Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “A Finite Thinking” is about what happens after the loss of philosophy’s old resources. He has a difficult needle to thread: there is a sense in which nihilism has triumphed, but just as much, there is something about sense which resists that triumph. Since sense is the key term here, let’s provisionally define it in multiple senses: existential meaning, conceptual intelligibility, and empirical sensibility. If sense in any of these senses is to function, it must be finite, or open.
The Senses of the Word Sense: Meaning, Intelligibility, and Sensation
The previous century saw meaning, intelligibility, and sensibility all come under heavy attack. From the Nietzschean destruction of the intelligible world, to existential anxiety over meaning, to the collapse of empirical foundationalism, to the mass crimes littered throughout the century, the past century was a century of destructions of sense—the end of sense. Nancy’s goal is to think the end of sense, an idea that is often discussed under terms such as the end of art, or the end of philosophy, or the end of history. Even after these ends, there is still a sense in which sense continues to function.
The title refers to three things. First, there is a thinking that is finished, because of the destruction of sense, which results from the “buckling of the West’s resources of signification and meaning (God, History, Man, Subject, Sense itself…).” (4) Our old tools that secured sense as meaning have been exhausted; we can no longer find sense in these things. Hence, part of my provisional definition of sense as existential meaning must be altered: meaning has ended, or been exhausted.
Second, we have to think about how sense could have ended in the first place; in order to have reached an end, it must be finite. In order to understand what Nancy means by finite, it may be helpful to recall Hegel and Heidegger. For Hegel, a thinking is infinite if it encounters no other, no outside-of-itself; this infinite thinking reached its culmination in absolute knowing, for which the entire world was subjectified; thought penetrates everything. For Heidegger, a finite thinking is tied to finite time. Infinite time is the common sense idea of time that just continues on, an endless succession of moments, whereas finite time is the time of human being: the phenomena of having-been thrown into a world, projecting intentions into the future, and being circumspect about the present; the finitude refers to the fact that this time is structured by its immanant end in the form of death. Infinite thought encounters no “other” which might negate it; finite thought anticipates its own end, its own limit-possibility.
Third, any thought of finitude must itself be finite; there must be a connection between the thinking and the thought. It must touch on its own limit without losing truth or universality (it is entirely unclear to me what truth or universality look like to Nancy).
This finitude means that our second provisional definition of sense as intelligibility also needs to be altered. Intelligibility involves seeing something as something, e.g. seeing a chair as a chair, which means applying an interior concept to an exterior object. Sense is not an interior grasping an exterior; sense is both the concept and the referent. “The concept of sense implies that sense is being grasped or is grasping itself as sense.” (5) That grasping itself as sense is what produces sense – like a concept of “stone” that would itself be stony. There is no split between the concept of sense and the referent of the word; in order to have the concept of sense, sense must be grasping itself. This amounts to saying that to talk about sense is already to be in sense.
There’s also the other sense of the word “sense,” sensation. To sense is to sense there is sensation. Sense senses nothing if it doesn’t sense itself sensing – just like understanding understandings nothing if it doesn’t understand understanding. Finally, we see the third part of our provisional definition altered; it is not sense as empirical senses, but the sensing of sensing.
Despite the alterations, I will continue to use the three terms. Sense is meaning as an absence of existential meaning, conceptual intelligibility as a self-referential unity of concept and object, and empirical sensation as the sensing of sensing.
This leads to a chiasmus : “What senses in sense is the fact that it includes what it senses, and what produces sense in sense is the fact that it senses itself producing sense.” (6) Sense (noun) senses (verb); the action of sensing is the inclusion of what it senses. Which is another way of saying: the act of seeing the world sees itself seeing the world. What produces or makes sense is its own understanding. Or again, the act of understanding the world understands itself as understanding the world.
That aporia refers us back to the Platonic or classical distinction between sensible and the intelligible. Philosophy is always trying to overcome that distinction—to make the intelligible accessible to the sensible, to understand things-in-themselves. Philosophy attempts to break the circle of understanding the world understanding itself as understanding the world and get to understanding the world full stop. Or, in to show how the aporia is broken or forgotten, what philosophy wants is to say What senses in sense is a transcendental subject (or perhaps a “metasense”), and what produces sense in sense is understanding the object. In practical terms, it is the attempt to return meaning, intelligibility, and sensibility back to their original positions before they turned out to be absent, dependent, or self-referential (in colloquial terms, to get at the Truth).
We have the same task, the task to deal with meaning, intelligibility and sensibility—but one altered by the end of sense (and the ensuing alteration of the three terms). The work of our epoch is the work of philosophy working out its end.
At first glance, for an individual to make sense requires a relation to an other, which means there is a possibility of being affected by the other. Making sense as an individual requires continuing to be an individual in the face of that affection by the other; if the affection is, e.g., reabsorbed, or fully accounted for, or creates an identity between the two, than sense disappears. The chiasmatic aporia of sense senses sense sensing indicates that this reabsorption does take place; for example, sense as intelligibility is self-referential. So here we have another way of saying sense has ended, but the task is to see how this reabsorption is at least partially resisted, or how the relation is opened up once again.
Let’s look again at how this closure, or end of sense, functions. Philosophy has paired many things: Being and God, concept and intuition, or nature and history. Sense depends on relating to an other; so we could say that history exists in relation to nature, and so on. Sense qua intelligibility of history affects sense qua intelligibility of nature; in order for the relation to exist, the sense of history cannot be reduced to or reabsorbed in nature.
However, sense qua intelligibility is not an interior grasping an exterior; it is the understanding understanding itself. The sense of history is reabsorbed into nature, and nature is absorbed into history; they collapse into one another. The same can be said of any of philosophy’s other big pairs like God/Being or Intuition/Concept. If they reduce their opposites to themselves—if God is made identical with Being or vice versa, the relation becomes closed.
Being-to as Opening
Philosophy has ended because the opposites have collapsed into one another, but that collapse is not total. To begin reopening the relation, he says, “Sense is the openness of a relation to itself: what initiates it, what engages it, what maintains itself to itself, in and by the difference of its relation.” (6) Here, “self” refers to some sort of identity or subjectivity. Sense relates to itself; the difference of this relation internal to any identity is what is left over after the big ideas collapse into one another. The “to” has often been described in active, contingent, relational terms, such as desire, recognition, appropriation, incorporation, etc. The “to”, all these names, are the spaces of an opening.
Openness is a moral idea these days, but it is an issue of ontology:
“To say that being is open isn’t to say that it’s first this or that and then, over and above this, marked or distinguished by openness. Being is open – and this is what I’m trying to establish in terms of the being of sense or in terms of the being -to -the sense – only in this openness as such; it is itself the open.” (7)
Likewise, the self that is to-itself by and in otherness doesn’t possess that other as a correlate or as the term of a relation that it would relate to itself. It is a matter of dieresis – the mark that indicates two vowels should be pronounced separately, like in Noëlle. It is a dissection of the “self” that precedes not only via relation to the other but via identify of the self. In that dieresis, the other is the same, but not as a fusion. This is what maintains the aporia; it is the being-other of the self as neither self nor other, and not as a founding relation between them. Identity in difference is the appropriation of what cannot be appropriated.
A self which could appropriate its own end or other (which is the Hegelian or philosophical self in general, even if the appropriation is diluted with regulative ideas, or relativism, or an “incessant pursuit of the question”) would be senseless, like a game which specifies the winner in advance. This self which appropriates its own end is the “insanity on which philosophy touches at its end (schematism/absolute knowledge/death of God).” And “this touch” is what produces the thought of the end.
Above, I said openness is a misfiring of appropriation. But here, he says even a diluted appropriation would be senseless. The interpretive difficulty is to understand how “an appropriation of what cannot be appropriated” is not the same as a diluted appropriation.
To begin with, we know a full appropriation, like absolute knowledge, is senseless, because it is closed. His first example of a diluted appropriation is a regulative idea, and the other two are variations on the theme. A regulative idea is always deferred into infinity, never to be actualized. But the regulative idea is a projected future closure, a projected future appropriation of the other by the self, and hence a cutting of the chiasmatic aporia. The appropriation of what cannot be appropriated, on the other hand, may be like a regulative idea, but not a deferral of a future closure; rather, it is the impossibility of any such deferral, and a relation to the other on that basis.
There is sense only when an ipse, a thing, no longer comes back to itself, but also just does not stay outside as a lack or a surplus. So what does not return does not leave a hole, and it is not “more” than the thing, but rather as the “to” of the to-itself, the openness that means it is the interweaving of you, we, and the world. Any identity, as internally different, is an infinitely proliferating set of relations and mutual conditions of possibility involving all beings.
There cannot be a hierarchy of senses, or several senses, or conditions that have more or less sense (though evil is the self-suppression of sense). Sense, in all its absoluteness and singularity, never grasps or presents a unity or oneness. If there was sense in general, or a category of sense that particular moments of senses were subsumed under, or an ultimate sense, then it would be completed and closed.
The multiplicity and the non-reabsorption of sense or of being are the two ideas that the concept of finitude grasps. If it as existence—and only as existence—that being comes into play, finitude is the name for the without-essence of existing. Quoting Heidegger, “When being is posited as infinite, it is precisely then that it is determined. If it is posited as finite, it is then that its absence of ground is affirmed.” Groundlessness is not a lack that needs to be undergone or justified. “Rather, it is being’s reference to nothing, either to substance or to subject, not even to ‘being,’ unless it be to a being-to, to itself, to the world as the openness, the throw or the being-thrown of existence.” (9/9) In other words, finitude means being does does not reabsorb itself – that is, it is not closed in upon itself, and that it is multiple; there is no grand one that founds, completes, or grounds intelligibility or meaning. Being only comes into play—that is, it only open—as instantiated in actually existing things. All this means that being has no essence; it refers to nothing, except to being thrown into existence.
Finitude doesn’t mean that the totality of sense isn’t given and so we must defer it into infinity; rather, it means that all sense is in the nonappropriation of being, whose existence is appropriation itself. Deference is a future closure, and finitude isn’t about a future closure, but the impossibility of closure—and the nonappropriation of being is the effect of that impossibility, and hence allows for the possibility of meaning as absent, intelligibility as unity of concept and object, and sensibility as self-referential.
If sense were the full appropriation/conceptualization of a sense/meaning, it would produce a stone, a senseless being. Tying this back into our altered idea of sense as intelligibility, a given, complete, non-self referential intelligibility would be inanimate with no room for thought. Rather, it is the thought of there being no sense to this senseless sense. The example is death: the point of being-towards-death isn’t death, the end, but that the to, the open relation, is present up to the end, but the end isn’t an end – death isn’t a special mark of individuality. It is not a stopping point, but a constant exposure.
We already know that sense is not an absolute, infinite thinking, which never encounters its other; sense is internally split, a relation of the to (recognition, appropriation, etc). Sense is a relation of a singular understanding of itself to itself, not of a general understanding, like a transcendental subject. That relation always exists as a singularity, and thought depends upon that.
Existence is a process of encounters and events that are both individual and preindividual. Sense is multiple, even if multiplicity can be referred to as “mine”. This singularity means being’s production of sense is not an essence, which would be an assembly of qualities, qualities that it has. Existence does not have qualities and it does not have sense—the word “have” implies a complete closure, or a full appropriation of the sort he has already criticized. That which has an essence has no sense, because it is closed in on itself.
This connects to endnote 14 (pdf 166, pg 231): The question of the existence of the world is not only the question of why there is something rather than nothing, but why the world exists in its totality, and nothing else. Why are there differences between things? A thing like a stone isn’t an essence present to the understanding alone; its hardness is not a property present to the understanding but an element to be touched by writing. The “there is” isn’t a matter of spatio-temporal extension but of an event. The world-event, disseminated into events, is the eruption of being as singularities. There is only sense because an event communicates with all events; the communication is not a having-of-properties, but the universal substitutability of the world-event. The world-event comes from nothing—i.e. not from atoms and not from God. Atoms and God are different versions of infinity. The world comes from its event, and we can only touch it, and in touching, there is only finite sense. [end]
So, things with essences do not have sense. Equally, lacking sense isn’t the same as lacking a fullness; rather, to lack sense is exactly that, sense. From which it follows to lack sense is to lack nothing. The idea of lack appears a lot, and it runs the risk of a dialectic-nihilistic conclusion. But to lack nothing isn’t a full, satisfied condition or essence. “To lack nothing, despite everything that’s lacking: this is what it means to exist.” (12)
Another name for this openness is freedom. Freedom isn’t a sense conferred on existence, like the senseless sense of a self-constitution of a subject or freedom as an essence. Rather, it is the fact of existence as open to existing itself. Those who have attempted to think sense end up saying saying that freedom is not the means to sense by the being or truth of sense. It isn’t that freedom is sense (Kant, Hegel), but that sense is freedom, as finite sense, or as the infinite absenting of the appropriation of sense. These thoughts are over—man’s self-production, the heroism of the abyss or destiny, the mastery of consciousness, etc. All these things deny finitude.
Extermination and Expropriation
History looks like a process of collapse, or an extermination not only of the sense of civilization but of sense itself. This anxiety appears under four headings: extermination, expropriation, simulation, and technicization. We are going to deal only with extermination and expropriation.
Extermination – By camps, arms, labor, hunger, hatred, and a hundred other means. “The extermination of persons, of peoples, of cultures, of the South by the North, of ghettos and shanty towns by immense conurbations, of one part of the South by another, of one identity by another, deportations and drugs of every kind. ‘To exterminate’ means ‘to finish with’ (‘final solution’), and here that means to abolish the very access to the end, to liquidate sense.” (16) Big crimes are nothing new, but in our time we see a “polymorphous manhunt, articulated in an enormous economic and technological network, as if sense, or existence, were ready to finish themselves off, in order to do away with the end that was proper to them.” (16) It’s like sense is committing suicide, rather than coming to its own proper end, i.e. continuing in its openness.
The question of evil is usually posed/resolved against a background of sense which ends up transforming or recuperating its negativity. There are two general models for this, roughly speaking, the ancient and the modern. First, there is misfortune, or unhappy fate. Evil is a part of the destiny of existence and freedom. It comes from the gods, “and it confirms existence in its opening to or as sense, regardless of whether this entails the destruction of life. This is why evil is borne, recognized, lamented, and overcome by the community. Terror and pity are responses to the curse or malediction.” (16) The second model is sickness, or maybe corruption. Evil is an accident, and can in principle be mended; it is something lesser, if not actually just nothing. Death is entirely absorbed by, for example, the progress of history.
The evil of extermination is very different. It is evildoing, or wickedness. Unlike misfortune, it does not come from outside, and unlike corruption, it is not less than being. Rather, “existence is unleashed against itself.” (17) Evil affirms its metaphysical, political, or technological right. It is a senseless insanity that closes off the aspect of existence that opens on to the need for sense. Extermination does not just exterminate, it exterminates “distress” itself, it is the negation of the “eachness” of sense. It ruins every possibility of meaning or intelligibility.
This can happen because finitude is just as much the possibility of the self-destruction of sense. “Finitude is sense as it absents itself, up to the point where, for a single, decisive moment, insanity is indistinguishable from the sense that is lacking. . . . To discern within this indiscernible: that is what freedom ultimately boils down to. To discern senselessness without the help of Sense, not with nothing to hand, to be sure, but with that part of (the being of) existence that we already have in our grasp. To be deprived of rules, without being deprived of truth.” (17)
It’s only in this sense that an ethics is possible; an ethics of evil as wickedness. This does not require a norm, or a highest value, a “good”; “the access of existence to its real sense is not a “value” that we could promise to the infinity of a good will.” (17) This access can’t be appropriated as a good; because it is the being of existence, it has to be presented in existence as existence. Having-to-be is the form taken by being, since this being is to-be.
But duty doesn’t point to the infinite realization of a kingdom of ends; rather, it obligates freedom. Or more accurately, it is freedom that binds and obligates itself, without delay, as its own end, in both senses of the word. “Freedom obligates itself insofar as it does not appropriate its sense for itself and, too, insofar as it is open to the senseless. We might say, then, that being (the being of existence) is duty; but duty indicates the finitude of being, its missing sense.” (18) Maybe we can say this is an ethic of avoiding wickedness through freedom. This isn’t a morality, “but a tendency to conserve and to augment the access of existence to its own inappropriable and groundless sense (endnote 23: “and this means rereading Spinoza”). These is a possibility of an ethics here, of “the restoration of existence to existence.” (18)
Expropriation: There is a big difference between saying the inappropriability of sense is what is most proper to finitude and expropriating from beings their conditions of existence. That is, thinking about the lack of sense does not mean abandoning the critique of alienation. Material, economic, and social conditions are not merely happenstance to the operation of finite sense. The material conditions of existence is what makes up the “each time”. “A place, a body, flesh, a gesture, a job, a line of force, an ache, ease or misery, having time or into time: these define the finite each time of any access to finite sense.” (18) They don’t determine it in a causal way, rather, they are it. Just because sense has been displaced, does not mean we abandon the critique of alienation; material, economic, and social conditions all make up our access to finite sense. They don’t determine it, they are it. There is nothing outside these things.
A person is a material singularity: “a packet of ‘sense,’ a place, a time, a point in history, a play of forces”. (19) There is no privileged speculative or spiritual perspective on sense. But something or some “one” exists, here and now. To be is to be a here and now. “There are circumstances in which this is not possible—and even if existence, undoubtedly, always and without end, resists, even though it resists to the very end and beyond, and even though we can never simple say ‘this life has no meaning,’ there are still circumstances in which beings are not only abandoned, but in which they are, as it were, stripped of the conditions of existence. When this happens, beings are the pure instrument or object of a production, of a history, process, or system, always deported in advance from the here and now, always and only in the elsewhere and in the afterward of hunger, fear, and survival, or of wages, savings and accumulation.” (19)
There is no symmetry between expropriation and non-appropriation; just because we aren’t alienated doesn’t mean we appropriate sense. The here and now is finite existing itself. On one hand, we can’t ever say that a life or a moment makes no sense. But on the other hand, we also can’t decide that all conditions are the same. Yes, every existence is in sense, but no one can decide that a certain existence requires a sacrifice of life (life in any sense). “Since the here-and-now is finitude, the inappropriability of sense, every appropriation of the ‘here’ by an ‘elsewhere,’ and of the ‘now’ by an ‘afterward’ (or by a ‘beforehand’) is and does evil.” (19)
We cannot decide what makes a here/now possible or what does not alienate. Each now, a here and now must be able to to decide to be. Each being has to be allowed to be, to be abandoned to its finitude. To some degree, this is no different from defending the ”reputedly ’normal’ conditions for the exercise of basic freedoms, which presuppose life itself and a few other guarantees. . . today, at least, and for us.” (20)
That abandonment doesn’t refer to a humanistic sense of man which would already be decided, like the free choice of a subject. “On the one hand, there are basic conditions (on which civilization wreaks constant havoc) whose empirical basis is also the ‘transcendental’ of the here and now of existence. On the other, there is this: in letting the finite being be, finitude as such must be indicated.” (20) So we need a different idea of alienation, but just as uncompromising as Marx’s.
Alienation is often presented as the loss of an original authenticity which needs to be restored. The critique of any sort of original plenitude contributed to the disappearance of alienation as a figure for the loss of man’s original self-production. Existence isn’t ever self-productive, though; this is partly what finitude means. But it does remain the case that beings can have their conditions of existence taken from them. And this is happening as part of the extermination just mentioned, and the “global market” only endures by a massive expropriation of the South by the North. It isn’t about giving up the struggle against expropriation, but about determining in what name we carry that struggle on in. “Up until now, the struggle has been guided by the regulative idea of the (original and final) self-production of man and, at the same time, by a general and generic concept of this ‘man.’” (20)
The conditions of struggle will change if that struggle needs to be thought in terms of finitude and singularities. Finite existence does not suppose auto-production, it “desupposes” it. It cuts the link between time and the process of procedure; a process of procedure involves a linear, continuous time without space, always pressed up against its own “after”. But access implies the opening up of time, its spacing, the de-coupling of productive procedures and the finite here and now. “And it implies that the latter be grasped in forms other than those subordinated to process, such as ‘empty time,’ ‘recovery time,’ and also ‘leisure time’ (where ‘leisure,’ and that includes ‘culture,’ means inanity with respect to sense). It implies, in other words, the space-time of the here and now: concrete finitude.” (21)
“Birth and death space, definitively, a singular time, All access to sense, to what is ‘finite’ in sense, spaces the time of general reproduction. Access produces nothing, and is not producible.” (21) But it takes place as the inappropriable material singularity of a here and now. We could say as enjoyment, in a sense of enjoyment that does not come back to itself.