Commentaries, Contemplation

How to Read Jacques Derrida When He is All About How You Read Him?

“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.” – Franz Kafka

Recently, I had the pleasure to reread Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play” and a few sections from Of Grammatology as part of my research on Fred Moten. I mention this because I will randomly mention Moten in parenthesis throughout this text. In this post I will show you an easier way to understand Derrida’s concept of “difference”, “otherness”, and “supplement” without any phenomenology and ontology. I will show you how Derrida thinks meanings are generated between differences via the discourse of communication and other famous practical examples that Derrida uses (i.e. nature / culture, public / private).

Most of my blog posts are sounding boards for my bigger projects. I am not sure if this will become a staple / extension to my other Derridean post, which focused on Part I in Of Grammatology (the most difficult section of the book). This post focuses on some of the contents from Part IIparticularly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the incestuous relationship between nature, culture, and writing.


What is Derrida trying to say to his readers when all he ever does is close read other people’s works in abstruse language? What does it mean to be a Derridean? Similar to Jacques Lacan, Derrida’s difficulty comes from the way he applies his ideas into his own writing in order to make you experience what he is trying to say. Alain Badiou once said: “Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one that it is written in”.

To understand Derrida’s concept of difference, which actually comes from Ferdinand de Saussure, we must become familiar with the function of meaning in relationship with its context that it is placed in. We need to understand that “meaning” varies depending on context. In this sense, context is the way which words differentiates within a system of other words that defines what the former word could mean within its structure. The word “life” can have various meanings depending on who you ask through the contextual structure of words it is placed in (i.e. different cultures, traditions, etc.). Thus, meaning can constantly change as it gets compared to different contextual words. Is the author saying X or Y? Or perhaps she is saying V because X is different to G since now there is a T?

Most importantly, how words are interpreted depends on not only the context it is situated in, but also the specific spatial-temporal context that you—the readeroffer to it with your own knowledge, history, past experiences, personal values, etc. Thus, when we communicate to other people, one might sometimes realize that what they are expressing cannot be completely felt by the other person in the same way that they are experiencing it through their own mind and body (this also has to do with the representational aspects of language; another reason is because you are not the other person). In other words, we are always in some ways misunderstood. And it is through this “misunderstanding” via the play of differences between author / reader which creates a mutual “understanding”. This is applicable even when an author speaks to themselves (See Voice and Phenomenon, “Meaning as Soliloquy”).

This “misunderstanding” is crucial because it is through communicative exchange between the author and reader that produces meaning. Instead of interpreting words, Derrida is saying that meanings can only be produced in relationship with the reader who creates meaning from the author’s words through their own play of differential structures / contexts (similar to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the author”, but not quite). Meanings can only be produced through “other meanings”, such as the context and discourse that the reader situates the author’s words in.

In The Post Card, Derrida presents fragments of burnt love letters that were written to his wife. In it, he famously states that “the letter never arrives at its destination” which opposes to Lacan who famously said, “the letter always arrives at its destination”. For Derrida, love letters functions like a post card—like meaning—where there is always a possibility that it arrives in the wrong place, like the postman, or a stranger who will open the letter and misread its writing via their own supplementary context. The letter never arrives at its “destination” because its “destiny” depends on context, error, and contingency. Anyone can open The Post Card (or any book; or a stranger’s love letters) and read it via their own supplementary differences which creates various meanings (this writer is romantic, a creep, stupid, etc.).

We create meanings out of the author’s words by supplementing their structure of differences with our own system of differences. Instead of saying “this author is saying X”, one should be looking at what the author is not saying which constitutes what they are trying to say. What the author’s words are not saying reveals who the author is—especially when you compare what they are not saying in one book with what they are saying in another. Most importantly, what the author is not saying also reveals who you are as a reader because it is through this supplemental structure of your “Other” words which makes the author’s meanings possible. Meanings are produced through the glimmers between binary oppositions: word / context (signifier / signified), author / reader, speech / writing, life / death, feminine / masculine, man / woman, past / future, public / private, outside / inside, absence / presence, reason / passion, who / what, etc.

In Derrida’s documentary, he asks why Martin Heidegger and G.W.F. Hegel presents themselves asexually in their work (to be sure, we are not making a porno film). He also wonders why they never talk about their private lives. Clearly, Derrida was interested in what both Heidegger and Hegel are not saying in their works which constitutes their work as such. Even if we look beyond Derrida, most of us are aware that a writer or a philosopher’s life affects the work they produce. This is also part of the reason why Derrida thinks that, with specific precautions, autobiographies can become a powerful form of writing. This is not only because autobiographies are often confessional, but because the difference between what is said and not said produces meanings about the author via self-reflection.

However, Derrida also thinks that people tend to privilege one side of the binary opposition over the other. In Of Grammatology (1967), Rousseau becomes Derrida’s center of attention. Like Saussure and Socrates, Rousseau thought speech was more natural than writing because it represents a more naturalistic form of expression that directly comes from our thoughts; whereas writing is a representation of speech that is secondary. This led Derrida to “deconstruct” (interpret) Rousseau by asking why he privileged speech over writing, yet felt the need to write down his thoughts in order to express himself in his famous autobiography called, The Confessions. Rousseau later revealed that speech, while being more natural, was partly “deficient” in the sense that it cannot travel over long distances and won’t last through the test of time. Hence, writing was required in order to supplement speech. It is the difference between speech / writing where Rousseau’s confessions are produced. Let us read a short passage by Derrida:

“When Nature, as self proximity comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary. It must be added to the word urgently.[…] [Writing] is the addition of a technique, a sort of artificial and artful ruse to make speech present when it is actually absent. It is a violence done to the natural destiny of language.[…] But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it fills a void.[…] Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place. As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.” [my italics] (OG, p. 144-145; 1997 edition).

This is where Rousseau famously asserts “Nature denatures itself” which suggests that what is most natural—such as speech—always had the space for supplementation by the unnatural. In this sense, writing functions like an instrument, a technology, or an unnatural method. Derrida traces this thought to Rousseau’s famous text called, “Essay on the Origins of Languages”. In it, Rousseau speaks of how people from early history used unnatural methods to produce fire in order to supplement the natural warmth of the sun during the winter. People discovered unnatural ways to survive the winter due to the deficiency of Nature. People manipulate Nature by building dams, etc. and supplement what Nature cannot consistently provide. Elsewhere, Rousseau talks about the natural deficiency of a child where they require supplementation and nurturing by culture and education. Derrida writes:

“Like Nature’s love, ‘there is no substitute for a mother’s love’ says Emile [Rousseau]. It is in no way supplemented, that is to say it does not have to be supplemented, it suffices and is self-sufficient; but that also means that it is irreplaceable; what one would substitute for it would not equal it, would be only a mediocre makeshift. Finally it means that Nature does not supplement itself at all; Nature’s supplement does not proceed from Nature, it is not only inferior to but other than Nature.

Yet all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described or presented as a system of substitution destined to reconstitute Nature’s edifice in the most natural way possible. The first chapter of Emile announces the function of this pedagogy. Although there is no substitute for a mother’s love, ‘it is better that the child should suck the breast of a healthy nurse rather than a petted mother, if he has any further evil to fear from her who has given him birth’. It is indeed culture or cultivation that must supplement a deficient nature, a deficiency that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature.” [my italics and underline] (OG, p. 145-146).

In this case, culture is what we are referring as unnatural. Here, we recognize the binary opposition between natural and unnatural where nature supplements itself by denaturing itself. Where is the evil when the violence of the unnatural is part of Nature? For example, think about sciences and technologies that are used to genetically engineer food, or the machines that produce and reduce CO2 emissions. Are they “natural”? Make no mistake, Derrida is not saying that we should destroy Nature. Rather, he is trying to show us how the otherness of Nature (the unnatural) is produced through Nature and contingency as an “accident” that unfolds before the human subject from a “future to come”. In other words, the movement between Nature and culture consists of improvisation, play (bricolage), and differences (Fred Moten’s notion of improvisation and jazz music and the radical exteriority of sound is situated somewhere in here).

This leads to Derrida’s famous line, “there is no outside text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). The outside is the inside. What belonged outside of Nature becomes the inside through supplementary differences. This supplementation is what Derrida refer as “archi-violence”—the most originary form of violence that occurs through pure contingency of the Other (will get to this later). Thus, Rousseau’s apparently “inauthentic” and “incestuous” written representation of his speech becomes authentic, even if it is an unnatural invention that originates from outside of Nature.

Finally, think about my last post on black slavery that I wrote in my underwear: “Can a person of color proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers?”. Think about the violence of external powers colonizing a territory; or the colonizer’s language that usurps the colonized subject. It is not a coincidence that the theme of archi-violence (“the outside is the inside”) was found in many post-colonial theories shortly after Derrida published Of Grammatology in 1967 (Spivak, Said, Bhabha, etc.). As we can see, some serious ethical questions arises. On one hand, if the outside (i.e. English language) is the inside of the colonized subject, then one can argue that the person of color can proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers (in the same way that Rousseau’s inauthentic writing becomes authentic). Yet, on the other hand, this proclamation also acknowledges the internalization of external forces which highlights the origins of archi-violence that is found in the incestuous relationship between nature and culture. Nature denatures itself as the outside becomes its other without boundaries. If the latter is the case, then where is the evil found within its movement? How can we achieve “decolonization”? I will let you answer these questions because they get even more complicated once we consider other disciplines (i.e. etymology and ontology). This is one of the reasons why Derrida was interested in his fellow Jewish philosopher / friend, Emmanuel Levinas and his “face to face ethics”.

* * *

Regardless of how provocative these differences might be, let us return to the concept of difference that occurs between a word and its context. Language is a gigantic system of words that creates meaning through differences of other words. The meaning of “life” varies depending on how you compare the word within your own context. An author who thinks they have excellent command of the meaning of “life” is annulled by the reader who unexpectedly reinterprets “life” through their own supplementary differences—of what the author is not saying. Whenever we read a text, our interpretation will always miss the differential structure that the original author implied. This is due to the near infinite ways we can piece together words which is influenced by our own personal experiences, values, etc. We are constantly re-contextualizing words as we acquire new knowledge. As a result, this textual motion sets out contingent outcomes of meanings. As readers, you can already see the allusions that I am making to Rousseau’s “dangerous supplement” between natural / unnatural. Only that I am presenting it under a different context.

Now, as we read Derrida’s Of Grammatology for example, we tend to immediately situate Derrida’s words into specific context in order to give it meaning. Only that Derrida speaks through multi-contextual layers of words that plays and compares with other systems of words from other texts which makes it difficult to produce stable meanings. This is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”: an originary form of writing that is written through differences. Derrida is intentionally doing this to force you (the reader) to play within differences and “understand” what he is trying to say through your own supplementary differences. We know that when we read Derrida, we are reading him read other author’s works. Derrida’s writings often talks about what the authors are not saying in their works by comparing it with their other works (this is why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature). In turn, this produces the meanings of what the author is saying through Derrida’s own supplementary differences (which in secret, are the reader’s differences—as in the readers who are reading Derrida read the author’s works).

This leads us to our question: How do we read Derrida when he is all about how you read him? This includes the post you are currently reading because you are interpreting Bobby interpreting Derrida interpret X. To tell you the truth, I never had the intention to answer this question. Perhaps the question that we should be asking is: when we read Derrida’s words, is it “I” the reader, who produces the meaning that Derrida is trying to make? Or is it through what Derrida’s words are not via my own supplementary differences / contexts that makes me read Derrida the way I did? We already know the answer: it is the “Other” words that I supplement which produces meaning out of Derrida’s text. It is the differential “Other” who wins and defines what Derrida is saying. Thus, the final form of our question: what is the significance of this “Other” and what does she/he want to say to me and who I am as a person as I interpret texts (literature, novels, etc.)? In this sense, self-reflection becomes crucial if I want to discover who I am as a person (yet, there is also a division within self-reflection between the difference of past / future).

Derrida shows us that our identities and meanings are produced through differences that are underwritten by contingency. This makes Derrida subject to being accused for nihilism (i.e. Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks). We must understand that Derrida does not ignore facts. Neither does he reject science or tolerate solipsism. What he really questions is whether anyone can guarantee the meanings that an individual up holds for themselves (i.e. their identity, values, ethics, world view, philosophies, etc.) will remain exactly the same over long periods of time. This is because Derrida saw how events changes our contextual and epistemological frameworks, which influences our perceptions of our present space. Events such as: the confrontation of death, falling in / out of love, war, climate change, trauma, reading a novel, acquiring new knowledge, etc. In the same way, one cannot guarantee that, upon the second and third readings of the same novel, the reader will discover something new that they had not previously recognized. This is due to the infinite ways the reader plays with their supplementary differences through time which produces different outcomes of meanings. The contingency of the Other underlies all our interpretations.

Supplement, difference, and trace, are fundamental to reading and writing. It is essential to all human experiences. We never notice it because we take interpretation for granted in our daily lives (we listen to others talk, we write to them on social media, we listen to music, we read books, we look at art, etc.). Despite all the complicated moves Derrida makes, his message is simple once we consider the first word of our question and understand that the “how” functions as the play of differences: between what is said and what is not said. How you interpret nature, people, events, novels, or films; how you interpret life, death, love, space, and time; or how you interpret anything, tells you about who and what you are as a human being. What is it that you are not telling others that makes you do the things you do in your life? This is what Derrida wants you to think about—to self-reflect; to deconstruct differences. —Thus, let us once again ask: What does it mean to be a Derridean?

“…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Destruktion, Deconstruction, and the End of History

This is my on-going close reading on some of Jacques Derrida’s most important seminars on Martin Heidegger between 1964-1965. It is within these seminars where Derrida first uses the word “deconstruction”. The post will introduce some of the basic goals of Heidegger’s philosophy and his famous notion of “the end of [Western] history”. This is a repost of an older one that I made last year. I reworked this post so much that it deserves to be recognized as new (because I got smarter—sort of). The reason for the rework is because I am currently rethinking the relationship between Heidegger, Derrida, and post-colonialism.

Regardless, much of Derrida’s deconstruction came from his readings on Heidegger’s unfinished work Sein und Zeit where he challenged its English translation as “Being and Time”. Derrida’s reading on this book happened when it was not completely translated into French, which made him use many of his own translations. In it, Derrida famously argues that Heidegger changed his intentions sixteen years later after publishing Sein und Zeit—which is known as “the turn”. Derrida’s entire project on “deconstruction” is an extension of Heidegger’s thoughts on the “destruktion” of history.

What Comes Before the Question?

Ontology is the study of “being” (human existence). The easiest way to understand Heidegger is to consider the question any theoretical physicist would ask: “What comes before the universe?” For Heidegger, it isn’t so much the answer than it is about the question itself. Heidegger is interested in what allows us to formulate this question in the first place. For Heidegger, asking a question always involves a certain form of being who precedes the question. To ask a question is to know what the question is—that there exists a question where one already knows parts of the answer to because it is guided by some form of being (later on, this “being” will be known as “Being”). In order for us to inquire about the universe, there is always already a being in the universe. It is because we first exist as a human being in the universe which allows us to question it (a question that is guided by the intentionality of being). In order for us to interrogate this being, one must already “know” something about it and exist within it.

It is not surprising that “What is being?” has been the most foundational question in history—particularly in philosophy. While this originary question can take many other forms (i.e. “What is the meaning of life?”), the importance is that a certain form of being had always been the main object of inquiry in human existence. To ask “What is love?”, one must already have some sense of the love being (i.e. to have the experienced it in some way, either sensually or emotionally). To ask “What is physics?”, one is already aware of their physical being. We always have some sense of being before one ventures out into some non-being by interrogating the very being that one has pre-comprehended through the question. There are many different beings who has different preferences on how they should “be” in this world. For example, scientific beings, mathematical beings, physical beings, biological beings, philosophical beings, literary being, sexual beings, psychological beings, etc.

The Problem on the History of Ontology 

If the being that we pre-comprehend is what establishes the question as such, what then, is “being”? This originary question marks the beginning of thought because it seeks for the most authentic form of being which precedes this question. But for Heidegger, one of the things that complicates and contaminates this question (i.e. the ways it is asked and answered) is the hegemony of Western history. For Heidegger, we have lost touch with being through the historical dominance of various cultural traditions, values and philosophical methods. It is thus, impossible to question being without answering it with some preconceived historical concept of being. One can even say that we have a prejudice and discrimination towards being due to the privilege of Western history (i.e. Eurocentrism).

This idea, which was first conceived in the early 20th century, influenced a discipline known as “post-colonialism” (in 1970s) which address the problems of colonialism and the dominance of colonist ideologies over marginalized people. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who is a Derridean) was well known for transforming this Derridean reading of Heidegger into colonial theory. For Spivak, the “subalterns cannot speak” not only because they are victim to oppressive ideologies which they are not aware of (thus, prevents them from speaking), but because when we try to understand these marginalized people, we can only do so through our dominant Western historical tradition (i.e. we filter the things they say via our own privileged history). This problem is quite complex once we factor in Derridean / Heideggarian views on Dasein, temporality and Derrida’s lengthy engagements with Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Certainly, Spivak is also not an easy read due to her taking on Derrida’s project on deconstruction by attempting to “write against writing”.

A good example to showcase this colonial problem can be witnessed during Derrida’s later career (2001), where he points out that the Chinese “has no philosophy, but only thought”. While most people would probably get offended by this statement, Derrida was actually complimenting the Chinese by alluding to Heidegger’s project of retrieving fundamental Being and the difficulties of escaping hegemonic Western histories which dominates philosophy. Thus, to say that the Chinese, or other great thoughts such as Indian, as “philosophy” is to colonize and depreciate its uniqueness by centering through Eurocentrism.

Nevertheless, one of the question that is addressed in post-colonial theory is parallel to the Heideggerian question of history: can “being” escape from the hegemonic traditions of Western history in order to retrieve originary “being”? For Heidegger, the originary question of being is contaminated by dominant historical methods that consistently overlapped each other over time. The moment one asks the question of being, they are already associating it with all forms of hegemonic forms of traditional, cultural and philosophical methods (i.e. Hegelian, Kantian, Cartesian, etc.).

In order to overcome this problem, we must think of another history that is radically other to Western history. We must therefore, distinguish the difference between “being” and “Being” (with a capital B). This Being is the most original being which constitutes and always already guides the question of being along with the answers we have in response to it. For Heidegger, this Being is carried out by a mode which he calls “Dasein” (“being-there”)—something that we have lost touch with because philosophers had always avoided to solve it. In order for us to retrieve Dasein and a “fundamental ontology”, we have to “destroy” the dominant history of ontology and its methods which obscures our ability of conceiving it. For Derrida however, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) only revealed “the historicity of Dasein, but not Being”—or to quote without translation “…of Dasein but not Sein.” (for the sake of length, I won’t explain  what this “historicity of Dasein” entails). This is because the word “ontology” in its etymological sense, is also contaminated by its own history that traces all the way back to Aristotle. Even if one destroys the history of ontology, the etymology of “ontology” can only designate a discourse about being which would only privilege Western history of being, but never Being itself. Where Heidegger once thought that “ontology can escape the history of metaphysics, he now thinks ontology is historically metaphysical”. Heidegger no longer wanted to only destroy the history of ontology, he wanted to destroy ontology itself.

To answer the question of Being through “What is being?”, one must avoid answering it by defining being through ontic-metaphysical history because by doing so only marks a closed loop of the meaning of being within itself (i.e. being caught within ideology or a certain hegemonic tradition). As Derrida points out, “Ontology only concerns the on and not the einai [essence]” (my parenthesis). Yet, it is Being that is buried in history which still has an effect on the question of being in its hegemonic ontology and history (because Being is related with time; hence Heidegger’s book is called Being and Time). What comes before the question of (onto-metaphysical-historical) being is a Being who pre-comprehends herself even when its meaning has been obscured through the privilege of various ontic history (i.e. I privilege scientific being and therefore, I will answer the question of being through the historical context of science). Hence, one always have some sense of Being before asking the question of being because it is in the very form of the question which opens up this originary question of Being.

For example, in the question “What is being?”, the word “is” implies that there is always already a Being who allows one to say that being is like this or like that (being is scientific, sexual, etc.). To put it in Derrida’s own words, “what is the being of the is which allows one to say that being is like this or like that?” Here, it is crucial we understand that “is” is the third person singular of the verb beThus, “Being” is the third term that avoids all ontic historical discourses even within the question of “What is being?”. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger writes Being under erasure, a philosophical gesture that he started doing several years after publishing Being and Time. One cannot retrieve Being by simply interpreting and investigating its etymology because the meaning of the word remains obscured and full of preconceived historical methods. This is why “Being” is such an obscure term that, even Jacques Lacan took an interest. For Lacan, it is because there is a lack in being (i.e. a Being that is missing from the hegemonic history of beings) where philosophers would ask “What is being?” (I wrote an intro on psychoanalysis, here). Finally, I must also add, this is one of the reasons why I believe Derrida crosses out is in Of Grammatology (1967).

In Voice and Phenomenon (I wrote an essay about it here), Derrida translates Husserl’s use of the German word “Bedeutung” as “want-to-say” instead of its usual translation as “signification”. One can already guess who it is that “want-to-say” (wants to signify) which is that of Being whose intentionality is always contaminated by a phenomenology of “the past of the future” (I explained some of Derrida’s views on temporality and “differance”, here). Recall earlier, when I spoke about how the question about the universe is always carried through by an intention that is guided by Being which one pre-comprehends. Derrida is interested in the pure morphology of Bedeutung and the ways it could be translated and interpreted. Bedeutung’s polymorphic qualities are similar to the word “is” where we have some idea of what “is” means, but never in the absolute sense because its meaning changes depending on how we use it, implying that the meaning of Being shifts as a pure morphology through the experience of time.

The Destruction of Hegelianism, History and Ontology

For G.W.F Hegel, the study of the history of philosophy is the same as the study of philosophy—particularly the logical aspects of it. One can make the same claim in regards to the history of ontology and (fundamental) ontology. Let us follow Derrida’s thoughts and separate the difference between Heidegger’s “destruktion” (of history and ontology) and Hegel’s notion of refutation. As Derrida points out, destruktion is not a criticism, annihilation, a denial of historical ideas or a Hegelian refutation. Heidegger destroys history and ontology, but he never refutes in the Hegelian sense. Yet, not only is destruction and refutation are distinguished by a mere nothing—the destruction of history and ontology is what Derrida famously refer as deconstruction (although, Derrida sometimes rejects this word). To understand this, let us look into Hegel’s idea of refutation.

For Hegel, every century of philosophies in history are marked by its “highest idea” making it “the last philosophy” of the time. For example, in 18th century we have Immanuel Kant. In early 19th century we have Hegel and later on Friedrich Nietzsche followed closely by Sigmund Freud and Edmund Husserl (along with all the phenomenologists). Overtime, the highest idea steps down and yields to another highest idea. Refutation is this demotion of the highest idea which brings out a new highest idea. A metaphorical example of refutation Hegel uses is to think of how tree leaves are refuted by the blossom in which the blossom is refuted by the fruit. The importance is to understand how Hegel thinks each highest idea is related to the previous one—only that its relative position changes within the new highest idea while dividing into something different. Whereas for Heidegger (according to Derrida), each highest idea does not preserve what precedes it because the highest idea is a refutation of the previous one through division. This new highest idea via refutation is an inferior formThe blossom is the inferior form of the leaf and the fruit is the inferior form of the blossom. Each highest idea or ontological inquiry is the inferior form of the previous. In other words, the blossom is not present in the fruit. Both the blossom and the fruit are not the true existence (Being) of the tree. Yet, all three of these (leaf, blossom and fruit) and their individual processes remains in unity within themselves and appears as if they are authentic being on its own. 

We can already see why refutation is similar, yet different to the destruction of ontology and history. On one hand, new ontological, cultural and philosophical methods are the refutation of other historical, philosophical and ontological inquiries which are “inferior” to such form. These new methods appears as a unity which obscures our ability to reach Being due to its predetermined privilege of history. On the other hand, this last philosophy is no longer capable of refuting anything since the essence of “refutation” has been lost through history, where the concept and historical predetermination of refutation ends up refuting its own essence. Therefore, to speak of Being is to speak of eschatology (i.e. death) because to retrieve Being is to destroy its history that is defined by other beings. Once again, this is not to say that Being is some empty concept beyond language and its history. The contradiction lies in the notion that Being is within language and history because “language is the house of being” (also because being is related to temporality). What one discovers in language is the aporia of Being through the obscurantism of ontic history and the metaphor of language. Beyond this ontic history of “telling stories” (i.e. myths, literature, philosophical novels, ontology, highest ideas) which is incredibly difficult (impossible?) to escape, there lies the historicity of Being within language and the question of being that is always already guided by Being (the “always” as a priori which modifies the “already”). Nevertheless, Hegel conceals the meaning of being within history, trapping himself into the historical tradition by recomprehending Plato and Aristotle. As a result, Heidegger’s destruction of history and ontology includes the destruction of Hegelianism.

Unlike Hegel, where the highest idea is created by refuting the previous, Heidegger destroys the highest ideas of history and ontology then surrounds it with an ontological silence—a nothingness (i.e. thought?). For Derrida, contrary to the popular interpretations through our beloved Heideggarians, Heidegger does not go on to invent the highest idea known as “fundamental ontology”. Heidegger goes silent and does not propose any alternative ontology or philosophy. The destruction of history and ontology is the “shaking up”, the deconstruction of the history of ontology and ontology itself; to de-structure which brings out the structure of Being only to recognize that Being is radically other to the historical-ontological inquiry that is neither outside nor within language. Since it is impossible to address the question of being without the concept of being and its historical predetermination, one must from the very beginning, work within privileged metaphysical-ontological historical concepts of being and language in order to reveal “the historicity of Being”. After all, there is no history without language, and no language without a history.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

On Quentin Meillassoux: Speculative Realism and the Necessity of Contingency

Today, I would like to talk about Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008) and the contemporary philosophical movement known as “Speculative Realism” (SR). SR is very alive today which has already influenced a wide variety of disciplines such as epistemology, ontology, literary theory, eco-criticism, post-humanism and many more. In addition to Quentin Meillassoux, there are many others who are doing serious theoretical work in this field: Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, Steven Shaviro, Martin Hagglund, and Adrian Johnston. A good introductory book to SR is The Speculative Turn which features many essays by these scholars along with a few others like Slavoj Zizek. Another good book is The Universe of Things (2014) by Steven Shaviro. And for those who are more literary minded, in 2011, Meillassoux published an interpretation of Stephane Mallarme’s famous poem, “The Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” .

Although Meillassoux is a pretty good writer (even in English translation), the ambitious ideas that he presents are not easy to understand. I strongly suggest you to read After Finitude on your own. If not, here is a chewed up version casually written by me (I have also written about Meillassoux in the past). In order to understand the contemporary debates around what it means to “speculate reality”, one must understand some of the classical debates in philosophy and the problems in the ways which humans engages with the Cosmos.

For those who are new, one could think of philosophy as a discipline that attempts to explain “common sense”. Philosophers are similar to physicists who explain things that are already apparent (i.e. a physicist seeks to explain space-time which are experiences humans already inhabit). The difference is that, while a physicist seeks to understand the defining laws of Nature and Cosmos, the philosopher will investigate the conditions which allows for the physicist to experience these laws and achieve various degrees of knowledge (i.e. a physicist can make these claims because of their own consciousness as they engage with the appearances of things they see). We will gradually get a better understanding of this as we move along.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Perhaps the two biggest names that surrounds rational and empirical philosophy is Rene Descartes and John Locke, who both had opposing views on how humans achieve knowledge. Descartes was a rationalist who used the famous wax argument to show that knowledge achieved through reason is the most certain. Through his sensory experience (sight, smell, touch, etc.), Descartes observes how a piece of solid wax melts as he places it in front of fire. Our sensory experience of the wax shifts as it melts. Yet, through deductive reasoning, we are aware that the liquid wax comes from its solid form before it melted. Descartes realized that his senses of the world can deceive him, like how the piece of wax revealed to him that it was a solid object until it melted into liquid. In the same way, my observation tells me that there is a puddle of water in front of the road as I drive my car in the hot weather, even when there is nothing as I approach it. Descartes concluded that his rational mind was foundational to establishing a knowledge that was absolutely certain. This rational knowledge is what he calls, “a priori”. For Descartes, mathematics is an excellent example of a priori knowledge.

Furthermore, Descartes also established the “Casual Adequacy Principle” which asserts that the causes of an object is as real as the object itself. A classic Cartesian example is: a stone, which previously did not exist, cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something which contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone. Without going into detail of the logical games, Descartes uses this argument to justify the preconception of God within humans.

On the other hand, Locke argued against Descartes by saying that we are not born with the preconception of God, but as a blank slate (famously known as the “tabula rasa”). Locke asserts that it is through sensory experience where we first learn to be rational, i.e. our observation that the solid wax could melt into liquid through heat. In opposition to Descartes, Locke thinks that all knowledge and ideas are based on our sensory experiences known as “a posteriori”; a form of knowledge that can only be acquired through our sensory experiences. If I want to find out whether a rabbit is a mammal or not, I will have to go and catch one to determine the conclusions through my senses. The popular dispute between Descartes (rationalist) and Locke (empiricist) is a debate between how humans achieves certainty of knowledge about the Nature of our Cosmos.

David Hume’s Problem on Induction and Causality

David Hume was an atheist renown for his skepticism on induction and causation. Summarized by Quentin Meillassoux, Hume’s principle question is: “Can one establish that in identical circumstances, future successions of phenomena will always be identical to previous successions?” (After Finitude Ch. 4). Hume’s answer to this question is that, causality is reduced to the subject’s inductive relationship with their past experiences. The easiest way to understand this is to look at the issues with inductive logic:

The deductive formula of Modus Ponens (MP) states: “A—>B, A therefore B”. In this formula, we can substitute anything with the letters and it would always make logical sense. A simple example might be, A: “It is raining” —> B: “the roads are wet”; “it is raining therefore the roads are wet” (A therefore B). Inversely, inductive reasoning reverses MP: “A—>B, B therefore A”. In this scenario, we come to a different conclusion: “the roads are wet therefore it is raining” (B therefore A). Here, we infer the causation based on past experiences that rain causes wet roads. Thus, every time it rains, the roads will be wet. The problem with induction is that, just because the roads are wet does not always mean it is raining (someone could be cleaning the roads, etc.).

An inductive argument is based on probability. If one can observe that the road is wet every time it rains, it must be a universal law that the wet road is always caused by rain. This type of logic is commonly seen in “scientific surveys” (or even scientific theories): if 20 000 people shows that Y is true, then it must merit the certainty of knowledge. But just because X amount of people shows that Y is true does not mean that it is true for everyone, nor can it be used to predict the future (see, replication crisis). The issues found within induction is the problem of predicting the future. Just because past experience tells us that we get an egg yolk out of every egg we break does not mean that the next egg will not consist of two or three yolks.

To situate this into an even bigger picture, just because something consistently happens in the same way throughout the Cosmos does not mean it will continue to do so in the future. And what causes something to occur in one instance may not be the cause of it in another. On one hand, no matter how I deduce the egg via a priori and predict whether it consists of one or two yolks, I would never be able to predict its outcome unless I physically crack the egg and observe it via a posteriori. But on the other hand, no matter how much I rely on my past a posteriori experience of egg breaking, I would not be able to predict whether the next egg consists of one or more yolks. These are the basics of the famous “Hume’s problem”.

Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Philosophy and the Copernicus Revolution

“Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this pre-supposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get further with the problem of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.” (Critique of Pure Reason, Preface)

Kant famously regarded Hume as the one who woke him up from his “dogmatic slumber”, and ends up taking up a lot of his ideas while trying to salvage the necessity of causality. Basically, Kant revisited Descartes and Locke where he saw that they are only half correct. Descartes went overboard by focusing solely on logical a priori systems and ignoring observations. One can make mathematical arguments that has nothing to do with our observed empirical world. Locke did the same by focusing on observational a posteriori systems. While simple sensory observations can explain simple math, it cannot explain why one drop of water plus one drop of water only makes one drop of water.

Kant was a half rationalist and half empiricist who caused a “Copernicus revolution” in philosophy. Many philosophers before Kant thought that knowledge was centered around the universe and its objects, which allowed humans to understand its “natural laws” (something Hume thought was problematic). For Kant, instead of placing the universe at the center of knowledge, he places the conscious mind. It is our minds which creates a synthetic structure of knowledge that allows us to see the necessary laws of the universe. For Kant, our thoughts on the necessity of causality is not the knowledge about things in itself, but of how things appear to us through our cognitive faculties (phenomena). In other words, the causality that Hume is critical of is experienced by the subject through the appearances of stable phenomena found in Nature and Cosmos.

Kant’s view holds that, humans as conscious subjects can only experience the phenomena of reality as they appear before us through our perceptions, but never the actual properties and the objects in itself (noumena). We can only experience the universe from a first person point of view, and we can never know the “thing in itself” within objects (the absolute properties of an object; i.e. the Cosmos “as such”). I can never know any object in itself because I am never the chair, the table, I am never your consciousness, etc. I can understand the object in itself by creating complex synthetic concepts such as the notions of causality. But I can only do so through my mind in relationship with these appearances of objects that exists in reality. As a result, this leaves a “gap” in our knowledge between what we can know about the universe as a subject, and the universe in itself as object, which can never be completely known. By saying that X object consist of Y properties via synthetic concepts, one is idealizing the universe. This gesture is famously known as transcendental idealism. A good example of transcendental idealism is mathematics, where we idealize the object in itself (i.e. universe) as math.

The point I wish to make is to show how enlightenment philosophy of Kant suggests the idea that human subjectivity cannot know anything in itself. This correlation between human and synthetic concepts that are used to represent the world and Cosmos has been the dominant mode of thinking ever since. The most common form of synthetic concept humans use to represent the world is language, which had been the subject of study throughout most of 20th century—it is often known as, “the linguistic turn” .

Quentin Meillassoux: The Necessity of Contingency, “Chaosmos”, and Ptolemy’s Revenge

This relationship between human and Cosmos, is what Meillassoux refers as “correlationism”. Humans can only establish a correlation with the world through representational structures, but never can they access the in itself. But if one can only experience the world from their own perspective and understand it through synthetic categories via languages, then what is reality “as such”? This is part of what a speculative realist attempts to answer. It is also here, as what pertains to this “real”, where Meillassoux intervenes the discourses of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and 20th century philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. Meillassoux does so by asking the question: what if human thought does not require any justification of causality as necessity?

Kant attempts to save the necessity of causality (and thereby saving the causality of “thought” and consciousness) by justifying that it depends on the stability of phenomena as humans experiences them through their perceptions. For example, the consistent occurrence of the phenomena of sunrise and sunset reinforces the idea that there is something which causes these experiences (that the Earth spins and rotates around the Sun). For Kant, our cognitive perceptions of Nature (i.e. sunrise and sunset) not only shows us that there are stable principles which governs these experiences, they are also necessary in order for Nature to function (i.e. life on Earth; or Earth’s rotation around the sun is governed by the laws of physics, etc.).

Meillassoux intervenes this correlationist argument by saying that Kant is only concerned with human thought and its reason for the necessity of causality, i.e. it is necessary to explain the cause of sunrise and sunset because it is important for science, humanity, etc., even when there are no reasons that can explain the first principles of our perceptions of causality that we observe in Nature. This non-reason is what Kant refers as “facticity”, and what Meillassoux radicalizes into the “principle of factiality” which denotes the idea that everything is other than what it already is via the lack of reason. For Meillassoux, a physicist can understand the principles which explains our stable experiences of space-time and the laws of our Cosmos, but they cannot explain the reason for their necessity because these occurrences are purely contingent. Instead of saying, “everything in the Cosmos happens for a reason” (because they are governed by necessary laws), Meillassoux attempts to say, “everything in the Cosmos happens by chance”. Or as Sigmund Freud would say, it is by “accident” that there is intelligent life on Earth.

The point (I think) Meillassoux wishes to show is that, when a correlationist denies of knowing anything in itself, they must have already accepted the fact that it is possible that the in itself can be anything other than the synthetic concepts they are conceiving of. In other words, the correlationist must have already accepted the necessity of contingency, which is the gist of Meillassoux’s argument. To say something is not something is to suggest the possibility of it being something else. The thought of the necessity of contingency is independent of correlationism because if possibility did not already exist, then the correlationist thought of “X is not Y” would not have occurred in the first place. While one can never know whether the in itself is identical to the synthetic structures that humans create to represent it, what a correlationist knows is that there is a possibility this might happen through their own thought.

For Meillassoux, thought does not require the necessity of causality, the latter which allows us to study the causes of thought and consciousness (and in turn, grants us the ability to establish a science, philosophy, phenomenology, psychology, etc.). Instead, thought allows us to think of the possibilities that correlationists believe are necessary, such as causality. It may appear difficult to conceive of what Meillassoux is trying to say because we are always caught within correlationism that he is arguing against (this is why he introduces a term called “ancestrality”—something that I decided to leave out in this post). The thought of possibility is to engage with the absolute real which allows for necessity of causality “as such”. What is possible isn’t something that happens in correlation between humans and reality vis-a-vis Kant. Possibility expresses the lack of reason that is inherent within thought and the things in it self. This is why Meillassoux argues that it had always been possible for humans to conceive of the in it self which is independent of the Kantian human correlation with the world. The reasons being first, the Cosmos consists of pure contingency; and second, contingency and non-reason (the principle of factiality) allows the correlationist to think beyond their own correlationism.

This contingent movement of the Cosmos is what Meillassoux refer as “Chaos”, or “Chaosmos” which suggests the idea that laws within the Cosmos can change without any reason. Meillassoux’s doctrine highlights a paradoxical question: how can the laws of the Cosmos / Nature be contingent while appearing to be consistent and stable? No doubt, science relies on the consistencies of these phenomena to establish its discourse—even Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution relies on the consistency of Nature (yet it also relies on chance and the phenomena of gene mutation). Nevertheless, Meillassoux foresaw how the frequentialists would argue that the Cosmos is stable and not contingent. Thus, he goes into great detail by counter-arguing them through Georg Cantor’s set theory and suggests that contingency occurs outside of mathematical probability—something that I will leave for another time.

What Meillassoux appears to be suggesting is to not only challenge Kant’s attempts at salvaging the necessity for causality by claiming it as mere fiction, but to reverse his “Copernicus revolution” by metaphorically referring back to Claudius Ptolemy in his final chapter titled, “Ptolemy’s Revenge” (Ch. 5). Ptolemy is the astronomer who claimed that the Earth was the center of the universe until Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentrism. Certainly, After Finitude is only the beginning of Meillassoux’s thoughts, for we must also wait for his next book called, L’ Inexistence Divine, which is his unpublished PhD dissertation (unless you can read French, then you might have to wait longer for English translation). Regardless, where Kant thinks one can never know anything in itself, Meillassoux thinks that humans always had the capacity to think of the absolute in itself which functions as the necessity of contingency. Meillassoux ends his book by writing:

“No doubt the question remains obscure in the formulation. But our goal here was not to take this resolution as such. Our only aim has been to try to convince the reader not only that it is possible to rediscover thought’s absolutizing scope, but that it is urgent that we do so, given the extent to which the divorce between science’s Copernicanism and philosophy’s Ptolemaism has become abyssal, regardless of all those denials that serve only to perpetuate this schism. If Hume’s problem woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, we can only hope that the problem of ancestrality succeeds in waking us from our correlationist slumber, by enjoining us to reconcile thought and absolute.

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Recommended Philosophy Books

This month marks my 7th year in studying philosophy on my own. Here are some of my favorite continental philosophy / theory books that I recommend. I will rank the difficulties of each book from a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = very easy; 10 = very hard) to give you an idea on which ones you might want to try. Most of these texts changed the way I saw the world and how I should live my life, I hope they will change yours too.

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All for Nothing
  by Rachel K. Ward

Difficulty: 4

“The truth needs no author and no defense. This text has been given to you and what does not vanish is not ours.”

This was one of the the first philosophy / theory text I read in my life. It was originally a PhD thesis from the European Graduate School that got published as a book. The text gives a profound critique on the decadence of human desire and our tendency towards hedonism. It is written in fragments / aphorisms that touches on many different topics such as philosophy, love, work, fashion, architecture, academia, art, vanity, inheritance, privilege, politics and truth. While this book is the least famous on this list, it is really good. I still reread it every once a while.

Civilization and its Discontents  by Sigmund Freud

Difficulty: 4

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

This is Freud’s most popular and accessible book where he talks about how humans struggle for individualism in a society which prohibits it. As a result, civilization causes all forms of mental disorders, leading to the birth of the super-ego which controls our ego. It is in this famous text where Freud indirectly proclaims that we are all neurotics (depressed, anxious, etc.). The foundation of civilization is based on neuroticism. We are a bunch of crazy talking animals who are trying to control our own craziness. It is also in this book where Freud famously responds to why communism will never work due to humans being naturally aggressive (“Homo homini lupus”). Overall, this is an excellent book for those who are into mental health because there is no such thing as someone who is mentally healthy.

Recommended:
The Interpretation of Dreams
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
A Case of Hysteria: (Dora)

The Birth of Tragedy  by Friedrich Nietzsche

Difficulty: 4-9 (depending on how closely you read)

“You must have chaos within you in order to give birth to a dancing star.”

A famous book by Nietzsche that I find preliminary to 20th century continental philosophy—especially Freudian psychoanalysis. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche talks about two fundamental aspects of humans that are represented by two Gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represented structure, logic, and order (i.e. law and society). Dionysus represented irrationality and chaos (i.e. art, music and dance). Nietzsche saw how dangerous outcomes will follow if our society had one overpowering the other. A society that is focused solely on Apollo will lead to a society of depression and isolation. Whereas a society focused solely on Dionysus would lead to insanity.

For Nietzsche, the balance of Apollo and Dionysus created the tragedy of Ancient Greek myths where they represented an authentic form of suffering which has now been lost. Contrary to what our society perpetuates today, Nietzsche thinks we must not avoid and repress suffering, but to confront it. For Nietzsche, suffering makes great human beings (think about people like Martin Luther King, Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka).

Look for English translations by Walter Kaufman.

Recommended:
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (this book is where the quote I used comes from)
Beyond Good and Evil
The Gay Science
Human, All too Human
Genealogy of Morals

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments  by Roland Barthes

Difficulty: 4

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”

A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes most famous work where he talks about the experiences of love from a first person point of view. It offers a great blend between literature, critical theory and philosophy. Barthes pushes the structure of language to the limits where love cannot be described through its own signification and becomes semi-utterances. This book is influenced by a lot of philosophical ideas that went on during the 70s—most notably deconstruction.

Recommended:
The Death of the Author
Camera Lucida

Infinite Thought  by Alain Badiou

Difficulty: 5

“Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one it is written in.”

Badiou is one of the most famous intellectuals in France today. His ideas are often discussed amongst continental philosophy departments and others such as English and Social Sciences. This is a great intro book to Badiou’s famous philosophy on multiplicities of truth by using set theory. It is a book that is written clearly with great rigor. Badiou’s ideas were heavily influenced by Jacques Lacan. So if you are into psychoanalysis, you might like Badiou.

Recommended:
Being and Event
Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
In Praise of Love

Limited Inc.  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 7

I strongly recommend this book if you wish to learn deconstruction because Derrida provides a simpler way of explaining his ideas in the first essay titled, “Signature Event Context” while showing the problems of J.L Austin’s speech act theory (you can also find this essay in some of Derrida’s other works such as Margins of Philosophy). In it, Derrida also talks about the impossibility of transmitting our intentionality through communication. This is an argument that is explained with much more detail in Voice and Phenomenon—a book, like Of Grammatology, that you should not read if you are new to Derrida (I will talk about these in the next section).

Recommended:
Plato’s Pharmacy

The Courage of Truth  by Michel Foucault

Difficulty: 3

A series of lectures given at the prestigious College de France (AKA the “Harvard of France”) by Foucault who died shortly after. I think this book shows some great thoughts on how we should be more accepting of new / opposing ideas and that the truth is never what we think it is. Foucault also responds to some criticism by his fellow French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida. It is a lecture that I can appreciate and respect, even if I am not a fan of Foucault.

The Unnamable  by Samuel Beckett

Difficulty: 5

“It’s a lot to ask of one creature, it’s a lot to ask, that he should first behave as if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that peace where he neither is, nor is not, and where the language dies that permits of such expressions.”

There is a reason why Beckett won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and the reason is quite vain (that’s the point). The Unnameable is basically existentialism under the guise of literature where its hypnotic text is nearly incomprehensible. The story was written from the first person perspective by an unknown narrator called “the unnamable”. The book is a good example of stream of consciousness narration that you also see in other renown 20th century writers such as James Joyce.

Recommended:
Waiting for Godot
Molloy

Malone Dies

Seduction  by Jean Baudrillard

Difficulty: 7

“For nothing can be greater than seduction, not even the order that destroys it.”

Jean Baudrillard is Roland Barthes’ most famous student. Baudrillard was known as a provocative cultural critic and is sometimes referred as “the high priest of post-modernism”. He was infamous for publishing a text called Forget Foucault where he sent a copy to Foucault and asked him to read it.

Seduction was one of my first few critical theory books I read which left a lasting imprint on me. Although this book does talk about seduction through appearances, the text is definitely not your how-to-guide on seducing your love interest. Seduction talks about a ritual game and the play of signs, an advantage that woman always had which undermined all of its oppositions throughout history. The book also consists of Baudrillard’s incredibly provocative criticism on feminism (especially Luce Irigaray), as he writes, “yesterday they were diverted from the truth of history, today they are diverted from the truth of their own desires”.

Recommended:
Simulacra and Simulation

Fatal Strategies
The Conspiracy of Art
The Gift
by Marcel Mauss (Baudrillard was influenced by him)

Difficult Books that I Recommend

The following are what I consider as “high risk, but high reward” books. I am listing these (in no particular order) because they are very good if you are up for a challenge. I do not recommend any of them unless you have a background in philosophy or are a serious reader.

Being and Time  by Martin Heidegger

Difficulty: 10

“Only he who already understands can listen.”

I never got the chance to finish this book due to its difficulty (I will finish it one day). In it, Heidegger establishes his foundational ideas and criticism on the question on Being and how we have always avoided answering it through history (especially in Western philosophy). Heidegger is well known for combining phenomenology with existentialism. When reading this book, one should keep in mind that it was unfinished and a lot of Heidegger’s ideas actually change later in his life. This is why I would not recommend this as a first Heidegger book. I would suggest you to try reading some of his lectures first.

Heidegger (along with Husserl and Nietzsche) is one of the leading precursor to mid-late 20th century continental philosophy. Anyone who wishes to learn contemporary continental thought—especially Derrida, Sartre, and Levinas—must first pass through Heidegger’s ideas. I recommend the translation by Joan Stambaugh from SUNY press.

Recommended:
What is Metaphysics
Letter on Humanism

Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two

The Phenomenology of Spirit  by G.W.F. Hegel

Difficulty: 10+

When people say Hegel is really hard to read, they are not exaggerating. I only read a few chapters from this book because it is incredibly difficult. I would strongly suggest that you follow a reading guide or have a Hegel expert near you because this is one of the most difficult text that exists. Many people get through this book without knowing what Hegel is talking about. Unfortunately, it is a must read for anyone who is interested in continental philosophy (or any other modern philosophies) because Hegel happens to be an important intellectual figure responsible for having a significant impact on famous figures such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many more.

Recommended:
Lectures on the Philosophy of History

The Critique of Pure Reason  by Immanuel Kant

Difficulty: 10

Kant might be a bad writer, but he has a brilliant mind and that is all that matters at the end. This book requires you to have a solid understanding of Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and George Berkeley.

There is a reason why everyone who wishes to learn modern philosophy or any post-Kantian philosophy (19th century onwards) must first understand Kant’s ideas on consciousness and transcendental idealism. The Critique of Pure Reason is where Kant begins his famous argument that we can never know anything in-itself and the only thing we can experience is phenomena. It is a classic problem on consciousness that has never really been solved till this day. I recommend the translated editions from Cambridge University Press.

Voice and Phenomenon  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

In my opinion, this is Derrida’s most important work since I feel like a lot of his fundamental ideas began here. Derrida also said that this book was among one of his personal favorites.

Voice and Phenomenon talks about the problems of Edmund Husserl’s ideas on consciousness and our intentionality in relation to indication and expression through temporal manifestation of spacetime. While this text is only 90 pages in length, it is difficult and dense. Unpacking it requires a lot of time and pre-understanding of Husserl’s phenomenological project (look into Husserl’s Ideas I, Ideas II, and Logical Investigations). It would be helpful to grasp Husserl’s criticism on psychology, logic and mathematics. It is also smart to learn his ideas on the difference between logical and pure grammar. In short, I would recommend you to “try” some of Husserl’s works before attacking Voice and Phenomenon—even if Husserl can make you (me) feel very stupid due to how difficult he is.

This book has two translations done by two different scholars. The first one is titled Speech and Phenomena translated by David B. Allison, and the newer one is Voice and Phenomenon translated by Leonard Lawlor; both are from Northwestern University Press. I have never read the Allison translation, but I heard it is very good.

Recommended:
The Origin of Geometry by Edmund Husserl. Translated by Jacques Derrida
Heidegger: The Question of Being and History

Of Grammatology  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

“There is no outside text”

This is the Derridean book most people complain about due to its notorious difficulty. But it is also Derrida’s most famous work where he address his ideas on “differance”, “trace”, “archi-writing”, and “supplement”. This book requires you to have a pre-understanding of not just Husserl, but also Socrates, Plato, Ferdinand de Saussure (semiotics / linguistics), Louis Hjelmslev (glossematics / linguistics), Roman Jakobson (linguistics), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (philosophy of mathematics), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (political philosophy), Martin Heidegger (phenomenology / existentialism), Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropology), Friedrich Nietzsche (existentialism), Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (epistemology and psychology), and William Warburton (literary critic / theorist).

This book took me two years to read and I still don’t understand everything in it. The text is split into two parts where part I is more difficult than part II. If you plan on reading it, I would get the 1998 edition translated by Spivak over her newer 2016 edition (both are published by Johns Hopkins University Press). The 2016 edition has been criticized a lot by Geoffrey Bennington, a very well respected Derridean expert.

Ecrits  by Jacques Lacan

Difficulty: 10

I once saw a guy reading this 900 page tome at Starbucks while sitting on a couch. I was thinking to myself, “that is definitely not a coffee table book”. Ecrits (writings) is the only book Jacques Lacan published. The reason why I do not recommend this as a first Lacan book is because it is best to learn Freud first. Lacan pretty much takes Freudian concepts and applies them into language and linguistics which makes him super hard to read. If our unconscious mind effects the way we interpret language, then how does Lacan explain psychoanalysis through language? If you wish to read Lacan, I would suggest starting on his lectures listed below (these are the ones I had good experiences with). Learning Hegel, which is a feat on its own, will also help you understand Lacan.

Recommended:
Seminar X: Anxiety
Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (especially this if you plan on reading Slavoj Zizek)
Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge
How to Read Lacan 
by Slavoj Zizek

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On Love: Philosophy in Lacanian Psychoanalysis

 

Love means giving something you don’t have, to someone who doesn’t want it.
—Jacques Lacan

Today, I will show you the basic Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to love, sex and relationships by situating it in Kantian philosophy and some of Alenka Zupancic and Slavoj Zizek’s ideas. One can effectively say that this post is not psychoanalytical because it is situated in basic philosophical principles. Although it would make more sense for me to place Lacan within Hegel’s philosophy, explaining it through Kant will be much easier for general readers because Hegel is difficult to understand. Here, I will be explaining Lacan without putting emphasis on any complex psychoanalytical concepts (split subject, big Other, jouissance, ego, etc.). My goal is to show you our relationship with others in addition to some ideas on science and psychotherapy. Where Freud will say, “every relationship is a sexual relationship”, Lacan will tell you, “there is no sexual relationship.”

Last edited: January 8, 2020. I made significant changes to certain sections.

Kant: the Limits of Knowledge and the In-Itself

Let us begin with one of the most influential 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant and his argument that the only thing the conscious human subject can experience is phenomenon and that we can never know any objects in-itself (noumenon). I can never know any object in-itself because I am never the chair or the table. I can never experience the world from your perspective because I am never your consciousness. I can only experience the world from my own consciousness. By saying that an object consists of X properties, I am idealizing the object as if it consists of X, even when I am never the object in-itself which is impossible to conceive because I am never the object.

Let us use a formal example which will guide us throughout the rest of this post: can an object such as Nature, exist without a subject? If I was never born, Nature would not exist because I would not be a thinking subject who is capable of seeing Nature as such. This is why the relationship around us—which is unthinkable without a subject—is a relationship from object to other objects. But since we can conceive of it by making such statement, it means that we are already a subject. There are no objects without a subject. In order for there to be a universe, a nature, a phenomenon, a writing or a science, there has to be a subject. As soon as the subject arises, every object is instantly related to that subject.

This subject isn’t just anybody. Within her own consciousness, she carries her desires, history, traditions, languages, culture, etc. The moment the subject exist in relation with Nature in-itself (not just standing in front of Nature, but also reading the word “Nature” in-itself), the subject immediately “contaminates” Nature with her own traces of her culture and desires. The subject establishes a relationship with Nature that she thinks is authentic (i.e. her own definitions of Nature), even when she cannot know anything in-itself because she is not Nature. The idealized relationship that the subject establishes with Nature is an Imaginary fantasy that she formulates in relation to herself. Nature as the in-itself is a void that we can never know anything about. Yet, it is this fantasy that we sustain as authentic which allows us to manipulate Nature by materializing a “Real” through the Real.

Imagining the Impossible Real

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The Lacanian Borromean Knot

Let us dive into some Lacanian psychoanalysis with simple metaphorical examples on how this Imaginary relationship with Nature in-itself works. The key is to understand the contradictions involved and how we utilize our Imagination (fantasy; Ego; subjectivity) through the Symbolic (language; societal law) in relation with the Real (impossible). From now on, I will capitalize the words of the three orders displayed in the diagram.

Think about how people talk about the “real world” as if they know what the Real in-itself is (“Get real!”). To reach the Real, I attempt to reduce my glass of red wine into its fundamental properties and I discover that red wine in-itself is made up of grape juice. My attempt to reach the Real properties of the wine results in me producing the Imaginary fantasy as a surplus Symbolic statement that: “red wine is made of grape juice”. It is by producing this grape juice fantasy that I reach the “Real” which is really just an Imagination of the Real. Another words, the Real should not be something that I can only reach by producing it as an Imaginary fantasy (of imagining that red wine as grape juice). As Zizek says, the Real is this irreducible Thing that eludes us the very the moment we try to grasp it—it is an impossible Real. We can see something similar in chemistry when I imagine my cup of water as H2O instead of water in front of my eyes, or I imagine that nature consists of mathematical laws and not trees and mountains. It is through this Imaginary fantasy that we create reality around us by inscribing it into the Symbolic language; and it is through these contradictions that creates a new Real. For example, manipulating H2O causes real life effects to water. As Zupancic points out: “Science splits the world into two” and there are numerous historical events that showed this creation of a new Real (perhaps the most famous ones being Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein).

Our relationship with the Real in-itself is distorted by our Imaginary and Symbolic order every moment of our lives. What appears as (Imaginary) “Real” is always influenced by our imagination which is closely linked to our Ego. The true rupture of the Imaginary “Real” is when the impossible Real appears (when the impossible happens). It is when our unconscious mind surfaces to our consciousness as the Real which changes the relationship with our Imagination of the “Real”.

Objet Petit a: “There is No Sexual Relationship”

To recap, our attempt to reach the Real in-itself is an impossibility. The moment one thinks they arrive at this Real, they discover that they are caught in their own Imagination. In the same way, what people think they know about someone is never what they know about them. What one perceives as their “Real” relationship is always distorted by their Imagination—which once again, is associated with the Imaginary. Our relationship with the other person as the object in-itself is a relationship sustained by an Imaginary fantasy that we experience as “Real”. For us, the other person is the “in-itself”, the void, just as we are for them.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the in-itself is similar to the objet petit a, or the object cause of desire” (shown at the center of the borromean knot as “a“). When people say things like “stop objectifying women!” (via “male gaze” popularized by Laura Mulvey), they are referring to objet a. This “a” means “other” (“autre” in french) as in the other object. To be sure, not every object is objet a. It is only when the subject desires that it becomes a. For example, the super handsome / beautiful person, your cellphone screen, the food advertisement, the car you want to buy, or the desire to reconcile with Nature. As Zizek points out, Objet a is what gives a “body” to the in-itself (the void), but it is not the in it-self. Yet, by giving body to the in-itself, objet a will appear as if it is the in-itself.

Thus, our relationship with Nature in our formal example is really just a relation with objet a, but never nature in-itself as a void. It is easy to think of our subject-object Nature example in relation to copulation. To do so, we simply need to replace Nature with a subject. Hence, we have a subject-object relation (subject as the object or subject as objet a instead of Nature). This is why when we are having sex, we are actually having sex with objet a that is giving body to the in-itself. Another words, we are having sex with a void (an in-itself; the other person) that we know nothing about. There is no sexual relationship because the only relationship we have is with objet a which is just an Imaginary fantasy. Thus, there is a sexual relationship because there is no sexual relationship. We need Imagination not only because we have to learn and fantasize a formula for our sexual relationship due to its absence, but because fantasy is what sustains desire. This is one of the reasons why Lacan points out that a relationship is always a relationship of three:  “1 + 1 +  a“.  What we love about someone is never exactly who that person is. Yet paradoxically, what bonds two people together is also this missed encounter (our fantasy about them) which happens to be the encounter of the “Real”.

Love as the Impossible Real

“Love feels like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.”— Slavoj Zizek

In our culture, the purpose of dating is to bond with the other person—to (hopefully) eventually have a “relationship” with them because there is no such thing as a relationship. Yet, it is only after dating where couples happens to love each other because “their relationship works”. While what appears to be a relationship is a fantasy constructed by the two people who are together, this fantasy is sustained by something which contradicts it. It interrupts the fantasy relationship by placing the subject into the Real. Such phenomenon is the impossible event of love.

Two people love each other not because their relationship work. Their relationship work because they love each other. For Zupancic, “it is love that does something to us, that makes relationships work and allow us to coincide with our lover”. What exactly does love do to us? Love makes us accept the object (subject) in-itself for who they are. Another words, love is neither a fantasy or an idealism (i.e. perfect personality, perfect body, etc.) because it is the impossible Real. Love as the impossible occurs not only when our fantasy relationship with the person (“the love object”) collides with the person in-itself (the void) as an absolute singularity, it can only do so because love allows us to accept the in-itself for itself. This impossibility is what disrupts our continuity with the (Imaginary) “Real” of the subject and allow us to encounter with our lover as if “it was the first time”. For Zupancic, this is why Clement Rosset responds to the “impossible question” in such way:

“Why do you love me?”
“Because you remind me of you.”

Here, we see that “you” objet a, reminds me of “you” in-itself. To put it another way, I love you because I love you—because you coincide with you. Thus one says, “She/He is the One!”. It is not surprising that people sometimes love each other without reason. After all, reason is just an attempt at “filling in the void” through the Symbolic as a surplus fantasy of the “Real”. For Zupancic, “In love, the impossible happens, and it is from there on that we must continue and work with what has happened, instead of assuming that from now on the impossible is (or should be) simply replaced by the possible and, indeed, necessary.”

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Through love, we recognize that we are all strangers in this world who are caught by our own finitude, fantasizing about relationships and the way reality works. The moment we confront the Real, we are already situated in the depths of our own fantasy. The impossible event of love—the fall of falling in love—is the new signifier which disrupts our “Real”. Love allows us to glimpse the impossible while confronting the infinite through its own finitude. Where we conceive of love which erupts from the impossible Real also appears as the imaginary of the Real. Love is at once the possible and the impossible—it is a singularity, a paradox, an event which throws the subject into an orbit without trajectory; like a star absorbed into the black light. —Love is therefore, the madness amongst the impossible.

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