19 July 2006

Philosophy and Language

I've been in the midsts of a bit of an intellectual nervous breakdown for the last couple of weeks (okay, I'm being melodramatic, kinda), wondering where, if anywhere, I stand with respect to any particular philosophical issue. This is why I've been writing little here. In a nutshell, I've been a little ball of anxiety, curled up in agony, void of thought, bemoaning my lack of commitments and the manner in which I experience myself as whatever I happen to be reading at the time, and feeling as if I'm a sham or a mere semblance (of course, this isn't so bad from a psychoanalytic perspective). Okay, and this isn't simply about philosophical commitments, but also has to do with reading Koyre's From Closed World to Infinite Universe before bed and thinking entirely too much about what it means to be in an infinite universe without center, fixity, or orienation. At any rate, I've wanted nothing to do with the world or others, and have largely felt a darkening or complete depletion of desire altogether. This, of course, is bad form for a Lacanian as I'm essentially trying to see myself seeing myself, or find some rudiment of ontological consistency or substantiality, when, after all, the Lacanian subject is a "hole in being". Old habits die hard, I suppose. On the one hand, I find myself deeply schizophrenic as to what I do. My work ranges across psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics, semiotics, political theory, and so on. What is specifically philosophical in all of this? Are not these things abdications of philosophy? On the other hand, I find myself wondering what philosophy could possibly be today. Is philosophy possible today? Or is the age of philosophy over? Of course, of course. I'm aware that there are those who call themselves philosophers and that there are texts published under the title of philosophy. But with the possible exceptions of Deleuze and Badiou, there seems to be a qualitative difference between what is called philosophy today and the great systems of the past.

The real question, I think, is how it is possible to practice in philosophy, to engage in philosophy, in the wake of the linguistic turn? One might respond by saying "simple, we simply do philosophy of language or articulate the plurality of different language games." Yet this is simply to abdicate everything to the "sophists", or to engage in philosophy as yet another variant of sociology or linguistics. Lacan expresses the problem perfectly: "How is one to return, if not on the basis of a peculiar discourse, to a prediscursive reality? That is the dream-- the dream behind every conception of knowledge. But it is also what must be considered mythical. There's no such thing as a prediscursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse" (Seminar 20, 32). The dream of a prediscursive reality can be seen in Aristotle's discussion of language in Peri Hermeneuia, Plato's conception of reminiscence, Descartes' cogito, Hume's impressions and notion of experience, Husserl's phenomenological reduction, and Deleuze's intuition. The list could be multiplied. As Lacan had already argued in Seminar 17, philosophy is characterized as the discourse of the master:


That is, philosophical discourse represses the manner in which the subject is divided from itself by falling under the signifier. The Husserlian subject, for instance, is a subject that maintains a transparent relation to its intentions. Where language intervenes, however, thought can never be master of itself in this way. It is always subject to the play and absence implicated in the signifier, in such a way that thought is never able to found itself (hence the reason the Lacanian subject is a void or a "want-to-be").

However, while Lacan (and many others) might have demolished the possibility of philosophy where philosophy is conceived as a relation to a prediscursive reality sans play of the signifier, we might wonder whether he hasn't opened up another possibility. Lacan is not simply another discursive constructivist like Lyotard, Derrida, or Wittgenstein. Everything here spins on the Lacanian account of the real. As Lacan puts it, "...it is with... stupidities [i.e., nonsense] that we do analysis, and that we enter into the new subject-- that of the unconscious. It is precisely to the extent that the guy is willing not to think anymore that we will perhaps learn a little bit more about it, that we will draw certain consequences from his words --words that cannot be taken back, for that is the rule of the game. From that emerges a speaking that does not always go so far as to be able to 'ex-sist' with respect to the words spoken. That is because of what gets included in those words as a consequence thereof. That is the the acid-test by which, in analyzing anyone, no matter how stupid, a certain real may be reached" (22). While arguing that there is no prediscursive reality, Lacan also argues that language is "not-all" or "not-whole" or that there is a way of inscribing an extimate real that is nonetheless outside of discourse. This, then, would provide one alternative to conceiving philosophy; an alternative that Badiou might be thought as exploring under the title of the "event" (and perhaps Zizek as well, if he'd just quit interpreting everything).

On the other hand, Lacan argues that mathematics is the writing of the real. Here, I think, there are real possibilities. In discussing the nature of science, Lacan emphasizes that science departs from the signified (and therefore endless interpretation and language games) altogether. Scientific discourse is unity in that, "...due to its very institution [it]... gives us the followwing, that the signifier is posited only insofar as it has no relation to the signified". In writing the pure letter, for instance "a" or "S1", mathematical discourse departs from the signified altogether and explores pure structure, relations, or topologies. Once again, Lacan anticipates Badiou's gesture with regard to mathematics as being identical to ontology. Mathematics is able to write the real of being through the institution of the letter that is divorced from any signified (objects, experiences, etc). Here we might encounter a genuine possibility for escaping the mythology of philosophy predicated on the yearning for wholeness in the Imaginary... Or, perhaps, I might at least be able to escape some of my anxiety.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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July 20, 2006 5:35 PM  
Anonymous bobo:) said...

why not try exploring philosophy in the analytic tradition for a change? look at what those guys talk about: set theory, foundations of mathematics, logic, logical analysis of language... of particular interest concerning your remarks on getting away from the slipperiness of the signified, there is the topic of reference. lacan says himself that reference is entirely distinct from signification; it is denotative rather than connotative. as you know, in logic there is the predicate, but then there is also the name. what does the name name, and does it name a being? the fact that the name is usually attached to a predicate just goes to show the difficulties of fixing reference, and to what extent reference is Other. the predicate is an identification--as such it can't help but slide away. as lacan says, "the subject turns out to be ... a being (etant) whose being is always elsewhere, as the predicate shows" (S20, 142). predication makes the subject a subject to the signifier, for another signifier. the name, however, is precisely this other kind of signifier for which a subject is represented, and *this* signifier stabilizes a little piece of the real, denoting an object. it is something that gains consistency in writing, a little scribble or signature.

the analytic philosophy surrounding modal logic is particularly interesting. what is a haecceity? deleuzians aren't the only ones who talk about haecceities today. haecceities are precisely referential objects insofar as these objects are not predicated *only* of this world. for instance, it is predicable of me right now that i am sitting on my couch; yet i remain the same individual (rigidly designated by my name) even in those counterfactual situations where i am not sitting on my couch right now. another example pertinent to psychoanalysis: it is predicable of me that i am a man; yet i remain the same individual even in those possible instances where i am a woman. objet a as haecceity is rigid and inexorable. psychoanalysis means kripke and mill vs. russell: russell's theory of descriptions attempted to reduce reference to the level of identification; yet as we know, there is more to ourselves than what we identify ourselves with--there is a purely denotative and non-descriptive surplus. the exigency of objet a means that there is an infinity of other worlds that we may traverse once we gain knowledge of our own name.

you talk about "committing" to some kind of philosophical position. in my view this is already on the wrong path and a desire for a predicate or master to identify with. of course, you already know this. but the great thing about immersing oneself in logic and set theory, or in purely analytico-philosophical methodology, is that you don't have to commit to anything except rigour. rigour, rigidity; it's actually not that bad, it's a nice rock-hard piece of enjoyment that never leaves you because it is you. that's one major reason why i, for one, am drawn into the analytic style of philsophy recently. the funny thing is that the renunciation of committing to a predicate also has something to do with an affirmation of capitalism. capitalism tears down all kinds of committments and ideals--that's not bad, that's good! lacan writes something extremely interesting on this subject (remember this quote):
"there is a correlation between the age of capitalism and the extension of analytic discourse. and the progress that results is of an order ... that i will call that of logical rigour" (la psychanalyse dans sa reference au rapport sexual, 1973 milan conference).

i'll leave off on that note.

(il y a une corrélation entre l’âge, appelons-le capitaliste, et l’extension de ce discours analytique. Et le progrès qui en résulte est certainement d’un autre ordre que celui de la connaissance : il est de celui de ce que j’appellerais la rigueur logique.)

July 20, 2006 6:44 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Bobo, a good deal of my philosophical training was analytic and I agree that there's a lot of terrific stuff in Frege, Quine, Kripke, etc. I also teach logic or set theory, though I'm only more recently working with higher order set theory in the last couple of years. I tend to think the division between analytic and contintental thought is artificial and love all things mathematical. My temperment is rationalist by nature.

July 20, 2006 7:01 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Bobo, additionally it sounds to me like you're articulating a set of commitments when you speak about mathematics and logic as that which you can take with you. If you haven't worked through Being and the Event already, I think you'd really get a lot out of it. It's working through precisely these sorts of issues with regard to names and referents, and proposes a set theoretical ontology that escapes these difficulties. Badiou, like Lacan, is one of the great convergences between anglo-american thought and continental thought.

July 20, 2006 7:09 PM  
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