“Logic of Imagination: The Expanse of the Elemental” by John Sallis

I just finished John Sallis‘ latest book:

It was my first experience of his writing, which was lucid and even rose to imaginal and inspired heights in places. I haven’t read continental phenomenology in a while, though thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty definitely shaped my entry into academic philosophy as an undergraduate. What I loved about Sallis’ project was his sense for the elemental. He distinguishes natural and cosmic elementals from finite things, since unlike finite things (the ontic), elementals are not subject to the law of noncontradiction and so can’t be distinctly (i.e., conceptually) determined. They are unruly and obey no logic, unless it be a logic of imagination. To the extent that he succeeded in articulating the look of natural and cosmic elementals as they are projected into the subject by the sublime sights and sounds of earth, sky, sea, and stars, Sallis is able to break free of the anthropocentrism so characteristic of the phenomenological tradition. Sometimes his focus on the earthly and cosmic awakens a sense for the spiraling schema he hopes to trace through imagination. Other times I have no sense of what he is talking about; his logic becomes loopy. Still other times he falls back into his phenomenological training, lifting the human off the earth and making it the transcendental condition of earth and cosmos (what of the fact that geo- and cosmogenesis are the conditions of human consciousness?). Transcendental phenomenology has been critiqued by object-oriented speculative realists for being too subject- and/or human-oriented. I think there are aspects of this object-oriented critique, by Bryant, Brassier, and others, that seem to hit their target with Sallis, but I’ll refrain from saying more until after I’ve also read Chorology and Force of Imagination.

Sallis’ history of formal logic includes the contributions of Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Cantor, Whitehead, Russell, and Gödel, among others. He provides a clear and compelling summary of what is at stake in the development of logic from ancient into modern philosophy. After the “end of philosophy” as prophesied by Nietzsche and hammered home by Heidegger, Sallis tries to root logic, if not in the disincarnate order of the intelligibles, then in the imaginal life of speech itself as it is encompassed by the wondrous universe. Like the presocratic physiologists, Sallis tries to turn to the elemental, a word whose original Greek sense he regrets can but barely be heard by the modern ear. In Sallis’ lingo, there are natural elementals (earth, sky, storms, etc.), proper (i.e., to humans) elementals (birth, death, language, etc.), and cosmic elementals (galaxies, black holes, dark energy, etc.). Each elemental opens into an infinity, bringing forth a abyssal space within and before which finite things come to show themselves and then pass away.

Due to the speech proper to humans (our language), Sallis at times also seems to want to join Socrates on his “second sailing” (Phaedo 99d) by turning primarily to the sound of Logos (λόγος) and away from the sense of Physis (φύσις) in his philosophizing. This tendency is checked by his commitment to a “logic” of imagination that hovers between the false dichotomies of intelligible v. sensible, subjective v. objective, interior v. exterior, etc.

The last chapter of his book, titled “Elemental Cosmology,” attempts to turn back to the physical, but there Sallis discovers only the theoretical objects of natural science: “dark energy,” “dark matter,” “black holes,” etc. He quotes several physicists cautioning the lay reader that these words should not be mistaken for an actual understanding of the phenomena in question. The are just empty designations for what remain fundamental mysteries requiring further observation. It is here that I think the phenomenological effort to bracket the scientific picture of the world falls short of what a full scale speculative reconstruction of the cosmological data would be capable of effecting. Of course, considering that much of physics and cosmology is written in mathematical formula, such a reconstruction would beg the question concerning how one is to transition between mathematical and philosophical discourse. Sallis is aware of this problem. For my part, I still need to study the issue more closely.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. mary says:

    Latour, at@ 1 hr 5min, says science is living a secret life in which it does not comprehend the processes of mediation that constitutes its “object”ive observation such that even the objects that the math is supposed to describe are already interrupted from their actuality by a mythos of res extensa/ res cogitans. Further observation in this same mode won’t be nearly as helpful without questioning the idealism underlying a materiality described mathematically. Language is not the empty designation awaiting a final true claim to what something “is”; the awareness of the opacity of description is part of the process of such a transition. A lay reader can understand the cosmos without the equations of subatomic physics doing the mediation. Do physicists avoid art museums because they don’t know what a filbert brush is? If a claim to final understanding is still the grail of science, then ,as Latour says, science will never comprehend that How it knows shapes what it claims to know. Latour is all for speaking from the “res ratiocinans”.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s