When a book makes the astonishing claim of bringing to an end an entire philosophical tradition, one might very well be sceptical. Especially if that tradition is securely ensconced in the philosophy departments of the biggest and richest universities in the world, with thousands of tenured professors and many more graduate students churning out immense amounts of papers, books, and other research publications every year like a well-managed factory. What makes the claim interesting, however, is that it is made by someone who up till very recently, was both unpublished and untenured, living quite literally on the very margins of philosophy.
Irad Kimhi, currently an associate professor at the University of Chicago, is not just virtually unknown outside the academic community, he is also relatively unknown inside it. So why should one read his recent book Thinking and Being (his only publication to date), if it is a work of academic philosophy even professional academics don’t know what to do with?
The answer is that one should read Kimhi’s book precisely because the professional academic class has no idea what to do about it. Thinking and Being is genuinely both new and “threatening” (as philosopher Robert Brandom, Kimhi’s supervisor, has called it) to become an even in contemporary thought in the post-truth era.
Is lying impossible?
It is commonplace to state that the journalists of today have to grapple with that deep philosophical question, “what is truth”? Fake news, malicious rumours, and manipulated photos and videos are now unquestionably part of our reality. Writers like Jordan Peterson would like to blame cultural Marxism and postmodernist philosophy for this demise of the truth and the rise of relativism in the public discourse. Yet the alt-right (in Europe and the United States) and the BJP IT cell in our country have weaponised fake news more effectively than any Marxist propagandist could have dreamed of. While it is important to expose “alternative facts” as the barefaced lies they are, it is also important to take a step back.
Rather than telling us the ways in which one can speak of what is true, Irad Kimhi’s Thinking and Being reopens a philosophical debate long thought to have been closed. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides had claimed that it is impossible to speak of that which is not. He had claimed that being and thinking are the same, which means that it belongs to the “very nature of thinking to reach all the way to that which is the case” as Kimhi explains.
What follows from this is that lying, or being false, is not just impossible but also unintelligible. The deep puzzle is thus not “what is truth” but how is it possible to speak of what is not, to be false, to lie? If thinking is considered to be the representation of an external reality, how is a false statement even possible?
A linguistic turn
While the philosophical orthodoxy believes that Gottlob Frege (father of the Analytic philosophical tradition) convincingly answered this question, Kimhi, in what very much amounts to parricide, claims that this is far from true. He is not simply calling for a return to Parmenides either, a nostalgic move quite common in philosophical communities. Kimhi fully accepts Parmenides’ dictum of the sameness of being and thinking, but astonishingly he arrives at a radically opposite conclusion.
It is the sameness of being and thinking which accounts for the capacity to be false, in a way that Kimhi quite unhelpfully calls syncategorematic (a concept that is too incredibly complicated to be unpacked here). Such a project would be ambitious enough in itself, but Kimhi is not done with attempting to take down only one philosophical orthodoxy. What Kimhi desires is to also complete the linguistic turn of philosophy. This linguistic turn, as he says, is “that the being of thinkers, and thus of human beings, is that of language users, and that the philosophical concern with language is the same as the philosophical concern with thinking and being”.
The linguistic turn basically implies that any philosophical project must accept that the world is necessarily mediated through language. This linguistic turn has for long been under the sovereignty of the tradition known as analytic philosophy, which, after being inspired by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, found its home in the British and American universities.
According to Kimhi the linguistic turn remains partial. While Frege had asserted that language is necessary to our thought, he had also claimed “that does not lie in the nature of thought but in our own nature”. Frege kept open the possibility that there might be non-linguistic thinkers (only they would definitively not be human).The connection of logic with language, for Frege, was a contingent one. It only seems necessary from the perspective of the human. There might even be beings which can think logically without any sort of recognisable linguistic system.
Kimhi claims otherwise: logic and language have a necessary connection. There can be no talk of a non-linguistic logic. Psychology (the science of how we do think) and logic (the science of how we should think) are the same. Logic is thus not a normative discipline, it is not how we should think, it is how we do think. In this way Kimhi claims to have completed the linguistic turn, and simultaneously brought about the end of the project of the Analytic tradition.
“The personal is the logical”
The distinction between psychology and logic, an orthodoxy in all philosophical schools, is untenable, as Kimhi quite bluntly states that “the personal is the logical”. To think a contradictory thought (such as “it’s raining but I don’t believe it’s raining) is not something we should not do, it’s something we just cannot do. A contradictory thought, in Kimhi’s book, is not a thought at all. What one does when one holds a contradictory thought in one’s head cannot be called thinking.
Kimhi argues that this is because there is no gap between judging something as true based on the facts (philosophers use the term “state of affairs”) and the consciousness of the judgment as true. An example he quotes illustrates this better. The judgment that Jupiter is round is true, because Jupiter is round. On minimal reflection the person who thinks this thought can say that his judgment on Jupiter’s roundness is true. While the first judgment corresponds to the undeniable fact of Jupiter’s roundness, the second one corresponds to a very different fact – which is the first judgment’s correspondence to Jupiter’s roundness.
Kimhi’s claim is that both the judgments are true in the same way. Following up on this he develops his concept of the syncategorematic, which accepts Parmenides’ dictum of the sameness of being and thinking as proving (rather than disallowing) the intelligibility of negation. The syncategorematic is an extremely difficult concept, the full development of which is the book’s raison d’etre. It is the syncategorematic, Kimhi claims, which makes thinking unique.
Though this book is relatively short at around 166 pages, it is not an easy work to get through. The project that Kimhi has undertaken here is so vast, the tradition he takes on so secure in its orthodoxies, that even a much longer work would hardly suffice. Kimhi’s gnomic style makes it difficult for even professional academics to fully understand his method of argumentation.
It has been almost a year since the book was published by Harvard University Press, and surprisingly, there has been no official response in the form of review articles or journal publications from the academic establishment. Is it fear or indifference that is keeping the academic community from responding to Kimhi’s book? Whatever it may be, one can agree with Robert Hanna when he says “that it’s the end of Analytic philosophy as we know it…and I feel fine”.
Thinking and Being, Irad Kimhi, Harvard University Press.