Section Four of a Philosophy of Glimpses
Why Doesn’t Experience Fall Into “The Problem of Presence” like Words?
Does phenomenology really overcome the problem of “presence” that Derrida claims signifiers never can, stuck endlessly deferring? This is the problem Derrida is getting at with his language of différance and “trace” — why does phenomenological experience avoid the problems of language and not fall into its own “ontological gap?” What is experience if not a “presence?” This was a point Lennart Oberlies raised, and I believe it deserves special elaboration.
As discussed in “On ‘A is A’ ” by O.G. Rose, it is certainly the case that when I think about a thing, I make it “toward” my idea of it, an idea which that thing can never fully “be.” In other words, to think is to add a “without B” “toward” which a given A is never fully “present” with, so there is truth to the idea that experiences can fall into “the problem of presence.” But — and here is a key point — it is thinking about an experience that makes it “defer away” from me, while perceiving an experience causes no “trace.” Yes, perceptions can be limited, but, within those limitations, what’s present isn’t deferring — it’s there. Granted, the moment we try to make what’s “there” meaningful and something we can understand, it can “defer away,” but that doesn’t change the fact that something was “there” before the deference took place.
We talked on Aristotle that though the act of “reading” can open “ontological gaps,” even if those “ontological gaps” cannot be crossed, there are still grounds for studying metaphysics based on the act of “reading” that occurs before “ontological gaps” are opened up. Likewise, though the moment I think about an experience it might “defer away” from me, there are still grounds for metaphysical considerations based on the perception that occurred before the thought (and that arguably made the thought possible at all).
The key to understanding why a “New Metaphysics” is possible and justified is by fully grasping the difference between “thinking” and “perceiving,” as elaborated on throughout the works of O.G. Rose. Yes, “thought about experiences” are “meaningful traces,” but “perceived experiences” are “present and limited.” There is always more to experience than whatever I am experiencing (unless I am God, I cannot experience all of spacetime, after all), but to say there is always “more to experience” is different from saying that what I do experience isn’t there.
When I think about my bookcase, aware of the nature of thought, I have “reason to think” that my thought about the bookcase is “other than the thing” and “leaving a lot out” (“A” is always “without B,” after all): thoughts are “signifiers,” and so a thought about a bookcase opens an “ontological gap” that Derrida convincingly argues cannot be closed. But when I perceive my bookcase, no “ontological gap” opens, for there are not multiple entities at play: there is not “the thought of the bookcase” and “the bookcase,” just “(my thoughtless perception of) the bookcase.”
Critically, in thought, both A and B arise together, but neither arise in perception. In perception, “the bookcase” isn’t even that (“the bookcase”), only there. Perception is thoughtless, and so there is no “ontological gap”: what is present in perception is indeed present (however limitedly), though the moment I think about what is present, it’s gone. Ironically, I may think about a thing that is present to keep it present, to secure it there, but it is this very act that makes it “slip away.” This suggests the close link of irony, ontology, and metaphysics, but that will be expanded on elsewhere.
But surely my perception of the bookcase isn’t complete, so isn’t there some “deferring” going on? If x is limited, then x isn’t complete. Ah, but my experience of x is complete even if the things in my experience aren’t “all there” — an experience is a mixture, (in)complete. Experience entails a tension, and it would be wrong to say that it is either entirely deferring or entirely complete. Experience always entails mystery, but there is a big difference between an idea of “mystery” that means “inaccessible” versus “the more you know, the more you find there is more to know.” I have no reason to think that my perception has nothing to do with the actual bookcase itself. Yes, since I am not God, my experience is limited, but experience doesn’t defer. It’s there; it’s my thoughts about experience that defer. To allude to distinctions between Western and Eastern thought, deference occurs when we contemplate but not when we meditate.
Derrida speaks as if experience is “slipping away,” that my experience of a bookcase is always like the ray of a flashlight at night moving away the moment I’m about to touch it. But though this metaphor might describe my “thought” about a bookcase, my “perception” of a bookcase is misrepresented by that metaphor. When I “perceive” a bookcase, it’s more like I’m staring at the top of a glacier. The top of the glacier doesn’t move away from me when I approach it; in fact, I can jump out of a boat and walk on it. The top of a glacier is there, and yet do note that a lot of the glacier is “below the surface.” Now, without the lower parts of a glacier, the top of the glacier wouldn’t be there or able to float on water, and I am, in a sense, in fact experiencing the “lower part” of the glacier insomuch as it makes possible the top of it (and insomuch as I might be standing on it). Nothing is slipping away with the glacier; it is there, just not entirely there. It is “incomplete” like my thoughts are “incomplete,” but how the glacier is incomplete is significantly different from how a thought is incomplete. Perceptions are limited (experiences of a territory) while thoughts are abstract (maps of a territory).
Thinking is like chasing the ray of a constantly moving flashlight at night.
Perception is like observing a glacier.¹
Thinking defers and is incomplete in being abstract.
Perception doesn’t defer and is incomplete in being limited.
In not making a distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” Derrida’s mistake is treating experience as falling into the same problems of “presence” found in thought and language. And though Derrida’s critique applies to “thought about experiences,” it does not apply to “perceived experiences.” To Derrida’s defense, the moment we think about experience, experience is gone, so it’s easy to think that experience falls into the problem of presence just like language. In fact, we can’t consider experience without “gaps” opening up; to avoid “gaps,” experiences must be meditated upon.
But won’t a “New Metaphysics” need to think about its perceptions to be a meaningful undertaking? Mustn’t perceptions inevitably be “thought about?” A fair point, but a few more points may help illuminate why Derrida’s critique of signifiers cannot be readily applied to phenomenology, though it’s an easy mistake to make “in thought.”
First, what is there in the word “cat” are black lines, ink, and white paper, but what is there in the experience of a bookcase is wood, books, paint, and so on. The word “cat” is much less “like’ the animal-cat than the “experience of a bookcase” is “like” the thing-bookcase. The word “cat” is arguably not in the animal-cat at all, and so the “gap” between the word “cat” and the thing-cat is much wider than the “gap” between my experience of the bookcase and the bookcase (when I think about my experience). In this way, treating experiences and words as equally struggling with “the problem of presence” is problematic, for though “gaps” appear both when I think about an experience and when I read a word, my thought about an experience is a much closer “asymptote line” than the “asymptote” that appears when I read. In my view, Derrida forgets that not all asymptotes are equal.
Considering this, even a “thoughtful phenomenology” (that didn’t entail a “thinking” and “perceiving” distinction) would be less susceptible to the problem of “presence” than would be signifiers like “cat,” let alone a “perceptive phenomenology.” This is because to think about an experience is to try to approach something there, whereas to read (the word “cat”) is to try to make an idea approach something that isn’t even there. This is a critical difference: a bookcase is “present in its incompleteness” while the word “cat” is “not present in its incompleteness” (words are doubly differed).
Alright, fine, but once perception is thought about, doesn’t everything fall right back into the problems Derrida foresaw? And mustn’t we ultimately think about perceptions and experiences if we are to create a “New Metaphysics” based on them? A very fair question, but this suggests why a dialectic is needed between thinking and perceiving (as described in “The Dialectic Between ‘Meaningful Memories’ and ‘Pure Experiences’ ” by O.G. Rose). We can’t only perceive or only think, for though perception avoids deferring, it is meaningless. We need thinking too, but that means we cannot always avoid the “ontological gaps” which Derrida traced out. This hints at why we are ultimately ironic, paradoxical, and contradictory, but, again, this is a topic for another time.
That all acknowledged, here’s the key: by making a distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” we can “bracket out” experience from thought, and instead approach experiences as perceived versus approach experiences as “thought about.” Instead of philosophy being thinking “all the way down,” philosophy of the “New Metaphysics” begins with a perception “at the bottom,” and thinking is then built “up-on” that foundation. We primarily meditate then think, per se, as opposed to think then meditate, just meditate, and/or just think. Meditation precedes contemplation.
The foundation for a “New Metaphysics” is different from what can be in found traditional metaphysics, say in a premise that (supposedly) cannot be doubted (“that I think,” “that all men want to live,” etc.). Instead, we start with a “thoughtless perception,” a state of meditation and/or observation, and attempt to describe what the experience was like in that circumstance, how the experience “unfolded,” and so on. Instead of mainly asking “What did that experience mean?” we ask “What was that experience like?” And all thought-based conclusions are erected upon not the meaning of an experience (which would open an “ontological gap”), but upon “what the experience was like,” how it “unfolded.” The foundation of the “New Metaphysics” is not analysis but description; then and only then can analysis begin. Our foundation is not examination but aesthetics: we must primarily examine aesthetics versus discuss the aesthetics of an examination.
In review, “thinking about an experience” turns an experience into no experience at all, and yet “a thought about experience” seems so much to be “an experience” that we can understand why Derrida made the mistake he did in thinking of experience as equally susceptible to “the problem of presence” as abstract signifiers. But there are critical differences, differences that hopefully this paper has outlined.
We claimed a “New Metaphysics” was justified on grounds of phenomenology and apprehension, and here have argued that “perceived experiences” are different from “thought about experiences,” yet both are different from “abstract signifiers” like words. As a result, experiences overcome “the problem of presence,” of endless deferring, described by Derrida.
Alright, but what experience is it that a “New Metaphysics” primarily apprehends? It isn’t so much a “presence,” for that indeed would be deconstructed by Derrida. Instead, what a “New Metaphysics” focuses on is the apprehension of “lacks.” As we’ll see, the “New Metaphysics” is not in the business of building temples; it happily lets temples be torn down as we explore something more like an empty tomb.
Alright, but what exactly is a “lack?” Perhaps we could claim we’re ontologically “walking around the crater of a meteor,” but how can we be sure we’re not just walking around a hole? What is the difference between “lacks” and “nothing?” If all “lacks” are in fact nothing, then a “New Metaphysics” based on “lacks” will be based on nothing. So, why aren’t “lacks” nothing?
¹Why am I justified to think perception are like glaciers versus rays from flashlights? Well, it’s because “bookcases don’t randomly transform into butterflies.” This is elaborated on in the paper by that name, but by this I mean reality doesn’t spontaneously change at random (and even if it did in experience x like something out of Quentin Meillassoux, it wouldn’t follow to start thinking it will in experience y). I have strong “reason to think” reality is actually like how I experience it, for indeed gravity seems to work, the sun rises in the morning — David Hume is right that “custom” provides strong foundation for my understanding of the world. But by conflating “perception” and “thinking,” we start believing our perception of the world is as unreliable as our thoughts about it, leading us to wonder if we can trust anything in our heads.