The Logic of Life and the Life of Logic

I’ve just finished Eugene Thacker‘s After Life, wherein he surveys the positions of key pre-modern thinkers, including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Despite the often illuminating nature of their thoughts, it seems that none of these men were able to articulate a workable account of life-in-itself, at least not one that could be grasped absent some initiatory encounter with the mystical. The first 4 chapters were a difficult but rewarding read, as Thacker leads the reader through the cognitive darkness of paradox and contradiction inherent to any attempt to think the Absolute as Life. In chapter 5 (“The Logic of Life”), things start to get really interesting…

Whether utilizing a theological or philosophical mode of reflection, it seems that all the thinkers Thacker surveys (with the possible exception of Deleuze’s Spinoza) were bound by a correlational logic: they attempted to think an ontology of life relative to the human being. Overcoming this correlation is easier said than done, since “Life,” as such, can only be approached by a living being capable of, or perhaps possessed by, self-conscious thinking. In other words, it would appear that the concept of Life is only meaningful given that there exists a rational creature capable of abstracting it from all the many given instances of individual living creatures, including me myself. Distinguishing the human animal from other forms of life is controversial, both philosophically and politically, but perhaps it is precisely in thinking life-in-itself, or at least in thinking the impossibility of such a thought, that the human distinguishes itself from other beings. It is not that the life of a dog is not, in some sense, meaningful for the dog; but can the dog pre-discursively form anything like the proposition “what is the meaning of life?” Not “what is the meaning of life for me,” mind you, but the meaning of life in general. The contemplation of the aporia of life-in-itself seems to be a specifically human predicament.

“The concept of life,” writes Thacker, “–and whether such a concept is possible–places philosophy in a hovering, wandering space between an ontotheology and an ontobiology” (p. 241).

The challenge, as Thacker lays it out, is to articulate a conception of Life that is neither reductively theological or biological. Philosophy is that restless wanderer charged with the task of navigating between these two extremes.

“The history of Western philosophy,” continues Thacker, “is this ongoing dilemma concerning the very possibility of ‘living thought'” (p. 242).

What is the relationship between life, on the one hand, and thought, on the other? The intentional structure of consciousness is such that thought always has an object; might not life-in-itself be the Object of all objects, that which, being “ambivalently positioned between self and world,” constitutes the very possibility of a “continuum [connecting] the ‘out there’ to the ‘in here'” (p. 247)? Life would then be, paradoxically, both the condition of the possibility of thought and the end toward which thinking strives.

Thacker’s book has reminded me of Evan Thompson‘s thesis, presented in Mind in Life, that the self-organizing dynamics at work in living beings are not just conceptually analogous, but structurally continuous with the self-conscious dynamics of mind. What remains unexplored is what this continuity between life and thought means for the nature of the universe itself. Can the being of the world-in-itself be understood independently of the thought of the world-for-us? Breaking the correlation would entail something like the nihilism of Ray Brassier, where “living thought” is deemed impossible, since truth is discovered only in the thought of thought’s own extinction. Perhaps a depth psychological approach can overcome this dichotomy between vitalism and nihilism, as from the soul’s perspective, life and death exist on a continuum. Of course, this only brings us back to the mysticism of pre-modernity. Not that this is necessarily a problem…

(as always) To be continued…

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