Monday, March 27, 2017

Descartes' Angelus Novus

1.1 The terms a priori and a posteriori indicate a difference in epistemic warrant that has purchase throughout our linguistic culture. G.E. Moore circled this difference with his open question: X may be pleasurable, but is it good?—and we can pump an analogous difference by asking of warrant per se, noting well that something might be justified but that this doesn’t mean the idea, or whatever, is true. In juridical terms it is possible to ask of any law, whether it is in fact right. All these points are grounded in the belief that Truth doesn't depend on whatever you may you think of it (or even anything you make of it--making it inaccessible); Reality isn’t whatever you want it to be, one might say; if something is true, it is true come what may, as Quine might say (differently). If something is right, it was always right. And so on.

From this question of truth, the anxiety of (sterilized) doubt quickly arrives. What if everything (or anything) we believe is wrong? Truth (the kingdom of God?) opens up in our discourse to shatter our epistemologies, forcing us to provide better reasons, that then could again be questioned, or perhaps, force us to figure the notion in a way that escapes open questioning altogether. In another register we might say, Derrida’s impossible (quasi-transcendental) could never break out of doubt because it was always messianic in the sense of an arrival of whatever. My immodest claim is that Descartes' messianic moment of truth may very well be intended to overcome a demonological moment of doubt.

1.11 Descartes’ skeptic was such an a priori move. Looking for a certainty for experience, he noted that what couldn't be doubted was that, in the event one is doubting, that one is actually doubting. I might doubt that I believe the assertion that “this is an indexed statement”; and I can doubt (t1) that I was then (t1-1) in a (de re) moment of doubt; but in the propositional attitude of doubt that x (tn), whatever X, doubt is legitimate and unassailable. All of this reasoning already begs the question of course in that Descartes presumed space to be made up of points that are unextended; that souls occupy space (have place (topos)) without being extended, and that therefore, consciousness itself, in a moment, doesn't permit simultaneous doubt. The argument, of course, can be justified by making the following seemingly true considerations: I can always doubt the past; I can even doubt that I was doubting in the past; but in a moment of doubting whatever, I cannot doubt the doubt in that moment. There is no supervenience here! I might very well turn to represent the previous moment and doubt that I was doubting (supervenience); but this then pushes Descartes' almost trivial point one step back. In the moment of doubt towards X, the doubt that I have is not something I can doubt; in the moment of having had doubt, I can doubt that I had it, but not that I am doubting the previous moment. 

1.111 The ontology of experience is tricky, especially if we consider that what we are talking about is meant to be conceived as prior to experience. What is the experience of doubt if not fully in experience? Perhaps the supervenient point is always made and the reality of the moment that Descartes relies upon to pull the trick is completely illusory. And yet it seems intuitive that in the moment of having had doubt, I can doubt that I had it, but not that I am doubting the previous moment. Nevertheless, it is hard to picture how this comes down to as being prior to experience. The sense of some event of thinking being prior to experience is difficult to understand (because thinking is an experience, of course!). In any event, perhaps what Descartes was trying to say was that it would be irrational to suppose that a demon would have an agenda of making us doubt that we are doubting. Or perhaps what Descartes was saying was that only God (Rationality) could pull us out of doubt. (And that this wasn't an idol). This is the tension I wish to explore: If God saves rationality, was the rational proof above obviously weak?

1.12 The argument that there is reason to doubt everything is a difficult one to make. In fact, it is clear enough that we have no way to understand the problem. But what was the problem? The demonological point that Descartes makes signified a common understanding, once, long ago; it was providence that was being questioned. The first cause of existence (God) yields a bridge to the a priori indubitable “moment” of Descartes. In this protected (protracted a priori experience) we are not second causes (even though we are created); it almost seems necessary to say that the bodily order is a different sort of secondariness (ontologically fallen) let us say, while the beautiful soul, the crown and jewel of creation, is a proper form of secondariness. What’s that? The reasonable man has entered once again into the garden, on his own strength of rationality?—As though reason were already redeemed? In Aquinas, the seat of reason is not perfect. In Eckhart we have moments of perfect union (with God)—provided we are self-less and without expectancy for God. Whatever that means. 

But what if that first cause that guarantees the second order entirely, isn't really there—asks Satan (or the demon, or whatever). Answer: of course it is; it constitutes the trust that we have. But how? And, as we know, the proof falls apart, and Descartes is caught in his circle. Of course it might be incorrect to see the lopped off soul as being the sort of thing that is secondary in a different sense. But my point is theological. If we are talking about doubt (sin) and we are looking for solutions, the theology of Descartes would have it that what is required is faith in God; or trust in God himself. And not faith in reason. When we doubt our capacities, or we doubt what we believe God has told us to do (consider Abraham, a knight of faith in Keirkegaard), what makes the despair of doubt vanish is putting our faith in God, God himself. So then what is curious about the demonology of Descartes’ skeptic is that God comes after the fact, later on in the proof as if they were detached, as if reason didn't require God--and this is how the argument has been taken up by rationalists. If this proof is virtual; if God was always necessary and the proof is only half good (if not utter bunk) without God, then we have an interesting problem because Descartes has rarely been considered as having made a demonological point. The point I’m making above about “moments” might then come down to the point that Reason was never good enough. If Descartes had just said only God can make the doubt disappear. But then what is this sense of doubt? Could it be something more than just seeing a proposition as possibly false?


X doubts that Y (is true)

implies that Y might be false. And its opposite seems to be that 

X believes that Y (is true)

In our common everyday world of intuition, the certainty of Y is basically whether or not it is grounded in experience. If I hold up a hand, and you see it, you won’t likely doubt that it is a hand unless you’ve taken some entry level epistemology class. Of course the way out is to note insist that the burden of proof is not on the one holding the hand; it is on the question in the first place. That is, it seems in keeping with ordinary common sense to doubt what is not evident. Any change in the conversation made by the epistemological skeptic, will seem out of place, like a conversation stopper. In sum we no longer find it believable that a posteriori experience requires a priori justification. And the epistemological skeptic is always asking an a priori question. 

The contemporary problem with understanding Descartes, therefore, is that God as guarantor for certainty in trivial matters seems unnecessary; and in matters that are less evident, aseity is completely out of place. God might sufficiently explain everything, of course—such is in keeping with the difference between truth and justification; but most people just don't live in Descartes’ world: God seems like a conversation stopper, offered in a no longer medieval world.

1.31 One point that I find exceedingly interesting stemming from the thoughts on Descartes’ demonology is that “X believes Y” is not the same as “X has faith that Y”. Faith is not the simple opposite of doubt. One might say that faith is independent of objective a posteriori evidence. Is faith then independent of reasons? Not necessarily. What of objective a priori reasons? Perhaps these will do, but we might also call upon experience as long as it is subjective. What is clear is that God doesn't arrive with the simple calling of his name, or at least God doesn't arrive in a way that is explicable, objectively, by others. Descartes wanted to make God superficially rational--evidently enough; but that doesn't mean that what he was saying wasn't deep too.  

Believes that Y and having faith that Y seem to be different sorts of things; but doubt is the opposite in both registers. If I have faith in God, I will certainly suffer from doubt that I have reason to do so. If I have faith that God is with me, (and he actually is), it is highly likely that I will experience doubt about that belief. And what is the nature of this doubt that has little to do with everyday problems like whether or not there is a hand, or a cat or a bed--that resonates not completely differently than it did to one thinking through the mechanics of sufficient reason? Sovereign Providence implies that so long as God permits doubt to be compounded there is nothing but his own saving power that can break through the cycle. Such a form of doubt is not a rational mode. In other words, when real demons arrive to make us doubt, there is no reason to suppose that they are rational and willing to be tricked; and there is every reason to suppose that seeing them as tricked is part of their trick; that such is part of their doubt. Doubt for a demon is only in a superficial way the kind of thing that ends quickly in reason.

**It is very important to note, however, that reason is not identical throughout philosophical history. For Aquinas it is clear; he means prudence; for Descartes it is less obviously like Aquinas, unless what I said above is true. Unless rationality was always too weak and too simple and too much like an idol.

1.4 Therefore, the simplicity of doubt in Descartes, in analytic philosophy, catches only part of the meaning of doubt in terms of its vicious elements. And it seems that this is important. If the Kingdom of Heaven is Truth and everything else is a lie, then the mode of faith that we have lost in the simple analysis of belief and doubt can only be caught up with a new meaning of doubt, and perhaps, with a fresh reading of what Descartes was searching for. If he was looking for a way out of the vice of doubt, then it should be expected and unsurprising that he sought this ultimately in God; and yet, if we read this demonology ever more back into Descartes, it would seem evident that the grounding of doubt in itself was always too flimsy (and Descartes saw it). 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Supplementary Halos

There are a variety of meanings appended to the sense of freedom. 

We might mean moral freedom, implying that we are responsible and not absolutely determined; that causality is efficient in some sense; that material causes do not strictly determine the ends that one is inclined towards. It's complicated, of course; but moral freedom starts with the assumption that one is always free, “radically free” as Sartre put it; for even in the moment of strict coercion, one can still choose. In The Nick of Time, Johnny Depp is coerced to kill some politician, or his daughter will die. Sartre's point is merely that no situation necessarily produces a predetermined result. So even though the choices are limited (Kill this politician or do not (and your daughter will die)), the fact is that Johnny is not determined to do X to the exclusion of Y. It is likely that most people will kill someone they don't know rather than permit someone they love to die, but perhaps not; perhaps one will choose to end their own life instead, avoiding the given disjunctive choice altogether. In this sense, the claim is that

F1: One is always radically free from a metaphysical perspective because nothing coerces us (or determines us) to choose any end.

Of course, the argument may be that there is some prior causal sequence that explains whatever end there may be, and that therefore, the will is nothing more than an alley way of drives that precede it to their ends. And yet, in the moment of coercion above, it seems evident that no drive explains what Johnny Depp is going to do; after the fact, we might explain it--give it a narrative; but in the moment it seems unclear, and the latter ad hoc explanation seems to give us no real understanding into the meaning of coercion, the moment of choice, which one is “under”. Neither the drive to kill the politician nor the drive to let his daughter die, nor the self-destructive drive to kill himself, can offer itself in any objective prediction. The drives give us plausibilities, not necessities. 

Perhaps then, this sense of radical freedom, is not freedom as we usually mean it; and of course that makes sense. For we are rarely coerced. Or is it more the case that we rarely feel like we are coerced? 

It is for this reason that I wish to entertain another sense: political freedom under the presumption that No one feels coerced to live life.

Financial freedom and political freedom go hand in hand, we are told. If you have enough money to survive, evidently you are free from the burden of work. If you have enough money to have whatever you could ever want, you would always be free from simplicity, and free from having to do anything necessary. (You could always pay someone to do anything, and everything). If you are poor, you will of course never be free from doing anything necessary, and you are likely, intuitively, not to be free from desiring more. 

Epicurus distinguished necessary needs and non-necessary needs; to track only the former is to be run by the principle of simplicity; to have a problem with simplicity and to only focus on non-necessity is to be run by the desire for more. The question of being run by X (being had by X) and having X, then, strikes me as relative; one has what one is not had by. Therefore, the rich are had by avarice but they have necessity; the poor are had by necessity but they have avarice (perhaps). Therefore,

F2: One is free from X to the extent that one has whatever X one isn’t had by. 

I said above that no one feels coerced to live life. And yet what I mean is simply that being had by debts, life, and work, if such is your conception of life—which is the conception of life we desire if we are fully sublimated by civilization—makes it so that we have nothing but homelessness. (We are not had by the need to find shelter.) That is, if we live life as it is designed for us by the forces of biopolitics, the only thing that we are truly beyond (the only thing we have) is dependence in the sense of fully depending on the charity of weather, good people, and luck outside the city gates, of course to the degree that we are financially independent. Thus, if we are fabulously rich, we are not had by these biopolitical forces, we have them; and yet, as we said above, we are then probably had by avarice, an insatiable greed for more security for the self in things. 

So from this, the notion of coercion follows to the degree that we are had; and the phenomenological sense that we are had depends on how much financial freedom we have. One is always had by something; the rich by avarice, the poor by necessity. Accordingly, there is no such thing as autonomy. The homeless man, however, while he is had by the need for shelter and security, mirrors the wealthy person who is had by avarice; if only either would turn back into the security of necessity. Then one can be free of even being had.

Is the homeless person had by necessity? There are needs in day to day life, of course, as Epicurus said: necessary needs are food and shelter and yet, in our culture, these things are readily available given the general rule of charity. The homeless person is not had; the homeless person is had (perhaps) by the need for more for themselves, a better situation. Or they are had by the shame that ultimately propels us towards Avarice. The homeless person, too, might have necessity all figured out. They might even have diminished every sense of fear.

Perhaps what Giorgio Agamben meant in “Halos” (The Coming Community) is simply this turning from vice into virtue: “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different”.

 Agamben goes on to write:

“The theory developed by Saint Thomas in his short treatise on halos is instructive in this regard. The beatitude of the chosen, he argues, includes all the goods that are necessary for the perfect workings of human nature, and therefore nothing essential can be added. There is, however, something that can be added in surplus (superaddi), an “accidental reward that is added to the essential,” that is not necessary for beatitude and does not alter it substantially, but that simply makes it more brilliant (clarior).

The halo is this supplement added to perfection - something like the vibration of that which is perfect, the glow at its edges.”


The question of having nothing doesn't put one in a position to be unhad by anything. Something supplementary is required to make one indifferent in the proper sense. Joyful indifference places us beyond being had by necessity, but this turning, perhaps, requires a different sort of infusing. One is not naturally joyful, in Thomas’ sense; one does not naturally have beatitudes (stemming from their own capacities). Zoe requires a super infused addition. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Form-of-LIfe: Beyond Law?

In Giorgio Agamben's The Open, the crucial point is to understand that every generation of the concept of man as not-animal because functional of developing a concept of animal, produces a possibility: Neither man nor animal; a figure that resonates as delineating a more complete picture of the metaphsyics of homo sacer. And if you'll recall the vision at the end, the idea of Feasting on Leviathan (ahem...) is caught up in the figure of the acephalus, the one that has become ignorant of division within (existence): the one that no longer sees herself as human, essentially, and, as such, willing to become a mini-Eichmann; for it is the definition of 'human' that produces bios (citizen) and thereby produces the outside (zoe), and therefore, also, the virtual possibility of 'bare-life', if it is not already present in the mere reality of non-citizen being a function of citizen. 

The extent to which we are willing to merely follow orders is proven by our willingness to entertain bios. We go to work, we make a wage; we consume products that have nasty origins in Third world countries; and the bios that is given to us in entering into citizen-life marks us. Our essence is built on the bare-life of the outsider that cannot become one of us, because they must produce the possibility of us.


The politics of civil disobedience are often associated with pacifism; but existential sedition, or drop out culture has more to it than is recognized. This is why monasticism is analyzed in his Highest Poverty.  If you know anything about the cell and the monk, it is the case that the Franciscans held no personal property and as such, were in tension with their  catholic "owners". Francis traveled to see Pope Innocent III after having his church burned to the ground; and yet, the meeting between Innocent and Francis became a different kind of thing. Here was a Christian focused on Jesus, and that very same Jesus led him to poverty, to a life of charity, and to holiness and anti-materialism. The Pope was humiliated for what had been done, but he responded in humility by kneeling to Francis' feet. From thence, the relationship was tense between the Franciscans and their "sponsors" (Dominicans) because the politics of Jesus tends to call the church into question (even now!). And metaphysically too! The politics of the Franciscans was based on the simplicity of metaphysical individuation--the privileging of nothing above anything else: the animal and the stone, the human and the weed; all are creatures, on equal footing, under God as created-being. Here, in this beautiful metaphysical vision, there can be no sense of "bare life".

If Francis called for a rejection of the hierarchy of (created) beings under Uncreated Being, then it is not impossible to see this (heavenly?) economy as having far reaching consequences. The revealed Christian economy of God (to become a fool for Christ, as Francis did) calls us out of  the wisdom of the world into the foolishness of faith. It calls us to serve God, never ourselves; it never calls us to serve Mammon (You cannot serve both God and Money). And so, it is no surprise that more can be said about the early Christians than their mere resistance to Emperor Worship (as the common Conservative Evangelical tradition would have it). As Hornus articulates in It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes toward War, Violence, and the State, the early church was also guided by indifference to the state and its desires, to the point that governing the vast sections of Christian reality became impossible because they were unwilling to participate in Mammon politics. We know that the early church, after Pentecost, were led to sell all their possessions and live to feed the poor.  That we don't do this is testament to our lack of faith. Indeed, one might spend a life figuring out how to link not-World economy with God's Economy.

It is not impossible that this vision of non-participation is what Agamben has in mind. There can be no doubt that it rejects the principle that None are Free unless all are Free. And yet, it seems clear enough that this position of non-participation cannot fail to do violence to Mammon. The real question is why the early Christians were so effective, and why contemporary anarchist approximations don't catch fire. Could it be that the monastic life involves more than mere existence?