And all for nothing:
Suppose Shakespeare had written for Hamlet the line “I think, therefore I am,” or a fiction is written in which a character named Descartes says this, or suppose a character in a dream of mine says this; does it follow that they exist?
¶ 5Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In What Is Philosophy? Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari distinguish conceptual characters from dramatic characters. Conceptual characters advance arguments rather than plots, and they are played by philosophers rather than by actors. Deleuze and Guattari’s examples include Nicholas of Cusa’s Idiot, Kierkegaard’s Don Juan, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Some conceptual characters are more dramatic than others. No doubt a philosophically minded playwright such as Tom Stoppard could write an absurdist comedy featuring the Property Dualist, the Substance Dualist, the Smooth Reductionist, and the Eliminativist, but these dramatically thin characters are most at home in the space philosophers of mind imaginatively enter when they argue about the nature of mental phenomena. Most dramatic characters would be out of place in this space, for they would lack well-defined coordinates and vectors. Others, like Mephistopheles, Estragon, and Hamlet, would be right at home, for even within their plays they are better at advancing arguments than plots. When such characters make cameo appearances in the texts of philosophers, they bring with them an implicit conceptual agenda. Sometimes that agenda is explicitly set to work, as when Schopenhauer endorses Hamlet’s representation of annihilation as a “consummation / Devoutly to be wished.” In other philosophical texts, such as my epigraph from Robert Nozick, the invoked character may simply illustrate an argument advanced by the philosopher’s own conceptual character(s). Even in the latter case, and certainly in the former, we may ask whether, and if so how, the philosopher’s arguments are affected by his or her reference to the character in question. Our recollection of Hamlet’s consternation at the First Player’s empathy for the fictional Hecuba may affect our response to Nozick’s question about what it could mean to attribute the thought “I think, therefore I am” to the fictional Hamlet. Even when reduced to a stock instance of a fictional character, Hamlet’s appearance in Nozick’s text is part of the “performance history” of his conceptual character. In the same way that theatrical performance histories compare Garrick’s, Schröder’s, Bernhard’s, Olivier’s, Gielgud’s, and Branagh’s Hamlets, we may compare Lessing’s, Hegel’s, Schopenhauer’s, Nietzsche’s, Russell’s, Derrida’s, and Nozick’s, with an eye toward discerning overall trends in the history of modern philosophy.
¶ 6Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Philosophers, like actors, bring out different aspects of Hamlet’s character, but the role itself has certain constants. One is the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, rarely if ever cut from performance. That Nozick should imagine Shakespeare’s giving the line “I think, therefore I am” to Hamlet rather than to Romeo, Rosalind, Richard II, or even the Fool is in keeping with the fact that Shakespeare gave to Hamlet his philosophical signature: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” In his soliloquy, Hamlet reaches conclusions that are antithetical to those of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am” arms Descartes against a sea of epistemic troubles, including the threat of delusional melancholy, and it serves as the basis for a reassuring demonstration of the immortality of his soul. Unlike Descartes, Hamlet is disturbed by the thought of his own immortality. Knowing himself to be suffering from melancholy, he is uncertain whether the spirit he has seen is or is not an evil deceiver. To each of Descartes’ dogmatic theses, Hamlet proleptically opposes a skeptical – or rather nihilistic – antithesis. Like Melville’s Bartleby, Hamlet would prefer not to (“O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right”); or, more precisely, he would prefer not to be. His “negative preference” is held in check by considerations about the possible impossibility of annihilation. If even Hecuba – who never existed – must be something insofar as she can bring tears to the eyes of the First Player, Hamlet – who does exist, at least in the fiction of Shakespeare’s play – may be incapable of not being, not only in the memorial sense of forever having had existed, but in the more ominous sense of continuing to be a something-he-knows-not-what after death. Throughout the play, Hamlet’s meditations bear on the being of entities whose ontological status is inherently negative. “Nothing,” he tells Ophelia, is “a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” (punning on the vulgar term for vagina). He berates not only Ophelia but all women for painting over their essential nothingness, just as he berates himself for doing nothing. In the closet scene, he asks Gertrude if she “did see nothing” nor “nothing hear.” His final statement to Horatio – “The rest is silence” – is a form of self-negation complicated by his recognition that death’s character as absolute negation is not guaranteed. Other remarks that have received philosophers’ attention include “Seems, madam? Nay, it is”; “It is an honest ghost”; “Well said, old mole”; “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”; “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”; “The time is out of joint”; “What a piece of work is a man”; “Man delights not me”; “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”; “Doubt truth to be a liar”; “A beast, no more”; and “Let be.” Taken individually and in context, these lines serve diverse dramatic ends, but collectively they express the same negative mood or melancholy humor.
¶ 7Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Descartes’ world is a plenum – one version of the “great chain of being” – in which the gaps between immaterial substances are filled by material substances between which there are no gaps. Whatever does not exist as, or through, a material or immaterial substance simply is not. Given his metaphysical and epistemological commitments, it is not surprising that Descartes shows no sign of awareness of Hamlet or any other work of Shakespeare’s. When he was stationed in Germany in the winter of 1619-20, he could have attended a performance staged by traveling English players known to have enacted some version of the play in Dresden in 1626. During a stay in Ulm, Descartes had a series of dreams that he took to foretell the success of his new philosophical method. In the first dream he was pursued by phantoms; then he was given a “melon” which he supposed a foreigner to have brought from another country. This melon apporté par un étranger, which Descartes associated with the “charms of solitude,” has been interpreted in numerous ways. One possibility that has not been explored is that it represented a “day’s residue” of a performance of the foreign players’ melon-choly prince. Had the play been the thing that caught the conscience of the philosopher, Descartes could have been prompted by Hamlet’s melancholy tendencies to combat his own. Such a “wild” analysis may be farfetched, but it is philosophically significant that Descartes’ new method provides a way of denying the reality of questionable entities such as the phantoms that haunted him at the beginning of his dream. At the end of the Meditations, Descartes considers how he should respond if the image of a man were suddenly to appear and disappear without any discernible cause. Having dealt with the threat of delusional melancholy and reestablished contact with the physical world (including his own body), he concludes that “it would not be unreasonable for me to judge that he was a specter or a phantom created in my brain [un spectre ou un fantôme formé dans mon cerveau].” Apparently real specters or phantoms are to be reduced to real images produced, somehow, in the brain. This reduction is more complicated than Descartes suggests, for he notoriously lacks an adequate account of how the faculty of imagination links an immaterial soul to a material brain. Gilbert Ryle’s famous characterization of the Cartesian soul as a “ghost in the machine” highlights the extent to which Descartes exacerbated rather than eliminated cracks in the great chain of being.
¶ 8Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Philosophers began to pay attention to Hamlet in the late eighteenth century. Mendelssohn translated the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Lessing explained why the ghost in Hamlet was more psychologically effective than that in Voltaire’s Semiramis. In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, published in the same year as Wieland’s translation of Hamlet, Kant questioned the grounds for belief in the reality of spiritual substances. His attempt to make sense of inherently negative phenomena such as empty space, remote influences, causal gaps, negative magnitudes, and non-substantial subjectivity culminated in the development of his critical philosophy. Kant’s explicit engagement with Hamlet is limited to a fragmentary sentence about the nature of shame, but his idealist successors discerned a deeper affinity. After Kant, Hamlet’s negativity came to inform not only Keats’s conception of “Negative Capability” and Coleridge’s of “negative faith,” but Hegel’s depiction of spirit as “restless negativity,” Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s respective conceptions of nihilism as will to nothingness and eclipse of being, Freud’s conception of repression as psychological negation, Russell’s representation of logical negation, and Derrida’s account of “fundamental hauntology.” If, pace Hamlet, Hecuba brings tears to the eyes of the First Player despite being nothing to him, Hamlet has brought thoughts to the minds of philosophers insofar as he personifies or embodies a preference for negation. As such, he resembles the ancient figure of the sophist.
¶ 9Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In Plato’s Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger directs Theaetetus to five or six definitions of this essentially elusive figure. By the end of the dialogue, it is unclear whether any of the definitions has captured its quarry, or how they are to be collectively unified. One thing has become clear, namely, that the sophist says what is not. Parmenides had taught the Eleatic Stranger that only that which is can be said. If that which is not cannot be said, there is a sense in which the sophist himself is not. Yet his nonbeing cannot be absolute. As the Stranger points out, being and nonbeing are essentially interwoven, as are affirmation and negation. If the philosopher is to be capable of saying that which is – if the philosopher is allowed to be – he must drag his shadow along with him, on pain of falling back into the paradoxes of Parmenidean metaphysics. Like Mephistopheles to Faust, the clinging sophist could well whisper in the philosopher’s ear: “I am the spirit that ever negates!” To maintain the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist, the Stranger distinguishes between the negation involved in differentiation (the determination that one thing is not something else) and the negation involved in false utterance (saying what is not simpliciter, whether accidentally or deliberately). If the capacity to say that which is requires differentiation but not (deliberate) false utterance, the philosopher should be able to distinguish himself from the sophist, who, as a purveyor of falsehood, will retain the elusiveness proper to a self-negating being.
¶ 10Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 Like the sophist, Hamlet is an essentially elusive character who reproves those who would pluck out the heart of his mystery. His elusiveness could be attributed to the simple fact that he has no determinate existence outside the confines of the play, but his nonexistence can be no more absolute than that of the sophist. Pace Margreta de Grazia, one cannot speak of “Hamlet without Hamlet” without finding oneself in the same predicament as the philosopher who would speak about being without nonbeing. Some fictional characters pique our curiosity more than others. Not even A.C. Bradley has speculated about the childhood of Marcellus, for Marcellus isn’t a particularly intriguing character. Other characters intrigue us because something important about them appears to be concealed. Lady Macbeth’s “I have given suck” gives point to the question, “How many children had she?” even if no determinate answer can be given to it. Likewise, Iago’s “I am not what I am” invites us to speculate about his inner life. So does Hamlet’s “I have that within which passes show.” Iago’s refusal to disclose his true being (“Demand me nothing”) makes him, like Hamlet, resemble the sophist in a way that goes beyond mere elusiveness. Ophelia is more intriguing than Marcellus, but she is not an intriguer. To the extent that her being is concealed (from herself, perhaps, as well as from us), it is due not to conniving on her part but to contriving on Shakespeare’s part. Hamlet and Iago, by contrast, actively conceal themselves, dividing critics into hunters and Parmenideans. But if Hamlet and Iago both resemble the sophist, they do so in different ways. Hamlet disguises his true intentions for the sake of distinguishing true and false appearances. Iago’s negations are designed to cover up true being. Hamlet would thus appear to differ from Iago as the Platonic philosopher differs from the sophist. But these apparent differences are not so clear-cut. G. Wilson Knight observes that Hamlet effectively plays Iago to his own Othello when he casts unwarranted suspicions on Ophelia. Hamlet’s misogyny is arguably no less sophistical than Iago’s general misanthropy. His incipient nihilism should further align him with the sophist – or perhaps nihilism should be understood as a distinctively modern form of negation unknown to the sophist. Eva Brann has convincingly shown that there is a crucial difference between the ancient conception of nonbeing and the modern conception of nonexistence. In the Sophist, Plato asks how nonbeing can be, but he dos not (at least overtly) take up the kind of question that Hamlet implicitly poses when he asks how we can be moved by something that does not exist. The Eleatic Stranger examines false statements about genuine entities (e.g., “Theaetetus flies”), but not statements about nonexistent entities (e.g., “Achilles flies”). Likewise, in the Parmenides, the young Socrates expresses puzzlement about the ontological status of lowly things such as “hair, mud, and dirt,” but not about negative entities such as holes, gaps, and absences. If Brann is right that modern conceptions of negation raise philosophical problems that the ancients did not confront, Hamlet’s negativity would go beyond that of the sophist. The question is whether his negativity represents a new kind of sophistry or a new kind of philosophy.
¶ 11Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In a larger version of this project, I hope to show how philosophers have responded to this question. I will begin by showing how Hamlet’s melancholy complicates Foucault’s account of the role played by madness in the constitution of the cogito. Derrida’s debate with Foucault about the sense of that constitution is best read in light of his later interpretation of “The time is out of joint” in Specters of Marx. Derrida’s conception of hauntology is troubled by an uncertain relationship to the metaphysical issues that trouble Hamlet and early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Kant. This leaves Derrida – and us – with an unresolved Hamlet complex. The question Derrida poses to us is whether our Hamlet complex is, in principle, unresolvable. Answering that question is one of the goals of my project. Another is to address debates about the political stakes of the play – debates that turn on the nature of Hamlet’s “tarrying,” understood as negative activity. The unlikely hero of my story will be Russell, whose singular Hamlet complex (as I hope to show) played no less a role in the development of logical analysis than did Freud’s in the development of psychoanalysis. If Hamlet continues to resist Russell’s and Freud’s deflationary analyses, he remains, for us, an essentially elusive figure – one to whom we never quite know what it would mean to attribute the line, “I think, therefore I am.”
¶ 13Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0  Unless we should say that philosophers are played by the conceptual characters they invent: “The conceptual persona [personnages conceptuels] is not the philosopher’s representative but, rather, the reverse.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 64.
¶ 14Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0  Ibid., pp. 61-2, 66. Cf. Martin Heidegger, “Who Is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?” in Heidegger, Nietzsche: Volumes I and II. Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, trans. David Farrell Krell, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 209-33.
¶ 16Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0  Some conceptual characters are named for the philosophers who play them: “the Cartesian,” “the Kantian.” Through the use of the indefinite singular, we can distinguish such conceptual characters from the philosophers themselves (“a Cartesian,” “a Kantian”). The Scholastics bestowed honorifics on celebrated thinkers: “the Philosopher” (Aristotle), “the Commentator” (Averroes), “the Angelic Doctor” (Aquinas), “the Subtle Doctor” (Duns Scotus). Such labels can be thought of as affectionate nicknames of the thinkers in question, but they can also be regarded as names of the conceptual characters they invented – characters that no one else has the right to play (in the way that no other New York Yankee can wear Babe Ruth’s number or be called “the Sultan of Swat”). In this sense, “Hamlet” might be thought of as the name of a conceptual character that Hamlet uniquely plays in Hamlet.
¶ 17Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0  Deleuze characterizes Bartleby’s “negative preference” thus: “I would prefer nothing rather than something: not a will to nothingness, but the growth of a nothingness of the will….a negativism beyond all negation.” Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (New York: Verso, 1998), p. 71.
¶ 18Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0  For a summary of some of the many interpretations, see Alan Gabbey and Robert E. Hall, “The Melon and the Dictionary: Reflections on Descartes’s Dreams,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Oct. 1998), pp. 651-668.
¶ 19Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0  René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume II, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 62; translation modified.
¶ 21Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0  “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” John Keats, letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817, in Selected Letters of John Keats, rev. ed., ed. Grant F. Scott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 60. Cf. Harold Bloom’s association of “Hamlet’s final stance” with “Shakespeare’s negative capability.” Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 12.
¶ 22Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0  Citing Eva Brann’s perspicuous translation of line 1338 of Faust part 1 in her book The Ways of Naysaying: No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), p. 36.