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Homo-Sapiensism: Not Humanism

The Soft Eternity Beneath Phylogenetic, Historical Expression

I want to thoroughly praise Paolo Virno’s “Natural-Historical Diagrams: The New Global Movement and the Biological Invarient”, found in the new re.press issue of The Italian Difference. It is one of the most engagingly written, open-vista’d philosophical essays I have read in a long while. And it came just as I was thinking about recent complaints that there are inherent dangers, implicit biases, when advocating  Humanism. I have thought to myself, what is human must be embraced if we are to gainfully produce futures that reflect our real human differences, but still, one must do so without slipping into the philosophical (and sociological) difficulties that arise from theorizing a chasm between the human and all else. What is needed, it seems, is a Homo-sapiensism, not a Humanism.

I’m going to to go through Virno’s essay to give a presentation of its arguments, quoting at some length for those who do not care to turn to the original text; but I also aim to show the rotation it gives to my own thoughts with the hope that one can see through the idea of a Homosapiensism as a fundamental foundation for future reasoning, much of this found in the critique of his position. I strongly urge you to download the essay and investigate it yourself.

Virno is concerned with the essential nature of the Global Movement’s contest within its own epoch, an epoch that quite determinatively he wants to qualify or ground in very biological terms. This is to say, he wants to identify an essential human organism upon which one can perform an historical diagnositics of the dominant forms of social organization for our time (Capitalism, perhaps an implicit Statism), and as well, of the possibilities within the resistance to or reinvention of those social organizations. From the first page,

The arena of the struggle: the movement is rooted in the epoch in which the capitalist organization of work takes on as its raw material the differential traits of the species (verbal thought, the transindividual character of the mind, neoteny, the lack of specialized instincts, etc.). That is, it is rooted in the epoch in which human praxis is applied in the most direct and systematic way to the ensemble of requirements that make praxis human. The stake: those who struggle against the man-traps placed on the paths of migrants or against copyright on scientific research raise the question of the different socio-political expression that could be given, here and now, to certain biological prerogatives of Homo sapiens (131)

I have to say right off that I just love his writing style, the diction, the conciseness, the tightness of reference, the tempo. A great deal of the pleasure I had when considering these ideas is the very way that he constantly works to frame, pause and then propel his thinking, something which one suspects is not just a stylistic skill, but rather a core project quality to his writing. And one must praise perhaps equally the invisible collaboration of the translator, Alberto Toscano.

Of course we realize from the start as well that JUST how biologicaly Homo sapiens are qualified  is the coin upon which much of this thinking trades. And we get a glimpse of what the author is going to make very explicit, that what is human is linguisitic, trans-individual, neotenic and non-specialized. The social analysis is going to operate distinctly upon these vectors. (What will remain somewhat occluded is the justification of just these vectors.)

Virno immediately warns that such a bio-mediation should fall into neither a Rousseauian ideal social deduction, nor a Chomskian contest of “raw” natural human capacities against unnatural forms of social power.

Maps of Human Nature

What is nice is that Virno brings his analysis immediately to a very significant epistemological question, one that drives right through the heart of Western philosophy and ultimately the question of Kant’s astronomical de-centering of knowledge. And his treatment, to my ear, is quite satisfying and somewhat original.

The decisive question is broadly the following: can human beings experience/ human nature? Note that experiencing something, for instance an object or an event, does not at all mean representing it with some degree of scientific precision. Rather, it means perceiving it in its phenomenal manifestness, being emotionally involved, reacting to it with praxis and discourse. If that is so, our case immediately confronts us with a difficulty…: is it possible to experience, in the full sense of the term, that which constitutes the presupposition of experience in general?

He answers this question through a subtle qualification of the idea of “eternity”, breaking apart the transcendental solution from the way in which the eternal can be seen to reveal itself in the very diagramic nature of the “natural-historical”, what he calls “an eventual physiogamy”: [There…]

There are several buried qualifications in his particular version of the second approach, for instance his reliance upon discursive and phenomenological definitions of experience bespeaks of a particular semiotic framework that I do not wholly embrace. But as a Spinozist, this really hits upon a fundamental epistemic standing which goes at least as far back as Anselm’s ontological proof of God. This is to say, human beings experience the conditions of the possibilities of experience in the very fabric of the paschontological itself. (For Spinoza this fact expresses itself in the powers of Intuitional knowledge, the way in which the mind links up with great speed the concrete and contingent to our very structured participation in the whole of Being). For Virno though, this revelatory power of eternity is best understood under the analogy of map making, an analogy that must be taken as real.

I call natural-historical diagrams the socio-political states of affairs which display, in changing and rival forms, same salient features of anthropogenesis. The diagram is a sign that imitates the object to which it refers, meticulously reproducing its structure and the relationship between its parts. Think of a map, a mathematical equation, a graph. However, the contingent historical fact, which offers the abridged image of a biological condition, is not a necessary condition of the latter, since its roots lie instead in a particular social and cultural conjecture (134)

We get the full flavor of Virno’s semotic commitments in this notion that the historical is a kind of map/diagram of the biological, one which replicates elements of the biological beneath it. He wants to qualify that the biological eternity does not cause the historical sign in the way that the a knock on the door is the sign for the person who made it, for the historical is a cultural product (I think he is wrong to explicitly deny that there is any causation here, as he seems to). I am in great sympathy towards his softening of eternity and this imminentist conception of revelation, willing to hold off on the precise “reproduction” of features the semiotic school requires (this view is far too knowledge-as-representation bound). There is great gravity to this sense that the eternal bears its mark upon its (partial) products, and that in this sense the pre-conditional can be read, or experienced in the condition itself.

Virno pushes hard on this map/territory analogy, drawing on Peirce in a very evocative way. The diagrams of historical eventology exhibit what I would qualify as the two Wittgensteinian categories of The Empiricial and the The Grammatical (which here are called the empirical and the transcedental, foreground and background), which dog-tail fashion recursively turn upon each other, each producing the other, an “endless circularity” which itself reveals “meta-historical” constants. Peirce tells us that the very nature of mapping produces, if only by accident, exact structural correspondences which reveal what is beneath it, but one in which the correspondence is a temporal mapping, one might even say a musical one:

This is an extended analogy to be sure. The historical is to the bio-eternal as a map is to territory (when placed on it), though not spatially (part/whole) but temporally. But one also feels that there is something very productive here, and that is the differential between that which lasts, and that which changes or is “just now”. As Spinozist what comes to mind here is his famous EIIp7 “The order and connection between ideas is the same as the order and connection between things”, wherein what is revelatory about eternity is not the imaginary part/whole spatial configurations, but rather the very ideational/extentional fabric of historical expression itself. It is this syntax that shows through and enables the experience of experience.

The way that our author sees it, the socio-political expresses the biological invariant (soft eternity) as a certain kind of temporal diagram revealing the very genesis of the human organism and its reality. In this way the global movement acts as a kind of map connective to the invariant itself,

Natural history inventories the ways in which human beings experience human nature. Having the latter as its content, the global movement should be considered as an episode of natural history. It can be rightfully compared to the map of an island which is laid down on a precise point of the island itself (135)

What does not yet follow in this analogy, of course, is that if you have a map (expression) of an island, it doesn’t matter where at all you place it on the territory, it is always resting on a precise point of correspondence, somewhat evacuating the heft of the homology Virno is trying to put forth. What remains is the very qualifications that make this map of the said island better than that map, or another. For if I place a map of Manhattan on the island of Hawaii, the only correspondence may be those of coordination itself (if even that).

The Potential Animal

Next on the agenda is the qualification of just what Homo sapiens is, or more precisely, what are the salient features which are going to characterize and anchor a diagramic analysis of historical picturing. Virno is quite aware of the danger of trying to essentialize the human being, and is at pains to qualify his project solely in terms of the thematic analysis itself:

The crucial point, I repeat, is not an exhaustive defintion of that which in Homo sapiens remains unaltered from the Cro-Magnons onwards, but the ways in which the mutable course of history sometimes thematizes the “eternal”, even exhibiting it in concrete states of affairs (135)

Unfortunately, such a distinction does not immunize the analysis from the most obvious attack. The problem is not the exhaustion of characteristics, but rather their prioritization, as we shall see. In a certain sense Virno is recommending that we look at history from our particular point of view and see in it the concrete traces of biological invariants that are then taken to be determinative nexuses for the capacties of political and sociological power. Perhaps this is what we all do, but one risks something of a Rorschach test in terms of argumentive force. One sees the essential biological (soft) eternities that one wants to see.

But let’s follow Virno through because his picture of history and eternity is to some degree apodictically convincing and at least provides an intellectual framework in which other disagreements could be made more clear. In something of an existentialist move he wants the most important human features to be those distinguished by the philosophical concept of dynamis, power. And dynamis here is qualified as the temporal not-now. I have some difficulties with his qualification of the not-now as a “deficit of presence” but let us hesitantly grant this essential move for it leads to some interesting concrete determinatives of an essential human potentiality:

The potentiality of Homo sapiens: (a) is attested by the language faculty; (b) is inseparable from instinctual non-specialization; (c) originates in neoteny; (d) implies the absence of a univocal environment (135)

Before we go into some details, one has to ardently insist that the turn to potentiality as the very defining historical feature of what historical events reveal about biological invariants is a great cleaving of any number of human features that are actually also shared by the entire animal world, and is of great consequence for the skewing of the theory. If what we are doing is identifying the correspondences between the historical and the biological, there is no advantage at all (in fact there is great disadvantage) in privileging features one presumes to be uniquely human. This produces, inadvertently or not, a chasm between the human and the rest of the biotic world. Instinctual non-specialization may indeed by degree be a feature that distinguishes humans from parrots, but human beings are not ESSENTIALLY non-specialized, in fact there are any number of instincts that are greatly specialized and also are invariants that bring their trace upon history. If invariants are to be the core mode of comparison and analysis, the invariants that we share with other organisms are just as, if not more important than those we are imagined not to share. To take one example, Neoteny might very well emphasize parental dependency, such that the parental instincts of other species actually grow in importance as points of revelation and historical understanding.

The Language Faculty

Following his human-as-potentia thesis Virno defines language faculty as the very potential capacity for statement forming, and not the concrete performance of these statements. Language that exists in reserve, not at all in a kind of Humanese, but rather something like Augustine’s theory of the “inner word”:

The language faculty is something other than the ensemble of historical determinate languages. It consists in a body’s inborn capacity to emit articulate sounds, that is in the ensemble of biological and physiological requirement which make it possible to produce a statement. It is mistaken to treat the indeterminate power-to-speak as a proto-language spoken by the entire species (something like a universal Sanskrit). The faculty is a generic disposition, exempt from grammatical schemas, irreducible to a more or less extended congeries of possible statements. Language faculty means language in potentia/ or the power of language. And power is something non-actual and still undefined. Only the living being which is born aphasic has the language faculty. Or better: only the living being which lacks a repertoire of signals biunivocally correlated to the various configurations – harmful or beneficial – of the surrounding environment (136)

As one can see in the end, there is a necessary disconjunction between this faculty and any determinative surrounding environment, a disjunction that spells out the very malleability and complexity of language production itself. The totality of possibile sentences is not determined by an environment, where “environment” is seen as something of a evolutionary niche. This “environmental determinism” preclusion, in fine semiotic fashion, will later by the environment/world distinction prove central to Virno’s sociological analysis. (I should note: the environment world distinction I do not except, though one does see the merit in not allowing the “language faculty” to be determined by any particular differences in the history of environmental/species interactions, and co-determinations.)

Non-Specialization of Instincts

The author then follows with a rather convoluted, or at least verbose departure from his usual clarity (a length and twisting that one suspects hides potential weaknesses in argument). He denies what “many philosophers” argue, that language is a specialization for polyvalence without any “particular ability”, but then goes on to claim that the ability of language is the detailed and univocal ability of pure dynamis. I cannot make heads or tails of just what contrast he is trying set up between a faculty for polyvalence and a faculty for dynamis.

The language faculty confirms the instinctual poverty of the human animal, its complete character, the constant disorientation that sets it apart. Many philosophers argue that the language faculty is a highly specialized instinct. But they go onto add that it is a specialization for polyvalence and generalization, or even – which amounts to the same – an instinct to adopt behaviours that have not been preset. Now, to argue that the linguistic animal is supremely able in…[sic] doing without any particular ability is really to participate in the international festival of the sophism. Of course, the language faculty is an innate biological endowment. But not everything that is innate of univocal and detailed instinct. Despite being congenital, the capacity to speak is only dynamis/, power. And power properly speaking, that is distinguished from a well-defined catalogue of hypothetical performances, coincides with a state of indeterminancy and uncertainty. The animal that has language is a potential animal. But a potential animal is a non-specialized animal (136)

The difficulty that I suspect is being papered over here is that Virno wants to embody the pure dynamis in both the very evolutionarily achieved powers of linguistic capacity, and also in an essentialized non-specialization of instinct. He is pushing to the limit and polarizing for the sake of category both the non-specialized character of Homo sapiens instincts AND the polyvalence of language itself. In point of fact human beings are not utterly non-specialized, and nor is language faculty itself non-specialized (for instance it does very well with spatio-temporal objects and their relations and ostensive defintions). Further, to put it the other way around, human beings do not specialize in disorientation. If anything, we can only speak of gradations and delineations of specialization and non-specialization, none of which separate human beings exclusively out from all other biotic life.

While the relative non-specialization of human instincts can play a serious role in any analysis of historical forms (just as Virno will favor),  this non-specialization is not an essential categorical form.

Neoteny and the Retardation of Humans

Next in the essentially human is an organic grounding of the very larval fecudity of human productivity imagined to be determined (or at least explained) by a lasting infancy. The way that Virno sees it, in one great analogy, because the human species exhibits Neoteny, it is organically pre-determined to a certain extended parentage of mores and technologies of every sort.

The phylogenetic basis of non-specialization is neoteny, that is the “retention of formerly juvenile characteristics produced by retardation of somatic development”. The generic and incomplete character of the human animal, the indecision that befalls it, in other words the dynamis which is consubstantial with it, are rooted in some of its organic and anatomical primitivisms, or, if you prefer, it its congenital incompleteness. Homo sapiens has “a constitutively premature birth”, and precisely because of this it remains an ‘indefinite animal”. Neoteny explains the instability of our species, as well as the related need for uninterrupted learning. A chronic infancy is matched by a chronic non-adaptation, to be mitigated in each case by social and cultural devices (137)

It is a seductive trope. Yet, as I pointed out in brief before in no sense does Virno take up the relationship between Neoteny and any other parentage invariants that fix the instincts of the human species. There is such a strong theoretical investment in reading the human being as pure potentiality some of the very significant specialized instincts of human beings (those which actually would tie human culture to the histories of other species, so as to reveal inseparable cross-species braids…for instance human-canine culture), are ostensibly repressed for the sake of a historical picture. In this way the emphasis on Neoteny performs the organic work or grounding for an otherwise implicit Heideggerian “thrown-into-the-world-ness”, here making of the Homo sapiens an essentially “indefinite animal” prematurely and continually born. None of which falls within the narrow band of organic determinations of real biological Neoteny. One can certainly take up the suggestive way in which human Neoteny creates a predisposition towards communal, or even parental, trans-individual in-formation, but how this attains anything close to a species that is essentially “incomplete” or even “generic” I have no idea. What would it mean for an animal to be “complete”?

No Niche, World

The last qualification of essential human animal characteristic bears the strongest existential imprint, and this is semiotic insistence that the human animal has no “niche” but only a “world”. I have expressed elsewhere the great deficiency in thinking of human beings as uniquely Umwelt bound, and Virno takes the Umwelt concept towards its most exclusionary (and for me, the most problematic) pole. One can certainly accept that human species characteristics are not determined by any particular environmental factors, but that is because NO species is so determined, as species and environments co-determine each other, and environments do not dictate to organisms how they must be.

Biologically rooted in neoteny, the potentiality of the human animal has it objective correlate in the lack of a circumscribed and well-orded environment in which to insert oneself with innate expertise once and for all. If an environment is the “ensemble of all conditions…which make it possible for a certain organism to survive thanks to it particular organization, it goes without saying that a non-specialized organism is also an out-of-place/ organism. In such an organism perceptions are not harmoniously converted into univocal behaviors, but give rise to an overabundance of undifferentiated stimuli, which are not designed for a precise operational purpose. Lacking access to an ecological niche that would prolong its body like a prosthesis, the human animal exists in a state of insecurity even where there is no trace of specific dangers. We can certainly second the following assertion by Chomsky: “the way we grow does not reflect properties of the physical environment but rather our essential nature”. Provided we add, however, that “our essential nature” is characterized in the first place by the absence of a determinate environment, and therefore by an enduring disorientation (137)

The philosophical overlay of presumption here is to the extreme. And I would express that what Virno denies of the human organism is also denied of all organisms, if only in degrees. There is no strict determination between environment and organism, across the board. And alternately, as I express in my notion of Exowelten, instead of environments bodies of organisms are actually made up of the difference that make a difference to them, precisely in the prosthetic sense, and indeed human beings are no different in this. Beyond this, the human animal possesses no monopoly on an existence of a “state of insecurity” even when there is no trace of danger, as anyone who studies the psychology (can we use that word?) of prey animals can tell you. A deer in the forest is perpetual in its insecurity, and there is no existential gap that separates out human beings from the deer. In fact though, all of these by-degree differences and similiarities, aside from Virno’s need to establish a philosophical beachhead of human separation, actually work to complexify and enhance the kind of “natural-historical” analysis he prescribes. The unique gap between the human and the biotic that is implicit in the essentialization that Virno carries out is not necessary for the diagnosis of diagramic history, and in actuality retards it. The (soft) eternity of the language faculty, the relative non-specialization of instincts, the relative neoteny, the non-determination by environments all can be affirmed without Homo sapiens collasping into a “generic” and really alienated species.

A String of Apocalypses: The History of Traditional Society

One can see how Virno, like alchemist, attempts to pull the pure ore from the dross of historical manifestation, expressed in the questions he raises by the virtue of his defintions. The presumption of essentially human species characteristics now seeks to find its home in the socio-political situation:

The terse defintions we proposed above allow us to specify the overall argument. The questions that natural history must face up to are accordingly the following: In what socio-political situations does the non-biological specialization of Homo sapiens come to the fore? When and how does the generic language faculty, as distinct from historical languages, take on a leading role within a particular mode of production? What are the diagrams of neoteny? Which are the maps or graphs that well adequately portray the absence of a univocal environment? (138)

We can see how he risks the Rousseauian idealization that earlier is warned about, as now that the author is armed with what is purely human, there begins something of a search for socio-political situations that reflect or express it. The presumption has to “come to the fore”. The analysis that follows actually exceeds this requirement, which gives me to embrace to a much greater degree Virno’s project, outside of, or beyond his stated aims. The human being in all of its biological invariants is much more than simply the hollow animal, though the depiction as such works to organisize, and not just explain, particular socio-political social forms.

Virno begins with a theory of history which highly truncated, even assuming his own defintional base. It is, as he sees it, only in crisis that most of human history as shown what is natural to it. The highly selective essence of the human animal only has shown through the occluding fibers of historical weave where the cloth seemed break. Only then does the neoteny and generic pure but natural faculty express itself, like the point on the map that seems to rest on its exact spot on the island it represents:

In traditional societies, including to some extent in classic industrial society the potentiality (non-specialization, neoteny, etc.) of the human animal takes on the typical visibility of an empirical state of affairs only in an emergency situation, that is in the midst of a crisis. In ordinary circumstances, the species-specific biological background is instead concealed, or even contradicted, by the organization of work and solid communicative habits…(138)

To my ear this is an extremely limited view of history, and therefore of the human being itself. It really speaks to the procrustean elements of original assumptions that only outright emergency and crisis shows true human nature, a nature that is otherwise only concealed or contradicted. One can see that the there is a tight-knit circulation between the explanandum and explanans wherein human nature is circumscribed because it is meant to explain certain features of human history, and in turn certain features of human history are circumscribed so as to express certain features of human nature. All in all, too much is left out. At the very least biological invariants (other than those picked out) must also be expressing themselves in all that occurs outside of emergency and crisis in traditional societies.

But if we take up even the kinds of restrictions on what is human that Virno provides there is no reason at all that crisis alone makes the potentiality of the human animal typically visible. A very simple example would be asethetic expression much of which is done very much in the service of “solid communicative habits” as any glimpse of religious art would reveal. I would argue quite to the contrary that traditional socieites, while far more structured that modern ones, also must express human nature as a matter of course, and that there is NOTHING in them that is not natural, or even concealing, or contradictive.

But let us look more closely at the Peircean vector upon which A History of Cataclysms is established, along an analogy of immunization against disorientation:

Under this view, cultural norms rush in to solve and repress natural non-specialization and neoteny, instead of being the product or expression of biological invariants themselves. The “difficult to translate” stimuli of “world” become codified to save the organism from itself. Culture builds “psuedo-environments” (instead of the productes of culture being themselves environments) that address what is thought to be a naturalized lack and essential instability of Homo sapiens. One is to say that when a lion is chasing a gazelle at great speed and is exposed to a moment of confusion of “difficult to translate stimuli” this is fundamentally different than when a person doesn’t know if he should jaywalk in the middle of the night when no police are around. I take these two things to be difference in degree, differences in environments, but not primary differences in kind. Because there is a fundamental dynamis within the lion  and the human, the recourse to repetitions that resolve disorientation are not worlds apart. In fact differences that make a difference spell themselves across species all the time. We may grant that relative human non-specialization may find itself addressed or supplimented by divisions of labor, but there is no reason at all that these divisions of labor are somehow concealing of human nature and not themselves expressive of biological invariants. We may even grant that there is a fundamental contrast between stability and disorientation, and that modes of stability are adopted as a product of (the potential of) disorientation, but the human animal is not fundamentally a disorientation animal. Let us put it this way: there is the continual suspension – be it pleasurable or anxiety producing – of application of either rules or tensioned instincts, the moment before alternatives of behavior are chosen through (either consciously or unconsciously). And this pleasure/anxiety goes across the animal world.

In this way, the very fabric of cutural norms which in a simplified vision only work to corral human genericism, are themselves shot through with exploratory and expressive features which mark out the very productivity of the human species. And it certainly is not the case the human history has only shown human nature in a beaded necklace of its catastrophes, as Virno seems to want to see.

 

[-iours. No longer selectively filtered by a complex of cultural habits, the world shows itself to be an amorphous and enigmatic context. The conflagration of the ethico-social order thus reveals two correlate aspects of invariant “human nature”: a language faculty distinct from languages and a world opposed to any (pseudo-) environment whatsoever (140-141)]

Now, to take up another semiotician by way of example, Augustine had his share of personal crises, but one needs only to read his Confessions and various other works on language to see that the inner word of contemplation need not be in any sense naturally removed from the ethico-social order. In fact, the inner word (as stand-in for any biological invariant), expresses itself across forms, in the very signs and semiotic nature of the natural and cultural world. One does not have to wait for a rift in the very fabric of things in order to see “human nature”. Moreso, though a disruption in any ordering matrix of behavior might expose the very productivity of species or natural organization, this exposure in turn shows itself in the full panoply of the organizations themselves. In a certain sense, there is no dross. Languages are just as natural as the “language faculty” is, they must be.

At the very least, the “state of exception” is to be seen everywhere and constitutive to the very expression of the world, and not merely confined to collapse. One need only take up the prevalence, in fact the assured ubiquity of metaphor upon which all languages depend for their very creation and growth to see that protean expression is in the very DNA of natural languages as they actively exist. New cultural niches are made up of the very “stuff” that they are thought to conceal: 

The ultimate outcome of the apocalypse or state of exception is the institution of new cultural niches, capable of concealing and blunting once again the biological “always already”, that is the inarticulate and chaotic dynamis. Rare and fleeting are the apocalyptic diagrams of human nature (141)

Metahistory and Social Praxis

This reaches the apex of my disagreements with Paolo Virno, as what follows is one of the more illuminating notion of critique that I find available to current attempts to rescue Humanism. The entire journey into an essentialization of Homo sapiens which I have strongly resisted in my view simply is not necessary for the rich embrace of the biological foundations of the human species’  four characteristics. And if metaphysics must be pressed, one should be led to see that each of the four characteristics can be found in some degree in the whole of the biotic realm, if not beyond. In fact, once the predisposition for these essential genericisms of human beings is left behind, it seems that use of biological invariants should be expanded to included specialized instincts and dispositions (other than language production), which may give further clue to the dynamic nature of human culture in the natural world, an inclusion which would work to further build a recognition of cross-species interdependencies and creative codetermination, intra-indexed sympathies in what I would call Exowelten, the limits of differences that make a difference to any horizon-bound semiotic closure.

But let us proceed.

What was said in the preceding section only counts for traditional societies. Contemporary capitalism has radically modified the relation beteen unalterable phylogenetic prerogatives and historical praxis. Today, the prevailing forms of life do not veil but rather flaunt without any hesitation the differential traits of our species. In other words: the prevailing forms of life are a veritable inventory of natural-historical diagrams/. The current organization of work does not allay the disorientation and instability of the human animal, but on the contrary takes them to their extreme and systematically valorizes them. Amorphous potentiality, that is the chronic persistence of infantile characteristics, does not menacingly flare in the midst of a crisis. Rather it permeates every aspect of the tritest routine. Far from dreading it, the society of generalized communication tries to profit from the “semantic excess not reducible to determined signifieds”, thereby conferring the greatest relevance to the indeterminate language faculty….the paramount task of philosophy is to come to grips with the unprecedented superimposition of the eternal and the contigent, the biologicallly invariant and the socio-political variable, which exclusively connotes the current epoch (141-142)

You can see why I like this essay so much, for after great qualification it comes to a definitive construction that grasps the contemporary moment. Contemporary capitalism has seized upon some of the most – do we want to say essential – distinctive human species characteristics, flaunting the very infancy of Man.

In our epoch, the object of natural history is not a state of emergency, but everyday administration. Instead of dwelling on the erosion of a cultural constellation, we now need to concern ourselves with the way that it is fully in force. Natural history does not limit itself to scavenging through “cultural apocaylpses”. Instead it tightens its grip on the totality of contemporary events. Because biological metahistory no longer surges up at the edges of forms of life, where the get stuck and idle, but installs itself durably at their geometric center, testifying to their regular functioning, all social phenomena can be rightfully considered natural-historical phenomena. (142)

Under the Virno diagnosis, what had been reserved for emergencies in traditional societies has become an administrative requirement. One can imagine that because I rejected the very notion that traditional societies occluded human nature with its norms-niches, I might have trouble with this sense of paradigmatic shift and exceleration. Though there is something to the description that rings true. While I would argue that all social phenomena has always been diagramatic, there does seem to be a distinctive change in the aspects of human nature upon which capitalism has seized and built itself up from: 

What a magnetic descrpition of the new landscape both of labor and of social cognition. If we leave aside the epoch distinctions and only grant that now social organization has slowly grafted itself upon these specific non-specialized qualities of Homo sapiens, we would do very well to track this constitutive change. If human beings are being forced back into their very stem-cell like state of individual malleability, a capacity that the species as a whole has evolutionarily produced, then we must attend to this co-incidence of biology and social production. What is missing for me from Virno’s consideration is the wider spectrum of human animal considerations, in particular those that might be seen to be employed in the very social grasp of neotenic and non-specialized forms. To be suggestive, the human animal, because neotenic also possesses other specialized invariants (for instance instincts of familial organization and care) to fill out the lasting infancy. If indeed the lingering child is the New Adult, all the biology of human beings that surround these inborn qualities, now embraced and exploited, are also necessarily to come into play. Will not parental, familial instincts and their deeply entrenched cultural encodings, now come back with a vengence? The American Right’s emphasis on family values, or Socialism ideological pictures of a mothering State, achieve new gravity when Neoteny is a substantive force of social organization.

Virno sees it a bit differently because he is not thinking of biological invariants that do not speak to the hollowness potentiality of the human animal. Instead his present moment is one of pure fractionation, and a corresponding rule of micro rules whose very rigidity is only equaled by the uniqueness of their application (I’m not sure that I understand what an ad hoc rule for only one occasion of application would be like, though one can imagine the impression of there being such rules):

Being conversant with omnilateral potentiality demands, as its inevitable counterpoint, the existence of far more detailed norms than the ones which are in force in a cultural pseudo-environment. Norms so detailed that they tend to hold for a single case, for a contingent and non-reproducible occasion. The flexibility of labour services implies the unlimited variability of rules, their tremendous rigidity. These are ad hoc rules, of the kind that prescribe in minute detail the way of carrying out a certain action and only that action. Precisely where it attains the greatest socio-political relevance, the innate language faculty mockingly manifests itself as a collection of elementary signals, suited to tackling a particular eventuality. The “semantic excess which is not reducible to determined signifieds” often flips over into a compulsive reliance on sterotyped formulae. In other words, it takes on the seemingly paradoxical guiseof a semantic deficit. In both its polarities, this oscillation depends on the sudden absence of stable and well-articulated pseudo-environments (144)

Because I do not see the history of the world in quite the same Catastrophic Traditional manner that Virno does, while this picture of a neotenic, non-specialized environment certainly picks out certain features of Late Capitalism that seem significant, it feels like there is a missing continuity of emphasis on many other human animal features. Instead of simply a society regimented of disorientations (which merely standardized the vast disorientations of historical, traditional man), if indeed it is the “language faculty” that is to be the well-spring of social organization, and not languages themselves, what we really need to turn to are the aesthetic modes of communication that expressed that faculty, non-linguistically, in the past, to see the very form that neotenic social organization will take. It is not just that there are mere fragmented signals, and stereotyped formulae, but that these semantic elements are floated upon aesthetic currents of largely metaphorical and analogical character.

I have written elsewhere on metapho and Vico. Vico brings a critical perspective that would appear quite fruitful if indeed social communications are going to trade upon the breakdown easily followed, univocal norms. Metaphors, following the philosopher Donald Davidson, can be seen as engendered by the production of literal falsehoods (rule violations), yet falsehoods that access the very language faculty itself. The neotenic environment of privileged non-specialization will be one in which pictorial, and indeed non-discursive experiential forms will be greatly emphasized. In fact, as we see, the production of affects have become the very engine of the world economy. We see this rather starkly as the affluent West has become one large affect pool, as regions of an industrialized Asia and Sub-continent become centers for the making of devices whose sole end product product is “entertainment”, or affects themselves (via tvs, phones, ipods, tivos, video games, etc). As such the affect-pool West has a single world economy responsibility: Experience!

If Virno is correct and the Capitalist model is aimed at expressing to the extreme human indeterminancy, and thus polyvalence, the Affect West becomes one great sea of language faculty experiences, as one can imagine, a bed ideological communications. Movies, songs, shows, texts, pictures all sub-linguistically, aethetically, create organized tides that ne’er can be resisted without ratio-imaginative diagnosis and force. We, as Vico characterized, enter upon a civilization of “imaginative universals”, a poeticized state that compliments the highly literalized achievements that mark the specialized labors of our sciences, technologies and fields of knowledge. It is just in this world that our attention to biological invariants that are not those four considered by Virno, but have co-evolved in relationship to them, will come most powerfully to the fore in the very language faculty communications that predominate the paschotological West.  Never before has Homo sapiens precariously been in such a biologically sensitive ideological sphere.

I do agree with the general sentiment that Capitalism drives human beings toward a destabilization of dependable forms, and great appreciation I have for Paolo Virno’s biological analysis of contemporary society. It is only that the human animal that makes the foudation point for any future self-determination must have a much wider essence of characteristics than Virno identifies, for reasons both of analysis, but also hope. It is our interspecies, inter-environmental connectivities that give host to our greatest resources, and Homo sapiens is part of a much larger semantic/organic fabric, of which our instinctual non-specialization and Neoteny exist only in small degrees.

As to the question of dynamis itself as the vector of analysis, as a Spinozist it is my metaphysical position that human beings do not have biological monopoly on dynamis. Indeed all things exhibit dynamis potentialities, and it is in the service of human beings to free those non-human potentia as best as our partial wisdom allows us to. Virno ends his essay with an ethical call for the Demand of the Good Life, something I whole-heartedly embrace as the very avenue for progress and human happiness. If truly ours is a Western affect pool of necessary experiences, as we pursue the object of our “sensuous consciousness”, our own history, negotiating the ideological streams of our bodily reterritorializations, image by image, refrain by refrain, following our pleasures with an attentive mind to both a biological heritage and social discrepency, then the Good Life is the only North our compass can bear.

The Fantasm of the Point: Vico, Plotinus, Campanella and even Badiou

(ca. 204-270 AD) 

To return to the diagram of my last post on Plotinus I want to think along with a confluence of ideas that condense upon the very center of it, the infintesmal locus of “matter” which exists merely as a private, yet also which alternately can be considered as a radiating center (under a different analogy).

The direction I want to go in this is a rumination that first starts from Badiouian notion that Being is not of the One, or “the One is not,” and that mathematics in a sense speaks Being,  pronouncing what is expressible of being-qua-being. The principle that the non-numerical One is beyond Being is of course one that Plotinus holds at the pinacle of his Ontology, for Being starts with the varigated particularization of the Nous. It is there that the predication of Being takes hold. The way that Plotinus tells it, the Nous is produced by the plentitude/emptiness of The One, and necessarily breaks it apart into a kind of representation which divides it into parts. The reason that Plotinus gives for this division into likenesses is interesting. It is that the Nous struggles with the fact that it has no control over that upon which it ultimately depends, a control which expresses itself in the desire to preserve:

The hypostasis of the Intellect [Nous] cannot maintain its vision of the One in primal unity, but “being being unable to preserve the power which it was procuring, it broke it up and made the one [power] that it might bear it part by part [katà méros]” (6.7 [38] 15.20-22). In so doing, Intellect constitutes itself as an imitation of the Good, as a many-hued and varigated Good (agathòn poíkilon).

F.M. Schroeder, citing Plotinus in Form and Transformation

Now there is a great and dissatisfying danger of simply reading these particularizations as mere abstractions of an esoteric philosophy, the most gripless of metaphysics, but Plotinus’s reasoning as to why the Nous indeed breaks up the One has strong affective, phenomenological correlates. It is the very dependency of the unity of the Nous upon what lies beyond it, and inclusive of it, that generates a corresponding particularization. In drawing power from what is outside, the inside distinguishes itself. If we turn to the simple figure of a circle (for millenia a favorite of philosophers, and think in terms of systems theory, we understand that whatever system there is, it necessarily is less complex than its environment. This is to say, as all systems (the inside) depends upon a more complex outside, the very inside/outside boundary issue of dependency drives the very divisions of the inside in regard to what lies beyond it. If we allow the observations of evolutary theory, life has moved from less to more complex, and with this increase of internal divisions (differences that make differences) it has relatively gained a greater role in the preservation of the power upon which it depends (and, notably, which it is also an expression). Plotinus’s story of the Nous serves as a metaphysical directionality which prescribes how any person (organism) might orient themselves to conditions which are beyond it, like the Nous with totalizes these relations, the move is towards a complexification of differences that make differences.

For Plotinus, this process of particularization comes from what he calls “beholding” or “witnessing”. Whereas the first particularization beholds the One/the Expressed, those of Soul and Sensation are even more narrow in what they behold, all the way down to matter, which simply exists as a non-existent privation. A speck of darkness.

A Retreat to Vico’s Conception of Mathematics: the ficta of points (1668 – 1744)

I find this speck of nothingness interesting because its very non-divisibilty division reflects something of mathematics, the way in which points or numbers are non-existent distinctions that operate as a kind of limit. What I have in mind is Giambattista Vico’s interpretation of mathematics as the most divine of human acts, because in the invention of the point and the unit human beings act just a God did, creating something out of nothing in imitation of divinity, scientia humana divinae sit imitatrix. For Vico, a forerunner to some themes found in Kant, human beings cannot truly know things that they have not created. Only God truly knows what is created. The reason why human beings can have perfect knowledge of mathematics is that its creation is wholely their own. In a sense, mathematics operates “within” the circle of human articulation.

To quote some Vico, and then a commentator, to give perspective on his position:

…man defines the names themselves, and on the model of God with no underlying thing he creates (creat) the point, line and surface as if from nothing, as if they were things…to establish (condidit) for himself a certain world of forms and numbers, which he embraces within himself: and by producing, shortening, or composing lines, by adding, substracting, or reckoning numbers, he effects infinite works because he knows infinite truths within himself

But the point of the human imagination is not the point we draw with a pencil: “the point, when you draw it, is not a point: the one, when you multiply it, is no longer fully one.”

“man, containing within himself an imaginary world of lines and numbers, operates in it with his abstractions, just as God does in the universe with reality.”

With something of Plotinus’s reasoning, the very imaginary abstraction that human beings creates is a coping mechanism for that which lies beyond them and upon which they depend. Here Robert Miner provides a good overview of Vico’s approach to the knowing of human understanding:

Abstraction is the mind’s way of coping with its estrangement from things. Because he cannot possess ‘the elementa rerum by which things themselves exist with certainty,’ he resorts to the fabrication (confingere) of elementa verborum, elements which, despite their unreality, are able to ‘stimulate ideas with no controversy.'”

Vico has described human truth as a factum that is arrived at through a synthesis of elements that are only partially grasped, because they exist outside the mind which grasps them. If the human mind is essentially outside the elementa rerum, how does it manage to grasp even their outside edges? Vico proceeds to answer this question: “God knows everything, because he contains within himself the elements from which all things are composed; man seeks to know these elements by a process of dividing (dividendo).”

What is the relation of “dividing” to making? Is dividendo creative or destructive? Vico’s answer is “both.” De antiquissima 1.2 begins with an homage to the fecundity of dissection. The “anatomy of nature’s works” gives birth to a range of human scientiae. It does so by inventing their objects. One can divide man into body and spirit. From body, human science has “picked out (excerpsit) or, as men say, abstracted figure and motion, and from these, as well as from all other things, it has extracted (extulit) being and unity.” The objects obtained through abstraction give rise to the human scientiae metaphysics (whose proper object is ens), arithmetic (unum), geometry (figura), mechanics (motus from the edge), physics (motion from the center), medicine (corpus), logic (ratio), and ethics (voluntas).

The fecundity of dissection comes at a cost. Man creates the human scientiae by fragmenting, and therefore destroying, the whole…The entities created by abstraction – being, unity, figure, motion, shape, intellect, will – are “one thing in God, in whom they are one, and another thing in man, in whom they are divided.” Ripped from the whole in which they have life, humanly obtained elements are disiecta membra. “In God they live, in man they perish.” Our efforts to understand nature by cutting it up supplies us with theories rather than works: “in nobis sunt ratiocina, in Deo sunt opera.” All that man acquires through dividing the whole, is like man himself, nihil prae Deo; all finite and created beings are nothing but disposita entis infiniti ac aeterni. Etymology confirms the connection between division and diminution: Vico asserts that minuere means both “to lessen” and “to separate.”

The limitations of abstraction ensure that we have access only to the extrema of the elementa rerum. In what is likely to be an illusion to Lucretius, Vico declares that when man starts to investigate the nature of things (naturam rerum vestigabundus), he finds that “he does not have within himself the elements from which composite things exist.” This lack (brevitas) is not a morally neutral feature of the human condition, but a “vice of the mind” (mentis vicium). It is an effect of fallenness, a decline from a primordeal state in which mind and nature where integrated. (Vico uses nefas to characterize physicists who think they can provide real defintions of things.) Man responds to this condition by turning the mentis vicium to good use, by performing an operation that relies solely upon the mind and bypasses, as it were, the material world. “By abstraction, as they say, he fabricates (configit) two things for himself: the point that can be drawn and the unit that can be multiplied.” The association of abstractio and configere suggests that abstraction is creative. The suggestion is confirmed in the Prima Riposta, where Vico writes that mathematics [move to quotes on mathematics].

Truth in Making, Robert Miner

The Terminus Point of Nonbeing: Campanella (1568 – 1639 )

 

There is another evocative figure of radiating being, that which Campanella uses to characterize how each thing is but a point from which non-Being radiates, a kind of photographic negative of Plotinus’s conception:

 What we are concerned with is something that has an actual bearing on the existential order [not “relative nothingnesss” (nihilum secundum quid), the essence of a thing prior to existence], i.e., the composition of an infinite nonbeing with a finite being in existing realities. This is the point at issue, and this Campanella tries to illustrate by means of an analogy. Just as we can conceive a line stretching from the center of the earth beyond the circumfrence of the sky in infinitum, so, he says, man, like any other creature, is but a little dot where infinite nonbeing is terminated. Man is in effect the negation of an infinite number of other things and of God himself, being surrounded, as he is, by an infinite nonbeing (Bonansea, Tommaso Campanella, citing Met, II, 6, 3, 7)

In this Campanella presents something very close to Spinoza’s letter 21 claim that “all determination is negation,” something that Hegel made quite a bit of. Only in Spinoza any particular determination/negation is not a negation of God/Substance, but rather its Substance (Campanella always heretically veering towards collapsing God and Creation into one panpsychic whole, like Spinoza, but careful to walk the line).

What I am inspired to say about these circular analogies for Being and coherence of action, with their distinct and performative inside/outside designations, is that somehow mathematics in coming out of the pure fictiveness of human creation, in inventing the Non-Being of the immaterial point, somehow grasps whole the entire matrix of radiating conceptions, and is able to map out with great fecundity the very Oneness which is beyond Being (in a Plotinian sense). Weaving out the very absence, the infintesmal (as my wife tells me, what is the decimal point which divides the infinitely large from the infinitely small, made of?), we get a glimpse of the very varigatedness that Plotinus attributes to Nous likeness taking.  The whole thing is sutured closed, or at least remotely closed, for one imagines that there are many kinds of mappings that can be woven from the nothingness of the point.

Further though, even in its appropriation of the infinite nothingness, mathematics owes Alfred Korzybski’s adage “The map is not the territory,” while keeping in mind that mapping, and map-following is itself part of the territory (one hunts through the map, as one hunts through the territory). All organisms seem to in some form follow Plotinus’s thoughts on why the Nous mirrored the One, being unable to preserve that upon which they depend. The semiotic relations that make up an organisms internal relations, and then thus relations to other organisms, are not only performances, but also are duplications (not necessarily representations), “picking out” (intelligere, to choose out) certain aspects of the world, and it is always a tension between picking out the most important, valued features, and sheer numericity, since these two are intimately related. In a certain sense, mathematics too needs to be seen as a vast material organism/organization, as material as any map, appendage to the human species.

Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Mind Without Metaphor?

Beginning from my last post which opened up a Vician affirmation of metaphor as a constitutive and creative force for the growth of knowledge, it seems a good idea to look closely at the Spinoza system to see if indeed there is room for such a productivity. Prima facie it certainly seems to be the case that Spinoza would hold low esteem for metaphorical use. His entire “mail and mask” more geometrico  seems in defiance of any positive role for metaphors, treating thoughts and feelings literally as if they were planes and lines (falling under the same causal laws). In philosophy there is hardly a systematic document that seems less friendly to the metaphorical than the Ethics. The vast perception is that categorically for Spinoza metaphors are bad (confused), literal truths good (clear and distinct). A wide ranging philosopher like Richard Rorty who professes much admiration for Spinoza except for the perceived antipathy for the metaphor, sums up the impression well:

Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind-the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness….He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome (“Spinoza’s Legacy”).

With respect to Rorty, there is a great difference between something that should be overcome, and something having no value; but it is easy to join Rorty in what seems to be an obviousness, metaphors are confusions and confusions are things that one should try to make clear, a clarity that leads to real, affective Joy. How is one to reconcile the predominant message in Spinoza’s writings with the possibility that metaphors are very real productive, and non-eliminatable modes of increased activity and Joy in the sense that Spinoza thinks of Joy. As to that Joy, even upon repetition the pleasures of metaphors endure, something Davidson calls it their “eternal youth” which he compares to the “surprise” in Hayden’s Symphony 94. The flash of realization moves us to see. Is there room for such revelation in Spinoza?

Perhaps one needs to start with the strict possibility that human beings cannot hold purely adequate ideas at all, but only in their finite minds may asymptotically approach increasing adequacy of ideas. The very path to adequacy it seems would be one in which the imagination has historically played an integral role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas (like the first blacksmith hammer and tongs, they had to be made from something), and given the fundamental, one might say, existential passivity of the human mind, imagination likely would play a constitutive role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas, no matter the stage of our development.

Joy: The Increase in the Adequacy of Ideas

In Della Rocca’s new book, and confirmed in generous private exchange, is found the interpretation that human beings are unable to hold completely adequate ideas in the full spectrum of the ways that Spinoza defined them. This is something I long had felt myself. They are likely best seen as a limit upon which we gauge our own knowledge (and Joy). If we accept this the door for a productive use of the imagination in general, and metaphors specifically, is opened up. Gatens and Lloyd wrote an excellent book on Spinoza’s undervalued relationship to the imagination, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza Past, Present and Future. But I would like to dwell on metaphor itself, the unique way that it stirs us with a kind of waxing pleasure, and how this is achieved through an intentional confusion. (As I mentioned in my last post, and then more at length in an earlier article on Donald Davidson and Giambattista Vico, this “confusion” is the cause of a reader or listener to affectively equate two or more objects, that is to feel about the one as one would feel about the other, taking each to be the cause of the same affection, such that one is brought to noticed an unspecified number of similarities between the objects or classes. And this is primarily accomplished through the strict falsehood of the metaphorical statement: “That man is a wolf” is false because wolves are not men.) The effects (affects) of two or more objects are confused so as to produce a pleasurable notification of what is shared.

There can be no doubt that metaphors are pleasurable, in fact, in contemplation, are Joyous. This also is a good place to start. For given Spinoza’s definition of Joy, his parallel postulate and his explicit assertion that activities of the mind ONLY arise from adequate ideas (3p3), one is forced to say that the Joy we feel when we encounter a wonderful metaphor is a Joy that comes from an increase in the adequacy of our ideas (as all Joy). I was happy to find that Professor Della Rocca consents to this understanding of mine as well. Something about good metaphors increases the adequacy of our ideas. What is it, in Spinozist terms, that this something is? It is more than the pleasure of a song or music.

Contrary to many philosophical intuitions, Spinoza is not mute on the benefits of the imagination. In fact, besides the way in which he grounds the social field in the imaginative “imitations of the affects,”  in the fifth part of the Ethics, a part concerned with the achievement of the Intuition of God, he presents a string of propositions on the powers of the image . Whereas earlier in part III he had spoken of the third kind of knowledge, Intuition, as a kind of extension of the Second kind of knowledge, Reason, invoking the example of how merchants can calculate with great speed without walking through the steps of a calculation, here he seems to set up the ultimate intuition of God along side qualifications of the positive effects of the imagination. And while intuitions of God/Substance/Nature are not our aim, these distinctions in terms of images seem ready-made to be applied to the benefits of metaphor use.

 From Memory to Metaphor

First there is a numerical qualification which helps us determine what gives us the strength of an emotion (I use the Shirley translation, but “emotion” should be read as “affect”). An affect’s strength comes from a simultaneous condensation of causes:

5p8 – The greater the number of causes that simultaneously concur in arousing an emotion, the greater the emotion.

This indeed does seem to conceptually orient us to the power of a metaphor. When Homer compares wounds to mouths, or when we are told, “the heavens wept” there is an intensity of simultaneity that seems very much to make up the nature of the effect. The ideas of each object or process are affectively fused, and their causes confluence in a way that no single idea, or its literal expression, would have. And when this is pleasurable, we in our strengthening condition we are able to arrange our mixing affections, undistracted by a Sadness:

5p10 - As long as we are not assailed by emotions that are contrary to our nature, we have the power to arrange and associate affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.

While the effect may be a condensation or confusion of affects, because it is Joyous, our affections are open to clarification. Our very agreement with the effect leads to the possibility of an unfolding of the consequences. The propositions that follow then switch from emotions to images themselves:

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

Proof : In proportion as an image or emotion is related to more things, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused and fostered, all of which the mind, by hypothesis, regards simultaneously as a result of the emotion. And so the emotion thereby occurs more frequently – i.e., springs to life more often – and engages the mind more (5p8).

The very relatability of two or more images as we find in the apt or even beautiful metaphor (again, I solicit a favorite, “…that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”), bring together the genealogy of causes to a point where it is not just that the body is affected, but the mind itself. This is an important distinction, one that requires that we turn back to another section where Spinoza speaks of the powers of the imagination, in the second part where a very powerful function of the memory is discussed. Here, instead of the two or more con-fused ideas that are involved in metaphors, it is the images that are born of a contingent simultaneity when we are affected by objects at the same time…that is the trace the coincidence leaves on us:

2p18 – If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, and when the mind afterwards imagines one of them, it will straightaway remember the others too.

2p18, scholium – Hence we clearly understand what memory is. It is simply a linking of ideas involving the nature of things outside the human body, a linking which occurs in the mind parallel to the order and linking of the affections of the human body. I say, firstly, that it is only the linking of those ideas that involve the nature of things outside the human body, not of those that explicate the nature of the said things. For they are in fact (2p16) ideas of the affections of the human body which involve the nature both of the human body and of external bodies. Secondly, my purpose in saying that this linking occurs in accordance with the order and linking of the affections of the human body is to distinguish it from the linking of ideas in accordance with the order of the intellect whereby the mind perceives things through their first causes, and which is the same in all men.

Furthermore, from this we clearly understand why the mind, from thinking of one thing, should straightaway pass onto thinking of another thing which has no likeness to the first. For example, from thinking the word “pomum” [apple] a Roman will straightaway pass onto thinking of the fruit, which has no likeness to that articulate sound nor anything in common with it other than that the man’s body has often been affected by them both; that is, the man has often heard the word “pomum” while seeing the fruit. So everyone will pass on from one thought to another according as habit in each case has arranged the images in his body.

The way that the imaginative memory works, according to Spinoza, is that images are ordered associatively, occurring in correspondence to their coincidence in time, determined by the affections of the human body. The imaginative memory is a kind of ideational associative habit, to be distinguished from the way that the intellect orders thing through its understanding through explanation and cause. This habit contingently links even words and images, and the “linking” is the linking of the affections of the body, not the intellect. In contrast to the memory’s corporeal  “ordering and linking”, if we return to the relative properties of images found in 5p11 where the very numericity of relatedness produces an engagement with the mind, this seems to give the avenue by which metaphorical confusions specifically help to produce an increase in the adequacy of our ideas. The mind is engaged by the causal profusion that produces the strength of the metaphorical affect, aided by the fact that the affect is Joyous and in agreement with our natures, an engagement that is expressed in the very relatability of the two or more images (or ideas, one would assume) that compose the metaphor.

This mental (as 0pposed to a merely bodily) link is further delineated in the next proposition. The most relatable images are those of things which we already understand:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

Proof: Things that are clearly and distinctly understood are either the common properties of things or deductions made from them (see 2p40s2, def of reason) and consequently they are more often before the mind (2p11proof). So it is more likely that we should regard other things in conjunction with these, and consequently (2p18) that they should be more readily associated with these than others.

Spinoza is building an argumentative case for the images which are relatable to our Intuitive understanding of God. Our clarity in a concept of God creates a substantial framework for the relatability of images in general. In a certain sense, far from being radically against the imagination, Reason actual works as its facilitator. Through our understanding of common properties of things, other imagined associations increase. Aside from Spinoza’s argumentative goal, in the case of metaphor production one can see how this also would be so. Metaphors are born atop our primary clarity of understanding. If I can say that the brain is the computer of a body, this metaphor trades upon knowing with some clarity what a brain is and what a computer is. And the metaphor through its illumination suddenly gives us to see certain (yet innumerable) common properties. These leap to life in an apparent increase in our adequacy of idea.

The Polyvalance of Image Relations

Lastly, it is this very associability founded upon numerical and causal connections with produces a temporal increase in the association. This may serve as a very broad framework in which to read the lateralization of metaphors, the way that mouths of rivers and bottle eventually move from unexpected, non-literal metaphor, to simply a new literal use of the word. The causal richness of the word used underwrites a pragmatic sublimation of our imaginary powers.

5p13 - The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

Given this tracing of a Spinozist space for the productive intellectual powers of metaphors, perhaps it is best to ground the favorability back upon the body, from whence it begins. The causal, associative power of metaphorical confusion, if it is to result in real-world empowerment must also be seen as a material gain, a turn toward the possible polyvalence of the body. Here the numerical duplicity of two objects affectively experienced as one is related to a generalized numerical increase in causal openness, the famous “..in more ways” definition of “advantage”:

4p38 – That which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in more ways [pluribus modis], or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in more ways, is advantageous to man, and proportionately more advantageous as the body is thereby rendered more capable of being affected in more ways and of affecting other bodies in more ways. On the other hand, that which renders the body less capable in these respects is harmful.

Metaphors must be read, if we are to embrace them as Spinozist creations of Joy, as increases in the number of ways in which the body is capable of being affected and affecting others. This would be a groundwork assumption.
Let this post be a kind of reasoning-aloud about the conceptual space affordable for the products of the imagination, and in particular the benefits of metaphors. Under such reasoning, contra Rorty, there is indeed a value in the use of metaphor, in fact given our fundamental passivity of mind, an arguably prodigious value. Because more adequate ideas are not immediately available to us at any particular time on any particular subject or need, given the particular historical conditions we might find ourselves in, the creativity of associative thought, the affective conflations that metaphors achieve, can be seen to play a central role in illuminating new aspects of phenomenae of every kind, from objects, to ideas, to relations. It very well may be wanted for us to say, “The Heavens Weep” rather than “It is raining outside”, for the first condensationally draws together a wealth of causal relations, as Deleuze might say virtual relations, which the second would simply occlude in its distinctness. The first may bring us Joy, the second little. Metaphors cause us to notice, in the shimmering light of what is a revelation, what the Greeks thought of as an “uncovering”, what then  can be excavated by the intellect.

I have to say that despite the loose success of this picture, there is one aspect of Spinoza’s argument that troubles me, and I have found this distinction in other writings of his, (for instance his letter to Peter Balling regarding his prophetic imagination of his son). When Spinoza wants to qualify that something is linked only in the body, and not in the intellect, given his parallel postulate I can not rigorously understand the distinction of an ordo  of the body, since each linking in the body MUST be a linking in the mind of God. As events happen in they body, they are also following adequately in the mind. I can perhaps imagine that the ideational linkings of bodily affections read as coincident are perhaps too obtuse for the finite mind to immediately comprehend, and therefore as a shorthand bodily affection associations are to be distinguished from intellectual reference. But I cannot see in principle how these are divided, as the human Mind is nothing more than God thinking in a finite mode. The understandability that even allows affects to be intelligible at all confirs some mental order to them. Even the associations Spinoza regards as contingent, those between the sound of the word “apple” and the image of the apple that comes to your mind is intimately linked to the network of rationally organized beliefs about the world and language use which over and above habit provide the context for interpretability. In a sense, one sees an apple, as an apple, because one knows the word “apple” and understands its concept (how to use the word), and this was learned under causal conceptions with others in a shared world. To be sure, there is a free-flowing connection between images based on personal experiences, but these are shot through with inferential and deductive understandings of the world.

What is a metaphor if not a kind of pirouette

performed by an idea, enabling us to assemble its diverse names or images?

—Paul Valéry

Spinoza’s Confusion of Ideas, and then, Metaphor

Productive Confusion of Objects

Michael Della Rocca has an excellent section in his new book Spinoza (2008 ) in which he discusses Spinoza’s panpsychism in terms of two problems, th0se he calls the Pan and the Pancreas problem. These are the explanatory diffculties that arise in Spinoza’s panpsychic (there are a long of pans here) epistemology that seems to confer “mind” to every thing. If the object of our thoughts is our body, how is it that we are able to form perceptions of external objects, i.e. frying pans; and if our mind is the idea of our body, how is it that we are not readily aware of our most of the changing states of our pancreas? He comes upon a summation of the nature of our confusion, (remember confusion is con-/fusion), is a blurring together of ideas of both states in the world and states of our body. It is that the human condition is one in which any ideas of our body are tied up with (confused with) the ideas of the external bodies that affect them, and the same goes for the ideas of external bodies themselves, as he sums:

Spinoza’s general account of confusion seems to be the following. (This is apparent in his discussion in 2p40s1 of certain universal notions which for him are highly confused.) For Spinoza an idea is confused when it represents, or is about, two separate things and yet the mind is unable to distinguish these things by having an idea which is just of one of the objects and an idea which is just of the other of the objects. In a case where more than one thing is represented, the lack of confusion requires being able to to perceive the things separately. I think that this is a fairly plausible condition to place on being free of confusion…When the body is affected by an outside object and the mind perceives the bodily effect as well as the outside object, all the ingredients for confusion are in place (113).

This descriptive argument cast my eye in another direction – and it is interesting that Della Rocca founds it upon Spinoza’s dismissal of Universals as confused ideas. What comes to mind is something that Spinoza works as hard as possible to distance himself from in most cases, not withstanding his love of Terence and some pointed exceptions…metaphor. Metaphor is the deliberate, and creative perceptual con-fusion of two objects. In a metaphor a literal falsehood is uttered, “That man is a wolf” or one of my favorites, “the dolphin-torn, gong-tormented sea” such that something of an indistinguishability is achieved.  Vico theorized that metaphors were the primative, poetic creation of “imaginative universals”, a way of fusing multiple objects together in the imagination such as to be able to produce something new, an ontology of quality (I write about this in some detail here Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet ). This kind of collapse is part of what I am sensing. But one must turn to the Cartesian notion of  “clear and distinct” from which Spinoza is operating to get the full sense of what I am after. Clear and distinct is born of optics, a judgment of the quality of image in a lens. Whether one is straining to see a flea leg in a microscope, or the recently discovered fleck of the moon of Saturn, its “clarity” which was its brightness, and its distinctness, which was the ability to distinguish a form from what surrounded it, were as one can imagine braided aspects of a lens’ power. An image had to be bright and distinguishable, and it is was on this demand that Decartes, and then the even more optically practiced lens-maker Spinoza, rhetorically traded. (How interesting that the descriptive of adequate ideas itself begins as a metaphor.)

But as I argue elsewhere, metaphor give us to affectively feel the same about, to confuse, two (0r more) objects in their causal relationship to our internal lives. We are to feel the same way about this man (or if we follow Hobbes, all men) that we feel about wolves. Following Yeats, we are to feel about the sea, its surface, its waves, the same way we feel about things that are tormented, fabric and gongs. And in so doing, something else comes to the surface, something bright and distinguished from what it is not (but still not ideationally clear). It is the living, electric line of a similarity which remains to be delineated in a specific way. Both objects, let us stick with the “man” and the “wolf”, remain distinct as ideas, but these ideas fall back, like the rough, gray penumbra of the outer edge of the magnifying lense. It suddenly is the “wolfiness” of the man — and if we are in a situation where we would be threatened by it it can jut out crag-like at us. And dialectically, there comes to be the counter-infection, the maniness of wolves.

If the confusions of ideas of the body and external objects are indeed born of how Della Rocca argues that Spinoza conceives of them, such that we cannot have a clean idea of external objects that is not in some sense contaminated by our ideas of our bodies, and visa versa, our attempt to clarify our ideas through a separable understanding of objects through their causes that we read as clear and distinct can be seen to be fostered by another confusion, an intentional one, wherein it is not inside and outside that is confused, but two or more external objects are affectively and poetically fused within us, so as to give birth to a shimmering clarity of aspect unseen before. It is engagement with this line, brought up from the ground, that allows us to make greater clarity and distinctness of the ideas that will come to surround it, as we come to seek its causes.

To Hephaestus’ house came Thetis, silver-footed  (Iliad, xviii, 369)

Campanella and Vico, very briefly

Two very important (and under considered) epistemolary dicti written on truth and knowing:

Campanella: To know is to be, cognoscere est esse  (1638).

Vico: The true and the made are transposable (Or…The true is the made), verum et factum convertuntur.  (1710).

The first of these communicates the objective transmutation and assimulation that occurs through coming to know something, the second circumscribes truth within the horizon of made criteria. The first expresses an affective immanence under a panpsychic view of assimilation, the second, historical contingency within a human truth. I believe only an embrace of both these views respectably fulfills the scope of both knowing and truth, as we have come to read them. We are transmuted into the very thing we come to know, founding a cybernetic exercise of power; we know something to be objectively true through reference to criteria we as human beings have created.

Other thoughts  on Vico

Rorty’s Daimon

 

Rorty, in view of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, wrote “The Fire of Life” a Socratic-like, just-before-death turn to the power of the music of words.

I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation… “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.”

Rorty’s father was a poet. Here he puts forth, in summing up his recent essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”, that what comes from rationality must first come from imagination:

At the heart of Romanticism, I said, was the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken. No words, no reasoning. No imagination, no new words. No such words, no moral or intellectual progress.

This bears some connection to my thoughts on Davidson and Vico, and the nature of metaphor, for which Rorty was a partial guide. And we recall here Decartes’ comments about hammers having to be smithed at some point once without the aid of hammers (and Spinoza’s appropriation of the image).

What one is left with though is a sense that imagination itself is rational, that is, it both explains and constitutes our relationship to the world, and to others, and that what we call “imagination” is a production of reasons.

 

We thank with brief thanksgiving
  Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
     Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet

 


 

Ὁ ἄναξ οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi, neither tells nor conceals, but indicates.
– Heraclitus, fragment 93

 

 

This study takes as its basis the stark distinction made by philosopher Donald Davidson in his essay “What Metaphors Mean”: what metaphors mean is exactly what they say, literally, and that what they mean is patently false. Thus, “That man is a wolf” is false. Davidson, in an assertion that has caused much debate, denied that there is any other kind of meaning in a metaphor besides this literally false one. And in this way he confines both meaning and metaphorical truth to seemingly irreconcilable domains. It is not my contention that such a distinction need be true, but only useful in delineating formal, near context-free aspects of language use, and the seeming operational fluidity with which such meanings are produced.

A turn to the 18th century philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico’s work New Science is also made to possibly shed some light upon the nature of this chasm between the formal and the performed. It was Vico’s ambition to unlock through historical investigation the secret of the rational nature of human truth, the limits of what can be known. Key to his understanding of history as a progression of constructed truths, was his discovered belief that humans did not always think as modern people did. They did not categorize things by properties that they shared, as is exemplified by Aristotle’s logic, but had a primitive logic of their own, as they organized the world in pictures, figures and images. He called these classifications “Imaginative Universals”. And as Vico saw it, these universals exhibited themselves in literatures and institutions, as an expression of human needs. Following this theme of pragmatic need, the capacity to imagine identities in terms of images and figure, and the exemplification of such in institutions and texts, gave Vico a gateway into the minds and past cultures, and also the means for narrating the progression to contemporary times.

Because Vico’s concept of “Imaginative Universals” shares with Davidson’s concept of metaphor an alogical character, this makes for a readily available axis of comparison. I start with Davidson’s sharply drawn distinction between a metaphor’s literal meaning and its use, it is my tact to use such a polarity to clear theoretical ground which is particularly fertile to Vico’s conception of the “Imaginative Universal”. In focusing on the univocal character of identities asserted by such universals—the ability to state two or more things to be identical which no rational logic would support—I hope to bring forth both the affective and ideological character of metaphorical speech. Because figurative thinking in Vico was essential to human organization, as it is institutionally and textually expressed, so too may the identities asserted by such universals still be essential to that continued process. The affective nature of figurative identities, that that thing makes me affectively feel the same as that other thing makes me feel, may prove to both shed light on an archaic means of social organization, as Vico theorized, but also a contemporary means of language growth, as Davidson might suggest. As a modern, near-deflationary theory of truth comes is put in contact with the 18th century discovery of the historical foundation of truth, the product of the two puts metaphorical thought both at the forefront of discovery and invention, and at its root.

 

 

 

 

As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can ;
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man ;

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

“The Ecstasy”, John Donne

 

In the debate over metaphors, when Donald Davidson asks what metaphors mean, he is asking a particular question (α) . He is questioning the popular view of metaphorical truth, and controversially answers that there is no such thing as the truth of metaphorical sentences. Metaphors have long been used to communicate what is thought to be that which could not be said otherwise, and for that reason the commonsense view of metaphors is that they render clear, meanings that resist plain language statement. It is particularly upon this gap between the reported insight of metaphors and plain language statement that Davidson lays his focus. What ultimately comes into question is, Are there truths, is there meaning, beyond things that can be stated literally?

Davidson says that metaphors have no non-literal meaning. He does not equivocate: “The concept of metaphor as primarily a vehicle for conveying ideas, even unusual ones, seems to me as wrong as the parent idea that a metaphor has special meaning”; he continues on to link this restriction to the sense in which metaphors cannot be more plainly said, “I agree with the view that metaphors cannot be paraphrased, but I think this is not because metaphors say something too novel for literal expression but because there is nothing there to paraphrase” (246). Taking to task any attempt to explicate the meaning of a metaphor, he quotes Max Black’s making explicit what seems implicit:

When Schopenhauer called geometric proof a mousetrap, he was, according to such a view, saying (though not explicitly): ‘A geometrical proof is like a mousetrap, since both offer a delusive reward, entice their victims by degrees, lead to a disagreeable surprise, etc.’ (254)

Davidson argues that, Schopenhauer actually said none of these things that Black attributes to him. What he said was solely that geometric proof is a mousetrap. He points out that Max Black lists three similarities, but the list could go on forever (255).

Paraphrase restates what has already been stated. The inefficacy of metaphorical paraphrase for Davidson points directly to the fact that no meaning has been strictly been stated in the first place. He takes as an illustrative example the sentence ‘Tolstoy is a great moralizing infant’, a thought expressed by a literary critic (248). If metaphors call our attention to some likeness, what such a sentence tells us to do is picture a class of objects which includes all infants, plus Tolstoy. The temptation is to say that given enough time and intelligence we could come up with the right words to define what infantness is, the property which all these objects, infants and Tolstoy, share. Davidson’s claim is that no matter the perfection of the words one comes up with, one could never exhaust the implications of such a phrase. His conclusion will be that such an ambition is misguided.

I think, that we imagine that there is a content to be captured when all the while we are in fact focusing on what the metaphor makes us notice. If what the metaphor makes us notice were finite in scope and propositional in nature, this would not in itself make trouble; we would simply project the content the metaphor brought to mind onto the metaphor. But in fact there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character (262-63)

When we are caused to imagine Tolstoy as an infant, the qualities of infantness give rise to an endless stream of possible propositional statements. An unlimited flow of associations and images come to mind, but Davidson denies these cognitive status as meanings. In order to understand this denial one must first appreciate Davidson’s concept of the truth of sentences—that only propositions can be true—and therefore his restrictive understanding of what can qualify as meaning.

Digging into the idea that metaphors contain two kinds of meaning, a literal and a figurative one, he asks for the rule that connects the figurative to the literal, for otherwise the metaphor just slides into ambiguity (250). He tells us to imagine teaching a visitor from the planet Saturn the meaning of the word “floor.” Through various tappings, pointings and other ostensive gestures, coupled with our speaking of the word “floor”, pretty soon our Saturnian appears to get the idea of the word “floor.” Its use gives it its meaning. Davidson then asks us to imagine that our friend transports us to Saturn, and that “looking back remotely at the earth you say to him, nodding at the earth, ‘floor’…as you were remembering how Dante, from a similar place in the heavens, saw the inhabited earth as ‘the small round floor that makes us passionate’” (251). Davidson questions, how our Saturn friend is to know if you are teaching him a new use of the word “floor” (continuing your point-and-speak method), or teaching him something new about the world. It is a subtle distinction, but for Davidson an important and illustrative one. During the “lesson” the Saturnian was learning something about language, how it connects to the world; but in referring to the earth as ‘floor’ from Saturn, if this is to be understood metaphorically, he is no longer learning something about language, but about the world and one’s relationship to it. It is not simply a new literal use of an old word, but a use whose falseness invites invention. It is upon this differential that Davidson applies the full force of his interpretation of how metaphors work. They work through literal falsehood, by being propositionally untrue. Hence, metaphors cannot be said to have expanded, or even second-order meanings that reference the same thing that literal meanings reference: “That man is a wolf,” is distinctly different from “That man is very much like a wolf” (257), though they both call our attention to similar things. One states something literally false, the other something trivially true (258).

In keeping with the uniqueness of metaphorical play—and its resistance to literalization—Davidson stresses that unlike new literal uses of an old word, the novelty of a metaphor does not wear off. He calls it a “built-in aesthetic feature we can experience again and again, like the surprise in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, or a familiar deceptive cadence” (253). So when Yeats writes, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea,” the effect seems to re-enact itself no matter our explanation of its meaning or the repetition of it. This eternal youth of a metaphor, Davidson argues, is due to its patent falseness. Only fabric is literally torn, only living things can be literally tormented by gongs. So, specific to Davidson’s interpretative enterprise is his restrictive sense of what meaning means: truth is a property of propositions (not of ideas, intuitions or feelings) and as such, requires truth conditions (β) ; for a statement to be said to have meaning, for Davidson it must be a meaning free from immediate context, and be of a propositional nature.

Eva Kittay, while presenting an alternate theory of metaphor in her book Metaphor, usefully summarizes Davidson’s position in this way:

1). Meaning in language is context-free (γ).
2). Aspects of language which are not context-free are not questions of language meaning but of language use.
3). Metaphorical interpretation is context-bound hence it is not a question of meaning, but of use.
4). Therefore there is no meaning of metaphorical utterances beyond their literal meaning.
5). If there is only literal meaning of metaphorical utterances, then any cognitive content they possess must be expressible in a literal utterance.
6). Whatever is interesting about metaphor must therefore lie in a use of language and cannot be a question of an unparaphraseable cognitive content. (97)

She further adduces for Davidson the Tarski-like sentence limitation, “‘Man is a wolf’ is true if and only if man is a wolf.” One can see the conceptual base from which Davidson is denying the meaning of metaphors, and from which he is attributing their unique power in use (δ) . But more interestingly, Kittay recognizes that Davidson may be at a nexus of a change in his idea of rule-governed, formal linguistic meanings, and what will be made more evident in his not-yet-written 1986 essay “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” where he moves from “truth-condition semantics” to a provocative concept of language as the convergence of “passing theories” sharing inferential methods (118). One is left with the impression that Davidson, while in theory explicitly restricting the realm of metaphor to literal falseness and linguistic use, in the gap between formal/literal meanings and linguistic performance, he has opened the door to a larger meaning-field, that in terms of a potentiality of meanings produced.

So as one comes to grapple with what “use” means in the world, and how metaphors may come to eventually “die” after long periods of a “figurative” life—in the way that bottles and rivers have come literally to have “mouths”—one might see how falsity can have a productive effect on the future use of words, and thus how something literally false may be taken as the causative basis of future literal truths. In this way the prospects of understanding language itself as an institutionalized limit of social capabilities, a formal grounds or horizon whose very broken formality, of which metaphor is a primary example, constitutes the possibility of its growth and capability through repair and inclusion. Between the formal truth of propositions, and the richness of linguistic performances, lies, one might claim: invention. This could be called the difference between Okham’s Razor and Vico’s magnet (ε) .

 

 

 

…it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but have nothing in their minds, for what they have in their mind is a falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails them to form a vast false image.

– Giambattista Vico, New Science §378

 

When considering the possibility and consequence of meanings that are not literally true in the Davidsonian sense—as we draw out from the narrowness of an academic debate, to the relevance of the social organization of the world that philosophy and sociology seek to describe—it may be instructive to look to the original concepts employed by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza Nuova. Vico’s work rests at the nexus when philosophy first came to realize the possibility of historically constructed truths. And while it is not necessary to take in the full scope of this remarkable and imaginative work, it will pay to unlock the novelty of his approach to history, truth and ideas, and examine the constitutive role given by him to kinds of human thinking in the concretization of events and institutions. For it was this role of kinds of thinking that he imagined he had discovered, and which he called “the master key” to a new science (New Science §34).

It is helpful to first retrace Vico’s epistemic turn from the world of Nature, to the world of man-made things. In this way his ideas of the imagination can best be situated in his discovery that what’s ‘true’ can be known through history (ζ) . Vico’s New Science (1730/1744) was aimed broadly at—yet beyond—his realization that “the true and the made are transposable,” (verum et factum convertuntur), or more simply put, “the true is the made,” a principle he first presented in Ancient Wisdom (1710). This was his radical break from Descartes’ claim to have internal knowledge which could be a foundation for the sciences. By the logic of this stated principle, Vico argued that God alone was given the possibility of a knowledge of the physical world, for only God had made it (Verene 37-40). Yet, though this verum-factum principle indeed cleaved man from scientifically knowing the intelligibles of the universe, it also placed mathematics and geometry within the purview of the knowable, because as he argued, points, lines and planes were in fact made by men. In this way, by analogy, as God had made the universe and so knows it, so men have made geometry and know it. It is intelligible to them. So this division between Nature and the things man has made was the first logical move that would allow Vico to turn his attention to other things understood also to be made by men.

This verum-factum principle had prepared the ground for a second seminal thought, first presented in Universal Law (1720), ten years later. “The certain is part of the true” (certum est pars veri), a necessary connection seen between the rationally true, and the historically known, between ideas and language, and between ratio and auctoritas (Fassò 4-6, Fisch 408, Verene 56). The emphasis had shifted from the distinction between the divine and the human, to two aspects of the humanly made: the true and the known. By the time of the New Science Vico’s distinction is such that, The true is still the intelligible; the certain now is the ascertainable. The intelligible is that which may be understood by reason, in terms of causes, universals, laws. The ascertainable is that which may be witnessed, or suffered, or known by testimony of witnesses or from competent authority (Fisch 412).

These two principles—that the objects of science are only things made, and then the realization that Nations are made by laws, languages and customs produced by human choice as the world is experienced and rationally conceived—allow Vico the full scientific shift from the natural world, to history itself, as accomplished in his New Science:

§138 Philosophy contemplates reason, whence comes knowledge of the true; philology observes that which human choice is author, whence comes consciousness of the certain [163, 325].

§140 This same axiom shows how philosophers failed by half in not giving certainty to their reasoning by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority to the sanction truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophers. (η)

Vico conceives of a geometry “more real than just points lines, surfaces and figures,” a geometry of choice-made history, that brings reason and authority together in analysis (§349, §392), achieved through a verstehen (θ), or imaginary re-experience of the sensus communis of past Nations through the rational consideration of the historical evidence it has produced (Verene 55). Central to this analysis, and lastly more germane to our issue of metaphor, is his claim that humanity has gone through distinct historical stages, and that at each stage, as reflected in their laws, institutions and texts, human beings have thought, and even perceived, fundamentally differently. Strikingly, for Vico the abstractions that distinguish modern thought were not at all possible for the first kinds of humans, who were like beasts; (for example the classification of objects, for instance “lions,” by virtue of a property that can be attributed to them, “are four legged,” is not available to earliest humanity). The obvious and significant questions are: How would such kinds of humans organize their sensations; how would they see the world, if classification by properties was not part of their capacity? What kind of “thinking” were such primitives capable of if not the categorical thought that modern humans habitually seem to use? Giambattista Vico’s answer was that the first two stages of humanity, the Age of Gods and then the Age of Heroes, used “Imaginative Universals,” which he contrasted with “Intelligible Universals,” the kinds of thought genera clearly laid out by Aristotle. Earliest humans simply could not think like Aristotle, nor even perhaps like the average Greek of the agora of Aristotle’s day.

Vico had a variety of terms for “Imaginative Universals”: caratteri poetici, generi fantastici, and universali fantastici, (Verene 65-66), but these terms all coalesce around a fabulous use of language in which several particulars are condensed into the identity of a single ideal thing, a portrait, a picture, an image. What is core to this idea for our purposes is that though this condensation defies the modern logic of semantic meanings—in that particulars have a shared identity and not shared properties—such aboriginal universals would still be a mode of thinking, and so might give clue to the way contemporary metaphors work to organize meanings that when put into plain language can be read by Davidson as literally false (ι).

Vico makes his starting place the attempted difficult verstehen of the past, “…we can now scarcely understand and cannot at all imagine how the first men thought[,] who founded gentile humanity. For their minds were so limited to particulars that they regarded every change in facial expression as a new face” (NS §700). He glimpses how original humanity was dramatically charged with the need for separating out the instances of sensation, immediacy, without having the conceptual tools of modern abstractions. And though his fantasy of an infinity of faces in the same face betrays perhaps believability, the trope of its meaning is clear. The uniting of the dissimilar as One is the first metaphorical act of human understanding (κ). There is for Vico a bodily force of human need, of utility, which drives the archaic class of images in a pragmatism of making (λ); he is wrestling with proto-conceptual perception at the level of emotions, as passions bring needs to the world in situ, and order it pictorially, that is, make/invent it in terms of a poiesis that would come to be in history literally sung (μ). He extends the power of this originary clustering of the real in the sung, to the second Age of Heroes, and sees it exemplified in Homeric metaphorical language, and even seen in reason-deprived men of the modern age:

§227…natural speech was succeeded by the poetic locution of images, similes, comparisons, and natural properties.

§228. Mutes utter formless sounds by singing, and stammers by singing teach their tongues to pronounce.

§229 Men vent great passions by breaking into song, as we observe in the most grief-stricken and the most joyful.
§230 …it follows that the founders of the gentile nations, having wandered about in the dumb state of wild beasts and being therefore sluggish, were inexpressive save under the impulse of violent passions, and formed their first languages by singing.

To give sight into how Vico conceived that such metaphorical, indeed fabulous thinking might work, and remain focused on metaphor, one must examine the univocal character of that kind of thought, that is the ways in which it is able to assert a truth that is logically nonsensical.

If we consider the matter well, poetic truth is metaphysical truth, and physical truth which is not in conformity with it should be considered false. Thence springs this important consideration in poetic theory: the true war chief, for example, is the Godfrey that Torquato Tasso imagines; and all the chiefs who do not conform throughout to Godfrey are not true chiefs of war (New Science §205).

Donald Verene brings into bolder relief this univocal quality, pushing forward the kinds of alogical truths that fabulous thoughts present. Universali fantastici declare identities, not similarities:
The poetic mind can make assertions that are nonsense for the rational mind. It can assert meaningfully for or to itself that each member of the class of wise men is literally Ulysses, not that each individual is a Ulysses or is like Ulysses, but that each is identical with Ulysses. Each individual can be said to be Ulysses in the sense that Ulysses is their reality (77).

The very epistemic reality of a particular thing is found in its ideal pictorial form. A “wise” person actually has existence—that is, we at a fabulous and primitive time would be aware of his existence, our ability to assert it as a thing—only as Ulysses, a reality to which all physical truth must yield. Hillard Aronovitch rightly expresses the bodily source of this univocality, as coming out of the sensus communis of a people, “imaginative universals are sensed and felt, and so brought into being” (220-221) (ν). In the shadow of Davidson’s prohibition of attributing literal meaning to metaphorical statements, one can see that Vico’s universali fantastici potentially step in to fill the void where Davidson has permitted only linguistic use and not meaning. For it is through this vertical apparatus of imaginative identities that statements that are literally false in semantic terms, can be seen as assertively true.

The facticity of metaphorical truth can be followed as Vico makes the requisite bridge from the fantastic thinking of primitives to the literary use of the tropes and metaphor in particular:
All the first tropes [metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony] are corollaries of this poetic logic. The most luminous and therefore the most necessary and frequent is metaphor. It is most praised when it give sense and passion to insensate things…by which the first poets attributed to bodies the being of animate substances, with capacities measured by their own, namely sense and passion, and in this way made fables of them. Thus every metaphor is a fable in brief (§404).

If one’s analytic gaze remains upon the construction of metaphorical meanings, upon their non-analogical nature, being clear that when fabulous identities are made, in that particularities are brought under a single ideal image, one sees that they are essentialized. It is metaphor’s “unity-in-difference”, and not analogy’s “combination of elements” (Verene 41) (ξ). Because this univocal nature is not the predication of properties by the minds of distant poets, but rather of identities themselves, Vico’s is not a euhemeristic theory of myth, that is, myths are not fabulous “embellishments” of events otherwise first perceived in a historical, “empirically ordered” way (Verene 70-71). Poets do not ornament but rather record. Fables are vera narratio, they tell us exactly how sensations are produced by perceiving minds, in real, literal histories. Again the strict believability of such an insistence will not prove necessary to feel the weight of Vico’s theory; it will not matter if in Homeric times the mind was only capable of organizing perceptions precisely as the poet “Homer” was able to express them—though it is Vico’ contention that the sensus communis of Greece wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and not a man named Homer (§780ff). What is pertinent is that fabulous language has a univocal effect upon perception itself, as it asserts and expresses essentializing identities through portraiture; it both shapes and enables the lens of epistemic witness. In this way, Vico’s is the possibility that primitive humanity—much as animals themselves might—organized sensation entirely through images, a process of which modern metaphorical language, and even contemporary arts, can be seen as a powerful remnant.

Vico turns this exploration into fabulous perceptions back onto the histories of peoples themselves. He sees in myth a reflection of the actual needs and their institutions, given the perceptual capacities of the humans of their time. This is his New Science,

It follows that the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables… By such a method the beginnings of the sciences as well as of nations are to be discovered, for they sprang from the nations and from no other source. It will be shown throughout this work that they had their beginnings in the public needs or utilities of the people and that they were later perfected as acute individuals applied their reflection to them [498] (§51 italics mine).

For Vico scientific thought can trace two ways: up to universaling truth of made rational principles, which is the pursuit of philosophy, or back down to the particular of the “certain,” which he calls the field of philology, but which we might call sociology, or historical ethnography. The relatedness of bodily sensations which are expressed in the earliest pictorial universali fantastici, is for Vico joined in a double progressive move to the concretized linguistic, legislative and institutional forms—all the civic things that humanity produces, what Cicero called the res publica—and as well to the reflective categorical abstractions of philosophical understanding. He describes the direction up from bodily metaphor and then down to rational reflection this way,

§208 Men at first feel without perceiving, then they percieve with a troubled and agitated spirit, finally they reflect with a clear mind.

§209 This axiom is the principle of poetic sentences [703f], which are formed by feelings of passion and emotion, whereas philosophic sentences are formed by reflection and reasoning. The more the latter rise toward universals, the closer they approach the truth; the more the former descend to particulars, the more certain they become.

What remains to be uncovered—if indeed Vico’s metaphorical “thought” fits into the aporia of use left by Davidson’s strict exclusions—is the way in which univerali fantastici become or co-exist with universali intelligibili; and if so connected, do the univocal operations of Vico’s fabulous language identities still function in present day? A baseline for a linking such interpretative imaginations of the past with contemporary meanings can perhaps be found in Cohen and Nagel’s discussion of the “logic of fictions,” from their book An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, as Donald Verene suggests,

Metaphors may thus be viewed as expressing the vague and confused by primal perception of identity, which subsequent processes of discrimination transform nto a conscious and expressed analogy between different things, and which further reflection transforms into the clear assertion of an identity or common element (or relation) which the two different things possess (qtd. in Verene 79).

Vico was under the view that he lived in the age of men, cut off from the poetry of past ages, a rational realm of ironic distance that lacked the ability to percieve somatically as ancient humanity once had. Yet if we are to consider the degree to which imaginative universals are not just past identities, but perhaps active consolidations of social meanings in language and figure that later become literalized, we might do well to distinguish just what these “subsequent processes of discrimination” are, and how, beyond the simple breakdown of pictures into categories, do such pictures become real? In this way the firm line that Davidson draws in metaphor might become a line of luminance, one that allows us to set into bold relief the factual, institutional, literal constituents of life, the things agreed upon in practice, and the affective unions that underwrite and give birth to them.

 

 

5.472 The description of the most general propositional form is the description of the one and only general primitive sign in logic.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must remain silent.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

A Juxtaposition of the Two Views (ο)

1. A Vico-inspired sociological reading of Davidson’s dichotomy of literal meanings and use is aided by a return to his parable of the teaching of an alien visitor the meaning of the word ‘floor’. (Recall that this involved pointing at various floors, and speaking the word ‘floor’ aloud.) There is in this example something of what is involved in the use of use that metaphor is supposed to entail. Davidson writes:

Should we call this process learning something about the world or learning something about language? An odd question, since what is learned is that a bit of language refers to a bit of the world. Still it is easy to distinguish between the business of learning the meaning of a word and using the word once the meaning is learned. Comparing these two activities, it is natural to say that the first concerns learning something about language, while the second is typically learning something about the world. If your Saturnian friend has learned how to use the word ‘floor’, you may try telling him something new, that here is a floor. If he has mastered the word trick, you have told him something about the world. (251)

Note that he re-inflates the distinction that he momentarily collapses: “An odd question…” becomes “Still it is easy to distinguish…”. Learning that some bits refer to other bits indeed is important. When one has learned meaning, in particular how these bits are used, one can then learn something about the world, that is you can use them. What is missing from this dichotomy of the things you can learn about when learning language—and this is key to an ideological component of metaphors—is that when learning language you are learning something also about one’s relationship to the world.

2. When you turn to earth from the distance of Saturn, and metaphorically point saying ‘floor’, the reason why this is not simply a new use for an old word, a simple adding to its meaning and the things we know about language, is that one is telling our Saturn friend how we relate to earth, and inviting her to, at least empathetically, relate to it in the same way.

3. “Earth makes me feel the same way that floor makes me feel, it puts me in a similar state.”

4. This is not to say that this is the cognitive content of the metaphor, or meaning, but rather its effect. Body states are invited to be superimposed, and this effect is most efficiently accomplished through literal falsity. When a statement is literally false, but still presumed by situation to be of communicative value, the fuller affective status of figurative “meanings” can take place. The invitation is to affectively and non-systematically feel about this bit of the world in a non-literal fashion, to experience a sensus communis. Because of this socialization through affect, the viewer, reader, listener becomes ideologically fixed, affectively oriented.

5. The work of a metaphor is compared by Davidson to that of a joke, and this is a good point for comparison:

A metaphor does its work through other intermediaries—to suppose that it can be effective only by conveying a coded message is like thinking a joke or a dream makes some statement which a clever interpreter can restate in plain prose. Joke or dream or metaphor can, like a picture or a bump on the head, make us appreciate some fact—but not by standing for, or expressing, the fact. (262)

Upon the hearing of a politically incorrect joke, the simple occasion of “getting of it”, of finding the humor, puts one in an affective state that orients oneself to the world, completely without one’s choice. The “logic” of the joke comes through as true or real, implicating the listener however vociferously she or he might protest its factuality. Those that don’t “get” the joke are simply the ideologically uncoded, and those offended by it are the ideologically polarized, dissonantly recognizing the affective unity that it represents.

6. Because Davidson’s point about meaning and use is one of effect, one can see that there is no strict “logic” of the joke at all, nor of the metaphor or the dream. There is no propositional content—though the use of explanatory sentences could get one to “see” its point if one missed it; jokes can be explained, metaphors analogized, dreams interpreted.

7. Thus, the sensus communis produced by metaphors, jokes and pictures is an affective sociological move, a power move, the binding of bodies through sub-linguistic states. It is precisely because they are not literally true that they are so productive in their use. They foreground the use of meanings, but cannot justify them. Yet, what is the nature of this “finding it” or “getting it”, the seeing of the connection?

8. In looking to make clear the distinction between the literal and the figurative—to bring out both the formal and ideological-affective components—examine an illustrative story from my childhood. From a very young age, perhaps four of five, I learned chess by watching my father and his playing partner play for hours at the kitchen table. They would spend the entire day and night in contest. Some of my earliest memories are of being at the board and watching the pieces move. In the beginning my father was a bit like the Davidson’s earthling, teaching me between games what things were by pointing to them and pronouncing their names. Learning to set up the board in the starting position was perhaps my first formal achievement. At times I cannot remember, surely the rules were then explained to me: the way that pieces moved, the aims and restrictions involved, the literal limits of the game. Beyond this I would watch silently for hours, and learn more about the game, guessing at strategies and counter-strategies, discovering rules of thumb, recognizing opening patterns. It came to the point that I had a fairly literal sense of how the game was played: all the actions could be explained recursively within the vocabulary of the “game” (π).

9. Yet my father’s partner had a certain verve for life, an intensity with which he would move the pieces, the way he would say “Check!” with authority. And he had a particular anomalous habit. At times of game importance, when attacking the queen, instead of saying with customary etiquette “Queen check,” he would baritone “Guard your whore!”, snapping his piece down so it would rap. Putting aside the argument that the piece name ‘queen’ already has a figurative component, and also the convention of informing an opponent of a queen attack, in this proclamation one can see that “whore” ideologically codes the affective experience of the literal piece called the “queen”. The affective associations of attack, defense, honor, femininity, excess, lewdness, power, dignity all coalesce in a single literal move and pronouncement. The figurative force of the name ‘queen’ also is brought into play, yet all of the capabilities of the piece remain the same. No literal change has occurred (ρ). Yet participants are put into a sensus communis. As a child I am not sure how much I understood this then, but this example captures something of the invitation to see-as that metaphor brings about.

10. Such a move in chess accomplishes the two dimensions of “seeing” that Davidson uses to distinguish meaning from use: seeing-that and seeing-as. To illuminate these Davidson recalls Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit, and writes:

[if I say] ‘It’s a duck’, then with luck you see it as a duck: if I say, ‘It’s a rabbit’, you see it as a rabbit. But no proposition expresses what I have lead you to see. Perhaps you have come to know this without ever seeing the drawing as a duck or as a rabbit. Seeing as is not seeing that. Metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that prompts or inspires insight (263, italics mine) (σ).

 

 (τ)

 

My father’s sailor-mouthed chess partner lead my father to see-that his queen was checked by the rules of chess, but also caused him—and to some degree me—to see the queen as a “whore”. To draw the comparison, Vico had ostensibly argued that earliest man lacked even the capacity to see-that, only engaging the world in the seeing-as of Imaginative Universals.

11. The distinction of seeing-as, when put up against the seeing-that categories of formal reasoning and literal truths, seems to require a theory that incorporates creative capacities into the very definition of what is human knowing. Only such a theory could serve to buttress this distinction, for there are no rules to follow in order to see something as something else.

12. With this need in mind let me turn to the discipline of Rhetoric. In his book Rhetoric as Philosophy Ernesto Grassi seeks to rehabilitate the Italian Humanist tradition. In doing so he reflects upon the aporia at the roots of deductive proof, a long standing rational approach to truth. In this way he addresses something of the formal characteristics of truth that Davidson is using to distinguish the meaning of metaphors from its use (υ). He contends that first-principles argument—the deduction of truth from originally true premises—can never be justified in the rational sense; one rather is forced in such occasions to rely upon a non-demonstrative (that is non-apodictic), non-deducible persistence of premise. Such premising is a principle glimpsing of similarity. He summarizes his seeing-as point in terms of indicative speech,

…indicative or allusive [semeinein] speech provides the framework within which the proof can come into existence. Furthermore, if rationality is identified with the process of clarification, we are forced to admit that the primary clarity of the principles is not rational and recognize that the corresponding language in its indicative structure has an ‘evangelic’ character, in the original Greek sense of this word, i.e., ‘noticing’. (20)

Such speech is immediately a ‘showing’—and for this reason ‘figurative’ or ‘imaginative,’ and thus in the original sense ‘theoretical’ [theorein—i.e., to see] It is metaphorical, i.e., it shows something which has a sense, and this means to that figure, to that which is shown, the speech transfers [metapherein] a signification: in this way the speech which realizes the showing ‘leads before the eyes’ [phainesthai] a signification. This speech is and must be an imaginative language. (65)

13. Grassi traces this capacity to “see” back to Aristotle, through the authors of Rhetoric Pico, Polizano, Quintilian and Cicero. There he comes to what Aristotle describes as a fundamental search for “topics” or topoi or common places, which are required when forming syllogisms and arguments (enthymemes) (φ); When approaching a topic one has to recognize relevant distinctions. There are no rules for this recognition. Or as a Wittgensteinian might say, there are no rules for how to follow a rule. The discovery of relations or commonplaces that are necessary for persuasion or proof requires a creative act. It requires a seeing-as; differences must be seen as the same. This creativity is what Cicero called ingenium (Grassi 8, 43, 96), and it was ingenium that Vico had in mind when picturing earliest humanity as primordial poets (χ).

14. With such a view of indicative language, an inventive, metaphorical act is not only at the root of philosophical proof and knowledge, but antecedent to social organization itself. Communal holdings of recognition, a fundamental seeing-as, appear to consolidate, and then later to develop, into a literal and institutional seeing-thats; in this way arguments from first principles, and arguments of persuasion fall back into a rhetorical domain, that of language and its uses.

15. A consequence of this emphasis on use and inventive finding is the unlikely, but possible pairing of latter-Wittgenstein and Cicero. Grassi puts the use/public aspect of Cicero’s thinking briefly in this way:

Since the essence of res (things) is revealed only in their ingenious utilization [usus] in the context of the social and political community, res proves to be res publica, and the state, in its concrete historical situation, turns out to be its original horizon. Only with his efforts on the res publica does man grasp the deep meaning of his labor (9).

By virtue of these homologies of use, it could be said that the Wittgensteinian formation of meaning as use—words of course are public things—is prefigured by Cicero to some degree; and one could also suggest that just as the historic State is seen as the original horizon of meaning for Cicero, so does Wittgenstein see the Lebensform (a Life-form produced by the practices of living) (ψ) as the horizon of meaning (ω). What for Wittgenstein is a form of shared language use, for Cicero is a shared political state.

16. And is not the realization that the “thing” is ultimately the “public thing”, exactly the means by which Wittgenstein denies the possibility of a Private Language—that is a language that one could only speak to oneself, impossible to translate (75-79; prop. 243-264)?

17. Because “first principles” argument cannot ground itself in anything other than the invention of a non-demonstrable, purely indicative source, can it really be that philosophy has found its way back to Cicero and rhetoric through Pragmatism, Wittgenstein, Holism and Davidson, with their combined emphasis on use and public meanings?

18. Because in Davidson’s rather technical point the use of metaphors is at stake, and not their meanings, disagreements over the possibility of the content of any figurative form of expression really fall into a sociological or psychological domains. Exiled from philosophy is a whole host of questions of meaning that long had been held in its purview. Such questions become questions of value and function; and insomuch as they become questions of value, they become questions of social justification and of politics. In that they are things held in common, they are res publica.

19. Consider Richard Rorty’s treatment of Davidson’s approach to metaphor. It is helpful, for he connects it to later developments in Davidson’s philosophy, opening its applicability to a more thorough vision of language as use. In order to get Davidson’s point Rorty asks us to understand language use as the philosopher W.V.O. Quine once expressed it in terms of meaning:
In Quine’s image, the realm of meaning is a relatively small ‘cleared’ area within the jungle of use, one whose boundaries are constantly being both extended and encroached upon. To say, as Davidson does, that ‘metaphor belongs exclusively to the domain of use’ is simply to say that, because metaphors (while still alive) are unparaphrasable, they fall outside the cleared area.” (Rorty 1991, 164)

By talking about language use in such spatial terms, incorporating ideas of domestication and institutional order—the kinds of agricultural and urban practices that delimit an actual jungle from what is not the jungle, the predictable from the unpredictable—Rorty is treading upon Vico-friendly ground; the “word” as it was used and institutionalized, in Vico’s view, is exactly what tames the jungle.

20. Rorty’s interpretation draws on the reasoning behind Davidson’s speculative essay, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (αα). In this essay Davidson is looking to explain language use in terms of communicative competence and coping strategies alone (ββ): Rorty summarizes Davidson’s attempt to radically describe how language could work without any formal rules in this way:

Davidson tries to undermine the notion of languages as entities by developing the notion of what he calls “a passing theory” about the noises and inscriptions presently being produced by a fellow human being. Think of such a theory as part of a larger “passing theory” about this person’s total behavior – a set of guesses about what she will do under conditions. Such a theory is “passing” because it must constantly be corrected to allow for mumbles, stumbles, malapropisms, metaphors, tics, seizures, psychotic symptoms, egregious stupidity, strokes of genius, and the like. To make things easier, imagine that I am forming a theory about the current behavior of a native of an exotic culture into which I have unexpectedly parachuted. This strange person, who presumably finds me equally strange, will simultaneously be busy forming a theory about my behavior. If we ever succeed in communicating easily and happily, it will be because her guesses about what I am going to do next, including what noises I’m going to make next, and my own expectations about what I shall do or say under certain circumstances, come more or less to coincide, and because the converse is also true. She and I are coping with each other as we might cope with mangoes or boa constrictors – we are not trying to be taken by surprise. (1989, 14)

21. This reprise of Davidson places us in a situation similar to the one Vico’s fantasizes about when picturing how human ur-speech developed, a realm of universali fantastici and invention. Questions of coping, ordering and prediction are paramount. The domain of literal truths insisted upon by Davidson in “What Metaphors Mean” has vanished such that only pure use remains, and no formal “meaning”. This apogee of sense is important, not for its literal value—whether we really are only making passing guesses at each other’s meanings, left and right—but as an aid to understand the nature of the distinction that Davidson draws regarding metaphors in his earlier essay. The cleared away ground within the jungle of use, is a particular way of using language under specific conditions. What Rorty sees Davidson arguing against, when depriving metaphors of any meaning other than their literal falsity, is the possibility for the hidden content of metaphors and figurative language to serve as justification for, that is the reason behind, beliefs.

22. Thus, the effects of metaphors are causal. They lie in the jungle of linguistic events like phenomena of the world, outside of explanatory reasons and cleared-away meanings (γγ).

23. A turn to Vico’s conception of the first word, the first universali fantastici may perhaps serve to subsidize this phenomenalization of metaphorical speech. Before abstract rational thought, it may be reasoned, Imaginative Universals operated more like causes rather than reasons. The first Imaginative Universal was, according to Vico, “JOVE” (§193), an onomatopoeic representation of a thunderclap—which Joyce on the first page his of Finnegan’s Wake, in homage to Vico, rendered as a hundred-letter word:

 “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthuntrovarrhounawwntoohoordenenthurnuk”—and for the Greeks it was DSUES, the sound of its lightening strike (Verene 83-84).

24. Apart from the fantastic and projective aspects of these re-imaginations, what is significant is the affective nature of this condensation into an image and word. As Vico saw it, when thunder and its lightening happened, there was an affective, that is bodily reaction among the giants of earliest humanity, and it was this sensus communis (δδ); this shared-body state that produced the ability to project such a thing upon the sky, came to signify the power that bound them. From this primordial condensation of human fear, the gradual literalization and institutionalization of that Universal produced human organization itself. Pervasive JOVE became Jove became law (§398), as theocracies and priests-poets, and then aristocracies and heroes, and then senates and scientists, came into existence to facilitate and interpret the socially constructed signs of the divine. Upon this fundamental trope of an affective sensus communis projected into forms of increasing abstraction, articulation, and institutionality, Vico builds a conception of a history of man.

25. Taken in this way, present-day metaphors—because they are literally false in the Davidsonian formal sense—could be seen as new Vichian affective identities, a breaking of the laws of strict meaning, the figurative intrusion of seeing-as that works to inform the seeing-that of institutional and literal discourse that establishes an inter-objective world. They are the creation of affective possibilities through the very things they cause us to notice. In their causal nature, they are much more like man-made happenings, and as such would have no more a secondary or systematic meaning than thunderclaps or dreams would (εε).

26. As metaphors and other univocal affective identities become actualized in literal and institutional uses, as things one has been brought to notice in sensus communis are formulated in factualizations and legal acts of endowment, they participate in a process by which such identities become effective, dependable means of communication and social organization.

27. When a literal falsity in even the simplest metaphor is put forth in situations of presumed communication about the world, the rationality of the discourse grants weight to that utterance. Thus…

 

28. “Man is a wolf,” (for instance homo homini lupus est), invites us to form an Imaginative Universal, to project the affective state we feel in regard to wolves, upon what we should feel in regards to “man”. Man literally is a wolf, for all affective intents and purposes, in the brevity of that consideration. This identity allows “knowledge” to grow, as one is called to notice wolfish things about man (producing an attribution of shared properties perhaps), to imagine that others see them as well, and as these things noticed add to our ability to socially organize the “truth” of such a metaphor, it becomes more real. It gives us a sense that the metaphor had a meaning in the first place.

29. This “reality” of the metaphor can exhibit itself in models of how the universe analogically might work, such as in the phrases “the brain is a computer,” or “the heart is a pump,” causing us to notice things that lead to pragmatic pursuits of operational knowledge…or it can show itself through social organization alone, such as the affective Universal identities, “that man is black”, or “she is a whore” wherein we are invited to experience one thing under the affective state of another (that one thing makes me feel the way that other thing makes me feel), and literalize that “truth,”—for instance in legal actualizations such as the Octoroon or Indecency which instantiate and codify, literalizing univocal identities. It is the foundational status of this power that is at stake in the seemingly benign question as to whether metaphors have meaning.

30. Davidson’s deflation of metaphorical meaning can be seen in the context of a larger project of the deflation of philosophy itself, in the way that what is called “true” becomes much more an expression of our human ends, and not the metaphysical authority of “the nature of things,” or “how things really are,” to which philosophers or even scientists are special attendants (ζζ). In this way Davidson can be seen in harmony with Vico’s view of human truths, in that the institutional manifestations of human needs, the constant invention and imposed rationality of social organizations, serve as a limit of what we can know. What we know, is a product of what we value. Prescription precedes description. And the true is the made.

31. Primordial affective universals that Vico theorized had once dominated earliest human beings—so that they thought in ways which he said we could hardly imagine—still are prevalent and bind us today. Perhaps only the complexity of our interrelation, (the resonant changes of connection in fields of linguistic abstraction, technology and law) has changed, as the ways in which two or more bodies can be linked have been multiplied.

32. The some form of concept universali fantastici perhaps belongs within philosophical circulation and debate, in recognition of non-justified univocal identities that are occasions of seeing-as that take on importance in a post-Wittgensteinian era when meaning is defined as use, and use is a public affair. Those seeing-as universals, in the figures of metaphor, depiction and visual portraiture, in condensations of bodily states that become literalized and formalized in institutional uses, can be said to still guide us. They may be the fount of our capacities and the limits of their domain. And this sensus communis such that it readily appears, there, eventually and literally true, is both the means, and the barrier, for achieving change.

33. “…it neither tells nor conceals, but indicates…οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει” Heraclitus, fragment 93.

 

 

 

Endnotes

α. Davidson is responding to the view forwarded by Max Black in his influential essay “Metaphor,” in which Black seeks to resolve the unsatisfying vagueness of simply calling metaphors “comparisons”. Black put forth an “interaction theory of metaphor”, giving metaphors “irreducible meaning” and “cognitive content” (following Kittay’s summation, 6). By breaking down metaphorical meaning into “principle” and “subsidiary” subjects, and theorizing a cognitive interaction between them, Black is asserting that there are “systems of implication,” (181), and it is against this systemic claim, with a deflationary concept of the kinds of things that can be claimed, that Davidson is staking out his ground.

β. A distinction is set forth in Davidson’s “Radical Interpretation”:

The first step identifies predicates, singular terms, quantifiers, connectives, and identity; in theory it settles matters of logical form. The second step concentrates on sentences with indexicals; those sentences sometimes held true and sometimes false according to discoverable changes in the world. This step in conjunction with the first limits the possibilities for interpreting individual predicates. The last step deals with remaining sentences, those of which there is not uniform agreement, or those whose truth value does not depend systematically on changes in the environment (136).

By knowing only under the conditions under which speakers hold sentences true, we can come out, given a satisfactory theory, with an interpretation of each sentence. It remains to make good on this last claim. The theory itself at best gives truth conditions (137).

γ. This is a contentious description. Stout, Godlove, Rorty and Penner all dispute this claim (177 Frankenberry).

δ. Alfred Tarski put forward a deflationary theory of truth that has been credited with making clear the “disquotational property” of truth. This is a theory of truth in formal languages such that ‘P’ is True if and only if p. It is upon this formal definition of truth, that a measure of Davidson’s theory rests, in that the disquotation of a metaphorical sentence does not satisfactorily seem to result in its factuality. There is between the disquotation effects of translation for instance: “‘Snow is white’ if and only if la nieve es blanca” seems to provide a basis for truth that “‘He has a heart of ice’ if and only if he has a heart of ice” does not.

ε. Citation unknown.

ζ. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).

η. Guido Fassò argues that Vico’s preoccupation with this differential goes as far back as 1708, in his study of Roman Law, (De nostril temporis studiorum ratione): “Here Vico insists above all on the contrast between Roman ius civile, based on authority alone, and the ius honorarium, based on equity or reason: on the contrast in other words, between the certain and the true in law (10). Indeed, when extended to the scientific study of the world, this is nothing other than history, instead of merely law, read as it is both synchronically ideal and as it is diachronically produced.

θ. Aronovitch questions the capacity of an imaginary, that is empathetic, re-making put forth by Donald Verene, as well as the space/time transcendence of the imagination espoused by Sir Isiah Berlin in Vico and Herder (Viking Press, 1976), “…that really to think with or like the primitive mind we should have to treat metaphorical truth as literal truth, signs and symbols of things themselves, and personified types as actual existences, whereas the interpretive understanding depicted above depends on employing these very distinctions to show how the first men apprehended differently from us in not keeping to them (221).” I will propose that the literalization of the metaphor is precisely the process that bifurcates our understanding, and allows historical knowledge. By reading metaphors as bodily effects, the univocality of their reality is re-experienced, but in the context of present day meanings. Though we will lack the complete collapse of distance to our subject that a Homeric man might have had when seeing an army move like flies over a bucket of milk, or Athena implanting a flame in one’s brow, it is that bodily re-experiencing of the literal via the imagination, that leads to the explanatory forces felt in a commonality of senses. It is the very immanence of those affects, which were literalized in language and custom (§313), that poetic thought creates, and hence that provide historical reflection. Even when recollecting the past of one’s own life, the affects of experience are repeated, and reimagined, but in new rational contexts; they carry with them the immance of the rationalities of the past as real and affective, but that immanence need not eclipse the rationality of our own comprehension. One feels in part what the past felt in whole. Or perhaps prospectively put in Vician terms, one experiences the certum of the past in the verum of the present.

ι. In this way metaphorical sentences can prospectively be read as sentences of identity, identity expressed through affective experience, and not literal, or even figurative truths of shared properties.

κ. Nietzsche makes a similar point regarding metaphor and the use of any word or idea, primitivizing rationality: “A nerve stimulus, first transformed into a percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one” (178), and “As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea “leaf” has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences” (179).

μ. Ernesto Grassi sees that for Vico, the originality of the imagination, the ingenium, occurs in a fundamental and creative nexus between human needs and the sensed, which are joined through the invention of similarities: “The ingenious act of imagination is original because the capacity to lend meanings (meta-phe-rein) – the imaginative activity – itself presupposes seeing similarities (similitudines) between that which the senses reveal and human needs that must be satisfied: ‘Ingenium enables man to recognize similar things and to create them.’ ‘Imagination is the eye of the ingenium’.” (Ernesto Grassi, “Vico Versus Freud: Creativity and the Unconscious” p.147. Grassi’s quoted material is from: De antiquissma Italorum sapient, in Opera di Giambattista Vico, ed. Fausto Nicolini. Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1953, p.300 and 303).

ν. Grassi expresses the “musical” core of the fashioning of communal awareness: “Musike-not musi, but the organizing power of the muses and poets-creates the measure for everything that is not merely ‘outside’ of man in the form of ‘external nature,’ but which also manifests itself in him, in his drives and passions. Poetic, figurative, and hence ‘metaphorical’ activities provide the possibility of mankind liberating himself from the immediate strictures of nature. This possibility proves itself in the ‘festival'; humanity is celebrated in the freedom that is attained in the power of the metaphor” (1980, 75).

ξ. I shall leave behind for the moment the apparent ideological component buried in this example of Ulysses, only to return to it later (for as unrealistic as this kind of perceptive mode may sound at first blush, it does bear notable resemblance to ideological thinking on race, gender and class).

ο. Vico makes this distinction explicit when he compares mythologies, of which metaphors are of but an example, to allegories which in the modern mind are based on the attribution of predicates:

“…the mythologies must have been the allegories corresponding to them. Allegory is defined as diversiloquium [210], insofar as, by identity not of proportion but (to speak scholastically) of predicablity…So that they must have a univocal signification connoting a quality common to all their species and individuals (as Achilles connotes an idea of valor common to all strong men)” (§403). In that mythologies do not share properties in the abstract, as their imposed allegorical interpretations do (First New Science §23), poetic identities carry a vertical, essentializing truth.

π. It should be noted from the start that Davidson’s position would deny Vico’s universali fantasitici any cognitive status. While this would be central in terms of the justification of beliefs, the universali fantasitici are here considered as univocal awarenesses of “same” which help socially organize behaviors which fall into Davidson’s category of “use”.

ρ. Consider Wittgenstein’s musing: “The question ‘What is a word really?’ is analogous to ‘What is a piece in chess?'” (40, prop. 10eight)

σ. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s observation of the “meaning” of a word that changes with emphasis, “When I pronounce this word while reading with expression it is completely filled with meaning.–“How can this be, if meaning is the use of the word?” Well, what I said was intended figuratively. Not that I chose the figure: it forced itself on me.–But the figurative employment of the word can’t get into conflict with the original one” (183).

τ. (166).

υ. This is what Wittgenstein calls “noticing an aspect” (165):

“I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape. [or a rabbit when one had only seen a duck]–My visual impression has changed;–what was it like before and what is it like now?-If I represent it by means of an exact copy-and isn’t that a good representation of it?-no change is shown.
And above all I do not say “After all my visual impression isn’t the drawing; it is this-which I can’t shew to anyone.”-Of course it is not the drawing, but neither is it anything of the same category, which I carry within myself. (167)”

φ. What in Davidson can be characterized as a literal semantics of truth-conditions, in Grassi would be the indicative assertion of premises from which deduction can be performed.

χ. Yarbrough summing and quoting Jacques Brunschwig, “. In the Topics , topoi “are not retrospectively related to a number of already produced syllogisms, but prospectively related to a number of syllogisms still to be produced out of them” (1996, 41). Whereas in the Rhetoric the focus is upon finding the appropriate, because habitually used, topoi for a given problem…(1996. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a ‘Counterpart’ to Dialectic.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Rhetoric , ed. Améle Oksenberg Rorty, 34-55. Berkeley: U of California P.); (81-82).

ψ. Providence has well arranged human things by awakening in the human mind first topics, and then critique, just as cognition of things precedes judgment about them. For topics is the faculty which makes minds ‘ingenious’, just as critique makes them precise; and in early times the question was, above all, to find those things that are necessary for human life, and finding is a property of ingenium (Vico, Scienza nuova, qtd. in Grassi 45).

ω. Wittgenstein writes: “Proposition 241-‘So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?’-It is what human beings say that is true or false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in Lebensform” (75); compare this to Cicero’s proto-Holism put in the mouth of Crassus: “…there exists no class of things which can stand by itself, severed from the rest, or which the rest can dispense with and yet be able to preserve their own force and everlasting existence” (de Oratore III, 19).

αα. Grassi brings out Cicero’s redress of the Greek philosophical interest first principles argument, and the consequential devotion to the “res obscurae” and “non necessariae”. This produces a dichotomy between the “knower” and the one “capable of speaking” [“alii nos sapere, allii dicere docerent,” Cicero De oratore 3.61] (9). It is precisely this division between the knower and the rhetor that Wittgenstein works to dissolve.

ββ. Note that this is the very place Eva Kittay had argued Davidson was eventually heading towards, but had not yet reached in his formulations on metaphor (118).

γγ. Stephen R. Yarbrough in “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics” takes up the same essay, forming a connection between Davidson and Aristotle, using Aristotle’s concept of topoi as a nexus point (the very same topoi which Grassi had independently stressed in his interpretation of Vico). He explains that what Davidson calls the “mysterious process” of a shared inferential method between language users is actually the recognition and use of such topoi, allowing speakers to form passing yet converging theories on the fly, that is, “communicate”. Thus, the constant invention of solutions to pragmatic questions of everyday communication, through the inferential grasp of topical relations, places ingenium at the core of linguistic competence.

Davidson will claim that communicative competence “cannot be taught.” By “cannot be taught,” it should now be clear, Davidson means that the process cannot be conveyed merely formally in the way one can convey, say, mathematics. Discourse, like all intercourse, is a skill that can be developed not through “book learning” but through a process of interaction with things and people. We may learn in abstraction what a topical relation is formally, but we can learn what it means pragmatically only through discursive interaction, through the back and forth of anticipation and revision of our words’ effects. The chef ephebe must learn through trial and error, through attempt and correction, through question and answer with the master how and to what degree each ingredient, temperature alteration, and so on, affects the balance of tastes, the consistency, and the texture of a base and so the very meaning of “First you make a roux.” A recipe hardly conveys this knowledge, this skill of adjustment and interaction, and the recipe alone means little if anything to anyone who does not already understand the topical relations the recipe implies. The beginner cook cannot really understand the language of the recipe, the intention of the writer, until he has made the étouffée, and made it properly (88-89).

That Grassi finds Aristotelian topoi at the center of metaphor use, and Yarbrough finds it integral to Davidson’s evolved emphasis on discourse competence, suggests that that it is a productive conceptual link between the two aspects of Davidson’s thinking.

δδ. “Metaphors often make us notice aspects of things we did not notice before; no doubt they bring surprising analogies and similarities to our attention…’ But notice that the same can be said about anomalous non-linguistic phenomena like platypuses and pulsars. The latter do not (literally) tell us anything, but they make us notice things and start looking for analogies and similarities” (Rorty 1991, 167).

εε. Heraclitus’,”The thunderbolt steers the totality of things,” (fragment 64), now points toward both an affective community of bodily states, and the institutional practices of authority set up to interpret and literalize these states.

ζζ. “Davidson lets us see metaphors on the model of unfamiliar events in the natural world-causes of changing beliefs and desires-rather than on the model or representations of unfamiliar worlds, worlds which are ‘symbolic’ rather than ‘natural’. He lets us see the metaphors which make possible novel scientific theories as causes of our ability to know more about the world, rather than expressions of such knowledge” (Rorty 1991, 163).

ηη. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).

 

Works Cited

Aronovitch, Hillard. “Vico and Verstehen.” Vico Past and Present. Ed. by Giorgio Tagliacozzo. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981.

Black, Max. “Metaphor.” in Models and Metaphors, Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962; originally published in Proceedings from the Aristotle Society, 55, 1954.

Davidson, Donald. “What Metaphors Mean.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
–. “Radical Interpretation.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Fassò, Guido. “The Problem of Law and the Historical Origin of the New Science.” Giambattista Vico’s Science of Humanity. Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Donald Phillip Verene. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Fisch, Max Harold. “Vico and Pragmatism.” Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium, Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Hayden V. White. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1969.

Frankenberry, Nancy K.. Religion as a “mobile army of metaphors.” Radical Interpretation of Religion.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Grassi, Ernesto. “Vico Versus Freud: Creativity and the Unconscious.” Vico Past and Present. Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981.
–. Rhetoric as Philosophy. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Kittay, Eva. Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Falsity In An Extramoral Sense”. Early Greek Philosophy & Other Essays. Trans. Maximlian A Mügge. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
–. “Unfamiliar noises: Hesse and Davidson on metaphor.” Objectivity, relativism and truth: Philosophical papers, volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico’s Science of Imagination. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. 1744. Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithica: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Third edition, revised. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Yarbrough, Stephen R.. “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics: Donald Davidson, Aristotle, and the Conditions of Discursive Competence.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. Volume 37, Number 1, 2004.

[written May 6, 2006]

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