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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Friday, March 11, 2011

Theme through thick and thin

I posted recently on stories, happiness and interest:
the mythological mode of thinking is a compressed way of preserving the significant historical, political, or natural wisdom of a people in preliterate conditions....under a cosmology that is itself also narrative. Science replaces this memory. The language of science is designed for utmost communicability, but it is not narrative. It is, in a sense, an anti-story.... the purgation of narrative from memory.
In a recent interview, Ray Brassier makes what I cannot but read as the same point:
[I]ntelligibility has become detached from meaning: with modern science, conceptual rationality weans itself from the narrative structures that continue to prevail in theology and theologically inflected metaphysics. This marks a decisive step forward in the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms. The world has no author and there is no story enciphered in the structure of reality. No narrative is unfolding in nature, certainly not the traditional monotheistic narrative in which the human drama of sin and redemption occupied centre stage, and humanity was a mirror for God.
....a project is now underway to understand and explain human consciousness in terms that are compatible with the natural sciences, such that the meanings generated by consciousness can themselves be understood and explained as the products of purposeless but perfectly intelligible processes, which are at once neurobiological and sociohistorical....it is the very category of narrative that has been rendered cognitively redundant by modern science. Science does not need to deny the significance of our evident psychological need for narrative; it just demotes it from its previously foundational metaphysical status to that of an epistemically derivative ‘useful fiction’.
As I was writing that post, I kept re-reading Walter Benjamin's great essay on "The Storyteller," ostensibly about Nikolai Leskov but really ranging far and wide, as all his great work does. Benjamin contrasts two tendencies of memory which, he says, came slowly unpaired from the balance and tension in which the ancient apic tradition had held them: reminiscence, which always moves from one incident, one anecdote, one story to the next, and remembrance, which "is dedicated to one hero, one odyssey, one battle..." This latter tendency Benjamin finds at work in the novel, the former in the story.

Benjamin believed that the credibility of figure of the storyteller was fading, in the face of the onslaught of "information" provided by news sources. Superficially, that seems to have resolved in a different way that Benjamin anticipated, for the novel itself has become polyvocal, and, partly enabled by new technology, genres of interactive fiction and metafiction have been invented by writers inspired by the same spirit informing the aphorism I quoted from John Berger: "Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.". But Benjamin's critique of the mass media remains pertinent. Why is it, Benjamin asks, that despite receiving every day news from the whole world, we remain poor in stories? Because the events from around the globe reach us steeped in explanation, whereas it is the greater part of the storyteller's art to exclude explanation. Benjamin's example is a story from Herodutus in which a captured king impassively witnesses his own son and daughter pass by in their newly humbled situation, but breaks down and weeps when he sees an old man who had formerly been one of his servants. Benjamin argues that this story, told baldly by Herodotus without any psychological analysis, has inspired centuries of comment and re-telling precisely on this account. It is (Benjamin seems to argue) the polyvalence of the story which keeps it alive, and this polyvalence is an effect of its willingness to leave so much implicit--and so, as well, to occasion the participation (there's that word again) of the reader.

So far, we are on a ground very similar to that covered by C.S. Lewis, who I also quoted in the earlier post, to the effect that what is most moving in a story is not the plot but what he calls the theme. Lewis' examples include the vastness and emptiness of outer-space, which hangs over certain scenes in H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon, and the "Giant-ness" of the story "Jack the Giant-killer." Regarding the latter, he very sensibly points out that one could not substitute a different opponent for Jack up the beanstalk and hope to preserve the same "theme" at all, even if all the narrative excitement were as identical as may be; the theme of the giant, and one in the sky, is essential to the experience of the story and makes the story essentially different than a story about a subterranean troll-king or a sea-dragon, even if we imagine either of these keeping a singing harp and a source of golden eggs.

As I mentioned, Lewis felt that theme and plot were fundamentally in tension, because the events of plot almost inevitably distracted from theme. It is as if the necessity of having particular events of Jack's exploration and hair's-breadth escapes unfold got in the way of the enjoyment of mere ominous sense of gigantic menace in a world in the clouds. This is why, as I said to Elisa in the comments, music comes closest to giving us, as it were, "pure theme." Jankelevitch remarks (Music and the Ineffable, p.57) that
Music signifies something in general without ever wanting to say anything in particular
The suggestion that music is the queen of the arts is not new; Schopenhauer famously suggested that all art aspired to the state of music, and the late-19th century attempts at "pure poetry" and the beginnings of abstract painting owe much to their attempted "musicalization." But the reticence of music is of a particular kind. Jankelevitch again:
[M]usic is not just discourse fallen silent. The "silence of music" is itself a constituent part of audible music....Concision harbors the wish to disturb silence as little as possible. Thus reticence must be considered a privileged form of silence: for the silence that is no longer "tacit" or "tactirun," but "reticent," is a very special form of silence, one that arises quite suddenly, on the brink of mystery, at the threshold of the ineffable.... What do they tell us, these moments where implications are left hanging? They are saying, Finish this yourselves because I have said too much.
Music is the appropriate instance for nearly all of Plato's mathematics. Plato does indeed hold up mathematics as the instance of knowledge par excellence, but when it comes to applying this standard of knowledge to politics or ethics or even metaphysics, he always routes mathematics through music, which remained the locus classicus for mathematics well into the middle ages. Music opens mathematics upon something beyond bare quantity. This experience is the image of the dialectical periagoge. It is a hinge between a "thin" and a "thick" account of Being, to use Peter van Inwagen's vocabulary. Van Inwagen attributes the "thin" conception to Analytic philosophy in general and thinks its highest articulation so far comes from Quine, with antecedents in Kant's critique of Descartes and in Frege.
The thin conception of being [van Inwagen writes] is this: the concept of being is closely allied with the concept of number: to say that there are Xs is to say that the number of Xs is 1 or more -- and to say nothing more profound, nothing more interesting, nothing more. Continental philosophers have not seen matters this way. (The continental philosophy of being is, I believe, rooted in Thomism.) For these philosophers, being is a "thick" concept, and they see the thin conception of being...as a travesty, an evisceration of the richness of being....[I]n my view, it is possible to distinguish between the being and the nature of a thing --any thing; anything-- and that the thick conception of being is founded on the mistake of transferring what belongs properly to the nature of a chair--or of a human being or of a universal or of God--to the being of the chair. To endorse the thick conception of being is, in fact, to make (perhaps for other reasons, perhaps in a more sophisticated way) the very mistake of which Kant accused Descartes: the mistake of treating being as a "real predicate." (Ontology, Identity, and Modality, p. 4-5)
Bill Vallicella notes recently that this definition is "pure Frege:"
...existence is analogous to number. Affirmation of existence is in fact nothing but denial of the number nought. (Gottlob Frege, Foundations of Arithmetic, 65e)
Now if one knows anything at all about Badiou, one knows that Badiou proclaims the identity between mathematics and ontology. Not just the resonance but the identity-- I might say the mere identity. Badiou argues that the mathematics as the sole point of rupture with opinion. To be sure, Plato says that there is the dialectical periagoge, but, says Badiou,
no one can say whether dialectical conversion, which is the essence of the philosophical disposition, exists. It is held up as a proposal or project, rather than as something actually existing. Dialectics is a programme, or initiation, while mathematics is an existing, available procedure. (Theoretical Writings, tr. Brassier & Toscano, p 29.)
I've written elsewhere that this constitutes precisely the difference between Badiou and Plato: Badiou offers us a platonism sans initiation, without experience.

Except, of course, that Badiou knows he must make a place for experience. Hence, the event. But on his account, experience can owe precisely nothing to Being, since what is are simply differences per se. This is also the point of contact & divergence between Frege and Badiou. What is, for Frege, "the denial of the number nought," is for Badiou the count-as-one: a pragmatic step, an als ob, but in any case is "to say nothing more profound, nothing more interesting, nothing more." In this sense, Badiou is like the "deflationary realist" described by Pete Wolfendale in his "Essay on Transcendental Realism" (which Brassier admiringly cites in the interview above). For Wolfendale's deflationist, the word "real" does no work-- there is no difference, for them, between saying "the chair (the number 5, the Eiffel Tower, the Horsehead Nebula, the love affair, the revolution) exists" and saying that it "really exists." In both cases all one does is posit a set and declare that its membership is not null. Note that Wolfendale uses the same vocabulary as van Inwagen:
[M]ost forms of realism don’t know what they mean by ‘real’. The only form that I think has a good idea of what it means is what I call deflationary realism. Deflationists point out that classical realism wants to deploy a thick sense of ‘real’, but that it doesn’t know what it means by it, and so in response they propose a thin sense of real. This thin sense of real is usually indexed to truth. So for example, whereas the platonist (a local realist) says numbers really exist, and the nominalist (a local anti-realist) says numbers don’t really exist, Quine (the deflationist) comes along and says that the ‘really’ doesn’t make any sense here. Quine says that if we take there to be true statements in which we quantify over numbers, then we’re committed to their existence. If it is true that ‘there are infinitely many primes’ then numbers, and more specifically prime numbers, exist. This makes the question of whether numbers exist a completely trivial matter. So, yes, deflationists have a fairly feeble notion of ‘real’, but they’re pretty explicit about it. ...classical realists [have] an account of what the real is. I just don’t think [they've] got any better an idea of what ‘real’ means. This is the difference between having an account of what the real is, and having an account of what it is to have an account of what the real is.
Now Pete does think that he can offer such a meta-account, and moreover that this sets his Transcendental Realism apart from the Brandomian deflationary realism in that he can offer a warrant for our intuitions of the "thick" sense of reality which his deflationists must dismiss. Pete does a fine job of explicating this, but I think he still reduces "thick" accounts to local effects or turbulence in the laminal flow of the "thin":
there are at least two kinds of truth: objective and non-objective truth. There thus is a thin concept of truth which functions as a genus and a variety of thick notions of truth which function as its species. The withdrawal of authority and the attitude independence it establishes is the common form of truth, and the various ways this withdrawal is modified, producing a variety of forms of relative and absolute attitude independence, constitute the variety of types of truth.(Essay on Transcendental Realism p. 14)
In essence, Wolfendale's transcendental realist is what I might call a "generous analytical philosopher," one who wants to meet the Continental philosopher with her "thick" conception of being as close to halfway as possible. In fact, the continental philosopher, as Badiou sees, is always in danger of slipping from philosophy into poetry. This is because any attempt to make explicit what "real" means courts the danger Lewis named, of plot displacing theme; and when one tries to make a plot of theme, the poem is what one ends with. Badiou's impatience with this "suturing" of philosophy to poetry is well known; for him, it is one of the last refuges of theology. One way of describing Badiou's project is as a rigorous thinking-through of the consequences of the "thin" conception of being, with precisely the aim of combating this intersection of poem and religion. Van Inwagen's perception that the "thick" conception of being owes much to Thomism is pertinent here, but I'll leave that thread unpulled for now. The point is that for Badiou, and for Brassier following him, the mathematicization of being is precisely what Brassier names when he says that "intelligibility has become detached from meaning." The mathematical is the intelligible par excellence, free of the last shreds of doxa; it is perfectly communicable (if you know the code) but, qua mathematics, is purged entirely of connotation (and thus, precisely, of the potential "noise" which hampers communication). Indeed, it is free almost of denotation as well. Now Badiou calls this rupture between meaning and intelligibility, meaning and truth, by an old name: the death of God:
the simplest definition of God and of religion lies in the idea that truth and meaning are one and the same thing. The death of God is the end of the idea that posits truth and meaning as the same thing....Today we may call ‘obscurantism’ the intention of keeping them harnessed together – meaning and truth. ("A Conversation with Alain Badiou," lacanian ink 23)
Someday I will write a Borgesian critique of myself as obscurantist. For now I am just going to shrug and smile.

The book by David Loy that originally inspired these two posts, The World is Made of Stories, does lend some credibility to this take on religion. As I quoted there:
God is a unique narrative device: he creates his own stories, not being inside any bigger one....God is thus the guarantee that life has meaning, that our stories are meaningful....Essential to the God story is the denial that it is a story.
Brassier's account of
the slow process through which human rationality has gradually abandoned mythology, which is basically the interpretation of reality in narrative terms[,]
is one answer to the Loy's question as to what happens when one concedes that one's "biggest stories" are stories.

What I have tried to suggest (following Lewis) that there is a difference between plot and theme; that it is folly to project a plot upon the universe, but that plot is a function of human psychology (one of many) that opens us to theme. There is no simplistic equation (theme good, plot bad) here. Music (and not mathematics) is the center of gravity for Plato's mathematical metaphors not because there is something magical about music but because it puts constraints upon the purely mathematical, constraints which the philosopher who is alive to the ineffable and to metalepsis must be at pains to respect.

I am aware of course that to gesture thus to the "ineffable" and to praise the implicit over the explicit is not only to court the charge of obscurantism, but to practically beg for a Lacanian diagnosis, with "theme" being the obscure object of desire, the McGuffin that is never the thing we want but always pointing us to the next thing. In fact, I think there's a potentially valuable form of such diagnosis. Žižek points us this way in this essay, which riffs on Badiou's "simplest definition" of religion (above). To think on this closely would inevitably push us towards an engagement with Žižek on Christianity and on Buddhism, but also point us back to Benjamin's essay and his account of the decline of the story. This post is long enough (to say the least), so I'll save this for later. But I want to underscore for now that Benjamin's observations about the rise of explanation is not restricted to news media. "Explanation" is simply the mode of engagement that separates meaning from truth.


  1. If I understand you correctly, the notion of “thin” in this post is what I and others have called bare. I am not acquainted with the authors you cite, so I cannot be sure. And the divorce of meaning and truth, here called the Death of God, is what some in my tradition call reism (res-thing), which is the idea that while things might exist, there are no connectors or nexus to bring them together.

    All of the things of my ontology are thin or bare, including the bare particular, eg. the bare Red is separate from pink, scarlet, rose, etc.. I do, however, have various nexus to unite all the bare things into making up a world. My point is this: while it is true that without that nexus, the togetherness, and only a collection of bare things, the thick richness of life is gone, to have only “thick” particulars and no bare things, nexus, universals and particulars, is to drop into formlessness. I know that the dialectic of all this is difficult and it is probably and finally too much for the human mind, but stark division, hard-won distinctions and subtle difference cannot simply be abandoned for the sake of rich exuberance.

    I’m almost positive I missed your point completely, but who knows? (I'm still thinking about theme and plot.)I have not missed the fact that it’s a lovely, gentle post, so refreshing after reading too much of the rancor that is all about us.

  2. I wonder if you've read J.B. Kennedy's "Plato’s Forms, Pythagorean
    Mathematics, and Stichometry" in the journal Apeiron. He claims to have discovered musical structures latent in the dialogues' own progressions. The article is freely available on Kennedy's web page.

  3. Hi Gary, and thanks.

    I take you to be articulating a grammar of things-- what any ontology worthy of the name must be. I think that there are many possible grammars, and so I play in the sandbox with Meinong and Bergman as with Whitehead and Weiss, and the play is as serious as play gets (if you've ever observed children at work on a city made of blocks or a train track or an art project, you'll know what I mean). I am, I confess, pretty unabashedly pragmatist in this -- that I think there is probably no single best way to adapt a coherent conceptual framework to reality. (I opt for a plurality of "stories".) But I take Plato to have been the great pioneer here (as always) in that his models also do not claim to be precise or right in themselves, but always mean to stimulate the experience of insight.

    To me the key clause in yr post is "to have only “thick” particulars and no bare things, nexus, universals and particulars, is to drop into formlessness." It is curious that Harman's point is [as I read him] almost the opposite-- he has thick particulars galore, and what is important is that they be particular, lest we fall into some indeterminate goo of pure relation. To me this suggests that we are dealing with two polarities -- "thick" and "thin," particular and universal, and that these two sets are not quite the same.

    Be that as it may, I willingly concede that in taxonomy one cannot do without the genus and try to make do with listing species alone. I think it's essential to understand grammar if only to bend it in writing poetry.

  4. Benoit, I looked at Kennedy's article when it first came out, as this is a matter I am very interested in. I am almost already persuaded, which does not make me the best critical reader of findings/speculations like his. But I am most interested in the practical fallout -- what do we deduce from this as to Plato's own views? I take it that most of this will be the matter for subsequent work by Kennedy. I hope so. I also hope he engages some of the work of his fellow-laborers like Ernest McClain and John Bremer.

  5. Hello Skholiast, as I understand the pragmatist point of departure, he looks for a model or a grammar or an understanding of things that help him manage the world for his purposes. Whatever works! It is not a question of truth, but of getting things done. My desire is different; I am after a vision of the structure of Being. I have no goal to reach, except for reaching Being itself. I look at Being and write down what I see. (I know there are those who roll their eyes at that, but that is phenomenology—To the thing itself!—and philosophy is always phenomenological.) I see particulars that have properties. Being is a subject-predicate affair. A particular is tied to a form. The important phrase in that statement, for this exchange, is “tied to”. That tying is what gives order and structure and makes a world possible. If someone tells me that that is only my model of Being and beyond that there is surely something else, then I have no idea what he is talking about and I suspect he doesn’t either.

    It is true that there are problems with that S-P analysis. Most notably time doesn’t fit into that and surely time is important. Are we to give up the S-P view to accommodate time? To give up that is to give up logic, because that is the heart of logic. Or is it? There are those who have wanted to find a different “grammar” for logic, for example one that has only individuals (thick, no doubt). It has been tried, most notably by Quine and Goodman and that bunch. It didn’t work. Even they said so. Logic is ineluctably Subject—Predicate. So what are we to do with time? Good question. There is something that doesn’t appear, it seems. But to hanker after that is to jump into the sun and what to us is ever the (beautiful?) illogic that one finds there. Remember the Tie, that for us is as close as we can get to Being—after that the riot of thought commences.

  6. Hello Again, As for Harman’s objects, they are still subject-predicate. They are individuals with essences or natures or maybe dispositions, which are sometimes called powers. And though they are totally isolated. There being are no relations between them. With only sensual images, occasionally caused, of one object inside another. And also the allure when disaster happens that hints that maybe something is beyond. (As in Japan.) They remain individuals with (an unknowable) form. He does ontologically dampen down the predicates, its essence, in favor of the object’s individuality, much the same way his mentor Aristotle did for substance, but they are still there. As for relations, which are dyadic or n-adic predicates, he puts them … apparently nowhere, again in imitation of Aristotle. When I say that there is something that doesn't appear to us in Being so that we might properly do an ontology of time, I do not mean anything like Harman’s withdrawal. I mean something unthinkable, some ontological thing not of the subject-predicate schema. It’s not only beyond our sensual, conceptual ken, it is a blank for us. There is no beyond.

  7. Gary~~

    I like the stark insistence upon the things themselves, just as I want to love my lover and not some idea of her/him. And yet. And yet, the moment I think I have found the beautiful an-sich, the structure of reality itself, some anomaly upends my confidence. (Sure enough, it does often have to do with time, but in any case the problem unfolds in time.) I take this upending to betoken the incapacity of my attempts-- my every attempt (so far, at least); but I keep at it. This incapacity I also have to talk about, and noumena, withdrawal, the unthinkable, the not-beyond -- all of these are vain fingers of intellect on the bar of soap. So I have come to reject the either/or between "whatever works" and "die sachen selbst" (pardon my bad German), without shrugging mys shoulders. The pragmatist as you describe them would simply eschew the question to begin with. I remain an unsatisfied pluralist -- a pluralist because unsatisfied, and unsatisfied because a pluralist.

  8. This last comment of yours, Skholiast, is a very, very nice piece of writing. I think I should leave this train of thought right there and not break the trance with my own bad attempt to add something to it. I will speak to your ideas on my blog.