Philosophy : The Desire of Foreignness

DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS

BOOK III

US, FOREIGNERS : THE RECONSTRUCTION OF FOREIGNNESS

Part 3

Is philosophy still philo-sophia ? What is the shift that occurred between philosophy as philosophia and what philosophy is today ? And what is the role, or the symbol of the foreigner in this dynamic ? Setting philosophy as philo-sophia is more than simplistic or reductive. A love of wisdom would imply a particular movement. The accusative of indicates a very specific relation between love and wisdom. There, philosophy would be an affection (a passion?) for wisdom. The philosopher posits her task as one of rapprochement towards wisdom. The philosopher starts outside of wisdom and attempts to reach closer to it. There would be, once again, the symbol of exteriority common to foreignness. But the philo would be more than a mere search : love implies a proximity, perhaps an interiority. However, the familiar trope of the wandering ‘wise man,’ describing and explaining life, society and morals with an unexpected depth and scope, is narrow and misleading, and Levinas himself was not to omit that point. Not that philosophy as philo-sophia should be rejected, but that its reformulation is necessary. Levinas recounts in the third person the intuition of his approach to the writing of Totality and Infinity:

“He then asked himself whether all that was dear to the love of “the love-of-wisdom,” to the love that is the philosophy of the Greeks, was the certainty of fields of knowledge directed toward the object, or the even greater certainty of reflection on these fields of knowledge ; or whether knowledge beloved of and expected from philosophers was not, beyond the wisdom of such knowledge, the wisdom of love, or wisdom in the guise of love. Philosophy as love of love. A wisdom taught by the face of the other man !” 1

Why is our philosophy different ? A possible answer: because of the graph. Some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers ended with parts of their works assembled in compilations, but never were their individual statements meant to fit a coherent whole. When Plato attempts a writing of the teachings of his master Socrates, the technology imposes an accountability, a commensurability – the written starts, in a word, the system. The system, while undeniably not the only format of philosophy in the western tradition, nonetheless turned out to be, henceforth, the most influential way of philosophising. Cutting through a plethora of nuances and counter-examples which we should ideally mention, we can reach the point of rupture. A turn arises first with Nietzsche and genealogy as the key method of philosophical work, and more radically, with Heidegger’s turn to language. With hermeneutics, philosophy becomes an inspection of the letter, of philosophy as a discipline, a tradition and a practice of the written. This criterion may seem arbitrary but it is so prevalent that we would doubt whether to call those ‘thinkers’ who do not write as ‘philosophers’. Inversely, one would struggle to think of a major philosopher of the recent times, who has not written. Philosophy is written.

Levinas recognises that philosophy is a matter of language. Totality and Infinity, his attempt at formulating an approach to the acknowledgement and relation with the Other as Other, bereft of the reduction of the Same, would soon be tackled by Derrida’s response in “Violence and Metaphysics.” There, Derrida admits that Levinas rightly discovered the fundamental problem of western philosophy as a mechanism of reduction of alterity to familiar structures, up until and including Heidegger, but he contends that Levinas himself had laid the grounds for his own ‘totalising’ or ‘thematising’ project. Thirteen years later, in Otherwise Than Being, Levinas moves language towards the centre of his project. Levinas suggests a fundamental distinction between the Said, or the content of a linguistic utterance, and the Saying, or the event of saying, the entry in dialogue. The contrast is fascinating : while the Said, in the fundamental linguistic form ‘X is Y’, is necessarily formatted to a project of reductive thematisation, the Saying is, on the contrary, the opening of oneself to the Other via language, the demonstration of one’s ‘need’ of the Other and of one’s vulnerability to what is requested, as the Other’s response. Levinas finds in language at once the most ethical and the most reductive of the human acts. The possibility, and actual arrangement of this association is the centre of Levinas’s reflection in Otherwise Than Being.

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If post-structuralism is fundamentally organised around a new understanding of the position and role of language, its scope is not limited to a transformation of philosophy to just philosophy of language.

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What is the context of Levinas’s take on language within the historical evolution of western philosophy ? Nietzsche, and later Heidegger, had already delivered a lethal blow onto the format of philosophy as system. More than being language-bound, systematic philosophy was subjected to necessarily unavowed or unaware blind spots ; to the over-arching principles or assumptions that permitted the unity and coherence of each system. Derrida’s corpus of ‘deconstructive’ studies, are, then, basically practical applications of what was certainly a central intuition in both Nietzsche and Heidegger. But what is left of philosophy ? Besides retrospective studies, as partial or total falsifications of earlier views, philosophy remains accountable for, and arguably, capable of producing positive philosophy, that is, genuinely new propositions, amenable to enlighten classical problems just as much as contemporary, pragmatic, ethical or political situations. And, importantly, philosophy would also be not only an elaborated meta-discourse uniquely self-reflective of its use of language. If post-structuralism is fundamentally organised around a new understanding of the position and role of language, its scope is not limited to a transformation of philosophy to just philosophy of language. Derrida was accused, for a long time, to only indulge in a playful practice of literary or poetic writing, avoiding claims and ideologically rejecting more structured philosophical projects. His later writings proved at once the implications of his approach beyond language, as well as his personal reactivity to his critics and the needs of his times.

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Philosophy is entered, at this point, as a type of discourse aware of its future self-transcendence, aware of its degeneration in the years, decades and centuries to come. Philosophy is placed back in language, in the flow of thoughts and formulations, and thus brought back to time. Philosophy is an economy, it is a logic of gain and loss, the attempt to arrive at a philosophical benefit, unlike the earlier quest for final, ultimate truths.

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Philosophy, there, remains nonetheless a practice of the written, self-conscious of its language and accessing the philosophical tradition as a tradition of the written. Etymologies, vocabulary, rhetoric and stylistic turns are given prominence in the analysis, but, between the lines, certain positions are brought fourth. Derrida speaks regularly of ‘compromises’, or what he called, more formally from the beginning of his career, economy. Philosophy is an economy, it has to attempt to reach the last word, the last sentence, the final claim when answering a question, but it also knows that it is a lost cause. Philosophy is entered, at this point, as a type of discourse aware of its future self-transcendence, aware of its degeneration in the years, decades and centuries to come. Philosophy is placed back in language, in the flow of thoughts and formulations, and thus brought back to time. Philosophy is an economy, it is a logic of gain and loss, the attempt to arrive at a philosophical benefit, unlike the earlier quest for final, ultimate truths. When addressing ethical or political questions, Derrida never arrives at a radical end point : a position, a philosophical proposition, an argument is favoured over another because its frailties, its aporias, its unfortunate implications seem less deplorable than those of its competing propositions. With Derrida, philosophy has without a doubt entered a demystified world : it is aware of its limitedness, of its transience, and it is conscious that its insights will hardly make up for its surviving drives of thematisation. Nonetheless, Derrida seems never that explicit in redefining philosophy after the linguistic turn, and in particular, in the light of Levinas’s Said/Saying distinction. But a further meditation on the idea of philosophy as language, and in particular, as written, may unveil philosophy’s deeper connection with the event and symbols of foreignness.

Undeniably, philosophy is largely a quest of knowledge. Contemplation, wonder or practical implications may be the origin or core of philosophy, but the discovery, formulation, exploration and ‘acquisition’ of ideas, concepts or theories, that is, knowledge, is the main object and unit of the philosophical work. But what is the philosopher turning to ? The philosopher addresses a question that disturbs one’s immediate understanding, or even, further, its refined elaborations. Through the philosophical process, the initial interrogation is addressed, its elements or responses organised, set in relation or in motion so to reach a place within a coherent whole. This whole may have been a system in classical philosophy, and may become a more flexible, plastic arrangement of propositions in post-structuralist thought when we move to Derrida’s philosophical vision, but the principle of coherence is still respected and followed. One may think of Derrida’s “White Mythology,” where he quotes de Saussure, Kant, Aristotle, Bachelard, Descartes, Valery among others, to indicate how the very foundational methodological specificities of western philosophy are themselves dependent upon metaphorical concepts, such as the image of ‘clarity.’ 2 The very idea of ‘coherence’ may, thus not be satisfactorily defended through exclusively rational means. This may also explain how Derrida and his contemporaries aim at not just coherence, but also at the establishment of philosophy as a discipline of meaning-making, finding in age-old terms unexpected new interpretations, and suggesting through neologisms the tracks to new, combinative or otherwise creative concepts. In both cases, one dynamic remains : the entry of an unrefined term-concept into a network of meaningful words. The philosopher is thus always dealing with strange words, and one may recall that the Latin root extraneous refers at once to the adjectives ‘strange’ and ‘external.’ The philosophical is to term-concepts what the political is to individuals : it deals with strangers, invites and adapts the latter to their internal terrain, and translates them to the ruling logic of the place.

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One dynamic remains : the entry of an unrefined term-concept into a network of meaningful words. The philosopher is thus always dealing with strange words, and one may recall that the Latin root extraneous refers at once to the adjectives ‘strange’ and ‘external.’ The philosophical is to term-concepts what the political is to individuals : it deals with strangers, invites and adapts the latter to their internal terrain, and translates them to the ruling logic of the place.

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But philosophy, through its embodiment in the philosopher, marks also the opposite move. Being a philosopher, it is, in the Platonic conception for instance, to step out of the unrefined world of the doxa. After all, the first ladder of the Divided Line contains the popular opinions, deemed diametrically opposite to the properly philosophical propositions. Here, the philosopher aims precisely at externalisation, at moving outside of the group, of the established agreement, to resolve a shortcoming he is alone to notice, to criticise the compromises of a necessarily self-indulgent society, to set the dynamic of thoughts in motion. The philosopher is thus opposed to the common man. But interestingly, philosophy is also a domain where the central practitioner rejects lineages at one point or the other. Being a philosopher, in the scholarly, and, today, academic sense, it is being expected to produce new knowledge, often in the form of a critical and possibly creative evaluation of the earlier works of the tradition. A philosopher is supposed to have assimilated as much as possible from the (written) heritage of her discipline, to find her few reference points and to begin tracing a picture of the views she will attack. But at this level, even with respects to one’s avowed inspiration or teacher, a philosopher is always alone. Even a Cartesian or a Kantian philosopher is expected to bring new perspectives on the works of Descartes or Kant. In other words, the philosopher, to practice philosophy, must take a distance from the studied philosopher and his texts, to evaluate them anew. ‘Taking a distance’ or seeing them ‘from the outside’ : the move to externalisation is required from the philosopher in order to assess a particular work, a particular proposition, in the lights of all the other, possible competing claims. The wisdom of plurality is already embedded in the earliest definitions and practice of philosophy.

How can we go from the external philosopher to the foreigner ? The foreigner is away from his culture – he is ‘at a distance’ – and he is also an external agent to the inside space of another culture. The foreigner is twice an external agent : his perspectives on his native land is from the outside, set in perspective, while his background sets him in dissymmetry vis-à-vis the locals of his place of residence. This unique position, twice unique, was noticed across history, as we saw in the first chapter. Plato does not hesitate to set some foreign sailors and businessmen as the initiators of unconventional queries and answers to Socrates. One may also think of Oedipus, made king in spite or thanks to his foreignness. The foreigner-philosopher, here, is not just a solipsistic man of reflection. A man of language in a discipline of language, the foreigner is philosopher because he is able to express, to communicate his differing perspectives, because he manages to get them through to his interlocutors. The foreigner creates difference, provokes an inner scission twice from his personal and inner combination of two environments. In fact, there is one major foreigner in the history of philosophy. In The Apology of Socrates (17d), Socrates is the foreigner. But it is a play of foreignness, a play oriented to a very intentional direction :

“He declares that he is “foreign” to the language of the courts, to the tribune of the tribunals : he doesn’t know how to speak this courtroom language, this legal rhetoric of accusation, defence, and pleading ; he doesn’t have the skill, he is like a foreigner.” 3

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The arch-philosopher, Socrates, demands the Greek agora to grant him a right to difference, a right to dissension. Socrates announces the quest of the philosopher for the centuries to come : to play the role of the foreigner, to gather all the community’s best inspirations and traditions to never let it believe it exists in an absolute isolation.

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Socrates’s rhetoric is playful, but it is also the marker of an initial, historical, internal rupture in the construction of the figure of the philosopher : “Now if I were really a foreigner, you would naturally excuse me if I spoke in the accent and dialect in which I had been brought up.” 4 The arch-philosopher, Socrates, demands the Greek agora to grant him a right to difference, a right to dissension. Socrates announces the quest of the philosopher for the centuries to come : to play the role of the foreigner, to gather all the community’s best inspirations and traditions to never let it believe it exists in an absolute isolation. The philosopher demonstrates the possibility of difference from the inside, when the foreigner through her very person reminds of the difference from the outside. But the foreigner is already a convinced philosopher : she moves because the eternal message of philosophy has passed through to her – she knows that difference, creation and self-transcendence are not only possible but unavoidable, and more, that they ought to get wilfully engendered. The foreigner is the subject who has realised the dynamics of history, its openness and the root of its energy : the individual.

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References

Image courtesy: Jacques-Louis David

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Footnotes

  1. Levinas, “Totality and Infinity: Preface to the German Edition,” 172. Translation modified.
  2. Jacques Derrida, “White Mythologies,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Sussex, UK: The Harvester Press, 1982), 207-272.
  3. Derrida and Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, 15.
  4. Steve Kostecke, trans., Plato’s Apology of Socrates (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011), 17c-d.