I've just enjoyed attending this year’s SEP/FEP conference at Regent's University London. Very pleasant to find that the university is located in the middle of Regent’s Park, the tranquility of which is enhanced by its location in a dense and crowded metropolis. I found the papers rigorous and stimulating. I heard a number on Heidegger that focused upon the rigorous nature of his thought, distilling the problems that animate his texts. One, by Elena Bartolini of the University of Milan, was on the role of logos in Heidegger's thought. Heidegger’s concern that logic has come to neglect the ontological foundations of its theories was shown to emerge from his focus on the context of Dasein’s relations and interactions, it’s openness for and to the world. The role of Aristotle in Heidegger’s thinking was shown in the rooting of logos in worldly existence and its dynamical expression.
A paper by Sacha Golob (King’s College London) questioned Heidegger’s attempt to include all aspects of existence in an account of Being. This was presented in the form of a provocative challenge to the very notion of ontological difference which, despite its great influence on philosophy, was charged with making no sense. The complexity of technology and economics, it was argued, were subsumed in a general but one-sided account of Being. Are there irreducible aspects of the ontic that cannot be reduced to the ontological? What about the complexity and change that the ontic involves? The paper suggested the need for some form of feedback between the ontological and the ontic, so as to avoid a one-sided and unbalanced account. Another concern was that Heidegger attaches his account to a particular aesthetics, a way of viewing the coming into being of beings aesthetically. This aesthetics of coming into presence was understood as a sentimental form of aesthetics, one that others would reject because of their particular aesthetic stance. It is certainly a concern that Heidegger’s architectonic may be unbalanced, privileging disciplines like philosophy and poetry whilst neglecting contributions from history, science, economics and technology to the understanding of Being. This is a huge debate and there is much to say about the range and depth of Heidegger’s thought but this paper brought out the challenge with force and urgency. Guilia Lanzirotti sought to highlight and respond to the problem of determination in Heidegger in a paper imported concepts from linguistics. These were used to strengthen Heidegger’s account of the ‘what’ that persists when the ‘how’ is foregrounded. This reminded me of the problem of actualization in Deleuze and its persistence when we try to think all aspects of reality in an account that highlights the virtual and virtual production.
A keynote by Elie During (Paris) performed a powerful critique of Speculative Realism and its general concern with metaphysical estrangement, weirdness, de-familiarisation, alien phenomenology and so forth. Through an analysis of the nature of the Kantian thing-in-itself that established links with the notion of space-time in modern science, this paper attempted to make the Speculative Realist category of weirdness redundant by showing that there is significance and singularity enough in this post-Kantian and scientifically informed understanding of nature. During developed the thing-in-itself as coexistence which is both spatial and weirdly temporal. We have then a field of co-existence that is not reliant upon immediate intuitions of what it is to coexist in space and time. We have resources for dealing with the problem outside of Speculative Realism. We can consider problems in contemporary physics or philosophical concepts such as those developed by Sartre when he writes of the experience of waiting for a reply to a letter (see War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War 1939-40 where an individual is awaiting a response to a letter from someone who is doing something somewhere and thus these two individuals coexist through separation). This was effective at countering the almost mythical invocation of the ‘great outdoors’, the ‘holy grail’ as one delegate put it during a panel discussion, by locating what is lost or lacking in the spatio-temporal contexts in which philosophical and scientific endeavors proceed.
A paper on Michel Serres by Christopher Watkin (Monash) suggested the cross-disciplinary implications of his use of ‘information’ in order to include nature in a universal language. This universal language has no inside and outside or sacred and secular. This outside or secular, outside the sacred realm of language use, includes the animal, that which lacks meaning and ethical significance. This was presented as a critique of anthropocentrism and the arrogance of limiting language use to the human as privileged beings within a sacred circle. Serres seeks to make language universal rather than setting up and policing boundaries between an inside and an outside. Once all of nature is understood as entities that receive and transmit information, the house and flower as much as the human being, then disciplinary boundaries are overcome. It was argued that Serres’ universal model of language located a ‘common formal structure’ across all things and therefore across all disciplines. All disciplines are studying the ‘performative immediacy’ of nature itself receiving and transmitting information. The discussion that followed worked to pin down this wider understanding of information, one that must include even things furthest from our understanding of what information receipt and transmission could involve.
A paper in the same panel on Peirce, by Chryssa Sdrolia of Goldsmiths, sought to set out a similar expansion of our ordinary understanding via the notion of semiosis. Like information, the sign occupies the in-between of subject and object. The discussion again wrestled with an understanding of how signs can exist outside of the contexts where they normally make sense to us. The example was given of the flower giving itself its own sign. It is its relationship to itself that determines its relationship to everything else. How do we eliminate subjectivity and consciousness but still understand signs and their activity? As with Serres, Peirce was understood as attempting externalize normally subjective phenomena, envisaging a universal semiosis. Yet this raises the suspicion that the subjective or human is being projected onto the non-subjective and non-human. To challenge this we must show that information for Serres, and the sign for Peirce, can be understood in a radically wider sense. It must genuinely belong as much to the non-subjective and non-human as to the subjective and human contexts where we normally locate and understand such things. We will then be able to reject the accusations of projecting the human, or of establishing a correlationism as Meillassoux puts it, by showing that information or the sign precedes the terms of any projection or correlation. The dimensions of Peirce's work were outlined, showing that he was a polymath of immense range whose work has not all been published. This suggests much potential yet to be discovered in this thinker. My interest in his use of the term ‘architectonic’ is only heightened by appreciating his polymathic range, something that suggests an architectonic ambition and understanding.
A paper on Hegel (by Louis Hartnoll of Kingston University) interested me because it sought to understand the distinction between history and art history, the latter established through art's historical exceptionalism and representing art's internal history. This was developed via art’s role in the dialectic as a middle term, offering liberation from sensation in a ‘higher actuality, born of the Spirit’. The exceptionalism of art has the role of excluding history but this is a constructive act. We can see disciplines emerging in the movement of a dialectic that requires such moves in order to move forward. In bridging the sensible and supersensible, finite nature and ‘infinite freedom and conceptual thinking’, art initiates and maintains in a constructive way the distinction between history and art history.
My own paper was delivered in a session that also featured an insightful analysis of Badiou’s ethics by Daniel Martini. This included a comparison of Badiou and Deleuze on the ethics of events. Some similarities were highlighted in their understanding of how to respond to events, pointing to the patient commitment, repetition and learning that Deleuze calls for. The role of hope in Badiou’s ethics was also developed. This was located in his St Paul book where hope is generated within a truth process, enabling it to be self-sustaining. It ‘weaves together’ the parts of the truth-process. This helps us to understand the affective side of truth-processes, something that is required by a militant and hugely demanding fidelity to fragile events which are resisted by the situation in which we find ourselves. The paper showed how Badiou’s account can be made convincing and concrete. The discussion was thorough in its interrogation of Badiou’s understanding of ethics. How persuasive is this ethics that covers all events? Does it apply as well to love as it does to the other conditions? If a love is abusive and dangerous it is harder to justify faith in this event than it might be to justify faith in a new way of seeing or hearing the world in an artistic truth-procedure. I am very interested in how Badiou locates ethics. He argues that ethics is very localized, it is always confined to a particular truth-procedure and we cannot set up rules that apply across cases. Yet we also have the epoch-making crises of the Idea. Badiou identifies one crisis of the Idea at the turn of the twentieth century. These involve all four conditions of truth. New truth-procedures at the beginning of the twentieth century led to a new epoch that for Badiou is now coming to an end. Is there an Idea of the ethics that marks an epoch, such as an ethics of classicism or romanticism? This couldn’t be a set of rules for all cases for Badiou but could perhaps be a style of ethics for a particular epoch of truths. If ethics is not one of the four conditions, is it a responsibility of philosophy? In his recent interview Philosophy and the Event, the section on philosophy discusses the affects internal to each condition. The affect of philosophy brings us to a notion of the good life, of fulfillment. This suggests a forthcoming development of ethics in Badiou’s thought. Badiou’s references in Philosophy and the Event to a projected third volume of Being and Event, entitled The Immanence of Truths, suggests that greater attention will be given to what it feels like to be internal to a truth process, to be a subject in and through fidelity to an event.
I spoke about the relation between Aristotle and Badiou. Whilst acknowledging their ontological differences on the role of the infinite – something to be warded off in founding the individual sciences and scientific knowledge in general for Aristotle; something to be embraced as the source of genuine transformation in artistic, scientific, political and amorous situations for Badiou – I sought to locate a common act of division in their systems. This inaugural gesture is both ontological and architectonic, it rejects the oneness of Being and of knowledge. The legacy of Aristotle in the institutional and curricula structures of Academia, and its investment with social and ecclesiastical authority, stands in opposition to Badiou’s understanding of how genuine thought and activism should operate. Yet this institutional and social history is not to be confused with the philosophical nature of Aristotle’s gesture of division and subsequent concern with how we ‘oversee’ what has been divided. Badiou raises the same problem, speaking of the ‘care of truths’, and this can be considered a problem of transdisciplinarity. I sought to oppose this to the interdisciplinary as a practical orientation to cooperation and exchange between disciplines. The questions in the discussion were insightful. One questioner asked whether this was simply a return to the privileging and supremacy of the philosopher and even of ‘neurotic philosophers’ needing to have a role and intervene in all sorts of areas. This captures a key challenge as Badiou seeks to flesh out further the role of philosophy, something he gestures towards in Philosophy and the Event and promises in his projected third volume of Being and Event. Quentin Meillassoux has called the philosopher emerging Badiou’s The Logic of Worlds the ‘arch-engaged subject’ and this discussion shows that it must face the challenge of being labelled ‘the neurotic subject’. Further discussion considered the nature of Badiou’s conditions. They are distinct and must have integrity – for example, it must be art as art rather than art mixed with concepts from elsewhere – but this is not institutional specialization. There is a role for other conditions in unblocking a condition where activity is exhausted or thought stifled. Another critical point was my use of the term ‘discipline’. What are its connotations? It can imply a master or expert and their disciples. Having used the term ‘discipline’ generally in my paper, ‘science’ in order to refer to Aristotle’s bodies of knowledge and ‘condition’ for Badiou’s militant truth-seeking domains, I need to clarify this accumulation of terms. I found this an energizing and productive conference.
Posted by Edward Willatt.