Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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The Ethics of Authenticity (Chapters 6-10)

The Ethics of Authenticity, Chapters 6-10

In the first five chapters, Taylor argued that contemporary society suffers from three malaises: rampant individualism, the dominance of instrumental reason, and the loss of political freedom brought about by social fragmentation. The bulk of the book looks at the first issue. Whereas various commentators deride modern individualism as purely amoral narcissism that is impervious to criticism, Taylor shows that contemporary ideas of self-fulfillment are rooted in a deeper conceptual history. He argues that choice for the sake of choice is only valuable insofar as we choose well, which means that act of choosing is less important than the object of choice. Such objects cannot be determined by the chooser; rather, they are determined in dialogue with other people. Other people, in other words, are in some way necessary to personal responsibility and authenticity inasmuch as they help determine what a good life looks like.

In this chapter, Taylor will continue looking at how we got to a culture of self-fulfillment, and in the last two chapters he will briefly discuss the other two malaises.

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Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (Chapters 1-5)

Contemporary civilization is often said to suffer from narcissistic individualism, enslavement to technology and institutions, and a loss of political freedom caused by apathy. Critics have condemned the contemporary discourse of self-fulfilment as a withdrawal from moral concerns; however we should instead understand it as a kind of moral calling, albeit one that calls us away from caring about that which transcends the self—we need to separate a “good” ideal of personal authenticity from a “bad” one. The ideal of authenticity is one with with sources at least three centuries old in (political and philosophical) Enlightenment theories of individualism, but it’s mainly an inheritance from the Romantic period. Authenticity only makes sense against an interpersonal background of values and significances, so any discourse on self-fulfilment based on shutting out society is self-defeating. There is a sense in modern culture that (impersonal) social relationships as well as intimate relationships are valuable insofar as they aid self-fulfilment, but this notion is self-defeating.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Ethical Order Part 2

Hegel has imagined for us a stable ethical order, in which everyone knows their place and acts accordingly.  In this picture, stability has been founded on the twin powers of the family’s access to the unconscious divine law and the state’s access to conscious human law.  We have already begun to see this lovely world fall apart; the divine and human law have conflicting commands, and that conflict plays out as a tragedy for the actually existing individual.  This pathos of the individual will continue to ruin the apparent unity of the ethical order, and eventually reveals itself to be an individualism founded purely upon property ownership.  The unity breaks down into a multiplicity of atomistic individuals, a breakdown arrested only by war and tyranny.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit, The Ethical Order Part 1

“Reason” ended with a grasping attempt to maintain reason’s initial faith in the unity of self and world. This chapter is, at first glance, an analysis of one particular attempt to build an ethical world in which there is no alienation, a world in which everyone has their place and knows exactly how to act.  The ancient Greeks have often been thought of as having a fully harmonious ethical order, and given the European tradition’s repeated attempts to revive that apparent Greek harmony, it is the model Hegel aims at through a largely implied reading of Antigone.  However, in this presentation, I want to leave open the possibility that this is a critique of any possible ethical order.

To summarize: for reasons that will be outlined below, an ethical order must straddle the line between two categories of ethical “powers”: explicit human laws, consciously built by the community, and the more implicit, natural, “divine” law.  The place in human life where the human and divine laws meet is the family, because of its inherent connection to natural matters of sexuality, birth, and death on one hand, and the role it plays in socializing an individual to join the community on the other. There is a specific point at which the family connects the human and divine laws; it is not the relation between husband and wife, because that is dominated by human desire.  Neither is it the relation between parents and children, because that is characterized by the movement of children away from the parents and into the community.  The true straddling line is the relation between brother and sister, which is free of desire, and is a free relation of both sides: the brother’s relation to the public realm and the sister’s relation to the natural household.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the line between nature and culture does not hold; everyone has duties to both the divine law and human law, and any given ethical action will always violate one or the other.  A supposedly harmonious ethical order leaves everyone guilty all the time.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: C. Individuality, Reason as lawgiver and Reason as testing laws

In finishing the long chapter on Reason, we should expect to find a transition that shows the reason for the next section on Spirit. Indeed, we find exactly that, just as we found similar transitions between sections at the end of “Consciousness” and “Self-Consciousness.” However, unlike the shift from, for example, Self-consciousness to Reason, the movement from Reason to Spirit has been anticipated for a long while. If we put aside the Preface (which was written last), then before the section on Reason, there was only one mention of Reason [Vernuft] as a moment of consciousness. On the other hand, before the chapter entitled “Spirit,” the word Geist has appeared about a hundred times. As the title The Phenomenology of Spirit suggests, there is something about Spirit that warrants special attention.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Reason, The Actualization of Self-Consciousness Through its Own Activity

This will be the reading for Saturday, April 26.  As usual, directions are here.

Let’s begin with an attempt to contextualize this chapter.  The Phenomenology began with discussions of the consciousness of sense-certainty and perception, which were attempts at direct, ahistorical knowledge of the world.  This gave way to the self-consciousness which realized itself to be for an other, and through its religious tutelage, discovered the possibility of being governed by reason.  Thus arose reason, which began with a repetition-with-a-twist of direct knowledge, scientific observation.  Like the consciousness of sense-certainty before it, reason in the form of scientific observation now recognizes that it has its truth in the other, i.e. it is mediated and historical (Hegel explicitly says that the active actualization of self-consciousness is to observing reason as self-consciousness was to consciousness, but I’d like to live this point aside for now).

Self-consciousness seeks to actualize its own ends, to make them universal.  This chapter is about three different versions of those ends, with three different attending relations to the universal.  First, the undisciplined consciousness of pleasure which uses others for its own ends, and ends up with a completely empty universal.  Second, the undisciplined law of the heart, which finds an oppressive universal.  Finally, self-consciousness passes into a more disciplined form of virtue, which, in its conflict with the seemingly cynical way of the world, discovers that spending all one’s time on a moral high horse is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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