Philosophy is not a dialogue: Incommensurability, mutual exclusivity, and paradoxical relations

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed. I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

The notion that philosophy is not a dialogue appeared early on in sub-section 2.1.1. For a dialogue to occur, there needs to be something commensurable between interlocutors. However, Žižek and Badiou point to incommensurability as the realm of philosophy (a concept developed in relation to various other concepts explored throughout sub-sections 2.1.1 to 2.1.4). Between Socrates and Callicles, between Archimedes and the soldier of General Marcellus, between the crucified lovers and the state, dialogue is not possible, which is to say that their positions are incommensurable, and which is also to say that there is no common measure between the interlocutors. Consider now the incommensurability of the dominant Promethean and extensively Orphic paradigms. This incommensurability is suggested by Hadot (2006:98) in The Veil of Isis, which I referred to earlier in this study:

The Orphic attitude and the Promethean attitude may very well succeed each other or coexist or even combine. They nevertheless remain radically and fundamentally opposed.

Hadot’s use of the word ‘coexist’ may seem to suggest a potential for dialogue, until one recognises that (to use only one of Badiou’s examples) Socrates and Callicles also coexisted, but their positions remained incommensurable. Hadot’s suggestion, that the Promethean attitude and Orphic attitude could ‘combine’, offers more potential in the realm of commensurability, until one recognises that such a combination would entail something other than the original positions that were incommensurable to begin with: if the dominant Promethean attitude[1] were to adopt Orphic qualities, it would no longer be dominantly Promethean; and if the strictly Orphic were to adopt Promethean qualities, it would no longer be strictly Orphic. I am not suggesting that combinations of the two have not occurred. What I will argue, however, is the following:

Historically, a Promethean attitude has dominated the world (see Chapter 3, and sub-section 2.2.10 of this chapter), and this attitude was inherently hostile towards nature for centuries: first under the captaincy of Christianity, then Science, then Promethean Technology, then Capitalism – all four of these shapers of discourse were shown in Chapter 3 to be aggressively Promethean in character as they have unfolded historically. The Orphic attitude, on the other hand, has never dominated (in the sense of ‘having dominion over’) any aspect of history as far as I have been able to ascertain, which is unsurprising because it seems logically impossible for the Orphic to dominate due to domination of any kind being necessarily un-Orphic; to dominate is a verb associated with The Promethean. So ultimately one is here left with an insurmountable incommensurability of the Orphic and the Promethean: the ‘strictly’ Promethean dominates, conquers, controls, competes, and expands, while the strictly Orphic can do none of these things – these are two strictly incommensurable platforms.

Notice here that the incommensurability between the Promethean and the Orphic arises from qualities of the Promethean – domination, conquering, control, competition, and expansion – that actively negate that which it encounters. Orphic qualities, on the other hand, are characteristics like tolerance, cooperation, interconnectedness, respect for difference, and balance. The incommensurability therefore does not arise because of an impasse inserted into the equation by the Orphic; rather, the Promethean has the impact of marginalising all that is not commensurable within its own framework (see Chapter 4). Certainly, if one lists the qualities of the Orphic against the qualities of the Promethean, one would notice an explicit contrast where incommensurability is unavoidable – neither proponents of Promethean paradigms nor Orphic paradigms would be able to accept basic premises of each other’s’ paradigms. That said, the proponent of the Orphic paradigm is unlikely to engage in activities that negate the ecological platform necessary for life to exist – instead, as said, the proponent of the Orphic interacts in nature and with fellow human beings, working towards a harmonious balance. On the other hand, the proponent of a Promethean attitude does actively negate that which is different to it, that which it delineates to a rung lower down the ladder of life than human beings (because another Promethean characteristic is rigid anthropocentricism). Little wonder that Promethean paradigms did historically rise to power (see Chapter 3), eliminating that which it encountered in the names of Christian dominion, Scientific reductionism and materialism (via the ‘torture’ of nature, to reference Francis Bacon – see Chapter 3), Technological processing of nature for anthropocentric edification, and Capitalist consumer growth.

I have occasionally encountered people who argue that even the most ruthless Capitalist accepts that ‘sustainability’ is necessary for Capitalist ventures to be possible, and that this is the ‘common measure’ that creates dialogue between (for example) ‘environmentalists’ and Capitalists; and further to this, that ‘sustainability’ is incorporated into Capitalist ventures, for example, when business ‘go green’ and add solar panels and power-saving light bulbs (etc.) to their physical premises. However, a little exploration of the use of the word ‘sustainability’ in the different contexts of the Orphic and the Promethean again highlights their incommensurability. In the Orphic context, sustainability denotes something completely different to that which is denoted in the Promethean context. Sustainability in the Orphic context requires a complete (if gradual) alteration of ACID (See Chapter 5), based on the understanding that ACID’s business-as-usual modus operandi is inherently unsustainable and premised on Promethean qualities inherently hostile to the complex inter-relationships that constitute nature (see Chapter 3). Sustainability in the Promethean context denotes a continuation of ACID’s business-as-usual modus operandi, i.e. endless growth in the name of continuing profits and increasing GDP (see Chapter 3). The adoption of a strictly Orphic approach to sustainability therefore excludes the possibility of adopting a strictly Promethean view of sustainability and vice versa.

What then is the role of philosophy considering what I have said about incommensurability, about the impossibility of a proper dialogue between ‘strict’ Orphic attitudes versus ‘strict’ Promethean ones? Clearly, if one considers what has been summarised of Žižek and Badiou’s positions on this matter (they speak about incommensurability often) during sections 2.1.1 to 2.1.4, one aspect of the role of philosophy is, quite simply, to highlight the occurrence of incommensurability, thereby emphasising the existence of a ‘choice’ between two mutually exclusive positions referred to by Badiou. I have performed the task of highlighting the incommensurability of the Promethean and Orphic attitudes in this sub-section, and furthermore, I have provided the backdrop for the incommensurability earlier in this study, specifically by outlining the qualities of the Promethean as it unfolded historically via the dominance of Christianity, Science, Technology, and Capitalism in one chapter, and then outlining the mutually exclusive qualities of ‘alternative’, Orphic ideas in a different chapter. In light of this incommensurability, the choice between the Orphic and the Promethean is implied.

This aspect of the role of philosophy (as described by Badiou and Žižek) can be stated differently: philosophy can occur when mutually exclusive positions are focused upon – see 2.1.1 – and the progression of information, themes, and analyses in this study has certainly revealed the mutual exclusivity of the Promethean and Orphic paradigms. My explicit focus in Chapters 1 to 6 may not have been on the incommensurability and mutual exclusivity of the two paradigms, but certainly incommensurability and mutual exclusivity are brought to light if one compares the content of Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4 to the content of Chapter 5 and 6. Furthermore, the comparison of the aforementioned ‘sets’ of chapters reveals paradoxical relations between the Orphic and the Promethean along the lines discussed in this sub-section, and Badiou (as quoted above) explicitly stated that there “is philosophy, and there can be philosophy, because there are paradoxical relations”. Incommensurability, mutual exclusivity, and paradoxical relations – there three closely related arenas are, according to Badiou and Žižek, philosophical arenas, and it is in light that I can conclude this sub-section by stating that a philosophical process has unfolded in this study. It is partly my hope is that one would be cognitive of the choice to align himself or herself with the Orphic or the Promethean in light of the incommensurability I have explored – and the consequences of doing so for nature.

[1] …the likes of which are epitomised by the historically dominant forms of a) Christianity that insisted that ‘man’ has dominion over nature, b) reductionist Science that insists on ‘torturing’ nature for her secrets, c) applied Technology that serves only to process the ‘standing reserve’ of nature’s resources into consumable goods for the benefit of human beings, and d) Capitalism’s inherent ‘grow-or-die’ drive. See Chapter 3 for detailed explorations of all four historically dominant shapers of discourse.