Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”

I know it’s obscene in WordPress terms to include something that you wrote during your undergraduate days, but I may want to refer to this at some point, and I am too lazy to quote selectively, so I include something I did for my B.Phil. below: 


If being ‘can be said in many ways’, then the history of philosophy could conceivably be sketched in a manner which would see its rhythms play out as the successive flights from and returns to this most basic of questions. One difficulty which obstructs such an approach is that the intellectual scaffolding of different periods can do much to obscure the recurrent themes. For instance, being as regarded by the Scholastics is almost inseparable from its relationship with God. For Heidegger, in contrast, being has not been dealt with adequately since the very inception of philosophy. Other contemporary thinkers1 would be more content to do away with being altogether, considering it as not much more than a distraction. There is, however, ‘more agreement among metaphysicians than is at first sight apparent.’2 How is this problem to be addressed? How do we make the question of being new? Does Aquinas still have something to teach us?

Undoubtedly, we are moderns, and history cannot be discounted. For this very reason, to read Aquinas today is a particular challenge for those who cannot assent to the theological framework which informs his project. As a broad approach, then, hermeneutics is helpful in that it addresses the context informing a text, as a supplement to the content within. By reading in such a manner we can examine the path with which Aquinas approaches being. Thus by examining the ‘how’ of Aquinas’s problematic, we can begin to examine the ‘what’, namely the matter of the analogia entis, proceeding to an engagement with this question using the thought of Paul Ricoeur. This will serve as a point of departure into modern considerations of being and metaphysics as the science of being qua being, and the function of metaphor in these engagements with the perennial problematic of being. Ricoeur’s notion of metaphor and metaphorical discourse will open our examination out into different areas of philosophy, to consider what makes this figurative mode of language necessary, and how we can figure this into our vision of how philosophy should function.

I. Aquinas and Method

The analogy of being comes about in a discussion of how we are to talk about God. Aquinas attempts, after his method of objection and reply, to come to a nuanced understanding of our methods of predication. As with the ‘Five Ways’, it must first be understood that the layout of objection and reply is a reflection of a classroom setting. The ‘Five Ways’, for example, are not to be taken as logical proofs but akin to an engagement with a philosophical tradition of dealing with the proof of God. The discussion of predication and ‘God talk’ takes place in a similar context. Successive problems are sketched out, objections accumulate, are side-stepped, and we get the sense of coming closer to the truth of being – whatever it may be. As Anthony Kenny notes, this method, ‘while initially puzzling to a modern reader, provides a powerful intellectual discipline’ and as such this means that Aquinas’s writing ‘is almost entirely free from rhetoric, and Thomas never lets his own ego obtrude.’3 This is fair, but it does not entail that we are free from indicating certain difficulties which may appear with this picture. As such, a brief excursus on scholastic method at this point may be justified.

One characterization of the scholastic philosopher holds that where he meets a difficulty, he makes a distinction.4 As such, he could easily go to excess, for by attempting to approach greater sophistication and nuance in the course of addressing a question, in time the complexity of the solution would far exceed the problem. If allowed to continue unchecked in this vein, scholastic philosophy would more or less self-destruct, making the advent of a modern such Descartes appear all the more attractive for his apparent simplicity and accessibility. This is not to caricature Aquinas, but to note a signal difference between the medieval and the modern. Where the medieval mind would seek a solution in whatever form it may take, the modern mind gradually became attracted to the insoluble.5 Credo ut intelligam becomes dubito ut intelligam. Though God is of great importance for both Aquinas and Descartes, for the latter ‘God is an impotent not an omnipotent God, a God who has lost his independence and become a mere representation within human thinking.’6

The relevance of the above is that though the negative figured previously in philosophy7, it could never be the central concern for Aquinas. The via negativa of Pseudo-Dionysius figures as an objection rather than as a matter for significant reflection. We cannot criticise his thought strongly for this, but simply note it as point where we part ways. Brian Davies notes, correctly, that ‘Aquinas is often taken to be concerned only to lay down answers. But his questions are as numerous as his answers. And he does not always take his answers to be definitive.’8 It may be taken to be part of our approach to draw out the questions and the provisional aspect of Aquinas’s proposed solution.

II. Analogy and Being

As noted above, the problem of analogy figures in the discussion of the words we use for God. Aquinas proceeds to delineate a model of predication which invokes the categories of univocity, equivocity, and analogy. Predication involves the question of being itself for when we speak of an animal, or a book, or a person, there must be some substratum in common to all of these. To focus too strongly on this common element would draw us into a picture of the world which might not allow for change. Without some such commonality, there would seem to be simply chaos. Our Scylla and Charybdis then are the stasis of Parmenides and the process of Heraclitus. When this is applied to talking about God, Brian Davies sees no great difficulty in Aquinas’s theory of analogy, writing that ‘all it fundamentally maintains is that terms applied to God and to things in the world are never applied univocally (because creatures are composite and God is simple), but that we need not equivocate when we apply a term to God and a creature [in saying] “I am good” and “God is good” we use a word in the same sense to state what is true of both me and God.’9 This is not the whole of the picture, however, as Bernard Lonergan shows us.

In examining the notion of being, Lonergan defines being as, successively, an unrestricted notion, a spontaneous notion, an all-pervasive notion, the core of meaning, and finally as a puzzling notion. This final heading is that under which the analogy of being is addressed:

‘Finally, the notion of being may be said to be neither univocal nor analogous, for this distinction regards concepts, while the notion of being both underpins and goes beyond other contents. It may be noted, however, that what frequently enough is meant by the analogy of being is precisely what we mean by saying that the notion of being underpins, penetrates, and goes beyond other contents.’10

What Lonergan delineates here is something which approaches considering being as a heuristic. Being cannot be understood in total terms, for this would entail a total understanding of reality, something which is undoubtedly beyond us as finite creatures. This is why Aquinas presents us with analogy, to give us the best of both worlds. Or so it would seem.

Analogy allows creatures to participate in God as the first analogate. Nevertheless, being remains a puzzling notion given that we cannot exhaustively address the objections of apophatic thinkers. There is a chaotic (unrestricted) sense of being which analogy manages to defuse somewhat, but the aporias remain. Being remains puzzling, perhaps because of our distance from God, or perhaps for some other reason. Lonergan defines being elsewhere as ‘the objective of the pure desire to know’11 but that we have a hoped-for destination does not mean we will reach it. As such analogy as an answer may serve us well as a question. Dorothy Emmet ‘focuses on the role analogies can play: they afford a creative influence on the intellectual imagination by offering different models appropriate to different times.’12 This leads us to consider our hermeneutic reading of analogy as tenable, and signalling an approach which does not make an appeal to participation in the divine. We need to consider a different model more appropriate to our time.

III. Metaphorical Discourse

Dorothy Emmet’s words above present us with a view of analogy in terms which are quite distinct from those we find in Aquinas’s thought. The distinct difference which we note is a matter of reconsidering analogy in the light of alternative discourse. If ‘the task of hermeneutics has always been to establish agreement where there was none or where it had been disturbed’13, the underlying agreement here must be found which will see analogy and metaphor both as elements of a specific type of discourse. This discourse would then also contain allegory, simile, symbol, metonymy and synecdoche as non-figurative parts of language which, though perhaps not ‘correct’ in a strictly logical or ostensively referential respect, nevertheless tell us something about our world. The difference between this manner of considering analogy and that which we find in Aquinas again comes back to the question of the function of analogy. What role does it play in Aquinas? In one sense, it tidies up various loose ends so that the aporia of being is rendered unproblematic, allowing Aquinas to register the objections of Pseudo-Dionysius, where he says ‘affirmations about God are disconnected […] because no word used of God expresses him in an appropriate way’14. Both the apophatic way of Pseudo-Dionysius and the more traditional cataphatic way play a significant role in talking about God, but analogy ties them together in a manner which obviously favours the cataphatic mode. Apophatic discourse is an obstacle to be overcome.

The modern, hermeneutic reading of figurative speech differs from this because ‘metaphorical discourse presents all things not only as being, but as acting – all being has a potential for acting, and this potential ‘blossoms forth’ in metaphorical language.’15 The word ‘discourse’ here is of specific importance, because it changes our view of analogy as an isolated figure of language, a piece of patchwork to cover up holes in the standard form of discourse (found in univocity or equivocity16). Metaphorical discourse is an emergent structure of language, ‘that is to say, the referential function of metaphor is carried by a metaphorical network rather than by an isolated metaphorical statement […] In this respect, any individual instance of metaphor is always nested within a larger web of metaphorical associations.’17 Analogy now functions within this web, this network. Looking back briefly, in this light analogy has something of the same function as a form of this discourse which allegory served in earlier times, a type of cataphatic attempt to wallpaper over the difficulties which we might otherwise describe as apophatic.

Writing of figurative language, and allegory specifically, Gadamer writes that both the symbol and allegory ‘both find their chief application in the religious sphere. Allegory arises from the theological need to eliminate offensive material from a religious text – originally from Homer – and to recognise valid truths behind it.’18 In our modern age, however, this eliminative function is redundant. This is a consequence of secularization and ineluctable connected with the development of hermeneutics19, so that now the text is a repository for potential action. This is what Ricoeur would call possible worlds which can be conveyed through a figurative, metaphorical, mythical discourse. There is a negative element here, and Gianni Vattimo focuses on this to say that ‘to reveal the world as a conflict of interpretations also means, however, to recognise ourselves as heirs to a tradition of the weakening of the strong structures of Being in every field of experience’20. This weakening, (a reference to Vattimo’s notion of pensiero debole) is not to be considered negative, but in fact the opposite. By doing away with being as a necessary and static hypostasis, we give ourselves room to start examining the aporias of metaphysical thought as repositories of possibility. The stage is set for an in-depth examination of Ricoeur’s philosophy of metaphor.

IV. Metaphor and Philosophy

In his major work on metaphor, The Rule of Metaphor, Paul Ricoeur focuses on language which is not simply denotative, but actively creative. He makes distinctions within the figurative realm of discourse, and in doing so highlights metaphor as the pre-eminent mode of this type of language. For example, simile is a paraphrase and lacking the sense of unusual attribution which gives this whole matrix of figurative language its force21, and as for synecdoche as another element of this figurative discourse, ‘it is certainly possible to decompose a given metaphor into two synecdoches; but one cannot produce a metaphor with two synecdoches.’22 Other examples are given, but the essential point remains that metaphor is the pre-eminent form of this discourse.

The next question becomes whether this discourse23 is adequate to respond to the challenges of philosophy. Interestingly for our purposes, Ricoeur notes that ‘the intellectual labour that later crystallized in the concept of the analogy of being stems from an initial divergence between speculative and poetic discourse.’24 His point is that by asking the question ‘what is being?’ a split was initiated between speculative and poetic discourse, as well as ordinary discourse. One can read matters even more radically, as Ricoeur quotes Benveniste, to suggest that the nature of a language can have a quite remarkable effect on the nature of the discourse which follows from it: ‘All we wish to show here is that the linguistic structure of Greek predisposed the notion of “being” to a philosophical vocation.’25 Linking this to analogy specifically, we glean further justification for considering philosophy in the sense we have been suggesting. Thomas Kelly suggests, along similar lines, that the analogia entis ‘amounts to an analysis of how meaning is generated and extended. It views language, not as a static form, but as a dynamic medium, constantly growing out of itself in an organic process of development.’26 This is not present explicitly in Aquinas, however, and so our concentration on the aporia (a term Ricoeur agrees with with specific reference to analogy and being), contrary to Aristotle, ‘is not to say nothing.’27

Ricoeur notes that ‘analogy presented itself as the solution to the central aporia of ontological discourse’28 as a

‘middle course between two impossibilities […] the difficulty was to escape the dilemma of the generic unity of being and the pure and simple dispersion of its meanings. Reference to a primary term offered itself as a median solution.’29

Ricoeur notes that importing this Aristotelian solution and attempting to reconcile it with the theological domain ‘encounters such enormous obstacles that the very concept of analogy must continuously be redeployed and reshaped into new distinctions.’30 Again, this is the scholastic temptation to make a distinction when a difficulty is met, each successive distinction exacting a higher cost than the previous. Nevertheless, the aporia remains, even if this ‘magnificent exercise of thought […] preserved the difference between speculative discourse and poetic discourse at the very point of their greatest proximity.’31 To bring the two discourses into contact, to develop the aporia is Ricoeur’s task now, and to distinguish his own development of the aporia of metaphor from other attempts made, namely that of Derrida.

V. Deconstruction of Metaphor?

Ricoeur stands in stark contrast to the post-structuralism of Derrida, and The Rule of Metaphor as a whole is a part of his project to rescue language from the excesses of Saussure and the other structuralists who followed him, ‘post-‘ or otherwise. Ricoeur’s basic analysis is as follows. For the deconstructionists there is a paradox in that no metaphor can be analysed without ‘a metaphorically engendered conceptual network32. There is no non-metaphorical standpoint from which to perceive the order and the demarcation of the metaphorical field.’33 Thus Derrida, one of the prime figures of the hermeneutics of suspicion, participates in the ‘vaster strategy of deconstruction that always consists in destroying metaphysical discourse by reduction to aporias.’34 This amounts to a reification of the aporia. The hole in discourse(s) is elevated to the highest position in our world of languages. Where Ricoeur’s hermeneutic reading of metaphor notes that it is a space of possibility, Derrida demarcates it and consequently all texts as a totalizing and all-consuming void. It is tantamount to a univocity of non-being, and Derrida seems to be repeating, in inverse form, the Scotist ‘understanding of reality in terms of formality.’35 Gerard Manley Hopkins describes Scotus as the ‘unraveller’. Derrida is the modern unraveller par excellence.

Ricoeur objects that Derrida sets up language in typically structuralist terms as a rather rigid system: ‘the distinction between literal and metaphorical exists only through the conflict of two interpretations’, and the literal, moreover, ‘does not mean proper in the sense of originary, but simply current, “usual.”’36 Metaphors are not dead, as they are in Derrida’s hands.37 While Derrida’s entire body of work ‘can be understood as a searing critique of […] totalizing logic,’38 it must be admitted that in this instance at least, he may have fallen into the trap he seeks to avoid. Thomas Kelly’s invocation of Wittgenstein’s language games here may help us to illuminate just what has bogged down Derrida. He writes that in a ritual, which Derrida’s view of language echoes,

‘there is only one path, or a limited number from start to finish. In a more vital game, each move is actually a transformation of the situation, opening an indefinitely large number of possibilities of further resolution, many of which are unpredictable at the outset, and surprising.’39

Language must be viewed in this sense as dynamic and living, and with metaphor as the very kernel of this dynamis. Metaphorical discourse is a tradition which is continually replenished and refreshed. Contrary to the hermeneutics of suspicion, tradition is – when ‘vital’ in Kelly’s sense – not a force for oppression. More usually, indeed, it is simply a tool. As Harold Bloom (once regarded as a member of the Yale school of literary deconstruction) notes, ‘tradition is good teaching, where “good” means pragmatic, instrumental, fecund.’40 Ernst Robert Curtius concludes in his vast study of literary tradition, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, that continuity of a tradition is ‘a simplified expression for a very complicated state of things. Like all life, tradition is a vast passing away and renewal.’41 These two figures, from literary criticism and literary history respectively, give an insight to the hermeneutic attitude which Derrida cannot be said to share, in this context at least. Undoubtedly he is concerned with the philosophical tradition42 but his method in this area, the consideration of metaphorical discourse, does not serve him as well as it does in other areas. Ricoeur’s notion of metaphor is more nuanced and contains more cognitive potential than the dead end of totalized aporia which we find in Derrida’s White Mythology. He admits:

‘I think that there is a certain “degree zero” or emptiness which we may have to traverse in order to abandon our pretension to be centre, our tendency to reduce all other discourses to our own totalizing schemas of thought […] but this is my “secret,” if you wish, my personal wager, and not something that can be translated into a centralizing philosophy discourse.’43

Ricoeur’s metaphor gives us a tool by which we remake the world: ‘Link together the poiesis of the poem and metaphor as an emergent meaning, then you will make sense of both at the same time: poetry and metaphor.’44 Language fashions the world we see, but it is our tool, at our disposal. It is our ongoing project to make sure we use it correctly, to keep the muscles that hold the tool tense and ready for action.

VI. Philosophy in Tension, or Chaosmos

Common to many modern philosophers is a concern for the excesses of philosophical abstraction. The excess is the fact that quite often too much is excluded in the will to totality. As such we can today criticise Hegel for being insufficiently Hegelian, which is to say that in proposing a philosophy which saw his own project as the end of philosophy, its culmination and completion, he did not give full dues to the ongoing dialectic. Hegel is chosen here as but one figure who represents the good and bad of modern philosophy, but the lesson has not been fully learned. In correcting an excess, as Hegel’s interpreters attempted to do, often they become a dark mirror image of that which they rail against. Derrida’s work on metaphor illustrates this point, as does the development of his work by the majority of his interpreters.45

Between order as cosmos and disorder as chaos, there is a third option, one which Ricoeur borrows from Joyce, ‘an infinitely more complex order that he calls “chaosmos.”’46 Hermeneutics seeks to resist both the temptation of total chaos as we sometimes find it in Derrida (Ricoeur writes of the fascination exerted by the ‘disturbing fecundity of the oblivion that seems to be expressed here’47), and the opposite temptation to bury our heads in the sand and avoid questions of aporia altogether for the sake of some myopic total order. This resistance, this infinite complexity calls for a philosophy which functions in tension, and Ricoeur sees metaphor as central to this:

‘In the most radical terms possible, tension must be introduced into metaphorically affirmed being.’48

‘Tension guarantees the very transference of meaning and gives poetic language its characteristic of semantic “plus value,” its capacity to be open towards new aspects, new dimensions, new horizons of meaning.’49

Metaphor creates a tension in the mind, because not only does it consist of noting certain resemblances and translating these into language (as Aristotle maintained), but it also implicates the reader in this process. The writer/creator of a metaphor enables us to become a reader/creator50. Mimesis, as has already been noted, involves poiesis.

Attendant to this tension must be the fact that any one thinker alone is insufficient for the task of keeping philosophy vital. The tension of modern philosophy as metaphorical discourse is that ‘this discourse receives its “prospect,” its “ideal,” and its “programme,” from outside, namely from the theology inherited from Plato.’51 We do not share a common programme as Aquinas or Aristotle did when they formulated their own versions of analogy. This is how analogy could not hold the same significance then as it does now. Our programme is disconnected, ideals have become suspect, and our prospects are unclear. What then?

Adorno’s notion of a ‘constellation’ of thinkers is indispensable for coping with this tension, for seeking to avoid hypostatizing the aporia, and hermeneutics reflects this. Neither the hermeneutics of tradition nor the hermeneutics of suspicion are elevated at the expense of the other, but are employed according to their contextual relevance to whatever problematic is being considered. There is give and take the tension between suspicion and tradition. If this is not so, if a problem is not properly discussed, then we degenerate into the phatic speech. The role played by phatic speech in linguistics is that of a bonding mechanism, or ‘grooming talk’. If we employ Adorno’s concept of constellation, a true conversation of mankind becomes possible, once we recognise that conversation does not require total consensus.52

VII. The Constellation

As a a metaphor for philosophy as it stands today, the constellation is extremely telling. Adorno’s implicit epistemology is opposed to reductivity, but his reasons may not coincide precisely with the critique of being as has been tentatively traced out so far. Surpassing Hegel’s dialectic, he gives us a suspicious critique of all we encounter, a negative dialectic. His metaphors of the constellation and the magnetic field are non-reductive, but nevertheless do not say that we must give up and utterly assent to the flux. Of being, he notes something of the contradiction, the aporia we have been alluding to throughout: ‘Under no circumstances is Being to be a thing, and yet, as the metaphors keep indicating, it is to be the “ground” and something solid.’53 This sentence appears in a section entitled ‘Protest Against Reification’. The constellation is interesting as an alternative to this reification or totalization, as it suggests that our knowledge is subjective and selective in tracing out patterns in the world.54 The popular names for the constellation Ursa Major, such as ‘The Big Dipper’ or ‘The Plough’, are proof positive that different possibilities are possible from the constituents of reality as we find them, even if they have become established as a tradition of thought, such as seeing a pattern of stars as a big bear. Systems of thought such as those of the seventeenth century (the period, with Descartes, which we choose as ushering in ‘modernity’) which followed and destructed scholastic ontology ‘no sooner faced the ruins, its own handiwork, than it would be struck by fear of chaos.’55

The magnetic field also signals the possibility of new epistemologies which do not rely upon a static hypostasis, a development in thought which is a result of various discoveries in physics in the early twentieth century. The constellation we intend to trace in the philosophical firmament is a different matter however, as it will be a matter of suggesting possibilities in the sense that Ricoeur encourages:

‘As a constellation, theoretical thought circles the concept it would like to unseal, hoping that it may fly open like the lock of a well-guarded safe-deposit box: in response, not to a single key or a single number, but to a combination of numbers.’56

Any number of approaches can be made to philosophy which admits to a central, fundamental, perhaps even constitutive aporia. As this aporia is within metaphysics, however, it is prudent to begin with metaphysics, since it is not something we can simply do away with as Rorty (explicitly) or Derrida (implicitly) might suggest. One figure who is committed to metaphysical thought which does not shirk the responsibility of engaging with the aporia is Alain Badiou.

VIII. Metaphysics of the Void

Badiou is a thinker who has been elevated to the status of being the purveyor of a philosophy of almost impenetrable obscurity, apparently self-defeating in its complexity. As with most profound thinkers, however, his fundamental insight can be conveyed in rather briefly.

‘Anything that is must be counted-as-one, but unity is not an intrinsic characteristic of being; it is merely the result of an operation which produces consistent multiplicity from inconsistent multiplicity.’57

Having reflected on this sentence for a moment, and in the context of what has already been said above, a tentative approach can be made to Badiou’s ideas. After the title of his magnum opus, what we think about or theorise can be set in terms of either being or event58. Both these terms have a structure which is quite different to almost anything that has been said previously in philosophy because of how they are expressed.

Badiou’s fundamental ‘method’ – if we can call it such – is to return mathematics to a position of pre-eminence in philosophy which it has not enjoyed since the entrance to Plato’s academy stipulated that those who entered must know geometry.59 Even at that, it is different from any Pythagorean derived mysticism, and is rather conceived of by Badiou as a ‘grand style’ which ‘stipulates that mathematics provides a direct illumination of philosophy, rather than the opposite’.60 Mathematics is the science of being qua being, and set-theory is how we enter into this mathematics. What, then, is this being? ‘In set-theory, the void, the empty set, is the primitive name of being.’61 Why set theory? This will take a rather longer explanation, but basically rests on the pre-eminence of the set for mathematics as a whole, and Zermelo-Fraenkel (ZF) set theory is its modern interpretation:

‘most “ordinary” mathematics (calculus, algebra, probability, number theory, geometry, etc.) can be thought of as codified as sets, sets of sets, and so on. In this way, ZF (defined formally in standard predicate logic) may be thought of as a foundation for all types of mathematical representation. Intuitively, ZF starts with nothing, the empty set, ∅.’62

Negative modes in the past were to some extent a means of accounting for that which cannot be adequately formulated in thought. Badiou, following mathematics, makes the negative, the ‘nothing’ or the void central. It makes the void, constitutive. Nothingness is the axiom from which metaphysics and philosophy can begin. Kurt Gödel’s ‘incompleteness theorem’ is the direct inspiration for this, stating that in formalized arithmetic ‘wherein the norm of evaluation is that of the provable, there exists at least one statement that is undecidable in a precise sense: neither it nor its negation can be proved.’63

This seems to have brought us rather far away from our concerns with metaphorical discourse, but in writing about Lucretius and the De Rerum Natura, Badiou tells us that ‘the poem exposes itself as imperative in languages, and, in doing so, produces truths.’64 Though he will demand a desacralization of thought (for this reason Lucretius is held up as an exemplar) the fact that we can produce truth is taken to be central to the work of the mind: ‘a truth can be represented only in the future perfect.’65 Beyond this, the metaphorical discourse is aware of the aporia and does not claim to surpass it. It has harbours few pretensions about its omniscience, given that it is constituted by a gap in thought, a gap between concepts. Where for Aquinas this gap was between creator and created, today and in Badiou’s thought, this gap may be termed the distance between the infinite and the finite. Indeed, thought is constituted by this, it becomes ‘infinite thought’ as human finitude is an insuperable obstacle.

For Badiou, the poem guarantees the decency of speech and thought ‘against the obscenity of “all seeing” and “all saying” – of showing, sounding out and commenting everything,’66 correcting the hubris of philosophy as the mirror of nature. Metaphorical discourse enacts the void, it recognises it in its very operation. As such, aporia begins to return to its place as a rhetorical trope, a point where thought reaches an impasse and turns in on itself temporarily. This means then that a form of thought which includes the void or aporia in itself demands greater efforts at thought, at overcoming its own limitations.

IX ‘Encore un effort…

Badiou is but one modern philosopher who is concerned more with the ‘on-going’ aspect of thought than with the myth of the achieved totality, the Aufhebung which would mean finality. He gives us metaphysics as grounded on nothingness. Derrida is another thinker who has already featured in our constellation of the void, concerned with what has been forgotten in western philosophy, and so we have an epistemology as an anti-knowledge, a view of language which seems to trumpet the impossibility of communication. Ernst Bloch gives us belief as atheism, or a God who is anti-religion. This is grounded on the end of static metaphysics, and the birth of a new philosophy (as he sees it) whose ‘relationship to the Not-yet-manifest does not allow of the slightest hint of an “ontos on.”’67 Adorno gives us a dialectic which is a negative form of thought. He tells us that ‘true nihilists are the ones who oppose nihilism with their more and more faded positivities, the ones who are thus conspiring with all extant malice, and eventually with the destructive principle itself.’68 All these thinkers seem to proceed via paradox; it seems as though they can’t go on, yet they go on. ‘Thought honours itself by defending what is damned as nihilism.’69 They all recognise our difficulties, but nevertheless they demand one more effort if we are to become political, or ethical, or metaphysical. This ‘one more’ is the call to tension, to further effort, to maintain the constellation we ourselves have fashioned.

At this point we may turn to Levinas, who speaks of philosophy as ‘otherwise than being’. If we deny totality we thus accept the duty of infinity which is our lot if we recognise our constitutive aporia. This is where we begin to come full circle. The excluded element which Levinas notes is evocatively put to us in the figure of the face, namely the face of the other. Alterity replaces being, specifically the Dasein of Heidegger. Where once there was ontology, now there is ethics.70 By moving away from being, we no longer think of God in terms of existence, of proofs, of logic. Where God was a guarantee of substance and essentially the hypostasis of Aquinas’s entire system, Levinas reintroduces a God “as the God of alterity and transcendence [who] can only be understood in terms of that interhuman dimension […] which cuts through and perforates the totality of presence and points towards the absolutely Other.’71 There is room for God in this philosophy of Levinas’s, but in a space apart from the logical and the ontological; God cannot be thought nor placed nor proved. God is, for Levinas, a metaphor in the most liberating and positive sense. Metaphor becomes the sole link to that which is beyond. We are finite, yet we throw ourselves towards the infinite.


As a caveat to the distinction between modern and medieval which has been suggested so far, Brian Davies notes that ‘it is worth stressing that what he argues often foreshadows much that we find in the writings of “modern” philosophers.’72 This is true as far as we can keep in mind the differences which conditioned responses to problems in Aquinas’s time as compared with our own. As ever, in hermeneutics the matter of memory is of primary importance if we are to enumerate and appreciate these differences. In the preface to The Philosophy of Right Hegel presents us with the metaphor of the owl of Minerva who only takes flight at dusk, suggesting that philosophy comes ‘too late’ to instruct the world as it ought to be. It’s a pessimistic vision of thought’s place in the world, and so we might suggest an alternative.

In The Poetic Edda we have Odin explaining the mythical constitution of the world, saying of his two ravens:

‘Hugin and Munin fly every day

over the wide world;

I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,

Yet I tremble more for Munin.’73

These two birds are sent out into the world of humankind (Midgard) from the home of the gods (Asgard). Where Hegel gave us the owl of wisdom, in the Norse mythology Odin himself is the representative of wisdom, and these birds attend to him: Hugin signifying thought, Munin memory. It is a continuous effort to seek after wisdom, an ongoing dialectic, and though Odin here fears a dissociation from thought, it is the disappearance of memory which truly terrifies. We can think anew continuously, but memory is the memory of our systems and networks of thought. It is a gap between gods and men which requires a conduit, and these birds are the media which allows for such exchange. They fly through the void from a divine realm to the earthly domain of confusion.

The gap through which a metaphor flies is the gap between infinite and finite, perfect and imperfect, creator and created. Only a metaphor can bridge such a divide, and this is why metaphor is of such significance in the recognition of the aporia of being. Since metaphor is a network, an emergent system of meaning as Ricoeur tells us, without memory this network cannot be held together. This is the tension which makes philosophy new, which makes us receptive to possible worlds. Memory is precarious, and so tension is constant recognition of the aporia of being. Analogy once could serve this role as a mediator of figurative discourse, but it has come to pass that metaphor has taken this over. Metaphor notes that it is our work as thinking beings who condition the response to whatever aporia we encounter. Metaphor is the recognition of mimesis as poiesis. So if analogy had a Christian God, metaphor has the mythical gods who foretell their own doom in Ragnarok. After this, humans will rise again but whether this ‘new world is much like the old, with a balance of good and evil, depends on how one reads the final verses of the Seeress’s Prophecy.’74 Our duty is always to keep our muscles in tension, to continually interpret, to always make ‘one more effort’ so that the aporia of being is not to swallow us whole.


1Rorty springs immediately to mind.

2F. C. Coplestone, Aquinas, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955) p. 24

3Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy, (Oxford: OUP, 2005) pp. 68-9

4Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings proved more than up to the task of following in the footsteps of medieval philosophers when he backtracked in the course of questioning, stating ‘it depends what your definition of “is” is.’

5This distinction between medieval and modern is not to be considered as rating one above the other. They approach problems differently as a consequence propose different solutions.

6Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 62

7With figures as diverse as Avicenna, Maimonides, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus et al.

8Brian Davies, Aquinas, (London: Continuum, 2003) p. 235

9Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, (Oxford: OUP, 1992) p. 70

10Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 5th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) pp. 361-2

11Ibid., p. 348

12David Burrell, Analogy and Philosophical Language, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1973) p. 28

13Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London: Continuum, 2004) p. 292

14Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p. 229

15Karl Simms, Paul Ricoeur, (London: Routledge, 2003) p. 63

16‘Standard’ because both univocal and equivocal languages have immediate referents. Equivocity, while appearing to have something in common with analogy in that one word, e.g. pen, can be taken to refer to different elements of this world (a pig pen, or a writing pen) all that these different elements have in common is a contingency of spelling. Analogy refers to something beyond immediate discourse. In Aquinas, it is taken to refer to a chain of being and participation, and so analogy is a figure which allows differences to be reconciled. We are the same as God, but different.

17James Fodor, Christian Hermeneutics, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 162

18Gadamer, p. 63

19Gianni Vattimo writes that hermeneutics is not only a consequence of secularization but indeed one of the most significant contributing factors ‘for the breakdown of Catholic unity in Europe was heavily influence by the new ways of reading the Bible based on the Lutheran principle of “scripture alone,” but also and perhaps above all by the rationalist exegeses set in train by Spinoza.’ Beyond Interpretation, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997) p. 42

20Ibid., p. 42

21Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, (London: Routledge, 2003) p. 233

22Ibid., p. 195

23Ricoeur refers to this metaphorical, figurative, non-referential mode as ‘poetic discourse’, in contrast to more traditionally philosophical ‘speculative discourse’.

24Ibid., p. 307

25Ibid., p. 309

26Thomas A. F. Kelly, Language, Word and God, (Dublin: Columba, 1997) p. 60

27Ricoeur, p. 314

28Ibid., p. 315

29Ibid., p. 322

30Ibid., p. 323

31Ibid., p. 330

32Note that deconstruction will admit that there is a network of metaphorical reference rather than individual examples of metaphorical figure. This is embryonic admission of the validity of a hermeneutics of tradition which stands in contrast to the typical deconstructive strategy of a hermeneutics of suspicion.

33Ibid., p. 339


35Conor Cunningham, Genealogies of Nihilism, (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 20

36Ricoeur, op cit., p. 343

37The original French title for Ricoeur’s book, Le métaphore vive, reminds us of this.

38Mark Dooley and Liam Kavanagh, The Philosophy of Derrida, (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2007) p. 11

39Kelly, op. cit., p. 73

40Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, (Oxford: OUP, 1975) p. 32

41Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983) p. 343

42If he were not so concerned, would he return repeatedly to Plato, for instance?

43Paul Ricoeur, “The Poetics of Language and Myth” in Richard Kearney, Debates in Continental Philosophy, (New York: Fordham UP, 2004) p. 109

44Paul Ricoeur, “Metaphor and the Main Problem of Hermeneutics”, A Ricoeur Reader, (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) p. 318

45Figures such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller in the ‘Yale School’ of literary deconstruction appropriated Derrida’s work, and in doing so veer between emulation of Derrida’s more obscure moments and what approaches unintentional pastiche.

46Paul Ricoeur, in Kearney, p. 104

47The Rule of Metaphor, p. 344

48Ibid., p. 292

49Ibid., p. 296

50Certain thinkers had recognised this point, but rather than note a complicity between writer and reader, they favoured the empty rhetorical excess which proclaimed the ‘death of the author.’

51The Rule of Metaphor, p. 315

52Habermas and Rawls, among others, seem to have ignored this when formulating their own programmes. Indeed ‘consensus’ in this context becomes another term used to paper over the aporia within their philosophical systems. Implicitly, it says ‘if you don’t agree, there’s something wrong with you.’ They unwittingly make appeal to a covertly ‘strong’ sense of being.

53Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, (London: Routledge, 1990) p. 90

54Richard J. Bernstein notes that the constellation ‘is deliberately intended to displace Hegel’s master metaphor of Aufhebung […] I do not think we can any longer responsibly claim that there is of can be a final reconciliation, and Aufhebung.’ The New Constellation, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991) p. 8

55Ibid., p. 21

56Ibid., p. 163

57Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 97

58‘Event’ echoes Ricoeur’s observation that hermeneutics entails or implies action as a means to bring possible worlds into existence, not only thought.

59Indeed, Badiou describes himself frequently as a Platonist

60Alain Badiou, “Mathematics and Philosophy”, Theoretical Writings, (London: Continuum, 2006) p. 7

61“Platonism and Mathematical Ontology”, Theoretical Writings, p. 60

62Review of Badiou’s Number and Numbers, <;. Accessed 29 August 2009

63“On Subtraction”, Theoretical Writings, p. 106

64Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought, (London: Continuum, 2005) p. 81

65“On Subtraction”, Theoretical Writings, p. 117

66“Language, Thought, Poetry”, Theoretical Writings, p. 241

67Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, (London: Verso, 2009) p. 54

68Adorno, op. cit., p. 381


70Often Levinas’s philosophy is called ‘ethics as first philosophy’ ,whereby metaphysics has become displaced in favour of the duty to alterity, but this is ethics as first philosophy, rather than the philosophy. The constellation is maintained.

71Emmanuel Levinas in Debates in Continental Philosophy, pp. 72

72Brian Davies, Aquinas, p. 236

73The Poetic Edda, (Oxford: OUP, 1999) p. 54

74Ibid., p. xviii


3 thoughts on “Being, metaphor, and “nothingness”

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