Category Archives: Philosophy of Language

Ontology — Badiou and Merleau-Ponty — Part I

“Why should I read Badiou?” is no longer the question — “Why wouldn’t you read Badiou?” – Dr. Jonathan Widell.

I think Badiou’s thought is often initially difficult to engage with partly because it is not very obvious how it relates to other ontologies. In order to show how this relation, I thought I would put Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished attempt at an ontology into dialogue with Badiou’s Being and Event.

M-P takes the same starting point as Heidegger: Being is said in many different senses. The recent advances in science increasingly broaden the scope of what is said to exist. Stars are said to exist, though their light takes years to reach us; particles are said to exist, though they may exist for a fraction of a second; I exist and you, my reader, exist. Can we say that all of them exist in the same sense? Though physicists acknowledge that there are many different kinds of beings, it does not think that it is necessary to develop an ontology that would take these differences into account. If a being can be measured, then it exists and that which cannot be measured must be cast aside.

Merleau-Ponty is not satisfied with the naïve ontology that satisfies the physicist, nor is he satisfied with the widespread view that only science can speak truth. Merleau-Ponty holds that the answers to these questions are extremely complex. Propositions like, “all we are is chemical reactions, all we are is a series of objects” are flawed because they ignore our experience of different variations of beings. In this case, human beings affect us differently, and with greater power, than other beings. I can say that humanity is one animal among others, but there is no question that the experiences I have with other people influence me far more than those of animals -– sometimes their absence (like a death) affects us more than their presence. And I can say that all people are, at bottom, are objects ( a person is an object just as a table is an object) and that I can choose to feel how I want to feel, but when I look at my day to day experience of people, I realize that I do not interact with someone as I would a pencil, or desk, or even the stars, nor do I think of myself as an object. For example, I say that the table is next to the chair, but I do not say that my hand is next to the glass. These types of examples, analyzing these common ways of speaking, continually arise in Merleau-Ponty’s work as a possible indication of what is true. This leads M-P to use ordinary speech as a possible tool for grappling with questions such as “what is Being? What is true? How are beings structured?”

The Editor, Claude Lefort, writes this description of Merleau-Ponty’s work in the forward (one of the best forwards I have ever read, btw):

“But if speech, which is born from silence, can seek its conclusion in silence and make that silence not be its contrary, this is because between experience and language there is in principle, exchange; it is because experience is not something one could coincide with, because it bears a transcendence, since already, in itself, it is differentiation, articulation, structuration, and because in some way it calls for language; it is because language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated, because beyond the movement of the pure significations there remains the silent mass of the discourse, that which is not of the order of the sayable, and because the greatest merit of expression is to disclose this continuous passage form the word to being and from being to the word, or this double openness of the one upon the other. To think through this exchange is no doubt what The Visible and the Invisible was to devote itself to, at the end.” Xxix

In other words the study and interpretation of being. Interpreting being meant, for Merleau-Ponty, a proper account of being’s exchange with the language of our experience, and in experience in general. And perhaps the difficulty of elucidating the meaning of this exchange led Merleau-Ponty to ask whether or not a new style of language was needed in order to study wild and brute being. Though he hesitant to conclude that language was needed to be used in a new way, he was confident that only a method of inquiry that let the things themselves speak could be possible by departing from experience and all of the variations that are found in it. He believed that fruitful research was no longer possible where research departed from assumed categories like God, nature, or humanity because this type of research often detaches thought from its experience and cease to be a faithful interpretation of the world. Thus, a large part of his work and method focused on the interrogation and clarification of ambiguities that tangled up better paths towards a truthful exegesis of being.

The bulk of M-P’s unfinished ontology focuses in on the true and those “various vibrations of being” that produce the true and how the true can remain, despite the presence of deception, lies and the false which throw the true into question. In other words, how we can have the world (yes something is true) and yet not have it (moments later we find it is false)? How can we have a world that does not close in on over itself? In the end, Merleau-Ponty, the famed phenomenologist, was no longer satisfied describing the world. He died before he could finish the project.

Let’s turn to Badiou. Being able to say “what is true” does indeed play a central role in Badiou’s work, e.g., determining the validity events and looking at the state of the situation and so on. But he does so by incorporating mathematics. At first glance this might seem contrary to Merleau-Ponty’s project.

Does not mathematics occupy itself to the fullest extent with the measurable? And would it not be a step in the wrong direction, towards the naïve physicist, to place mathematics as the definitive mode of ontological exploration?

However, Mathematics has no objects – it merely formalizes relations. It is grounded upon the central idea that “insofar as it exists, then ….” The requirements for a being’s existence are whatever one would like them to be. But those requirements are not found in mathematics. Mathematics is simply there to formalize these requirements. Hence, the gap between knowing whether something exists and the meaning of these existing things might mean is traversed in an instant by mathematics.

Without losing any real substance of M-P’s ontology, one could easily imagine that it occupies itself entirely with the motto of mathematics: “insofar as it exists…” What does existence mean? What is it? How can I know what either mean? Primarily concerned with proofs, mathematicians tend to leave these questions to philosophers.

To put it as simply as possible: mathematics are capable of formalizing any ontology. And so far, set theory, more specifically, Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory seems to be the most adequate, according to Badiou. Insofar as there are beings in the world, mathematics can formalize them. The world, though, is that which is made up of objects. Which is where physics comes in. Physics is concerned only with objects. Mathematics merely formalizes the relations between these objects.

The final answer for what an object is is rather difficult to find in the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. But they are able to talk about them. They are capable of having a discourse on objects, beings and truth without too much difficulty. The difficulty lies in finding definitive answers. This is why they can’t be said to be “doing physics.” They are not speaking purely about the relationship objects have to one another.  They are concerned with objects and beings, insofar as they exist for us, that is, insofar as they matter to us.

Merleau-Ponty’s demand for a new language to speak more rigorously about Being might be met in the work of Badiou. Indeed, Badiou does speak about Being in a new way. And Badiou explicitly states that his work is not about the world, which deals with objects: it is about discourse. Discourse is meant in the broadest possible sense. This discourse is about our experience of the world and how we communicate this experience. And since how I speak about the world affects my relationship with it, the better my discourse, the better I can engage with beings insofar as they exist. Or as mentioned earlier in the quotation: “language is also experience, because there is, as Merleau-Ponty writes so well, a being of language in which the enigma of being is repeated.”

In sum, Badiou follows Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty by stressing the importance of Die Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein. It revealed our incapacity to fully declare and define what Being is in its many vibrations. But Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were not successful in finding any sort of answer to the question. The success their work has lies primarily in keeping the question of Being open which promotes a certain ethos of understanding, a perspective that moves back and forth between ignorance and knowledge and enjoying a kind of rest in this movement. Badiou also accepts this position. But he wants to know how we are able to distinguish between beings and the saying of being in many senses. Instead of the question “What is meant by the fact that we say beings exist in many senses?” he asks “How do we distinguish between two beings? How do we distinguish between many beings and one being?” To answer this, he turns to mathematics.

Memorizing Vocabulary

Language learning question: Even when the method, level of engagement and level of importance seem to be equivalent, why are some words consistently more difficult to remember than others?

Might it have to do with one’s active vocabulary in their mother tongue? As in, if I use the word “hopefully” a lot in English, learning an equivalent will be easily integrated into the foreign language.
A remedy to the problem is probably just adding more cues to the flash card. But I’m curious why there is this problem in the first place.

Music as Language — structured thought without content

Recent discussion on this blog has prompted me to think about how much music really is like a language.

Language is constituted by syntax, grammar, structure, adjectives and so on; this seems to be basically all that language is. And music, too, has all of these things.

One can compose a sonata where one theme struggles against another. The result is often one where the initial theme is transformed a new. Beethoven’s music often exemplifies this idea. For instance, his fourth piano concerto, second movement. Occasionally, this dialectical movement between the demanding orchestra and the pleading, comforting words of the piano are believed to be Beethoven’s musical realization of Plato’s dialectical method, which Beethoven was probably reading at the time of this composition. In contrast to Plato, we have no content, we have no definition of Justice that must be tested against another. With Beethoven’s concerto, each theme is anonymous. What we do have is the fact that the piano is finally able to convince the orchestra to agree with its serene idea. One can easily make up a story to go along with it: the shepherd David comforting the raging king Saul with his harp. In any case, we don’t know. We only have the struggle. We do not know what the struggle is about. The explicit meaning escapes us.

So, music does not, however, have the same relatively fixed meaning that nouns have in language, one of its essential cores. Still, bits of pieces of music carry with them connotations derived from context. More generally, specific genres of music are associated with certain peoples or genres of art. Wagner’s late operas were composed in such a way that specific characters or themes received their own motif. These associations provided the listener with new ways of deciphering what was happening on stage. More broadly, Wagner’s music was also played during Nazi propaganda videos. As a consequence, his music is associated with anti-Semitism (which Wagner was. Ironically, Zizek claims that Wagner’s music actually epitomizes the wandering Jew).

One could easily imagine a musical composition that could carry this even further where a Wagnerian theme would struggle against a Jewish klezmer theme. The struggle would be easily recognizable as the Nazi’s struggling to wipe out the Jewish people.

But these examples with such obvious connotations are exceptions rather than the rule. The explicitness of these kinds of connotations are actually quite few and far between. Often, the connotations are rather subtle and are lost on those who have not spent many hours with the work. For instance, upon the first hearing of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, we don’t understand that the aria Mein Teuer Heiland is composed as a pastorale (Christ the shepherd), where the believer (bass soloist) asks the Christ nailed to the cross if he has redeemed the whole world. While the believer petitions Jesus, a choir sings a chorale with text of the realized eschatology of the church, nor does one immediately grasp that when the believer is asking if the world is redeemed, the word redeemed (Erlösung) wraps around the chorale’ affirmative answer in continuous sixteenth notes. Thus, Bach emphasizes the scope, steadfastness and persistence of this redemption. There are many other examples of this kind of work in this aria, and Bach’s work in general, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

The point I’m trying to make is that music contains the structure of language without much of the content. The content that does become associated with music is extremely unstable and often only understood by a few. One can use music to have a nuanced conversation in purely musical terms, about musical terms. But one cannot have a nuanced conversation that is not about music with music.

If language structures thought, then, what is structured thought without explicit content? Is it merely an invitation to fill the empty envelope of sound with whatever content one likes?

What’s the point of morality?

I’ve avoided using the word “moral” for quite sometime. I’ve never found it helpful in discussions. I feel like when people talk about what is “morally” acceptable, they are talking about some sort of universal judgement. But by using the word “moral” in some form, they distance themselves from talking about the particular situation in more detail. Maybe I’m wrong. Are there situations in which the word “moral” adds clarity, nuance, or, really, anything that could be said without using the word?

The Selfish Beetle

Recently I had a discussion about what makes a choice “rational.” My interlocutor held the position that if a choice made sense to the one making the choice, then the choice, was, in fact a “rational” decision — even within the context of suicide. “If it makes sense to me, then it is a rational decision.”

Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box came to mind.

I couldn’t remember exactly how it went. So I was unable to use it as a good example to point to the collective meaning of words. I watched it again and I forgot that the beetle in a box also addresses the annoying proposition: “Everything that we do is selfish” In any case, the discussion was a long and enjoyable one. I won’t reproduce it here. But here is the video.

The Power of Names

How we name things fundamentally shapes the way we interact with the world. There are a few good examples that I often fall back on in order to demonstrate this point. But this might be the best example I have encountered in a very long time. The article is easy to read and pretty much speaks for itself.

http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/how-smart-language-helped-end-seattles-paralyzing-bikelash