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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, October 23, 2010

ways of talking / ways of being

[this is re-posted from the great Science & Metaphysics event that Speculative Heresy hosted last month. I had a good dialogue there with Pete Wolfendale, whose comments will inform some later posts on this, possibly modifying what I say below; but I want to have this here as it originally stood.]

I am telling a story of something that happened to me. “I crossed the street because I could see the bus coming; the light was about to change, and I know from experience it’s a long light—if I didn’t get to the stop, I’d almost certainly miss the bus. I was already in the street when I heard the squealing brakes. Thank God the driver was alert; the car missed me by barely an inch. I dropped the grocery bag; all the fruit was bruised—but only the fruit. The driver was gracious, but I can tell you I was embarrassed! Of course I missed the bus anyway—I couldn’t very well just run away after she’d screeched to a stop. I was picking up the apples when it went by.”

This banal anecdote has something in common with dozens of others we relate every day: a first-person account, it relates something I was there for, my own experience from my own point of view. I could tell it in a million different ways, but the essential quality of the events is that they happen with reference to an experiential, first-person center. In fact, there is no other center possible. If “we” were happy, this is two I’s. The only “direct access” available is first person. (We can quibble about whether even this is possible, but I want to keep things simple for now).

Now if instead I am reading a news story or a police report about a traffic accident, a very different set of discourses comes into play from the first person account I just offered. “The sedan strayed across the median line about halfway up the block, colliding with the oncoming truck at 25 mph. Neither driver was seriously injured but both vehicles required towing. One passerby was cut by broken glass.” These are now third-person reports about particular events. This does not change if I back up and ask broader questions—about, say, the history of traffic in this city, or commerce in this region of the country, or relations between immigrants and indigenous population, or the shaping of the river-valley by glaciers. I am still asking historical questions, about what particulars happened, particulars to which I have only indirect access, whether they happened a million years ago or just now, one or two streets over.

I can focus again. Suppose instead of asking what happened, I want to know what happens. This need not be a purely hypothetical question, but it is no longer about specifics. I may wonder about the likely traffic patterns in the city during the summer months, the laws governing physical bodies in motion, the mechanics of an internal combustion engine, or the neural and physiological events that accompany driving a car. These inquiries can draw upon particulars, which this discourse will call “evidence,” but the questions are not historical but scientific; they do not presuppose any particular actors but only general ones. The subjects of this discourse are the values of variables.

One further step back is possible. It is possible to ask, not about what happens, but about the form of these happenings, these relationships and events. One can imagine a consistent world in which a falling object accelerates at a different rate than 32 feet per second per second; but one cannot factor 32 into anything but two to the fifth power. I need not grant that a dropped apple will fall; but if a dropped apple will fall, and there is a dropped apple, it will fall. Abstracted sufficiently, these considerations take us into a pure mathematics or logic (and, arguably, into metaphysics), in which there is no longer any question of what happened or happens or even “what would happen,” but only of tenseless objects and relationships. Here we are at the furthest point from the need for a “center of experience,” indeed seemingly at a point where there is no need for any experience at all. The square root of four will be two, with or without any mathematician, because 2 and 4 are in such-&-such a relation; number itself has (or is) such a structure.

There are here four possible discourses. We might roughly describe them as: a first person-discourse about immediate experience; a third-person discourse concerning particulars; a third-person discourse concerning abstracts; and a (as it were) zero-person discourse at the most abstract level. This four-way figure has an obvious resemblance to a number of other foursquare schemes, ancient and modern, but it is independent of them, and so far my attempts to wrest it into perfect isomorphism with these have foundered.

It will be noted that in this schematic, scientific assertions and inquiry comprise only one quarter of possible discourse. This is not because the ways of being wrong vastly exceed the ways of being right; indeed, by this latter standard, to say that one quarter of all possible statements were right would be a laughable overstatement. We are not speaking of a (limitless) quantity of possible claims, but of a delimitable taxonomy of claims. The four regions can be arranged concentrically in increasing generality; they can also be treated as four quadrants, an array I will consider more closely below.

One can argue that there are lacunae in this schema; that poetry, ritual, legal pronouncements, and other categories of speech acts are excluded; in particular, prescriptive discourse presents a puzzle. If I say: “I should not have run across the street, I should have been more careful,” or, “the bus driver should have waited,” or, “there should be an extra lane of traffic,” or “the internal combustion engine ought never to have been invented,” all these counterfactual or ethical claims seem to appeal to an order of experience which does not readily map onto the quaternity laid out here. These considerations do not necessarily mean the foursquare account is not exhaustive in its own mode, for it is meant to address claims in the assertoric mode; claims of the form S is [or was] p.

This causes the question to arise: Are there natural kinds, which these four sorts of assertions are about? Is our foursquare map one of discourse alone, or is it of orders of being? Is it a map of human inquiry, or is it an ontology?
This question arises in this specific connection because the sorts of assertions we are treating here are distinguished from such other speech acts (like pronouncing a verdict or reciting a poem) by pointing to (or claim to point to) a reality beyond themselves. “I saw the meteor flash across the sky;” “The debris entered the atmosphere roughly above New Guinea and splashed into the Pacific a few minutes later;” “Friction with the atmospheric gas will tend to heat any incoming fragments to incandescence, and therefore only fragments with masses above a certain critical point will make impact on the surface;” and “Earth could not survive impact with another celestial object of moon-size or greater; the Earth still exists; therefore the Earth has not yet collided with such an object,” are four assertions differing in scope, but all of them claiming relevance beyond their own utterance. The truths they claim to name would also obtain if they were not so named; this is not the case with “I name this lunar crater “Carr-54.”

To put the matter thus is practically to beg for the angel of deconstruction to visit, but for the purposes of this post I am going to raise but not answer the question of the precise relationship between discourse and being. Indeed, as I have thought about these four regions, I have often caught myself sliding between treating “science” as a discourse and “the natural world” or “matter” as an ontological realm. The same happens, willy-nilly, with “history” and “the historical,” or indeed “logic” and “the logical.” My working assumption is that, whatever anthropological considerations attach to these discourses, the realms to which they relate have a status that is independent of that discourse. That is: to the degree that we can separate epistemology from ontology (a significant caveat), it makes sense to claim that there are truths of various orders—historical, scientific, logical, mathematical, and indeed metaphysical—which are independent even of there being minds, let alone language. Indeed, the only (and tautological) exception here is the personal realm.

As mentioned, besides being set out concentrically, the regions can also be arrayed as quadrants, along two axes. One axis divides the general from the specific: first-person and historical discourse both concern specific events, instantiations of the general considerations elaborated in the scientific or logical discourses. (Note that this has nothing to do with whether the assertions are true or not. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system is still a general discourse about what planets do; whereas, a narrative that included Venus and Saturn crossing in such-&-such an astrological house would still be a historical narrative, even though there are no such houses, and indeed even if the story included some other celestial events incompatible with such a conjunction.)

The other axis divides the irrefutable from the refutable. Both first-person intentional accounts and logical abstractions share a certain form of incorrigibility. I cannot be shown that I did not see red, even if I can be persuaded that the physical object I saw was not red. Likewise, while there can be incorrect real-world use or execution of logic (e.g., parasyllogisms), logic itself is its own tribunal. It is not quite true to say that logic has no counterexamples, but these examples are themselves logical (Gödel, Graham Priest).

On the other hand, both the historical and the scientific quarters can be regarded as mutually corrigible. Science can correct or construe an assertion of history: whatever is meant by the Book of Joshua’s account of the sun “standing still,” (Joshua 10:12-13), the Earth cannot be held to have historically ceased turning on its axis. The same relation of corrigibility obtains vice-versa; after all, an experiment is precisely a particular occurrence meant to confirm or refute a general thesis.

However, while a historical claim may refute a scientific formulation, science in general as discourse is dispositive. In general, the dispositive fields of the quaternity are, unsurprisingly, on the side treating of generalities. The true sentences in either metaphysico-logical or scientific realms can be treated as having a constraining function on what counts as intelligible, or true, in the historical and personal realms. Science is dispositive as to whether we believe the first-person accounts of another; logic for whether we even understand them. I might conceivably insist that I had beheld a simultaneously transparent and solid black wall; the canons of logic cannot gainsay this, but can dispute whether I understand my own words, and if I am recalcitrant, will conclude that communication with me on the matter is a lost cause.

Another difference between the quadrants is the role of ignorance in each. In practice, there are many occasions for the cultivation of ignorance, the systematic making-unavailable of certain facts. An audience at a stage magician’s show; a child lost in pretending; a hopeful lover letting him- or herself be seduced; the viewer of Oedipus Rex or King Lear; the members of the firing squad, one of whom has live ammunition; the quantum physicist setting up a two-slit experiment; each of these has a different investment in not knowing something. It is not complete ignorance, but carefully held within certain bounds. Sometimes there is a time limit built in (e.g., Christmas morning); sometimes there is a practical insuperability upon which I rely (it would be possible to discover which gun fired the bullet, but I do not want to and law forbids it). But the ignorance is essential for the sake of an experience. This points to one quarter—the first-person—as the particular region in which ignorance especially pertains. For the individual seeking or safeguarding a particular experience (e.g. the delight in a magician’s trick, the excitement of opening birthday gifts, or the reassuring sense that one might not have fired the executing bullet), ignorance is of the essence.

In general, we may say that neither historian nor scientist can countenance any principled ignorance; there cannot be, for them, a reason to maintain or preserve not knowing. But in logic and mathematics there is, as Gödel showed, a particular sort of ignorance (indemonstrability) that cannot be surmounted, without recourse to the first-person. If I can see that the truth of a given proposition, which cannot be proven within the limits of a certain systematic discourse, this is tantamount to saying that I have outflanked the “ignorance” of that system.

The thematic of ignorance clearly has a certain resonance with psychoanalytic and other discourses in which “the unconscious” figures, a fact which points me towards Schellingian or Hegelian speculation, with its dark Urgrund and the labor of the negative, but this is too big a topic to pursue here. But the suggestion of a “hidden” or unknown side to the realities involved suggests one final trope.

One needs to ask of the foursquare figure as a whole: To what discourse does it belong? If it collapsed into any of its own quadrants, could this only be at the cost of self-referential paradox? On the other hand, if we refuse this reduction, do we thereby claim to escape from the dispositive prescriptions of science and of logic? At the risk of taking a schematic representation too literally, one can speculate: if a consistent account were worked out, the best topology for these discourses and their respective objective realms might be not the quartered plane I have presented, but a hypercube, whose turning 3-d “shadow” gives the impression that each of its “sides” in turn contains the rest. I hasten to add that this is a model, not a geometric proof of a metaphysical position, but I use the figure to illustrate why partisans have been able to claim each of these realms to be exhaustive and fundamental. Of course having recourse to higher-dimensional topologies involves paradoxes of its own, e.g., in what “space” do these realms exist? Metaphysics always presses the question back one stage more.


  1. Interesting topic and diagram. I love the smell of chalk in the morning.

    What sorts of books would the various perspectives of the incident be in? What would be in the metaphysics book? It would be the book of the books. Therein I think would be discussion of ranking, rankability, incorrigibility; if it's not corrigible then it's not knowledge etc. So Skholiast being driven by dark forces of thanato-philia cannot be disproven so is it therefore not knowledge? What is the value of such theories if we may so call them? Can the scientific criteria automatically overrule the anecdotal? Is it self-contradictory and subject to retorsion to say that 'the subjective is the objective' in the case of unconscious motivation? May we not speak of levels of understanding that makes utterances such as 'where id was there ego shall be' intelligible? Self-contradiction in these cases is merely apparent and not final and there are no final states except in a God's eye view. Now you're talking metaphysics.

  2. Hesitated to trample on the poetry of this comment. But as you know, I consider a metaphysics worthy of the name to open onto experience, which seems to me to commit me to hold that there is something recursional about it. (Aristotle gives us "Thought thinking itself".) When a philosopher X says "I just don't see how..." this is a first-person stance and irreducibly so, as is seen when confronted by philosopher Y who argues, "well, if you don't admit this, I just don't know how to talk to you about it." What has to be avoided of course are such moves as "You say that because you are a metaphysician", or "because you are bourgeoise", or whatever. The point is that we do argue, even with "incorrigible" points of view, since one such morphs into another. A very mysterious state of affairs! For every Saul, a Damascus road awaits, and often more than one. (Though I don't claim we all find the same thing on such a road.)