continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.2 / 2011: 94-101

Copernican Metaphysics

Paul Ennis

continent. 1.2 (2011): 94-101.

I. Ruinous Being

In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781) Kant introduced the transcendental method on a precarious footing and he never shied away from the fact that the transcendental method is structured, and I mean it in the most direct sense possible, aporetically. The aporetic element, the unstable core within Kantian thought, is the distinction between phenomenal and noumenal content in the chapter entitled "On the ground of the distinction [Unterscheidung] of all objects [Gegenstände] in general into phenomena and noumena" (Kant A236/B295-A260/B315). This distinction is noteworthy for introducing into the philosophical tradition the notion of the thing-in-itself [Ding-an-sich]. Depending on your interests this is either the most profound or absurd of ideas in our tradition. I prefer to think of it as the most productive notion in our tradition. We can see its generative function at work almost immediately when it spurred the German idealists into thinking obscenely ingenious thoughts, but the phenomenal-noumenal distinction, hereafter the aporetic distinction, remains an ever-persistent aporia for all continental thinking after Kant. In this article I want to focus on how the aporetic distinction functions in its generative capacity with an emphasis on its ontological rather than epistemological register. Considered as such I claim that it is possible to identify in the aporetic distinction a generative capacity (or logic or function) that is intrinsic to both it and all thought responding to it including, or perhaps especially, the speculative responses.

My position on Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft is broadly hermeneutical. So much ink has been spilled spelling out its epistemological implications that I cannot imagine what nook or cranny remains there for us to explore, but once we shine light on the matter in its ontological range it becomes clear that there remains more to be said about the hermeneutical lineage that Kant sets in motion. Kant’s consequential hermeneutical decision was to leave the phenomenal-noumenal distinction unresolved. This decision to incorporate an unstable, albeit necessary node within the transcendental standpoint occurred because Kant needed to stress the difference between the objects in the appearances and the things-in-themselves with further sub-divisions existing amidst the thought of the things-as-they-are-in-themselves which clearly complicates matters on the epistemological scale. Before proceeding I must insist that my decision to shift focus is not taken lightly nor do I wish to suggest that the various scales operative here concerning the nature of and meaning of the thing-in-itself are anything but immensely complex. Further, I recognize that for Kant the thing-in-itself has a precise function, and one suspects that the later ontological interpretations that followed his thinking on the matter would have been seen by him as often profound over-statements of the import of the distinction. In an interesting way these interpretations slipped beyond the Kantian functionality that had been assigned to the concept of the thing-in-itself and so the implications were magnified as they always are when one proclaims a problem more than epistemological, but as being, in fact, also an ontological matter.

In this paper I want to explore what happens when we read Kant’s decision according to the current speculative climate and its nexus of continental realisms. When we do so we find that the line leading from Kant to our current speculative thinking is not as jagged as one might imagine. Meillassoux’s (2006) insight that Kantianism has a Ptolemaic orientation is crucial here because it reveals the aporetic distinction as the genesis-point of the contemporary speculative turn and, after all, when one gets down to it what else is the speculative turn if not the point when we attempt to become properly Copernican—to finally carry out and fulfil that forgotten mission? It is in Kant’s decision that the primordial soup of speculative thinking first emerges, but not yet as matter—not yet brought into being. Rather we find there the forces that will eventually pattern themselves into continental realisms according to an unusual dialectic of call and response. This point can be elucidated by zeroing in on one significant implication of Kant’s aporetic distinction namely the "disconcerting [befremdliches]" result that the objects of the appearances are also the objects of knowledge (Bxix). This epistemological result is disorientating enough, but interpreted ontologically one also gains the thesis that one cannot experience real, perspective-free objects—in the traditional sense – as they are outside the appearances or as they might be in-themselves. In terms of contemporary debates within continental realism Kant is the thinker who first imposes the limit that demarcates the region between the limitations of cognition and the sometimes illusory possibilities afforded to thinking.

Although it is often suggested that after Kant metaphysics was irredeemably comprised we ought to remember that it was Hegel who first proposed a speculative metaphysical response to Kant. In the Phänomenologie des Geistes Hegel ingeniously ameliorates Kant’s distinction rather than dispenses with it or overcomes it. He achieves this with a progressive phenomenalization of all content including noumenal content and he does so by historicizing Kant’s decision. The Kantian distinction becomes an event of thinking within history and is neutralized on this basis. Hegel, drawing on his tactic of subsuming past error into a narrative of reason, renders the Kantian distinction a necessary step on the path to absolute knowing. According to Hegel to encounter error is also to come into vicarious contact with the horizon of truth and so, in a formal sense, all relative or regionalized stances are partially implicated in the processional narrative of reason. On this basis Hegel introduces a robust conception of philosophical truth that puts him in a position to cancel the distinction between the appearances and true being—the latter being the promised land of philosophy until Kant put it out of bounds and Hegel, I would argue, not only puts it out of bounds but says there is no boundary to step outside. Within the Hegelian narrative of reason Kant’s thing-in-itself becomes an inconsistent form of relative knowing that must be surpassed. This will lead Hegel (1991) to flatly announce that when it comes to the thing-in-itself "there is nothing we can know so easily" (§44).1

The other great thinker concerned with the Kantian dilemma as an ontological issue was Heidegger. Despite Heidegger’s reputation as one of the greats it is often difficult to explicitly articulate just what distinguishes him as a great from the other equally brilliant thinkers of the time. For my money Heidegger is a great because he is the thinker who first properly elides the epistemological limitations of Kant’s distinction, and what is even more remarkable is that he manages to do this immanent to the transcendental nexus.2 This involves a transformation of the transcendental method toward the structural priority of the question of the meaning of being. Heidegger reorients the phenomenological method by revising the phenomenological reduction so that there is a recursion from beings [das Seiende] back to being [Sein, das Sein] opening up a field of ontological considerations immune from the standard epistemological impasse that blots the transcendental method. This is not to suggest that Heidegger does so in manner that would prove satisfactory to most practitioners of the transcendental method. It is a highly unusual move that has, all the same, been highly consequential in its own right. The difference between Heidegger’s response to Kant and Hegel’s response is that Hegel is still operating within a metaphysical understanding of time. Since the metaphysical impulse is retained throughout the Hegelian schematic he is often faced with unusual problems such as how best to explain to explain the necessary actualization of the Notion into consciousness.3

Heidegger avoids problems like this because he frankly does not care about what happened prior to Dasein’s emergence.4 Unlike Hegel he does not want to know the totality (i.e. metaphysical knowing), but limits himself to only one phenomenon namely Sein. In so much as we might consider beings we do so in order to shed light on Sein. Unlike Hegel, who historicizes with a metaphysical glance by reading necessity into the past in hindsight, Heidegger sees time as the horizon itself with which one might understand the interplay between Dasein and the ‘without world’ world we are thrown into. It is, after all, Dasein that brings "world qua Sein" into being. This is the great mystery: Dasein brings certain content into the world that exists only of its accord, but Dasein is also entered into a world that exists free of its concerns. From Heidegger’s perspective this means that Dasein constitutes an ontological surplus into the "worldless world" because Dasein alone brings culture, technics, poetry, history, temporality and so on into being—and the great game of cat and mouse continues because for Heidegger these are merely sustained by being and do not comprise "it"—"es gibt." There is culture, there is technics, and there is so and so because being allows it through its donation. It is sometimes difficult to see, given our familiarity with Heidegger these days, just how original his response to Kant is: Heidegger introduces a possibilizing region (Ereignis) containing both Dasein and a transcendent real in order to think being after the Kantian Copernican turn, but within finitude, and contra Hegel’s Platonic desire to think beyond being to infinity/metaphysics.

Heidegger’s solution to our Kantian inheritance has a number of interesting implications. His possibilizing region is non-metaphysical and so it dispenses with the principle of sufficient reason/necessity in history albeit this is not to say that remnants do not exist elsewhere in his thinking. This decision makes it a remarkably modern philosophy, but then, in place of metaphysical necessity, we gain the contingency characteristic of the eras constitutive of the historical procession of being. This means that phenomenological seeing remains descriptive in relation to epochal transformation leading Heidegger to adopt a quietist position regarding our contemporary situation. This is the part that makes him not quite modern. His quietism also led him to some strong, increasingly untenable, conclusions about our relation to technics. In Die Frage nach der Technik (Heidegger 2000) we find a reading of contemporary existence as radically over-determined despite the fact that the era of technics is unstable qua the historical procession of being (7-36). He is led here because there is still a residual emphasis on human freedom as Heidegger adopted it from Kant, Hegel, and, in particular, Schelling. His treatise is truly one about retaining human freedom and dignity in the face of the occlusion of being and has little to do with technics. This is by no means a pragmatic or humanist investigation into the nature of human freedom. In the hands of Heidegger human freedom reaches not from the individual out to society, but rather away from society back into a community of outcasts. This is why Heidegger’s forthcoming freethinker will not appear for at least a millennium and this seems an awful long time to wait no matter how interesting he or she might be.5

A strange quirk of Heidegger’s thinking is that the more "meta" he gets the more he aligns himself with the tradition he is constantly subverting elsewhere. This is why the most important readings of Heidegger are those that extend the logic of his "non-meta" positions rather than those that listlessly dwell on in the vicinity of his most sedimented ideas. The best example in recent years is that of Santiago Zabala and in particular his 2009 monograph The Remains of Being. Zabala’s monograph is an extraordinarily innovative book masquerading as a treatise on Heidegger, and it manages to be innovative whilst remaining faithful to the basics of Heidegger’s project. Zabala introduces a subtle dialectic into the question of the meaning of being that is aimed squarely at a hopeful renewal of the question. In essence Zabala sees that with Heidegger the question of being has, in fact, been revived and that one consequence of this revival is that the question of being is doubled, and then tripled, and so on. Heidegger has set the question in motion and Zabala neatly shows that there is a form of logic appropriate to this situation and, phenomenologically speaking, this logic bears a striking resemblance to our state of being as such i.e. amidst the remains of being. I consider this a significant insight because it illuminates the question of being through its complexificiation which is to say that there is an almost entropic subtext suggesting that the logic of the question means that being will become increasingly ruinous. After Zabala the question of the meaning of being gains a hard edge.

Despite this I do not think Zabala goes far enough even though I recognize that these days we seem to be endlessly critiquing people for not going far enough, but here I think the point is warranted. Zabala remains principally a phenomenologist and so he holds back from some pretty direct responses to life amidst the remains of being. The proper hermeneutical response in these situations is often a tempered one suggesting that if contemporary life insists on accelerating itself then the role of the philosopher will be to promote Andenken in response to the challenge and provocation of Gestell. The problem is that the (ontological) phenomenologist misses a trick here because it is a solution that arises from the unimaginative premise that metaphysics cannot be utilized against Gestell. This premise is one that is self-imposed from exposure to too much Heideggerian radiation. We can forego it easily and I would suggest that anyone who neutrally applies phenomenological method to our current situation must see it dispassionately and without the prejudices of the past intruding on our conclusions as Heidegger does when he allows his cultural background to infiltrate his pronouncements on technics. The way I see it, as just another fragment inside the Gestell, any attempt to escape our current line of flight will require a radicalization of life from within the ruins of being and this can only be found in a response that draws sustenance from the intensification of speculation. This will require that we think past the Ptolemaic metaphysics of the Kantian inheritance without denying its singular force and it will also mean recognizing that we do so amidst the remains/ruins of being as seen through the eyes of the non-meta Heideggerian inheritance. These are philosophical events revealing to us how thinking has responded to its times and, after all, what else is the philosopher if not the one who thinks thinking as an event in its own right?

II: Speculative Intensity

The question that haunts me the most goes as follows, and it is, I suspect it is clear, an intensely speculative question: is it possible, after finitude, to think thinking as an event—on its terms?6 This means to think thinking alongside the real, the material, and to jettison the thought of thinking from inside, in Fabio Gironi’s phrase, the "human ghetto" (25). Amongst the real and the material—what does this mean? It means to think the event of thinking alongside the noumenal remains. This is difficult because the latter content continues, in Bergson’s phrase, to take on "unexpected forms" and elude us (226). The gift of philosophy is to be able to consider the process where both kinds of content reside in the appropriate sense i.e. absolutely. To the question as to whether it is possible to think thinking as an event after finitude I answer with a resounding yes, but this can be done only on the condition that philosophy becomes increasingly abstract and not less so. It must accelerate its formalization. On this basis it can generate the unforeseen on the formal plane even if it cannot hope to know the particulars. This is a lesson drawn from the futural orientation of the thinkers continental realists are supposed to be set against and it is a Derridean lesson albeit one with a lineage that stretches back to Hegel. Because continental realism is itching to get outside it may miss a trick when it comes to turning thinking inside out. Unlike the positive task of realigning metaphysics with the abundance of the real the task of bringing thinking along with it will be a stranger process. Thinking will have to do this using a form of inverted Hegelianism: this will not entails drawing a circle around the noumena, but, rather, requires the flinging of thinking, with the push of negativity, into the spaces it has been fortified against. Success will only be clear when it becomes impossible to say whether this process is one of de-naturalization or de-culturalization. This is work for heretics.

Squeezing thinking into an outside that does not need it will be a weird operation and there may even be too many psychic barriers.7 The path that we take would be, and here again we remain Kantian, determined by the apparent nonpassage between the phenomena and the noumena. I consider this nonpassage to be real – an actual impasse for thinking. It is an impasse that toys with the borders between being-animal and being-human. The latter points to the infinite capacity of thinking, but the former points to the final incapacitation that marks all human existence—memento mori. Even if one relies on immanence to think the cut it simply transfigures itself from a cut across reality into a cut through it. I suspect this is the reason why Quentin Meillassoux’s thinking has struck so many chords at once. With so many of us in danger of succumbing to a morbid paralysis of thought he neatly needled the mono-vision that was setting down its non-rhizomatic roots everywhere. This is not to say that everyone finds his answers satisfactory, but his wake-up call has been duly noted. It is Meillassoux who most directly addresses the Kantian event and he does it without letting our situation grind him down. He knows that we are amidst the ruins of being, but he also recognizes the promise, often in a quite Derridean sense, of the future—arguably a more immediate one than the epochal changing of shift that the Heideggerian narrative holds us to. Heideggerian patience responds to the acceleration of Gestell with a slowing down of philosophical thinking. Here the unfulfilled career as a priest is covertly allowed to flourish and we learn that since the world is coming apart we might as well pray. This has led to the zombification of the question of the meaning of being.

What is happening in Heidegger’s reaction is nothing but an expression of the good old fashioned desire to get a grip on things. It means pulling back, through piety, from the contemporary world. It is Ordnung by means of Gelassenheit (inverse Gestell). Heidegger directs us to retreat into Andenken, but not in order that the threat might be neutralized but that one might shelter being through this tumultuous prelude.8 Philosophy in the time of Gestell offers up its fragments until such a point that this is all that happens and is this not to embrace the already possible? Perhaps, then, too much has happened and the longing for the "childhood of reason" (Schelling 169) has become something different—the mourning of being. The loss of innocence in all this is undeniable. The final nail in the coffin is the fideistic turn. Since it is easier to think God than being then one abandons the latter and pays homage to the former. Paying vicarious homage to God is not without its dilemmas. One such dilemma is raised in Meillassoux’s enigmatic text “Spectral Dilemma.” This is a text haunted with the spectres of the philosophies of the ruins. Derrida’s persistent pursuit of spectres is carried over into Meillassoux’s speculative response—haunts it and refuses an easy elision. In drawing the speculative response to a consideration of the spectral dilemma Meillassoux resurrects the thought of the impasse and its force is recognized once more through its intensification.

Since our times are pervaded with the mourning of being it is not surprising that this leads Meillassoux to the problem of mourning as such. The intensification of mourning requires the directing of our attention to the impossibility of our remaining innocent in the face of the deaths of innocents. The problem of mourning involves no decision on our part and is forced upon us unexpectedly—as if from nowhere. The death of the innocent is not an unforeseen event one hopes for and it also strikes us as the kind of unexpected event that is without reason whereas mundane unexpected events are often reasoned away, interpreted as signs, or can even seem comical. There are few moments in life that evade reason better than the contingent series of events that lead to the death of an innocent. This is the spectral dilemma according to its speculative intensification. Intensive speculation on mourning takes as its condition the problem of mourning the one who, as Meillassoux puts (2008) it, refuses to pass over to the ‘other side’ (261). Does Meillassoux mean that there are literally ones who cannot pass from this side to another? I do not think so unless one reads to the letter. Rather the innocents under consideration do not pass over to the ‘other-side’ only for the mourner. Meillassoux is not Dante and the Hell under consideration is the psychic Hell of mourning the pointless death acting as proof that God trumps Satan even in torture. The mourner alleviates the passage so as to lift the burden from their own shoulders because it is the mourner that inherits the ruinous after-effects of the innocent’s death.

The injustice of a life taken for no reason affords no explanation bar the superficial. It is the conjunction of the impossible task of mourning the innocent, coupled with the insufficient explanations we afford them, that demands all the more that we address this dilemma. It is impossible, but it is what happens—such death happen.9 Meillassoux (2008) claims that with "essential spectres" not even death brings about completion (262). The essential spectre is held in the nonpassage between life and death. Such a spectre inhabits the between. On this basis Meillassoux asks us whether "essential mourning" is possible (262). Meillassoux defines essential mourning as follows:

We will call essential mourning the completion of mourning for essential spectres: that is to say the accomplishment of a living, rather than morbid relation of the survivors to these terrible deaths (262 his italics).

Note that what is called for here is a living relation and nothing more than this. I claim that the making-possible of essential mourning would constitute an event worth striving for. It requires something more than its recognition. It must become possible. One recognizes its impossibility but one recognizes further the necessity of its becoming-possible. The limit is approached as impossible, but through the intensification of speculation it is hoped that what once seemed impossible might become possible. How is this possible? It is no different that all phases in our procession through thinking toward more immaculate conceptions of justice. We broach limits previously considered iron-clad and then, like rust, dispassionately eat through what at first seemed firm.

Consider for a moment Meillassoux’s solution to essential mourning. Meillassoux (2008) suggests that in the wake of the death of the religious God there could be only one more horrifying possibility and that would be the continued existence of the religious God (268). If the religious God exists then the spectral dilemma is fiercer than one imagined. What thought is more horrendous than a God that allows for essential spectres—for a God, that is to say, that allows for the consistent deaths of innocents? The speculative thinker decides to emphasize a different possibility for thinking to address this psychic dilemma. Imagine that a God might come into being. Such a God would be innocent all crimes.10 If this God came into being then the passage of essential spectres might be eased. There is no such passage, we recall, but only the image of such a passage giving hope to the mourner. What is powerful about such a God is that it remains nothing if not possible, or, at least, possible according to the speculative intensification we have so far encountered. This possibility is all that it is since it is not yet and it is by no means necessary. There is always the possibility that our futural God might become guilty of crimes. This we cannot know, but such a God would be innocent so far. The point of speculation is not to justify the past, but to exchange the weight of the past for openness to the future. I leave this futural God hanging as a possibility. I leave it here as an indication of the promise of speculative intensity.11

Where have we strayed to?12 Here I want to litter this article with a few stray ideas before the reader moves on. I believe that Heidegger’s ontologization of the phenomenological method makes him the first true thinker of contingency, but he failed us in one radical sense. If the historical procession of being struck us as if from nowhere and if Gestell ensnares us as if from everywhere then our situation requires a decision. That decisiveness is not against Heidegger. It is against Gestell. The intensification of speculation shines light on what has become stratified in Heidegger’s thought. The sedimentation sets in when we consider the tradition as if it holds a steady line from an originary Greek beginning and extends into our times. It is much better that we accept our place as mostly modern and extend a line of flight from a different kind of event—Kant’s consequential distinction. It is in this distinction that our choice between Critical reasoning and speculative intensity is laid bare. Occasionally when we strain our necks to the near-future we can even see the glimmer of a third option: Critical speculation. In this strict sense I claim that Kant’s distinction is an immense surplus to the philosophical tradition and if we manage to somehow blend a degree of the ancient speculative impulse into our mostly modern outlook then we see that out task now is different than before: we must fulfil, against the smothering atmosphere of Ptolemaic dogma, the promise of a Copernican metaphysics.

 

NOTES

1.  The full remark from Hegel (1991) runs as follows: "Hence one can only read with surprise the perpetual remark that we do not know the Thing-in-itself. On the contrary, there is nothing we can know so easily" (§44). This is, in Sartre’s concise description, to proclaim a "monism of the phenomenon" (xlv).

2.  This is especially true of the early Heidegger whose transcendentalism is unorthodox, but relatively Kantian (or neo-Kantian) compared to his later thinking, and this early quasi-Kantianism can be discerned in Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie and Sein und Zeit (both from 1927).

3.  This is the speculative argument made in the final chapter of the Phänomenologie des Geistes on absolute knowing [das Absolute Wissen].

4.  This is the remit of the "ontic" sciences. In other words for Heidegger the time before Dasein is not the concern of philosophers.

5.  Heidegger was fond of a quote from the letters of Heinrich von Kleist (1952) that runs as follows: "I step back from one who is not here yet and I bow a millennium before him to his spirit [Ich trete vor einem zurück, der noch nicht da ist, und beuge mich, ein Jahrtausend im voraus, vor seinem Geiste]" (735-6).

6.  In “Identity and Event” Francois Laurelle asks a similar question: "Thinking means thinking, for example, the event, but how does thinking itself become an event? And what type of event?" (174). I remain a beginner when it comes to Laurelle, but it is important to register that, as far as I can discern, he is the first thinker to have properly foreshadowed the dilemma of contemporary continental thinking as a problem concerning both what is extraneous to philosophy and the need for an increasingly meta-theoretical reflection on its operations.

7.  Here again we find ourselves in the company of Derrida: "deconstruction, for me, means what happens; that is to say, the impossible" (Quoted in Raffoul 290).

8.  See Heidegger (1981) and Heidegger (1963).

9.  Derrida tells us that what happens (se passe) includes but cannot be experienced as death (21-3).

10.  Meillassoux closes with the promise of a, "divinology, yet to be constituted, through which will be fabricated, perhaps, new links between men and those who haunt them" (275). What would be the implications of this divinology? It indicates toward a God that might be, "desirable, lovable, worthy of imitation" (275).

11.  I want to leave this as a possibility in order to leave something of the tension and ambiguity underlying the relation between, in Meillassoux’s terms, correlationism and speculation. Here I find myself in accord in Caputo’s defence of ambiguity. Caputo informs us that "Ambiguity raises the stakes of life; it makes life risky and is liable to lead us astray" (15). To most correlationists Caputo represents an all too non-rigorous fascination with the numinous. To the speculative heretics he fails to decide and bring reason to bear on the numinous. Despite this Caputo captures the struggle between the correlationist’s emphasis on the limitations of cognition according to finitude and the possibilities afforded to thinking in speculation that arises with the thought of thinking after finitude.

12.  This is a phrase that emerges, from seemingly nowhere, in the middle of Heidegger’s (2000) Die Frage nach der Technik, "Wohin haben wir uns verirrt?" (13).

 

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