What is philosophy today? The predominant answer of contemporary scientists is: its time is over. Even the most basic philosophical problems are increasingly becoming scientific ones: the ultimate ontological questions concerning reality (Does our universe have a limit in space and time? Is it caught in determinism, or is there a place for genuine contingency in it?) are today questions addressed by quantum cosmology; the ultimate anthropological questions (Are we free, i.e., do we have free will? etc.) are addressed by evolutionary brain science; even theology is allotted its place within brain science (which aims at translating spiritual and mystical experiences into neuronal processes). At most, what remains of philosophy are epistemological reflections on the process of scientific discoveries.
In today’s antideconstructionist turn, there are, however, many attempts to return to a realist ontology, with all the usual caveats (it’s not really a return, because it’s a new ontology of radical contingency, etc.). Perhaps the main precursor of this return to ontology is Louis Althusser’s “aleatoric materialism.” In his two great manuscripts published posthumously, Initiation à la philosophie pour les non-philosophes (1976) and Être marxiste en philosophie (1978), Althusser (among other things) outlines a specific theory of philosophy which overlaps neither with his early “theoreticist” concept of philosophy as “theory of theoretical practice” nor with his later notion of philosophy as “class struggle in theory”; while closer to the second notion, it serves as a kind of mediator between the two. Althusser’s starting point is the omnipresence of ideology, of ideological abstractions which always structure our approach to everyday life and reality; this ideology has two levels, the “spontaneous” everyday texture of implicit meanings, and the organized religion or mythology which initiated a systematic system of these meanings. Then, in ancient Greece, something new and unexpected happened: the rise of science in the guise of mathematics. Mathematics deals with pure, abstract numbers deprived of all mythic reference, it is a game of axioms and rule in which no cosmic meaning resonates, there are no sacred, lucky or damned numbers. Precisely as such, mathematics is subversive; it threatens the universe of cosmic meaning, its homogeneity and stability.
The true break happens here, not between mythic ideology and philosophy but between the mythical universe and science—and the function of philosophy is precisely to contain this break. Formally, philosophy also breaks with the mythical universe and obeys the rules of science (rational argumentation, thinking in abstract conceptual terms, etc.), but its function is to reinscribe scientific procedure into the religious universe of cosmic meaning. To put it in mock-Hegelian terms: if science is a negation of religion, philosophy is a negation of negation, i.e., it endeavors to reassert religious meaning within the space (and with the means) of rational argumentation:
>All of Plato—the theory of ideas, the opposition of knowledge and opinion, and so on—is based on the break that the first science represents. In a sense, this is because all of Plato is an attempt to control and in a way to “sublate” this break, in a profoundly inventive but also profoundly reactive dialectic. Philosophy, in its idealist Platonist matrix, is thus a reactive invention: the displacement of (the ideological functions of) religion onto the plane of pure (abstract) rationality. It draws from these sciences its “form, the abstraction of its categories, and the demonstrativeness of its reasoning,” as a pure reasoning directly carried out on “abstract” objects, but its function is an ideological one, a mandate and a service delegated, explicitly or otherwise, by the dominant class.
Here is the link with Althusser’s second definition of philosophy as class struggle in theory: this pressure to contain the scientific threat, to reassert the all-encompassing religious world-view, is not grounded in some kind of disembodied tendency toward meaningful totalization of our experience, but is pressure exerted as part of the class struggle in order to guarantee the hegemony of the ruling-class ideology. All great philosophers after Plato repeat this gesture of containment, from Descartes (who limits the domain of science to the material world) and Kant (who limits the domain of science to the phenomenal world in order to open up the space for religion and ethics) to today’s neo-Kantian theorists of communication who exempt communication from scientific rationality. Against this predominant idealist form of philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel), Althusser asserts the subterranean tradition of materialist counterphilosophy, from the early Greek materialists and Epicureans (who assert the material world of contingent encounters) through Spinoza and even Heidegger. Is not one of the great episodes in this struggle Cantor’s profoundly materialist reconceptualization of the infinite? His basic premise is the multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. Cantor’s great materialist breakthrough concerns the status of infinite numbers (and it is precisely because this breakthrough was materialist that it caused so many psychological traumas to Cantor, a devout Catholic): prior to Cantor, the Infinite was linked to the One, the conceptual form of God in religion and metaphysics, while with Cantor, the Infinite enters the domain of the Multiple—it implies the actual existence of infinite multiplicities, as well as the infinite number of different infinities.
But is Platonism really a reaction to the subversive abstraction of mathematical science? Is it not also (or mainly) a reaction to other tendencies like sophist philosophy or pre-Platonic materialism? Moreover, did the ideological recuperation of mathematics not begin prior to Plato, with the Pythagoreans who imbued numbers with cosmic meaning? It is worth mentioning here the continuing dialogue between Alain Badiou and Barbara Cassin, which is best characterized as the new version of the ancient dialogue between Plato and the sophists: the Platonist Badiou against Cassin’s insistence on the irreducibility of the sophists’ rupture. From the strict Hegelian standpoint, Cassin is right to insist, against Badiou, on the irreducible character of the sophist’s position: the self-referential play of the symbolic process has no external support which would allow us to draw a line, within the language games, between truth and falsity. Sophists are the irreducible “vanishing mediators” between mythos and logos, between the traditional mythical universe and philosophical rationality, and, as such, a permanent threat to philosophy. Why? They broke the mythical unity of words and things, playfully asserting the gap that separates words from things; and philosophy proper can be understood only as a reaction to the sophists, as an attempt to close the gap opened up by the sophists, to provide a foundation of truth for words, to return to mythos in the new conditions of rationality. This is where one should locate Plato: he first tried to provide this foundation by his teaching on Ideas, and when, in Parmenides, he was forced to admit the fragility of this foundation, he engaged in a long struggle to reassert a clear line of separation between sophistry and truth. (The opposition between the sophists and Plato is also echoed in the opposition between democracy and corporate organic order: sophists are clearly democratic, teaching the art of seducing and convincing the crowd; while Plato outlines a hierarchical, corporate order in which every individual is in his/her proper place, allowing for no position of singular universality.)
The irony of the history of philosophy is that the line of philosophers who struggle against the sophists’ temptation finishes with Hegel, the “last philosopher” who, in a way, is also the ultimate sophist, asserting self-referential play with no external support of its truth: for Hegel, there is truth, but it is immanent to the symbolic process—the truth is measured not by an external standard, but by the “pragmatic contradiction,” the inner (in)consistency of the discursive process, by the gap between the enunciated content and its position of enunciation.
Is not the way Althusser relates to philosophy one of the clearest cases of the gap that separates the position of enunciation from the enunciated (content)? At the level of the enunciated content, he is all modesty: he strongly opposes the idealist philosophical pretension to grasp the structure of the entire universe, to “know it all,” to reveal the absolute truth (or the truth of the Absolute). Against this idealist pretension, he praises accepting limits, openness to contingent encounters, etc., which characterize the materialist undercurrent from Epicurus through Spinoza up to Heidegger (although one might add here that it is difficult to imagine a more “arrogant” philosopher than Spinoza, whose Ethics claims to reveal the inner working of God-Nature—if nothing else, it can be shown that here Spinoza is much more “arrogant” than Hegel).
>Idealist philosophers speak for everyone and in everyone’s stead. They think, in fact, that they are in possession of the Truth about everything. Materialist philosophers are much less talkative: they know how to shut up and listen to people. They do not think that they are privy to the Truth about everything. They know that they can become philosophers only gradually, modestly, and that their philosophy will come to them from outside. So they shut up and listen.
However, in what Althusser actually does when talking about philosophy, his “process of enunciation,” his approach to philosophy, we can easily discern the exact opposite of what he characterizes as a materialist approach: brutally simplified universal statements which pretend to define the universal key features of philosophy, with no modest provisos. Philosophy as such is class struggle in theory, the eternal battle of two lines, “idealist” and “materialist”; it functions as an empty repetition of the line of demarcation idealism/materialism which produces nothing new; etc., etc. In short, Althusser acts as a supreme Judge imposing his Measure on the wealth of philosophies. No wonder, then, that Althusser is so adamantly anti-Hegelian: Althusser’s opposite here is Hegel, whose enunciated (content) may appear “arrogant” (“absolute Knowing,” etc.), but whose actual approach is much more radically “modest,” “deconstructing” every pretense to directly reach the Absolute, demonstrating how each such claim fails owing to its inherent inconsistencies. The extreme case of this “arrogance” of Althusser’s is his treatment of the digitization/computerization of our lives, which he brutally reduces to technocratic idealism: when the bourgeoisie loses its ability to generate idealist philosophical systems that guarantee the hegemony of its ideology, it begins to rely on the apparently non-ideological “automatism of computers and technocrats,” the “neutral” expert knowledge to which our lives should be entrusted:
>In a time in which the bourgeoisie has even given up on producing its eternal philosophical systems, on the prospects and guarantees that ideas can provide it with, and in which it has entrusted its destiny to the automatism of computers and technocrats; in a time in which it is incapable of proposing a viable, conceivable future to the world, the proletariat can rise to the challenge; it can breathe new life into philosophy and, in order to liberate men and women from class domination, make it “an arm for the revolution.”
Sounds nice, albeit a bit naive: today, when science seems to be fully incorporated into capitalism, the standard situation in which the task of philosophy is to contain the subversive potential of the sciences seems almost inverted, so that philosophy itself becomes a tool against technocratic domination. However, the very conjunction “computers and technocrats” should immediately arouse our suspicions: as if the two are synonymous, as if there is no potential tension between the two, as if (as should be abundantly clear from today’s ferocious struggles for the control of cyberspace) cyberspace is not one of the privileged terrains of class struggle today, when state apparatuses and corporations desperately try to contain the monster they themselves helped to unleash: “Althusser misunderstands the nature and transformative potential—the proletarization, perhaps—of computation and computer science. In so doing he appears ignorant of the strength of the scientific tools for rethinking and resisting technocratic rule.” In ignoring all these ambiguities and tensions, in brutally imposing a simple universal scheme, it is Althusser who acts like the worst idealist philosopher; consequently, it is Althusser who should have followed his materialist formula: “shut up and listen.”
For Lacan, modern science is defined by two concomitant foreclosures: the foreclosure of the subject and the foreclosure of truth as cause. A scientific text is enounced from a desubjectivized “empty” location, it allows for no references to its subject of enunciation, it is supposed to deliver the impersonal truth which can be repeatedly demonstrated, “anyone can see and say it,” i.e., the truth should be in no way affected by its place of enunciation. We can already see the link with the Cartesian cogito: is not the “empty” enunciator of scientific statements the subject of thought reduced to a vanishing punctuality, deprived of all its properties? This same feature also accounts for the foreclosure of truth as cause: when I commit a slip of the tongue and say something other than what I wanted to say, and this other message tells a truth about me that I am often not ready to recognize, then one can also say that in my slips the truth itself spoke, subverting what I wanted to say. There is truth (a truth about my desire) in such slips, even if they contain factual inexactitude—to take an extremely simple example, when the moderator of a debate, instead of saying “I am thereby opening the session!” says “I am thereby closing the session!” he obviously indicates that he is bored and considers the debate worthless. “Truth” (of my subjective position) is the cause of such slips; when it operates, the subject is directly inscribed into its speech, disturbing the smooth flow of “objective” knowledge.
How, then, can Lacan claim that the subject of psychoanalysis—the divided subject, the subject traversed by negativity—is the subject of modern science (and the Cartesian cogito)? Is it not that, by foreclosing truth and subject, modern science also ignores negativity? Is science not a radical attempt to construct a (literally) truthless discourse of knowledge? Modern science breaks with the traditional universe held together by a deeper meaning (like a harmony of cosmic principles—yin and yang, etc.), a universe which forms a teleologically ordered Whole of a multiplicity of hierarchically ordered spheres, a Whole in which everything serves a higher purpose. In the philosophical tradition, the major vestige of the traditional view is Aristotle: Aristotelian Reason is organic-teleological, in clear contrast to the radical contingency of modern science. No wonder today’s Catholic Church attacks Darwinism as “irrational” in comparison with the Aristotelian notion of Reason: the “reason” of which the Church speaks is a Reason for which Darwin’s theory of evolution (and, ultimately, modern science itself, for which the assertion of the contingency of the universe, the break with Aristotelian teleology, is a constitutive axiom) is “irrational.”
Freud’s arch-opponent Jung is on the side of this traditional universe: his approach to psychic phenomena is effectively that of “depth psychology,” his vision is that of a closed world sustained by deeper archetypal meanings, a world permeated by spiritual forces which operate at a level “deeper” than that of “mechanical” sciences, a level at which there are no contingencies, where ordinary occurrences partake in a profound spiritual meaning to be unearthed by self-exploration; life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals, and our task is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential by embarking on a journey of inner transformation which brings us in contact with the mystical heart of all religions, a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Rejecting (what he perceived as) Freud’s scientific objectivism, Jung thus advocates a version of pantheism which identifies individual human life with the universe as a whole.
In clear contrast to Jung, Freud emphasizes the lack of any harmony between a human being and its environs, any correspondence between human microcosm and natural macrocosm, accepting without any reserve the fact of a contingent meaningless universe. That is Freud’s achievement: psychoanalysis is not a return to a new kind of premodern hermeneutics in search of the unknown deep layers of meaning which regulate the apparently meaningless flow of our lives, it is not a new version of the ancient interpretation of dreams searching for deeper messages hidden in them; our psychic life is thoroughly open to unexpected traumatic encounters, its unconscious processes are a domain of contingent signifying displacements; there is no inner truth at the core of our being, only a cobweb of proton pseudos, primordial lies called “fundamental fantasies”; the task of the psychoanalytic process is not to reconcile ourselves with the fantasmatic core of our being but to “traverse” it, to acquire a distance toward it. This brief description explains how psychoanalysis relates to modern science: it tries to resubjectivize the universe of science, to discern the contours of a subject that fits modern science, a subject that fully participates in the contingent and meaningless “gray world” of the sciences. The question that arises here is: how does capitalism fit into this passage to modern science? “Capitalism then needs to be thought of as the restoration of pre-modernity within modernity, a counter-revolution that neutralizes the emancipatory political potential of scientific revolution.”
Although capitalism is intimately linked to the rise of modern science, its ideologico-political and economic organization (liberal egotist individuals pursuing their interests, their messy interaction secretly regulated by the big Other of the Market) signals a return to the premodern universe—but does this mean that Communism extends the logic of modern science also to the ethico-political sphere? Kant’s goal was to do exactly this, to elaborate an ethico-political edifice that would be on the level of modern science—but did he in fact achieve this, or is his theoretical edifice a compromise? Did he not openly say that his goal was to limit knowledge in order to make space for belief? And are not Habermasians doing the same when they exempt intersubjectivity from the domain of objective science? (And, in this vein, does not Hegel stand for a return to the Aristotelian organic-teleological view of reality as a rational Whole? Is his thought not marked by a rejection of the universe of modern science characterized by meaningless contingency?) Which, then, is the ethico-political space that fits modern science, Kant’s or a new one to be invented (for example, the one proposed by brain scientists like Patricia and Paul Churchland)? What if the two are necessarily nonsynchronous, i.e., what if modernity itself needs a premodern ethico-political foundation, what if it cannot stand on its own, what if fully actualized modernity is an exemplary ideological myth?
The return of the traditional order in capitalism is thus not simply an indication that the logic of science is somehow constrained in capitalism, it is an indication that this containment is immanent to the universe of modern science, implied by the foreclosure of the subject. To put it bluntly: science cannot stand completely on its own, it cannot account for itself (no matter how much positivist accounts try to do so), i.e., the universality of science is based on an exception.
When and how, then, will politics be synchronized with modern science? It is not that the universe of modern science should directly impose itself onto the sphere of politics, so that social life will be regulated by the insights based on the cognitivist/biogenetic naturalization of human life (the tech-gnostic vision of society regulated by the digital big Other). It is simply that the subject engaged in politics should no longer be conceived as the liberal free agent pursuing its interests but as the subject of modern science, the Cartesian cogito, which, as Lacan said, is the subject of psychoanalysis. Therein lies the problem: can we imagine an emancipatory politics whose agent is the empty Cartesian subject? Jacques-Alain Miller’s answer is that the domain of politics is by definition the domain of imaginary and symbolic collective identifications, so that all that psychoanalysis can do is to retain a healthy cynical distance toward the sphere of politics—psychoanalysis cannot ground a specific form of political engagement. The wager of the Communist hypothesis is, on the contrary, that there is a politics based on the empty Cartesian subject: the political name of the empty Cartesian subject is a proletarian, an agent reduced to the empty point of substanceless subjectivity. A politics of radical universal emancipation can be grounded only on the proletarian experience.
Whoops here's the book. Although I'm not sure I'd recommend it as a starting point for zizek. That's part of how the whole idea for this thread came about.
While it's not a book, this short pdf he writes about different varieties of surplus might be better https://problemi.si/issues/p2017-1/01problemi_international_2017_1_zizek.pdf
This starts through an introduction of object a. Which is a good thing to know about. But offers little in the way of a contextual introduction. That's what I like about this as a starting point, it starts with some relevant philosophical history.
It's a real struggle, where to begin with zizek. I thought about posting this to /leftypol/ but considering that the focus on this isn't explicitly on politics, and that this board is more likely to have a background in some of the more advanced concepts required to read higher level zizek, figured this was better.
Feedback, questions, etc.. welcome.