Au fond de l’inconnu

§ Schopenhauer once wrote that metaphysics fulfils a human need. It would be important to recognise this need, not only in the general sense Schopenhauer intended, but also with attention to the particular needs which particular forms of metaphysics might meet, or appear to meet. One ‘need’ today would surely be a means of comprehending and addressing the place of humans in the cosmos, given the actuality of an ecological crisis which threatens humans themselves, a crisis which many feel is ignored not only in mainstream and even radical politics, but also in both mainstream and radical philosophy. The worldviews of those studying philosophy in an education system (and in a cultural, communicative environment) which has changed dramatically over the last few years are not easy to fathom for one who learned philosophy a generation before, but it seems that discontent with the philosophical resources available for comprehending the crisis is widespread. If this is true, it would make some sense of the appeal of philosophies which claim to challenge anthropocentrism in favour of a more wholistic approach, claim to think nature in a way which is impossible in traditional philosophies, philosophies which – dependent on the very humanism believed to have caused our problems – actually constitute a barrier to comprehending the crisis, if not being downright complicit in it. It would therefore be important for those of us critical of the turn to anti-anthropocentric (can we say geocentric?) philosophies, in which new forms of realism, monism and ontology all share a family resemblance, to recognise the legitimacy of the need expressed in this turn despite the turn’s many flaws, in order not abstractly to negate it in criticising it, but address the need which motivates it with an alternative, more compelling explanation. The implicit need – here, it is being suggested, for a philosophy which can make sense of the crisis and allow a thinking and action that could alter the current, dangerous path of human societies – might well be legitimate, merely taking misguided and problematic form.

§ A worthwhile philosophical task would not be replacing one bias – the anthropocentric – with another – the geocentric, as if that could right a historical wrong – but rather of tracing the difficulties when either is elevated. Critique of geocentrism does not have to reinforce anthropocentrism, it merely points out the contradictions in attempts to think in a way other than the human, all too human, along with the futility of thinking anything other than human political action can remedy the crisis.

§ Lukacs begins his Theory of the Novel with a poetic description of ancient cosmology, the epic writers’ assumption of an immediate connection between human and cosmos, the loss of which Lukacs’s book will go on to chart. But what if cosmology, the repressed of the modern period, returned when the destructive trajectory of modern societies became apparent? Philosophical talk might then symptomatically return to the topic of distant galaxies, or the light from long dead stars, to that which ‘blaut ewig‘, in impotent protest at the apparent humanisation of nature, hoping without hope for something else, something unsullied, beyond the fragile earth.

§ One metaphysical need is surely registered in Baudelaire’s famous line about the unknown and the new. Seeking to escape from ennui and despair the self would plunge into a search for novelty. The new is to be found in the unknown, and the unprecedented and unfathomable are sought out with passion. But what if it were completely different? What if novelty, novelty in an emphatic sense rather than a novelty which is abstract, ungrounded in actuality or history, were itself to be found in some new relation to that history, to the past, to tradition? Recognising how easily the abstract novelty is willingly produced by the same production-line societies which plunge us towards destruction might then prompt a new thought of novelty, one not adolescently rebellious towards the value of tradition, one not believing it can begin from scratch. It might also prompt more reflection on the academy which institutionalises abstract novelty in pursuit of “an original contribution to human knowledge” as the only means to an academic living, and thus produces acolytes and enthusiasts of the new.

§ Might philosophy learn something from music here, even though the two are clearly different? (I write this perhaps only because the radio just played a sublime recital by Ibragimova and Tiberghien). What is best there in the new generation, and what will perhaps grow and survive longer than the illusory search for the absolutely new, may be an approach which finds novelty in a new interpretation of the tradition, which does not lose itself in the depths of the unknown, is admittedly not itself immune to commodity-produced novelty, to the Reklamekultur, but whose value and critical capacity are not exhausted by it.

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