An interview with Eugenio Trías

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Is there an external reality?

Of course there is. In this issue, I try to stick to naive perception, which I believe to be true. Even though it’s true that the external world and our own world -in the strictest sense- are different things. Sometimes they are coincidental, sometimes they aren’t. There’s a condition, which we could call the contemporary condition, which makes us live at the same time at different scales: the local scale, our town, region, country, etc. Nowadays most people are aware of the global frame. We are in a world which is becoming more and more interconnected, which doesn’t mean it’s becoming more uniform. So I think there is an external reality. Nobody denies this. Actually, the ones who do are in fact trying to formulate it in a more rational way. I’m thinking about the whole western philosophical tradition, from Berkeley to Leibniz.

Some people say that everything that is said about the external world are mental constructions; that, if there is such a world, we have no access to it.

I think there is construction in knowledge, evidently. The proof lies in the realm of science, but also in philosophical speculation. I also believe there’s some kind of primary perception -empiricist traditions insist on it- which cannot be denied, cannot be forgotten. The best is to find a way to put together both modes. Lately I’m thinking about this extraordinary quote from bishop Berkeley: “Esse est percipi; to be is to be perceived.” This sentence, which lies at the root of what Leibniz later develops in an extraordinary way, means that, between being and perception and being perceived and existing, there is some kind of monadic unity, in such a way that one thing cannot be dissociated from the other. All of these -often idle- debates, about mentalism or the naive reality of the world, allow some kind of different view. In a way, there’s a very close unity between matter and spirit. In that respect, I agree with Leibniz. But, on top of that, science in the 20th century steers us in this direction: the -special and general- theories of relativity make us think about reality as if every fragment of matter, even the most microscopical one, was actually as a pond full of living creatures. And it has its own perception. It has its own perspective, from were the world is built. In this sense, the 20th century has given us many lines of research in the field of philosophy, stemming from science. From the best science: Einstein, Heisenberg, microphysics…

For Berkeley, when the subject is not perceiving, God is. What happens without God?

I think Berkeley has been misinterpreted. He says “to be is to be perceived.” There is no statement of a solipsist subject, but the seed of what later Leibniz will extend: a union of substance and subject. Every fragment of the being is both substantial and subjective. It has a kind of subjectivity. Leibniz spoke of the little perceptions, Freud will later speak of the unconscious, the romantics will speak about an unconscious, organic frame,

which is already in Nature. But I think Nature holds many secrets, many enigmas. I believe in the continuity between Nature and culture, Nature and education, Nature and spirit. At the end it seems like a radical naturalism ends up being coincidental to a spiritualism which is, strangely, materialistic. This would be the paradox where I try to place myself.

How to reach the external reality? How to get knowledge of it?

Well, maybe, the way Marx would put it, “each one according to their abilities.” Each one has its means, its form and intensity. In the animal or vegetable kingdom, in the human kingdom, in its diversity of cultures and individuals and forms of creation, we find the possibility that intercommunication may not happen, the kind of relationship which guarantees the nature of contemporaneity in our lives. Without putting aside the more problematic aspects of our lives: that which moral conscience and ethics deal with. There’s the problem of evil, the drive to destruction, that which Freud called the principle of death. We have to take all of this into account in order to approach reality in a philosophical way.

To what extent is contemporary philosophy unhurt by the split between science and humanities and by some philosopher’s ignorance of what science says about, for example, concepts such as space and time?

One of the great quests ahead of us is to recompose, within our possibilities, this lost unity. It existed at some moments: the Renaissance, through the new science, where it was impossible to distinguish philosophy from what was called natural science. I have mentioned Leibniz several times. To me he’s one of the paradigmatic figures, maybe the last one: he came up with a great synthesis of science, philosophy, theology and even epistemology. It’s true that science and humanities have been drifting away, but humanities, arts above all, have always had a great esteem for science, they’ve always looked there for inspiration. It’s the case of the modern movements, of traditions such as cubism, futurism, etc. There has always been some kind of -more or less rigorous, more or less imaginative- dialog between art and science. And philosophy has been more damaged by the split, opting often for one option or the other, but without losing that old goal. I think philosophy has to be very present in the knowledge and debate of scientific subjects, but it also has to deal with other areas: the area of moral conscience, which it has to elaborate; the area of sensitivity and, therefore, of the aesthetic forms which correspond to different times and styles; the area of literary theories. Philosophy, in this sense, has a global role. This adjective is very suited to it. What happens is that the dispersion and intensification of knowledge in many different fields makes it only a regulative idea. I wouldn’t call it utopia, just a regulative idea. It’s some kind of polar star which we need to follow in order to find our path. In a way, it’s a stimulus because philosophy feeds on a hunger for knowledge which, even though unattainable, can be distillated according to each individual’s capacity.

Isn’t this against current mainstream philosophy? Many philosophers argue it is impossible to build a global view of the world and go as far as claiming that there’s no sense in trying.

Yes, but I think what people have in mind is a total and crystallized vision. They think about what German idealism called “a philosophical system.” Back then it was a praiseworthy enterprise, but today it’s no longer possible. This doesn’t mean that, as the final verse in Faust says, “He who strives on and lives to strive can earn redemption still.” This is said by angels in a theological context. What I mean is that the effort of taking that direction yields much better results than the resigned acceptance that one finds too often in postmodern thinkers. This kind of final dispersion and fragmentation of knowledge has of course happened, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up recomposing it, within each individual’s capacity, always in a fragile, precarious manner, now the illusion of a total, transcendental unity of a transcendental character has been lost. It is possible to move towards some kind of recomposition of knowledge, where there may be connections between discoveries in science and developments in philosophy; between reflections in the field of knowledge and the elaboration of a moral conscience; in the elaboration of a new political conscience. There are many tasks and one feels baffled at their magnitude.

What is your take on consciousness or self-awareness?

This is the great subject of the subject’s identity and the way it perceives itself. Itself and the world. Of the interaction between itself and world. It’s one of philosophy’s great subjects: consciousness, self-consciousness. In modern philosophy the discussion has been radicalized, and in the currents closer to us the concept of a subject is being questioned. But I should make a precision here: putting it in question in a radical way is different than just questioning it. For example, the questioning of the subject, understood as a destruction. There is no subjectivity. These are the theories of structuralism and post-structuralism. I contributed to them in my first books (Filosofía y carnaval, La filosofía y su sumbra). The idea of a questioned subject, a subject which is not substantial like Descartes thought, or like German idealism -Hegel, Fichte or Schelling- ended up thinking, but a subject with a fracture which marks it from the root. And it’s there where the world of significance, of meaning and also of linguistic habit, resides. These theories are important and it’s important to assume them, but without extrapolating them, which happens often. And, instead of talking about questioning the subject, people talk about eliminating it. And then it turns out that the same people who give up the notion of subject have to use paraphrases in order to find some term to substitute it. I have recently discovered Gilles Deleuze, and I greatly admire him. In some of his works he lightly decided that he needed to destroy subjectivity but, at the time of truth, in his book about cinema -which is really good- you can see the need to recover it. Since he cannot call it “subject” he speaks in its place of “indeterminacy”, a paraphrases to avoid a concept that, I think, cannot be substituted. What is important is how it’s understood, how it’s clarified.

Is this also the case with free will?

Yes. We find ourselves with something similar, even though of a different species, because this takes us to the area of ethics. It’s a debate about whether we are the children of chance or the orphans of necessity. Whether it’s the wheel of destiny which guides us. Like that wheel of fortune in Fritz Lang’s movies. But, even in Lang’s films, one finds life may be marked by destiny, but there will always be this little but very important margin, through which we can make some choices maybe not about our destiny, since it is determined, but about our ethos, the attitude with which one may assume it. I think this is the summary of the wisdom about freedom one can draw from the tragic world, as some analysts have made us understand. It’s not a world of fatality but a world of free choice, branded by a previous determination respect to which one may have different attitudes. It’s not the same to assume a dark destiny with happiness and joy, in an affirmative way, than doing it with rage or fury or rebellion, which is perfectly legitimate. There are options, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Here I may mention again the sentence from Faust I quoted before, “He who strives on and lives to strive can earn redemption still.” As Joan Maragall put it in a beautiful aphorism, we must make ourselves strong in our will, even if destiny lies outside our influence. Both things are true. I think there’s freedom, but it’s a freedom with a pulsational pressure that controls us and a social pressure of our time, which also determines us. The social above all, which becomes more important in particularly difficult times, such as the one we are living.

Does that cause people to run away towards esoteric knowledge?

Every good thing has its deviation. There are many forms of esoteric knowledge. Some of them are stimulating. Great artists, such as Mondrian, have used esoteric traditions for inspiration. Sometimes, strangely, ways have been found to combine esoteric forms with impeccable traditions from the point of view of science. The popularization in a mass culture of these esoteric tendencies means an important loss of quality, of worth, which makes it important to transform the structures in the base of this mass culture. And I think it is possible and steps have been given in that direction. For example, in fields as unlikely as TV we can find today very good series, well thought and well built. It’s a step forward, even though it is frustrating to see the state of our TV, with reality shows and the like. We need to have a balanced vision, which does not mean an ambiguous one; we need to look at it in a serene way, in order to measure the worth of the things which are happening, and which are not all bad, as people sometimes want us to think.

In your last book, at the end, you raise a series of questions about what life and the meaning of life are.

Yes, at the end. It was almost a leap, because, from the world of music and sound and its formal elaboration, I soon saw the possibility of tackling, from that angle, an old goal I have sometimes pursued (for example in my Ética y condición humana) of a philosophical anthropology. An anthropology, I call it that old name, but I mean an understanding of our human condition. Through the musical fact, I could find an important luminous angle: music is common to every human culture, there’s always the elaboration of sound into a musical shape, in the shape of dance, with the use of percussion, wind, string instruments. Starting with the voice itself and following with the instruments. It’s something which is certainly noteworthy, since it’s as common to humanity as language. However, we don’t find it in the higher apes. It links our life to that of the singing birds, as if there was some kind of evolutionary line from the perspective of sound which went from the nightingale to man. But the range of codified sounds in a baby is already far superior to that of any other animal.

What about life?

I speak about human life, life elevated to the status of a horizon of meaning. Intelligence, in a way, is just that. Intelligence is related to life, sustained by life. It has this capacity we perceive in children from very early, with their linguistic aptitude of interrogation, of asking questions. Asking sometimes about unimportant things or about the world. And they mix in a very creative way -I’m talking about childhood- with the world of fantasy, of dreams and the incipient perception of reality. And that leads to asking questions. I think that’s where the base and foundations of knowledge lie. I’d say, answering the question, the pinnacle of the vital process. Life would be combined into this kind of living being which is able to live and be intelligent. And thus it’s not content with accepting what it is, but it also sees the possibility to transform its own reality.

What questions still have you thinking?

The ones in this interview, the general meaning of life. I have always believed in a meaning: in the most extreme circumstances, in the most difficult ones, I think there’s meaning. What happens is that we need to focus our intelligence and will, our intelligence and desires, towards that search. Knowing that a meaning is always subject to revision, to change. Philosophers and science have shown us that this frailty of meaning is also its fecundity. That a theory may be revised shows the fecundity of knowledge. Popper comes to mind, but in fact it’s an old idea.

And in this giving of meaning, are art and science equivalent?

Yes. They are, maybe, the two most powerful sources of illumination we have nowadays. When speaking of science I include technology and the forms of construction technology suggests. For example, in the field of architecture. There are bridges between art, science and technique, and the case of architecture is noteworthy. But it’s true that art, in its better manifestations, gives us meaning. I think fecundity in philosophy lies in creating bridges towards science and art, literature, music and also cinema.

See this author’s biography.

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1 comment to An interview with Eugenio Trías

  • judith schwartzbacker

    i was wndering if there are any plans for an english translation of trias’ philosophy and carnival.

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