…what is metaphysics?

 

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Six Grasses, colored etching by J. Pass, ca., 1807

What is Metaphysics?

Metaphysics is a philosophical term that denotes a number of varying perspectives. Metaphysics is the study of how we relate to the world and how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, after his death sometime in the 4th century BC, left behind a great number of philosophical books on the nature of being, existence, causation, particularity, universals, potentiality, actuality, parts, wholes, identity, &c. Of profound significance is the topic of the categories which design the way in which we predicate things into subjects for consideration. Another way of thinking about this would be to focus on what qualifies and what quantifies something to be what it ‘is’. To consider what something ‘is’ provides us with relationships to us, and to things, and how all of these things are related—to us and to each other.

The ancient scholar (Andronicus of Rhodes) who categorized Aristotle’s works, placed these books ‘after’ Aristotle’s book on Physics. The term ‘meta’ (μετὰ) meaning: after, beyond, is simply after-physics, after that which is physical (φυσικά). This gives us insight into the content of the books on being, existence, causation, &c. as just that, beyond-the-physical. For you and I, this has do with what is relational, how ideas, concepts, facts and objects are related to one another. We should note that this is not a justification for relativism, given that metaphysics accounts for objectivity in relation to what is relative. To be clear, relativism is a metaphysical issue, yet it works within the larger structures of inter-subjectivity and objectivity.

For Aristotle, form and substance are related to each other given that a substance takes on a particular form to be what something ‘is’, i.e. what is something? Whether something is made of stone is different than if it is made of paper & a statue is a form of stone as much as a stone takes the form of a brick in a building. This is a metaphysical question and it is an ontological question–ontology is the study of being.

The limitation of physicality only serves to enhance our understanding of the metaphysical as beyond-the-physical. This summation of the beginnings of metaphysics as a fundamental feature of philosophical discourse would be missing something if we forget the significance of the negation of being, non-existence, what is not causal, what is not particular, non-identity, &c.

What else is Metaphysics?

A quick glance at a college text book will typically offer another way to study metaphysics as the relationship between free-will & determinism. Are we completely free? Are we completely predetermined? Is real life a composite of the two? What are the effects of biology and DNA combined with past events on our expressions freedom? Does our freedom derive from the physical world? Here we can see a series of relationships. If we are to consider freedom we must also consider what contradicts it. That is what freedom is not. To know what freedom is not, is to know what freedom ‘is’.

Metaphysics Faces the Question of Nothing

The controversial 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that metaphysics develops as a way for us to contend with the question: what is nothing? At first glance this appears to be a banality, yet when we stop to consider what ‘is’ is, as opposed to what ‘is not’ we get a sense of the profundity of such a question. This entails that we as living creatures have a tough time contemplating and conceptualizing nothingness. In fact, our fear of death encapsulates its philosophical weight into our basic consideration of the being we possess alongside the being that ‘is’ reality on the whole. A negation of being is nothingness—that which is not being. This elicits anxiety within us as well as our thoughts and actions. The fear of nothingness impels us to the action of living, of being alive, of authentically experiencing ourselves as a being that exists.

Metaphysics is the Study of Identity.

Another perspective of metaphysics is identity, personal and of concepts and objects, of who we are and what identifies the world around us. How does our identity uphold throughout the duration of time? How are things identified as unique or universal? Is our identity based in memory and/or the memory of others? We tend to think that immortality is only an issue for religious consideration, while overlooking the importance of the written words by which to either keep ideas alive or to ignore them, thus identifying ancient authors long since gone. This brings us back to issues of quality of life, ethical and otherwise. What is the identity of goodness? What is the identity of what is not good?

Religion is Metaphysical.

We are quickly reminded that all of religion is metaphysical. Religion is intertwined with what is physical, as much as a religious person looks beyond physical matters to take faith in what is real and practical in her life. If religious life serves its practitioners, it does so within the relationships between objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is all encompassing and religious life likewise has a similar scope and reach. The mistakes we make have to do with thinking that metaphysics is strictly limited to religious practice. I like to think of the reverse, that our metaphysical understanding of things gives rise to religious thought—yet I admit such conclusions cannot be strictly determined. Likewise, metaphysics leads our thought to the nature of evil as opposed to nature of goodness, and a way that pain, suffering and death can arise in the world.

We cannot leave this side of metaphysics without a sentence on a popular, common sense view of metaphysics as a way of predicting the future, and identifying character traits that accompany celestial activity, sheer chance, lucky destiny, superstition, fortune telling, &c. This is often an area of metaphysics that is not covered in philosophy textbooks. Given that such activities are not often called into question. This is unlike what we usually do in philosophy class, even if our concern is metaphysical, we still should be able to be skeptical and call into question its claims joined with the use of our critical thinking as these ideas are put into practical experience or not.

Metaphysics is Categorial.

Another area of metaphysical interest is the notion that we want to know what is the nature of ultimate reality is. What in our lives is real and what is not real? What do think of as something, and when do we think of something as not something? As mentioned earlier, In Aristotle’s Metaphysics we find the “categories” which are ways in which we predicate things. In the early 20th century, Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl named this type of thinking ‘categorial intuition’. That is to indicate what something ‘is’. To predicate something, means to describe what a thing actually ‘is’. Essentially, when we predicate things we are also considering things as a subject of thought.

To name a quality of someone or something is a metaphysical activity. To count, measure, & weigh things is to quantify items to be understood metaphysically. To situate a relation of things in time and space is to think metaphysically. To determine if something can be of use or not is basically a metaphysical consideration. Indeed the need to categorize, give name to, to situate, to organize, to group, to isolate, to couple with, &c. all are metaphysical activities. Once we take these observations into consideration we suddenly recognize that metaphysics is not a useless artifact only handled within the confines of the written word. Put in the most basic terms: metaphysics is conscious thinking with, combined with, and without the physical world.

 

Aurelio Madrid

…from myth to philosophy

 

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Domenico Beccafumi, The Foundryman (Figure of Vulcan in the Metal Foundry), third plate from a series of ten scenes from the Practice of Alchemy, woodcut, 16th century.

The three questions were explained with good philosophical insight. I found problems with Archie & Archie’s so-called “criterion of potatoness.” The easiest way to think of this is by way of basic classification. Be careful to remember that our inclination to classify things is metaphysical, it is not forthcoming in nature in-and-of-itself that we need to classify thing into large, medium, and small. Yet this is not the only way in which we classify things. We might, just as well, classify the potatoes into bad potatoes and good potatoes. We might also classify the potatoes into clean and dirty, and so on. Recall that one characterization of metaphysics is that it is relational. Metaphysics works with the ways in which we see relationships between things, items, and ideas. So all this is to suggest that we often classify items by size, and our sizing might not include the category of medium, or extra-large, or too small, &c.

As for the transition from myth to philosophy, I want to encourage students to steer away from mere descriptions of the transition, and to focus more onto the philosophy at work within the transition. For example, it is a straightforward description to suggest that philosophy questioned accepted myth in a way that myth went unquestioned. This is true, philosophy is looking at the way we know the world in a far more inquisitive way them myth does. Both aim to know the world and both seek to explain the world. One framework questions, where the other framework does not.

The question remains as to how this happened, and what were the philosophical elements that are at play in the transition (metaphysical and/or epistemological)? When we take the epistemological sense of the transition we see an easy way to write of this. When we look to the myths for answers, we find stories of the gods that work to explain ways that things have happened or will happen. To say I am in love has a strong connection to the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus). To say the seasons are changing from summer to autumn, is to remember that Demeter’s daughter Persephone is taken back to the underworld by Hades and the transition from summer to fall is easily explained by the abduction of Persephone into the underworld.

Then to the philosophical outlook starting with Thales, for example, and the notion that everything can be traced back to water. This is similar to myth-making in that it seeks an explanation for something, so it is epistemological. It is epistemological because it is showing us a way to know and to understand the world as the myths do. Yet, as Nietzsche indicated, it was distinguished by its impulse to unify everything into one empirical explanation—that all things are one.

Here we easily see a crossover between epistemology and metaphysics, given that when we want to know about the world, we offer explanations, whether by myth or empirical evidence. Metaphysically, we are also working to see a broad-general way of understanding the world from the one to the many. In order to understand this transition from one to many, we have to make empirical leaps, say, when we seek to find a connection between a rock and its aquatic ancestry. When we take such leaps we must go beyond empirical evidence to fill in the blanks, &c. such steps of thinking are metaphysical. These are ways that reality is made up. On one hand, it is readily apparent, and on the other hand, we cannot tell where the connection is to be found.

Additionally, we see the direct ways in which Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle worked to dispel blind acceptance of mythic thinking in their philosophical methodologies. For Plato and Socrates this was accomplished dialectically. Through the art of dialogue, experts were questioned and made to feel uneasy with their alleged knowledge, their supposed expertise. Sure, Socrates was impelled to clarify the Oracle of Delphi’s claim that he was the wisest. But how was he wise, if he did not know anything? This matter had to be investigated in a rational way, by dialogue with those who, on the surface, claim to be wise. The Socratic grilling, the Socratic Method, is rational, it accepts no commonly held belief to get to the bottom of things—a.k.a. higher knowledge.

This rational methodology is different from the reason Hamilton writes of in relation to myth. Yes, the myths are rational, but they do not use rational thought to examine themselves. The myths do not cross examine their own reasoning, whereby Socrates does question the reasoning of the experts like Euthyphro, who claimed to know what holiness is, without realizing that he actually did not have a working definition of the very thing he was charging his own father with.

Then to take another example with metaphysics and Aristotle when we look at causation and his four causes. We see similarity to myth in that myths metaphysically deal with causation, i.e. what’s the cause of volcanos, perhaps Hephaestus (Vulcan) is somehow responsible, Vulcan is the cause. On the other hand, Aristotle is not just seeking the cause from one event to another, he is instead looking at causation itself. What’s the difference between someone making something, what the item is made of, what is the item’s use, what is the item’s ultimate use, and what is its goal, its telos?

Another interesting corollary is between the transition from Plato to Aristotle concerning Plato’s formalism, whereby the difference between Form and form is easily resolved with Aristotle’s rejection of Platonic formalism into the metaphysics of form and substance, which are both ways to think of items, yet Aristotle’s metaphysics is grounded in the objects rather the other-worldly Forms of Plato.

Keep in mind the best option is to work away from mere description and to focus on explaining the philosophical “how” of the transition.

–aurelio madrid

…on the stoic attitude toward death

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After reading through the homework I did get, I see good answers to the problem of death for the Stoics. My emphasis for the class will often air on the side of philosophy rather than just description. In other words, it is one thing to describe the Stoic as one who is somewhat indifferent to death, and it is another thing to suggest that the Stoic does not care about death. Both of these statements are observations and a description of a Stoic attitude toward death. What I am looking for has more to do with the philosophy behind the description. That a Stoic is not afraid or does not care about death is only a description.

Why is the Stoic not afraid of death? Why does the Stoic appear to not care about death? Let’s take the last question first. We have to assume that to not care about death would be problematic for the Stoic, because to not care would mean that one would not be careful about death. So we have to ask ourselves if the Stoic is careless or non-caring about death. Probably not, given that a Stoic would have to take a deep consideration for death in order to have a better understanding of his/her life.

Asking again, why is the Stoic unafraid of death? How do we move beyond just a descriptive account? The Stoic is rational, and a rational goal of life is to be virtuous, then this life must also be understood as finite. Therefore, we need to face our own death to lead a virtuous life. So with this step, a Stoic reasons about the relationship between life and death and sees it rationally as a matter of assent rather than just fearing death.

As we see, to reason that death is inevitable is one part of the idea. The other part has to do with the notion of assent, or better said control. Once the Stoic acknowledges mortality, the Stoic has to also make the choice, to give assent to how to feel about the inevitability of death. The Stoic is rational, the Stoic knows that they will die someday, therefore it does not make sense to be fearful of something that is inevitable. To not be fearful requires that the Stoic make a conscious choice to no longer be fearful. To be fearful would be unvirtuous, given that the fear of death is uncourageous.

When we look to the philosophy of Stoicism and the attitude toward death, be sure to not just describe that they had a Stoical attitude toward death, rather work to explain how this works philosophically for the Stoic in terms of choice (&/or assent).

–aurelio madrid

…notes on tolstoy’s death of ivan ilyich

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…notes on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

If a confrontation of our personal existence is said to be existential, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych from the 1880s is a poignant account of a confrontation with Ivan’s life by way of his impending death.[1] Although this is a fictional account, it serves as an allegory for our confrontation with mortality. Perhaps the existential allegory is to urge us into recognizing that the life we face & look back on when we are about to die, should be of concern for us now, today as we read it. Tolstoy’s story becomes a moral lesson since it teaches us that the thought of one’s quickly approaching death enforces an evaluation of the life we’ve led up until then. One unfortunate feature of this confrontation is that life runs out faster than we can do anything to revise our actions up till then.  Life can be wasted away.

More than ¾ through Tolstoy’s recounting of Ivan’s steady decline, Ivan recalls a familiar example of deductive logic:

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Caius is a man

Conclusion: Caius is mortal

As philosophy students we usually introduced to this with  Socrates’ name in the place of Caius (a.k.a. Julius Ceasar).

Premise: All men are mortal

Premise: Socrates is a man

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

So the logical argument is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true in all cases. A deductive argument is generally said to argue from the general to the specific. When we examine the premises of the argument as true, the conclusion is sound (not merely valid). In other words, the premise all men are mortal is true. Albeit sexist in its antiquity, such statements are better thought of nowadays as: all humans are mortal. Nevertheless arguing that men and women are mortal does not invalidate the logic—no doubt, men are mortal as much as women, children, &c. (these points are for another paper). Nevertheless, we cannot deny this argument. This is one thing we can take for-granted: we all must die one day. This is irrefutable, yet in health we often feel we have some distance to its cold logic. This distance is what Ivan Ilych suddenly has the existential proximity to with the fresh threat of his own death in sharp focus. As Ivan thinks of this in revelatory horror, “And it cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too awful.”[2] Caius is mortal, Socrates is mortal, everyone is mortal & the simple cold logic is that we are mortal too. Today we update the argument like so:

Premise: All humans are mortal

Premise: I am human

Conclusion: I am mortal

When we think of this logic we are introducing ourselves to basic logic in philosophy class. Logically, we know it’s is a sound argument, there’s no argument against it. We do not live forever, but death seems to always come for someone else, not ours, or at least not now in the classroom, or while we’re reading this. We often feel that death will not come for some time in the far distant future.

Ivan’s looming death puts his life up till then into sharp focus causing him to look helplessly forward to his inescapable decline. His existential crisis is our existential crisis only if we are keen to its significance before it’s too late. His life was for the most part unhappy save a game of bridge here & there in the name of enjoying friendships. He had an upstanding job as a judge which brought him negligible fulfillment. His marriage was clouded with petty discord. The beginning of his decline happens when he falls off a ladder decorating his home as an aspiration of popular bourgeoisie taste.

Tolstoy’s moral lesson is an exhortation for us to live authentic lives. To be authentic is to take ownership of one’s life instead of obliging our behavior around the expectation of others. Death sharpens our focus on life. It is up to us to face mortality as a way to inspire us to lead a life we can value when we face death authentically, soundly & honestly.

–aurelio madrid

[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, edited by George Strade (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).

[2] Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilych, 122.

…marcuse’s hegel

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Marcuse’s Hegel
In Herbert Marcuse’s book Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Marcuse wants to dispel the notion that the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel as “hostile to the tendencies that have led into Fascist theory and practice.” I will focus only on the first introductory sub-chapter in this synopsis, where Marcuse sets up the philosophical & historical context of Hegel’s thought.
In the first sub-chapter of the introduction, “The Socio-Historical Setting,” Marcuse places Hegel within the context of German idealism. This is typically thought of as a type of German philosophy progressing chronologically from the inspiration of Kant (1724-1804), to Fichte (1762-1814), to Schelling (1775-1854), & culminating with Hegel (1770-1831), roughly, the last quarter of the 18th century through to the early quarter of the 19th century. Hegel’s brand of German idealism is known as Absolute idealism because it seeks to bring all of being into one absolute, specifically an absolute spirit (the totality of all being as it progresses throughout history).
As Marcuse describes it Hegel’s philosophy was largely influenced by the French Revolution & the leading Enlightenment ideal that rational thought leads people to freedom (apart from the authority of the church & apart from the authority of a monarchy). The French Revolution idealistically completes the job by the Reformation to allow people to become masters of their own lives. Hegel wanted us to realize the power of our own rational will & authority.
In France, capitalism became a necessary force & expression brought about by the rationalistic ideals of the French Revolution, while Germany’s development was a bit slower to fully embrace the radical new ways of thinking taking shape in France, Europe, & even in the ideological founding of the United States. Even if this fresh idea freedom was in the air, most German intellectuals were embracing this as an idea, an ideal—not necessarily as a material & practical exercise of freedom. Let me put it this way, it’s one thing to embrace an idea & it’s another thing to take that idea & put it into practice.
Reason is center & paramount in Hegel’s philosophy & for Hegel history is the progression of reason, as much as the state is also an embodiment of reason. If most of Hegel’s philosophy is concerned with the progression of reason, it must be understood that reason is threaded through Hegel’s ideas on freedom, substance becoming substance & what we would call idea (begriff in German, often translated by Hegel scholars as “notion”). For Hegel reason working through these concepts is what governs consciousness, reality, the state, the course of human history, &c. The progression of reason is not static is active. People no longer needed to accept things as they are—since reason needs to be taken as sovereign. Our reality is only real by way of reason. Anything outside of that which falls outside of reason needs to be harnessed, transformed, & worked through with reason to be made conscious & to be real. As Marcuse summarizes of Hegel, “[rational] thought ought to govern reality.” Whatever cannot be worked through with reasoned consciousness is rendered unreal & unreasonable. In Kant & Hegel’s context, reason must be firmly established as universal & objective. Objectivity keeps us from relativity, thus a good defense of objectivity in the name of critiquing the relativistic perils of empirical skepticism. The authority of reason needs to be consciously brought about in this world by way of conscious action. Reason does not appear of its own accord.
The concept of “substance becoming subject” is central to the way consciousness brings about reason from the chaotic morass of reality for Hegel. Substance in this case, represents a contradictory force for the consciousness. It is only when we make inert substance into something that is real does it become rational consciousness. Raw substance becomes the subject of rational thought. By way of conceptualizing the ways in which we work (in thought & with our hands) through ideas, physical substances & forces, wood, metal, velocity, horse-power, &c. When we make these things rational, they become the way we think about substance in a rational way.
When we think about something that is contradictory, negative, antagonistic, &c. for Hegel this is the driving element in the dialectic. The dialectic is rational & it is logical, but it is Hegel’s logic. Herein we have the so-called dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, & synthesis. When we recognize that substance becoming substance is dialectical. Substance is not consciousness so it is contradictory to consciousness because it is not consciousness. Consciousness must recognize this in order to make substance known & understood as something reasonable. Reason has to be brought about by the resolution of the contradiction. The negative becomes a necessary way in which reason is considered. The confrontation with negative bring us to a place where it draws the synthesis up to where it would not otherwise be without it. Consciousness, for Hegel, is dialectical, reason is dialectal, freedom is dialectical & history is dialectical. All of these things need & rely the negative to be what they are.

–aurelio madrid

derrida / deconstruction / loebs

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Jason Loebs, Untitled (Corpus Vile), 2012, Inkjet prints on stretched canvas, 105 x 35 x 10 inches. http://www.essexstreet.biz/

“μεταβάλλον ἀναπαύεται” / “For this reason change gives rest.” ––Heraclitus, Fragment 83[1]

If the primacy of presence can be questioned, then the tradition of univocal metaphysics can be reevaluated by way of Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstructive’ philosophy. The artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile) made in 2012, by the contemporary American artist Jason Loebs, offers a modest five-piece suite featuring margins. The marginal falls outside of the center of focus. The slim concept of marginalia presents a way of doing philosophy from the periphery. The marginal offers a generous place to explore Derrida’s deconstructive handling of traditional ways of seeing, thinking, or writing philosophically. Given that presence itself is questioned in Derrida’s deconstructive context, it will then be evaluated by means of Loebs’s piece as presented in a gallery, online, in print, etc. Deconstruction need not be characterized as a bygone trend/fad/fashion—instead it has to be handled carefully and without haste. In order to get at Derrida’s encounter with philosophy one must begin from the primary vantage of what deconstruction actually means by way of his technical terms: aporia and difference. These and a number of surrounding issues will be examined for this research paper.

For the sake of organizational clarity this essay will be divided into two sections: in the first section “Reconstructing Deconstruction: an Impossibility” Derrida’s philosophy will be looked at, trying, at best, to define what Derrida meant by the now over-abused term deconstruction. To open the ideas up, the author of The Derrida Dictionary, Simon Morgan Wortham writes that for Derrida “deconstruction entails ‘the experience of the impossible.’”[2] The humility of such an enterprise (i.e. impossibly defining deconstruction) will then have to be embraced in the noble spirit of brevity and necessary concision, while keeping in mind that deconstruction self-consciously defers definition. The second half of the paper, titled “Loebs’s Marginalia: a Deconstructive Reading” will feature another creative venture: to positively[3] and deconstructively read Jason Loebs’s 2012 five piece artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile).

I. “Reconstructing Deconstruction: an Impossibility”

Today there is a widespread belief that the philosophy of deconstruction entails taking things apart. In its most rudimentary sense the literal word deconstruction does actually mean to disassemble. But, therein lays a question as to whether or not deconstruction, that branch of late 20th century philosophy (with postmodernism and post-structuralism as its notable peers and influences) coined by Jacques Derrida, is entirely concerned with disassembly, destruction, and breaking things down?[4] To be absolutely fair, its meaning must include this popular view to some extent, yet it must retain and go beyond it to be realized in a positive arena of writing philosophically. From its inception sometime in the late 1960s, deconstruction was primarily concerned with text, literature, philosophy, and writing in general. Deconstructive ideas can be (and have been) generously extended to other areas, such as architecture, art, ethics, and so on. Admittedly, there will be obvious problems discussing Derrida’s in/famous philosophy of deconstruction. Given these (soon to be outlined) problems, what is generally indicated by the term: deconstruction? Dermot Moran, in his Introduction to Phenomenology tells us that deconstruction is not a method, nor is it a “procedure or system of thinking.”[5] And Wortham, admits to such problems when it comes to ‘grounding’ a theory of deconstruction “that which founds or institutes always imposes itself, for Derrida, more or less violently, more or less unjustifiably, taking possession of its ground at the price of significant exclusions or contradictions.”[6] This means that while attempting to ‘define’ and/or ‘ground’ a deconstructive theory, it is almost counterproductive to the deconstructive process, since Derrida’s deconstruction aims to uncover what was excluded, or contradicted, in the original grounding, in the original foundation of a given text, artwork, etc.. All this begs the question again: then how is deconstruction defined, without appealing to a ground or foundation? This could be possible, yet an anxious appeal will have to be made with respect to more traditional methods of getting to know something, at least to initially describe it. In short, the philosophy of deconstruction will not be deconstructed here.

There is an ambiguous term that reaches back to the ancient Greek philosophy known as aporia.[7] An aporia is thought of as a riddle to be solved, or an aporia represents something that remains unresolved, or even, an aporia is a path. Derrida once asked “What would be a path without aporia?”[8] Derrida made deliberate use of this ancient word in his deconstructive philosophy. As a matter of fact, aporia could be seen as way to introduce deconstruction. But there too is a conundrum with coming to any kind of solid conclusion about the meaning of the word aporia, as if there could be a conclusion about deconstruction itself, since an aporia can be thought of as an impasse, that which is unresolved, something un-decidable, etc.[9] If a riddle is there to be looked at, it must be admitted that it must remain a riddle in order for it to be contemplated. This is to say that Derrida doesn’t seem to be working on ‘solving’ riddles. Deconstruction is not a method toward clear-cut solutions. It is better to think of deconstruction as opening up and showing the riddles to begin with, i.e. the activity of deconstruction is an avid disclosing of the riddles that are already there in the context of whatever writing, artwork text is under consideration. Deconstruction is already at work in any given text, philosophy, or artwork. Moran reminds us that Derrida consistently said that deconstruction “is an anonymous process which is already at work in the world, prior to our conceptualizations, as the very transcendental source of our conceptuality.”[10] This must mean that the problems, riddles, oppositions that are looked at in deconstruction, are already there in the very way we logically[11] think about things—the problems are there to be uncovered and examined. In the first paragraph for the entry “Deconstruction” from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “what is typically occurs in a deconstructive reading is that the text in question is shown to harbor contradictory logics which are standardly ignored—or concealed from view—on other more orthodox accounts.”[12] This idea of something that is ‘concealed from view’ is an aporia, which is considered to be the beginning of a deconstructive reading.

A difficulty that immediately arises when trying to comprehend deconstruction is the aforementioned issue of oppositions. The ways binary oppositions are looked upon deconstructively is that they are themselves an aporia. Opposition creates a kind of challenge, or riddle to be disclosed for what it is. So this partially reveals what is meant when a text is deconstructed. As mentioned earlier, it is a misnomer to think of deconstruction as merely taking something apart, but, it was admitted that deconstruction still must contain this rudimentary way of thinking about it. Moran writes about this “Deconstruction involves taking apart the text to show that its supposed argument or thesis actually turns against itself…”[13] Moran also ties this peculiarity in with G.W. F. Hegel “this is an essentially Hegelian insight which Derrida interprets in a new way.”[14] Without getting too in-depth, Moran is suggesting that, as it is well known, Derrida read plenty of Hegel, and that at the core of Hegel’s philosophy is the dialectic, whereby the resolution to a contradiction must contain the contradiction within it. Derrida sought to question traditional metaphysics and deconstructive philosophy was how that was done.

Andrew Curtrofello in his Derrida entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes that “for Derrida, the history of Western metaphysics consists in a series of repeated efforts to affirm self-presence as the paradigm of truth.”[15] Another way of saying this would be to say that Derrida’s positions seek to show that traditional metaphysics privileges experience over a description of it, speech is privileged over writing, thought is privileged over language, and so forth. This should explain why Derrida was so endlessly fascinated by texts and writing. But, to be very careful, since this is suggesting that Derrida’s aim was to then reverse the traditional roles of metaphysical opposition. Cutrofello anticipates this problem by following up with:

Derrida’s aim is not to ‘reverse’ these hierarchical oppositions—as it would be if he were interested in privileging writing over speech—but to deconstruct the very logic of such exclusionary founding gestures.[16]

This particular (and dare we say dialectical) way in which Derrida contends with the issue of binary opposition points to several key gestures in the philosophy of deconstruction—finding the aporia, exposing and disclosing opposition, working with thought and language without prioritizing either.

Given the above examples, another similar thread of deconstruction has to do with Derrida’s special term “différance.” To understand this term, one has to have a better grasp of what Derrida’s position was on the metaphysics of presence, aporia, and binary oppositions (all of which were considered above). In a slim collection of interviews from the 1970s titled Positions Derrida is interviewed by the Belgian playwright Henri Ronse, where Ronse asks Derrida about the word différance.[17] In a classic deconstructive move, the meaning of the word expands and expands as Derrida explains it, throughout a couple of pages, he says that:

First, différance refers to the (active and passive) movement that consists in deferring by means of delay, delegation, reprieve, referral, detour, postponement, reserving. […] Second, the movement of différance, as that which produces different things, that which differentiates, is the common root of all oppositional concepts that mark our language […].

This différance points back to what has been at issue all along: deconstruction. Because if différance combines the words deferral and differentiation, then what is left of meaning? Perhaps something that looks like this: “↔” deconstruction is an expression of always deferring and differentiating. One motive of deconstruction is detecting the aporia of opposition, then looking at what is not being said, along with what has been overlooked, by way of emphasizing what has been prioritized and expressed, then seeing what can be positively found ‘already at work’ deep inside the opposition, the conflict, the negation, the problem, the text, the artwork and, surely, the philosophy. Like phenomenology (Derrida ‘cut his teeth’ on Edmund Husserl’s early book Origin of Geometry[18]) deconstruction is a descriptive understanding, an opening up, and a disclosure.[19]

II. “Loebs’s Marginalia: a Deconstructive Reading”

“This fissure is not one among others. It is the fissure: the necessity of interval, the harsh law of spacing.”

––Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology[20]

§1. Grounding? …now to a question of grounding Jason Loebs’s 2012 artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile). Here is the usual tactic: what is his biography?—Where did he grow up? Where was he educated? Where does he live today? We already know that he’s American, but to what end will the question of where he was born serve? That he grew up in a culture that venerates mass media is already clear. That he is alive in the 21st century tell us that he is probably saturated in the ways of social media, and, of course print media, etc. These things are assumptions since there is no real way to ask him right now via e-mail, or otherwise. So, the things that we can tell about him, without direct knowledge of his biography will remain mostly presumptive. The fact that he’s American doesn’t suggest very much, other than the obvious. However, a quick glance at his CV from his Gallery Essex Street, in New York, NY does tell us some specific things about him.[21] Loebs was born in 1980, in Hillside, New Jersey. In 2011 he went to the Whitney Museum of American Art, on an Independent Study Program, in New York, NY. In 2007 he received his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, in Chicago, IL. In 2004 he received a ‘certificate’ from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. And in 2003 he attended Yale Norfolk, in Norfolk, CT. Okay, there’s more of what might be called a traditional grounding. This does inform a little more than if we only knew that he’s an American.

And now that we know he’s from the East Coast, perhaps he was born into a family of privilege, if he didn’t come from money, then he still had to work really hard to get where he’s at. If he was born to money, he had to work hard, if was born poor, he had to work hard. Both scenarios imply work. It can’t be assumed it was easy for him to get where he’s at, living in New York, NY, one of the most expensive places to live on the planet. As it can be tediously seen, we are getting to know Loebs better, but are we getting to know his art any better? We could draw multiple conclusions from his past, say, if we knew about his hometown in New Jersey, or if we knew he various professors in Chicago, New York, and Norfolk—but we don’t. So his biography has revealed that he’s an American, he’s probably from a well-off family, he has a solid (okay, elite) education, and that he is actively showing his work in a hip New York gallery. We would have to know more about him to give this ‘grounding’ any more weight then a cursory glance at his CV provided by him and his gallery. To be sure, anytime he wishes to show anywhere else, these spare details will be the first things people look at, other than his art, of course. Odd that so much of his life’s effort is reduced to just a few lines on a CV, a few lines of text. But, one shouldn’t be dismayed at such a reductive look at his life. After all, he’s getting our full attention right now. The slim facts of his biography have already informed us about things that go far beyond dates and places. He’s somewhat successful, he’s made a name for himself, and that he’s a represented artist.

Here it can be seen that a typical maneuver of art historical research, that is, to look into the biographical details of an artist to inform us of his/her work, (and with all due respect to Loebs) was oddly not very productive in telling us about his artwork. The biographical grounding becomes something that’s not really informative beyond his professional CV. Still it was very productive in showing how, in some cases, little of a person’s biography can actually tell us about his/her art.

§2. Aporia. Loebs’s artwork Untitled (Corpus Vile) is something to be disclosed. But what is to be disclosed is a group of five room-height (8’ 9” tall) margins that look to be from the edges of a newspaper. When looked at closely, they are not just the edges of the newspapers cut off, then photographed. They look like they have been photo-shopped and reworked. The edges of the text have been cut off. If these were ordinary margins from newspapers, the words would not be cut off on the margin side on the edges of the page. There is the mystery of why he didn’t use the only the bare edges of newspapers. Why did they have to be photo-shopped? It is questions like this that point to another question: why are we always trying to get at the source of the artist’s reasons why he/she did something in the first place. It is as if what is there in front of us is not answer enough. Then this leads to another important issue about how we are viewing the work. It is not in the gallery pictured here on this pixilated computer screen (or on the printed page). It is often thought that seeing an artwork up close and personal, i.e. live, is better that in reproduction. But a reproduction is all we have right now, this is it, this artwork will probably never be seen by us in person. Is this somehow a lesser experience? And how much artwork do we look at only in reproduction? The deconstructive problem of presence becomes an important one in this case. Loebs himself might think of how his work looks online, and the gallery too must have thought of it too, since they’re offering it to be seen on their website. How often are we aware of such seemingly unimportant ways that we view art? The presence of the Untitled (Corpus Vile) is virtual, but is this virtual way of seeing it less than a real way of engaging the work in person?

§3. Already at Work. The curious ‘non-title’ of Loebs’s artwork: Untitled (Corpus Vile) is one way that deconstruction is already at work in the work. First, it is not titled, yet behind the fact that it is not titled it has a parenthetical title: (Corpus Vile). Corpus, meaning body, or body of work, a collection of work, in this case Corpus must mean a collection of works, a suite of margins that are themselves a small body of work. There might also be a suggestion of a body. The artwork consists of five pieces, suggesting a head, two arms, and two legs. And then there’s Vile, meaning disgusting, evil, etc. Putting the parenthetical part of the artwork’s title together, we have a disgusting body that hides behind no title. Yet, there is not all that much that is visually disgusting about the piece. This title must serve as an allusion to the disgust we have with the marginal. That which has no primary focus is something to be ignored or reviled. Indeed we dislike those things which are marginal, because we want what is important, what is relevant. Newspapers themselves are now marginal media, and when there is the emphasis on the marginal of the already marginal, surely there is deconstruction at work, waiting to be disclosed and opened up. The marginal is the subject matter, and that which is disgusting is not as acceptable as getting to what’s important—the ads, the stories, and the journalism.

Deconstruction points to the things we will never be fully satisfied with, the marginal, the edges of thought, and the absence of presence. Loebs’s piece does the same. The intellectual activity of doing philosophy is also a question of going beyond the everyday way of thinking about things. Such ways of thinking are often derided as not important. Derrida was all about bringing new questions to bear. What is important? What is not important?—and how these two questions work together (inconclusively and impossibly). Whatever lies outside of a system is informed by what lies inside of a system that excludes it, and so on…

Aurelio Madrid


[1] Heraclitus, “Fragment 83,” Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001), 52.

[2] Simon Morgan Wortham, The Derrida Dictionary, (New York, NY: Continuum Books, 2010) , 1. That Wortham places ‘experience of the impossible’ in singular quotes, it is likely that this is a quote (or paraphrase) from one of Derrida’s seventy+ books, but it is not indicted which one.

[3] By stating that this will be a positive reading means that Loebs’s artwork will be looked at (read) with an understanding that deconstruction is not an outright destructive process, and that the philosophy is better situated and grasped as a positive descriptive engagement, i.e. it is less a question of what the artwork is not, and instead what can be said about the artwork—deconstructively.

[4] The Belgian/American literary critic Paul de Man (1919-1983) is considered to be another leading proponent of deconstruction.

[5] Dermot Moran, “Jacques Derrida: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction,” in Introduction to Phenomenology, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 450.

[6] Wortham, The Derrida Dictionary, 1.

[7] Namely with Plato’s dialogues Meno, Euthyphro, etc.

[8] Jacques Derrida, On the Name (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series), translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr., and Ian McLeod (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 83.

[9] See Wortham’s entry for “aporia” in The Derrida Dictionary, 14-16.

[10] Moran, “Derrida,” 450.

[11] Moran also names “logocentricism” as another target of Derrida’s deconstruction, but it is bypassed here in the practical interest of brevity.

[12] Christopher Norris, “Deconstruction,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 835-839.

[13] Moran, “Jacques Derrida,” 450.

[14] Moran, “Derrida,” 451.

[15]Andrew Cutrofello, “Jacques Derrida,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Brahman to Derrida, Volume 2, edited by Edward Craig, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998), 896-901.

[16] Andrew Cutrofello, “Jacques Derrida,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 898.

[17] Jacques Derrida, “Implications: Interview with Henri Ronse,” in Positions, translated by Alan Bass. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-14. Note, this book also contains a fascinating interview with Julia Kristeva.

[18] See Wortham’s entry “Edmund Husserl” in The Derrida Dictionary, 73. In 1962 Derrida wrote the introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry (1936?) and he wrote a dissertation on The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy.

[19] Also recall Derrida’s indebtedness to Husserl’s in/famous student Martin Heidegger. Heidegger often spoke of truth as aletheia, a disclosure, etc. Also note: Derrida’s term deconstruction is derived from Heidegger’s destrucktion, which featured in Heidegger’s 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Moran, “Derrida,” Introduction to Phenomenology, 451.

[20] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayyatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 200.

[21] Jason Loebs, Essex Street, accessed on April 27, 2014, http://www.essexstreet.biz/


Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Chicago, IL: The Chicago University Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayyatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

—. On the Name (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series). Translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr., and Ian McLeod. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

—. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

—. The Truth in Painting. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

—. Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? Right to Philosophy 1. Translated by Jan Plug. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Heraclitus. “Fragment 83,” Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Translated by Brooks Haxton, 83. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2001.

Loebs, Jason. Essex Street Gallery, website accessed on April 27, 2014, http://www.essexstreet.biz/

Lupton, Ellen and J. Abbot Miller. “Deconstruction and Graphic Design.” In Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design, edited by Ellen Lupton, 3-23. London, UK: Phaidon Press, 1999

Mikics, David. Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Moran, Dermot. “Jacques Derrida: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction.” In Introduction to Phenomenology, 435-474. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

Norris, Christopher. “Deconstruction.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Brahman to Derrida, Volume 2, edited by Edward Craig, 835-839. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998.

Wortham, Simon Morgan. The Derrida Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.

aesthetics of rhetorical thisness

Haecceity-12_0_0

Jeffery Strayer: Haecceity 12.0.0 (circular language detail)

“But this pure being is the pure abstraction, and hence it is the absolutely
negative, which when taken immediately, is nothing.”
—G.W.F. Hegel

Over the years the artist/philosopher Jeffery Strayer has been working on an ongoing series of artworks titled “Haecceities.” In addition to considering the philosophical and aesthetical propositions he employs, we’ll be attending to a basic tripartite rhetorical schema, utilizing a specific work in the series titled: “Haecceity 12.0.0”

If we were to ask ourselves, without any prior knowledge of this rhetorical artwork, who will be the audience for Strayer’s work?—we’ll have to admit that it’ll be limited to a philosophical and artistic crowd. Within that group, it’ll then be narrowed down to those who are familiar with conceptual, theoretical and/or language based art. Presuming that this art has a limited audience will position it into a rarified area of specialization and intellectual connoisseurship. Speaking of all of who it’ll appeal to will implicate (and thereby exclude) those who choose to not appreciate its intellectual rigor and subtlety. We’ll be keen to mention that one need not engage art that doesn’t appeal to one’s own taste, to do so would just be a labor that’s without the requisite aesthetic fulfillment one might have in considering another choice of conceptual art, a painting, a sculpture etc. Because one doesn’t prefer a particular work of art only reflects personal taste and does not necessarily speak to the work’s intrinsic value, that’s qualified by experts and those who will acknowledge, judge and value its aesthetic and philosophical worth.

“[←] CONCEIVING OF THAT OF WHICH ONE CANNOT FORM A CONCEPTION [→]” This is our base statement of Strayer’s that we’re calling his persuasive rhetoric. This “essential specification” (we’ll look at this term later) is using language and aesthetics as a means of conveyance concerning his concepts on the “limits of abstraction.” As we’ve indicated in a previous essay, Aristotle writes that the art of rhetoric is not akin to a scientific way of understanding and that we must not make the mistake to think that rhetoric is be examined scientifically, or that it’ll concern itself with absolute facts and figures—this is not a positivist science.

All of this forwarding is unsaid within the circular language. “[←] CONCEIVING OF THAT OF WHICH ONE CANNOT FORM A CONCEPTION [→]” The actual stated appeal is for the subject (audience) to conceive of that with cannot be a conception. This is about thought that’s prior to conceiving. This is about pre-apophantic thought, thought that’s pre-predicated, prior to logic, concepts, language, judgments and the like. The circular rhetoric is persuading the viewer to consider a thought apprehension which is prior to conceiving of a thought, before a conception of it can be named or put forth into an idea, and before the thought can be predicated into a statement about the thought. It is presented in the first person i.e. ‘[I’m] conceiving of…” Because it’s in the first person, the subject is implicated to think of this un-conceivable thought along with Strayer as a way to aesthetically complete, and to conceive the limitations of an understanding having to do with his aesthetic entreaty. The fact that the circular appeal is repeated four times (twice in black text and twice in grey text) adds a rhythmic and filmic quality to the language. The repetitions suggest that each side is intended for each eye, right and left, and perhaps, the left and right hemispheres of the brain (rational and intuitive respectively). The liminal specifications are in focus (black text) and out of focus (grey text) only to be conceptualized at this threshold of pre-thinking.

Haecceity-12_0_0_large

Jeffery Strayer: Haecceity 12.0.0  / 20 1/4″ x 22 7/16″.
Transparent print, screws, contact print, and paper mounted to Gatorfoam.
Maple wood frame.

When we continue to examine the artwork, asking about its rhetorical appeals, we’ll have to get to the one that doesn’t apply out of the way. This artwork is not emotional, so it has no pathos. If we were to strain to find its pathos, it might be found in the pleasure induced by the intellectual pursuit of Strayer’s ideas and concepts. With this said, this lack might be its inherent flaw. However, this is a flaw only if we insist that all rhetoric contain all of the three appeals, and on this score we’ll have to say that all rhetoric need not fulfill all three appeals to be effective. For instance, there are plenty of examples of salient rhetoric that’s anonymous, therefore without an ethos (a discernable character by which to judge the persuasiveness of a given argument).

Looking for Strayer’s ethos we’re able to find plenty of obvious examples in his work. Jeffrey Strayer is an artist and philosopher and is the author of two books: Subjects and Objects: Art, Essentialism, and Abstraction and Haecceities: Essentialism and the Limits of Abstraction. Strayer is also a lecturer in philosophy at Indiana University—Purdue University Fort Wayne. Due to these credentials his arguments are to be taken seriously enough to be regarded as a specialist in the areas of art making and philosophy. It should be said that an ethos is evident in the objects themselves, since the objects are of excellent quality, and have been executed with high production standards, this adds to the aforementioned credibility as it offers a distinct professionalism to his art.

Logos is the appeal that this work exhibits in great detail. Logos can concern logic as much as it can be about rational thinking. We’re safe to say the artwork appeals to both in full measure. As for the logical, we’ll suggest that the artwork uses simple deductive logic. We can plainly deduce that the artwork is being presented in such a way as to rationally conceive of a thought that’s to be un-conceivable, thus persuading the subject to face an abstract limitation of thought. This is brought to us (the subject) under the title “Haecceity” a philosophical term meaning thisness, or better yet, the specificity of a given object that differs from any other given object, no matter how similar the two might appear. Nothing is exactly the same, everything is essentially different, is the idea behind the word. On Strayer’s website he has a couple of videos were he speaks of his intentions with the series. His predominate logical thesis has to do with an aesthetic that seeks the limits of abstraction, to this goal he names his style: essentialist abstraction. What catches our attention will have to be an idea that he names the series and each work in the series haecceities. The language he uses in each haecceity is said to be a specification, specifically naming a means to ideate a limit of abstraction. When we examine this conceptual method we find a curious logos. A haecceity is a specific object that can also be a specific idea, essentialism names things that are universal qualities of an object that are essential to make that object what it is, abstraction is also about the non-specific qualities of a particular idea or thing. When we bring all of this together in Strayer’s specification: “[←] CONCEIVING OF THAT OF WHICH ONE CANNOT FORM A CONCEPTION [→]” we are left with a non-specific object of thought that’s ultra-specific in its physical presence, coupled with universal ideations that are essential for thinking about the object, and all this is without attributable meaning, since pre-conception is thoughtless. Therefore, the lack of meaning is our logical goal, and as we’ve been taught by Hegel in his work on logic, thought before conception is nothing that’s intrinsically combined with being, together becoming thought, becoming determinate thought, and henceforth illustrating a process of our consciousness becoming capable of conceiving of a concept. Strayer does a fine job taking us from specificity to nothing at all in one artwork that’s presented in the form of rhetorically delineated language, while pushing the limits of aesthetic consideration into our over habituated minds.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited / Bibliography:

Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Trans. J.H. Freese. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1967. 1357b 12-13. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Encyclopedia Logic. Part 1. Trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, H.S.

Harris. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1991. pp. 135 – 145. Print.

Strayer, Jeffrey. Haecceities: Essentialism and the Limits of Abstraction. Unpublished.

____________. Jeffrey Strayer: Art and Philosophy. Jeffery Strayer, 2008. Web. 5 -12

Oct. 2011. http://www.jeffreystrayer.com/index.html

____________. Subjects and Objects: Art, Essentialism, and Abstraction. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Print.