A Question of Being Human (1)
Beginnings: In Medias Res/’after all’
Of starting points in general… Questions are never asked at the beginning (at the beginning we cannot ask questions, we do not know how (we have no language)). By the time we ask the questions we are already in the midst of things. Everything is always (already) ‘in medias res’. Formed as we are; we are always ‘in the middle’, in mid-journey, in mid-stream… with no access to our origins (to our experience of our origins). The beginnings of the meaning of words, as of processes, can be found; but they too, after all, are a product of a cultural context, a nexus of processes themselves in medias res… So any starting point ‘in general’, whether based upon a supra-historical proposition or universal, or cast as a search for an ultimate foundation, is always, on examination, found to be, after all, already relying on a mass of material, a big chunk of received, and supporting, culture, on many kinds of understanding... of what is understood, of what is to be understood (what is implied). The after all of ‘after all’. The starting point of a list of instructions is a different genre to the search for first principles. We either know what something means ‘now’, in context, or we are liable to begin an infinite excavation of an entire culture and its history (for most purposes, not surprisingly, the former will do).
‘For most purposes’… yet what is it that lies beyond the perimeter of this set? Apart from as a branch of some arcane or specialized enquiry, does it have any use? After all, when all is said and done (which it never is, of course, and the problem with all pragmatism lies here, nothing just ends, has no after-effects, no after-shock or remaining trace: yet the chief virtue of pragmatism lies here too; a temporal realism, ‘after all’ means ‘now’) when all is said and done, it must have some implication for how we live our life. And yet… what has gone before may not be unitary, may speak with many voices, may indeed offer contradictory meanings. After all - we are ‘after all’…
Two senses of ‘after all’. The first, inclusive, literal, redundant, impossible (for us mortals) as without an end… ‘after everything’; but then we are no more, all is gone, including the self. The second ‘after all’, restricted, figural, suggests that ‘after all’ in reality means ‘after all that has gone before’… before the present moment (observing the tide-lines of a given event horizon). Begin now, and work back… if you really have to. (Have you tried working forwards…?)
Any attempt to restrict, chop-out or otherwise delimit or excise aspects of our experience to provide a tidy starting-point (Descartes, Husserl, early Wittgenstein), whether through phenomenology or logic, mathematical or empirical, will soon find the excluded returning to assert its rights, claim its portion, to taunt the pretentions of ‘the’ first principle, to haunt its upward steps… as it attempts to comprehend the world from the tightrope of its axioms. Undermining all claims to purity, unassailable ground, unshakable foundation, indispensible axioms, Immaculate Conception, whatever… It is not a case of ‘anything goes’, the cry of every charlatan operating in the human fairground of desire and desperation; for example, in the case of popular superstition as in so many matters of belief or half-belief, it is not the truth value (reference) that counts, but rather function. The faculty and its desire may then be understood - which it never will if it’s (right to) existence is simply ignored.
And now, after this has been said, after all, what of our use of the restricted meaning of ‘after all’? For an incision has taken place: will it come back to haunt us? Inevitable. It will, for it is the future. The rest of the future, the rest of time, after us, after now, that is restricted, put aside – and this we cannot ignore. For it will come, it lies before us. And we can not avoid it. Just as to wait for its passing is clearly impossible. Useful answers are required before the end of time (whether our time or all time).
A necessary axiomatisation, then, as all, after all, requires axioms to permit us to function… and this temporal axiom is unavoidable, unless we really do play God and cast our favourite prejudices as so many universals. And also unnecessary… as to ask such questions of ‘all’ and of some, and of ‘outside’ and of self-reference, would themselves be impossible. So unrestricted reference is impossible and restricted reference is but a figure… (But Kant did this a long, long time ago).
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2012