Diacritics 35 (1):22-46 (2005)

Authors
Russell Ford
Elmhurst College
Abstract
While it has perhaps always accompanied philosophical thought – one immediately thinks of Plato’s Dialogues – the problem of the communication of that thought, and therefore of its capacity to be taught, has acquired a new insistence in the work of post-Kantian thinkers. As evidence of this one could cite Fichte’s repeated efforts to formulate a definitive version of his Wissenschaftslehre, the model of the Bildungsroman that Hegel adopts for his Phenomenology of Spirit, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Heidegger’s uncompleted Being and Time. Certainly each of these thinkers, as well as their projects, are quite distinct from the others, but their works are also signposts. It is not a question here of reducing the puzzles and difficulties of these works to some single element, some trace of a philosophical zeitgeist. Rather, it is enough to indicate this preoccupation with the problem of the communicability of thinking in order to raise the question of the modality of such a communication. How has thinking come to be so fundamentally troubled by its own expression? That Kant’s Critical philosophy has precipitated this preoccupation ought to come as no surprise, for it was Kant, most famously in the Critique of Pure Reason, who sought to definitively set the limits of philosophical thinking. In doing so, however, Kant is unable to remain utterly silent about what he himself sets outside the bounds of meaningful thought and speech: things-in-themselves. The mere fact that this meaningless element is an essential component of Kant’s philosophical exposition is an indication of the paradoxical logic of the limit: to postulate a limit is simultaneously to set out its obverse side. In Kant’s case, then, the demarcation of what can be thought carries with it the implicit thinking of what is ruled out of bounds for thought. Beginning with Fichte, the philosophical project of Kant’s successors and inheritors is then largely determined by an effort to incorporate or at least accommodate this alien element within thinking. The initial phase of this effort is marked by a tragic motif, a conjoining of thought with the experience of loss and suffering that is characteristic of Romanticism, that culminates in the dialectic of Hegel’s Absolute Knowing. In Absolute Knowing, thought has not vanquished its limitations, it has instead discovered the resources with which it can perpetually surmount them. This first phase is followed by a reaction or response to this seeming completion and overcoming of the Kantian limitation. Now, the tragic movement of thought comes to be understood as itself limited, and necessarily so according to the logic of the limit that imposes itself upon every gesture of closure. Tragedy thereby gives way to comedy insofar as the limitation that is incorporated as an obstacle to be overcome by tragic thought is shown to be the external condition of that very thought. Finally, if the comic is the fate of the limitations of tragedy, the thought of comedy itself demands a third mode of thinking, one capable of something more than the mere reiteration of the limit between comedy and tragedy that troubles them both. This third form of expression is parody, an expression appropriate to a thinking that repeats and completes the threefold movement of tragic thought while, in this very repetition, creating a limitless domain of thoughtful expression.
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DOI 10.1353/dia.2007.0011
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