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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Totality and object-oriented ontology

In his interesting "Levinas' triple critique of Heidegger", Harman presents Levinas as a critic of Heidegger in three respects: one to do with ethics (or rather the ethics of ethics, as Critchley would put), one to do with separation and one to do with substance. He points out, quite correctly in my view, that Levinas' original attempt was to provide a metaphysics devoid of any commitment to totality; totality, Harman writes, is his "strategic enemy". In Totality and Infinity (T&I) he exorcises totality thoroughly by proposing a metaphysics in the first person where one's selfishness and its interruptions form the basis of the narrative. Hence, the egoism of incorporating the others by the same in order to survive and the interruption placed by the other from outside through a metaphysical desire present in ethical demands as much as in the public language imposed on my selfish freedom or spontaneity. At the same time, Harman objects that the metaphysical project of Levinas restricts the interrupting other (the absolute other) to the human others that reveal my spontaneity as unworthy and make sure my freedom is invested as responsibility. Harman's objection could motivate an object-oriented metaphysics: every object affects every other through metaphysical desires (as much as through needs) and, as a consequence, there is transcendence not only in the human other. There is infinity - what Levinas contrasts with totality and associates with separation - in every object. Because separation is warranted, such an object-oriented metaphysics wouldn't be committed to totality (to an existence indifferent to existents). In fact, Harman plays separation against totality while discussing the friction Levinas imposes on Heidegger.

Now, to exorcise totality is not an univocal endeavor. There is a sense in which totality contrasts with separation and, more precisely, with exteriority. Levinas insists that exteriority requires interiority - interiority, he writes, is the holiday of totality. In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics would avoid totality by entrusting each object with a withdrawn element (say, the Real Object of Harman). This element, conceived by Heidegger in connection to his reading of the Ding in Heidegger's Einblick as something that reveals and conceals itself of its own accord as an episode of zuhanden, would take care of the infinity in the interiority of the other that Levinas points out in a contexts very different of that of episodes of zuhanden (Levinas understands that only thematization, and not the coupling of things when tools are used, reveals the bite of the other, through word). In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics could expand Levinas' metaphysics beyond the confines of the human other. But Levinas wants to exorcise totality in other senses. We can understand totality in Levinas at least in these four possible senses:
(1) The opposite of interiority (separation, exteriority)
(2) The commitment to a third-personal view, a sideways-on view in an expression of McDowell
(3) The use of the first person as an example, the other viewed as an alter-ego and my own experience as the basis for a speculative flight
(4) The commitment to neutral, impersonal terms
He is clear about senses 2, 3 and 4, as much as 1 in the opening pages of T&I. In 2A6 ("Le moi de la jouissance n'est ni biologique ni sociologique") he criticizes an impersonal view of the relation between me and the other. He wants to avoid any description in neutral, third-personal terms of my relation with the other which is thoroughly personal and cannot be described in a lateral way (from a sideways-on point of view) unless one is committed to viewing both me and the other as examples and the other as an alter ego. Levinas doesn't want any speculative flight from my own first-personal experience: this would amount to projecting myself and my relation with the other beyond my personal terms and therefore would entail a commitment to totality - and to understanding the other as an alter-ego.

It seems that an object-oriented metaphysics, as something other than a metaphysics made in the first person, would be committed to totality in the 2, 3 and 4 senses. The withdrawal of the other, for Levinas, is not the withdrawal of an object in general - which is neutral. I don't withdraw in the same way as the other does to me. An object that withdraws is a neutral structure speculatively achieved by expanding my first person experience. In his terms, such an object-oriented metaphysics is an ontology in the sense that it collapses the other into the same and turns my experience with the other into a concept (the concept of object among objects).

What interest me in all this is the metaphysical commitment to totality. Yesterday, in the Anarchai's group reading of Jean Wahl we were discussing a tradition in metaphysics (certainly a very 20th century one) that would start out by avoiding totality. This spreads from Levinas' insistence in a first personal metaphysics to Deleuze's n-1 account of multiplicity through Jankélevich's presque rien and je ne sais quoi and Derrida's deconstruction (and to what Heidegger proposes, for example, in the Kehre in the last lecture of the Einblick. We thought that maybe Jean Wahl could be placed as one of the origins for such a (20th century) tendency. It is interesting to understand the ontological turn (and the speculative turn) as a break with that avoidance of totality. It is, perhaps, a consequence of abandoning what Malabou once called "a culture of aporia".

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Levinas and immediacy

I'll write a bit about my class on the last sections of chapter 1 of Totalité et Infini (T&I) this morning. Specially about the section "e) Language et attention" in "Vérité et justice".

The issue of mediation. To be sure, when one claims that there is a mediation between A and B (call it C), one is still under the obligation of determining whether there is a mediation between A and C. This can lead to an infinite regress. Or to an arbitrary stop. Often one argues against the immediacy of our contact with the world but not against the immediacy of our contact with conceptual norms or a linguistic practices. Brandom once wrote that "we met the norms and they were us". That is, there is no mediation between us and the concepts - even when concepts are crucial to mediate our access to intuitions (and are what can provide content to them).

I take the issue of thematization (and not that of what is a theme) to be central in this sections of T&I. Levinas has Heidegger's zuhanden in mind when he insists that only through thematization - and not through what is ready-to-hand - we can reach truth (and reality). There is no such thing as a non-thematized connection with the world where things present themselves and withdraw of their own accord. His image of what is ready-to-hand is that of unconstrained and uninvested spontaneity - thoroughly morally unworthy and therefore thoroughly a product of my own unconstrained gesture of domination. It is through thematization that truth can emerge, and it is through it that my freedom is unmasked in an exercise of criticism (i.e. of diaphonia). Thematization, on its turn, requires the others. They have introduced themes (and content) into my mental life. In fact, they are present implicitly in my view of reality when it is a view, therefore something that has been thematized. Levinas says that the faces of whoever thought us about everything we access are implicitly present (never fully present as the Other is infinite) in our thinking about the world. The others are there, in my image of the world. I see my parents, colleagues and other companions implicitly in my view (in my thinking) about a book, a table or a landscape. Language covers the others - they leave traces on it. Just like for Sellars, without a language we wouldn't have anything to say. Language introduces the others and therefore thematization. The image is indeed very close to that of Wittgenstein on private language. The public language is where a constrained force is present so that content can emerge - without it, what is correct is what seems correct to me, and therefore there is nothing but an unconstrained exercise of spontaneity.

In other words, Levinas clearly is not buying into any form of empiricism where access to things are immediate. What is ready-to-hand is not accessible at all. Yet, just like with Wittgenstein, we still can ask whether my access to the Other is immediate. There's much to say about this. But there is a suspicion that there could be a problem with public language: how do I recognize the Other as an instance capable to thematize my world (and contest my spontaneity)? Is this recognition immediate?

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Linhas de Animismo Futuro available

Just out!

Levinas' infinitism

Today in my course on Levinas we were discussing his thesis, in "Vérité et Justice" (T&I), that criticism should lead not to the thesis that spontaneity is incompetent for knowledge but that it is unworthy because unfair to the Other. Doubt - as criticism should precede theory as much as metaphysics should precede ontology - is a moral concern. Although since Sextus the movement of doubting is described in terms of other voices, diaphonia, the insufficiency of reasons shown in cases of underdetermination etc, the idea that the trouble that epokhé creates was technical and not ethical prevailed. Levinas provides an ethical interpretation of criticism: one suspends judgement because of the Other, because the Other sets limits on my freedom and on my spontaneity - justice invests on my freedom, makes it worthy.

Now, Levinas holds that the Other is infinity. And that infinity is not anything theoretical but something related to moral transcendence through the Other. Infinity is perhaps never thought in terms of actual infinity - an actual infinity is put at service of totality just like what Deleuze describes Hegel and Leibniz doing in the first chapter of D&R. In other words, infinity is thought by Levinas in opposition to totality. There is no infinity leading to a totality (or to an absorption of all difference). He takes criticism to be an instance where the Other and a different world is revealed - and therefore an infinity is revealed. The alternative to that ethical reading of the epistemology of spontaneity (and of epistemology in general) that condemns freedom is to find criticism as pointing always as something technical that requires spontaneity to be somehow supplemented in the epistemological endeavor but never challenged. He believes that the technical fix - psychological or otherwise - would be found always wanting. And then he writes that this path would yield an infinite regress. Interestingly, the "infinite" in this diagnosis of infinite regress is not the one that is non-theoretical (but moral) as he advocates. Still, this is precisely the point: the infinite regress points at the theoretically (technically) incompleteness of any solution that could make theory immune to criticism. Only an infinitist solution is possible: acknowledging the Other, denouncing spontaneity. (This is the infinite regress that provides an epistemological solution - a moral one.)

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

"Amanhontem": the self-collapsing Goodmanian predicate

The argument against Humean critique of induction based on the factual or empirical (and therefore inductive) character of expressions like "tomorrow" or other expressions of the future. To doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow is intelligible only if "tomorrow" is understood and therefore if some inductions are accepted in order do doubt others. Specific doubts concerning the future cannot be formulated. Today in my epistemology course I was exploring the analogy between Hume and Goodman and therefore between the new and the old riddle of induction. Goodman's predicates are always defined in terms of temporal predicates - "green if observed *before tomorrow* and blue otherwise". To simplify, we can formulate all these non-standard predicates - grue, emerose, nexists (something that exists if observed before a given time and doesn't afterwards) - in terms of "tomorrow". Now, we can concoct the predicate 'tomorterday': something that is tomorrow if observed up to a point and yesterday if observed afterwards. A day is tomorterday if it is tomorrow with respect to yesterday (and any day before that) but tomorrow with respect to today. Tomorterday follows any day before today but precedes today. The formulation of all Goodmanian non-standard predicates (including 'tomorterday') could also be formulated in terms of tomorterday so the very formulation of the riddle is prey of itself and therefore already has to be making use of an entrenchment.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Interrupted Nexus, the first few lines

In the current form, The Interrupted Nexus, a book I'm writing, starts like this:

There are two ways of thinking about the others (the other human, the other than human, the unexpected other). The first derives from thoughts about co-existence. The second conceive of them as transcending. In both cases, if the others are taken as a metaphysical ultimate, truth is not a matter of contemplating an already existing and self-standing order but rather follows from the very presence of others. It becomes a product of pluralism (of diaphonia, of dissent) and not something that which transparency is tainted by it. The approach to truth favored by the first is hinted by Bruno Latour when he writes:

Une phrase ne tient pas parce qu'elle est vraie; c'est parce qu'elle tient qu'on la dit vraie. Elle tient à quoi? Mais, justement, à beaucoup de choses. Pourquoi?Mais parce qu’elle a été accroché à plus solide qu’elle. Personne ne peut maintenant l’embraler sans défaire le reste à quoi ele tient (Irreductions, 2.4.8)

The approach favored by second, in its turn, is present when Emmanuel Levinas writes:

La societé ne découle pas de la contemplation du vrai, la relation avec autrui notre maître rend possible la verité. La vérité se rattache ainsi au rapport social qui est justice. La justice consiste à reconnaitre en autrui mon maître. (T&I 68)

Monday, 14 August 2017

The ontology and the metaphysics of agency

Been thinking of a different, Levinasian way to present our five-fold alternatives concerning agency. The original one is something like this:
1. Ontology without agency (La Mettrie, Meillassoux, perhaps Spinoza)
2. Agency without agents (Simondon, Karen Barad, perhaps Deleuze)
3. Monadologies, agents are interdependent (Leibniz, Latour, Tarde, Whitehead)
4. Independent agents (Harman, perhaps Garcia)
5. Agents without ontology (Levinas, Benso, perhaps Celan)

See, for instance, these talks.

Here, 1 is opposed to 5, 2 to 4 and 3 stands in the middle under the pressure of both its sides.

I thought it can also be presented thus:
1. Ontology without metaphysics - without anything personal
2. Metaphysics based on an ontology of agency where nothing is personal but there is some agency around
3. Monadologies: a compromise between ontology and metaphysics
4. Ontology based on a metaphysics of units of agency
5. Metaphysics without ontology - everything is personal

L'intériorité est le congé de la totalité

Tomorrow I'm lecturing on some of the initial ingredients deployed by Levinas in the argument of Totality and Infinity. He believes Descartes provided two important contributions to the project of a non-ontologist metaphysics as sketched in Plato's Sophist by the Stranger. (The project of having the Other paired with Being - and Same, Rest, Motion - and not as a derivative of what there is.) First, Descartes brought about the notion of infinity that is a concept that is beyond itself and therefore beyond the thought of a totality - an infinity that, I believe, cannot be reduced to actual infinity. Second, Descartes brought about the notion of interiority and therefore the possibility of a time that is different from that of history in its objectivity. Interiority is what makes separation - between me and the Other - possible and therefore what makes pluralism possible. Further, it is the interruption in totality. The notion of interiority contrasts indeed with history and therefore with historical accounts of things that promote an idolatry of facts. The contrast is Levinas' version of a fallacy of misplaced concreteness: there is no account of a totality because there is transcendence and transcendence springs from interiority. His use of Descartes and his notion of interiority surely puts him close to monadologies. To be sure, monadologies tend to be impersonal and to emphasize symmetry and reversibility - but they start out with the reality of the interior, of the subjective and make room for pluralism through the reality of a subjective perspective. Interestingly, in "L'athéisme et la volonté" (1B), he criticizes Leibniz because his monads are not distinct due to their interiority but rather due to their predicates and further because monads form a totality in the head of God. The two misgivings, however, seem to be based on features exclusive to Leibniz's monadology. Concerning the latter, if action in the actual world is not determined in a previous time, there could be no room for a totality. As for the former, if predicates are an expression of interiority, as in Whitehead, what distinguished different units of action would be their interiority. Still my question persists: is it possible to conceive of a Levinasian monadology?