NDPR: Espen Hammer reviews Gabriel and Žižek

NDPR has recently published a review — written by Espen Hammer (Philosophy, Temple University), author of Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the Ordinary — of Mythology, Madness, and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism, by Markus Gabriel and Slavoj Žižek (Continuum 2009). To access the review online, please click here.

Here is an excerpt from Prof. Hammer’s review:

In Gabriel’s essay, “The Mythological Being of Reflection — An Essay on Hegel, Schelling, and the Contingency of Necessity,” a number of philosophical positions are identified with this view. There is, as mentioned, first of all Schelling, whose account of mythology “denominates the brute fact of existence of a logical space, which cannot be accounted for in logical terms” (20). For Schelling, any act of reflection, of making inferences within an established space of reasons, presupposes an unavoidable mythological origin. No ontology can constitute itself; no act of constitution can constitute itself; hence the self-constitution in consciousness of which many of the German Idealists speak produces an other to itself, a remainder, that can never be objectified or indeed even be known. However, Gabriel also invokes Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Bataille, and Cavell, arguing that the constitution of any field of objectivity in which there is necessity (in, as I understand, the form of a priori validity) rests on a higher-order contingency. In Wittgenstein, for example, the facticity of life, on which language-games are supposedly based, is contingent in the sense that it could have been otherwise: there is no necessity to the way we go about doing things, no absolute grounds that dictate what we should do, making one move reasonable and the other unreasonable.

One might think that such a view generates an infinite regress in which the ontological levels will go on forever, and it is not clear (at least not to this reader) whether Gabriel sees Schelling as being committed to some sort of foundationalism or whether his Schelling accepts the potential regress. Another important question is whether this sense of contingency implies skepticism. In Gabriel it seems to give rise to a sense of vaguely amusing (hence the laughter) uneasiness: our life-form could have been different, it is just one among an infinite number of possibilities, thus any claim to objective truth within a given system of propositions seems to falter. The point is not that propositions are necessarily arbitrary, which would entail that they could not be assessed as to their reasonability. It is rather that our life-form as a whole is without grounding, and that deep, metaphysical skepticism is therefore justified. What Gabriel does not seem to recognize is that this consideration (which seems to return him to the bad Kant of the two worlds) can only be made on the basis of some kind of god’s eye point of view, pretending to look at our life-form and our practices from outside. It is only from such a transcendent viewpoint that they can appear contingent. Viewed immanently we simply do what we do, and there is no possible alternative that could appear to us as intelligible; thus, ultimately, the very distinction between immanence and transcendence collapses.

In my reading, this is a central motif in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty: not that we lack grounding (which would entail skepticism), but that the very question of grounding (and hence also the attribution of contingency) is misguided. There is no point of view that is external to our practices, and therefore no meaningful question of how they can be grounded. Gabriel and Žižek, however, speak of “error, illusion, misunderstanding, negativity, finitude, etc.” as being “necessary preconditions for an adequate, non-objectified understanding of the absolute as the opening up of a domain within which determinate (finite) objects can appear” (5). This is confusing not only because error, illusion, and so on can, as they say, only occur within the system, but also because it seems to suggest, again in a transcendent fashion, that an absolute standard exists against which we always fall short.

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