Frames /sing


The/An Importance of Metaphysics

The Science Fiction of Philosophy

This conversation over at Dead Voles has been winding, snake-back, but in this bend in the road some interesting things were being discussed.

Carl gives his rendition of what he believes my position on the importance of philosophical argument, something with which I agree in part. Carl’s general sense is that philosophy (or perhaps metaphysics) isn’t really of any historical importance, both in terms of social justice, but also simply in terms of historical causation:

Carl: “If I understand correctly, Kevin agrees with this as a description of how philosophy usually works, but has a more activist commitment to the potential of philosophy to break the materialist circle and become a guide to better living. If he’s right that philosophical activism can actually have an effect on the world, and not just be an effect of the world, the stakes in philosophizing get very high, conflict is warranted (even mandatory) and withdrawal is not an option. Therefore I would expect Kevin to think that an unwillingness to fight over philosophy is in effect a cover for conservatism; so he would in principle reject the separation of affect and commitment I have made.”

Kvond: I’ve never heard my position towards philosophy summarized by another so this is interesting.

First of all I am equally, if not more passionate about art (plastic, film, poetry, fiction, etc), I just happen to blog about philosophy because this is what feeds my artistic process. And yes, to take of your thought, what we paint, film and narrate indeed expresses our historical, material, economic circumstances, but it does not ONLY do so like a dumb image floating in a mirror, it ALSO helps determine them. So everything that is at stake in philosophy is also at stake in the arts. It is only that the mode of criticism of both is different. The need for criticism of each is acute. (Part of the problem I have tried to put forth in regards to Graham Harman under the question of his Orientalism is the way in which he evades criticism of both. When criticized as philosophy, is merely being poetic, when criticized as poet, is being a philosopher, in the end taking refuge merely as a non-author.) I do also believe that the arts can be critiqued through a mode of truth, and philosophies as modes of the social, but these are not their primary traction points in the world, the force they exert.

As of the secondary question of conservatism I am not so high on this, as if buried conservatism is an inherent and ever lurking evil. I think that conservativism plays its own social role in the world, it is meant to conserve (perhaps Deleuze would say re-territorialize) aspects or relations in the face of radical change or dissonance. I am concerned about conservativism in two areas though. For one, I find the the Neoliberal (and really Fascist) elements in Levi Bryant’s Latourian objectology to be a vast case of political hypocrisy, and when someone bandies about the big rhetorical guns, blasting them this way and that, as he does, one better have one’s ps and qs straight in the positions you advocate. I find Levi’s metaphysics indeed to be Neoliberalesque, and his behavior as a person (for instance his call for uncloaking blogger identities, among many others) Fascist. When in the arena of political ideals, most important is that we don’t drag with us the very thing we are claiming to oppose. This leads to the secondary sense in which I find conservatism worth tracking. That is, because it is a social force, and has a social role, it is best if we identify it wherein it lies, so we can take it’s import into account, and look to just what it is that we are opposing. I made this point with Harman’s Orientialism as well. It is not that Orientalism is inherently “bad”, but that it contains dangers, possible negative side-effects which have a greater opportunity to manifest themselves when we are less conscious of what is going on, what is being expressed.

Perhaps this answer of mine clears up why I have bothered to tarry over Harman’s theory of causation in particular and his metaphysics in general. In the next line of our exchange I try to point out to Carl why the difference between Science Fiction and Science (by analogy) is important to philosophy’s own power to contribute to the discovery (or invention) of the world:

Carl once wrote: “…even in this ghetto philosophy has spun off useful new disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science and so on that do much of the work philosophers used to do.”

Carl writes: “I actually agree with this ethic of getting it right and knowing where you stand, and I think it’s therefore of value to read closely and criticize when it’s warranted. I just don’t think philosophy, in particular metaphysics, is an area where there’s any useful standard of getting it right. It’s all science fiction.”

Kvond: This is the thing. I know you would like to treat philosophy as the latter, but the reason why philosophy WAS able and is STILL able to make these “spin-off” contributions to the social sciences is precisely because it recognizes the difference (within itself) between (Science Fiction) Pulp-Philosophy, and (Science) Philosophy. The internal coherence driven by the latter (and not the former) is what gave the force to descriptive systems that then power the descriptions of (some) social sciences. There is no EXTERNAL standard in the sense of a one-to-one correspondence, but indeed there is the standard of internal coherence amid systematic descriptions of the world which forces rigor within a theory that attempts to describe the world as it REALLY is. And it is this rigor that is missing from the Science Fiction aspects of philosophy.

This is one of the good things that blogs can do, just alert people to things being discussed, so that others may take the discussion in other directions or elsewhere. The arguments have the disadvantage of being rough-edged, but the advantage of being living cultures.


24 responses to “The/An Importance of Metaphysics

  1. Carl December 5, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you and yes, this is much of what I think blogging is good for also. I suppose I further think it’s therefore important not to chill the roughing-out process by demanding too much rigor in the blog context, but that’s a moving target.

    Btw I found your analogy to software development in a later comment on that thread illuminating and well-targeted. I’m looking forward to Asher’s response.

    • kvond December 5, 2009 at 7:54 pm

      Some people, the “software” types, actually find the de-bugging process to be stimulating, rather than “chilling”.

    • kvond December 5, 2009 at 7:58 pm

      I should add as well, after a moment’s reflection, that the analogy should drift between “operating systems” and “software” to be more interesting or useful.

    • Asher Kay December 6, 2009 at 3:49 am

      There’s a distinction of this sort between testing and debugging. A tester will report in pretty precise terms what is wrong and how it happens, but there is no direct report of what is wrong in the code. I have to “debug” the code to find the actual problem. And the test of the fix doesn’t evaluate the validity of the code change — it simply tests the behavior to make sure it’s spec. In some situations, I could fix the code in a totally heinous way to simply make it produce the expected result. Not that I ever do that.

      A lot of programmers enjoy the (code) debugging process, and its associated small triumphs. It usually brings out the most competitive aspects of a team (“I found your bug”).

      The analogy reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between theoretical science and the “puzzle-solving” nature of what he calls “normal” science.

  2. johnmccreery December 6, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Is the suggestion here that philosophers are the “operating systems” type, who want the systems well-constructed at the most basic level?

    • kvond December 6, 2009 at 1:52 am

      Following the analogy, there is the sense that the operating sysem (unto software) or software (unto its products) is transcendent in some fashion, or structuring (depending on how you want to read it). But yes, there is a kind of “most basic level” thinking in most philosophical pre-occupation.

  3. johnmccreery December 6, 2009 at 3:17 am

    I wonder how far one can push the analogy. Do different philosophies, seen as operating systems, require different different CPUs, i.e., different realities? Or can different philosophies be written for the same underlying reality, in the way that Linux, Windows and MacOS all run on Intel processors?

    • Asher Kay December 6, 2009 at 3:39 am

      And if you push it even further, do you get the idea of a “universal Turing machine” — a way of saying that one’s particular implementation of a theory does all the computations of truth that another theory does?

      And maybe you even get something like a frustrating Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem affecting the ability to prove the consistency of the theoretical system.

      • johnmccreery December 6, 2009 at 10:00 pm

        Could it be that at this point we have pushed the analogy beyond the limit within which it seems useful?

        I am thinking here of comparable situations, e.g., debates about string theory in physics. There, too, the “theory of everything” leaves open the question of how to retrace the path from the fundamentals to the messy emergent properties of chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, societies, culture, the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life.

        I am also thinking of how one gets from Turing machines to machine code, Assembler, C++ or Python, Filemaker Pro or Access, or a database designed for one particular application, where the ontological issues (which entities to include and how to specify their relationships) arise at every stage in the process.

  4. kvond December 6, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Guys, the thing to appreciate about analogies is that analogy is always also dysanalogy. The analogy to software design was itself an answer to a specific question, Carl’s intutional thought that all of philosophy is Science Fiction, and thus disputes between philosophical positions held almost no social cause merit. He was trying to balance this intuition, as it was informed by the position he take as a historial, with the obvious contribution philosophy has given (and continues to give) to the Social Sciences (if not the hard sciences themselves).

    I think that before you take it apart (like good software engineers and good “software” engineers) that has to be kept in mind, it is an answer to a specfic question.

    As for Turing machines and Godel, I think that software/OS of a philosophical system has to be measured within historical contexts. It is always doing more than just is stated aims. It is connecting hardware and persons, and social relations, aesthetic concerns, political dispositions and needs together. If we bring back Spinoza in a 3.0 version it is because today there are concerns facing us that faced Spinoza 1.0, though this will express itself in the evident truth of Spinoza when we study him, as if presenting the truth, i.e. Science and not Science Fiction.

    • Asher Kay December 7, 2009 at 11:18 am

      I’m not following completely. Are you saying that the historical context affects whether Spinoza 1.0 == true?

      • kvond December 7, 2009 at 1:01 pm

        No. I am saying that historical contexts determine whether determining if Spinoza 1.0 (or any other version of Spinoza or some other philosopher) is true is valuable.

        This is a meta-opinion, because in THESE historical contexts, and AS a Spinozist of sorts, I consider the pursuit of Spinoza valuable, and so to a particular degree I cannot have access to the above statement.

        For instance in the 18th/19th Century, during the Pantheism Controversy in Germany (Spinoza 2.0) determining whether Spinoza 1.0 was true was quite valuable. In the early 20th century probably much less so (though Einstein and Freud were no doubt influenced by Spinoza at this time). As a Spinozist do I think that pursuing the truth of Spinoza would have been helpful? I am bound by the internal vision of my investigation to say “yes”, but the answer also must be qualified. If the full materialiality of Spinoza is to be embraced then really as well, the circumstances and opportunities of truth-pursuit have to be taken into account. Truth does not simply bang its way home, it is conditioned.

        Spinoza himself acceded to this I believe when he elected to publish his Theological-Political Treatise both Anonymously, and in Latin, despite the fact that some of his most radical friends were publishing in vernacular Dutch in the effort of liberation.

        I do not consider the Ethics to be filled with Absolutely Adequate Ideas, under Spinoza’s own theorizing.

      • Asher Kay December 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

        Okay, got it. I was looking at the Turing machine business in terms of the truth of the philosophical system itself, which kind of stretches the metaphor because the Turing machine = philosophical system idea refers to a “virtual” Turing machine running as software under a machine (the “hardware”) that is capable of containing truth.

        That seems compatible with the idea that things like historical concepts would be relevant when deciding whether to “run” Spinoza.

      • Asher Kay December 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm

        What I’m wandering toward is really the idea of Turing completeness, which in this metaphor would not be so much about whether a philosophical system could “compute” truth at all, but whether A) a philosophical system could compute a particular “complete” set of truths; and B) whether various systems, possibly via totally different methods, could compute the same set of truths.

      • kvond December 7, 2009 at 2:28 pm

        I like the idea of “running” Spinoza. By my reading this also is supported within Spinoza, which is to say, the entire process of studying the Ethics is meant as a pedagogical interaction. The truth ultimately is not found in the statements, but rather the interactions with the statements are meant to induce an intutional state of awareness, a kind of operating systems state by which truths function. (Just to riff on the idea.)

        As for Turing machines, I have to say that computational or syntatical approaches to philosophy are analogical, and not grasping the process itself. I don’t find this path interesting, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t pursue it. I just can’t help.

      • Asher Kay December 7, 2009 at 2:54 pm

        “The truth ultimately is not found in the statements, but rather the interactions with the statements are meant to induce an intutional state of awareness”

        That is exactly where my analogy breaks down. If you can’t reduce the truth of a philosophical system to a series of statements (or, really, if you have to include the “user” at all), then I’ve done too much violence to the analogy for it to work.

        But seeing where the edges are is helpful for me.

      • kvond December 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

        Well, experimenting with the idea (and this is not my path), closed systems are incomplete (Godel), therefore any truth-relation system must ultimately point outside of itself (which in Spinoza is the function of Intution). I think much of this is also expressed in the question of whether Spinoza is Cybernetic or Chaoplexic:

        Which I entertain here:

        This is beyond your framework, perhaps, but the entire Cybernetic model is one of internal coherence pursuit in the context of external “noise”, drawing out meaningful differences in the world, and filtering out the supposedly meaningless ones. The Cybernetic model is computational and syntactic. But this is limited.

      • Asher Kay December 8, 2009 at 12:02 am

        Good stuff, especially the part about the “edge of chaos” and Spinoza’s formulation of the Good. In the “marble” post I did recently, I was talking about a chaotic cellular automaton (rule 30), but there is an edge-of-chaos CA of the same sort (rule 110) that is Turing complete. Odd how things are connected sometimes.

  5. johnmccreery December 6, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    It is easy to understand the desire not to be pushed beyond what we might call “the utility horizon,” the boundary beyond which fundamental knowledge ceases to be useful that I mention in my response to Asher.

    It is not at all fair, I know, to query “the evident truth of Spinoza,” when, as a latecomer to the conversation, I haven’t read everything you’ve already written or, for that matter, Spinoza himself. Here, however, we encounter another utility horizon. Were I willing to disengage from my current research and invest the time to do this instead, I could, perhaps, ask fairer questions. Should I perhaps, instead, follow Wittgenstein’s advice and remain silent on matters on which I have nothing to say? Contributing in this way to the fragmentation of Internet-based conversation into cliques comprised of people who share hobbies and hobby-horses?

    This is not a cynical, rhetorical question. What would Spinoza have to say?

    • kvond December 7, 2009 at 1:40 am

      Sorry, I don’t have much time John, but you seem to offer several questions, or degrees of one question and I”m not quite sure where to answer.

      Here is one of my takes on why Spinoza should be studied:

      Secondly, if Wittgenstein’s advice isn’t to pass into mere sloganing, it should be considered as part of his Early philosophy which had very strict thoughts about what could and could not be said.

      Thirdly, the evident truth of Spinoza, or any philosopher, is the mode of investigation that happens within the horizon of its study.

  6. johnmccreery December 7, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Thanks for the link. The argument that you advance there, that Spinoza represents a path less taken that may now be especially timely as Decartes’ Mind-Body distinction gives way to growing concern with embodied minds, has for me a powerful appeal. But is it powerful enough, given my current situation, to draw me away from other projects to invest the time it would take to do Spinoza justice? No.

    That “No” reflects no disrespect for the argument, whose appeal is sure to keep me dropping by to see what else you’ve come up with. It is simply a sober assessment of the fact that, to me, other projects in which I am currently invested (see my self introduction on Dead Voles) have a higher priority for me.

    If I have any hints to offer, the best may be the advice of advertising legend David Ogilvy, who reminds us that we write for a changing parade, making it worthwhile to repeat the basic pitch from time to time. Who knows? If I come across that link again a year or two from now, I may have the time to follow where it leads. And, more importantly, in the meantime others may join the conversation.

    • kvond December 7, 2009 at 2:45 am

      I strongly suggest that you don’t give up whatever line of whatever study you are conducting, and really the same for most people. Spinoza is very difficult to deal with, and in fact in my opinion rather boring to read.

  7. johnmccreery December 7, 2009 at 3:08 am

    Thank you for being so understanding. The other side of my dilemma is that I find this site so visually attractive and the content so substantial that leaping in to the discussion is always a temptation. The marketing guy in me keeps thinking, “How could we break this content up in way that would make it easier to digest on the fly. The link to which you pointed me could, for example be summarized in a catch phrase,

    Decartes, body and mind.
    Spinoza, embodied mind.

    The idea is not to cheapen or oversimplify the argument but, instead, to distill it in memorable chunks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: