11 December 2006

On the Question of Breaking With Doxa Today

I previous posts I have expressed a sort of philosophical schizophrenia or malaise with regard to the question of where to begin in philosophy that perpetually has me batting about like a fly in a bottle. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes that, "[w]here to begin in philosophy has always-- rightly --been regarded as a very delicate problem, for beginning means eliminating all presuppositions" (DR, 129). In advancing this assertion, Deleuze ties himself to a long philosophical tradition stretching all the way back to Plato. As Plato writes in Book VI of The Republic:
Understand then, said I, that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas [forms] moving on through ideas [forms] to ideas [forms] and ending with ideas [forms]. (511 b2-c1)
For Plato, philosophical discourse must break with all custom, authority, and mythological narratives to arrive at the assumptionless and demonstrable. An excellent example of this can be found in the early dialogue Euthyphro. Socrates is surprised to encounter Euthyphro at the Hall of Kings where legal matters are addressed. After a brief conversation, Euthyphro informs Socrates that he is there to prosecute his father for murder. Apparently one of his father's servants had gotten drunk and murdered another servant. His father had bound the servant and thrown him in a ditch while dispatching another servant to determine what legal actions should be taken. While waiting for the authorities to arrive, the servant died from either the bonds or exposure to the elements.

Surprised that Euthyphro would prosecute his own father-- here an anthropological knowledge of kinship relations would be important to the analysis of the dialogue --Socrates asks why Euthyphro would do such a thing. Euthyphro quickly responds that it is his pious or religious duty to do so. Socrates points out that only a man of very great wisdom (knowledge) would so confidently proceed in such a course of action and asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him so that he might better defend himself against the charges of impiety levelled against him by Meletus in his own court case. If Euthyphro can teach him the meaning of piety, then Socrates will be able to defend himself against Meletus' charges as he will be able to show that he does, indeed, know what piety is (the presupposition here-- common in the Ancient world --is that we only do wrong on the basis of ignorance, confusing what is good with its simulacrum). If, on the other hand, Euthyphro is mistaken, Socrates will be innocent as his soul will have been corrupted by a bad teacher.

The manner in which Euthyphro defends his first attempt at a definition of piety is of special interest with regard to the question of breaking with presuppositions. Having agreed to take Socrates as his pupil, Euthyphro remarks that,
...I say that the pious is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious roberry, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father, or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be impious. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among the gods? And these same men admit that Zeus shackled his own father [Cronus] for swallowing his [other] sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had gelded [castrated] his father [Uranus] for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me. (5d6 - 6a5)
In this first attempted definition of piety, it is clear that Euthyphro is an advanced ethical thinker deserving of praise. Euthyphro affirms the universality of moral principles irregardless of kinship, nationalistic, or tribal relations such as those one enjoys with respect to one's mother and father. In this regard, Euthyphro sounds like Jesus, when he remarks "[i]f any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, his wife and children, his brothers, and sisters-- yes, even his own life --he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). The implication of this difficult saying seems to be that genuine moral uprightness requires a break from tribal and kinship relations-- the Lacanian would add a break from identification with the master-signifier --so as to affirm the Jewish exhortation to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18). So long as this break with what Badiou calls the logic of the encyclopedia is not accomplished, the dimension of the egalitarian universal cannot be encountered.

However, Socrates is quick to point out that there is both a problem with this definition of piety and more importantly with how it is defended. On the one hand, this definition fails insofar as it gives only an instance of piety (prosecuting someone for murder) and not the feature or rule that would allow us to identify all instances of piety. Interestingly, the Euthyphro ends in aporia without a definition, suggesting that perhaps piety is not a domain of knowledge and therefore not a domain of obligation with regard to the other (recall that the Oracle at Delphi is the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, the god of reason and truth). An important philosophical decision seems to be made later in the same dialogue when Socrates asks whether piety is pious because the gods love it or if the gods love it because it is pious. If the former, then we must await the revelation of the gods in order to know our ethical duty. If the latter, we can examine ethical questions without requiring recourse to the revelations of the gods. Socrates and Euthyphro both choose the latter option, and it is this decision that will mark all subsequent ethical theory to present and open the door for the Enlightenment critique of Church authority.

Of greater concern is the way in which Euthyphro defends his definition. Socrates quickly points out that Euthyphro appeals to myth, and remarks that he has a difficult time believing these stories to be true. In short, Euthyphro enjoins Socrates to accept as a duty something based on a myth that he cannot himself validate. This is an act of intellectual violence or disrespect to his interlocutor. So in this brief exchange the gauntlet of philosophy is thrown: break with myth so as to know through reason. Moreover, in the same dialogue Euthyphro has presented himself as an expert in all things pious, thereby defending his claims on the basis of his authority. In suggesting that he become Euthyphro's pupil, Socrates effectively rejects the acceptance of authority on the basis of authority's own claim to recognition, but instead calls for authority to legitimate itself.

Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine question as to whether this is possible. Insofar as the Lacanian subject is split, it is always decentered from itself. The manner in which the subject is decentered is structured in two ways: On the one hand, the Lacanian subject is not immanent to itself as a consciousness due to the manner in which the ego (not to be confused with the subject) is alienated in the imaginary, misrecognizing itself in its imago. The ego confuses itself with its image of itself rather than with its genuine being and is forever unable to coincide with this image. On the other hand, insofar as the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, it is alienated with regard to language such that it is not master of its own language. Because the signifier cannot signify itself, it follows that no origin or ground of language can ever be articulated that would meet Plato's requirement for dialectic. For every signifier I articulate there will always be (n+1) or (n-1)... One more to say or one too few. The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded such as we find in Descartes or Husserl is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject. This goes straight to the heart of my concerns, for I recognize the validity of what I'll loosely call "sociological thought", undermining the dream of a subject immanent to itself (with the possible exception of Badiou), while also recognizing the philosophical ambition of breaking with doxa... If only as a critical regulative ideal.

What is required is some gesture that is able to rigorously establish the identity of the subject with what is most other or foreign to it (the symptom, social constitution, objective conditions, etc). The best candidate I've seen for a solution to this problem is Hegel's "identity of identity and difference". As Hegel expresses this identity of identity and difference,
The disparity which exists in consciousness between the 'I' and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general. This can be regarded as the defect of both, though it is their soul, or that which moves them. That is why some of the ancients conceived the void as the principle of motion, for they rightly saw the moving principle as the negative, though they did not as yet grasp that the negative is the self. Now, although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the 'I' and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and Substance shows itself to be essentially Subject. When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its exitence identical with its essence; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the 'I', it is self-like or the Notion. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 21)
When the analysand recognizes themselves in a slip of the tongue such as the statement "I cannot before myself"/"I cannot be-for myself", subject is recognizing itself in substance. The analysand had intended to express the thought that he is unable to be prior to himself, but instead ended up saying, despite his intentions, that he cannot support himself. The work of the "negative" (relation) occurs when the analysand recognizes himself in this slip of the tongue, despite the fact that this slip was not what he intended. Similarly, when the sociologist demonstrates that the personal motives of individuals pursuing their own aims ends up producing economic inequalities such as the way in which American consummerism ends up reinforcing third world poverty and conflict despite the fact that the American consumer does not intend this result, a dialectical identity or an identity of identity and difference is being asserted between these large scale social organizations and these personal intensions. The truth expressed in the slip of the tongue (substance) differs radically from what the subject knows of himself (knowledge in the imaginary), just as the truth of one's social actions (class inequalities) differs radically from what the consumer believes he knows of himself; yet there is nonetheless an identity between the two. Dialectic is able to demonstrate these relations. Even presuppositions themselves stand in a dialectical relation with the presuppositionless.

Yet while Hegel's logic of the negative, his logic of alterity, promises a way of surpassing the difficulties posed by a subject that is no longer immanent to itself, there are two further problems: On the one hand, the Lacanian, unlike Hegel, rejects any claim that truth and knowledge can be brought into harmony with one another. Truth always outstrips knowledge, or we always say more than we intend to say. On the other hand, and what amounts the same, the Lacanian account of the real precludes any totality, whole, or completeness. What, then, would a dialectic look like that didn't fall prey to the manner in which Hegel's thought remains mired in the imaginary. For Lacan, the imaginary does not refer to the fictional such as an imaginary friend, but to the dimension of meaning, completeness, and the desire for wholeness. How is this to be philosophically surmounted? Or is there a discourse of the philosopher that escapes that of the master and enters the discourse of the analyst?

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Anonymous N Pepperell said...

I'm very scattered today, so I suspect I'll be posing questions in a rather ill-formed way...

I have a suspicion - and it is really only that - that some of the problem might be arising from different levels of abstraction, perhaps grounded in the ambiguity of the term "subject"? When you say, for example, "The dream of a subject that would be immanent to itself and thus completely grounded... is thoroughly undermined by the Lacanian subject.", is this a claim about individual subjectivity alone? About collective, historical "subjects", as well? Can these different types of subjects be conceptualised with reference to the same bodies of theory - and how? I ask these questions not as a critique - at least, not as any kind of critique that doesn't also implicate my own work - but because I have a feeling answers to these issues would need to be teased out very specifically in order for a clear vision of the underlying theoretical challenge to come clearly into view. (The fact that I lack such a vision, of course, doesn't mean that you also would...)

At another level, when you say "Philosophy thus demands, in principle, a break from authority and myth. However, there is a genuine quesstion of whether this is possible." - yes, I think this is very, very important. I have been wondering whether these are necessarily the same things, the break from authority, and the break from myth?

I am going to say this very badly, but I suspect that some of what I have been pointing to, in suggesting that it might be possible to think of socialisation, not just in terms of the lock-step reproduction of the social order, but at least potentially as also the socialisation into the desire for specific forms of alteration of the social order, could on one level be viewed as an acquiescence to the notion that we will not break with our myths - that any transformation we desire, any vision of freedom we embrace, will fundamentally be visions for us - while at the same time maintaining that we may not have embraced our myth completely enough - in the sense of seizing potentials manifest within the myth itself for a transformed relationship to authority and the ability to break with blind replication - not by stepping outside the myth into "free air", but by recognising that our collective myth itself suggests the potential for transformation...

But this is probably a terrible way into the issue... I suspect that there is a way of holding onto the Hegelian notion of the identity of identity and difference, without the need for totality to fill any kind of normative role... I like the way in which your writings revolve around this problematic, even if I'm fumbling around a bit to express a sense of where one might go from here...

December 11, 2006 8:02 PM  

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