The Eternal End of Philosophy
1 August 2021
La Punizione della Lussuria (The Punishment of Lust), Giovanni Segantini; Image credit: Wikimedia
Many of us abhor the edifying uses of philosophy because it removes the spring of philosophical lust (as Mohan calls it), which is anything but edifying. The various philosophies - even those not of Greek derivation - do not have any common traits but express what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances". I would, however, try to trace a thread among all these family resemblances, not to skewer them all in the unifying spit of a super-philosophy, but to question ourselves on the implicit task that most philosophies have given themselves. Just as there are many different kinds of music, but every kind of music arouses a certain Lust (in German), whose source is unknown to us, but which we must assume, similarly, what triggers the enjoyment of philosophy for those who are cut out for this enjoyment? Philosophy is born from an ontological wound, from the realization of a discordance within being. As we shall see, this wound (ferita) is then used as a loophole (feritoia) to see beyond Novalis' Heim (home). It is the schizi of good philosophical consciousness: every ambitious philosophy, like Nancy’s, proposes itself as the end of philosophy, yet every philosopher fears, like Nancy, the end of philosophy, he hopes that philosophy will continue, despite the closure that every philosophy promises.
Jean-Luc Nancy's evocation of the end of philosophy - an evocation that I would say is obligated - immediately reveals a paradox, which in turn evokes the paradox intrinsic to philosophical discourse. The paradox is that every great philosophy - every philosophy that does not rely on some extra-philosophical knowledge - proposes itself as the end of philosophy. Every great thinker wants to close, finally, the great philosophical problems. Or at least, those on which he con-cludes, con-closes. Nancy rightly evokes Hegel, whose ambition to put an end to philosophy (an end later renamed by the Kojèvians, modestly, the end of History) is particularly spectacular, since everything that presents itself or will present itself as anti-Hegelian will find a place in the Hegelian dialectic. But we could prove that every great philosophy has the claim to conclude philosophy. It is not like in the sciences, where the solution of problems, of puzzles, opens in turn other problems, in an infinite progression.
But on the other hand - here is the paradox - every philosopher fears, like Nancy, the end of philosophy, he hopes that philosophy will continue, despite the closure that every philosophy promises. It is the schizi of good philosophical consciousness: every ambitious philosophy is conclusive, yet one expects, on the other hand, that philosophy will always rise from its own ashes, like the Phoenix.
Often this closing of philosophy and moving on to something else is taken literally, and one crosses the Rubicon to Praxis. I interpret Marx's memorable sentence, "Until now, philosophers have interpreted the world, today it must be transformed” in this way: philosophy has so far interpreted the world well, especially thanks to the Hegelian fulfilment, and for this reason it is necessary to turn away from philosophy and move to the act, to something else from philosophy... A very old temptation, if we think of Plato's illusion that, having believed to close with The Republic the philosophical discourse, he went to Syracuse to propose the Revolution to the worst tyrants. For many philosophers there is a time of philosophy that, as an intermediate time, stasimus, must give place to other times. It is the anastasis evoked by Mohan, the ascent not to Heaven but to Praxis. Philosophy should annul itself in its own triumph, becoming a Revolution, either of a political kind (Platonism, Rousseauism, Marxism...) or of a religious kind (the incarnation of philosophy in the Church, the leap into faith as in Kierkegaard...) or as metanoia (Stoicism, Nietzsche).
Nancy rightly confides to us his disgust for media philosophers, called on TV to advertise correct thinking to the perplexed masses. It is the edifying use of philosophy, which many of us abhor because it removes the spring of philosophical lust (as Mohan calls it), which is anything but edifying. On the contrary, we think to read in philosophy, even in the apparently most optimistic and proactive philosophies, a tragic matrix. And yet we should remember that for modern pragmatist philosophers - I am thinking of Richard Rorty - the function of philosophy should be precisely edifying. Far from distancing himself from media philosophers, masquerading as wise shepherds of the human flock, the pragmatist philosopher intends to colonize the media in order to make as many people as possible as happy as possible. Philosophy, like any human activity, would have a rule above itself: that of making us happier and happier.
Part of the so-called analytic philosophy identifies philosophical work with the progressive work of the sciences. Rational philosophy would be able to really find definitive solutions to certain philosophical problems, progressively. The price of this newfound respectability of philosophy, however, is the rejection of all other philosophies as pseudo-philosophy, non-philosophy. The illusion of these philosophies that mimic the sciences consists in not seeing that "finding a solution to a philosophical problem".... is itself a philosophical problem, that "solved" is not something given a priori, as if it escaped any philosophical questioning.
I immediately say that I find doubtful the end of philosophy (I am more concerned about the spread of dogmatic and edifying mass philosophies). None of us can be prophets - as a non-Hegelian I do not believe that history has a discernible direction and meaning - but I find it unlikely that the philosophical lust will end as it is unlikely that lusts end, for example, the taste for music or writing. Homo sapiens (unlike so many philosophers, I have no shame in using a biological category like Homo sapiens) discovered music and dance at some point in its evolutionary history, since no other mammal dances and sings. (1) Later it discovered writing, first ideographic then phonetic. I find it difficult that, once invented, music and writing can be forgotten, abandoned. It is true that the Taliban and other fundamentalists tried to erase the pleasure of music from the Muslim world, but I don't think they will succeed in eradicating this need. Ray Bradbury, in Farenheit 451, described a dystopian society in which writing is strictly forbidden, but even there forms of resistance organize.... Thus, once human beings discover or invent pleasures such as philosophical ones, it is difficult for them to wean themselves from them.
here is the paradox, a home from which the philosopher himself periodically discards himself, as he says to himself "what you thought was yours is not your real home!" Philosophy is not only drive to settle down, but also un-heimlich wandering (Irrtum).
One never does philosophy out of a necessity, but always only to enjoy it. This lustig character of philosophy impregnates its very name, philo-, even if Plato had dared more and could have called it erotosofia. For Aristotle, too, philosophizing is a form of philia, of loving friendship. Could human beings renounce the pleasure of philosophizing, like that of music or writing? (2)
The philosophical temptation always emerges, even in café discussions. I was recently talking at a pub with a philosopher friend around the political engagement of young people today, and she said at one point, "Young people today are engaging on ecological goals and concrete injustices, not ideological issues." My friend is not a Marxist, so by "ideological" she didn't mean false consciousness. I quickly pointed out to her that engaging on ecological issues and injustice is still ideological. The exchange ended there, but it could have taken the form of a long Socratic dialogue... She could have told me that by "ideologies" she meant the classic Western ideologies (liberal, socialist, confessional, nationalist) while ecologism is a new kind of ideology. And then I could have asked her if there is something so essentially different between the old ideologies and the newer ones.... In short, one slips into philosophy without realizing it, just as one can make music by absent-mindedly drumming on a wooden table.
Another example. I have a friend, a distinguished physicist, who, unlike most of the greatest scientists of the last century, keeps away from philosophy, which he distrusts. It is a widespread pre-judgment among scientists to think that philosophy is basically just talk since it never provides evidence for what it says. For him philosophy is something mysterious, therefore uncanny, unheimlich. At a certain point he tells me that for him philosophy is like art. I point out that he says "philosophy is like art" and not "art is like philosophy", that is, he tries to understand something that he does not understand (philosophy) starting from something that he thinks he understands (art), that is, he tries to assimilate the incomprehensible to the comprehensible. But then he should try to understand how philosophy is different from art anyway... Here too we could have gone into a long conversation... philosophical, malgré lui.
I believe that the impetus to philosophize - that is, to disturb the common chatter - stems from the feeling that in fact everything that ordinary people say and think, when they talk about politics, moral principles, the meaning of life, etc., is steeped in what I would call popular philosophies, which make up the same common discourse. Nancy deplores the fact that today - but it was also in the past - the term "philosophy" is used disrespectfully, to mean the inspiring principles of anything. For example, I have heard of the "new philosophy of taxation"... But I wonder if philosophy was not born, in Greece, as a deconstructive critique of popular philosophies. Contrary to what Badiou says, according to which there are some (six) anti-philosophers, I would say that all philosophy has an anti-philosophical vocation... It deconstructs popular philosophies in the name of what? In the name of an ethical inclination towards a responsible use of language. The philosopher is someone who does not want to use language, written or oral – others would say: thought - in a sloppy way, he has great respect for it. This is what Heidegger meant, I believe, when he described discourse, das Gerede, as a form of inauthentic existence. And indeed, philosophy struggles against the dissipation of ambiguity and curiosity as well as of chatter.
This deconstruction of common language - that is, of philosophies embodied in common language - presents itself as a constantly renewed, thus potentially infinite need. But how then does this lust of unmasking (bad) philosophies reconcile with the claim of the great philosophies to always somehow close philosophy itself? Here is the double face of every philosopher, who on the one hand always disassembles, and on the other hand always wants, as Novalis wrote, to feel at home: "Philosophy is properly nostalgia (Heimweh), a drive (ein Trieb) to be at home everywhere".
One never does philosophy out of a necessity, but always only to enjoy it. This lustig character of philosophy impregnates its very name, philo-, even if Plato had dared more and could have called it erotosofia.
It is the centripetal, domestic, conclusive face of philosophy, the one that leads one to solve all speculative problems in order to stay quietly at home. But, here is the paradox, a home from which the philosopher himself periodically discards himself, as he says to himself "what you thought was yours is not your real home!" Philosophy is not only drive to settle down, but also un-heimlich wandering (Irrtum).
Thus, as in Waiting for Godot, the philosopher always begins his nostalgia all over again. This in-conclusiveness or non-closeness of philosophy is in the very matrix of the philosophical "game". As Nancy reminded us, in every philosophy there goes a conception of philosophy in general, every philosophy interprets in its own way what philosophy is, because the essence of philosophy is itself a philosophical theme. Philosophers are like players who play intuitively without knowing the rules of what they are doing, and at some point they ask themselves, "but what rules are we playing with?" And maybe they find out that everyone was playing by their own rules. Questioning the rules of chess, for example, is not part of the game of chess, just as questioning the method of science is not doing science. But by questioning the rules that philosophers unknowingly apply (i.e., what every philosopher considers philosophical argumentation), philosophy often leads to what I would call a passion for Great Reforms, particularly a great reform of itself: defining and thus even changing the rules of the game is part of the game itself. In the discursive game of philosophy, its very essence depends on it. Continental philosophy has called this game, this entanglement of metalanguages and object-languages, the hermeneutic circle.
Every philosophy therefore testifies to a new need to do philosophy, and in this sense philosophy always dies too: every new great philosophy ends up changing the very sense of our doing philosophy.
But then, if all this is changeable, is there something in common to all philosophies? When we realize, instinctively, that someone is philosophizing, do we appeal to a common essence among all philosophical discourse?
This is a problem that arises in other fields as well. For example, what are we to regard as religious? The notion of religion has as its prototype in the three great monotheisms, so there is a perplexion whether to attribute the quality of religions to practices such as Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism. Nancy himself, in a private conversation between us later published, preferred to consider these practices not religions but "wisdoms". Yet even in religions considered “proper” there is a promise of wisdom. The very idea of "divine", insofar as for us it connects to transcendent entities of a certain kind, is problematic when we are faced with religions where the divine is fluctuating, uncertain, pervasive, as in Shintoism for example.
Along the lines of Wittgenstein, we could conclude that the various philosophies - so even those not of Greek derivation - do not have any common traits but express what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances". A resembles B, B resembles C, C resembles D, but this does not imply that D resembles A. In the slipping reference of resemblances, all identity of the concepts is lost.
I would, however, try to trace a thread among all these family resemblances, not to skewer them all in the unifying spit of a super-philosophy, but to question ourselves on the implicit task that most philosophies have given themselves. There are many different kinds of music, but there is no doubt that every kind of music arouses a certain pleasure, Lust (German), whose source is unknown to us, but which we must assume. What, in short, triggers the enjoyment of philosophy for those who are cut out for this enjoyment?
I would say that philosophy, at least Western philosophy, is born from an ontological wound, from the realization of a discordance within being. As we shall see, this wound (ferita in Italian) is then used as a loophole (feritoia in Italian) (3) to see beyond Novalis' Heim, beyond our home sweet home.
Certainly, the most popular philosophical figure, which almost everyone knows, is the Platonic myth of the cave. This myth implies, I would say, an inaugural rupture of the Being, of the world, a wound: it is when the suspicion that our concrete experience is illusory is born. The suspicion that we are, as Pindar said, the dream of a shadow. And that the truth is outside the house, outside the Heim, in a blinding elsewhere where one encounters the true light. The figure of light haunts the history of philosophy, and reaches as far as the Heideggerian Lichtung, the clearing into which Licht, light, finally penetrates, passing through the Enlightenment and Nietzsche's solar metaphors. This division, of course, is saturated in Plato: a philosopher is someone who sees real things (ousìa) enlightened; it is possible, in short, to get out of the cave.
I believe that the evolution of philosophy (it does not progress, but it certainly evolves) has gone in the sense of saying that no one, not even philosophers, will ever be able to leave the world of shadows... We must be satisfied to dwell among the shadows, meaning by shadows not only something that we see, but also what we desire and what we love. But we are philosophers when we put our finger on the fact that our world is in any case a world of shadows. Another paradox: we are destined to live only among the shadows of the cave, but at the same time we know that they are only shadows. Here it seems to me that lies the whole Kantian challenge of the division between Ding-an-sich and the objective world of our experience. We take it for granted that there is light somewhere, but we don't see it.
There are some philosophies that invite us to resign ourselves and live as best we can in this world of shadows. Empiricisms tell us that having access to shadows is enough to arrive at truth; pragmatism tells us that truth comes down to utility, that the important thing is to try to be comfortable among the shadows of desire, not break our necks trying to get out of the cave. But even empiricisms and pragmatisms, to the extent that they play the philosophical game, let what they deny shine through. They say "of the coin of our being in the world, it is only the face of the shadows that interests us", but by saying this they imply another face without which there would be no coin (it is that sort of contradiction of every relativism that Plato had already argued in the Theaetetetus). An unknown and yet always supposed face, which also structures our carefree resignation to the world of doxai, of opinions.
Every philosophy therefore testifies to a new need to do philosophy, and in this sense philosophy always dies too: every new great philosophy ends up changing the very sense of our doing philosophy.
Nancy critiques pragmatism, deliberately mixing, I think, philosophical pragmatism (which goes back to the Greeks) with the pragmatic sense of our industrial societies, where the useful takes etho-logical (4) precedence over the contemplation of truths. And in fact, I believe that pragmatism has been the dominant philosophy of the 20th century, of the "American century", not by chance it has thrived in America: that is, objective truth cannot be separated from what we need, our truths are always "needy". On the other hand, we can also read most of the so-called continental thought in a pragmatist key: certainly the first Heidegger and the second Wittgenstein, Marxism (Gramsci's philosophy of praxis), Bergson, Deleuze... The century that is still going on wanted to tell us that, after all, we must try to stay well in the cave. But, thus spurring us on, it admits that... we are in the cave.
In short, empiricism and pragmatism are also offspring of what I would call the original philosophical wound. It is difficult to verbalize it. I would say that it is a splitting in Being that philosophy inaugurates. But this wound is also a feritoia (slit) through which we can intuit things themselves.
Who does not know Zeno's paradoxes? If the foot-fast Achilles does not reach the tortoise, it is because the Eleatic philosophy highlights a disturbing dyscrasia between two dimensions of common thought: on the one hand the space-time continuum, on the other the discrete character of phenomena. The two cannot go together, hence the paradoxes. A perceivable world that seemed rational splits, the perceivable suddenly appears irrational. A revolution. Plato will then focus on the clear division between perceivable and intelligible, and will say that the only true real (ousìa) is intelligible. In Aristotle the ontological division will be between dynamis (being in power) and energheia (being actual): the potentiality is still a form of being, even if not actual. In Descartes the division will be located between what can be certain and what is not, and the world is problematic because it is always uncertain. In Kant the division will be between what we can know and what really is. Heidegger will then explicate the division as an ontological difference, between entities and Being. And we could show that every philosophy presupposes a fundamental division, even when - as, for example, in Hegel - it tries to suture it... to infinity. Philosophy makes Being bizarre because it arises from a fundamental division between being and appearing, between truth and illusion, which it tries to say, to make appear, in the most varied ways.
Somebody thinks that this matrix division of the philosophical urge - but also of the enjoyment of doing philosophy - is a corollary of language, exclusive, it seems, to Homo sapiens. (5) It is possible, but we still have to think enough about language to understand how representing the world produces this rather late by-product that is philosophy.
If philosophy is a way of working out an essential division produced by language in Being, we can then imagine that other forms of life, other "games" produced by language, preceded philosophy, anticipating its challenge.
One might be religion, or rather the sense of the divine or of the sacred. Unlike philosophy, which is a late product (like writing), the sense of the divine seems instead to permeate absolutely every human society known to us. The positivist explanation - that religion is an illusion that serves to make an incomprehensible world comprehensible - certainly cannot satisfy us. In fact, religion, even when it gets stuck in a series of beliefs and myths, has something in common with philosophy: it claims to show something absolute. Both, religion and philosophy, are challenges to language, which, if we are to believe modern linguistics but also linguistic philosophies (first and foremost Wittgenstein's), is always put in relation between words-objects and can never say the thing itself. Every proposition is put into relation that refers back to things that are themselves in relation... Now, even when philosophy affirms this - the relational and relativist nature of language - it makes something absolute, absolutus, derive from every relation. It is as if religion first, and then philosophy (which was born, we might say, in a phase of decline of religious hegemony), took on precisely what remained on this side of the division. It is as if everything we say divides us from the thing itself, and religion and philosophy, in different ways, try to show us the thing itself that is as if removed (verdrängt) by language. By "the thing itself" I mean not only the thing of knowledge, but also the very thing we love, the very thing that moves us... We could show that every great philosophy claims to show us the outside of the cave, even when it renounces coming out of it. Unlike science, which shelters, domesticates (gives an home to), the chaos of the universe, philosophy, precisely while it shelters at the same time it alienates, always indicates what has not been domesticated by language, something unheimlich precisely. Philosophy is always concerned with what it leaves out. It seems to me that this is what Nancy says when he speaks of the allo-, of all that is irreparably other, that resists the linguistic relationship, the reassuring control of sense.
For example, when Nietzsche claims to reveal to us the ultimate truth of things, the Wille zur Macht, at the same time - in a movement that is in some ways contrary - he tells us that everything is Eternal Return... The Will is to want eternally, but what is wanted is nothing other than what happens and repeats itself... We are in a vertigo, the vertigo at the root of all philosophy.
But what drives simple people, who have no tools to follow philosophy, to need to worship a deity, even if they are animals or inanimate objects? Where does this mass respect for figures who seem dedicated to the transcendent - from shaman to philosopher, priest to visionary artist - come from? Why do humans have a certain respect for the madness of the transcendent, which they deride in other ways? Why are humans never satisfied with empirical relationships, with moral relativism ("I only care about what is good in my village!"), with the common sense that is common to savages and industrialized people alike? Is this respect the simple effect of an illusion, of a desire for protection? I don't think so.
I believe that, however confusedly, human beings tend towards the real. And by real, I don't just mean a Kantian unknowable, but all that we are unable to think about and yet insists somewhere, nags at us, and perhaps thinks about us. And since this real, by definition, is that which escapes the grasp of language, it will always incite human beings (few, of course) to try to integrate and think it, thus pushing the real always beyond, always in an elsewhere that the philosophical ratio would like to colonize. In this sense, the sentence by Novalis should be reversed: philosophy is not only Heimweh, but also Sehnsucht, yearning, poignant longing for an elsewhere that will be proposed as such beyond any rational and philosophical drainage of Being.
I will bring two examples of human dedication to the real.
One is when we love someone. Is loving an illusion? When the loved one asks us, "For what reason do you love me?", we may answer, "because you are handsome, you are intelligent, you have a sense of humour, because you give me pleasure..." etc. etc. But all of these lovable traits are relative, i.e., they may disappear. The only correct answer would be "I love you because you are you!" But precisely, who are you? Are you the set of lovable traits for which I love you? In fact, in reality, that's just how it is: love ends, because those lovable traits can fade away. The beloved grows old, becomes befuddled, denies you pleasure, loses a sense of humour... One does not love the other-in-self-and-for-itself, we might say. Yet we feel that as long as we love, it is the other-in-self-and-for-itself that we care about. For whom we might even give our lives: the beloved always turns out to be more important than the lover. We love an other-in-self-and-for-itself that does not exist in our Umwelt, environment, and yet is signalled beyond the horizon of all that is lovable, that is, useful. Love, like philosophy, is wanting to look beyond the horizon: an impossible task, because the horizon can expand, but never disappear. (6) So to love is to enjoy what the beloved offers us in our horizon, but it is also - absurdly - to root all that he offers us, all the beauty and goodness we enjoy, in a beyond the lovable that is inaccessible to us. It is not nostalgia, then, it is poignant yearning for what is not given. And I think philosophy is not something very different.
The illusion of these philosophies that mimic the sciences consists in not seeing that "finding a solution to a philosophical problem".... is itself a philosophical problem, that "solved" is not something given a priori, as if it escaped any philosophical questioning.
Another example is art. I believe that when art touches us - it stings us (punctum) as Roland Barthes said about photography (but this is true of every art form) - it is because it makes us touch something real beyond the objects, even though these may be pleasing in themselves. This is evident in the figurative arts: whether they represent things that are in themselves beautiful and excellent, such as the Parthenon or the Niagara Falls, or whether they represent humble objects, still life, cripples, filthy places, what moves us in art is not the perfect reproduction of the object, but the fact that it seems (and in this lies the whole philosophical problem) to put us in contact with the thing itself, untied from the object that it is for us. The absolute thing, freed from its relation to us. We could also say, as Barthes said of the photographed object, that art really makes us pity the represented thing.
But this contact with the thing itself can also be seen in abstract works, as in music for example. Music is not only beautiful chords. Music gives us pleasure because it puts us in contact with something that cannot be said otherwise, that is expressed in those sounds, in those chords. After all, that's what Mozart meant when he said that the most profound music is that which lies between the notes and behind the notes. We all grasp this something of which the notes, the sounds, are traces, but which is not reduced to those traces. While the figurative art takes us towards the thing beyond the objects it represents to us, the abstract art directly brings out the thing in something that manifests itself as a non-object.
About music, it is said that it is based on the feelings it arouses in us. But all the arts produce feelings in us, and not only the arts, but even philosophy produces feelings in us. It is true that we say that one music is melancholic, and another is allegro, cheerful, but it is not a question of reducing music to the humoral effects it produces in us. If a beautiful melancholic music breaks our heart, and if a beautiful cheerful music urges us to dance, this is due to the fact that music presents (and does not rap-present) melancholy and cheerfulness to us. It does not describe them to us as in an allegory, but it is as if we are in the presence of the melancholy and the cheerfulness themselves. We think (have the illusion?) that we are in touch with the truth of melancholy and cheerfulness.
But then, couldn't we be satisfied with love and art, and mystical contact with the divine, to touch something absolute, something real? Do we need to add to it the lust of philosophy?
Yes, if it is true that all of this is a by-product of language, philosophy challenges the propositional structure of our language. We have said that the proposition is relativistic, and all relativistic conceptions are at bottom based on the irreducibility of the propositional relation. Philosophy, from the beginning, has baffled common discourse because it claims - while using propositional, argumentative language - to say the thing itself, the thing freed from propositional binds. Religions make the absolute thing transpire, trans-propositional, indicating a mana, (7) what has no name, a sort of in-itself-and-for-itself. Philosophy does this through an ontological division: the failure of its saying - which is why philosophy always starts over, eternally - has the effect of showing, of which the immersion in the praxis is only a variant. The strange challenge of philosophy consists in wanting to go through relations, the relative, the propositional, towards the thing itself. That is why Husserl's motto, "going to the things themselves," could be, after all, the motto of all philosophy.
Sergio Benvenuto, 28 July 2021
1. Except for certain species of birds, as is well known. But in them singing is innate, it is an expression of their genome, while Homo sapiens had to invent or discover music.
2. Of course, we also write for practical reasons, to communicate. But soon we used writing to enjoy it. Will it be so easy to give up the pleasure of writing and reading poetry, for example?
3. The Italian feritoia, loophole, slit (especially in Medieval castles) comes etymologically from ferita, wound, cut.
4. Da ethos, the custom, the way of living.
5. Personally, I am not obsessed with anthropogenesis, I am not interested in asserting the absolute uniqueness of human beings in nature. If biology will tell us that many cetaceans or other animals have a form of digital language, so much the better! It is not important to assert that language is the uniqueness of humans, it is important to assert the uniqueness of language in nature.
6. On earth. But we can also go to Mars, the human perspective will always remain terrestrial, tied to the original environment of Homo sapiens.
7. I refer back to what Claude Lévi-Strauss said about mana and other similar notions (like in primitive cultures).