Monday, October 12, 2009

Joseph Young 1980-2009

I first met Joe shortly before the start of the MA in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick that we both took in 2002-03. He was reading a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the corner of the Virgin and Castle public house in Kenilworth which I had just entered with a couple of other Warwick students. Hearing us talk about philosophy he introduced himself and almost immediately was engaging us in the most scintillating conversation. The basis of his erudition and skill as a raconteur was first of all his knowledge of literary and philosophical texts. It was also the result of his time as an undergraduate at the University of North London and the society he frequented in the capital. He mingled magnificently with a great variety of characters, in such places as the Coach and Horses in Soho. This society included artists, writers, actors, intellectuals, socialites and aristocrats (not all of whom were genuine). During his M.A. studies at Warwick he wrote accomplished pieces on the likes of Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust and Georges Bataille. This contributed to his highly original and creative writing in the years after he left Warwick. He lived first in London and then for a longer period in Dorset, where he had been brought up. Over the last few years he was busy travelling the world. In many ways he embodied Gilles Deleuze’s dictum that ‘[t]he philosopher can reside in various states, he can frequent various milieus, but he does so in the manner of … a traveller or boarding house lodger’ (Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, p. 4). His journeys in both intensity and extensity were manifold. Thus whilst he had explored so many intense literary and philosophical ideas in the prose and poetry he composed, he developed these as he explored different continents. He spent time searching for profound experiences and inspirations in India, Nepal, Indochina, China, Japan, the U.S.A., Latin America, South America, Continental Europe, North Africa and the Cape of Africa. In an e-mail he wrote that ‘[i]n a sense its always been contingency – different states throwing different lights on a changing and undefined world, it’s the people who try to consider it fixed that get it wrong, …’.

This interweaving of journeys in literary and philosophic intensities with journeys in the extensities of space and history proved highly eventful. Joe was in Nepal during the uprising that brought its monarchy to an end and was able to write vividly about it. He also walked many miles in Nepal, visiting the base camp of Everest and finding in such places further resources for his creativity. He was in Tibet when the recent uprising occurred and was one of the first out, allowing him to spin some yarns to the journalists eager for accounts of what was going on inside Tibet. His journeys in the Amazon and into the Sahara provoked wonder in those of us who received his dispatches or who met the weary traveller when he arrived back for a brief stay in ‘the old country’. He wrote this from South America:
‘I travelled up the Amazon and saw the sunset at its basin, I hunted caimon by torchlight, found tarantulas in trees, saw Anacondas in the waters, caught a piranah … and, one halcyon morning, I took a dug-out into the waters of a quiet tributary and read “Heart of Darkness” all alone in the wild centre of a lake… I strolled the heart of colonial Peruvian towns, I took a small boat out in Lake Titicaca and met people who had for centuries lived on islands made of reeds, just floating in the freezing wind, I bought a charm from an old lady… I took a dilapidated bus across the plains and saw unimagined forgotten villages enshrouded by snow-capped mountains, […] … I scaled the height of Machu Picchu and looked down with heavy eyes upon a lost civlization now ratted with creeping tourists… and I forged my own path down through the jungle, my own way in thought, and thought about Neruda and solitude and the coming events of our world… I sit here in an airport lounge and think of these things, these things but a tiny piece of all that’s happened every day over the last few months and I look at where I’m going. I can’t seem to make sense of all the connections…’

Joe rarely sought to publish his writing and often deleted or destroyed his work, echoing Franz Kafka and Ludwig Wittgenstein in his approach to his own oevre. This stemmed from a creativity that always demanded a ‘clearing of the ground’, that wasn’t to be encumbered by any body of work. He was never satisfied with what he had done in the past and practiced ‘creative destruction’ in order that the ground should be cleared for unencumbered creativity. In an e-mail from Laos he wrote …
‘… I decided that the most important thing for me to do was strip away the layers in life and get back to the real core of my existence, tear away the superfluous thought and rediscover some ontologically pure core and be satisfied with it, use it as a platform for thought …’.
Like Jean-Paul Sartre he sold or gave away books, sometimes to people he met at the bus stop or in a café and with whom he had enjoyed a conversation. Related to this was a search for roots but not roots in the conventional or romantic sense. Instead it was a search for roots in the sense that Martin Heidegger professed when he sought the ‘ontological’ rather than the ‘ontic’, the source of the world’s creativity and of the givenness of the world rather than what is given or accumulated in the world. This source is not to be confused with what is given in the world but with the giving of the world as such. Hence the creative destruction that subjected even Joseph’s own work to critique and deletion. This rigor and purity animated him in a creative practice that is extremely rare. He perpetually moved on in his thought and experience, in ideas and places, so as to be equal to the creation of the world, to be attuned to creativity on its own terms.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Meillassoux, Kant and Absolute Contingency

I would like to put forward a subject for debate on this site. This is something that arises out of the Speculative Realism movement and that challenges Transcendental Philosophy. In chapter 4 of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude we find a critique of arguments from probability. The basis for this is the rejection of the notion that we can totalise reality and then argue on the basis of probability or chance. This opens the way for making contingency ‘absolute’ because we don’t have to secure either a metaphysical absolute (such as God) or transcendental conditions (such as Kant’s Table of Categories) to make experience possible. We do not have to shore up experience in the face of the balance of probability, the probability that conditions of experience that are contingent will not arise or will not endure if they do arise. It is only if we totalise reality that we can consider the probability that there will be constant change if conditions of experience are contingent. For Meillassoux, as for Alain Badiou, the contingent event is ‘absolute’ in its freedom from arguments from probability. Without totalisation there is nothing to rule out events that are contingent but secure reality in singular and enduring ways.

This leads to the question of the number and frequency of events or absolute contingencies. Is there one ‘world event’ that must improbably provide conditions for a reality where human life can be pursued and consciousness is possible? In fact there are multiple events for both Meillassoux and Badiou, something that would seem even less probable if probability was applicable to this reality. It is a contingent fact that multiple events extend conscious life rather than ending it. Yet the absoluteness of contingency means that its events are not undermined by probability. It can therefore provide the basis for an enduring reality.

Transcendental Arguments seem to be doomed in this universe insofar as they seek to establish certain conditions of possibility for experience. If we cannot totalise we cannot argue from the improbability of conditions of experience arising by chance. Their contingency is now the basis for their role as conditions, for their enduring and explanatory role in experience. Meillassoux argues that for Kant contingency is ruled out because if it held it would 'show itself', it would be obvious because it would make reality unstable and undermine possible experience as such (p. 94-5). Meillassoux seeks to reverse Kant’s identification of experience or sensation with contingency and the a priori with necessity (p. 95). He argues in favour of making the a priori structures of reality, which happen to support conscious life at present, contingent on the basis that probability or chance is no longer the measure of these structures. Contingency is now able to support the conditions that it provides. It is now experience or sensation that provides us with necessities because it leads us to maintain certain habits of thought. It actualises contingencies in determinate and stable ways (this leads into Meillassoux’s reading of Hume).

An alternative reading of Kant’s method of arguing can, I believe, be found in his Metaphysical Deduction in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here we do not find Kant arguing in the way Meillassoux suggests in chapter four of After Finitude. There is a sense in which Kant embraces an event in this short and under-appreciated section of the first Critique. This argument can be understood as a response to the absolute contingency of a set of conditions presented in a Table of Categories. The architectonic of the Critique of Pure Reason can be understood as a wager, as a form of fidelity, to this event. It is intended as a self-supporting argument, one that embraces an event that then unfolds in the text the proceeds it. Indeed those who argue that the Metaphysical Deduction must be supported by other parts of the text, where the ‘real’ argument allegedly goes on, neglect this wager. They seek to replace or supplement the Metaphysical Deduction with the first and second edition Transcendental Deductions and Analytic of Principles that follow it in the Transcendental Analytic. They are extremely puzzled by Kant’s fidelity to the Table of Categories.

Can we relate Kant’s framework for accounting for experience to Meillassoux’s understanding of a non-totalisable reality? Was Kant’s Metaphysical Deduction a reaction or an active response to the chaos in which he saw the sceptic wandering (the sceptic is portrayed as nomadic by Kant)? Does it respond to an unfathomable chaos in the way that Meillassoux’s concern with contingent events responds to the absoluteness of contingency? The Metaphysical Deduction puzzles many readers of Kant because it seems to have no reasoning behind it, to be trivial, artificial and underdeveloped. Could the Metaphysical Deduction be a creative response to contingency and not a retreat in the face of chance? We do not have to absolutise the twelve categories of Kant’s table to take this deduction seriously but we can absolutise the event that the Metaphysical Deduction represents. As an argument it would then embrace a series of events which are contingent but structure experience if we make a wager on them. The a priori would be a wager on an event. Rather than warding of chaos these events would be its realisation. The capture or realisation of chaos would be represented in the structuring of the account of experience given in the Critique of Pure Reason.

These are merely some thoughts I wanted to put forward. I think that the challenge represented by Speculative Realism is both formidable and stimulating. It seems to bring out much neglected sides of Transcendental Philosophy. The originality and force of Speculative Realism calls for a renewed and invigorated Transcendental Philosophy.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sartre, Badiou and Bad Faith

Sartre, Badiou and Bad Faith
(Some preliminary remarks)

[1] Well the lack of activity on the site has prompted me to put some of my latest musings up, on Badiou yet again. One day I'll write on something other than Badiou, but at least this time Sartre is the centre of attention. These remarks are not yet fully formed, and after spending some time reading the Critique of Dialectical Reason it is my first attempt to understand how the concept of bad faith has developed. Despite Sartre's later book screaming out for an editor, there is a considerable amount of interesting stuff in the sections on series and group formation. My initial idea was to see how Sartre's discussions had influenced Badiou's, and to situate Sartre as a somewhat banal predecessor to Badiou. But I have come to see that Sartre's theory has some considerable advantages over Badiou, especially for a political cynic like myself. I find the pessimism somewhat refreshing after reading so much of Badiou's enthusiasm for, and belief in, the possiblity of political action/reveloution.

Complexity and Development of Bad Faith

[2] Badiou’s philosophy of the event shares a great number of similarities to Sartre’s later work on group action found in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. In this later work the concept of bad faith does not appear, and this is not without good reason. The problem of bad faith is not a concept that is exhausted in Being and Nothingness; it is an idea that is still raised as a problem on the final page of the book, problematizeing the very possibility that a free for-itself could ever live outside of bad faith in a totally authentic existence.[1] The simple opposition of terms like good and bad faith, or authentic and inauthentic existence become far too limited for Sartre, who needs a more carefully graded system to bring out the variety of forms of bad faith and their various transformations.

[3] These ideas are developed in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, a book which examines in great depth the relation between free individuals and their situation. The idea of the situation is initially introduced in Being and Nothingness. Here, the situation is introduced as how an individual apprehends the world in terms of his freedom. This situation has an interior and an exterior, the interior being the those in-itself aspects of the world that the for-itself can manipulate and change, the exterior being the limit of the situation as delimited by other free for-themselves.[2] This exteriority is encountered within a situation every time the for-itself finds a meaning in the world that it did not create, generally speaking, our entire social environment. These aspects point beyond the situation to some other for-itself who produced these meanings; the exterior, or limit, is never directly encountered within the situation. The discovery of exteriority leads to the recognition that our actions, the meaning we give to the situation in our manipulation of it, has an exterior, for the other. Hence the meaning we give to something can be appropriated by the other and hence alienated. This section of Being and Nothingness concludes with a discussion of death as a totalized way of considering the limit of our situation, and hence that all our actions will become, immediately, alienated:

It is absurd that we are born; it is absurd that we die. On the other hand, this absurdity is presented as the permanent alienation of my being-possibility which is no longer my possibility but that of the Other. It is therefore an external and factual limit of my subjectivity![3]

[4] Death as the total limit of the situation as constituted by the Other, and as the permanent alienation of all my actions seems a terribly pessimistic conclusion to Being and Nothingness. Is this the new type of inescapable bad faith that Sartre worries about on the concluding page? It is clear that this alienation occurs because of the relations that the free for-themselves have with each other, that is, permanently mediated by the situation. There is no reciprocity between the free individuals, only via activity in the world in which their free action is alienated, and becomes an in-itself for the other. Sartre’s aim, therefore, is to describe a form of relation between individuals that is not mediated via their alienated action in a situation, a true reciprocity between free individuals.

[5] Here we can see the problem of bad faith problematized by alienation. Although a free individual might not think of himself as determined by in-itself qualities, as an isolated individual acting in the situation the perpetual alienation that he suffers through his actions is a permanent becoming-in-itself. The freedom experienced by the free isolated individual is a perpetual fight against this becoming, rather than a positive becoming, this positive notion can only be realised in group action.

[6] The point of the Critique of Dialectical Reason is to develop these ideas. Key concepts that are developed are of the two types of dialectic, or dialectic and antic-dialectic, which Sartre uses to differentiate between individual and group action, and these are called: the constituent dialectic and the constituted dialectic. The transcendent freedom of the individual is the motor of the dialectic, the for-itself as perpetually transcending itself. Hence the constituent dialectic describes the structures that emerge in the interaction between these constituent elements. When a group is formed, it is always formed from the constituent elements of free individuals; a group is always a compound, never a new type of individual, hence its actions and interaction with other individuals and groups can only ever be described as a constituted dialectic. It is also called an anti-dialectic as, due to its lack of individual freedom, it cannot transcend itself; it is only the specially co-ordinated activity of a number of individuals. This has important consequences, especially in regards to Badiou’s philosophy.[4]

[7] In this set up bad faith can be seen in the transition from active passivity to passive activity, and suffered in the mode of passive activity as alienation. [5] Activity within groups is active passivity, and that of isolated individuals is passive activity. Both types of activity are subject to change through the increase of the type of inertia encountered in the situation. The two types of inertia are serial inertia and pledged inertia.

[8] Serial inertia is experienced as the alienation that an isolated subject experiences within a situation for which it is not responsible. The for-itself's freedom fights against, and is usually crushed, by the inert structures that it encounters; freedom fights against this passivity. The individual’s activity is reduced to passivity by the inertia of the situation. On the other hand, pledged inertia is the positive passivity freely given by an individual within a group to work toward common goals. The transition occurs between the two types when the organised group becomes institutionalized.[6]

[9] We can see from this that the structure of bad faith has become considerably more complicated. One final point to make is that passive activity can never become active passivity through a simple transition, once a group is lost and has returned to a mere serial arrangement of individuals it cannot be reconstituted. A new group will have to be formed, and this can only happen in an event of novelty in which the group appears as a spontaneous fusion of individuals united against some threat. [7] This apocalyptic moment introduces something truly novel to the situation, and it initially operates free from all inertia, so its activity is neither active passivity, nor passive activity.[8]

[10] Finally, we can see how close Sartre is to Badiou in terms of his conception of the formation of the group in fusion as opposed to Badiou’s event. I have only touched on the complexity of this issue in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, but even now it clearly raises issues about the relation between Badiou and Sartre.

Badiou’s reliance on bad faith

[11] Why might we expect the problem of bad faith to be an issue for Badiou? Sartre tries very carefully not to import the problems of the individual, especially those that are the consequence of its fundamental existential make up, to the group level. The group is something radically different, something in which the individuals remain singular, free and never completely dissolved. This is why there can never be a return of a group, as a group has no actual unity; it is not a supra-individual. If it was possible for a group to exist as a constituent rather than as constituted its lapse into an institution would be equivalent to an individual being in bad faith. A group, as a group, cannot be in bad faith.

[12] In Badiou’s philosophy this is not the case, there is a subject to an event, and this can involve a number of individuals. Therefore, a subject composed from a number of individuals is possible. Here the term subject has a very specific meaning: being a finite portion of a truth procedure. So we might expect the problems that arise in bad faith for Sartre’s individual subjects to arise at this ‘higher’ level. One such problem is recognised and navigated by Badiou’s use of the future anterior to refer to subjects as something that will have been. This is close to Sartre recognising that although I can never say that I am X, I can say, without being in bad faith, that I was X.[9]

[13] Also in Being and Nothingness Sartre clearly states that the problem with bad faith is faith.[10] Now, if we consider the importance of the concept of fidelity to Badiou, we can recognise that there might be a problem here.

[14] Of course, the traffic flows both ways, and we can find criticisms of Sartre in Badiou. For Badiou, freedom on its own is insufficient to constitute a subject/group.[11] Freedom, or intervention, used in the absence of an event is a form of evil for Badiou, and leads inevitably not to the production of novelty but to the complete determination of the ontological situation: freedom used freely is un-free.[12] This is a consequence of the Axiom of Choice, which was the motivation for Zermelo’s initial introduction of the axiom, as it allowed him to state that all sets could be well ordered.

As I promised, nothing conclusive!


[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, (Routledge, 2000) p628
[2] Ibid. pp509-10
[3] Ibid. p547
[4] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Critique of Dialectical Reason, (Verso, 1991) p332
[5] Ibid. p603
[6] Ibid. p603
[7] Ibid. p401
[8] Ibid. p398
[9] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, (Routledge, 2000) p65
[10] Ibid. p67
[11] Badiou, Alain, Being and Event, (Continuum, 2006) p210
[12] Ibid. pp230-31