Philosophizing through antinomies

judo fightWhat is it that permits us to label a discussion as a philosophical one? Is it not the same characteristics that make us qualify a thesis to be of a philosophical nature? As every teacher of philosophy knows, even if one tends to forget it from time to time, it is not sufficient for the writing or the discussion to take place within the course of a philosophy class to be considered philosophical: the philosophical nature is not determined by the context. Even the most brilliant teachers cannot induce substantial intellectual achievements of high quality in their students by their mere presence. And indeed, just to put forward some opinions that are not well worked out, or establish some list of random points, or draw a collection of statements that are not quite substantial or well supported, in an inconsistent way, or which change the subject without any justified reason, jumping unconsciously from one issue to the next, does not amount to any viable philosophical achievement, be it in oral discussions or in writing.

An overloaded qualification

Everyone will use criteria of his own to determine the philosophical value or content of a given proposition or an exchange of opinions. These assessments will be of an intuitive or a formalized kind, explicit or implicit, arbitrary or justified. But before one is to put forward some hypothesis on this matter, a first warning must be made. The qualification of philosophy seems to be very loaded. First of all because it seemingly says everything and nothing. This is doubtlessly because the term philosophy is used and intended in many ways, from discussions about daily particular problems involving rash declarations deprived of any real justification or content, to general statements about human or worldly matters, elaborations of erudite doctrines about life or reason, showing off some knowledge and culture in a more or less appropriate way, or producing some rare and opaque abstractions. Facing this rather hazy situation, everyone is tempted to exaggerate the value of one’s position while denouncing or vilifying every other particular or general perspective, where the most reckless and zealous advocates of some philosophical stance do not hesitate to scold or even excommunicate dissidents.

In spite of all this, it is not forbidden to anyone who is tempted to do so, to establish what to him or her defines and constitutes a philosophical path or content. But in order to avoid overloading this task mentally and emotionally, we must from the start recall and reinforce the following truism: philosophy does not detain any monopoly on intellectual and pedagogical preoccupations. Stated in other words, a practice, a way of teaching or a given knowledge that is not considered philosophical may nevertheless represent matters of genuine interest in some respect. This is to explain that by labeling an exercise or a way of teaching as non-philosophical, before any proclamation of cheating or denouncing the breach of trust, we must ask ourselves in which way this activity presents some kind of utility. Even though we may have the greatest love and respect for the philosophical thing, we may believe in the existence of a spiritual and intellectual life before or beyond the realm of philosophy. And if the term philosophy may thus be judged improper, too vague or inadequate from some point of view, we do not feel for this reason the urge to ban it for that reason or pronounce anathema. Besides, by accepting the problematic nature of the term and admitting conceptual plurality, we allow ourselves a wider opportunity to indulge in the philosophical exercise, more than in the case we were we choose to behave like overcautious and rigid guardians of the temple. This certainly does not imply to ban rigor, quite the contrary, since the real issue will be here to engage in a meaningful and fruitful dialogue, obliging us to rethink permanently the very foundations of our discipline.

Philosophy and utility

To make our suggestion more substantial and palpable, let us give an example that occupies us a lot: the discussion, may it be called dialogue, debate or something else. Within a pedagogical setting, formal or not, the discussion may or may not be philosophical. Is it then sufficient that the discussion deals with the big themes of life, like love, death or thought, to qualify it as philosophical? In the particular perspective of this paper, we would answer in the negative. Nevertheless, as we have said, in the absolute it does not matter whether this discussion is considered philosophical or not. Exclusion of philosophy for lack of erudition or an excess of erudition, exclusion of philosophy for lack of democracy or excess of democracy, exclusion of philosophy for lack of abstraction or excess of abstraction, exclusion of philosophy for acceptation of a doctrine or refusal of a doctrine. We reject the romanticism of a teacher who seeks to minimize his role to the extent of virtually disappearing, as much as we reject the clericalism of a professor that pretends to be indispensable and seems so self-satisfied with his science. Both attitudes contain dogmatism and a pompousness that badly fit our business: one has no copyright whatsoever, or any stamp or field to defend against imaginary assailants. Those postures are different choices, with their advantages and inconvenient.

Do we perceive any utility in a given exercise? This is the first significant question to be asked. It is true, however, in our society and doubtlessly at all times and places, that a person who wishes to pose the big existential questions and discuss them encounters a certain difficulty in finding attentive and honest interlocutors. Generally human beings prefer to avoid this kind of questions, being very much preoccupied or too busy mending their “useful” tasks, too worried to take their time contemplating face to face certain crucial vast problems. Thus, the simple gesture of pausing to question oneself, of calmly exchanging ideas about it, and even of confronting rigorously various visions of the world, seems to us to be something good and useful. Without mentioning that from this type of exchange can arise profound intuitions and bold arguments. But to redo the world, is this to philosophize?

Then we notice from time to time those persons who take part in this kind of discussions and content themselves with dropping list of banalities, without bothering themselves the least about any rigor or deepening of thought. We shall refuse, at least initially, to qualify such efforts as philosophical, how sympathetic they may be. A judgment with limited consequences, however, which is in no way a catastrophy. And if certain people boldly wish to use the term philosophy to provide some status to their efforts, a qualification they need for some reason, we will not hold this against them: this is part of the game, and Lady Philosophy will have seen much worse and she will not die from it. The “death of philosophy”, periodically evoked as a threat by some purists is a very tragic notion that is totally foreign to us: it only expresses the xenophobia of those with pretensions of narrowing the borders of philosophy to the point where they can remain its unique – or quasi-unique – promoters, defenders, inheritors or possessors. Whatever this strange behavior may signify and imply, a debate will take place. In spite of numerous attempts to narrow or exclude, or rather because of them, a debate will take place, which will regularly attempt to set forth again and again the problem of philosophy, in order not to loosen the tension which is beneficial and necessary for the full exercise of thought. Besides, we may always ask ourselves if the fact that an exercise is philosophical indicates necessarily some kind of usefulness.

The architecture of thought

Having stated these warnings, we will now try to propose a framework for the philosophizing. Hopefully we have minimized or prevented the stream of misplaced and superficial reactions from both the “aristocrats” as well as the “democrats”. But anyhow, in order to philosophize, we must be able to take risks! We thus propose, not so much as a definitional and limitative frame but rather as an operational and dynamic structure, the principle of antinomies as a key to this specific activity. For in fact, whether it may be in oriental philosophy, at the heart of the great myths originated in the four corners of the world, in the reflections of daily life or within the history of western classical philosophy from its Greek origin, the antinomies appear to give thought processes its own particular rhythm. Starting with good and bad, true and false, just and unjust. These antinomies articulate the points of tension, from or around which the major principles have been formulated: they pose the fundamental oppositions, they articulate the multiple judgments and axiology, and they enable the extraction of thought from the simple and monotonous magma of opinions and ideas. Strangely, and contrary to what one might believe – labeling has a bad reputation these days – through such categorizing and simplifying formalisms, through those specific constraints, our thought moves from the opacity and thickness of chaotic layers of collected ideas into an architecture favoring transparence and self-consciousness. In the manner of gothic architecture, who introduced exterior buttresses at specific points in order to allow lighter and slenderer perspectives than those of its roman predecessor, thicker and more massive.

Our postulate thus puts forward the hypothesis that thought is not an accumulation or a heap of opinions relatively foreign to one another and for this reason quite confused, a disconnection allowing for mutual ignorance and contradictions, but that it is a geometry with its echoes and coherences, an architecture with its foundations and its keystones, a music with its harmonics and dissonances. Even if this does not always reveal itself consciously – and luckily so, as consciousness has so much else to do – each intellectual functioning produces, individually or collectively, a certain number of concepts and conceptual polarities which are more or less apt at organizing spiritual and intellectual life, in spite of the immense pluralism of its contingently established and harvested propensities, perceptions, sensations, intuitions and opinions. Pleasure and pain, me and others, being and appearance represent such a number of such polarities, which we cannot do without if we are to remain mentally sane. It is only by way of an immense work on their own, psychological and intellectual, that some great wisdom or revolutionary scheme might, as a proposed ideal or a divine revelation, disregard such a fact. Even if thought mostly works in a reactive way, by mechanically producing statements one by one in order to please itself or its neighbor, it is nevertheless operating within the furnace of categories, within the realm of codified forms and specific axises.

A naïve reading

If some of the antinomies – especially those we encounter in life, generally of a practical, empirical, sensitive and moral nature – strike us by their banality, others seem to be more refined or obscure. But in both cases we must bring the antinomies out in the daylight and have them clarified, as the most common ones suffer sometimes from current prejudices that connote them in an improper way, while the rare ones look like scarecrows not to be approached handily or used serenely. We nevertheless hold the hypothesis that each important or basic antinomy, like any other basic concept, is necessarily linked to some basic intuition, so that it may be grasped and referred to relatively easily by anyone. In other words, and at the risk of shocking sensitive philosophical souls, we affirm that every important antinomy, every fundamental concept is somewhat banal and evident, at least in its general understanding. The most technical or specific ones are often not the most profound.

Thus, we advise readers unfamiliar with the philosophical lexicon not to jump on the dictionary when he encounters one of these terms: he risks to make his life more complicated. It is better to let the intuition speak: it will often instinctively recognize the words, be it in themselves or through the phrases that contain them and produce them. Evidently, neologisms or other kinds of barbarisms crudely formulated resist from time to time any immediate comprehension, so it does not for us imply to totally prohibit the consultation of a philosophical dictionary, but we encourage the reader not to precipitate himself on these books until he really has tried to have a preliminary and simple reading on his own. Let us distrust the learned works which, by way of their introductions, exhaustive pretensions, footnotes and appendixes sometimes succeed in constituting with the annexes the largest proportion of text, thus choking the original idea and thickening the reading up to the point where it is rendered not accessible at all. A classical error in philosophy, which particularly affects the “good student” endowed with some rudiments of philosophical culture: impressed by his masters, who themselves doubtlessly have done a lot to overwhelm the student, he pretends to be “good” at things, so he applies himself painfully and get caught in details rather than reading freely and quietly what is offered, without worrying too much about having omitted the fine nuances. Let us invite the reader to a straightforward, rough and sketchy reading, following the major traits, so that he, at the risk of temporary immediate errors, eventually will be able through time to account for lacks and counter-senses that hamper and fetter him, without seeking at every step to verify what each and everyone may have speculated and concluded on the subject. That is the trap of knowledge, which can only get rid of itself and its weight through a patient and laborious procedure, to discover that simplicity is not necessarily a flaw, rather the contrary.

Being and appearance

Let us deal with a particular example: being and appearance. Many an expert of this subject will insist on displaying various subtleties, for example how the Kantian antinomy of “nominal and phenomena” is much more sophisticated, much more subtle and learned than the general antinomy we initially put forward. But it seems to us that beside for those who on this particular question compose a doctoral dissertation intended to impress their peers or obtain a diploma, those sophistications, nuances and subtleties do not present much interest. And we often wonder about those scholarly compilations, which have little more substance than a purely lexical and superficial one. We may from time to time observe at work some professional abstractor of quintessence which at first glance may have impressed us, before we are finally struck by the vanity and ridiculousness of its undertaking. How many dissertation have not been produced which, with a pretense of originality and novelty, throw themselves into minute and endless speculations that stun the reader uniquely by the exact disproportion between the absence of substance of the volume of the prose!

Every human being has necessarily experienced the discrepancy between being and appearance. Isn’t this so just because one has been regularly betrayed by his neighbor, because he will have periodically taken something for what it was not, because will have thought the tree was the forest, or simply because one’s vision has been failing? How many discrepancies will have for general explanation this simple difference between being and appearance, or between a multiplicity of appearances engendered by different perspectives? It is precisely the identification of those perspectives and their particular relationships to one single object, which summarizes the articulation of philosophical issues. The anagogical principle of Plato, which demands from us to take a particular idea upstream, back to the origin, to the vision of the world that generates it, in order to grasp in its causality the founding reality of this idea. It is in this sense that the antinomies we present appear to us as closely capturing the philosophical enterprise.

At this point it can be objected that philosophical discussions, be it with children or teenagers or non initiated adults, that rather try to answer questions on the meaning of life, the difficulty of human relations or the problem of moral obligations, stand seemingly far away from the abstract antinomies we propose. Our answer is that the philosopher will not content himself with merely exchanging opinions and arguments, as he also demands that an analytical and reflexive work takes place in order to analyze and reflect upon what in itself constitutes the basic material of the philosopher. The philosophical requirement consists of ferreting out and articulating the stakes of the various perspectives, differences which very naturally – if led forth – will produce the classical antinomies that we have tried to enumerate and account for.

Thus, the teacher’s task is, similar to that of the student’s, can be described as remaining on the ideas that have been put forward, to contemplate a while them instead of producing other opinions ad infinitum, in order to extract their profound meaning and highlight the divergences. This is not about satisfying oneself with the simple “I don’t agree” or “I have another idea,” but rather to make these different ideas relate to one another, identify the nature of their links and contradictions, in order to grant them a status beyond mere opinions. Certainly the producing of arguments produces some additional value to the thinking process by attributing a reason for having such or such an opinion, avoiding the common mistake of taking sincerity as a sufficient justification, but we still have to accomplish the task of comparing those reasons in order to clarify their content, to bring out their substance to daylight, which means to conceptualize, and then to account for the multiple perspectives, which means to problematize. It is about posing judgments, about qualifying one’s propositions, in order to deepen one’s thought and make it conscious, both one’s own thought and that of one’s interlocutors. Without this the exercise will have – although not totally uninteresting – a limited interest as a mere exchange of ideas, offering a forum of expression, but it is less than certain that deprived of analysis, of comparisons and qualifications of the diverse ideas, it will provide us an actual philosophical examination or pretend to this status. This is also the case with a dissertation in a class of philosophy, with the only difference that being framed within a defined curriculum, with notions and authors, we might expect here and there some references and codified notions, which is not necessarily the case in a written text or in a philosophical discussion outside an established or consecrated curriculum of philosophy.

By way of a conclusion for our preamble on the antinomies, let us take a particular case. Suppose that we visit the workshop of a painter and that we wish to render manifest our appreciation of his work. Among others, two possibilities of expression are here available: “Your painting is very beautiful” or “I like your painting a lot”. For a reason or another that is a matter of individual sensitivity or personal choices, more or less conscious, each one of us will opt for this or that formulation. Nevertheless, for the painter, if he does not indulge into philosophical activity and that for all practical – or pleasurable – purposes he is only concerned with receiving your agreement or your admiration, little then matter the nature of the terms used. And so it is as well for the author of those words, if he only wished to express what lay on his heart.

But what philosophically interests us here is to clarify the stakes implied by such a choice. And those issues will articulates themselves if you first envisage which other manner of expression you had at your disposal, and if you take time to deliberate upon this choice and analyze it. Out ask is therefore to conceptualize, to problematize and to deepen our understanding in order to accomplish a work of philosophy. Thus in the first case, when we refer to “beauty”, we convey a world vision rather bent toward the objective and the universal, where abstraction and transcendence can play a major role, when in the second case, where it is a matter of “liking”, we rather dwell in the subjective and the particular, and reality is founding itself more in the singular and the concrete. So what might for the layman represent only a simple statement of appreciation can for the philosopher signify the articulation of a global world vision. But one must for this develop a competency; one must train his eye and already know the major stakes in order to them. In this fashion the fact of tracking and enumerating classical antinomies may appear as a useful enterprise in order to facilitate philosophical practice.

Some antinomies

We will en the present text by quoting for indication three examples of our series of antinomies, as well as the global list of all those that seem important and recurrent.

1. One and multiple

First and basic problematic: any entity is at the same time one and multiple. Thus, the individual is one, he has a unique identity, which distinguishes him from other individuals, but he is also many: his conception of himself, his place, his history, his composition, his relations, his function, etc. This is not only so for beings, but also for things and for words, whose identity varies with the circumstances. Thus the apple hanging on an apple tree, or lying on the ground, or on the shopkeeper’s counter, or on the plate, is not the same apple. Thus a word may, according to the phrase it has been put into, have its meaning considerable modified. But this multiplicity is a trap, just like the unity. In fact, through the case multiplicity, circumstantial or other, through the set and the totality, a form or another of unity must emerge, as hypothetical, problematical and hard to define as it may be, without which the entity is no longer an entity but a pure multiplicity, the term is no more a term because it does not refer to set or any unity. Without some kind of invariance, without some kind of community, without distinct parts or attributes, a thing is unreachable and inexistent. Thus we must attempt to determine the unity through the multiplicity, as much as the multiplicity through the unity.

2. Being and appearance

This problematic is often grafted on the previous one. That is because being, or essence, may be easily conceived as the founding unity of an entity, as the interiority for which the external appearance would only be the multiplicity of partial and biased manifestations. In this perspective the reality or truth of the different objects of the world would be more or less accessible, if not inaccessible. Appearance, insofar as it is some intermediate or relation between two entities, between an entity and what surrounds it, may be conceived as what veils the essence, and as well, paradoxically, what constitutes its expression, its trace or its imprint. The appearance may also be considered as the unique reality, by affirming that it alone acts upon exteriority in any efficient way: it is relation or live substance. The idea of an interior reality without any exterior expression or deprived of any bearing on the world would then have only an artificial interest and be deprived of any substance whatsoever.

The challenge and requirement of the concept of being is, however, the posing of an invariance – among other implications – postulating some particular and specific characteristics that may always be attributed to the entity in question, to the thing in itself, whatever would be its metamorphoses and the diversities of its relations. This invariance represents therefore a link between the different possible states and modes, beyond the diverse accidents engendered by contingency, a link that incarnate the very substance of this entity.

3. Nature and culture

Nature is opposed to culture in the way that the innate is opposed to the acquired. Is the human being what it is per definition, a priori, or is it shaped through historical choices, consciously or unconsciously? Is culture – principally if not essentially human – a rupture with nature or its more sophisticated expression? Does the human being inscribe his existence in the continuous line of earthly evolution, or does it represent a discontinuity, an accident, if not a natural disaster? Has reason, conscience or spirit originated from life itself, or is it a matter of another kind, a realm transcending material or living reality?

Nature opposes itself to culture as to an artifice. It represents the entire reality of the world that does not owe its existence to human invention or labor. In this way it incarnates the world in its totality, insofar as we may discover an inherent determinism, an order or at least a coherence, and it opposes itself to freedom insofar as nature expresses as well what escapes any free deliberation in a being. Contrary to this, culture is regarded as what originates from man within his historical and social framework. It is constituted through a collection of rules or institutional norms elaborated by a society, a people or humanity as a whole. On a more singular level, it is the process of intellectual development in each individual, a personal constitution that determines his taste and enables him to pass his particular judgments, what compose the specificity of the individual and his identity.

List of the antinomies and triptychs

One and multiple – Being and appearance – Essence and existence – Same and other – Me and others – Continuous and discrete – Whole and part – Abstract and concrete – Body and mind – Nature and culture – Reason and sensible – Reason and intuition – Reason and passion – Temporal and eternal – Finite and infinite – Objective and subjective – Absolute and relative – Freedom and determinism – Active and passive – Actual and virtual – Matter and form – Cause and effect – Space and place – Force and form – Quantity and quality – Narration and discourse – Analysis and synthesis

Logic and dialectics – Affirmation, proof and problematic – Possible, probable and necessary – Induction, deduction and hypothesis – Opinion, idea and truth – Singularity, totality and transcendence – Good, beauty and truth – Being, doing and thinking – Anthropology, epistemology and metaphysics