Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

What is it like to be a question?

Dismissing questions as “pseudo-problems” was the standard move against metaphysics in the early 20th-century, but it has antecedents going back very far. It was the tactic of the humanists against the Medieval scholastics; one might even say it was a ploy of the Epicureans against their opponents. One might understand this move, the notion that the right theoretical stance can help one be free of certain besetting perplexities, in the context of the history of philosophy as a therapy. However, it rings false in an era in which “the therapeutic” has come to seem self-explanatory and has displaced or subsumed an entire realm of the spiritual. (On this, see Philip Rieff). It is one thing to say that, with the right shift of perspective, your problem resolves itself. It is another to snicker or sigh that someone is merely caught in a grammatical mistake. Although Wittgenstein (who did speak of his philosophy as a kind of therapy) is often supposed to have given this non-response a new sort of respectability, this is a serious misunderstanding. At every stage of his career, Wittgenstein is always quite explicit that mistake or no mistake, a metaphysical puzzle is in any event not a stupid mistake. This is why he insists that one may well talk nonsense, “but you must pay attention to your nonsense.”

One finds this misguided critique of Wittgenstein frequently in After Finitude:
What will be the reaction of many contemporary philosophers…when confronted by Hume’s problem, or by the question as to why there is something rather than nothing? Generally speaking they will try to find the easiest way to shrug their shoulders. They will try to demonstrate to you that there is nothing enigmatic about your question, because it does not even need to be raised anymore. Thus, they will endeavor, in a spirit of charity—tirelessly repeating the Duchampian-Wittgensteinian gesture—to make you understand that there is no enigma, because there is no problem. These philosophers will claim to have dissolved your “naïve” problem—“naïve” because metaphysical, dogmatic, etc.—by unveiling the (linguistic, historical) source of this vain questioning. Ultimately what they are really interested in is finding out…how it is still possible…to be perplexed by these ‘pseudo-problems.’ ( A.F., p 109)
I believe Meillassoux is very wrong to attribute this stance to Wittgenstein, for whom a metaphysical question was not an occasion for such condescension. At the same time, I am, if it were possible, more eager than Meillassoux to make the allegation of “pseudo-questions” a thing of the past. As a rhetorical ploy it is, at best, a hyperbolic enthusiasm for ones own perspective; at worst it is a denial of the other’s, and amounts to superiority, bullying, or ostracism. (N.b., I’m speaking within the narrow compass of philosophy here; I am far from claiming that one has the right to demand that ones interlocutor be interested in one’s own questions.) These different readings of Wittgenstein are of course only symptomatic of a deeper disagreement. What I applaud in Meillassoux is his wanting to recoup genuine questions from so-called pseudo-problems; what I object to is his reduction of these questions to mere problems.

In fact Meillassoux has his own maneuver by which to answer the question of why there is anything at all rather than nothing, and, as he reveals on page 110, it is really quite simple, every bit as simple in its way as the dissolution of the pseudo-problem. For what reason is there something instead of nothing? The answer is—are you ready?—for no reason!

Lest one find this a little bit of a letdown, Meillassoux is quite prepared to defend it:
The response “for no reason” is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like “Where do we come from?”, “Why do we exist?”, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies “From nothing; for nothing” really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions—and excellent ones at that. (p 110)
This bathetic denouement comes as the result of Meillassoux’s readiness to give over the principle of sufficient reason, i.e. that there is always some reason for anything to be the case, even for the fact that there is such a thing as “being the case.” Wittgenstein of course will say that here one has illegitimately extended a way of thinking about particulars (the "ontic," in Heidegger’s terms) beyond the setting where it is pertinent—to “Being itself,” Heidegger’s "ontological." In fact, despite his rhetoric, Meillassoux is extraordinarily close to Wittgenstein (I will leave Duchamp aside for now), in likewise arguing that the application to the Whole is what makes this step illegitimate. Meillassoux differs from Wittgenstein in asserting that there is no question here of any “limit to thought” (or language), since the question of the Whole, which is always generative of the paradoxes that drive the Tractatus on towards its ambivalent avowal of silence, has proven to give way under the rigorous mathematical apparatus of Cantorian transfinite set theory.

Be that as it may, I am struck by the sense that with friends like this, metaphysical questions do not need enemies. We have come far indeed from the wellspring of philosophy if we imagine that Socrates would have been satisfied with such an answer as “for no reason at all!” If this is not a shrug of the shoulders, I do not know what is.

Now note that Meillassoux’s claim to the high ground of realism is based on his insistence that he is thinking of how things are “without me”, whether or not anyone thinks of them, whether or not there is anyone to think of them. The move here is to haughtily reject the need to think the questioner along with the question. In this fashion, the questioner indeed becomes just an accidental feature of the perplexing issue. After all, it would be possible to ask—and this is indeed what the “question of being” does, in a sense—“even if I were not here, there would be something; So, why?”

But of course, in the absence of the perplexed questioner, there is no question anymore. This means that this question can only be asked in a circumstance that gainsays it.

A temptation here that is every bit as much a piece of trumpery (to use Harman’s recent coinage) as the dismissal of pseudo-problems, is to say that this observation just makes the “standard correlationist move” of confusing epistemology with ontology or of assuming that there can only be knowledge of phenomena, or some such. But if we decide not to fall for this, but instead stay with the question itself, we can ask: what is a question anyway? What is this questioning we feel in the face of phenomena? Why do we believe they even call for “saving?” And above and beyond all such quantifiable and delimitable issues, is what William Desmond names metaphysical perplexity, which “precedes determinate curiosity and exceeds determinate cognition.” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, p. x.)

This inquiry is not just a sneaky way of meta-insinuating the human subject back into the equation. What is a problem, after all? Let us for the moment stipulate, that a la object-oriented ontology, a pencil (for instance) exists “in itself,” even though I may be blissfully slipping over this dark riddle as long as I can write with it. Suddenly the lead snaps—then suddenly I am propelled headlong into the encounter with the vorhanden . Here is Harman’s (Heidegger's) tool-being, the pencil withdrawing and me suddenly realizing that the pencil withdraws. Well, then. I sharpen the pencil, and we are back to the zuhanden, except that I may be vaguely troubled by the awareness, now, that the pencil has its own strange life stirring imperceptibly in my hand. But let’s say I move past this disquieting metaphysical moment and go on with my math. What am I working on? Why, the venerable Pythagorean puzzle of deriving the square root of two, of course. Now, is there a problem of deriving this square root? I mean not, does the square root of two exist, but rather, does the problem of deriving it exist?

Here we are far closer to something more indubitably like Barfield’s rainbow-example. The problem does not exist in itself, it exists as an encounter between my finite mathematical skills and the intractable abstract reality of the set of numbers. Take either one of these away, and the problem of deriving the square root of two vanishes, just like the rainbow vanishes if the viewer or the sun or the raindrops are taken away. Any problem is an interaction between my own desire (and incapacity) to know the square root, and the mathematical “itself.” Moreover, the resolution of this is also the “vanishing of the problem.” The problem no longer exists; it has been changed into a procedure; the puzzlement has disappeared, like a slipknot.

What makes this more than a passing semantic diversion is that this is almost precisely isomorphic with the present-at- and ready-to-hand. When the hammer (or the pencil) breaks, yes, then a problem presents itself, just as when a cliff-face suddenly looms along my planned path. But when the tunnel is completed, the problem dissolves. The hammer-head once more fitted to the handle is now again ready-to-hand, the cliff fades into the background; Harman would say in either case that the object withdraws. But the square root of two? Well, certainly I never finish its digital expression, so in some sense it too is never present; neither of course is any mathematical entity, say, “the equilateral triangle.” I only get “close enough” for my purposes. (For that matter, natural processes which employ tensegrity do not find any ideal triangles either, as Buckminster Fuller emphasized; a point which I offer as a corroboration of at least some object-oriented intuitions.)

But while the square root of two doubtless (to tip my Platonist hand) exists (and evades me), the problem of deriving it is different. For the problem is to approximate it, not to write it out to in infinitesimal precision. Before I understand the algorithm, the “how to do it,” this problem sits as intractably in front of me as a lead safe before Superman’s gaze. But once I “get it,” I see “how I can go on,” as Wittgenstein would say, and the problem is gone. (Where…?)

A problem does not exist in the same way that a tree (or a mathematical entity) does, then, though either of these can figure in a problem. Of course, for Barfield, a tree does not exist either, except for me—and indeed it has a mathematical form (on many levels), and inputs and outputs in terms of energy and information. But when a problem is solved, it ceases to exists except retrospectively or hypothetically.

One can juxtapose, however, the problem to the mystery. I’ve touched on this before.
A problem can be solved as such. This is what Meillassoux means when he asserts that the question “why is there anything?”, and other such, are seen to have really been problems, “excellent ones” at that, because they have answers. Or, as Wittgenstein says, “If a question can be put into words at all, then it is also possible to answer it.” (Tractatus 6.5) This is why for Wittgenstein, the metaphysical question is indeed not strictly possible to phrase—but our vain attempts to wrestle with the “limits of language” nonetheless “point to something.” As I would say (following Gabriel Marcel), these questions are mysteries, not problems, because they are not definitively answered. A mystery remains after an answer is given it, and remains because any answer reinstates it. So, for instance, no matter how scientifically tractable the description of my body may be, the relation between "me" and my body will remain, after every conclusive demonstration, as riddling as before, not despite the scientist's best efforts but in fact by virtue of them. Here I should like to point to the excellent post by Jeffrey Bell whose title, riffing on Nagel's now-immortal bat query, inspired my own. Bell's conclusion is different from mine, but thinking about this post and several others at his blog has spurred many of these thoughts. (The other writing that has influenced this meditation is Michel Meyer's--all too under-appreciated--Of Problematology.)

I can ask, “What is it like to be a bat?” since a bat has an existence that is independent of me; but not “what is it like to be a problem?” because a problem exists only for me and not in itself; it disappears without me as the questioner.

As to “what is it like to be a mystery?”—is there any need to ask? Gnothi seauton.

For a mystery does not disappear. Indeed one can perhaps say: the object is “real” insofar as it is a mystery, and vice-versa. This is the “eternal” face of any entity, the form that does not come into being, at least not within time, though it might be said to be “eternally created,” if we are speaking in a theistic mode. Pascal Boyer notes in Religion Explained (see esp. chapter 2) that all “supernatural” entities in folklore or myth always have some natural qualities (e.g., a ghost may be able to walk through walls, but it still communicates in time, and moves from place to place). But the converse is also true: the “natural” entity always has some “supernatural” quality—this, insofar as we are speaking of how the entity is conceived. Insofar as the thing is known, and also insofar as it remains unknown, the thing is beyond or other than the natural, for knowability and being are other than natural. As, too, are goodness, and beauty, for instance. For this reason, philosophy is inherently “mythological” in a sense (and vice-versa, as should be obvious; one need not be steeped in Iamblichus or Porphyry to see a story like the conception and birth of Dionysus, or (to jump cultures) the jealousy of Rudra against Prajapati, as a cosmic speculation).

So I would argue: insofar as one can ask “What is it like to be…”, one is talking about a mystery. But this means that one has reinstated a kind of participation, and vaulted the impassable border between object and object, not by virtue of knowing it but by establishing oneself as likewise unknowable.

1 comment:

  1. You write:

    "Now note that Meillassoux’s claim to the high ground of realism is based on his insistence that he is thinking of how things are “without me”, whether or not anyone thinks of them, whether or not there is anyone to think of them. The move here is to haughtily reject the need to think the questioner along with the question. In this fashion, the questioner indeed becomes just an accidental feature of the perplexing issue. After all, it would be possible to ask—and this is indeed what the “question of being” does, in a sense—“even if I were not here, there would be something; So, why?”

    But of course, in the absence of the perplexed questioner, there is no question anymore. This means that this question can only be asked in a circumstance that gainsays it."

    I wrote a slight blognote on the subject of the unknown object in Advaita Vedanta recently. I think you are correct in asking about the phenomena because there is an irreducible aspect of how things appear to us. The trick is how to connect this (the vritti/mental modification) with the ontology. The ancient realisms which I would identify as Platonic, Aristotelian and Advaitin do this but it remains a moot question as to whether OOO does or even recognises this problem. The burnt children fear the fire of correlationism! Anscombe writing in (( on Aristotle pg. 55)) 3 Philosophers by Anscombe and Geach.
    "The theory has the attraction of seeming to preserve that internal relation which must be shewn to hold between what we may quite generally style 'cognitions' and their objects, without falling into idealism. The forms which actualise the intellect in understanding are without matter, and are made to be so by the intellect, ......//