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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

New kids on the blogs

Two new philosophy blogs have appeared just this month I want to point people to:
Muss Es Sein?
As I write, they have three and four posts up respectively each, so they are very new. Early yet to say what will happen at either one, but the quality of the writing and thinking is high at each. Welcome new voices raising the caliber of the conversation. Give them a read.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why I am, mostly, not a correlationist

"If you think the realism vs. anti-realism debate is a “pseudo-problem,” then you’re a correlationist."

By this account (Harman's), I am certainly not. I think the debate in question is not a pseudo-problem but a mystery. One can think this in at least two possible ways. Possibly we are too stupid to understand the issue; our brains did not evolve to confront such metaphysical conundrums. This would be something akin to Colin McGinn's philosophy of consciousness. On the other hand, possibly the issue is irreducibly mysterious; it resists resolution by the very nature of its terms. My money is on option 2.

Incidentally, even Wittgenstein, while he may have used the term "pseudo-problem" a bit at a certain stage in his career (or at least contributed to the atmosphere that made this term welcome), regarded the "mistakes" that language could lead us into as far deeper than what is usually meant by this disparagement. For him, the purgation and self-examination involved in clearing up such "mistakes" was a struggle--one could justly say a spiritual struggle, if one did not fear (or care) about misappropriation of the adjective; and if at a certain moment the question seemed to "disappear," this did not make it a stupid mistake.

I do however think that "correlationism" is a persistent resolution to the debate that cannot be forsworn once and for all, anymore than can "metaphysics". In my ontology/epistemology (and I am suspicious of any too-rigid separation of these), any entity that could "think" the issue will wind up being correlationist; correlationism is, like geocentrism, how the world looks for a certain kind of situated consciousness.
If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen, and each would make the gods' bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.
This remark by Xenophanes, preserved for us by Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies 5.110), did not mean that Xenophanes believed there were no gods; we know from other quotations (fragmentary though they are), in Clement and elsewhere, that Xenophanes held that "God is one, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or thought," (Miscellanies 5.109); "All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears," Sextus Empiricus quotes (Against the Mathematicians 9.144). In like manner, neither should we conclude that, the "human-world interface" being demystified, the question of the interface per se is now moot. The day we bridge the human-dolphin divide (or perhaps when a computer convinces us to ignore the machine-human divide) we will learn again that philosophy is not anthropology, but has only been so by accident, as it were.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Explanation or understanding

In his Explanation and Understanding, Georg H. von Wright gives the genealogy of his titular pair as follows:
The German historian-philosopher [Johann Gustav] Droysen appears to have been the first to introduce a methodological dichotomy which has had great influence. He coined for it the names explanation and understanding, in German Erklären and Verstehen. The aim of the natural sciences, he said, is to explain; the aim of history is to understand the phenomena which fall within its domain. These methodological ideas were then worked out to systematic fulness by Wilhelm Dilthey. (p. 5)
The first passage (as far as I know) in Droysen where the distinction is made is this one:
According to the object and nature of human thought, there are three possible methods: the speculative (formulated in philosophy and theology), the mathematical or physical, and the historical. Their respective essences are: to know, to explain, and to understand. Hence the old canon of the sciences: Logic, Physics, Ethics, which are not three ways to one goal, but the three sides of a prism, through which the human eye, if it will, may in colored reflection catch foregleams of the eternal light whose direct splendor it would not be able to bear. (Outline of the Principles of History p 15.)
It will be noted (von Wright acknowledges it in a footnote) that the distinction Droysen lays out is not a dichotomy but a trichotomy. It seems to have been Wilhelm Dilthey who made the reduction from three to two, beginning with his essay "Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytical Psychology." Explanatory science, he says, is a concept that
describes an ideal science which has been shaped particularly by the development of atomic physics.... the distinguishing mark of explanatory psychology is that it is convinced that it can produce a complete and transparent knowledge of mental phenomena from a limited number of unambiguously defined elements.(Dilthey, Selected Writings p 92)
To this, Dilthey opposes an "interpretive" or "descriptive and analytical" psychology, which would show individual uniqueness, based for instance upon the presentation of case-histories, and which would be the object of a different mode of thinking. "We explain nature, but we understand mental life," Dilthey says, distinguishing the respective objects of explanation and understanding; or, again, distinguishing their modes:
We explain through purely intellectual processes, but we understand through the cooperation of all the powers of the mind activated by apprehension.
It is not too much, I think, to see here a crucial mutation in post-critical philosophy. Kant, as is well known, distinguished in the first Critique between Reason (Vernunft) and Understanding (Verstand) as faculties of the mind. The latter is empirically conditioned; all data come to the understanding via the senses, and is organized by it according to the categorial structure of the mind. Reason takes for its material, however, not the testimony of the senses but the very concepts which guide the understanding itself. This paved the way for the Kantian critique of metaphysics, since Kant argued that Reason makes use of the Understanding's principles outside their proper sphere, generating three speculative entities: the self, the world as a whole, and God, and thus begetting three speculative discourses (psychology, cosmology, and theology). Rightly grasped, Kant thinks, these three fields give the reason no objects at all, but only regulative principles.

I hope I may be forgiven this incredibly brief sketch of the Vernunft/Verstand distinction (and I invite any Kant scholars to jump on me here). Before going on I want only to note that Kant claims that speculation arises by the misuse by Reason of the categories that guide the Understanding. Keep this in mind as we go forward.

Dilthey's expansion of Droysen's setup leaves speculation aside; form here on it will be only explanation and understanding that are at issue. The discourse of explanation is appropriate for many things, including many human phenomena, but it will not work for a certain vital class of things we may call meanings. If I hear that the price of silk has risen because a blight has killed most of the mulberry plants in a region, this claim can be investigated by various empirical means; but the claim itself must be understood first. the difference is that the utterance about the silk plants is a product of a speaker, and to understand it is to admit a certain kinship between myself and the speaker. Dilthey:
for the natural sciences an ordering of nature is achieved only through a succession of conclusions by means of linking of hypotheses. For the human sciences, on the contrary, it follows that the connectedness of psychic life is given as an original and general foundation. Nature we explain; the life of the soul we understand.
Last post but one, I cited an interview with Ray Brassier, in which he lays out an interpretation of the intellectual history of humankind (an interpretation not unlike my own, though our evaluations are very different), asserting that humanity has gradually dispensed with a "narrative" view of the world. Of course, where Brassier seems to see this as an unmixed good, I am far more ambivalent; few cultural developments, it seems to me, can be unequivocally reckoned a gain. Brassier distinguishes his own nihilism from that of forerunners like Nietzsche, by insisting that his is a nihilism occasioned precisely by his belief in truth, rather than in its impossibility:
where pre-modern nihilism was a consequence of a failure of understanding – “We cannot understand God, therefore there is no meaning available to creatures of limited understanding such as we” – modern nihilism follows from its unprecedented success – “We understand nature better than we did, but this understanding no longer requires the postulate of an underlying meaning”....Like Nietzsche, I think nihilism is a consequence of the ‘will to truth’. But unlike Nietzsche, I do not think nihilism culminates in the claim that there is no truth....I am a nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition. (Emphasis in original.)
As von Wright notes, "Ordinary usage does not make a sharp distinction between the words 'explain' and 'understand,'" and I do not claim that Brassier must have had in mind the Dilthey-inflected connotations of the word each time he says "understand" in this passage. But in fact, if you substitute the appropriate form of "explain" for each "understand" or "understood," the exchange reads differently. To hold that meaninglessness can be explained, is not the same as to hold that it can be understood.

Now we could leave this aside as a semantic preference, or a finicky preciousness, except for the historical trajectory which Brassier traces, and which he believes is a salutary shucking-off of the religious narratives humankind has been telling itself about the universe since we learned to talk. I want to argue, on the other hand, that there is a way of relating understanding to explanation that can avoid both the recoil from science and the establishment of science as the sole dispositive discourse. Brassier holds that we can acknowledge the human need for narrative but that we can also understand that nothing in the structure of the universe (and there is nowhere else) answers to this need. Indeed, Brassier has entirely subsumed understanding in explanation; his claim in in effect to have (or at least that science has) "explained understanding;" and the question is whether this is the same as understanding it.

Brassier's claim is that the universe's non-narrative structure is (1) understandable, and (2) shows that the universe lacks meaning. This is the sense of Brassier's claim that his nihilism is occasioned by a belief in truth rather than, like Nietzsche's, a disbelief. My first rejoinder here is that one can usefully distinguish between theme and plot, and argue that if the universe has no plot (I have said as much before, though I may partially retract this), this is still not to say one can discern no theme. (The terms "plot" and "theme" derive from C.S. Lewis and are explicated here and here.)

It will be recalled that in this same earlier post I underscored Benjamin's assertion that story was passing out of currency in the face of the rise of news:
Every morning brings us news of the globe, but we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation [Erklärungen]. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; everything benefits information. Actually it is half the art of storytelling to keep the story free from explanation as one retells it.... The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands [versteht] them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.
(I apologize for the pedantic reiteration of what are, after all, pretty pedestrian German words, but I am aiming to show that I am not relying upon translators' accidents, which would be all too easy for someone like myself.) When Benjamin claims for the narrative of story an "amplitude" that the information in the daily newspaper does not share, this amplitude is its contact with what Benjamin in "The Storyteller" calls "counsel" or even "counsel woven into the fabric of real life[:] wisdom." This is worth quoting:
...the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today "having counsel" is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding.
(Compare this to the famous Wittgensteinian "practical" account of understanding--"Now I can go on!"--which might seem otherwise starkly different from the Continental-hermeneutic contrast to Explanation.)
To seek counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. (Quite apart from the fact that man is only receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a "symptom of decay," let alone a "modern" symptom. It is rather only a concomitant symptom of the productive forces of history, a concomitant that has gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech.(Illuminations, pp86-7)
No more than Benjamin do I want to wax nostalgic about times past or indignant about today's decadence, about which I am more or less in agreement with Nietzsche--denunciations of decadence are symptoms of what they denounce. I do believe that pointing out the decadence of an age and the spiritual perils it brings with it is one function of philosophy, and indeed one of its indispensable tools-- because recoil from decadence can cultivate the experience of insight, the "spark" Plato talks about. And even in Plato's day, there was concern that Wisdom--"the epic side of truth," "counsel woven into the fabric of real life"--was dying out. In Plato's analysis, as in Benjamin's, this is attributed in part to the technological media of thought. In Plato's case it was writing; in Benjamin's it is print, but in both cases there is a feedback between thinking and the material medium, and the impact upon thinking itself is always an abstraction from lived experience.

I concluded that post with the assertion that "'Explanation' is simply the mode of engagement that separates meaning from truth." For explanation, meaning is simply not an issue. But this is simply the effect of what Benjamin's account calls modern humanity's no longer "allow[ing] his situation to speak." Explanation in the sense of modern science is the wresting of information from the world, but it is not listening to the world--a phrase that science can understand only as meaningless or at best a misleading façon de parler (I have discussed this listening somewhat here, and what we might hear in this listening, here).

Such listening does not disclose a meta-cosmological plot; but it does (I claim) open the possibility of discerning a theme. This, too, however, is too much for the nihilist, of either Nietzsche's or Brassier's stripe. To them I rejoin: one can stipulate or perhaps even accept the lack of theme in the universe, but I deny that one can understand it. If the bottom line is chaos, or Meillassouxian "facticity," this can perhaps be thought; it cannot be understood; and it cannot be celebrated, except inconsistently and by perversity.

Indeed it cannot even stricto sensu be explained. This is why Meillassoux must turn once again to the neglected third side of Droysen's prism: speculation. In order to follow this further, we will need to think more about Dilthey's abandonment of this trichotomy. This will have to be left for a follow-up post.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

But will beauty save the world?

Reading this poem put me, for obvious reasons, in mind of Gary, at The Ontological Boy.
A Boy

Out of the noise of tired people working,
Harried with thoughts of war and lists of dead,
His beauty met me like a fresh wind blowing,
Clean boyish beauty and high-held head.

Eyes that told secrets, lips that would not tell them,
Fearless and shy the young unwearied eyes—
Men die by millions now, because God blunders,
Yet to have made this boy he must be wise.

--Sara Teasdale

The poem slips the context past the reader so quickly one almost misses it. Subordinate descriptive phrases obscure and postpone the main clause until the third line. When it arrives, it is a simple declarative at the center of the first stanza: His beauty met me. This directness orients us, and "like a fresh wind blowing," it disperses what we had read impatiently, unsure of where the sentence was going until it arrived at the grammatical subject. On the first reading, we do not even go back to retrace our steps. Now we are swept up in the admiration of that Apollonian epiphany of Western art, the beautiful boy, which the first two lines of the second stanza frame with a reference to the eyes. These eyes are articulate, they "told secrets," though these secrets are unheard because the lips will "not tell them;" this curious oxymoron is echoed in the next line by "fearless and shy, the young unwearied eyes." Nature loves to hide, said Heraclitus.

But this portrait, which exactly corresponds, structurally, to the description in the first half of the first stanza, breaks off. Only now do we remember where we were. We were tired, we were distracted. What were the first lines? Out of the noise of tired people working, / Harried with thoughts of war and lists of dead. This was where we had been when we were interrupted, when we had been startled by this bolt from the blue. Men die is the center of this stanza, as His beauty met me was of the first; and like that earlier clause, it is too the grammatical center of the sentence, its first simple declarative. There is a war somewhere; there are, somewhere, people dying, dying by millions. What can possibly be commensurate between these upheavals, these ruinous events that visit calamity on those we love and those we do not know alike, and this unanswerable beauty here in front of us in this face? Men die by millions now, because God blunders, / Yet to have made this boy he must be wise.

The near(?)-blasphemy of the penultimate line is only retroactively noticed, highlighted by the doxology of the final one. It is as though the enormity of one's despair can only be articulated in praise, and vice-versa. But the poem does not say this outright; no more than the boy himself will it unequiviocally tell its secret. Only, shy and fearless, it declares the fact of beauty. It stops short of declaring beauty an unanswerable theodicy.

The poem was published in Flame and Shadow in 1920 and was probably written against the background of the First World War. Boys like this one were being mangled across Europe, in barb-wire and mustard gas. (They still are, your tax dollars and stock options at work.) The contrast between the millions dead and the luminous single one alive is almost too much to bear. Is one mocking the millions to love the one? The poem does not resolve anything. It gives us frankly the blunder of God and God's wisdom in the closing two lines, the "blunder" balanced by the apparent proof--"he must be wise"--the evidence for which is simply the boy himself. There is no other evidence possible or needed. The poem itself gives and withholds, like the "secrets" told silently by the boy's eyes and kept by his lips. The boy is the poem and the poem is the boy.

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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Aiding the enemy"

I very rarely post here to urge a particular course of immediate action. But as a card-carrying member of Amnesty International, I occasionally write letters calling for the release of or better treatment of political prisoners. All the more reason when the prisoner is one's fellow-citizen, held by one's own government.

PFC Bradley Manning (of Wikileaks fame) has since last July been confined 23 hours a day to a 72-square-foot cell with a toilet and a bed. Now the man is a military prisoner and we do not expect the accommodations to be those of an upscale minimum-security prison with a golf course. Even the fact that he has only just been (finally) charged with any crime ("Aiding the enemy") is not really too shocking. But Manning is reported to be allowed no private belongings whatsoever, to be allowed to receive or compose correspondence under extremely restricted circumstances, he's woken up if he tries to nap. He's not allowed to work outside his cell. He's considered a maximum-security prisoner under Prevention-of-Injury status, but so far no clarification has been given to inquiries about why this status has been assigned. His POI status means Manning is checked by guards every five minutes, and is prevented from sleeping during the day. Of late he is subject to daily nude inspections and must sleep naked. All while being checked every five minutes.

It is well known that forced nudity (to say nothing of solitary confinement itself) has the (designed) effect of increasing the sense of helplessness and desperation in a human being. The suggestion that this is a measure to prevent or lessen Manning's alleged suicidal tendency warrants derision; it is either a gross misunderstanding of human psychology, or a transparent lie attempting to justify the vindictive treatment by the military of one of their own who stepped significantly out of line. I have a guess as to which.

There have been plenty of speculations about what motivated Manning to provide the leaks to Wikileaks, including (inevitably) aspersions on his character, and snide insinuations about his mental health. While I have no doubt that it takes, at least, a good deal of alienation to prompt one to make a decision like Manning's, to turn against a culture he had wanted to be a part of, this is not my concern. I am concerned with the apparent casualness with which the United States military recreates in the state of Virgina the (allegedly aberrant) maltreatment of prisoners that characterized Abu Ghraib. (I know that this comparison will be called overblown. I'm interested in that defensiveness.) I am cynical enough to be unsurprised (though I was for a while ready to believe that the President had really meant to close Guantanamo, as soon as something feasible could be worked out, I am not so sure anymore); but I still have some hope in the ability of enough public outcry to shame its leaders into doing the right thing, at least when there is no money at stake. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama need to hear, from as many people as possible, that this is unacceptable. You can write via Amnesty International.

Online support network for PFC Manning here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Check that meteorite for arsenic traces

Last December, when NASA scientists Ronald Oremland and Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced that a certain strain of bacteria had apparently swapped out phosphorus for arsenic in their makeup. This was weird--albeit plausible, since arsenic sits directly under phosphorus in the Periodic Table. (An analogous relationship between silicon and carbon is what makes some Sci-Fi writers, and some anticipators of the Age of Intelligent Machines (if there is a difference), think that there could be silicon-based life in the universe, at least in the future.) The announcement, coming as it did from NASA, had a good deal of credibility at first, and sparked a lot of speculation about the possibility that life elsewhere could look very different from life on Earth. But it turned out that the journalistic hype surrounding and preceding the announcement was overblown; critics swarmed in to denounce both the science and the publicity. It got very contentious, and very public.

This time people are being more careful. NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover has published his conclusions--that the fossilized record of bacteria can be clearly read in ancient meteroites--in the respected Journal of Cosmology, and the Journal accompanied the publication with the announcement,in what does seem a teensy-bit defensive-sounding tone:
Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover's paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented. No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published. We believe the best way to advance science, is to promote debate and discussion.
(The commentaries, to be published over the next few days, can be accessed at this link.)

So let's not have anyone saying that we didn't understand the big implications, OK?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary preemptiveness.

Well, this doubtless says something about the way science works in this "new era" of hyper-connectedness. Science remains (so far) an all-too-human enterprise. Be that as it may, it's interesting to contrast Hoover's findings with Oremland and Wolfe-Simon's. The latter were suggesting that there was reason to think life might look very different elsewhere in the universe where conditions could be otherwise. The former is saying that perhaps life got here from (possibly very) far away and yet could have looked more or less like what we have on our own planet. Leaving aside the question of the solidity of the science, however, I'm don't see why both might not be the case.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Is happiness boring?

A book by philosopher David Loy, is reviewed at this post on thinkBuddha (and you've got to love a Buddhist-flavored review that opens with a citation of Blanchot's Madness of the Day). The book asserts in its title that The world is made of stories. The assertion derives from a slight mis-citation of Muriel Rukeyser's passage in "The Speed of Darkness":
Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
Amod Lele has made a welcome return to blogging, and his first post riffed on Penelope Trunk's question as to whether happiness is "all there is" to life. Trunk answers No; one also wants an interesting life. (Actually, Trunk hyperbolically asserts that one cannot have both, but must choose.) And this makes me wonder: what is it that makes something interesting at all? And is it inherently opposed enough to happiness to warrant being thought a completely different pole?

In what is surely one of the most over-quoted literary openings, Tolstoy declares famously that "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is what makes Anna Karenina's life worth telling, what makes it, in fact, a story; this is why stories that reach "happily ever after" do so at the end. In this world, we experience conflict as the matter of narrative. There is no requirement for a story to end happily, but permanent happiness is nonetheless the end of a story. Without dissatisfaction, without conflict, without tension to be resolved, there is no story to be told. No wonder, then, that Trunk sees remaining interested and being happy as divergent ends. And it strikes me that this is really one of the great symptoms of our time, or perhaps of the human condition: that we are torn between an idea of what is worth attending to, and one of the fulfillment of our being.

What is a matter for story is a matter for memory. Nietzsche claimed that cruelty was the mode of all human mnemotechnics. Christianity, on the other hand, asserts: Memory Eternal, in a mode almost diametrically opposite Nietzsche's. Here is the early 20th-century Orthodox theologian and martyr Pavel Florensky, in his great work The Pillar and Ground of Truth, p.144:
What did the wise thief ask for on the cross: "Lord, remember me (mnestheti mou) when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." He asks to be remembered, that is all. And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, the Lord Jesus answers: "Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:42) In other words, "to be remembered" by the Lord is the same thing as "to be in Paradise." "To be in Paradise" is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God. Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God's remembrance of us. ...
For most of human history, our mode of memory was precisely the religious. In their book When they Severed Earth from Sky, Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul Barber update the argument that the mythological mode of thinking is a compressed way of preserving the significant historical, political, or natural wisdom of a people in preliterate conditions. One need not concur with the Barbers' leveling Euhemerism to see the pertinence of this thesis. The knowledge preserved, according to this model, is preserved 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; its principles may be elegance, or symmetry, or explanatory power, but in any case they are not those of story, which belongs to a different order of discourse, at whose limits science sets up shop. A narrative says, this happened. Science says, if X happens, Y will happen, unless Z intervenes.

Science thus understood was the purgation of narrative from memory. Its limits are two. On the far side, there is an irreducible brute-ness to the facts it must account for. Chaitin's absolute randomness is one face of this; Meillassoux's hyperchaos is another. Nobel Prize-wining physicist Robert Laughlin suggests that we may have to entirely relinquish dreams of understanding the fundamental substratum of matter. But on the near side, Latour, Bloor, Pickering, and others have also shown that science does not extricate itself entirely from its roots in narrative; science is also always its own story.

Narrative is irreducibly plural; there is always the possibility of a different story, and in fact some stories are, as I have argued before, incommensurable with each other. Science aspires to a single account, and when we call this aimed-at account "theory," not story, we are pointing out this difference; this is why science would, if it could, purge itself of its own history (for of what interest is it to know that the theory of General Relativity is Einstein's?). But the cosmological contexts of a religion point to an aspiration after a single story, a sort of meta-story perhaps, in which all our stories would resolve. John Berger in G. writes (p. 133), Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one. (The line may be his most-quoted sentence: it serves as an epigraph for both Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.) What the declaration of "Eternal Memory" pines for is a preservation of these stories in all their specificity, but without dissipating in a mere open pluralism; its longing for a single story, a True Story, is an eschatological promise and hope, not a premise.

A single story, a "True Story;" I suggest this pace David Loy, who says:
Big stories are the overarching ones that explain everything, including our role within it. God is the best example, although scientism is a secular equivalent when 'science can explain everything that can be explained.' Scientists generally agree on how to confirm or disprove their stories, for that is what distinguishes science from speculation. But how does one evaluate the Biggest Stories? God is a unique narrative device: he creates his own stories, not being inside any bigger one. God is the story that trumps all others because the whole cosmos is within it. His story puts limitations on our own but there is the security of knowing that he controls all stories. God is thus the guarantee that life has meaning, that our stories are meaningful. We want to believe that there is a transcendent plot, an all-encompassing storyline that makes sense of everything, that will (or can) have a happy ending. Essential to the God story is the denial that it is a story.
Loy wants to ask us, and wants us to ask: What happens when we realize our stories are (just) stories? ThinkBuddha's Will Buckingham, in the review I link to at the beginning, suggests that Loy, too, has given us a "big story" of his own in this narrative about how we tell stories and ultimately need to let go of them when they cease to serve. (For some of Buckingham's own approach to how story serves us, especially as regards ethics--a question close to my own concerns--see this review of his book Finding our sea legs.) I think Buckingham is right, that the longing for such a Story that will make sense of our stories is indeed what religion responds to or grows from, and that insofar as Loy is right, it's in pointing to the possibility of a story that "undoes itself," so to speak--not, however, in the too-clever-by-half postmodern mode which plays at renouncing the longing, but in gesturing to a world that is more than, not less than, a story.

In his essay On Stories, C.S. Lewis lays out a distinction between theme and plot:
The art of story as I see it is a very difficult one. ...its central difficulty is...[that] the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way.... there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series--the plot, as we call it--is really only a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality.
Every reader knows what Lewis means here. It's why we sometimes leave books alone for a long time before we read them-- because we are savoring the theme and want to breathe it is a long while, before the plot gets in the way. But Lewis very shrewdly goes on to suggest that
this internal tension in the heart of every story constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life.... In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside....All that happens may be delightful; but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?... In life and art both, it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.
Loy is of course right that no story, plot-wise, can be true in the way our heart longs for when it longs for a True Story. But the question is not of plot at all, but of theme. And this brings us, like Odysseus, back to Penelope Trunk's question about being happy, or being interested.

At one point I might have made an easy equation: interested = plot; happy = theme. Would that it were so simple. Trunk notes (citing Barry Schwartz) that prioritizing being interested means prioritizing having options--i.e., things to do, things that may or may not happen--whereas prioritizing happiness does not. Schwartz is a social psychologist who (like several others, e.g. David Myers and Robert Lane) argues that the plethora of "choices" facing consumers in late-capitalist cultures contributes to rising anxiety. So far, this seems to support the notion that "being interested," at least in its consummerist mode (which descends, I think, from the old vice--at least it used to be called a vice--of curiositas) is aligned with "plot" in Lewis' sense (and along these lines it's instructive to compare Augustine's views at the link just given, where H.J. Hodges reads Augustine writing not about scientific inquiry but about, of all things, stage-plays. Hodges actually has several excellent posts up in the same vicinity about ancient and medieval views of curiosity.) But there's more to it.

The desire to "be interested" in one's life is closely entwined with the construal of oneself as being in a kind of story. Deep down the expanding interest in the "stories" of others is partly a hunger for something else to distract us from our own. There's a legitimacy to this as well as a hidden sin. Are we aiming to be snapped out of our narcissism? or merely to get new fodder for it? Are we trying to be interested in the world, or just looking for another way of seeming interesting? (This, by the way, is a distinction that Trunk is careful to make, in a from-the-hip way, which may be the only way one can.)

In a poetry review I once wrote, I had occasion to cite Alan Finkielkraut in The Defeat of the Mind:
The followers of postmodernism do not dream of an authentic society, where people live comfortably in their cultural identities, but a polymorphous one, a multicolored, heterogeneous world in which individuals have many lifestyles to choose from. They have less interest in promoting the right to be different than the right to have access to the differences of others. For the multicultural means a storehouse of options.
I compared this, at the time, to Kierkegaard's conception of the Aesthetic stage, in which the pressing question for anyone is "does this decision make a good story?" (This is my gloss, not Kierkegaard's, and it oversimplifies things, but I'll stand by it). But one can live like Kierkegaard's Aesthetic man with reference almost purely to what Lewis means by "theme" rather than "plot;" in fact, I would guess this is more often the case. One isn't so often concerned about whether one is really living a series of events analogous to the life of Holden Caulfield or the vampire Lestat or Anne of Green Gables or Anna Wulf, as one is about seeing oneself through the aura of the theme of the world and character of such a figure. What this means is that theme no less than plot can be about the consummerist sort of "interested"; such worlds become just more options in the late-capitalist multicultural storehouse.

I think what Lewis means by "theme" in his essay is very close to what I have called "a world". E.g. in the poem by Auden I analyzed before: the abjection of the line "nothing now can come to any good" is irrefutable inside the [world of the] poem; this is the theme. One can live, or try to live, one's whole life within such a world. But one can also live in such a way that every such world opens up onto another, and another, and another; and ultimately returns one each time to The World, what I have called the indelimitability of experience.

I want to steer clear of valorizing either the desire for happiness or for being interested. Although I want to distinguish carefully the latter from the astonishment or wonder which is the root of philosophy, I think such wonder can be provoked by the experience of interest, and in any case the desire for and experience of freedom is bound up with philosophy every bit as closely as is happiness; and happiness, in any case, is also more than one thing, as Amod's blog post makes some headway in clarifying. Happiness? Pleasure? Contentment? Joy? Blessedness?

But I have gone on for such length about the question not just because (I admit it) I'm a bookish fellow myself and am endlessly diverted by the question of the relation between books-and-life, but because I think the question (and it is of wider application than books) has ramifications for our understanding of ethics:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art--and only genius can do that. (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 120)
The question, then, cannot be just that of theme versus plot (and Lewis would not have thought so); but of which theme. Nietzsche's remark about the mnemonic value of suffering is one index here, and so too is the liturgical prayer, memory eternal. For there are themes of misery, despair, Promethean rebellion, as well as of happiness or contentment or blessedness. The tension, not between art and life, but in both art and life, is the tension of time and eternity.

[Update 4/13 Follow-up post here.
And see Amod's post reflecting on the Finkielkraut quotation above here.]

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Several blogs that have a far wider readership than SCT have already linked to the new kid on the block Bleeding Heart Libertarian, which if it bucks the trend of dying young will likely become an established go-to site for political and economic insight that has stopped riding the right-left seesaw. I'm going to plug it even though I doubt anyone will hear it hear first, because it's more or less down my alley. The two fellow-bloggers with whom I most often concur on political questions are The Poseidonian, and Amod Lele, and like them, I keep, as it were, a foot in both camps (or maybe I just mutter "a plague on both your houses"). I am more troubled than the Poseidonian seems to be by the fact that liberalism founders upon the question of justification of values (I am troubled because I believe there are reasons to think that this makes liberalism potentially immunodeficient), and I am probably more paranoid than Amod (I am entertained by--and I sometimes entertain--conspiracy theory to what I assume is a far greater degree), which is why what would be quietism in him is often alienation in myself; but in general I find myself with few demurrals. My social conservatism comes from the same place as my ecological conservationism, for the boundary between noosphere and biosphere is permeable and both realms need equilibrium. My suspicion of business is of a piece with my suspicion of government--the bigger, the worse, is the way my kneecap thinks, and while I often argue my kneecap down (I have not mastered the art some seem to have, of writing with it), I always listen. In my Uptopian moods I'm probably something of an anarcho-monarchist, like Salvador Dali or J.R.R. Tolkien, but realistically I'd settle for a constitution and some responsible, Cincinnatus-style parliamentarians (I think the weak point of Badiou's politics is his weird animus against parliamentarianism and electoral politics per se as opposed to in practice). That said, I'm sure there'll be plenty to argue with on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, but (from my point of view) it'll be arguing-with, and that's saying something.