Witold Gombrowicz: Philosophy in 6 1/4 hours (1)

Witold Gombrowicz, A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes; translated by Benjamin Ivry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 109, [1] pp.

[1] First Lesson: Kant 1724-1804 [+ Descartes] (27 April 1969)
[2] Second Lesson: Kant: The Categories (28 April 1969)
[3] Third Lesson: Kant (30 April 1969)
[4] Fourth Lesson: Schopenhauer (1 May 1969)
[5] Fifth Lesson: Schopenhauer (2 May 1969)
[6] Sixth Lesson: Hegel (3 May 1969)
[7] Hegel/Kierkegaard: Kierkegaard’s Attack
[8] Existentialism [Heidegger, Husserl, Sartre] (4 May 1969)
[9] Existentialism [Kierkegaard, Descartes, Sartre] (5 May 1969)
[10] Freedom in Sartre (6 May 1969)
[11] The View of Others [Sartre] (7 May 1969)
[12] Heidegger (11 May 1969)
[13] Existentialism (Heidegger)
[14] Marx 1818-1883 (12 May 1969)
[14a] Revolution
[14b] The Chinese
[15] Realization of Marxism
[16] Marxism
[17] Nietzsche
[18] [Untitled: Existentialism, Sartre, Genet, Reduction, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Husserl, [19] Structuralism] (25 May 1969)

Names or topics in brackets are descriptors added by me. The numbering of the sections is mine. Where the last hour ends and the last fifteen minutes begin is unclear, as this was obviously not a finished project.

According to the note at the end of the book, Gombrowicz (1904-1969) first organized his “lecture course” with his wife Rita as student, and then for his friend Dominique de Roux. De Roux sought to de-stress Gombrowicz, who had not long to live, by requesting philosophy lessons. Rita claimed that only philosophy could get Gombrowicz to rally.

These sketches of leading ideas of the philosophers named do not add up to a usable philosophy course, but they provide notable talking points. Gombrowitz makes his own critical comments, but his intentions notwithstanding, I get a good glimpse of the non-viability of almost all of the philosophies described.

One can at least take Kant and Hegel seriously, and Marx is in a class by himself. Schopenhauer is the most ridiculous. This is what I think, not what Gombrowitz says.

Gombrowicz’s story: Modern thought begins with Descartes. “Descartes feared the terrifying consequences of his ideas.” Hence demonstration of the reality of God and hence of the world. Consciousness, however, becomes primary. But lesson 1 is really about Kant. Gombrowitz discusses judgments, synthetic judgments, a priori and a posteriori judgments, and the kernel problem of synthetic a priori judgments. He breaks down the components of the Critique of Pure Reason. He concludes that Kant’s system, like all systems, breaks down. It’s part of the progress of consciousness, as Hegel confirms. But one must philosophize. “Philosophy allows us to organize culture, to introduce order, to find ourselves, and to attain intellectual confidence.” [p. 10]

Gombrowitz takes up transcendental analysis [section/lesson 2], relating judgments to categories. Gombrowitz doesn’t believe that consciousness can be schematized, though.

Then he outlines the four antinomies of pure reason, and the limitations of reason to phenomena, as distinct from noumena. [3] There are a few remarks on Critique of Practical Reason. What immediately strikes me as most implausible in Kant’s schema is the notion of time and space as subjective categories, not as objective. The situation becomes more complex once one considers non-Euclidean geometry, which was unknown to Kant, not to mention relativity, which further complicates our understanding of the objective world and its relationship to mathematics. But some order of space and time must be objective, however convoluted our attempts to characterize them.

Schopenhauer is seen as doing something new, abandoning arid system-building for an allegedly direct contact with life. [4] Schopenhauer did not really take hold in subsequent philosophy, but here we can see the beginnings of the existential attitude. Or in my view, of reactionary irrationalism. For Schopenhauer, the universe, the noumenon is will. Gombrowitz finds Schopenhauer’s tragic vision pessimistic. Also, as Gombrowitz is a writer, he is drawn to philosophies which begin with sensibility. However, he considers Schopenhauer’s turn to Eastern philosophy, to renunciation, unconvincing.

Schopenhauer recommends neither participation in the world nor suicide, but meditation, contemplation of the world as a game. [5] Gombrowitz is most interested in Schopenhauer’s theory of art. And also in disinterested genius. The genius is inherently abnormal. Gombrowicz explains this thusly: “we sense better what we lack.” [p. 34] An artist must incorporate opposites. Schopenhauer is not popular today because (1) his metaphysics is invalid; (2) his philosophy is aristocratic; (3) he was anti-life. Gombrowitz notes at the end that Schopenhauer detested Hegel.

I find Schopenhauer utterly contemptible. It seems to me that he and Kierkegaard are the most reactionary modern philosophers of this period.

Gombrowitz finds that Hegel makes a major advance, as Hegel’s is a philosophy of becoming. [6] We are taken through some of Hegel’s basic ideas, with a mention of Marx at the end.

Kierkegaard objects to Hegel because Hegel deals only in abstractions, concepts rather than the concrete, rather than existence. [7] Kierkegaard turns this upside down, claiming to approach real existence. Gombrowitz finds a fundamental weakness here, which he will revisit in subsequent sections:

Existentialism is particularly meant to be a philosophy of the concrete. But this is a dream; in concrete reality, one cannot make arguments. Arguments always use concepts, etc. Existentialism is therefore a tragic system of thought because it can never be self-sufficient, it must be simultaneously both an abstract and a concrete philosophy. [p. 47]

One can of course understand why Gombrowitz, as a writer examining the human condition, engages those philosophies which meet man at the gut-level, but he does at least recognize where they are not viable. One must also learn to distinguish the goals of philosophy from those of other sorts of creative writing. We must recognize the duplicity and hypocrisy of life-philosophy. It purports to be concrete, but offers only the emptiest of abstractions, from Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard to Heidegger. The abjuration of conceptual thinking disables the comprehension of the concrete, however incomplete the process must always remain, via concepts, and thus disables the critique and improvement of the human condition.

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on February 22nd, 2014.
Categories: Descartes, Enlightenment, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kant, Kierkegaard, Marx, Marxism, Polish philosophy, Schopenhauer, Witold Gombrowicz, continental philosophy, epistemology, existentialism, idealism, intellectual life, irrationalism, modernity, mysticism, orientalism, philosophy, popularization.

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