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Foundations of
Non-Classical Thinking

by Dmitry Olshansky


"Il faut etre absolument moderne." — Rimbaud

In this article, I describe the specific characteristics of the non-classical paradigm of reading and compare it with the classical philosophy. 'Classical philosophy' is here not restricted to ancient philosophy but is the form of European metaphysics, which aims to gain clearness of definitions, accuracy of argumentation, completeness of philosophical systems, hierarchy of philosophical knowledge, and to be rooted in historical understanding of the evolution of thought. That is why I believe that classical philosophy is close to scientific principles. Science seems to provide the ideal scheme of such an approach.

By 'non-classical' philosophy I mean the tradition of structural and post-structural philosophy, which escapes, rather than rejects the systematic character of philosophy. The main distinctive principle of non-classical philosophy is this escaping from metaphysics, with its thinking in oppositions: 'good and evil', 'truth and lie', 'complete and coming-to-be'. There are no such oppositions in non-classical philosophy; accordingly, all forms of philosophy are acceptable. In my view, non-classical philosophy begins with Friedrich Nietzsche's avoidance of the opposition between 'good' and 'evil' (Beyond Good and Evil). That is why non-classical philosophy in my mind is still part of classical philosophy, rather than being opposed to it: not the rejection of classical philosophy, but the widening of the borders of the classical tradition.

I want to analyze the non-classical reading paradigm, because the sphere of text reading, I think, is where the main difference between classical and non-classical philosophy is shown. Of course, reading is the universal method of working with text; but reading is not only a physical act, but also the process of understanding as well as mastering the text and criticism. I share with Roland Barthes the opinion that the text is formed by the reader rather than by the author. I attempt, in what follows, to show how classical philosophy is succeeded by the non-classical, and also, how classical positions in philosophy are re-comprehended by non-classical ones.

Non-classical philosophy was formed not only as the opposition to classical philosophy, but as the constructive reflection on it, that is, an attempt to solve the problems posed by the previous epoch. In the end, non-classical philosophy became not so much an overcoming of classical thinking traditions, as continuation of it.

Non-classical philosophy does not reject these principles (although the prefix 'non' can entail this rejection), but puts the same question in another perspective. This aspiration for re-comprehension of history from un-scientific positions has been criticized by classical philosophers for its destruction of scientific values. But here, it is more correct to say 'simulation' rather than destruction. J. Baudrillard's notion, 'simulation,' is understood by classical philosophers as synonymous with 'in-complete', therefore un-scientific and un-true. But the very fact that classical philosophers attempt to criticize the non-classical paradigm of reading a text from a scientific position shows that their approach is tactless; tactless because the sphere of science and that of knowledge are not the identical, which means there is a sphere of un-scientific knowledge. This is the sphere that includes religious, mystical knowledge, the acquisition of which entails neither conscious mental activity nor cognitive work. Science is a method of acquiring knowledge, but not the only one.

This is to suggest that knowledge is not necessarily rational or, put more specifically, scientific; knowledge and science are not identical terms. Therefore, as non-classical philosophy postulates a position outside the scientific sphere, all arguments coming from critics working within the scientific position, who thereby deprecate anti-scientific values from that point of view, are off the point.

Non-classical philosophy escapes from the opposition of scientific and un-scientific, postulating principles of reading that are neither one nor the other. Non-classical philosophy does not share the classical (scientific) position; therefore, it does not enter into an argument with it. There is no resistance from non-classical philosophy as such, because it rejects none of the classical principles; it escapes the oppositional structure of 'scientific vs. un-scientific', 'real vs. profane', 'proper philosophy vs. mere philosophizing', etc. That is why it is so difficult for critics working within the classical paradigm to recognize the merits of non-classical philosophers.

Non-classical philosophy, whilst acknowledging the scientific nature of philosophy, re-establishes its philosophical position against such background. Consequently, the non-classical tradition defines philosophy as the form of out-of-scientific (neither scientific nor un-scientific) thinking. In this way, the philosophical motivation of the classical epoch, for instance, which sought to answer the global questions of truth, human being, God, etc., becomes invalid. Non-classical philosophy refuses to answer these questions, because it rejects the notion of a single answer. As time goes by, the meaning of such global questions along with the way they are treated always changes. There are many answers and many opinions. To such a crisis of increasingly numerous philosophical systems, doctrines and ideas about truth, human being, God, one can respond by acknowledging that every one of them is correct, insofar as every position is unique in its own right. The fact that there are so many different philosophies, so many different thinkers, is evidence of such a crisis. So, philosophy as the form of universal truth creation, according to M. Foucault, dies.

To this I can add: classical philosophy dies; and yet, philosophy as a form of dialectical thinking will go on. And non-classical philosophy in seeking after another kind of reading is an attempt to withdraw from that crisis.

First of all, non-classic philosophy re-evaluates classical philosophy's relation with science. Such scientific orientation was the form of adaptation and mimicry. Science and the idea of 'ratio' were the authoritative discourse for studies in the Age of Enlightenment. Knowledge was perceived as rational, as scientific; and therefore, every sphere of human activity, which pretended to be based on knowledge, had to be scientifically oriented. This tendency was reflected in rational theology, rational psychology and rational cosmology, which, when put all together, form Christian Wolf's philosophical system. Reason and science served as a criterion of veritable of knowledge. Therefore, philosophy had to become a science, too.

In order to prove scientifically that philosophy has cognitive value, philosophy had to create a series of global questions, set up a methodology, and invent special terms, building the hierarchy of philosophical knowledge. To prove the validity of philosophy, it had to put on the mask of science. This classical tradition created a new form of philosophy, constituted on the basis of the opposition between 'clear vs. vague', 'argument vs. metaphor', 'science vs. poetry'. Preference was always given to the first term of these oppositions.

Although non-classical philosophy escapes from such oppositions in overcoming metaphysics, it still retains the dialectical principle of thinking. At the same time, rejection of the scientific basis of philosophy is a tendency visible in the aspirations of some philosophers of the 20th century who adopt different forms of writing: fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. Albert Camus, for instance, expressed such an idea, namely that the philosopher of the 20th century has to write novels. There is an obvious aspiration to the non-rational sphere of creation.

However, these principles do not negotiate with philosophical experiences from the past; non-classical philosophy, being more concrete in its approach, does not aspire to answer the global questions which look for a unique answer. The aim of this concrete non-classical philosophy is to read the texts in a broad sense of the word, 'reading'. According to Jacques Derrida, there is nothing outside the text and every human activity can be perceived as a form of writing; and in this regard, every product of human work can be interpreted as the text (Derrida On Grammatology).

It is necessary to examine the peculiarities of the non-classical mode of reading philosophy. Classical philosophy investigated the historical and scientific aspects of texts, i.e. concrete cultural context, which determines the structure and evolution of written texts. It is necessary to know the original language in which a given text is written not so much in order to understand the sense of the text, as to analyze the cultural context. And it is necessary to know the native history and language (Saussurian 'langage') of the author. Although non-classical philosophy inherits this principle, it does not treat the text as a self-identical entity, which classical philosophy does insistently. The principle of self-identity regards a text as defined by the frames of national language, culture and epoch. Classical philosophy insists on this principle, which is why it demands that the reader carry out all the duties I listed earlier.

For a non-classical reader, the text can be read, whether it remains self-identical or not. Therefore one can read the text out of the epochal or cultural context, as well as out of — that is, against — the author's position. This principle was formulated by G. Bataille in the course of his reading of Hegel; his point is, namely that we can read Hegel's works not only out of German cultural context, but out of Hegel himself. Non-classical philosophy does not reject the classical principles, but takes off (Aufheben) the burden of austerity, which insists in viewing the text as a self-contained totality.

Non-classical philosophy is premised upon the principle that the text is determined by the given cultural context of the reader, not by that of the author. When reading a text, a non-classical reader accentuates the very process of reading, which depends on the reader's native language, culture and the epoch in which he is present, but not on the self-identity of the text, treated by classical philosophy as the immutable, total and stable code of information, rigidly determined by the culture and epoch in which it was written. Seen from the non-classical point of view, reading should not submit itself to this code; on the contrary, this code can be determined by the reader. Therefore non-classical philosophy resists the monosemantic (i.e. self-identical) treatment of the text as well as the complete cognitive mastery over it. Seen from the classical point of view, the reader is one who understands all the senses created by the author; consequently, the sense of the text is limited and static. A non-classic reader understands a text as a dynamic system, which itself develops in the course of reading.

The main principle of non-classical reading is proposed by Barthes (and also by Umberto Eco) who argues that the text is formed by the reader rather than by the author. There are no limits or completion to the text, because it is created by the process of reading, which is as endless as the present itself. At the same time, non-classical philosophy inherits the principle of cultural determinism from classical philosophy. It acknowledges that the reader's interests are determined by his mother tongue and present culture. Senses of a text are formed by the reader's language, culture and epoch, not by the author's. To this extent, the writer, as well as the reader, is subject to cultural determinism.

Non-classical philosophy, especially poststructuralism, is premised upon the principle that writing (é'criture) is not submitted to thinking (or, likewise, to logic and truth). Writing is the universal form of human activity, and thinking itself (taken as an act of creating truth and objectivity) can be treated as a form of writing. If, as Derrida says, writing is more primary than thinking, reading is not the process of deciphering encrypted thoughts, but, itself, paradoxically, a form of writing. When reading a text, the non-classical reader creates another text, which is a treatment of the first one. The reader is always a writer. This idea is very close to that of Barthes, who maintains that a text is formed by the reader rather than by the author. That is why non-classical philosophy does not aspire to answer the global question of thinking, but is devoted to reading and treating texts. Non-classical philosophy treats philosophy as a method of reading, not as a method of explaining the world, which classical philosophy insisted on doing.

In this regard, I can make sense of Barthes's thesis about the author's death, namely that there is no one sense of the text created by the author and his cultural mentality. There is no one treatment of the text. Barthes uses the image of the author inclusively: it contains culture, epoch, and mentality of writer — all at once. The author symbolises the self-identity of the text: it is the power that, by giving self-identity to the text, ensures its integrity. So, to read a text from the classical point of view is to attempt to read it from the author's point of view by assuming his mental position. By contrast, Barthes postulated (déclaré) the non-authorial basis of a text: it means that there is no such power which gives self-identity and gathers a text into one. Therefore, we can read a text without considering its self-identity, and likewise, without considering its authorial power.

Non-classical philosophy, according to Derrida, interprets a text as a totality of human products, and all human activities are forms of writing. In non-classical philosophy, there are no borderlines between the text, reading and the treatment of the text, because the process of reading depends on, and is determined by, the present. Changing the present culture and mentality of the reader entails changing the course of reading and treatment. There are no limits and completeness of the text, because the text is created by a process of reading.

Non-classical philosophy considers objectivity as a product of concrete culture. Therefore, there is no objectivity as such. There are many kinds of objectivity created by different cultures and epochs. But this consideration does not reject scientific thinking or scientific method, but takes it as merely one of the forms of writing.

© Dmitry Olshansky 2002

Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation

E-mail: Olshansky@hotmail.com