This paper was written by an anonymous student at New College in Florida.
You and I
You occupy an enviable space. As appraiser of this paper and these ideas you have the power of kings and Alabama preachers. Pass judgment as you like; say ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘uneven’ and no one will argue as long as you dance this number . Yet, the privilege is ephemeral, and you will eventually return to a world of conflict – a world where you struggle to preserve subjectivity among those Jean-Paulian Gazers who try to mend their being at the expense of yours . This paper, fortunately, is a magic bean stalk – an invitation, but not a license, to appropriate the world and everything in it. An invitation from yourself.
An infinite being sits Indian-Style at the center of the universe and reflects on itself. It tries to match a purpose to its’ existence, but finds itself essentially meaningless. But, the experience yields something. While looking for meaning it forgets, for an infinitely brief moment, the conclusion it already knew. The point of distraction is neither good nor bad nor uneven; it is mere existence, and mere existence is heaven. Having tasted mere existence, the being discovers something else – the desire for mere existence.
Of course, an infinite being need not desire anything, and it sets about satisfying the hunger. However, there is a problem: How can an infinite being fill eternity with an infinitely brief experience? It wants to be forever in a moment of contemplation, but contemplation without conclusion. It wants to be an infinite doing.
The first and most terrifying moment of your life passed by too fast for you to notice. You were in a world of things – green things and furry things and mustachioed things – when you discovered a thing different from everything else: your self. You recognized that you recognized that things were green or furry or mustachioed, and you thought, in a pre-linguistic language, “I do”; “I make this move”, “I see that mustache”, and “I feel this fur.” And then you thought “I am.” “I am” erupted, exploded, go boom your soul with fear because interlaced, interlocked, interleaved in the “I am” was a question that had no answer: “Why should I be?”
Descartes’ Proof of the existence of God in the Third Meditation
Descartes believes that if one has a clear and distinct idea of a thing, then there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause of that idea as in the idea itself . He conceives of God clearly and distinctly as the supreme, infinite being. Because Descartes is neither formally nor eminently infinite, he thinks that he cannot be the source of his idea of God. Thus, the source of this infinite idea must be outside of himself, and it must be actually or eminently infinite. This being, for Descartes, is God.
If Descartes is like most, then losing something he almost had upsets him more than losing something he never could have attained in the first place. His loss notwithstanding, Descartes is not upset. He is dead, after all.
Descartes’ Error: The Ghost in That Machine
According to some religious traditions, man (that is, humanity) is made in God’s image. And, if you are a reflection of God, then there is some God reflected in you. But how are you to know what of God is in you? You could ask religion, but religion is without and you are looking for what is within. So, you look to yourself. Maybe it’s the best of you that is a reflection of God. But, if the best of you reflects God, then what of the rest? You might be a complete reflection of God, a reflection of It’s manifest strengths and weaknesses. Of course, that cannot be so, because then what would you be but God?
You certainly have no reason to think you are God, and you have every reason to think you are not. After all, God would know It was God? God would have infinite power; in fact, that is part of Its’ definition. But, with infinite power God might make it the case that God does not know of its infinite power - a rock too heavy for It to lift. Why would God do this? To live in infinite doing - infinite contemplation without conclusion. The mistake of putting infinity outside rather than inside is not Descartes’ mistake - it is your mistake. Death is your way to give the point of contemplation four dimensions. And while death gives you no meaning, it gives you something to do – alone. The world is yours to appropriate.
As if reading the Truth right now is not evidence enough of your solitary omnipotence (Chakrabarti, 1994), you have strong inductive reasons to accept that you are both the sole and supreme ego. Consider where you live. You live a comfortable life in an industrialized country and, relative to the misery that infects most of the world, you have it pretty good. The odds are slim, no? Yet, you are not impossible, just unlikely.
However, when you live seems even more unlikely than where you live. The misery in the world today pales in comparison with the misery of even not-too-long-ago. In fact, the development of humanity is largely a history of misery, until now - for you. Why are you reading this paper rather than rutting around the Sahara with your fellow Australopithecines?
Consider one last piece of inductive evidence. What are the chances that you would run across a simple philosophical system, based on no other system, that no one, so long as philosophy has existed, has put forth? Solipsism uses the ‘I’: “I am the only consciousness.” This is about You. This paper believes that you, and only you, are a singular (that is, the sole) infinite consciousness, created by yourself as a way to fill eternity.
But who is the You to whom this paper refers? It is a singular you: the You that loved so much it made Your body ache, the You that cried so hard it made Your body throb, the You that fears dying more than death, the You who marveled at Your shear stupidity, and the You who stood in awe of Your unfathomable genius. It’s the You reading THESE WORDS, and the You recognizing that You recognize THESE WORDS. And what of this paper and these ideas? They are Yours; say ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘uneven’ and no one will argue .
Of course, I do not think the reader is infinite or alone any more than I think I am infinite and alone. The infinite is the category of the Other, and it is an infinity neither the reader nor I (finite as we are) will ever know. So, while I agree with Levinas that 1) the Other represents an infinity rather than a totality and 2) the Other forces the Self back onto itself with questions of justification, I think that the infinitude of the face – the impossibility of knowing the face – forces one to abandon the project of categorical ethical relations with the Other in favor of a sort of pseudo-ethics in which arbitrary attachment or pragmatics dictate Self-Other relations.
What was the readers response when first confronted with my earlier claim that he or she is infinite? More than likely, the reader responded with a resounding roll-of-the-eyes, the reaction one gives semi-educated pundits who have delusions of grandeur. The reader probably searched for metaphor, ever so careful not to imbue my more-than-likely banal thoughts with any sort of philosophical importance.
But when I insisted on the point that the reader is (ironically) a singular omnipotence, the readers reaction likely changed from contempt to scorn: scorn that I would try to convince the reader, scorn that others might be convinced, and scorn that this is something I myself might believe. I was offering freedom from the Other – freedom from the ‘I-Thou’ relation. But when the ‘Thou’ is killed, the ‘I’ dies as well since they exist only relative to one another. Destroying the ‘Thou’ leaves one like the infinite being who sat Indian-Style in story 2, a being with no relation, and no direction. A being living in mauvaise conscience.
I think the scorn the reader feels when confronted with an argument that the Other does not exist reveals something else about Self-Other relations. While it is the elimination of the category “Other” that is upsetting, the Other can only be perceived through analogy to concrete human relations. Scorn is an affective relation, and as the Self is finite, scorn can only be instigated by the finite (just as the mind and body could not interact if they were of two different substances).
An ethical relation, I believe, abstracts from the infinite Other to a concrete other. Consider that everyone knows that giving a certain amount of money (Peter Singer says $200) to a reputable relief organization would save a life – the life of an Other, a friend in a possible world. This should surround us with visions of death. Lying on a new couch means lying on the bodies of those we have killed through inaction. But, this does not disturb most, because the Other has no meaning until its infinity is limited. Even for those who are disturbed, the disturbance does not come because Others are dying, but because some other is dying. The Other gives us to ourselves, but we can give nothing to the Other.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What’s the deal with Part I?
Part I. and Part II. only have their full meaning relative to one another. Writing the paper this way was, for me, the equivalent of saving a thousand words with a picture.
Maybe just go through the first paragraph and give some indication of what a discussion would be like.
OK. The title of the paper is “You and I” and Part ‘1’ is supposedly about You - It’s all written in the second person. But, the title of Part ‘1’ gives something away; it’s not part ‘1’ but Part ‘I’. And Part ‘2’, about I, looks conspicuously like Part U. The first paragraph begins by speaking of ‘your enviable space.’ The irony is that the space isn’t enviable, so far as Part 1 is concerned, since there is no Other to be envious. Likewise for the ‘no one will argue.’ ‘Dance this number’, as the footnote implies, refers to the following sections of “story 1, story 2, argument, argument, argument”. Obviously, the “sartorial” referred to next has the dual meaning “Of Sartre” and “Like a tailor”. The paper is an invitation, rather than a license, because consistent with Levinas the face of the Other invites – perhaps demands - the justification of existence, and because the invitation comes from ‘yourself’ (who is also the Other, in this case) it offers no less than the whole of the world. This is what it would mean for being to justify itself.
Was this paper written to express an ethical theory or to promote ethical thought?
Both. The paper, in implicit and explicit ways, says something about the relation between Self-Other relations. But by promoting a reaction – not just any reaction, but a reaction to a very unique kind of offer – I hope to ask the reader “If you felt a certain way when the nature of Self-Other relations changed in this situation, why was it that you felt that way.” On this point, I have my theories, but I leave it to the reader to decide. Duality, in fact, is central to this paper.
Is that radical, leaving something to the reader?
It may be radical, but it is certainly not unprecedented, as I think Buber and Derida and Levinas (to some degree) all do something similar (but certainly do not think I am comparing myself with them).