of “absence” we think of someone or something not being here, where we would expect it to be present, or where we would wish for it to be present. When we say that “the speaker is absent on the stage”, the meaning is clear. It is in a related sense that we often speak of the absence of someone close to us. We experience absence in the most intimate sense when we miss someone we love.
The family of experiences which includes absence, missing, lack, denial, negation, privation, abjection, contrary and so on is not limitable to a special sign, such as the negative ( “—“ ) or the alpha privative ( “α” ). All these terms say different things; the “denial” of someone is different from the “missing” of someone. Yet, these words form a family. We can call the root concept of all the cases of this family by the term privation. It is a term which exists in French and English, indicating that something which should have been present is absent. Aristotle’s conception of this term meant something similar: That which should have belonged to some X is now absent. The Greek term for such absence of that which should have been present was “steresis”. A certain strand of thinking “the negative” in logic in the history of philosophy comes from the concept of privation.
As it is the case with him (with important exceptions), Aristotle gives the many meanings of privation in The Metaphysics. At the beginning of his consideration of privation, he defines it as, “When something does not have one of the things that it is natural for things to have, even if it would not be natural for the something in question to have it. Example: a plant is said to be deprived of eyes.” (3) While appearing to be clear, the problem of privation exposed by Aristotle is complex. It can mean, as it should mean, that the stone suffers the privation of vision, that the stone is blind. Although, the blindness of the stone is not “logical” for our common sense. We will soon find that the very persistence of “our kind” may rely on the vision which can hold the blindness of the stone.
Usually we do not speak of newborn kittens as blind, although they do not see yet. It is still possible to say that they are deprived of vision. When an adult man cannot see we recognise the total privation of a sense which should have been naturally given to him. But with the stone it appears different. It is not in the nature of, or the concept of, the stone to have anything to do with vision. But we have to watch the stone in a deeper sense, we have to become aware of it in another sense from the functions into which we have been isolating it. For example, the identity of the stone sometimes derives from the function of being the paper weight into which we isolate it. From the point of view of a palaeontologist certain stones are functionally isolated into the identity of a fossil. From the point of view of the children who are playing the stone is functionally isolated into a projectile. Each functional isolation grants the stone a particular identity while depriving it of the other identities. Each time what we take to be the stone is holding out into distinct relations. The stone is already many things.
But what about the proposition The stone is blind? In order to begin to bring our awareness or care into that proposition, we have to merely remember that the stone is prior to all those things which have vision. Without the being of the stone there would not be any vision. It is prior to vision and it is necessitated by vision in two different senses. Temporally the stone precedes vision, or the animals with vision, and in the materiality of the stone the homological powers of the beings with vision resides. For example, the constituents which make up vision in the living includes the protein “opsin”, which in turn is constituted by the elements of the stone. The stone is blind in this sense; the stone, is the necessary prior to the being of vision. Without the stone awaiting for it there would not have been any vision in the world. The blindness of the stone is Ahoratos to us; we are blind to the blindness of the stone. We can come back to the homological powers of the stone soon.
It is only the functional isolation which lasts the duration of the function which gives a transitory experience of identity. From out of this experience we have derived a principle of identity, which makes the un-seen of all the other powers, or the effervescence that is all things, of all the people, and of the world. The principle of identity delivers a condemned world, of Ahoratos.
In logical terms, privation (steresis) is expressed as the negation of an identity. In the operation of subtraction in arithmetic the negation takes away from (or causes steresis in) a number to give another number. In statements it takes the form of “it is not the case that” or “it is not true that”. Symbolically it can be written as “~P”, where “P” stands as a variable for any statement of identity whatsoever and the “~” is the negation. The meaning of negation in logic is given by the statement of identity: A thing is what it is, and nothing else. Symbolically, we write the first part, “a thing is what it is”, as “P = P”. Now, a problem is already evident. There are two Ps here. Positionally, we know that the two Ps are in a relation of to the left/right of, of one another. In other words, identity is as ideal as the line in geometry. That is, any line we draw will have thickness which will make of it, under a lot of care, a rectangle. Further, to express a relation it takes at least two terms, even the relation of identity. Just as there is no ideal line in the world, there is no such thing as identity.
We found it already with the example of the stone. There is never a moment where it is the case that the stone = the stone. The statement “the stone is never the stone” is not to be understood in the way in which the ancient philosopher Heraclitus is often interpreted, which is that everything is changing as time flows; or that, with time things receive passions which make them unequal to themselves in different moments of time. We mean something else; already, here and now, the stone is much more than the stone. The stone is a projectile in a direction, in another direction a fossil, sometimes a paperweight, at other times an ornament, and on occasion they make gardens. It is only the functional isolation which lasts the duration of the function which gives a transitory experience of identity. From out of this experience we have derived a principle of identity, which makes the un-seen of all the other powers, or the effervescence that is all things, of all the people, and of the world. The principle of identity delivers a condemned world, of Ahoratos.
The ancients who formulated what we have received as the classical laws of thought knew better. For this reason, Aristotle would say, “It is not the case that everyone is either good or bad, either just or unjust, but that there is, rather, an intermediate state”. (4) That is, the law of identity is the rare occasion of a judgment of things according to the occasion of a functional isolation. Further, according to the ranges of powers and relations everything is present as a plenitude of intermedia. Here, a thing is understood as the between of many other possible things—a thing means intermedium of things.
There is another culture of thinking “intermedium” differently, which came to philosophy through several religious strands. It considers the world and worldly existence as the imperfect but necessary intermedium which will be exited upon death. The Greek term of intermedium was Metaxu, which was used by Simone Weil to theorise her version of nihilism according to which the value of this world is nothing, beyond which, through death man will gain pure grace—“The world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.” (5) We will soon find that things as intermedia are intermedia to other things.
A thing is intermedium according to different powers or faculties. Let us take the stone again as our example. When we think of carving the stone to make for ourselves a knife, we perceive the homological power of the stone. The stone can also be used to grind spices. However, the knife made of stone has now entered into the family of all the things we use in order to cut. There is a regularity to the instruments of cuttings which is different from the regularity of things which are used for grinding. The power in things to be home for different regularities can be called polynomia. Things gain new regularities through analogies as well. One can use the analogy, or the functional logic, of a cup to twist a large leaf into something which can hold water. This analogical power is carried in the phrase “cupping the palm”.
In each of these changes of regularities, or the incarnations of functions, things assert something essential. Nothing is ever what it is. This assertion is opposed to the principle of conatus of Spinoza. Spinoza said that all things conserve in their own being. In this term, “own being”, we can see the reflection of the law of identity, for which the philosopher provided a drive. If there is a tendency in things it is that they are already tending to be something else, as inter-media. The law of identity is the principle of Ahoratos. That is, in the sense of “a thing is ahoratos if it could be naturally seen but [is] unseen.” (6) It, the law of identity, makes us invisible to the world and the world to us.
Now we can think of negation differently. When a patient is in the caring attention of a nurse, for that moment, the sense of this nurse as a marathon runner, a priest, a gardener, a lover, a reader is suspended. This kind of suspension is logically a negation. In the same way when a stone is in the care of a sculptor, she keeps in suspension all the other regularities possible for this stone. That is, the logical image of a functional isolation can be called negation.
The philosopher who explored the meaning of privation to the limit of his own thought, under the term “nothing”, was Martin Heidegger. He found that “the nothing” was essential for understanding man as the animal destined to think Being, “Without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom.” (7) We should look at the un-seen error in Heidegger to understand the meaning of the attentive raising of all things. Heidegger would enter this error by thinking that the law of thought to be rejected was the law of non-contradiction, while admitting the law of identity. Heidegger entertained the logical possibility of the totality of the world as a thought, while he admitted that such a thought cannot constitute a real experience for finite beings such as we are. Heidegger involved the logical nothing into his thought of Being, “The nothing is the complete negation of the totality of beings.” (8) In its place he found the analogue of the big nothing in the unhomely experience of angst, “In anxiety, we say, ‘one feels unhomely’.” (9) The unhomely experience of anxiety makes things around us, and soon everything, lose their significance. Angst causes a relation of reciprocal repulsion between us and the world for him. We are repelled by things which fall out of functional isolation; things, as they lose functional isolation, and their identity, push us away from them. This experience is analogous to the big nothing, which stands against the totality of the world. Further, Heidegger would go on to say, “the nothing pervades the whole of metaphysics since at the same time it forces us to face the problem of the origin of negation, that is, ultimately, to face up to the decision concerning the legitimacy of the rule of “logic” in metaphysics.” (10) That is, he admits ‘The Nothing’ into philosophy, without questioning its origins or arkhe.
The world admits of no such nothing. Then there is no such thing as nihilism, which is really the theology of the nothing. Or, nihilism is the little fantasy born out of the law of identity.
But we are now wondering what this special nothing, or this ‘big nothing’ is. When a philosopher or a theologian speaks of “the nothing” it is another error which derives from the law of identity, such as with Heidegger. If we accept the law of identity we can think of two different kinds of identity—identity of a thing and the identity of a totality. First, it is the identity of each thing, which is founded on a misunderstanding of things. Now, if we accept that each thing is identical to itself it allows us to think the totality of all such identical things. This totality will also have a distinct logical identity. For example, the totality of all the people and things in this room is identical to itself. Whereas, the totality of all the things and people in the church close by will have its own identity. These two totalities are different from each other.
Now, the world is neither the church nor this room. It is everything that there is. Then the totality of the world, provided we accept the law of identity and the identity of each thing, will be identical only to itself. The opposite of this great identity of the totality of the world is called “The Nothing”. It is in relation to this big nothing that the thought of nihilism takes its stand. Nihilism mistakenly assumes the totality of all things, and for this totality it assigns the value of nothing.
Now, we are of course entering the dangerous terrains of God because the divine order of partition is God, Nothing, World. But is there such a nothing as the theologian and the nihilist believe? But before we get to this big nothing we should think of the common uses of the word “nothing”. We ask someone, “what is troubling you” and they say “nothing”. Of course they do not mean that they are pondering the matter of creation, but that what is occupying their mind is not something very significant. We tell someone “the book is on the table”. They come back and say, “there is nothing on the table”. In this case, “nothing” means the object of our concern, a certain book, is not to be found on the table. We can see in both cases the previous example of the attentiveness of a functional isolation which makes distant the other possibilities of things, and other things in our world. Apart from this experience of these occasions of “the nothing” no other experience of nothing, or negation, is possible. Then, we find something more than Heidegger’s “selfhood” given through “the nothing” in the world which rejects its totalisation and the big nothing. It is the power and responsibility to bring things, or to let everything arise, from the state of Ahoratos.
That is, if things of this world, the words with which we speak of those things, and we ourselves are more than what they are, and if things are effervescent with polynomia, then no totality of the world is conceivable, because totalities presuppose the identity of things. That is, logically and really there is no such thing as the totality of the world. If there is no such totality of the world then there is no such thing as “The Nothing” which is opposed to the totality of the world. The world admits of no such nothing. Then there is no such thing as nihilism, which is really the theology of the nothing. Or, nihilism is the little fantasy born out of the law of identity.
Then, once we find that nihilism is founded on an old error what should philosophy do in this world infected by the virulence of ‘the nothing’? Today this virulent ‘nothing’ appears through the impoverished repetitions of metaphysics, the nullity of social media culture, techno-synthesis of all values as data, the perception of ecological disaster as inevitability, a feeling in politics that it is without a point. Philosophy today is the caring activity of letting things coming over from the state of Ahoratos, by bringing everything into caring attention; or philosophy is the raising of those which are dead in their identities. Above all, in this moment of the crisis of the earth, to be a philosopher is to be the one who is held in the gaze of the stone.
1. The text of the lecture given at the children’s hospital in St. Denis. References have been added for publication.
2. This meaning and the meaning of seeing something for real in the eye of the mind are present in the Greek text of John, “Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen (horao) him, and it is he who speaks to you.’” (John 9: 35-37)
3. 1023a Aristotle, The Metaphysics.
4. 1023a, Aristotle, The Metaphysics.
5. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1952, p. 132.
6. Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Aristotle: Metaphysics 5, Translated by William E. Dooley, Duckworth, London, 1993, p. 105.
7. P 103 Martin Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?”, Basic Writings, Edited by David Farrell Krell, Harper San Francisco, 1993.
8. Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?”, p. 98.
9. Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?”, p. 101.
10. Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?”, p. 108.