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Melancholy Philosophy: Polis-Praxis-Phronesis and the Slave’s Know-How

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This paper places “philosophy” at the cusp of the “act of mourning” and the “fact of melancholia”. The paper argues that one side of philosophy has, as if, completed the act of mourning for what it (has) lost. What has it lost is, however, the question: has it lost, as Arendt (2005) in The Promise of Politics suggests, the old and short-lived Socratic urge to be in the polis, be in polis life; to lead a life tied to the polis, tied to life in the polis? Has it lost its touch with, as Marx (2002 [1845]) in Theses on Feuerbach suggests, praxis; or as Tagore (2011 [1925]) in Prospectus for ‘A Viswa-Bharati Institute for Rural Reconstruction at Sriniketan’ suggests, coordination of brain and hand? Has it lost touch with, as Heidegger (1985) in Being and Time suggests, phronesis? Has it lost its contact, as Lacan (2007) in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis suggests, with the “slave”, with slave life-worlds, and especially with the slave’s “know-how”? This side of philosophy has, as if, moved on, with manic determination to the side of theoria, sophia, or episteme. It has in turn led to the hyper-separation of “thought and action” (Arendt 2005) and the world of knowing (theoria), world of making (poiesis) and the world of doing (praxis) (Carr 2006). ‘The Other Side of Philosophy’ has, as if, remained melancholic about what it (has) lost. One side of philosophy, the official side triumphs over the loss through mourning.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-981-15-1029-8_1
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  1. 1.

    While ‘the ego probably succumbs in melancholia’, in mania ‘it has overcome it or pushed it aside’.

  2. 2.

    The inspiration of this paper comes from the late Lacan’s (1969–70) attempts to move to The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (2007): the move to the Other Side is the move to the side psychoanalysis has been melancholic about. It is the move to the Other Side of “case histories”, or what in psychiatrized or psychologized psychoanalysis is called “clinical”; move to what psychoanalysis remains melancholic about: the lost “social”, the absent “political”; it is the move to the side of the Four Discourses: ‘discourse without speech’ (Lacan 2007: 12), the move to ‘a revival [of psychoanalysis] from the other direction’ (Lacan 2007: 12): the non-clinical, the non-dyadic, the non-Oedipalized direction. Taking off from Lacan this paper asks: what is it to move to The Other Side of Philosophy, to the side philosophy is melancholic about?

  3. 3.

    Freud, Sigmund (1917), ‘Trauer und Melancholie’ [Mourning and Melancholia] in Internationale Zeitschrift für Ärztliche Psychoanalyse (in German). Leipzig and Vienna: Hugo Heller. 4 (6): 288–301. The German ‘Trauer’, like the English ‘mourning’, can mean both the affect of grief and its outward manifestation.

  4. 4.

    Freud also talks of a third response in the same piece: ‘a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis’. However, ‘normally, respect for reality gains the day’ and the subject ends up acknowledging and mourning the lost/loss.

  5. 5.

    Žižek (2000) however argues that melancholia occurs not when we lose the object, but rather when we no longer desire it. It is the lack of desire, not the loss of the object that makes one melancholic. It is lack of desire that complicates the relationship of the subject to the object; it is the lack of desire that renders the object quasi-lost to the subject. In this reading, reading from the pole of desire (i.e. reading from the psychoanalytic angle) and not from the pole of loss (i.e. reading from the historical, more evental angle), it is the subject who has lost (desire for) the object; it is not the object that has abandoned the subject; it is desire that has abandoned the subject. The question then is not who is lost but what is lost. It is desire that is lost. The subject has lost desire (for the object). It is not the object but the object cause of desire that is lost (melancholia is, as if, premature mourning for an object before it is lost [see]). Freud writes in Mourning and Melancholia: ‘The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love (e.g. in the case of a betrothed girl who has been jilted)’. One can read ‘lost as an object of love’ in at least two ways: one, where the subject has lost the object; two, where the subject has lost love for the object, i.e. where the object is no more the object of love. The question the paper asks: has philosophy lost desire for the Socratic moment of being-in-the-polis, for being in touch with praxis, with phronesis, with the slave and the slave’s know-how? Has contemporary philosophy lost desire for the ‘pre-modern tradition of ‘practical philosophy’—a tradition that permeated Western intellectual culture until the seventeenth century and that has only been finally discarded in our own modern times’ (Toulmin 1988).

  6. 6.

    Object loss ‘does not mean that the loved object has died or gone away or been unfaithful, though any of these may have been the precipitating event that created the danger of the loss of the object, and though psychologically any and all these things may have happened. Object loss means that something catastrophic has happened to the subject’s internal connection with his object’ (Roth in Fiorini, Bokanowski and Lewkowicz 2009: 38). This takes us back to Žižek (2000) and the question the paper asks: did something catastrophic happen in the transition from Socrates to Plato? Did philosophy lose its “internal connection” with the polis, with life in the polis? Did philosophy lose its connection with praxis, with phronesis, with the slave and with the slave’s know-how?

  7. 7.

    ‘Incorporation denotes a fantasy, introjection a process’. Two interrelated processes constitute incorporation: ‘demetaphorization (taking literally what is meant figuratively)’ and ‘objectivation (pretending that the suffering is not an injury to the subject but instead a loss sustained by the love object)’ … incorporation [thus] is the refusal to acknowledge the full import of the loss.’ Introjection, on the other hand, is the process of ‘broadening the ego’ through ‘transferential love’ (Abraham and Torok 1994).

  8. 8.

    ‘All thinking activity that is not simply the calculation of means to obtain an intended or willed end, but is concerned with meaning in the most general sense, came to play the role of an “afterthought,” that is, after action had decided and determined reality. Action, on the other hand, was relegated to the meaningless realm of the accidental and haphazard’ (Arendt 2005: 6).

  9. 9.

    Theses on Feuerbach was written by Marx in Brussels in the spring of 1845. Marx’s original text was first published in 1924. The English translation was first published in The German Ideology in 1938. The version I am quoting has been translated by Cyril Smith in 2002 and is based on work done jointly with Don Cuckson (

  10. 10.

    ‘… the thrust of Heidegger’s critique is not that previous philosophies had simply failed to grasp life, although that surely happened, but that previous philosophies presuppose life and also the living character of philosophy itself. In essence, their failure to grasp life in and for itself is due to the fact that life is always already present in the background of their philosophy’. However, ‘what is at stake for Heidegger is not whether philosophy can or cannot give us access to life and lived-experience [in a radically new, pre-objective, pre-theoretical way], but rather to understand how philosophy itself is lived and situated in life. ... previous attempts to grasp life philosophically failed because philosophy itself had become divorced from life and therefore the attempt to approach life philosophically was an artificial effort to grasp life ‘from outside’. ... this required retracing the way in which philosophy becomes alienated from life’ (Bowler 2008: 2–6 and 116–137). Thus if Heidegger was trying to resituate philosophy in life, Tagore was trying to resituate the experience of education in “spiritual life” which in turn “comprehended all life”.

  11. 11.

    ‘The aletheia of phronesis is living itself’; for Heidegger, ‘philosophy is the intensification of life. It is, he argues, philosophizing. And philosophizing is just a pre-eminent form of the praxis of life’ (Bowler 2008: 135–136).

  12. 12.

    “Practical” behavior is not “atheoretical” in the sense of sightlessness [i.e. a lack of seeing]. The way it differs from theoretical behavior does not lie simply in the fact that in theoretical behavior one observes, while in practical behavior one acts [gehandelt wird], and that action must apply theoretical cognition if it is not to remain blind; for the fact that observation is a kind of concern [or taking care] is just as primordial as the fact that action has its own kind of sight [seeing] (Heidegger 1985: 99).

  13. 13.

    Dhar and Chakrabarti highlight Heidegger’s turn to phronesis and his turning away from episteme or sophia (2016: 572–574).

  14. 14.

    ‘The opposition of truth and opinion was certainly the most anti-Socratic conclusion that Plato drew from Socrates’ trial’ (Arendt 2005: 8).

  15. 15.

    Mladen Dolar, in “Hegel as the Other Side of Psychoanalysis”, explores ‘the multiple place that Hegel occupies in the four discourses’. Hegel at once functions ‘as a representative of the master’s, the hysteric’s, and the university discourse, and, ultimately, can be seen to occupy the analyst’s place as objet a as well’ (Clemens and Grigg 2006: 5). Lacan argues: “at the level of the master’s discourse something appeared which is of interest to us concerning discourse, irrespective of its ambiguity, and which is called philosophy” (Lacan 2007: 20).

  16. 16.

    The MPhil programme in Development Practice (not Studies) at Ambedkar University Delhi is an attempt—small albeit—at turning to polis-praxis-phronesis and the slave’s know-how, and being in touch with the Other side of philosophy, the melancholic side.


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Dhar, A. (2019). Melancholy Philosophy: Polis-Praxis-Phronesis and the Slave’s Know-How. In: Das, S. (eds) Abjection and Abandonment. Springer, Singapore.

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