What does the Philosopher Want?

Dr William Large

Anne is asleep in the garden. Her sleep is no different from death. In the night, she struggles against death, or death struggles against her. In this night, there is no contradiction and no opposition. Her night meets with the night which is absolute and exterior. She was ill, and from the outside, to those who watched, she seemed to be on the road to recovery, but what had really happened is that her ‘real illness began’.[1] Yet even though she was ill, she has never felt better in her body. The world surrounding her, her friends, and her family, were becoming more and more repellent and unfriendly, as though it were the world itself which was forcing her out of the world. There is no communication possible between the living and the dying. Anne was adamant that she would not succumb to this trickery of the world, and that she would die with the confidence of life. The closer she came to death, the closer she came to the nothingness that her existence had become, until she was no longer a human being, but just a being [105]. It was not that she was dying by the ‘laws of death’ but in her where dying all the laws of life [106].

Anne had died. Thomas stayed in the room. He believed that she had chosen to die. She was a ‘perfect corpse’ [109]. The dead body had more presence, more ‘weight’ than the living one, dominating the room and pushing aside those who remained. Her mother picked up her lifeless head, and was amazed by the weight of it. The dead body had given form to nothingness, and made of nothingness something monstrous and terrible. There comes a moment, however, when we absorb the dead, when they become invisible in their cemeteries and the terrible truth that we are dying while we are alive vanishes and we get on with our lives, as though everything were secure, and we invincible. We forget that ‘death exists’ [114] through a kind of inversion of Descartes’ famous proof of existence. ‘I think, therefore I am not’ [116]. Thought assures me not of my existence, since everything exists, even the stone, but of my non-existence. I am more unknown to myself in the nothing I have become, than I am to the other. He speaks to her about that which he cannot feel or experience. I have become what I am not, and what I am not is me, which is a greater absence than death, since I am still alive and maintaining it.

Thomas goes out into the country. It is spring. The world is full of song and flowers. He enters a city which contains no-one, but out on the horizon there were thousands of people, nomads, who buried themselves in the ground and in the buildings, thoughts and images. Thomas, too, throws himself in the images, this immense sea, but without joy, rather with shame. It is possible to read the ending of this story, as a redemption, but for me it is shrouded in the more terrible melancholy, just because, like the stirring of young sister’s body in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it promises the possibility of life as that which carries on, like the great course of a river, without out us. For opposed to the image of the lively sister is the dead body of the insect being thrown into the dustbin without a care. ‘Is that all there is,’ the reader might ask.

Consciousness is the power of death for Hegel. Death is the very meaning of what it means to be human, for consciousness itself is nothing. Kojève writes, ‘he is a Nothingness that nihilates through the negation of Being.’[2] What does this mean? It means that whilst everything is for consciousness, consciousness is itself no-thing. I am only aware of consciousness through something, through the tree that I am looking at from my window, the book in my hand, or my memory of my ex-lover, but I cannot be conscious of consciousness itself. I cannot think thinking, but must always think thinking through a thought of something determinate. I thinking of something, but the thinking of that something is never that something. It is not the thing I am thinking, even though without it I could never think. Consciousness, therefore, is always this ‘not’; ‘not this’, or ‘not that’, but never something. But what is the relation between the nothingness that consciousness is, and death? There are two kinds of death. One death is just the biological end of life. I am born and I die, like every other natural thing of the universe. There is nothing special about human beings in this regard. But there is also a death which is the mastery of the universe, which marks out the difference between man and all the other animals. The storm can make nothing of the death of the tree which it causes, but man can take the dead thing and turn it into something useful; a chair perhaps, or even a table. Without death nothing would be useful; death marks the possibility of change and transformation, of what Hegel would call negation. Of course being resourceful and cunning, I do not have to wait for the storm, but can cut down the tree for myself. It is precisely the nothingness of consciousness that allows me to do this. I annihilate the life of the thing in the idea, but I am the master of the destructive force, rather than suffering the lightening bolt as the tree does.

What do we learn from Kojève's reading of Hegel, which is far more important to Blanchot than Hegel himself? We learn that man is at the heart of history, and that this history should be understood in terms of action. It is through action that man creates worlds, and it is these worlds, understood socially and historically, which are the condition for religion, philosophy, and presumably, literature. The material of history is humanity itself. Human beings do not just make history, however, they are also transformed in changing it. They are both the material and the architect of history, the building and the plan. Humanity is also the final end of history. It is humanity itself which understands history, which criticises and analyses it. We might, therefore, understand the whole of Hegel's Phenomenology, Kojève suggests, as the working out of the possibility that history could be understood by one man, namely Hegel himself; not just one part of history, but the whole of history itself

Who then is Hegel? He is a man. He is made of flesh and blood like us. Kojève imagines him sitting at a table, with pen, paper and ink, and writing (would this image be lost on Blanchot?). Where do these things come from that he is using to write the Phenomenology? They are made; they are the result of human action, more specifically work. But he also hears noises when he is writing. He knows what they are. They are the sound of cannon shots, for when Hegel was writing the Phenomenology during the battle of Jena. These too are the result of work, but here the final aim of the work is not to produce objects to be used, rather it is for the sake of the fight for recognition, a fight whose end is death for one side or the other.

Why does Hegel understand this better than any other philosopher before him, and why does he understand Napoleon better than any of his contemporaries? Is not the answer to these questions that he has a better grasp of the anterior history that made someone like Napoleon possible? This is because he realised that in Napoleon the history of the world had come to an end. Not obviously the content of the world, since people would still be doing things long after he had died, but the form of the world. The French Revolution, and its culmination in Napoleon, marked the end of the evolution of human history. To understand this history would therefore be to understand the whole of human history which was moving towards this end. This was not possible before, not because people were not clever enough, but because history had not come to an end. Even if they had understood themselves completely, they would not have understood the whole of human history, and therefore their knowledge would have been insufficient.

Humanity’s relation to the world is not first of all through thought, as philosophers might imagine, but desire. When I desire something I not only involve the desired object, but also myself. What I desire defines who I am. But also in desiring something, I change the world in which the desired object exists. Thus if I am hungry, and desire something to eat, I consume food, and thus change the world by destroying the thing that I eat. This destruction must be understood in terms of negation. By desiring the thing, I negate its independence. Desire, action and negation; these are all implied together. The very fact that humanity is not just thought, but something that desires, means that humanity must in some sense contain nothingness, for if I was entirely self-sufficient (like God) I would not desire anything. It is precisely because I lack something that I can desire. Humanity must be understood as a lack (Plato had perhaps understood this in a limited way in the Symposium in defining the philosopher as the one who knows that he lacks the truth, rather than the one who thinks that he knows it). Humanity is therefore ‘negating action’ [38]. It is because it lacks complete being that it negates the objects in the world surrounding it, so as to make up for the absence inside itself.

There are essentially two ways in which humanity negates the world, which are right there in Hegel’s study as he writes the Phenomenology: work and the battle for recognition. The object of work is nature which is transformed by human desire into production, and the second, is other men, who are transformed by human desire into politics. This is because for human beings desire is not enough in itself, as it is for animals. Rather for human beings they desire that the object that they desire also desires them, and this can only be so because their desire is mediated by other human desires. I desire this object and none other, because you also desire it. If no one desired this object, then I wouldn’t. I don’t just desire objects because I need to survive, but also because I need recognition. My desire must be directed towards another being who also desires my desire.

The existence of other desires will lead inevitably to a ‘life and death struggle’ [41]. For just as much as I desire the recognition of the Other, the Other desires the recognition of me, for it is as much a desiring consciousness as I am. I will risk my biological existence, for the sake of a 'higher'  existence; that is to say, my freedom, and no animal will do this. It will only preserve itself in order to survive; in order to preserve its biological existence. But if the fight for recognition were the only possibility of human history, then there would be no human history, since there would only be one desire left, and in order for there to be desire it needs to be recognised, so that there would not even be one desire. For both desires to remain, or there to be at least two desire, then one must submit. There is therefore a Master and a Slave desire, the desire that goes all the way, and the one that does not, which is willing to sacrifice its freedom for the sake of life.

But the Master does nothing. Having forced the slave to submit, it is he who has to work, and in working it is the slave that both transforms himself and nature through his desire. It is therefore the slave not the master who is the truth of history. It humanising the world, humanity increasingly humanises itself, and this means he brings the world into greater conformity with the idea that he has of himself until the world becomes the idea of himself, and he the idea of the world. This is what Hegel means by absolute knowledge, and this is what actually takes place in the French Revolution.

This is why suicide might be the very definition of what it means to be human. For I can choose death in a way that no other living being can, and rather than this marking a weakness on my part, it marks my greatest strength, and my greatest power over life that I can decide my own exit. It is for this reason, therefore, that Blanchot attacks the heart of Hegel’s philosophy through the idea of suicide. ‘It is true’, he asks, ‘that suicide allows me to master death?’ In The Space of Literature, Blanchot tells the story of Arria, who, on seeing her husband hesitating to kill himself, plunges the dagger into her own breast crying, ‘See, it does no ill!’ This heroic death is the philosopher’s death par excellence, for what is philosophy but the ability to take from death its sting? In welcoming this death, however, the philosopher avoids another kind of death, which interests Blanchot much more. This other death is the death that I cannot reach in the moment that I decide to die. The act of suicide is meant to put a full stop to my life, to give it a final meaning and end. Rather than allow death to rob me of my life, I make death the final act of my life. Yet paradoxically the experience of dying is precisely the opposite. Rather than permitting me to define myself in the highest point of my life, it robs me of life altogether, stripping me of my powers, sense of self, and my own subjectivity that I attempted to preserve in the act of suicide. This is the sense of death that we get from Anne’s death in Thomas the Obscure and it hunts the pages of Death Sentence to a even greater extent. I cannot experience my own death. On the contrary, death, not the idea of death, or the choice to die, but dying itself, robs me of my own identity. This other death is profoundly impersonal and neutral.

[1] Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays (New York, Station Hill Press, Inc., 1999) 100.

[2] Kojève, A., ‘Summary of the first six chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit’ in Introduction to the Reading Hegel, 54.

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