Wilfried Dickhoff & Marcus Steinweg

How can we not philosophize?

»En vérité, comment ne pas philosopher?«
Jean-Francois Lyotard

There is no philosophy as such. There are philosophies. That would be an initial definition of philosophy: that it exists only in the plural, in order to complicate its definition infinitely. Part and parcel of philosophy, it appears, is the forever recommencing and perpetual invention of philosophy: philosophy is the invention of philosophy. Hence its diversity and contradictoriness. Deleuze defined philosophy as the invention of concepts. It is the invention, first and foremost, of itself. There is philosophy at the moment that it generates a concept of philosophy. What is philosophy? – there is no reason the philosopher should ask this question only at the end of his or her life. It is arguably the regulative principle of any philosophical activity. By virtue of its critical-affirmative nature, philosophy analyzes and deconstructs its concept. It equally encompasses affirmation and the invention of a new conceptual self- understanding. Critique is the critique of what was and is. Affirmation affirms what could be and is not yet. There is no philosophy that did not imply both aspects, the critical as well as the affirmative element, reflection and proflection. In analogy with a famous passage in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), let us venture to say this: Critique without affirmation is empty, affirmation without critique is blind.1 Critique and affirmation cooperate in the concept of philosophy. Philosophy affirms itself as critical even in its relation to itself. There is philosophy only as the critique of philosophy. And yet it does not coincide with this negativity. It implies an affirmative aspect that is the index of its openness to something incommensurable, for which any philosophical position must find a name.

If we cannot not affirm, also because critical thinking, as negation, is the affirmation of this negation as well, »then may our affirmation be precisely an affirmation of the impossible,« 2 which is to say, of all that cannot not be at stake: love, death, justice, friendship, the gift, freedom, and many more. To affirm the reappropriation of these as impossible is not to put a dialectical or positive spin on the impossible, and it has nothing to do with melancholy or nihilistic desperation, and certainly not with an affirmation of bad realities. On the contrary, instead of attributing positive reality to the impossible under the title negativity, we must confront it in a thinking of parrying that, rather than glossing over it or inverting it into possibility, addresses it head-on. The non-positive affirmation of philosophy is inscription into the impossible – also in light of the increasingly dominant »self-management of barbarism,« 3 which levels the recalcitrance of concepts in mindless indifference – »the words democracy and atheism no longer refer to anything solid, no more than do socialism or religious faith« 4 or many others. A necessity of philosophy today consists in the need to rethink the concepts thus emptied of meaning, to re-envision them. This calls for philosophy as an »art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts,«5 as an art that does not clash with real life. Concept and life, form and experience are not alternatives to be chosen from; to enact the tension between them, to realize it in space rather than resolve it, is the mission of philosophy: »To philosophize is not to solve problems but to live them at a certain level.« 6

Still, the recasting of these concepts that have been emptied of meaning must consist in a confrontation of the ontological emptiness of all fundamental philosophical concepts, since their voidance is the result of the flight from this void into a market- and consensus-oriented semantic rather than an engagement with it. The logic of the capitalism of ideas is a logic of substitution that responds to the void left behind by the death of God with an excessive abundance of substitutes whose function is to conceal rather than confront the void. Philosophy may be defined as the unmasking of such masks, as long as it remains clear that what emerges beneath the final mask is not a positive truth but the void or nothingness that indicates the absence of an ultimate meaning or a transcendental signification. Part of philosophy is the affirmation of this absence that exposes the ontological inconsistency of all evidences, valences, and consistencies that constitute our reality. This affirmation clearly implies the critical interrogation of all those certainties that lend the human subject its precarious stability. They are actually loans that, in the final analysis, point to the ontological poverty of the subject (i.e., to the fact that it is not in possession of anything outside it and not even of itself, since it remains entangled in opaque relations of possession throughout its life, which is to say, throughout a life that, insofar as it is already the product of that passive genesis we call birth, we cannot straightforwardly call its life) as the idea of a possessor operating on firm ground, an idea suggested by the phantasm of the traditional metaphysical theories of ultimate grounding. The affirmative aspect of philosophy has nothing to do with accepting the socio-political status quo, as pseudo-critical doctrine believes. On the contrary, it marks the inconsistency of a religious loyalty to fact that interprets itself as critical while adhering to a model of reality it no longer questions. Affirmation is affirmation of the inconsistency of the promise of consistency that is reality!

Philosophy as non-positive affirmation is the revelation of the inconsistency of the promise of consistency that is »reality,« and as such it is resistance against reality, against what is regarded as, and prevails as, reality; a parrying of the impossible in the here and now that is neither idealistic nor realistic, a parrying of the im-possible as a figure of the real. This negative affirmation – which, by the way, is adumbrated in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, for instance, when he says that »Affirmation does not bestow a halo on the status quo; in sympathy with what exists, it defends itself against death, the telos of all domination. Doubting this comes only at the price of believing that death itself is hope.« 7 – hews to a logic of opening that opens reason up to itself, »and perhaps to its unreason,«8 driven by instinct of reason that wants more than the reasonable, since »truth is beyond every validated or sensible meaning.«9

Truth might be defined as the implicit beyond of meaning, as immanent transcendence, i.e., as the index of ontological inconsistency. In his 1994–1995 seminar on Lacan, Alain Badiou defines the truth of psychoanalysis as something that is outside. In analogy with and antagonism to the philosophical love of truth, the truth of the psychoanalytic experience constitutes itself as a love of the integral beyond or outside, which, with Maurice Blanchot, both Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze as well as Jacques Derrida affirm as the outermost vanishing point of thinking.10

There is no outside the world, but there is an outside amid the world. There is transcendence in immanence, there is »the faculty of being in the world outside of the world,« 11 and there is the irrepressible desire »to salute another life in the midst of this one.« 12

Another life in the midst of this life and another reality in the heart of constituted reality: a sort of hole in being that eludes the pseudo-alternative between transcendence and immanence or ideality and reality.

Transcendence in immanence is excedence: »excedence of all that is given.«13 Nancy quotes William Faulkner: »It is because there is nothing else I believe there is something else.« With regard to the immanence of capital, we must note that capitalism, though it does not constitute a universal history, does constitute a global market,14 and to the degree that that market rules the earth and establishes itself as a discursive mode that represses all others by imposing its own rules on them, capital is »the nocturnal name of the being that is«15 – gapless immanence of the world of capital, of the global museum of all that is possible. To unfold lines of resistance within this immanence of total indifference is to initiate tensions between transcendence and immanence.

Which necessitates a redefinition of the relation between politics and ontology, insofar as any political proposition rests on an ontological implication, a concept of reality (or »understanding of being,« as Heidegger puts it), which is also to say, an interpretative evaluation of the concepts of transcendence and immanence.

In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre describes the tension between transcendence and immanence as the mainspring of a fused group in action. Everyone is everyone’s regulative third party, which gives rise to a »praxis [...] beyond impossibility,«16 but within the totalizing praxis of a revolt, such as the Storming of the Bastille. If there were nothing but pure immanence, the group would be a hyperorganism whose action would be blind, pure inertia. If, on the other hand, there were pure transcendence, the practical ensemble would dissipate into atomized individuals, without bonds of exteriority, without any shared objective, meaning, or praxis of totalization. The social praxis of a fused group gains reality only as transcendence-immanence.17

There is philosophy only as the experience of the brittleness of instituted »truths,« as an easing of the thinking subject’s commitment to reality, whose purpose is not to indulge in reveries, to escape from »hard facts« into abstractions, but – almost on the contrary – to demonstrate the inconsistency of facts in a new openness to consistent dreams (and dreams are not reveries!). »Experience can only be had blindly,« Heiner Müller says, which means that any experience that deserves the name requires the frustration of certainties.18 The subject of experience experiences the brittleness of its world. For a moment, an eclipse darkens its evidences. To experience this eclipse as lucidly as possible is to have the elementary experience of philosophy.

Jean-François Lyotard ties the inception of philosophy to the aspiration of immanent transcendence by addressing it with the concept of the »differend (différend).«19 »Thought, cognition, ethics, politics, history or being, depending on the case, are in play when one phrase is linked to another.«20 By implication, to philosophize means to attest to the conflict by inventing afresh a philosophical politics beyond the »intellectuals« and the professional politicians, in conflict with philosophy’s two antagonists, the discourse of economics (exchange, capital) and the academic discourse (of master-thinkers). The outer limit of philosophical resistance as conflict is illustrated by the image of Timycha, a philosopher of the Pythagorean school, who, when the tyrant Dionysius tortured her, bit off her tongue and spat it in his face so she would be unable to divulge her truths.

Philosophy implies openness to the dimension of the outside Lacan addresses as the real. Following Nietzsche, following Deleuze and Guattari, we may also speak of chaos; by whatever name, it is the experience of a non-internalizable resistance that brings thinking to its limits. The experience of the limit – philosophy as a limit experience—implies the hazard of a certain self-transgression of the thinking subject. If there is such a thing as a subject – a subject after the death of the subject – it is a subject of originary self-transcendence that, rather than being in possession of itself, knows itself to be determined by forces that traverse and codify its bodies of knowledge. In the act of thinking, the subject identifies itself as a subject of the outside in the double sense of the genitive, which lets it turn, confidence of its power, toward the outside by marking it as contaminated by the outside. The outside can be the name of the incommensurable, of the ontological inconsistency of its world, of the contingency or indifference of the real that a priori undermines any assertion of meaning and construction of signification. Perhaps we might speak of a philosophy of blindness. Insight and blindness, to quote the title of a book by Paul de Man, cooperate in the dynamic of any thinking that refuses to bow to the established dispositives, which is to say, that accelerates beyond the familiar and recognized to affirm the experience of the brittleness of its realities.

What is at issue is a living philosophy that proves both a critique (of ideology) and movement of liberation in relation to what is considered to be truth, and, as we have said, a non-positive affirmation or non-affirmative assertion of a movement exceeding the dominant world of fact that aims at a different thinking and action, a thinking of immanent transcendence: »What is philosophy,« Michel Foucault asks, »if not a way of reflecting, not so much on what is true and what is false, as on our relationship to truth? [...] The movement by which, not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusions, one detaches oneself from what is accepted as true and seeks other rules – that is philosophy. The displacement and transformation of frameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work that has been done to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than what one is – that, too, is philosophy.«21

As a consistency milieu pervaded by multifaceted codifications, reality is overdetermined and over-complex. In the sphere of this overdetermination and excessive complexity, the subject moves along constituted structures that orient its thinking and actions. And yet there are moments of critical disorientation. What the subject experiences in them is the inconsistency of the contingent fabric of consistency that is its reality. There is philosophy only as the experience that the system of facts is riddled with holes. That is why philosophy cannot countenance an alliance with facts, which is not to say that it denies or fails to appreciate their power. Only philosophy does coincide with the demonstration of its appreciation of the power of facts, with the analytical force that is also part of it. As long as philosophy does not transcend its knowledge, it is not philosophy.

A previously unedited early text by Jean-François Lyotard that was recently published asks »Why Philosophize?« It traces this question in the horizon of the vanishing lines of desire and ultimately answers it with another question: »Pourquoi philosopher? Parce qu’il y a le désir, parce qu’il y a de l’absence dans la présence, du mort dans le vif; et aussi parce qu’il y a notre pouvoir qui ne l’est pas encore; et aussi parce qu’il y a l’aliénation, la perte de ce qu’on croyait acquis et l’écart entre le fait et le faire, entre le dit et le dire; et enfin parce que nous ne pouvons pas échapper à cela: attester la présence du manque par notre parole. En vérité, comment ne pas philosopher?«22 Yes, faced with the questionableness of the questions entailed by the useless passion that is the human being (Sartre), how can we not philosophize? To put it another way, »man [...] is the being to whom questions come into the world that concern him and that he cannot resolve.«23 To philosophize is to live these questions in thinking them – »philosophy is not a theory but an activity« (Ludwig Wittgenstein) – which is to say, there is no philosophy without the hazard we incur by exposing ourselves to the aporias of human reality, by enacting the tension between them as such rather than harmonizing them and by thus confronting them with the resistance of living conceptual thinking. This requires a thinking that thinks with concepts against concepts and goes beyond them,24 which strictly speaking always also involves a poetry of thinking:25 »Il y a toujours dans la philosophie une prose littéraire cachée, une ambiguïté des termes.«26 To put it succinctly: »Toute pensée commence par un poème« (Alain [Émile Chartier]).

The title of this issue of Inaesthetics ends with an exclamation mark: Philosophy! Because one concern is to insist on philosophy as a »power of destabilizing dominant opinion,«27 as a thinking being-in-the-world for-which-for-others more is at stake than nothing: not least important among what it considers is the one thing that, according to Lacan, we are capable of betraying: our own desire. Philosophy is the struggle against opinion, the source of people’s misfortune.28 Inaesthetics: Philosophy! is meant as an invitation to philosophize along the terms each author implies, develops, and invents in the horizon of an opening toward the uncertain. An invitation to philosophize as a re-reinception of thinking, a thinking as the work of re-commencing. Philosophizing »responds to a demand for a return to the childhood of thought,«29 as Lyotard wrote in a letter to a child. For philosophizing not only involves the elaboration of theory or the acquisition of knowledge, it is the work of calling everything that is self-evident in question and the »inquiry into what remains as yet unthought, even when it is already thought.«30

We are deeply grateful to Michael M. Thoss from Allianz Cultural Foundation and to the Zurich University of the Arts, who have generously supported Inaesthetics: Philosophy!; to Marius Babias, Director of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.),31 for his dedication to the project »Art and Philosophy«; to Sophie Goltz and Hanna Hennenkemper for their engagement in realising the project; and to the philosophers and artists who have contributed to this issue – each of them has underlined the exclamation mark we put behind philosophy in his or her own distinctive way.

Translated by Gerrit Jackson

  1. Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Indianapolis 1996, B 75: »Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.«
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, Philosophical Chronicles, New York 2008, p. 56.
  3. Ibid., p. 49.
  4. Ibid., p. 50.
  5. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, New York 1994, p. 2.
  6. Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito: Selección, Bogotá 2001, p. 250.
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London 2004, p. 328.
  8. Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, New York 2013, p. 25.
  9. Nancy, Philosophical Chronicles, p. 5.
  10. See Alain Badiou, Le Séminaire: Lacan. L’antiphilosophie 3, 1994–1995, Paris 2013, p. 231.
  11. Nancy, Adoration, p. 28.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 14.
  14. Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, »The Sign of History«, in: The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Minneapolis 1988, pp. 151–84.
  15. Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon, London 2009), p. 97.
  16. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles, London 1976, p. 410.
  17. See ibid.: »The Fused Group. The group – the equivalence of freedom as necessity and of necessity as freedom – the scope and limits of any realist dialectic«, pp. 345–404.
  18. See Marcus Steinweg, Philosophie der Überstürzung, Berlin 2013.
  19. »As distinguished from a litigation, a differend [différend] would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.« Lyotard, The Differend, xi.
  20. Ibid., xii–xiii.
  21. Michel Foucault, »The Masked Philosopher«, in: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and other writings, 1977–1984, New York 1988, p. 330.
  22. Jean-François Lyotard, Why Philosophize?, Cambridge 2013, p. 123.
  23. Jean-Paul Sartre, Truth and Existence, Chicago 1992, p. 2.
  24. See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, London 1973, p. 15: »Philosophy can neither circumvent such negation nor submit to it. It must strive, by way of the concept, to transcend the concept.«
  25. Cf. George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, New York 2011.
  26. Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations IX, 1965.
  27. Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, Cambridge 2011, p. 71.
  28. Cf. Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, p. 163-218.
  29. Jean-François Lyotard, »Address on the Subject of the Course of Philosophy,« in The Postmodern Explained, Minneapolis 1993, p. 105.
  30. Ibid., p. 102.