Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

What gives the psyche?

Posted by joespencer on November 28, 2007

I want to link up my ridiculous questions about the psychical man with my ridiculous comments about hermeneutical fidelity. And I think I can only do this by taking a look at what it is that gives the psyche.

Because I have so little time to write up my thoughts for the moment, I’ll be brief (which means I’ll probably set myself up for misunderstanding): it is, as the whole history of philosophy has taught us, death that gives the psyche.

The point is subtle, perhaps, but it can be found in every thinker from Plato to Derrida: it is in facing death, in encountering the possibility of the impossibility of being, that one’s “psyche,” “soul,” “self,” “will,” “ego,” or “Dasein” is given. Death, because it is the event that I uniquely experience, singles me out or individualizes me, authenticates me and thus hands to me my soul.

The difficulty, of course, is that death only gives me a psyche in that it limits it, gives it the structure of unsatisfiable desire: the psyche is fundamentally eros, searching and never finding. One becomes, facing one’s own death, carnal, sensual, and devilish: the natural (or psychical) man comes to inhabit (or even to haunt) the flesh.

The point of all of this: to be carnally-minded is death. That is, to be carnal, natural, psychical, soulish, authentic, etc., is always to be living-towards-death. Life, for the “psychical man,” is always a dying, a movement towards nothingness, a movement that is animated by nothingness. The “psychical man” is thus always neurotic (Freud of course said that neurosis constitutes normality): one is structured by the death drive, is structured by the lusts of the flesh.

But is this so bad? To recognize the reality of death, the possibility of the impossibility of being, is to claim life (which is here, again, just “dying”). It is only the dying who build, who create, who found cultures, etc. The dying are, inevitably, always trying to postpone death: they want “live,” that is, they want to be dying, for as long as possible. History is the consequence of this deferral: in that one ceases to fight, deferring death. What emerges in this deferral is the whole world as we know it: ethics and interaction, language and culture, thinking and work, etc. In this prolongation or deferral, the fallen world opens up before us.

Everything that begins with the fallen world, ends with the fallen world: it is ruled over by death, is inhabited by death, is structured by death. Everything that is done under its power is done in the name of death. Preeminent among these undertakings, I would suggest, is ethics.

But suddenly—and this is what the Restoration amounts to, in a way—this realm of death is overthrown by the sudden appearance of something not bound by death: an angel shakes the foundations of the fallen world by gracing us with its presence. And it holds in its hands, of all things, a book. It bids us read. And we are summoned to a hermeneutical task. We are called right out of death and into life, into life eternal. We are, as we read, filled with the Spirit, and we sing and shout praises, etc. And then we live, not in the sense that we are dying, but in the sense that we have long since died and been resurrected: the words we think and speak and praise and preach are no longer words of deferral, but words of fidelity, words that outstrip anything like the ethical. We speak, as it were, beyond ethics, beyond good and evil, beyond death and the fallen world. To be spiritually-minded is life eternal.

I had better be, I would say, infinitely faithful to the text, to the book brought from above, a book written according to a priesthood that we all too seldom speak of: a priesthood of writing, of the written word, of the text per se. But what do I owe ethics with its emphasis on death? Am I not bound to the book of life that has been—marvelous thing—opened before me by an angelic hand?

Do I then use the scriptures to be unethical? No. Rather, to be non-ethical, to take up life eternal. Though it can only be said, in the end, to be quite honorable to be ethical (cf. D&C 76:75), it is life eternal to take up the scriptures faithfully. Of course, that is inevitably too much to ask of the Church: but of the Kingdom…

7 Responses to “What gives the psyche?”

  1. Clark said

    The other alternative is to deny that psyche is individual. A move that I think is also Derridean. But also fairly common in many traditions. (Say the holism of neoPlatonism)

    I should also add that in the broadly Heideggarian tradition while it is being-towards-death that can individuate ‘us’ in a particular way, death is not the only thing that can so individuate us. It’s just that death is the one existential analysis that Heidegger pursues.

    BTW – why do you think nothingness (in any sense) characterizes a neurosis? I’m not sure I buy Freud here.

    An other quick thought. One could argue that the endless deferral of death in characteristic of existence itself. That is not only is what individuates (makes an existence) is death but it is the denial of death. So there is a paradox and double movement there. Death proper of course ends existence and singularity.

    One way to consider this is that pure ‘individuality’ is never achieved. In Peircean terms we are always in part a general symbol with determinations yet to be made. The point where we cease to be vague or general is the point we cease to live and exist. Thus pure existence paradoxically is also its own end.

    Regarding ethics, texts and scriptures. The demand made to us by the scriptures is always an ethical one. To avoid the Levinas/Derridean sense of this we can rephrase it as simply that to speak of reading is always to include the notions of reading well or reading poorly (there are good and bad readings). That entails ethics. This isn’t simply a scriptural injunction. It’s true of any text.

    But to make an ethical demand entails the one on whom the demand is made. Thus this ethical demand creates individuality just as death does. And, as with death, there is also a double move. We are demanded to make a good reading yet simultaneously this demand entails an impossibility of reading well.

    I and many others in the LDS tradition speak of the impossibility of the command given to Adam in the garden. The double move there entails an impossibility that leads to death. (The probationary state) This state we find ourselves in is ushered in by the demand of the first text. The initial words in the garden by God. To speak of reading well (to understand God’s commands) is thus the archetype of all reading. And, in a hermeneutical sense, all of us are Adams as we read, finding our own serpents, fruits and having our own fall. Our readings always lead to a fallen state we seek to escape. A lone and dreary wilderness which is entailed by our own finitude.

  2. Robert C. said

    Hmmm, lots—too much for me, even—to chew on here.

    Like Clark, I’m not sure how true your claim is in regard to Levinas’s ethics. For example, I just coincidentally happened upon the following from Totality and Infinity, which I’m going to quote at length rather than try to summarize since I’m not very confident in my understanding of what he’s saying (my emphasis):

    The deepening of the inner life can no longer be guided by the evidences of history. It is given over to risk and to the moral creation of the I—to horizons more vast than history, in which history itself is judged. . . . To place oneself beyond the judgment of history, under the judgment of truth . . . is to exalt the subjectivity, called to moral overstepping beyond laws, which is henceforth in truth because it surpasses the limits of its being. . . . What is above all invisible is the offense universal history inflicts on particulars. To be I and not only an incarnation of a reason is precisely to be capable of seeing the offense of the offended, or the face. The deepening of my responsibility in the judgment that is borne upon me is not of the order of universalization: beyond the justice of universal laws, the I enters under judgment by the fact of being good. Goodness consists in taking up a position in being such that the Other counts more than myself. Goodness thus involves the possibility for the I that is exposed to the alienation of it powers by death to not be for death. (pp. 246-247)

    Actually, let me quote from the next couple paragraphs also, since he is here setting up the next section of his book (Section IV, “Beyond the Face”), which I think is esp. interesting from a Mormon perspective b/c of the way it addresses the family (“fecundity” for Levinas), which I think makes for an interesting connection to this notion of books that you (Joe) are getting at (i.e., the books in which are recorded priesthood acts, esp. per D&C 128):

    The judgment of consciousness must refer to a reality beyond the sentence pronounced by history, which is also a cessation and an end. Hence truth requires as its ultimate condition an infinite time, the condition for both goodness and the transcendence of the face. The fecundity of subjectivity, by which the I survives itself, is a condition required for the truth of subjectivity, the clandestine dimension of the judgment of God. But for this condition to be realized, it is not enough that an infinite time be given.

    It is necessary to go back to the primary phenomenon of time in which the phenomenon of the “not yet” is rooted. It is necessary to go back to paternity, without which time is but the image of eternity. Without it the time necessary for the manifestation of truth behind visible history . . . would be impossible. Biological fecundity is but one of the forms of paternity. Paternity, as a primordial effectuation of time, can, among men, be borne by the biological life, but be lived beyond that life. (p. 247)

    Again, there’s simply too much here for me to do much chewing on, but I find it very interesting and a promising way of thinking about all of this. Also, I think the bit about “it is not enough that an infinite time be given” is interesting in light of Clark’s comments about the Fall (that is, perhaps Levinas is giving us a nice way to think about the necessity of the Fall and temporal probation as a precondition to being-toward-life…).

  3. Clark said

    Robert, I was intentionally avoiding a discussion of ethics in the Derridean or Levinasian sense. So I don’t think I made any positive comments regarding ethics. I was just stating that I wasn’t speaking of ethics in that sense – more the traditional sense of ethics. Clearly there is a relationships between ethics in the usual sense of the word and Levinas’ ethics. But it seems to me to be a complex one I just didn’t want to get into.

    Of course I do agree Levinas has a lot to say here. While I’ve read a lot of Levinas I just don’t feel confident in discussing him in depth. Partially because I often don’t feel I know him well enough. Secondly because there’s that whole issue of how Derrida appropriates him and yet criticizes him in “Violence and Metaphysics.” I’m much more confident with Derrida than Levinas, but even there I find that it is in ethics that things get complex. I’m willing to say that texts (in the broad sense) impose a call, a responsibility and so forth. I’m not entirely convinced that the way Levinas and Derrida grapple with this works. Indeed I find Derrida interesting in semiotics and metaphysics. Ethics though I’m more dubious about. (Perhaps because I’m dubious about formal ethics in general) I tend to see Derrida spending most of his latter period trying to make his philosophy ethically relevant. I’m not sure he succeeds though.

  4. Clark said

    To add, my notion of the double-move which I frequently refer to is clearly Derridean though with a strong Nietzschean thrust.

  5. Jim F. said

    Whether Derrida understood ethics to be formal ethics, I’m not qualified to say, though I don’t think he did. Levinas certainly does not. –a nitpicky point and one that may be the result of misunderstanding what you’re saying, Clark.

  6. Clark said

    I think that was what I was saying Jim. That ethics in the Derridean and Levinasian sense isn’t ethics in the normal sense and I’m trying to stick with the latter.

  7. Robert C. said

    So, I have time to nibble on this some more for just a minute this morning:

    I think what is essentially similar between this revelation of a book and Levinas’s philosophy is a notion of revelation of something that can be read (whether it is a book or the face of someone else). What I don’t think is explicitly in Levinas is much discussion about the content of what is revealed—that is, if we read about books, writings and words being revealed to prophets, for Levinas revelation seems to be synonymous with discourse. It seems there is a certain hermeneutical underpinning to Levinas’s thought (which Ricoeur esp. seems to pick up on), but I think the difference is non-trivial. That is, it seems Joe is pointing to a particular writing that is revealed, not just any “Said.” And I think this is why it becomes important for Mormons to think about a particular God (viz., that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and per Joseph Smith, an embodied God in time…) that is revealed—and hence a particular kingdom. It is this common source of the Kingdom that I think also gets around some of the problems of violence Levinas struggles with (and are being discussed on the other threads here). That is, it is not monotheism per se that is important, but the idea that there is only one Kingdom, a Kingdom of order and intersubjectivity. I think that it probably is possible to think about a kind of ethics (better: sociality) that exists in this Kingdom, but I suppose I agree with Joe that it is quite dangerous to try and think about ethics apart from (or prior to) the Kingdom. I believe the Kingdom already exists, though it is continually being built, and becoming a part of that Kingdom is what is fundamental, and only after becoming a part of that Kingdom can ethics be properly discussed. (By the way, I think this is precisely what we see happening in Gen 18 where Abraham becomes part of this Kingdom or Council, and then give voice to an ethical plea—a plea which of course God hearkens to.)

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