Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 350-353
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The Ways of Naysaying:
No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing,
The Ways of Naysaying: No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing, by Eva T. H. Brann; xviii & 249 pp. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001, $35.00.
This, the third of Eva Brann's trilogy on imagination, time, and naysaying respectively, is described by one of her colleagues as her "cradle-to-grave book" (p. xvi). The word "naysaying" plays felicitously on the sound of the English word "nay" and the cognate Indo-European root "ne," which gives Brann a convenient starting-point for discerning what various forms of naysaying have in common. Note that this is saying rather than thinking, being, or doing, although the relations among these acts are a recurring concern in her discussion. Unlike some "postmoderns," Brann does not regard language as a self-contained arena with no reference outside of itself. Rather, for her, language is a convenient medium for thinking about what is extralinguistic, whether in the mind or elsewhere.
Nor does she think that a word must necessarily have some underlying unity beneath its various meanings. In fact, heeding Wittgenstein's warning, she admits that "it is a pathologically bad craving to want a word to have one ultimate meaning, worse to look for one meaning over many words, and worst to assume that such a meaning may apply to a something beyond the realm of language." Nevertheless, she suggests, "this craving to look for one truth behind many appearances may be simply irradicable, being nothing less than the philosophical impulse" (p. xiv).
Where does her "philosophical impulse" focus, on texts or on things? She explicitly tells us that texts are indispensable (at least for her) to get very far with the things themselves (p. 2). And so, in the course of her investigation, she attends to Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Bergson, Frege, Meinong, Russell, Whitehead, Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among others. Nonetheless, she begins by noticing a sort of willful denial that is pre-linguistic and "speechless" (the contrariness of an infant), and she ends with the nothingness that is void of all language and everything else. These two topics, expressed by the words "No" (Chapter One) and "Nothing" (Chapter Six) respectively, "frame" her inquiry (p. 42). Along the way she always has an eye to what lies behind or beyond language, in the world or in the mind, with a chapter each for "Not," "Nonexistence," "Nonbeing," and "Negativity." She [End Page 350] says that Chapter Four, concerning "Nonbeing," is the center and philosophic focus of her study. Brann's chapters thus represent the six big divisions for organizing her observations. Indeed, for Brann, the plurality of naysayings "seems to fall naturally" into her sixfold division (p. xiv).
Thoughtfully pondering this structure takes the reader a long way toward understanding the work (in both senses of "work": the thought itself and the text which records that thought). The chapter divisions progress from the willful, through the logical, the imaginative, the philosophic, and the dialectical, to end, as we noted, in the absolute Nothing, the "antagonist of Being." For instance, the distinction between the first two--the willful and the logical--is the distinction between the personal (denial) and the impersonal (negation). In considering willful denial, Brann understands the will to be a "willingness, inclination, readiness"--usually "determinate," "focused and active" (p. 7). Likewise, negation also has a personal origin: "Negation arises from the human desire and ability to make distinctions; it is (most likely) grounded in the opposition and polarities that belong to beings (of which the first . . . is surely that of thinking itself to its object, be it ideal or real)" (p. 29f.). Thus, although logical negation seems to originate in the personal subject there is something quite detachable and impersonal about logical formulations, so that Heraclitus "bids people hear his truth 'not listening to me but to the logos,' the cosmic collecting and distinguishing power" (p. 128). So the logos that begins for us as "reason manifested in...