To philosophise is to reconcile with one’s own words
To philosophise is to reconcile with one’s own words
One of the main tasks of the philosophical practice is to invite the subject to reconcile with his own speech. As much as this assertion may seem strange to some, most people do not like what they say when they speak, they cannot even stand it. “How so!”, will protest the objectors, “most people speak, and they do it a lot!”. Undeniable observation which can easily be confirmed by sitting in a public place and listening to the hubbub of the conversations. Most people do speak indeed, and we would also say that they feel they must speak. A sort of urge is at work, both because they want to say something, they want to express themselves, and because they cannot bear silence. Silence is suspicious, it is cumbersome, it seems sad; a great trust in others is required to accept to remain silent with them, or a good reason, otherwise its meaning has more to do with a lack of interest, a break in the dialogue, or even a conflict. So people talk and in general they talk about just anything: weather, events, the risks in their little lives, some compliments are exchanged, some platitudes, and when the discussion goes further, some confessions are sometimes made, some secrets are disclosed, or sometimes a personal, even shameful, affliction is shared. There is however a primal suspicion that comes to mind about our so-called pleasure of talking, when observing how a discussion gets carried away on a disagreement. Spirits rebel, become heated, shut down, get irritated, become violent, the words become acrimonious. If we were not so used to the virulent way things turn, we could feel surprised: “Hey, they have finally found an idea that matters, a topic that seems of interest. And since they do not share the same opinion, they can discuss it. So why does it look like they are taking this disagreement so hard?”. “One must avoid the matters of discord” claims a popular wisdom, which means roughly all the important matters, those we care for, with an obligation to keep to formal discussions, which are less exciting indeed, but less risky.
To be right
What is the problem? Everyone claims to be right. However, one never really thinks about the meaning of this idea of “being right”, and why we care so much about it. One will explain that it is a matter of confrontation to one’s fellow humans, wrestling for recognition, fighting for power or anything else, and that the stake here is one’s own image, an explanation which undoubtedly is partly true. However, what is interesting here is another side of the story which relates to the previous intuitions: the hypothesis that the human being actually does not appreciate its own speech, which would explain both the difficulties of the discussion and its ability to take an unpleasant turn. As a matter of fact, if people somewhat liked their own speech, if they were confident in their own words, why would they worry so much about being recognised by their neighbour? Would they want so insistently to obtain anything from their interlocutor? For the time being, let us put aside the discussions which have a specific purpose, such as the ones which, by conviction or by practically, require to convince the other one, as the dialogue therefore is not open: it is not its own finality, it explicitly desires an object without which the discussion has no reasons to be: The finality is here precise and clearly stated. We think though that we are always indirectly looking for something, since in general we want to get a certain form of rallying from the person we are talking to. But the point is to understand why. In this perspective, we notice the mechanism of the “Queen mother”, Snow White’s cruel stepmother. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”. If the queen mother appreciated her own beauty so much, why would she need to ask the mirror if she is the fairest, why would she need to compare herself, why would she worry so much about Snow White? Obviously, there is a certain connection between the fact of finding beautiful and the fact of loving, whether it be others or our own self, and as Plato initiates it in The Banquet, it is hard to distinguish whether it is beauty or love that comes first? Do we love because we see beauty? Or do we see beauty because we love? Now going back to the words which we are calling into question, what does happen? Do I find my words ugly because I do not like myself? Or, do I dislike myself because I find my words ugly? On this subject, we will let one judge as one pleases, or let the specialists handle the theses. As for us, a philosophy practitioner, more concerned about grasping the issues of the thinking itself than worrying about any subjectivity, despite the bonds between them, we will query, as we did at the beginning of this text, the possibility of reconciling the subject with its own speech. Not for the sake of making one happy or setting up a eudemonist plan, but only because if one does not reconcile with one’s own words, one will be unable to think.
Protecting the speech
Before explaining this last sentence, let us specify that for us, the fact to reconcile with one’s own words does not imply finding them wonderful, far from that. To be in raptures over one’s own speech is too often the narcissist expression of an aggravated subjectivity, of an ill-being, of a lack of distance, of an inability to think critically. A bit like a mother who is keen to find her child wonderful so as to live vicariously through a happiness which she is unable to find within herself. To reconcile with one’s own speech is to accept to see it as it is, to take it for what it is, to avoid awarding it virtues which scarcely manifest, nor try to protect it from the eyes of others, through “shyness” or an excessive argumentation filled with “what I meant” and with “you don’t understand me”. To reconcile with one’s own speech is to accept to hear how our words sound in the ears of others, it is to let go of the pretended or expected meaning which visibly is absent of the formulation as it is, it is to wish to see the void, the ruptures and the treasons of the pronounced terms, it is to accept the brutal and harsh reality of the words. Should it be only because the words that we pronounce tell more about what we think and who we are than all the other words that we so want to say.
Protecting one’s words is actually what mostly motivates what, through haste and as an easy way out, we commonly call shyness. As a matter of fact, many of these “shy” people actually have a very high opinion of what they must say, but they fear though that the “others”, those who are listening, will not share the same admiration for their own words. So they consider that it is safer and less perilous to abstain from talking in order to maintain this appearance or pretention of genius, benefit of the doubt, as all kinds of virtues can be awarded to the sphinx, as long as it remains silent. Moreover, if they fear the critical judgement of their speech, it is because they disregard this practice for themselves, or they flee it. Just like the greatly inspired people, the “shy” people think they are right without even pronouncing any word, and quite unknowingly, they care more for the illusory “meaning” of their thoughts than for their own words. And when they do speak, these people try to dodge the critique of their own speech reaching out to what they really meant, they will not hesitate to abandon or to deny some of the words which were bluntly pronounced, and withdraw into themselves, or launch a rambling speech. They will however never accept to look at their own words as the true substance of their thoughts: this would expose them too much; they would have to confront their own image.
Let us enjoy for a moment the antinomy identified in a shy person. By opposing what was “really meant” to the ideas already expressed, we are actually opposing the infinity to the finite, because we are opposing the omnipotence of virtual reality to the finiteness of practical reality, the undetermined potential to the determination of what has already been actualised. Virtual reality can just do anything, nothing is impossible, anything can still be said, whereas practical is right there, totally present, engaged into the otherness of reality, anchored in time and space. The word said is said, it is specific, it is binding to a shaped speech, a way of being, a particular perspective. It can still be interpreted, re-interpreted, over-interpreted, it can be made to mean anything we want, if only by claiming that it is unfinished, nevertheless it already reveals something specific, and unless you turn to complete bad faith – which is far from unusual nor excluded -, it cannot be made to say just anything or the opposite of what it has stated already. What annoys is precisely this exclusion: the fact that it makes an assertion, whatever assertion, the phrase necessarily leads to a denial, as Spinoza teaches us. Anything that asserts, on account of this very assertion, is denying. It is either denying by commission: by refusing the opposite of what it is stating. Or it is denying by omission, omitting to say some things, pushing them into the background. However, most speakers will struggle immensely to accept this negative dimension of the speech, especially the second one, easier to conceal, taking refuge in the “totality” of their thoughts, in what they could still say, a totality which is as undefined as it is infinite.
To this effect, accepting our speech or words as the expression of our thinking, or better as the true substance of the thinking (Hegel), or as the limits of the thinking (Wittgenstein), is a psychological or philosophical equivalent to accepting what we have done, what we have achieved, as the reality of what we are (Sartre). As a matter of fact, we can always find refuge in “what we could be”, “what we could have been”, “what we would like to be”, “what we were denied to be”, “what we have been”, “what we will be”, and these different dimensions of the being and of the existence do have a meaning and a reality, but they can also easily represent a sort of alibi, refuge, fortress, preventing us from seeing and taking responsibility for what we are. The past, the future, the conditional, the possible or even the impossible all constitute some folds able to conceal the present and the current. If we do not request anyone to occult or just underestimate these various dimensions, which in their own way form the treasures of the being and its freedom to conceive, we do however wish to show the pitfall that they represent, and caution against the abusive use of this multiplicity. Because, if we tend to overuse the present to the detriment of the past, the future or the conditional when it comes to the satisfaction of the desires and the quest for happiness, we also tend to occult it very often when it comes to the reality of our speech.
Abusing the speech
Let us come to what may possibly threaten this timid speech. Two fundamental criticisms were sensibly identified by the sophists against Socrates, about his way of speaking, or rather questioning. First of all, “You are forcing me to say what I do not want to say”. The reason is that Socrates, with his expert ears, can hear what a sentence says and denies, so he requires an interruption to his interlocutor, a ruling, in order to give some feedback about the sentence, so as to raise the interlocutor’s awareness about it. For him, this feedback is almost the actual definition of the thinking, or of the philosophising, since to be reasoning is to give the reasons of something. Therefore, he invites his interlocutor to return to the genesis, if not the archaeology of his words, in order to grasp its meaning and its reality. Not a genesis of the singular, the one of the interlocutor’s intent, but the genesis of the meaning, the universality of the word, the objectivity of its content. Yet this reality, seen through the words, is very often forgotten or denied by their author, simply because one is not prepared to accept the reality beyond the specific intention that drove one to pronounce them. An intent which – unfortunately – is just a slight and limited aspect of the reality put forward into one’s words: the intention is reductive. And oddly enough, the attentive audience, for which the intention is totally unknown, will perceive better the objective reality of the speech, since that audience is not inhabited and biased by the specific desire that motivated those words. Often however, the speaker will refuse the audience’s interpretation, considering it misplaced and intrusive, if not illegitimate and alienating. He will consider himself as the sole holder of the meaning of his own words, he will intend to denigrate any interpretations claiming his sacrosanct intention. As if our speech could be reduced to the only meaning that we claim to grant it, often in a distorted and absurd way. This tearing from the self, this rupture of the being between its self and the words supposed to mirror it, is precisely the core of the Socratic practice: to probe the abym of the being, to work on the crevice which constitutes our split singularity. How not to rebel against such an abusive intervention, such a biased proposal? An unbearable perspective in the prevailing psychologism.
The second criticism, in full compliance with the first one, is “You are tearing my speech to pieces”. A very unpleasant feeling caused by this sharp dissection of a so-called harmonious ensemble, in which we have put so much effort and love, a small part of our individual self, a gracious bit of our person, prettily composed, a blend which we present to the world as a choice piece of ourselves. And if ever our verbal staging leaves us unsatisfied, if we think that it is short of the true level of our thinking, or not fully in keeping with it, we become even more sensitive to others’ possible analysis, we become more nervous about the treatment they will give it. There is however a good reason why we tend to be unsatisfied by our speech, which relates to the unconscious and common fact that we often try to “say it all” when we talk. This is either about telling the most honourable, pure or unstinting truth on what we are thinking, with all its possible nuances, or about enunciating the totality of our thought, in its entirety, exhaustively, through an infinite and generally confused listing of the causes and circumstances, going into ad nauseam details. We try to cover every angle, to anticipate any objections, to protect ourselves in advance of all the critical judgements, sheltering our speech behind any possible screen, so as to make it unanswerable. And under the pretext of precision, we produce confusion, since nothing then distinguishes the essential from the accidental.
So here is what Socrates does: he takes a little bit of our “masterpiece”, a bit which he picks in an arbitrary and unseemly way, in order to examine and triturate it right, left and centre, totally ignoring what we were asserting just a moment ago. He ignores the extent, the complexity or the “beauty” of our speech and wants to question us on one specific aspect of what we said, extracting it from its context, as if we had never said anything else, asking us to answer in a short and precise way, if not a basic ‘yes and no”, reducing the magnitude of our thought to a simple judgment: the one of an assent or refusal to a particular and reduced idea, or asking us to commit to a single word. A particular idea which obviously inserts itself in a vicious trap taking us back to the previous criticism: the interlocutor forces us to say what we did not say and did not want to say. He decontextualizes our words and then requires our position on the radicality of their meaning. Furthermore, inexplicably, this perverse mind seems to find within this disintegration, in this close combat with “hardly anything”, a sudden burst of truth. Some “almost nothing” or “less than nothing” within which the truth of the being, if not the being itself, can be met.
The concern of the speech
One may believe that being subjected to an interpretation abuse is what troubles the speaker, worried that one makes his words say what he did not wish them to say, or something else than what he wished to say, but it seems to us that the matter here is deeper or more “serious” than that. Actually, it is easy to destabilise one’s interlocutor, and anyone can experience this, by asking him to repeat what he just said, in an acute way: “Can you repeat what you just said?”, and we will see him look startled and already begin to defend himself, without having criticised him in any way. Very often, he will not repeat what he had said, first of all because he has not really paid attention to his own words himself, which is significant enough. Or because he will feel threatened and therefore will want to justify himself rather than return to the words he had already pronounced, or he will transform his initial words by starting his sentence by “What I meant” … He is overwhelmed with a form of anxiety or even panic although, objectively, nothing indicated any kind of criticism. However, we could here call upon a sort of social trauma in mitigation or as an explanation. Human beings care so little about the words of others, either they ignore them because they do not feel concerned, or they argue them because their ideas differ from the others’, or in an even more reductive way, they refuse them just because those suspicious words are being pronounced by others. This is certainly how the social dynamics work, a vector of the trauma previously mentioned: since everyone lacks respect for others’ speech, any speaker is more or less knowingly convinced that his audience will be looking for any opportunity to criticise his. We would like to bring another insight on this matter: the cultural dimension. As a matter of fact, some cultures are quicker to criticise than others, but those for which criticism is considered a failing to politeness and to social conventions will express some reservations, some disdain or some disinterest either through a polite gratitude, or through the expression of a deep interest which anyone knows to be superficial, fleeting, if not false. But we have come to realise that the politest societies are not necessarily the ones where the least insecurity about the status of the individual speech is met. Let us say that each human group has its own ways of authorising, justifying or even encouraging the discredit of others.
There are various ways not to see or to know what we say. One of them could be called “the intricate conceptual system”, a favourite for those who want to intellectualise, knowingly or not. They summon words, clearly or confusedly, producing countless details to lose sight of the essential, to defend themselves, to avoid being caught out. Sometimes they put forward an obscure complexity which prevents them from a direct contact, some bushy words, so as not to expose themselves to others. They withdraw into their solipsism and do not risk any translation, any transposition: they would be risking being understood. They refuse any interpretation of their speech, which is usually considered as below the genius of their message. This elitist, or autistic, scheme is popular: just like the octopus which throws its blinding ink to the face of its enemies, one uses details and exhaustiveness to create confusion, a confusion of which one itself becomes the victim. They love the nuances which entitle them to shift meanings. They develop, they explain, they prefer prolixity rather than clarity. An illusion of depth and creativity, an ambition for precision, a pretence to rigor. It is here a form of impotence. They are fascinated by their speech, an image producer. They are obsessed with power, the power of their own words, which shows a fear of the words themselves, an obsession which as always expresses their dread of others.
Through the words, one “philotricks”. Lying settles in, by omission or commission. Through the absence of a clear subject matter, which does not admit itself, by getting lost in meanders, codicils and precisions. The dialectical process is even called upon, to prevent any thought from transpiring, to drown the particular idea and remain elusive. Evading the others, dreading their eyes. This display of an excessive desire to be understood actually conceals the fear to be understood: the nothingness of our speech is lying in wait for us. An anti-socratism par excellence. The “mètis”, this power of the philosophical ruse, the wisely lie, is perverted. The job here will be to find the precise place for the confusion, where the will and the thoughts interweave and contradict themselves, this point of emergence for the obscurity, precisely where enlightenment could occur. However, transparency is highly denied. The mind intuitively feels the danger. And just the possibility of transparency is dreaded.
This is why authors are useful to the scholars. When the scholars say something that they do not mean, they pretend that they do not know, they say that it is not them, it is the others. However, this phrase is constitutive of their thinking structure, even if conviction is not active. Their choice of concepts defines their affinities, their enemies, or even, by omission, what distinguishes them, and in that respect who they are, what they are. In any case, wanting to define one’s own thinking through one’s convictions solely would make no sense, although this is very commonly found. What we say, what we think shows what lives in us, what we do not think, how we think, how we are unable to think, it does not matter if we agree or not or who the author is. We think what we think, even though we say “I don’t think”, even though we want to criticise it. This thought is well within us. There are here grounds for effectuating an epistemological break.
The subject may well conceal such thought or such desire, what is in him will end up emerging, will exist outside of him in the shape of signs. Truth is powerful, it may not be concealed. After all, man is nothing more than a series of his own acts, which includes his words. This includes the assertion and the negation, or the denial of one’s assertions. It can even be stated, as we have observed in our practice, that the efforts which are made to deny or disown are one of the most constitutive elements of the specific being. For this very reason, it seems to us that it is illusory to exclude the words from the acts, as it is commonly agreed. Speech is actually one of the many acts in which man engages easily, perhaps the one which manifests and reveals him the most.
“I could have said it differently”, he asserts firmly, “But this is what you said, what you chose to say”, we will reply. Is this possibility purely a problem of form, arbitrary and deprived of substance? “I could have done that work, remained silent or helped that person, but I did not”. Could this be considered an accident? What have we got to lose to think that this pertains to the essence. A principle of sufficient reason or of pre-established harmony. But anyway, even unintentionally, during those few seconds, we did judge the man, as he had judged himself.
We must take responsibility for our choices, they are what tells the “being”, what reports it: they are the being and they constitute it. We are being because of our choices, not just because of their consequences, but because they make the organ of our thinking crystallize, just as the runner or the dancer form their organs through the exercise of their art. This way they become what they do, they are what they induce. Some of the words that we pronounce do not leave us unhurt, precisely because of that substantial moment, of that constitutive circumstance that occurred when we heard ourselves pronounce those words. After those words, we are not the same anymore. We did pronounce them, we did hear ourselves, we were indeed a witness to ourselves, whilst we actually attempt to deny them, or their reality. There can be no mistake here: what is said is said. Sometimes, by force of repetition, our words end up leaving marks on us, but here again some people will deny their own paternity or the meaning which constitutes it.
Other times, the speaker tries to get away by using a specific purpose as an excuse: “I said that because I wanted…” and then you pick: “to wake you up”, “to please you”, “to play games with you, “to be silly”, “to provoke”, “to say the contrary of what I think” … but this hardly changes anything. Not that the mysteries, the genesis, the intention or the mechanism of a specific thought are not interesting, but this is a different exercise: the one which analyses the wanting rather than the being. The being does not pertain to the “wanting”, but to the “wanting to want”. And the shape of the speech is the matter for this “wanting to want”. Of course, some connections are possible, if not useful, but it is extremely important to dread of the duplicity of the being. The basic “wanting” is too meandering: it never ceases to evade itself; we prefer to bypass it…
They all treasure that precious little self which escapes determination, as they believe, a free hypothesis. The soul, the self, the subject, this unfathomable depth therefore becomes the place for complacency. Deep down… “Deep down” can just explain anything. This indetermination really exists, it is indeed a freedom, through its multifaceted and elusive nature, but from this shapeless plasticity, from this abym, we prepare the ground for our illusions, we sow the seeds of our omnipotence: the desire to be what we want, what we pretend. As if we could know what we want to be… The being engages into the world with what it has, with what it is, with what it says. And it is possibly by seeing and admitting this empirical given that he will be able to envisage any self-surpassing. Accept the finite to access the infinite.
Thinking through others
Let us go back to Socrates. Oddly, he is immensely interested in the words of others. We would like to add that he could not think without others. Otherwise, why would this grotesque faced man spend his time looking for the company of his fellow men in order to practice philosophical questioning? This shrewd and agile minded man, didn’t he have anything better to do? Why waste his time with anybody doing something that is almost insignificant? Some of the characters described by Plato are far from brilliant, nevertheless for Socrates the quest for truth has very few limits or established presuppositions. Anything is right when it comes to disclosing the good, the true or the beautiful, and if there are any obstacles, they become the melting pot for the being and for the one. Does Socrates want to do some charitable work? Is he fighting for a better humanity? Is he lonely and bored in a philosophical solitude, just like the mythical philosopher in his great cave? Does he want to convince? All things considered, even the truth is for him just an excuse. He is urged to look for something he does not know, to probe the human soul, and unlike many philosophers who probe their own, he feels pressed by his “demon” to explore all the ones that pass by, which are all so promising, so disappointing and so rich. No need to see here any teleology: Socrates is not in search of anything, he is simply searching, he is searching to search.
However, this quest gets him into many troubles. For a start, because without wanting it or without knowing it, or even without wanting to know it, he breaks the established codes. Too busy with his desire, blind with his passion, he knows nothing and sees nothing, he does not exist anymore: he searches. Like a hound dog that chases its prey to its hole, a torpedo fish that paralyses whatever gets in the way, a gadfly that stings and harasses whoever comes close: there is a wide range of striking metaphors which can explain or justify his execution. Isn’t Socrates’ death, this inaugural gesture of western philosophy, totally inevitable? But why did questioning others make his presence so unbearable to his Athenian fellows, who in the Socratic myth represented nothing more than the human being in its generality? Now, such a character could indeed turn out to be tiresome in the long run, especially for his relatives, but why did he arouse so much hatred? A hatred which he would have kept from arousing if only he had just showed disagreement to his fellow men, if he had settled for cursing only, just like the cynics. But questioning is – can you believe it – highly more corrosive than asserting or any other forms of provocation. He is far too interested in the words of others and others, unlike what they usually claim, do not wish for anybody to have such an interest in their words. Only because the access between their words and their thoughts is far too direct; the connection between their thoughts and their being is far too implicit. Besides, when one makes every effort since early childhood to forget one’s finiteness, one’s imperfection, one’s infirmity and one’s immorality, it is very hard to accept that a kind of pervert comes by and, in a disrespectful, intrusive and brutal way, points out and asks the name of this disability or this mole which has been so ardently concealed, especially when relatives and neighbours, more empathetic and concerned about the established rituals, look away discreetly and automatically when a tiny bit arises slightly… Mankind is an odd species which, whilst looking for recognition, spends so much energy trying to hide its individual nature, a shameful reality, a specific nature which ends up being considered no more and no less as a doubtful disease whose existence and cause must be concealed. This is probably why man ignores his true nature, being a human.
As a consequence of the Socratic reality and of the conflicts that are generated, a final – or initial – indictment settlement results: “You must be mad at me”, or “Your intentions must be wrong”. Indeed, it is not natural to have such an interest in the words and thoughts of others, it is not normal to be questioning like that, rather than be saying or asserting, it is not considered appropriate to be dissecting in such an abusive manner the slightest word that we hear. A rupture in the traditions which puts the usual ways in question. Because if such a behaviour was not considered as pervert, therefore we could only admire such a man, a wise man, capable of such an asceticism, such a destitution, driven by such a faith in others, that he endlessly believes that he can find the truth in his congeners, whoever they are. This is what ultimately motivates Socrates. But unfortunately, the human fragility, its insecurity, perceives this confident and flattering approach as an aggression. To question someone is to go to war with him, it is to wish to humiliate him, it is to annihilate him, in short it is to force him to think and in particular to think of himself by himself. This is the reason why Nicias explains the Socratic approach to Lysimachus so as to reassure him, in Plato’s dialog Lachès: “when replying to Socrates’ questions, whatever the subject of the discussion is, after a few minutes, you inevitably end up talking about yourself!”. Know thyself! And you will know the universe and the gods. Indeed, what would the known object mean, if we ignored the instrument of the thinking, the mind itself, as Hegel raises. Yet what frightens us is precisely to get to know our minds, when the thinking subject becomes the object of his thinking. As it is one thing to be seduced by some philosophers who explain well about the breach of the human soul taken in its generality, to feel good when we get to understand or perceive the blindness or the banality in which our fellow citizens live, but it is a violent disillusion when we come to realise that the speech is actually addressed to us personally. This is not done!
Nevertheless, how else to reconcile with one’s words and therefore with oneself, if not by accepting to contemplate the breaches and flaws that affect our speech, if not by contemplating the rigidities which constitute its elaboration, if not by perceiving the boundaries which mark out its extent. To reconcile with one’s words is to accept the finiteness, the imperfection, at the risk of feeling deeply ridiculed. Do we not love our families and our children despite their failures or their odd habits? Must we become blind in order to love the people around us? If this is the case, we might be harshly disillusioned, when our eyes open through the wear of time or as a result of some fortuitous and generally dramatic event. The same applies to the relationship that we have with our own self. Of course we can try, knowingly or not, to maintain an illusion of transparency, of well-being, of contentment, of a form of self-satisfaction, at the risk of a short-lived or fragmented complacency, and of a definite disappointment. This is when Socrates, or his equivalent, the stranger of the late dialogues, can be considered a true friend. The one who tries to speak to us in all honesty, the one who dares to point at the elsewhere. That elsewhere is precisely what “forces” us to be blinkered, because like the standard horse towing a cart, there are some lateral realities which we cannot bear: they make us nervous. We look straight ahead of us, and carry on walking ignoring the numerous questions which would make us pause, doubt, or even freeze.
Socrates questions us: “hey mate, can you see what is going on here?” “what do you think of this, or that?” Then he listens to our reply, with that characteristic false naivety. However man is smart, just like dogs or big cats, he can feel the wind. Instinctively, it sees the prey approach. And this is where the crucial experience stands, the moment of decision, the one that separates humans from humans. Does he want to react “biologically” and flee or attack whoever threatens his existential “integrity”? Or will he perceive in that odd looking and speaking man the true friend he had never met before? The friend who has no friend. A lover without a beloved one. Just driven by an objectless passion. Perhaps he is himself the object whilst not knowing who the subject is, what the subject is. Of course, he is an odd friend with a strange humour: what is this irony which can only be a lie? How can we trust him? Where do we stand? Instead of a discussion, he questions us. Even worse, he imposes a poor choice on us – is it really one? – between a “yes” and a “no”, between a “this” or a “that”. Because it is obvious that many of his questions are tricky. But still, since we got ourselves into this impossible perspective, let us see how this man who is far from human, can still be wishing us well. Well there you go, he does not wish us any good. This is why he is so interesting. He only cares for his own good, or better a good that is deprived of ownership. He looks for it, he needs us, he says it; it is only a quarter of an irony when he asks anyone to become his master, the master he has always been looking for.
The reality is that the company of such a being can only become unbearable. However, does he ever ask anyone to live side-by-side with him? He has many interlocutors; he appears to move on to new ones over the dialogues, and this is rarely an accident. The ones he says he loves change over the dialogues. Plato, who made his pittance of this being, before he went his own direction, had known him for a very short while. This may explain why he was driven by such a passion. In the long run, the corrosive effect of questioning can only induce turning away from it.
A friend who does not wish us well
However, what makes Socrates bearable, as we said, what makes him a true friend, is precisely that he is not wishing us well. He is not looking to convince us, nor point us in the right direction. He simply questions us, and invites us to see what we do not see, what we do not want to see, what is intolerable. This way, he invites us to die. If to philosophise is to learn to die, it is not here a question of an ulterior and final death, but a death of every moment. The one that is watching us, like the sword of Damocles, above our heads, our stunned by the daily swirl heads. A Pascalian entertainment. Our ideas are constituted of these many opinions which enable us to play or foil the game. The society game, the family game, the game of personal desires and ambitions, a quest for happiness, great or humble. The perseverance of the being, the Spinozian conatus, is far too often conceived as a heteronomy, as the product of an exteriority, a series of obligations. To live usually means to have multiple constraints, internal or external, which need to be satisfied in the best possible way. Yet the being is not one, for both Socrates and Spinoza, although this unicity does not exclude any multiplicity, far from that. Fragment is indeed its living substance, as the point here is not to be flying to a beyond of the beyond where supposedly reality would be nesting. Reduction is the melting pot of the being. As the Myth of the Great Cave says it quite well, the philosopher in us would not be able to live outside the cave: it is his hangout. He is the inner friend who makes us feel guilty, the one whom we let speak from time to time just for a good laugh, and whom we then silence as we get angry. Since we are not always – and not often – in the right mood for an interruption to our routine, for a scramble into the unstable balance which we more or less manage to create. Now, to philosophise is to think the unthinkable, an unthinkable which is by no means permitted by the existence. Existence binds us to the obvious, to the certain, to the expected. It prefers the certain, it likes the probable, but it balks at the possible since it is only just a possible, and it fears impossibility. From time to time, through aimlessness, through fatigue, or through the resurgence of the being, it enables the rising of the extraordinary, the unpredicted, the incredible. In small doses, or for a limited time, and often in a perverse way. Love, joking, mystical vision, drunkenness, are all means by which life amuses itself, for fun and by oblivion. Philosophy demands this rupture in a conscious, deliberate and continuous way. Of course, everyone has experienced a philosophical moment, this precise moment when the meaning flips over to a new one or to no meaning. To live such a moment may generate, although rarely fulfilled, a desire for the elsewhere, an elsewhere to inhabit, or even an elsewhere to life. Although some – and here again the mind is a shrewd old devil – might attempt to establish a life outside life, a life beyond life.
To reconcile with one’s own words, just like to reconcile with one’s relatives, implies to stop having any expectations, and therefore to stop being frustrated or disappointed, moreover, to stop being able to be disappointed or frustrated. This does not imply having to abandon critical thinking, nor to establish a sort of passivity, far from that. As, very often, what prevents us from engaging in a corrosive and deep analysis of some comments and beings, is the fear of losing, through fear of clashes, fear of hurting, or simply the one of an outraged sensitivity. From the moment there are no desires left to preserve a connection other than the one associated with the communal search for truth, generated by itself, what is there left to fear? Very naturally, if not restrained in its run-up, if it has not gotten used to preventing itself from thinking, the mind thinks: it grasps what it perceives through an intimate and dynamic connection to the thinking matrix which it has built for itself over the years. Obviously, this matrix is more or less elaborated, more or less subtle and more or less fluid, but it constitutes however for each thinking subject the yardstick of every new thought, the active reference, the primal place where all thoughts come from, where they all go back to. This is precisely the way in which words are an access to the being, the object of the thinking is not an object anymore, but it is the subject himself. The thinking subject then becomes the direct object of the thought; the mediation becomes the ground for the immediate, a conscious and reflective immediate. To reconcile with our own words simply becomes a commitment to presence, an acknowledgement of our own words.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!