The Expansion of Metaphysics

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Miklós Vető
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2018.
     384 pages.
     $44.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498231251.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The purpose of the metaphysician, especially in today’s world, in which the practice of composing “First Philosophies” has long become passé—and the term “metaphysics” itself has accumulated a snowball of refuse from the New Age movement—is perhaps no longer to bring about something new, but rather to rediscover something old, even long forgotten. A beautiful dialectic thus emerges in Miklós Vető’s work: written in the style of modern philosophy and the spirit of German Idealism, one might regard Vető’s work as anachronistic and arcane, despite its being dedicated explicitly to reopening the hard, uncompromising matter of ontology to demonstrate the unfolding of radical novelty in the world. In The Expansion of Metaphysics, the new and the old collide in a way not often witnessed in contemporary philosophy.

Vető's metaphysics are uniquely his own, employing both a borrowed chemical formula from German Idealism, as well as the more esoteric cocktail of Simone Weil, the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, the kenosis of Christ, and the paradigm of Christian love. Although The Expansion of Metaphysics is systematic in its breadth, this book is not an attempt to augur a new groundwork for a complete philosophical system. Rather, Vető's metaphysics seeks to locate a veritable ontology of novelty, searching the cracks and fissures which have largely been left behind in the preponderance of postmodernism in recent decades; the paradoxes and impasses that were the primary concerns of German Idealism—such as truth, substance, subjectivity, love, etc.—but which have fallen out of fashion today (with a few exceptions). What has definitely fallen by the wayside are works of philosophical worth composed in the style standard several centuries ago. Indeed, the structure of Vető's prose reminds readers of René Descartes, or of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, as he returns to the practice of composing a “First Philosophy,” the skeleton-scaffolding upon which his “Book Two: Eidetics” is based.

Popular perception of the figure of the metaphysician aside—a figure engaged in lofty, pure, idyllic musings about existence—metaphysics is not a tidy affair. Rather than offering a pristine, self-enclosed system, Vető is well aware of the necessity of metaphysical untidiness; the remainders, those capricious and slippery waste products which one incidentally encounters in any-and-all metaphysical arrangements, are on full display in this book. Thus, within his Judeo-Christian framework, Vető paints neither a resplendent, regal full-bodied Christ as we find in Giotto di Bondone Giotto, nor the bare-bones, emaciated figure we often encounter in Hans Holbein. Instead, Vető offers a distended, bloated, lacerated, and ultimately decaying body. In sum, a nonfetishistic view of the metaphysical plane.

Despite the lurid view, the beauty of Vető's expansion is undeniable; the author maps the eidetic and ontological movement toward novelty, tracking how the footprints of the a priori synthesis leave their mark upon and beyond immanence and the analytic. In the first five chapters of Book One, Vető takes the reader through the ontology of the Image. He insists on its autonomy as a form, and its phenomenological primacy in the a priori synthesis—the Singular and the Unique, versus the homogeneity of the immanent and the analytic, culminating in the notion of the unborn child as a “brute ontological fact,” illustrating the way in which true novelty emerges in the world (124). We can quibble later over whether we as mere mortals have access to this kind of “noumenal” brute fact, or if it is only the metaphysician whose privileged gaze can grace the contours of the real without recourse to the distortion ushered by the subjective frame. Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with the credibility of an author who has dedicated his life’s work to locating this ontological moment—even if it is, ultimately, all in vain.

There are, unfortunately, flaws that warrant addressing: Vető's ontology is expressly “patrilineal,” and therefore, recycles some rather archaic formulations of the feminine implicit in his championing of paternity as the eidetic trait belonging universally to bearers of the procreative faculty. In this formulation, one might hear an eidetic echo in the imagination of psychoanalysis, insofar as Sigmund Freud conceived of the libido as universally masculine. Vető also elevates the fraternal relationship, conceiving it as a base—almost pure—relationship between siblings; suggesting that the co-ed sibling relationship is somehow tainted by the “temptation for nostalgia of the double” (146), a concept to which Vető has already derided as duplicitous, a clone, a “parasite,” and leading to “misfortune and evil” (140). Although it would be cursory to claim that the divisions between the analytic/synthetic and the immanence/transcendence are expressed in terms of a kind of classical view of sexual difference—certainly Vető does problematize sexual difference somewhat—it is perhaps more appropriate to consider these fundamental divisions in Lacanian terms, “il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel,” as two “halves” that do not compose a “whole,” but rather two features of a disjointed and incomplete horizon of being. This, at the very least, will salvage what resonates as more-or-less a tired, curmudgeon-esque grumpy-despite-all-best-efforts view of sexual difference implicit in Vető’s First Philosophy.

In “Book Two: Eidetics,” Vető elaborates his expansion, homing in on the Janus-like character of space—its simultaneous indifference and hostility—on time and temporalities, the will, and the problem of evil. It is admirable, audacious even, that Vető is willing to revisit these lost philosophical causes in his text. In this way, it is safe to say that although considerably arcane from the vantage of today’s postmodern landscape, Vető writes from the perspective of yesterday, though, paradoxically, for today.

Vető’s work will surprise and frustrate; it will come off as too stagnant, and at times, too vitalistic. Wavering between an earnest ethical encounter with novelty, and a Christology that is becoming increasingly more difficult to countenance in contemporary society, Vető has, at least, stayed true to the German tradition and chosen to embrace contradiction, rather than favoring one end over another. With cameos by Seneca, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jacques Derrida, among others, The Expansion of Metaphysics has wide appeal, though admittedly not wide enough for any reader who wishes not to be, to some degree,  deposed of their religious and/or philosophical station. With a strongly Judeo-Christian grammar and theme, and roots fortified by the German and French philosophical traditions, Vető’s book is neither for the faint-of-faith, nor for those with an affinity for positivism. It is a work of austere, unabashed metaphysics which embraces the baggage of theologoumenon that inevitably comes along therewith; an apophatic demonstration of the absolute, a pro domo sua of an absolutely Judeo-Christian metaphysics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony Ballas is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Miklos Vető is a Hungarian-born French philosopher who taught successively at Marquette, Yale, Abidjan, Rennes, and Poitiers universities. Widely known as a historian of German Idealism, his works have been translated into many languages. He is the author of The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil.

William C. Hackett is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and the Honors Program at Belmont University. He is the translator of several works from French to English, including Jean Wahl’s Human Existence and Transcendence.

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