October 2009

David Banach
Department of Philosophy
Saint Anselm College

This paper was presented October 23, 2009 a the Conference on the Value of Human Life at the Bioethics Institute of Fransciscan University at Steubenville


The Ethics of Infinite Love

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Lacking the time needed to really develop an extended thought or well composed essay for this month’s blog post, I’ve opted instead to simply share some notes from my personal philosophical journal in the hopes, at the very least perhaps, of sharing with you the reader some of the questions that I’ll be exploring next semester in my preceptorial on Freud and Analysis.  In this way you get a glimpse not only into what promises to be an interesting experiment in the form of a class, but also into the messy naissance of an idea.

What does it really mean to be a subject?  If to be a subject means to be held out before, extended and open towards beings, in a word ex-istent, then isn’t there a sense in which to be a subject is to always already be called away from the self, away from the starting point of one’s own being?  That is, isn’t there a sense, given the trajectory of subjectivity towards beings, that to be a subject is to be living always already beyond the ground of one’s own being, alienated or distended from one self?  Put another way, isn’t there some tragic sense in which one can only fully become oneself/become a subject by loosing or separating from oneself, by cutting oneself off/free from oneself and rejecting the primordial tendency to be absorbed in one’s own being?

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to this strange and seemingly paradoxical reality as the law of castration, the fact that one can only enter into the symbolic order of language, exchange and community (the very order in which the formal structure of subjectivity is achieved), by cutting themselves free from the gravitational pull of and primordial bond to their own being.  For there is no private language, as we all know.  The language we take up in the development of our subjectivity is not our own, but belongs fundamentally to another.  Indeed, initiation into the symbolic order is to be othered in this way – it is to take on the language of the other’s as our own – in a word, to become an Other.  And to be inducted into the symbolic order (a language community) in this way is not only to be welcomed into a society, it is the very naissance of our subjectivity, our ability to think to process.  Cognition and consciousness requires this symbolic initiation.  So it seems that the very process of becoming a subject is the process of loosing one’s primordial way of being themselves, it is to be othered – to abandon that nascent privacy which is one’s original mode of being, and become fundamentally exposed in the public realm.  In other words, subjectivity appears to be a mode of becoming which is inexorably marked by being torn from one’s ‘original’ state and laid bare before another: to be me is to be alienated from myself, as it were.

This means that to be a human subject means to be by necessity ‘out-of-joint’ – it is to dwell in the rupture between a supposed closed off state of primordial being to which you can never return and which you never properly were (as you only fully came to be through the rupture of that totality), and perhaps a state of final fulfillment in which this alienation will be annihilated, and with it you (death).  The being of the subject is thus made fundamentally a way of becoming – inscribed ineluctably by desire.  Hence Lacan’s nomination of the subject as a manqué-a-etre, not so much a being as a want-to-be, a desire or absence of being (double meaning to the word want here).  To be a subject is to become in the disaster (dis-astre) that is the explosion of the singularity of our being, it is alienation, it is to be in want.  This is the law of castration.

The horrible curse, of course, is that we can only become aware of the tragedy that is our being, our want-to-be, from this side of the symbolic order (once we’ve taken up the language of another).  The result is that we all too easily give into the illusion that no gap exits – that we are whole in the symbolic order.  This emerges out of a false identification with the symbolic order (i.e. because we come-to-be in the symbolic order, we find in it our whole identity and being).  Of course this is inauthentic (in the old Greek sense of the word of being other than one’s own, failing to recognizing what is properly one’s own, to use the Latin) as it fails to recognize the ground of subjectivity.  But, more importantly, it leads to all sorts of social problem, such as social conformity and mob mentality, opening the door to totalitarianism.  For others, sensing the trauma of their being, sensing that they are fundamentally in want, will all too quickly attempt to correct the disaster and propose ‘solutions’ (even final ones) to the want in some vain nostalgic attempt to ‘return’ to some presumed primordial unity, a time before the disaster.  We see quickly how the curse of the law of castration leads to holocaust.  This is, of course, a social outworking of the Oedipal drama: the attempt to return to the primordial home (Mother), and it is necessarily doomed to failure and the harbinger or murder.

What we are left with the ethical necessity or recognizing our alienation and embracing it – the ethical imperative of refusing and resisting our inborn tendency towards nostalgia, towards ‘return’ to unity and harmony.  In a word, the ethical necessity of conflict, difference and descent.  Only through such an authentic acceptance and appropriation of our primordial alienation, through such a resistance to and rejection of the siren’s song of absorption and completion, can we mature past the Oedipal drama of totalitarianism and murder and bare our heads freely in the truth.

The philosophical world in the West, since the beginning of the 20th Century, is thought to be—and maybe is—quite divided.  Setting aside the differences (and similarities) between philosophy in the West and philosophy elsewhere (in India, China, Japan, Africa, and perhaps among indigenous peoples worldwide, not to mention Marxists), sharp differences are noticed today just within the tradition that traces itself back through modern and medieval European philosophy to ancient Greece.

If you were to check graduate school philosophy departments around the U.S., you would find that in many cases they characterize themselves as either Analytic or Continental, either exclusively or in emphasis.  Certainly individual philosophers often so characterize themselves.  If you were to ask what this means, you might get a surprising and mysterious answer in terms of literature.  That is to say, Analytic philosophers read and respond to a certain set of books and articles, while Continental philosophers read and respond to a different set, and there is very little overlap, if any.  Why?  Is this an ideological difference?  A methodological one?  A historical schism?  A difference in subjects addressed?

As a matter of fact, when you try to pin down the difference, it turns out to be pretty difficult to do so clearly.  Partly, this is because it would take quite a lot of research to specify the ideological and methodological commitments of philosophers working today, or to trace their philosophical histories and influences, or even to catalog the subjects they address.  I suspect that if you did this research, you would find a complicated picture, with many intersections across the Analytic/Continental divide, and little in the way of a clear picture of the divide itself.  But I can’t prove that without writing a book about it; a daunting project.  Another reason why the difference is difficult to pin down is that the perception of it is based largely on geography:  Analytic philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in an Anglophone tradition, found in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada; Continental philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in a largely Francophone tradition, found in the countries of Continental Europe—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.—North Africa, and Canada.  But the definitions break down as soon as you set them up.  It’s not hard to find “Continental” philosophers in the United States working in English, nor is it hard to find “Analytic” philosophers in Europe working in German.

However, geography is not now and has never been the defining criterion of distinct schools of philosophy.  In ancient times, when philosophy sprang up, as tradition has it, in Ionia (modern Turkey), just about as soon as Thales developed his theory that water is the arche of the kosmos, other philosophers—Anaximander and Anaximenes—developed competing theories.  They all lived in Ionia, and they’re called “the Ionians,” or “the Milesians,” but they differed philosophically as radically as water does metaphysically from the infinite or from density.  Later on, Plato and Aristotle differed on many points, including methodology; both count as Greek philosophers, though.

There is also a logical difficulty with the expressions ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ as they are used today to designate schools of philosophy.  The terms are not comparable (except geographically—a fruitless interpretation).  ‘Analytic’ is a term referring to method; Analytic philosophers get their name from their method of analyzing ordinary language, among other things they do.  Continental philosophers analyze ordinary language, too, among other things, but their name, ‘Continental,’ does not designate a method.  Rather it designates a lineage.  Of course, Analytic philosophers have essentially the same lineage.  So the terms, ‘Analytic,’ and ‘Continental,’ differentiate schools of philosophy neither on the basis of method nor on the basis of lineage.

Yet, philosophers will tell you that they can tell the difference between Analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers, moreover that they agree with the one and disagree with the other, and even that they dislike and have no interest in the one and feel very passionately enthusiastic about the other.  What is going on?  As a matter of historical fact, for instance, Franz Brentano (1838-1917) taught Edmund Husserl (a key “Continental” philosopher), but also attracted the attention of G.E. Moore (a key “Analytic” philosopher).  Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, was deeply influenced by Brentano’s habilitation thesis, On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle.  Moore’s colleague, Bertrand Russell, went to great lengths to answer the ontological claims of Brentano’s student, Alexius Meinong.  Does this simply represent the initial stages of a great rift?  No.  Several decades after Brentano’s death, Jacques Derrida (a Francophone Algerian Jew, designated “Continental”) was deeply influenced by J.L. Austin (an Englishman, designated “Analytic”).  Both therefore have a clear debt as well to a slightly earlier philosopher, Russell’s and Moore’s student Ludwig Wittgenstein (an Austrian, designated “Analytic”).  Analytic and Continental philosophers also share a common debt to Hegel and to Kant, as well as to the whole prior history of philosophy going back to the Greeks.  And their current interests are similar:  sense perception; subjectivity; the cultural effects of modern science; ethics; aesthetics.

The Polish logicians (if Poland isn’t Continental, what is?) exercised influence especially over the Analytic philosophers, but their education was Eastern European, and traceable to the school of Brentano.  However, Analytic philosophers typically complain that Continental philosophers are “literary” rather than “philosophical” or “logical,” while Continental philosophers complain that Analytic philosophers do not speak to people where they live, that they do not address the “meaning of life” issues philosophy ought to be concerned with.  And so it goes.  How do I even know who’s who?  We’re brought back to an answer in terms of literature.  Almost every philosopher who publishes today betrays him- or herself by the sources he or she cites, and those sources are categorized by the nearly arbitrary Analytic/Continental distinction.  My father once promised me a dollar for every reference to Jesus Christ that I could find in a Unitarian hymnal.  I promise you the same for every reference to a recent Analytic philosopher that you can find in a Continental book or article, or vice versa, and I expect to lose about as much money as Dad did!  But all of us, whatever our initial sympathies, should become at least reasonably well-versed in the philosophies from the “other side.”  Even Wittgenstein’s family resemblances obtain among philosophers in general, and not just among Analytic or Continental philosophers in juxtaposition.