The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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SEPT 2011 Issue

Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;

—W. B. Yeats

695. Prophecies. Great Pan is dead.

—Blaise Pascal Pensées

1 - Meeting the Other

In the third book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, Moses is herding his father-in-law’s sheep on a hillside when the Lord erupts in sheet of flame from a nearby bush. The author presents the scene as a scientific impossibility: the bush burns furiously without actually burning up. The voice from the bush adjures Moses to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stands is holy. Then Moses turns his face away in terror. In the KJV, the scene reads like this:

Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

But the narrative itself, the reassuring cadence of the words, the logical throw of subject and predicate, veils the heart of the encounter. What Moses finds so terrifying is the absolute difference between his human self and the infinite Other. Everything about the scene puts Moses and his world in doubt. Every expectation, every frame of reference, every category of thought meets its antithesis and explodes. This is matter meeting anti-matter. Yet Exodus does what human discourse has always done which is render the implacably different symbolically. God speaks with a voice that seems, to Moses, recognizably human. Out of the fire comes something familiar.

Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century French philosopher who situates himself somewhere between phenomenology and Talmudic hermeneutics (call him an Old Testament phenomenologist), talks about the eruption of the Other as an experience so alien, so unrecognizable as to be an experience that somehow takes place beneath the frame of consciousness since consciousness functions at the level of symbols, that is, at the level of language, whereas the Other is characterized, in the first instance, as pure difference (unknowable, inexpressible, hidden, etc.). This eruption is conceived of as violent, as thrusting the Other between self and self, that is, the I that thinks and I as object of its own awareness, that is, the self we imagine ourselves to be.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan talks of the eruption of the Real (with a capital R) as traumatic and terrifying–because we live anesthetized between the symbolic structure of language and a phantasmagoric dream world of the imagination fueled by fetishistic capitalism. Together they screen (veil) us from what is dark and unknowable, the dark and unknowable yet insisting somehow on its presence, more often than not in some catastrophic symptom or event (a pop-Lacanian, and thus Imaginary, example of the eruption of the Real is the destruction of the World Trade Center). In any event, the Real is the not-me so unutterably alien as not to be describable.

We are used to speaking fashionably of “difference,” but I want here to insist, as Levinas does, on the utter and terrifying difference of difference saved from the identity metaphysics of analogy (God the father, etc.). We have literary equivalents in which a brush with the Other, the Real or God renders the subject, from the common perspective, insane. For example, there is Kurtz’s “horror” in “Heart of Darkness” which Conrad describes as the effect of exposure to the wilderness, a common motif in the presentation of difference (see, obviously, the Old Testament where the Wilderness is the scene of God meeting man). “But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.” In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Mrs. Moore enters the Marabar cave, encounters darkness, the anonymous pilgrim mob, the smell, the mysterious echo and suffers a psychic break.

She lost Aziz in the dark, didn’t know who touched her, couldn’t breathe, and some vile naked thing struck her face and settled on her mouth like a pad. She tried to regain the entrance tunnel, but an influx of villagers swept her back. She hit her head. For an instant she went mad, hitting and gasping like a fanatic. For not only did the crush and stench alarm her; there was also a terrifying echo.

Such examples characterize a meeting with something, not a benign and loving God, but closer to Levinas’s Other (with a capital O), a word that better captures the primordial and trenchant meaning of the encounter. Humans seem haunted by the idea that existence is fundamentally split, a split that has been variously and not exhaustively characterized by phrases such as human and divine, I and thou, self and other, subject and object, particular and universal, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, phenomenal and noumenal, existence and reality, appearance and reality, unity and number, quality and essence, nature and spirit, even male and female or civilization and wilderness. These antonym pairs amount to the same cleavage, the abyss between the conscious self and something else that, because it is different and other, is fundamentally unknowable (or hidden as Heidegger said, or repressed as Freud said). Because its face is veiled, because it presents itself only to us as infinitely inscrutable, it seems to incarnate an endless negativity that cancels even our humanity.

Plato was right when he said that we can only know what we know already, that knowledge works by identity. What we cannot know, cannot access, we also cannot experience, and yet this unknowable is all around us, lies inscrutable and threatening behind everything we do know, crouches even within our hearts in a place Freud called the Unconscious. Mostly we cannot escape the feeling that it is watching us, waiting to trip us up, or sometimes bless us. At the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein threw up his hands and wrote that we must remain silent about the things whereof we cannot speak, by which he meant a long list of absolutes including God, the Good, Beauty, etc. But that sort of realism has never stopped humans whose imagination is prolific in inventing dream meetings with the Other. The history of our philosophies has been a history of such dreams.

2 - The Other in Oral Cultures

The dreams begin in the primordial time before history, the time of myth and epic, in the world of oral discourse, which in some places still hangs on in the form of melancholy tribal remnants hiding away in the deep forests here and there around the globe. We don’t really know precisely what the ancient peoples thought; we can only surmise by extrapolating backward from these historical remnants, the stories of conquered peoples, oral texts that were written down soon after the invention of writing, and from the minute amounts of art that have survived.

Oral cultures are living mnemonic devices with a social structure that replicates the human conception of the world at large. Villages are divided (into moieties) and the halves divided into clans, the two halves having often some theoretical antipathy mostly based on a consciousness of difference (even though, from the outside, they may not look different at all). The clans often link to a totem, plant or animal or weather phenomenon. Certain sorts of knowledge and social capacity reside with different clans, genders, or cultic groupings. Knowledge is passed down ritually and dramatically by a combination of rote memorization and rites of passage (there is nothing like getting circumcised while learning a new story to make you remember it) that reinforce the lessons and repeat the ancient myths. Myths often speak of twins or cosmic battles between elemental beings and these cosmic battles result in the creation of the world and humans.

From the start humans imagine the world as fundamentally riven, violent and paradoxical. But this ancient world of myth is far more conceptually permeable than the world we inhabit today. The Other is familiarized, the world of the Other populated with creatures much like those in the human world, only more powerful and anarchic. Humans and gods travel back and forth between worlds. Shamans climb the Tree of Life and Death and bring back knowledge from the Land of the Gods (or the Land of the Dead if you go the other way). They assume the shape of animals; they acquire powers from totemic spirit guides. They hunt by dreams and divination. Humans can even fly and be in two places at once (defying laws of logic). To be sure, the journey to the world of the Other, as the journey to the Land of the Dead, is strange, terrifying and dangerous, but it can be accomplished.

Much of the art of oral cultures seems bound up with the idea of permeability or, in its active form, transformation. Thus some of the earliest representational art we have discovered depicts animal-human hybrids, or creatures in the moment of transformation. For example, the famous shaman figure painted on the walls of the Trois Frères cave with its human legs and feet and upright stance and antlers and tail. And the famous Lion Man/Woman figurine found in the cave at Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany and dating back 30,000 years ago. Which, yes, reminds one instantly of a gorgeous little panther man figurine carved by the now extinct Calusa Indians of Florida in the Smithsonian Institution. And a 19th century Alaskan Inua salmon spirit mask–masks themselves are transformational images–with the half-human, half-salmon face. And Daphne Odjig’s (a 20th century Canadian Ojibwa artist) Thunderbird Woman. And many others.

I don’t wish to romanticize this moment nor endorse any New Age impulse to wax nostalgic about an Imaginary Arcadian past when we were one with Nature. It’s important to remember that culture is culture, that all cultures alienate humans from the world of Nature, from the Other imagined as Nature, and from one another in some peculiarly essential way. The fundamental split comes with language, the technology by which we symbolize our sense of the world. After that, everything is interpretation and translation. And we can’t go back. Yet it remains true that within a culture certain philosophical analogies (in this case, two worlds connected by precarious pathways over which humans may pass) stick and form a general thought framework more or less assumed by the people living in that culture. Culture tends toward the conservative unless forced to change by an alteration in circumstances (technological innovation or an Ice Age, for example) or by confrontation with an alien culture.

3 - Mediating the Other in the Age of Literacy

The invention of writing was one such decisive innovation. Writing does not, as in the case of language, create a new system of symbolization. Rather, it creates storage space for memories outside the human brain (think: hard drives). Written documents are databases that can be shared. Writing vastly increases the human ability to accumulate knowledge, but it also destroyed the old oral way of life. It did this by disrupting the socially-organized dissemination of knowledge (ancient wisdom, myth) and by confronting the archaic theory of truth (truth based on authority, upon the wisdom of the elders, communal truth) with a more modern theory of truth (truth based on documentary comparison and the accumulation of facts). There is no more dramatic account of the early cultural wars between the oral and the literate than in the Old Testament which in one aspect, at least, is the story of the battle between the people of the book, the Hebrews, and the ancient pluralistic oral beliefs of the Canaanites.

Within a few years of the invention of writing, there is a rush to collect and write down the old legends and oral epics, but almost simultaneously philosophy, more or less as we know it, is invented. And what you find in Plato is an attempt to rationalize or demythologize the old ways of thinking. Plato isn’t born ex nihilo. He finds himself in a sophisticated culture of high art and thought but still very conscious of its past as it persists in the form of mystery cults, Greek shamanism, and animism. But with writing he has the capacity to extend logical discourse past the few steps we could manage with biological memory and he has the ability to create abstractions.

The first thing Plato does is accept the archaic two-world theory of the ancients. People often blame Plato for inventing the metaphysical dualism that haunts Western (not just Western, but Plato can’t be blamed for the rest) thought, but, of course, he just accepted the old idea. This is strange to think. Already the discourse for the next 2,000 years is fixed in a frame invented 50,000 or so years before. Plato dramatizes the two-world theory with the Parable of the Cave. Humans sit in the cave mesmerized by the play of shadows on the wall; few if any have the courage to turn and look at the fire (fire again). The fire is the real, the source of true knowledge, while the shadows are only images of reality. The world we humans inhabit is only real in a sense, a reflection, a blurred or faded image of the real thing which is timeless (like the god-world of old), changeless and absolute. Then he takes (seems to) the ancient totemic categories (the animal chiefs) and turns them into Ideas or Forms, real models or exemplars of the multiple particular instances of things we find in the world of shadows. The chief of the rabbit people, so to speak, turns into an abstraction, the Idea or Form of a rabbit which is both a concept and a primordial template that exists in the world of absolutes.

The rational philosophy Plato is trying to create out of the old oral shamanistic system of thought is more logical, analytical and scientific, and it is a lot less terrifying (we begin the slow march away from the truly frightening aspects of difference). Facts and definitions begin to intrude on the ancient fluid dream-world. Plato accepts the two-world argument but shores up the abyss between them with definitions and deductions. The membrane between the two worlds becomes less permeable. This creates all sorts of ethical and epistemological problems on which philosophers have been gnawing ever since. If you can’t simply go on a journey or dream or fast yourself into the other world, how do we know it exists? How does knowledge transfer from one world to the other? How do we know what is Good or what God’s commands are? The problem is one of mediation. How do messages get from the atemporal, infinite, universal, unitary world of Forms to the temporal, finite, death-ridden land of shadows?

Plato provides at least two answers. 1) Knowledge is recollection. This is in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo. Plato posits that humans are reincarnated again and again and in between times their souls dwell in the world of Forms. Thus when they are born into the world of shadows, they are able to recognize or learn about what is going on around them. This is the Magical answer. 2) By study, discipline and contemplation, humans can reach higher and higher levels of knowledge until they achieve the light of the world of forms. This is the Still Magical But Less So answer, the answer that captured the imagination of later philosophers and theologians such that, even today, we haven’t really quite given up on it.

Plato’s argument is a good example of how so-called rational discourse can make things look sensible when they are not. In The Republic Plato tries to outline his discovery-of-the-real-through-contemplation theory, but it’s very difficult to make sense of how this might work in practice. First, he re-imagines the world of Forms (what he calls the intellectual world) on an analogy with the world of shadows (what he calls the visible world). In the visible world, the sun provides light just as in the intellectual world the Good provides the light of wisdom. Then follows his famous divided line argument.

...bearing in mind our two suns or principles, imagine further their corresponding worlds—one of the visible, the other of the intelligible; you may assist your fancy by figuring the distinction

under the image of a line divided into two unequal parts, and may again subdivide each part into two lesser segments representative of the stages of knowledge in either sphere. The lower portion of the lower or visible sphere will consist of shadows and reflections, and its upper and smaller portion will contain real objects in the world of nature or of art. The sphere of the intelligible will also have two divisions,—one of mathematics, in which there is no ascent but all is

descent; no inquiring into premises, but only drawing of inferences. In this division the mind works with figures and numbers, the images of which are taken not from the shadows, but from the objects, although the truth of them is seen only with the mind’s eye; and they are used as hypotheses without being analysed. Whereas in the other division reason uses the hypotheses as stages or steps in the ascent to the idea of good, to which she fastens them, and then again descends, walking firmly in the region of ideas...

–Plato The Republic, Jowett translation

I give you this long quotation because this is precisely where a number of elementary philosophical gambits or fudges (as I like to call them) start. 1) However you doctor this up with glosses and interpretations, Plato here uses argument by analogy to create assumptive frameworks and make claims where, by his own definitions, he has no right to claim anything. The idea that the invisible world is very much like our world (sun=Good) but somehow qualitatively different (think of the hunting camps divided into moieties) is archaic. But the argument is so relentlessly compelling that it persists today in various incarnations, especially in the discourse of popular religion.

2) The second gambit consists in dividing up the territory and slipping in the idea of gradation and then stages of progression. Note the lovely slippage in the language of the quotation from “segments” of a line, to “stages of knowledge,” and thence to “upper” and “lower” stages. We are in the realm of pure speculation and poetry here especially insofar we’re concerned with the part of the divide line that stretches into the invisible world (ending with the Good). But mediating between two worlds is certainly easier if it means climbing a ladder by simple steps as opposed to leaping across an infinite abyss. Out of this idea of a graded reality, thinkers quickly developed what became known as the Great Chain of Being. The fact that the gradations of being don’t quite hook up, that there is still that matter of an immense leap from the top of the ladder in the visible world to the bottom rung of the ladder in the intellectual world is glossed over. But in this argument from metaphor, Plato has reconstituted the shaman’s journey up the Tree of Life and Death, albeit in slightly less cartoonish terms.

3) The third gambit is Plato’s application of the fallacy of the undistributed middle to propose that mathematics is an example of direct knowledge of the invisible world and a pathway to knowledge of the Good. The argument begins with the observation that we know mathematically and abstractly what a square is, and then in the world of sense we can find all sorts of square shapes; and this is much the way, theoretically, the Forms relate to the shadow objects of the visible world. Because mathematics is immaterial and universal and, yes, all the Forms including the Good, the Beautiful, and God are immaterial and universal, we can know the Good, the Beautiful, and God in much the same way we can know mathematics. In fact, as he says, somehow, by studying the hypotheses of mathematics we can ascend the ladder of knowledge to the Good. This is the argument for what later become famously known as synthetic a priori propositions. But it fails because mathematical knowledge is analytic, it works from definitions and makes no claims as to being. The fact that mathematics is immaterial and universal doesn’t mean it forms part of the invisible world beyond our senses, and how one would get from studying parallelograms to knowledge of ethics or an experience of God is left obscure.

4 - Philosophy in Retrograde; New Myths of the Other

Plato’s metaphysical dream acquires dozens of footnotes, glosses and elaborations over the next few hundred years. Everyone more or less agrees that Plato didn’t quite get to where he wanted to go. Despite his valiant effort to connect the visible with the invisible, Plato bequeathed to later generations the epistemological problem: How is knowledge possible (and here knowledge means both knowledge gained by the senses and knowledge of God and the absolutes such as Beauty and the Good)?

Typical is the Alexandrian philosopher Plotinus who elaborates on the two-world theory and the divided line by adding and subdividing new gradations of being and new beings. I don’t have the space to spell out his complexly elaborated system completely, but Plotinus starts with the One (Good or God) at the top and then there is an Intellectual Principle which isn’t really a principle but a sort of mediator entity that comes between the Good and the next layer of being which is the Soul. And then the Soul divides into Intellectual Soul, Reasoning Soul and Unreasoning Soul. Communication or mediation between the levels of existence takes place by means of something called emanation, which is a variant of the sun or light metaphor.

You can imagine this as a series of crystals that receive and redirect the light from some original source, but you can see that this is simply an exfoliation on the pattern of Plato’s fudged arguments from analogy and metaphor. None of this can possibly refer to anything remotely real, and the multiplication of grades, entities and metaphors is positively Monty Python-esque. And it doesn’t solve the two-world problem, rather it just moves the problem around. For example, for Plotinus the Soul belongs to the intellectual or invisible (eternal, infinite, etc.) world, albeit at the bottom level. At the bottom level of the invisible world, the Soul somehow enters and resides in the visible world, in a Body (never mind the paradox of something infinite being contained inside something finite). But then, Plotinus quite correctly wonders, how does the Soul communicate with the Body? A question like this provokes a deluge of metaphorical possibilities.

But, we ask, how, possibly, can these affections pass from body to Soul? Body may communicate qualities or conditions to another body: but- body to Soul? Something happens to A; does that make it happen to B? As long as we have agent and instrument, there are two distinct entities; if the Soul uses the body it is separate from it.

But apart from the philosophical separation how does Soul stand to body?

Clearly there is a combination. And for this several modes are possible. There might be a complete coalescence: Soul might be interwoven through the body: or it might be an Ideal-Form detached or an Ideal-Form in governing contact like a pilot: or there might be part of the Soul detached and another part in contact, the disjoined part being the agent or user, the conjoined part ranking with the instrument or thing used.

—Plotinus, The Enneads First Tractate, 3

Once again note the linguistic slippage from the abstract rational-seeming discussion of A and B to the metaphors coalesce, interwoven, and pilot.

This is the kind of philosophy that Nietzsche called a lie. The problem of difference is simply ignored in the multiplication of metaphoric semblances. The terrible Other is conceptually caged and tamed. But, of course, that’s not the way people thought of it at the time. For a thousand years philosophers and theologians elaborated and diced their schemes, shifted terminology, and took seriously debates about things like how many angels (infinite beings) could fit on the head of a pin (finite point). (This is not as silly a debate as it might seem to us. These thinkers realized there was a problem when they tried to insert an infinite object inside a finite object, thus pins and angels are just aspects of a larger, more crucial argument.) In general, people took such dichotomized entities as Soul and Body, Heaven and Earth, as real and also accepted the reality of some, possibly ill-understood, mediating mechanism–the word “emanation” looks perfectly clear in a certain sense. But reflecting from our 21st century eminence, it now seems evident that philosophy merely traded one mythology for another.

Schemes like the one Plotinus invented blend easily with Christianity, offering a pseudo-rational backing for the paradoxes of the birth and death of Jesus. So much so that it’s difficult for us today to really imagine how easily and thoroughly people acquiesced to the current modes of discourse (unless we happen to notice how easily and thoroughly we acquiesce to our own narratives). These, to us, cockamamie conceptions seemed perfectly natural at the time, as self evident as the laws of gravity today. The metaphors were, in Marx’s terminology, reified; they came to be thought of as real things. Or the metaphors became myths; Christianity seen in this light is a retrograde movement in the history of Reason, a remythification of ideas Plato had attempted to purify of myth (incompletely, as it turned out).

5 - The Book and the Other

The pattern of philosophical dream changes again with the advent of printing and the Protestant Reformation, the beginning of modernity. Printed books provide another quantum leap in the technology of external memory storage and retrieval. This makes possible the invention of modern science and capitalism (based on advanced record-keeping instead of hard cash or gold; money begins to become the complete abstraction it is today). Reading becomes a generalized human activity; a publishing industry sprouts up (one that has remained fundamentally unchanged ever since); the idea of a reader alone with his book changes our concept of privacy and raises the suspicion that books are anti-social, seditious and pornographic.

Luther translates the Bible into German and democratizes access to the Word of God; this disrupts the 1,000-year pattern of sacral and intellectual authority established through the church and based more or less on Plotinus through Augustine. The book itself becomes a mediating entity, a theoretical gateway to the invisible world of God in Heaven, and any individual with letters can find his own way there. As soon as Luther mounts his revolt against the universal church, the earthly image (analogue) of the One and his invisible universe of intermediaries and emanating wisdom, the old philosophical game is over. At first Luther, Calvin and the Church try in their own ways to control the process, but like a nuclear reaction gone amok authority splits and splits again spawning competing liturgies, competing interpretations of the Bible, competing translations and finally, good grief, biblical criticism which ends up showing God had editors thus undermining the Bible’s position as a mediator. And in the midst of this frenzy of thought and reshuffling we get the first glimmers of the modern idea of a self separating itself ever so slightly from the ancient idea of the soul-body or human-animal hybrid being.

Descartes is the first philosopher to apply the new critical modes of thought, and he quickly reduces all prior metaphysics to shambles. He begins by establishing a strictly logical version of the two-world theory. Then, applying his method of Radical Doubt, he systematically demolishes all claims about reality, even the existence of God, who, Descartes realizes, could quite easily be an evil demon sending him corrupt messages about what is out there. What he is left with at the end is the famous Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. The only thing humans can really be sure of is that someone is thinking (conscious) and that the thinking exists, although it could be a continuous hallucination or a coded message sent from the planet Cephebox.

This revolutionary idea is too much for Descartes who never meant to end there anyway. He immediately applies a subtle and complicated version of Plato’s fallacy of the undistributed middle argument and deduces the existence of a beneficent and truthful God so that God can go back to being a guarantee for the reality of reality. From God, he proceeds to deduce the whole two-world apparatus and mediating processes all over again. This part of Descartes’ philosophy is a flop and not so interesting. But he otherwise has two profound effects on what happens later. 1) He establishes once and for all the completely paradoxical nature of claims about another real world beyond the world of the senses. Before this people could go around saying God sent his Son to save the world or the One emanates knowledge through the Intellectual Principle to the Soul and think they were making sense. After Descartes, at the very least, they have to shuffle their feet and cough and try to make excuses. 2) With the famous Cogito, he shifts the focus of philosophy from the nature of reality to the nature of consciousness, that is, how we think. This has a huge effect in the 20th century when Husserl reinvents Descartes’ crisis in philosophy and discovers phenomenology, the philosophical study of consciousness.

Kant comes next because he is my man, the philosopher I studied in graduate school. The effect of Descartes’ Radical Doubt and the advance of science (especially Newton’s physics) is that it is now incredibly difficult to say anything about another world. In a section of the Critique of Pure Reason called the Paralogisms of Reason, Kant proves the completely paradoxical nature of thought about reality (an inkling that, in fact, the problem isn’t one of reality but of language itself). Then he does a very complex analysis of cognition, inventing an elaborate structure of faculties, entities and mediating devices. This is, at once, close to phenomenology and yet reminiscent of the radical leafing out of heirarchies and intermediaries of earlier philosophies. There is a governing mechanism called the unity of apperception and a system of categories and Ideals, something like Plato’s Ideas, and an odd little mediating device called the schema which is a template produced by the imagination, and so on.

Kant’s bold idea is to invert the epistemological order. Prior to Kant, most philosophers conceived knowledge as the mind (subject) somehow connecting with a piece of reality (object) outside. By saying that space and time and certain categories of thought (e.g. number) somehow inhere within the subject and define the ways the subject can perceive the object, Kant changes the focus of epistemology from the object to the subject, to the structure of consciousness itself and the way it constructs our reality. Whatever there is out there, there are only certain ways we can usefully interact with it in order to know it; those “certain ways” define our reality more than the objects themselves.

At the same time, Kant soldiers on describing the Other, the real world beyond the world of appearances (what he calls phenomena), where reside God, the Good and Beauty, and the famous Ding-an-Sich, the thing-in-itself, which is the real object as opposed to pale reflection we observe in the visible world (where have we heard this before?). He claims to have discovered how to deduce the famous synthetic a priori propositions, but, in fact, has only applied the fallacy of the undistributed middle again.

In Kant, you find a logical modern absolutely bent on not giving up the old ideas. He proves that he can’t say what he says about the noumenal world and then goes ahead and says it anyway. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory. His strict Cartesian division between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world made the archaic back and forth trip to the Land of the Gods impossible. This especially befuddled him in regard to ethics, and he turns himself into a pretzel in the Critique of Practical Reason trying to prove that we somehow get impulses or messages from the noumenal world that tell us what is right and wrong in this world.

With Kant, we have reached the height of the Enlightenment which, as Theodor Adorno observed, is much taken up with the demythification of philosophy. In fact, the process of demythification begins with Plato, and we can imagine it as a progressive knocking down of bridges between the world of appearances and the real world of the Other. Of course, most of the time philosophers knocked down bridges and invented others with more rational-sounding names. And there have, from early times, been strict materialists who deny the existence of other worlds, but oddly enough they have never captured the imagination of the great thinkers. The two-world thesis has that quality which, in the computer world, we call “stickiness.” But the evolution of thought parallels a progressive distancing of the world of appearances from the world of reality, man from God, earth from Heaven, and philosophy itself realizes that it has less and less to say about what is really real. As always, Descartes’ demon god systematically deceiving mankind remains a nightmare of the terrifying Other best avoided.

6 - The Death of God

In 1882 in The Gay Science Nietzsche announces that “God is Dead” (later, and more famously, repeated by a character in Thus Spoke Zarathustra), which marks a brutal close to centuries of philosophical moonshine, except that it doesn’t really put an end to anything because people just can’t bear to give up on the archaic idea that there is something more than blank, infinite emptiness, what Conrad’s narrator Marlowe calls “the great and saving illusion that shone with unearthly glow in the darkness.”

Essentially, Nietzsche does nothing more than cap a growing awareness, since Descartes, that really we can’t make substantive claims about the existence of worlds other than this one, the world of appearance, the world of existence. The two-world argument hits the wall and with it goes all the old arguments deduced from a transcendent reality or an other-worldly God or Good, upon which, for hundreds of years, we had founded moral and social structures and heirarchies. What happens next is that philosophy splinters itself into a number of paths or solutions.

1) Hegel, Marx and the Reification of History: Hegel, who actually precedes Nietzsche, historicizes the two-world structure (and Plato’s divided line) and says that the other world is not contemporary but in the future (the mysterious out there becomes the equally mysterious later). History is about the growth of the human spirit, the acquisition of knowledge building toward a moment (somehow) of unity or coincidence with the totality of the world Spirit. This is a quasi-Christian fudge which quickly convinces hardly anyone except Karl Marx who jettisons the spiritual aspect of History from Hegel’s system and replaces it with the idea of human development toward an Edenic political system called the dictatorship of the proletariat when we will all be equal and good to each other like people in Heaven. This also seems pretty New Testament, although Marx would deny it. In this view, History itself is constructed as a universal, totalizing process, as myth.

2) Hegel, Marx, the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory: Both Hegel and Marx have other better ideas. They both respond to the refocusing of philosophy on human consciousness. Hegel, for example, does a brilliant analysis of the master-slave relationship (he is already calling this phenomenology), demonstrating how humans reciprocally create one another in social situations. Marx contributed his own brilliant analysis of the virtual reality machine created by fetish capitalism. People are not only defined reciprocally in social relations, those relations are defined by the abstract flow of desire and capital. Capitalism orchestrates vast numbers of humans to produce and churn value, this churning of an abstraction for which no one has any real use creates alienation (meaninglessness, anxiety and the desire to chase even more abstract value). This is not philosophy in the old style at all. This is philosophy turning its analytic tools on the complex fever of the here and now and finding that our reality, our sense of self, is far less stable and transparent than we thought. Not only is there not a God and another, better reality, there may not even be an I we can call our own.

Aside from the dolorous history of Stalinist Russia and the Cold War, Hegel and Marx have a profound effect in the 20th century via the Frankfurt School of philosophy or what we call Critical Theory or culture criticism. Philosophers like Theodor Adorno apply methods of social and cultural analysis, tools derived from Hegel and Marx, to expose systems of oppression and delusion in contemporary culture. Adorno doesn’t even shy away from analyzing popular culture, seeing the media, for example, as an instrument of control and oppression in favour of market capitalism. In effect, humans now live in a delusional system of artificially directed desire and satisfaction. Our thinking is done for us. I think, therefore I am has been replaced by I am a passive receiver, therefore I am. Critical Theory is not a positive philosophy; it makes no substantive claims about reality or the future because it is theoretically bound to analyze its own activities which must also be considered suspect (why do we valorize freedom over oppression or deep thought over shallow fantasy?). A modern version of Descartes’ Radical Doubt (or the strict application of the law of non-contradiction), Critical Theory is a stern and irritating moral force, relentlessly telling us what’s wrong without offering a clear escape route. Yet when all escape routes are illusory, one begins to yearn for escape from existence itself, the fallen world. One begins to see why those dangerous pathways into the world of the Other held a certain appeal.

3) Existentialism and the Aesthetic Argument: Kierkegaard follows Hegel and rejects that system-building dream. His first book is on Irony. A later book The Present Age pretty much describes the world we find ourselves in today. “...the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it...Action and passion is as absent in the present age as peril is absent from swimming in shallow waters...” Without the Other, without God, without something more real and dangerous than the visible world, humans settle into a disastrously undramatic, narrow-minded, petty, alienated mode of living much like the one Marx describes. “Men, then, only desire money, and money is an abstraction...” Kierkegaard realizes he can’t argue for the existence of the Other; that train has left the station. His solution is to displace the two-world argument from metaphysics to the mind. The Leap of Faith is a state of consciousness which somehow embraces the paradox and accepts it while acknowledging, with despair, that that to which we give assent may not be true.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have a lot of similarities. They are both wonderful writers, both can be quite funny, both tend to write in off-forms—fragments, aphorisms, fictions. They both accept that the long ride of the two-world argument is over and despise the cultural situation we are left with. They are both proto-existentialists because they stop making claims about the world beyond and concentrate on the human situation now, existence, and the act of choice. They both also valorize a supposed past state when “action and passion” were more common. This is a fudge, an aesthetic argument that masks an unwarranted moral argument. Given the premises, there is no reason to value action and passion over money and publicity. But nevertheless, in the name of action and passion, Kierkegaard reinstates religion with the Leap of Faith (a choice) and Nietzsche invents his Dionysian Superman who chooses joyfully to join the struggle to impose his will on the flux of history.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche bequeath their aesthetic argument to the dead-end 20th century philosophy of Existentialism. Though appealing to poseurs, young people and feverish romantics who like to see themselves as heros, the idea that heroic choice, commitment and passion can somehow make one person’s life more authentic than another’s is poppycock. This is a recipe for good novels, bad marriages and terrible social cruelty. Existentialism founders because of its focus on human choice, as Nietzsche says, for creating value, or as Sartre might say, to create oneself. But if no value exists prior to choice, then there is no reason for choosing one act over another. In Camus’ novel The Stranger the hero, Meursault, murders an Arab because the sun gets in his eyes. This is Existentialism in a nutshell. When Sartre finally reached the dead-end, he became a Maoist.

4) Psychoanalysis: Freud is a fascinating branch-line in the history of the two-world argument mainly because he makes the astonishing discovery that the Other is not only out there but inside as well. In fact, he doesn’t care much about the Other out there, nor does he mourn the death of God and the loss of the moral-metaphysical framework the invisible world provided. He concentrates on the invisible world inside the human heart where he finds a huge blank spot called the Unconscious which, by definition, we cannot know. (It takes up the spot that used to be occupied by the Soul–infinite, unknowable.) The fact that we can’t delve the Unconscious doesn’t stop Freud from imitating Plotinus and inventing a scaffolding of intermediary entities (Superego, Ego and Id; compare with the Intellectual Soul, Reasoning Soul and Unreasoning Soul) and emanations.

He notices that people often do odd, repetitive, self-destructive things for no obvious reason and decides these must be symptoms of Unconscious mechanisms. He makes the odd mistake of assuming that rationality is the norm and that somehow unreasonable behaviour must come from elsewhere—whereas people are always being unreasonable. Dreams are symbolic emanations from the inner unknown that a skillful reader can decode. Freud invents a narrative myth to explain the contents of the Unconscious, something to do with desire for sex, infant trauma, repression and the return of the repressed. Oddly enough, this seedy little myth repeats the archaic (oral) ban on incest which, according to Levi-Strauss is the foundation of culture, the primal alienation. These concepts can hardly be described as even theoretical. Rather they have the character of suggestive and, yes, compelling metaphors. They cannot be proven because, by definition, like God and the world of the Other, the Unconscious is completely opaque. But Freud and his followers reify the metaphors, and today, in the world of popular culture, we take them as the bedrock of human nature. We may not necessarily believe in our immortal Soul, but we all talk glibly about the Unconscious, as if we had all seen one.

7 - The Fractured Mirror of Modernity

In the 20th century, without the gaze of the Other to prop up our certainties and alibi our failings, there is a profound turn in philosophy away from the object, that is whatever might be out there. From Plato on we have been blowing up the bridges between this world and the Other, shoring up the Berlin Wall of difference, gradually admitting our limitations. Our world has grown smaller and seedier while the compass of the great unknown out there seems to expand even in its infinitude and grow ever more alien.

The scene is set by Edmund Husserl who published a book on the Crisis in Philosophy in 1935 in which he revisits Descartes’ method of Radical Doubt. The crisis amounts to a re-emergence of Plato’s idea that we can’t know what we don’t already know, the paradox of epistemology. Kant had made the crucial step of suggesting that there are certain forms of thought that inhere within the subject (consciousness, people), templates, that make knowledge possible while also, to a certain extent, constructing that knowledge. This formulation stops short of the philosophy known as idealism, but the way we know has become a significant part of what we know. What we know is not pure knowledge of the object, so to speak, but knowledge for us, which is all we can have. If this is the case, it makes sense to study those templates, those conditions of thought, of consciousness itself. Philosophy then abandons its traditional object (the object) and converts the subject (consciousness) into an object of rational inquiry. This coincides with what the post-modernists and the critical theorists and the literary critics later call the abandonment of the Grand Narratives. Henceforth, there will be no over-arching systems, no total theory of human existence or history.

Phenomenology, literary criticism, linguistic analysis, psychology, cultural studies and anthropology all become branch lines of the activity of philosophy just as traditional philosophy and academic philosophy departments begin to dwindle as going concerns. The decisive turn toward language as the primary field of study begins around middle of 20th century but is prefigured in the late 19th century in the arts which suddenly fracture and turn self-conscious. The technique of art becomes a concern of art itself and the traditional subject (the object of art) recedes in importance. The painting we all know as “Whistler’s Mother” was, in fact, called “Study in Black and Gray” by the painter.

Very early in the 20th century in St. Petersburg the critical school called Russian Formalism rises in a whirlwind of new aesthetic and political movements. Formalism, the theory that art is content fitted into pre-existing aesthetic structures, coincides with the birth of structuralism, a cluster of theories in various disciplines revolving around the idea that cultural and social entities develop according to formal laws. Roman Jakobson is an early Formalist who leaves Russia and helps found the structuralism movement, modern anthropology and the structural analysis of language. Vladimir Propp, famous for his analysis of folktales, comes out of the same St. Petersburg stewpot and has a huge influence on anthropology (the modern exemplar being Claude Lévi-Strauss who eventually came to the conclusion that societies are structured like languages) and later French literary theory.

Unless you have fully entered the language game of theory, it’s often difficult to comprehend what is being said or how it fits into the general history of philosophy. The structures of thought are, indeed, peculiar theoretical entities which require a good deal of metaphorical language in explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it means to say that something inheres in thought and constructs our reality, a reality not the same as reality might be prior to being constructed, a quasi-reality which is still not something we completely made up. One is reminded of Ezekial 1:28. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord.” But what is an appearance of a likeness of something real?

The main premise of the two-world argument is that there is a subject and an object with an immeasurable and unleapable distance between them. For the subject, the object only appears as an appearance of a likeness. Every particular philosophical formulation of the argument has hypothecated mediators and steps which make knowledge (or redemption) possible. Since, roughly, the death of God, the argument has shed much of its theological weightiness. Now the argument is less about how we can know God than how we know the world and each other, and here the world is Wittgenstein’s world, the world we can describe in words. But what Kant and the various forms of structuralism have done is invent new mediating machines, the structures of thought/conditions of knowledge (think: space stations and docking devices) that somehow allow us to hook into the reality beyond.

But they are tricky, impossible to pin down. In this regard, the critical analysis of literary texts seems about as far as you can get from traditional philosophy except that literary texts offer lessons in how the mind constructs meaning–read: “reality.” Literary criticism of this sort views the experience of literature as a paradigm of consciousness. In this case, the text stands for the reality out there (this really goes back to biblical criticism, the problem of biblical interpretation set against the notion of the Bible as the Word of God). Thus you can get a sense of how contemporary philosophers see the relationship between subject and object, self and world, by watching the way they talk about texts.


Roland Barthes is famous for declaring the death of the author, which, of course, is a playful repetition of Nietzsche’s death of God moment. The author is in a position relative to his text analogous to God’s position to the world. The author wrote the words; God created the world. But the subject doesn’t/can’t interact with the world directly, only sees an appearance of a likeness just as the reader never reads the text the author intended but brings his own associations and interpretations. What the reader brings to the text constructs a new text, his own text, a text for himself, the only “real” text he can have. The original text, the author’s text, disappears. The author becomes vestigial. In the same way, the subject brings its own structures to the reality God created. Because we can’t access that reality directly, can only work within the constructed reality of our own creation, God becomes irrelevant. (No doubt this argument is as dismaying to God as it is for authors.)
At this point, strangely, language, nowadays the chief structure of thought, the primary mediation device between humans and reality, itself begins to float, to exist somehow both inside and outside its human host, creating a structure of meaning and thought which we cannot escape and which, in our imaginations, might be otherwise. Language, the invention that created consciousness and set us apart from Nature in the first place, seems to alienate us progressively even from ourselves. Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst mentioned at the outset, posits a self or subject that exists mostly in a world constructed by the imagination (Imaginary) and language (the Symbolic).

The Real is both out there and inside but unknowable. Consciousness is the original rupture with whatever goes for reality (the Other, Being, God, primal unity). What I have been calling the gap between self and object, Lacan calls the “lack.” The Real, in Lacan’s terms, is the “lack of the lack” which seems to signify simply lack of consciousness or the non-existence of consciousness. But this mere non-existence can also seem threatening, somehow insistent (because it’s real) and disruptive; it waits with cavernous jaws, hungry and inevitable. What we have been calling the conscious self begins with an absence and mostly imagines itself against that blank screen. Thus not only has reality disappeared, not only have God and the author become afterthoughts, but even the self, as it comes under scrutiny, begins to dissolve.

Nowadays, the self resembles nothing so much as a soap bubble with a dark and infinite out there and a dark and infinite interior and a thin, iridescent film of consciousness, ineffably fragile and shifting. This consciousness, this self, cannot even call its thoughts and desires its own; in the language of the internet, the self has becoming an access point and a media reader–thoughts run through it, they can hardly be said to belong. It is as if philosophy, having set out to prove and establish reality, self, God and soul, has only managed to cast doubt on everything it touches. Philosophy is like a magician who ascends the stage, pulls a rabbit out of a hat, then makes the rabbit disappear and then disappears himself.

This is both comic and somewhat tangential since that which began by trying to explain the experience of the terrible Other has not really helped matters by coming up with the idea that there really isn’t an Other and there isn’t any self to experience him anyway. Somehow this doesn’t jolly me out of my fear and expectation of death. After all is said and done, out of the whirlwind of imagination and language, there is yet “a still, small voice” that has nothing to do with God (yet) but is my voice, the voice of the self, which may be nothing but the self who talks and protests and expresses a desire that does not stop at the surface of things but leaps, however quixotically, into the dark.


Douglas Glover

DOUGLAS GLOVER is one of Canada's finest writers. In 2006 Glover won the Writers' Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. In 2005 he was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2003 he won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction. Douglas Glover is the author of eight books of fiction and several books of essays, including The Enamoured Knight, his celebrated book on Don Quixote and the novel. This essay, Mappa Mundi, will appear in Glover's forthcoming book Attack of the Copula Spiders (2012 Biblioasis). He lives in upstate New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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