The Most Rational and Suboptimal of All Possible Worlds
On Existential Monday by Benjamin Fondane, as Discussed by Davood Gozli, John David, and O.G. Rose
Would “the best of all possible worlds” Leibniz discusses be “the most rational of all possible worlds?” By this, I mean a world where only rational action occurred (assuming that is theoretically possible, which I see no reason to think it isn’t): a world where everything that happened could be translated into rational terms, rationally justified, and rationally explained. Is that where we would find paradise? Or would we instead, following the thought of Benjamin Fondane, find something closer to an authoritarian regime? After all, if God made the world, and creation indeed entails nonrationality, then there would be reason to think that “nonrationality” is somehow essential to making the world “the best it can be.” If this is the case, there is “nonrationality” in Heaven. Nonrationality is found in God.
The following paper emerged out of a conversation series with Davood Gozli and John David. We read Existential Monday together, and the series was a highlight of my 2022. I highly suggest both of their channels.
The word “nonrationality” is useful here, for existential thinkers like Benjamin Fondane will talk about defending “irrationality,” which entails truth, but that can make us think that they are defending foolishness, insanity, and absurdity. Really, the interest of Fondane is to balance rationality: his work ‘is not a question of doing away with reason but only of imposing limits on its excessive claims.’¹ Yes, ‘paradox is central to his philosophy,’ but that’s only because he denies that human ontology can be understood in simple “A = A”-terms (or what I refer to as “A/A” throughout my work), and critically “paradox” and “contradiction” are not similes (as described in “What Is a Paradox?” by O.G. Rose).² Like many great thinkers ranging from Freud to Hegel, Fondane understood that we are beings which can’t be understood simply and linearly. If we try, we commit the mistake of seeking “wholeness,” which leads to effacement — a “death drive.”
The dichotomy of “rational or irrational” has greatly contributed to our inability to grasp the thinking of thinkers like Fondane, but if we follow Derrida and deconstruct the dichotomy, we can make space for the critically needed term, “nonrationality,” which is an action or thought which cannot be understood according to the simple binary. To help grasp the meaning of his work, it can help to see Fondane as doing something similar to modern Game Theorists who warn we need “nonrationality” to avoid Nash Equilibria and “rational impasses” (a topic Lorenzo and I discuss often). A Nash Equilibrium is a situation here if everyone acts rationally, the result is suboptimal, and basically we can understand Fondane as arguing that if everything that happened in the universe was rational, the universe would likewise be “suboptimal.” “The best of all possible worlds” Leibniz describes cannot be the dream of the Enlightenment.
I really liked the movie Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, but the plot has some pretty large plot holes, as does many movies involving time travel. Similarly, I like the paintings of Dali, but I doubt Dali had a “reason” or “meaning” behind the images: the images mean only themselves. Throughout the art world, there are perhaps thousands if not millions of images, songs, stories, and the like which cannot be entirely justified in rational terms. Now, Looper makes a point to address its own “plot hole”—it doesn’t deny it—and Dali himself never claimed his images had deeper meaning, and there’s a big difference between something that is “80% rationally justified and 20% nonrational” versus say “10% justified and 90% unjustified.” Do not mistake me as saying that art has no obligation to justify itself, but my point is to claim that a lot of art cannot be entirely justified in rational terms, which means it would fail to meet a “purely rational standard.” So, this is my question: Would the world really be a better place if Looper and the paintings of Dali didn’t exist? If rationality stopped their manifestation because they couldn’t fully justify themselves or meet a strict logical standard, would we really be better off? I don’t think so, and I think Fondane would agree. Furthermore, if Game Theory was right, a “world of pure rationality” would be totally incapable of escaping Nash Equilibria. Perhaps God made the world with a combination of rationality and nonrationality, aware that a world where “true” and “rational” were similes would be suboptimal? Do note though that God didn’t make the world entirely “nonrational” either, suggesting the need for a dialectic (as argued throughout The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy).
Similarly, imagine a world where we never did anything which couldn’t be rationally justified. In other words, this would be a world where if we didn’t have “good reason to do x,” we never did x. Now, here’s a question: Did we meet the love our life thanks to rationality? Or was it more according to a “risk” or “leap of faith?” Did we really know our husband before we married him? If not, we can’t say the choice was one of “pure rationality”: sure, we had some rational reasons, but not just rational reasons. Remember, a world of “pure rationality” is one where we only do that which is entirely justified in rational terms: if we cannot meet that standard, we do not do the thing. And that begs the question: deciding to write poetry in our free time, deciding to go rock climbing with friends, deciding to face our fear of driving a car after our friend was killed in accident, deciding to talk to our Dad again after he cussed us out—are these “purely rational” actions?” If not, then we would never make these decisions, and thus never write poetry in our free time, never go rock climbing, and so on—would our lives better? Would this be “the best of all possible worlds?”
Generally, rationality is in the business of coherence, while truth is a matter of correspondence, and we determine what we believe is rational relative to what we believe is true. “The true isn’t the rational,” which is to say that if I think it will rain today, it’s rational to bring an umbrella, and yet it still might not rain, making me “rational and wrong.” A world of “autonomous rationality,” where rationality and truth were identical, would be a world where I couldn’t imagine being rational and not also right, which for Fondane would be a prison. If I brought an umbrella and it didn’t rain, I would likely say, “It’s better to be prepared than not,” and thus continue to see myself as “a rational actor” (it probably wouldn’t occur to me that I just skipped over a revelation that I can be rational and wrong). And never having reason to doubt rationality, when I “rationally” decide not to write poetry in my free time, not to go rock climbing with friends…I can always be proud of myself. A moment of anxiety, of uncertainty, doubt, and revelation—a moment of difficulty—will not occur. We will be trapped and yet take comfort in being held tight; the loss will be total, meaning we’ll also lose the sense of something being lost.
Thus, Fondane presents us with a question: if “the best of all possible worlds” is a world where only “that which is rationally justified fully” is allowed to exist, would it really be “the best of all possible worlds?” Or instead would we only think so? Kierkegaard warns that the person in despair doesn’t even know that he is in despair; likewise, if the world was “only rational,” we would not know that we were missing out on Looper, Dali, or the moments of our greatest passion. Would this be heaven? Or would it be a prison we could not recognize as a prison, rationality not allowing it?
If logic and rationality conclude x, the Enlightenment would have us do x, no questions asked. X then becomes almost oppressive, something “we must do,” but the Enlightenment may argue that it is “good” to feel forced to do something right. Rationality levies demands on us, but these demands are ultimately best, like the demands of a loving parent. And certainly, I don’t want to live in a world without considering rationality, but problematically “what is rational” is relative to “what we believe is true,” and that means the demands of rationality are always conditioned. We cannot be certain that the obligations rationality imposes correspond with reality: it could be the case that rationality compels us to do something wrong (for it is possible to do something that is rational yet wrong, as argued throughout O.G. Rose, because it is possible to ascribe to something as true that is not). To use the language of W.K. Clifford from “Epistemic (Ir)responsibility” by O.G. Rose, it is possible for us to be “epistemically compelled” to do the false and “suboptimal”—a point which can lead to “conflict of mind”-situations.
A Nash Equilibrium is when where we are compelled by “epistemic responsibility” to end into a suboptimal situation, and if we don’t even have a category of “nonrationality” in our thinking, we are basically “fated” to end up suboptimal, unless we do what is “irrational” relative to the situation. This is a critical point: relative to “rationality,” what is “nonrational” seems to be “irrational,” thus a reason why I am not totally against using the term “irrational” like Fondane uses, though I believe we need the term “nonrational” to really grasp his thinking. “Irrationality” is a term that accurately describes “the phenomenological experience of nonrationality within rationality,” so thinking about “taking a leap of faith of nonrationality” as an “irrational act” can provide us with some emotional and psychological preparedness that will likely prove valuable. (Also, we can associate “nonrationality” with “neurodiversity,” which Lorenzo argues powerfully is necessary for “collective intelligence” to avoid severe problems in Game Theory, though that is another topic for another time.)
Another example that I’ve used before on why “autonomous rationality” is problematic is “Buridan’s Donkey,” which is the story of a donkey that starves to death between two equally sized piles of grain because it cannot make a rational decision. For Fondane, this kind of situation describes our lives constantly, and in this situation rationality can’t help us at all: ultimately, a “nonrational choice” or Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” must be made. Kierkegaard understood this problem, as captured in his magnificent Either/Or:
‘Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it […] Trust a girl, and you will regret it. Do not trust her, and you will also regret it […]’³
And so on: for Kierkegaard, there are always good reasons to do x, and always good reasons not to do x. This isn’t to say reason can never side with one thing over the other, but it is to say that there are many situations in which rationality cannot provide “the deciding vote”: only we can. It might even be the case that there is a correlation between the importance and complexity of a decision and the need for nonrationality, suggesting that rationality could fail exactly when it is needed most.⁴ If all we have is rationality, not aware that we need nonrationality, this could “determine” us for something suboptimal.
The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty may also prove useful here to describe “the limits of rationality,” though I would also point readers to The Conflict of Mind, notably “The Incompleteness of Thought” (which is indebted to Kurt Gödel). For Merleau-Ponty, rationality is always “embodied,” a fact alone which suggests “autonomous rationality” is impossible, for I am always reasoning through a body and a certain location in spacetime, which influences my thinking. For example, if I am a great distance away from a lion, I might say, “The lion is small,” but if the lion was closer, the statement, “The lion is small,” would seem crazy. Distance changes the rationality of the statement, though “the truth” of the lion’s size remains constant (suggesting again the divide between “truth” and “rationality”). In a way, the lion is both small and large relative to distance, suggesting that our body and physicality make it possible for “A = B.” Yes, someone make counter that it’s not really the case that “A = B,” for the size of the lion remains constant, but notice how overcoming this “rational problem” requires appealing to “the truth of the lion’s size.” If for some reason all we had was rationality (if we could never access “the truth” of the lion, say because of a Kantian noumenon or something), this appeal could not be done, and thus it would practically be the case that A = B or that the lion had a changeable size (that there was not a constant A/A). Bound to rationality where “the rationality was the truth,” it would be “true” that size could change fluidly, which is to say a world where “the rational is the true” is very different from a world where “the true isn’t the rational.” If we don’t know which world we are in, the way we decide to live our lives will be very different: Fondane’s point is to make it clear that we are in the second world, that this is best, and that we thus need to stop living like we are in the first.
Since rationality can conform to truth once it encounters truth, rationality can always feel (more) rational: it can quickly hide and cover the role of truth in its reformation. Though rationality might have me say, “The lion is small,” from a distance, I can change my distance through walking (a nonrational act) to make it rational to say, “The lion is big,” which creates the phenomenological and emotional impression that rationality has increased in rationality. Really, what has happened is that rationality has increased in its access to truth, a distinct category: when rationality gains correspondence to reality, rationality does not gain that correspondence in itself and thanks to itself but by deferring to something outside of itself. When rationality gains more correspondence, it feels like it “got more rational” (the “crack” is instantly covered), but really it has gotten “truer,” which is to say rationality has gotten more nonrational. When rationality expands, it expands thanks to a nonrationality it instantly conceals, making it seem like nonrationality had no role at all. “Coherence” (rationality) isn’t “correspondence” (truth), but increased “correspondence” will also likely increase “coherence,” making it seem like they are identical. However, increased “coherence” doesn’t necessitate increased “correspondence,” and it is in this “direction” that we can discover a “crack” and “division,” thus why Fondane emphasizes “nonrational action” like Kierkegaard. If we do that which cannot be understood by our own “coherence” (a kind of “line of flight” Deleuze discusses, which avoids comprehension, calculation, and “capture”), then this unveils a possible divide between “coherence” (rationality) and “correspondence” (truth), and once we learn the revelation of this possibility, we can carry it with us to (re)examine our entire lives through.
Though the lion example might seem silly, I think the point is easier to make and grasp if we imagine ourselves approaching the lion enough that we can observe its quantums. I will not expand on the topic here, but generally things operate on the quantum level very differently than how they work on the level of “large things” (thus the difficulty of combining “general relativity” with “quantum mechanics”). Quantums jump through space in strange and unique ways, and they seemingly exist in multiple places at once. Considering this, our concept of “natural law” and “how the universe works” is all conditioned by our positioning and size in spacetime.⁵ Rationality is deeply tied to embodiment, which makes it possible for us to be separated from truth, and yet embodiment and rationality are what make it possible for us to learn truth. The answer is not to abandon them, but to recognize their limits and need for dialectics.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a genius and offers many more examples than what I have highlighted here, but the point is that embodiment (a truth of our being) and rationality are indivisible. The truth of our embodiment conditions our rationality, which simultaneously makes rationality possible but also renders rationality incomplete, and yet rationality naturally presents the world to itself “as if” it is complete. This is the great double action and “trick” of rationality that we need Fondane and nonrationality to overcome: rationality is what makes truth meaningful and comprehensible, while at the same time making it seem like truth is “nothing more” than rationality. Rationality translates truth into rational terms, which it needs truth to do (and so for there to be any-thing rational at all), which in the same act rationality makes itself seem like it is truth.
For rationality to escape Nash Equilibria, it must accept its own limits, which brings to mind how Hegel believes rationality becomes “fully itself” by realizing its limits and inabilities (as argued brilliantly by Dr. Cadell Last). Rationality is “fully rational” only as “(non)rationality,” per se, which means rationality must undergo a negation/sublimation (also, this suggests progress toward Absolute Knowing is the only way to ultimately avoid all Nash Equilibria, but that’s another topic for another time). Rationality without nonrationality becomes “autonomous rationality,” which is a force of great destruction, as we’ve learned from Hume in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose. Despite his criticisms of Hegel, Fondane’s thinking strikes me as similar to Hegel’s, for both end up in an understanding of ontology as A/B versus A/A (as described in “On ‘A Is A’ ” by O.G. Rose). In other words, for Fondane, the thinking of Kierkegaard is accurate: ‘[m]an, then, is a synthesis of psyche and body, but […] also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.’⁶ We are not merely temporal (A/A) or only eternal (A/A), but “a split subject” (A/B); for this reason, we can suffer anxiety. But here’s something funny: anxiety then is hopeful, for it means we are capable of escaping rationality and doing the nonrational. However, this hope might be based on something like the experience of children learning that they can leave home: there is hope in freedom, but also a sense of losing security.
If we never experienced anxiety, that would mean there was never “an opening” between “the true” and “the rational,” which is to say that “the true” would be practically equivalent to “the rational,” that “coherence” would be equivalent to “correspondence” (A/A).⁷ Of course, truth and rationality are not actually identical, but they could be practically, and that is a life Fondane warns is trapped and imprisoned without knowing it is trapped and imprisoned. It’s a kind of “total depravity,” which is a state in which the capacity to recognize depravity is also lost. Funny enough, that means anxiety is necessary for freedom, though that also means the revelation of freedom is unveiled with a feeling that will probably make us not want it (an irony explored in “The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose). We do not feel joy when we gain freedom: we feel anxiety. “The joy of freedom” we often describe is actually more so “a joy of being able to do what we want to do,” but that is perhaps only “the freedom of desire” (which we might be a slave too) — this is not necessarily the freedom of us. The real joy of freedom only comes after the crucible of anxiety (if it comes at all, that is, that “great Monday” Kafka discusses).
There is no freedom where there is no “nonrationality,” but there is also no anxiety, and in this way perhaps “the dream of the Enlightenment” was ultimately a subconscious effort to escape freedom, anxiety, and by extension responsibility (behind a mask and self-deception of intelligence)? Now, again, I stress: a world without rationality would be a disaster, but a world without nonrationality is likewise problematic. This is what thinkers like Vico and Hume understood, and Fondane continues a critical line of thinking that I fear is not studied much in universities, precisely because it might threaten their legitimacy (but that’s just me being cynical).
In “Hegel and the Ontological Implications of ‘Pure Thought’ About What’s Not There” by O.G. Rose, it was argued that humans unveil their unique capacity to meaningfully define themselves in terms of “creation” outside of “causation” precisely thanks to “pure thought,” which is a thought that cannot possibly “correspond” to reality. The example of a “contradiction” is focused on in the paper, and it is argued that the fact we can think of something that cannot possibly exist suggests something important and unique about our being, mainly that our thinking is not bound by materiality. We are free, in a way, and Fondane is basically arguing that we are also not bound by rationality. Nonrationality also exists, and we get to choose between nonrationality and rationality. Sometimes, rationality is the better choice, but other times nonrationality is important (as already described). If we don’t even know we can and must make this choice (because we’re “always already” choosing rationality), then the likelihood we end up in a “suboptimal result” is very high. According to Fondane, like Adorno and Horkheimer, that’s exactly what happened with the totalitarianism of the 20th century, and it’s exactly what can happen with our own personal lives as well.
“Pure thought” is evidence that we as humans are not merely products of “causation” but also “creation,” and it is on these grounds that we actually give ourselves good reason to hope in “the possible” (to allude to Lev Shestov, who Fondane praised). As long as there is always “possibility,” we are not fated or determined, and we are certainly not doomed for “the suboptimal result” of Nash Equilibria, “conflicts of mind,” and/or inescapable “internally consistent systems” (such as “conspiracies,” which is a topic expounded on in “On Conspiracies and Pandora’s Rationality” by O.G. Rose). If we can think “pure thought,” we are not bound by ether coherence or correspondence, and though we don’t want to be totally unaligned with either (that would be chaos, effacement versus negation, and nondialectical), it’s also good to know we aren’t “stuck” in them (though again there is an anxiety we can feel when we realize we can leave home, along with freedom).⁸ “Pure thought” unveils thinking and “the world” are distinct, meaning that there is in fact a distinction between “coherence” and “correspondence.” In this way, Hegel’s realization is pregnant with important implications which algin with Fondane and Kierkegaard.
“The possible” is a significant theme in Fondane’s work, which he absorbed from Lev Shestov, his teacher and friend, who gave Fondane ‘the tools to develop an irrationalist philosophy of ‘the impossible.’ ’⁹ Like Hume, for Fondane, creating and explaining this philosophy was urgent, a matter of life and death, for he believed that ‘the threat of Nazism stem[ed] from an excess of rationalism’ (a point which Samuel Barnes also explores).¹⁰ Reason deals with ‘abstract universal categories,’ and if the world is going to fit into reason, it must thus be abstracted into reason (a kind of violence), where Fondane warned it melted in the air (to allude to Marx).¹¹ Considering this, ‘[t]o satisfy the demands of reason [causes] not just [a] acquiescence to slavery but to a kind of amputation’: something precious is lost, “something more” which we can associate with “nonrationality.”¹² Once this “amputation” occurs, we cut ourselves from “nonrationality,” leaving us with only “autonomous rationality,” with which “suboptimal results” become only matters of time. (Do note that “suboptimal result” can entail “hell.”)
To save “the nonrational,” both Shestov and Fondane defended “the possible,” which is to say that “everything is possible.”¹³ There is nothing for either thinker which rationality can “bracket out” and deem beyond the realm of existence: rationality lacks that kind of power. In stressing possibility, going so far as to suggest ‘[u]ndoing the past’ and God’s ability to violate logic, the two thinkers want to weaken the power of rationality and our thinking that “everything must ‘live up to’ rationality or else is not justified to even exist.”¹⁴ Fondane and Shestov both discuss the God of the Bible versus the God of the Philosopher, with the first being “over reason” while the second is “under reason.” The God of the Bible can change the past and create “unliftable rocks,” while the second God cannot — for Fondane and Shestov, the second God is only a god. “God as Reason” is what both thinkers fight and oppose, for it is a schema in which “nonrationality” is likely doomed and sacrificed on an altar, leading to “suboptimal results.”
What exactly is “the possible?” Well, to start, we can say that Fondane wants to stress “the imaginatively possible” over “the rationally justified,” which is to say that if we can imagine it, why couldn’t it happen? In Fondane, we could say that there isn’t necessarily such thing as “pure thought,” which again alludes to Hegel’s idea that there are thoughts that do not correspond to reality at all (like a contradiction). Any thought for Fondane could correspond with reality, even if it is right now just a “pure thought.” While for Hegel “pure thought” suggests something unique ontologically about humans (that we might “be in the world but not of it,” per se”), “pure thought” for Fondane can possibly be transformed into a “corresponding thought” instantly. Reality can change radically at any moment: we are not stuck. Relative to “whatever we are used to” and “whatever is the case,” it is always possible that we suddenly become “the exception.” Where everything is possible, patterns like “natural laws” and “what we are used to” must always be held with “an open hand” (a point which brings Hume to mind). We are not stuck, but again do note that the hope this might give us could be similar to the hope of a young boy who realizes he can leave home. Can we ‘imagine [ourselves] happy?’¹⁵
It helps me understand “the possible” Fondane and Shestov discuss to think of it as aligned with the work of Quentin Meillassoux, who wrote After Finitude and famously supports “radical contingency.” What is that? I think this quote captures the position well:
‘[I]nstead of construing the absence of reason inherent in everything as a limit that thought encounters in its search for the ultimate reason, we must understand that this absence of reason is, and can only be the ultimate property of the entity. We must convert facticity into the real property whereby everything and every world is without reason, and is thereby capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason. […] for the truth is that there is no reason for anything to be or to remain thus and so rather than otherwise, and this applies as much to the laws that govern the world as to the things of the world. Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws […] by virtue of the absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from perishing.’¹⁶
Fondane is proposing something similar: nothing must be the way it is, which is to say everything is contingent and, at any moment, possible. If this is the case, rationality can never have “the last word,” for “the possible” could always “break through” and shatter whatever rationality constructs. To use theological language, if rationality “works” and “has power,” it is because it is operating within “possibility’s permissive will” — “possibility” can always, at any moment, seize back dominion. In this way, rationality always operates within nonrationality, and thus “autonomous rationality” becomes an ignorant denial that everything occurs within “the possible.”
Fondane opens his essay, “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History,” by claiming that ‘[h]istory was made for man, and not man for history’ (a critique of his Hegel).¹⁷ Fondane also alludes to Mark 2:27 on the Sabbath and “The Law,” reminding us that both the Law and Sabbath were “made for man” and not the other way around. Sharing this formal logic, Fondane says the same about reason: rationality was made for us, not us for rationality. By placing rationality within “the permissive will” of “possibility,” Fondane indeed brings rationality “from off its throne” and turns it back into “a tool” we use versus a ruler which uses us (tools were made for us, not us for tools).¹⁸ ‘The Law is sacred, but it was made for man,’ and so it goes with rationality.¹⁹
Yes, though “radical contingency” binds rationality from becoming “autonomous rationality,” Meillassoux’s thinking risks chaos and “a collapse into nothingness,” a realization which can generate anxiety, but Fondane would have us realize that the very act of avoiding anxiety is the act of avoiding the hope we’ve always sought. We are our obstacle, and Fondane suggests that there can be key moments when we realize this and our need to dethrone rationality in favor of possibility, of our need to avoid “the Greek philosopher” in favor of “the Biblical philosopher,” per se. Fondane makes this point with a description of Turgenev:
‘..at the very moment when [Turgenev’s] heroine […] drops to the floor, the doctor of the district, terrified, cries out, “A doctor! Quick, a doctor!” The philosopher too is so little prepared to deal with the problems of the existent that more than once, he should cry out, “Quick, a philosopher! A real one!” ’²⁰
If we believe that rationality will always save us, Fondane notes that this cry unveils nothing, that it is ‘mere ‘chatter,’ ’ but if instead we accept the role of nonrationality, and even assume that we subconsciously recognize our need to escape “autonomous rationality,” then the moment of this cry unveils something deeper.²¹ It is possible that we sense the inadequacies of rationality and our need for possibility, but it is not until our most desperate moments that we suggest this is the case and perhaps admit the truth to ourselves. Our god shouldn’t be god at all, but we will not admit this until the moment when faith in rationality becomes irrational (a Nietzschean “transvaluation,” it would seem, which occurs in the moment of “the exception” Fondane discusses). Unfortunately, once the Nazis are at the doorstep of Paris, the Nazis are here.
‘The sick person cries out for ‘The possible!’ but is drowned out by the voice of the philosopher, who cries out for ‘The intelligible!’’ — and so our world turns, increasingly suboptimal, and “for good reason.”²² Not only is this “good reason” provided by reasoning to itself in being itself (reason, by definition, always has “good reason” to be itself), but also because really accepting “the possible” is existentially terrifying. I mean, can we imagine really taking Meillassoux seriously? How could we function? And yet “radical contingency” is a doctrine of hope precisely in its anxiety: it means there is never “no exit” (to allude to Sartre). There is always hope, but gaining that hope requires accepting that nothing is “solid” (a tradeoff, like Pandora’s box). Everything can change, which might be an idea that we can mentally assent to but not fully assent to. Fortunately and unfortunately, ‘the experience that will make an ‘exception’ of us and give us over to existential problems does not depend on us.’²³ ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases.’²⁴ God is a lion, but so is Satan according to 1 Peter. Flannery O’Connor describes grace as a bull with sharp and hugging horns.²⁵ ²⁶
Accepting that “everything can change” requires “facing nothingness,” because the doctrine of “radical contingency” must mean that behind everything is a kind of nothingness, an absence of any “ontological support” or “ontological givenness.” The reason everything is what it is right now is because everything is what it is right now: no “guardrails” behind “the veil of reality” are forcing everything “to stay on some track” (a point Plato may disagree with, though perhaps can be made for both thinkers by saying “forms” apply until they don’t). But even if we don’t accept the doctrine of “radical contingency,” accepting the limitations of rationality (in requiring “nonrationality”) indeed requires accepting a kind of “nothingness” too, for there is nothing which can really prepare us for “what’s out there.” If my idea of my laptop is never “the full laptop” (if “the map isn’t the territory”), then my idea isn’t the laptop itself, which would suggest that my idea is, to some degree, about nothing. All ideas, in being imperfect, entail a kind of “nothingness” (a point expounded on in “Through (No)thing We Know” by O.G. Rose), both in that ideas are invisible and “not there,” and in that ideas must “fill in gaps” about things they “point at” precisely in only being signifiers and not the signified. Additionally, following Deleuze, everything in reality is “one of one” — there is no “sameness” (an effacement) — which means that, technically, everything is “nothing like” everything else. And yet thinking is only possible thanks to patterns: without them, everything would be an unintelligible chaos (which is exactly what Fondane wants us to realize could be the case, liberating us into anxiety). “Similarity” and “patterns” then must be things “in the world but not of it,” but if the world is everything, then what is “not of it” would be nothing. Thus, there is something about nothingness which makes life meaningful (an absurdity), and since nothing isn’t there, this is hard to grasp. The effort to do so causes anxiety.
“The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose argued that we cannot reason from nothing: in order to meaningful define “the rational” from “the random,” there must be something preexisting (a truth). This is incredibly strange, for rationality operates precisely according to principles which seem “out of this world” (we are always thinking to some degree “about nothing,” for signifiers are not the signified”): rationality would be impossible where there was nothing, and yet rationality seems to operate according to nothing. This would suggest that the involvement of “nonrationality” in a dialectic simply forces rationality to unveil “its own nature,” to bring out of the background into the foreground the “non-” of itself that makes rationality possible. Hard to say.
Anyway, following “The Blank Canvas,” it could be argued that “a state of nothingness” (“nihilo”) is a state that unveils rationality is ultimately powerless on its own. The power of rationality is always supported, transferred to it from “truth” and experience (“the aesthetic,” as the paper calls it): any power rationality has is given to it and not its own. In realizing this, we can actually realize that rationality only has “power over us” if we let it. This was Fondane’s point, found also in Kierkegaard and Nicholas Berdyaev: we decide if we believe in “the possible” or not, and thus we decide if we see rationality within “the permissive will” of possibility or not. Since “ideas are practically eyes,” our view of rationality as either “in control” or “permitted” will drastically change how we live.
Existentialism often discusses experiences of anxiety and nothingness, and it is these experiences which precisely unveil the weakness and incompleteness of rationality. “The Blank Canvas” hopefully explains why, for though that paper describes an extreme thought experiment to make the point, the same logic applies to some degree regarding experiences that “nothing is like.” These would be “the experience of the exception” that Fondane discusses, highlighting both Job and Abraham from the Torah to explain what he means, as these would also be the experiences of thought itself (for it is “through (no)thing we know”). Facing nothingness requires facing anxiety, and feeling anxiety could easily be interpreted by us as a sign that “we shouldn’t be doing what we are doing” (especially if we don’t know any better). Ironically though, anxiety is also the feeling of “the possible,” without which there can be no hope.
Fondane mentioned Nicolas Berdyaev, and I recall Berdyaev’s book The Meaning of the Creative Act inspiring a thought alongside Vigen Gurion, who I also adored. Making a theological point, only God can create, for only God can create ex nihilo, while humans can participate in “the image and likeness of creation” but ultimately only cause. True creation requires nothingness, for otherwise we are creating with things we did not create, which is to say we are creating out of preexisting material. Now, none of us can be God, so none of us can really create “ex nihilo,” but we can approach this idea and “create” more than “cause” to some degree. To the degree we are “like ex nihilo” is to the degree we are nonrational, even if we think we are “only rational” all the while.
Existentialism rightly associates “nothingness” with “freedom” (sometimes morbidly, as in condemning Sartre), for there is “nothing holding us back or stopping us,” so if an increased role of nothingness increases both the possibility of freedom and creativity, we can hence associate freedom and creativity. But with a catch: we noted in “The Blank Canvas” that there is no freedom or rationality without actuality (where there is pure potential, there is no freedom, only randomness). Hence, something must be created for us to be meaningfully free, which means creation makes both freedom and rationality possible. Increases in creativity increase freedom and rationality, both of which can then be used to generate more creation. Problematically though, both freedom and rationality can be used in evil and effacing ways, a point which suggests “The Grand Inquisitor,” as we will later discuss. Creation starts everything, which means “nonrationality” starts everything. Rationality and freedom are not first but second (suggesting further why the forsaking of “nonrationality” is so strange), which is to say that, in the beginning, there was no possibility of misuse. However, that also means there was no possibility for free and rational beings. Was being better before creation? The Grand Inquisitor seems to think so…
Anyway, the conditions which make nonrational creation possible are also the conditions which create anxiety. Like us, nature naturally abhors a vacuum, but nature doesn’t face a “choice” when it encounters one: it naturally “causes” a solution, per se. There is no anxiety, for there is no choice. But when humans encounter “nothingness,” say in an existential moment, humans naturally “freeze up.” While nature “rushes in” without a second thought to fill vacuums, humans often don’t know what to do (a moment which unveils “a distinction” between humans and nature), and anxiety paralyzes them. And for good reason: where there is “nothingness” (or something “not like” anything else, an experience of “exception,” which the brain cannot easily or readily process), then there is no “information source” according to which the person can meaningfully define “rational action.” Rational action is impossible, but that doesn’t mean action is impossible: what is needed is nonrationality. Unfortunately, if we as humans have been trained to believe that we should never do anything but what is rational, we will have been trained to stand there motionlessly. If we are “autonomously rational,” when we encounter “nothing,” we will end up like “Burdian’s Donkey.”
Nothingness is a “rational impasse” which only nonrationality can address: it is the experience which unveils the necessity of nonrationality and correctness of Fondane. Again, existential experiences are the ones which unveil the ultimate powerlessness of rationality, which is strange, because “autonomous rationality,” according to Hume, is characterized by tyranny, force, and power. This suggests that “autonomous rationality” becomes pathological, violent, and oppressive precisely because it is trying to hide its lack of power, its ultimate impossibility, and logical effacement. “Autonomous rationality” isn’t even actually rational, which is to say it doesn’t “correspond with truth,” and so it is ultimately a pathological and neurotic phenomenon, hence why it is so dangerous. In this way, though Fondane’s support of “irrationality” sounds like he is supporting something dangerous for our mental health, Fondane is actually proposing the only way for us to maintain our mental health (“(non)rationality”). What Fondane suggests is an answer to “The Meaning Crisis,” but more on that later.
We have described how thought always entails some degree of “nothingness” (because signifiers aren’t the signified, because “maps aren’t territories,” etc.), and that would mean all thought entails some degree of nonrationality and creation. There is no “idea of cat” in the world, only the signified creature itself: relative to the world, humans create ideas. Now, I’m not saying thoughts entail no degree of causation, only that they entail degrees of creation, which is to say that they are “like nihilo.” This hints at why anxiety only results from thought, though fear can result in response to the material and physical world (and certainty it’s not always easy to tell the difference). Considering its indivisibility from nihilo, thought is always existential (“a facing of the ultimate ungrasp-ablity of existence,” where signifiers never equal the signified), and to the degree we accept this is to the degree we can participate in “(non)rationality” (a dialectic of nonrationality and rationality) versus (effacing) “autonomous rationality.”
Deeply taking seriously the nihilo aspect of thought, the ultimately uncrossable divide between “coherence” (rationality) and “correspondence” (truth), is ultimately a revelation on the ultimate role of “nonrationality” even if we don’t acknowledge it. This means that when we are “autonomously rational,” we are likely only supposedly “autonomously rational”: it is an act of self-deception that is thus neurotic and pathological. In its very dismissal of subjectivity and personality, “autonomous rationality” is a psychological phenomenon. “Autonomous rationality” cannot be actual, and thus it cannot be epistemologically justified. In what it judges, it becomes.
Not even nonrational, “autonomous rationality” is just irrational, and irrational precisely in its seeing of itself as “purely rational.” It is thus pathological, self-deceptive, and dangerous, but it is also problematically comforting. It tells us we don’t have to face the nihilo of the world, “the nothingness” which nonrationality necessitates, and that means we don’t have to suffer anxiety. We are safe. We are safe with our dangerous pathology, and that means we never have to create (effaced). Creation is a “nonrational act,” for again it must occur before rationality to make rationality possible. The nonrationality of creativity is sustained and present in “the nonrationality of freedom,” which can then be dialectically related to “rationality” (to give rise to the optimal “dialectic of rationality and nonrationality”). But freedom is also free to do otherwise: if the universe is “radically contingent,” we can choose to see it as determined.
Benjamin Fondane supports a view of the universe, which is like Meillassoux’s, precisely to justify us taking seriously “the possible,” a view of which makes us free and “unbound” from rationality. If “behind everything” is “radical contingency,” then everything is constantly enacting “a creative act” against and supported by a nihilo, which is to say the creation is its own grounding. That means we are our own grounding, and that, though terrifying, means we are free. Forced to be free, yes — Sartre is right — so forced to take “a leap of faith.” Is the Grand Inquisitor right to suggest this is unfair? Perhaps, but it depends on what we choose.
I cannot resist an opportunity to elaborate on Berdyaev, who again Fondane referenced, and I will do so here while I have a chance. Berdyaev wrote:
‘Philosophy is based upon the assumption that the world is part of man, and not vice versa. If man were merely a small and fragmentary part of the world, the audacious idea of knowledge could never have occurred to himself […] Transcendental man is the presupposition of philosophy, and to ignore this means either nothing at all or the death of philosophical knowledge.’²⁷
Where Berdyaev here discusses “transcendental man,” he certainly has theology mind, and is suggesting that only “theological man” can be “philosophical man.” However, even if we do not accept theology, we could say instead that “trans-rationality” or “nonrationality” is necessary or we will suffer “the death of rational knowledge.” This is the great joke: “autonomous rationality” isn’t even really rational, for it ends up separating itself from “the truth” and “correspondence” it needs to have something to do with reality. ‘Objectifications destroy life and being,’ Berdyaev says, and similarly we could say that “rationality without nonrationality destroys both.”²⁸ But this requires accepting a tragedy — ‘existence is irrational and individual, but we can only know the rational and general’ — we know according to what we cannot live.²⁹ We cannot know “the nonrational,” only live it and “make space for it” in our thinking. The moment we understand “the nonrational,” we’ve translated it into rationality (as perception is constantly translated into thinking, to allude to “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose). This gives us “reason to think” (note the circularity) that all we need is rationality (after all, everything “meaningful” ultimately ends up in “rational terms”), and we will especially want this to be the case when we experience the anxiety that results from leaving “the home” of rationality (where “the helicopter parent” of the Enlightenment can encourage us to stay). But ‘[k]nowledge implies fearlessness’ — there is no real knowledge where there is only “autonomous rationality”; real knowledge requires a dialectic between “rationality” and “nonrationality” — ‘the creative achievement of knowledge is victory over fear.’³⁰
Again, Berdyaev writes:
‘The essential and fundamental problem is the problem of man — of his knowledge, his freedom, his creativeness. Man is the key to the mystery of knowledge and of existence. He is the enigmatic being which, though a part of nature, cannot be explained in terms of nature and through which alone it is possible to penetrate into the heart of being.’³¹
Man alone can unveil Hegel’s Absolute Knowing (as discussed throughout (Re)constructing “A Is A”), so man alone can realize “the possible” Fondane stresses and Quinton points too with his “radical contingency.” Where man is lost, the universe must remain locked instead of a mystery like that explored by Dante, but keeping man around requires keeping around the paradoxical need to incorporate the nonrational into a dialectic with the rational. “The nonrational” would exist if humanity didn’t, for there would still be a universe in which things occurred, and indeed what makes humanity “unique” is his introduction of rationality to the universe. But that means “the heart of being” can be uniquely penetrated into by man because of a problem man brings into existence. This is the problem of rationality that cannot be solved, only managed (in a dialectic with nonrationality), and that “naturally” tends toward “autonomous rationality,” causing terror, alienation, and violence. What gives us hope to understand life is what entails a nature to destroy it. On this point, we can imagine the Grand Inquisitor telling Jesus that we would have been better off without his “gift” of rationality, similar to his “blessing” of freedom that makes evil possible — but we will wait to elaborate on this until The Breaking of the Day.
‘The process of knowledge is a real event, and meaning is revealed in its activity’ — rationality becomes actually rational through nonrationality, which means “autonomous rationality” leads to a violence that doesn’t even increase our wisdom as it promises greater genius.³² Hegel seems to have understood this, as taught by Dr. Cadell Last in his work on “the phenomenological journey” (Absolute Knowing is “(non)rational”), but Hegel has been misread. ‘If a man feels nothing but humility and a perpetual sense of sin,’ Berdyaev tells us, ‘he can do no creative work. Creativeness means that one’s mind passes on to another plane of being.’³³ Likewise, if a man is nothing but rational, he can do no rational work. Actual rationality requires incorporating “another plane of being” to avoid self-effacement, the plane of nonrationality (which would include “the subject,” to allude to Absolute Knowing again).³⁴ ‘Life is based upon energy and not upon law,’ which we can take to mean that life is based upon nonrationality, which is to say that if nonrationality is gone, life loses its energy.³⁵ The loss of energy is death.
Creativity is the energy of life, for Berdyaev, and he believe the loss of ‘confidence in the possibility and fruitfulness of an abstract metaphysic’ has corresponded with the loss of that energy.³⁶ In one way, this is good, because ‘a phenomenology of the spirit life’ is what we need versus Platonic systematizing, but while the loss of “abstract metaphysics” could be positive, the loss of all metaphysics is problematic (for that includes phenomenology in our world today).³⁷ Why exactly can be connected with Fondane: where there is no metaphysics, there is only “physics,” per se, which means there is only “the actual,” not “the possible.” Fondane, like Kierkegaard, argued that we need “the possible” to live and to hope, and if that requires metaphysics, the loss of metaphysics is the loss of hope (please note that the work of Meillassoux is metaphysical, that a need for “metaphysics” isn’t necessarily theological, as it is in Berdyaev). Likewise, if metaphysics defended “the possible,” it was also a defender of “the nonrational,” so it is not by chance that the loss of metaphysics was a step toward “autonomous rationality.” Once metaphysics was gone, there was “autonomous actuality” (“physics alone,” per se), and thus “autonomous rationality” only followed. What else could? ‘[S]pirit is liberty,’ Berdyaev insists, but where can spirit be found?³⁸
That said, Berdyaev makes the point that ‘[a] genuine, rational, and absolute empiricism does not give the right to set limits to experience.’³⁹ In other words, if empiricism “stayed in its lane,” there would not have been the notion that we needed to abandon metaphysics: the problem is that science became scientism, extending too far. So it goes with rationality: rationality that didn’t become autonomous (and so self-effaced rationality) would never lead us to conclude that nonrationality was undesirable. Concluding nonrationality is irrational requires rationality reaching beyond the realm in which rationality can meaningfully encounter, consider, and judge, as judging that “everything true can be observed” is not itself an observable premise (at best, someone could only say “everything I’ve seen is true,” not that everything true is seeable).
‘In the history of the world nothing has ever been fully realized, in the true and ontological sense of the world […]’ — what does Berdyaev mean by this strange claim? Well, perhaps the notion is Hegelian, which is to say everything is always “becoming,” and thus nothing ever achieves full “being.”⁴⁰ If this is indeed the case, there should always be limits on rationality, as Hegel understood, for we can never achieve “full understanding” of the world: the moment we think we have, it has changed in time. And yet because reason is not “bound” and capable of error (which for Hegel is a reason for its greatness), it is possible for us to erroneously ascribe to “autonomous rationality.” The very ability of reason to err is why it can err so terribly in its favor to believe that “nonrationality” isn’t needed, which is to say reason can ignore (the paradoxically empirical fact) that everything is always changing through time. ‘It is quite impossible to compel a man to recognize the reality of the spiritual life,’ Berdyaev tells us, ‘in the same way as he can be compelled to admit the reality of the natural world. The spiritual life must first reveal itself in a man.’⁴¹ If we associate “spirit” with the Hegelian idea of “contradiction,” this means man is never forced to acknowledge A/B (nonrationality) in the same way the world presents him with A/A, seemingly “forcing” him to ascribe to it. If we can associate A/B with creativity, nonrationality, and “the possible,” this would all mean that the possibility of reason to err is why we are capable of A/B and why reason is capable of erring in favor of a belief in A/A. Our source of freedom is why we can freely choose to efface freedom.
‘The human spirit is in prison,’ Berdyaev says. ‘Prison is what I call this world, the given world of necessity.’⁴² Hegel associated prison with A/A, which creates an impression of necessity (and, indeed, without nonrationality, as if in a Kafka story, we are “necessarily” bound to follow rationality to wherever it might lead).⁴³ I will not elaborate on the works of Kafka (though it is tempting), but we can think of the novels of Kafka as exploring what happens to us when all we have is A/A to structure our thinking, desires, and wants, which aligns with Fondane, who thinks “autonomous rationality” leads to totalitarianism (a specter lurking throughout Kafka). Hegel points to freedom in contradiction and reason’s capacity to organize itself according to A/B, and Berdyaev associates that with “the creative act.” This is why Berdyaev is so concerned with ‘[t]he dream of modern philosophy […] to become scientific, or something like the scientific,’ for the scientific is organized according to A/A. This is a good thing, but only because science is bound by the scientific method (as explored in Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Roach, for example): if scientific thinking escapes the environment of experimentation, it could become a force of A/A which contributes to oppression and trouble.⁴⁴ ‘Philosophy is creativeness, and not adaptation or obedience,’ Berdyaev says, which means that philosophy must be more A/B than A/A, as Hegel understood (despite the dislike both Fondane and Berdyaev feel toward Hegel, suggesting a need for Todd McGown’s thinking much earlier in the history of thought then when it has appeared).⁴⁵ And yet philosophy ‘always strives to comprehend the meaning of the world,’ meaning that it is like science, but philosophy accomplishes this by ‘ever resisting the senselessness of the world’s necessity.’⁴⁶ How strange: philosophy seeks understanding through resisting necessity (A/B), while science seems to “observe necessity” or stress “solidness,” per se (A/A) — what’s going on? Don’t these cancel out? Mustn’t we choose between science and philosophy?
The wisdom of Hegel’s “phenomenological journey,” as Dr. Last describes it, is clear here, for science is a necessary step along the journey of intellectual development, but it is not the stopping place. Hegel famously critiques Kant’s “understanding” in favor of “reason,” but it should not be though that Hegel in this act claimed understanding was “bad” or didn’t’ play a role (no more than we should think Berdyaev is anti-science or Fondane anti-reason): it is all about “order” and “proper bounds.” Kant argues that reason can err, thus why we should focus on understanding, but Hegel believes we should focus on reason because it can err. Ultimately, Hegel stresses that we need both “reason” and “understanding,” not just one or the other, which is to say we need “the division and stability of entities” in order for “contradiction” to be possible. In this sense, we could say we need a “sense of A/A” in order for A/B to be possible, so associating science with “A/A-thinking” is not a sleight against it, as associating “understanding with A/A” is not an insult.⁴⁷ As hopefully “On ‘A Is A’ ” by O.G. Rose made clear, A/B is in “A/A,” part of it, which means there is “some reality to A/A,” as there is reality to “rationality.” The problem is settling on A/A, seeking A/A, or “autonomous rationality” — all this is how A/A causes effacement versus contribute to a process of negation/sublation by unveiling A/B. The problem is when science and A/A don’t lead to and unveil creativity and A/B; the problem is when the dancers cease dancing together.
‘Man precedes philosophy,’ Berdyaev says, ‘man is the prerequisite of all philosophic knowledge.’⁴⁸ If there were no humans, there would be no A/B, and perhaps “autonomous rationality” would be possible. We cause the break between “the map” and “the territory,” the existence of what I call Gödel Points (as explored elsewhere). Where A/B was lost, the human would be lost, and the meaning and need for science would likewise vanish off the earth precisely at the point where the subjectivity vanished that science was always claiming is “in the way.” In this way, ‘the crisis of scientific philosophy is being prepared by science itself.’⁴⁹ ‘The supreme human self-consciousness sets an absolute limit to all scientific knowledge,’ Berdyaev tells us, which is why Hegel understands science as “a step” on a journey and why Berdyaev stresses creativity, for creativity is the only way forward from the limit of “scientific knowledge.’⁵⁰ Creativity is A/B, fundamentally human, and possible because reason can err and is distinct from understanding. ‘[S]cience is only an adaptation to the present limited condition of the world of nature,’ but humans are not “merely part of nature”: we can create, A/B.⁵¹ Trees are not capable of Hegel’s Absolute Knowing, but humans are, and ‘the earth’s metaphysical meaning is revealed not by astronomy or geology but rather by anthropological philosophy, a philosophy which is mystical rather than scientific.’⁵² All of this is nonrational, which suggests that it is not by chance that the rise of totalitarianism and the Modern State has corresponded with the loss of metaphysics. The efforts of the Enlightenment to increase freedom are what bound it to a rationality which freedom could not act outside of without feeling irrational (as shown throughout Kafka). But merely knowing this will not be enough: we will also need to act accordingly, which means we will have to make “a real choice” (as discussed at the end of (Re)constructing “A Is A): ‘For creative philosophy, truth is not a passive reflection of something: truth is rather activity in giving meaning to something.’⁵³
‘Creativity is inseparable from freedom. Only he who is free creates. Out of necessity can be born only evolution; creativity is born of liberty’ — and so Berdyaev sets the stage.⁵⁴ Liberty is a non-necessity, which we can associate with “the possible” stressed by Fondane, and this means creativity and freedom necessarily accompany one another. Berdyaev is suggesting that humanity cannot be “reduced” to evolution, that there is something perhaps “emergent’ about humanity that makes humanity A/B versus A/A (much to his glory and torment). Critically, this means that there is a certain way and order according to which humans have to live in order to really be themselves, and here, following Hegel, we can say that order is A/B. If humanity defines itself as A/A, humanity will be “free from A/B,” in a sense, which means humanity will be “free from nonrationality,” but ‘[f]reedom from is in sin,’ Berdyaev says, while ‘freedom for is in creativeness’ (in this way, we can consider the difference between “autonomously rational freedom” and “(non)rational freedom” or “creative freedom”).⁵⁵ Freedom is not escape, but a certain “harmony” with being which strangely requires contradiction and paradox to be “possible.” But I suppose that makes sense, because if there was no contradiction, there would only be reason, and that means there would be “autonomous rationality” and no freedom to make possible creation. If we cannot create, we cannot be free. A/B alone makes freedom possible precisely because we can use it poorly, such as in freely seeking the effacement of A/A (as A/B beings).
But why can’t freedom alone be enough? Well, because if we are free but don’t have “nonrationality,” we will not be creative, and that means we will “rationally structure ourselves toward” effacement, which is to say freedom without nonrationality makes us a character in a Kafka novel. This suggests the horror of thinking “that freedom is rationality,” for though rationality is necessary for freedom (we must play with fire to avoid freezing to death), without nonrationality and creation, freedom will always be rationally used, which strangely means freedom will be bound and think it is free. This dilemma is what Kafka continually shows in his novels, as I am tempted here to now explore, but I will abstain until The Breaking of the Day. Basically, the point I want to make is that Kafka’s stories often take place in the Enlightenment’s “best of all possible worlds.” However, if “anything is possible” as Fondane argues, then we are not doomed to end up in Kafka stories: we can “create a way out.” Where there is “no exit” but creativity, an exit is possible.
Alright, so rationality plus freedom can lead to oppression and us ending up like Josef K — why bother with rationality at all?⁵⁶ Why not just be “autonomously nonrational,” per se? A fair question, one that brings to mind Dostoevsky, whom Berdyaev admired. Even Non-Christians know of the classic solution to the problem of evil: bad things happen because God gave humanity free will. After Ivan Karamazov though, as discussed in “The Grand Inquisitor,” we can wonder if this “gift” was worth the price: perhaps it would be better if we were robots to assure children didn’t suffer. Similarly, considering all the trouble and “suboptimal results” rationality can cause, perhaps we would have been better off if God never gave us rationality? Why didn’t God just make us animals (a thought I also associate with Kafka)?⁵⁷ “Well, because God knew it was best,” the Christian might reply, but this answer relies on omniscience, as does the answer of freedom to address evil.
If God is good, we have to assume that freedom makes possible “a better creation” than one without freedom, even if the risk is perhaps “the worst of all possible creations.” Perhaps the same applies to rationality: a world with it is better than a world without it, but the risk is a world that is worse than a world without it at all. If we can learn to exercise “a dialectic of (non)rationality,” we will enjoy “the best of all possible worlds,” but if we cannot, as with freedom, we would have been better off if God never gave us rationality in the first place and just made us “like dogs” (Kafka). Did God make a mistake? Well, fortunately, if we follow Fondane, God can always change the past.
‘Creativeness more than anything else is reminiscent of man’s vocation before the Fall,’ Berdyaev says, ‘and is in a sense ‘beyond good and evil.’ But since human nature is sinful, creativeness is distorted and perverted by sin, and may be evil.’⁵⁸ Similar things can be said about rationality: “(non)rationality” or “true rationality” (“the dialectic between rationality and nonrationality”) is heavenly, but “autonomous rationality” or “autonomous nonrationality” is hellish and possible precisely because “(non)rationality” is possible (again, A/A makes A/B possible). Berdyaev tells us that ‘the whole mystery of freedom lies precisely in this, that it may be directed either towards God or against him’; likewise, the mystery of rationality is that it can be directed either towards self-negation (in “autonomous rationality”) or truth (in “(non)rationality”).⁵⁹ Berdyaev says that ‘God the Creator has absolute power over being, but not over freedom […] all tragedy is connected with freedom,’ as is all “autonomous rationality.”⁶⁰ If we were not free, we could not use rationality in ways that gave rise to Nazism, but we also could not rise ourselves above the animals. Would we be better off? Perhaps. Always perhaps.
‘[Rationality] is a growth, an addition, the making of something new that had not existed in the world before,’ which is precisely why it can be used to ignore the world.⁶¹ If we could only use our minds “toward” the world, we could not ignore it, but because we are capable of imagination and abstraction, mental acts which make freedom possible, it is possible for us to reason “as if” rationality is all there is — pure “coherence” without “correspondence” — “autonomous rationality.” ‘The mystery of [rationality] is the mystery of freedom,’ both of which understandably inspire the rage of the Grand Inquisitor.⁶² Freedom can be used for evil, as rationality can be used for “autonomous rationality.” “Why did God give us these tools knowing we would use them so poorly?” the Inquisitor may rage. Hard to say: perhaps it is because God meant it for good?
Anyway, good and “creative freedom” seem to be located in “(non)rationality,” not in “autonomous rationality” or “autonomous nonrationality” (or irrationality); outside of it, there is only Kafka. “Creative freedom” is the product of a dialectic, but strangely since we simply are as beings practically living and acting between “the mental” and “the physical,” we are free all the time, which means we can use our freedom to make ourselves “freely think” freedom isn’t a result of such a dialectic. This is when we end up using freedom poorly, as we use rationality poorly when we treat it independent of (dialectical) “(non)rationality.” There is truth to the idea that rationality is incredibly important, as there is truth to the idea that freedom is invaluable: the problem is that both the Enlightenment and America (in my view) have taken their principles too far and made them “autonomous.” Freedom is only good within the bounds of responsibility, as rationality is only good in and as “(non)rationality” (informed by truth). Basically everything becomes a force of effacement when it becomes “autonomous”: I can think of nothing that doesn’t destroy and die outside “a dance” with other values and variables — but what I fully mean by that is expanded on elsewhere in the work of O.G. Rose.
In this section, we have argued that we need rationality even though “autonomous rationality” is so problematic, suggesting that “freedom with autonomous rationality” is hardly free at all (it is “freely determined,” which I associate with Kafka). The emphasis in Fondane is on the need for “nonrationality” because he feels the world today is so far in the camp of rationality, but that “emphasis” is not meant to suggest “exclusivity.” But it is certainly true that Fondane stresses the dangers of rationality, but it is understandable why: like Kafka, Fondane suggests that if we are stuck in a dichotomy of “rational versus irrational,” we are “practically determined,” for though we won’t be rational every time, the times we aren’t rational will be “when we make a mistake” and feel like we are “on the wrong track,” and so we’ll then do everything in our power to “get back on the rational track,” per se (“epistemic responsibility” becomes a force of our “capture,” as discussed in The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose, meaning creativity becomes “epistemically irresponsible”). All of our lives and thinking will be “toward’ rationality, which is to say we will orbit it like a planet or be attracted to it like a moth to fire. Everything outside “the rational track” will be irrational, an error and a mistake, and so when we aren’t rational we’ll (at least subconsciously) feel like we need to “get back on track.” And thus we will be “practically determined,” a character in a Kafka novel who is “technically free” but not “practically free,” for the ideas of the protagonists lead them deeper down into an abyss that becomes harder to escape the deeper they go (to allude to Made in Abyss).
To escape always being “practically determined” by rationality, we need “nonrationality”; otherwise, we won’t be “technically powerless” before rationality, but we will be “practically powerless.” Why is that a problem? Well, because without “nonrationality,” we are “practically determined” to end up in a world of great boredom and/or a world of great violence. It’s only a matter of time.
Why again is “autonomous rationality” oppressive? Yes, we’ve established how it “emergently organizes us” into effacement, similar to how Josef K is “emergently organized,” but what else? Well, “autonomous rationality” must be anti-difference, whereas Hegel’s “contradiction” orbits and praises difference as necessary for identity (suggesting how silly it was for Deleuze to oppose Hegel, by the way, though that is another topic for another time). “Autonomous rationality” only works if it can maintain the connection to itself that “the true is the rational” (A/B), which is to say that “the rational is the right” (A/A). For this reason, “autonomous rationality” must not take worldviews, differences in thought, Pluralism, and the like very seriously. Yes, “autonomous rationality” may say it cares about such differences (following “the social script,” perhaps), but “practically” it will not. “Autonomous rationality” requires a unity between rationality and truth, and that means there must ultimately be a single rationality/truth (a total unity). This in mind, Fondane’s warning takes on a whole new meaning: ‘for we cannot decide who among millions of people — each of whom provides the one and only solution — is right except by violence and force.’⁶³ What could stop this? “Nonrationality,” for if “truth” requires “nonrationality” to be known, that would mean “an ultimate unity of rationality/truth” is impossible. “Nonrationality” inherently “checks and balances” the ultimate centralization of truth and rationality, which means it similarly stops the granting of people a kind of “moral legitimation” to conform the world to this “ultimately rational/truth unity.” “Nonrationality” assures that no one can have “the truth,” and thus no one can claim they are morally justified to conform the world to “the truth.” Epistemic humility becomes a feature of life, but that means we have to learn to deal with the resulting “existential anxiety” of realizing that rationality is ultimately limited. This will not be easy to accept, but learning such will prove necessary.
Fondane also mentions in “Man Before History” the topic of “irresponsibl[ity],’ which brought to mind how, as there is “nonrationality,” there is also “nonresponsibility” (versus “irresponsibility”).⁶⁴ If the choice is between “being responsible” and “being irresponsible,” then we will naturally gravitate toward “being responsible,” but that means we might try to “intervene” in situations in which we should not be involved. Help isn’t always helpful — my involvement, following “responsibility,” could contribute to a “suboptimal outcome” (“Nash Equilibrium”) — but if the choice is between “responsible or irresponsible,” to live with myself, I will likely always do “the responsible thing” (even if it is not best). This in mind, it should be noted how extreme the problem is if people combine “autonomous rationality” with what we might call “autonomous responsibility” here, for the two come together to suggest that “I am responsible for giving the whole world the unified rationality/truth, or else I will be irresponsible and immoral.” Not only do I make the mistake of ascribing to “autonomous rationality,” but I also make the mistake of making myself “autonomously responsible” for assuring the whole world ascribes to my “autonomous rationality.” Not only do I create the foundation for totalitarianism, but I also create the motivation to spread it and incorporate everyone into it. Doing otherwise would deny people “the unified rationality/truth.” Doing otherwise would be irresponsible.
Despite my criticisms of Derrida, all of this suggests why he was wise to try to deconstruct “dichotomies” (x vs y, x or y, etc.), for dichotomies indeed “capture” (Deleuze) thinking in problematic and even terrifying ways (as shown in Kafka). “Non-options,” per se, like “nonrationality” and “nonresponsibility” are ways to escape these dichotomies (and Nash Equilibria), as thinkers like Fondane realized. Fondane realized just how terrible and invincible the combination of “autonomous rationality” and “autonomous responsibility” was, for allude to Gide’s phrase,” Fondane points out that we can only ‘impose [our] truth by postulating that [we] are the only honest people in a world where everyone cheats,’ per se, which is to say that we alone have the truth and thus we alone are responsible for giving it to the world (hence the multifaceted meaning of “autonomous”).⁶⁵ To be an “honest person,” we must ascribe to “the unified truth/rationality” we ascribe to, and those who do not are those who we are responsible for saving. Following this thought, to the degree the world is not unified by “autonomous rationality” will be too the degree we failed to “do the right thing.” And so we can start to understand what Fondane meant when, before being sent off to Auschwitz, he said, ‘Mr. Hitler is not only reasonable but is Reason itself.’⁶⁶ After all, if we know the rationality of Paradise, we know Paradise, and is it not reasonable to make the world Paradise? What kind of monster would we have to be to not try to unify the world into peace? Funny enough, under these conditions, the act of not becoming a monster might be the act which fills the world with boredom. But there’s peace in boredom, yes? Only on the surface; deeper, the exact opposite could be the case.
Is there any evidence that we are stuck in a Kafka story today? Is there evidence that rationality is leading us to living “like a dog,” per se (to allude to The Trial)? Like Fondane, I think that boredom is evidence that “autonomous rationality” is spreading across the world. Boredom is not a state in which we have nothing to do, but a state in which we do not see significance it what we could do. It is not a lack of options, but a lack of care for options. Nothing seems worth doing. Nothing inspires motivation. And what generally causes boredom? When there is nothing new to do — a lack of “what feels new and different” is a defining feature of boredom (please note what was said earlier about “creativity” and how “creativity” and “newness” or deeply linked). Even if we deal with our boredom by watching a movie we’ve already seen, that act is “different” and “new” relative to what we were doing a few minutes ago, and if we haven’t see the movie in a long time and really like it, this might (temporarily) “cure” our alignment. Thus, where newness and difference are reduced, the likelihood boredom occurs increases, and yet the very goal of “autonomous rationality” is easily to know and unify everything and everyone according to “autonomous rationality,” acts which would reduce newness and difference. When rationality is king, subjects are bored.
It is often said that heaven sounds like hell because it sounds so boring, which though I think fails to appreciate that “heaven is a perpetual state of flow,” it is still funny to me that the same people who claim this will then proceed to try to erect “the most rational of all possible worlds,” which would be a world where everything was unified in the truth and everything (of significance) would be known. Now, the counter to this might be that “we cannot know everything,” so the effort to be “utterly rational” would never exhaust itself, but that is why I included the parenthetical, “(of significance),” for the key is that rationality makes us bored “when we see nothing significant in what we could do” (please note that if we “create,” we inherently see “significance” in creating; otherwise, we wouldn’t do it). Of course, we could always count the grains of sand on a beach, but this effort will likely not matter to us. It is something “we could do,” but not something “we will see significance in doing.” For this reason, it is very easy for an “utterly rational world” (which is “disenchanted” by that very rationality, to allude to Charles Taylor) to end up bored. This suggests truth to Fondane’s statement:
‘It seems that more than once the Logical has been on the verge of reaching its goal. But each time, at the very moment when it seemed to have attained its goal, instead of producing the hoped for serenity, the affective void has resulted in anxiety, worry, and finally boredom, boredom with living.’⁶⁷
Following “the game theory” of what is rational within a “rational/irrational dichotomy,” Fondane believes “victory is boredom,” and boredom generates war, violence, and horror. To avoid this “rational outcome” (and “suboptimal result”), we must “change the game” by incorporating “nonrationality,” for this will change what constitutes “the optimal strategy.” But that requires giving up “the givenness of rationality” and suffering the “existential anxiety” that results from that state, which is no easy task (as explored throughout Belonging Again by O.G. Rose). In some ways, it is arguably rational to avoid this existential tension and live “as if” rationality can be “autonomous” without suboptimal results (after all, perhaps we just need to be “more rational?”) — an act of faith to a (nonrational) truth which organizes rationality accordingly. In this way, rationality can justify itself and “rationally” be “autonomous,” which is much to our despair if Fondane is right. Fondane would have us avoid this temptation and face “existential anxiety,” but isn’t that crazy? Well, it’s “nonrational.”
Exploring the connection between rationality, significance, and boredom further might help unveil an important dynamic.⁶⁸ We are rational relative to what is “presented to us,” in our “immediacy” (which do note is usually just an “impression” — we rarely “actually see” what is in front of us). And it is relative to this “immediacy” that rationality determines “what matters and what doesn’t” (“significance”). Rationality does not readily consider “what is beyond immediacy,” for that requires imagination and memory, both of which are not necessarily trained by rationality to improve and thrive (but rather by the creativity found in A/B which rationality can oppose). The moment we think about a memory or what we’re imagining (beyond our immediacy), it makes it seem like the act of memory and imagination were acts of rationality (similar to how “nonrationality” is so quickly consumed by rationality “as if” always rationality), but they were distinct intellectual acts. Unfortunately, this means we can come to believe that we are training our imaginations and memory in the act of being rational, but this is not the case, and gradually our capacity for imagination and memory could suffer. As this occurs, we easily will not notice, precisely because we will continue to be rational, which will make it seem to us that we are using our imaginations and memories (which we will always have to some degree, but not necessarily “well”). And once our capacity for memory and imagination are weak, this is precisely when we will be “setup” to fall into boredom, for all we will have is what’s in our “immediacy,” and so limited, it’s only a matter of time before we run out of things in which to find “significance.” In this way, rationality gradually trains itself out of the capacity to recognize the “significance’ that it needs to function and care. Worse yet, if Kierkegaard is correct that ‘[b]oredom is the root of all evil,’ then rationality is “toward” the realization of all evils.⁶⁹ Unless that is, sounding like Kierkegaard, Fondane is wrong about boredom:
‘Perhaps a day will come when the historian will agree to take a look at the basest forms of boredom in History. It is boredom that is the source of sudden changes, of wars without reasons, of deadly revolutions; there is no more effective cause than boredom. […] Historians will say afterward that political, economic, and social causes explain this outburst: of course they will, but they will not have grasped the elementary fact that the people were bored.’⁷⁰
Perhaps all this on “significance” and “immediacy” is incorrect, but all the same I think there are reasons to think that rationality leads to boredom for all the “right” and “rational” reasons. If this is the case, then the very rationality that has often been thought to help history escape “repeating itself” (from falling into wars, calamities, etc.) in fact contributes to history “repeating itself.” To escape the mistakes of history, we need the “nonrationality” which we have often avoided precisely to avoid the mistakes of history, an irony “autonomous rationality,” being the cause, cannot help itself escape.
Rationality seeks to understand everything, and if it exceeds, there will be nothing left to understand. Should we then intentionally hinder the development of our rationality? It seems impossible to do that, because if we knowingly hinder our rationality, this will be like knowingly doing what we think we “ought not to do” — psychologically and existentially unbearable. Furthermore, how will we know when we should hinder our rationality and when we shouldn’t (rationality isn’t always bad, after all)? Won’t that require rationality to determine?
Instead, rather than intentionally hindering rationality, we can “naturally balance it” by seeking nonrationality. That way, we will work to exceed “the bounds of rationality” without intentionally trying to be a fool, an act which would have us be “irrational” versus “nonrational.” That’s a critical point: to intentionally be against rationality would almost necessarily make us “irrational,” which means we would still be operating within the problematic dichotomy between “rational versus irrational’ which has gotten us into so much trouble. Deconstructing that dichotomy requires adding something, which in this case is “nonrationality” (a logic which applies just as well to “responsibility”). Similarly, it is not that we need to “remove” rationality from our thinking so that we improve our memory and imagination, but that we maintain distinctions between the three and take the time to do all three well (in the right place and order). Our project is not one of subtraction, but dialectical completion which inspires creation. And on the topic of completion, let us now look to complete this work.
We must not assume that avoiding rationality entirely and being “nonrational” will save us. ‘Freedom is irrational,’ Berdyaev says, ‘and therefore it can create both good and evil.’⁷¹ By “irrational,” I think we can take Berdyaev to be thinking in terms of “nonrational,” and as freedom can be used poorly, “nonrationality” could be used outside a dialectic with rationality in favor of “autonomous nonrationality,” which would prove just as problematic as “autonomous rationality” (and perhaps worse). Nonrationality is free, and therefore can create both “dialectical (non)rationality” and (self-effacing) autonomous rationality.⁷² ‘Freedom is the tragic destiny of mankind and of God, it appertains to the very heart of being as a fundamental mystery.’⁷³ So it goes with “nonrationality”: the fact we need it to avoid effacement hints at “the mystery of humanity,” that we are an A/B versus an A/A, a reality that taking seriously changes everything.
There is a long tradition of thinkers critiquing rationality, from Postmodernism to Romanticism and all the way back to the Presocratic thinkers: the arguments of Fondane, Kierkegaard, Game Theory, and the like are old. Why then have they not stuck? It’s hard to say, but perhaps it is partially because saying “rationality is incomplete” is not nearly enough. Rather, rationality must be forced to accepts its incompleteness on its own rational terms: it must find itself lacking, which requires a line of argumentation that rationality itself will not naturally explore (and so it has been avoided for much of Philosophic History, especially outside Theology). Rationality never has to accept what it deems “irrational,” and certainly claims like “(autonomous) rationality is irrational” fall under that category (it’s a contradiction of “A = B” in a world that fails to understand Hegel).
If rationality is going to be “put in its proper bounds” (to allude to Kant) rationality must contain itself, and that means rationality has to be convinced rationally that it indeed needs nonrationality. This is extreme value of Gödel, Hume, Hegel, and Game Theory, though I fear Game Theory isn’t always used in this way, and instead is seen as a way to optimize rationality versus locate rationality in a dialectic with nonrationality. My hope is that The True Isn’t the Rational contributes to this effort as well, but I think the tools to make this move can all be found in Fondane. He was a great mind, and he was brave. He lived what he thought.
We have argued in this paper that we need rationality and nonrationality to avoid irrationality, which is to say we need “dialectical (non)rationality” to avoid nihilism and autonomous rationality. When Fondane and Kierkegaard declare, ‘I need the possible,’ they mean to say that they need a way to escape the effacement and “autonomous rationality.”⁷⁴ Effacement is causing what Vervaeke calls “The Meaning Crisis,” but escaping that crisis requires facing existential anxiety, which is “crazy” and/or “nonrational.” If we don’t have a category in our thinking of “nonrationality,” that means “The Meaning Crisis” may prove inescapable, I fear, for it will always be “rational” to stay in it. As seen in Kafka, rationality will always lead us back to “the right track” on which we end up like Josef K and “like a dog,” per se. ‘Job and Abraham need the possible, says Shestov, when ‘according to the testimony of reason, all possibilities have been exhausted’ ’ — well so does Josef K, in whom we may all, without “the possible,” find our “image and likeness.”⁷⁵
‘When reason pushes us into the abyss,’ Kierkegaard says, ‘it is the absurd that saves us in every instance,’ which is to say that ‘absurd reality is the only one that has an emergency exit.’⁷⁶ Though it is called “absurd” here, “nonrationality” is only relativity such, from the standpoint of reason and “rationality” (which is “self-centered,” per se); relative to itself, “nonrationality” isn’t absurd at all, but a reflection of truth (“the territory” which cannot be totally “mapped,” per se, if at all). Still, since from within rationality “nonrationality” necessarily seems absurd (unless we “know better”), there will also be “good reason” not to do the nonrational, which suggests that we must operate according to something other than rationality to “do the nonrational.” Is that trust? Is that faith? Courage? Love? The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose will hopefully help us find out, but if we make “the leap,” everything will change: once we accept that “dialectical (non)rationality” is necessary for truth, then funny enough “that becomes rational,” per se, and forever forth “autonomous rationality” becomes irrational. We leap up and land back down on the same earth but in a different world.
‘Spiritual life is not the reflection of any other reality whatsoever,’ Berdyaev writes, ‘it is reality itself.’⁷⁷ This “flip moment” is important to note, for it suggests that belief in God transforms what constitutes reality itself, as opposed to add another reality. The question is always this reality and its meaning, and since “truth organizes values,” how we understand reality changes the “right way” to organize it and ourselves. Likewise, if “autonomous rationality” is “self-effacing rationality,” then “nonrationality” isn’t another rationality, but a necessary conditioning of rationality itself. In other words, if rationality isn’t dialectical with nonrationality, then rationality isn’t even really rationality — it’s effaced (“rationality”). In this way, Fondane, Berdyaev, and Kierkegaard don’t oppose rationality at all; in fact, they might be the only ones actually fighting for it.
We have mentioned “The Meaning Crisis,” and we will end this paper by suggesting “(non)rationality” is how we rise above it. “The best of all possible worlds” is “the most (non)rational of all possible worlds,” but though we might cheer this thought, it requires us to take seriously what Fondane seeks:
‘Fondane insists that we must choose: either rational philosophy, which explains, justifies, and proves that whatever is, is necessary and so counsels obedience and resignation, or existence, which counsels rebellion and insubordination and lays claim to the absurd promise of the impossible.’⁷⁸
Is that a price we are willing to pay? Is this too far? Perhaps, but that means a very long and difficult conversation is needed, one that I think leads to the likes of Hegel and Hume. ‘True philosophy […] is tragic philosophy.’⁷⁹
“The Meaning Crisis as a Sign of Hope” by O.G. Rose argued that we do in fact know how to end “The Meaning Crisis,” which again is term coined by John Vervaeke to refer to the growing mental health crisis spreading across the West. Funny enough, as we can view “autonomous rationality” as leading us into the violence of the 20th century, so we can realize that “autonomous rationality” is a problem has lead us to a place where we struggle to have meaning. However, it is critical to note that we do know how to solve “The Meaning Crisis”: it is not that we are helpless. All we have to do is go back to being bigots, nationalists, fundamentalist, xenophobic — all of these will help us find “belonging” and “meaning.” Critically, this means “The Meaning Crisis” is a result of us holding ourselves up to a higher standard: it is self-imposed. For this reason, we should see something noble in it, something like we see in Thomas Moore.
The choices we have made to end up in “The Meaning Crisis” can actually still be “redeemed,” per se, if we use this space to realize “a new way of being” that follows “(non)rationality.” We have not made an irredeemable mistake yet, as we haven’t made such a mistake in seeking “autonomous rationality” for so long. If we change our ways, the “mistakes of history” can suddenly turn into “tragedies” (“trade-offs of competing goods”) thanks to which we have reached where we have reached today. Hegel’s progress is tragic, and it is still open to us, but it depends on what we do now. Because we can always make choices today which change the meaning of the past (“flip moments”), we can say “the possible” Fondane stressed is indeed worth hoping in.
Fondane died because he refused to leave his sister, and he ‘never abandoned his struggle against the rationally self-evident.’⁸⁰ For all rational purposes, he should have left her: why have them both die? And yet there was something “nonrational” that Fondane ascribed to, something that even if we don’t understand, we cannot help but see honor and beauty in. Likewise, even if we disagree with Moore and think the Bible does allow divorce, we can still see something noble in him. So it goes with Buddha and Jesus: even if we don’t accept their philosophies and theologies, there is still “something more” going on that is hard not to respect, and this “something more” is the revelation of the nonrational.
To stay with his sister, Fondane had to risk doing something that other people would view as silly and meaningless; for Moore to refuse to grant the King a divorce, he had to risk misinterpreting the Bible and ascribing to a theological principle that was not justified; for the Buddha to leave behind riches, he had to risk being viewed as stubborn and foolish by his family. All “great acts” of nonrationality entail risk and may ultimately prove to just be “irrational,” and yet the very fact that even Atheists can see something “noble” in Jesus and Moore suggests that when “the nonrational” is profound enough, it can “break through” the feeling of irrationality and suggest “something more.” What constitutes this “something more” is not easy to explain, precisely because it is “nonrational” and can only be fully grasped in “the doing of it.” Perhaps this phenomenon is simply a mechanism of “ideology preservation,” as suggested in “The True Is Veiled in Blood” by O.G. Rose; then again, maybe there really is “something more” going on. Regardless, the “nonrational” is critical for not only stopping totalitarianism, but also for solving “The Meaning Crisis.” This was the lesson of Fondane, a philosophy he not only crafted but lived. It cost him everything, but where a hand is emptied, it is open for us to grasp.
¹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxvii.
²Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: viii.
³Kierkegaard, Søren The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000: 43–44.
⁴The paper “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose discusses the difference between “low order causality” and “high order causality”: it is possible that “the higher the order the complexity,” the more nonrationality is needed.
⁵I’m not sure, but perhaps we could say that Kant’s noumenon is the body, that it conditions our understandings of things versus hinder our understanding of thing. The noumenon makes understanding possible, not what dooms it. As The Fate of Beauty argues “beauty is conditional,” so we could say that all understanding is conditioned.
⁶Kierkegaard, Søren The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000: 149.
⁷It might be the case that theology uniquely but indirectly teaches people the importance of nonrationality, that “rationality” and “truth” are distinct, for there can be “the logic of man” and “the logic of God,” per se. Perhaps theology is training to be “toward” A/B?
⁸Following Deleuze, a problem with rationality is that the experience of “being rational” is a kind of “being free,” which there is truth to, but if we are rational as if “being rational” is the same as “being true,” we may find ourselves “captured” within a system that lacks “correspondence,” all while we think that we are free. This is precisely that kind of prison we can easily stay stuck in, for it is only when we perceive ourselves as free that we don’t try to break free.
⁹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xii.
¹⁰Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xvii.
¹¹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xvii.
¹²Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxi.
¹³I would like to note that this defense also suggests that we can never escape “interpretation,” for we can never be sure that the universe will “always unfold x way,” and thus we will always have to be “active thinkers” reexamining existence. Though this point needs elaboration, Hayden White and Fondane can be combined: History never “does our thinking for us,” as doesn’t the universe.
¹⁴Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xx.
¹⁵Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 15.
¹⁶Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Translated by Ray Brassier. New York, NY: Continuum, 2009: 53.
¹⁷Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 1.
¹⁸This is a point that brings to mind Ontological Design by Daniel Fraga, but that is another topic for another time.
¹⁹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 2.
²⁰Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 23.
²¹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 23.
²²Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 23.
²³Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 31.
²⁴Allusion to John 3:8.
²⁵Allusion to “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor.
²⁶Couldn’t God have made a world of “pure rationality” where no Nash Equilibria were possible? Where it was never possible for rationality to give rise to “a suboptimal result?” Yes, a world of “autonomous rationality” in which “Nash Equilibria” were integrated into the fabric of reality would end up “suboptimal,” but why couldn’t God just make sure such wasn’t in the fabric of the universe? Anything is possible, following Fondane’s own logic, right? Well, that would be a world without “free will,” and ultimately that seems to be what we are describing (a world of “pure rationality” would be one without freedom). So why didn’t God do what Ivan Karamazov wanted? And why wouldn’t God make a world without freedom but also without “autonomous rationality” — can’t God do anything? Not without consequences: God could commit suicide, yes, but that doesn’t mean he should. To believe all is possible doesn’t mean everything will happen; unlocked doors do not need to be opened. And there is comfort in knowing every door is unlocked, but also terror, for who might enter?
²⁷Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 8.
²⁸Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 9.
²⁹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 9.
³⁰Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 14.
³¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 11.
³²Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 9.
³³Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 131.
³⁴The idea that rationality isn’t even actually rational without nonrationality is a reason people can think of Game Theory ultimately being about making us all “rational actors,” which is true in one sense, but it’s also a dangerous thing to emphasize. Really, we should talk about Game Theory teaching us “the need for a dialectic between rationality and nonrationality” versus “how to overcome tricks of rationality to stay rational.” The later easily hides the revelation of our need for nonrationality, which is what we need to face and grasp directly if we are to have any hope of overcoming our “frenemy” brain.
³⁵Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 133.
³⁶Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 1.
³⁷Please see The Phenomenology of Glimpses for more on the deep connection between metaphysics and phenomenology.
³⁸Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 17.
³⁹Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 13.
⁴⁰Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 43.
⁴¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 12.
⁴²Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 11.
⁴³Though it is another topic (explored in The Breaking of the Day on Kafka), as structured by “visions,” wants, and desires, the fact rationality leads to Kafka’s characters participating and creating their own ends, there thus seems to be vision in Berdyaev’s claim that, as opposed to rationality, ‘[t]he way of creativeness is a way of sacrifice and suffering, but it always means liberation from depression.’¹
¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 13–14.
⁴⁴Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 21.
⁴⁵Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 29.
⁴⁶Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 30.
⁴⁷Science tells us what a thing “is,” while philosophy tells us why what “is isn’t,” but that is only possible because we have a sense of “is-ness.” Without a sense of being, there could be no sense of “becoming,” as without “rationality” there could be no “nonrationality.” This paradox in of itself suggests a “contradiction” like what is described in Hegel, a paradoxical A/B like what we need for creation.
⁴⁸Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 49.
⁴⁹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 55.
⁵⁰Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 61.
⁵¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 76.
⁵²Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 77.
⁵³Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 126.
⁵⁴Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 144.
⁵⁵Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 148.
⁵⁶Please note also that what has been said regarding freedom “captured” by rationality could also apply to meaning, that we need our efforts for meaning to be “(non)rational.”
⁵⁷This question brings to mind the work of Kafka and the distinction between “being an animal” and “being animal-like,” but I will abstain from elaborating on this until The Breaking of the Day.
⁵⁸Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 131.
⁵⁹Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 314.
⁶⁰Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 29–30.
⁶¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 126.
⁶²Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. Translated by Natalie Duddington. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 127.
⁶³Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 50.
⁶⁴Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 50.
⁶⁵Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 50.
⁶⁶Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 59.
⁶⁷Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 70.
⁶⁸Please also see my talk with the wonderful Johannes on “Economies of Boredom,” where it is suggested Capitalism likes boredom, because boredom motivates people to keep working a job so that “they have something to do.”
⁶⁹Kierkegaard, Søren The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000: 51.
⁷⁰Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 71.
⁷¹Berdyaev, Nicolas. Dostoievsky. Translated by Donald Attwater. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 89.
⁷²I have used a slash here and there in this paper to make a point, but not consistently, so forgive me if that causes confusion.
⁷³Berdyaev, Nicolas. Dostoievsky. Translated by Donald Attwater. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 88.
⁷⁴Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxii.
⁷⁵Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxii.
⁷⁶Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxii.
⁷⁷Berdyaev, Nicolas. Freedom and the Spirit. Translated by Oliver Fielding Clarke. San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009: 11.
⁷⁸Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxi.
⁷⁹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxvii.
⁸⁰Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: xxiv.
1. To take Maurice Merleau-Ponty seriously again: If I want to know what the back of my laptop looks like, I have to pick it up and turn it around: I can never think it “around.” And if it’s not turned, I can never be rational about the back. Thus, action and thought are forever linked.
2. It was said that “something must be created for us to be meaningfully free, which means creation makes freedom possible,” but doesn’t that mean there is “a first mover problem?” If we have to be free to create, but creation makes freedom possible, how could that creation ever happen? Someone might posit a God to solve this problem, or claim “randomness” could start the process, only for creation to then take the process over, but in this paper we don’t actually encounter “a blank slate situation,” so we only have to concern ourselves with the existential situations “like the blank slate,” situations which avoid “a first mover” problem.
3. “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.
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’s 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 that 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 theft,” 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 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 and indebted to “nonrationality?” Do we use the self-granted exception 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 should 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.
4. As long as there is always “possibility,” we are not fated or determined, and we are certainly not doomed for “the suboptimal result” of Nash Equilibria, “conflicts of mind,” or inescapable “internally consistent systems” (such as conspiracies). Unfortunately, where there is “always possibility,” there is likewise always existential anxiety.
5. A world absent of “nonrationality” is perhaps a world that we can believe is computable and technologically manageable. If “nonrationality” not only exists but is necessary though, then there are limits to what technology can accomplish. Perhaps this suggests why we might subconsciously “want” rationality to be all we need, suggesting wisdom to Deleuze’s admonishment that we need our “own line of flight” so we can avoid “capture” and being “computable.” The importance of neurodiversity is also suggested here, as discussed by Lorenzo Barberis Canonico, as it’s also suggested that there is mercy and grace (such as found in Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”) in this point by Fondane: ‘But the experience that will make an ‘exception’ of us and give us over to existential problems does not depend on us.’¹
¹Fondane, Benjamin. Existential Monday. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2016: 31.
6. If rationality causes boredom, is “the most rational of all possible worlds” expressed in Squid Game?
7. If God Exists, “the possible” is always possible. In this way, the efforts of Quinton Meillassoux can be seen as making us all “like God.”
8. As noted in “Japan and Metamodernity” by O.G. Rose, anime is more “unbound” than live-action, which suggests anime may help us “live according to the possible” better than other mediums. Is anime unique in its capacity to make us “nonrational?”
9. Shestov tells us that a truth is what we live even if no one else lives like us.
10. If the unintelligible isn’t real, perhaps the minds of babies don’t exist.
11. If paradise must be explained to be entered, then if the sight of it makes us speechless, paradise is empty. Perhaps the vacancy causes the silence?
12. If anything is possible, everything might cease being possible, so everything is a gift.
13. Where there is character, the is meaning and direction, but character is “nonrational” and must risk foolishness. Is not the Socratic phrase “good death” foolish?
For more by Davood Gozli, please visit here. For the work of John David, visit here.