Friday, September 02, 2005

Language and the inscrutable "Other"


Derrida reclaims the idea of writing as 'trace' from Heidegger who, in turn, has borrowed it from Heraclitus via Aristotle. However, there is one important difference: for Derrida, writing as a trace, as a perpetually supplanted presence, does not converge in any definite way toward meaning or referent. Writing is primal in the sense that it anticipates and supplements any intended meaning. Thus writing is not a transposition of speech. It is not the expression of intra-subjectivity. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of an infinite chain of signifiers without any signified. This is what Derrida calls dissemination: "seed cast wastefully outside" (rather than plenitude of meaning). Language, in other words, is no longer said to be unable to capture or to mean the truth. Rather, the whole quest for meaning is shown to be a play of signifiers always pointing away from themselves and to the other, always differing and deferring their intended meaning. Language as writing has been revealed to be nothing but a veil, an empty construct projected by those who are afraid of facing the ultimate emptiness of subjective meaning.

Heidegger's conception of being (Sein) as unconcealedness (die Unverborgenheit or aletheia) shows Being to be the predetermined and preconceived ground of any being, and to reveal itself in its very withdrawal. Being is thus present as an absence, but an absence that is precisely the dwelling place of a manifested thing.

Derrida follows Heidegger, but only up to a point. The trace is no longer the sign of a concealed presence of being, i.e., the sign of an absence, and thus an empty sign, but the very precondition of that undecidedness which characterizes any presence, any utterance, any phenomenon, including that of inner subjectivity.

Thus, unlike Heidegger, whose linguistic innovations and meandering thinking point from all directions to a Being that absences itself in everything that it presents, Derrida uses his lexicon of undecidables, specially the concepts of trace, spectrum, and pharmacon, to show the futility of any attempt to point in any direction and to anything at all as the privileged dwelling place of Being.

For Derrida, Being may be just that inscrutable 'other', towards which language strives to overcome itself, but which for this very reason, must remain unnamed. Derrida seems to be justified in rejecting Heidegger's disguised onto-theology as just another expression of logocentrism.

Although Heidegger's Being is not that of Aristotle or of Hegel, as the essence of everything, but the space of unconcealement, still he seems to be only choosing randomly between one of the four meanings that Aristotle gave to to on in his Metaphysics. Heidegger prefers Being as potentiality, as dynamis (or motility).

Heidegger is thus caught irremediably in his own attempt at overcoming metaphysics, and while claiming to have retrieved the question of Being from oblivion, in fact, he only proclaims a new type of philosophizing in the guise of liberating thought. Heidegger's enterprise does not so much mark the end of philosophy and the beginning of thinking, as it forges a new set of categories. His ambition to outgreek the Greeks, to think more Greek like than the Greeks is only a vain hope to start metaphysics anew and in a direction that is not and cannot be conducive to nihilism. In this respect, he is oblivious of the fact that there is something inherently forgetful in the very pursuit of ontology.

Here again Derrida - this mysterious but prompt late day sophist - appears to remind the great thinker, lost in the many ways to being (Holzwege) that he is pursuing a chimera. Being and nothingness blend together in a simultaneous and undecidable manner in the very texture of language. Heidegger's thinking may be an invitation to follow in the pathways of his own unconventional thought. Yet, an invitation which invites and also presumes a sharing of his own concerns, angsts, and tribulations. His is a tragic condition, for it is doubtful that Heidegger anticipates any possible transcendence of the temporality of the human Dasein.

Here, I am turning again to the earlier, formative, years of the young Heidegger, not so much for attempting an archeology of his philosophical endeavor, as for finding the presuppositions underlying his philosophical awakening. Heidegger entered philosophy through a work of Bretano on Aristotle's ontology (On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle). This not only proved to be decisive in directing his interest, but also supplied the themes of his future inquires. This fact, along with the consideration that he came under the influence of a Neo-Kantian in the person of Heinrich Rickert, who demanded training in logic, epistemology, and value theory, are sufficient to understand the persistence of his disguised ontological ambitions even after Kehre, when he renounced a single theme (that of Being) and the rigors of academic discourse. But most important of all it is Heidegger's opposition to the reduction of logical procedures to psychological processes in his doctoral dissertation (On the Doctrine of Judgement in Psychologism) that definitively marks his orientation.

In rejecting the preeminence of psychology Heidegger committed the same error made by many philosophers from Renaissance onwards, namely to ignore, in the words of Carl Jung, the fact that metaphysical assertions are statements of the psyche and in some way are also psychological. Heidegger's other great contemporary, Jaspers, did not reject the psychological. As for Derrida, he at least recognizes the role of the unconscious in construction the "Other," if his Psyche ou l'invention de l'autre is any indication in this sense.

Of the two, it is Derrida who follows ultimately Nietzsche as a deconstructor of the history of metaphysics, who is more genuinely subjective and therefore more authentic. At the same time, it is also Derrida who, like Nietzsche, is less European in his speculative ways. If Nietzsche considered himself a sort of European Buddha, then Derrida, by analogy, could well take the role of a masterful Nagarjuna.

Friday, November 05, 2004

eastern (division) philosophy bazaar

This December I'm off to Boston to attend the APA Eastern Division meeting. I've just had a look at program and I thought I'd write up some notes. For a start, Ernest Sosa will be opening the meeting with a talk on "“How Do Dreams Bear on Philosophy?” It's the only paper with the keyword "dream" in the title, which is a sad statistic on just how bad dreaming fares in today's academia (at least among philosophers). Compare that with the dream saturated popular media and you may get an idea why contemporary philosophers shunned dreams until the advent of The Matrix. As Erion & Smith write in their contribution to the collection of essays The Matrix and Philosophy:
...we can make sense of the distinction between waking and dreaming itself only if we really are awake sometimes, and since we can distinguish the two kinds of experience, it follows that there can be no serious reason to worry that our lives might be made up entirely of dream sequences that never end.
That's not really the conclusion of The Matrix Trilogy, or of the other contributors to the Matrix symposium. Chalmers, for instance, seems to think that something like a Matrix Hypothesis (that is, the notion that I am and have always being in something like an artificially simulated environment) can be seriously entertained: the simulation can be so perfect that in the Matrix one can entertain rationally justified and justifiable beliefs about what is "real".

In fact, the Matrix Trilogy endorses a view of reality not unlike that of the dream puzzled Chuang Tzu. As the story goes, Chuang Tzu dreamt one night he was a butterfly and when he woke up he could not figure out whether it was he, Chuang Tzu, who dreamt of a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Personally, I prefer the Chuang Tzu's dream allegory because it leaves open the possibility of doubt no matter what state of consciousness you happen to be in (in the Matrix or outside of it, in the "real" world; I wonder though - is there truly an outside?).

Anyway, this year there are symposia on the nature of time, just wars, Fichte, rational choice, skepticism, and the philosophy of mind, and some very interesting special sessions on latin american philosophy and feminism, etc.

John Bigelow, who's on the time symposium should have something interesting to say about time, judging by what's he's already said about space (in Timeaus). For those who've been on a long road to skepticism (and wondered if there was a shortcut) Baron Reed's paper gives some directions, although his defense of the notion that "justified belief (a la Gettier) differs from a lucky guess in that the former is likely to be true" does not necessarily hold if fallibilism is true. Also on the skepticism symposium is Bryan Frances with his Frankenstenian dream of breathing life into skepticism (forthcoming as Skepticism Made Live from OUP next year).

I also wonder what Marios Vargas will have to say about Eurocentrism and the philosophy of liberation (the title of his talk) given his wayward journey into full time philosophy via careers in baking and video game testing.

It's also good to see that Asian philosophy is so well represented this year with a special session on the status of Asian and Asian-American philosophers and philosophies. Charles Goodman's is asking “"Has Strawson Refuted Dharmakīrti?”" Generations of Naiyaikas have tried and failed so I doubt that Strawson has all the muscle needed to defeat Dharmakīrti. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what Goodman comes up with. Two more papers from Owen Flanagan and Mark Siderits are covering Buddhist ethics and ontology. Then there are talks on Dewey and Madhyamaka, consciousness and Advaita Vedanta, and various Chinese philosohy topics. Finally, the ISBP is holding a special panel on Mind in Buddhist Philosophy with three contributions from Dan Arnold on "Causes and Reasons in Buddhist Philosophy," Michael Sheehy on "Rang byung rDo rje’s Variegations of Mind Reflections," and myself on "Mental Imagery and the Buddhist Epistemology of Perception."

A true Eastern philosophy bazaar!

Saturday, October 16, 2004

anu gets consciousness

It's official, today the Australian National University inaugurated it's own Centre for (the study of) Consciousness. One might wonder why it took so long, given that most prestigious universities had been researching consciousness for more than a decade. But ANU, which anyway is well-centred had it's own Centre for the Mind, a joint venture with the University of Sydney (directed by Alan Snyder). ANU sharing its mind with the University of Sydney? Well, you have to if you're in the business of producing champions in the rather arcane fashion of strapping magnets to their brain (read more). With its own Centre for Consciousness, largely an initiative of the Philosophy Program in the Research Schools of Social Sciences, now ANU has it's own first person perspective on things, philosophically speaking. No more cognitive processing in the dark, churning books, research papers, and scores of graduates to advance Australia fair. 'Consciousness Studies' is all about knowing the knower, knowing why you get that fuzzy feeling when you see a flower in full bloom or a glowing orange red sun setting on the outback desert. Or, if neither of the above apply to you, then it's about knowing why you have that unpleasant feeling called pain when you injure yourself (since pain is what philosophers worry about most of time). It's also about why you're suddenly filled with existential angst for no particular reason. Ultimately, it's about the best kind of scientifically informed philosophy of mind. So how about this new motto for ANU's new Centre for Consciousness: naturam primum cognoscere ipsum?

The ANU's Centre for Consciousness is headed by David Chalmers, the hard and easy man of consciousness, whose Conscious Mind, in his own words, argues that "a reductive explanation of consciousness is impossible" (alas!), and so, if we are to take consciousness seriously, we must go beyond a strict materialist framework."

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

spirit of winter

PR LEAP writes: "Take several images signed by incredibly gifted photographers, mix them with catchy stories, travel journals, add a little bit of passion and voila! You have the perfect recipe for digitally branding a country as an amazing and unique travel destination."

It's called the Spirit of Romania, a new sexy portal to a little known South-East European country.

student emeriti

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher whose confessions about the eremitic life of the independent philosopher are not quite so eremitic has this to say about those perpetual students who take years (read decades) to complete a degree:

"I had friends in graduate school who belonged to the class of those we jokingly referred to as graduate student emeriti. They were the perpetual students who were "not hung up on completion," to borrow a memorable line from William Hurt's character Nick in The Big Chill (1983). Free of the discipline of undergraduate school, they took incompletes in their courses and then spent years completing them. Some never completed them. Others finished their course work and actually wrote dissertations and won the degree -- some fifteen years after they started. They supported themselves with adjunct teaching and odd jobs, loans and parental hand-outs."
Having been a a graduate student myself for nearly six years now, I can very well relate to Bill's observation. There is something irresistibly soothing about life on Alma Mater's lap. Why would you ever want to leave that nurturing environment of knowledge for knowledge's sake for daddy's cut throat world of knowledge for profit? But don't worry Bill, with universities becoming increasingly corporatized your perrenial graduate student living lightly from adjunct teaching and odd jobs is soon going to become an endangered species, like the honest politician. It's called "industry partnership," a catchy phrase for allowing corporations to set up shop in your university department's backyard and turn academic research into venture capital.

liber mundi

Liber mundi is perhaps one of the most prevailing metaphors of the European mediaeval world. Essentially it has its origins in the New Testament myth that the World and the World are in symbiosis. It is St. John's Gospel's that first introduces the liber mundi metaphor: "In (the) beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things received being through him, and without him not one (thing) received being which has received being. ... And the Word became flesh".

I found this interesting article in Minerva (an internet journal of philosophy edited by Dr Stephen Thornton at the University of Limerick, Ireland). Here's an excerpt that pretty much sums up the "world book" metaphor:
"... the word "Word", as it is presented in John's Gospel, is the translation of the Greek word logos, meaning both "word" (verbum) and "reason" (ratio). As a result, from a Christian standpoint, the Incarnation made the world not only "readable" (since the Word "penetrated" and "inscribed" it), but also "ration-able", comprehensible (since God as ratio came the world into being). That would represent a crucial premise of the European civilization as one "obsessed" with the knowledge of the world. The world is considered "thinkable" since it essentially contains "reason" (logos), that is, the process of knowledge of the world is a process of "self-recognition" by which our reason (as a faculty of knowledge) recognizes itself in the very essence of the world (as one which came into being by the Supreme Reason)."
While the WWW is many things to many people, as a totality is it "wider" than any of those things taken apart, whether it's online text archives, museum gateways, shop fronts, or the ubiquitous home page of Joanna Blog. In fact, Steven Johnson is right when he says that "We've lived so long under the notion of the Web as a space of connected documents, it seems almost unthinkable that it could be organized any other way. But it could just as easily be assembled around a different axis: not pages but minds" (read more).

Johnson thinks that the explosive growth of blogging has given thousands of people the opportunity to enter in a kind of open ended discourse that email based online discussion forums have tried but failed. So asking "What happens when you start seeing the Web as a matrix of minds, not documents?" as Johnson does, brings up the question of whether documents are seen as public text or as personal testimony? However, the more intersting question is what happens when the Web becomes a sort of collective consciousness, a vast brain storming session that operates outside institutional protocols?

So how does this relate to the whole idea of liber mundi? The Book of the World is not simply a book of words but one of word-meanings, for it is the sentence (Lat. sententia) that according to Thomas of Celanos, makes the book something in which the totality of the world is contained (liber in quo totum continetur).

Unlike the Christian tradition where the world-word revelation closes with the gospels, in Buddhism, at least of the Mahāyāna variety, it continues long after the Buddha's parinirvāṇa. Sūtras and tantras continued to be composed and attributed to the Buddha for almost a millennium after his historical mission, and would no doubt have continued well into the modern age, had Buddhism endured in India after the 12th century C.E.

Here's my favorite example of a world book in quo totum continetur, the famous Ekākṣarīprajñāpāramitāsūtra:
"Thus I have heard at one time. The Lord was sitting on Vulture Peak with a great assembly of 1250 monks and many billions of bodhisattvas. At that time, the Lord said to the venerable Ananda, “Ananda, keep this perfection of wisdom in one letter for the benefit and happiness of sentient beings. It it thus, a.” So said the Lord and everyone - Ananda, the monks, and the great bodhisattvas - having understood and admired the perfection of wisdom, praised what the Lord had said."
What this sūtra aims perhaps to say is that the entire content of language resides in the potentiality of the first sound and letter of the alphabet. Yet Buddhism records an even more radical statement. It is said that from the night that he attained enlightenment to the night that he passed into nirvāṇa the Tathāgata did not utter a single word.

Next I'll spend some time on Derrida, who, now that he's dead, we can at long last begin to talk about him in past tense. No more metaphysics of presence, although I still agree with the metaphysicians of Tlön that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


About six year ago, more specifically in the fall of 1998, I designed and published my first website. I called it Sparśabhūmi, which refers to a well know gesture in which the Buddha is depicted touching the earth with his right hand and requesting the Earth Goddess to acknowledge his enlightenment.
It was largely (and still is) an index of links to a lot of materials that at the time I found useful in my research on Buddhist and Indian philosophy.

The internet was still young and much of that selection reflected my own marvel at what was beginning to seem like a liber mundi (liber=book, mundus=world), a true open ended book about an imaginary (read virtual) world that resembled Borges' imaginary encyclopaedia in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In the early 90s while studying classical and mediaeval philosophy at the University of Bucharest, I had been constantly puzzled by the idea of the infinity of knowledge, that attempt "to gather all strands of learning together into an enormous TEXT, an encyclopedia or summa, that would mirror the historical and transcendental orders" (Gellrich, The idea of the book in the middle age 1985:18).

In 1998, five years after graduating in philosophy and after having spent the greater part of my twenties on a philosophical quest in India, I was embarking on a doctoral research in Buddhist philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra. India had been an overwhelming experience, one from which I needed a lifetime to recover. Between then and now, I had fallen in love, spoken before a fifteen thousand strong crowd at the World Parliament of Religions (the Calcutta not the Chicago one), entered the arcane world of Indian doxography, took a holy dip in the Ganges in Varanasi, bused the yatra to Kedarnath to see Shiva's own abode, went gompa hopping in Sikkim after discovering Tibetan Buddhism, travesed the vast and empty Nullarbor Plain
Nullarbor Plain
three times on the back of a Greyhound bus, lived on a Byron Bay beach for a year, went hunting for Sanskrit manuscripts in Cambridge, museum hoping in Paris, snap shooting around Venice, trekking in the Annapurna National Park, and almost died on a vipassana retreat in the Blue Mountains.