Throughout its history, philosophy seems particularly prone to three interrelated errors– or perhaps they would be better referred to as “transcendental illusions”? –that it shares with doxa or common sense and that plague thought.
First, in approaching the explanation of phenomena in the world, philosophy perpetually has recourse to the primacy of the Concept, the Form, or Essence, to the detriment of the individual or actually existing entity. Perhaps the most famous example of this primacy is to found in the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology, entitled “Sense-Certainty”. There Hegel begins with the epistemological thesis that all knowledge originates in the immediacy of sense-certainty or the sensible given. Taking this thesis at its word, Hegel goes on to show how our attempt to say the sensible immediate or given always fails insofar as language is only composed of general terms that are unable to grasp the individual given presented within the sensible field. I say that the individual given is this given, here, at this time, yet these same terms can apply indifferently to any number of other objects, such that I am only apply to express the universal, never the individual. The outcome of this contradiction or deadlock within sense-certainty is that Spirit comes to recognize that the individual given was never the object of knowledge, that it is always-already mediated by the universal, and that these universals are the true object of knowledge.
A similar moment occurs in Plato’s Phaedo. Seeking to defend his thesis that knowledge is recollection and therefore hoping to demonstrate that the soul existed prior to birth, Plato evokes our knowledge of the Form of the Equal or the Identical to show that this knowledge could not have been derived from experience.
Now see if this is true, he went on. Do we not believe in the existence of equality– not the equality of pieces of wood or of stones, but something beyond that– equality in the abstract? Shall we say that there is such a thing, or not?
Yes indeed, said Simmias, most emphatically we will.
And do we know what this abstract equality is?
Certainly, he replied.
Where did we get the knowledge of it? Was it not from seeing the equal pieces of wood, and stones, and the like, which we were speaking of just now? Did we not form from them the idea of abstract equality, which is different from them? Or do you think that it is not different? Consider the question in this way. Do not equal pieces of wood and stones appear to us sometimes equal and sometimes unequal, though in fact they remain the same all the time?
Certainly they do.
But did absolute equals ever seem to you to be unequal, or abstract equality to be inequality?
No, never, Socrates.
Then equal things, he said are not the same as abstract equality? No, certainly not, Socrates.
Then we must have had knowledge of equality before we first saw equal things, and perceived that they all strive to be like equality, and all come short of it. (74a – 75a)
If, according to Plato, we must have knowledge of absolute equality prior to knowledge of equal things, then this is because all equal things differ from one another in certain respects. Between two equal pieces of wood, there will always be differences in grain, slight differences in shape, etc. If we approach the issue phenomenologically, attending to the noetic pole of our experience, we will notice that as we move about the pieces of wood observing them, their shape and size undergo variations as a function of perspective, now such that one appears longer than the other, now where one stick of wood disappears behind the other, now with a constantly shifting play of colors like a harliquin’s cloak. In the phenomenological fly of experience, the “erlebnis” of perception, the sticks of wood are encountered as constantly differing not only from each other and constantly differing from themselves.
To see this, it is necessary to think the perceived object as unfolding in time like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Yet if the erlebnis perpetually varies in this way both from the object to which it is compared and in itself, it follows, according to Socrates, that Equality cannot be learned from experience. Rather, I must already have the concept of Equality to recognize things as equal, for the things of the world perpetually differ. Already, in larval form, we encounter the beginnings of transcendental philosophy in this passage. Later, in the Second Meditation, Descartes will repeat precisely this argument with respect to the famous wax, pointing out that the identity of the wax as a substance is something that cannot be drawn from experience or sensation, but requires an act of intellection so as to grasp the identity of the substance beneath its changes.
The outcome of this move is clear. On the one hand, difference is effectively banished from the world and reinscribed in the concept itself. On the one hand, the differences that compose the world themselves contribute nothing to being. The differences between the pieces of wood and in the piece of wood itself are literally no-thing– or nothing for the philosopher, at any rate –but are filtered out in relating to the wood. All that matters is what is invariant. As a result of this move, we get the strange bestiary of philosophical ontology that is led to posit a priori essences, Forms, universals, categories, etc. Why? Because these things cannot be found in the world or experience itself. As Nietzsche will point out later, the world becomes denigrated to mere appearances. Difference is precisely that which philosophy all too often seeks to eradicate. Perhaps it could even be said that the philosophical will par excellence consists in the desire to either eradicate or tame difference in the name of the Same and Identical.
On the other hand, as a result of this decision in favor of Form over the individual in time, being itself now becomes Moral. Having subordinated the individual entity to the Form, all beings now come to be measured in terms of their proximity to the invariance of the Form. In a variety of places Aristotle will speak of monsters and the monstrous. When is it that something appears as a monster? Something is monstrous when it deviates from its proper Form. The platypus is a monster because it the junction of opposed forms. The giant and the dwarf are monsters because they respectively represent and excess and deficiency in the ideal Form of Man. Individual entities are only measured in terms of whether they con-form to the differences inscribed in the self-identical form, such that any differences in the individual outside this form are monstrous.
In short, the differences contributed by the individual entity are only relevant in terms of how proximally they con-form to the differences prescribed by the Form. Anything else will be folly, deviation, and no-thing from the standpoint of onto-morality. This premise will pervade all branches of philosophy, whether we are speaking of “laws of nature”, where violations of these principles are routinely overlooked, or whether we’re talking about moral philosophy where the universality of moral principles demands that everything pertaining to the individual be abolished (Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle). It is not until Kierkegaard, with his passion for the absurd or all that lies outside of the Universal, that the singular and difference will again assert itself– But only in the form of the monstrous (Abraham). Nor is it until Darwin and Complexity Theory that difference will again be awarded its rights. Judging by the practices of our Anglo-American colleagues and their ways of posing questions, these rumblings have not yet been heard by many philosophers. The question with regard to this first error would be that of how it might be possible to accord difference its right, how it might be possible to escape onto-morality or the extrinsic measure of beings, so that being might become self-measuring, self-positing, self-differentiating.
The second great error of philosophy lies in naturalization. A human body explodes and turns into ice if it is released into space. A human body implodes if it descends too deeply into the ocean.
The lesson to learn from these simple and facile observations is that bodies are always framed. Yet all too often the philosophers approach the world as if it were without frames. Practices that result from a history and a genesis are treated as natural and innate. Ways of feeling, ways of experiencing, ways of seeing, are seen as perfectly ordinary and universal. Certain types of enunciations are seen as universal and without any dependence on a context or position of enunciation. The philosopher all too often takes it for granted that the object of knowledge consists of the measurable spatio-temporal properties of objects, overlooking that this way of encountering objects, this aesthetic or givenness to sensibility, itself emerged at a particular point in history, in a particular part of the world. What were the mutations that had to take place for the world to become visible in these terms? Following Bourdieu, what social institutions have to be in place and functioning, for academics to view themselves and their role in the way that they do? Along these lines, in an astonishing chart, Bourdieu will correlate the political stances of academics towards May of 68 with the positions of prestige they occupy with respect to the French university system. The jaw dropping result is that those at the most prestigious institutions also had the most reactionary politics, suggesting that one’s position of enunciation within a social system is determinative of ones politics, not principled intellectual positions (which are, no doubt, retroactively projected onto these positions as rationalizations). Deleuze, in Nietzsche & Philosophy, will argue that all enunciations, even when syntactically and semantically identical, are inhabited by a distribution of forces that determines their sense such that one and the same identical expression can have entirely different senses.
Yet all too often these dimensions of situatedness and genesis are completely occluded in philosophy, naturalizing ways of seeing, forms of practice, affects, and norms of evaluation as natural properties of “human nature”. Rawls, for instance, will propose his “veil of ignorance” as a way of determining justice. Here we are asked by Rawls to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance: we are to imagine that we do not know our gender, or ethnicity, our health, our economic status, our social position, and so on. Under such circumstances, what sorts of institutions would we want in society? The assumption is that the answers to these questions will be universal premised on a ubiquitous human nature that is shared by all and all alike. Yet who is it that thinks of themselves in such unmarked terms? Who is the subject that erases all of these differences? It is precisely that subject that already has power, that moves fluidly through the world, that is free of those marks pertaining to ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Formulations such as those we find in Rawls end up becoming an apologetics for the reigning order by virtue of how they cover over or clothe antagonism, rendering it invisible, and thereby preventing it from speaking. While the philosophers might engage in “transcendental analysis” after the fashion of Kant or Husserl, reflecting on the a priori structures of the transcendental ego, they cover over the historical and social factors that underly their position of enunciation, ignoring, after the fashion of Aristotle, the manner in which this very position of enunciation is dependent on the system of slavery so that the philosopher Aristotle might posit the aims and goals of his moral philosophy as if they were “natural”.
Closely related to this second error is a third error: abstraction. Abstraction, it seems, is the constant enemy of thought and perpetually haunts engagement with the world in its everydayness. Abstraction is not the mathematical notation of category theory that is difficult for the ordinary person to understand. Rather, abstraction lies in that mode of comportment towards the world that approaches the objects comported towards in isolation from their horizon or background. Thus, drawing on Hegel’s example, we hear tell of a man who robbed a store and, if we think abstractly, we judge the man as an intrinsically immoral man without attending to the horizon under which this action was committed. That is, we treat the action and the man as discrete entities and events hanging in a vacuum without investigating the context or milieu in which this action took place. Or again, noting the decline in school performance among students in the United States, we judge that students must have become stupid or teachers must be incompetent, without raising questions as to how the developmental milieu in which the development of cognition takes place in children might have changed in the last twenty years. Or perhaps we are zoo keepers and we receive a new polar bear that soon dies in its cage. We investigate the dead body of the polar bear, cutting it open, looking at its cells under the microscope, thoroughly baffled as to why it died, all the while forgetting that polar bears exist in a particular milieu or field that was absent in the zoo’s cage.
Essentialism, naturalization, and abstraction form the three figures of Identity and onto-morality, each grounding itself in a specific form of spatio-temporal relations that occlude difference. Each is a figure of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. The question is that of what it would mean to depart from these figures, to articulate an ontology that moves not from the abstract to the individual, losing the individual in the process, but from the individual to the abstract.