Jan 142016

Gert-Jan van der Heiden, Ontology after Ontotheology: Plurality, Event, and Contingency in Contemporary Philosophy. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2014; 340 pages. ISBN: 9780820704722.

Reviewed by Daniel Adsett, Marquette University

In Ontology after Ontotheology, Gert-Jan van der Heiden critically evaluates the ontologies of Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Claude Romano, Quentin Meillassoux, and Giorgio Agamben as each attempts to respond to the difficulties inherent in any ontotheology. On van der Heiden’s reading, ontotheology rests on two problematic foundations: (1) the unity of being and (2) the principle of sufficient reason. Any successful contemporary ontology must, therefore, critically respond to both of these structures.

The first ontology van der Heiden evaluates is that of Badiou. For Badiou, we begin with a decision. We select one set of axioms over another and once these primary axioms are decided upon, the ethical subject must remain faithful to them. His resultant mathematical ontology is plural insofar as each subject will inevitably make different and conflicting initial decisions. As van der Heiden states, “[e]very decision offers a particular ‘orientation’ toward existence. Hence, an irreducible plurality of conflicting orientations intrinsically belongs to (mathematical) thought.” (43)

Van der Heiden criticizes Badiou’s ontology on a number of fronts, of which I will mention two. First, he claims that though Badiou seems to advance a plural ontology, the very option to reject the “mathematics = ontology” equation is not itself, for Badiou, an option. Furthermore, deciding, from the outset, to hold as axiomatic the non-unity of being, Badiou does not allow himself to evaluate alternatives to his thesis. Whereas mathematicians are free to consider different geometries that follow from different axioms without holding one to be truer than the other, Badiou holds that subjects must commit themselves to a single set of axioms without evaluating and tracing the consequences of alternative sets. Second, van der Heiden argues that Badiou simultaneously claims that Cantor, in holding that transfinite sets exists, risks advancing an ontotheology even though he—Badiou—holds that the event is transfinite. Hence, Badiou’s ontology risks repeating certain hegemonic structures, such as the failure to consider alternative ontologies or treating the event as transcendental, that it claims to avoid.

From Badiou’s mathematical ontology, van der Heiden turns to Nancy’s ontology of partage or sharing. Whereas Badiou’s ontology suggests there is an absolute multiplicity, Nancy tries to think being between absolute multiplicity and absolute unity, koinón without hen, the common without the one. Nancy’s resultant singular plurality, therefore, stands in opposition to classical approaches to hermeneutics, such as Paul Ricoeur’s, which aim at unearthing an ultimately inaccessible though unified meaning. The assumption that meaning is unified, even if inaccessible, is, Nancy claims, an unwarranted metaphysical presupposition, a presupposition from which we need to release ourselves not by admitting that final meaning is forever lost to us—this would imply that meaning is unified—but by taking ourselves to be always already abandoned to meaning, to multiple senses. (80) Partage, in turn, names Nancy’s conviction that we are always transmitting meaning: we are neither absolute originators of meaning (as this would return us to the presupposition of unity), nor are we entirely unrelated to the dissemination of meaning; instead, we assist in the distribution of meaning even though we are not meaning’s final destination.

To these two analyses, van der Heiden adds, in the final chapter of the first part, Agamben’s double claim that we do not need to (1) take a stand on whether the origin can or cannot be thought or (2) embrace presuppositions in our thought. With respect to the first criticism, as Agamben demonstrates, we can take a step back and examine possible axioms as hypotheses without necessarily committing ourselves to either of them. In the Republic, for example, we find Socrates stating that we do not need to take hypotheses as absolute origins. We can, through dialectics, examine the hypothesis as hypothesis without committing ourselves yet to any specific claim. (105) With respect to the second criticism, Agamben holds that thought should strive to be presuppositionless. Both Badiou and Nancy, by contrast, commit themselves to a particular presupposition: Badiou with his commitment to the axiom that the one is not and Nancy with his claim that we are abandoned to the transmission of meaning. As Agamben elaborates, the empty presuppositional structure remains in Nancy’s thought as long as meaning continues to signify or intend something—even if this something is nothing—the presuppositional structure of thought is retained: we continue to presuppose that words refer. Even though Nancy has no transcendental signified or object, there is still a way in which the very absence that Nancy sees beyond the signifier is the nothing that conditions (it is the presupposition). (130) As an alternative, Agamben holds that we can deactivate language and hold language without its signifying character. (131)

In the second part of Ontology after Ontotheology, van der Heiden turns to contemporary critiques of the second foundation for ontotheology: the principle of sufficient reason. (134) Not everything that happens or will happen needs or even can be explained in terms of preceding or succeeding causes. In the four chapters that constitute the second part, van der Heiden examines Heidegger’s, Badiou’s, Romano’s, and Meillassoux’s accounts of the event. Throughout, we find a contrast between those who think the event as what is to come and those who think the event as always already having happened.

Beginning in the fourth chapter, van der Heiden shows that Heidegger’s and Badiou’s accounts of the event are quite distinct. For Heidegger, the event is like death: it can happen at any time, there is nothing that needs to take place before it can happen, and, once we live in light of its possibility, it structures everything we do. For Badiou, the event is the precondition for the emergence of a subject: the event is outside ontology, outside being, but it nevertheless structures the order through which being can appear and the subject can act. In a very illuminating section,  which I think is one of the highlights of the book, van der Heiden contrasts Heidegger’s and Badiou’s readings of Paul the Apostle. Whereas Heidegger focuses on the second coming of Christ, the parousía, Badiou focuses on the resurrection. Both understand the importance, for Paul, of living by faith. But whereas Heidegger draws from I Corinthians 7 in which Paul states that the faithful Christian should live as if (hos me) the second coming might happen at any time, Badiou draws from I Corinthians 1 in which Paul states that God has chosen what is foolish to shame the wise and what is not to bring to nothing what is. For Badiou, the resurrection of Christ is the absurd phenomenon (to those who reject it as an event) that structures the entire comportment of the Christian who lives in light of it. (172) By contrast, whereas Badiou’s event has always already happened, Heidegger’s event is to come and lies in the future. For van der Heiden, however, neither Heidegger nor Badiou recognize the true problem inherent in Paul’s claim that the subject, through faith, cannot retain her own subjectivity. She becomes a vessel through which someone other than herself acts and speaks. This, van der Heiden claims, following Agamben, can be seen in the practice of glossolalia or speaking in tongues. Here, as with the poet, the faithful no longer retain their own subjectivity; they live like poets, always communicating the voice of another to another. In this way, like Nancy’s account of partage, “[Paul’s] account of faith repeats the structure of presupposition.” (183)

Following this analysis, van der Heiden turns, in the next chapter, to Meillassoux’s and Romano’s respective attempts to think the event in terms of contingency. Here he makes an interesting observation: even though Meillassoux and Badiou are often grouped together as speculative thinkers and Romano and Heidegger (along with a host of others) are grouped together as phenomenological thinkers, Romano’s and Badiou’s events are located in the past while Meillassoux’s and Heidegger’s events are to come. For Romano, birth, unlike death, is a perfect event because it can bring itself to phenomenology. Of the four traits that characterize birth, first, there is, as for Badiou, the priority of the event over being. (190) Second, the event is the precondition for time. (192) Third, the conditions for the possibility of understanding an event are themselves provided by the event. (195) Fourth, birth is the paradigmatic event. (197) In his critique, van der Heiden argues that Romano is unclear about what he means by birth. Does he mean physical birth or the origin of speech? Further, the event, for Romano, seems to lack contingency. We can only reflect on the event once it has taken place. The birth can never have been truly contingent for the one to whom it appears as an event.

Turning, then, from Romano to Meillassoux, van der Heiden shows that Meillassoux emphasizes, above all, the contingency of the event. The contingent event is not merely one that has happened but one that may or may not happen. Meillassoux’s speculative ontology, van der Heiden shows, emphasizes the entirely contingent character of the event as it tries to consistently draw out the consequences of rejecting the principle of sufficient reason (while nevertheless retaining the law of noncontradiction). Even so, Meillassoux, instead of drawing out the consequences of the principle of sufficient reason, carries out the consequences of the principle of unreason. In so doing, he retains the structure of the presupposition. (224)

In the final sections of Ontology after Ontotheology, van der Heiden articulates his Agambenian response to these preceding accounts of the event. Philosophy, both van der Heiden and Agamben claim, is concerned with thinking without presuppositions. In this vein, Agamben finds, in Aristotle, two kinds of potentiality: a potentiality to . . . and a potentiality not to . . .. (243) Agamben then applies this distinction to the sovereign: the sovereign is the one who can at any time actualize her own potentiality such that she no longer has the potentiality not to actualize her potentiality. (245) In actualizing itself, the sovereign then brings about ontotheology by banning, so to speak, her own potentiality not to be actual. In light of this, the challenge to ontotheology is the challenge to think the potential to be without simultaneously eliminating the potential not to be. (246) This, van der Heiden shows, can be done by distancing ourselves from thinking being as actualized and turning to being as the potentiality to be actualized—being as contingent. Drawing from Herman Melville’s 1853 short-story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” van der Heiden argues that we can refuse to actualize our own potentiality and remain in a state of pure potentiality. By reflecting on the past as what could have not happened, we can take up the alleged actuality of the past and consider it as a possibility, no longer as a fixed and necessary series of events. “Agamben,” he writes, “discerns a potentiality without actualization in the notion of absolute contingency. Moreover, an ontology in which being preserves its potential not to be is an ontology in which the principle of the irrevocability of the past can no longer be maintained but needs to be suspended.” (258) As van der Heiden suggests in the introduction, we would do well to follow Hannah Arendt who, in The Life of the Mind, states that “thinking concerns a withdrawal from the world (of appearances).” (20)

Throughout, van der Heiden’s exegeses are exceptionally clear. He manages, in a relatively short space, to both explain and critique several main contemporary responses to ontotheology while developing his own Agambenian solution. Ultimately, it seems to me, van der Heiden is leading us to a many-valued logic, a logic in which there is more than truth and falsity. As I was reading the text, I kept thinking that a many-valued logic might help clarify some of the problems that van der Heiden unearths. As he states at the end of Ontology after Ontotheology, “[i]n logic, one may escape this aporia [of being forced to affirm or deny a position] by suspending the principle of the excluded third or of noncontradiction. Three-valued logic adds a third value next to the values False and True” (276). With this, van der Heiden leaves open the possibilities of further explorations in post-Heideggerian philosophy.