The modernist project extends itself from Descartes’ aesthetic, to build from Truths, necessary and universal. But what is a universal? Being themselves, universals must necessarily also be a priori. For something that is a priori is a predicate that is its own subject. Such a relationship is by definition necessary because subtracting the predicate dissolves the subject. Such a relationship is also universal because no matter what you add to a universal, the universal is still primarily itself, in-itself. What is also a feature of universality is that such a subject will always give rise to itself. Like reason, universals form their own reason, their own ground, and their own existence.
In Kant’s Critical Philosophy (KCP), Gilles Deleuze explains a priori:
The characteristics of the a priori are universality and necessity. But the definition of a priori is: independent of experience. It is possible that the a priori can be applied to experience, and in certain cases, can be applied only to experience, but it does not derive from it. By definition there is no experience which corresponds to the words ‘all’, ‘always’, ‘necessarily’ … The shortest is not a comparative, or the result of an induction, but an a priori rule from which I produce a line as a straight line. Similarly, cause is not the product of induction, but an a priori concept on the basis of which I recognize in experience something which happens (KCP 5, original italics).
Thus, a priori and universals are be apparent on the basis of our faculty of understanding (including reason and imagination), which is the law for representational objects coming to be on the ground of our consciousness. Such understanding is free and spontaneous; it comes from nothing and simply is apparent. While for Kant such understanding is not possible at a purely conceptual level, as representations are always an a priori synthesis of a universal and a representation, we can nonetheless get at such pure universals by shedding the empirical conditions which color phenomenon. This shedding, of course, is Hegel’s project, to synthesize the ground itself, shed contingency and difference and reach the suprasensible spirit.
Thus, we can only get at the law through dialectical synthesis: we grasp at the suprasensible through synthesizing the sensible.
Whatever appears to be contingent in the accord of sensible nature with man’s faculties is a supreme transcendental appearance, which hides a ruse of the suprasensible. But when we speak of the effect of the suprasensible in the sensible, or of the realization of the concept of freedom, we must never think that sensible nature as phenomenon is subject to the law of freedom or of reason. Such a conception of history would imply that events are determined by reason, and by reason as it exists individually in man as noumenon; events would then manifest an ‘individual rational purpose’ of men themselves. But history, such as it appears in sensible nature, shows us the complete opposite: pure relations of forces, conflicts of tendencies, which weave a web of madness like childish tendencies (KCP 75, original italics).
This experience of the suprasensible is, of course, the Kantian sublime, which is the impossible inscription of a focal point of the subject beyond the subject in the same way, a point that is not only unthinkable but also one that is nonsensical from the point of view of the “childish” chaos of the sensible. But wait: if the suprasensible is unthinkable and the sensible is chaotic and subject to its own laws then what happens to the order of the beautiful Kantian machinery? What happened to the supreme modernist project? What happening to building from Truth? Where does the sterling universal fit?
To find what’s necessary to understanding, namely universals, in all this, let’s take a slight detour and visit Slavoj Zizek. In his latest tome Less than Nothing (LTN), Zizek explains exactly how the universal, a priori and necessity interrelate with contingency. Among the many things posited, Zizek shows us that contingency is in fact a member of the triad universal, necessary and a priori... that contingency “is the result of necessity’s self-relating” (LTN 461). To put it in another way, universals are by definition limited, not just because they aren’t everything, but also because they are subjects (that are also substance) and predicates (that are also self relating)…and furthermore, that these also aren’t everything. This is a big part of Zizek’s thesis: that these pure a priori self reflexive subject-predicates are simply the pure contingencies themselves self relating, becoming universal:
The standard critical reading is [ . . .] the extreme “idealist” affirmation of the primacy of the a priori over thea posteriori. What such a reading clearly misses is the opposite movement, the irreducible “umbilical cord” on account of which every a priori universality remains attached to (“overdetermined” by) the a posteriori of particular content . To put it somewhat bluntly: yes, the universal notional form imposes necessity upon the multitude of its contingent contents, but it does so in a way which itself remains marked by an irreducible strain of contingency – or, as Derrida would have put it, the frame itself is always also a part of the enframed content. The logic here is that of the Hegelian “oppositional determination” (gegensätzliche Bestimmung), in which the universal genus encounters itself among its particular and contingent species. (LTN 469, original italics)
What Zizek means is simply that universal necessity is the other side of self-reflexive contingency. What makes a contingency is that determination is imposed by pure idealist laws. Seen from the point of contingency, the limitation of a contingency is also the subtraction necessary for a universal to be wrapped around the contingency, to frame contingency. So continuing where we left Deleuze with Kant, with how Transcendental reason still functions, let alone emerge from chaos, Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude shows how the universal comes from contingency, creating the oscillation of the (in)determinate, simultaneously between universal or contingent:
Yet there is nothing over and above the power of chaos that could constrain it to submit to a norm. If chaos is subject to constraints, then this can only be a constraint which comes from the nature of chaos itself, from its own omnipotence. Now, the only necessity proper to chaos is that it remain chaos, and hence that there be nothing capable of resisting it – that what is always remain contingent, and that what is never be necessary. However – and here we come to the crux of the matter – our conviction is that in order for an entity to be contingent and un-necessary in this way, it cannot be anything whatsoever. This is to say that in order to be contingent and un-necessary, the entity must conform to certain determinate conditions, which can then be construed as so many absolute properties of what it is. We then begin to understand what the rational discourse about unreason – an unreason which is not irrational – would consist in: it would be discourse that aims to establish the constraints to which the entity must submit in order to exercise its capacity-not-to-be and its capacity-to-be-other. (66, original italics)
Otherwise said, we are suspended in self-determining phenomenal chaos, wrapped in the pure faculties outlined by Kant’s Transcendental Method, which organize nothing and are nothing reflexive of itself as nothing. Particulars wink in and out of existence seemingly contingent on necessity but it is in fact necessity that winks in and out, contingent on particulars. This may appear to be a dismal situation however, Zizek can rescue us.
One of the big take-away from Less than Nothing is that philosophy is a system made to fail. The moorings of discourse organize themselves around indivisible kernels that can’t be fully explained. Instead, these kernels are nothing in the sense of being non-linguistic, although they have also been over-inscribed in language. The discourse deploys these kernels in various arrangements, seeking to incorporate them:
Every signifying field thus has to be “sutured” by a supplementary zero-signifier, “a zero symbolic value, that is, a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains.” (LTN 585, original italics).
These signifiers are dropped into the Real, to name an excessive crack in the symbolic, to become the zero signifier of the symbolic as mentioned by Claude Levi-Strauss, guaranteeing our place within the discourse while simultaneously giving the discourse legitimacy and substance.
These “thoughtless” positions are what Zizek best describes as anti-philosophy: “the assertion of pure presence (the Real Life of society for Marx, Existence of Kierkegaard, Will for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, etc.) irreducible to and excessive with regard to the network of philosophical concepts or representations” (LTN 841). We can also add discursive power, for Foucault and nothing (or less than nothing) for Zizek. In this sense, all philosophers are philosophers of anti-philosophy inasmuch as philosophy seeks to explain what it can’t justify or justify what it can’t explain. The failure of philosophy to explain its moorings however, is a built-in limit. Whenever philosophers fail to say what they want to say, we get more philosophy to cover the gaps. In other words, failure is what generates philosophy (although it could be said that failure is also what generates all discourse).
So in going back to Kant: what is thoughtless in Kant? Deleuze notes that Kant’s project projects the pure objects of knowledge that are unknowable since “the law is not known, since there is nothing in it to ‘know’” (KCP xi) yet on the other hand, through the sublime “the soul is felt as the indeterminate suprasensible unity of all the faculties; we are ourselves brought back to focus, as a ‘focal point’ in the suprasensible.” (KCP 51). Between these two limits of the unknowing, one can rightly reverse the dialectical process to render the phenomenal world. The oscillation between synthesis and analysis at first seems like a sort of Hegelian relativism, with no universal absolute possibly in sight, and it may often seem to be the case. Yet if this is the case though, how can the absolute position ever arise for us to think of it? There may be transcendental concepts, but are the concepts themselves transcendental, bearing their own existence without contingency? If there were no true universals independent of contingent chaos, how can we ever come to even the illusion of a complete, infinite and absolute One that is the legislative form of understanding, that is, the ground of its own self for there necessary first, for understanding to even occur?
The answer starts with Deleuze’s conception of repetition, namely that repetition is its own difference, in pure form, without substance. From Difference and Repetition:
It is Kant who best indicates the correlation between objects endowed with only an indefinite speculation, and purely spatio-temporal or oppositional, non-conceptual determinations (the paradox of symmetrical objects). However, these determinations are precisely only the figures of repetition: [. . .] real opposition is not a maximum of difference but a minimum of repetition – a repetition reduced to two, echoing and returning on itself; a repetition which has found the means to define itself. Repetition thus appears as a difference without a concept, repetition which escapes indefinitely continued conceptual difference. (13, original italics)
What makes repetition a unit is the difference that is the same in each part. In other words, the whole is also a part (the most necessary part!) that makes the collection of parts whole as a series. This repetition for-itself, in the language of Zizek, is the missing specie that binds all its sibling species as a set of itself qua genus. So going back to the language we started with: what isn’t this difference in-itself of repetition but the universal, the master difference that is self reflexivity, its own predicate and its own subject/predicate within the repetition, a difference that exists on a purely conceptual level? In set theory, this is expressed as a set of all sets. Conceptually this may seem complete, as it is inscribable in language (as we are talking about it), but ultimately this position is neither determinate nor is it consistent with itself. Not surprisingly, both Bertrand Russell and the Indian logic school Navya-Nyāya claim that such a set does not exist as it produces a paradox[i]. The indeterminate nature of the set of all sets, which needs to recursively include itself if it is to be consistent, gives rise to the question: what universal can self determine its necessity in the same absolute way that it determines its particulars? The quick answer is no universal can include the frame with itself because framing subjectivizes on a level below itself. What is this unthinkable inclusion if it is not the sublime itself, an inexpressible suprasensible indetermination? Rather, this limitation can only be inscribed in language as a “dead” philosophical signifier, as noted above “Totality” “All” or “One”, which incidentally is also the pure presence of anti-philosophy. Nonetheless, immanence in such spatial illustrations of such universals qua multiple, are possible, even if they are in varying degrees, self-reflexive, self-limiting or a posteriori, in the process of becoming but as of yet without expression. Deleuze writes that for Kant, such illustrations are possible but only of a different world.
At first sight an aesthetic Idea is the opposite of a rational Idea. The latter is a concept to which no intuition is adequate; the former an intuition to which no concept is adequate. [. . .] The Idea of reason goes beyond experience, either because there is no object which corresponds to it in nature (for example, invisible beings) or because it makes a simple phenomenon of nature into a spiritual event (death, love…). The Idea of reason thus contains something inexpressible. But the aesthetic Idea goes beyond all concepts because it creates the intuition of a nature other than that which is given to us: another nature whose phenomenon would be true spiritual events, events of the spirit, immediate natural determination (Critique of Judgment para 49). It ‘gives food for thought’, it forces one to think. The aesthetic Idea is really the same thing as the rational Idea: it expresses what is inexpressible in the latter. This is why it appears as a ‘secondary’ representation, a second expression [. . .] But instead of directly presenting the Idea in nature it expresses it secondarily, in the imaginative creation of another nature (KCP 56 -57).
With aesthetic symbolism, we can get past the pure presence that relates to nothing else, and find in it a synthetic relation, a new nature that presses beyond the limits of the Idea of reason itself. One such elementary expression of universal nature, analogous to Greek plots of land finds its way to us in set theory, in the form of the Venn diagram.
While visual space can’t enframe itself, the words in a Venn diagram can enframe the frame. Thus you have the interplay, of subject and substance as line and space to contain content that also frames the diagram as subject and substance or form and content. The included middle, could also come to bear, as that which defines the circles as interrelating and vis versa. With this oscillation of including how we see with what we see, we begin the proper progression into post-modernity, a project still built on universals, but one which seeks to synthesize how we read with what we read, so the two reflect back to one in partial harmony, partial synthesis and complete self-reflexive play.
Deleuze, Gilles. Kant’s Critical Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press (1985) Trans, Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repeition. Columbia University Press (1994) Trans, Paul Patton.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Continuum (2008) Trans, Ray Brassier.
Zizek, Slavoj. Less than Nothing. Verso (2012, 2013).