Bridging The True Isn’t the Rational with The Absolute Choice
Hume, Hegel, and The Iconoclast by Samuel Barnes
The Iconoclast by Samuel Barnes is a tremendous text, a fitting follow-up to Missing Axioms, which I similarly found inspiring. Barnes tells us that ‘[p]hilosophy is the question […] the ultimate question […] the question of questions.’¹ After an introduction like that, it’s easy to think that what will follow is a shameless praise of philosophy as the most important of all enterprises, but what we find instead is a cautionary tale in the heritage of Pyrrho, Sextus, and David Hume. The book also explores the work of Donald Livingston, of whom I myself derive much inspiration, and the text will ultimately suggest that it’s a problem that “philosophy is the ultimate question.” For Barnes, we could say that the ultimate question regarding philosophy is that philosophy forces us to decide what we’re going to do about philosophy (‘the intellectual leviathan’).² So, indeed — what will we do?
The Iconoclast: An Anti-Philosophy
The Iconoclast: An Anti-Philosophy: Barnes, Samuel: 9798840163368: Books - Amazon.ca
Missing Axioms taught us that true nihilism is impossible: if I act, I participate in values, and thus it is not possible to actually live without values. I expound on the first book by Mr. Barnes in other papers and discussions (“The Truth Is Veiled in Blood” and O.G. Rose Conversation Ep #13), while here I mainly want to suggest that the “the impossibility of escaping values” is similar to “the impossibility of escaping philosophy” (for values are fundamentally matters of metaphysics and hence philosophy). Barnes refers to “pure philosophy” (or just “philosophy,” ultimately) as “The Meta-Question,” and its status as such ‘can be demonstrated by the fact that it emanates from and is cast upon everything simultaneously at all times. It appears anything can be thought about philosophically. It appears all action and inaction project a philosophical judgment regardless of any supposed intentionality of nihilism.’³ Even if we speak against the value of philosophy, we speak philosophically (“no exit”). What is this “thing” we cannot escape? Why does it exist, and what does its existence say about our existence, seeing as we must have the capacity to think it? If philosophy is at least partially in the business of making the world strange again, Barnes is in the business of making philosophy itself once again strange to us.
By calling philosophy “The Meta-Question,” Barnes helps us see anew something that is all too familiar. It simply doesn’t puzzle us anymore that anything can be a subject of philosophy, but it should, because this characteristic is rare. Roger Scruton once warned that sex was not merely something to be enjoyed, a supreme pastime, but a social problem, which is to say that every society had to decide how it was going to manage “the problem of sex.” This didn’t mean sex was bad, but it did mean that a society that failed to handle and manage sex properly (like containing fire in a fireplace) would suffer and even fail. Fire is needed for heat and warmth, but it is also destructive if not rightly managed. This is how Scruton talked of sex, and a similar idea applies to ideas themselves.
Ideas are a problem , a problem that must be managed. And it is according to this line of thinking that thinkers like Hume can be understood: philosophy is needed because ideas do matter. Far from an uncritical lauding of ideas, philosophy is about protecting us from unbound and unmanaged ideas. We cannot not have ideas, and yet ideas are also dangerous, in the same way that humanity must have sex if humanity is to reproduce and continue, and yet sex is a problematic force. In this way, we should not only think of family structures as cultural expressions of individual choices, but as mechanisms of managing the profound problem of sex so that children are not born out of wedlock, so that people know who they can mate with and who they cannot, what age sex is advisable, and so on. Similarly, philosophy is not merely a department at college that some people can enjoy if it meets their personality type; rather, philosophy is necessary for us to handle “the problem of ideas” and to avoid these negative consequences. At the same time, as family structures can oppress, restrict, and control, so philosophy can oppress, destroy, and cause radical existential anxiety — both of these “solutions” for managing the problems of sex and philosophy are problems in their own right (there is no easy or straightforward way to deal with ourselves).
As “the problem of sex” is seemingly inevitable because of puberty, hormones, and the need to perpetuate the species, so ideas also seem inevitable because we require them to organize our decisions, we will encounter diversity that we’ll struggle to understand, we’ll encounter ideologies that might “control” us, we’ll have to judge what we should think and what we shouldn’t, and the like. The realities which force “the problem of sexuality” upon us seem unavoidable, and so it goes with “the problem of philosophy,” and yet we can of course avoid the framing of “sex as a problem” and “philosophy as a problem” all we want: just because a reality is inexorable doesn’t mean a certain understanding of that reality is likewise inevitable. Unfortunately, it would seem very natural to think of “sex as something fun to do” and the same of philosophy, which means we basically pick up fire and think of it as fun. We have little sense of the risk and danger we entertain, which was basically the main thrust of Roger Scruton’s point. Here, in light of Samuel Barnes, the same point is basically being made about philosophy: we consider it a mere pastime at our own peril, but we also easily doom ourselves if we revere it as infallible.
Barnes argues that “pure philosophy” is impossible, which is to say that we inevitably transform “The Meta-Question” into “Sub-Questions” (often just as soon as we think it). When we try to be philosophical, we suddenly find ourselves as Pragmatists who assume capital-T-Truth is inaccessible (for example) or Metaphysicians who assume the reality of time. “Sub-Questions” are not bad for Barnes, but they aren’t “The Meta-Question,” which means philosophy entails an impossibility at its heart (outside a “Metaphysical Miracle,” as explored in Chapter X). For Barnes, philosophy is ultimately at its core the effort to think and consider the world without any presuppositions or preset assumptions; to use language from O.G. Rose, it is an effort to achieve a rationality that doesn’t ascribe to any preset or nonrational truth to organize it. This is “autonomous rationality,” as described in “Deconstructing Common Life,” which is impossible, but I think Barnes is correct that the high majority of Western Philosophy has been an effort to achieve thought and rationality which does just this (the mistake of the Enlightenment), to such an extent that it’s fair to say “philosophy” is characterized by an effort for “pure rationality.” This is what defines “The Iconoclast,” while “The Dogmatist” forgoes the effort for “autonomous rationality” in favor of what Barnes calls a “Sub-Question” which entails presuppositions, axioms, and assumptions. Ultimately, for Barnes, we all “fall into Sub-Questions” (we require “givens” to allude to language from “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose), but “The Dogmatist” is someone who sees no tragedy in this, and in fact views it as right and best (for their Sub-Question isn’t even a “Sub-Question,” per se, but the answer to reality and their world).
Philosophy can be about anything, but nothing can be about “pure philosophy.” And yet we must all live “as if” we have answered “The Meta-Question,” which is to say we must live according to axioms and assumptions regarding reality and the world that we must believe correspond with reality (otherwise, we wouldn’t live according to them), though this is not possible for us to know with certainty. It’s impossible to live “as if” we haven’t answered “The Meta-Question,” and yet it’s not possible for any of us to have answered it, for “pure philosophy” is unthinkable. And this is the paradox and tension which Mr. Barnes articulates and shows we cannot escape.
The very danger of Dogmatism is that it’s dogmatic (itself), while the danger of Iconoclasm is that its iconoclastic — what should we do? We are stuck between what is dangerous and what is dangerous, and life is the process of learning how to handle these dangers. And asking “how” we should handle these dangers is precisely a philosophical inquiry, which means we must engage with danger to figure out how we should handle danger. And this is our plight: ‘[e]ternally the dogmatic urge and the iconoclastic impulse pull on the human intellect and collectively brings us into respective eras of dogmatism and iconoclasm.’⁴ Dogmatism is the desire for certainty and direction, while Iconoclasm is the desire for possibility and freedom. Most of us are miserable if we lack both of these, and yet these two things necessarily combat and contradict one another. Does this mean life requires us to find a home in contradiction? This is a Hegelian point, and I believe so, but why exactly requires exploring The Absolute Choice by O.G. Rose, which for now we will avoid (though, for those interested, please see “The Contradiction Choice”).
Art seems to be a similar entity like philosophy, because it would seem everything in the universe can be considered in terms of aesthetic values. But in this way isn’t art ultimately a philosophic consideration? I’m not sure, but classically “beauty, truth, and goodness” were considered “the three infinites,” and it would seem philosophy is “The Meta-Question” precisely because it is in philosophy that these three can come together and be considered. What is the nature of the universe to make “the three infinities” possible in the universe’s very structure? Indeed, that’s a peculiar question, one that possibly suggests that we need to explore the ontoepistemology of Hegel (a favorite past time of mine).
I believe The Iconoclast has implications on the topic of art in addition to philosophy (fields which for me are closely related). For Hans Rookmaaker, reality was “fact plus meaning.” Meaning is a matter of Metaphysics and Philosophy, which suggests reality is impossible without “The Meta-Question” which risks deconstructing everything. Facts without meaning are fragments, and fragmentation is a characteristic of “The Meaning Crisis” which plagues our world today. But avoiding fragmentation requires us to entertain “a sense of the whole” which Hume warned must always be “a riddle”; otherwise, we practically try to experience “the face of God” directly, which biblically means we undergo effacement.
Modern Art attempted to create art without a Metaphysics, stressing “art is about pleasure” and “art is about art’s sake,” but both these claims participate in Metaphysics even if they do not do so consciously or explicitly. Why should “pleasure” be a value? Why should “art for art’s sake” be the point of art? Valuations are inescapable, and yet art which tries to be philosophical and Metaphysical tends to be mediocre, as people who try to live explicitly philosophical lives tend to miss out on life. Art and philosophy are best when we study Metaphysics and the big questions deeply, and then venture into our life and artistic work without thinking about them (like how Isaiah Berlin would take copious notes before lectures that he then wouldn’t use, as described in “Philosophy As Writing Down a Bunch of Notes for a Presentation You Then Don’t Look At” by O.G. Rose). Values and ideas need to remain “in the background” of our work and lives, but that’s very different from saying we don’t need to think philosophically or Metaphysically at all. The key is an act of sacrifice and trust: we are to study something closely that we then maintain the faith will influence our work even though we don’t directly assure such, meaning we are vulnerable to wasting our time and effort. This is uncomfortable, but without this risk, we easily end up churning out propaganda and miss out “on living as a human” (to allude to the Humean quote Barnes emphasizes so well).
“Pure Art,” we could say, like “Pure Philosophy,” is impossible, which is to say an artistic expression which doesn’t participate in values and Metaphysics. Modern Art, following Hans Rookmaaker, was an effort to achieve this very goal, which ultimately caused pathology, confusion, and deconstruction. Yes, it’s critical that art not try to explicitly be philosophical, but it’s also dangerous if art believes it’s possible to be “Pure Art” (basically, pure and/or non-dialectical anything is a problem). This mistake is very consequential, because personally I believe art shapes and influences our overall environment, and our environment influences “the truth” we absorb and ascribe to, which then organizes our rationality. This is expanded on in The Fate of Beauty, and ultimately I think “the fate of beauty is the fate of us” (if art and notions of beauty seek “Pure Being,” like “The Meta-Question,” then we will try to organize ourselves according to something pathological and deconstructive). Rookmaaker would have us understand that “reality is (meta)physics,” and philosophy and art must always be about reality or they will contribute to effacement.
Funny enough, while philosophy effaces itself when it attempts to be “too philosophical,” per se, lacking concrete and practical reference, art effaces itself when it isn’t philosophical enough, seemingly the exact opposite problem. For me, this might suggest that art and philosophy are somehow part of the same essence, and that when they are divided they become pathological and effaced. Art grounds philosophy into expression and representation, while philosophy keeps art from considering itself “pure representation.” As already mentioned, classically “truth, beauty, and goodness” were considered “the three infinites” and as somehow sharing in an identical essence; for me, the fact these three prove so destructive and problematic without one another indeed suggests that they somehow are part of the same thing.
Returning to Samuel Barnes, Chapters II and III of his book explore “The Dogmatist” and “The Iconoclast,” elaborating on their distinct characteristics, benefits, and vices. ‘The other is uncertainty,” for “The Dogmatist,” which suggests “The Iconoclast” introduces anxiety and tension.⁵ Which we need, do note: the human tendency to seek comfort and ease can be poison to the soul. It would be a huge mistake to assume that Barnes is claiming “The Iconoclast” is bad (with whom Barnes himself identifies in his conversation with Dr. Cadell Last); rather, Barnes critiques philosophy that fails to see itself tragically and humbly. “Pure philosophy” is not something humans can handle; “The Meta-Question” is always beyond us, and yet we must live according to it all the same. Yes, Barnes locates ‘[t]he ultimate futility of philosophy’ in “The Iconoclast,” but this does not mean there is no good nor necessity in Iconoclasticism.⁶
The danger which concerns Barnes is not philosophy in any and all instances, but philosophy which fails to question philosophy. When this doesn’t occur, philosophy becomes infinitely deconstructive, for there is nothing which can meet philosophy’s standard and criteria of “presuppositionless thought.” If to be justified something must be free of axioms, then nothing can earn the right to exist, and thus everything is justified to be destroyed. But philosophy itself like this cannot meet its own standard, and so it is in the act of turning philosophy on itself that we can stop philosophy from destroying everything and so transform philosophy. If philosophy as “presuppositionless rationality” is impossible (rationality without nonrational truth), then perhaps “philosophy as answering the Meta-Question” is a mistaken undertaking (suggesting that much of Western Philosophy has been misdirected)? Instead, perhaps philosophy is about “living with the Meta-Question” and not about “answering it” at all. For me, this would transform philosophy from something A/A to something A/B (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose), which is to say philosophy becomes about realizing and living with the reality and limits of “Absolute Knowing” (as discussed by Hegel). With this, I want to suggest how Mr. Barnes calls philosophy to “turn on itself” and try to hold itself up to its own criteria of being “pure philosophy,” an act which will unveil this as impossible, and thus philosophy will have to either become Humean and Hegelian or end. Like confessing sinners in Christianity, the humbling of philosophy is its salvation.
Paradoxically, to “live with The Meta-Question,” we have to know about it (as we must know about sin to seek salvation), and thus philosophy must be aware of “The Meta-Question” to carry out its function, and with that awareness will necessarily come the possibility of considering an effort to try to answer “The Meta-Question.” This temptation is unavoidable, which is to say philosophy must bring with it temptation, but since philosophy is something we are “always already in,” we cannot avoid this temptation without also avoiding reality, which is to say reality itself entails a structural temptation. If we are alive, we will be alive amidst that which will try to convince us that the wrong way is right — a point which seems to necessitate philosophy in our lives. If we can think what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right, then we need to think beyond appearances, and that means we must think with the very philosophy which will tempt us to seek impossible and pathological “autonomous rationality.”
The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose discusses “Pynchon Risks” and how epistemic responsibility will easily drive us into situations which are epistemically impossible for us to address. A “Conflict of Mind” is when what humans feel responsible to know comes in conflict with what is possible for them to know, and we can see “Absolute Knowing” as a state in which we know about “Conflicts of Mind” and accept them. Likewise, we know about “The Meta-Question” and its necessity for thought to be possible, but we also resist the temptation to try to address “The Meta-Question” directly (like a believer in God who accepts not trying to directly know and understand God’s Mind). We cannot escape all conflict, because “conflicts of mind” are a result of the very structure of the mind itself. To be an “Absolute Knower” is to be someone who is habituated, emotionally and practically, to this reality and thus able to live with it, and yet achieving this state necessarily requires us to put ourselves in the position where we can be tempted to believe in a “Great Enlightenment,” per se, in which we know everything. At “Absolute Knowing,” we approach “The Meta-Question” and bow before it as unknowable (as if a believer in the temple or before God’s throne), and in this humbling, we gain the spirit and disposition needed to live with it. Worshiping God as greater and ultimately unknowable is the only way to live with God.
Philosophy exists because of “The Meta-Question” (‘the great beyond of unbound thoughts’), but it does not exist to answer “The Meta-Question”; rather, philosophy exists so that we might answer “how we might live with the Meta-Question.”⁷ It’s not self-evident the best practices and habits for “living with the Meta-Question,” and so we require philosophy to explore those questions and chart our life course. If we know consciously that answering “The Meta-Question” is impossible (‘an unattainable goal’), we will not focus our resources and energies on doing so, and thus will increase the probability that we use our time and energy well.⁸ Seeing as The Iconoclast by Samuel Barnes can help us in that way, it is well worth reading, and it is on this point we can begin to grasp why the subtitle, “An Anti-Philosophy,” is appropriate. Barnes in mind, we can see Hegel’s “Absolute Knowing” as an “Anti-Philosophy” itself, a product of “negating an abstraction into concretion” (philosophy is the “abstraction,” accepting the impossibility of answering the Meta-Question the “negation,” and the “concretion” is living with the Meta-Question instead). We require Iconoclasm to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of Dogmatism, but Iconoclasm that lacks a sense of Anti-Philosophy is unbound and dangerous in its natural tendency to totalize everything into itself and judge it there as “not meeting the standard of pure philosophy,” thus deconstructing it for its failure and leaving us with nothing but “The Meta-Question” itself (which we cannot directly understand).
For Mr. Barnes, as already noted, ‘philosophy [is] the only method of intellectual inquiry capable of [a] circular pattern of investigation,’ which is to say philosophy can always question everything, including itself.⁹ To quote him at length:
‘The inquiry [of philosophy into itself] places us into a dizzying circular cognition which instantiates a set of ultimate questions of a philosophical nature about philosophy itself […] / In this self-referential assault we see the suggestion of anti-philosophy produced by the philosophical apparatus itself. This is a proof of the unique nature of philosophical inquiry, for example anti-physics or anti-religion can only arise outside the bounds of their respective sub-questions and are often projected as an assault from rival sub-questions.’¹⁰
In seemingly all other fields, critiques must come from outside the field, but philosophy can house its own critique (‘[it] is the only mode of inquiry capable of examining itself with its own apparatus’), making it seemingly invincible.¹¹ This being the case, it is only philosophy which can always circle “The Meta-Question” and enable us to avoid being controlled by something “unquestionable.” Since philosophy can always question everything, nothing has to be unquestionable, and that means nothing must control us, including “The Meta-Question,” if we learn to resist the temptation to try to access it directly. Philosophy entails no temporal or spatial limitation, and so it can always defend us — but that means it can always tempt us too. Mythologically, there are numerous stories where paradise requires a restriction; here, we see a similar narrative at play, suggesting that myths which are found in theology should not be reserved for theology — to save itself from itself, philosophy seems to need the myths as well.
It is interesting to note the parrels between religion and philosophy (of “The Meta-Question”), for as religion has always had to find a way to be about a God it can never fully know (and that approaching too closely could risk heresy), so Mr. Barnes seems to suggest a need for philosophy to design itself around “The Meta-Question” without drawing too near. If a religion makes God knowable, the religion arguably destroy itself, for a finite God cannot be God, and only something finite can be fully knowable. For Western Religions, a God which was “fully knowable” was an idol and force of heresy; yes, God could be “relatable” through Jesus Christ (say in Christianity), but even Jesus Christ was not a “full revelation” of God as God is to Himself — there was always some degree of unknowability. Throughout its history, Christianity has oscillated between understanding God “too transcendently” and “too immanently,” and finding a balance between these positions has never been easy, but however imperfectly, Christianity at least knew it needed to struggle with this problem (and humbly accept ultimate failure). But philosophy has been in a similar situation with “The Meta-Question” and not known it, and as a result philosophy has sometimes unintentionally been a force of pathology and totalization. This is what Hume sought to correct, and as a religion centered on an overly-finite God easily ends up effaced, so a philosophy that fancies itself “overly-able” to answer “The Meta-Question” ends up effaced as well.
I obviously generalize in how I describe religion, for there are many religions in which people believe many different things, but the point is that many religions have had to form themselves aware that they had to somehow balance seeking and knowing God with not thinking we ever fully obtain God, or otherwise religion would suffer and possibly collapse. Religion is often in the business of seeking God, and yet if God is found, the religion is dead (in finitude), for that means God has been turned into “an idea” of God which God cannot possibly be. Yes, the idea might “have something to do” with God, but it cannot be equivalent to God, in the same way Sub-Questions can have something to do with the Meta-Question (and arguably must), but at the same time they cannot be “full answers” to “The Meta-Question.” In this way, we might glimpse ways that “the new philosophy” (A/B) which “lives with the Meta-Question” might have something to learn from ancient theological traditions — but that would be another topic for another time. That said, I have been convinced by Trey at telosbound that Pavel Florensky shared similar thoughts to David Hume and also understood that “pure skepticism” lead to a state of inescapable torment, for questions can always lead to questions, uncertainty can always lead to uncertainty — and deeper and deeper into the endless pit and night we fall.
“Pure Philosophy,” which is philosophy that actually achieves its goal of “accessing the Meta-Question,” is philosophy which is able to think outside of grounding, axioms, presuppositions, and the like — and “Pure Philosophy” is impossible. Alluding to Hegel, as Dr. Last notes, we can think of every stage of “The Phenomenological Journey” (Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason…) as a stage which fails and eventually realizes its own Dogmatism, seeking then to move beyond the stage, an Iconoclastic act that leads the subject to a new stage where eventually another Dogmatism must be realized (this time one of say Spirit versus Reason), which is then Iconoclastically broken through to the next stage — on and on until Absolute Knowing is reached, which is the stage where “The Meta-Question” itself is encountered. And here we come to encounter and realize the impossibility of “Pure Philosophy,” which is to say we accept a limit to what we can know and realize. And at this point we have a choice: we can interpret the “nothingness” beyond the limit as “empty” or “apophatic” (we decide if the “lack” points, as described in A Philosophy of Glimpses, suggesting Alterology, which is explored in (Re)constructing “A Is A” by O.G. Rose).
Critically, since we cannot experience our limits (the limits limit us from experiencing limits), we must choose to believe the limits are there, which is to say we must choose to believe there is something which we ultimately cannot access. Nothing can force us to make this hermeneutical choice, which is why arguably we never have to leave any of the stages in Hegel’s “Phenomenological Journey” (which is to say we never have to think of ourselves as needing to move beyond them), and it would also follow that the only reason we can move beyond the stages is precisely because we are capable of the very “abstract reasoning” which makes “The Meta-Question” a problem and that we ultimately must “negate into concretion.” In this way, we must always live “skillfully,” which means we must have developed the habits necessary for mastering those skills, suggesting the profound connection between Hegel and habit. Indeed, I see “The Habituated” as occupying a middle space between “The Iconoclast” and “The Dogmatist,” for habits entail consistency, reliability, direction, and organization without dogma. “Closed-mindedness” and “focus” are practically very similar and “concrete,” and yet they are also not the same. For me, a “common life” of habit (which Hume spoke of) suggests the “grounding” we need without the same risks which Dogmatism entails — but that must be elaborated on in The Absolute Choice by O.G. Rose. Basically, Hegel is discipline.
Habits and routines form in the space between me and the world, and my work on Hegel will stress that habits seem paramount for understanding “the tense reconciliation” presented to us in Hegel. A habit is something we do that’s practically part of our very “necessity,” and yet it’s also not “determined” in the same way as is my genetic code: a habit is something I have chosen to impose on myself, of which then paradoxically I can feel notably free in precisely because I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. This is the strange tension with freedom: if I know I’m free, I can feel existentially anxious and thus feel unfree, whereas if I act as if I must do x or y, then I can actually feel freer precisely in that state when I don’t seem to have freedom at all. There is the “thoughtlessness” that concerned Hannah Arendt that leads us into being ideologically controlled, but there is also the “thoughtlessness” that emerges in a state of “flow” and mastery — there is similarity, and yet also distinction. For me, it’s on the topics of habit, routine, and skill that we can start to understand the right way to approach and use philosophy, both so that we avoid trying to answer “The Meta-Question” and so that we avoid falling into problematic Dogmatism.
The world is external to us, and we develop habit in the space between us and the world. The world is also “other,” which suggests that acknowledging its reality enough to participate in and practice routines and habits is a way to participate in “the being-other” which Hegel stressed and sought. Furthermore, if we treat the world as “actual,” we also position ourselves to treat the realm where we can encounter “other subjects” as “there” and relevant, and all of that means we are “open” to organizing our lives and thinking according to things outside of ourselves. For me, this is an act which avoids “presuppositional philosophy” and instead tries to organize itself according to “intersuppositional logic,” per se, which is to say “the grounding” for our lives is found outside of ourselves, say in the raw “Buberian encounter” of ourselves with others and/or the concrete world. “Inter-suppositional” is meant to suggest “between” and “in relation,” suggesting that we ground philosophy in something that we cannot “autonomously isolate” in ourselves. And yet the raw “encounter” with others is there — we know it occurs and existentially feel it. Whereas notions like “justice is fairness” or “freedom is the supreme value” are ultimately metaphysical and not necessarily felt, “encounters” are indeed experienced and consequential, and so though it can feel strangely more “concrete” and “real” to base our thinking on premises located inside ourselves, it can actually be more “actual” to base it on something beyond us that cannot be reduced to us that is nevertheless there. This is the rub: we place the assumption of more concrete reality not on us but on what is “not us.” While the solipsist asks, “How do I know anything is real but me?” here, in what I consider a Hegelian reversal, we suggest almost asking the opposite, “How do I know I’m real like everything else?”
Now, I’m not saying we literally believe “everything exists but us,” but I am saying that in “intersuppositional logic” we indeed give the emphasis to that which is “other” from us, and in this way provide a grounding for our philosophy which our philosophy cannot consume. After all, the “ground” is outside of us, and so it is where our thinking can never access without ceasing to be autonomous and alone. The moment our thinking extends beyond itself, it is no longer “autonomous,” and so it is no longer at risk of falling into the pitfalls warned by Hume and the like. The moment we treat “the other” as “actual,” our thinking must extend to what it resents (naturally wanting to be autonomous) and yet what it nevertheless needs. For me, “Absolute Knowing” is fundamentally intersuppositional versus presuppositional, for what grounds our thought becomes precisely what is “outside of us” and what we are limited from experiencing. Yes, that limit exists because of us, but it is not reducible to us, and please note that we ourselves are one side of an “intersuppositional consideration”: there can be no “between us” which we are not a part. If there is us and the world, then there is us.
“Absolute Knowing” is intersuppositional (in my view), for it essentially involves us and something “other” than us of which is nevertheless part of us. We are part of something that is not reducible to us, and thus our thinking can never reduce that “something” to itself. If we then orientate our thinking and philosophy around that thing, we make the foundation of our thinking something which denies the possibility of “autonomous rationality.” And it is then according to this “intersuppositional thinking” that we can orbit and train our habits and skills so that philosophy becomes more of something we “naturally do” then “unnaturally think.” This must be expanded on in my work regarding Hegel, but I do see in this a way to follow Hume’s call for us to “stay a person” while at the same time engaging in philosophy.
To be human is to play with fire, but in not even knowing about “The Meta-Question,” we don’t even realize we play with fire, and the chances we will be burnt are thus very high. Since we are “limited from experiencing our limits” (“Absolute Knowing”), there is nothing in reality that must force us to acknowledge that accessing “The Meta-Question” is impossible (“the map is indestructible,” after all), and thus by omission we can always have reason to try (and, in fact, since we necessarily experience everything as “grasping,” this perhaps provides us reason to think we can “grasp” the Meta-Question as well — a mistaken impression expounded on in “The Phenomenology of (True) Ignorance” by O.G. Rose). Avoiding the mistake of seeking “Pure Philosophy” must be self-imposed, and since there is no “given” reason to do this, the choice must be “nonrational,” which is to say the choice must be something that cannot be readily grasped or understood in rational terms. And yet this “nonrational choice” is the ground necessary for rationality to be possible — we must all “always already” have made what I call “The Absolute Choice,” which is to say we must all live “as if” we’ve answered “The Meta-Question,” whether we realize it or not.
Mr. Barnes is correct that philosophy is indeed unstoppable, and this is why it is potentially terrible and omni-destructive. Philosophy, to enter the world, is for something invincible to have been unleashed, but following Jared Diamond, agriculture seems unstoppable as well. Technology also seems unrelenting, as it seems impossible to avoid Artificial Intelligence and “The Singularity,” and perhaps these things exist because of philosophy somehow. Hard to say, but I cannot help but wonder (following Hegel) if philosophy is an implicit logic that arose in history and became explicit precisely when we needed something unstoppable to balance and live with unstoppable things. Globalization seems like it will only accelerate, and that means we will only encounter ever-more diversity and difference, the handling of which will require philosophical reflection. For Hegel, the present and “historic now” generates out of its implicit potential what it needs to manage itself, and philosophy seems to be part of that historic development. Perhaps a day will come when we no longer need philosophy, for we will be so habituated to diversity and technology that we can live amongst such “others” without thought and reflection. Indeed, but we must always “tarry with the now” and cannot skip ahead, and so for now philosophy seems to be something we must live with “for now,” despite all the risks.
The world is full of unstoppable things, and history seems to be a process of unleashing what is unstoppable. Philosophy is also unstoppable, but if we “use philosophy on itself,” we can stop philosophy from trying to answer “The Meta-Question” and instead habituate ourselves to living with “The Meta-Question.” No, we cannot erase “The Meta-Question,” which means we cannot totally stop it, but we can stop ourselves from approaching it wrongly. Living with philosophy, we can then use the unstoppable power of philosophy to manage other unstoppable things like technology, agriculture, diversity, and the like — since humans can think abstractly, and since abstraction is not bound by immediacy, it would seem humans are uniquely able to create new unstoppable forces and entities that then humans will need to learn to “live with.” Philosophy, the very tool for accomplishing this, is itself dangerous, but it is also needed for self-defense (arguably, an effective self-defense must be dangerous). The greatness of philosophy is that it can question everything, it would seem, but it is that very greatness which proves a force of destruction if philosophy doesn’t question itself. We must question the unquestionable, for only then might we live with it.
We have emphasized in this work the destructive potential of philosophy in being able to question everything, though here I hope we glimpse how philosophy can be used for good (and must be used for good) if we question philosophy itself with philosophy. Also, I would like to note that if everything can be questioned, there is always hope, even though that hope comes at the price of being able to question good things (that we could then consequently lose). When we feel like we are in a situation we can never escape, when we feel like our emotions are too powerful to ignore, when we see no possibility of a new life, when we see no way of standing up to political power — all this can be questioned. The ability to question is the ability to free, and so where we can always question, we can always change. Now, this assumes we live with “The Meta-Question” versus try to answer it, and we cannot know that this hope requires the risk of us questioning and losing good things, but what good is a “cheap hope” anyway? A risky hope is the only hope worth hoping in, for life requires risk — why should hope be any different?
To close, I have admittedly only begun to unpack everything The Iconoclast explores. Chapter IV brilliantly connects the work of Albert O. Hirschman to the orientations of Iconoclasm (“exit”) and Dogmatism (“voice”), while Chapter VI elucidates Pyrrhonianism to help show why it is distinct from the Academic “denial of ultimate truth.” Chapter VII explains why ‘David Hume [is] among the most misconceptualized thinkers of the philosophical zeitgeist’ (I agree), and every chapter after that likewise follows with critical insight and eloquence.¹² In the second to last chapter, Barnes tells us:
‘Philosophy is an intractable problem. The journey into the Meta-Question has no obviously fixed end and just as there is a Philosophy of x for every x there is also an intractably enumerable set of possible philosophical judgments for each x. This superset of possible philosophical judgments is further convoluted by the messiness of our embodiment with properties of time and space which further confound our cognitive products, interpretation and response.’¹³
Where there are humans, there will be philosophy, for good and for bad, as the presence of humans seems to necessitate the existence of religion and belief in God (perhaps the two follow one another for a reason?). For me, as will be explored at the end of The Absolute Choice, this means that we as human beings will ultimately have to make “The Final Absolute Choice” and accept that there is essentially “a locked door” we cannot open, a door that by remaining closed is able to create us and our worlds. But that is another topic for another time — for now, please read The Iconoclast by Samuel Barnes, a book that’s genius is only rivaled by its eloquence.
¹Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 1.
²Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 2.
³Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 2.
⁴Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 6.
⁵Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 11.
⁶Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 13.
⁷Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 15.
⁸8Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 16.
⁹Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 31.
¹⁰Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 32.
¹¹Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 40.
¹²Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 43.
¹³Barnes, Samuel. The Iconoclast. United Kingdom, 2022: 117.
1. Heidegger believed the logical end of Western Philosophy was modern technology, and today many people talk about technology as if there are “Game Theory”-dynamics which make escaping it impossible (say in discussions regarding “The Singularity” or “The Meta-Crisis”). If philosophy is inescapable just like Samuel Barnes argues, perhaps this is a fitting overlap?
2. Is there an “ethical imperative” to spread “Absolute Knowing,” which is to say “philosophy as living with the Meta-Question?” If the world needs A/B-thinking over A/A-thinking to avoid and survive “The Meta-Crisis,” then failure to spread A/B-thinking could prove dire, so is it immoral not to try? But what if “Absolute Knowing” cannot be spread (versus “scaled” or either)? This is a critical concern of the work of O.G. Rose in general.
3. As there is no “pure introvert” or “pure extrovert,” there is no “pure Iconoclast” or “pure Dogmatist” — we are all a mixture, but mixtures are rarely distributed evenly.
4. Hume’s “common life” can become a problematic Dogmatism without Hegel to keep Hume moving, but Hegel without Hume (Marx, perhaps) is problematically Iconoclastic.
5. It’s funny to think of religion as Dogmatic, for God is often considered unknowable like “The Meta-Question.” Perhaps religions worked so well precisely because they were “Dogmatic about something Iconoclastic,” which is to say a Dogmatism always “open” to Iconoclastic correction?
6. Dogmatism and Iconoclasm can be considered different “risk strategies,” harking to “the financial epistemology” of Lorenzo Barberis Canonico.
7. If someone claimed, “You cannot live a good life unless you know surgery,” we would know this was insane, and yet it feels easier to believe, “We cannot live a good life without philosophy.” Why? Well, I think it might be because we subconsciously understood that we cannot avoid “The Meta-Question,” that we are all “always already” acting philosophically. But is it true that we hence need to be consciously philosophical? Personally, I think so, because it seems difficult to me to lack philosophy and not end up in drama or “captured” by power — but I will try not to be a Dogmatist.
8. Martin Buber gives us a philosophy of “witnessing” (following Javier Rivera), and it would seem we need Anti-Philosophy (as Barnes calls it) to engage in the “witnessing.” Can we avoid the “Game Theory”-dynamics of “The Meta-Crisis” without Buber?
9. We always live according to axioms that are missing.
10. Barnes, Buber, and Hegel together leave us to make “a real choice” on grounds of “intersuppositions.”
11. We are mastered, masters, or achieving mastery.
12. Subjectivity is primarily a matter of “negation.”
13. If reality entails no “both-ness,” then we must bring something non-real to reality so that it avoids effacement. The humans who cannot access “pure reality” are perhaps why reality is around for humans not to reach.
14. To encounter God is when we realize the axioms which were missing should have been missed more.
15. Fire is evil when it burns a person alive, and yet it is not — fire is only being itself — perhaps the same applies to philosophy?
16. The trick is to use philosophy and Iconoclasm to “rise above our situation” and move forward, not turn around, look down upon our previous situation, and demand it raise itself up to us — an act of which forces it to undergo deconstruction, for no “situation” can be free of “Sub-Questions,” Dogmas, and presuppositions. If everywhere must rise into “a view from nowhere,” it must become that nowhere.
17. “Over-identification” isn’t the same as “fundamentalism,” and deep identification is necessary for “a real choice” and “concretion.” Hegel is concerned about “ontological over-identification” (for this causes A/A); Hegel encourages commitment and risk.
18. Can we overlay “The Meta-Question” with “The Real” found in Lacan? They seem to have connections, and as “The Meta-Question” generates all “Sub-Questions,” so “The Real” generates “The Symbolic” and “The Imaginary.” And as “The Real” cannot be fully approached without overwhelming us, so “The Meta-Question” cannot be fully approached without doing the same (though this doesn’t mean we cannot approach it at all). Are “The Real” and “The Meta-Question” somehow different yet the same in essence (a point which brings to mind how St. Augustine described “The Trinity”)? I don’t know, but I also wonder if both are White Holes versus Black Holes, generating all life and being but unapproachable because the force they exhibit is too strong.
19. If there were no humans, the Iconoclast would not be a threat: the fact we are threatened means we are human. Barnes discusses “The Meta-Question” as a matter of “pure cognition” or “pure thought,” which suggests that the problem which makes humans essentially human (and thus threatened by the Iconoclast) is precisely consciousness — a problem Kafka suggests we could be free of if we were animals instead.
20. Humans are special in the Animal Kingdom because they can get lost in themselves.
21. To ask, “Was philosophy a mistake?” is like asking “Was agriculture a mistake?” And some people believe so.
22. The reward is destruction for a philosophy that seeks a state instead of a skill.
23. Philosophy could prove to be a terrible mistake — indeed, in Hegel, little lacks this possibility. Nothing is safe, especially nothing.
24. In the end, everything which makes life meaningful might kill us.
25. Fascism is a way to avoid “The Meta-Question,” and the French Revolution expresses a Burkean “sublimity” which emerges from a pursuit of “Pure Philosophy.”
26. Philosophy trains us to live with difference, which nobody actually likes to live with, all while philosophy tempts us with a possibility of avoiding difference in “Pure Philosophy.” Salvation is fire.
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