I mean this in a good way. No, really, I’m serious. If there’s a splendor, a greatness, to philosophy and theory, then it lies in its emptiness. If there’s an emptiness to philosophy, this lies in its utter absence of a content that would be its own and abide throughout history. Philosophy is like a Lacanian analyst, something devoid of abiding content, and all of you know how nifty I think Lacanian analysts are.
Oh sure, there are philosophy textbooks that claim philosophy has a content uniquely its own. “What is the ultimate nature of reality?” “What is knowledge?” “Does knowledge exist?” “What are we?” “What ought we to do?” “What is the ground by which we distinguish the difference between right and wrong?” These textbooks like to say that there are perennial questions of philosophy that abide throughout history; questions that are unique to philosophy. Maybe. Yet my sense is that philosophers who talk in this way confuse grammar with history. The fact that a question might grammatically have the same structure for both Plato and Brandom, does not entail that historically they are they same question.
Consider two roommates and two lovers. In both questions we can have a question that has the same grammatical or formal structure, but which have an entirely different meaning. For example, a person might ask his roommate “did you bring me chocolate?”, after she returns from the store. Here the question is perfectly literal and is entirely about chocolate. “I asked you to pick up some chocolate at the store, did you get it?” Ah, but when a lover asks his beloved “did you bring me chocolate?” the question isn’t about chocolate at all. Perhaps the have a secret and inside joke about chocolate and the significance of chocolate. Perhaps the bringing of chocolate is a secret ritual whose meaning only they know. Perhaps they refer to each other as “chocolate” as in “you are my chocolate, my sweets!” The grammatical structure of the question is the same in both cases, but the meaning is entirely different. So perhaps we can concede that there are perennial questions of philosophy– let us call them questions of the Real in the Lacanian sense –but only on the condition that we understand that like philosophy, we understand these questions to be empty. If these questions are empty, then it would be because they have no abiding historical content. In this respect, unlike the sciences, there would be no progress in philosophy. It’s not as if McDowell or Kant make progress over Plato and Descartes. I’ll get to why this is so in a moment.
It’s not unusual for philosophers to misunderstand themselves and their own labor. Who knows, this misunderstanding might even be essential to philosophical thought. To hear philosophers tell it, they are either functioning as a foundational discipline that outlines the conditions of knowledge that all other disciplines and practices must obey to be legitimate, or that they are talking about the fundamental nature of reality that science can never know, or that they are outlining the proper rules of methodology. The funny thing is that no one ever listens. Scientists, for example, do just fine defining the epistemological and methodological requirements of their work and their eyes grow glassy whenever they are lectured by the philosopher about knowledge. No doubt they grow deaf to the scoldings of philosophers regarding knowledge because philosophers never bother to acquaint themselves with the concrete exigencies of research in other disciplines and how those exigencies– those features of the Real of the object of investigation –dictate epistemologies and methodologies proper to those fields of investigation. As for tiresome attitudes that philosophy knows being in a way that cannot be known to any other discipline, we often find that this being they speak of turns out to be a black cow at midnight in an unlit cow. That is, it turns out to be something that even the philosopher cannot speak of. At any rate, with these pictures of philosophers proffered by philosophers, it’s hard to escape the impression that they’re more a desperate attempt to save ones job by asserting dependence of all other disciplines upon it, rather than anything genuinely reflective of what philosophy actually does.
I would be inclined to say that these attitudes are harmless, even if irritating and tiresome, were it not for the fact that when taken seriously they have a tendency to kill philosophy. Generally when these attitudes are adopted, philosophy is transformed into its ultimate enemy, scholasticism, where philosophers, modelling themselves on the sciences, end up producing a discourse that only addresses other philosophers about issues that are of no consequence to anyone else. It is not the sophist, nor the troll, that is the ultimate enemy of philosophy. No, trolls and sophists are indispensable to philosophy, as irritating as they can be. If trolls and sophists are indispensable to philosophy, then its because they perpetually undermine the pretensions of scholastics and dogmatists, and reveal the contingency of philosophical decisions, the possibility of alternatives, that philosophical discourse, when functioning as a Royal or State discourse, perpetually strives to repress within itself. The greatest enemy of philosophy is not the troll or sophist– and you can always discern the will or desire embodied in a thinker by how he responds to trolls and sophists (and I’m not referring to whether he gets irritated, but to whether he responds at all, over time, conceptually and through theoretical invention) –is the scholastic. Philosophical encounters will always be characterized by heated affects of all kinds. The measure of whether one is a philosopher or a scholastic lies not in whether there is a passionate affect, but in whether the thought opens itself to becoming and conceptual invention when encountering the troll and sophist. By contrast, wherever the scholastic has reigned, whether during the Middle Ages, or in the halls of phenomenology conferences, or among historicist/hermeneuticists, or in a certain period of Anglo-American analytic thought, philosophy has been dead. The dream of the scholastic has always been the professionalization of philosophy around a set of institutionally delineated norms of discourse, concepts, rules, and questions. Yet this is impossible because philosophy is empty. I confess, my remarks about scholastics are somewhat hyperbolic as scholastics sometimes, despite themselves, manage to say something interesting and valuable, but generally they are a plastic bag around the head of philosophy.
It’s important to learn to listen to philosophy analytically or like a Lacanian analyst. The analyst is someone adept at distinguishing between “ego-discourse” or how someone describes and reflects herself at the level of the Imaginary– “Doc, I’m the kind of person that believes x and does y!” –and the discourse of the subject or the speech of the unconscious manifested in dreams, jokes, bungled actions, slips of the tongue, contradictions, and so on. Meta-text or how a text understands what it’s doing, and text or what a text actually does. Like anything else, philosophy has its ego or how it conceptualizes itself and its subject or what it actually does. At the level of its ego-discourse, it takes itself to be a foundation and legislator for all other disciplines and practices. Philosophy conceives itself as coming before (logically, not temporally) all of the other disciplines and practices. However, at the level of the subject, philosophy always comes after (logically, not temporally) everything else. “The Owl of Minerva only flies at dusk.”
Pause: For a long time, philosophy didn’t exist. There was no philosophy for Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and so on. For these thinkers, there was just “knowledge”. There was nothing specific about philosophy that could be distinguished from knowledge in general. Descartes and Leibniz, for example, certainly did not conceive themselves as “philosophers”. Descartes, no doubt, conceived himself as a soldier and a person that studied mathematics, optics, problems in physics, physiology, anatomy, and so on. Leibniz probably thought of himself as a diplomat, a historian, a mathematician, an engineer, etc. We speak anachronistically when we describe them as philosophers, and we probably don’t understand them all that well when we put works like the Meditations, Principles of Philosophy, or Monadology at the heart of their work. These works, I suspect, were panoptic visions of what they were up to in their other work and were there to address certain questions about methodology and knowledge that they faced in their other work. For example, the Meditations was probably a response to the Catholic church and the post-reformation wars that waged during the 30 Year War. It was perhaps a way for Descartes to save his hide. He needed an argument to show that his work was no threat to Catholicism and that it actually followed from God’s nature. It was– as in the case of all the epistemological works of the 17th and 18th century, a social and political intervention necessitated by mutations that had taken place in religion as a result of the Reformation, the deterritorializing effects of emerging capitalism, and the rise of the new science that broke from that of Aristotle and the Scholastics.
Philosophy really doesn’t come into its own until the 19th century with the rise of the modern university or academy. In a lot of ways, the emergence of philosophy as adiscipline is a bit like Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As we all know, “metaphysics” literally translates as “after the physics”. When the librarians were trying to put together Aristotle’s lectures, they came across a set of discourses that seemed related to those in the Physics, but that were also different. Unsure of how to categorize them, they bundled them together and called them “metaphysics” or those books that came after the books of the physics. In a lot of ways, Aristotle’sMetaphysics is a sort of remainder. It’s a set of questions and meditations defined less by what they are, but rather by not being classifiable with any of the other books.
Well this is how it was with philosophy. By the 19th century, the sciences– originally called “natural philosophy” –had come into their own as independent fields of knowledge. Increasingly they were usurping questions that had traditionally belonged to philosophy. Moreover, this wasn’t just restricted to physics and astronomy. Biology, medicine, physiology, chemistry, and psychology were beginning to come into their own as rigorous disciplines. Philosophy was losing more and more of its territory. The emergence of philosophy as a discipline was like Aristotle’s Metaphysics: It was a set of questions and meditations that 1) didn’t fit with any of the other disciplines, and 2) where we weren’t even sure that it really had a subject matter or whether it was a discipline at all. As philosophy becomes aware of its emptiness, crisis sets in. “What are we? Are we anything at all?”, the philosophers cried. There were a variety of responses to this. One response, seen later in phenomenology and the Vienna Circle, was to treat philosophy as foundational to all other disciplines. We might call this response a strategy of denial based on narcissistic over-compensation. Here philosophy could draw the enjoyment of presenting itself as the legislator of all other disciplines and of having a superior knowledge to that found in all other disciplines. It didn’t bother philosophers too much that no one else listened to them. They could smugly say that all the other disciplines are trapped in the illusions of the natural attitude or naive realism or whatnot; that they had genuine insight and understanding. Another strategy, among those that didn’t want philosophy to be a handmaiden of the sciences that follows along after them providing epistemological grounds as in the case of Husserl or the logical positivists, was to say that philosophy had a specific knowledge of something– we know not what –found in no other discipline. Sadly philosophers who adopt this strategy never seem capable of telling us just what this thing is. Yet another strategy was to draw a hardline distinction– like that of Gould’s “twin magisteria“, that would protect philosophy from incursions by the sciences. This strategy authorized philosophers to safely ignore developments in the sciences by presenting themselves as guardians of a fortress that could never be assailed by the natural and material world. Here you would here a lot of talk about the natural attitude, positivism, instrumental realism, and scientism that looked more like a defensive posture than anything reflected in reality. Yet as evolutionary theory, psychology, and neurology increasingly came into there own, it became more and more difficult to maintain this position (and no, I’m not suggesting that evolutionary theory or neurology has much to tell us about Shakespeare or Goethe). Ironically, these positions increasingly came to look like those of religious fundamentalists and conservatives that deny anthropomorphic climate change and evolution. Finally, yet another strategy was for philosophy to become a reflection on the history of philosophy as in the case of hermeneutics. Strangely, with these positions, one was never to do philosophy herself as Descartes or Husserl had done, but only to reflect on what philosophers had done in the past. The maxim over the doors of the academy shifted from “Let no one enter who has knowledge of geometry” to “let no one enter who dares to critique a philosopher of the past and who has pretensions to making original claims about being in the present.” Here philosophy became thought through fanciful etymologies.
It was as if philosophy could not bear to recognize its own emptiness. It was terrified that if it recognized this emptiness that is its beating heart, it would be led to the conclusion that it is nothing. As a consequence, just as the subject builds an ego to shield itself from the horrifying truth that it has no substantial content of its own, no positivity that could define it, philosophy constructs an ego, a self-reflection, that shields it from its own emptiness. But emptiness and nothingness are not the same thing. Nothingness is the absence of any being whatsoever. Emptiness, by contrast, consists in having an intrinsically mobile content.
Had philosophy reflected a bit on what it’s been doing as a subject rather than as a defensive ego all these centuries since Plato, it would have recognized that its greatness and value resides in its emptiness. To my knowledge, Badiou was the first to recognize this. Of philosophy– and one need not endorse all his general claims to endorse this picture of philosophy –Badiou says two things: First, Badiou says that philosophy produces no knowledge of its own. Unlike all the other disciplines, philosophy does not have an object of investigation. Second, as a corollary, philosophy is evental. It doesn’t exist in all times and places, but only occurs at certain points in history. There are times, Badiou suggests, where philosophy doesn’t exist at all– for example, it seems to have been absent during the 80s and 90s as well as during the Middle Ages –and other times where philosophy seems to be everywhere. What gives?
When Badiou suggests that philosophy does not have an object or content of its own– such as perennial questions about knowledge or being or the good –he is saying that the conditions for philosophy are always extra-philosophical, arising from politics, science, art, and, he says, love. Philosophy, he says, is always dependent on truth-producing practices outside of philosophy and philosophy itself does not produce any truths of its own. Look at the history of philosophy and you will see this pattern again and again. Plato responds to transformations in science (the rise of form of geometry as a possibility of thought) and transformations in politics. Aristotle appears to be a response to biology and the arts. Later, with the Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists, philosophy arises as an encounter with the new sciences, post-Reformation Europe and all the religious wars that the Reformation spawned, transformations in the political as a result of the rise of capitalism and the displacement of power from the Church and aristocrats, to the bourgeois, total transformations in the arts from the symbolic to a form of art that looked at the world, and so on. In these cases, philosophy is a response to unprecedented truth-producing practices that themselves take place outside of philosophy. And this is why philosophy is evental. It requires the eruption of these practices to take place for it to come into being. This is also why philosophy makes no progress. Insofar as these events are unprecedented, insofar as they are historical bifurcation points, the questions change with each critical point, even if the grammar of the questions remain the same. The question of knowledge, even if we can express it in a grammatically identical way, is different for us today than it was for Descartes and Locke. This is not because of some sort of pluralistic relativism, but because the nature of the problem has changed.
This is why philosophy always comes after, not before. Philosophy is not a propaeduetic to all other fields of inquiry, but is that form of reflection that emerges when old ways of living the political, knowledge, being, ourselves, and so on have collapsed and new and unprecedented ways of encountering ourselves, living the social, and encountering the world have come into being. This, in no way, entails that philosophy is subordinated to other disciplines. It’s not. As Deleuze argues, philosophy always creates concepts proper to itself and its own discourse, but in relation to art and science (and to this, we could add politics and technology). Rather, the situation is more akin to the following questions. Philosophy asks, for example, “if there is some truth in neurology, what does this mean for what we are, justice, freedom, how we relate to ourselves and each other, and so on?” Or, “given the rise of communications technology that erase geographical space and time, what does this mean for politics, social relations, political struggles, and so on?” Or yet again, “if evolutionary theory has some truth, what does this mean for our understanding of universals, kinds, and essences?” And again, “given that this art is possible, that this has taken place, what does this mean for art in general?” Or, “given the forms of organization we’re witnessing with OWS, the Arab Spring, and in Turkey, what possibilities does this open for politics and governance?”
Badiou argues that philosophy is the attempt to think the present, of that which is eternal in the present– not to be confused with that which has always been there –and to grasp that which is taking place and that reconfigures everything. Insofar as it must take place in order to be reflected upon or thought, philosophy is necessarily empty because it must await the happening to begin thinking it. It’s aim is not to provide a foundation for everything else, nor to “critique” all that is as if philosophy were a supreme court that could somehow adjudicate the happenings of being. Rather, it’s aim is to bring into relief that which can only be obscurely discerned in the chaos of the present. This is why science fiction and horror novels are often closer to the spirit of what philosophy is than a lot of work that “philosophers” do. Despite appearances, science fiction is never a meditation on the future, but is always a reflection of those tendencies obscurely pulsating in the present. Moreover, philosophy is never a meditation on its history or past– though it continuously draws on its history in attempting to think the present –but is always an attempt to capture a bit of the present that is so difficult to discern. It draws on its past not to show continuity of the present with the past or to show that “this is how we got here”, but precisely to show the discontinuity of the present, its untimely and unprecedented nature, its ahistorical nature in the sense of being a break with history, and to forge concepts through the detritus of its history that, like futuristic technologies, might allow us to grasp a bit of what is so obscurely there in the present. In this respect, philosophy is one of those “selves” of society, where a self is a part of a being that reflects on its own being while differing from it, and that liberates certain elements of its being to be intensified and addressed.
As a consequence, philosophy is not a subject-matter, but a particular function that arises under certain rare conditions. As a function it is without a content, because those conditions are unique to each present that takes place and are therefore changing. Nonetheless, if we must still retain philosophy departments despite their tendency towards professionalization blind to the extra-philosophical and scholasticism, then this is because traces of the unprecedented must be sheltered and preserved, so that we might recollect the function of philosophy, its special relation to the present, and so that we might retain a library of philosophical events that provide us with a contrast of the present and the past, thereby allowing us to discern the untimely, and an arsenal of conceptual strategies that can be refashioned as weaponized concepts allowing us to grasp a bit of the present and what is possible within it.