Tag Archives: Modern Philosophy

Language, Truth, and Logic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Language, Truth, and Logic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by A J (Alfred Jules) Ayer. (See also 2nd edition.)

Ayer Language Truth and Logic

“But it must be understood from the outset that we are not concerned to vindicate any one set of philosophers at the expense of any other, but simply to settle certain questions which have played a part in the history of philosophy out of all proportion to their difficulty or their importance.” (134)

Language, Truth and Logic is a brief and charmingly audacious effort to retire metaphysics and its related issues. Ayer is a mid-20th-century exponent of the Anglo-American analytical tradition in philosophy (including the work of Bertrand Russell and others) which seeks to reduce the discipline to applications of logic. His arguments are sympathetic to the earlier empiricists and positivists, but show more sophistication in pointing out and sometimes surmounting their shortfalls. I am most in accord with his “emotive theory of values” as a method of dispensing with the philosophical concern over ethics. 

Ayers’ professed opposition to “schools” in philosophical discourse reminds me of the ultra-Protestant Plymouth Brethren “coming out of sect” in 19th-century England: they paradoxically insist on a narrowing of their field while claiming to transcend distinctions within it.

The 1946 introduction to the second edition consists of Ayers reconsidering and fine-tuning many of the details in the body of the text. Accordingly, I saved it to read until finishing the original eight chapters. In retrospect, however, because of the intricacies of the arguments, a reader would be better advised to read the 1946 remarks in sequence after each individual chapter.

Although mystics (and magicians, to a lesser degree) are unlikely to find this book easy or pleasant, it would be an invaluable supplement to their intellectual diets. After passing through this crucible, they might proceed to the more congenial offerings of a thinker like Gregory Bateson.

The Gift of Death

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gift of Death [Amazon (1995), Amazon (2017), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills.

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death 1995

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret

The principal text of reference for Derrida’s Gift of Death is the piece “Is Technological Civilization a Civilization in Decline, and If So Why?” from Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History, a text concerned to establish a European sense of “responsibility” dependent on Christianity and imperiled in the alleged contemporary Western return to an orgiastic operation of mystery. Derrida highlights the role of the “concern for death” (or “practice of death”: Plato’s melete thanatou) as a linchpin of the individual awareness of responsibility. 

Not overtly siding with Patočka’s diagnosis of modern malaise, Derrida is very attentive to the sort of dialectic genealogy in Patočka’s essay. He particularly focuses on the ways in which the development of this sense of responsibility is also a maintenance and iterative encryption of a secret, through its orgiastic/daemonic, Platonic, and Christian stages. “Because of this incorporation that envelops demonic or orgiastic mystery, philosophy remains a sort of thaumaturgy even as it accedes to responsibility” (15). 

The second chapter has Derrida turning more often directly to Heidegger as a direct influence on Patočka, as well as to Levinas as a critic in the same tradition. In its third chapter, The Gift of Death spends a great deal of attention on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and sacrificial responsibility in the context of Patočka’s essay. Derrida comes closer, I think, than Kierkegaard does to the real mystery of “the sacrifice of Abraham,” as a failed transmission of the initiation of Isaac. But he uses Kierkegaard’s language to bootstrap into the fourth and final chapter.

Derrida drives toward his conclusion with a set of reflections on the nature and significance of invisibility–the same invisibility of the Greek lord of the dead (aides-Haides), the unspeakable issuer of commands to Abraham, and the “Father” of Jesus “who sees in secret.” Attentive Thelemites may glean some important perspective here on the doctrine of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in the place of “the heart.” And there is also, here and earlier, worthwhile integration of the concepts of sacrifice, secrecy, and the sacred. 

At various points in the book, Derrida seems temporarily to accept some sort of theological claims, but he is careful to allow not to demand such acceptance from the reader (e.g., 69). And at the very end he invokes Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (which was always behind Patočka’s genealogy of responsibility) as a background for observations about “the reversal and infinitization” that exalts the other (“God,” if you must) into mystery (115). There is, after all, no law beyond Do what thou wilt. The Christian God sacrifices himself “from love (can you believe it?)” taunts Nietzsche. And Derrida drops the mocking tone to ask whether one truly can, leaving me to wonder what such a possibility of dis/belief can portend if love is the law. 

“What does it mean to share a secret?” Derrida asks more than once. Only those who know how to die could tell, and they won’t say.

Nietzsche′s Corps/e

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche′s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Geoff Waite.

Waite Nietzsche's Corps/e

“But think back now over the entire, long, virtually interminable extent of Nietzsche/s corpse, as Nietzsche’s Corps/e begins to conclude….” (385) I had to laugh as I read that, because four hundred pages of body text, plus another 150-odd of smaller-typeface endnotes (the author noted an aspiration to a one-to-one ratio between body text and annotation), had taken me six months of careful, if not quite continual, reading to digest. It seemed as if the book, as much as its object, had invoked the interminability of an ewige Wiederkunft.

Geoff Waite hates Nietzsche with the kind of passion that I must suspect of being founded in a prior love. In Nietzsche’s Corps/e he identifies himself with a Althusserian Marxist position opposed to what he diagnoses as: the deliberate viral influence of Nietzsche’s corpus, acting through a corps of intellectuals, toward the ultimate reduction of the masses into a state perinde ac cadaver. (The Jesuit allusion is far from accidental; see 313-315.) He is professedly paranoid in his treatment of Nietzsche, the “Nietzsche industry,” and “technoculture” on the cusp of the 21st century.

With respect to Nietzsche and his intentions, Waite aptly faults “scholarly” or “philosophical” readers of Nietzsche who confine themselves to the oeuvre written for publication. Nietzsche’s workbooks and private correspondence–all now published in German, Italian, and Japanese, though not in English, Waite notes–are indispensable in light of such declarations of esoteric mode as the conclusion of “On Redemption” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “But why does Zarathustra speak otherwise to his pupils — than to himself?” (This passage is surely Nietzsche’s equivalent of the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark.) In particular, Waite claims a central position for the early unpublished essay “The Greek State,” in which Nietzsche affirmed “the necessary Greek triad: ‘slavery,’ ‘esoteric writing,’ ‘the esoteric doctrine of the relation between the State and genius.'” (300)

Waite enters the argument regarding Nietzsche’s sexual appetites armed with some intriguing evidence. But he did not impress me with his repeated references to homosexuality and sadomasochism as if those were self-evidently “bad things.” 

As far as the “corps” is concerned, Waite does not confine himself to any particular textual lineage of Nietzsche interpretation, since he is out to resist them all. He comprehensively examines both right-wing Nietzscheans and left-wing “Nietzschoids,” usually with penetrating criticisms of the latter. He recommends Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli as a manual for reading Nietzsche, and I plan to take him up on this recommendation. Pierre Klossowski’s readings of Nietzsche also win serious points–with caveats–from Waite.

Waite’s notion of the corpse breaks out of the ivory tower and indicts the emerging cyber-society as being in thrall to Nietzsche’s agenda, with targets in popular culture such as William S. Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, and William Gibson. I can’t help but suppose that the later cinematic VR explosion (for which The Matrix was a flagship) brought him into a righteous near-panic! Nor must today’s smartphone-wielding hordes console him.

The entire enterprise of Nietzsche’s Corps/e is taken up in the wake of the “death of communism” and in the face of Bataille’s declaration that Nietzsche’s is “the only position outside of communism.” Waite allies himself with Gramsci and Althusser, and gives Lenin the final word of his epilogue. (The penultimate one goes to Nietzsche.) And yet for all that he offers a “strong rival conspiratorial hypothesis” to the “conspiracy theory” informing Nietzsche’s writings (67), Waite fails to persuade me of the goodness of Communism or the badness of “Nietzchean/ism.”

Ultimately, I am very glad to have read this book, and I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in Nietzsche to tackle it.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Friedrich Nietzsche; trans., introduction, & notes R J Hollingdale.

Nietzsche Hollingdale Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a Bible for the godless, a treasure-trove for reluctant but inevitable onolaters. Although it often seems to offer its message in the simplest and most straightforward terms, it also admits plainly to a crypticism and esoteric character that exceeds the one indicated in Mark 4:11-12. The sage Zarathustra is not merely a cipher for Nietzsche himself, he is putatively the inventor of the notion of good and evil lying at the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and thus his creative power both subsumes and stands outside of it.

Many other books could be and have been written in an attempt to comprehend and elucidate this one. Many other writers have tried to assert their own superiority with facile dismissals of the challenges Nietzsche raises here. 

Coming on the heels of several other English translations of Zarathustra, Del Caro’s is a conservative, readable text with minimal commentary and explication. The few explanatory footnotes seem mostly intent on exonerating Nietzsche from charges of misogyny, although some address translation issues. In particular Del Caro tries to justify the existence of his translation over and against that of Walter Kaufmann, whose errors he specifically calls out. 

The long note on page 199 attempts to dispel what Del Caro calls the “myth” of Nietzsche’s inspired authorship of the book. But it is more worthwhile to ask what is being signified by the allegedly rapid writing of Zarathustra, and why, than to merely cast doubt on whether it was “really” written thus. There are also a surprising number of typos in this edition.

The Postmodern Explained

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jean-François Lyotard, edited by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, trans. Barry Don, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas, afterword by Wlad Godzich.

Lyotard Godzich The Postmodern Explained

Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants could potentially be read as “The New Aeon Explained for Babes of the Abyss.” Lyotard suggests that modernity is characterized by a critical position common to Augustine and Kant, contrasting with the “empiricocritical or pragmatic” posture of the postmodern. (63) Technoscience and capital together have effected an “escape of reality from the metaphysical.” (9)

The author has sometimes been misunderstood as an advocate for the postmodern, rather than a diagnostician of it, and in several pieces of the correspondence collected here the reader can see his frustration that the public misses his opposition to “capitalism’s regime of pseudorationality and performativity.” (73) He is not at all smug about the demise of the elements of modernity that give way to the postmodern, but he is also convinced and convincing that retreat to the modern is not a viable option.

In discussing the failure of modern strategies of legitimation, he glosses Hegel to the effect that “the sole normative instance, the sole source of law, the sole y, is pure will — which is never this or that, never determined, but simply the potential to be all things. So it judges any particular act, even when it is prescribed by law and executed according to the rules, as failing to live up to the ideal. Terror acts on the suspicion that nothing is emancipated enough — and makes it into a politics.” (54) While the ideology of capitalism does not itself give rise to such terror (because it deals in evanescent needs rather than final norms), it is still vulnerable to it, in ways that have become ever more evident in the decades since Lyotard wrote the “Memorandum on Legitimation” that is the longest of the missives and essays collected here.

The afterword by Wlad Godzich constitutes an insightful summary of Lyotard’s efforts prior to the publication of Postmoderne expliqué, and it might be profitable to read it first for those who have no previous familiarity with either The Postmodern Condition or The Differend. Reading it myself, I conclude that it will indeed be the child who will master the aeon, but I also register how difficult the achievement of childhood is becoming.