Here is another excerpt of notes from our recent effort to re-think a Marxist ontology that can answer to the practical political and social needs of our age. I hope friends appreciate what may seem as a "distraction" from more topical politico-economic analysis and current developments. I think, however, that we need to elucidate these "fundamental" matters of Marxist philosophy if we are to present a coherent framework of practical action in our political conduct. Cheers to all!
Merleau-Ponty, to my knowledge the only philosopher who not only tried to give an account of the organic structure of human existence but also tried in all earnest to embark upon a “philosophy of the flesh”, was still misled by the old identification of mind and soul when he defined the mind as “the other side of the body” since “there is a body of the mind and a mind of the body and a chiasm between them”. Precisely the lack of such chiasmata or crossings over is the crux of mental phenomena and Merleau-Ponty himself, in a different context, recognized the lack with great clarity. Thought, he writes, is “‘fundamental’ because it is not borne by anything, but not fundamental as if with it one reached a foundation upon which one ought to base oneself and stay. As matter of principle, fundamental thought is bottomless. It is, if you wish, an abyss.” But what is true of the mind is not true of the soul and vice versa. The soul, though perhaps much darker than the mind will ever manage to be, is not “bottomless”; it does indeed “overflow” into the body; it “encroaches upon it, is hidden in it – and at the same time needs it, terminates in it, is anchored in it” (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p33, this last quotation is from Augustine, De Civitate Dei).
This is not the first time that we pick on Arendt for her stubborn attachment to this distinction between “mind”and “soul”. There is indeed a distinction to be made between “emotional thought” and “abstract thought” – but both “modes of thinking” are just aspects of mental life that are different only in their “content”, not in their “fundamentality” or their ontological status. And this is what Merleau-Ponty is saying but Arendt cannot comprehend because of her attachment, again, to the distinction between “cognitive thought” which is oriented to “truth-as-certainty” (logico-mathematics and scientific regularities) and “thinking” proper, which for her includes “meaning” but which in effect ends up referring to logico-deductive and formal-rational, in short, “abstract thought”. Only in this regard does her own thought differ from Kant’s basic distinction between the thinking ego, whose eminent faculties are the understanding and reason, and the soul or the self. Kant ends up “reducing” all thinking to cognitive thought or thought directed at “certainty” and “truth”. Arendt instead categorises this as only a branch of abstract thought, of which “meaning” forms the greater part. But as we will see, Arendt bases her entire argument on the “otherness” of “thinking” – its being in the world and yet apart from it – precisely and ontologically on the “truth-status” of logico-mathematical abstract thinking or reasoning – on Kant’s notions of intellect and reason. Although she agrees that thought is an “abyss”, it is “fundamental”, because it is only through “thought” that we are able to pose the most fundamental questions of existence and reality, she fails to understand thereby that from the ontological standpoint even abstract thought still constitutes an “emotional” aspect of the life of the mind - however “cool” or “impassive” or “dis-interested” it may appear - of which its “intellectuality” is only a part or subset thereof. Mental activity, whether intellectual or emotional, is one and the same: the problem is that too often we con-fuse, as clearly does Arendt, the “focus” or “mode” of thought with its “real referent”, with its “object” (which, as we will see in our critique of Heidegger’s Kantbuch, is no “ob-ject” at all) – as if emotive thought dealt with “the soul” and intellectual thought dealt instead with “the mind ” as “pure activity”, and then split itself again into “rational” and “meaningful” activities. Contrary to what Arendt believes, both intellectual and emotive thought have repercussions on “the body” – and to this extent Merleau-Ponty is quite right to insist on “the mind of the body” and vice versa, rather than just “the soul of the body” and vice versa, and their chiasmata, their crossings-over.
The stumbling block for Arendt is a distinction that she makes and that Merleau-Ponty does not tackle whilst Nietzsche certainly did and, by so doing, made one of his greatest discoveries, what we have called “Nietzsche’s Invariance”, which is that cognitive thought (logico-mathematics) and reflective thought, both of which make up “abstract or intellectual thought”, are not “separate” from other modes of thinking – and that indeed “thought and body” cannot be “separated” the way Arendt earnestly wishes they could! The mind has a “life” also in this “sense” or “meaning”, what Arendt calls “the sixth sense” (pp49-50): - that it cannot be separated from “life”, even in its most “abysmal” or “fundamental” intuitive or rational cognitive or abstract functions. Arendt clearly mistakes what Merleau-Ponty means by “fundamental”: thought is not “borne” by any “thing” not because it is in opposition to or contrast with “the world of things” – because, as Arendt herself points out, thinking beings are not just “in the world but also of the world”. Rather, thought is “fundamental” because it is only through thought that we can intuit the nature of reality. But this intuition tells us precisely what Arendt (and Heidegger, then Kant, as we are about to see) refuses to acknowledge: - that thought is immanent in life and the world, that it cannot “abstract” from the latter, even in its most “intellectual” modes and functions and operations. This is what Nietzsche, first among philosophers, discovered. And here we come to “self-evident truths”.
Arendt’s The Life of the Mind is quite evidently erected on the misconception that Kant operated a dichotomy or an opposition – a Platonic chorismos – between “things in themselves” (the Ideas) and “mere appearances”, between the “(true) world” and its effects. Yet this is not correct – because Kant emphatically elevates those “mere appearances” to ineluctable a-spects of the thing in itself so that no real ultimate “opposition” exists between the two. As Heidegger puts it at p23 of the Kantbuch:
In the Opus Postumum Kant says that the
thing in itself is not a being different from the appearance, i.e., "the difference
between the concept of a thing in itself and the appearance is not objective
but merely subjective. The thing in itself is not another Object, but is rather
another aspect (respectus) of the representation of the same Object."42
Where the opposition arises is not between appearances and things in themselves but rather between pure intuition and “thing”, between perception and reflection, between perception and knowledge, between knowledge and reason, between idea and object – whence “transcendental idealism” -, and finally between Subject and Object. This is why Schopenhauer could celebrate in “the distinction between appearance and thing in itself….Kant’s greatest discovery” – because he could see immediately that in fact there cannot be any “dualism” between perception and knowledge and that therefore the real dichotomy was to be located between the Understanding and its “representations” on one side and the Will, the true “thing in itself”, on the other – with the two making up “the world”: hence, “the world as will and representation” (or Idea). Heidegger has enucleated and illustrated, with characteristic didactic and analytical brilliance, this important aspect of Kantian meta-physics: for Kant there is no “opposition” whatsoever between “things in themselves” and “appearances” – nor are the latter “caused” by the former; rather, for the Koenigsberger, appearances are the necessary manifestation of “things” as “beings-in-the-world” open to perception by the thinking ego of human beings (Heidegger calls them “things for us” in What is a thing? At about p5) who then (and here comes causality) “orders” them into “concepts” or constructions from which deductions (synthetic a priori statements) can be made by pure reason. It is not the case that for Kant “appearances” are “mere” and therefore false events (Geschehen) that need to be interpreted in the light of the “things” that cause them. Arendt’s miscomprehension can be gleaned when she summarises Kant’s position as follows:
“His notion of a ‘thing in itself’, something which is but does not appear although it causes appearances, can be…explained on the grounds of the theological tradition,” (LotM, p40).
Kant was carried away by his great desire to…make it overwhelmingly plausible that ‘there undoubtedly is something distinct from the world which contains the ground for the order of the world’, and therefore is itself of a higher order,” (p42).
Yet Kant says precisely what Arendt seems to be saying: - that the “thing in itself” does appear; in fact, it can do nothing else but appear to human beings – who can never com-prehend it fully. What is of a “higher order” for Kant is not at all the “thing in itself” as a “thing for us” but rather the thing in itself as either God or as the thinking ego, which he confines to Pure Reason but “which contains the ground [not the cause!] for the order of the world”. The difference between the thinking ego and “other” things in themselves (the “things for us”) is that the former is the faculty that can “give order” [Sinn-gebende] to the world…made up of other things in themselves, which are so named because they are not knowable “in themselves” and not because “they do not appear”! Unlike Plato or Mach, Kant does not sanctify the lofty philosopher or scientist who rises above the apparent world. Quite to the contrary, and this is a point that Arendt keenly appreciates (p41), Kant bases himself precisely on this world of appearances from which that of noumena can be deduced thanks to the intellect and reason. Perception is the construction, what “conducts to”, from which reason can derive its synthetic deductions.
By failing to understand this subtle yet essential point of the Kantian critique, Arendt cannot undo and re-erect her own “phenomenology of the flesh” on proper ontological foundations; for the simple reason that her privileging of appearances or phenomena over things in themselves or noumena or qualitates occultae is indistinguishable from Kant’s transcendental idealism even and especially where the ground for separating the thinking ego from the self is concerned, which remains firmly bound to the transcendental attitude – the thinking ego as “sheer [or pure!] activity”. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty’s exaltation or elevation of perception from “secondary” (the effect of “things” or “objects”) to “primary” (the dis-closure of the “object” that presupposes its partial “invisibility” or “nothing-ness”) is tightly chained to this philosophical “framework”. Arendt amply demonstrates and corroborates this conclusion when describing her own understanding of the difference between thinking ego and the self:
The thinking ego is indeed Kant’s “thing in itself”: it does not appear to others and unlike the self of self-awareness it does not appear to itself, and yet “it is not nothing”. The thinking ego is sheer activity and therefore ageless, sexless, without qualities and without a life story…For the thinking ego is not the self” (pp42-3).
And here is the crux. The crucial characteristic of the transcendental attitude rests not on the distinction between the true world and the apparent world, but rather on the conception of human intuition as “ordering the world”, on the separation between the intuitive and the conceptual tasks of the mind. This is what Merleau-Ponty was attempting to circumvent with “the topology of being”, yet failed to achieve because of that “and yet ‘it is not nothing’”! Heidegger’s explication of this Kantian expression in What is a Thing? (at p5) brilliantly and instructively distinguishes between two kinds of things in themselves: - those that “appear” to us [things for us] and those that do not “and yet are not nothing”, such as God and the thinking ego. See also par.5 at p22 of the Kantbuch: “The Essence of the Finitude of Human Knowledge”:
Appearances [Erscheinungen] are not mere illusion [Schein], but are the being
itself. And again, this being is not something different from the thing in itself,
but rather this [thing in itself) is precisely a being. The being itself can be
apparent without the being "in itself" (i.e., as a thing which stands forth) being
known. The double characterization of the being as "thing in itself" and as
"appearance" corresponds to the twofold manner according to which it [the
Being] can stand in relationship to infinite and finite knowing: the being in
the standing-forth [Entstand] and the same being as object [Gegenstand].19
Arendt fails to make this distinction and so believes that all Kantian things in themselves are the same and that her distinction of Being and Appearance and above all that between the thinking ego and pure reason is what sets her own theoretical approach to thinking apart from Kant’s in that Kant, although he did not like Descartes con-fuse thinking ego and soul or mind and self, reduced the thinking ego and all thinking to pure reason! Yet we can see that she is mistaken about Kant’s notion of things in themselves, for one, and that her distinction of the thinking ego from the self coincides with Kant’s except in the essential aspect of pure reason or “abstract thought” which, we argue, is the only way in which Arendt can uphold her distinction between thinking ego and self in any case! The self is a “thing for us” because its “psychological” manifestations are “apparent” or “visible” to us. But the thinking ego is not “visible” because it deals with “pure concepts” and because its “content” are these pure concepts, so that both the thinking ego and “its” pure concepts are things in themselves or noumena or notions (Begriffe – this applies to Hegel’s ‘Logic’) that “trans-scend” the a-spects or appearances or phenomena of the “things for us”, whether formally (Kant), dialectically (Hegel) or existentially (Heidegger). (Cf. Croce, Logica come Scienza del Concetto Puro, from p8 and Heidegger, Kantbuch at par.6, p24 for discussions on the “purity” of concepts as reflections on representations arising from intuition: “Knowledge [and therefore thinking] is primarily intuition, i.e., a representing that immediately represents the being itself,”[p19].)
So long as “chiasmata” are possible between body and soul, immanence is assured. But it is when the “mind” is considered, as Arendt considers it, as “sheer activity”, when the ageless, sexless, thinking ego without qualities fails to appear, and yet “it is not nothing” and like God it is not a “thing for us” - when this “fundament” or “abyss” is considered mystically, then we have trans-scendence, the op-position of Subjet and Object – a theo-logy that Arendt exposes but cannot avoid. This is the underpinning of Schopenhauer’s (then Nietzsche’s) devastating critique of Kant’s transcendentalism – something to which Heidegger comes close with his own critique of the Schematismus whilst relapsing into the transcendentalism that Schopenhauer’s “will and representation as ‘the individual subject-object’” could not elude . In other words, Arendt cannot consistently maintain the difference between thinking ego and self – unless she relies on the “rational-regulatory” or conceptual-deductive function of the thinking ego as pure reason! We shall soon see just how essential this function of thinking is to Arendt’s ultimately fallacious distinction between thinking ego as “sheer activity” and the self or soul as a chiasmus with the body!
Arendt speaks of
the paradoxical condition of a living being that, though itself part of the world of appearances, is in possession of a faculty, the ability to think, that permits the mind to withdraw from the world without ever being able to leave it or transcend it,” (‘LotM’, p43).
Yet so long as Arendt keeps speaking of “the world of appearances”, she will be stuck with this “paradoxical condition” for the simple reason that she exalts, like Kant and even Heidegger, the “primacy” or “primordiality” or “purity”, the “sheer activity” – the “transcendence”! - of thought and intuition over their “materiality” or “sensuousness” or immanence. For to say that thought can “withdraw from the world” because of its “abstract” and “inescapable” (a reference again to logico-mathematical thought) character or quality is effectively equivalent to saying that thought “trans-scends” life and the world, however much Arendt may eschew this conclusion! Tertium non datur: unless Arendt can enlighten us about the ontological status of “the mind”, she has no grounds to back the assertion that “the mind [can] withdraw from the world without ever being able to leave it or transcend it”. The “life of the mind” then becomes an “impossible chiasmus”, indeed an oxy-moron. An illustration of this miscomprehension can be gleaned from Arendt’s critical comments on P.F. Strawson’s presumption, characteristic of the
analytical school, in a passage she
quotes from one of his essays on Kant: Oxford
It is indeed an old belief that reason is something essentially out of time and yet in us. Doubtless it has its ground in the fact that…we grasp [mathematical and logical] truths. But…one [who] grasps timeless truths [need not] himself be timeless,” (Strawson quoted on p45).
What neither Strawson nor Arendt understand, and this is the reason why they are entangled in this “paradoxical condition”, is that “mathematical and logical truths” are neither “true” nor “timeless” because both notions are “transcendental” and therefore antinomical. It is simply not possible for someone who is not “timeless” to be able “to grasp timeless truths” that are, by definition, “out of time” – unless one posits the “transcendence” of “reason” and its “timeless truths”! But that would be tantamount to allowing that there ec-sist entities of thought or reason that are “out of time” even though those entities are “thoughts” originating in the mind of a “thinker” who is not “time-less”!
The notions of “truth” and “timelessness” require precisely that “com-prehensive being or grasping-from-the-knower” [Jaspers’s Um-greifende or Heidegger’s Totalitat] or “totality” or “being-in-itself” - not “for us”, that belongs to “what is not and yet it is not nothing” (cf. Kantbuch, pp18-22) - that directly contra-dicts both their ec-sistence (either in space-time or in “place”) and the “finitude” of the knower! The prism that distorts the entire Western ontological tradition’s view of reality is precisely this notion of “self-evident truths” as “comprehensive being” or “totality” or “being-in-itself”. This is the prism, the illusion, that Nietzsche’s Invariance smashes mercilessly to smithereens. For a “truth” to ec-sist it must be “com-prehensible” (Heidegger uses the term “umgreifen” early in the Kantbuch, at par.5, p20) and therefore, unlike the Kantian and Schopenhauerian “thing in itself”, “within” time: it must be intra-temporal and intra-mundane. But then it cannot possibly be “time-less”! A “timeless truth” does not ec-sist: it is either a tautology or else it is “a practical tool”, an “instrument”, and as such neither “true” nor “false”, just as the world is neither “true” nor “apparent”. As Heidegger’s discussion in par.5 of the ‘Kantbuch’ reveals (at p19 especially), the whole notion of “comprehensive grasping” or “totality”, indeed the entire Kantian effort to tie intuition to thinking and then both to knowledge, has to do with the “communicability” of intuition.
Knowledge [and therefore thinking] is primarily intuition, i.e., a representing that immediately represents the being itself. However, if finite intuition is now to be knowledge, then it must be able to make the being itself as revealed accessible with respect to both what and how it is for everyone at all times. Finite, intuiting creatures must be able to share in the specific intuition of beings. First of all, however, finite intuition as intuition always remains bound to the specifically intuited particulars. The intuited is only a known being if everyone can make it understandable to oneself and to others and can thereby communicate it.
The whole pyramidal structure from perception to conception, from intuition to the intellect and reason, from conduction to deduction, has no other aim than to explain how it is possible for human beings “to share perceptions as knowledge”! It is this “crystallisation” of symbolic interaction, that Nietzsche shattered by exposing its con-ventionality. And it is instructive to see how Benedetto Croce deals with this critique in the Logica. Having already tersely lampooned the “aestheticist” critique of “pure concepts” which denies their validity and existence in favour of sensuous “experience” and activity such as the artistic, and then the “mystical” critique which, like Wittgenstein, insists that what is truly worthwhile is what cannot be spoken of, Croce then turns to the “arbitrary” or “empiricist” critique (which surely must count Nietzsche among its proponents):
C’e’ (essi dicono) qualcosa di la’ dalla mera rappresentazione, e questo qualcosa e’ un atto di volonta’, che soddisfa l’esigenza dell’universale con l’elaborare le rappresentazioni singole in schemi generali o simboli, privi di realta’ ma comodi, finti ma utili,” (‘Logica’, p10).
Croce does not accept that concepts are “conventions” or, as he prefers to call them on behalf of the critics, “fictions”. As proof of the erroneity of this “critique”, Croce enlists the “tu quoque”; in other words, this “arbitrarist” critique of logic and pure concepts is itself a logical argument based on concepts – and therefore it is either equally false like all logic, or else it must claim validity on logical grounds, and thence confirm the validity of “its” concepts, and therefore the validity of “conceptual reality” in any case (see ‘Logica’, p12). What Croce fails to grasp is that, so far as Nietzsche is concerned, the “crystallization” critique does not deny the “reality” of concepts; indeed, if anything, it highlights and warns against their “efficacity”. But this “efficacity” is made possible not by their “transcendental” or “pure” status – as “timeless truths”, for instance – but rather by their “immanent” status, by their “instrumental” character as “an act of will”. Not the “innateness” of these concepts, but their “instrumentality” is what matters – not Augustine’s “in interiore homine habitat veritas” (cited and discussed by Merleau-Ponty in ‘Phenom.ofPerception’, at p.xi) but the content of the act of perception is what constitutes “life and the world” for us. Earlier, Croce had emphasized the “active” side of concepts as human representations of intuited reality – privileging yet again the “spiritual” nature of “concepts” as dependent on intuition and experience yet “separate” from it.
Il soddisfacimento e’ dato dalla forma non piu’ meramente rappresentativa ma logica
conoscere, e si effettua in perpetuo, a ogni istante della vita dello spirito,”
Now, again, Croce draws a stark contrast between the two positions, his idealism and what he calls “scetticismo logico” (p8):
La conoscenza logica e’ qualcosa di la’ dalla semplice rappresentazione: questa e’ individualita’ e molteplicita’, quella l’universalita’ dell’individualita’, l’unita’ della molteplicita’; l’una intuizione, l’altra concetto; conoscere logicamente e’ conoscere l’universale o concetto. La negazione della logicita’ importa l’affermazione che non vi ha altra conoscenza se non quella rappresentativa (o sensibile come anche si suole dire), e che la conoscenza universale o concettuale e’ un’illusione: di la’ dalla semplice rappresentazione non vi sarebbe nulla di conoscibile, (pp7-8).
But this contrast is almost palpably fictitious, opposing high-sounding concepts in what is almost a play of words, and simply fails to tell us why and how concepts and representations differ ontologically. Croce ends up rehashing the Kantian Schematismus with the “pure concepts” of “beauty, finality, quantity and quality” and so forth whose content is furnished by “fictional concepts” such as universals (nouns) and abstract concepts like those of mathematics (cf. Logica, ch.2 at p18). But in fact, as we have tried to show here invoking the aid of Merleau-Ponty’s “phenomenology of perception”, neither of Croce’s “pre-suppositions of logical activity”, that is, intuition and language (see pp5-6 of Logica), is such that logical activity can be separated onto-logically from them. Croce insists that a concept must be “expressible” – whence the essentiality of language to it, no less than intuition or “representation”:
Se quest carattere dell’espressivita’ e’comune al concetto e alla rappresentazione, proprio del concetto e’ quello dell’universalita’, ossia della trascendenza rispetto alle singole rappresentazioni, onde nessuna….e’ mai in grado di adeguare il concetto. Tra l’individuale e l’universale non e’ ammissibile nulla di intermedio o di misto: o il singolo o il tutto… (Logica, pp.26-7).
We have here once again the Platonic chorismos, the Scholastic adaequatio, the Kantian noumenon, and the Fichtean hiatus irrationalem – in other words, that “antinomy” that requires a “leap” (trans-scendence) from experience to thought. Except that what Croce believes to identify as a “particular” is already and immanently identical with a “universal”: not only is a concrete experience already a universal, but so is a universal abstraction also a concrete experience! Both are “representations” (cf. Croce’s contrary argument on pp.28-9). This is the basis of Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant’s separation of intuition from understanding and again from pure reason, in the sense that the Kantian “universal” is toto genere different from the particular and cannot therefore represent it separately in an ontological sense! Croce’s own categorization of these notions is at p.42 of the Logica:
La profonda diversita’ tra concetti e pseudoconcetti [identified with “l’idea platonica” on p.41] suggeri’ (nel tempo in cui si solevano rappresentare le forme o gradi dello spirito come facolta’) la distinzione tra due facolta’ logiche, che si dissero Intelletto (o anche Intelletto astratto) e Ragione: alla prima delled quali si assegno’ l’ufficio di elaborare cio’ che ora chiamiamo pseudoconcetti, e alla seconda i concetti puri.
Evident is Croce’s obstinacy in seeking to differentiate, however vainly, “thought” from “perception” or “representation” or “intuition”: - an effort that must remain vain because no onto-logical priority can be given to “thought” over “matter” and because indeed no “thought” is possible without perception and vice versa. A world without thought would be a world without life, and a world without life would not be a world at all! That is not to say that thought takes precedence ontologically over the world – because it is essential to the “world”; the two are “co-naturate”, Deus sive Natura. For universals and particulars, for abstract thought and concrete intuition, to be able to enter into a practical real relation with each other, they must “participate” (Nicholas of Cusa’s “methexis”) in the same immanent reality! Indeed, it seems obvious to us that perception and thought are immanently connected: methexis replaces chorismos. Here is Merleau-Ponty:
The true Cogito does not define the subject’s existence in terms of the thought he has of existing
and furthermore does not convert the indubitability of thought about the world, nor finally does it replace the world itself by the world as meaning. On the contrary it recognizes my thought itself as an inalienable fact, and does away with any kind of idealism in revealing me as 'being-in-the-world'. (PoP, p.xiii).
To seek the essence of perception is to declare that perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth. So, if I now wanted, according to idealistic principles, to base
this defacto self-evident truth, this irresistible belief, on some absolute
self-evident truth, that is, on the absolute clarity which my thoughts
have for me; if I tried to find in myself a creative thought which bodied
forth the framework of the world or illumined it through and through,
I should once more prove unfaithful to my experience of the world,
and should be looking for what makes that experience possible
instead of looking for what it is. The self-evidence of perception is not
adequate thought or apodeictic self-evidence. The world is not what I think but what I live through [m.e.]. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible. 'There is a world', or rather: 'There is the world';
I can never completely account for this ever-reiterated assertion
in my life. This facticity of the world is what constitutes the
Weltlichkeit der Welt, what causes the world to be the world; just as
the facticity of the cogito is not an imperfection in itself, but rather
what assures me of my existence,” (PoP, pp.xvi-xvii).
Merleau-Ponty reiterates here the Nietzschean “vivo ergo cogito”, with the peccadillos that he refers to the “self-evident truth of perception” (what is truth if, as he immediately yet unwittingly corrects himself, it is not backed by “some absolute self-evident truth”?) and then the obvious reference to the ‘I’, the Husserlian “transcendental ego” or “subject”.