On the Metaphysics of Presence

The metaphysics of presence is a clunky philosopheme, one that in fact has a long trajectory now and its critique should no longer be considered radical—or in principle shouldn’t. We should no longer pretend diagnoses made by Heidegger a century ago or Derrida forty year later, or Deleuze only slightly more recently have proposed something that still must be thought as marginalized. We all wish we were the heroic Socrates, marginalized and perhaps even a bit dangerous. Let’s not fall for such self-delusions: siding with some of the most cited philosophers of the past 100 years is not heroic and whenever I read Heideggerians or Derrideans or Deleuzians suggesting such, you know it’s a feint that is less philosophical than personal, and wrong-headed: it’s the fallacy ad hominem ergo veritas (if I have my Latin right). Someone is against me—real or imagined—therefore I am correct. This is the drumming affect of so much that goes under the heading of Continental philosophy—but elsewhere as well. Let’s take it for granted: the critique of the metaphysics of presence is at the heart of 20th-century continental philosophy. But let me go further: I think without it, there is no 20-century continental philosophy. And still a little along this path to nowhere: I think some who think they are doing such work don’t even know what it means. We know that the “now” is bad, that “presence” is even worse, and like editors that look for the ill-used “which” for “that” all over an MS, we search it down and thumb our nose at the supposed naivete of the thinkers under discussion. Worse, we are told of all the dangers of the metaphysics of presence, which we know just leads, for some reason, to hierarchies, colonialism, and why not, death camps. It’s true: you can look it up.

But let me make the turn here and note that the diagnosis is not, for all that, wrong, and that Heidegger (and after him Derrida) recognized that Platonism is a temporal theory, or rather, that without a certain thinking of time, there would be no Platonism, and without Platonism, there would be no “Western” philosophy as such. As my colleague Sean McGrath points out well, we are perhaps at our best and most honest in a roomful of students—or perhaps in a public lecture—rather than amongst academics, and it’s true that Heidegger never put his thesis more succinctly or better than in a 1925 lecture to theologians. He opened there by simply saying, what if we didn’t think time on the basis of eternity? This is axiomatic for Platonism: time is the imitation of eternity—from Plato’s Timaeus to Augustine’s Confessions. Now, why the notion of “presence”? Because what Heidegger saw—and darned if I wished he didn’t put it this way, because wholly terrible articles on him have ensued by people who have read too little of these figures—was that this thinking of time is required. And what it did was this: it thought of time as a concept, or better an Idea, rather than as a real time, or as time. It had to be reducible, had to be pulled from what it is/was/will be to a substantive (ousia), and the tautology moved like this: time is what is present, and therefore the present is what is time. Thus what is unreal or phantasmatic is the past (of the present, which is no longer) and the future (of what is not yet). Let me say this: this is not new or radical: Aristotle is our greatest writer on this aporia, and his Physics 4, 10-14, is often reduced to time is the measure of motion, but what Aristotle is saying is that we cannot make time a concept or make a concept of time, because to do so leads into all sorts of bad attributions (motion, line, circle, point) that fail as time goes by. He can’t make time stick. If, as Dasein, we are in medias res, then how to get to the eternal from which one will then turn around and come back to a concept of time—which is precisely the modus operandi of the ancients? We do so by the primary abstraction: the now, the present, of time, which must be frozen even to think it, even as we realize this abstraction is itself nothing (see Aristotle and Augustine on this—if there are critics of the metaphysics of presence, it is they). And of course it is no thing, since to think it means the Platonic abstraction has begun: we have cut at the wave and think we’ve sliced something off of it, and this “now” is pulled, if just for a second, and recognized as unchanging and eternal, a concept not given over to time, even as we think it is the real time (but were it, it would be given over to time). Thus in a tautology of world historical importance, it becomes the eternal: the standing now, which then becomes the model for time. But there is more: with this “eternal” we then have the “transcendent,” and all that sticks to it, a glue trap that then—and only on the basis of this thinking—sticks a whole lot to it: identity, truth, and the good. If you think this a bit much, then you have not read your Aristotle or Plato or Plotinus, where it is axiomatic: for something to be true, it cannot be temporal, even if it is a truth about time. Thus the move to the eternal, the water in which all that truly is is bathed—and we can see we arrive in the very founding question of Western metaphysics: ti esti…? The third person present indicative is telling: the truth is what is now, and ever so. It has no past, and it has no future, since mutability belongs to falsity and semblance, appearance and non-being. But where does this bring us? 1) there can be no concept of time without circling tautologically around the fact that the whole concept of the concept (i.e., the Good in Plato, but also up to the present day) begins with negating time, with finding what it is not, and there is no concept without the abstract peeling away of time. We can thus only speak of eternity with any coherence (Augustine says as much) and in Platonism, to describe what is, we are surely only ever discussing the eternal. We need the eternal or there is no metaphysics, and yet the now is witnessed as a nothingness (read Plotinus, Augustine, and Boethius on this point), and thus a standing now is but an abstraction, a fiction, though using that words means thinking a truth that would be bolstered by that fiction. That is axiomatic, and that is the truth of the true, the concept of the concept, the identification of identity, and so on. These are not a play on words, and this is not, despite my political breathren fighting Nazism in the name of the metaphyics of presence, to be against such things. Because in a trajectory that still marks us: we cannot think what thought is without the true, the concept, the identity, etc. To think otherwise is not to think at all. All otherwise put, the time was never thought from the point of view of the eternal (how could it be?), but the eternal as an abstraction, a bracketing of time, a pure negation in all its formal meaning. To think Being is not to think Time. Thus the import of Heidegger’s book title.

But what does it mean to think time as such? Well, first, it means not having access to a given concept, a given “is” that “is” “eternal” and would forever be “true” of time, since, again, the concept of time is not time. I take that to be axiomatic as well, and I bring Aristotle along as my witness. But this goes further: we must think beyond the logos of a priority of the concept, whether it’s the ideas of Plato or even the concepts of the understanding as explaining time in Kant: a logical priority is often thought as temporal priority, but let us not denegrate those who think such, since my contention would be that the former is indeed, originally if you will, founded and abstracted on the latter. The very writing of the concept that would be prior is a writing that requires time. The standing now cannot think the marking of itself; it cannot think discursively, as Plotinus reminds us, since that takes time, and time neither gives nor takes the eternal: it is the axiom of axioms, the concept of concepts, the truth of the truth. Once one flips Platonism—from the reality of the eternal—to the reality of time, one realizes the transcendental structures—finding that time beyond time that founds time itself (think Augustine’s memorabilia or Husserl’s transcendental ego) is still circling around the starting point of Western metaphysics: the original abstraction of a point, a line, a circle, of time that is not time itself. It is nothing (as Aristotle notes, to think it in terms of substance metaphysics only produces aporia), and thus is only ever deferred to something else, only ever difference and deferral to be thought, even if difference as such is what is not, as is “deferral.” Thus time is not some ancillary problem in metaphysics or philosophy; it is the problem.

The task, though, in what I’m writing, is to recognize that Levinas was wrong to equate thinking the presence of the present of the eternal (the Good beyond being in Plato) with the infinite in Descartes. It’s telling that the relation to the infinite, whose trajectory brings us back to a period just after Augustine in the West, is precisely how time is thought in the late Derrida and in Levinas, and in a sense, Hegel before them (despite some of his explicit considerations of time taking off from Aristotle’s Physics). That’s what I’m working through now. But soon, two pieces will be up that explore this whole problem through speculative realism.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Reason & Existenz
  2. Nice. Reading Ousia and Gramme?

    From the point of view of Derrida scholarship – Whence nobody seems to have grasped the vocabulary of historical necessity that JD uses with respect to ‘the metaphysics of presence’.

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