Sunday, November 29, 2009

Metaphysical Horror

I read Leszek Kolakowski’s Metaphysical Horror for the same reason I read Etienne Gilson’s God and Philosophy. Because the former book and the latter’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (now on my to-read list) had been the subject of a review essay by B. J. Coman on the history of philosophy in the October issue of Quadrant.

Gilson’s God and Philosophy I found an admirable history of Western philosophy’s approach to God, admirable particularly in its clarity of exposition. Kolakowski’s book I found rather less clear. For two reasons: first Kolakowski does not put enough effort into taking the reader with him. One is constantly being expected to remember previous points that were often expressed very briefly in the first place. (Though the occasional flashes of wry wit are welcome: my favourite is:
… I, then a young and omniscient student (alas, I was soon to lose both these virtues) … (p.118)
An oldie, but a goodie.)

The second difficulty is because so much of the book is about philosopher’s concern with the Absolute. I have never understood or warmed to this long-running philosophical obsession. Coman, in his essay, puts the origin of the issue (from a fragment of Parmenides) quite nicely:
There is being, and since being is, it is impossible for us to conceive of non-existence. Being, then, is absolute.
From which Plato went on his philosophical frolic which Western philosophers have been wrestling with ever since. Since much of Metaphysical Horror is about precisely that, it adds to my difficulty in appreciating Kolakowski’s book. Which is, nevertheless, a fine wrestling with the history of philosophy: particularly its inconclusiveness.

Which starts with its arresting first sentence:
A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.
Noting that for over two millennia, philosophers have been wrestling with the Socratic questions of distinguishing real from unreal, true from false, good from evil, Kolakowski presents to us the confronting fact that philosophers have done so without coming to any generally agreed answers.
But attempts to abolish the whole thing do not work either. The issues of being and non-being, good and evil, oneself and the universe just keep coming back (p.8). Even the Karl Jaspers approach of accepting ultimate insolubility but seeking understanding anyway:
… cannot escape the infernal circle of epistemology: whatever claim we make about knowledge, even the claim that we can never have any, implies some knowledge on our part (p.10).
The sceptic turns out to be claiming to know, so is either not a sceptic at all or is intellectually incoherent (p.11).

Philosophers want a language that is absolute in the sense of being:
perfectly transparent and able to convey language as it ‘truly’ is, unadulterated by the filter of naming and describing (p.12).
But, alas, we are stuck with language as it is.

So why not be just pragmatic about it? Why worry about whether there is any difference between what appears to be and what “really” is? One answer is: because it is necessary for science to emerge to have such a distinction. That Democritus on atoms and Pythagoras on mathematics were necessary building blocks.

Well, yes (it matters whether Phlogiston exists or not, for example): but science is, as Kolakowski points out, an incidental result of pre-existing speculations. Humans seem inherently inclined to think there is some deeper reality than what we perceive. Aware of our own fragility, the fallibility and uncertainty of our knowledge and endeavours, we seek a deeper and more reliable reality and understanding (p.17).

Indeed—a continuing argument goes—we are so fallible, fragile and limited that certain understandings could not have come to us on their own, but must have come from some deeper reality (Pp18-19). Rejecting this concern is, Kolakowski, holds one of the building blocks of modernity:
… an implicit normative premise: that the idea of experience should be applied restrictedly, to concepts that are, or might be, useful in dealing with objects, and therefore somehow ‘better’ or ‘genuine’ (p.20).
A utilitarian principle, not one required by the rules of rationality.

Kolakowski notes that the Cartesian and Humean ideas about no certainty apart from no self-contradiction and our own existence had been worked out by late medieval nomimalists, notably John of Mirecourt and Nicholas of Autrecourt (Pp 21-2). But, if the distinction between dreams and reality remain—but we reject any deeper notion of metaphysical reality and unreality—then the notion of existence becomes pointless in its application to two ultimate realities: one’s own existence and God. From this comes the horror metaphysicus, which is:
… if nothing really exists except the Absolute, then the Absolute is nothing; and if nothing really exists except myself, then I am nothing (p.23).
Existence needs some further content to it.

Modern philosophy starts with Descartes’ search for a certain basis for knowledge, his famous cogito ergo sum, whose intellectual history Kolakowski provides an excellent survey of. The subsequent obsession with the problems of subjectivity leads to all sorts of places (such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre). Kolakowski seems to take positive delight in pointing out the medieval antecedents of much of this:
Sartre would not have been pleased to be told that he was a partial disciple of St Augustine. But what he took from Heidegger was deeply rooted in ancient and medieval metaphysics (p.31).
Which brings Kolakowski to the Absolute:
… it is hard not to feel that the quest for the Absolute – the Ultimum, or rather two Ultima, not necessarily identical – arose from a kind of mental compulsion. The objects of this quest are, first, the cause or creator of the visible universe, and, second, the self-supporting, self-rooted, logically necessary ground of whatever exists contingently (p.32).
Philosophy interests and intrigues me, but this question has simply never resonated much with me. Not that the quest has ever been terribly successful:
… the eternal curse of the vicious circle still operates here, as in any search for ultimate foundations. The vicious circle, however, is a natural result of the simple fact that we are not gods: we can never, except perhaps through mystical experience, begin our search from an epistemological point zero, without any presuppositions (p.33).
(Calling Kurt Godel, calling Kurt Godel.) Now, that sort of problem—the limits of reasoning and representation—I find much more interesting: probably because it is grounded much more in the realities of the human condition, not dubious abstractions.

But people keep trying for ultimate foundations:
… the search for ultimate foundations is just as much an ineradicable part of the human condition as the denial of its legitimacy (p.34).
Metaphysical ideas matter because they influence how people think and what they believe (so Proclus leads to Hegel who leads to Marx). More importantly, people desire and seek truth, beyond the:
… normal and obvious need to distinguish illusions from genuine perceptions and mistakes from correct reasoning (p.34).
Once we know that error and illusions occur, the search for a reality that cannot be an illusion, for a truth about which no mistake is possible, is unavoidable (p.35).
Which leads us back to the Absolute. And to the Neoplatonists, who loom large in Metaphysical Horror, including an extended discussion of Damascius, the last significant pagan philosopher, whose Problems and Solutions (aka On Principles) represents the end point of pagan philosophy’s wrestling with the problem Parmenides had posed a thousand years earlier.

Damascius so purged the Absolute of any person-like characteristics, it became the Eschaton, Nothingness, utterly ineffable, thereby falling into self-contradiction, for:
The self-reference trap is unavoidable in any attempt to speak of that of which nothing can be said (p.50).
Damascius arrived at an idea that Hegel expressed as:
Pure Being and pure non-Being are the same (p.52).
Damascius was the last leader of the Athenian Academy when Justinian closed it down. Medieval Christian and Jewish thinkers wrestled with identifying the Christian and the Jewish God with the Absolute. Which led some to Nothingness too:
A theologian who pays tribute to the principle of God’s ineffability but none the less talks about Him at length can be coerced into admission that God, sharing no properties with His finite creatures and being impossible to identify, even negatively, within a discourse that applies only to the world of things, is necessarily not-something or no-thing. And here language breaks down (Pp54-5).
So we are back to wrestling with language, with re-examining cogito ergo sum and thinkers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (and Gilson). Gilson argued that existence is simple but cannot be contextualised, something that, if true, Kowalowski feels would be a strange thing to have been forgotten (p.70).

What modern philosophy is left with as its Absolute—the certain point on which to stand—is the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, the modern equivalent of the God of Moses declaring I am Who am. But the certainty of the Cartesian ego does not lead anywhere, leading to a philosophical world divided between attention to the world, the wider reality, without attending to the ego-identity that takes us nowhere, or an endless attention to the ego-identity that ends up turning the world into the ego’s creation (p.74).

In modern physics, there has been some tendency to see mind-like characteristics in reality, which would be one way of re-connecting across the post-Descartes divide (Pp76ff). Which leads to discussions of Spinoza, Jaspers (again) and Leibniz.

The influence of received tradition (another form of the lack of a presumption-free starting point) turns up in all sorts of ways, such as the equating the ability to create with goodness:
One can argue, then, that apart from the strength of the biblical heritage there are no firm grounds for such an equation (p.88).
Which leads to the question of what we mean by ‘creation’, creation ex nihilo being a philosophical postulate. And the basis of accepting any notion of human creativeness—which certain conceptions of God’s creative uniqueness imply is either non-existent or is inherently malevolent. The Catholic notion that we can refuse Grace creates (a fairly minimal) space for human creativeness: the Cartesian idea that we share choice with God, it is His power and knowledge we lack, gives far more (Pp90-1). Which looks blasphemous to Christian Neoplatonists. But the Biblical God is clearly a Person, something the Christian Neoplatonists resist by claiming such anthropomorphising is a necessary means of communicating with limited human minds. Somehow, however, they can untangle what is “really” the case, trumping the mythic nature of biblical revelation, a treatment of myth Kowalowski strongly disagrees with:
If myths had metaphysical equivalents, they would be dispensable. If they both express and conceal an ultimate reality, it is because this reality is not expressible in abstracto, irreducible to theoretical language (p.95).
Certain intense religious and ritual acts can hint at what is otherwise “nameless and impossible to depict”. The mystical (dare one say existential) tradition in Christianity—the one that holds knowledge of God comes from our devotion, worship, faith, hope and charity and is otherwise not only not expressible, it is not knowledge at all—is strong (including such figures as St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Tauler, Thomas à Kempis, St John of the Cross, St Teresa) and goes right back to parts of St Paul’s epistles (p.100). There is an even stronger example Kolakowski does not mention for even St Thomas Aquinas, the exemplar par excellence of using reason to understand God, at the end of his life had a mystical experience which, he claimed, utterly overshadowed all his intellectual efforts. Kolakowski notes that the Catholic Church has always accepted intellectual paths to knowledge of God.

But this is not only a Christian issue:
… the belief that our knowledge of the Absolute is an aspect of our spiritual life as a whole, and in particular of the way we experience good and evil as our own good and evil, is part of the Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Neoplatonic legacies (p.101).
Though perhaps more as scattered manifestations than any clearly structured tradition. Still:
… the belief that we come to know Being by enlarging or injuring it through our good or evil acts is very much a traditional one – a fact indirectly confirmed by the clear historical link between the enfeebling of metaphysical faith and of religious worship and the gradual disappearance of the very notions of good and evil (p.101).
It is also an approach which is very un-Kantian in content and approach (p.102).

Also very un-Cartesian. The Cartesian ego is cut off from all context, moral and otherwise:
By blocking off the ego, Cartesianism consigned it to nothingness (p.104).
Kowalowski argues the ego needs to be situated (in communication, community, time, space, etc) to be real, but being situated does not deny its reality. Autonomy is real, but it is autonomy in context (which is also real):
Whatever his actual intentions, Descartes, by trying to save the self while at the same attempting to rob it of its communal and historical dimensions, reduced ‘me’ to something as unreal as community, history, good and evil (p.105).
… there is no access to an epistemological absolute, nor any privileged access to absolute Being, such that might result in reliable theoretical knowledge. … This double denial need not lead to pragmatic nihilism; it is compatible with the belief that metaphysical, non-pragmatic insight is possible as a result of our living within the realm of good and evil and experiencing good and evil as our own. But it does explain why philosophy, like Peter Pan, never matures (p.106).
(Kolakowski leaves open the possibility of mystical knowledge, but not as the basis for any theoretical understanding.)

The notion of the self-contained Cartesian ego does not make a lot of sense to me, for much the reasons that Kolakowski adduces. We do start from our own subjectivity in some important sense: we look at things from a point of view that can seem to be the base of our knowing anything. Yet, this is largely illusory, since so much of what we think comes from others. (Such as the Cartesian cogito ergo sum itself: there is also something a little odd about a ground of certainty that has to be discovered.) We did not invent the concepts we use, nor the language we communicate in. Our sense of how to behave has been built up from interactions with others. Even our sense of self has, as has much of our sense of the world around us. The scientific method deals with this quite directly: the requirement for replication tests reality by requiring others to be able to perceive the same thing.

The reality of our subjectivities always existing in particular contexts takes Kolakowski to the inevitably contextual nature of language and the tension between using a particular language to try to express universal and ultimate ideas:
In making one of all possible languages operational and intelligible – and thus making a metaphysical or epistemological standpoint credible – we never start from the beginning. The choice among all possible languages is made not by God but by civilizations. And it is philosophies that voice the aspirations and choices of civilizations (p.107).
(So, one may ask, what does that say of the Islamic claim that the Arabic of the Qur’an is, indeed, the language of God? Particularly in contrast to the Christian notion that God speaks in whatever language His interlocuter uses. The Islamic claim that Jews and Christians have perverted the unchanging message of God, and Islam’s conception of a God who demands submission, fits in with the notion of singular authoritative communication. Just as the Judaeo-Christian notion of successive covenants and a God who seeks friends and partners fits in with the notion of a God who communicates multi-linguistically. Which then also fits in with an instrumental morality of what expands submission to God is good versus a notion of morality as universal.)

That philosophies (and philosophers), and the languages they use, are always situated may be problematic in seeking ultimate foundations but it does give philosophers a major role:
By making the choices and aspirations of a civilization explicit, they help it expand and assert itself – just as we, by an effort of expression, open up new and unexpected avenues in our own evolution (p107)
So, being limited and never impartial, they affirm some aspects of a civilisation at the expense of others. While no civilisation is ever perfectly coherent – just as well, for that way lies stagnation and collapse.

So Kolakowski sees philosophers as both reflecting and changing culture:
By being selective in revealing the hidden premises of a civilization and so providing it with a self-understanding that is partial and coloured by their personal biases, great philosophers, although they can never simply break out of their own time, create points of discontinuity and push ‘the spirit of the age’ in a new direction (p.107).
Though, it may never be clear, even centuries later, whether they are a continuation or a rupture in that history.

In doing what they do, they effectively create new languages. Some of which fail and some of which put down cultural roots and feed into the evolution of the culture. But if the language of philosophers is irredeemably personal, this would explain the constant difficulty they have being understood, even by other great philosophers (Pp108-9). Which is, in itself, an illustration of the lack of an all-encompassing language. This leads us back to the metaphysical horror:
For how can I opt for a particular language (or angle from which to see the world, or rule for interpreting all of existence) and stick to it without believing it has privileged cognitive powers? (p.110)
Any claim to a lack of privileged position for a language cannot be expressed in that language: any such statement moves into a super- or meta- language, in which that position is inexpressible. A metaphysical position cannot be coherently both as good as any other and incompatible with them:
Alas, tolerance and generosity provide no escape from the paradox of self-reference (p.111).
I am not sure this works for me. I get the point about metaphysical ecumenism being incoherent. As Kolakowski goes on to point out, religious worship often involves an implicit, something explicit, statement about there being things which human language cannot express.
Philosophy, on the other hand, makes claims to not only not only to the truth, but to the literal truth (p.115).
Surely the claim in the meta-language that a particular language is not privileged is not actually about that meta-language, it is about the language? That is what makes it meta, even if we are still using the words of that language.

Kolakowski is sceptical about the possibility of people understanding people across cultures, across civilisations. This seems dubious to me on a couple of grounds, for clearly the teachings of religious leaders and philosophers speak to us across time and culture. Moreover, what about science? Science seems to operate happily across such boundaries. The commonalities of human nature, including human cognition, and experience seem to enable rather more communication than such worries about communication across time and space imply (without then claiming there are no difficulties in such). Translation may be an art: it is not an impossibility.

But science can achieve a unity that philosophy patently cannot.
Philosophy’s task was to discover, on a deserted field, the meaning and unity of the world; the tools for this task were the senses and logic (p.119).
One that it has never completed, and possibly cannot:
… philosophy boasts that it was the truth-seeker par excellence; on the other hand, it claims a monopoly on the right to establish what truth really is (p.121).
So philosophy becomes a judge in its own case, all the way down, but there is a price:
… the concept of truth, and consequently truth itself, can become the exclusive property of anyone who wants to possess it (p.121)
With no authority to judge between them:
So the horror metaphysicus, and the spectre of never-ending uncertainty, are bound to appear (p.121)
Which makes the contrast with science I drew above, if anything, more stark. But science constrains itself by what sort of questions it asks, what it attends to, and what answering methodologies it will accept. As Kolakowski points out, philosophy attends itself to the entire universe of meaning and reference.

Between the constrained (but clearly immensely powerful) questioning and answering of science and the unbounded ambitions of philosophy:
… there is a grey area, inhabited by a number of half-sciences (p.120)
As for philosophy trying to replicate the success of science by adopting its approach to truth, Kolakowski argues that both cuts philosophy off from its roots and makes it fairly pointless (p.121). And, in the clash of mutually incompatible philosophies, there is much room and energy for cultural growth (Pp122ff).

We will continue to attempt to “read the world”.
And is it not reasonable to suspect that if existence were pointless and the universe devoid of meaning, we would never have achieved not only the ability to imagine otherwise, but even the ability to entertain this very thought – to wit, that existence is pointless and the universe devoid of meaning (p.129).
Which seems to be as close as Kolakowski is going to come to an ultimate conclusion.

Metaphysical Horror is the fruit of great philosophical erudition and thought by a major C20th intellectual. I could wish for better attention to what the reader needs. Nevertheless, Kolakowski brings alive issues that have occupied great philosophers for millennia.

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