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Chapter IV: The Legitimacy Of Ontology

At the end of the last chapter we reached the point where we had to consider whether the root of the difficulty with which we were faced did not lie in our being inclined to substantify something which is essentially impatient of being so treated. We asked ourselves whether this treatment was legitimate.

In the field in which we are engaged, however, the actual meaning of the word legitimate is by no means clear, and we must first try to define it more precisely.

In a general way we might say that the legitimate is defined by conformity with a standard that has already been laid down. But all that we have said of the peculiar and venturesome nature of metaphysical enquiry should prepare us to doubt the possibility of affirming such standards in this context; the principle of contradiction is operative only in the conduct of a thought in general. I do not mean that we may safely go against it, but that it retains only a formal value. The truth appears rather to be that what we need is something which will provide a starting point from which we may arrive at some standards. But if this is so, there is a danger that we may sink into an absolute indeterminism, in which we shall be at the mercy of all the whims of improvisation.

However, our instinct tells us that it cannot and should not be so. Nothing must allow our enquiry to be without a definite orientation; I might say that just as in any other kind of exploration we must steer a compass course. But what is the point of orientation? By what pole can we check our heading? In other words, what must we have before our eyes to ensure that our course is not haphazard? I believe that our point of reference can be based only upon experience itself, treated as a massive presence which is to be the basis of all our affirmation. At the same time we must add that this massive presence of experience, looked at in the indivisible multiplicity of its different aspects, is not an idea to which we should conform: we should rather look at it as something which should be taken into account by whoever is intent, I shall not say upon grasping being (for by now it must be abundantly clear that being can never be the object of such a grasp), but upon undertaking a concrete approach to being. Most important of all, we must note that if experience is looked at in this light, it is opposed to all specification, of whatever nature, which is isolated from other specifications: the economic aspect, for example, as it appears from a narrowly marxist point of view; examples of similar abstractions could be taken from pure biology, psychology, or sociology.

We have been forced to use the word ‘approach’, which is too spatial in significance; and we must guard against the temptation to take it literally. In the first series of lectures, we were able to see that the opposition between outward and inward, or even between near and far, cannot in the metaphysical domain be retained just as it is; and it will gradually become more apparent that the reality which is our most direct concern can in no way be likened to something which we can touch or reach. It is just as much something infinitely distant, infinitely remote and at the same time quite near, on the verge of immediacy; and it is only by accepting this paradox at the outset that we can hope to reach any understanding of faith. In a general way we might say that in the difficult country in which we have to force our way, it is the disjunctive judgment whose inadequacy becomes increasingly apparent; even though it cannot be replaced by a juxtaposition of terms simply united by the words ‘also’ or ‘as well as’. The idea of tension on which Kierkegaard laid such emphasis is the actual mainspring of the type of thought which we now need to set in motion.

I fear that we may seem to be getting more and more befogged. If we cease to speak of being par excellence, of being in itself, and direct ourselves to the consideration of beings in particular, might we not hope to emerge with some more intelligible propositions? At this point it seems difficult to avoid the substantihcation whose legitimacy, in the case of being par excellence, seemed to be doubtful. Accordingly, we can now, I think, envisage several hypotheses.

1. Must it be admitted that substantifying is legitimate for what we call particular beings, but not for being in itself?

2. Must it, in spite of appearances, be denounced as illegitimate in the one case just as in the other? Or will it, on the contrary, be appropriate, quite paradoxically and in spite of what we have said to the contrary, in spite of everything, to say that it is only as related to being in itself that it is legitimate, and that for beings in particular it is illegitimate?

3. Would it be better simply to sanction in either of the two cases the use of the substantive in current speech?

What is most important of all is to be fully aware of the line we should have to take if we refused to treat any particular being as genuine being. This would no doubt amount to functionalizing it completely, or again to reducing it to a certain type of conduct—we think immediately of prisons or concentration camps in which the individual is known simply by a reference number. A less tragic example is the hotel in which the traveller is hardly distinct from his room number—he is ‘the man in number so and so!’ In such cases emphasis is systematically diverted from the subject as a subject and laid exclusively on a job to be done, a return to be produced, a bill to be paid. In ordinary life there is nothing to prevent me from behaving to other people in a way which corresponds to this quite pragmatic way of looking at them. Servants are an obvious example. But a husband, after all, can treat his wife as a servant; a father his son, and so on. In these instances we cannot help seeing the real suppression of the value of being. But what we realize at the same time is that it cannot be so suppressed without involving a ghastly mutilation of human relations; we may put it more strongly and say that these human relations entirely lose their specific character. So this byroad has brought us back again to intersubjectivity.

It is interesting to notice, incidentally, that the importance of names comes out clearly in this context. It is apparent that the surname is not simply a sign. It is the individual being's inalienable property; from that point of view one cannot but protest against the habit of certain housewives, at least in France, of always giving the same name (usually Marie) to their successive maids, not to be bothered to remember their real names. It seems that the name lies at the intersection, so to speak, of being and having. It signals more than it signifies the unique place which belongs to the individual in the whole in which he has to find his place and discover the type of creative activity, however limited, which is his own.

Starting from these very concrete considerations, we have good grounds to infer that it is not quite possible to de-substantify individual beings. This de-substantification remains possible, it is true, less in words than in acts, but this possibility exists as a temptation, and you can see quite clearly nowadays the consequences which are bound to occur when one yields to it.

But under these conditions it is the first hypothesis which we have to face. The problem might be put in the following terms: is it conceivable that beings exist in a universe of such a nature that it might be possible at the same time to say ‘being is not’? Let us note immediately that we should be careful in using the word ‘universe’ in this context. It might be better put: is it or is it not a contradiction to admit that there are individual beings and at the same time that being as such does not exist?

But first mark well another point: can we say that there are individual beings in the sense in which we say that there is such and such an object, such a piece of furniture, for example, in this room? Such objects can be listed, they can be counted. Human beings, no doubt—and it is with them that we are concerned—can also be calibrated and numbered. Theoretically one could catalogue all the human beings on this planet, in the same way as one could catalogue all the pieces in a collection. But we cannot but realize that if beings are treated in this way, if, that is to say, we force them into an inventory, they are no longer looked at completely as beings, but rather as things. You might urge that this hardly matters: even if I can ascribe being only to those individuals who have not been presented to me in the same way as the tables and chairs in this room, yet as far as I am concerned there are still such privileged beings. The French and German phrases—il y a, es gibt—are particularly useful in helping us to grasp the point.

One might perhaps be justified in saying that things (or beings in so far as they can be assimilated to things, in so far as they are nothing but things) are designed with a view to our attention. We have to take them into account, and to do so moreover in a most material way, taking them as obstacles which we must push aside or circumvent. But we give them being, we acknowledge them as being, only from the moment when they become for us, in no matter what degree, centres or focal points, when they evoke in us a reaction of love and respect, or a contrary reaction of fear or even horror. The latter reactions deserve a special study; from the ontological point of view there is some sort of contradiction in their character.

In any case, as soon as beings are looked at in this perspective, as soon, that is, as they are looked at as centres, they can no longer be introduced as simple unities in totalities; therein lies the difficulty of reconciling the feelings, not patient of a common measure, which are aroused in us by beings which we love simultaneously—our wives, children, mistresses. Even when reconciliation is possible, it invariably presupposes considerable difficulty on both sides, there is always a painful adjustment to be effected; it involves a struggle against the sort of ego-centricism I brought up in the first chapter. I need a word to describe these conglomerations which are not totalities, and I shall henceforward, if such a word is needed, call them ‘constellations’.

However, we are still no nearer to answering the question on the substantification of being, considering the substantification in relation to that of individual beings.

If we are to make any progress, we should, I think, realize distinctly the concrete meaning of refusing to substantify being as such. It is not certain that such a refusal may be interpreted in a strictly univocal sense, but taken sufficiently deeply it assumes the character of a radical metaphysical nihilism.

In this context I have often quoted the words of one of Claudel's characters in La Ville:

‘Nothing is… Listen: I shall repeat the word I have said: Nothing is. I have seen and I have touched The horror of uselessness, I have added the proof of my hands to that which is not. The Nothing does not lack the power to announce itself by a mouth which can say: I am. This is my prey, this I have disclosed.’

What is the meaning in that passage of ‘Nothing is’? It means precisely that nothing resists, or could resist, the proof of critical experience. Besme does not seem to be asking himself whether the mouth by which the Nothing announces itself is or not; or, I should rather say, he is obliged to integrate the mouth itself within the Nothing; and as it is a mouth of flesh and blood, and so perishable, the nothing will engulf it. But it is only too clear that there will always be room to enquire how something, which in itself is only an ephemeral modality not, let us say, of being but rather of non-being, can be capable of proferring a universal affirmation—even if the affirmation is only that of the Nothing.

But what we cannot fail to see is that the nihilist affirmation, ‘Nothing is’, cannot, as we have just seen, be without repercussions on the actual idea of individual beings which we have to form for ourselves. To say, ‘Nothing is’, is actually to say, ‘No being is, there are no individual beings’. Looked at in this way, I shall be forced to recognize that what I took for a being was in reality only the phantom of being, the deceptive imitation of a being; it being necessarily implied that a true being would not be subject to this general law of dissolution.

There is thus a way of affirming the nothing which abolishes individual beings as such. But can we not extricate ourselves from this brutal and implacable logic without, in so doing, falling into a contradiction?

A preliminary note seems necessary: what we see is that individual beings are liable to decay; this is precisely what can induce our thought to push itself, by a sort of rash overreaching, to the fullest limit and to announce that being does not exist, that is to say, that there is nothing of which it can be asserted that it is indestructible or eternal. Looked at in this way, there can be no question of maintaining the reality of individual beings. On the contrary it is this reality which is the first to be denied and overwhelmed or swallowed up. But we still need to know whether it is legitimate thus to assert at the outset the non-reality of individual beings.

It would be well to examine whether this initial position does not involve a postulate which should be made more explicit on reflection. This postulate might be briefly expressed as follows: that which perishes partakes visibly of the nature of clouds and shadows; the latter can only be appearances, appearances on the surface of—yes, on the surface of what? Must we admit that what we have are only ephemeral and illusory modalities of a reality whose substantial character we are nevertheless obliged to proclaim? This, you see, is the contrary of what it seemed just before that we should assert; the non-reality of individual beings would now be balanced by the reality of being in itself. We can, however, easily appreciate that thought is more or less obliged to waver indefinitely between these two interpretations; and in the end we may find that there is only a nominal distinction between the two. By that I mean that a thing which in one set of circumstances is treated as being can equally well be qualified as non-being. The truth of this, moreover, may be seen by the evidence of countless mystics and philosophers: to take a contemporary example, some commentators on Heidegger have professed, not without a certain show of reason, that what he now calls ‘Being’ (Sein) has an odd resemblance to what in his earlier works he called ‘Non-being’ (Nichts). Such a remark seems somewhat hazardous to me, and I should not rely upon it too much; but I should still say that the indecision of thought probably arises from not expressing the problem with enough precision; and we shall have to clarify our appreciation of its significance. When we are dealing with an individual being, apprehended in its quality of being—loved, that is to say, for such a description cannot be divorced from the act of loving—then the meaning of the word ‘perish’ is by no means clear. We can go further: there are very cogent reasons for thinking that the verb ‘perish’ can by no means be used in this context, if it signifies what happens when a cloud disperses or a flame is extinguished. Those are physical processes, and they can be described in the language of objective knowledge; but if, as we have constantly insisted, it is true that ontology is bound up with intersubjectivity, then those processes can find no place in the ontological order.

The fruit of these remarks is that we must revise the terms in which we formulated the hypotheses put forward at the beginning of the chapter. The faulty character of the formulae depends precisely from the fact that the expressions we used were those which we should have used if we were dealing with an object, if it were a question of knowing whether there was or was not a compact, massive block of being, which one could call being in itself.

The fact, however, that being cannot be separated from the exigence of being, must never be lost sight of. Therein lies the fundamental reason for the impossibility of severing heing from value. Looking at it from this point of view we see that the problem round which our recent enquiries have revolved lies in finding the answer to the question whether the exigence of perennialness is or is not involved in the exigence of being, or whether on the contrary the two exigencies can he separated from one another. Our analysis of the problems of existing and ceasing to exist has, in fact, led us to recognize that the bond between the two cannot be broken. ‘To say that one loves a being’, says one of my characters, means, “Thou, at least, thou shalt not die.” But the only reason, we must emphatically repeat, why such a statement can have any meaning is that love is not something which can be grafted on the affirmation of being. Moreover, we must have a more precise idea of what we mean by the perennial. In this context can perenniality be looked at as a simple perpetual continuation? That would be a rash statement; for the idea of continuation itself is full of ambiguity. Experience shows us that certain creatures—I do not want to use the word ‘beings’—are subject to what are real metamorphoses. But can metamorphoses be considered a continuation? When we speak of continuation, we presuppose, I think, a certain minimum preservation of identity as regards the manner of existence; when this minimum is lacking, we cannot be certain of the continuation. For my part, I should rather be inclined to give a negative defininition of perenniality: the real meaning of ‘to say that one loves a being is to say, “Thou, at least, thou shalt not die” is rather’ Because I love you, because I affirm you as being, there is something in you which can bridge the abyss that I vaguely call “Death.” We still have a certain ambiguity: these formulae, I fear, may have too subjectivist a tone; the emphasis is placed on the affirmation itself or on the assertion itself as such, and not on the thing which is affirmed. Here we reach the crucial part of this involved enquiry: from the moment when my affirmation becomes love, it resigns in favour of that which is affirmed, of the thing which is asserted in its substantial value. This is precisely what love is; it cannot be divorced from this resignation. In other words, love is the active refusal to treat itself as subjective, and it is in this refusal that it cannot be separated from faith; in fact it is faith. And the function of secondary reflection will consist essentially in demonstrating that the refusal is transcendent in relation to the criticism to which primary reflection would claim to subject us.

From another angle, however, could we not say that, judged in the light of rational thought, this refusal must appear as a monstrous claim, as a violation of the very conditions of existence?

We must concentrate on this question; and it is only by finding an answer to it that we shall find a solution to this chapter's enquiry into the legitimacy of an ontology, or in other words of substantification regarded purely as such. Last year we reached certain conclusions about the true nature of reflection and the impossibility of reducing it to a process of analytical dissection. These conclusions, too, we must now use. If we can throw some light, accordingly, on the hidden affinities between secondary reflection and thought, we shall be able to settle our worries.

I have often found it useful to take one of my plays as a starting point. Le Palais de Sable seems to me today to anticipate in many ways all my later philosophical development. What I can see in it is like a privileged inner experience, and it gives me a starting point from which the problems can be looked at in their sharpest form and with the utmost precision.

The action takes place in a French provincial town, shortly before the first world war. The principal character, Moirans, is a politician. He is a conservative and his line is the defence of Catholicism against the growth of laicism. He is opposed to the divorce of one of his daughters, and this on the grounds of the traditional ideas which he champions. But an unforeseen development forces him into conflict with the attitude which he has consistently adopted. The only one of his children for whom he feels real tenderness is his other daughter, Clarissa; she tells him that she has decided to become a nun, a Carmelite. Moirans is horrified at the idea and tries to dissuade her. If his faith is real, however, should he not be glad that his favourite daughter has decided to consecrate herself to God?

Clarissa is appalled at the warmth and passion with which he fights what she thought her vocation; and Moirans is forced to realize that his feeling for religion, for a religious frame of mind and tradition, is not real faith; as soon as a being he loves is concerned, he can no longer bear the idea; suddenly it seems to him meaningless and empty. He is thus made to recognize that fundamentally he does not believe in the other world in which her sacrifice would bring her an everlasting reward. That is not all. He goes further and asserts that such a belief, held as it might be held by simple souls, seems to him childish and mythological. He is thinking in fact as an idealist, and he flatters himself that he has seen through the illusion. Clarissa is overwhelmed by what she learns. Her father seems to her now to be an impostor, a swindler—after all he has always spoken and behaved as though he really believed in what he is repudiating. But at the same time she feels as though she herself were contaminated by this destructive idealism. There is a gap between her faith and herself, and she feels that she can no longer be at one with it. Thus she is led to question her own belief, and finally she wonders whether she has mistaken a temptation for a vocation; whether her desire to take the veil was simply an easy way out of the troubles and dangers of life in the world.

She is deeply disturbed, and consults her spiritual director. But he has no idea of what she is trying to say. ‘A nun's life’, he says,’ is a hard one. There are many renunciations. You will have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the Chapel, and so on. How could you be yielding to a temptation by believing the convent to be your vocation?’ She means that spiritually it can be easier to shut oneself up in such a life, however hard, than to face the world and its temptations. But there is more to be said—Clarissa now feels that she is in some way responsible for her father. She cannot bear her father's continuing in his pose as a champion of the Catholic faith. She begs him to give up political life. His answer is that he will do so if she will give up her plan of entering the convent.

Her conflict increases in intensity. A contradiction asserts itself between what she has always believed to be her vocation and what now seems to her to be a duty whose call she cannot disobey. Things are such that the new duty must surely win the fight—that amounts to saying that she can no longer feel her vocation or believe that she is called. Clarissa is now cut off from what she believed the better, the purer, part of herself. She yields to her father's blackmail, and we see her and Moirans dragging through a life which has ceased to have any meaning for her. She refuses to marry a man whom she loves and respects; she no longer belongs either to heaven or to earth, she is just a shadow.

As for Moirans, he realizes something which astonishes and appals him. He finds that it is impossible for a man, contrary to what he had thought, to shut himself up within himself, to live simply in his thoughts or in what he would like to be his thoughts. As soon as one loves or is loved by another being, an awesome solidarity comes into being between the two. Moirans has been helpless to prevent his daughter's dependence on him; he has been obliged accordingly to yield her a most dreadful power, and has lost for ever all feeling of exaltation; he is no longer his own master, no longer even simply his own property. Everything goes to show, however, that the real core of the drama is the question of the relations between faith and reflection.

The sublime spontaneity of faith has so filled Clarissa's being that she does not struggle against her father's infectious unbelief. It is infectious, it is true, but only because Moirans has always been to her the champion of religion, and, paradoxically, it is his influence which helped to rouse her first ardour. To Moirans, however, Christianity was simply an object of a sort of delight; if he could look on himself as a Christian it was simply because he had been filled with an appreciation of its aesthetic beauty and at the same time of its social utility. It was only the shock that he felt when faced by Clarissa's decision that could make him understand that faith is a very different matter. This links up, I think, with Maurice Blondel's criticism of dilettantism in L'Action.

One might say that in Le Falais de Sable reflection appears as a power of critical dissection: but if that is so, it is only because it does not go beyond the primary stage, and is a long way from the corrective function which I denned last year. One might nevertheless say that it is the function proper to drama to arouse secondary reflection in us; and that means precisely to lead us to recognize the misleading character of an idealism whose claim is to have got the better of what it calls the realist illusion.

Thus one may see fairly clearly how secondary reflection, while not yet being itself faith, succeeds at least in preparing or fostering what I am ready to call the spiritual setting of faith.

But what can we say of Moirans’ influence on his daughter, which I spoke of as a contamination? We may well be inclined to say that such a word is incorrect and unjust, and that what Clarissa received from her father was his clarity of vision, with the result that what seemed to her to be a fall, should rather be looked upon as a step forward on the road to truth.

It is hardly necessary to emphasize the extreme importance of this question. I might even say that all our future enquiries will be governed by our anxiety to find an answer to it.

We can now see, I think, that if belief lays itself open to the attack of critical reflection, it is because of the aspect which it turns towards it. We can put it more clearly by saying that the determining factor here is the idea which I tend to form of it for myself, or which another tends to form for me, from the moment when I am, or the other is, outside faith: that is from the moment when we cease to live it.

From this outside point of view (and we shall do well to stress that every point of view as such is an outside one) to believe means to imagine that, to have an idea in your mind that. When any of those phrases are applicable, reflection will almost inevitably be seen to be an attempt at re-ordering or straightening. It is in this light that we must inevitably look at a negative criticism of faith. Fundamentally this criticism acts by reduction; it attempts, that is, to oppose a solid reality to the delusions which the power of the affections—desire, generally, and fear—substitute for reality. Such a criticism will invariably tend towards affirmations of the type, ‘What you have thought to be this is in reality nothing but that’. The line of secondary reflection will have to be directed precisely against this reducing thought, for its proper function consists above all in asking whether the idea of faith with which primary reflection was concerned may not be a corrupt or deformed experience of something of an entirely different order.