Reading Levi Bryant on Zero, Consciousness, and Contradiction

0. For just about two years now, I have been following Levi Bryant’s blog, Larval Subjects, if not always faithfully; I offered a brief but pertinent statement of my appreciation for his blog in my post of October 23, 2013, “An Addition to the Blogroll: Larval Subjects.” This is despote the profound differences between our philosophical outlooks. That which he has to say in in his October 15, 2015, post, “Zero,” about zero, consciousness, and contradiction provides a case in point.

1. The post begins with Bryant’s recollection of reading two statements from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Passages from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness always reverberate through my mind: “Consciousness is what [it]** is not and is not what it is”.  “Consciousness is a being such that in its being its being is in question insofar as its being always implies a being other than itself”.  I remember the happy days reading this tom(e)(b) when I was young; diagraming these sentences, trying to decipher them like Zen koans.

I’ll take it as evident that the two statements from Sartre are by no means equivalent. In the present post I’ll focus on the first of the two, as it illustrates perfectly the difference between my philosophical outlook and that of Bryant. I’ll begin by stating that I could not even will myself to accept the conjunction that “Consciousness is what it is not and is not what it is” expresses, i.e., the conjunction of the affirmative thesis:

Consciousness is what it is not.

with the negative thesis:

Consciousness is not what it is.

2. The reason why I cannot even will myself to accept it is that I, along with the tradition of what I will call classical philosophical rationalism, recognize the truth of the principle of non-contradiction, that:

No being can both be and not be.

(In what follows, I’ll assume that we do not need to expressly rule out some possible equivocation in the word, “be,” and so do not need to add the precision, “in any one respect and at any one time,” it is customary to append to the proposition expressing the principle.)

From this principle it follows specifically that:

Consciousness cannot both be what it is and not be what it is.

3. But the Sartrean conjunction which Bryant has put before us, and evidently accepts, stands in contradiction to that application of the principle of non-contradiction. To see that this is so, we could devote our attention to either of the Sartrean conjuncts given above; I’ll content myself with a focusing on the second, negative, conjunct, “Consciousness is not what it is.” We can first observe that its predicate, “what it (i.e., consciousness) is,” entails a recognition that there is something, some “what,” which consciousness is and thus a recognition of the truth of the statement, without the use of the pronoun, “it,” that:

Consciousness is what consciousness is.

or, equivalently, with the use of the pronoun:

Consciousness is what it is.

Then, combining that which is affirmed in this proposition with the second, negative, conjunct as given, that:

Consciousness is not what it is.

we find ourselves contemplating the proposition that:

Consciousness both is what it is and is not what it is.

Since anything which is also can be, this proposition implies the one that:

Consciousness can both be what it is and not be what it is.

Engaging in the elementary inferential act of “existential generalization,” we find that Bryant and his Sartre are, then, in keeping with the tradition of thought standing in opposition to classical philosophical rationalism, committed to a thesis that is the direct contradictory of that of non-contradiction:

At least one being (consciousness) can both be what it is and not be what it is.

4. From Sartre, one of the central figures in the “continental” tradition in philosophy, Bryant turns immediately to Frege, whom I take to be the most central figure in philosophy’s “analytical” tradition:

I remember later reading Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic.  “Zero is the number non-identical to itself”.  How many zeroes are there?  Many!  But that can’t be right.  By Leibniz’s principle of indiscernibles, two things must always be distinguished by something.  Yet zero is nothing. There can only be one zero.  All zeroes must be the same.  But if there were one zero, then zero would be something.  A paradox.  No wonder zero was received as a heresy in the theological community; like potatoes.  No, it can only be that which is paradoxically non-identical to itself.  It must be the object that is a non-object.  An object that is the shift or out of phaseness of a being with itself.

Many and diverse propositions pop up in the course of the passage; perhaps the most diverse is the one suggested by the “like potatoes,” whatever that proposition might be. I’ll focus on just the first, that:

Zero is the number non-identical to itself.

I’ll assume that it is not necessary to take the pains needed to spell out the contradiction at hand, at hand at least if one accepts the truth of the proposition that the number zero is something, as Bryant seems to do, i.e.,  that:

The number zero is a being.

and the proposition that:

All beings are identical to themselves.

and therefore the proposition that:

The number zero is identical to itself.

So I’ll just observe that Bryant and Bryant’s Frege both are evidently committed to the thesis that:

The number zero both is identical to itself and is not identical to itself.

This in turn entails that:

The number zero both is what it is and is not what it is.

and so that:

The number zero can both be what it is and not be what it is.

Generalizing again, over the number zero, we have Bryant and his Frege holding that:

At least one being can both be what it is and not be what it is.

This is, again, the direct contradiction of the principle of non-contradiction.

5. You have now the view of Bryant and Bryant’s Sartre on consciousness and the view of Bryant and Bryant’s Frege on zero. What then, is the relationship between the consciousness of Bryant and Bryant’s Sartre and the zero of Bryant and Bryant’s Frege? He goes on to tell us:

And that’s how it is with consciousness.  Consciousness is zero.  It is that which is non-identical to itself and that is condemned to be non-identical to itself.  I wonder if this is how it is for my dog and my cats and for octopi?  Is it like this for elephants?  Do they experience themselves as a non-identity with themselves?

Consciousness is zero. The consciousness of Bryant and Bryant’s Sartre and the zero of Bryant and Bryant’s Frege are then identical with each other, though both, as we know, are non-identical with themselves. The reader will not be surprised to learn that I believe I have grounds to doubt that dogs, cats, octopi, and elephants “experience themselves as a non-identity with themselves,” certainly if the principle of non-contradiction is true.

But let me stick close to the main point. We have in the third sentence of the passage the thesis that:

Consciousness is that which is non-identical to itself.

We have in its second sentence the thesis that:

Consciousness is zero.

which is, since it is a simple statement of identity, equivalent to:

Zero is consciousness.

Lo! A syllogism:

Consciousness is that which is non-identical to itself.

Zero is consciousness.

Therefore, zero is that which is non-identical to itself.

Well, that is pretty much what he took rather immediately from Frege. But we then find at the end of the continuation of that passage:

Consciousness is a razors [sic] edge, a perpetual shift.  Consciousness is not a substantiality, the ego, or an identity.  It is the non-identity that is in excess of any mirror image, ego, or identity.  It is the perpetual failure of these things.  J.A. Miller. Suture. Matrix. This is the burden of the past.  The past weighs on us because of what we have done, who we have been.  It’s etched.  But there would be a comfort in being able to be our past like the grape that has grown from its soil. No, perhaps the worst thing about the past is that we are zero or the number that is non-identical to itself.

that we are “we are zero or the number that is non-identical to itself.” Thus another syllogism:

Zero is that which is non-identical to itself.

We are zero.

Therefore, we are that which is non-identical to itself.

And so, as he continues, there is that

Difference.  We always fail to be our past.  I will never be as great as I was in my past, nor as terrible. I will never be that person that wrote those things, said those things, thought those things, did those things.  That was another self.  I will always be fallen from that past, and each time yet again.  Will I ever write as well again?  I am this strange zero that both is this past, but is not it. We can eat our madeleine cakes, yet we will not regain the past. We are that past, yet are not it.  It weighs on us, instituting a gravitational pull.  We are caught in our signifiers, in what we have said.  Yet we somehow can’t be them.  We are a shift, a perpetual disadequation, a being non-identical to ourselves.

6. You may have begun to think that I have written all of the above in a dismissive mood. I have not. I do think that the principle of non-contradiction is true, absolutely so, and that therefore the proposition contradicting it is false, absolutely so. But I also look at his position on the principle of non-contradiction and therefore also his positions on consciousness and on zero in the light of the following dialectical thesis to which I adhere:

For every (great) truth, there is an equal(ly great) and contradictorily opposite falsehood.

Until next time.

Richard

* https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/zero/.

** Just to be absolutely clear, it is I who inserted the “[it].”

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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