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Descartes argument “the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind,” often paraphrased “I think, therefore I am,” has room for two separate interpretations, both of them profoundly different. The standard narrative (at least with the post-structuralists I hang out with) is that this argument is definitive proof that Descartes “held that there is an isolated and unified ego that exists prior to interaction with the world” (to paraphrase myself in my more careless moments). But this doesn’t necessarily follow from the text:

“But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No. If I convinced myself of something [or thought anything at all] then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”

The argument “I think, therefore I am” can mean one of two things depending on what type of “therefore” you think is being used here. It is either a “therefore” of inference or causality. If it is a therefore of inference then we are led to adopt the standard narrative. It would read “I think, therefore I am” as a simplification of the larger statement “I have evidence that I think, therefore I can infer that I am, because being is a necessary precondition of thinking.” This assumes a metaphysics whereby thinking things exist prior to their thinking, and their thoughts are residual evidence by which we can prove that, independent of their thoughts, they exist. Since thoughts (broadly defined) are the way that we interact with the world, and this inferential reading assumes that the ego exists prior to its thoughts, it necessarily follows that the ego exists prior to its world. The being of subjectivity in this sense is of static existence. Hence the standard picture of Descartes.

There is a second reading of this argument, however, the “therefore” of causality. This reading has the cogito standing in for the longer statement “I think, therefore I am caused to be.” In other words, every act of thinking creates subjectivity itself. In this sense, activity is prior to identity (or, if you like, existence is prior to essence), and since thinking requires interacting with the stuff of the world (if we bracket, what is no small bracketing, Descartes claims about innate ideas of mathematics and theology), worldliness is prior to subjectivity. The being of subjectivity in this sense if an activity.  In this sense, Descartes is doing something very similar to what Heidegger is credited with doing (as a correction of Descartes!) many centuries later.

It seems to me that the text of the Meditations doesn’t give us sufficient evidence to choose between these two readings. Though there may perhaps be evidence in the rest of Descartes’ corpus let us suppose that there is not. How are we to choose between these two readings? It seems to me that the quest to get at what philosopher’s “really meant” is, after a certain stretch, misguided. We can treat philosohpy in one of two ways: either as the timeless set of arguments of isolated geniuses, or as the story of how we came to understand ourselves as we do today, represented by philosophers who both captured a particular way that we understood ourselves at a given time, and inspired a new way of understanding ourselves for a period of time. It is undeniable that, even if Descartes wasn’t a Cartesian in the pejorative sense, his role in the history of philosophy must be. It must be because the story we tell ourselves was built around that misunderstanding for so many years, because many of us believed this false reading, and because the arguments of philosophers that followed were structured around this coordinate. If Heidegger and Wittgenstein were responding to a claim Descartes never made, even one no philosopher ever defended, I honestly don’t care much, because it’s an idea we, as non-philosophers, took seriously for quite some time during Modernity, and one that had tangible cultural, political, and psychological consequences. To forget that is to forget that philosohpy is about real ideas operating in the real world. It’s about real conversations that non-philosophers are having all the time. It is to forget that philosophy takes place in the ivory tower, but in the agora.


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I’ve recently reread the segment from The Brothers Karamazov on Ivan’s rebellion. This time I was struck by the reasons Ivan gives for his rebellion, reasons that help identify the anxieties I have had of late in settling between two competing conceptions of justice: Rawlsian liberalism and postmodern socialism (I have in mind Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy).

First it must be said that the philosophical distance between these two perspectives if often exaggerated. Both take as their starting points the irreducible plurality of separate worldviews and conceptions of the good life, denying that any of these conceptions is privileged over the other. Both place the “right” prior to and independent of the “good,” situating their most primordial moral commitments around the inviolable respect owed to various subject positions (Kant on the one hand, Lyotard on the other). Both then seek to articulate a political vocabulary which promises freedom, but does so without recourse to any privileged conception of the good life (Rawls’s “overlapping consensus” and Laclau and Mouffe’s “empty signifier”). Leftists cannot claim that Rawls is too particularist, since for him the subject of justice is the basic structure of society. They also cannot claim that he is too inegalitarian, since the difference principle minimizes the amount of inequality in stages in accordance with the availability of goods, similar to Marx’s transition from socialism to communism in The Critique of the Gotha Program. Both ultimately espouse a democratically controlled socialist economy.

There is also an overlap in their intellectual indebtedness. Though Rawls demonstrates in his later work serious concern for problems of ideology, and of material inequality throughout, his allegiance is ultimately to the narrative of liberalism. For Laclau and Mouffe, what is often overlooked, is that their qualified allegiance to the Marxist tradition (“post-Marxist”) contrasts with, not a qualified endorsement of liberalism, but an exaggerated one:

“It is not liberalism as such which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfill his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever. But if this dimension of liberty is constitutive of every democratic and emancipatory project, it should not lead us, in reaction to certain ‘holistic’ excesses, to return purely and simply to the defense of ‘bourgeois’ individualism. What is involved is the production of another individual, an individual who is no longer constructed out of the matrix of possessive individualism. The idea of ‘natural’ rights prior to society – and, indeed, the whole of the false dichotomy individual/society – should be abandoned, and replaced by another manner of posing the problem of rights.”

“The task of the Left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology, but on the contrary, to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy.”

All this suggests a deep affinity between the two approaches. Wherein lies the difference? The most fundamental difference seems to be this: Rawls advocates a neutral political vocabulary, divorced from conceptions of the good life, and built solely on the necessary conditions of social cooperation over time. Laclau and Mouffe refuse this neutral vocabulary, and claim that political discourse must remain irreducibly antagonistic, making its claims not from neutral vocabulary, but from the irreducible conflict of conceptions of the good life. The hegemonic front and the empty signifier it seems are a way of allowing these comprehensive claims to be articulated from the Left without privileging one subject position or antagonism over another. In short, where Rawls is a deontologist through and through, Laclau and Mouffe seem to be claiming that, though in the way we treat people the right is prior to the good, the way we articulate political demands must always come from the good. While Rawls is Kantian, Laclau and Mouffe derive our moral commitments from Kant, and our prescriptive politics from Aristotle. This seems to me to be the fundamental difference. (If this is too hokey for you, I would be comfortable provisionally saying that Rawls is Kantian through and through, and Laclau and Mouffe are Aristotelian through and through).

The question, then, is why? Why refuse claims to a neutral vocabulary? Laclau and Mouffe (and Zizek for that matter) appeal to Lacanian insights to demonstrate that liberal forms of articulation are helplessly subsumed by the ideological buttressing of the political imaginary, and end up supporting the very ideological framework they sought to critique. These critiques seem to be applicable only to early British liberalism, neo-Liberalism, and libertarianism. But the worrisome ideological domestication by the Symbolic framework cannot be operated upon Rawls’s demands without producing substantive results, since, because Rawls’s subject is not individual pieces of legislation but the basic structure itself, the Symbolic structure cannot claim to have ‘satisfied’ Rawls’s demands until the basic structure itself is radically revolutionized.

If Laclau and Mouffe’s critiques cannot be made from within the Liberal logic, perhaps they come from outside. Though they share a desire to fully respect different comprehensive doctrines, it seems that Rawls and Laclau and Mouffe have fundamentally and irreducibly different conceptions of what this respect entails. Here I think it is valuable to consult another critic of Rawls’s who advocates for an Aristotelean political vocabulary, one in which our political demands are voiced from within our conceptions of the good, Michael Sandel. In his famous “Justice” course, Sandel claims

“If we are going to think about our disagreements about morality and religion as bound up with our disagreements about justice, how are we every going to find our way to a society that accords respect to fellow citizens with whom we disagree? It depends, I think, on which conception of respect one accepts. On the liberal conception, to respect our fellow citizens moral and religious convictions, is, so to speak, to ignore them for political purposes; to rise above, to abstract from or to set aside, those moral and religious convictions; to leave them undisturbed, to carry on our political debate without reference to them.

But that isn’t the only way, or perhaps even the most plausible way, of understanding the mutual respect on which democratic life depends. There is a different conception of respect, according to which we respect our fellow citizens not by ignoring but by engaging them. By attending to them. Sometimes by challenging and contesting them. Sometimes by listening to and learning from them. Now there is no guarantee that a politics of moral and religious attention and engagement will lead in any given case to agreement. There is no guarantee it will lead even to appreciation for the moral and religious convictions of others. It is always possible, after all, that learning more about a moral or religious doctrine will lead us to like it less. But the respect of deliberation and engagement seems to me a more adequate and a suitable ideal for a pluralist society. And to the extent that our moral and religious disagreements reflect some ultimate plurality of human goods, a politics of moral engagement will better enable us, so it seems to me, to appreciate the distinctive goods our different lives express.”

It is obvious that Rawls holds the former and Laclau and Mouffe hold the latter conception of respect. But note that this is not a counterargument to liberal respect, it is an appeal to a more profound and psychologically satisfying alternative. I think the important implicit conclusion here is this: Sandel, and I think Laclau and Mouffe, do not deny that Rawls’ method will work, they do not deny that in a Rawlsian society those who suffered under laissez-faire capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia and racism will live flourishing and fulfilling lives. They do not deny that we would live in harmony. What they deny is that such a procedural framework is fit to bring psychological justice to their suffering, to bare witness to the cries of the oppressed, to look the leper in the eye and embrace him. It is not a logical condemnation, it is an aesthetic one, and I mean that in the profoundest sense of the term.

Here is where I think Dostoevsky is so valuable. Is not the “harmony” Ivan refuses analogous to the liberal harmony that Laclau, Mouffe, and Sandel refuse?

“Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“It is not Liberalism that I don’t accept” Laclau and Mouffe might say, “only I most respectfully return Rawls the ticket.” His type of harmony cannot affirm our pain. Indeed, it cannot truly recognize pain at all, only lack and debt. When women tell their versions of stories in the face of millennia of patriarchy, when the tears of the descendents of African American slaves mourn for the nameless forgotten millions, when the children of the world go to bed without fear of hunger, or death, or rape, when justice burns forth like a tidal wave of protean fire, it cannot, it will not, be because a procedural government framework has evened out the scales of advantage and disadvantage, has calculated adjustments in basic goods to amend for past errors. Why? Because the suffering could not bare it. I could not bare it.

“Boy: What am I to tell Mr. Godot, Sir?

Vladimir: Tell him…(he hesitates)…tell him you saw me and that…(he hesitates)…that you saw me. (Pause. Vladimir advances, the boy recoils. Vladimir halts, the Boy halts. With sudden violence.) You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”

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I’ve been rereading Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” and I’m surprised how compatible it is with Lacan’s aesthetics, for better or for worse. For example, consider this passage from the Heidegger…

“The world is the self-disclosing openness of the broad paths of the simple and essential decisions in the destiny of an historical people. The earth is the spontaneous forthcoming of that which is continually self-secluding and to that extent sheltering and concealing. World and earth are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The world grounds itself on the earth, and earth juts through the world. But the relation between the world and earth does not wither away into the empty unity of opposites unconcerned with one another. The world, in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there.”

Now translated into Lacanese…

“The Symbolic is the self-disclosing openness of the broad paths of the simple and essential decisions in the destiny of an historical people. The Real is the spontaneous forthcoming of that which is continually self-secluding and to that extent sheltering and concealing. Symbolic and Real are essentially different from one another and yet are never separated. The Symbolic grounds itself on the Real, and Real juts through the Symbolic. But the relation between the Symbolic and Real does not wither away into the empty unity of opposites unconcerned with one another. The Symbolic, in resting upon the Real, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The Real, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the Symbolic into itself and keep it there.”

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“Dasein does not, proximally and for the most part, have any explicit or even any theoretical knowledge of the fact that it has been delivered over to its death, and that death thus belongs to Being-in-the-world. Thrownness into death reveals itself to Dasein in a more primordial and impressive manner in that state-of-mind which we have called “anxiety”. Anxiety in the face of death is anxiety ‘in the face of’ that potentiality-for-Being which is one’s ownmost, non-relational, and not to be outstripped. That in the face of which one has anxiety is Being-in-the-world itself. That about which one has this anxiety is simply Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being. Anxiety in the face of death must not be confused with fear in the face of one’s demise. This anxiety is not an accidental or random mood of ‘weakness’ in some individual; but, as a basic state-of-mind of Dasein”.     –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 295.

“In the face of its thrownness Dasein flees to the relief which comes with the supposed freedom of the they-self. This fleeing has been described as a fleeing in the face of the uncanninness which is basically determinative for the individualized Being-in-the-world. Uncanniness reveals itself authentically in the basic state-of-mind of anxiety; and, as the most elemental way in which thrown Dasein is disclosed, it puts Dasein’s Being-in-the-world face to face with the “nothing” of the world; in the face of this “nothing” Dasein is anxious with anxiety about its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?”    –Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 321.

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?

What if this Dasein, which finds itself in the very depths of uncanniness, should be the caller of the call of conscience?

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“It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything — they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything — they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

I am tempted to extend this argument and say this:

“It is said that Kant’s is a religion of joy and Nietzsche’s of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Kantianism is pure sorrow and Nietzscheanism pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided…”

The narrative I often use to describe Enlightenment rationalists is that they just don’t have the ovaries to overcome their fear and really find out how meaningless the universe is. They don’t realize, I would say (and have said in my blog post “Tickle My Inclinations”) how the Kantian moral framework reduces the extent of authentic life activity to a set of pathological goose bumps. I usually claim that it took Nietzsche, Heidegger, and friends to point of how this was the final nail in the coffin sealing the Death of God. But perhaps it is the opposite. Perhaps it is the Kantian who not only recognizes the meaninglessness of the universe, but unlike Nietzsche, takes it one step forward and just doesn’t invent some hokey and problematic “ethics of authenticity” to supplement the story. In this formulation, the emo points that judge every continental philosophy department undergraduate pissing contest go to the Kantian.

I doubt it though…

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“What is the postmodern? …It is undoubtedly part of the modern” — Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

Postmodern epistemology is Nietzsche’s. Postmodern ethics is Nietzsche plus Kant. Postmodern ethics is a universality that refuses universality. In that sense, postmodern ethics is both necessary and impossible. Postmodern ethics is the internal rupture of the Modern. It is its essence; it is its excess. It is sublime; it is domestic. It is atheological; it is messianic.

“Can one conceive an atheological heritage of the messianic?” –Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx.

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“The triumph of love entails a kind of “mental work” that—by overriding shame, disgust, horror, or pain—could be identified as specifically queer, because this work consists in struggling against the affect-laden social norms regulated by sexuality. Queer politics involves not only the negative effort to resist norms, but also the positive work of intense, almost superhuman loving.”

–Tim Dean, “Lacan Meets Queer Theory.” in Perversion: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. ed. Nobus, Downing.

“Last week we went to the museum. A whole whale is hanging from the ceiling. Bigger than big! OK, have you seen a Volkswagen car that’s like a bug? Um huh, you know what I’m talking about. That’s how big the heart of a blue whale is. I know it’s not possible, but if that heart in me could I love more? Ms Rain, Rita, Abdul”

Push by Sapphire.

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