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Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique

 
 
Eternity and Know-how
 
I’ve been reflecting on the concurrences between the excellent passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations below, and the Spinoza point made, which follows. Wittgenstein’s brilliant, economically, though quite gnomically put point has always been “there is no rule for how to follow a rule”. Simply so, when following a rule for action, the rule itself (nor the appeal to any other meta-rule) is not sufficient to justify the application of the rule, at least from any foundational conception of knowledge. In the passage below Wittgenstein picks up the simple mathematical example of rule-following, which he attempts to sculpt down to its most essential aspects. What is most telling is they way in which he rejects any temporal mental action/experience, what he calls a “mental process” as the source for what is called “understanding”. That is, anything that has what Spinoza named “duration” cannot be the origin of our ability to comprehend.
 
I’ve always looked at this passage with amazement, as we hear Wittgenstein’s mind ticking in self-conversation in his usual style, feeling a surgeon’s hands being placed right in the meat of what the much philosophically pursued “understanding” is. Never though had I connected the passage, either in influence or just in terms of content, to the similar analogy used by Spinoza to point out the difference between “rational” knowledge given by the appeal to reasons (the art of reasoning) and the preferred “intuitional” knowledge that comes out of a union with God, Substance, Nature.
 
Here is the respected passage from Wittgenstein. If you are not familiar with his method, keep track of the different Socratic voices:
145. Suppose the pupil now writes the series 0 to 9 to our satisfaction. – And this will only be the case when he is often successful, not if it does it right once in a hundred attempts. Now I continue the series and draw his attention to the recurrence of the first series in the units; and then to its recurrence in the tens. (Which only means that I use particular emphases, underline figures, write them one under another in such-and-such ways, and similar things.) – And now at some point he continues the series independently – or he does not.- But why do you say that? so much is obvious! – Of course; I only wish to say: the effect of any further explanation depends on reaction.
 
Now, however, let us suppose that after some efforts on the teacher’s part he continues the series correctly, that is, as we do it. So now we can say he has mastered the system. – But how far need he continue the series for us to have the right to say that? Clearly you cannot state a limit here.-
 
146. Suppose I now ask: “Has he understood the system when he continues the series to the hundredth place?” Or – if I should not speak of ‘understanding’ in connection with our primitive language-game: Has he got the system, if he continues the correctly so far? – Perhaps you will say here: to have got the system (or, again, to understand it) can’t consist in continuing the series up to this or that number: that is only applying one’s understanding. The understanding itself is a state which is the source of the correct use.
 
What is one really thinking of here? Isn’t one thinking of the derivation of a series from its algebraic formula? Or at least of something analogous? – But this is where we were before. The points is, we may think of more than one/ application of an algebraic formula; and any type of application may in turn be formulated algebraically; but naturally this does not get us any further.- The application is still a criterion of understanding.
 
147. “But how can this be? When I say I understand the rule of a series, I am surely not saying so because I have found out/ that up to now I had applied the algebraic formula in such-and-such a way! In my own case at all events I surely know that I mean such-and-such a series; it doesn’t matter how far I have actually developed it.” -
 
Your idea, then, is that you know the application of the rule of the series quite apart from remembering actual applications to particular numbers.  And you will perhaps say: “Of course! For the series is infinite and the bit of it that I can have developed finite.”
148. But what does this knowledge consist in? Let me ask: When do you know the application? Always? day and night? or only when you are actually thinking of the rule? do you know it, that is, in the same way as you know the alphabet and the multiplication table? Or is what you call “knowledge” a state of consciousness or a process – say a thought of something, or the like?
 
149. If one says that knowing the ABC is a state of the mind, one is thinking of a state of a mental apparatus (perhaps of the brain) by means of which we explain the manifestations/ of that knowledge. Such a state is called a disposition. But there are objections to speaking of a state of the mind here, inasmuch as there ought to be two different criteria for such a state: a knowledge of a the construction of the apparatus, quite apart from what it does. (Nothing would be more confusing here that to use the words “conscious” and “unconscious” for the contrast between states of consciousness and dispositions. For this pair covers up a grammatical difference.)
 
150. The grammar of the word “knows”  is evidently closely related to that of “can”, “is able to”. But also closely related to that of “understands”. (‘Mastery’ of a technique.)
 
Footnote, bottom of page 50: a) “Understanding a word” : a state. But a mental/ state? – Depression, excitement, pain, are called mental states. Carry out a grammatical investigation as follows: we say
 
“He was depressed the whole day.”
“He was in great excitement the whole day.”
“He has been in continuous pain since yesterday”.-
 
We also say “Since yesterday I have understood this word”. “Continuously”, though? – To be sure, one can speak of an interruption of understanding. But in what cases? Compare: “When did your pains get less?” and “When did you stop understanding that word?”
 
b) Suppose it were asked: When do you know how to play chess? All the time? or just while you are making a move? And the whole of chess during each move?- How queer that knowing how to play chess should take such a short time, and a game so much longer!
 
151. But there is also this use of the word “to know”: we say “Now I know!” – and similarly “Now I can do it!” and “Now I understand!”
 
Let us imagine the following example: A writes series of numbers down; B watches him and tries to find a law for the sequences of numbers. If he succeeds he exclaims: “Now I can go on!” – So this capacity, this understanding, is something that makes its appearance in a moment. So let us try and see what it is that makes its appearance here. – A has written down the numbers 1, 5, 11, 19, 29; at this point B says he knows how to go on. What happened here? Various things may have happened; for example, while A was slowly putting one number after another, B was occupied with trying various algebraic formulae on the numbers when had been written down. After A had written the number 19 B tried the formula a (subscript) n = n² + n -1; and the next number confirmed his hypothesis.
 
Or again, B does not think of formulae. He watches A writing his numbers down with a feeling of tension, and all sorts of vague thoughts go through his head. Finally he asks himself: “What is the series of differences?” He finds the series 4, 6, 8, 10 and says: Now I can go on.
 
Or he watches and says “Yes, I know that series” – and continues it, just as he would have done if A had written down the series 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, – Or he says nothing at all and simply continues the series. Perhaps he had what may be called the sensation “that’s easy!” (Such a sensation is, for example, that of a light quick intake of breath, as when one is slightly startled.)
 
152. But are the processes which I describe here understanding? “B understands the principle of the series” surely doesn’t mean simply: the formula “an =…” occurs to B. For it is perfectly imaginable that the formula should occur to him and that he should nevertheless not understand. “He understands” must have more in than: the formula occurs to him. And equally, more than any of those more or less characteristic accompaniments/ or manifestations of understanding.
 
153. We are trying to get a hold of the mental processes of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed; or, rather, it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding, – why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it is hidden – then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.
 
154. But wait – if “Now I understand the principle” does not mean the same as “The formula…occurs to me” (or “I say the formula”, “I write it down”, etc.) – does it follow from this that I employ the sentence “Now I understand…” or “Now I can go on” as a description of a process occurring behind or side by side with that of saying the formula?
 
155. If there has to be anything ‘behind the utterance of the formula’ it is particular circumstances, which justify me in saying I can go on – when the formula occurs to me.
 
Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. For that is the expression which confuses you. But ask yourself: in what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say, “Now I know how to go on,” when, that is, the formula has occurred to me? -
 
In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process.
 
(A pain growing more or less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.)
 
156. Thus what I wanted to say was: when he suddenly knew how to go one, when he understood the principle, then possibly he had a special experience – and if he is asked: What was it? What took place when you suddenly grasped the principle?” perhaps he will describe it much as we described it above – but for us it is the circumstances/ under which he had such an experience that justified him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on.
 
Philosophical Investigations

There are several aspects of comparison between Wittgenstein and Spinoza, but most signficantly are Wittgenstein’s “nothing is hidden” assertion, as well as the notion that the learning of a rule is very much like the “mastery of a technique”. Evocatively he places “know” to be very close to the use of “can” or “is able to”, moving us very close Spinoza’s metaphysical point that knowing isn’t a representational state, but is an action.

Here are the related example from Spinoza’s Short Treatise, followed by the same example from two other works, concerning the ability to follow a rule:

Part II, Chapter I

Someone has merely heard someone else say that if, in the rule of three, you multiply the second and third numbers, and divide the product by the first, you then find the fourth number, which has the same proportion to the third as the second has to the first. And in spite of the fact that the one who told him this could be lying, he still governed his actions according to this rule, without having had any more knowledge of the rule of three than a blind man has of color. So whatever he may have been able to say about it, he repeated it, as a parrot repeats what it has been taught.
 
A second person, of quicker perception [more active intelligence, Shirley], is not content in this way with report, but tests it with some particular calculations, and finding that these agree with it, give his belief to it. But we have rightly said that this one too is subject to error. For how can he be sure that the experience of some particular [cases] can be a rule for him for all.
 
A third, being satisfied with neither with report, because it can deceive, nor with the experience of some particular [cases], because it cannot be a rule, consults true reason, which has never, when properly used, been deceptive. Reason tells him that because of the property of proportionality in these numbers, this is so, and coud not have been, or happened otherwise.
 
But a fourth, who has the clearest knowledge of all, has no need either of report, or of experience, or of the art of reasoning, because through his penetration he immediately sees the proportionality in all the calculations….
 
Chapter II
 
We call the first opinion because it is subject to error, and has no place in anything of which we are certain, but only where guessing and speculating are spoken of.
 
We call the second belief (opinion), because the things we grasp only through reason, we do not see, but know only through a conviction in the intellect that it must be so and not otherwise.
 
But we call that clear knowledge that comes not from being convinced by reasons, but from being aware of and enjoying the thing itself. This goes far beyond the others…
 
 the Short Treatise
 
…Suppose there are three numbers. Someone is seeking a fourth, which is to the third as the second is to the first. Here merchants will usually say that they know what to do to find the fourth number, because they have not yet forgotten that procedure which they heard from their teachers, without any demonstration.
 
Others will construct a universal axiom from an experience with simple numbers, where the fourth number is evident through itself – as in the numbers 2, 4, 3, and 6. Here they find by trial that if the second is multiplied by the third, and the product is divided by the first, the result is 6. Since they see that this produces the same number which they knew to be the proportional number withou this procedure, they infer that the procedure is always a good way to find the fourth number in the proportion.
 
But mathematicians know, by the force of the demonstration of Proposition 19 in Book VII of Euclid, which numbers are proportional to one another, from the nature of proportion, and its property, viz. that the product of the second and the third. Nevertheless, they do not see the adequate proportionality of the given numbers. And if they do, they see it not by the force of the Proposition, but intuitively, or without going through any procedure.
 
Emendation of the Intellect (23)
 
…Given the numbers 1, 2 and 3, no one fails to see that the fourth proportional number is 6 – and we see this much more clearly because we infer the fourth number from the ratio which, in one glance, we see the first number to have the second.
 
Ethics, IIp40s2iv
Tool Use and Eternity
After all this quotation I want to create the picture that for both Spinoza and Wittgenstein the rules of reason were to be seen as tools (and not knowledge in their own right), techniques of action. What both thinkers shared was a engineer’s sensitivity towards the way that parts fit together. Spinoza of course was a master lens-craftsman and Wittgenstein an amateur architect and mechanical engineer (I believe he designed his own aircraft engine, if I recall correctly). What is most germane, as both thinkers reflect back upon each other, is I think the way in which Wittgenstein’s “circumstances” which act as the criteria for our justification of the rule-following of others, opens out the historical immanence for Spinoza’s view towards eternity. This is to say, or argumentation about the truths of actions find their criteria in the real, historical milieu to which they are immanent. I think that this is very much in keeping with Spinoza’s articulation (as long as we remain under the question of “justification”). In this sense, reason has a historically contingent, natura naturata manifestation and horizon. But as well, Spinoza’s window unto eternity, aside from the question of justification, makes more clear Wittgenstein’s own attachment to a denial of durative processes as the source of understanding. Instead, while historically contingent criteria, all immanent to their circumstances, may lead us to the intuitive grasp of wholes, these are mere tools in a certain, transpiercing of history through intuitive grasp (in which the issue of justification falls away). Ultimately these are human and abiotic bindings, constitutive of their mutuality, in the end causal relations of perception. In all perceptions, including those of animals and inanimate objects, nothing is hidden, nothing lies beyond.
I think that this goes onto explain Spinoza’s own reticence towards the technological innovations of Christiaan Huygens in the area of lens grinding. Huygens and his brother were brilliant experimenters with the art of lens grinding, an area of craft which Spinoza specialized in. What is of note is that Spinoza did not find the Huygens’ shiny devices of much interest, just the sorts of machines that were arriving on the scene which seemed to manifest cleanly the powers of mathematical knowledge itself. Mechanical instruments seemed to express abstract truths without the stain of human hand. But Spinoza found this the least bit interesting:

The said Huygens has been a totally occupied man, and so he is, with polishing glass dioptrics; to that end a workshop he has outfitted, and in it he is able to “turn” pans – as is said, it’s certainly polished – what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is safer and better than any machine. 

Spinoza in his letter to Oldenburg refers actually to the supposedly lowest level of knowledge in his trinity, experience, as the reproof of the importance of the semi-automated machine that he saw. I don’t believe that this is a small dispositional point. Rather, just as Wittgenstein refuses any grounding of “understanding” in rules (which are tools), and as Spinoza puts “intuitional knowledge” above the truths found in the Art of Reasoning, I believe that Spinoza found the appeal of instruments themselves as abstract devices and powers (be they rules, theorems, machines) to be utterly secondary to the intuitional revelation of God and Nature itself, through those tools. His preference for the “free hand” over the automated gear turn, expressed above, is not simply a pragmatic issue (most of Huygens devices did not seem to produce usable lenses), but also a question of just what the human/technological interface involved, and the powers of its action. Instrumentality, like that would mark much of scientific pursuit, was a fetish. Maths and Science were tools used for the transformational intuition of truth, a strong de-centering of the subject, and were not truths about the world themselves.

A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

…if a man could write a book on Ethics…

In my recent post, Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?, I wrote on Russell Nieli’s review of James Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings. There Nieli makes the determinative point that Wittgenstein’s so called “Lecture on Ethics” is central to understanding early Wittgenstein’s commitment to a two-world mystical view. The lecture is available here or can be downloaded as a Word.doc here: Lecture on Ethics). This is certainly an interesting claim, and it lead me to read the lecture which I had not considered before. While I am unsure of how much of the ethical position remains in the latter-day Wittgensteinian language game depictions, I presume a great deal of it is intact, since the very same Humean dichotomy between “the relation of ideas” and the “relation of facts” presents itself in Wittgenstein’s Grammatical and Empirical categorization. I write on the problems of such a “fork” and the related is/ought distinction here: A Spoonful of Ought.

The Explosive Book

But what really drew my focus was the way in which Wittgenstein seemed be addressing Spinoza’s Ethics directly in his essay. In fact he appears to bring the full force of Hume’s dichotomy directly down upon Spinoza’s text, but, as Wittgenstein is so able to do, in such a way that it has only oblique effect. Look at how he characterizes the possibilities of writing a book that would make a science of Ethics, that is, a book which would make of Ethical truths an objective study and explication.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

Its hard for me to deny that Wittgenstein is considering Spinoza at his purest. For while Wittgenstein by virtue of his Hume Doctrine of ideas vs. facts claims that ethical matters can only be approached metaphorically, an echo of his famous tractarian proposition “Where (or of what) one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence”, Spinoza’s book Ethica distinctly avoids almost ALL metaphors and similes, and attempts to speak of Ethics entirely of literal terms. If there was such a book (and there certainly is an attempt by Spinoza to have written one), Wittgenstein tells us that it would “destroy all books”.

Amazing.

The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

Wittgenstein positions Spinoza’s Ethics as either one great confusion (treating things that can only be approached metaphorically, literally, objectively), or as a book that can and has detonated all other books ever written. What is remarkable about this that that in this metaphor Wittgenstein seems to capture something of the excitment that Spinoza enthusiasts feel for the book the Ethics. There is a certain sense in which the Ethics achieves just this, like some logically labyrinthian Borges library, the recursive, interlaced networks of propositions, proofs and scholia works as a time bomb to all other texts. This is the “cold wind” that Deleuze tells us blows through the book, unweaving everything that is woven, so that it can be woven again.

Wittgenstein stakes the impossibility of such a book as the Ethics upon the well-known, but by him uncited Humean Is/Ought distinction. Questions of “is” (what Wittgenstein calls questions of fact, or questions of “relative value”) can never bring you to questions of “ought” (what Wittgenstein calls “absolute value”). The “good” or “right” in relative terms is always specifiable:

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

What Wittgenstein has in mind is that there can always be a reference to criteria, and that if we get outselves to criteria we can agree upon, we can then get down to the goodness or rightness of a thing or situation, (or at least the very nature of our disagreement). As I have argued in the above referenced article, there is no pure Is/Ought distinction, and there is always an “ought” that underwrites any descriptive claim. But it is more than this which give Spinoza’s thinking a life over and above the quiet distinctions Wittgenstein is trying to put forth, or rather, the very nexus of the Is and the Ought gives clue to the way that criteria are organized and distributed, the ways in which we come to agree upon criteria in the first place.

The first point is that Spinoza wholly grants the relative value of things to purposes. In fact any sense of good and bad has to be brought down to the goodness or badness of things to “us” or “me”. In this way anything that is ethically good is pursued entirely out of selfishness itself, the impetus to preserve oneself and increase one’s power and joy. If a kind of action or a kind of thinking is not “good” it means that it is destructive to or weakening to me. And Wittgenstein’s entire matrix of the facts of benefit or harm, and their criteria come into play here. But, there is both an imaginary and a rational dimension upon which the interpretation and communication of these facts rests. And this is: 1). In order to objectively read the world as sense-making we regularly have to take others to be like ourselves, and that because of this there is an imaginary affective bed of mutualities which promote a criteria-less (or at least non-criteria referencing) understanding of “good” and “bad” such that a good thing to another is understood to be a good thing to me based on a primary assumption of sameness. In this way, “This is a good road” may indeed be qualified by reference to all sorts of criteria, but the experience and effect of which is not reducible to such criteria referencing (which does not make it metaphorically good, but only affectively performed and imaginarily understood). And 2). There is a ratio-pramatic consequence of human beings sharing a similar nature and interdepency such that the liberation of another human being possesses an absolute value (non-criteria referencing) of benefit such that liberation is a “good” without qualification (Balibar outlines this expertly, here). Because “man is a god to man” as Spinoza puts it, our selfishness leads us rationally to the realization that when I am helping other person or thing, or environment, I am helping myself – myself under a radical defition. In this way, both on the imaginary level and on the rational level, Wittgenstein’s exclusionary Is/Ought is effectively collapsed at least as an absolute categorial distinction.

In fact the scientific or at least objective way in which Spinoza presents his edifice of the Ethica contains in terms of content nothing of the book that Wittgenstein imagines (a book wherein is written every single fact in the world), but it does refer to a kind of ontological dimension of such a book. Spinoza’s Substance, God, Nature is very much like the ominscience that Wittgenstein conjures up (without the reflexive anthropomophism):

Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

But instead of propositions that have been written down, there are only expressive states, along the extensional and ideational attributes. This totality of Substance in a sense “knows” all things because all things are an expression of it. But the question is, do any of the absolute value propositions contained in the Ethica stand in relation to, or “on the same level” as, all the statements of fact in the world? To answer this one would have to assess whether any of the propositions of the Ethica qualify as absolutely adequate ideas? There is some evidence to suggest that strictly so, even though the propositions of the Ethica are certainly more adequate than others, marked by their very inter-dependent, logical relations, none of them are wholly adequate ideas due to their finite, linguistic expression. But this does not make them metaphorical either. Instead they participate in and are an expression of the very power of rational, material and imaginary combination that makes up both our factual and ethical world, meant as devices of provoked Intuitional knowledge, the knowledge by which all of us know things. The criteria of their goodness is the very capacity for power, joy and coherence in the first place. Which is to say that they are properly metaphysical. Because the Humean severance between idea and fact is refused at the ontological level, so is the ultimate barring of the Is and the Ought. As such Spinoza’s Ethica indeed could be seen as working to explode all other books ever written, or better yet, all other thoughts ever thought. But because of the limited nature of human knowledge, and the necessarily finite expression of our knowledge (even Spinoza’s knowledge), it acts as an incendiary device with a time-delay fuse.

As an amusement, one wonders of course whether Wittgenstein’s criteria for a book that would be explode all books in the world itself would be written in the book of omniscience that contains all propositions of fact.

The Unmarked Font of Metaphysics and Truth: Helvetica and Belief

 

The Metaphysics of Fonts

My last post on the documentary Helvetica (2007) had me musing deeply today. Not only does one suddenly begin to notice fonts used in public signage, in omnipresent fashion that invokes thoughts of Ideology (a cultural perspective taken that must be taken for things to be seen clearly, coherently) – “No Parking” and “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” are two interpellative Helvetica commands I pleasingly read today, but one begins to think about metaphysics itself, the way in which metaphysics attempts lay hold of the very invisible, or largely unseen normative rules and restrictions which essentially condition our capacity to make sense of the world and others, as they are. In distinction from Ideology, Metaphysics is trans-historic, or aims to be. Can Helvetica and its largely ubiquitous, in-visible presence in Western Cultural centers of political command and commercial invitation, give us some clue or evidence towards bothMetaphysical aims, and Ideological functioning (with the understanding that Metaphysics and Ideology bear some relationship to each other)? And, in looking at the dominance of Helvetica, is there a metaphysical/epistemological position that may more coherently than others help us make sense just what is going on in Political imperative and Commercial invitation?

Now surely many others have written on Helvetica with far more erudition and historical knowledge, as the profound thoughts offered on the font by various designer/philosophers in the documentary reveal. These are merely the application of other thoughts I have thought in other contexts to the phenomena of Helvetica as social phenomena, as a point of musing. I have no special insight here, and would enjoy others bringing to my attention any studies/theories that would collaborate or counter my line of thinking.

What comes to mind though when one gazes at the clean, tailless, space-embraced lettering of Helvetica that in the 1950′s swept away so many inconcordant typefaces in both advertisements and eventually government documentation, is the fundamental distinction between the Marked and the Un-marked. An Un-marked element is one whose input or information passes relatively cleanly through it. It stands as clean of any distinction that would draw undue attention to its form (any sub-element that would be read as “marked” would direct the mind at least in part to the consideration of the making of the form itself, a looking into its own history which may or may not comment upon the substance of its report…to use an obvious example, drunken scrawl left from the night before might markedly direct one’s attention to suspicion about the accuracy (or alternately, inspiration) of the content.

The Marked and Un-Marked: Turning One’s Gaze

The concept of Marked and Un-Marked goes a very long way of giving us an epistemic, though non-essential, binary which may help explain why in Western Culture things like White and Non-White, or Male and Non-male, or Citizen and Non-citizen have such wide-spread and organizing determinations. The Un-marked allows information/content to pass rather cleanly through. The Marked causes us to pause, inspect and ultimately judge the worth of value of the report (and this rather inevitably seems to direct us to the bodily, affective realities of the Marked thing, ultimately viewing the report under an affective, imaginary register). Helvetica, as it’s cultural place has come to evolve and entrench itself in many modern, Political/Commercial, Western contexts, has become a near definitive Un-marked font. 

Now let me deviate for a moment so to pass back into metaphysics and an interesting disagreement that arose in succeeding generations in the mid 17th century, newly modern Dutch Republic. Descartes was all the rage, presenting to forward thinking persons of nearly every ilk, a remarkably clean, efficient, and decidedly mechanistic view of the world. As we all well know as inheritors of the Cartesian mindframe, the world was made up of two Substances, one of which was that of Extension, by which we could view everything as operating as a kind of machine of causes. The other was that of Soul, and the problem was in articulating how the one connected to the other. For Descartes, imbued with a Christian view of the world, a most required connective part was the Will (voluntas), a faculty of judgment with operated upon passive and effortless human perception and its ideas, actively assessing out from neutrality both those which were true, and those which were false. (In this neutrality, perhaps you get the first glimpse of where I am going as per the neutrality of Helvetica as a font.)

Descartes on the basic distinction between comprehension and assessment: 

“All that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive, without affirming or denying anything, the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments”

“That we have power.., to give or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us”

But, perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the next generation, the outcast Jew and microscope maker Baruch Spinoza, had a radically different correction to offer to Descartes’ idea of judgment.

The Elder, Truth

Though Truth and Falsehood bee Neare twins, yet Truth a little elder is.

–John Donne

Spinoza denied altogether the basic distinction between acts of comprehension and assessement, denying in fact the Cartesian freedom of Will. This is more than simply a perverse or subversive denial of free volitions as they seem to be to us most obviously. Rather it is part of a very different conception of Mind, and how it operates:

E2p49 – In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.

Or, as James later will sum of Spinoza:

All propositions whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.

The above citations and framing of the question is drawn from one of the more interesting Spinoza-influenced articles I have read in my now growing years of reading Spinoza literature: “How Mental Systems Believe,” by Daniel T. Gilbert (Feb 1991, American Psychologist). [Click Here for Download]. The article covers the consequences of an elementary disagreement between Descartes and Spinoza, a forgotten disagreement. Gilbert argues that the loss of the disagreement has lead AI designers, who have largely inherited the Cartesian view of mind, to build cognitive models (at least up to the ’90s) on an unquestioned comprehension/assess distinction. This is how the author opens the essay, in the broadest of terms:

Everyone knows that understanding is one thing and believing is another, that people can consider ideas without considering them so, and that one must have an idea before one can determine its merit. “Everyone knows the difference… between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (James, 1890, p. 283). Nonetheless, this article suggests that what everyone knows may be, at least in part, wrong. It will be argued that the comprehension and acceptance of ideas are not clearly separable psychological acts, but rather that comprehension includes acceptance of that which is comprehended.

The psychological tests the author appeals to in support of a Spinoza epistemology may very well have been superceded by others after it. I have not seen the direction of research that has followed. What is memorable about the article, and why I strongly recommend it, is that it helps to concretely explain a very fundamental difference in theory that may have quite lasting and rippling effects, not only across cognitive science, but also perhaps within social criticism, as I am attempting to draw forth in the example of the Helvetica font. It gives a sense how a rather arcane sounding distinction made in the 1600s may have a lasting effect on the powers of our present day descriptions.

The Library of Knowledges: Fiction and Non-Fiction

But let me press on. Gilbert by way of an expert analogy shows us just what the difference between a Cartesian and a Spinozist cognitive system is. He asks us to imagine a vast library into which new books are continually being introduced (generally, in the human mind perceptions and ideas). There are two main ways new books can be coded as fiction or non-fiction (true or false ideas), what he calls the “tagging system” of each…

Imagine a library of a few million volumes, of which only a small number are fiction. There are (at least) two reasonable methods by which one could tag the spines of books so that fiction could be distinguished from nonfiction at a glance. One method would be to paste a red tag on each volume of fiction and a blue tag on each volume of nonfiction. Another method would be to tag the fiction and leave the nonfiction untagged. Either of these systems would accomplish the goal of allowing a librarian to distinguish fiction from nonfiction without necessitating that he or she actually reread the book each time such a discrimination needed to be made.

It is only a mild oversimplification to say that Descartes considered the mind to be a library of ideas that used something akin to the red-blue tag system. A new book (new information) appeared in the library (was represented in the mind), its contents were read (assessed), and the book was then tagged (recoded or rerepresented)as either fiction (false) or nonfiction (true). New books unassessed ideas) lacked a tag, of course, and thus were not identifiable as either fiction or nonfiction until they had been read. Such new and unread books were “merely” represented in the library.

Spinoza, however, argued that the mind was more like a library that used a tagged-untagged system. In Spinoza’s view, books were represented before they were assessed; but because of the particular tagging system that was used to denote the outcome of that assessment, a new book that appeared without a tag looked exactly like a work of nonfiction. In a Spinozan library, a book’s spine always announced its contents; no book could be “merely” represented in the library, because the absence of a tag was itself informative (or misinformative) about the content of the book. Analogously, ideas whose truth had been ascertained through a rational assessment process were represented in the mind in precisely the same way as were ideas that had simply been comprehended; only ideas that were judged to be false were unaccepted, or given a special tag.

The author passes through a variety of comprehensive though anecdotal evidence that the Spinozistview is correct, credulity, initial correspondence of belief withcomprehension is supported by a child’s gullibility, which only latter grows discerning with experience and the suseptability to suggestion when persons are fatigued or purposivelytortured. (In fact it is with a view towards an economy of processing powers that Gilbert argues that the human mind evolved to believe first, and deny later.) Of interest for our examination of the font Helvetica is his solitation of marked and un-marked words, how the Un-marked term is conceptually more basic than its marked counterpart:

Unmarked terms are thought to describe operations that are more conceptually basic than their marked counterparts. The Spinozan hypothesis states that unacceptance is a more complex operation than is acceptance and, interestingly enough, the English words that indicate the acceptance of ideas are generally unmarked with respect to their antonyms. Thus, people speak of propositions as acceptable and unacceptable, but (unless one is a neologizing psychologist) not as rejectable and unrejectable. One’s statements may be true or untrue, but they may not be false and unfalse. People hope their ideas are correct, accurate, and credible rather than incorrect, inaccurate, and incredible, but they cannot grammatically wish to be unwrong. Indeed, people even speak of belief and disbelief more naturally than they speak of doubt and undoubt. To the extent that one’s words for mental processes do reveal something about the processes themselves, the structure of the English lexicon suggests (as did Spinoza, who wrote in Latin) that the rejection of false ideas is more complex than the acceptance of true ones.

For Gilbert, and I may well agree, there is an essential and operative binary here, in which initial embrace, belief-as-comprehension precedes the counterpart of negation. This allows him the conclusion that all sentences are coded as true until further critique is to be done on them. It is here that I want to depart from Gilbert’s paper which goes on to speak of experimental evidence for the Spinoza hypothesis (again, evidence that science may or may not have suprassed at this time). I want to turn to, in fact involve, this essential dichotomy of marked and unmarked to consider again the powers of the Helvetica font in our society.

 

The Powers of Helvetica

As I pointed out in my last post, there is much mystery about the lasting power of Helvetica, not to mention its strongly persuasive effects in both the political and the commercial realms. From the above description I feel it is safe to say that the sans-serif font Helvetica has come to be the Un-Marked font of both of these domains. And while it seems most likely that it would have been a sans-serif font that would become the un-marked term, there does seem something quite gridlike and balanced in the Helvetica that further enforces its unmarked status.

If we grasp Spinoza’s assertion plainly, we understand that the unmarked term/idea/concept/sentence is the one already believed in its very comprehension, a belief that might be equated to the powers or failings of children. When we read Helvetica, we partake not only in a certain kind of neutrality, but it is a neutrality of affirmation. What is printed in Helvetica by its very form is already a form of belief, we can say. And certainly there are other fonts in other conditions which are the unmarked form, for instance the serif Times New Roman is the glassy clear in textbooks or newspaper publications. Yet, Helvetica, as it stands towards all other fonts which we experience, perhaps because of its dominance of the most significant organizing spheres of our persons (political and commercial power), is Un-marked beyond all.

So, is Helveticaa kind of metaphysical font, a communication of the very weft and woof of perceptions, beliefs and truths? I think we can contingently go in this direction. Wittgenstein in his rejection of metaphysical speculation wanted to turn the most mysterious seeming statements like “All rods have a length” (withsome reference to Kant), into simple grammatical statements. The great truths of philosophy are just sentences which show how we use words, with nothing profound beneath them. For instance “All rods have length” just shows us how we use the words “rod” and “length” and no amount of experience withrods and length will give us evidence to falsify the claim. Grammatical statements are those which cannot be negated, not for mysterious reasons, but because negating them would end up producing nonsense.

As an appreciator of Spinoza you can tell that I cannot fully embrace Wittgenstein’s position, but it does do something to reveal the nature of Helvetica commands or invitations for purchase. In a sense, Helvetica has become the aesthetic manifestation of something close to the Grammatical Statement. Not only as an Un-marked form of a dominant sphere of social organization, and as such by default believed, the form itself induces a Grammatical Statement like bind wherein one can only deny the truth of the belief at some cost of coherence. The truth of the Helvetica-expressed idea, at least at this point in time, has a lasting, affective ballast, which I believe remains even after its negation or disbelief. Contingently a Helvetica expression may be false, but coherently it is true. In our society this is the two pronged force of the Law, and I believe it is Spinoza’s Marked and Un-marked conception of the Mind that points us to this realization.

It remains to be decided just how ideological and how metaphysical these effects are. That is to say, Do the powers of Helvetica participate in, not just historically contingent hegemonic organizations of persons and affects, but also within a more profound potentia  of belief? When Spinoza laid out his claim against the foremost philosopher of his Age, denying a fundamental freedom of the Will, grounding comprehension and perception itself in belief itself, he saw all belief to be an activity, an affirmation of one’s body in a very real and concrete sense. When we perceive we affirm our flesh under a certain degree of power. And we are only made more free through making more powerful affirmations of ourselves. If this is so, the very Un-marked clarity of Helvetica points a kind of absolute relation, a stream of power unto which we are forever orienting ourselves. And it is up to us to separate out our imaginary relations that for instance impell us to buy The Gap clothing out of its very Helvetic form, and the absolute value of the Un-marked itself. Or, to put it another way, we must see that Un-marked categories/terms/concepts/forms are not just devices of control, but also powers that derive their potency from a greater univocality. And it is the Marked term, in all of its developmental and expressive quality, that causes us to realize this.  

What we recall is that these issues and determinations are not those of armchair philosophies, of rare disciplines or their categories, but the very lived realities of experiential Marked and Un-marked Reals. Helvetica speaks metaphysical truths. And we daily read it. This makes room for both the grasp of and resisitance to, Helvetica.

Writing Philosophy: The Unclear Clarity

The Book “I Want to Write”

Levi at Larval Subject mourns that a student had bought his book on Deleuze, knowing that without training in the obscurities of vocabulary and concept the book is pretty much useless (except one might suggest, as a small tome of incantations, not a measure to be undervalued in the genre of the philosophical). He yearns, genuinely yearns, to write a different kind of book…

I would like to write a book that anyone could pick up, regardless of whether or not they have a philosophical background. When I fantasize about writing such a book I am not fantasizing about writing a book that is “easy” or “clear”. Rather I am fantasizing about a book that could function as an element of other assemblages or networks without the reader already having to be linked in to a pre-existent and extensive network characterized by the history of philosophy. The adventure of such a book would be premised not on maintaining its identity or the sameness of a message throughout all of the possible relations it enters into among readers, but would rather function as an element, like lavender in the region of wine grapes, contributing to the production of new productions. Here the history of philosophy wouldn’t be absent or ignored, but would be, as it were, virtual or in the background. Philosophy wouldn’t proceed through the activity of commentary as is practiced in Continental thought today, but rather there would be direct ownership of one’s writing and appropriation of the history of philosophy. Just as the peppers in my garden are borne of the soil, the water, and air out of which they grow without displaying these elements in any recognizable sense, such a writing would be willing to take direct responsibility for how it has “prehended” or integrated that history without thematically making that history the issue or question of the writing. Is it possible, today, to write in the fashion of a Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume?

The book that comes to my mind is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I have taken a critical stand against some of the thought-positions that seem to underlie its eliptical arguments (and the apostlary devotion of some to its text), but if one leaves behind one’s already assumed position upon the supposed notion of “language game” or ordinary language philosophy or Private Language, and simply engage the book, as a book, it is remarkably and precisely the kind of thing that Levi yearns to write. And while Levi is concerned with the leadened, commentary entrenched Continental traditions, and Ludwig’s freedom was composed against a very different style of thinking, there is something to be learned here. What makes the Philosophical Investigations so free?

It comes I believe from Wittgenstein’s notion that there are pictures of language (and therefore of the world, ourselves, and everything in it) that largely govern the way we see and think about things. For him these are very elementary things, simple compositional, almost building-block analogies that bring everything into view, making our explanations about explanations work. And so he presents another one. A different one. And he attempts to do so at the simplest level, without jargon, in self-conversation.

It is interesting that Levi wants to not necessarily write something that is “clear” because his writing seems at times overburdened with a kind of Herculean effort to make things that he takes to be very complicated, clear. In fact, his powers of explication of Lacan or Deleuze are quite admirable, leaving behind the firm trace of the the explicable. But for the unclear clear that Wittgenstein attempted, a different sort of tact is needed, a grasp and re-grasp of the “picture”. Perhaps to write philosophy in the genuine sense that Levi means one has to be a child about it. Just as Levi is moved by the anticipated incomprehensibility of his Deleuze book for one of his students, Wittgenstein was stirred to his philosophical awakening by his teaching of small children, noticing how children see and learn things.

The Unclear Clear

In this way, if we are to write philosophy of the unclear clear we have to paint the picture of it, and not just talk about the concepts. We have to compose the moving parts and turn the shaft to rotate the gears so that others can see it. It might be a complicated machine, but its parts must be made to touch, to be felt.

It challenges me to think of the same. I’ve spent a long while holding certain concepts in my mind, turning them about as a infant turns a building block and even sticks it in his mouth so as to feel its shape. What would it mean to write like this without lapsing into poetry so as to escape the shape/picture? I am thinking lately on a critique of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality, and how I can just feel that it works out. I can almost synesthetically put my mouth around the two concepts “digital code” and “analogical code”. What would it mean to express them as a picture, a child-picture that makes the whole thing turn?

A (digital) code is a rhythm of discrete parts, joined by a syntactical governance.

The truth of it is not found in either the rules for their joining, nor the elements that are joined, but in their mutuality.

An analogical code is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

An “analogical code” is a continuous stream of material recording, the scratching of one thing upon another, (so that there is revelation and memory).

Every digital code necessarily performs analogical powers of impress. DNA has a body.

 

Something like that…

How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects - E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

10 Greatest Philosophers (sigh): Desert Island Question

Tool Kit

Jon Cogburn’s list in the comments section over at Perverse Egalitarianism  it seems has forced/spurred me onto my own list, as absurd as it may be, (but processes of organization are creative). It is a conflation of “greatest influence,”  upon me, but also as I read it, “greatest influence” upon the best solution for the pressing questions of our historical moment, a solution which must resonate down to the root/earth of the Western Philosophical tree. In a sense the list represents the authors from whom – if I was on a desert island and had to compose a philosophical theoretical perspective for our Age, and could be given the entire oeuvre of each — I would compose my island library; where there are two, I get two for the price of one. I include a small note on what seems the most germane contribution, though effects are radial.

1. Spinoza (parallel postulate under a register of power)

2. Plato (formulating the Orphic)

3. Augustine (Immanent Semiotics of truth)

4. Plotinus (Degree of Being transformation of Plato)

5. Davidson (Triangulation and Objectivity)

6. Guattari and Deleuze (Ontology of Affects)

7. Wittgenstein (Language Game)

8. Nietzsche (Ascent of Metaphor)

9. Sophocles (The Surpass of Tragedy)

10. Maturana and Varela (Operational Closure)

A large measure of this ranking can be seen as an after-image of an entire branch of thinking stemming from Descartes’ Central Clarity Consciousness  conception, which had its reverberations and mal-interpretations running through both the Continental and Analytic sides, a branch that is best left behind for now.

The actual numbers are only as they came to me without very much juggling. Tons of beautiful philosophers left off, some of my most favorite ones with whom I agree much more, and more inspire me, than some on the list…but that is the beauty of lists they force a composition, a constellation. Of course I would love to hear any of your own lists under something of the same criteria (or whatever).

(On another para-frivolous note, I would love to do a NCAA like bracket “playoff” of the 64 greatest philosophers, a competition/comparison which could have serious conceptual implications about truth and correction.)

Here a BBC Greatest Philosopher List

Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten

The Apprehension of World

Through the pleasures of the Internet the author of one of the books I cited in my working development of a Spinozist theory of Exowelt responded to some of my thoughts. Paul Bains, whose excellent, articulate The Primacy of Semiosis I resourced, questioned any need at all for such an Exowelt thought, as he feels that Deely is already sufficiently non-Phenomenological and non-human-centric, two motivations for my working toward an Exowelt conception.

The exchange we had in the comments section seemed a bit scatter-shot between the both of us, but some interesting questions were raised. I repost my last thoughts here (changing the “person” of address), citing from a pivotal passage in Paul’s book which at least for him, conceptually sets the agenda at hand. Perhaps others will find the issues compelling, just as I do:

Here is the relevant passage from your book  that for me points directly to the human-centric framing of the issue for you (and Deely):

“I will seek to elaborate the critical distinction between the animal and human Umwelten – or species-specific objective worlds as Deely presents it. This distinction is timely, because although it has similarities with Heidegger’s treatment of exactly the same question, I will claim that Deely provides a more articulate and nuanced analysis. Those who are shocked by and criticize Heidegger’s “abyss” between man and animal might find this approach of value, even if only to distinguish themselves from it. The ultimate issue is this: To what extent it can be said that a non-languaging, non-human animal apprehends its Umwelt or milileu/envirioning world as a world at all: Deely’s distinction between zoosemiosis and anthroposemiosis intersects with Wittgenstein’s approach to forms of life and expressive capacities that can only exist in language: “We say a dog is afraid his master will beat him, but not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow, Why not?”…The concept of objective being introduced in the preceding chapter (i.e., as something existing only insofar as it exists within awareness) will be seen as providing the relational network for the fabrication of species-specific objective worlds or Umwelten. Deely writes…” (page 60).

Beetles and Things: Why Experience Creates No Sphere

If I could take it piece by piece.

1. I don’t find the distinction between human and animal Umwelten “critical” as Paul does. That is, there is no substantivedifference here, no hierarchy. Or, as Spinoza insists, humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom.

2. While Deely might be more nuanced than Heidegger in regards to the “abyss” he certainly maintains it, and does so in ways that are quite human-centric.

3. Paul’s “ultimate” question is also quite human-centric (not to mention quite rather Kantian flavored with the choice of “apprehension” as the “ultimate” value). I do not accept that apprehending one’s Umwelten “as world” is of critical, ontological distinction at all. This reflective notion is highly Idealist, and Paul is right to bring Heidegger up, a thinker who retains strong idealist, phenomenological roots.

4.While I accept that there are distinctions between zoo and anthropo semiosis, anthropo semiosis is irrevocably joined to zoo. It is zoo. And to this I would add that I do not stop there at the biotic world when I am speaking of semoitic processes. For me semiosis goes ALL the way down. Because Antropo semiosis is zoo, and relies upon zoo, there is no ostensive boundary of “world”.

5.Wittgenstein’s treatment of animals I find most problematic due to the highly eliptical and aphrostic style of his “arguments”. In particular here, the oscillation between “languaging” and “forms of life”. I offer my thoughts on the failings of Wittgenstein’s reading of animals here, if interested: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation  [here].

6. I distinctly reject the notion that there are species-specific Umwelten, pretty much along the same line of reasoning that there are (individual human) mind-specific languages. Wittgenstein’s private language argument’s theme ends up disentangling every boundary.

It is specifically in terms of “experience”, what Deely calls a “sphere of experience”:

{Deely writing]”Elements of the physical environment are networked objectively, i.e., so as to establish the sphere of experience as something superordinante to and strictly transcending, all the while containing partially and resting upon aspects of, the physical environment in its ‘natural’ or ‘mind-independent’ being. Umwelten are thus species specific: No two types of organism live in the same objective worlds, even though they share the same physical environment.”

Just as there is no Beetle in the Box (it gets crossed out) there is no sphere of experience that necessarily is objectively distinct by species. It is only a phenomenological skew of what we think of determinative that ultimately thinks that communication between species is a communication between “worlds”

Or, to put it another way, taking up my notion of Exowelten, because there are real differences in the world that make up the terminus and perceptual limits of our bodies, and the bodies of other biotic and non-biotic forms, any strict species-specific distinction of realms or “spheres” has no ultimate footing. Our “Forms of Life” are already Semiotically Conjoined, and no delineation of experience can unjoin them.

 

Ever Watch a Leaf Blow?…The Synthesis of Life

Ever watch a leaf blow, and for a flicking moment, out of the corner of your eye, think it is a living thing?

A follow up on: Big Dog: Our Selves, and perhaps on: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

We live in extraordinary times, don’t we?

“The Bit That Never Really Worked”: Davidson’s Concept Dualism

All Language Games are The Same?

 Tim Thorton has found the discussion we were having over his (over a beer) interesting thoughts on Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism. Is it true that Davidson held there to be only two conceptual frameworks, two kinds of causal explanations, the physical and the mental? In his recent post “Davidson, McDowell and Conceptual Dualism”  he quotes Rorty against any notional reduction of the realm of reasons to a sui generis, “forms of intelligibility” or even a “space”. Or course Rorty’s game is that he wants to deprive philosophers of any authoritative position in relation to other discourses. Philosophers have no privileged access to something which is affirmatively “meta” to all else. Therefore for Rorty,

“All language games are sui generis. That is, they are irreducible to one another… But this sense of ‘sui generis’… is philosophically sterile.
If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the philosophical ‘dichotomies’ look like over dramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes.”

Wittgenstein of course  is rather fast and loose with the concept of “language game,” which seems to serve as too much mortor with very little brick, so much so Rorty’s claim that all language games are sui generis amounts to little more than any sub-set of human communications is its own kind, certainly not a very helpful claim.

The question is not whether they are all irreducible to each other, but in what specific way this is so for the concepts of the natural and the reasoned (or the physical and the mental). Tim Thornton questions whether Davidson should be called into this debate, mostly it seems because that in Tim’s view, though there is a homology between Davidson’s Anomalous Monism and McDowell’s position, Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism never really worked:

But there is an important distinction between the McDowellian distinction Rorty criticises and the Davidsonian one that Floris and I used to think about. The Davidson of anomalous monism seems to focus on the mental versus the physical whilst McDowell thinks that reason versus nature is the uber distinction what makes mind versus the natural world seem so problematic. So there’s already a sense that the McDowellian distinction is supposed to be more general than the one in play in Davidson’s (perhaps misleading of his own thoughts) writing about the metaphysics of mind.

It’s supposed to capture something general in the way that reasons connect together, distinct from nomological or statistical subsumption: something that might be common to political discussion and appreciation (if that’s what we’re about) of soccer and carpentry. This general logical difference (a difference in the kind of explanation they support) might form the basis of a reply to Rorty’s challenge. Whether one would want to recruit Davidson to this response seems to me to depend on whether one is focusing on his (it’s the same but different) account of the mind (the bit that first prompts a comparison with Spinoza), or whether one thinks that that bit never really worked but that his account of the role of rationality in content ascription was first rate and floats free. (I took this line in my book on Wittgenstein.)

Rationality Without Triangulation?

I am a bit unclear about this idea that the Conceptual Dualism part of Davidson didn’t ever work. Work to do what? I am even more perplexed that Tim seems to ask that we do away with this deadend “bit” of Davidson (only a bit?), the part that puts him in affinity with Spinoza, and to take hold of his theory of rational ascription. The problem is, I cannot imagine how his theory of rational content ascription gets off the ground without his conceptual dualism firmly in place, since for Davidson our ascriptions of mental content stem directly from our triangulation of Knowledges (“Three Varieties of Knowledge”). The Conceptual Dualism is built right into the structure/fabric of our ability to causally interpret events in the world via an interconnection with events read as behaviors (caused by beliefs). And in subversion of a non-Naturalized approach to these questions, Davidson traces this capacity, perhaps somewhat problematically, below the threshold of the linguistic, something that animals regularly do.

I have not read Tim Thornton’s book (too academically expensive), so I cannot comment in depth upon the line of thinking that he follows there, Wittgenstein on Language and Thought : The Philosophy of Content, but I have to say that given Davidson’s commitment to a Triangulation of Knowledges, its principles of coherence and charity, and a categorical intersubjective leg, I cannot see how the rationality of content ascription “floats free” from the entire view. In fact it is precisely in the ascription of mental content that Wittgenstein and Davidson most greatly diverge, in the famed reasons vs. cause dispute; and it is in ascription itself that I find Wittgenstein inconsistently categorical and rhetorical, as I discuss in “The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation”. I have my Spinozist stripes, so perhaps Tim’s dismissal of the Davidson/Spinoza comparision out of hand is something I cannot easily abide, but it seems to me that it is not awayfrom Spinoza, but towards him, if we are to make the most out of the groundwork of Davidson’s Triangulation. That is, human beings do not only triangulate knowledge of mental content in terms of propositional sentence ascription, but clearly such ascriptions depend upon a very rich triangulation of affects, the way in which we feel the world as sensical through the assumption that others are the same as us, and the value of events in the world is based upon how others must be experiencing them. And more than this, it is within Spinoza’s “imitation of the affects” that we best understand what Wittgenstein had to say about knowing and pain.

The “moral” Attribute

As Van der Burg points out, Davidson’s difficulty comes from an apparent reduction of the metaphysics of Substance to the phsyical, understanding that scientific materialism itself is a metaphysical position. And as SOH-Dan pointed out in the citation of Davidson in interview, he did not mean to restrict possible Concepts of causation to merely Two. Tim Thornton’s excellent, having-a-beer-inspired suggestion that there may even be a “moral” conceptual causal chain actually points us toward the possibility that Spinoza suppressed the traditional Augustine trinity of ontological attributes, condensing “love” into the conatus and a theory of the affects. What is important about this is that far from the general collapse of all “language games” into family resemblance sui generis  pockets of discussion wherein there is no substantive difference between “talk about soccer or carpentry” and “talk about agreement” is that while talk about the former indeed may exhibit local rules of engagement, talking about the latter actually directs our attention to how agreements between local “language games” can be found, in our experiences and presumptions that others are like us. This does not give philosophers a privileged place above other discourses, but rather gives them a role in the imagination of our solutions, providing architectures that may or may not be built, just as poets write poems that may or may not be sung.

Subjects Created in Truth Procedures at Prague’s Franz Kafka International Airport

Pursuing the Generic

Not only does this “news report” play upon our well-worn picture of Eastern Block Communism, it does so fused with the addictive Fox News/CNN mode of Breaking News anticipation, perhaps revealing the degree to which we are already pure Ideological subjects. What is striking is that we recognize ourselves here, not in some sci-fi sense of an alternate parallel universe, but rather this is the REAL (not to mention the relief of joyful distance that comes through as we idenitfy the literary references and can chuckle about it all like some highly literate Russian in our minds).

Of course the properly identified Subject has no such difficulty within an Airport, (along with the implicit experienced subject who is simply able to finesse the quirks of the system with a certain tacit knowledge). One moves seamlessly along the generic paths of processes with great, if somewhat banal, glee. It is the supposedly resistant Western capitalist “individual” (buisness traveler) who becomes confused, marked, externalized to their own internal.

Who/what is the Subject? The resistant kernel that cannot be processed, or the perfectly generisized lipidity of movements and identifications? False dichotomy. “Properly followed, proper protocols” and Wittgenstein’s Language Game sign-followings met with delicious irony. 

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