Youtube video here: Dialectical Thinking
Welcome to this lecture focused on dialectical thinking. This lecture is a part of a larger network of programs and courses provided by The Montparnasse Initiative: School of Thinking. The official workshop is taking place in Paris but I always wanted to make all of the lecture material that I’m providing available on YouTube and blog format. In this work I want to introduce you to the basic elementary structure of dialectical thinking in its most authentic, pragmatic and historically grounded form. I hope that this course can help you to use dialectical thinking as a tool in a very concrete form, because I think in its most elementary structure dialectical thinking reveals itself to be at once metaphysically profound and practical. I also want to inscribe myself into this lecture so that you can also see the way in which I personally engage with dialectical thinking.
To start off I want to emphasize the meta-level purpose of the course. The central claim of the course would be that dialectical thinking gives us something of a glimpse of the eternity of rational discourse. I would thus like to situate dialectical thinking between the opposites of deconstructive mode of thought and metalinguistic forms of thought. In the deconstructive mode of thought what is emphasized is historical relativity. What is emphasized is the historical relativistic nature of our constructions, that any construction we conceive, any construction which we engage with the world, is something not only contingent, but relativistic. In that sense there is no such thing as absolute truth claims, there is no such thing as truth as we would think of it in a religious perspective, as a transhistorical eternal truth, any claim is just a particular contingent relative truth for you.
On the other hand, metalinguistic thought is something that is on an eternal asymptotic approach to a universal language, some way to transcend our partiality and limitation, and our historical relativism. You can see the striving for a metalanguage to be really at the foundation of a lot of scientific disciplines and disciplines in general (religious as well). The idea that the language we developed or are developing being some sort of universal communication medium that will persist for all time. As I said, I would like to situate dialectical thinking between metalinguistic thought and deconstructive mode of thought. What does that middle ground look like?
For me, I would say that dialectical mode of thought situates itself in the mode of the eternity of rational discourse. What persists across time in language, in logos, is that through our partiality, through our limitation, we can come to reason, and through engaging with reason, by the subject engaging with its partial limitation, it can transcend the partial limitation. Technically, you could be any where and any time, and as long as you are open and attentive to reason, then our dialogue can transcend any space or time that separates us.
In this way the dialectical reversal of the problems of deconstructive thinking and metalinguistic thinking is precisely not to deconstruct language as irreducibly historically relative, nor to prematurely jump into the mystical beyond of a universal language. Instead, the dialectical reversal counter-intuitively sees the potential in what most intuitively see as a limitation, of the way in which the necessary self-limitation of reason directly unites the particular finite entity (the creature) with the universal infinite immortal absolute. What that means is that it is a coincidence of the opposites. The reason of being allows for me in my finitude and mortality to go beyond my partial engagement with language. Through reason I can be united with something that persists. In Hegel and Plato this insistence is very strong, that philosophy in its most authentic form, that you touch something in language that is not merely historically relative, and at the same time it is not a type of objective global view of the whole situation. We are irreducibly partial and limited.
To give a psychoanalytic perspective on this claim I wanted to situate two of Jacques Lacan’s axioms that capture the opposites of the deconstructive historical relativism and the universal metalanguage of the objectivization of our position. On the one hand Lacan had the axiom that ‘language is the torture house of being’. This is a response to Heidegger’s ‘language is the house of being’. ‘Language is the torture house of being’ is a critique of naive humanism, and a recognition that in order to really make progress in language, you have to ‘torture’ it, you have to work in it, and if you don’t really work and labour in language, then language will control you, it is either one or the other. This reminds me of Terence McKenna’s axiom of ‘culture is not your friend’. What he meant by that was that if you are not aware, if you are not infusing language with your spirit, then language will control you, and you won’t be really speaking your own words, or thinking your own thoughts. You will be speaking other people’s words and thoughts.
The other axiom that Lacan deployed was ‘there is no metalanguage’ or ‘there is no Other of the Other’. This means that there is no way to get an objective universal language, there is no way in which you can eliminate the contingency and eliminate the partiality of your engagement with language. There is no way you can develop a conceptual schema that is transhistorical, because we are historical. This is sort of an inability the relationship between language and the absolute. I think that this conversation is really important in contemporary discourse, and specifically it is important in contemporary discourse between the emergence of language and the ideas of transhumanism. What I mean by that is that both the emergence of language (emergence of logos), it was a qualitative transition to a different type of experience, and a different type of realm. And when we hear about transhuman visions, as is quite common, whether through mind-to-mind communication via brain machine interface, or via interaction with artificial intelligences, we get the imagine of another qualitative transition in mind, specifically related to language. When I situate dialectical thinking as the eternity of rational discourse, I am trying to situate dialectical thinking as a bridge (potentially) between the emergence of language and some transhuman future that we don’t understand. Whatever the nature of the transhuman future, it is a mystery. It could be that dialectical thinking is the structure of our thought in its most pure form, that is how I have started to think of it.
In this context we may reflect on our engagement (with the school of thinking). We have all gathered together to share in language. In this engagement, what we appear to want is to infuse our language with our ownmost spirit, irrespective of its partiality and limitation (inclusive of our partiality and limitation), as opposed to being ventriloquist dummies of the symbolic order. Thus we are still very much in the mode of trying to represent our partial truth in language, to give voice to our limitation. In the Hegelian sense this truth is not the absolute eternity of an unmovable fixed ideality, but rather the coincidence of the absolute non-identity of eternity in a temporal becoming, where self-relativization or limitation and partiality brings one closer to the absolute, not further away.
Thus, instead of seeing language as something to be overcome via an asymptotic approach to a metalanguage, or to see language only in its negative historically relative limitation, the dialectician aims to see what we can accomplish universally in language, through a radical partial and contextual engagement with reason.
Instead of a metalanguage let us introduce a metaontology. A metaontology is related to the axiom of the absolute as substance and subject. I would situate metaontology as something different then a grand unified theory (of everything). If you are scientifically minded or aware of the literature, the idea of a grand unified theory is persistent, and many great thinkers and philosophers have tried to come up with a grand unified theory of everything, a theory that would explain everything. Perhaps two prominent examples today that would claim to be striving for a grand unified theory is quantum gravity in physics, the idea that one day we will have a complete theory of the macroscopic and the microscopic, general relativity and quantum mechanics, and that when we develop this grand unified theory, we will be able to explain the birth and death of matter, and everything in between. Another contender for a grand unified theory might be self-organization theory in evolution. In self-organization theory there is the idea that we can explain all order-organization in the universe based on local interaction principles. In this view the universe is totally relational, and everything we see in the world is a consequence of local interactions. Both forms of knowledge explicitly posit conceptual schemas which would guarantee their universality (transcending their historical relativity).
The difference between these types of grand unified theories and a metaontology is that a metaontology is interested in the position of the subject and the nature of the subject. Meteorology inscribes the paradoxical move (essential for dialectical thinking) of epistemology as ontology: to see our knowledge as a part of the becoming of the absolute. The metaontological question for people who develop grand unified theories is along the lines of action principles for them and their consequences in the world. When you develop a grand unified theory, how is it that serving you in the world, and what are the consequences of these abstractions in the world. Metaontology also recognizes that there is a field of knowledge that is itself divided between many people, each of whom have their own grand unified theory. This dialectic basically complicates things immensely because it is hard to wrap your mind around this level of complexity and nuance.
Why we would want to bother with this dialectical approach of inscribing epistemology as ontology is against the postmodern insistence that the map is not the territory. You will often hear a common criticism against Newtonian epistemology (for example) that the map is not the territory. What the map is not the territory critiques is this naive notion of the scientist who can’t differentiate between his abstraction of the world and the world in-itself. If you are following my Less Than Nothing lectures you will be aware that this gap between our abstractions and the things-in-themselves gets a lot of attention between Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. What I think the dialectical method in its mature form inscribes is basically the axiom of the ‘map has its own territory’. Your maps, your abstractions, have their own geometry, and that is what we are interested in. It is invisible geometry. That’s what it means to inscribe epistemology into ontology. Thus we are not (only) interested in an external view of quantum gravity or self-organization, but the way in which these abstractions curve and warp being, the way in which these abstractions, the movement of them, are negations of being. There is something about being that is incomplete, lacking, and not only in terms of our knowledge, but in terms of being itself. In this way, with metaontology, we have to inscribe the observer within the system in a very radical way.
Now to build on this, my personal influences for this lecture have played a large role in helping me to structure my tour of dialectics. I will cite the following quartet of thinkers from each major philosophical epoch. I think that this quartet, Plato-Hegel-Lacan-Žižek, is internally consistent and internally coherent as a line of thinkers from different eras who can be played with in a productive form. But I want to give reasons for why I engage with this particular lineage of thought in a lecture on dialectics.
First, Plato. As Alain Badiou echoed in a recent lecture series: “For Today, Plato!” The reasons I play with Plato is for his attempt to understand geometrical unity (with his mathematical theories) and emotional unity (with his sexual theories), and the coincidental relations between these two forms of unity. I really like thinking this coincidence between emotional and mathematical geometries, that there may be some higher order relation between the two. This divide may be at the ground of fundamental philosophy, between someone doing a pure mathematics, like Quentin Meillassoux; versus someone doing emotional engagement, like Alenka Zupančič.
This can be philosophically grounded in the well-known fact that Plato’s Academy had outside of its door ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter’ (expressing the importance of mathematics). However, a well-known contemporary Platonic philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, started his Spheres Trilogy with a modification on this axiom, stating that on his academy the door would read ‘Let no one ignorant of love transference enter’. On the one hand you have Plato emphasizing the importance of mathematics (also reflected in a thinker like Alain Badiou), and on the other hand you have a philosopher like Sloterdijk emphasizing the importance of emotional love.
Another reason why I am interested in Plato is because he is in some sense the arch-enemy of post-modernity: thinking in terms of multiplicities of multiplicities. To capture the essence of multiplicity thought consider a well known principle from Gilles Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus: “Principle of multiplicity: is only when the multiple is effectively treated as substantive, that it ceases to have any relation to the one.” What is clear in this quote is that Deleuze philosophy is trying to get at is a total disconnection from the one (as opposed to a positive of a negative one). There is nothing of a one, just a multiplicity of multiplicities. Deleuze attempted to express this concept with the idea of a suprasensible virtual plane of immanence, a centrifugal force spiralling out in a multiplicity of directions. This is in some sense a direct attack on Plato and the Western tradition. The Western tradition really sees a suprasensible singularity as a type of centripetal force spiralling inwards towards a common extimate core, a singularity that can be mathematical or emotional or sexual. There is really a good philosophical challenge here, thinking again this relation (or non-relation) between Plato and Deleuze. By doing this it may be possible to inscribe multiplicity directly into the one, through the historicity of oppositional determination.
Second, the reason I play with Hegel is for the way in which he attempted to understand the historical movement of the One or the Absolute. If Plato is criticized for his insistence on the fixed ideality, Hegel injects movement as fundamental. In other words, the One or the Absolute can no longer be conceptualized as a fixed transhistorical entity, and also can no longer be thought of as existing independently of subjectivity. This is reflective of Hegel’s time. Hegel was writing at a time of enormous transition, enormous rupture, enormous break with the old world. And that is captured in his philosophy. Hegel very much saw the way the Absolute was subjectively mediated, the way in which the problem of Love and the problem of the Absolute were central to the historical drama and could be understood through radical dialectical mediation of this engagement.
In this way Hegel tries to think the One not as a totalizing sphere but as a One structured by pure division. Hegel thus approaches the problem of Love as Absolute Oneness and the reality of a subjectivity seemingly divided from this Absolute Oneness in the mode of a subject-object division opening onto a multiplicity of phenomena. The genius of Hegel’s phenomenology is that he conceptualizes Absolute Love as this cut or division itself and not as the sphere which we supposedly fall from and return to. In other words, what subjectivity tends to think of as a spherical unity is in fact the obfuscation of a cut or division at the very core of being. To quote Hegelian philosopher Mladen Dolar on this minimal level of Hegel:
“What cannot be divided any further is the division itself. [..] The substance is permitted by the void, but [the ancients] did not have any inking that this would have any relation to the place of the subject. This is Hegel at his minimum, the place of the subject, in the adage substance and subject, is the cut, introduced as the moving principle into being.”
From this perspective there is something about the One that requires a gap or a hole, and this is where Hegel situates his dialectic. It is a transition from a geometry of thinking a global sphere, a perfect sphere, like Peter Sloterdijk’s Sphere’s Trilogy, and being able to think a local division or cut. This also appears as Sloterdijk’s Trilogy evolves from Globes to Foam. This transition from Globe to Foam is a breaking of the One, a sea of Ones dividing in themselves.
In this way we can approach the movement of ‘atoms and the void’, and this is a topic that Mladen Dolar brings up with the concept of clinamen. This notion of clinamen has a rich history in philosophy, and even appears in Deleuze. Clinamen represents a type of curvature, as a type of inherent distortion, in such a way that there is a movement. This curvature is in a sense absolutized.
Third, the reason why I would situate Lacan is because of the way in which he attempted to unearth the meaning of the Freudian unconscious as a form of knowledge that is constitutively unconscious (meaning: a knowledge (form) which does not know itself). The definition of the unconscious as a knowledge which doesn’t know itself is sufficiently precise to avoid the type of obscurantism which is often levelled at Lacan as a thinker. And at the same time it is important to emphasize this distinction of the unconscious in order to avoid the scientism of contemporary ‘brain sciences’ with their emphasis on subconscious neuronal process. What Lacan emphasized in the unconscious is not subconscious neuronal process that influence or determine our self-conscious brain activity. What Lacan emphasizes in the unconscious is precisely not something that can be approach asymptotically with advances in science and technology.
In other words, the unconscious is not something that we will one day know through future advances. It has as a constitutive element of itself the fact that it is not knowable in principle. That may be why Lacan has such an easy time engaging with Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic is about the movement of the Absolute and the straw-man of Hegel is that we are on this asymptotic approach to total or complete knowledge. But I think that when you read Hegel through Lacan or you read Lacan through Hegel that you realize this is not necessarily the nature of the Absolute. We have to be much more humble with our knowledge. And at the same time what the unconscious does is avoid historical relativism and deconstruction, because the unconscious as a form of knowledge that doesn’t know itself, is operative even if you think you have analyzed your own epistemology, your own abstractions. In some way it is an invariant principle.
Now in order to ground a knowledge of this ‘unknowledge’ Lacan emphasizes the organ-without-body, the objet petit a, as what we can know of the real in the form of a partial object. One can think of the objet petit a as a virtual spectrality or stand-in, for the impossibility of unity. The objet petit a is thus the indivisible remainder of the subject’s desire which emerges at the core of the subject’s own division (own repetition automatism in the symbolic chain), and thus ultimately a consequence of the introduction of the symbolic into the real. In this way objet a should not be thought of as a substantial object, but can be thought of as a formal curvature in a state space (and nothing but the virtuality of this curvature). Consequently, the objet petit a is a consequence of the symbolic but not on the level of the symbolic (and its enacted Master Signifier), but rather something that corrodes symbolism from within, like reason’s ownmost otherness.
Now to move to Žižek. Žižek’s philosophy in Less Than Nothing ties all of these figures together in a type of Hegelian-Lacanianism (but it also includes a return to Plato). What Zizek adds to this tradition is trying to understand the status of impossibility. In this way Zizek brings things full circle, without closing the circle from our perspective, but inscribes the impossibility of the Absolute in its positive dimension. The Real as obstacle (what resists your desire), or that part of the circle that is internally thwarted, makes the impossibility of the Absolute the real of a partial engagement. In the realm of subjectivity, partial-limited beings in language, what holds them is this impossibility of self-realization, this impossibility to objectivize oneself.
In this way we can conceptualize the dialectical unity/oneness that structures Western history (maths/science, politics, art, and love) as a paradoxically impossible virtual entity internal to the emergence of the symbolic order which can be neither deconstructed nor captured and controlled by a metalanguage. There is something of a breakthrough in this type of thinking because there is a tendency in contemporary knowledge to see everything as relational (as opposed to absolute). In both Lacan and Žižek being is relational but that what is interesting about the human universe is precisely the emergence of the non-relation or the absolute (which can be most obviously approached in sexuality and politics). This is anyway where Lacan would situate his axioms of ‘there is no sexual relation’ or ‘there is a non sexual relation’. This is a much more radical ontology because it forces upon us the negativity at the core of relationality and invites us to explore a paradoxical ontology where we are not just thinking in terms of relations between things present, but also the unspoken absence at the heart of things present.
This is pragmatically useful and theoretically very interesting because this is where Žižek situates his understanding of the problem of something and nothing, and his engagement with the concept of less than nothing. This impossibility of relation is how Žižek deploys the dialectical machinery to approach this creation ex nihilo, this creation of something out of nothing. The way he goes about it is innovative. To be specific on the question of something/nothing, I have often thought that since the emergence of modern science, that it could have been the case that when we developed the technology to probe into the deepest levels of reality, that eventually we would have seen looking back at us, the Absolute Other (God). That is not how it turned out, but it could have been that way. In quantum mechanics the fundamental level of being is not something, not an absolute substantial eternity, but the eternity of a virtuality, the paradoxical quantum void, this double vacuum, this very strange philosophical entity. The way Žižek engages with this is that he does not ask the standard question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ (a question emphasized throughout modern science), but rather emphasizes ‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’.
Furthermore, Žižek’s engagement with the question ‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’ can be expressed both on the physical level and the human or spiritual level. Why is there this absence on both sides? Why is there this void on the physical side where nature seems to be incomplete, indeterminate, unknowing of its own self, it is kind of like the unconscious as a form of knowledge that does not know itself. Quantum mechanics as nature’s own unconscious. And on the other hand, why are we these beings who strives for immortality and eternity and all of these metaphysical things with religion and philosophy, and yet we all die, we all face the void of our own dissolution. This is what Žižek is getting at, and trying to think this coincidence simultaneously: the fact that not only are humans incomplete, but nature is itself incomplete, unable to determine its own-most identity.
In this structure of thought human epistemology (our knowledge), which is commonly only thought of as subjective (‘for-us’), must in fact be inscribed into the object (‘in-itself’). In other words, it could be that the objective in-itself requires the subjective for-us in order to be realized, a space of ‘to-be-determined’ (or overdetermined, by our space of abstraction, or knowing practices). To be clear this does not mean that our knowledge ‘creates reality’, but rather, our knowledge is itself inscribed into the becoming of reality, as ‘an answer’ for the incompleteness of nature. Thus where our incompleteness coincidences with the incompleteness of nature itself we should imagine that our partial and limited engagement with language is the very location where the Absolute reveals itself to itself, and the location where the Absolute seeks completion and closure. Dialectics is simply the form of knowledge that locates itself in this process of becoming, the location of the becoming of spiritual form (or spirit qua spirit).
Now, in the previous representation I may give the impression that I am creating in the symbolic order as some type of linear progressive development; but instead, I want to deploy a meta-level structure of the symbolic order that manifests in a strange twisted circularity which brings to mind the notion of a retroactivity. If you are following my lectures on Less Than Nothing or What Is Sex? what is clear is that these philosophies do not subscribe to a linear progressive ideology but what is emphasized is circularity and the movement of circularity, even the eternity of circularity. But the eternity of circularity is not an ancient perfect circle, but a twisted circularity.
Thus, when I think about these influences of Plato-Hegel-Lacan-Žižek in my philosophical engagement it is not that we are going from Plato to Hegel to Lacan to Žižek in a linear order, but rather we are putting them together in a way that the new transforms the old. Here I would supplement the notion of an action ontology with the notion of retroactive ontology. The notion of retroactivity here is to say that we should not conceive of the production of knowledge in terms of a simple intuitive past-present-future. In this view we think that current generations build on the shoulders of those who came before us. Instead, with the notion of retroactivity we think in terms of its opposite: future-present-past (not past-present-future), where the future directed motion of a subject can transform the past. Consequently, what happens when we flip temporality in the symbolic order is that the future all of a sudden gains the ability to change the past. What this means is that a work that emerges in the future of a historical work can retroactively change that historical work. Instead of totally destroying the works that feel to us outdated, we can instead see the old in the light of the new, where a new thinker, by first working through the old, allows us to see the old in a totally new way.
And this is what I claim can be done with thinkers like Lacan, Hegel, and Plato. In other words, when we think the contemporary understanding of virtual impossibility qua potential, how does this change the way we think about the historical dimensions of the unconscious, movement, and unity or oneness? How can these dimensions of historical thought be re-thought in the light of new presuppositions? We can rethink the one, we can go back to Plato with impossibility, with the unconscious, with movement. We use the new to shed new light on the old, to bring it back to life in a new way.
Now I want to zoom out from my metaontology to the metaontology in a network’s perspective of philosophy as a whole. In a metaontology from the network’s perspective we are asking ourselves: what is philosophy? Does philosophy have an impossibility? Does philosophy have an unconscious? Does philosophy have its own movement? Its own negative unity? In this representation you get a relational view of the symbolic network of philosophy as parts of the becoming of the absolute, and I am not above or below this network, I am also a part of this network, limited just as everyone else. However, what I want to do is to show graphically what happens when we show the level of impossibility-unconscious-movement-oneness in the network there is a different way to represent this metaontology.
The inscription of the impossibility in the symbolic universe around which our minds circulate changes the way we conceive the network dramatically. The reason why I think this is a better representation is that I think it allows us to think the way we struggle to relate to the other. There is a non-relation at the core of the absolute that structures our discourses. You can see this in a lecture, for example, between Slavoj Žižek and Graham Harman. Žižek would emphasize psychoanalytic philosophy and Harman was emphasizing object-oriented philosophy. There is just an inability to relate, there is no way to mediate the two, they simply circle this impossibility, and we have to think the network inclusive of this. It is not just a multiplicity of multiplicities, there is this negative one at the core.
This extends back into time. Can we do an archaeology of knowledge without historical relativism? Can we do an archaeology of knowledge that situates itself in relation to a transhistorical impossibility, that inscribes contingency into its core? Knowledge is still contingent to the obstacles, to the real of a time, but there is still something of the becoming of the absolute here, something which overdetermines our discourse, something which prevents us all from agreeing, from getting on the same page, so to speak. My point of representing these things, is to potentially help you, if you are following along, to play and represent the nature of this symbolic order.
We can even go back to the ancient world to get at the texture of the becoming of the symbolic order throughout history. Some of the questions that come to my mind are: what are the questions that the human mind comes to find of great importance? Why does the human mind come to find these questions of high importance? How do we view these questions today? How was the oneness conceived in Plato’s time or at other networks? You could technically take any thinker from any historical layer and construct your own metaontology. In the same way I am trying to build one from the perspective of Plato-Hegel-Lacan-Žižek, one could easily do this with another layer of thought. The question would be where does this field of thought take you? Can you think something that has never been thought before by playing with a particular curvature?
In order to better capture the geometry of these spaces we may need to play with a different metaphor. In the previous representations you saw networks which are representations inspired by rhizomatic thinking, multiplicity thinking, and so forth. But one might also find it useful to use the metaphor of curved spacetime in Einstein, because in Einstein’s curved spacetime, and in the Riemannian manifold, things are all relational. However, what is interesting about Einstein’s spacetime is that there are impossibilities, singularities. This may be useful for conceiving the history of the symbolic order. Each map as territory is the becoming of all of these webs of thought across time, and the way in which they curve and warp the space around their own point of impossibility. We are all becoming as a part of this manifold of the symbolic order. In this way we can think relations of being plus impossibility. This impossibility is not transhistorical in the fact that it doesn’t change, it changes, but rather the impossibility of the time informs the possible relations. The possible relations are informed by its internal points of impossibility.
With this view we can at the same time think the symbolic in terms of effectivity. Again, instead of map as not territory, map as territory. So instead of thinking about the way in which Newton’s map does not get at the real of the in-itself of nature, we can think of the way in which Newton’s map transforms humans into space travelling astronauts. That is a transformation that is symbolically mediated: humans went to the moon on the field of Newtonian epistemology. Indeed Newtonian epistemology is a good example of the way in which the impossible itself changes, informing new possible relations. That is a question for the world.
In terms of a question for the self what are the consequences of inscribing epistemology into ontology vis-a-vis the attempt of the self to objectivize itself? When we try to think this object of curving all the symbolic textures in on themselves, we get a metaontology that is really a reflection of us trying to understand ourselves in the deepest sense.
From this understanding of metaontology we can dive into dialectics proper. Dialectics are basically a conversation or discourse mediated by reason and aiming for truth. As mentioned it is not a truth that is some fixed substantial entity, but something rather that requires in our discourse that we stabilize it across time. That is the point of our conversation. If we can raise our minds to the highest levels of reason, what we are doing is participating in an eternal act, of trying to understand what is true, about being, about thought, and their interrelation.
What Plato’s starting point is with dialectics, is that in our discursive reality and in our phenomenal reality, what tends to happen is that we fall into oppositional determination. We fall into contradictory appearances that structure a lot of conflict and that structure a lot of misunderstanding: our inability to see the way in which we are singularly entangled as one, basically. The oppositional determination that stimulates and motivates Plato from the beginning is the oppositional determination between religious zealotry and nihilistic sophistry. Religious zealotry has this idea of the eternal one that exists independently of us, for all time. God basically as the ultimate reason. The nihilistic sophist has the idea that there is no meaning in the universe, that we are just here for no reason. We are in the realm of doxa. There is no invariant truth that you can organize your world by, whereas the religious subject absolutely believes in an invariant truth: the truth of God. This is the discourse that Plato wanted to approach with the dialectic in a more sophisticated way. This is philosophy for Plato.
But the dialectic is a general tool beyond that particular duality. As is common knowledge there are dualities everywhere: light and dark, order and chaos, masculine and feminine, life and death, peace and war, health and sickness, temporality and eternity, movement and stillness, something and nothing, and so on. The dialectic is what helps us to entangle the paradoxes of these dualities, allows us to approach them in discourse in a way that sheds light on their singular coincidence. The general mechanism by which dialectics approaches this is the thesis, anti-thesis and the synthesis. It is a type of triadic logic. And the important dimension is that in the geometry of the triangle, the third term, the synthesis, is never a complete closure, it is rather that the synthesis leads to new oppositional determination. It sets forth a new motion of coincidental structure. The one cannot hold itself in time, and so divides.
We could give a quick example of dialectical thought with Plato’s original query: the thesis might be ‘there is a God’ (One); the anti-thesis might be ‘there is no God’ (no One); and the synthesis might be (through historical time): ‘there is a not-One’. The not-One is the coincidence of the presence-absence. In this way you can see the way in which a thesis, anti-thesis can be brought to a new reconciliation. But this reconciliation does not end the process of reason, but presents to us a new field with new questions.
Thus, the why of dialectics is basically to avoid freezing your reason. In many discourses people tend to frame their discourse as if it is frozen in eternity. They try to frame their discourse as if now they got it, now they have solved it. What dialectics forces us to confront is the movement of reason. There is no system of thought that can close itself off and complete itself. I think that when we submit in some sense to the dialectical process, when we submit to the fact that every conjecture that every reason we can give is not the final reason, but just another conjecture reason in the series of reasons which will continue indefinitely, we don’t necessarily give up truth, but we recognize that the truth is our very path of becoming, that we are the temporal nihilation of the truth (or the truth is temporal nihilation).
So as philosophers interested in the dialectic are able to approach with a type of rigour and a type of novelty injected into our discourse, is that we are studying the discursivity of historical forms of consciousness. For me it is so invigorating in order to do this because you can take a field of thought and you can see above or below the oppositional determination that structure the characters of this field. I think there are some people who do this really well. What stands out to me is the literature and discourse in quantum gravity, and I have been paying attention to the forms of consciousness that are becoming in this field. I love studying the way two figures in this field will approach the same problem differently, or see the way in which two forms of consciousness are producing each other. The problem is the very way they are interacting and relating to each other. If there can be a synthesis between them, there very characters, the opposition of their characters, would dissolve.
But what I want to emphasize is the fact that the genius of Plato and Hegel is that the very structure (what separates them) of their discourse is higher order. Their own work, the dialectic is built into it. In other words, their work is triadic. The very structure of their work is a dialectical discourse mediated by thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. This is the machinery of their ideas, and how they are deployed. Thus when you become very sophisticated with your understanding of the dialectic, this can be infused into your work in a very meaningful way, in a very creative way.
The first example is Plato. In Plato’s metaontological triad, as many people know, you have the world of the physical, you have the mental world, and you have God, the Absolute. This is the structure of the Cave Allegory. The physical world is the cave world, the illusory multiplicity of phenomena that the mind is perceiving. What is truth, what is good, and what is beautiful, is the One, is God, and that reality is suprasensible. God is not our sensations (our sight, our smell, our taste, our hearing, our touch). God is the ‘mind’s eye’, the suprasensible. Many different spiritual traditions talk about this, but in dialectical materialism we focus on mediating the emergence of truth, as understood in terms of the purely formal surface of an event.
Thus, you can see why thinkers like Badiou and Zizek would separate democratic materialism from dialectical materialism. In democratic materialism there are just bodies and languages, but in dialectical materialism there are bodies, languages and truth. It is not just a pure multiplicity of multiplicities, it is not just anything goes, it is not just that anything is correct. There is an up, there is a direction, there is a way forward, there is an orientation. This is in relation to the suprasensible truth of reality. The dialectic is trying to understand the truth of this. In relation to the Platonic One, even if the Platonic One has a difficult time understanding movement or the unconscious or impossibility (as we are trying to inscribe now), we do have this idea of the truth in Plato as a oneness that orients us. In Plato’s Parmenides he states that ‘Human nature was originally One and we were originally whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Love.’ This is what Badiou and Žižek and dialectical materialists don’t want to give up, which is this unity of love, this driving or motive force, or this structuring force of love. We see the one in the way we find our true life desire, the way it structures the way we want to relate and the way we want to become, and the way we want express our spirit.
The axiom of Plato is thus ‘monism’ (‘there is only one’). Everything is all one, somehow. But as states what Plato cannot approach is the movement of this one. I am tempted to give some speculations on how Plato’s triangle is connected in movement. We could easily situate Plato’s ontology (as Roger Penrose does in The Road to Reality), in the modern cosmology, with the Big Bang as the birth of the physical, as God giving birth to the physical, and then the physical giving rise to the mental, and then the mental returning to God around the One. Here even Christian ontology is helpful. It is still possible to hold this ontology with logic. But even if you don’t buy those speculations, the importance of going back to Plato, instead of starting with someone like Buddha, is that Plato emphasizes there is a truth in the appearances, but it must be dialectically mediated, it must be understood by better understanding our maps of meaning. This is the elementary distinction separating Buddha and Plato.
In Buddhism the appearances are just appearances, and there is no truth in the appearances. There is no truth in the dialectical mediation of opposites, you just disappear from the appearances. That does not resonate with me. That means I have to give up my quest and my engagement with knowledge and history. That does not strike me as the truth.
Now, what happens with Hegel and Lacan is really a complexification and a sophistication of the Platonic ontology, but it is the same structure. There is still the triad, but the nature of the triad is different. With Hegel’s triad you have nature-logic-spirit, and with Lacan you have imaginary-symbolic-real. You can see there is a structural overlap between nature-imaginary; logic-symbolic; spirit-real. This overlap is not precise, not totally equivalent, there are important differences, but they are comparable structures, some rough homology. The point of Hegel’s triad is to study historical phenomenology, to study the movement of the One. In this dialectic the spirit becomes in relation between logic and nature, it is a logical sublation of nature, the externalization of the idea, and its return to itself. That process constitutes spirit, this externalization and return to itself, and its own center of gravity. In the process of this relation between logic and nature, what Hegel would say is real, is what is left of nature after logic has sublated it. Once you have sublimated a natural object, you can let it go. What remains is what your logic has yet to sublimate, what is left for your logic to confront in a more engaging way.
With Lacan’s triad he is more interested in human psychology and specifically psychoanalyzing human psychology from the perspective of the unconscious, and the relation between all of these terms change in subtle ways that are worth going into. As you can see with nature becoming imaginary you have this idea that we are not of course not getting into the things-in-themselves of nature, what we are really getting at is the way our mental territory is reflected to us as an otherness and the way we do that is through symbolic operation. In symbolic operation we try to realize something real. Then the most important thing to know about the dimension of the real is a kind of constitutive absent or obstacle which internally structures the symbolic in some sense. The relationship between these three terms captures the way in which one can read Lacan or one can read Hegel, or one can read Žižek.
When thinking this triad we are trying to mediate the dialectical unity of the opposites. We can formalize this with the formula A=B. The important point to understand is that A and B co-constitute each other. The movement between A and B is that if you took away A, B would disappear; if you took away B, A would disappear. They depend on each other. They only exist in relation to each other, or more precisely, they only exist in the impossibility of their relation to each other. That is the core of oppositional determination. The dialectic operates in some sense not from the position of A, or B, but C. C is a fuzzy indeterminate space, which is not a higher positivity, but you know that C has done its work when A and B have dissolved as contradictory semblances. The mistake of self-consciousness is thinking A is true, or B is true; instead of realizing that A is true in the way you are relating to B, and B is true in the way you are relating to A. But neither of them are true in the sense you are getting at it dialectically, since both will dissolve in the mediation of the dialectic.
To demonstrate what I’m talking about in a historically raw way, we could analyze the becoming of religious and secular subjectivity. With religious subjectivity we can say that A at first could not equal itself (A). This is operationalizing Johann Fichte’s I=I, or I=Impossible Image. Of course for religious subjectivity you would say the notional ideal would be something like Jesus, the perfect subject. And A=not-A means that the religious subject cannot equal Jesus, it is too hard. There is an asymmetry between the actual and virtual identities. Because of that the identity of A transforms into B. That means that the religious subject becomes the secular subject. With the secular subject, in its most extreme manifestation, might be something like who is carrying our World Communism, or the Global Utopia (the secular subject that has the ultimate notion of a world peace and harmony, etc.). In our culture we are approaching the impossibility of this identity, we are approaching the impossibility of the naivety of the secular subject, the idea that the secular subject can participate in a secular utopia. In that sense B has to pass into C, but it is unclear in our culture what C is. We are in this indeterminate fuzzy space, and the identity of C has not yet emerged.
On the level of the collective we have the same pattern because the subject and the collective of subject mirror each other. The religious subject make the Church and the Church’s ideal is the Kingdom of Heaven, but A does not equal A. Thus by forming the Church you do not form the Kingdom of Heaven, and this corrodes the identity of the Church from within. From this you might get the State, so A turns into B. But the problem is that the ideal of the State becomes Secular Utopia, and this is still very much alive, the idea that the State can bring forth secular utopia. However we are reaching a limitation of this ideal and maybe the State is corroding from within because of this impossibility. In the same way that we don’t know the C of the subject, we don’t know the C of the next stage is. We don’t know what is to come in the subject and its collective organization. But this is a practical demonstration of the dialectic because it allows us to understand the structure of history, and brings us to this little piece of the real that we cannot think.
Now that we have worked through the foundations of the dialectic we can give some concrete examples. These examples are just meant to be thought provoking. I want to present the field as I see the field and I just want it to be stimulating or thought provoking, to take these oppositional determinations and play with them. Maybe new thought will emerge from this engagement. The first oppositional determination is the oppositional determination between quantum mechanics and general relativity (A = B and we cannot think C). We cannot think the coincidence between the micro and the macro. The consequences of resolving the micro and the macro would be a totally different understanding of the universe. We have reached our limitations in abstractions as of now.
The micro world in its incompletion, its uncertainty, its indeterminate, its fuzzy, involving paradoxes of observation, somehow what is objective is inscribed into what is subjective. In the macro you have a physical world that is not situated in an absolute spacetime background, but something that is relational, dynamical spacetime, relational dynamical manifold that is locally or relativistically constituted. Spacetime can emerge from nothing and disappear into nothing. These are strange things that we have not been able to think.
Then you have the oppositional determination that is the oppositional determination that structured my emergence into deep thinking. Who I am became in relation to this oppositional determination, this A=B, this impossibility of thinking the evolution of change and God as eternity. This oppositional determination does structure a lot of thinking. Evolutionary thinking in cosmic or universal evolution where the concept goes everywhere and can describe everything, it is like a universal acid. But there is still something that persists in the religious eternity, at least on the level of our discourse, in our historical engagement. The religious eternity is a real that never changes, it is a real that persists, it is a perfect unity, it is a perfect identity, it guarantees being as a unity, and this is something that really causes a clash between evolutionary thinkers and religious thinkers, and we cannot yet think the coincidence of these structures.
Then we have the oppositional determination between sciences and humanities. In the sciences you have external observation, formulating tests that can be repeated, situating ourselves in relation to a knowable nature, a collective objectivity that we can all verify. In the humanities you have more emphasis on the experience of subjectivity, you have what is empathized that reality is most fundamentally a story or a narrative, not necessarily objective. Reality is more interpretational, more open to your interpretation, there can be a multiplicity of interpretations and all are somehow valid. In this structure one side is not wrong and one side is not right, there is a more complex relation.
Related to the oppositional determination between sciences and humanities is the oppositional determination between analytical-empirical philosophy and continental-transcendental philosophy. The differences between these forms of philosophy can be found in the idea that analytic philosophy emphasizes a mathematically rigorous knowledge that we can demonstrate to all linguistic subjectivity, emphasizing symbolic logic, collectively verifiable logics. In contrast the continental transcendental philosophy emphasizes a universality internal to our phenomenal world but it is an experience beyond logic, an illogic internal to logic. The illogic at the heart of logic. That means they are interested in experiences that cannot be shared between subjectivities but they are undeniable unrepeatable experiences (evading precise formulation). This is a difference in communication where the analytic camps what to emphasize information that can be universally communicated; whereas the transcendental camps want to emphasize information that is universally experienced even if it is not communicable.
These images are inherently provocative. The symbols represent the far ends of the political spectrum. You have the far left communism and far right fascism and there is a huge middle ground in between. What the far end of the left empathizes and what the far right emphasizes is worth reflecting on what these opposites are. For communism there is the emphasis on universal communitarian values, imaging a world beyond capital, beyond nation-states, a world that is humanist and international in its principles. It is about the inherent potential of humans to be far higher on a self-actualization level then we are now. For communists history is tending towards a utopian or a universal humanist international order and we are mediating that process.
On the far right, fascism, you have this idea of a concrete return to national and ethnic tradition. You have a return to a type of conservative foundation, the logic that what worked in the past, can work in the future. In that sense you have basically an opposite ethos and temporality. The opposite temporality operates on a retrotopia, the idea of re-enacting a past that never existed. A good example of this emerged in the United States with ‘Make America Great Again’, the idea of re-actualizing something that only exists in your imagination as a mythical past. The conservative mind does operate on that principle more, whereas the progressive mind operates more on creating something that never existed before even if it has certain knowable properties.
The next oppositional determination is between individuation and collectivism. Individuation would emphasize the becoming of the psychological unit, the irreducible individuality of a psychology and emphasizing its potential to become different, its potential to become other, is a huge mystery. We don’t know the consequence of mass individuation or extreme individuation. Of course there are figures of consciousness that have individuated very deeply but it is a territory we are going to be walking in a new way in the 21st century. On the other side you have collectivization notions which are more social notions of what is good for society as a whole, social becoming as a whole, networks of people, identities and experiences that transcend the individual. This leads to thinking in a way that does not atomize the individual, that we are all linked together in a field. We can think in terms of a transindividuation.
The next oppositional determination is sexual, between masculinity and femininity. The way I think about this is that there are sexual fields that are not connected to biology but they are still modes of expressing one’s spirit in a sexual way. I think it is worth working through this oppositional determination because even though the masculine and the feminine don’t map onto biology there is still a meta-level structure in the masculine and feminine that emerges in sexual interaction.
In metaphysics the masculine tends to be represented by a polarity of order, structure, authority, wisdom, tradition, temporality. The feminine is represented by chaos, potentiality, love, care, surrender and nature. I think that going forward these polarities are undergoing radical transformation and we will need to rethink them.
The next oppositional determination is between matter and mind, physical and spiritual. The atomistic view of the universe, reducing everything to particles, that everything is made out of atoms and governed by physical law. Then the mental view is that everything is reducible to spirit, everything falls into consciousness. In this view what governs the universe is not laws, but perhaps freedom of spiritual becoming.
The next oppositional determination is life and death, which overdetermines our whole existence. We are alive, we didn’t choose to be alive, we appeared here, we appear to be living systems that are based on biological principles just like other organisms. There are differences in language and self-consciousness, which gives us a self-referential architecture that the other organisms don’t have. Then on the other side you have death, you have the fact that we are finite mortals doomed to a realm of inexistence, that every human that has ever been born has died, and that no matter how much you try to take care of your self or know, death is waiting for us. We will eventually fall to decay and disorder no matter what we do. Thinking the coincidence of these two, or their immanence in their interaction, this is another important thing to think.
Finally, something versus nothing. This is the final oppositional determination I’m going to discuss. On the one hand something, the elementary existence of anything at all. Whether you are conceiving something in terms of substance, things, objects, relations, or just a presence, existence itself. On the other side you have nothing, usually referred to as a void, or a vacuum, or a fundamental absence, or death as nothingness. I think that in some sense modern science and Buddhist spirituality operate on this distinction whether they know it or not. Science operates on the something, and Buddhism operates on the nothing, that the appearances are insubstantial. There is a coincidence of science and spirituality here that is worth pulling out logic to make sense of it.
That was my tour through oppositional determination. Now towards the end of the lecture I want to emphasize some final principles that help me to deploy dialectical thinking concretely. I would encourage you to think for yourself these oppositional determinations that structure our field. We do need a return to metaphysical thought because we have been in a world where on the one hand you have ontologies of quantum cosmology and the brain sciences, which really aim to eliminate traditional philosophy; and then you have a type of relativism or constructivism, which structures a lot of cultural studies, which aims to eliminate any reference to a real absolute. I think that these fields are exhausting themselves, and it is time to once again think the absolute and reintroduce metaphysics into the conversation, to rethink ontologies.
On the one hand it seems more and more that Western thinkers are tending towards Eastern metaphysics. I think that this is happening because of the failure of Plato. If Plato and monism is ‘there is only one’; then what non-dualism represents as its opposite represents is ‘one undivided without a second’. What non-dualism thus means is that the world of appearances (of duality) are a fake. The truth in this view is the ‘un-division’, the truth has nothing to do with the division. There is no space for dialectical thought here, because you just emphasize the inner void. There is no meaning of the appearances. The dualities are illusory and you should recede into the void. In dialectical thinking there is A=B with the C term (where parts are struggling for the whole), but in eastern metaphysics there is no C term. The C term represents that when you engage dialectically you change the whole. This is what Hegel means by the Absolute at war with itself. Our partial engagement changes the whole. The whole manifests through the parts. In the eastern view you have struggling parts but the whole is at rest. This is really a metaphysical difference.
But at the same time this is a really good challenge for Plato. ‘There is only one’ has become unbelievable. Maybe it is impossible to conceive or experience the One.
Now my counter to Eastern metaphysics would be a revision of monism to ‘non-monism’. The axiom I would deploy here is ‘more than one, less than two’. This axiom means that there is a fundamental division and otherness, and takes it seriously. Here we focus on the divided subjectivity, emphasizing that there is something in the symbolic chain, something about language, about logos, that continues to move even after you have deconstructed it. Even after you have gone into your spiritual world, there is something about oppositional determination that is essential for understanding the truth of being, and the truth of history. As you can see it is the impossibility of the two to become one. The impossibility at the core of the two trying to become one. But it is our struggle in oppositional determination, our partial limited engagement, which unites us with the Absolute, as I emphasized at the beginning of the lecture.
Consider all of the oppositional determination that structures modernity: quantum mechanics/general relativity; evolution/religion; science/humanities; communism/fascism; individuation/collectivism; masculinity/femininity; life/death; matter/spirit; something/nothing. What non-monism suggests is that these oppositional determinations can only be reconciled with the historical work of the subject. What non-monism is saying that there is a point in engaging with the realm of opposites, its not ‘just appearances’, that there is effectivity in the appearances, basically. This is what the Hegelian axiom that the absolute is ‘not only substance, but also subject’ means.
Congratulations if you are still with me. That is the end of the lecture on dialectical thinking. Thank you for sticking with me if you’re still with me. I feel like dialectical thinking is a really useful tool, to operationalize it. I think that it is worth the effort. I think your ability to engage with the other, and your own otherness, will be heightened. Your ability to make nuanced interpretations of fields can be heightened. This is independent of what field you are in, as I showed, these oppositional determinations transcend any boundaries. It is in physics, and biology, and religion, and everything. I hope that is what I have been able to show in this lecture. Once again thanks for sticking around and I hope you return next time.