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Reply to: The Principles of Beginning, by Shaj Mohan

29 January 2023

Reply to: The Principles of Beginning, by Shaj Mohan

“Anastasis of Philosophy” seminar series held at École Normale Supérieure, Paris, Paul-Antoine Miquel, Maël Montévil, Shaj Mohan, and Michel Bitbol; Image credit: Philosophy World Democracy.

A seminar was held on 14 June 2022 in the Salle Simone Weil at ÉNS-Ulm, Paris as a part of the ongoing Anastasis seminar series. Shaj Mohan’s lecture was titled “Principles of Beginning” and, Michel Bitbol and Paul-Antoine Miquel were the respondents. In his text Mohan argued that the very concept of principles in metaphysics derive from the law of identity, which itself is the effect of an attempted resolution of a crisis in thought he calls “the obscure experience”. For philosophy to be seized by another beginning it must remain in the attention of the “obscure experience” while deriving a new theory of faculties which are capable of explaining classical logic itself. Such a philosophical process will gather the resources of metaphysics anew, but under the new principles, to constitute anastasis. In his reponse, Michel Bitbol returns to the history of this process of distancing from the errors of classical metaphysics through the texts and concepts of Kant, Wittgenstein, Bergson, Husserl and Heidegger. Bitbol summons the examination of logos conducted by Heidegger, where it was both the origin of logic and language to argue that the primacy of language, identification and meaning constituted the crisis of metaphysics. To recover from this crisis philosophy should rigorously maintain a relation to the distinctly obscure. The text of Mohan’s lecture is yet to be published although certain themes addressed these can be found in the article “Be Held in the Gaze of the Stone”.

The quest for another beginning of philosophy is conditioned by a regressive path towards its first beginning. This path is to be traveled backwards with a scrupulous attention to the critical moment when an unnoticed twist, an unseen bias, was introduced by the founders of philosophy. And this path must then be traveled forward again, to highlight the possibilities of thought that have been hidden and sometimes made impossible by these options. Such procedure is well-known. It has been used repeatedly during the two last centuries, from Hegel to Derrida, with special mentions for Husserl (in his First Philosophy), and then Heidegger, Schrödinger, or Wittgenstein. But it is fruitful to rehearse such archeological procedure, whenever a new historical situation opens up the space of an unprecedented sensitivity to what was special, or arbitrary, in the choices that were made almost unconsciously at the times of the first beginning of philosophy. 

Our historical situation is arguably exceptional in this respect, for it combines at least two highly uncommon features. 

The first feature is that human technology is not only accelerating its pace; it is creating the conditions of its self-reproduction and self-amplification through Deep Learning artificial intelligence plus robotics and transhumanistic projects. This “self-making” capacity of AI technologies is already having a destabilizing, may be inhibiting, effect on human thought; indeed, to borrow a scathing sentence from Marc Richir, by promoting artificial intelligence, “Human beings think, in order never to think again”. 

The second uncommon feature of our time is to be confronted to the unlivable possibility that the conditions for life fail us on Earth. This is one of the ways for us (perhaps the most concrete way) to understand Shaj Mohan’s reference to the “obscure experience” of being unable to anticipate the withdrawal of our world, when this world is the condition of possibility for living ahead of oneself, namely in permanent anticipation towards an open future.

Our sensitivity is then also exceptional, and I feel many signs of its sharpness in Shaj Mohan’s rich reflection about the first and the new beginning of philosophy. 

So, what are the unseen biases of the first beginning? The most glaring, and probably most decisive, of these biases is shortly evoked by Shaj, but I’d like to expand on it. It’s nothing else and nothing less than the use of language, Logos, as the exclusive medium of expression and transmission. It sounds strange, almost shocking, to call this a “bias” of philosophy as a whole; and it sounds even more strange to think that there was a deliberation about such apparently obvious option. Yet, the early history of philosophy is buzzing of a vibrant debate about the primacy of Logos in philosophy. In his fragment 2, Heraclitus thus prescribes one to follow the common Logos, and to avoid remaining enclosed in singular rumination. He would not have done this prescription if it had been obvious. It was indeed a momentous decision, which did not remain unchallenged in the Greek area. It was especially criticized by Pyrrho, who advocated the Epochè, or suspension of judgment, in order to reach the practical purpose of philosophy which, according to him, was Ataraxia, a silent state of being. Aristotle was also well aware that the hegemonic position of language, judgment, and truth, was a burning issue in philosophy. In the book Gamma of his Metaphysics, he famously invited the heracliteans, sophists, and skeptics to uphold whatever proposition, and then showed that this was enough to trap them immediately in a self-contradiction of their thesis. Or else he invited them to remain silent, may be just moving their finger as Cratylus did, thus banning them from the Agora of discursive debate. This is what Michel Narcy and Barbara Cassin called “the decision of meaning”, which has set the whole history of philosophy on a very particular path.

This is one of the ways for us (perhaps the most concrete way) to understand Shaj Mohan’s reference to the “obscure experience” of being unable to anticipate the withdrawal of our world, when this world is the condition of possibility for living ahead of oneself, namely in permanent anticipation towards an open future.

But how particular is it? Shaj makes the remark, borrowed from Plato, that there is the risk of emphasizing the components of language, such as words or propositions, to the detriment of the living whole of speech. Pondering on substances by focusing attention on substantives (as Wittgenstein warned us) is one form of this original mistake. Transforming philosophy into a logic of propositions, together with their combinations and inferential connection, as analytic philosophy tends to do, is another form of the same mistake. Instead, one should broaden the field of attention to the living whole of speech, which includes its background unformulated presuppositions, and even its own boundaries that open up to the speakers’ life of which it is just an aspect. This is what Merleau-Ponty tried to convey, in the following:

each partial act of expression, as an act common to the whole of the given language, is not limited to expending an expressive power accumulated in the language, but recreates both the power and the language by making us verify in the obviousness of given and received meaning the power that speaking subjects have of going beyond signs toward their meaning. Signs do not simply evoke other signs for us and so on without end, and language is not like a prison we are locked into or a guide we must blindly follow; for what these linguistic gestures mean and gain us such complete access to that we seem to have no further need of them to refer to it finally appears at the intersection of all of them. (1)

By contrast with signs, that follow one another according to a logical grammar, meanings are lived through, they are expressions of an embodied life, they count as steps of lived life, and they can then sometimes break the rules of the logical grammar. Indeed, despite the rules, they bear the mark of the teeming (foissanante) anticipations of the embodied life. According to Merleau-Ponty, 

In me (…) the significative intention (…) is at the moment no more than a determinate gap (vide) to be filled by words—the excess of what I intend to say over what is being said or has already been said. (…) The significations of speech are already ideas in the Kantian sense. (2) 

Just as Kantian ideas, the meanings of discourse are aiming towards future developments, future embodied experiences, beyond the present vocal vibration of their sound. This “going beyond” is the very principle of operation of language, but it is also its major weakness, or at least its unrecognized incompleteness, as we shall now see.  

Martin Heidegger; Image credit: Getty Images
Martin Heidegger; Image credit: Getty Images

This unrecognized incompleteness of the operation of language was forcefully brought about in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. According to its well-known section 6.522, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest”. What cannot be put into words according to Wittgenstein is not only “The Mystical”, but the very meaning of one’s words (unless one is satisfied with the infinite regress of dictionaries); it is also the limits of empirical reality (5.5561), and, last but not least, the partial truth of solipsism (5.62). Let me concentrate on the latter unspeakable truth. Wittgenstein summarizes it by declaring that “The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world” (5.632). When one speaks, one speaks of elements of the manifest world. Trying to overcome this obstacle, trying to speak of what does not belong to the manifest world, immediately triggers misunderstandings. For, what does not belong to the manifest world here means the very limit of this world, namely the manifestation itself as a whole,

Such misunderstandings are glaring in the contemporary debate about the “hard problem” of the physical origin of consciousness. In this debate, many actors behave as flies in a bottle because they don’t realize that their problem is generated by the inherent narrowness of language. Why? Because language means and discriminates. And because both meaning and discrimination are arts to establish boundaries, even when what is tentatively meant is the horizon within which such boundaries are established. 

Meaning is tantamount to displacing attention. It displaces attention from the sound of a word to what it signifies, from the pointed finger to what it aims at showing. Meaning thereby pushes us outwards, towards the future, towards something that is not close at hand. When we use a word for “consciousness”, we are then automatically led astray, because conscious experience is not something over there to be meant in any way. Instead, consciousness is plainly here; this “here” that submerges us; this “here” that is presupposed by any location in space. Trying to mean consciousness is self-defeating, since what is allegedly meant is not beyond the very act of meaning it.

The same holds for the discriminative power of language. How can we discriminate present conscious experience from anything else? At this precise moment of consciousness that contains in it every possible intentional object, as well as the memories of the past and the projects for the future, there is nothing that can be contrasted with conscious experience and discriminated from it.

That present conscious experience is thus unspeakable does not mean that it should be banned from philosophy. Rather the contrary. Philosophy is haunted by it, at every step of its quest. This “unspeakable” pops out like the omnipresent reverse side and precondition of the philosophical Logos

As Shaj Mohan cogently summarizes, “Metaphysics is the style of thinking where a component of the system is taken to be the comprehending law of the whole system”.

For instance, in my recent debate with speculative realism, I have insisted that one must broaden the range of arguments to include not only locutionary but also perlocutionary acts of language in them. My claim is that philosophical arguments address themselves to lived states, to the lived states of those who participate in the argumentative exchanges, beyond the abstract criteria of validity of the arguments. Indeed, philosophers have an additional resource compared to scientists: that of being able to directly modulate the judgment of validity that their interlocutors make on any argument. While the last word of a formal inference process consists of a string of characters, the last word of a philosophical argument is the recipient's approval; it is her propensity to say "yes", it is her experience of persuasion, it is her free consent to transform her vision of the world to make it conform to her new conviction. This supposes to shed light on the lived pre-conditions of the arguments, and to fully acknowledge this tacit background which alone gives them meaning and relevance.

Another example is the status of metaphysics. As Shaj Mohan cogently summarizes, “Metaphysics is the style of thinking where a component of the system is taken to be the comprehending law of the whole system”. In the standard onto-theological determination of metaphysics, some supreme thing is supposed to hold the position of a principle of all things. This being granted, the stasis of metaphysics is not surprising: it goes round in circles within the domain of speakable things, without even visiting its immensely fruitful but unspeakable lived matrix. Even worse, metaphysics contents itself with mimicking a proper handling of speakable things by claiming being for its supreme thing; whereas this supreme thing, the thing-in-itself, the so-called absolute foundation, is nothing more than a reification of some regulative ideal of reason, as Kant rightly pointed out. 

This is why Henri Bergson proposed his own new beginning in 1903, by way of a radical redefinition of metaphysics, that clearly alludes to the unspeakable lived matrix of discourse.

Metaphysics is therefore the science which claims to dispense with symbols


There is at least one reality which we all seize from within, by intuition and not by simple analysis. It is our own person in its flowing through time, the self which endures. (3)

But then, what can be the function of the language and symbols used in this very quoted sentence? Just a perlocutionary function, as in the case of elenctic arguments. Just the function of inviting the readers to experience the unspeakable origin of language for themselves; namely the function of inviting them to drop their ordinary clinging to identity by letting duration unfold.

Henri Bergson; Image credit:
Henri Bergson; Image credit:

So, Bergson’s acceptation of metaphysics sounds like it is no longer underpinned by the law of identity as a fundamental principle. For, by substituting intuition for understanding, Bergson is moving away the very faculty which relies on identity. Let’s hear his criticism of understanding: 

It seems to me that one of its functions was precisely to mask duration. (...) This is perfectly natural, if the intellect is destined first of all to prepare and bear upon our action on things. Our action exerts itself conveniently only on fixed points; fixity is therefore what our intelligence seeks. (4) 

Now, the principle of identity is the most concise expression one can give of fixity; but to realize this, one must examine it carefully, and reflectively. Formulated by Leibniz, the principle of identity is “the statement that a thing is what it is” (5); written shortly, this is symbolized by A=A. This looks like an innocent static, repetitive, tautology, with no relevance on time and duration. But let’s now dig into its manifold presuppositions, even the most elementary, the most trivial so to speak; and let’s go beyond the written to the reading. A, to begin with. A is a letter, a symbol. But is any A symbolically tantamount to any other A? Is the shape of A to count as symbolically the same when it is read under different angles, at different moments? Claiming that it is so is the founding act of written language. And the founding act of written language is to shelter its components from variety and change. Then, by supposing that A is the name of something, this sheltering from change is transferred to the things named, despite their visible alteration. A would be enough to ensure fixity; just its stubborn presence of which nothing more is to be said. Just its stubborn presence that is said to stand for the alleged stubborn presence of the thing whose name it is. Just a stubborn presence, whereas both the thing and its name constantly fluctuate in the attention paid to them. But that’s not all. The principle of identity says A=A. Let’s read it from left to right. A … equals… A. ‘A’ fades away, ‘equals’ comes to the fore, ‘equals’ fades away, another shape, recognized as the symbol ‘A’, emerges. Disappearance and re-cognition. Fading away and emergence. And across this flux, we are asked to accept, against any evidence, that the same is to be seen where there looks to be another. Here, the temporal deployment of the principle of identity as it is read operates as the model, or the archetype, of any negation of duration by our understanding.

If, on the contrary, metaphysics strays from the task of identifying and naming a principle, a supreme thing forever identical among temporarily identical things, if, on the contrary, metaphysics finds itself assigned the task of expressing manifestation in its unfolding, it becomes phenomenology. It looks like this is just old stuff; but it seems to me that, despite the stunning corpus of writing that constitutes the present phenomenological tradition, spreading the phenomenological stance, and agreeing on its consequences for philosophy is still work in progress. 



1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. By Richard C. McCleary, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 81; “Chaque acte partiel d'expression, comme acte commun du tout de la langue, ne se borne pas à dépenser un pouvoir expressif accumulé en elle, mais le recrée et la recrée, en nous faisant vérifier, dans l'évidence du sens donné et reçu, le pouvoir qu'ont les sujets parlants de dépasser les signes vers le sens. Les signes n'évoquent pas seulement pour nous d'autres signes et cela sans fin, le langage n'est pas comme une prison où nous soyons enfermés, ou comme un guide qu'il faudrait suivre aveuglément, puisque, à l'intersection de tous ces gestes linguistiques, apparaît enfin ce qu'ils veulent dire,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Paris, Gallimard, 1960, p. 101.

2. Merleau-Ponty, Signs, p. 89; “The significant intention in me (as well as in the listener who finds it in hearing me) is at the moment, and even if it must then fructify in "thoughts" - only a determined void, to be filled by words, - the excess of what I want to say over what is or what has already been said. This means: a) that the meanings of speech are always ideas in the Kantian sense, the poles of a certain number of convergent acts of expression that magnetize the discourse without being properly given for their account,” Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p. 112.

3. Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics in Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison, New York: The Philosophical Library, 1946, p. 190.

4. « C'est bien ce que nous crûmes apercevoir en étudiant la structure de l'entendement humain. Il nous apparut qu'une de ses fonctions était justement de masquer la durée. (...) Rien de plus naturel, si l'intelligence est destinée surtout à préparer et à éclairer notre action sur les choses. Notre action ne s'exerce commodément que sur des points fixes ; c'est donc la fixité que notre intelligence recherche ». Bergson, The Creative Mind, p. 12.

5. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, edited by Peter Remnant and Jonanthan Bennett, Cambrudge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, Book IV, chapter 7, § 9

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