Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Suicidal Animal

I really like Paolo Virno. I've been reading his recent book (Multitude Between Innovation and Negation), and enjoying it immensely. One point he stresses repeatedly in this work intersects in an interesting way with the Hegel I'm teaching right now and with something I always try to insist upon when teaching Aristotle: that human beings are the suicidal animals.

For Hegel, this is explicit and almost axiomatic. I'm teaching the Philosophy of Right, and right away in the Introduction Hegel insists that the will is first and foremost a negation or refusal. As a consequence, any positive choice we make has the form of refusing to refuse. "Yes" is always a "No" to saying "No." Because of this absolute universality of negation for the will, the being with a will--human being--is necessarily capable of suicide, of saying "No" to the whole world and hence to life itself. (Sartre really never gets much beyond these first few pages of Hegel...)

That is an interesting enough piece of philosophical anthropology, if familiar.

Virno makes what seems on its face to be a very similar argument: that, because of the negating power inherent in all language, human beings, as language users, are always confronted with the possibility of negating the humanity of themselves and others. This is what makes us especially dangerous animals for our own kind. Virno's emphasis is on humans as murderous, rather than humans as suicidal, but that difference seems less important than the fact that he locates the power of negation in language rather than in the will. I inadvertently put the entire discussion of willing in Hegel in linguistic terms--saying "Yes" or saying "No"--but I don't think Hegel does this at all. He does draw a link between language use and the ability to commit suicide later in the Philosophy of Right (I'll have to check that--I don't have my copy of the text with me). But it is not so immediate as it is with Virno. This lends Virno's anthropology a post-humanist and post-structuralist hue: Whatever being is captive to language is thereby also murderous and suicidal. This makes the modern attempt to restrain the violence of human willfulness by precisely delineating and enforcing the boundaries between wills (by means of the law and the state as law enforcer) seem less promising.

As an aside, this makes the seemingly recent interest in Hobbes' theory of language much more understandable and interesting to me. Hobbes seems like the one early modern political philosopher who really consistently and rigorously linked the problem of inter-human violence with the question of language.

But I want to skip over Hobbes and go back to Aristotle. When I teach Aristotle, I illustrate the difference between a definition and an attribution of a peculiar property by contrasting the proper definition of the human being--the animal having logos--with "the animal that can commit suicide." I think the latter does pick out human beings from all other animals on Aristotelian terms, but it nonetheless does not define human being. This is because--in part--it follows from the fact that human beings are the animals having logos, and hence does not get at the basic differential of the human form, but only at a consequence of that differential. Despite the commonplace claim that Aristotle defines human being as the political animal, I think the same point applies: we are political because we have language, so our political being does not define us, even if it is peculiarly proper to us.

So, in Aristotle, you have the same linkage of "having language" and "being suicidal." But--and this is where Aristotle differs from both Virno and Hegel, and where Virno suddenly appears quite modern--for Aristotle, the power to commit suicide is identical with the power to value something more highly than one's own life. That is, it is not a power of negation that makes us the suicidal animal, but an ability to see things in terms of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust. Seeing something as good contains the possibility that we will see it as better than our own lives, or than the lives of others. According to Aristotle, one always dies (or kills) for something, but Virno and Hegel would have have us believe that one can die (or kill) for nothing. That seems not a small difference.