Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Philosophy of the Flesh: Hannah Arendt and the Ontology of Perception - Part One


This is a lengthy study that I am publishing here in short instalments. What we are proposing here by way of a critique of Hannah Arendt's conception of vita activa (active life) is a sketch of an immanentist philosophy that could form the foundation of a new politics. It seems to me that we need this most at a time when the quest for a "future city" (Gramsci, La Citta' Futura), that is to say, for a new humanist civilisation, has vanished in the fragor mundi (the noise of the world) that has grown in intensity in the last few decades - a deafening noise amplified by the recent transformations of industrial and finance capitalism, its extension to the remotest corners of the globe - and certainly not muffled by the consequent disorientation of the historical political left. Specifically, this study seeks to overcome the helpless lucus a non lucendo (fire that will not light) of more recent so-called "identity politics". If a new humanism is what we are seeking, look around... 

The notions of Nature and Reason, … far from explaining the metamorphoses… from perception to the more complex modes of human exchange, make them incomprehensible. Because by relating them to separate principles, these notions conceal a constantly experienced moment, the moment when an existence becomes aware of itself, grasps itself, and expresses its own sense. The study of perception could teach us a “bad ambiguity”, a mixture of finitude and universality, of interiority and exteriority. But there is a “good ambiguity” in the phenomenon of expression, a spontaneity that accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we considered only the separate elements, a spontaneity that gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole. To establish this wonder would be metaphysics itself and would at the same time give us the principle of an ethics. (Merleau-Ponty Reader,’Unpublished Text’,  p.290)

As is abundantly well known, one of the major weaknesses of the Marxian critique of political economy is its “determinism”. In seeking to discover “the economic laws of society”, Marx ended up reducing all significant human activity to the “labour that is socially necessary to ensure the reproduction of human society”. The “laws” governing the pro-duction of use values and exchange values also govern their distribution among social classes and thus form “the economic base” upon which all other social structures and institutions – from the family to the state to culture at large – are founded and that form therefore an “ideal superstructure” that serves merely to hide or camouflage the rock-solid reality of the basic social relations of production. This is the forma mentis of traditional Marxism: in this perspective, it is the “material economic base” that determines or drives the “ideological superstructure”; and it is the combination of the two that constitutes human history. This duality of physical realism and of spiritual idealism is yet another manifestation of the separation of Nature and Reason, of Form and Matter, of Mind and Body, and finally of Subject and Object, that has characterized Western thought from its inception.

Because Marx’s thought – his “realism” – tended to relegate all philosophy to the sphere of mere interpretation, Marxism has always displayed a clear aversion to and insufferance for philosophical speculation and especially the prima philosophia, the theory of the foundation of reality itself – namely, meta-physics and ontology. In this regard, Marx was replicating for his “critique of political economy” what Kant had performed in the Critique of Pure Reason, neatly separating the world into “mere appearances” and “things in themselves”, the latter being the ultimately inscrutable “cause” behind the former. For human knowledge to be founded on “scientific” bases, Kant proposed that we acknowledge the strict separation of appearances in search of explanation and the ultimate immutable reality of which they were a mere “re-presentation” (Vor-stellung). This is the separation (chorismos) or “the separated principles” of Nature and Reason to which Merleau-Ponty alluded in the quotation above – a separation or worse still an opposition (Gegen-stand, the German word for “object”) that we must transform into a “participation” (methexis, in the terminology of Nicholas of Cusa) in harmony with our project for a better world. 

What we find inspiring in Merleau-Ponty’s formulation of this separation is the fact that it states the problem in the tersest manner, and then suggests an answer together with the reason why it is a valid answer. The problem, tersely but improperly stated, is whether metaphysics can suggest an ethics – that is to say, whether an ontology, a theory of reality, can provide the “ground” not just for a “view” of reality but also for a de-ontology, for a framework or pro-ject of action upon reality. One of the hardest things to do for people of a radical disposition is to provide a foundation for their “convictions”, for their intention no longer “to interpret the world, but to change it”. Yet such foundation must be found or at least our inquiry into it (remember that the original word for history in Greek was istorein, to inquire) must be commenced somewhere. Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach betrays most eloquently his “in-sufferance” for the task of (philosophical) interpretation of social reality and his urgency for its practical “scientific” transformation. Had Nietzsche been aware of this Thesis, he would most probably have retorted that “philosophers thus far have pretended to interpret the world when in reality they were attempting to change it”! For unlike Marx, Nietzsche held no illusions that social reality could be deterministically reduced to “scientific laws” or that “socially necessary labour time” could ever constitute and determine “the laws of motion” of human history and societies.

The entire aim of our studies so far has been not merely to attempt to change the world as it is at present by interpreting it, by “under-standing” its functioning and mode of operation the more easily to intervene on it or at least to contrast it; but it has been also in large part to understand the reasons behind our exertions, behind our radicalism. We may know what to change and how to do it out of what Daniel Guerin once called a “visceral opposition” to the status quo, but we still need to know why we engage in “the ruthless criticism of all that exists” if we are going to have any chance of success. Our goals need to be clear before we set out to deploy our means. What we are attempting here is a critical re-foundation of an “autonomist ontology” that generates its goals not from the positing of extrinsic values but rather from the identification of the most basic human mode of perception of reality. (Cf. M-P, end of “Unpublished Text” synopsis in ‘Reader’.)

So far we have employed the approach of “critique” on the road to this quest because it is often easier to learn from the discoveries as well as the mistakes of theoreticians and practitioners that have preceded us. But “critiques” are necessarily “negative” in character: they are meant to de-struct rather than to con-struct – and that is what we have done predominantly to date, except to the degree that every “negation” often involves also “the negation of the negation” and so, perhaps, some “positive affirmation” as well. It is obvious that our task cannot be confined to “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists” (Marx) because such critique would have no “meaning” unless it also had a “purpose”. There where actions have no meaning they can also be said to lack purpose, and vice versa. What then can be our purpose – and on what meaning can it be founded?

This is the area perhaps where the thought of Karl Marx leaves most to be desired, even in view of its (again) “fundamental” importance. The most refined corrections and improvements on Marxist thought in this arena have probably come from post-Nietzschean elaborations, culminating especially in the Italian left-Heideggerianism that was an offshoot of the “new left” move away from the orthodoxy of Communist parties  of the European post-Stalinist era. Marxism may well have provided a “deontological” guide to our opposition to the ravages of capitalist industry, morally, ethically and then politically predicated on the notion of “the theft of labour time”. But if “labour time” is merely the time that is “socially necessary” to produce goods and services for “consumption”, then it is obvious that Marx has reduced the entire “problem” of capitalism to the mere “distribution” of the “social product”. Not only does this “critique” crumble to a mere “gripe or grudge” over distribution, over the share of the spoils; but it also fails to challenge the technical-scientific orientation of capitalism, its technology and science, - the political choice of what it produces and how it produces it. Even if we agree with Marx that a certain “quantity” of labour-time is (physically!) necessary for a human society to reproduce itself (again, “physically”), it is still obvious that this “minimum quantity” necessary for “reproduction” may well constitute a “necessary condition” but not in the least a “sufficient condition” to ensure the actual “reproduction” of a society – a process that is as much political and cultural as it is narrowly “economic”!

The Marxian critique also never proffered the ontological ground on which any praxis or deontology could be founded and erected. It is fair to say that Marx was too tied to the philosophy of the Enlightenment in its twin excrescences of German Idealism and scientific rationalism to be able to escape the fallacies that engulfed them both and that were exposed so virulently already by the critics of the negatives Denken from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche through to Weber and finally Heidegger (cf. for all, this last author’s Letter on Humanism). The fundamental error of Western philosophical and scientific thought has always been to seek to identify “objectively” the purpose and meaning of action with its “object” – to con-fuse therefore activity with matter, the operari with the opus, the agere with the actus and the facere with the factum. And this con-fusion of the quest for the “meaning” of human reality (of its “perception”) with the “certainty” and “calculability” of it has meant that, in the words of Nietzsche, Western metaphysics has always sought the “fixity” of Being, its “essence”, and has neglected its “being-as-becoming”. As a result, this Western “will to truth” (Nietzsche) has turned into a maniacal “quest for certainty”, for the “full end” (Voll-endung) of history and consequently of philosophy itself. This quest, however, could only end in nihilism – that is, in the debunking of all “truths” and “values” -, and determine what Heidegger called the ‘Vollendung’ – at once the ful-filment and com-pletion, and therefore the ex-haustion, of the Western metaphysical tradition. (Again, the obligatory reference is to Heidegger, Vol.2 of his Nietzsche.) Given that no “ultimate” values can be “fixed” with “certainty”, given that “truth” can never be identical with its “object”, Nietzsche was keen to stress the importance of what happens in “life”, in that place that lies be-tween “the first thing” (birth) and “the last thing” (death).

The question for us is: if we accept with Nietzsche that there are no ultimate values or final and definitive truths, that there is no summum bonum, what “meaning and purpose” can we then bestow upon our lives that will guide our living activity and that will make our political action worthwhile? It may be said that we are a purpose in search of a meaning, a need in search of a reason. Nietzsche’s ontology is in-comprehensible (it cannot be grasped practically) without his notion of the Eternal Return of the Same which is premised entirely on the interpretation of historical events as “symptoms” or “signs” of either the underlying “health” or else of the “Disgregation” of the instincts of freedom (will to power) of human agents. The notion of the Eternal Return is neither cyclical (palingenesis) nor anagogical (as in the anakyklosis), but refers instead to a novel conception of “time” as nunc stans – the “now” understood not as a point on a “sequence” of past nows and future nows, but rather as an entirely different “dimension” in which time is not spatialised, in which it cannot be measured, added to or subtracted from. For Nietzsche, everything happens at once; only in this sense does it “return eternally” and in this sense must “fate be loved” (amor fati).

Arendt’s profound incomprehension of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values is due in large part to her inability to penetrate Nietzsche’s entirely novel interpretation of place (Ort) as different from “time and space”! – Which is strange, because Heidegger (whom Arendt knew…intimately, to be scabrous) elaborated it at great length though incompletely or incorrectly in his thorough critique of the Kantian notion of intuition in his Kantbuch, which he meant as the second part of Being and Time. Arendt also and rightly begins her peripatetic assessment of the life of the mind with a critique of Kant’s epistemology (a cours force’ it seems for most modern thinkers), which in turn she interprets as a response to the solipsism of the Cartesian cogito. We agree with Arendt that the mind has a life not merely metaphorically but in the full sense of the word, materially, because we do not accept as valid the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter – a dualism that degenerates inevitably into solipsism given that the cogito admits and conceives of ec-sistence exclusively as a “mental thing” – the res cogitans as opposed to the res extensa -, and that the res cogitans must constitute an indivisible unity (in Leibnitz’s powerful phrase, “a being must be a being”). The mind has a life because it is “part” of life, it is within “life and the world”: that is its “materiality”. A mind without life and the world is unimaginable because for the mind to ec-sist it needs a life and a world in which to be situ-ated, loc-ated, that is, it needs a site and a locus, a “place” that is categorically distinct from our conventional notions called “time and space”. Similarly, life has a mind to the extent that we cannot conceive of life without an organ capable of conceiving life – the mind, whose locus is not necessarily the brain or the heart but again a “place”, a dimension categorically distinct from any body organs or functions.

[Cassirer, Individuo y Cosmos, fn.57 – Nietzsche and “inter-pretation”, no “thing” to be interpreted. Being-as-becoming, “place” and not “time and space”.]


Pero la grandeza
del Cusano en este aspecto y su significación histórica estriban en el hecho de que en él,
lejos de cumplirse este proceso en oposición al pensamiento religioso de la Edad Media,
se lleva a cabo precisamente dentro de la órbita de ese pensamiento mismo. Desde el
propio centro de lo religioso realiza el descubrimiento de la naturaleza y del hombre
que intenta afianzar y fijar en ese centro. El místico y el teólogo que hay en Nicolás [56]
de Cusa se sienten a la altura del mundo y de la naturaleza, a la altura de la historia y de
la nueva cultura secular y humana. No se aparta de ellas ni las rechaza sino que, como
cada vez se entrega más y más a su círculo, va incluyéndolas al mismo tiempo en su
propia esfera de pensamientos. Aun desde los primeros tratados del Cusano es posible
seguir este proceso; y si en ellos prevalece el motivo platónico del chorismos49, en las
obras posteriores gana la primacía el motivo de la methexis50.En sus últimas obras se
manifiesta como cumbre de la teoría la convicción de que la verdad, que al principio
había buscado en la oscuridad de la mística y que había determinado como oposición a
toda multiplicidad y mudanza, se revela sin embargo precisamente en medio del reino
de la multiplicidad empírica misma, la convicción de que la verdad clama por las
calles51. Cada vez con mayor fuerza se da en Nicolás de Cusa ese sentimiento del
mundo y, con él, ese su característico optimismo religioso. El vocablo panteísmo no es
adecuado para designar acabadamente ese nuevo sentimiento del mundo, pues no se
desvanece aquí la oposición entre el ser de Dios y el ser del mundo, sino que por el
contrario se mantiene incólume en toda su plenitud. Pero como lo enseña el tratado De
visione Dei, si la verdad de lo universal y lo particular de lo individual se compenetran mutuamente en forma tal que el ser de Dios sólo puede ser comprendido y visto en la infinita multiplicidad de los puntos de vista individuales, del mismo modo podemos descubrir también el ser que está más allá de toda limitación, de toda contracción, solo y precisamente en esa limitación. De modo que el ideal hacia el cual debe tender nuestro conocimiento no consiste en desconocer ni en desechar lo particular, [57] sino más bien en comprender el pleno despliegue de toda su riqueza, pues sólo la totalidad del rostro nos proporciona la visión una de lo divino.


We can see here, in Cassirer’s account of the thought of Nicholas of Cusa, which in many ways pre-announces that of Hegel (cf. at par.60), how the notion of “totality” subsists even as Nicholas elevates the “participation” (methexis) of the particular as an “a-spect”, a “view” of the “whole”. Similarly, in the erroneous exegesis of Nietzsche’s thought (in Jaspers as in Foucault), the primacy of “interpretation” is supposed to refer to the im-possibility of encompassing this “totality”. But this is far from Nietzsche’s meaning! The notion of “inter-pretation” always implies a “mediation” between the interpreter and the “interpretandum” – “that” which is inter-preted, a mediation between the “thing” and the “knowledge of the thing” on the part of an “inter-preter”. But this is exactly what Nietzsche denies – the ec-sistence of a “thing” whose “totality” or “truth” we cannot com-prehend or en-compass. Far from ec-sisting independently of the knower or interpreter (whose ineluctable task it is to be con-fined to “infinite interpretations” -, for Nietzsche neither “the thing” nor its “truth” have a “totality” that can re-fer (bring back) to an under-lying, sub-stantial “re-ality” (thing-iness or what-ness). This is the consistent meaning of “esse est percipi” that eluded both Berkeley and Schopenhauer – because both thought that “being” was a function of per-ception, so that it is the “perceiver” that bestows being to the “perceived” – which is the true meaning of “idealism” as against “realism”. In effect, both Berkeley and Schopenhauer conceive of “the world as representation or Idea” in a neoplatonic sense that opposes Ideas to the “world of appearances”. But Nietzsche and Nicholas of Cusa are speaking the language, not of pantheism but of “immanence”, like Spinoza: they are saying that “being” ec-sists only as appearance, as per-ception; for them, “the apparent world” has disappeared together with the “real or true world”. The opposition of “real” and “apparent” worlds or being is the ineluctable outcome of the transcendental attitude that opposes (this is the meaning of the Platonic chorismos, of the philosophia perennis) particular “beings” to “the Being of beings” – the particular to the “totality”, the part to the whole. Note that Heidegger (cited by Arendt in ‘LotM’, p.11) claims that with this phrase Nietzsche has “eliminated the difference between the sensible and supra-sensory worlds” – and in this he is clearly wrong because Nietzsche never wished to refute “the difference” between the two worlds: he wished instead to make a dif-ference by exposing the meaninglessness of their “opposition”! Of course, Heidegger had every interest in “relegating” Nietzsche to the nihilism (incomplete or complete) that he had denounced and sought to overcome! This is the point that Arendt herself misses completely:

What is ‘dead’ is not only the localization of such ‘eternal truths’, but also the distinction itself” (p.10).

And this is the meaning of nihilism for Arendt. Yet she also is wrong: nihilism for Nietzsche does not consist in “the elimination of the distinction or difference” between true and apparent worlds. Nihilism is the very fact that belief in the suprasensory world leads to the annihilation of the sensible world. The seed of nihilism is contained in the very thought of trans-scendence – and this is a “fallacy” to which Arendt clearly and genially points, but ultimately does not elude (see Preface, p.11). The “overcoming” of nihilism, however, starts precisely with the overcoming, not of the distinction or difference between the two worlds, but with the real source of this “distinction” or opposition, which is the forma mentis that generates this distinction, with the transcendental attitude that forms the substratum of this philosophia perennis. This is the “com-pletion and exhaustion [Voll-endung] of metaphysics” for Nietzsche. What Nietzsche certifies is “the end of transcendental metaphysics” in a practical, even political, sense. But that is not to say that a “metaphysics of immanence” is no longer possible: on the contrary, it becomes necessary. – Because, as Arendt insists, as do Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, “meaning” and “truth-as-certainty” are not the same thing! (Preface to ‘LotM’.)

[Refer to discussion of Nicholas of Cusa.]

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