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Faith And Reality

Chapter I: The Question Of Being

As I stand on the threshold of this second series, I have the same feeling of giddiness as that which comes over a traveller when he reaches the edge of an abyss into which he must take a headlong plunge. Last year we were crossing what was certainly broken country; there were traps of which we had to beware, but we escaped any precipitous fall. What, then, is this abyss into which we shall have to fling ourselves?

It is this: this time we shall have to ask ourselves questions about the nature of being as such. As soon as we do that, it will be as though we had to move in a new dimension. But I must add a warning. It is only too clear that this new dimension will have to conform with those in which our earlier enquiries were contained. I shall make use of the method which I often found useful last year of continually reviving the metaphors with which I reinforce my arguments. I shall say that everything happens now, rather as in a fugue when a new voice intervenes. It would not be enough to say that the new voice is added to the earlier ones: in some way it changes the whole colour of the complete work. Later, it should be necessary for us—and this, I grant, is rather an awkward task—to keep the spatial metaphor present in our minds simultaneously with the musical metaphor. Thus we shall gain a more distinct idea of the sort of transformation, of the sort of revival, which this second series of lectures must attempt to introduce.

Now, even more than before, we shall have to be continually on our guard against the traps that are hidden in language; and since it is without doubt much more difficult in the domain of strict metaphysics to advance by means of examples and concrete illustrations, I promise you, and I promise myself, that in making so far as possible concrete and even in a way dramatic transpositions, I shall push to the extreme limit the caution that I exercised in the first series. In this matter I find my position a little puzzling, and I do not think it would be a waste of time to try to make it more precise.

After more than thirty years, I have been going through the unpublished notes of my first metaphysical enquiries, and I am rather astonished to find that the problems which engaged me then are precisely those which seem to me today to be the most important; I should even say that they are the only ones, when you come to analyse them finally, which are worthy of holding the attention of a philosopher. All the rest can ultimately be dismissed as chatter. I should go even further—the solutions (presuming that ‘solution’ is the right word to use) which I was then—i.e. before the first world war—outlining, do not differ fundamentally from those I shall put forward today. Nevertheless, life has intervened since that distant time, with all the joys and sorrows, all the discoveries and frustrations that it can bring to any being. I find since that time that the formulae which used to give me a certain amount of satisfaction, are no longer apposite; they were much too abstract. I purposely say a ‘certain amount of satisfaction’ because even in those days I felt in my heart an invincible distrust of pure abstraction; and, as I have often said since, I made use, in a way, of dialectic in order to get rid of dialectic.

Remembering this, and to continue with a musical comparison —I shall more than once make use of such—I should be tempted to say that my thought has not undergone evolution in the sense which is generally given to that word, but rather that it has moved by working gradually and progressively at the orchestration of a number of themes which were the initial data. This word data itself raises some obscure and perhaps insoluble problems. We should be certainly under a delusion if we imagined that on the one hand we have a thought whose make-up is fixed once and for all, and on the other hand themes and motifs supplied to it from outside. We cannot make such a picture for ourselves without forgetting precisely the thing we are discussing. The true picture is rather that thought—and I understand by that not thought in general, but a concrete, personalized, thought—takes shape only in so far as it discovers the exigencies by which it will be qualified. You will remember last year I made frequent, perhaps almost too frequent, use of this word exigence. Neither the word ‘need’ nor the word ‘requirement’ conveys the meaning of this word, which corresponds to the German Forderung. We shall meet it again now; and while we had then to be satisfied with speaking of the exigence of transcendence, we shall now be led to examine the exigence of God. We could say, I believe, in future that the exigence of God is simply the exigence of transcendence disclosing its true face, a face that was shown to us before shrouded in veils. I said at the beginning of this lecture that we should have to move in the dimension of being. Now I must add that we shall deal with the exigence of God, and, a still deeper matter, with faith in God. We shall have to ask ourselves under what conditions, short of a revelation properly so called, it is possible for us to make any affirmations about what God is, or at least about what He is not or cannot be. But we shall have to make a very close examination—and this I consider will be one of the essential objects of our enquiry—of the way in which strictly metaphysical enquiry, which concerns what I have called being as such, is related to religious philosophy: or rather we must find out how the two are interlocked. Although many of the most famous metaphysicians of the past seem to give us direct encouragement, we cannot lay it down as a principle and a starting point that being as such (if it can be thought of, which is not a priori certain) is necessarily to be identified with that to which a believing consciousness gives the name of God. Let us accordingly lay it down once for all, as emphatically as we can, that it is only the living witness, that is to say the believing consciousness, which can decide what can or cannot be regarded as God. I shall lay it down as a principle—and this postulate will doubtless become clarified later—that it is beyond the power of any philosophy (we can leave theology out of it for the moment) to force a coup d'etat which instals as God something which the believing consciousness refuses to recognize as such. It will be necessary, no doubt, to go more fully into what we mean by the believing consciousness, and in order to do this we shall have to make use of some of the conclusions to which our last year's enquiries led us.

Nevertheless, the approach to this sanctuary of traditional ontology is bound to overpower us with a feeling of fatigue and oppression, I should even say, unhappily, of boredom. Is it to be part of our duty to dig into the depths of Aristotelian metaphysics; worse still, into the teaching of the schoolmen who continued Aristotle's work? I shall make no bones about it—I have no such intention. If I had, there would be a danger that this second series of lectures would come down to being nothing but a misleading resume of the history of philosophy: and, whether it be misleading or not, there is no University Professor in this country or any other who would not, after all, be better qualified than I am to give such a resume. At the risk of appearing rather rash or cavalier in my treatment, I propose to assume that all the essential historical background is familiar, and to come straight to the question, What is Being? I shall ask myself how we can give to Being a meaning that is intelligible for us.

I say ‘for us’ with purpose. I shall not give a detailed repetition of what I have already said about the necessity of transcending the plane of thought in general, or better, as Heidegger would express it, of the Man; remembering that this is of course the German word Man, not Mann, or the French pronoun on. To put it in a more positive way, let us say that I have to think not only for myself, but for us; in other words for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine. There is a sense in which we are all historical beings; that is to say, that we come after other beings from whom we have received a great deal, and this precisely in a way which gives us something by which we are differentiated from them: but at the same time we come before other beings, and these will find that they have the same relation to us as we have to those who came before us. In every instance these relations are more complex than at first appears, and we should do violence to their nature if we tried to fit them into a serialized pattern. Thus it is that the thought of a philosopher who lived many years ago, Plato for example, can be revitalized as our road winds round, can be recharged with an efficacy which it did not seem to possess at certain earlier stages. In this sense, though it might seem paradoxical, it would not be too much to say that something like an exchange takes place between the present and the distant past. Moreover, this is only an illustration of the important idea, to which we shall often have occasion to return, that in the order of the spiritual the distinction between the close and the distant changes its nature and tends to transcend itself.

The question arises, however, whether, when we insist on the fact that each one of us must be a philosopher both hic et nunc and for those who may later have to cross his path, we do not run the risk of overlooking the essential fact that to be a philosopher is after all to think sub specie aeterni. But we must here point out a possible source of grave misunderstanding. That phrase is, in truth, ambiguous: it may mean that we intend to abstract from the experience which is necessarily peculiar to ourselves, to transport ourselves into a sort of mental stratosphere; or it can have an entirely different meaning. We shall have good reason to ask whether the notion that we can find an escape by climbing into such a region immune from change, is not after all an illusion. In the final balance it is neither proved nor even demonstrable that J can abstract from my own experience, except of course in so far as I propose to confine myself to the study of certain abstract elements of reality—or rather, let us say, of certain structural conditions of the type of knowledge which is ours. But to philosophize sub specie aeterni may mean something very different from just wiping the slate clean. It may mean devoting myself to understanding my own life as fully as possible; and where I use the word ‘life’ in that connection, I could equally well use the word ‘experience’. If I try to do so, I shall most likely be led to a strange and wonderful discovery—that the more I raise myself to a really concrete perception of my own experience, the more, by that very act, shall I be attuned to an effective understanding of others, of the experience of others. Nothing indeed can be more important and helpful than to realize this fully.

But here, as before, I shall need to refer to the experience of the specific type of creation, which is that of the dramatist. The virtue proper to dramatic creation, where the creation is authentic, consists in the exorcizing of the ego-centric spirit. But one may perhaps ask whether ego-centric is not precisely what concrete understanding of self always is? I shall categorically deny that. Ego-centrism, on the contrary, is possible only in a being which has not properly mastered its own experience, which has not really assimilated it. It is worth devoting our attention to this for a few moments, for it has an important bearing on the rest of our enquiry.

In so far as I am obsessed by an ego-centric preoccupation, that preoccupation acts as a barrier between me and others; and by others must be understood in this connection the life and the experience of others. But let us suppose this barrier has been overthrown. The paradox is that at the same time it is also my own personal experience that I rediscover in some way, for in reality my experience is in a real communciation with other experiences. I cannot be cut off from the one without being cut off from the other. In other words, ego-centrism is always a cause of blindness: but there is no blindness that can be localized. I mean that you cannot be utterly blind to one thing without being blind to other things as well. All this may seem odd at first glance, but it is nevertheless evident to me that while this seems at first an a priori view, yet experience adds confirmation to it. It is because the egoist confines his thought to himself that he is fundamentally in the dark about himself. He does not know his real needs, he does not realize that he betrays himself just to the extent to which he concentrates all his attention upon himself.

But the corollary is equally true, and it is precisely this corollary which is of importance to us for the next steps in our enquiry. A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself cannot be heauto-centric; however paradoxical it may seem, I should prefer to say that it must be hetero-centric. The fact is that we can understand ourselves by starting from the other, or from others, and only by starting from them; and one could even anticipate what we shall have to recognize much later, and add that it is only in this perspective that a legitimate love of self can be conceived. Fundamentally, I have no reason to set any particular store by myself, except in so far as I know that I am loved by other beings who are loved by me. Love of self can have a true foundation only by using others as a medium, and that medium is our only safeguard against ego-centrism and our only assurance that it will have the character of lucidity which otherwise it inevitably loses.

It may appear at first that these remarks have no bearing upon our original enquiry. How can they nevertheless serve to advance it?

Two things seem to me to be of importance. First, we must understand that this enquiry can be developed only if we take a certain fullness of life as our starting point; secondly, we must at the same time note well that this fullness of life can in no circumstances be that of my own personal experience considered in an exclusively private aspect, considered in as much as it is just mine; rather must it be that of a whole which is implied by the relation to the with, by the togetherness, on which last year I laid such emphasis. The intersubjectivity at which we so painfully arrived must be, in fact, the ground upon which we must base ourselves for our further enquiries this year.

But to take up such a position immediately throws into relief the essentially anti-cartesian character of the metaphysic to which we shall have to direct ourselves. It is not enough to say that it is a metaphysic of being; it is a metaphysic of we are as opposed to a metaphysic of I think. It is most instructive to note in our own days that Sartre, who makes use of a cartesianism which in other ways he has mutilated (since he has deprived it of the theology which crowns it) is himself obliged to take the other only as a threat to my liberty; or, strictly speaking, as a possible source of seduction which it is very difficult not to interpret in a sadistic or masochistic sense. When the author of Huis-Clos writes ‘Hell—that's other people’, he supplies his own evidence of his impossible position; whether it is for reasons which belong to existential psychoanalysis or whether it is simply because of his metaphysical postulates, he can have no understanding of philia or agape. In the end it is only on the one hand the domain of eros, with its formidable ambiguity, so far as it coincides with want or desire, which is accessible to him, or, on the other hand, that of a community of work which creates teams united by the knowledge of a task which has to be done; and it is only if you look at it from outside that you can see in this a genuine sort of solidarity. It must necessarily be so. It could be otherwise only if he repudiated, explicitly or implicitly, the principles of his ontology: the fundamental opposition between being-in-itself and being-for-itself which by definition makes impossible intersubjectivity in the precise sense I have given to the word, or, if you wish, makes it impossible to be open to the other, to welcome him in the deepest sense of the word, and to become at the same time more accessible to oneself.

But it may be asked whether the inter-subjectivity upon which I seek to ground my ontology can lead to some simple proposition that can be clearly expressed. Is there anything in it which could be put into the form of a logical principle? Or is it not rather a simple inexpressible intuition which runs, after all, the risk of being reduced to just a sentimental disposition? If it is not an affirmation which can be expressed in words, is it not simply a wish which mistakes itself for an assertion?

But this word assertion should hold our attention for a few moments. What can I assert? A fact, and nothing but a fact, since the fact is the only thing which is presented to me. But it is apparent by definition that what I may call the intersubjective nexus cannot be given to me, since I am myself in some way involved in it. It may not perhaps be inaccurate to say that this nexus is in fact the necessary condition for anything being given to me—at least if ‘given’ is taken in its narrowest meaning: and if this might seem arguable, one should at least recognize that it is only this nexus which can allow the thing which is given to ‘speak to me’.

Now, if I am to answer it, it must in some sort of way speak to me. Thus we can see the position we must necessarily take up towards the embarrassing questions which presented themselves to us just now. Without doubt the intersubjective nexus cannot be in any way asserted: it can only be acknowledged. Here again we meet an idea which has already taken up much of our attention. This recognition must assuredly be patient of translation into an expressible affirmation. At the same time we should be careful to remember that the affirmation should possess a special character, that of being the root of every expressible affirmation. I should readily agree that it is the mysterious root of language. These words should be taken literally; and you will understand that I am here referring to the definition of mystery which I put forward in my first volume. But this point is so important and at the same time, I must admit, presents such difficulties, that it is well to labour it as we continue to circle round the elusive centre of the problem.

At first it certainly seems that there is a difference only of perspective between what I now call the intersubjective nexus and that to which last year I gave, when speaking of truth, the name of intelligible milieu; one might say that the intelligible milieu or medium is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus. This elucidation is, however, quite insufficient. I have had the misfortune to note by my own experience that when we adhere to this expression of intersubjective nexus, what I am tempted to call a mental clot is formed, which interrupts the circulation of thought; and it is precisely this circulation of thought which we have to re-establish. I mean that the words, so to say, interpose themselves between me and the thought I am driving at; they get a bogey-like and unwelcome reality of their own; they become an obstacle instead of remaining an instrument. What exactly are we looking for? We have agreed that it is not a fact, but no more is it a form in the traditional meaning of the word. It would be better to speak of a structure, so long as we remember that when we speak of a structure, we commonly call up the idea of an object which is patient of being observed from the outside. But here the point with which we are concerned is what I should make bold to call the inside of a structure, of an inside, moreover, to which we must realize we are entirely unable, in our condition of finite beings and in as much as we are tied to an earthly dwelling, to imagine, to set virtually before ourselves, a corresponding outside. This should help to throw some light on the strange and highly disconcerting character of the foundations on which we have to build as best we can the rudiments of a metaphysic; and we should doubtless emphasize this even more, so that we may throw as much light as possible on those foundations. The great difficulty with which we are now faced comes from the fact that our thinking has had to bear the weight of idealist teachings. It has great trouble in freeing itself from them and can normally address itself to any object only by concentrating upon I think, or upon something which is simply a vaguer modification of I thinkI feel, for example, or I see. But here we are called upon for an entirely different type of effort. We may say that we have to place ourselves on this side of the insularity of the ego; we must get to the centre of the actual element from which the island emerges and presents itself to our view. What, then, is the element of which I was able to say that it was the inside of a structure? In the first place, can we here legitimately ask the question, ‘What is it’? We must first make a preliminary analysis.

If, for example, I am going for a walk and I find a flower which I have never seen before, and if I ask, ‘What is this flower?’, that question has a relatively precise meaning. Perhaps my companion can tell me the name of the flower, and I may then consider the matter settled. But perhaps it will not be enough for me to know the name which is commonly given to it; and if I have some idea of botany, I may ask to what family the flower belongs. If I am told that it is an orchis, I shall conclude that it presents certain characteristics in common with other flowers which I have already seen and which I am able to recognize. There is thus a possibility of progress in the answering of the question, ‘What is this flower?’ Nevertheless we see directly that even the more scientific answer, which enables me to classify the flower, is not an exhaustive answer; in fact in a certain sense it is no answer at all; it is even an evasion. By that I mean that it disregards the singularity of this particular flower. What has actually happened is as though my question had been interpreted as follows—‘to what thing other than itself, can this flower itself be reduced?’ But now we find the real paradox—the first unscientific answer, which consisted in giving the name of the flower, although it had practically no rational basis, yet satisfied the demand in me which the interpretation by reduction tends on the contrary to frustrate. It is true that the satisfaction which is here given by the name seems as though it could be felt only by a consciousness which has been arrested at a pre-scientific stage, practically at an infantile stage where the name is taken as being one body with the thing named and so usurps a magical potency. We shall have to come back later, perhaps, to this important point.

In all these instances it is important to note, though it has often been insufficiently appreciated, that the question ‘What is it?’ always has reference to something that can be given a distinctive designation; to look at it more profoundly, it has reference in every instance to an order that implies threefold inter-relations. To go back to the elementary example I made use of before, I point out the flower—this flower—to my companion; he has more botanical knowledge than I have, and I count on him to explain to me what it is. It is, of course, understood that I could look it up in a book of botany, which would serve the same purpose; or even, supposing that I am alone, that I could consult my own knowledge. In all these instances, there are the three elements, the three terms subsist. Might one not, indeed, ask whether fundamentally the question, if it is taken in its simplest form, will not be found to rest on a plane which is not threefold but twofold, as though I had asked the flower ‘Who are you?’ But to put the question in that form is inevitably to distort it. It is not the flower which tells me its name through the medium of the botanist; I shall be forced to see that the name is a convention, it has been agreed to give that particular name to the flower in which I am interested. By that convention we slip out of the realm of being properly so called, and all that we shall learn will be what one can say about the flower if we leave out the one important thing—the singularity which forced my attention, or which, in other words, spoke to me.

We have now reached some conclusions which may turn out to be important for subsequent enquiries. We must be careful to remember the starting point of the analysis we have just made. We were asking ourselves what was the inter-subjective element from which the ego seems to emerge like an island rising from the waves. There is one point here, however, which deserves our close attention. I have been speaking as though this element could be pointed out or designated, in the sense in which I can point out the sea to someone else when I have seen it for the first time. In such a case I should not be satisfied with the answer, ‘What you are looking at is the sea’; I could be given straightway a number of ideas about the sea, about its relation to the continent, to the whole surface of the earth, and so forth. But the element with which we are here concerned cannot really be designated; I should say, to put it briefly, that it cannot be contained in the designation of the ‘this’ or the ‘that’; it is not, in fact, either this or that. It transcends any disjunction of this kind. It would not be inaccurate to say that it is an implied understanding which remains an implied understanding even when I try to focus my thought upon it. I agree that I shall almost inevitably be led to try to make a picture for myself of this element of inter-subjectivity; for example, I may conceive it as what I might call a fluid medium; but by that very act I shall deprive it of its own peculiar quality, which is a spiritual quality; I shall rob it of the character which enabled me to qualify it as inter-subjective. The best assurance against these misunderstandings is to have recourse to metaphors. These metaphors are more than mere metaphors, they are borrowed from the realm of reality, but of a non-optic, a non-spectacular, reality. I am now thinking primarily of the world in which I move when I am improvising on the piano, a world which is also, I am quite certain, the world in which the creative musician constructs his melodies. It is a world in which everything is in communication, in which everything is bound together. But we must remember that the fruit of our earlier discussion has been to pass beyond the plane of pure relations. What we commonly mean by that word is after all only an abstract reckoning up of what in this context should be recognized as living communication. The content of the words ‘living communication’, is still somewhat indistinct. I hope, though I cannot be sure of it, that in the course of our enquiry we may be able to elucidate it without unduly intellectualizing it.

I am afraid this first lecture has been somewhat disconcerting; but before I finish it I should like to try to answer a question which we cannot help asking ourselves as we reach the end of its tortuous progress. Can we admit that we have reached a point where we may identify being with intersubjectivity? Can we say that being is intersubjectivity?

I must answer immediately that it seems to me impossible to agree to his proposition if it is taken literally. The true answer, it seems to me, is something much more subtle, and needs an expression that is at once stricter and more intricate.

In these matters it is as well not to take too dogmatic a tone, but I think that one thing emerges: a thought which directs itself towards being, by that very act recreates around itself the intersubjective presence which a philosophy of monadist inspiration begins by expelling in the most arbitrary and high-handed manner. Remember, too, that the monadist philosopher's universe is such that it is difficult to imagine how the monadist philosophy itself could have taken root in it. Does it not presuppose a sort of inter-monad background, and does it not—at least when it is presented in its strictest form—at the same time expressly preclude the possibility of such a background? One might, perhaps, go further, and show that a consistent monadist thought is obliged to put too much emphasis on the domain of the possible at the expense of being taken in its mysterious positivity. These, however, are only preliminary considerations; at a later stage we should be able to clarify them. We could perhaps express it in language that can be grasped more immediately by saying that the more the ego attempts to assert for itself a central or autocratic position in the economy of consciousness, the more the density of being is attenuated. Conversely, the more the ego realizes that it is but one among others, among an infinity of others with which it maintains relations that are sometimes very difficult to trace, the more it tends to recapture the feeling of this density.

Nevertheless we must be on our guard; for if we were to confine ourselves to saying that the ego is simply one among others, we should reduce it to the status of one element in a numerical total. I have laid such stress upon intersubjectivity precisely because I wish to emphasize the presence of an underlying reality that is felt, of a community which is deeply rooted in ontology; without this human relations, in any real sense, would be unintelligible, or, to put it more accurately, would have to be looked upon as exclusively mythical.

This, then, is the conclusion we can draw at the end of this first lecture: whatever more precise characteristics may subsequently be assigned to an enquiry which bears upon being as such, we must recognize from the outset that the enquiry moves in a dimension which cannot be that of solipsist reflection, even in the most critical sense, that is to say of a reflection which is centred on the transcendental Ego, by whatever name we may call it. In more concrete language: I concern myself with being only in so Jar as I have a more or less distinct consciousness of the underlying unity which ties me to other beings of whose reality I already have a preliminary notion. In the light of the ideas which have not yet penetrated to the obscure regions in which we have tried to hack a path for ourselves, I should say of these beings that they are above all my fellow-travellers—my fellow-creatures—for once the English language can give us an expression for which there is no exact French equivalent; in French one would have had to paraphrase it, to extract the humble and at the same time inexhaustible depth of its meaning.