Interview: Charles Bigger--On Philosophy: Baton Rouge, LA
by Richard Whittaker, Aug 18, 2002
Photo - Richard Whittaker
In the summer of 2002, I went to Baton Rouge to be with my brother, John, while he underwent the "Whipple," a brutal surgery to remove part of his pancreas. The prospect had stirred much worry among those closest to him. John had come to LSU accepting their proposal that he found a Religious Studies Department there. It would have close ties with the Philosophy Department and, in fact, John had served as head of the combined departments for some years.
He brought with him his credentials from Yale and a deep love of Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Two years younger than me, we shared a passion for things philosophical, and over the years, had shared countless hours of discussion in this realm.
Besides being there as a support for John as he faced the surgery, I wanted to be with him post-surgery during visiting hours to make sure not too much was asked of him by colleagues and well-wishers. Thankfully, I needn't have worried on that account as all were quite sensitive. And, as it turned out, I had the pleasant experience of meeting most of the faculty in both departments. Each visitor and I could chat quietly while my brother, eyes closed, could listen as much or as little as suited him, and simply feel the love being offered.
It's how I met Dr. Charles Bigger.
Occasionally one meets someone who seems to have been given an extra measure of life. It's what I felt almost immediately in the presence of this man. I had no plans to interview anyone, but as Professor Bigger was taking his leave, I could not resist asking if we might meet in the next few days; would he be open to an interview?
He would. And a few days later, I joined Dr. Bigger at his home in Baton Rouge on a typically hot and humid day in July. Before long an afternoon squall materialized and rain was falling heavily straight down. We could watch it through the living room window and its sound provided the perfect background for a philosophical conversation.
Richard Whittaker: You mentioned earlier that you wouldn’t call yourself "a philosopher." I was interested in that remark.
Charles Bigger: Yes. I was educated in a tradition which has now died out. It was largely centered around The Great Books program. that Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, with Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago, really founded - and Scott Buchanan, who went on to found St. John’s College. Most of the professors I really respected were students of Buchanan.
We weren’t encouraged to look at secondary sources. Whenever we did, it was usually a disaster because these teachers usually knew a great deal more than most of the secondary sources.
We tried to measure ourselves by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Kant, the British Empiricists, and so on. Not much attention was paid to contemporary philosophy. The assumption was that we could get that ourselves—that being part of the world we would be going out into.
On the whole we were remarkably ill-equipped to fit into the Positivism that was dominating the schools when I began to teach.
RW: And that was when?
CB: I first taught in 1949-1950 at Hollings College, then I began to teach at Ohio State in 1951 after I got my Ph. D. On the whole, I had a philosophy grounded in the western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Kant, Descartes etc.—that was what it meant to be "a philosopher." It was thought that the best thing we could possibly do would be to open people up to the richness of this tradition.
I had a course in each of these great philosophers, and then I had a course in cosmology in which we read everything from Dante to Einstein. One of my teachers was a very gifted mathematician/ physicist. My teachers encouraged originality. I don’t know if you ever knew T. S. Elliot’s essay, "The Tradition and Individual Talent." He spoke of the idea that if you master tradition, then that becomes the basis of creativity. You have this rich material. You can always go beyond it, and you don’t make all the mistakes of the past. .
RW: I take it then, that one would be reluctant to call oneself "a philosopher…"
CB: …in the light of this tradition! These are the philosophers. We’re people who work in the field and try to keep alive this thing which is genuinely ennobling, I think.
RW: How would you describe what it is about this study which is genuinely ennobling?
CB: Aristotle said that "the life of reason is the life of God." When Scotus Euregina said "when you know a point of mathematical knowledge and an angel knows that point of mathematical knowledge, your intellect is identical to the angel’s!" That is to say, you participate in a whole tradition, and it’s contemporary with you. It’s certainly not limited to time and space. It’s an eternal conversation that goes on.
But this doesn’t make you as conscious of historical transformations as it should. You tend to look at everything in a kind of specious present. For example, in The Summa Theologica, Aquinas treats everybody as a contemporary, and treats them all equally whether it’s an Arabic commentator or Moses Maimonides, the Jewish commentator, or Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Averroes or Avicenna. They are all there in the room with him.
It’s truth that he’s after, and truth could equally well come from Averroes as it could from St. Paul, let’s say. There’s a kind of Catholicism of the intellect, and that’s what always appealed to me. But again there are historical changes and transformations and that’s one of the things that I missed in my initial training. I had to go to Hegel to begin to learn something of that.
RW: You quote Aristotle—"The life of reason is the life of God." But when Aristotle says, "reason" that means something quite different from what we might think "reason" is today, right?
CB: Quite different. There is something God-like in it. Aristotle had no belief in the immortality of the soul, but thought that—as philosophers—we could live in eternity, and why would you want to do anything more than that? I certainly feel the power of that. But reason here is not just a rationality, it’s a constitutive faculty.
In the Christian tradition in St. John’s gospel, when it says, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, by which everything that was made was made." That "Word" is the Logos. It reappears in such words as biology, psychology, physiology etc. The Eternal Truth.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, people like Descartes and Kepler, in developing the laws of nature, believed they were exposing to us the mind of God. Even Newton thought that way. You see what I mean? And that was the case up until Kant who really broke that tie. All that became the unknowable. In modern philosophy only traces of that reason remained.
RW: You’re making a connection here between Aristotle’s "reason" and the Logos—
CB: It’s constitutive. You understand?
RW: I’m not quite clear on that.
CB: By constitutive, I mean that I’m not just thinking about something, I’m thinking those principles and causes whereby things are as they are!—determinate reality. What makes the world be the kind of thing it is.
RW: How is this principle regarded in relation to myself?
CB: Also constitutive. I am a rational being. I am an imageo dei.
RW: Would you say that to pursue a life of reason in Aristotelian terms…
CB: …Classical terms…
RW: …would you say this includes trying to understand what constitutes my own reality?
CB: Oh, indeed!
RW: …as a being?
CB: Indeed. That’s really central, because the kind of a being I am, as Plato would argue, is something I am never going to understand if I approach it in quantitative terms. I am not that kind of being at all. I have to understand myself through The Good—through Justice, for example.
RW: And this would all be subsumed under the ancient use of the term "reason"?
CB: Yes. Wisdom is ethical wisdom, as much as anything else.
RW: So this ancient notion of reason is much, much more inclusive than our modern understanding of "reason."
CB: It’s a grand thing. As I was saying, there is a certain tendency since Kant where we have abandoned that, the transcendent, the noumenal. We have traces of it in symbols, and poetry can reveal truths that are no longer available to discursive reason, scientific reason. Art becomes the medium through which the transcendent is realized.
You’ll find how many painters, even abstract painters—like Rothko, will think they’re making it possible for us to have an experience of this, even if we can’t articulate it in ordinary language.
RW: In contemporary art, I’m not sure that view is still much held.
CB: I sort of gave up with Cezanne. He thought the world was geometrically constituted, a sense that comes from Plato. I guess it was an English philosopher who said Cezanne seemed to be reaching into the canvas. I guess you could say that of Van Gogh, too.
RW: The last time I saw some of Van Gogh’s paintings—at the Met in New York—it had quite an impact on me. It would be difficult to offer a satisfactory explanation of why they had this impact on my feelings.
CB: If I no longer speak of the classical philosophers—I speak in awe of what I’ve learned from them. And I try to keep something of that alive. But I have shifted and tend to begin with affectivity, rather than ontology and the question, What is something? which Socrates would begin with.
The thing that fascinates me is the way the child responds to his mother. The smile on the child’s face. The way the child has a natural empathic relation with his mother, long before the philosophers come along with their problems—the mind/body problem, for instance. There’s no such problem for the child.
It seems to me that, fundamentally, our affects are really modes of being in the world. We are incarnate. And among those modalities of being in the world, are color and sound and taste and smell.
All of these are the genuine food for the soul. Not just mathematical formula which I’ve spent a lot of time on in my day [laughs]—and which I still admire. I’m not an irrationalist, in any sense of the word, but I’m always fascinated by the Christian vision of an incarnate God—that somehow we’re going to find divinity in the physical reality.
RW: An incarnate God—and you just mentioned your interest in affectivity. Incarnate—in the body—and, for heavens sake!—we’re more than just the head-brain. We have feeling. We have sensation…
CB: …and we have sexuality!
RW: …sexuality. All that stuff…
CB: Yes! Where I am! Where I begin! And to leap to the mind, thinking thoughts, is to move too rapidly from where we are to the transcendent. I think there is a transcendence, but I think I am more likely to discover it in you, than I am in a mathematical formula.
RW: Giving up any effort to stay with some kind of order here, and getting right into associations…
CB: …you have to with me! [laughs]
RW: [laughs] Oh, I’m happy with that.… But, here we are. Okay, your phrase, "and I think there is a transcendence." Well what is the avenue to the transcendent today? I mean via the best authority of contemporary philosophy.
CB: You know, this is long and labored. My route is taking me through hundreds of pages and I’m not sure I get there at the end! [laughs]
But let me put it in another way. In general, our relation to the world is in terms of satisfactions. We eat and we drink and sleep and do various things, and all for the sake of some fulfillment. Essentially this is really the business of the ego. The ego tends to devour everything. It draws everything into itself. It attempts somehow, always, to take the measure of things from itself. Do you know what I mean?
RW: I believe I do.
CB: And I think this is nihilistic. I think it brings everything down to the measure of man. But just who is it who is doing the measuring? It’s like the child who’s got to have this, has to have that and finds no satisfaction in any of it. So consequently, the route to the transcendent is ultimately, I think, to come up against something that deconstructs the self.
RW: You’re talking about the ego here, right?
CB: Yes. Okay, the ego. What the ego could come up against could be any number of things. The vehicles of such epiphanies could be various—not just Paul on the road to Damascus.
I remember the strongest experience I ever had was after we’d gone into the Phillipines in 1944. They were in pretty bad shape— starving, and so forth, eating our garbage. You’d scrape your mess kits into a little can and they would eat it.
It was the first time I’d ever encountered anything like that, and it was a transforming experience. Do you follow? Suddenly somehow—and I don’t think I followed up on this—I was called to something beyond myself. I saw there was a higher good than the good I had been serving, however patriotically.
It was discovering—in the Japanese prisoners and their starvation as they came in to our camps after they surrendered—the desire always, to find something for them, food. The pathos of the situation, to me, was overwhelming. That’s what I mean when you come up against something that’s higher than you are. You begin to take your measure from it, rather than from yourself.
All the religions, I suppose, have been talking about this one way or another.
RW: Something beyond what I experience as "myself." This is not really so easy to grasp.
CB: Our contemporary tradition is one that has made the ego so central. And moreover, it solidifies itself, creates a foundation for itself, if you will, with the whole idea that knowledge is power.
That’s just the opposite of an earlier vision of knowledge - knowledge being that which allows one to participate in the life of God. We now think of knowledge as power. What can you do with it? What this means, essentially, is that our relation to the world is now a technological relation.
RW: Knowledge is power. This is from Bacon?
CB: Sir Francis. And this means, as far as we’re concerned, technology, doesn’t it? Knowledge is the capacity - for example, across the street there, see those houses? - a big developer bought the land. He got the bulldozers and took down all the trees. Then sold off the lots. That’s our idea, isn’t it?
We think that through power we can transform—you could put a mountain over there, I guess. I notice they’re building a lake not far from here. There’s no respect for the land at all. No feeling that this is where we belong. This is where we dwell. That somehow it’s our responsibility to preserve this, to protect it.
When the Greeks touched something, they made something beautiful out of it. Aristotle and Plato would have seen it as bodying forth eternity, as something of infinite value.
RW: How does one come to the beginning of an understanding that any capacity to move toward transcendence would be solely through something that lies beyond the self I experience as "myself"?
CB: I think what is required, and I’ll be quite metaphorical about it, if I may, one has to be prepared for an annunciation.
RW: An annunciation?
CB: "Let it be done to me according to thy word," as Mary said to the Holy Spirit. And this is where I go to the middle voice.
It’s not something we can will. It’s not something we can try to achieve.
Rilke speaks of the world, as an animal knows it, as "an open." Somehow it’s to see and preserve that world.
It’s ultimately the medial phenomenon that puts one into that receptive passivity, as it were, awaiting. That requires some hope. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. Will it? I don’t know…
That’s one of the strange things. You ask, and we’re searching for some transcendental solution to education. I think it’s going to happen—if it’s going to happen—no matter what we do. We try this program and that program. But somehow or other no matter what you do, some people just simply don’t get it, others do. Maybe they’ll get it later.
I think we waste a lot of money sending people to universities, when really, they’re not interested. They’ll even resist. That’s why I think aesthetic education would be so important early. To develop people’s vulnerabilities.
RW: Some people would accept being described as seekers, and others might not even relate to such a description. You must have been a seeker.
CB: I certainly was.
RW: Can you say anything about that sense of searching for something?
CB: I guess one of the most vivid experiences I had as a kid was on the road from Richmond to Petersburg. It went by a big Dupont plant. There was a big sign in front of the plant, "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry."
That caught my fancy. Somehow I was going to be a chemist—and produce things "for better living." So I spent most of my youth learning chemistry. When I went to college, I knew just about as much chemistry as my instructor did, if I can put it that way [laughs]. I knew far more than anybody else in the class! I’d read Pauling on the chemical bond, and so on. I was really self-educated. I had my own laboratory and worked in it all the time. So I already felt called.
It was only when I got into college and discovered that my professor—a very nice man, who had worked for some corporation and had gotten screwed out of a discovery he’d made because he hadn’t taken notes properly—I found he was really only concerned with note taking. So I decided I didn’t want to go into Chemistry, after all, and I gravitated over to Physics where I found—and I’m not bragging—but it was just like I’d stepped into this brightly-lit room. Everything just made perfect sense! I solved all the problems, all the equations, everything! I was damn near perfect. Now I had failed math in prep school! But suddenly it all made sense to me! I thought I was going to be a physicist.
But then I went into the Army, over in the Philippines, and discovered that Physics didn’t warm my spirit, particularly. There was nobody to talk with about it, but I found a friend who was a Harvard graduate. And he was a marvelous human being! I guess he was my salvation, in a way. He was a corporal, a graduate of Harvard and he had a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago—French and Fine Arts, I think.
By that time, I’d begun to read poetry. I carried around my knapsack full of poetry. He knew a lot of these people at Harvard who I was reading—Robert Lowell, and so forth. He took a fancy to me for some reason, and he had some friends in the medical corps—two psychiatrists, both Harvard people, one of whom had been the child psychiatrist at the juvenile court in Chicago. We formed a little group of four while the war was on in the Philippines. These people treated me like I was an equal, and I just couldn’t believe it!
When I went back to the university, I had a different image of myself, and about what "being educated" meant. I got to Philosophy because the philosophy professors and courses seemed closer to this than English was. The English professors didn’t really like poetry. [laughs]
In the Philosophy department, you could take a course in Joyce or Elliot’s Four Quartets. And in "Poetics" we read all sorts of strange things—Apollonious on Conic Sections. Euclid. There were tutorials. You just went in and talked with the professor. They took you over the coals. It was something like the Oxford system. You had to go in prepared to say something. And suddenly I knew I was going to have to spend my life doing that kind of thing!
I went into philosophy because it was the one place where I thought I could keep both my scientific interest and my literary interest alive!
RW: That’s a very interesting point. Keeping something alive. There’s the danger, in the process of "getting educated," that the real spark - the passion to learn - could be extinguished. But you saw that, in philosophy, you could keep this alive.
CB: I have not found that to be true among my professional colleagues. However I think I was gifted - graced - by this background.
I had a friend, dead now, who was at Tulane. One of his teachers told him he’d never make a philosopher. So he went off to Harvard and did English. In the course of it, he drifted into Whitehead’s courses and decided he would be a philosopher. So he came back to Virginia after the war and finished his Ph. D. He was there with me and we were very close. He was one of the most famous teachers in America in his era - Ed Ballard. Virtually all of the outstanding people in continental philosophy were his students. Remarkable!
Ballard was always somebody I could lean on and talk to. Now my nearest colleague is in Scotland! [laughs]
RW: Tell me more about this business of keeping something alive. You see that among many of your colleagues, something has not been kept alive..
CB: Yes. One of the strange things is - I remember when I taught at Hollings College - they asked me to write something for the paper about why you should major in philosophy. And I irritated people by saying you shouldn’t major in philosophy! [laughs] If you’re going to do philosophy, you ought to have something else first! You have to come from somewhere else. The idea of doing an undergraduate degree in philosophy struck me as being kind of absurd.
The people I admired, like Aristotle—he creates all the sciences, literally! Plato had vast accomplishments in mathematics, educational theory, religious theory. Take Leibnitz, or Descartes. Descartes was the founder of modern mathematics! Cartesian co-ordinates, you know. With Galileo, he was one of the two or three great figures in physics, the creator of modern mathematics and of modern philosophy! Leibnitz. Same thing. Incredible range of abilities! And they approached this through a focus which we don’t have anymore, a kind of theological focus.
RW: Could you say more about that?
CB: Let’s take Spinoza, Leibnitz and Descartes. We think of them as the "Rationalists." Central to their thinking was the idea that man could rationally demonstrate the existence of God.
They approached it from theologically different perspectives. Descartes was a Catholic, Spinoza was - well, people think he was he was atheistic, but he wasn’t. Novalis made the point that he was God intoxicated. He had a religious orientation, but he was not denominational. Leibnitz was a Lutheran. They could have been Arabs, as far as that goes. Do you follow? Because these were views that Averroes and Avicenna shared—everybody shared it in the Middle Ages!
That was the great heritage of our Greek tradition, that there is a unity in the world, and that - ultimately - reason is a clue. If I assume there is some connection between the fall of an apple and the movement of the heavens, damn it, I’ll find the law that relates them! Always, things fit together. There’s some kind of a beautiful cosmos. The word cosmos - cosmetics: beauty. Now I think they were overly optimistic. But they did have this standpoint.
RW: So for Descartes, Leibnitz and Spinoza, there was the conviction that reason was an avenue to understanding God. It was basically a theological view.
CB: Heidegger calls it onto-theology. It’s kind of a metaphysical theology. Those three in particular. There are others. Kant showed that the ontological proof didn’t work. So since Kant’s day, we’ve been wandering around; we don’t have that focus any longer.
RW: So today—if I might leap forward—our outlook is quite different. There are a group of French thinkers who have been influential, Derrida and others. I know you are familiar with him, and I wonder if you’d tell me what you find valuable in Derrida’s thought.
CB: Early in Derrida’s career—before he became so self-indulgent, and so indulged by editors who let him produce all the junk he produces—he wrote several rather profound and very disturbing essays. One of them is on Husserl, Speech and Phenomena; then another is a longish essay on one of the late works of Husserl called The Origin of Geometry.
In the course of this essay, Husserl makes what appears to be the obvious point that a tradition lives in writing, in a written text. The problem is how to re-animate these texts—to go back and rediscover what it was that gave them their drive, animation and beauty, and made them important.
In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida is concerned mostly with Husserl’s book Logical Investigations, which is concerned with the difference between what he calls an “indicative sign” and an “animated” sign. With an indicative sign, I’m pointing at something and you’re aware of it, but once that sign goes into your soul, you don’t see it anymore. You’re not aware of it anymore. When you read the book—the letters on the page—you understand the language. You don’t notice the letters, do you follow?
What interested Derrida were the signs themselves, and how it is that these tend to determine and shape our thinking. It’s as if thoughts were creatures of language rather than the converse, that somehow language is a tool of thought. You might even say that instead of speaking language, language “speaks us.”
He was very much interested in how it is that the language gets generated. What goes on in the now when you and I speak? This led him to a remarkable essay, Différance. He uses an “a” instead of the “e” in the spelling. The “ance” is a medial marker—if you want to know where my interest in the middle voice came in.
This essay Différance was an effort to show how it is that language comes about. I don’t want to go any further into this, but I always found this extremely interesting because it seems to me that with this, he’s coming closer to a kind of original creativity even though there’s the famous statement of his, “there’s nothing beyond the text”—no way of getting outside of language. You’re always trapped in a kind of a Klein Bottle, which is the fabric of language. That’s what deconstruction essentially is concerned with, that is, showing how it is that language ensnares us.
RW: What’s your response to that—that we can’t get out?
CB: My response is to attempt to show that we can. That’s the challenge. The answer to that, ultimately is really taking him on, on his own ground in order to show that, in Différance, there are certain things about language that he misses.
RW: I wonder what you think about this? That I can sit here and look out the window there, and I can do this with no inner talking going on, if I try. I can take in visually, with an inner silence—take in the lawn, the varied play of light, the tree with all the intricate shapes. But if I try to describe this in language, I’m only generalizing. I can’t really get to the actual visual experience through words.
CB: That’s right! And ultimately there’s a problem. As I put it, there’s a surplus over and beyond what we can say. And I’m interested in that surplus. We can never get there with language. The poet comes about as close as any. The poet uses metaphor. That’s why I’m writing about metaphor.
To get closer to the thing, he doesn’t say, “That’s a plum.” He’s going to try to make us see it freshly, do you follow? Somehow through this poetry or metaphor, we will experience this thing in its concreteness, its wonder—that is, if the poet succeeds.
I’m thinking that metaphor primarily is that which reveals things to us in their thinging. That’s a Heideggerian word.
RW: About the middle voice—which is a subject I find very interesting—was your attention directed there before you read Derrida’s essay, "Différance"?
CB: No it wasn’t. I’d read it, and I have a friend in Edinburgh, John Llewelyn, a very fine philosopher, and we were there talking and trying to understand that essay. Part of what led me into the middle voice is a longish conversation I had with him. We were trying to understand how in the world you could will not to will.
RW: Where would that idea even come up, ordinarily?
CB: Heidegger. He uses a term “releasement” —geleisenheit.
RW: But it’s not original with Heidegger, certainly.
CB: No. But Heidegger is so wrapped up with Neitzsche where everything is Will—The Will to Power and so on. The reworking of the Schopenhauerian thing, see? Somehow Heidegger sees this whole notion of the will as the last gasp of metaphysics. So part of it is a desire to go beyond metaphysics, to break with this notion of Will.
I’m making this too simple, in all honesty. This should not be taken as a very illuminating guide to understanding Heidegger. But just in this context we can say this, that he wanted to break this tendency—particularly in German thought - das wohl, the will, I mean - even though he was a Nazi, I have to say. The whole idea of the will. And, of course, the middle voice is a much more feminine kind of thing, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it; it’s receptivity, vulnerability, affectivity. These are best expressed in middle voice, not the voice of domination and power.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done any Zen. It seems to me that Zen meditation - if you can make yourself stop thinking long enough…[laughs]
RW: How much have you been involved in that?
CB: At one time I was fairly involved, but I can’t really say I ever achieved any great illumination. Yet I did for moments.
RW: Unless a person had really tried meditation, as you have in Zen, the whole notion of the middle voice might be purely an academic idea, I think. If one has tried seriously, then I think one begins to have a very direct taste of something there. That is, of the pervasiveness of our ego-doings, if I may put it that way.
CB: Yes. Heidegger, in one of his essays—a conversation with a Japanese scholar in which they talk about The Tao, which is essentially a middle-voiced orientation—he was attempting to get to that. I think he thought if we could suddenly begin to approach the world through this, then something of the wonder of things—the astonishment—might be felt. We would begin to understand a different relationship with this world, and to ourselves—not the domineering one. Essentially, he is a religious thinker.
CB: Yes. So is Derrida, for that matter.
RW: Now that’s a stretch for me. Derrida's point of view seems rather killing, on that level.
CB: Well, it looks like it. But the late Derrida is very much moved by Levinas, and later he became more and more aware of it, although he doesn’t move as far as Levinas. It’s a little hard for me to get off on this track. We have to pull back and start somewhere else.
Now, in the Timaeus, the creation dialogue of Plato, there’s a kind of triumvirate: the Father, the Mother and the Child—from the Holy family. Plato calls the Mother, the receptacle, the nurse and mother of all becoming. And of course, you can think of the Father in terms of The Good and the Ideas, and so forth. But basically, there is the gap, Chaos, between Gaia and Uranus, if you want to think that way - Uranus, the Father and Gaia, the Mother. It was in this gap that all the creatures come to be - the Gods and creatures, and so forth.
Now there’s something which Plato calls chora a mysterious notion one can behold only as if in a dream. It is difficult to see. It’s one of the names that Plato gives to the Mother. In Greek it’s simply translated as “place.” Aristotle, I take it, took it to mean “matter”—hyle. Translators frequently used to translate it as “space,” but these don’t quite get it. It’s more something like a supersaturated quantum field, before the big bang. [laughs] Derrida is interested in chora. Derrida comes to believe that underlying the text, underlying culture, and underlying everything, there’s chora.
What this whole notion suggests to Derrida is an experience which is stripped down from all of the paraphernalia that ordinarily enters into our experience—the experience, the metaphor, of a desert people—or of a searching for God. I know I’m not doing justice to him here—but Derrida thinks that the Abrahamic faiths all share this in common. Abraham is called to go into the desert, you remember—somehow in search of God. Now let’s forget all the liturgy and all the other things. It’s an eschatological experience, that is to say, you’re waiting for an impossible possibility.
RW: Derrida then, you’re saying, essentially turned, or became, or always was perhaps, in some sense, religious?
CB: Yes. Very religious. You know, I used to get very angry. Everybody thought he was a damned nihilist, but it never occurred to me he was. I wouldn’t approach the problem his way, but I do think there’s something to be said for it.
RW: With the dominance in our culture of science, rational empiricism, etc. we have a system upon which it’s difficult or impossible to base an ethics. That seems a destructive thing, somehow.
CB: I think so, too. Levinas is the most profoundly religious of these thinkers, but in a very strange way. I have a friend who has written a book, Seeing Through God. There is a double meaning here. "Seeing Through God" means there ain’t nothing to see. But seeing through God, is a transformative experience. And that’s what he’s talking about.
I think Levinas is a little bit suspicious of all the ideas of God as comforting, saving and so on. It’s essentially an ethical call for us to get busy and do the damn business of salvation, ok? I have an ultimate responsibility, and it’s a responsibility that I can never overcome, never pay off. Its name is justice.
Levinas was a student of Heidegger. Strangely enough, the direction I’m mentioning is not foreign to Heidegger, he just does not take the step. And it’s true that Levinas developed a considerable hostility to Heidegger. The Germans killed his father and his brothers.
RW: It’s distressing to learn that Heidegger was a Nazi. That’s terrible. You read these wonderful essays, and…
CB: I know. It’s really hard to believe isn’t it? That’s how we all feel. Carl Lowith met him in Rome in ‘44 and said he had a little Nazi pin on his lapel. Lowith had been a student of his. He became a very well-known Jewish philosopher. It’s interesting that so many of his students were Jewish. Hannah Arendt was his mistress, you know. And Husserl, his mentor, was Jewish. He dedicated his book to Husserl. It was Husserl who got the job for him.
You read those lectures he was giving in Germany before the war and you know everybody wanted to study with him. He was brilliant. Levinas was just swept of his feet by this man. He went to study with Husserl, but Husserl was dry and precise, and Heidegger made everything he said seem as if the whole history of the world depended on it! Here’s a man who takes the Greek word, eon, which is the archaic spelling of the word on-being, on-tology—and argues that the whole future of civilization depends on how we read this word! He almost persuades you of it! The text called "The Anaximander Fragment"—you read that and it’s really ridiculous.
He took himself very seriously, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that. Look, Carl Rahner, the most prominent Catholic theologian of his generation, was a student of Heidegger. The most important Protestant theologian of the past century, Bultmann, was a student of Heidegger. He attracted so many different people to him. He was a tremendous, powerful teacher, no question about it! I’m in debt to Heidegger. I don’t buy into his vision of things, but I can’t talk about what I want to talk about unless I talk about him! He’s laid down the rules of the game.
RW: So what is it you want to talk about?
CB: Metaphor is what interests me, right now. I want to understand metaphor. Again, let’s remember we can’t really have a theory of metaphor, because any theory we get is itself going to be a metaphor. It’s one of those curious kinds of things. Metaphor means “to transport. To carry over.”
RW: What is it exactly that intrigues you here?
CB: First of all, in the earlier tradition, it was the primary instrument that bound the totality of things into an intelligible unity. Being is a metaphorical term. Because when I say that the number five is, or that God is, or that you are, I can’t be saying this in the same sense. Do you follow? St. Paul says, in the Epistle to the Romans, “We know the things above from the things below.” - Something like that.
So metaphor was primarily the instrument that philosophers used to achieve the unity of being. It enabled one to talk about everything as if it were all in a unitary frame of reference. It put things together.
Primarily my interest in metaphor came from being quite taken by St. Thomas’ use of metaphor. The way in which he justified the kinds of things he said about God. I have since come to think that this way of talking is essentially idolatrous.
RW: Metaphor, you mean?
CB: - Used of God, it’s idolatrous. Because in order to use it, I have to say that God is like something. I’m constructing him into some image which essentially is anthropomorphic. Levinas goes so far as to put it this way: “To say that God exists is blasphemous.” ! Because God is not the kind of thing that exists. Plato will say that “the Good is beyond being.”
RW: This is something like Pseudo-Dionysius, then.
CB: It is Pseudo-Dionysius! This is where I am! And that’s where Derrida is too, interestingly enough, because he has to use this kind of language to talk about chora. That’s taking over the Platonic tradition and bringing it into the orthodox Christian tradition. That’s where it comes in the strongest.
Again, that’s where Levinas comes in. It’s The Good he’s talking about, not Being. To say that God is a being is already to construe him through some kind of analogy with things. I don’t think any longer we can get to The Good through analogy. I don’t think we can get to chora.
But we can use analogy and metaphor in the middle, ok? We can use it to discover some traces of these things. I would be the last person on earth to tell you that its not irrational to talk about God. But it makes a kind of sense within a context.
RW: Does it interest you that, yes, metaphor works on a rational level in some way, but it also can touch us, perhaps more so, on the level of feeling?
CB: Definitely! We can’t really understand metaphor unless we understand it in terms of affectivity. Now the other point I try to make about metaphor is that metaphor is creative. When we use a metaphor we’re likely to see things afresh, as if for the first time. I’m one to say that ultimately all science is metaphoric. I say that on the basis of Pythagoras’ discovery of the nature of harmony.
RW: Say more about that. That’s an interesting statement.
CB: Very simply this—Pythagoras discovered that he could map the four notes of his tetra-chord. C, F, G and C sharp: the octave. He imagined these notes corresponded to the four numbers, six, eight, nine, twelve. So the four harmonies. Six is to eight as nine is to twelve. That’s a mathematical, a harmonic, proportion. Euclid discusses these at great length in the fifth, seventh and one of the later books of The Elements.
It’s really the most incredibly powerful—if you know what analogy means: ana-logos—equality of logoi. You know what logos means. It’s Greek. Two is to three, is a logos. In Latin that’s called a ratio. That’s why you’re rational. Because you can apprehend the logoi of things, ok? [laughs] It’s by mapping things onto number, in other words. You follow? It’s really like an allegory.
RW: There’s very little appreciation of that today, but I find this very interesting, that there is something in our make-up that causes us to respond affectively to notes, vibrations, in fact. If you had a mono-chord, for instance, with a bar you could slide to get different notes, and you plucked it, you would slide the bar until the note sounded right. It wouldn't sound right otherwise.
CB: And Plato had an answer to this, as usual. He says the human soul is constructed in these ratios. It has the form of the diatonic scale. Once you begin to think about this, you start to realize that something really profound is being said here!
I mean, you know, it’s the music you make with your soul that determines whether it is beautiful or ugly. Plato, earlier in The Phaedo, had rejected the idea that the soul is a harmony because he said, you know, this is like an aeolian harp. The wind blows and makes a noise. But we’re responsible for the music we make of our lives, you follow?
So the soul is not just a matter of some kind of harmony or other. It’s more like an instrument that we play. Interesting thing about this is that listening to music is a medial experience. If you really are taken up into the music then there is no distinction between inner and outer. It possesses you. You are not doing it.
RW: Today, how does one come to such a point, as you have, where one feels that the ancient Pythagorean insight remains deeply relevant?
CB: I got that in college. I didn’t know why I was reading Apollonious on Conic Sections. The teacher just said, “Read it.” I read it, but he didn’t push the point, and if you didn’t get anything out of it, then we’d try something else, you know?
But over the years, I have come to see the point. When I talk about a conic section, I’m talking about the intersection of a plane and a cone. I’ll say, “This is a circle. This is an ellipse. This is an hyperbole. Here are two intersecting lines.” But they’re all the same thing! Metaphors are different ways of seeing a thing. Do you follow?—seeing it as this, as that, as the other.
What we frequently don’t recognize, is that we’ve got to get power over these metaphors, or they’ll carry us away. For example, in Germany, Goebbels said, “We have a cancer in society.” And before you know it, they’re administering Belzek - and all those places.
Leibnitz said something very interesting. He was the one who really created perspectival geometry. His metaphor was this, when we think of Paris what are we really thinking of? It’s something seen from an infinity of points of view. Paris is just this, all the different ways it can be seen and experienced. It’s a unity of those experiences. Quite different, do you follow?
That’s what reason is all about. It’s grasping unity in dissimilar things, some invariance that runs through it all. But the fact that we are able to make a metaphor and that it “makes sense” does not really mean that it is true. That’s what I’m getting at. You have to criticize it. The way you do that, ultimately, is from different metaphors. You see if it “stands up.”
Now science does not really recognize that it's a fabric of metaphors. Let me give you an example. This is a good one. When Faraday came to the conclusion that electricity “flows” he was able to identify the properties of electricity with properties of hydraulics. Does that mean that is what electricity really is? No.
We might want to say that “life is DNA” or something like that. Well, you know there’s a hell of a lot more to life than DNA.
RW: I’m wondering how you view the use of metaphor in advertising.
CB: I’m really using metaphor as a kind of anthropology. I think metaphor tells us a lot about what we are. It tells us something about the structure of our experience. What really happens in metaphor is that there’s a crossing. Take Heidegger’s metaphor, “making is finding”— now that seems to be an oxymoron almost, and yet when I think about making through the linguistic parameters of “finding,” I say, “yes!” When I make something, I “find it.” It’s not just a semantic sort of thing, it’s phenomenological.
I don’t deny that many metaphors fall into this semantic category as when Flaubert, speaking of a train as an “ostrich plume” of smoke. That’s a metaphor, but it doesn’t really compel me to think about it. It doesn’t tell me anything new. But if I tell you “making is finding,” that is a discovery! That’s the kind of metaphor that I’m interested in. It’s creative. It brings something new.
I confess I’m less interested in what people might do with a metaphor than in really getting what it is and how it works.
RW: Getting back to something you said earlier about text, that the problem is how to get back to the animating principle, let’s say, and not just lay another brick - have you considered the oral tradition?
CB: Yes. But the problem with the oral tradition is this. You don’t distance yourself from it. Distantiation is necessary. For example, if - as the early Greeks did, you memorize your scripture, Homer - if I memorize Homer, I’m going to see everything through Homeric eyes.
What literacy does, and it doesn’t always happen, but if I’m distanced from the text, I can begin to look at it critically. Is it really true, or is it false? I can’t separate myself from myself if all I know is the sacred text.
You find this with fundamentalists for whom the Bible is a collection of proof texts. They never understand where this comes from and what is being said. They have no critical apparatus at all. They don’t stand back from it. That’s the problem with an oral tradition.
RW: What do you think about Socrates?
CB: I follow in his footsteps as if he were a God. I’m really taken with the guy. There’s something about that man. His cantankerousness, his integrity…He’s just of a different order, and again, the thing I hope I’ve been trying to convey - and I can’t always - is the effort to keep everything to a level of corrigibility, to that Socratic principle. Not dogmatism, you understand. Open.
RW: Corrigibility you equate with openness?
CB: If I say something is “corrigible,” I mean it’s doubtful in some sense. If I say it’s “incorrigible” I mean what? You can’t doubt it.
The point is that Socratic doubt is at the center of the Socratic “thing.” It’s not Socrates, it’s truth we’re honoring, right? It’s what Socrates was all about. That’s the important thing, and that’s what I mean. Keep things open, be careful of certainties.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to be precise and rigorous. That’s how we find out where our errors are. Logical analysis is essential.
RW: I would guess that a central principle for wisdom, if you will, is that if I can’t verify it in my own experience then maybe I’m on shaky grounds.
CB: Maybe on shaky grounds. I want to go live with it. I caution my students. I say, “look, I’m going to say things that are going to shake your faith.” I don’t really want to do that. It’s not my business. Do you follow? What I hope to do is to encourage you to think about it, examine it. Not as a hostile thing, the way Thomas Paine would do it in The Age of Reason or something.
How do you know that “in the name of God” you really are expressing something about God? That’s Tillich’s point, that faith requires doubt. How do I know, really? So you have to advance these things with fear and trembling, not with certainty. You know, I could be quite willing to die for something, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fool.