Based on the Discussions of Davood Gozli, John David, and O.G. Rose, on Benjamin Fondane’s Existential Monday.
Utterance As Exception
A short addition from “The Most Rational of All Possible Worlds” by O.G. Rose
“Man Before History” by Benjamin Fondane starts with a reflection on Gide’s statement that ‘It’s no laughing matter to play in a world where everyone cheats — including me.’¹ This phrase reminded me of the “Liar’s Paradox,” which asks us to consider the following:
“True or False: This statement is false.”
Why? Well, if Gide is a liar, why should we trust his claim that “everyone cheats” — mustn’t we trust him to accept this premise? In bringing Gide’s statement to our attention, Fondane suggests a few points:
a. We cannot rationally accept Gide’s statement: if we accept it, the ascension is “nonrational.” This would suggest that we must grant “authority” to a person to believe the person, and that this very “granting” might be beyond a classic “irrational or rational”-dichotomy. This would suggest that “rational ascent” requires a “nonrational foundation,” and that perhaps rationality needs to accept this truth to avoid becoming pathological and tyrannical (a point which brings Hume to mind).
b. Gide strangely makes himself seem trustable in explicitly telling us that he cannot be trusted. It seems rational to trust Gide, and yet this is part of “the sleight of hand.” It is not rational, and yet we easily might think it is and ascent.
c. In his explicitness, Gide is presenting himself as an exception to the statement, as somehow standing outside of it. This is precisely why he can paradoxically make the statement.
d. There is no rational reason to grant Gide the authority and/or trust he needs for us to take his statement seriously: it is an act of faith, perhaps equivalent to belief in God.
Though Gide’s statement explicitly suggests how Gide is an exception to his own statement (somehow “above it” and thus empowered) precisely because it is a “Liar’s Paradox,” Fondane makes the point that all philosophers, politicians, and the like who assert x, y, or z likewise “position themselves” as someone who does x, y, and z (over others). Fondane writes:
‘The very possibility of a truth acting on the world rests on the postulate that only I who am speaking deserved that truth by dint of disinterestedness and hard work, whereas others have necessarily missed it because they wanted to bend it to their interests, their ignorance, or their whim.’²
Utterance can be exemption, thus there is incentive to speak much. If a philosopher says, “It is wrong to steal,” there is something about this very statement that makes the philosopher seem to be someone “who doesn’t steal” (even if he just stole my time with a truism). The philosopher is thus positioned to be “outside the category of thief,” which by extension empowers the philosopher insomuch as he or she is seen as “more moral” than others. But more critically, all of us must make such statements in our own minds to organize and direct our own lives. There must be certain principles and ideas that we “state to ourselves” inside to figure out what we are going to do each and every day, and that means we all can “gift ourselves the power of exception.” Living is empowerment.
All this in mind, Fondane asks the following the question: What do we do with this power? When we are positioned as an “exception,” do we use this power in service of “autonomous rationality” or something more dialectical an indebted to “nonrationality?” Do we use the exception we grand ourselves to judge the world or to participate in helping it reach standards that we ourselves do not always meet? If we are capable of positioning ourselves mentally as “exceptions,” that means it is possible for us to “think” the enactment of that exception, as opposed to assuming “we’ve already achieved it” and doing nothing but growing our pride “over” others. So, what do we do?
¹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 48.
²Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 49.
For more by Davood Gozli, please visit here.
This channel records my attempts at building bridges between the world of ideas and the everyday concerns of human…
For the work of John David:
YouTube’s biggest thirst trap and avid cat lady. Also, the occasional long-form book review to cure your insomnia.