SECTION Nine OF A PHILOSOPHY OF GLIMPSES
In Religion and Nothingness, Keiji Nishitani discusses the theological debate in Christianity on the question of if humanity lost both the image and likeness of God after the Fall or just the likeness. Considering the views of Karl Barth, Nishitani suggests that some Christians believe humanity maintains “a point of contact” with God, while other Christians believe there is no “point of contact at all,” that humanity is “totally depraved.”
“We cannot think about our hand,” to allude to an earlier idea in the treatise, so does that mean we are “totally depraved” or only semi-depraved? Personally, I don’t think we are totally lost, for perception provides us “grounds” to think we still have “a point of contact” with the real and actual world. No, we’re not “perfectly” in contact with the world, for we must think about it, as it isn’t the case that Christians who believe humans maintain “a point of contact” with God don’t also think that this relationship has been complicated and “darkened” by human sin. Humans can still interact with God, but not perfectly or directly; likewise, we can still “contact” the actual world, but not without learning to balance our “thinking” with “perceiving.” As Christians must learn to draw distinctions between “the finite” and “the infinite” if there is to be any hope of “contacting divinity,” so we must draw distinctions between “the thought” and “the perceived.” In other words, we must accept our incompleteness and imperfection if there is to be any hope of living and being according to “something more.”
We can’t think about anything, only ideas of things; we are “toward” things as we translate them into thoughts, but our thoughts are not “at them.” “We cannot think about our hand,” but only in a world where “perceiving” and “thinking” are conflated must this translate into believing we are “totally depraved.” As the Christian must learn to avoid sin to advance in holiness, so we must learn to avoid “autonomous rationality” — from thinking that thinking is all there is “all the way down” — if we are to have any hope of “contact” with reality, which paradoxically is the very act that legitimizes the effort of a “New Metaphysics.” Though metaphysics has traditionally been associated with disembodiment, “being out of the world,” and the like, the “New Metaphysics” finds its foundation in those extraordinary moments where “the real” breaks through, when we ‘become the very things we are looking at’ (to use Nishitani’s words again).¹
‘[T]he self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real’ — if we don’t interpret the world like it “really” is, if we don’t believe we are capable of a “point of contact” with reality, then “the full realization of reality” will be impossible; when we think we have achieved it, we will have achieved a self-deception.² How do we avoid self-deception? Well, by learning to “stop ourselves” every now and then and perceive: though thought is what makes the world “meaningful” to us, it is paradoxically also what can keep us from a “point of contact” with reality. We must learn to dialectically move between “thinking” and “perceiving” as to avoid ironically believing that we fully grasp the world in the very act we let it slip away. But what does that look like exactly? Indeed, details need to be filled out, and hopefully future projects in the spirit of this treatise will accomplish that task.
Ultimately, the “New Metaphysics” is a story of glimmers and glimpses, of quick moments where we sense “something more” to the world and seek to grasp it, aware we may never fully do so. These moments often fade as quickly as they appear, but the fact they appear at all gives us “reason to think” that they are always potentially “there,” around us, waiting to break through. And the fact these moments happen at all means they are always real, which means there is always reason to “wear a lens” through which we see the world in their light and existence. If see a rare bird once and never again, the rare bird always existed, and there is reason to think the world is a place that could always be their home.
Critically, the “New Metaphysics” described in this treatise is not an attempt to establish “new conditions” for philosophy and/or any kind of new formalism. As elaborated on in The Fate of Beauty, phenomenology is a method for avoiding formalism: it leaves open individuated and particular possibilities while avoiding systems (if it didn’t, it would fall before Derrida’s “critique of presence”). The “New Metaphysics” is focused on justifying a mode of perception (as distinct from thought) and for making the case why this “mode” will likely prove valuable in opening up new avenues of philosophical investigation. The “New Metaphysics” is focused on apprehension, construction only secondarily: though it may suggest certain conditions must be met for us to “experience beauty,” it attempts to avoid “particularly” claiming what those conditions are (in any hard or rigid fashion), not because those conditions don’t exist, but because those conditions can vary radically between individuals. No “Platonic System” will be found in this “phenomenology of lacks” — Aristotle is too much our great grandfather. Please note though that this doesn’t mean there can’t be any truth to “forms” — that’s just not necessarily our focus, and whatever those “forms” might be, they likely will only be suggested through “unfolding” versus directly. It’s just that, generally, various “Systems of Forms” are too deconstructible for us; instead of “forms,” readers will find a focus on “flow” (how things “unfold” through time), but what is fully meant by this is expanded on in (Re)constructing “A is A.”
Metaphysical entities tend to be the most important entities in our lives, which would mean that what matters most can be that which comes and goes quickly. But we can carry these moments with us and always remember them, making it “as if” the glimmers are always a sun illuminating the world. Glimmers would not exist without the sun, and though the sun is above us, the sun is visible and necessary for life. Metaphysics is an intellectual ascent to the existence of a sun based on an experience of the glimmers, and once we ascend to that sun, we can then see the whole world it in its light. Moments can change all of time.
If we go through life and “glimpse” x in y, then five years pass and we glimpse x in z, then see x in c, and so on, then we will have reason to think there is something true about x. Maybe not — after all, certainly is mostly impossible — but because we experience life paying attention, we might discover things we otherwise would have missed. Perhaps we can never cross Kant’s noumenon, but perhaps we can still catch glimmers of life on other shores. But only if we remember — we must remember and, like Proust, reclaim lost time. God tells the Israelites repeatedly to ‘[remember] the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,’ and in fact the Bible is full of commands to remember and not forget.³ Can we heed this command? Can we remember the glimmers? Can we avoid the gradually creeping thought that we glimpsed nothing at all? After all, perhaps we didn’t. But then again —
The “New Metaphysics’ is “a Philosophy of Glimpses,” and it will find friends in thinkers as varied as Freud, focused on “slips of the tongue,” and C.S. Lewis with his “weight of glory.” It is a philosophy of moments, of seconds, of glimmers — it is a philosophy of those who notice. It is also a metaphysics of irony, for it acknowledges that the very act of stopping and thinking about something in hopes of “knowing it” can be the very effort that makes the thing slip away. Considering this, the moment and glimmer where “something more” was glimpsed must be remembered (and remembering can be hard). The “New Metaphysics” is paradoxical in that it views a kind of “thoughtlessness” as a way to discover truth and enhance meaning, and it is strange in that it deemphasizes the role of thinking from a throne down into a dialectic with perception. It is aesthetics and demands the descriptive capacities of an artist, when sometimes philosophers and artists seem like exact opposites.
For too long, the central metaphor of the Western thinker has been of a man sitting on a rock with a fist under his chin, a man who could practically have his eyes closed (untrusting of subjectivity). Eyes have mattered little in Western philosophy — if anything, they have been a threat to “pure thought” (an impossibility) — and yet eyes are traditionally associated with the soul. It is not by chance then that Western thinking has felt and become soulless, and even if it were true that “pure thought” provided us unique and special access to the truth of this world, what good would it do us to gain the world if we lost our souls? The hope of the “New Metaphysics” is hence to help us regain a feeling of being “soul-full” again, of being “full of spirit” by placing beauty, aesthetics, “flow,” and perception at the foundation of philosophy in a dialectic with meaning, ideas, “form,” and thinking. If we do this, we can regain a world we’ll want to keep: we’ll avoid sinking into the “nihilism” Nishitani foresaw plaguing the West.
In conclusion, why have we decided to name this “New Metaphysics” a “Philosophy of Glimpses” versus a “Philosophy of Glimmers?” Aren’t experiences of beauty, irony, “flow,” and the like examples of “glimmers?” Yes, but we must each decide, when we experience something “different,” if we indeed experienced something versus only think something caught our eye. By naming the “New Metaphysics” a “Philosophy of Glimpses,” the emphasis is on us to pay attention and remember what we know.
Experiences of beauty are often things we glimpse for a moment and then they’re gone; afterwards, it’s up to use to hold close to our hearts the memory of what transpired. Metaphysical entities are often like the wind: they come, and then they go. We cannot see the wind (as the metaphysical can be “invisible” to thought), but we can perceive the ways it causes leaves to dance or trees to bow, and in this way we can see the wind. Or do we? The wind exists in this “between space” between visible and invisible, and a particular breeze is gone just as soon as we feel it. Another breeze may follow it, but the second breeze will not be the first. And so it can go with metaphysical entities: do we ever glimpse “beauty itself” or just expressions of beauty? Is the experience of goodness we have one day somehow connected or identical with the experience a day later? It’s hard to say: we’re always “glancing again” to get a better look, only to find ourselves having to remember. As Saint Augustine explored the corridors of his mind and memory to approach truth, so we must do the same. We contain cathedrals through which the wind blows and light shines, but we must choose if we will explore them.
“A Philosophy of Glimpses” is a prolegomenon, an outline of a “New Metaphysics,” and what this treatise hopes to inspire is “A Philosophy of Glimmers” comprised of the papers it might motivate. The topics of those papers will likely be examinations of phenomenological apprehensions and experiences of the “non-physical,” with a focus on the “forms” and “flows” which render matter intelligible. Those papers will not be deconstructed by Derrida’s “critique of presence,” their focus being on the act of “reading” versus the construction of systems, as made possible thanks to a distinction between “perception” and “thinking,” which also makes possible a dialectical approach which phenomenology is uniquely positioned to explore. The metaphysical entities those papers explore will mainly be “between entities” like “lacks,” with a focus on how they “unfold” (like someone focusing on the crater left by a meteor), and the very fact we are so able to be “toward” things that aren’t present will suggest we are to some degree free. We can be free “toward” what isn’t there (which can make it seem like we aren’t free), and this suggests we are distinct from “purely physical reality” as “(meta)physical.” As ontologically such, we can experience the “metaphysical,” but we must humbly accept that, even in this state, we can’t be sure our experiences of say beauty algin with “actual beauty”: we must accept what we learn from Derrida. But we can still say with confidence that we have “experienced beauty”; we can still be sure we caught a glance of something.
‘Who has seen the wind?’ — Christina Rossetti starts her poem with this profound question. ‘Neither I nor you,’ but we have caught glances of trembling leaves and bowing trees, and now it is up to us to remember what we saw when the wind was ‘passing through.’ What passed over us? To answer, let’s start with what we felt.
¹Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 9.
²Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press, 1983: 6.
³Allusion to Deuteronomy 8:14.