On Negation

There is something to be learned by reflecting on the simple expression “not here.”

Notice how the words in “not here” function.  The first word, “not,” needs the second word in order to be meaningful.  The second word did not have to be “here,” but it had to be something, because the “not” is always the negation of something.

“Not,” then, is an interesting word, for it has to step outside itself, so to speak, in order for its own meaning to be established.

The expression “not here” is interesting, then, for it actually expresses the very nature of the “not” itself: in other words, it is as if the word “not” says “not here” whenever you look at it.  The “not” effectively directs you to “look away from me,” “look there.”

“Not,” then, is a word, a notion, of something that is inherently an “other,” that is, it must always be one of a pair of words: it functions only when there is another word to which it is itself another.

But now let us consider the word “here.”  The word “here” seems to be precisely the opposite of “not,” in the sense that it announces that it is the place: it is the point of reference to which others are oriented, but it itself does not defer to some second co-ordinate, some “other,” like the “not” does.

But though “here” seems thus “self-present,” so to speak, further reflection reveals a more complex situation.

First, notice that one only says “here” when one wants to pick out the correct spot from a range of other possible locations.  In that way, “here” always implies “there,” even if it doesn’t explicitly say so.  In this sense, this, the very meaning of “here” is “not there.”

Second, notice that the picking out of this location “here” from “there” also requires that there be the field of possible locations upon which one is now directing one’s attention.  The word “here” this also differs, (by being a word), from the field of real possibilities that it serves to articulate.  The word, in short is not the thing named.

This second point is important because, whether “here” is an actual word we say out loud or whether it’s just the “sense” of the attitude we bring to bear on a situation, that articulation is always a way of taking up a field of possibility—it is a change, an interpretation, or an actualization of the situation.  Such a change, interpretation or actualization is a negating of the situation, not in the sense of a denial or destruction of it, but in the sense of a transformative engagement with it.

So “here,” then is itself a form of “not”!

(Incidentally, various others words I’ve used, such as “first,” “this” and “now,” could also be thought through in this same way.  And the word “is” . . .)

Initially, we noticed the essential “othering” character of “not.”  We can now see that what initially looked simply like the peculiar meaning of this word is in fact the essential character of our spatial experience, (for our inhabitation of space is inherently a navigating of “here” and “there”), language as such, (for the sign that articulates is inherently differentiated from what it names), and experience as such (for our attitude is always shaped by a way of interpreting and articulating).  (And if we had explored words like “now,” “first” and “this,” we would have found the same to be true of temporality, quantity and quality.)

Surprisingly, then, the expression “not here” seems to hold the key to understanding just about everything.  In being “not here,” it’s actually everywhere.  (And then, again, if we tried to take on “is” . . .)

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  1. Kirsten
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Your discussion here brings home to me just how much Hegel’s chapter on sense certainty in a very strong way contains the whole of what follows in _The Phenomenology of Spirit_! The importance of making a good beginning and understanding one’s beginning also comes through here. I’ll direct my Hegel students to this post.

  2. Greg R
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Just today, I read this in King Lear: “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst'” (IV.1).

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).