L’existence et le néant

“Si l’on passe (consciemment ou inconsciemment) par l’idée du néant pour arriver a celle de l’être, l’être auquel on aboutit est une essence logique ou mathématique, partant intemporelle. Et, dès lors, une conception statique du réel s’impose: tout paraît donné en une seule fois, dans l’éternité.” L’évolution créatrice, Henri Bergson, Quadrige/PUF, 1941, p. 298.

“La négation diffère donc de l’affirmation proprement dite en ce qu’elle est une affirmation du second degré: elle affirme quelque chose d’une affirmation qui, elle, affirme quelque chose d’un objet.” ibid., p. 288.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 30/03/08 – this actually is a crucial and important one, but I won’t have the time to correct it with justice. Too bad, another time – on request maybe.]

(amateuristic English translations:

“When we pass (consciously or inconscuously) from the idea of nothing to that of being, the being we end up with is a logical or mathematical essence, and therefore timeless. And, from that point onwards, a static conception of reality imposes itself: everything appears given at once, for eternity.”


“Negation thus differs from what is properly called a positive assertion in that it’s an assertion of the second degree: it asserts something of an assertion that, it, asserts something of an object.”)

Things esoteric and spiritual cannot be farther removed from my grasp of reality. However, I admit (quite reluctantly) that I am attracted to the relation between pure logic/mathematics (also unavoidable in linguistics) and our dirty everyday real world, specifically because of the mystery that still persists in it. It should then not be a surprise to see here a quought on where logic and reality come apart, not in the spirit of providing evidence for a ‘something more’ but rather in the thriving tradition of meeting complexities rationally but head-on.

 Pure logic & reality dó come apart. They do so most strikingly in negation and consequently in the law of the excluded middle. Many will find Bergson isn’t a credible reference in such matters (which is why I started with the superfluous paragraph above) and I don’t do him justice here in quoting only a conclusion without providing his argumentation.

Be that as it may, pure logic & reality do come apart for the basic reason outlined in the second quote. It is a truth that (when ignored) leads to a common fallacy succinctly put in the first quote. That common fallacy in turn is the premise of much mischief in the name of reason. It is for instance the foundation of the scientism/positivism type commonly abused by those of a spiritual bend to discredit science and logic. Whenever necessary they can saveguard their own ‘spiritual’ truth by discrediting reason itself alltogether based on the idiocies of those that think that science and logic is all there is.

Negation in natural language is a complex phenomenon. In its simplest form (the negation of a primitive assertion) it remains problematic certainly with respect to negation in formalized logic. In the latter [formal logic] P denotes what ‘not P’ does not denote – and that’s more or less the end of it. In the former [natural language] however something happens that is, I believe, quite similar to the ‘that P’ kind of opaque contexts as have been studied by e.g. Donald Davidson (to name a more credible source here, at least somewhere); ‘not P’ in natural language is a specific assertion that, for its truth, is relative to the context and the speaker of the assertion in ways that can’t be reduced objectively, i.e. in a fixed absolute frame of reference,  to assertions of ‘P’ (even by the same speaker in the same context).

If so, the junction at which pure logic & reality come apart here is the junction between a static description of reality & that reality itself. As Bergson notes it is a coming apart of quite grave consequence. Not in the sense of discrediting the importance of pure logic/mathematics in describing reality (I’d go further in saying: not even in the sense of challenging the monopoly of pure logic for any reasonable description of reality). Rather: in not heeding this fact of natural language we’ll necessarily misrepresent reality with, see elsewhere, grave and concretely real consequences itself.

One could argue (and no doubt many have so argued and will continue to argue in that way) that this may well be true, but that in philosophy and in science one has no other option than disregard this fact of natural language (&, if you will therefore: of nature). But the problem with that is that ultimately the problems of philosophy and therefore of science are problems put in natural language and that the solutions are also solutions communicated in natural language. It is therefore impossible to avoid this complexity. Avoiding it unavoidably leads to conclusions that are much more than merely doubtful: it leads to results that are plain wrong. & Unavoidably wrong results naturally trigger – without need for any reasoning whatsover – an evolutionary defense mechanism in – most probably all – rational creatures: namely emotional or spiritual adherence to the base premise, whether revealed or not.

On the positive side, there is really no reason from all of this to posit entities of a spiritual or extra-scientific nature. It suffices to recognize that the basics of action (with Davidson) or time (with Bergson) are indeed basic. Reality isn’t only to be described but also to be acted upon. Few would challenge that it is action that comes first and last whilst description is merely a helpful aid in the middle. Many unfortunately would see this as discrediting descriptions across the board although this truth (if truth it be) is very compatible with the desire to act only on the basis of an adequate description of the relevant reality.

It’s not because Darwin’s law, or the laws of thermodynamics for that matter, are pointing to relative strengths only that they do not absolutely apply. 

[Whilst writing this I listened (quite appropriately) to Eric Satie, L’oeuvre pour piano by Aldo Ciccolini, EMI Classics.]


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