Of all the ways that human beings differ from the rest of what is found in nature, being able to think is most fundamental. Being able to think is, it seems, uniquely characteristic of us. But what is so special about the ability to think? In other words, what is so special about us? Analytic philosophy finds its foundations in an answer: not very much. An elusive new book, Thinking and Being, by Irad Kimhi, a heretofore little-known Israeli philosopher, argues that this is the wrong answer. And so, he argues, a whole tradition of philosophical thought is wrong, not just in the details, but in the fundamentals. What Kimhi wants to show is that the logical features of thought, and so also the features of those who think them, stand at a far remove from anything we might now call “natural.”
Why is thought so special? Consider the natural world, which consists just of things and how they are: the breeze is warm, the lawn is lush, the bees buzz. Thinking, however, is not only about how things are—the warm breeze and the buzzing bees—but also about how they aren’t. Though the weather is fine, I can think of it being grim—I can think what is false. And while the breeze is warm, I can think, truly now, of many ways that it is not—for instance, chilly—simply by thinking that it is not chilly. When I entertain a falsehood, or consider how things are not, what I think is not anywhere out there in the world. So it seems that thought, which involves what is not as well as what is, may be nowhere in nature. In which case, what is it?
These questions—what is thought, what is nature and what is the difference between them—are as old as philosophy itself, and their first answer holds that thought of what is not is simply impossible. It can seem a commonplace to point out that we can think both what is—say, that Antarctica is frozen—and what is not—say, that Antarctica is tropical. But in his poem On Nature, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides presents an argument that purports to contradict this commonplace. It is impossible, he argues, to think or say what is not. Why? For it is not. It is nothing. And if one says or thinks nothing, then one does not say or think at all.
It can be difficult to feel the force of this argument, precisely because its conclusion is so repellent. But consider: when I think what is, that Antarctica is frozen, then the world has within it something for me to think, for Antarctica is frozen. When I think, however, what is not, that Antarctica is tropical, then there is nothing in the world for me to think: Antarctica is, after all, not tropical. If that is right, then what seemed to be a thought is, after all, nothing. And Parmenides has his conclusion.
Hold firm to the commonplace: we do think what is not. We do it all the time, first when we think what is false—that Antarctica is tropical; and second, when we think, truly, that what is not is not—that Antarctica is not tropical. No account of thinking should deny this. In sticking with the commonplace and rejecting Parmenides’s conclusion, we are left with a puzzle that cleaves in two: How can I think what is not the case, and how can I, in thinking that something is not the case, think truly? Kimhi argues that it is only by pursuing and dissolving these puzzles that the nature of thought can be made clear. This is no easy task. It would be remiss to downplay the enormous effort required to understand this book, but even more so to diminish its rewards. Impossible, frustrating, beguiling and iconoclastic, few books in philosophy have challenged my views about so much, so deeply.
In Plato’s Sophist, which Kimhi treats in the final quarter of his book, the ostensible aim is a definition of the slippery titular figure: What is a sophist and what is the difference between him and the real philosopher? The exchange between its central characters, the enigmatic Eleatic Stranger and his young interlocutor Theaetetus, soon turns to thought’s uniqueness and in particular, to the possibility of thinking what is not. Because the sophist trades in falsehoods, in order to understand what he is, we must be able to understand how it is possible to think what is not. But that, the Stranger reminds Theaetetus, is precisely what his philosophical father, Parmenides, concluded was impossible.
The Eleatic Stranger begins his dissection of Parmenides’s argument by begging, “Do not regard me as a parricide.” By the end, having defused the Parmenidean claim that it is impossible to think what is not, it’s hard to see him any other way. Perhaps overthrowing one’s intellectual parents comes in both gentler and more violent forms? The gentler kind is the discovery that the once-parent, a godlike figure, is, after all, wholly earthbound, a familiar mix of failure and success. Its victory is maturity over childish illusion, and its destruction the outgrowing of one’s elevation of the parent-god. The more violent kind, resisted by the Stranger, is a sneer and a twist of the wrist. Its victory is freedom from folly, and its destruction the smashing of the wholly false idol. There is more than a whiff of both parricides in Thinking and Being.
Gentler parricide abounds. The esteemed contemporary philosophers Charles Kahn, John McDowell, Donald Davidson and Jennifer Hornsby come in for it; even battered old Descartes is taken down another notch. A handful survive: Plato, Aristotle, Wittgenstein. But Kimhi’s main target in this respect is Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), a founder, like Parmenides, of a philosophical school of his own: analytic philosophy.
It is no triviality to define analytic philosophy. Broadly, it combines a faith in formal logic as a tool for eliminating philosophical confusion with an almost unquestioned, at least in recent decades, belief in its own status as continuous with the natural sciences. The logic came first, furnished by Frege and spread via the greater reach of Bertrand Russell, and the scientism later. But in Kimhi’s view these two defining features—Frege’s conception of logic and the quest by analytic philosophers for scientific respectability—collaborate to obscure thought’s uniqueness from philosophy’s view.
Frege thought that the things we can think or say are, at the most fundamental level, no different from other objects in nature. Just like them, the things we can think exist independently of us—those who think or say them. Philosophers nowadays call such items “propositions,” and there are many views on what propositions are, what their constituents are and how finely they are to be individuated. But what almost all agree is that to think, truly, that Antarctica is frozen, or to think, falsely, that Antarctica is tropical, is for a thinker to stand in a relation—the relation of thinking—to such an object—a proposition—which is true or false whether or not anyone happens to stand in that relation to it. Just as an object like Big Ben can have the property of being tall, so the proposition that Antarctica is frozen can have the property of being true, and the proposition that Antarctica is tropical can have the property of being false. For a subject to think that Antarctica is frozen or that it is tropical is for her to stand in a certain relation to those propositions. Thinking is thus no more special in kind (though it differs in the details) than sitting on this chair, insofar as my sitting involves a relation between me and it. Thinking thus understood is not unique after all. Thinking really does, then, just involve what we find in nature anyway: objects, among them propositions and thinkers; relations, among them those holding between thinkers and propositions; and properties, among them that of truth and that of falsehood.
For a philosopher inheriting the relational view from Frege, the Parmenidean puzzle can seem utterly toothless. For what she will say is that when I think that Antarctica is tropical, the world does give me something to think—a proposition, one that is false. So, while I think what is not, what I think is not nothing. There is a thing there for me to think: a false proposition.
Frege’s propositions can perform this trick, however, only if it is reasonable to suppose that there could be such things. And Kimhi argues that Frege’s way of thinking of them is deeply confused. To appreciate his reasoning, consider a picture: a line drawing of Big Ben on fire. I can use such a picture to indicate that Big Ben is on fire, by pointing to it and saying: things are as they are in this picture. But suppose that, instead, I wanted to indicate that Big Ben is not on fire. It would not do simply to show you a picture of an unharmed Big Ben, for this would fail to indicate, specifically, that it was fire that was absent. Rather, to say that Big Ben is not on fire I would have to use the same picture (the picture of Big Ben on fire) and say that things are not as the picture depicts. In other words, I would have to use the same picture to state a fact and its negation.
The picture analogy helps to capture a difficult feature of Frege’s thought about propositions. Because I have to use the same picture in both the case where I want to say that Big Ben is on fire, and the case where I want to say it isn’t, it’s easy to conclude that the picture itself can’t say anything about how things are. And that, argues Kimhi, is exactly what Frege concluded. For Frege, propositions do not by themselves state that things are one way or another; only a thinker can do that, when she “asserts” the proposition. This is precisely what Kimhi denies. For, he argues, the very fact that we can use the same picture to express both the affirmation and the denial suggests that a proposition already says that things are a certain way. After all, I cannot say “Yes” or “No” to a proposal unless something is proposed. Kimhi’s criticism is that Frege imagines that there could be such a thing as an object—a proposition—that in itself states nothing and yet can be used to say how things are or aren’t. That is to imagine something incoherent. And so, there can be no such things as the propositions that Frege promotes.
There is yet a wider moral here: there is no recovering, ultimately, what is meaningful from what is not. So, if nature, in the sense of what science investigates, consists of objects, properties and their relations to one another, mere collections of things that mean nothing themselves, then meaning, whether concerning what is or what is not, can be no part of nature. Kimhi’s careful elaboration and deployment of this and related arguments destabilizes an entrenched picture of the world and thought’s place within it.
Having shaken the earth, some rebuilding is owed. And once the very idea of thinking-independent propositions has crumbled away, the old Parmenidean argument about falsehood and negation is enlivened once more, providing a point around which to start afresh.
While Kimhi rejects Frege’s idea that a proposition does not itself state anything, its rejection leaves him with a problem. For it does seem as though the very same proposition can occur now asserted, now unasserted. For example, if, in the same breath, I say “Antarctica is frozen” and “Antarctica is not frozen,” I have contradicted myself. And, the explanation goes, this is because I have asserted with one sentence precisely what I deny with the other, and I have done so because the thought “Antarctica is frozen” occurs asserted in the first instance, and unasserted in the second. That a thought can occur both asserted and unasserted is therefore an idea that we must hold onto, because we need to be able to say that what one asserts by “Antarctica is frozen” is exactly what one denies by “Antarctica is not frozen.” It follows that even though each sentence is used to assert a different thought—that Antarctica is frozen and that it is not—there must be something in common to both. But if what is the same cannot be a “mute” Fregean proposition, what is it?
For Kimhi, to be a thinker is first and foremost to be able to represent how things are by combining elements of a particular language—names like “Antarctica” and predicates like “is frozen”—in a simple judgment. By combining such elements, as in “Antarctica is frozen,” I can think how things are. But, Kimhi argues, that very capacity to combine a name and a verb to say how things are is also a capacity to think of those same combined elements as torn asunder, and thus to think how things aren’t.
The difference between the thought “Antarctica is frozen” and the thought “Antarctica is not frozen” is thus not a difference in what is said by each (both sentences are about Antarctica being frozen), but reflects a difference in the exercise of our capacity to think of Antarctica being frozen. Both thoughts involve only Antarctica and its icy state, but in one case I affirm it and in another deny it. The negation does not add content to the thought, it does not point to something over and above what is indicated by the affirmation. But what is the same in “Antarctica is frozen” and “Antarctica is not frozen” is not an intangible, mute proposition, but a repeatable sign, a piece of language.
What is more, just as negating a thought adds no content to what the thought is about, Kimhi argues, attributing the thought to myself or to another is likewise not a matter of adding content to our thoughts. Antarctica is frozen, Antarctica is not frozen, I think Antarctica is frozen, you assert that Antarctica is frozen—in each of these judgments, the single claim “Antarctica is frozen” is repeated. But the judgments are not identical: in one the claim is simply affirmed, in the other denied, in another my role as the thinker of the judgment is clarified, in the last I affirm of you that you affirm this claim. Kimhi’s point is that the various bits of language by which these differences are indicated don’t function by representing things in the world at all, but convey the different ways in which one claim could come to feature in the activity of thinkers: thinkers can affirm it, deny it, combine it with other thoughts, attribute it to themselves or to others and so forth. These bits of language—It is not… I think…You believe…—reveal not the world but the unique nature of thought.
The role of language here is therefore absolutely crucial. Our linguistic capacity is not something that is merely expressive of thought, but is constitutive of our ability to think at all. It is only by means of our ability to recognize signs as repeatable that we are able to think negation, or think of how things are not, combine thoughts, or think that someone else thinks such and such. Signs, and their significance, are not things built up out of parts of the world—objects, properties, relations: the constituents of nature. And language is not something added to us: it is not a mere tool for describing a world that we already apprehend. Rather, it is both the means and the mode of that apprehension. That we use language, that we think, then, sets us apart from the world of mere things.
Apart, but not beyond. It seems that, for Kimhi, although thinking is not another thing in nature, we, as thinking creatures, are not independent of our material existence. Rather, it is the linguistic form of our earthbound, communal, human life that constitutes thinking. No retreat here, then, to the austere, autonomous “I” of German Idealism, but rather a bringing to the fore of the “we,” whatever its scope, embracing those to whom language belongs. The deep mystery is that we, wholly unique thinking creatures, are both of nature as creatures and not of nature as thinkers. What is philosophy then? It is our reckoning with that incredible union.
It may seem as though something is being dodged here: Weren’t we after an explanation of how it is possible to think what is not? Kimhi’s aim, however, is not so much to provide a “theory of thinking” that solves the Parmenidean puzzle, but to show that this puzzle need not arise when one gets the right view on thought. That is a view attained by reflecting, as a thinker, on what thought is. It is not theorizing about thought from the outside—theorizing is what leads to puzzles—but a display of its nature by reflection, from the inside, on what thinking is. Kimhi’s conception of philosophical progress is therefore, like Wittgenstein’s, quite at odds with that of the theorizing philosopher: philosophy progresses, not by producing better theories, but by the elimination of confusion through the clarification of what, in some sense, we knew all along.
Here is the more violent parricide in Kimhi’s work. In failing to appreciate the centrality of the Parmenidean challenge, in delegating the authority of philosophy to science, in rendering thinking banal, in erasing the thinking subject, analytic philosophy tends towards idolatry. Does Kimhi smash it? Only time will tell. For some, anchored by entrenched concepts, commitments and, of course, interests, this book may prove simply too alien. But for those within whom dissatisfaction with philosophy’s dominant methods and presuppositions glimmers darkly, the book suggests a radical new project, one that starts by taking us back to the very beginning of philosophy and showing that we can, each of us, think our way through it all over again, now differently.
Kimhi obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh and has taught at Yale, Leipzig and the University of Chicago, but he has never held a tenured job in philosophy, has published nothing before this book and was until recently known only amongst a somewhat avant-garde set connected through the Universities of Chicago, Leipzig and Pittsburgh. Thinking and Being was more than twenty years in the thinking and writing, composed in a liminal space accessible to almost none, both inside and outside of the university. Whatever one thinks of the book, its heterodox nature is plain. Could it have come, straightforwardly, out of a university nowadays? In precluding a thorough inspection of analytic philosophy’s very foundations, the pressure to publish perpetually, which takes hold even in graduate school and suffuses one’s professional life, may have already foreclosed such possibilities. Parricide is nothing that the philosopher need fear, violent or otherwise; it is a part of her natural history, her very life cycle. What sustains can be no threat. Perhaps what the unique genesis of this extraordinary work suggests is that the true threat to philosophy is infanticide.
Art credit: Giorgio de Chirico, Oedipus and the Sphinx