With his declaration of the identity of being and thinking Parmenides inaugurates one of the central themes and aspirations of Western philosophy: absolute knowledge. It is this that Heidegger and Derrida are referring to when they speak of the “philosophy of presence”. Being that is identical to thinking will be maximally present. It will present itself without remainder, with nothing withdrawn, with nothing outside. There will be hundreds of variations on this theme. Parmenides, of course, will give his patient demonstration, arguing that if non-being is not and that if difference always involves reference to what something is not, then thought cannot be other than being. There will be Plato’s theory of recollection, where being is already written in our souls and we merely need to recollect it. There will be Descartes’ identity of existing and thinking, along with the doctrine of innate ideas. There will be Spinoza’s magnificent metaphysics where the thinking of substance is the same as substance and where the order and connection of ideas is the same as that of things. With Hume we will get things dissolved into bundles of impressions or ideas. With Kant we will get mind forming reality and will be told that the conditions for the possibility of things are the same as the conditions for the possibility of experience. Hegel, who perhaps goes furthest in the Parmendian vector, will declare the identity of substance and subject. And today we have Badiou declaring the identity of math and being. What is math if not the power of thought, its freedom, taken to the limit. Maths pose the greatest mystery for philosophy for in the spontaneity– to use Kant’s terminology –of mathematical reasoning we anticipate the structure of existence via thought alone rather than the detour of experience.
We are accustomed today of discerning a will to power at the heart of this philosophical telos. Heidegger, Derrida, and Horkheimer and Adorno taught us to read mastery at the heart of that formula of thought that would treat being and thinking as identical. For what is thought if not the domain of freedom? As Kant taught, thought is spontaneity: the power of rendering present without requiring the detour of the presence of the thing. Such is the secret of the famous synthetic a priori propositions: they expand knowledge without the presence of the thing. We broach, for example, new domains of mathematics through the power of thought alone. No doubt this is why we only find prodigies in maths, music, and certain mathematical games like chess. Experience is not required, just the patient unfolding of the thought. If thought and being were identical then we would have complete mastery over being.
Perhaps this is why there has always been such a loathing of materialism throughout the history of philosophy (and, as an aside, I don’t think this is unique to Western thought). If materialism means anything, it signifies the impotence of thought. Materialism means that we die without remainder, that we age, that we must go through the detour of things to satisfy ourselves, that we experience fatigue and many other sad things besides. The denigration of the body is not a special province of the West. It takes many forms. The body is a wonderful garden of delights, but it is also gravity, aging, fatigue, sickness, the wound, unrequited desire, time lost, and many other sad things besides. There is infinity within us, infinite desire. We find this in Plato, the Hindus and Buddhists, Descartes, Lacan. How is it that a finite system finds infinity within it, has infinity within it. Yet there it is; a pure torment like the sound of rain on a tin roof, calling to us to discover its depth. That’s what Lacan means when he says that psychoanalysis is tragic. There’s no solution to it.
And so we are material beings that harbor infinity within us and the horrifying, voracious desire that it evokes. We are tori that don’t know ourselves as tori; that tragically pulsate about our surface, aiming at a hole that we can never fill. We dream, therefore, of a being that would be identical to thinking, that would enjoy the spontaneity of thought and that would not involve the detour of absence beings such as ourselves must pass through to satisfy ourselves. With this comes all of our nastiness: a prophecy given to Adam– but that is also found in some form in every world religion –of dominion over the world and nature; a will to mastery and control that is exercised on all things, including ourselves. Of course, as Adorno taught, there’s always a remainder, a surd of being that escapes the sovereignty of thought, that we don’t anticipate. We make a mess of it all, both nature and society.
It’s easy to denounce this dream of an identity of being and thought, but it also goes to the heart of politics and our lives. The dream of the identity of being and thought was also a dream of emancipation. The most favored theory of truth, of course, has always been that truth is a correspondence between thought and thing. We merge with the thing in presence. There is no shadow but the two mirror one another. The thing has been made present. It’s not easy to see how this might involve questions of politics and particularly questions of emancipation, but really it is a question of authority and our attachment to authority. My thought doesn’t mirror things, but rather mirrors those authorities that I trust: thought — expert — thing. The doctor knows. I do not. I must subordinate myself because I am ignorant. But how do I know whether the doctor knows? Perhaps he’s an idiot. I don’t have the knowledge to say and if I did I wouldn’t need my doctor. How do I know whether or not he’s manipulating me? Is he really a shepherd of my health or is he fleecing me? Do I really need these tests or is he padding his resume. Is my priest a shepherd of my soul or does he want me to fight his war and install him in a position of power?
The dream of an identity of being and thinking is also a dream of emancipation; for where presence reigns there is also no need for an alienation in the sovereign. The sovereign rules because we believe him to have knowledge, wisdom, to lead us to flourishing. Where we have this knowledge we no longer need him. Today that dream lies in ruins. No one can master it all; no one is an expert. It’s turtles or authorities all the way down. None of the scientists at CERN really understand what the others are doing, but must trust what the others are doing, that they know, to do what they’re doing. The presence called for by the tradition of epistemology is no longer sustainable. Everywhere we just encounter citation. And at that point, I wonder, what becomes of the dream of philosophy? How must we conceive of knowledge, and knowledge as it relates to emancipation, today?