Positing the Presuppositions, and the Presuppositions of Cartesian Science


We should introduce here a precise distinction between the presupposed or shadowy part of what appear as ontic objects and the ontological horizon of their appearing. On the one hand, as was brilliantly developed by Husserl in his phenomenological analysis of perception, every perception of even an ordinary object involves a series of assumptions about its unseen back-side, as well as about its background; on the other hand, an object always appears within a certain horizon of hermeneutic “prejudices” which provide an a priori frame within which we locate the object and which thus make it intelligible— to observe reality “without prejudices” means to understand nothing.

This same dialectic of “positing the presuppositions ”plays a crucial role in our understanding of history: “just as we always posit the anteriority of a nameless object along with the name or idea we have just articulated, so also in the matter of historical temporality we always posit the pre-existence of a formless object which is the raw material of our emergent social or historical articulation.”

This “formlessness” should also be understood as a violent erasure of (previous) forms : whenever a certain act is “posited” as a founding one, as a historical cut or the beginning of a new era, the previous social reality is as a rule reduced to a chaotic “ahistorical” conundrum— say, when the Western colonialists “discovered” black Africa, this discovery was read as the first contact of “pre-historical” primitives with civilized history proper, and their previous history basically blurred into a “formless matter.” It is in this sense that the notion of “positing the presuppositions” is “not only a solution to the problems posed by critical resistance to mythic narratives of origin … it is also one in which the emergence of a specific historical form retroactively calls into existence the existence of the hitherto formless matter from which it has been fashioned.”

This last claim should be qualified, or, rather, corrected: what is retroactively called into existence is not the “hitherto formless matter” but, precisely, matter which was well articulated before the rise of the new, and whose contours were only blurred, or became invisible, from the horizon of the new historical form— with the rise of the new form, the previous form is (mis) perceived as “hitherto formless matter,” that is, the “formlessness” itself is a retroactive effect, a violent erasure of the previous form.

If one misses the retroactivity of such positing of presuppositions, one finds oneself in the ideological universe of evolutionary teleology: an ideological narrative thus emerges in which previous epochs are conceived as progressive stages or steps towards the present “civilized” epoch. This is why the retroactive positing of presuppositions is the materialist “substitute for that ‘teleology’ for which [Hegel] is ordinarily indicted.” What this means is that, although presuppositions are (retroactively) posited, the conclusion to be drawn is not that we are forever caught in this circle of retroactivity, so that every attempt to reconstruct the rise of the New out of the Old is nothing but an ideological narrative. Hegel’s dialectic itself is not yet another grand teleological narrative, but precisely an effort to avoid the narrative illusion of a continuous process of organic growth of the New out of the Old; the historical forms which follow one another are not successive figures within the same teleological frame, but successive re-totalizations, each of them creating (“positing”) its own past (as well as projecting its own future).

In other words, Hegel’s dialectic is the science of the gap between the Old and the New, of accounting for this gap; more precisely, its true topic is not directly the gap between the Old and the New, but its self-reflective redoubling— when it describes the cut between the Old and the New, it simultaneously describes the gap, within the Old itself, between the Old “in-itself” (as it was before the New) and the Old retroactively posited by the New. It is because of this redoubled gap that every new form arises as a creation ex nihilo: the Nothingness out of which the New arises is the very gap between the Old-in-itself and the Old-for-the-New, the gap which makes impossible any account of the rise of the New in terms of a continuous narrative.

We should add a further qualification here: what escapes our grasp is not the way things were before the arrival of the New, but the very birth of the New, the New as it was “in itself,” from the perspective of the Old, before it managed to “posit its presuppositions.” This is why fantasy, the fantasmatic narrative, always involves an impossible gaze, the gaze by means of which the subject is already present at the scene of its own absence —the illusion is here the same as that of “alternate reality” whose otherness is also “posited” by the actual totality, which is why it remains within the coordinates of the actual totality.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 271-273). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The problem, then, isn’t in the necessity with which we posit the presuppositions, but that as re-totalizations we posit them as universally necessary in-themselves, not simply necessary for-us. The radical contingency of the new in the ‘birth of the new’ cannot be part of the causal narrative, nor can the old as it was in-itself be part of that narrative, nor can the new ‘as it was for the old’ be part of that narrative. All of these can only continue in so far as they are for-us, i.e. Eliot’s ‘ideal order’ of the historical as it still is has to be modified by the new’s positing of its presuppositions so as to remain an ideal order despite the newness of the new. The perfection of the ‘past perfect’ consists precisely in this retroactive arranging of what, as past, remains in the present.

What Zizek implies but fails to make particularly clear is that the ‘redoubling’ of the gap is possible precisely because the gap exists in the old in-itself, and only insofar that it did exist could the new ‘exploit’ that gap as part of its birth.

This same positing of the presuppositions, of course, occurs in the birth of ‘modern’ science. Modern science had to posit its precursors as simultaneously its presuppositions, and ridiculous or absurd. Thus the redoubling of the gap inherent in the old is thus also redoubled in the new, where there is not simply a contradiction in the new itself, but the new is necessarily founded on a contradiction.

The contradictions in the founding of modern Cartesian science are much easier to reconstruct than the contradictions in an event such as African colonization, because the topics are much simpler, and the historiology much more accurate and complete, i.e. we know much more of the actual past and therefore the contradictions inherent in the posited presuppositions are much easier to uncover.

That Descartes’ own primary works are full of contradictions, not the least of which is that the final proof contradicts the terms of the initial doubt, is a primary indicator of the fundamental contradictions of the new position. However there are other telling signs of the intentional blurring of the old in the birth of the new.

The mythical figures of Aristotle and the thinkers of the middle ages (usually conveniently left unnamed in the mythos of modern science) did arise from an accurate description of a real person. The irony of the way contradictions inspire mythos is that the person in question is precisely the person credited with banishing “theories not tested by experiment”, Galileo. The surprising thing about the real, as opposed to the mythical, Galileo, is not that he would insist on experiment to demonstrate his theories, in opposition to his times, but that his lack of doing so was origin of most of his arguments with those of his time, as well as the origin of most of his arguments with the work of the real Aristotle. Aristotle’s thinking, as is obvious to anyone actually familiar with his work, is based on keen observation and strict attention to observational detail, something that Galileo, brilliant as his ideas were at times, couldn’t be bothered with actually doing.

This is not to say there was no innovation in Galileo, or that his innovation wasn’t codified substantially first by Descartes. The myth of modern science is that Galileo’s innovation was the experiment in the modern sense, the reality is that Galileo’s innovation was the validity of abstracting to a degree unthinkable to someone like Aristotle. The validity of the experiment itself is based on this validity of extreme abstraction, which is then generally expressed in the most abstract language, that of mathematics. Descartes’ determination to base certainty on mathematics was due to its level of abstraction, not a supposed clarity or lack of ambiguity.

When looked at, the jump from Aristotelian experiential science to modern experimental science is a difficult jump to accept. Aristotle made concrete observations of things in their concrete circumstances; modern science abstracts all possible contingency away, and therefore all possible circumstances, by isolating the object in the research lab. It’s consequent generalization of the result to all things under any circumstances appears, when put in that context, ‘imaginative’ at the very least, if not completely far-fetched. However the Galilean / Cartesian revolution was relatively easily accepted. This ease of acceptance indicates that it corresponded to assumptions common in society in general, which of course it did. The simple assumption of the almost infinite efficacy of abstraction originated precisely with the scholastics. It was during the middle ages that Aristotle’s concrete experiential science, insofar as it had to at least appear to correspond with Church dogma, was abstracted further than would have been plausible to men of earlier ages, and this plausibility of extreme abstraction (and extreme reduction) became an acceptable process of reason through the work of the very scholastics the mythos of modern science uses as its foil, depicted as ‘fools’ only possible under the ‘bad old’ way of interpreting reality.

Metaphysical realism is almost a ‘spontaneous’ ideology to a creature that has reflexively generated a measuring facility (in the widest sense of ‘measure’, such as the way we use the term in the phrase ‘measured response’). That it is compatible with our biological understanding of ‘real’ makes it immediately more persuasive than it would be otherwise. The original variants of metaphysical realism, those of Plato and Aristotle, were subverted by the interpolation (by the Stoics and Neo-Platonists) of a creator-being, specifically a creator-being with self-aware intentionality. For Plato the ideas simply were. For Aristotle whatever substance might be it could not be defined any further than it was, as what remains the same through changes that denotes something as the same thing. Nor could form be thought any further than the origin of appearing itself as any specific appearance. The ‘conceptualist’ move of placing form and later substance into the mind, originating with Augustine and surviving until Hegel, reaching its apogee in Kant, could only have occurred within the context of reality viewed as creation, which context began with the Stoics and was fully defined by the thinkers Augustine generically refers to as ‘platonists’, and of course by Augustine himself. The difficulty, after Augustine, is that the Platonic Ideas and Aristotelian forms are no longer persuasive, they are no longer easily believable in our context.

Even with the nominalism of Ockham and the subjective turn of Descartes, whose implications were taken to their extreme by Hume and Kant, there is a basic coherence between the biological mode of experience we all share and the conceptual apparatus that configures ‘reality’ in a scientific mode of experience. The assumptions that underlie the latter lead to the Kantian impasse, which is itself repeated in multiple ways in modern particle physics, cosmology, psychology and cognitive science. Hegel’s solution of the impasse, along with later refinements, do not share this coherence with the biological mode of experience, and simultaneously do not share the assumptions on which all previous and most subsequent science is based. For Hegel, that implied that speculative philosophy insofar as it overcame the Kantian dilemma was ‘The Science’, since the others had determined themselves as invalid.

Most researchers today remain predominantly Kantian in their assumptions and defense of their sciences. Unsurprisingly they continue to arrive at the same impasse, the only oddity being the amount of time and research it takes them to do so. While quantum mechanics as understood by Bohr, for instance, has dropped many invalid assumptions, the attempt to re-normalize his interpretation within the metaphysical context of other science is nothing more than an apologetic.

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