“The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”
29 July 2021
SMSMS, Maurizio Bolognini, installation 2000-2006; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
What Heidegger means by the “task of thought” – at least what we can indicate – is this: are we going to stand before the untenable? Or are we going to continue to be satisfied with our poor philosophical autonomy? Or, why not, get it over with, having provided the proof (that nobody asked for) of a superb, majestic and abundant inanity?
This formula (which is not a sentence) comes here enclosed in quotation marks because it is a quote. It is a quote from the title of a lecture Heidegger gave in 1964. It is not one of Heidegger's most often mentioned texts, among other reasons because its first phrase – “the end of philosophy” – ruffles the feathers and even unleashes the fury of those who hear it.
Regardless of any other political-mystical considerations about Heidegger, one readily agrees to be interested in what he wrote about technology, art and even being, but most often refuses to consider the very possibility of talking about the “end of philosophy”. For the vast majority this is about as crude if not grotesque as talking about the “end of breathing” ...as a premise for a “task of apnoea” in which we should discern our future”.
This assumes that philosophy is the only breath of our intellectual and spiritual vitality – and this is precisely what is at stake in the opposition Heidegger poses between “philosophy” and 'thought'.
The question here is not whether “one” philosopher was right to say this or that. Philosophy speaks through all philosophers and if it speaks of its “end”, this carries a philosophical sense. Heidegger looked for this sense even where from philosophy came the signal of an end, of a fulfilment and thus of a new destiny. This was known by Hegel: since Hegel it is always a question of the end of philosophy and another beginning. If one doesn't see that, one doesn't see anything.
However, my purpose in this article is not to comment on Heidegger's thought. I want to limit myself to showing that the expression “the end of philosophy”, first uttered more than half a century ago – but prepared, albeit in very different ways, since Marx, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard as well as since Comte, Russell and Carnap (1) – is not without meaning.
That is what is hard to admit because most people are quick to point out that philosophy, even in its most violent upheavals over the last two centuries, is the very exercise of our humanity, and above all because it can be found everywhere. It is said that there is a Bambara philosophy and there is a philosophy of management whereas it should be said that there is a Bambara thought and an ideology of management. When someone who is presented as a philosopher is made to speak on the radio or television, it announces a discourse that will speak about the state of the world and what should be changed or improved. In a word, a philosophy is a way of representing and evaluating the world.
Generally speaking, in fact, the content of these discourses is already known: violence and injustice are condemned, egoism is condemned, and the common good or being-in-common must be rethought. Sometimes the perspective is more reformist (and thus testifies that it has nothing to change at the bottom of things), sometimes it is more revolutionary (but the very idea of revolution remains that of a transfer of power within the acquired framework of technical super-power – as has been the case since Lenin and Mao). In one way or another, good words are given out about an ideal – a better, more rational humanity, more open to all and to everyone.
It has to be said: we refer to this kind of somnambulistic confidence in an “improvement” (if not in an “emancipation”), thus repeating consciously or not what Kant, Husserl or Sartre said – which we spice up with some more modern spices. I mean, for example, the “subjectivation” from Foucault, the “other” taken from Levinas, the allusive and imprecise uses of Derrida's “différance” or Deleuze's “creation”: we like these philosophical crumbs but we are careful not to tackle their stakes (to which I will return).
Philosophy speaks through all philosophers and if it speaks of its “end” it carries a philosophical sense.
Such is, it must not be denied, the sad state of philosophy today (including often at school and university). It is a self-styled noble version of the reign of opinion – of which perhaps in truth there is no noble version, which is always vulgar and whose vulgarity is now mediatized.
It is not surprising that this leads to an unlimited extension of pragmatism: how does it work? what works best, or least badly? – But who works for what or what works for whom? In view of what this flow of information, invention, commentary? The pragmatist rule answers: “with a view to an ever-increasing functioning and a necessarily desirable increase”. But the real underlying answer is: “in view of technical and financial performance that has no other end than itself”.
A flagrant example of this is the general discussion (outside of countries openly monomaniacal about religio-racial identity) about “multiculturalism” as distinguished from a “secularism” that is difficult to identify. On one side or the other, people are looking for the best way to manage a reality of profound mutation of what is called “culture”, “identity”, “reference points.” Another even more painful example is that of working conditions, which are both changing and getting worse, always benefiting some more and others less, and here again we manage (psycho-sociologically) a situation the final end of which nobody is questioning about.
What is most commonly called “philosophy” today is a mixture of the lukewarm waters of common sense, the desire to do the right thing and a supposed knowledge of the world's mechanisms. While precisely the words “sense”, “good” and “knowledge” are in a state of great precariousness if not brain death.
A tiny sign gives a hint: everywhere in the anglicized world, a doctorate is called a “PhD”, that is, a “doctorate in philosophy”, whether it concerns rare molecules, the ancient history of Kamchatka or cognitive models. “Philosophy” here has a completely outdated sense. It is a pitiful caricature of the old idea of a queen-science or a general regime of knowledge supposedly applicable to snails, to the mechanisms of “subjectivation” or to the idea of “God”.
This is ridiculous, but it reveals how it was possible to let a word spread like ink on a blotter. Now this ink is very dated and for us very obscure: nobody today can think that “Philosophy” envelops all the sciences. But if it is of another order, what is it? Here the answers are mumbling – “reflection”, “critical spirit”, “speculation”, “elucubration” ....
Of course, this is in a sense no more surprising than what happened in French to the word “Monsieur” which originally meant “my lord”. Yet the difference is glaring because “monsieur” corresponds to a real historical shift in the marks of respect and courtesy. As far as philosophy is concerned, it is almost the opposite: the eminent rank of philosophy over all the sciences has been preserved (and basically even over theology, at least when the latter designates a discipline of reflection and analysis and is not used, in a crude manner, as a synonym of “religious confession”). But this eminent rank is unattainable... it floats in the clouds. (2)
In practice, philosophy has become the specialty of non-specialists, of the handlers of ideas and evaluations, each of whom speaks according to his or her own opinion: in fact, philosophy has become the noble name for opinion. But opinion is the judgment of a subjectivity (individual or collective): its source lies in the dispositions, tastes, and tendencies of each individual. “To each his own truth” – but the word "truth" is then defined as... opinion.
But if there is something that created philosophy, it is precisely the question of truth. (3) Not truth as in what corresponds to data – for example, this computer weighs 1950 grams, I can check it on a scale. For a small child, that's already a bit heavy, but we're not talking about the use of the computer by a child or by an adult. We are talking about a system of comparison and measuring instruments.
But the truth that originally concerned philosophy was the question of what “true” can mean if there is no measurement or comparison possible. It is true that the great civilizations that preceded the philosophical turn had perfect mastery of very elaborate instruments and forms of calculation: witness the achievements of the Mayans or the ancient African civilizations, as well as those of the Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Eskimos, Vikings, etc., not to mention all the technical, aesthetic and symbolic achievements of all cultures since the so-called “Paleolithic.” Everywhere and all the time for at least 300,000 years.
For all these cultures, the real (which did not necessarily have to be called that, or any name) was given a cosmic and symbolic order according to which the human condition had (and still has, where these cultures survive) its place, its sense, its destination. Existence was no less difficult: illness, struggle and death were never denied, but the general order could be counted on to give them their place. The pain of being human, and even of being alive, was mixed with the joy of surviving, of procreating: thought did not separate them. And the thoughts of these countless peoples are rich, inventive, subtle.
What opens up the possibility of philosophy is a rupture. This occurs in a certain region of the world. (4) This region, the Eastern Mediterranean, is at a certain point shaken in what was then an important set of empires and palace powers. There has been talk of an invasion by peoples from the western Mediterranean. But very little is known about this upheaval. What is clear, however, is the profound transformation of a world that could be said to have lost its founding order.
Philosophy begins with this question: what if there is no longer any order available – neither sacred, nor social, nor cosmic? The axis or soul of the philosophical answer consists in the necessity of founding an order itself.
This necessity has two aspects: on the one hand, it requires us to discover this world stripped of its attributes; on the other hand, it requires us to justify the approach taken and its results.
But the truth that has originally been the concern of philosophy has been the question of what “true” can mean if there is neither measurement nor comparison possible.
Keeping it very simple (5) we can say: the first requirement invents “nature”, the second invents “reason”. Nothing could be more elementary than this nature/reason pairing. We know it well and it has structured centuries of thought. Today, however, we are scrambling ourselves: are oil, electricity, the possibility of calculation, information, natural or rational realities?
What has guided philosophy, in all its forms, has always been to give reason to nature and to naturalize reason. To give reason: that is to say, to bring to light the principles from which the cosmos, life and, if possible, thought itself proceed. This last point comes back to what I called “naturalizing reason”: understanding that the totality of what exists comes from and accomplishes a purpose. The latter has ceased to be the realization of an order given with the world itself.
The order that we give or discover in the world, we have called “science” or “mastery of forces”, the achievement of a “total man”. Philosophy has deployed a wealth of ingenuity to grasp it: “sufficient reason,” “history of the Spirit,” “return to things themselves,” “Being that is nothing of being.” At the same time, there was “integral materialism,” “revolution of social relations” and now “transhumanism” (the augmentation of man by his own technology). And finally, as already mentioned, pragmatism: let's leave all principles and let’s deal with it (to which one can always ask: why deal with it ???).
This is an ironic – but not only –, cruel – but not only. Not only, since the Primitive Given has lost its prestige of knowledge and manifestation: what is to be known, the sciences know, and what can be discerned is a thick fog.
(Parenthetically: I am not sending all philosophical works to the dump. Far from it! The importance of the great works of the twentieth century, the acuity and depth of their demands are not debatable. They have all contributed to the further exploration of the question of “truth.” But too little attention is paid to this essential fact: they are all – whatever their idiosyncrasies – concerned with the philosopher herself. If we observe them closely, we see that they all deal, through various objects of thought, with the question of philosophy as such. (6) All these philosophers – one could show it on the spot – suffer from what they know is missing without knowing what it is, and especially doubting that it is something identifiable. But the fact that it is lacking, and above all that it is not enough to say “it's lacking, it's like that” (the formula of nihilism), is what matters.
But it is not enough to invent a new philosophy. Innovation, transformation, mutation or revolution were from the outset inherent in what was called “philosophy” (a friend of knowledge of discernment or mastery but not an acquired or established competence). Philosophy has engaged in its own project in a way that could be said to be deliberately infinite. This can be shown in a precise way in every philosophy.
What is incumbent on us – and what philosophers have felt (let us say for simplicity from Hegel onwards) – is to overcome this infinity (7) without gagging it with a dogmatic strap (be it nihilistic or cynical or mystical).
It was necessary to consider the enormous ambivalence of the philosophical enterprise – which includes politics, art, and faith (8) – of what has come to be called “the West.”
The ambivalence is inherent in the term: the West is the sunset. It is therefore both an achievement and an anguish. The West will have been such a powerful machine of accomplishment that it has become the physiological tissue of a planetary, even cosmic, organism. It will have been just as much the anguish of an entire world delivered to its own destruction. It is as if the entire physiology of the planetary organism is constantly developing an auto-immunity that exhausts it.
Colonization is the emblem of this auto-immunity (that is, of this self-poisoning). Stemming from the exponential development of both the desire to appropriate all possible goods and the will to know, colonization broke up the world that it claimed to unify. It was a question of both opening the world to its own knowledge and closing this knowledge to what could exceed it (to the given that would have preceded it without any anteriority – rather as an exteriority, as its most intimate outside).
Yet it is exactly this movement – interested in both the sense of mastery and the sense of knowledge – that animates philosophy. It is not (or no longer) about receiving a given and honouring it. It is about bringing about a new order. It is not about managing a people and its territory but about redefining both, it’s talking about the humanity and the universe.
It is about founding and supporting the foundation. It is necessary to inaugurate and continue – always knowing how to reinvent it - the inauguration until its end.
In this sense, philosophy is different from all the thoughts, wisdoms and meditations of other cultures. Elsewhere, it does not pretend to found but to observe carefully and tirelessly the forces, the tensions at play, the breaths, the inclinations, without claiming to know either their nature or their meaning: such concepts are even displaced here. It may be that there is nothing to know or to accomplish: but everything to welcome, up to the enigma or beginning with it. (In this respect more than one Western thought, in particular mystical, has sometimes at least seemed to converge with this active abandonment).
The major difference is that philosophy does not welcome but undertakes and realises. Realization – of sense, of being, of principles and ends – is the key word of philosophy. This is why it is inseparable from the formidable technogenesis that has generated a new World. The power of the demand to found and grow has become exactly the technical civilization.
Philosophy is essentially anarchist: the motto of anarchy – “neither God nor Master” – can be considered its maxim. But this “neither...nor” in turn demands to be considered for itself.
As is well known, technology came into being with man, and the masterful achievements of all cultures through all ages of mankind need not be recalled. What is new with the West is that technology begins to become its own end. There was a proper motive – of a sacred nature – for the construction of the Pyramids. The Eiffel Tower, on the other hand, is devoted solely to the mastery of steel of which it is the product. In the same way, whatever the aims invoked today for biological or cosmological research, their driving energy lies in the self-development of the capacities for analysis, control and implementation of the programs concerned. (9)
Of course, one cannot deny the incomparable achievements of Western culture. But we must not forget that they are intimately linked to the self-realization that has been at the heart of philosophy (and politics as well as art). We must therefore not ignore the fact that we cannot dissociate the West from this insatiable desire for self-realization, which is precisely what is suffocating the world.
Philosophy immediately embarked on the path that was open to it: how to make a world if all the cosmic, physiological and energetic orders are undermined (and gradually destroyed). It responded with an impressive succession of representations of the world (mathematical, mechanical, historical, pointing out its contradictions or delving into the flesh of things, etc.). These representations expressed various moments of progression in history that philosophy had also given itself as its process of realization. Thus, it became the fulfilment of its knowledge as technoscience, the fulfilment of its duty as humanism and the fulfilment of its desire as globalization. At this point, it is no longer necessary to elaborate representations of the world: the world has become its own representation, it is techno-humano-cosmic autonomy.
This autonomy does indeed realize the end – the aim – and the fulfilment of philosophy, that is to say of the West, that is to say of self-realization (which passes at the same time through the misery, misfortune and destruction of billions of individuals, of whom one wonders who considers them to be human beings, to say nothing of the ecological disasters added to the misfortunes of all). (10)
The realization of philosophy – itself born out of the need for autonomy in a world where there seemed to be no more reference to anything else – is the realization of the reduction of the “other” in general: of the allo irreducible to any identity and even to any comparison. (allo does not co-occur with auto while hetero is correlated with homo).
Now the real is necessarily allo. Just as the stone I hit is outside me, the one I love is outside me; the artist's work is outside me. If there is anything that characterizes the gods of all mythologies, it is that they are not human. Philosophy has always known this allotropy of the real – when it spoke of the “good beyond being” (Plato) or of “unknowable freedom” (Kant) or of the “being that is not” (Heidegger). (11)
But this allotropy – that of the octopus or that of the madman, that of the polymers or that of the kelp – is not the object of knowledge or of power, and this is what we have always forgotten, even though we constantly sense it.
In fact, this is not a forgetfulness: it is a contradiction inscribed in the heart of philosophy. Since it proceeds from the necessity of the auto – “to know, to be able, to want by oneself” – it can only simultaneously recognize and repel the allo in relation to which, however, the auto necessarily determines itself. This is what happens when we want a child to “think for himself”: how can we access this “by himself” without distinguishing it from “by others”? This question, which seems trivial, in fact runs through the whole of philosophy. It can be illustrated by the problem of anarchism: how to form an anarchist without some precepts and obligations.
Philosophy is essentially anarchist: the motto of anarchism – “neither God nor Master” – can be seen as its maxim. But this “neither...nor” in turn demands to be considered for itself. What is the meaning of the negation of that which is in no way determinable and therefore no more denied than affirmed? It could be said that the entire theological series from the Rig Veda to Genesis (12) has devoted extreme care to preserving a certain presence to that which lies below all form, matter or existence – in the neither-nor. In one way or another, it is always a question of a power to speak and, through the word, to make being.
Philosophy grasps this power not as a word (as an address) but as the linking to itself of the logos, that is, of self-sufficiency in effect without god or master. One could say that the culmination of this self-sufficiency is found where Hegel, affirming the inanity of the verb “to be” as a copula, deduces its self-negation and thus the possibility of a first moment.
Being is thus neither being nor nothingness: it relates to itself by denying itself. This is how Hegel's philosophy achieves self-realization. (13) Philosophy fully assumes the neither-nor by identifying it as a mutual and automatic (in sum) self-negation of that which nevertheless opens up in it and to it as the very allotropy or irreducible distension of being. What at this point remains and must remain allo-logy can be said in the words of Tchouang-Tse: “the culminating point of discourse is situated in a mode of expression that would be at once non-silence and non-speech”. (14)
It should not be thought that I am trying to daub Chinese on German in order to obtain a mediation! On the contrary; Hegel's sentences and those of Chuan-tse are untranslatable into each other. This untranslatability between two neither-nors is not a matter of languages. You can go from one to the other indefinitely.
What resists is the irreducible character of the allo. “Neither-nor” must exclude any kind of mediation. Neither a China that we would think of recovering, nor a West that we would think of orientalizing makes any sense here since we are in the same space, on all sides devoid of allotropy or, to put it another way, of the irreducible, the unidentifiable, the unrecognizable.
The major difference is that philosophy does not welcome but undertakes and realizes. Realization – of sens, of being, of principles and ends – is the key word of philosophy.
What Heidegger means by the “task of thought” – at least what we can indicate – is this: are we going to stand in front of the untenable? Or are we going to continue to be satisfied with our poor philosophical autonomy? Or, why not, get it over with, since we have provided the proof (that nobody asked for) of a superb, majestic and abundant inanity?
Jean-Luc Nancy, 11 July 2021
1. This brief list simply recalls a few major names. But it is an epic list.
2. This has been the case, as we know, since Aristophanes, and it's worth thinking about: philosophy has always been mocked as much as it was venerated. Today it is no longer mocked because it has become the lukewarm water I was talking about.
3. Apart from truth versus falsehood, the idea of truth, outside of philosophy, is confused with that of the statement of being, of the presence of the given. The first lines of the Popol Wuh are exemplary: "This is the root of the ancient word of this place called Quiché", new translation https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popol_Vuh. But the oldest translations are also eloquent; it is always 'this is the Quiché (or Quichué) this is the place of origin, originally named by its true name. The truth of this name is the name itself.
4. Other regions experience an analogous, though different, break: Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Ise Shrine in Japan, etc. - Other regions are experiencing a similar, though different, break: Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Ise shrine in Japan, etc., compared to older cultures such as the Maya, the Vedas, Mesopotamia and so many others. Of course, the long and complex transformation of Egypt, which began much earlier, and of the Persian culture must also be taken into account in the Mediterranean world.
5. Too simple, of course, but my aim here is to identify - without simplism - clear lines from which we can return to complexity.
6. No mythology questions its own status.
7. Or this indefiniteness: I cannot stop here on this point, which is certainly important.
8. It is surprising that I do not dwell on the religions of the West, which have played such an important role. This is because they are themselves - in different ways - aspects of the Western and therefore philosophical phenomenon. In particular, Persia, Egypt and Israel played decisive roles in the Western mutation
9. It is true that the current pandemic is giving renewed importance to immediate ends. But it is itself an effect of the development of the technosphere... In the same way, we do not stop advancing in cancer research, but we do not stop spreading cancers either...
10. Although it is right and necessary, it is futile to protest against the exponential wealth of a few since this increase in wealth belongs to the ontological self-development of the Machine.
11. To keep only these examples of what is found in every great philosophy.
12. I do not claim to establish any filiation but there are striking analogies.
13. Of course, it can be shown that this does not satisfy Hegel himself, who for this reason qualifies the relation to itself of being as infinite. This notion of the infinite would require another analysis.
14. Les Œuvres de Maître Tchouang, trad. Jean Lévi, Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2006, p.226.