Exchange between Scott and Wood
by Charles Scott
presented at the Vanderbilt Philosophy Colloquium, September 24 2004
As I hope many of you have discovered, a conversation with David Wood can be a memorable experience with lasting, sometimes interruptive impact. I remember the specific settings of talks with him, not because the surroundings were exceptional but because the intensity of our engagement gave indelibility to its site. Those occasions have a common aspect in my experience: a drawing movement into a conversation that feels open and exploratory with shifting boundaries and a sense of new and undetermined territory. At first in these engagements I am tempted to squint as though I were being drawn with increasing velocity into a space that can't quite see. Not so much like driving at night and attempting to see in advance of my headlights as like having a new region open up before me with things coming into view that I haven't seen before. David's imaginative thought often draws me into such regions, and draws with a peculiar kind of force that does not require conformity or concession or agreement so much as it provides an impetus to play with options, to consider alternatives to favored concepts, and, if truth be told, to break a few rules of good sense and see if something usually obscure comes more clearly in view.
I remember one conversation we had on translation. We talked about carrying over, carrying away, tradition, repetition and replacement, reading and remembering. We began looking up words and their histories, words that speak of "trans-" —transmute, for example, (change from one form or substance to another) transform (metamorphose), transcend (to cross over or ascend beyond), transgress (to go beyond limits, to overpass boundaries, to break or violate a command, such as transgressing the limits of forms and meanings of a language in translating it), transient (ephemeral, passing beyond itself, which seems to describe the act of translating). In the process we came full circle to the word, translate, which is a translation of the Latin transferre. Transferre is a translation of the Greek, Metaphero. These three words may be translated as meaning to carry across an interval or divide, to transfer something, to move it to a difference place or to move it definitively into a different being — something that is translated, whether a word or a person, never remains unchanged. Translating persistently and strangely opens up differences in efforts to establish sameness of meaning. It brings with it slippage and departure as well as communication. And usually if people know what is being translated, there is a sense of loss in translated presentation. We wondered in the midst of thinking of these things how our thinking of translation is itself a translational event, an event that carries over and communicates more than a repetition, one that communicates, perhaps, something untranslatable, like transferring a Greek text into English does on good translation days.
I face a similar situation now as I address David's book. With all of its interest in liminal interrogations, dangerous intersections, and unlimited responsibility, his book is about experience as it carries over into ways of thinking that occur in the impact of Heidegger's work. It is a regional study in the sense that it focuses on a specific region of experience and thinking in the 20th century. It makes no claim to universality and shows no intention to elevate its region over other philosophical regions and traditions. If you have no interest in Heidegger and the lineage in which his thought occurs there is no reason for you to read this book. David says, however, that those who are engaged by this lineage are in engaged by a complex group of experiences that are as vital as they are elusive and difficult to translate. They are not, in fact, translatable — at least not responsibly translatable — by the unaltered language and conceptual structures that define much of our canonical, Western philosophy. David's descriptive claim is that with Heidegger and the phenomenological lineage comes a decisive turn of experience which Heidegger opened up and with which people are still attempting to come to terms. When I address David's book I am not only addressing that claim. I am addressing also the experience of thinking after Heidegger that he attempts to translate into the words and interpretations that composes his own thought. I will remain mostly on the fringes of David's thought, not translating it so much as commenting on it. But should this turn out to be a good translation day, you and I might occasionally participate in what I am talking about, namely the experience of David's thought. In such an eventuation we would also be thinking with him after Heidegger, and as I will try to show, we would be in the midst of a translational occurrence that intends to be alert to itself.
When we talk about thinking after Heidegger, what are talking about— "Liminal interrogations" is the name of David's beginning in addressing this question. This term "liminal interrogations" means activity that forms a threshold for thought and knowledge, something like an initial uncertainty that is carried by conceptual orders of recognition and reasonable certainty. David describes the activity of liminal interrogations with such words as probing, poking at the lines we have drawn on [conceptual] map[s], and disruption. (1) His thinking after Heidegger begins with a sense of limit, limit not outside of our thought and knowledge but intrinsic to them, intrinsic to the clarity and familiarity that compose our thought and knowledge. "The task of philosophy is to disrupt any and every naturalization of the conjunction of the concept and world." (1)
David's place of beginning for thought is one where concepts translate "the world". His initial sense is doubt about the adequacy of the translations and this doubt is due not only to the difference between the medium of concepts and what they translate, viz. "the world" — the world which the medium carries over to forms of recognition and familiarity. David's doubt is also informed by the "naturalization of the conjunction of the concept and the world." I take "naturalization" to mean here a process by which people begin to assume that there is adequacy of translation where non-conceptual occurrence is transferred to conceptual occurrence. When the attitude, naturalization, informs the nativity — the beginning — of human recognition and thought something basic in the translational occurrence is lost. An interruptive activity is called for, because this attitude of complacency appears to be an intimate part of what people call knowing and thinking, and David finds that when that happens the translational event is obscured. People are unable to respond with intelligent alertness to the transitional threshold where meaningful human engagements begin. Thinking in ways that displace the images and conceptual structures of familiar, often passionately held certainties thus forms a threshold of thought after Heidegger. It's the strange limits of translation — of transgression, transferal, transmutation — that compose what David refers to as liminal. "Interrogations" names a response to this unstable liminality that he finds appropriate. In the phrase, liminal interrogations, we have an initial form of the site and context of responsibility that defines the ethical and passional center of this book. How might people come to think with the eventuation of meaningful occurrences — with the translational nativity of these occurrences — without projecting onto the always liminal eventuation the frames of reference that present it and lose it at the same time? (see 15ff)
In articulating his move into liminal interrogations David makes a claim that persists throughout the book: "Insofar as the world is calculable, and boundaries are fixed, there is no place for philosophy." (16) Calculations are appropriate in many situations, but thinking after Heidegger — and this is a second major claim in the book — has to do with the limits of determination, with incalculability and incompleteness. That means that "thinking" names an activity or movement of mentation comprising alertness and attention that are not completely contained by the limits of representation and meaning. Or, to state the claim negatively, intelligence that remains comfortably within the boundaries of meaningful representation irresponsibly misses the life — the being — of whatever is meaningful: the lives of everything we experience are in excess of their meaningful and represented presence. To lose touch with the incalculable dimension of conceptual translations is to lose touch with the lives of what we experience and know. "The alterity of the other," David writes, "has nothing to do with my understanding of the other's qualities, and everything to do with the interruption wrought by his or her [would David also say "its"??] existence to a narcissistic world". Although I think that the alterity of the other has everything to do with people's understanding of the other's qualities no matter how inadequate the understanding is, and that the interruption of lives is not primarily into narcissistic worlds of desiring individuals — this is a far too subjectively stated interpretation of experience for me — and although I think that in this instance David has projected rather too much ethical meaning and, in a sense, ethical calculation onto liminal beginnings, I want now primarily to notice that David is addressing a way of thinking that is not under the complete jurisdiction of meaning or desire.
Consider, for example, the way David understands repetition in Heidegger's thought. You might recall the importance that Heidegger gives to Wiederholung and Wiederkehr (or retrieve and return). He engages philosophers in his lineage in order to think with them as far as he can, to find the beginnings — the liminal beginnings — and the trajectories in their thinking that best figure more than they can say directly or represent. Those are beginnings and trajectories that convey the lines of translations from non-thought to thought. At his best Heidegger's engagements compose an exchange in which his thought and another's thought translate into an encounter that is not reducible to either thinker's position or a combination of their positions. The engagement composes a determination in which "something" else might be traced, "something", as it were, that seems to manifest itself indirectly in excess to representations. David uses the word, "given", in this context: something outside of representation is given, or gives itself, to be thought. Such an occurrence is similar to a conversation the experience of which gives a transformation for the participants, however slight, of how they were or of what they knew or believed when the conversation began. If I were careful I might be able to call such an experience a transference of what can not be said directly but appears to be traced in the life of the exchange. And traced, perhaps only in the exchange. On Heidegger's terms some people attempt to retrieve or recover such occurrences, not by imitating them or ritualizing their memory but by repeatedly engaging those philosophers whose thought is considerably in excess to what can be re-presented about their thought.
In Chapter Four David engages Heidegger in Heidegger's retrieve of Nietzsche's thought of revenge. David calls it a "return" — Heidegger's return to Nietzsche's thought of revenge. At this point I will report in a representing manner what David does in this part of his book. After noting Heidegger's appropriation of Nietzsche's showing that one kind of pervasive revenge arises from a sense of time as a series of nows in which the past appears as always lost; and after noting the limits of Heidegger's analysis and critical observations: David does some performative repeating of his own. He not only says that Heidegger's process of engaging Nietzsche "demonstrates" a "repetition of [Nietzsche's] singularity" by the way he rethinks the account of time that underlies Nietzsche's thought. He also shows that Heidegger returns to Nietzsche in a way that performs an overcoming of the experience of time that determines the spirit of revenge. As David shows that Heidegger's thought in a spirit of renewal turns beyond the force of revenge, he — David — opens the way for a repetition of Heidegger's thought. It is a translational repetition and way that are informed by David's engagements with Derrida above all but also by Blanchot, Levinas and many others. David's engagement with Heidegger is attuned to the way Heidegger's thought moves — to the way it lives — in its enactment, attuned to its performative and I would add translational dimension. David brings thought in the aftermath of Heidegger's thought to bear in his retrieval of Heidegger. To Heidegger's thought of retrieval, in other words, David gives a transformational dimension that is informed by Derrida's, Levinas' translations of Heidegger's thought. That kind of retrieval is like Heidegger's retrieval of Nietzsche. In both instances something past is translated in the force of its aftermath into something that opens out to a non-determined future.
So we have three aspects of retrieval going on at once: 1) Heidegger's retrieval of Nietzsche that David follows; 2) Nietzsche's retrieval of revenge in Western culture, a retrieval that Heidegger translates in the work that David brings forward; and 3) David's retrieval of Heidegger in a translation that comprises thinking in a lineage that comes after Heidegger. In all three instances the issue concerns a kind of vengefulness, a pattern of inflicting injury on lively events, a pattern that arises from a sense of time without attunement to the continuous opening our of time, its always providing translatability for events in their passage. Time's mortality gives possibility and transfiguration: revenge as Nietzsche thinks of it arises out of a profoundly hampered sense of futurity and death. And it is the transformation of this hampered sense that David finds in Heidegger's engagement with Nietzsche's thought. The transformation of the spirit of revenge also happens in the form and movement of David's retrieval of Heidegger. It's not correctness or the knock-down of Heidegger's or Nietzsche's thought by critical blows that really count for thinking. It's encountering the life of a way of thinking, hearing it, experiencing it, carrying it forward by translational thinking; and, above all for David, what counts is paying attention to the transformative dimensions of thinking: because affirmation of continuing transformation composes a friendly environment for the lives of thought as well as for the lives of other kinds of things. For David, it's as though time with its continuous transmutational futurity is at once a gift and a giver. The gift of time, when it is well thought, translates revenge into life affirmation.
In this context of performativity and transformation David is able to zero in on his book's dominant thought: responsibility.
Life, David says, does not have an extra-temporal end. (76) There is an important sense in which human activity occupies what he calls a "frame" that is an end-in-itself. (76) I am not entirely clear about the meaning of frame in this phrasing but in the context I believe he means that the importance of every practical moment in human lives happens in that moment and not by virtue of an end that has meaning outside of the practical situation. It is not a question of bringing to realization a transcending end. "Rather," he says, "it means that we embody a responsive relation to the impossibility of such completion," completion that the realization of a transcending end would presumably provide. David makes the descriptive claim that there are no definitive grounds by which we can intelligently refer to an authoritative conclusion or fulfillment of a life. The gains and losses, the justice and harm that happen, happen in complex practical situations and are defined, I take it, by specific lineages and values specific to such lineages. Renewal and renewability, not definitive completions or grounds, are what are important. By virtue of the temporality of our lives, David says, "we embody a responsive relation to the impossibility" of definitive completions of events. (76) They are always subject to renewal, retrieval, and transformation. In this groundlessness people can find that they are always in a responsive relation to others, to death, and to the unrepresentable dimension of space-time. (76)
These factors — groundlessness, other, death, and the unrepresentable dimension of space-time — come together in David's thought of performativity. I turn to that thought now in order to consider his thought of responsibility: in a philosophical context performativity and responsibility are not properly separable in David's work. For him, we have seen, thinking is living and hence temporal occurrence that composes a way of life (an ethos). I believe he might call it a lively frame of connection. It begins in response to the four factors of life I just enumerated. Any theoretical distance that a way of thinking might take in something's regard begins in liminal, historical, and disclosive connection with it. So we can say that for better or worse thinking is a practical happening and that abstraction, like personal distance or stand-offishness, is itself a response to the presented world. The point is not that abstraction is bad. The point is that abstraction is a way of responding in connections with things, that theorizing without a sense of performativity amounts to truncated thought. Thought is performative because we are alive in our thinking. David wants to cultivate alertness to this dimension of thought in this dimension of thought. Attention to that kind of responsibility constitutes one part of the constructive agenda in this book.
David says that attention to performativity "to the life of one's thinking" allows life-enhancing renewal. (see 167) "Performativity" names a process of continuous transformation, a "space" David calls it, where there is no definitive finality, where future-oriented retrieval is available, where clutching truths as though they were complete comprises refusal of thought's own temporal life. This is a space of temporal happening where projects of mastery and conclusive calculations are displaced by what I think we can call transitional open-mindedness. Anticipation of renewal trumps a tragic sense of life. Reticence before the future and its lack of determination accompanies assertions. And most apparent is thinking's vital connectedness with living events — its liminal "response-ability." 9168)
You can see the positive interplay among the words vital, temporal performitivity, transformation, and responsibility. They describe a space of translation where past events come to future orientation, where the seemingly dead hand of "it was" and the draw of extremely stable values and conceptual schemes can be changed into ways of thinking that are alert to their own temporal lives and those of whatever appears. David's accepted responsibility is to "reinscribe a dimensionality [of thinking] in which mastery is shown to be conditioned" by ungrounded time and the living impacts of others. (169) The sentence I just quoted from David's book applies to Heidegger, and I believe that it applies equally well to David. His project is like Heidegger's in this respect: he intends to transform representational, i.e. mastering thought by the ways he represents it, by inscribing in it temporal performativity, by showing how representational thought happens non-representationally, by finding in the very life of representational thinking a draw — David calls it an imperative — to an ungrounded, historical, environmentally formed space of mortal temporality. This space composes in David's terms a "transformative resistance to mastery" at the heart of reflective life. (170) He intends for his thought to intensify the question of representation by its force in his discourse. He intends to intensify senses — not only concepts — sense of groundlessness, relation to other, death, and the non-representable dimension of space-time. His responsibility is not to totalize representation in his account of it, not to crystalize its life in a critical schema. He is to intervene in representational presentations of representation, to break into them, retrieve them in their own anticipatory sensibility. He intends to find their own traces of non-representable dimensions, their own pre-representational and liminal engagements. He wants to retrieve representational presentations by means of their own translational events, their figurations of what comes to them transfigured.
In his efforts to find ways to make visible possibilities of transformation David will emphasize in publications since Thinking After Heidegger a movement of stepping back in which a philosopher finds recessive and interruptive dimensions in dominating structures of thought and evaluation. [See his forthcoming book, The Step Back.] In all instances of retrieval and interruption he is looking toward thought as "re-eventing, re-inaugurating" major conceptual operations in our lives. (175) It is an effort that he describes in Heidegger's thought as "animation of the unrepresentable, not its incorporation into a whole." (176)
In a phrase, David is focused by the performative phronesis of thinking. He wants transformations that change the ethos of thinking and thereby change the ways people live — the ways we remember, recognize, anticipate, use, connect with each other, and understand. The change begins with a recognition that thinking is alive and that its life is found in temporal movement. "Such thinking," he says, "has to be able to reopen possibilities, respond to the call of the uncanny, risk unintelligibility, and set aside any assurance of success." (188) We have seen David's efforts to retrieve the meaning of responsibility in this context, his effort to translate it in a performative medium without a primary image of a desiring self or a substantival will. He finds in his encounter with Heidegger a way of thinking that translates Heidegger — a new lineage of Heidegger translation — into a bridge that reaches an ethos based on alternatives to instrumental mastery of selves and worlds. For David, I believe, it is also a bridge to new ways of being religious as well as to recognitions based on what he calls alterity as distinct to calculable identity.
Here I am, going on about David's performative thinking, not asking him even one question in this forum. I have not addressed his encounters in his book with Kierkegaard and Derrida, or those with Hegel, Husserl, and Adorno. I have not probed or criticized the way he comes to and employs his thought of Other. I have not asked him about the abstractness of his thinking, his ways of incorporating aspects of the Anglo/American tradition, or his use of such words as horizon, frame, model, systematic, grasp, and set. Nor have I critiqued his interpretations of Heidegger. Those omissions are informed by more than the temporal limitations of this occasion. They are informed by my intention to place more emphasis on translation than on critique. I cannot translate David well in these few pages, but had I succeeded his thought would have been transformed and transformed in a complementary way by the momentum of his own discourse and by the evidence in it of what he cannot think. I am also informed by my appreciation for the kind of thinking that he is carrying out, by his open-mindedness, and by a shared conviction that developing alternatives to theory and critique is culturally as well as specifically philosophically valuable. Thinking After Heidegger is an excellent, performative experiment that reflects itself though its commentary.
I might, however — I say this to you not to David — try to tempt him to come into territory that could be dangerous for him. That would be a site in which the impact of liminal dimensions does not compose a call to interrogation or responsibility. Liminal dimensions might not call or play or speak or give. They might just happen. And if a further direction were to take place people would have to do something with them. One kind of thing would be to treat liminal dimensions in an anthropomorphic manner and say that they do something like call and give. Or we could capitalize them and translate them into something that deserves capitalization. Or we might attempt to come to terms with their mere indifference and turn away from a deep desire in our lineage for some kind of basis for being ethical other than the ways we live and the consequences of those ways. But this, as I said, would be dangerous territory for David. In it he would probably need to re-think the value of "responsibility" as such however variously it is conceived. And he might also need to rethink the value of capitalization. Those two efforts could challenge the definitive intentions of his thinking. He is presently doing so well in his trajectories and values that we probably should not disturb him in those ways. His performance of responsibility after Heidegger is enough in its excellence. He is indeed an ethical and religious man and translating him otherwise could be a disservice to philosophical life as well as a considerable disturbance to his own. So I propose that we remain silent on these matters and not push him too far — not push him beyond responsibility and capitalization — and not ask him to perform his own self-overcoming.
by David Wood
September 24 2004 David Wood
First I want to say what an uncanny pleasure this occasion is for me. I am here at Vanderbilt this Friday afternoon in part because I was attracted to a university and a department I had long associated with Charles Scott. He had invited me to talk a couple of times in the 80s. I knew, rationally, that the job was available only because Charles had left. But it did not quite sink in until I arrived and found him gone. Uncanny too was the sense that I was taking over the place that Charles had occupied. It took me a while to feel I was wearing my own shoes, rather than flopping around in his seven league boots. In short in my early days here I was haunted by Charles, in a good way.
The second uncanniness comes from this specific occasion — of having someone (tho not just anyone) talk about one's work. The narcissistic pleasure is real enough. But alongside it, there is the fascination of hearing one's name attached to ideas, wondering whether one still believes what one once wrote. If authorship is a public struggle for sense, a book can sometimes seem like the moment the milk in the saucepan boiled over. Afterwards the froth subsides. Did I really say those things? Did I mean them? What did I mean by them? Then a reader appears and starts to warm up the stove again. Uncanny too is the particular take that another has on one's work — especially when he is a friend, albeit a stern one — an extension of the strange sensations one has when one learns what other people think about you, or you are shown a new photograph of yourself — this time marginally displaced onto a book, the academic fetish object par excellence.
And then there is the very idea of responding to comments — whether one should defend one's ideas, correct the interpretation, engage in polite gratitude, Derridean ingratitude or start thinking afresh about the questions raised. It is not clear that there is a proper response, and if there is, what it should be. In some ways Charles has made things more difficult for me by not being too critical. Instead, he has translated me, transposed me into a subtly different key, with a bit of poking and prodding on the way.
So, let me say at the outset — thank you. Not least for capturing much of the spirit of my own philosophical enterprise. Yes, this was, a think, a "good translation day".
What I propose to do is to take up a number of the issues you raise to explain why they matter to me, and to philosophy. And I hope that this broader significance will each time become evident. Talking about philosophy, will I hope overflow from time to time into philosophizing.
If I may, I will start by responding to two remarks about the tradition. You said that "if you have no interest in Heidegger and in the lineage in which his thought occurs there is no reason for you to read this book". You connect this with the dangers of translating the kind of experiences at issue in this tradition, into canonical Western philosophical structures. Later on you mark as one of the themes you will not ask me about — "my ways of incorporating aspects of the AA tradition". I think I can helpfully illuminate these together.
It is true that this book could not have been written if I had not read Heidegger. Thinking after Heidegger means both thinking in the wake of Heidegger, and also "thinking after" in a way that echoes running after, or taking after. But rather than putting it as Charles does, I would rather turn it round and say that you could not enjoy this book and not end up with an interest in Heidegger and his lineage. I truly hope you do not need a pre-existing interest. As much as I believe in singular events in history, and the need to protect cultural specificities from too ready colonization by the night that blackens all cows (and here I am thinking of Heidegger's very careful dialogue between a Japanese and an Inquirer, in which he cautions against too ready a translation of Japanese aesthetic concepts), — as much as I believe in these precautions, I also believe that much of what Heidegger has to teach is us translatable — not into canonical Western philosophical structures, but into a certain sensibility, responsibility, and a way of thinking. And if this translation is in some ways a betrayal, it may also be an invigorating transformation. When Thoreau talks about walking as setting out on a journey with no assurance that you will return home, he is voicing a shape of thought that Heidegger could have echoed.
And I think it is important to confess publicly that my own philosophical inheritance has been indelibly formed by reading Ryle, Austin, Wittgenstein and other quasi-analytic types — each of whom understood philosophical health in terms of a certain openness to the richness of "ordinary" non-philosophical language. — the rough ground, as Wittgenstein put it. Even more heretically, I would say, we still need to pursue the ways in which the multiply hybrid dimensions of the English language offer, or can be deployed in such a way as to offer, ongoing resistance to what I have called the naturalizing of the concept-object relation. Most "ideas" can be expressed in English in multiple ways, drawing on a whole variety of embedded language. (English contains more words than all the other major European languages put together.) This very fact is a source of resistance to conceptual systematization, although it is not central to Heidegger's thinking. I would add that there are even aspects of Humean empiricism or the common sense philosophy of Reid and Moore that I would want to draw into the circle of friends of this phronesis.
The tradition that most interests me moves from Kant to Hegel to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida etc. As I see it, philosophy begins as critique of mere opinion (so obviously this started with the pre-Socratics and Plato), but with Kant et al, it starts to turn its critical apparatus on itself. And at a certain point a second shift occurs, perhaps with Nietzsche. It becomes clear that the very form or style of philosophy is an issue. Philosophy makes descriptive, declarative statements, but the idea that it has a subject matter such that we could take these claims literally is not wholly credible. The linguistic turn turns into a self-consciousness about the manner and style in which we philosophize. The question of method becomes the question of how we write and think.
This connects to another issue Charles raises without pursuing — the "abstractness" of my thinking — which is arguably in tension with my interest in performativity (esp. in the last chapter, "The Performative Imperative"). It seems, in other words, that I do not consistently engage performative gears, that I relapse into abstract conceptual thinking. I think he is right — I do this. I would offer two kinds of explanation or justification: (1) that there is nothing wrong with abstraction as a subsidiary routine, as it were. It is probably unavoidable. It only becomes problematic when it claims a privileged status. (2) Every performative gesture can be made the object of abstract reflection. Indeed I would claim that in philosophy there is no escape from this play between performance and reflection. SK for example explains the significance of indirect communication, and even why it is foolish for anyone to imagine that a direct account could achieve the same effect; Nietzsche tells us "my style is a dance...", Hegel talks about his Phenomenology of Spirit as a "working through", And these comments enrich our performative participation. I do not even know if abstraction can be con fined to being in the service of performativity. I would rather think that there is an unending dynamic interplay. Perhaps we need to consider that abstract reflection itself has performative dimensions — such as recommending, insisting, commanding that we schematize our thinking in certain ways. And of course sometimes we will respond to this "thanks, but no thanks" or with refusal or indifference.
A parallel point can be made about all the versions and varieties of the project of interruption, disruption, transformation that Charles rightly attributes to me. Philosophy has something of a double task in my view: first (though there is no order here), to interrupt every formation that claims a false universality, that hides its origins, that pretends to be a natural occurrence. In this respect, philosophy presupposes the natural attitude, common sense, the ordinary, and it exercises a certain vigilance over it. Without the cave, there is no need for illumination, but without the habits and practices developed in the cave there is no possibility of illumination. But there is a second task which Heidegger actually does take up, and which I largely neglect in this book, and that is to give something like a philosophical acknowledgement at least of those aspects of human existence where reflection does not flourish — habit, recurring practices, the symbolic reservoir on which we draw etc. We need both to think through the necessity of the unreflective, while yet continually questioning the necessity of the particular point at which the boundary is drawn.
Charles addresses from many angles a particularly vivid example of this play between, let us say the ordinary and the special — when he speaks of retrieval, repetition, renewal — even "life". The key to the significance of this cluster of concepts has to do with there being genuinely different possibilities of inhabiting time, possibilities which can both be thematized philosophically, and also performed or enacted. There is a difference between what we might call routine repetition, and what we might call eventuation. Eventuation covers creation, transformative renewal, reaffirmation, invention etc. It is tempting to think that we could somehow vote just for the second, for "life" lets say. More sober assessment however, no less life-affirming, surely suggests that what is always at issue is not life or death (routinized representation) but an economy of life, a necessary interweaving of the two. And, to repeat the previous point, while we must affirm this necessity, the demarcation line is always open to dispute. One final point here if I may, creation re-creation, need not in any way involve a change of content. That may even be a distraction. What is at stake is not "the new" in the sense of novelty, but the possibility of renewal — what we might call the innocence of becoming.
The secondary significance of the content of renewal here is connected to one point at which Charles directly takes issue with me. It's another "interruption" — this time, in Levinasian vein, the interruption wrought by "the alterity of the other" which I claim has nothing to do with the other's qualities. This issue provides Charles with an entree to a discussion of my imagined ethical (and even religious) orientation., so it is worth a little attention.
The point of saying that the other's qualities are not at issue is that my recognition of the mere existence of the other is enough to break my narcissism — whether they are young or old, tall or short etc. But this may well be a point at which a certain abstraction is actually unhelpful. Surely it matters how this narcissism is interrupted, and that will depend on whether I am confronted, as L would say, with a "widow", orphan, stranger on the one hand or a friend of lover. Or perhaps even a non-human creature like the monster yellow-trousered spider on my barn door. And surely it matters whether the stranger is someone hungry cold and in need of shelter, or someone who needs to hijack my car.
Levinas is not alone in proposing a relatively undetermined account of our confrontation with the Other. Hegel, Husserl, Sartre and Heidegger preceded him. Not to mention G.E.Moore, and those AA philosophers puzzled about other minds. It is true that the Levinasian horizon I was alluding to suggests an ethical tone of the discussion. But that is missing from the rest of the tradition. And we could even say that it misses something important about L — that the experience of the face of the other is not an ethical opening so much as the opening of ethics.
Nonetheless, what I hear and respect in CES's concern here I do need to take seriously. You recall at the end he dangles in front of me the juicy worm of danger, and even as I can see the glint of cruel metal, I cannot resist the challenge, even as he affects to protect me ("an ethical and religious man"), from a certain discombobulating self-overcoming.
If I understand him aright, CES has a deep Nietzschean suspicion of both the ethical and the religious, or a certain projective demand we too readily make on the world. Given the chance, he will instead rub our noses in its indifference.
Now, on the surface I plead guilty as charged. Ch. 9 "Comment ne pas Manger" does read something like an ethically driven upbraiding of Derrida's refusal to take the animal question seriously, even as he celebrates the end of humanism. I take the end of humanism to entail the end of the overriding privilege accorded to the human, But it could be said that my humanistic values (justice, opposition to cruelty and exploitation) are intact, and just being extended and expanded.
Charles is ruthless, I believe, in attempting to root out — both in himself and others — every trace of sentimentality. He has a relentless and powerful will-to-truthfulness, a nose for the self-serving illusion, for the crazy cruelties we inflict on ourselves as well as others. I think that when he hears the word responsibility, he hears, lurking in the shadows, guilt. If the ethical or religious man, as Nietzsche might say, is the product of a guilt-ridden conscience, and if guilt is a disabling, pathological inhibition, then every rumor of the ethical needs to be hunted down, and run off the farm.
I would like to conclude by suggesting to Charles a different kind of overcoming from the one he pretends to shield me from. Could we perhaps drop, or soften, the connection between guilt and ethics? There is indeed a problem with moralism. Nietzsche here talks about moralic acid, which reeks of both guilt and ressentiment. But we can think of the ethical in a quite different way: the word I have used is response-ability.
I want to suggest what I am aiming for in this book is something like response-ability and that it cannot be reduced to the ethical (or the religious). If anything, the reverse would be true. We could understand responsibility as a rule-based form of moral obligation that would kick in when an appropriate target arises. But I would prefer to think of it quite as much as a capacity to respond to the other in the fullest least mediated way possible, not e.g. as a "case" of this or that, but in all its concrete untranslatable specificity. Such a response-ability applies to people, situations, events etc. It would include e.g. attending to all the contradictions and difficulties, and all the myriad ways in which the thing itself bursts out of its box... Now you might say, "why should we do this? Is there is a concealed should or ought here?"
I have no doubt that ethical options do eventually arise, that there is no strait path from knowledge to virtue. But equally, I think that there is a vast amount of work to do in getting better acquainted with things, people, creatures, and situations, as well as in developing the skills we need to adequately respond to each of them. Am I saying we should do this? I would put it differently — that the failure to know, to understand, to look, to listen is a failure to relate. It is not first, or not just an ethical failure, it is, if you like, an ontological failure.
I will give one example: the squirrel hunter. [story of guy who couldn"t shoot a squirrel when he saw two of them playing] He changed his behavior because he saw something.
Charles was worried he might be urging me into dangerous territory. Well, I can see the danger alright. Ultimately it will be said, this response-ability will never add up to duty, to obligation, so it cannot get us to the ethical. But while this may leave some dissatisfied, it at least shows how we can approach an ethics without guilt. The sort of philosophical work I envisage would result not in issuing prescriptions but in issuing invitations to respond.
Thank you Charles for accepting this invitation to respond to my book.