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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Energy, ignorance, and insight

Over on An Und Fur Sich, Adam Kotsko remarks (a propos Christopher Nolan's film Inception) on:
the difference between a book that shows how smart the author is and a book that makes the reader feel smarter. That feeling is an illusion…Yet by introducing them to the gut-level satisfaction of intellectual work, we might arouse in them a hunger, that peculiar intellectual hunger that can only work through an initial overconfidence.
I want to briefly expand on some comments I made at the time. As I wrote there, this succinct passage of Kotsko's almost suffices as a definition of successful art or successful philosophy, or indeed just successful teaching. Most of us have known the sense of reading a novel and feeling in oneself the sense of co-creating it. This is reader-response theory, or even the affective fallacy, at its best, one might say. (Sometimes it goes wrong--one experiences an off-the-rails sense when a plot or character makes a move one would have handled differently. One wonders how many works of art have resulted from the re-writing of other works; Anna Karenina, for instance, out of Tolstoy's dissatisfaction with Madame Bovary.) Harold Bloom's entire "anxiety of influence" notion is based on the premise that art provokes in us a kind of competing, agonistic urge, an urge to “do that too,” and doubtless gives you the (illusory) sense that you can. Indeed, in this Bloom just shows himself a good disciple of the Romantics, whose notion of the Sublime was precisely this thought of the object as a provocation, a challenge that occasioned for us a project, a measuring of oneself against it.

There really are films, or books, and above all conversation partners, that bring our of you some half-hidden capacity for wit and even occasional brilliance. Sometimes after seeing a Woody Allen movie, everyone is spurred on to an hour or two of crazier levels of funniness, derivative, no doubt, and (thank God) not long-lasting, but not for all that merely a phantom. It's not unlike a good round of drunkenness. Likewise, there are books or thinkers who make one able to soar; especially the moment that one first, and all too imperfectly, understands some basic premise, and the world looks different. Indeed, I think it is often especially just at first that one attains these sorts of insights; and I think we make a mistake if we write them off as just an emotional rush that chances to accompany real intellectual work.

One is very lucky to find a teacher who, when you talk with them, makes you feel smarter in this way, who sets your heart as well as your mind afire; and if one ever is so blessed as to be such a teacher for even an hour, one should offer a thank-offering on the altar of ones heart.

Plato often shows Socrates doing a variation of this, asking leading questions, letting his interlocutor run off with the topic, striking the perfectly "teachable" pose, only to deflate (not always gently) these pretensions. Plato himself, too, does this by planting in this works leading questions, or positions with objections you can see yourself, so that you can congratulate yourself for thinking you saw the problem. In both cases, the follow-up is various. Some of the participants in dialogue go off still feeling self-congratulatory, or convinced of poor Socrates' muddle-headedness; some get angry and defensive; a few enter more fully into Socrates' own perplexity in a way that makes them feel more, not less, alive in a life worth living.

In this way many of the dialogues are like the cave-allegory; there are levels and stages of ascent, as one turns from one set of false premises to another, until (maybe) one comes to a kind of blinding "I-get-it!" moment--but then, challenged to say what's been "got," one crashes into the bathos of insight; not (or not always) because the insight isn't real, but genuinely because "it is not the sort of thing that admits to summary in words."

Much more frequently than between teacher and student, in my experience, this rapport happens between fellow-students. (As a teacher of pre-teens, I have often seen a kid internalize in two minutes a piece of advice from a peer that encapsulates the same hoary wisdom I would have spent vain hours or days or months trying to convince them of.) Of course, from the outside (or, occasionally, in retrospect) this can look like it reduces to a mutual-admiration-fest, with flippant in-jokes ringing back and forth. Sometimes this really is what it is; one ego plays off of another, in a cyclone of reinforcing projections. But a good teacher--which means, first of all, one who does not sneer at the alloy of narcissism and naive enthusiasm in such groups--can turn this cycle of regard to good use, harnessing the energy of discussion to produce the genuine questioning moment. Of course this can only happen when one is free from condescension. In other words, the teacher must themselves in a sense buy into the "illusion" that the student knows as much as the teacher. In other words, to use a word that is by now charged on this blog, the teacher and student have to both participate in the same pursuit of understanding.

This is at least part of the secret of "Socratic ignorance." So the question is, then, is it an illusion?

Saturday, July 24, 2010


As I got ready to post this, I noticed this post from Levi Bryant on what strikes me as a close analogue to what I am discussing here, in a very different and modern key. What Bryant calls daimons--"objects that bring other objects together"--is in some ways very near to what I mean by "correspondences" below. Of course I don't mean that Bryant and I are talking about exactly the same thing, but I think it lends some support to at least a prima facie case for the continued relevance of an ancient trope.

I said above that the interpretation of mythology is already a properly philosophical endeavor. This understanding offers us a way into the interaction between contrasting discourses. A myth from Vedic India offers us a glimpse of this intersection at a time when the rationale was being worked out:

The story is from the Jaiminiya Brahmana.(II.69-70) Like most of the Brahmanas, the story I am thinking of is a mythical rationale for a ritual. Prajapati, the “Lord of Creatures” (as close as one gets to a “creator” in the Vedic tradition) and Mrtyu, Death, have a ritual battle. The contest remains at a stand-off, with neither party attaining the upper hand, until Prajapati in meditation begins to discern a network of connections or correspondences between his ritual paraphernalia and that of Mrtyu.
At that time, the weapons of sacrifice were the same as these weapons of sacrifice used today. What is chanted, what is recited, what is being acted, that was Prajapati’s party. What on the other hand is sung to the lute, what is danced, what is frivolously done [or: done for mere entertainment], that was Mrtyu’s party. The parties of both were equally strong; as much as the one had, so had the other. For long, for many years, they tried to defeat each other, with no decision.
Eventually, however, Prajapati in meditation perceived
this sampad (falling-together) in sacrifice, this samkhyana (numerical coincidence)…therewith he defeated Mrtyu. When defeated, his soma wasted away. Falling backwards, to the western end of the sacrificial ground, he took refuge in the women’s hall….Now there is no sacrificial contest anymore. What was the second sacrifice wasted away. The sacrifice is only one. Prajapati is himself the sacrifice.
This narrative takes its extremely compressed form because of its genre; the Brahmanas are comprised of notes to sacrificial protocol. They are addressed to priests, who are already aware of the ritual actions and accoutrements. The myth provides an account of the secret significances of these things; for (as the texts constantly reiterate) “he who knows thus,” that is, according to the equivalences, “is immortal.” In view of its extreme economy of form, however, one might be justified in sampling the somewhat more expansive retelling of Roberto Calasso:
Prajapati was staring straight ahead, at Death….As he waited, Prajapati ran through everything that served as a frame to Death, a frame that amounts to everything that is…. He thought, “This is like that, this corresponds to that, this is the equivalent of that, this is that.” A vibration, a tension, a euphoria flooded his mind. If this is that, then that corresponds to this other thing—he went on. Slender bonds wrapped themselves like ribbons around this and that. The bonds stretched, invisible to many, but not to the one who put them there…. with the eye that wanders, evokes images, numbers, words, he went on getting things to “fall together,” sometimes things that were far apart, getting them to coincide. And the further apart they were, the more exhilarated he felt. The existent world—prickly, numb, empty—let itself be covered, taken, gathered, enveloped, in the mesh of a fabric. …every dapple of vegetation, every outline of a rock, concealed a number, a word, an equivalence: a mental state that clung and mingled with another mental state. As if every state were a number. As if every number were a state. This was the first equivalence, origin of all others. Then Prajapati…. thought: “If the sampads elude me, who am myself thinking them, they will be all the more elusive for Death, who knows nothing of them. (Calasso, Ka p 27)
These correspondences allow Prajapati to assimilate Mrtyu’s array to his own, whereby Death is defeated in the ritual contest. But the sampads are not a finite set of equivalences between these two sets; they are an underlying order which unites the whole universe in an infinite variety of different correspondences. It is for this reason that “knowing thus” can render one “immortal.”

The equivalences are numerical, symbolic, etymological. Sanskrit is replete with terms for such closeness; there is bandhu (counterpart); samkhydna (numerical equivalents); even upanishad, which can connote the closeness between master and disciple, but also can simply mean something like “secret connection.” These equivalences are first and foremost a ritual grammar; in the Vedic context they are the rationale for the various moves and ingredients in the sacrifices, whether the meter of a hymn, the number of bricks in the altar, the time of day deemed appropriate, the order of the gods invoked, the participants invited.

It will be worth our while to look in detail for a moment at some examples of these connections, in part simply to drive home how multifarious they, their rationale, or their application, can be. Anyone first making acquaintance with the Vedas is confronted by immediate evidence of the bewildering variety of the gods, a variety which is complicated by what at first looks to be a confusion among them. Siva, for instance, is frequently conflated with the archer Rudra (“roarer,” but also possibly “shining”), in part because Siva’s name is plausibly derived from a Dravidian term meaning both “auspicious” and “red,” (terms which also function in proposed derivations of Rudra). Both Rudra and Siva are (in turn) also called Agni, fire (in Siva’s case this has to do in part with his association with the rising heat of psycho-sexual energy or tapas). But Siva is also an epithet for Indra. Siva is one of the three gods of the Hindu trimurti, along with Brahman and Vishnu; however, in another schema (the Smarta tradition), Siva is one of five aspects of the godhead, along with Vishnu, Devi, Suya and Ganesh.

The same epithets and titles are met with in connection with disparate gods; and figures are given curious roles: the sage Brhaspati is called “the brahman of the gods,” for instance; he is also the planet Jupiter, and rules over the fifth day of the week. Likewise, in different contexts, the sun (for instance) is called the eye of the god Mitra; the severed head of Rudra; a god in itself (which drives moreover the well-established solar chariot complete with fiery horses); a heavenly goose; a clay pot glowing red-hot in the sacrificial fire; or a fire itself, aloft in the sky.

A typical passage in the Kapisthalakatha Samhita (47.3) says of the priest-sacrificer:
He brings forth the waters. The waters are the sacrifice. Having stretched out the sacrifice, he proceeds. The waters are the abode favored by the gods. Having brought forward the abode favored by the gods, he starts. Demon-slaying waters are used. This serves to beat away the demons. The waters are a club. He hurls forth a club, against rivalry.
This passage, with its considerable compression, is proffering an account and an explanation of a particular ritual sacrifice, made for the purposes of getting an advantage over rivals. The water “is the sacrifice,” a radical identity which points to the bootstrapping of the origins of the sacrificial system. (Indeed in the Satapatha Brahmana, Prajapati "the year" is even identified with his rival Mrtyu, death.) The gods are summoned by the sacrificer “bringing forth” the waters to the place of sacrifice, because the gods “favor” the waters as their abode. Likewise, the waters can be used against demons; they are “a club” used against them, and indeed against the sacrificer’s rivals. Water is here: a sacrifice itself, an ingredient in the sacrifice, a realm, a weapon combating demons, and a weapon against the actual human rivals. These explanations are provided in a text in order that the sacrifice may harness the power of the ritual; it is by knowing these secrets that he can accomplish the magical goal of the sacrifice. Indeed, in some contexts, it is clear that knowing these interpretations may itself be enough.

To some degree, the equivalences stem (in the rationale of the Vedic mind) from accounts of origin:
Prajapati declares: “May I reproduce.” From his mouth he measured out the trivrt (nine-versed) hymn. Then the god Agni was brought forth, the gayatri meter, the rathantra chant; among human beings the Brahmin; among animals, the goat. Therefore they are foremost, for they came forth from the mouth. From his chest and arms he measured out the pancadasa (15-versed) hymn. Then the god Indra was brought forth, the tristubh meter, the brhat chant; among humans, the Ksaitriya; among animals, the sheep. Therefore they are strong, for they came forth from strength. From his middle he measured out the saptadasa (17-versed) hymn. Then the deities the Visvadevas came forth, the jagati meter, the vairupa chant; among humans, the Vaisya; among animals, the cow. Therefore they are to be eaten, for they were brought out from the receptacle of food. Therefore they are more abundant, for they were brought forth after the most abundant of the gods. From his feet he measured out the ekavimsa (21-versed) hymn. Then the anustubh meter came forth, the vairaja chant; among humans, the Sudra; among animals, the horse. Therefore these two, horse and Sudra, are dependent on others. Therefore the Sudra is not fit for the sacrifice, for he was not brought forth with any diety. Therefore they support themselves by their feet, for they were brought forth from the feet. (Taittiriya Samhita VII.1.1.4-6).
Note here the way that the cosmogonic myth is pressed into service to account for social relations (the priority of the Brahmins, the exclusion of the Sudras). The alignments outlined here remain relatively stable across the Vedic literature, according to the scholars I have read and my own far more schematic familiarity. Other correspondences are specific to particular texts or myths. Their various rationales might be etymological, numerological, analogical, narrative; they might hinge upon a purely “surface” similarity (the roundness of the pot and the sun; the similarity in sound between asva, horse, and asru, tear—these and some other examples cited here are from this paper by Michael Witzel); upon a narrative or characterological coincidence (for instance, Arjuna and Rudra are both archers); upon a lexical equivalence; as, for instance, taking an entry at random from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary, Ma can be: the base of the first person pronoun; time; poison; a magic formula; the fourth note of the scale; the moon; the name of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, or Yama; happiness; water. (This plural significance is of course a frequently noted feature of “primitive words;” it figures in Freud.) Still other equivalences, like that of the sun with an eye or a goose, or the waters with a club, are more strictly context-dependent. But what is always at play is a readiness to cross categories that to our minds are sealed from one another.

That the correspondences are not unique to the Vedas is obvious. They arise in every culture where “primitive thought” begins to take its bearings. The sampads are simply the unfolding of totemism or animism, as can be seen from a cursory look through anthropological literature, no matter which teachers one adopts as ones standard. They are, in other words, the traces of participated reality. They are also astonishingly long-lived, unfolding up to the present day, through mystical systems, mnemonics, liturgy, poetry.

I will adopt the terms sampad, correspondence, and equivalence as more or less synonymous terms for the idea of a correlation between two or more features of the world—whether natural or cultural.

Philosophy has two interests in the correspondences. One is simply reconstructive: it is scholarly, and in this role the sampads provide us a window of understanding upon spiritual, philosophical and literary traditions with which philosophy must be concerned. In this connection, the sampads allow us to read, say, Hegel, or Giordano Bruno, or Boethius, or Empedocles; but also to read Yves Bonnefoy or Ezra Pound or Laura Riding, Holderlin or Blake or Racine, Chaucer or Dante or the troubadours. Above all they open up for us the mythical matrix out of which philosophy fermented—the spiritual vocabularies and practices with which philosophy remained in continual dialogue and tension.

A second and perhaps deeper significance of the equivalences for philosophy, however, is their rationale and their critique. Their rationale: What sort of experience could ever have given rise to the strange notion that a human being and a crocodile or a marmoset or an emu were somehow the same? That one could read a passage in more ways than one because the words in it were also numbers? That the kinds of political regimes would have anything to do with tuning a stringed instrument? That the slow progression of the stars across the sky night by night and year by year “was” the turning of a millstone?

And, as important again, their critique: What made this idea go away? Why, if it was ever plausible, did it stop being plausible? Why, and in what manner precisely, does it linger despite this implausibility?

And should philosophy take sides on this question?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The nature of laws of nature, and why we care

Courtesy of Peter Gratton's blog, a link to the Scientific American report (rife with fascinating links to papers and presentations) on a conference concerning the laws of nature and the nature of laws. As author George Musser reports, philosophy and physics have been having something of a rapprochement after drifting away from each other since the heady days of the early 20th century, back when relativity and quantum mechanics were just starting to tear things up. After that there came a period where the two camps sort of soured on each other--not definitively, not wholly, and not always meanly; it wasn't always as bad as Sokal and his so-called Affaire might lead one to guess, but there was a sense of folk talking past each other. One account of why this was so might hinge on correlationism. Though this goes back to Kant, in most genealogies, the diagnosis of chronic, acute, aggravated correlationism really starts to become relevant in the middle to late 20th century, with ascendancy of a sort of mix of existentialism / ordinary language / pragmatism. (I'm writing extremely broadly here, and mainly talking about America.) Under these assumptions, science more or less is left alone to do its own thing, and while humanities departments get more and more jealous and eventually start to appropriate "techniques" or imitate systematicity and, in bad cases, wish they could "get results" like a new vaccine or satellite, they don't really talk to the lab guys, and the geniuses become images on our imagination. To be sure, some philosophers continued to ask about physics and do real work there, and eventually physicists themselves began to ask whether, as Musser puts it, "their search for a unified theory is stalling for a failure to think through philosophical questions." Of course if Meillassoux, the inventor of the term "correlationism," is right, the question this particular conference asked--"what is a law of nature, anyway?", is Musser's gloss--may have no answer, or rather, may be answered with nothing beyond "a contingency." For Meillassoux, the laws of nature could indeed change, because there is no necessity for them to be as they are; the only necessity is contingency: things are as they are only because things must be some way. Thus there are indeed laws of nature, but they could change, in a trillion years or later today, because there is no law of laws of nature, so to speak. This is something of a let-down. For all the righteous frustration over merely "thinking the correlation" and not the things-themselves, the critique of correlationism may turn out to offer not much more basis for conversation than correlationism did. We will need to do better. (Some sense of what "better" is, for me, is in this report of Steven Shaviro's on reading Isabelle Stenger's Cosmopolitics, volume one of which, I learn from Graham Harman, is now out in English translation.) We'll need a way to do justice to the fact that we want to know this stuff; to the astonishing thrill that we can know it--almost, almost, can't we?--; to the still-thrilling bafflement when we realize we don't know after all; and to the wonder and terror, pride and humility, in the face of a universe whose non-attitude toward us makes us feel both at home and castaway. Mosser writes, about the conference, "Where else could I have heard a derivation of the theory of quantum mechanics, an argument against polytheism, and a trick for giving directions to a place you don't know, all in the span of a couple of hours?" (A succinct summary of metaleptics.) And where else but the universe would you have quantum physics, polytheism, and the need to ask for directions? (Is that a trick question?)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Owen Barfield (part 2: with Meillassoux &/or Harman)

[See here for part 1]

Barfield believed not only that human experience had evolved from a consciously participatory stage, through a stage in which participation was progressively waning from consciousness, to its current condition in which it is attenuated or even barely vestigial; he also thought that signs indicated that it would come, indeed might be already coming, to a next phase in which participation would re-awaken, but would depend more upon the will, upon intention and freedom. This is part of his inheritance from Steiner, who developed an account of the stages of life, a kind of secret history of the species, ascending up steps on the great chain of being. But for Steiner, this was not just a history of the human spirit, but of the world. Barfield too held that his reconstruction of the history of participation had ramifications for an account of history per se, human history and indeed natural history.

Now if you compare this timeline with the one I've tentatively suggested, you’ll note that Barfield treats participation as having faded considerably later—as late as the 19th century—than I tend to assume (I think the process started happening as early as the invention of the city-state, certainly by the end of the Bronze Age, that the prescient in Plato’s and Herodotus’ generation already had a sense of what was happening, that Plutarch’s story of the cry that went up, Great Pan is dead, and the falling-silent of the oracles, is in some measure about the end of participation.) This is not necessarily an inconsistency, since I also maintain that there was a movement, of which express philosophy was a part, to keep access to the participatory experience open; also because Barfield tends to be thinking of the experience of the “common man,” the group Nietzsche calls the “herd,” whereas I am thinking of his “exceptions” (which are busy chipping away at participation in the name of “progress”) and the few who are carefully sieving the bathwater. Still, these details remain to be sorted. If there is a history, and even a teleology (and I am not convinced that there isn’t), figuring out these threads will be part of the effort to make it intelligible.

These are significant details, but what I want to concentrate on here is something else. I closed the last post on the note that, on Barfield’s account, the evolution of consciousness had slowly turned the collective representations from consciously participated realities into what he calls idols, or, also, objects. Barfield does not think that participation has ceased (or indeed that it could); only that it has become unconscious. Like a number of others (Morris Berman comes to mind), he argues that the scientific revolution has occasioned (or is it only an index of?) a shift not only in our thinking but in our actual experience. Speaking of this shift, Barfield says:
If…a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man of the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our ‘figuration’ the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. ‘Oh!’ he would say, ‘look how they stand out!’ (Saving the Appearances p 94)
This “standing-out” is figurative, of course, but Barfield is not the only one to have referred to it. A reader of Harman will recall that his ontology “splits” the object into two: a real object, withdrawn into itself, abjuring all contact; and a sensual object, rushing to meet every other, leaping forward to present its phenomenal aspects. Thus it might seem that what Barfield means when he speaks of idols, Harman means when he says “sensuous object.” But note that it is not the rushing forward, but the withdrawing back, the vacuum-sealed nature of the object “in itself,” that seems closer to what Barfield means when he speaks of the object “as an ultimate.” Indeed, Barfield might even have said (though here we again enter on extrapolation) that it is precisely the “tearing apart” of the object that is the last refusal of participation by thought; a paradoxical destruction of the object in the name of granting it autonomy.

I would not go so far, myself; and it is possible that Barfield would not either, for as we have seen, he also affirms the existence of something with which consciousness collaborates, “the unrepresented” (or to use the Epicurean term by which he also calls it, “the particles”), in the construal of collective representations. Moreover, there is something acknowledgedly problematic about “the unrepresented” in Barfield’s thought. (From a Lacanian perspective, one might say, well yeah: it’s the Real.) In the preface to the second edition, Barfield acknowledges:
the need was to express in language the view that our immediate awareness is a system of representations of something of which we are not immediately aware, but to which the representations are correlative—and to do so without characterizing or identifying the something, and therefore without predicating anything of it beyond its place in the system. To refer to it as ‘the represented’ would be misleading because that might mean simply the representation itself. On the other hand to refer to it as the unrepresented might admittedly be confusing, since it is dealt with throughout as though its whole function is precisely to be represented. It is thus apparently a contradiction in terms. I see the difficulty, but I have seen no way around it. (S.A. p7)
This is a difficulty of the presentation of Barfield's thinking, not what he is thinking about, but it is worth stopping over. One of the snags we hit here, of course, is what is expressed in the words, “its whole function is... to be represented.” It is not a foregone conclusion that Barfield means something inherently or irreducibly “anthropocentric” here, as if his in-itself somehow has an ontological telos involving the minds of human beings. But it is hard to avoid this impression (and after all, when you adhere to a philosophy called “Anthroposophy,” chances are there’s some anthropo involved.) I have reservations about this aspect of his thought.

“A long time coming,” some of you might be thinking, those of you who started getting impatient with Barfield when I noted he wore “correlationism” (not that exact word, but damn near close enough) as a badge of honor. But this is just what interests me about Barfield; far from trying to skirt the difficulties of a correlationist stance, Barfield embraces and seems to push them to their limit. This makes him a strange inversion of Meillassoux, to whom I now come.

Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins, as many will already know (and if you don’t, and you care about philosophy, you owe it to yourself to read this book; elegant, eminently readable, succinct, funny, engaging, infuriating in places), first with a description of correlationism, and then a sort of reduction: the argument from the “ancestral.” This is Meillassoux’s word for whatever transpired in the physical universe before the advent of humanity.
Consider the following ancestral statement: ‘Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans.’ The correlationist will in no way intervene in the content of this statement….he will simply add—perhaps only to himself, but he will add—something like a simple codicil…: event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans—for humans. …[C]orrelationism postulates that there are at least two levels of meaning in such a statement: the immediate, or realist meaning; and the more originary correlationist meaning, advocated by the codicil. What then would be a literal interpretation of the ancestral statement? The belief that the realist meaning of the ancestral statement is its ultimate meaning….[T]he retrojection which the correlationsit is obliged to impose upon the ancestral statement amounts to a veritable counter-sense with respect to the latter: an ancestral statement only has sense if its literal sense is also its ultimate sense..If one divides the sense of the statement, if one invents for it a deeper sense conforming to the correlation but contrary to its realist sense, then far from deepening its sense, one has simply cancelled it. (After Finitude pp13-17)
Now, I said before that when reading Barfield, one comes across the assertion that “consciousness is correlative to phenomena” so often that one starts to think Meillassoux has read Barfield. (Saving the Appearances was published in 1957; Apres la finitude in 2006.) I don’t actually assert that this must be so, but Barfield, while he is not meeting Meillassoux’s arguments head-on, is certainly formulating them (so expressly that it feels, frankly, a little uncanny to read) a full half-century before Meillassoux formulates them; only Barfield seeks to make a virtue of what Meillassoux would reject:
A history of the “world,” as distinct from a history of the unrepresented, must clearly be a history of phenomena, that is, of collective representations. But before this part of the subject is approached, it will be well to consider briefly the bearing of this truth on what is sometimes called pre-history. I mean, in particular, the history of the earth before the appearance on it of human beings. …the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described for example in the early chapters of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, was not merely never seen. It never occurred. Something no doubt occurred, and what is really being propounded by such popular writers, and so far as I am aware, by the text-books on which they rely, is this[:] that at that time, the unrepresented was behaving in such a way that,if human beings with the collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization had been there, the things described would also have been there.
This is not quite the same thing.
(S.A. p37)
“Not quite,” indeed. To Meillassoux’s question, “Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?” Barfield already, 50 years earlier, gave the answer Meillassoux finds so maddening, “Yes and no.” But not for the reasons Meillassoux thinks the correlationist must have. For in fact, Barfield asserts, that it is not a Kantian or para-Kantian dialect but science which compels this answer:
We have chosen to form a picture, based very largely on modern physical science, of a phenomenal earth existing for millions of years before the appearance of consciousness. This same physical science tells us that the phenomenal world is correlative to consciousness. (S.A. p135)
We may quarrel with Barfield’s understanding of “modern physical science.” He was not himself a physical scientist, and in any case the science he relied upon was that of the first half of the 20th century—though little has changed since then as far as the sub-microscopic realm is concerned; we are still faced with a détente between relativity and quantum mechanics. (It is also important to note that Barfield is not talking about the famous or infamous Copenhagen interpretation according to which certain quantum parameters have no specific values unless measured; he means simply that of Eddington’s two tables—the one that is solid enough to eat or write at and the one that is mostly empty space—the first one is phenomenal, which means very strictly an appearance, i.e., an appearance to someone.) Or we may quarrel with Barfield’s application of these findings to his retrospective scenario. In any case, he certainly cannot be accused of having either evaded, or been nonplussed by, the issue Meillassoux raises. Meillassoux says that the correlationist recasts the ancestral statement in a way that bleeds it of meaning, while obscuring this fact. Barfield rejoins that it is the “literal” ancestral statement that is obscure, because it conceals that it depends upon particular collective representations.
For those hypothetical ‘human beings with the collective representations characteristic of the last few centuries of western civilization,’ we might choose to substitute other human beings—those, for instance, who lives one or two or three or more thousand years ago. We should then have to write a different pre-history altogether.(S.A. p 37. My emphasis.)
This dovetails with another of Barfield’s points, which I mentioned in the previous post: namely, that the very recourse to interpretive categories, any division of interpretation into a “literal” any another, is itself changed in the degree to which the consciousness making the distinction is conscious of participation or not. Barfield does not mean (I think) that such a reconstruction of pre-history (in terms of “our” representations) is nonsense; only that it is a model, and not “the truth.” One can parse this in terms of revisability, but Barfield means more than just that scientific accounts are open to modification; he seems to mean that there could be could be co-existent accounts, say “participatory” and “non-participatory” accounts, that were somehow equally valid. This is obviously a very complex and very problematic argument, but it can’t be rejected out of hand.

The critic has a different route open; one might instead counter that the core sense of the scientific statement has to do not with phenomena at all (no secondary qualities), but only, as Meillassoux argues, what can be entirely mathematicized. But in this case, he is referring to what Barfield means by “the unrepresented:”
[A]long with the recent tendency to implicate the observer again in the phenomena, there goes the tendency of physicists to give up alpha-thinking about phenomena and occupy themselves as mathematicians, only with the unrepresented. (S.A. p43)
In other words, the mathematical formalization prized by Meillassoux, Badiou, and others, is already acknowledged by Barfield to pertain to what is behind the phenomena. If Barfield is recasting scientific reductionism, wresting it to mean something else than its “literal” meaning, he is doing so quite self-consciously. Now the fact does remain that Barfield, as an avowed correlationist, strains to think the correlation itself; but he clearly must hold that this correlation pertains before there is any conscious organism. This causes him to back into a kind of idealism:
The phenomena attributed to these millions of years are…in fact, abstract models or ‘idols of the study.’ We may compromise by calling them ‘possible phenomena’….but…it is highly fanciful, if not absurd, to think of any unperceived process in terms of potential phenomena, unless we also assume an unconscious, ready to light up into actual phenomena at any moment of the process. (S.A. p135)
I take this to show that while Barfield does begin from a reductionist starting-place, he clearly pushes reductionism against itself.

One final word before I close this post—too soon to remotely do Barfield justice, but still, I hope, having shown him to be pertinent not only to the thinking-through of the relevance of participation, but to a number of current metaphysical debates. Barfield is a deceptively “popular” sounding writer. His man-in-the-street style (as close as was possible for his subject) and his brevity should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication. Barfield may have believed some odd things, but he didn’t hold them in any simple-minded way.

Still, what shall we say of his anthropocentrism, and his Anthroposophy? Meillassoux makes it clear that one of the great motives for his work is not just to combat mistaken (as he sees it) philosophy, but the practical results of these mistakes—results that cannot fail to arise, since “fideism is merely the other name for strong correlationism” (A.F. p48);
So long as we continue to believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things. Since we will never be able to discover or understand such a reason, all we can do is believe in it, or aspire to believe in it. (A.F. p82).
This polemic of course is what motivates Meillassoux’s campaign against the notion of the limit of thought. One might think that he’s found a perfect target in Barfield, whose stranger positions are not spelled out in (and perhaps not entailed by) the arguments set forth in Saving the Appearances, but can certainly be glimpsed there. I have little to say about this, except that I believe that the quest for a raison d’etre for L’etre itself is not likely to be conjured away by recourse to equations. Barfield himself is quite explicit:
It would be rash to assume that there is no other approach than the mathematical one. Who can affirm, and on what evidence, that we may not also learn to approach the unrepresented by way of enhancing our figuration [as Goethe did], so as to make it a conscious process, as well as by the path of mathematical hypothesis? For sensation and figuration are the—at present—unconscious moment in which we actually meet the unrepresented (or at least encounter its resistance) in experience, as opposed to applying alpha-thinking to it afterwards. (S.A. p153)
This (ultra- or perhaps meta-Romantic) resistance to the Badiouan equation of matheme with reality, presumably, illustrates why I at any rate consider the musico-mathematical excurses of Plato, writing at a moment when the fading of participation seems to have become apparent, very significant. Plato does make use of the matheme, but always in a way that makes clear that he knows it is a construal, that it is a means of approximation. To a reader of Lacan, this can’t but intersect in provocative ways with Barfield’s recourse to the category of the unconscious. Barfield is (I think) thinking this along lines more or less like those of Schelling, especially the unfinished World-Ages project, which has a great deal in common with Barfield’s (and Steiner’s) sketch of the history of consciousness. (I don’t know how much of Schelling Barfield was familiar with, but he knew Coleridge backwards and forwards.) What one sees here, I think, is the incipient makings of a way out of Barfield’s anthropocentrism. This is a tendency that remains strong in him, and would need to be far more thoroughly critiqued than I’ve done here. But it is obvious that any “unconsciousness” that is imagined in the context of Meillassoux’s ancestral has to blow anthropocentrism right open. Here Harman’s polypsychism offers a helpful angle, as well. For if, a la Latour or Harman, every interaction, and not just those between human beings and the world, involves a mutual construal between parties, then in some sense an incipient psyche (or as Harman might say, an “inside”) is always potentially available. Barfield’s human-centric attitude then becomes simply a function of where he puts his emphasis (he is tracing the specific history, and perhaps destiny, of the human); a legitimate emphasis, but not where we are obliged to put ours, as we avail ourselves of the resources of his thought.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Owen Barfield (part 1: participation & correlation)

This will be the first of two parts of Barfield. (My preface, on Rudolf Steiner, is here.) As is my wont, I will combine exposition with excursion; not everything I say here is findable in Barfield’s texts. It should be more or less clear where he leaves off and I barge in, but after two decades of reading him, this isn’t always clear to me.

Barfield was first of all a philologist, and all his thinking has etymological roots. He noted the manner in which words tended to shift meanings, gaining and shedding connotations, with certain later accretions sometimes becoming central. His case that participation, in roughly Lévy-Bruhl’s sense, characterized human consciousness even into the Middle Ages (in an attenuated form), and that its last vestiges more or less evaporated for intellectuals with the scientific revolution (for "just folks," probably by the close of 19th century), is based in part on evidence we have for how words were used. This is surely one of the best indices we have of how our ancestors thought and—a more tendentious claim—how they experienced. As Ombhurbhuva noted in a recent comment, Barfield saw that the concrete meaning of a word was almost always the most ancient; the more abstract a definition, the more late it was. This is true, but it’s also important to note that the “extended” sense of a word is not exactly what we would call “figurative.” One of Barfield’s examples, which occurs in (I think) both Saving the Appearances and History in English Words, is the word “heart,” which does mean the beating organ in ones chest, but also “center, core”; or again, one step further, “most important.” Barfield would say that these senses are not, to the participatory mind, different; we only require an apparatus that distinguishes “metaphorical” from “literal” once participation has faded. In fact, the real grasping of a metaphor is, for Barfield, a “felt change of consciousness” in which one does not so much intellectually understand it as experience in a different mode, a heightened wakefulness which sees the sense of the metaphor. In a sense—I extrapolate—we experience metaphor as a momentary re-awakening of participation. This account of poetry, most fully spelled out in Barfield’s first book, Poetic Diction, comes from Barfield’s study of the Romantics (Barfield went on to write a seminal work on Coleridge, and one of his collections of essays is called Romanticism Comes of Age, a phrase which specifically connotes Anthroposophy); but its roots are in Plato and the claim that poetic inspiration is a kind of divine madness. It is also, curiously, surprisingly close in some ways to Davidson’s assertion that the meaning of a metaphor is simply the literal sense of its words.

Barfield does not mean that there was, anciently, no sense of what a metaphor was; but metaphor has a curious sense about it of both obviousness and of discovery; not however of ingenuity. As he puts it, the very meaning of “literal” and “symbolic” were different to the participatory mind. Even as late as the Medievals,
the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ themselves were not what the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today find only in symbols. Accordingly, the issue, in a given case, between a literal and symbolical interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories. (Saving the Appearances, p 74)
This will be important later.

Barfield here is speaking of the “common man” in the Middle Ages, not the intellectual; the case he is illustrating is Erigena’s assertion that scriptural and dogmatic accounts of afterlife suffering (or reward) are symbolic in that such experiences are purely spiritual, and are “described physically for the benefit of simple understandings.” Already by the time of Aristotle, one can see the signs both of participation and of its unraveling. “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle says (Poetics 1459a);
It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others, and a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies being able to see similarity [ὅμοιον θεωρεῖν].
The emphasis here is mine. This “cannot be learned” should be compared to Plato’s insistence that his doctrine could not be communicated in writing, “
for it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself. (Letters VII 341c-d).
What is seen, according to Aristotle, is resemblance or similarity, ὅμοιος, just as the [pseudo?]Platonic Epinomis says, as I have cited before, “As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems.”

This “revelation” is repeatedly maintained to be “beyond words,” ineffable, describable only by symbol. Conversely, every symbol (in this sense) carries a connotation of revelation, because the very experience of participation which it calls up is in excess of discursive thought per se. However, the term “revelation” here has not got the Hebraic sense of a supernatural communication or a transcendent reality breaking in. It is, one might say, wholly immanent. (This too is important later on, when we consider Levinas’ critique of participation, and compare Barfield with Meillassoux.) The Hebraic legacy, however, is not absent in Barfield. He argues that participation waned under the double impact of the Greek-inspired rise of rational critique of superstition, and the Hebraic moral critique of idolatry. I’ve said a good deal about the former and will say more. About the latter, Barfield comments with characteristic brevity and pointedness: “This is about the unlikeliest thing ever to have happened.” (S.A. p 109.) The origins of the Second Commandment have been the subject of long scholarly debate, but Barfield’s point that it is a strange and apparently aberrant meme is strong. His weaving together this Biblical theme with the Greek is of course in the long tradition of dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem which is, still, the systole and diastole of Western thought, and is that which makes the thrust of his account far more than an entertaining fancy for the intellect.

Besides philological evidence, Barfield based his notion of participation from an argument about the nature of experience. He draws upon Kant to some degree for this argument; but more primarily on 20th-century physics, the commonly-held “reductionist” scientific account of what matter is. Considering a macroscopic object, a tree or a table or a tennis-court, Barfield says:
Recollect all you have been told about matter and its ultimate structure, and ask yourself if the tree is ‘really there.’ I am far from affirming dogmatically that the atoms, electrons, nuclei, etc., of which the wood, and all matter, are said to be composed, are identifiable objects…. But if the ‘particles’…are there, and are all that is there, then, since the particles are no more like a tree than the raindrops are like the thing I call a rainbow, it follows, I think, that just as a rainbow is the outcome of the raindrops and my vision, so a tree is the outcome of the particles and my vision and my other sense-perceptions. Whatever the particles themselves may be thought to be, the tree as such is a representation. And…. a tree which is ‘really there’ is a collective representation. (S.A., pp 16-17.)
In other words, Barfield was an unashamed correlationist. Indeed, he seems to have stopped just short of inventing this term:
Whatever may be said or thought about a microscopic or sub-microscopic reality, it must be admitted…that the macroscopic world is not independent of…awareness[,] but on the contrary is correlative to it. (S.A. p 6.)
This is not an off-hand remark, but a refrain; it is enough to make me suspect that Meillassoux read Barfield and that there must be some exposition in L'inexistence Divine. Again:
Just as ‘the particles’ then (the name here chosen for all that is conceived to exist independently of consciousness), have also been called the unrepresented, so, whatever is correlative to the appearances or representations will here be called the represented. (S.A. p 41)
Indeed, Barfield’s arguments are, in places, so close to the mirror-image of Meillassoux’s as to make reading Saving the Appearances back to back with After Finitude a slightly uncanny experience. I will say more about this next post.

From having established the implication of consciousness in the construal of the world (and it’s important to stress that Barfield seems to regard this as unproblematic, though of course it has surprising ramifications which he intends to spell out) Barfield goes on to argue that the fact that we do not anymore experience this as a lived reality already shows that something has shifted between us and our ancestors. This difference is that we are detached from our collective representations, and they were connected. In sketching the process by which we have become progressively more detached, Barfield gives a sort of rough taxonomy of thinking. Given any experience, Barfield says, there is more than one thing one can do. One can first of all simply participate in it. The word “participate” of course already means that one is in some manner construing it, but it does not entail any further ratiocination. For this, Barfield uses the term figuration; and what one thus “figures” is a representation. Thus from the welter of smells, sights, and sounds, emerge coffee, the ocean, a church bell—what one might call the intentional object. Secondly, one can think about these representations, though not qua representation, simply qua coffee, ocean, bell. This is the sort of thinking we usually do; it is both the thinking I do when I clean up my apartment (“Arrgh, look at all these books! Not enough space on the shelves, not enough walls for the shelves!”) and what the scientist does when rolling spherical weights down a ramp or comparing bacteria cultures in Petri dishes. Such thinking Barfield calls alpha-thinking to distinguish it from beta-thinking, which term denotes thinking about representations qua representations, about the nature of them to our own minds; about perception and about thinking itself.

It is important thing to note that citizens of the modern “liberal” West, ancient Greeks, and members of a contemporary “primitive” tribe, all engage in what Barfield calls alpha-thinking. This is simply thinking about collective representations; it does not presuppose that the representations which are its subject-matter are either participated or non-participated. Thus Lévy-Bruhl’s “natives” thinking about the araras parrot, while conscious of participating in its parrothood, if I can put it that way, are doing alpha-thinking as much as the American ornithologist for whom the parrot is a very different object. By the same token, alpha-thinking and beta-thinking do not differ in being different kinds of thinking, Barfield says, but only in terms of their object; the latter is thinking about thinking, and in principle can also be done by anyone. However, both forms of thinking have effects. Historically, alpha-thinking, as a function of our consciousness, was not neutral; it construed the representations themselves, and the way it construed them, as the centuries passed, was more and more as an ultimate—that is, not as something construed at all. This is to say that as the function of “aboutness” loomed larger in alpha-thinking, participation waned; so that the very representations that are the matter of alpha-thinking in the late 19th century are different from those of the medieval world or those of Homer.
But a representation which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation; it is an idol. (S.A. p62)
This is why Barfield subtitled Saving the Appearances, “A Study in Idolatry.” By “idol,” he meant a representation that was made by us but felt to be independent. To construe phenomena as precisely unconstrued is to make them into objects. “Object” of course is too common a word to be a dead giveaway, but my sense is that Barfield may be read as anticipating (though not decisively refuting) Harman or Bryant’s Object-Oriented version of speculative realism just as he certainly seems to have foreseen more than one of Meillassoux’s maneuvers. I will treat of this in the next post.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bryant & Wolfendale: the internet as philosophy gym

Before I carry on with my posts on Owen Barfield, a brief notice to urge everyone to look to Deontologistics, where Pete "the Relentless" Wolfendale has put up a preface and parts 1 & 2 [update: now 3] of an enormous and detailed response to Levi Bryant's position (the first part will also point you to some of the background). Levi has made some rejoinders as well.

It is nice to see such a debate occur online. I am a fan of this medium, all things considered--in particular I like the way hyperlinks can dramatize a sort of metalepsis, and like Amod I think there are some precedents of a sort--but I agree with Harman that the internet can be problematic for philosophy. (Of course, Plato felt, so could the writing of scrolls.) (For another take on why the web is less than ideal for some of these purposes, see this post of Ian Bogost's).

As Harman points out, openness and connectivity is double-edged. The internet is diffuse. Hyperlinks enact the very stuff of networks and dramatize the unity of knowledge (though they certainly do not deliver this, they can spark a realization); but this connectivity can tend to pool outward, becoming wide but not deep. At worst, arguments get ever more meta-commentarious, tangled and confusing, yielding not an ecstatic aha! but a bewildering bleh.

On the plus side, most obviously, a kind of meritocracy can emerge online, thanks to the real access to each other that thinkers and writers have now, outside "normal channels." If there is a downside to this, a "decay of standards," I have to admit this doesn't have me so worried.

As to the speed and notorious flame-wars of online culture, there are even philosophical upsides to this as well. Ancient philosophy is connected to the gymnasium, and such online sparring can be a sort of training. While the speed with which online arguments transpire, so that last week sometimes feels like last century, is in some ways unconducive to the work of the philosopher (which Simon Critchley recently characterized as taking ones time), such banter, when posts and comments flash back-&-forth, can also be as close as the internet can get to speech, and this is after all Plato's gold standard. (I know of course that "as close as you might come" is still simulacra-- and might still be seen as having all the "bad" sides of writing ["it always says the same thing"] and no "real presence;" but I'm a writer too, for all my Platonism--and so was Plato.)

To be sure, speed does often turns into a sort of emotional heat. While this is also dangerous--one often encounters (in others and in oneself) reactiveness, not response, and a pandering to the irritable and irascible nature of the soul--I believe that it can also be a condition for real insight, and indeed insight that goes deep. If I can put it this way, philosophy is a kind of cool handling of hot matter. Pete and Levi seem to be getting this mostly right. No K.O.'s so far, but they've come out fighting--and it's a clean fight.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A brief note on Steiner (prolegomenon to reading Barfield)

I have cited Owen Barfield a couple of times in these posts, usually with a link to his magnum opus, Saving the Appearances, but so far I haven’t tried to summarize his thought or even really spell out what I find significant in it. I’ve shirked from this, in part because the task is too big—I won’t accomplish it here either—since I first read Barfield before I was 20, and his influence on my thought has been very great. But also, I’ve hesitated in part because Barfield is likely to be an uncongenial presence to many readers. An unorthodox Christian, Barfield was unabashed in his enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner, originator of the movement known as Anthroposophy. He translated a number of Steiner's books, and carried on a long epistolary polemic with C.S. Lewis over his ideas. Many who find little in Lewis to agree with will still come down with him against Barfield when it comes to Anthroposophy.

Hence, a word about Steiner is in order. This will be the business of this short post; the next two will take up Barfield himself. Steiner was not a mere crank or nut-case, even just a “charismatic” one; certainly he was not a cult founder or a guru, though he was an extraordinarily successful leader and retains to this day an extensive following that is not always free of humorless piety. Steiner studied under Brentano, edited the works of Goethe, founded Waldorf schools (a matter of special interest to me as a teacher), and pioneered real contributions in agriculture, medicine, and the rights of the disabled. (In Vienna he worked with the hydrocephalic son of the Jewish family with whom he lived, a child who was considered hopelessly ineducable, bringing the boy to the point where he could enter school and continuing to work with him in his education, for a total of six years. The boy eventually became a doctor.) He designed and supervised the construction of eighteen buildings, including the second Goetheanum near Basel (the first one had been burned down in an act of arson) which is widely considered one of the masterpieces of 20th-century architecture.

But it is Anthroposophy for which Steiner is remembered. His spiritual philosophy is based in large part what he derived from Goethe, though he studied very broadly—he wrote his dissertation on Fichte, also edited Jean Paul and Schopenhauer, and wrote one of the very first books of Nietzsche (and very early noted the fascism of Nietzsche’s sister, which must have taken some nerve, as it was she who had invited him to organize the Nietzsche archive.) Besides these more conventional sources, however, Steiner was also impacted by thinkers who are more outliers: by Jacob Boehme (not all that unusual—Boehme’s influence is ubiquitous in Romanticism); by Swedenborg (a man much like himself—polymath, genius, scientist and mystic); and by Madame Blavatsky (“Of course she gets up spurious miracles, but what is a woman of genius to do in the nineteenth century?” a defensive W.B. Yeats remarked). (Anthroposophy broke away from the Theosophical movement when Steiner declined to recognize Krishnamurti as the new messiah—a demurral in which Krishnamurti eventually publicly concurred). Steiner came to use a language it is easy (in some circles) to snicker at now, a language full of cosmic energies and destinies moving the history of the world and the collective soul of humankind, of gods and once-upon-a-time lost continents, a strange syncretic brew he distilled out of his “readings” of the “Akashic record,” the vibrational trace of past events, accessible to the higher mind of the adept.

I have some interest in these more out-there speculations as possible ramifications of the further reaches of human experience, but they are not my subject here. The next couple of posts will be about Barfield, not Steiner. Still, I think this weird streak needs to be declared right up front (and I am interested in anyone's thoughts on Steiner too), for Barfield declined to apologize for his belief in Anthroposophy, and if this gets “discovered” later it is easy to take it for some closet-skeleton that discredits the whole project. (Hence, if a bit of “woo-woo” stuff is going to give you permission to ignore everything, you can skip the exposition.) Moreover, while Barfield refers to Steiner in just a few of his works, Anthroposophy is relevant both to the shape of his thought and to the pertinence I see for it. Just how and why, as well as why this can be an asset and not a liability, will (I hope) become clear.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mythos and/or logos

A juxtaposition of apparently incommensurable discourses characterizes the earliest Greek philosophical texts to have reached us. Heraclitus, according to Clement of Alexandria who preserved this remark for us, says of “the One,” who “alone is wise,” that it is “both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus,” a remark which can aptly serve as an epitome of incommensurability. Parmenides, usually thought to be the dispositional antipodes of Heraclitus, likewise illustrates the case. Parmenides’ poem certainly has an order and logic, but it can be read (insofar as its fragments can be read) as an amalgam of material religious, metaphysical, logical, astronomical, and biological. It begins (like Boethius) with an encounter with a goddess. Her maidens conduct the narrator in a hastening chariot whose wheels spin hot and make the sounds of pipes. Addressing the narrator, the goddess makes a distinction between two “ways,” of “it is” and “it is not,” drawing out the distinction into many conclusions, including the famous identity of what is thinkable with what is at all. By the time it ends, the poem has treated the moon, the planets, the Milky Way, and the position of male and female embryos in utero. If we had more of the poem, it would doubtless mention even more incongruous topics.

So what is going on? How did we get from Being and Nothingness to animal husbandry?

Parmenides felt no need to justify this transition, not because he did not know any better or because he reasoned by mistaken analogies, but because the very way in which he knew was still informed by that mode of consciousness Lévy-Bruhl called participation. These seemingly disparate realms are thought in terms of each other. In the same way that there is, for the native, a continuity or immediate relevance between tribe and totem, or natural phenomenon and the myths that “explain” it (it is the anthropologist, not the native, who speaks in terms of “explanation”), so Parmenides saw an obvious pertinence between the ontological categories of Being, and the cosmos—not just in its grand outlines and foundations, but even in “mud and hair,” as he assures Socrates in Plato’s dialogue.

For his part, Plato too seems to take for granted a certain fluidity of “subject matter” that is difficult for us to take seriously. For Plato, it is almost second nature to see Justice or Goodness or Love in terms of cookery or rhetoric or arboriculture; one might say, above all, in terms of geometry, astronomy, and music, except that these are, themselves, understood in terms of one another.
To the man who pursues his studies in the proper way, all geometric constructions, all systems of numbers, all duly constituted melodic progressions, the single ordered scheme of all celestial revolutions, should disclose themselves, and disclose themselves they will, if, as I say, a man pursues his studies aright with his mind fixed on their single end. As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems. (Epinomis 991e).
The Epinomis is of controversial authorship; it is frequently attributed to Philip of Opus, Plato’s pupil and posthumous editor (Diogenes Laërtius mentions the attribution to him the division of the Laws into twelve books, and says that “some say” Philip wrote the Epinomis as a thirteenth to be an appendix). But Plato’s own practice clearly illustrates the same principle. He illustrates the pre-existence of the soul by a lesson in geometry; the best way to govern a state by a story about a mutinous crew of sailors; he offers a strange—and strangely precise—mathematical and musical account of the creation of the world soul. Plato’s use of these far-flung discourses is almost always read in terms of their furnishing “examples” and, at worst, they are completely overlooked, ignored, even edited out. In his 1945 translation of the Republic, F.M. Cornford, for instance—an admirable scholar in many ways—completely erased Socrates’ exposition of his “sovereign number” at 546.c (opining that it was an “extremely obscure description”) and offered a “simplification” of the tyrant’s allegory. It is true that these passages are difficult. It is hard to take them “seriously,” if by this we mean asking if Plato “means what he says.” The assumption that he does, in fact, mean what he says in some sense, and is not wasting the reader’s time, is borne out if one gives equal weight to his mode of expression (precise, mathematical) and his method (rhetorical, metaphorical). For Plato these modes of discourse lend themselves to each other—there is not a given distinction that is hard and fast between math and politics or even cookery and poetry. But what is the nature of their connection?

The question arises for us because it had already begun to arise for Plato. Even, I think, by Parmenides’ time, the experience of participation had slowly eroded for a long time. Once the universe had been a vast texture of interlocking analogies, felt in pulsing and vibrant clarity: planets corresponded with human dispositions and military outcomes, trees with planets, stories with trees, ritual with stories. In ritual, motions of knife, of rope, of flowers, the pouring of wine in a cup, the blowing of ashes on a stone hearth, the entrails of an animal and the cadences of words intoned to each god, all of these and more had formed a matrix of meaning, felt, assumed, taken for granted.

The questions that Socrates and Phaedrus entertain at the top of the cliff (in the Phaedrus 229 c-d) would not have occurred to anyone a few generations before: was the story of Boreas’ kidnapping of the Orithyia “really” a story of a girl who fell to her death because of a strong wind? We may compare this question to the issue raised by Lévy-Bruhl about the natives who, faced with the man apparently killed by crocodiles, did not distinguish between explanations that involved a witches disguising themselves as crocodiles, or sending a crocodile, or attacking with a club studded with crocodile teeth. The more anthropologists pressed these distinctions, Lévy-Bruhl notes, the more the distinctions were regarded by natives as otiose. Clearly, by the time Phaedrus and Socrates have climbed up outside the city, something has shifted.

All philosophy comes out of a matrix of mythology. One sees this matrix clearly with the Greeks, from Heraclitus, who said that Homer deserved to be thrashed with rods, to the late Hellenistic thinkers who read Homer and Hesiod through the sieve of allegory. It is likewise a crux of interpretation for the Indian rsis of the Upanishadic tradition. Reading philosophy in dialogue with its religio-mythical context is still, even all these years after Schelling, a task for our interconnected world. It is well known that Arab and Persian philosophy attends the preservation of European philosophy among the Germanic and Latin peoples in the Middle Ages. Reclamation of the philosophical inheritance of Amerindian and African cultures remains underway, hampered by the ambiguous legacies of colonialism and a Eurocentrism that remains despite (or because of) the West’s good intentions and bad conscience. One looks forward, for instance, to a subtle and multifaceted exposition of “African philosophy” without apology, without offering it as either a version or anticipation of Plato or Leibniz or Derrida, nor as an answer or alternative to them, but simply in terms of philosophy per se. This may be easier to accomplish in terms of Chinese, Indian, or (despite contemporary battle lines) Islamic philosophy, since these cultures were never decisively annexed by the West (even India’s period of colonization, for all that we are still hung-over from it, is a mere blip in its civilization’s history). Of the signal development of Chinese philosophy in dialogue with the great religious traditions of Taoism and Buddhism there can be no doubt. Voegelin was able to show the relevance of the great Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian backgrounds to the emergence of the “Ecumenic age.” All of this follows in the wake of Jasper’s observation (building upon Hegel’s halfway concession) that philosophy begins in India and China as well as in Greece.

Enrique Dussel, among others, writes eloquently and forcefully of the properly philosophical content of concepts retrievable from Amerindian, Asian and African civilizations. Dussel stakes out the core problems of philosophy, universal questions that arise in any human linguistic matrix in one way or another, subject of course to grammatical variations but remarkably prevalent over time and geography: the nature of “real things in their totality,” and their behavior; “the mystery of their own human subjectivity, the ego, interiority, spontaneity, as well as the nature of freedom and the creation of the social and ethical world;” “the question of how we interpret the ultimate foundation of everything that is real, the universe itself;” and “the classic ontological question: ‘Why being and not nothingness?’” Dussel notes a historical process in which philosophy slowly extricates itself from mythological categories.
There is a progression in terms of degrees of univocal precision, semantic clarity, simplicity, and conclusive force with which foundations have been laid. But there are also losses in multiplicity of meaning when symbols are displaced, but which can be hermeneutically rediscovered….univocal rational discourse as expressed in philosophical categories that are capable of defining conceptual content without recourse to symbols (as in a myth) gains in precision but loses in terms of resonance of meaning.
Dussel mentions a number of compellingly philosophical categories which can easily be excavated from discourses that tend to be relegated to mythological or merely religious shelves. Perhaps easiest to swallow is the Upanishadic meditation upon atman and Brahman, karma and moksha. In China, the I Ching seems on one level to be a text rife with the “merely” mythological, but philosophy proper is there in full force in the dynamic between yin and yang, the waxing and waning of the Tao; by the time we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the way that can be named is not the eternal way,” there can be no doubt that philosophy is here in full bloom. In Mesoamerica, the symbol Quetzalcoatl (often rendered “feathered serpent,” but also translatable as “precious twin,” from quetzal, the richly colored plumes of a particular bird, and coatl, “snake,” but also “twin”) is assimilated to a properly philosophical concept ometeotl (two-god, from ome and teotl, “two” and “divinity.”) From here Dussel also mentions the “philosopher-king” Nezahuacoyotl, ruler of Texcoco (died 1472), who presided over a court full of tlamatini, “those who know” (or “philosophers” as Sahagun translated the term), who built a temple “to an unknowable Lord of Everywhere” according to his post-conquest biographers, a temple empty of images and in which human sacrifice was abolished.

These observations and interpretations may be controversial or tendentious, but this is only an index of the fact that the interpretation of mythology is already a properly philosophical endeavor. This, too, is clear already in Plato. Marx famously asserts (at the beginning of Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) that “the critique of religion is the prerequisite for every critique.” I noted before that Aristotle called the lover of myths also a philosopher “of sorts” because both philosophy and myth were founded upon wonder. Socrates turns to a myth too often for it to be a matter of mere “illustration” of a point—unless “illustration” itself be further thematized. Indeed, Socrates acknowledges to Callicles (Gorgias 523a) that his story of the destiny of the soul can be called either mythos or logos, depending on one’s point of view; and there are stories and allegories he does not expressly describe as myths, even when they involve fantastic occurrences or actions of gods (the Phaedrus’ account of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth is an instance); whereas the ideal city of the Republic is so called. For Socrates, not every exposition of myth is worthy of pursuit. The Euhemerist reductions of Boreas’ abduction of Orithyia, he declares to be an almost frivolous pursuit, distracting from the real business of philosophy, which is to come to know oneself. There is no point in “demythologizing” every impossible anecdote and fabulous creature, when one’s self is possibly “a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typhon,” or again perhaps “a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny.” That what is at issue is not the interpretation of myth, but the sort of interpretation, we can tell by the fact that later in the dialogue Socrates invokes Eros as a god; that he describes the soul in its chariot borne by two allegorical horses; that he gives the story of writing, invented by the Egyptian god Theuth and presented to the pharaoh Thamus. All three of these stories are arguably myths, and their significance has to be unfolded through the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. What Socrates dismisses is the sort of “explanation” that reduces a story of a maiden abducted by a god to one of a girl who fell to her death from a cliff because of a strong wind.

This is not explanation, but explaining away. We may conclude that Socrates would be equally uninterested in questions of where Noah’s ark came to rest, of whether Atlantis “really existed,” of whether Jesus “really” rose after three days. These questions are those of a secularized Fundamentalism: the question is always “what really happened?”

But this reductionism does not express itself only in Euhemerism. As a trend, it will gradually pry apart the easy commerce between discourses that Plato uses so easily. Once the question becomes “what really happened?”, the stage is set for the “answer” to entirely displace the story. There be less and less room for any “it is like…,” any analogy such as Plato might posit to spark a reflection or realization.

Yet Plato cannot have objected in principle to the question “what really happened?” The distinction between truth and falsehood, Parmenides’ “it is” and “it is not,” is the philosophical distinction!

Indeed. Philosophy is an effort—I believe it began as an intentional and advised effort—to preserve the sense of participation even as it acknowledged the force of the critique of participation. That critique was very powerful, corrosive, potentially unstoppable. Of course a crocodile attacking a man is different from an attack by men with tooth-studded clubs. The varieties of trees will come to be seen as not “really” aligned with planets, nor minerals with syllables; these correspondences are arbitrary. The grammar of ritual and sacrifice is a thin tissue of superstition. The laws of the city, of court and cult, were invented by the powerful to keep the gullible in check and at their service. Why should we bother to heed them?

This is the condition of nihilism, the condition in which “everything is permitted.” Philosophy has had many other sparring partners (poetry, mysticism, politics…) but never any other real enemy. It arose when participation began to unravel. In the face of this unraveling, more than one response was possible: one could dig in one’s heels and refuse to acknowledge the critique of the correspondences; one could capitulate, shrug and give in to hedonism or despair (not, at root, very different); or one could try, in all ones human finitude, to keep one’s eye on the one thing needful and love wisdom, which meant first of all, believing in wisdom and in love.

These are still the only three real options worth worrying about.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Metalepsis as participation: on Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

I have written more than once about metalepsis, a concept that figures in Aristotle and Plato but that has a number of later connotations (or, I would say, latent ramifications that were eventually made explicit). This word serves as a handy trope for the move by which one puts oneself into and out of the context of a question or an assumption, a poem or a scientific system or even a religious worldview. (This is part of what I meant when (following David Rylance) I asked for generosity in philosophical/political argument; but here I will be exploring a different angle.) But the use of some multisyllabic term from ancient Greek raises suspicions: have I just employed a little pseudo-etymology to mystify a straightforward concept or even to justify an unstraightforward practice?

What I mean by metalepsis is a good deal more than a suspension of disbelief or a tentative "for-the-sake-of-argument" stipulation of premises (though it can be these too); it's a sort of full-body joining-in, a kind of virtual submersion. In this post I'll unpack one particular vein of precedent for this idea.

I originally formulated this notion of metalepsis by thinking over the resonances of the word participation, which is what it means in Greek. As I've mentioned elsewhere, participation as a philosophical term comes to modern currency (aside from its use in neo-Thomism) with Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who was searching for a way to describe and account for the apparent cavalier attitude of "primitive" peoples towards the law of contradiction.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, dissatisfied with the state of anthropological theory, Lévy-Bruhl paid close heed to the evidence being gathered by fieldworkers, and in a number of controversial works attempted to reformulate a plausible account of the mentality of the peoples studied. In particular, he found himself unsettled by the implicit or explicit intimation that the natives were simply deficient in rationality, or that they were groping in the dark for explanations of natural phenomena. Lévy-Bruhl intuited that something else was going on, something far more interesting and complicated than fumbling for science, or the rationale for the white man's burden, or mere relativism.

Deeply struck by countless anecdotes of primitives’ seemingly inexplicable behavior, Lévy-Bruhl made a distinction between primitive and modern mentalities. The former, he said, differed from modern European civilization not just in empirical but in rational terms. It wasn’t just that in their apparent naïvete they could aver belief in impossible physical occurrences; they could countenance assertions that were, on their face, flatly contradictory. This was a difference not in what they thought physically possible, but in their idea of possibility itself. It was not just that they believed a sorcerer could transform into a poisonous snake, for instance, but that they made no distinction between scenarios in which a man transforms into a snake and bites his victim, or “causes” a snake to bite someone, or shoots a dart poisoned with snake venom.

Because of this apparent unawareness of the principle of non-contradiction, Lévy-Bruhl called primitive mentality prelogical. His account has been widely—and divergently—critiqued. Some have seen it as fostering ethnocentrism; others as far too relativist. Responding to critiques by Malinowksi, Boas, and others, Lévy-Bruhl eventually modified it significantly in some respects. Others after him have continued to criticize it. But despite their differences, all these anthropologists concur with Lévy-Bruhl that “indigenous” mentalities have a coherence and sensicality of their own. This debate is not settled today, but a rough consensus has been reached, a sort of halfway house meant to mollify the defenders of universalism and multiculturalism alike. In Lévy-Bruhl’s terms, the position is: while “primitive” humanity is perfectly capable of thinking logically and “scientifically” if the occasion is felt to demand it, such cultures also have another manner of thinking, which is nothing like truncated or failed science at all, but based upon an entirely separate kind of experience. Lévy-Bruhl called this principle the “Law of Participation.”

As is well known, Lévy-Bruhl did not coin this term. In other posts I will have something to say about its antecedents. What he meant by it is summarized with deceptive ease, but really grasping it is difficult. Lévy-Bruhl held that “savages” actually experienced the world in such a way that they were continuous with it. Categories that seem hard and fast to us are, to this way of experience, permeable. The easiest feature to see, and the most misleading, of such a world-view is the attribution of intentionality to “inanimate” forces and objects. I say this is misleading, in part because of course when I describe it I almost cannot do so in any way except those which make it seem frankly self-contradictory. An “inanimate” object is precisely what is not admitted by the mentality we are discussing.

This does not make the people who hold it “animists.” A tendentious description of this term could permit itself the observation that it was invented by western thinkers for attitudes they did not understand—no “animist” every described themselves as an animist. At the same time, however, this does not make the term meaningless. It is meant to pick out certain common, and meaningful, characteristics in human behavior. What is important to recall is that it is an etic, not an emic, term—it is used by outsiders, not by people for themselves. Indeed, one reading of Lévy-Bruhl would note that he seems to move from etic accounts like (such as that primitive, or “prelogical,” mentality “does not bind itself down, as our thought does, to avoiding contradiction” ) to emic accounts which merely present his ethnographic anecdotes without needing to situate them in a structure of theory, a theory which could only misconstrue them. Such a theory eluded Lévy-Bruhl. “To be honest,” he says in the posthumously-published Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, “I did not have one.”

In fact the “animation” of the natural world is simply a function of the fact that the primitive human being experiences everything in the world as more than itself. Lévy-Bruhl offers this gloss, in the pages where he first offers the account:
in the collective representations of primitive mentality, objects, beings, phenomena, can be, though in a way incomprehensible to us, both themselves and something other than themselves. (How Natives Think, pp76-7).
To the bemused anthropological fieldworker, the tribespeople will staunchly reiterate that they are themselves ants, sloths, poisonous frogs, or (in the famous case of the Brazilian Bororos), araras, scarlet parakeets;
This does not signify that after death they become araras, nor that araras are metamorphosed Bororos, and must be treated as such. It is something entirely different. … It is not a name they give themselves nor a relationship that they claim. What they desire to express is actual identity.
This identity is the central point; there is a felt continuity between perceiver and perceived, between thinker and the object of thought; but also between two or more different objects, any of which may or may not be (what we would call) imaginary. Thus a member of a tribe may be a human being and also “be” a totemic animal; the flash of lightning is not “explained as” Thor but is Thor. “Participation” is the term for the way these objects relate to each other in quasi- and (to us) problematic identity. Thus, too, what would be to us mutually exclusive explanations of an event can be comfortably conflated, so that for example (one example of many from Lévy-Bruhl), the death of a man killed by an alligator is accounted for as death by witchcraft, without distinguishing between such scenarios as: a witch having transformed into an alligator, or sending an alligator, or even simply using a weapon made to duplicate wounds an alligator would give. In the native mind, these different narratives all overlay each other, participate in each other, in a kind of shifting moiré pattern.

Lévy-Bruhl is at pains to emphasize that this is not an intellectual postulate but an experience. Remarking upon various instances in which “superstitions” have attributed a malevolent power to a foreigner’s hat, or a rocking chair, or a portrait of Queen Victoria, blaming the said object for a drought or a plague or some other misfortune, Lévy-Bruhl specifies that participation is something other than
merely an artless and erroneous application of the principle of causality…. It consists in a mystic relation which the primitive represents to himself—and of which he is convinced as soon as he represents it to himself—between the antecedent and the consequence....The opposition between the one and the many, the same and the other, and so forth...is of but secondary interest. (How Natives Think, p74; 77)
There is a real question as to why these logical or philosophical issues which Lévy-Bruhl names here ever did become of more than "secondary interest." Some shift not only in thinking but in mode of experience—can one say a “change of consciousness” without being tarred with the newage brush?—transpired. In other posts, I will have more to say about that; here I just need to register it.

As his work progresses, one sees in Lévy-Bruhl an incremental foregrounding not of the opposition of prelogical to our own analytic approach, but of a positive account of participation itself. Some of this tendency was native to him; some was in response to the considerable reaction, both positive and negative, that his writings provoked. Lévy-Bruhl was a philosopher, and many philosophical readers found something in his work appealing. Anthropologists, however, were divided.

Most of his critics at one point or another faulted him for the term “prelogical;” Boas, Malinowski, Radin, and others, spoke quite sharply of his remarks on primitives’ casualness about contradictions. He was said to have portrayed natives as confused, muddled, hopelessly vague. Worst of all, he made all his proclamations without having ever done fieldwork! This last objection has considerably more weight than the former. It is true that Lévy-Bruhl was a philosopher doing anthropology from Paris, and one can legitimately raise doubts about his conclusions based on this. But he questioned anthropologists who had done fieldwork very intensely, and his willingness to revise his accounts belies arguments that he forced the data to match his conclusions. (Moreover, fieldwork is no proof against reaching drastically wrong conclusions, as is well known—only the most controversial case being Margaret Mead’s alleged projection of sexual utopia onto Samoa).

In fact Lévy-Bruhl was, no less than his opponents, concerned himself with understanding the peoples he studied “in their own terms;” he was interested in showing them to be capable, thoughtful, skilled, intelligent. But the terms “prelogic,” “primitive,” “savages,” even “natives,” were fraught with the baggage of colonialism. To a discipline that was eager to shed ethnocentrism, these were liabilities, and they contributed to a hostile reading of Lévy-Bruhl’s central contention—that “primitive mentality” was different.

The problem was this: If we say that primitives have a wholly different way of thinking than we do, we run the risk of essentially claiming a gulf between us that prevents our communication with them and even our understanding. We may be able to avoid a certain sort of condescension, but only at the price of making them completely other; and we have no answer at all to the question, how did we become like us if we started like them? Moreover, how can we even talk to or about them? If we posit that their world-view is so drastically other as to constitute an alternate ontology, how is it that the anthropologist is able to bridge the intervening chasm so as to describe this other mode of being? This is the puzzle of incommensurability .On the other hand, if we say that primitives do think like us, we have to account for their obviously very different assertions and behaviors. In this case, we have possible scenarios of development, but we find ourselves strongly tempted to the conclusion that the primitives are indeed mis-applying logic or rationality, and, when they do not respond to our patient enjoinments and demonstrations, the loaded word deficient is lurking just offstage.

Lévy-Bruhl’s opponents took a different approach. To them, natives were not making foolish logical mistakes; but neither were they reasoning in a completely different manner than modern Europeans. They were, rather, reasoning just as logically as we would, in like manner but on the basis of different assumptions.

There is no question that native ratiocination is recognizable. Pacific islanders are able to steer from one tiny island to another by means of the stars, but if they were not able to reason, the stars would be of no use to them. Lévy-Bruhl acknowledged that in countless circumstances, the behavior of the “primitive” looked perfectly rational and did not seem to call for any special hypotheses.
Considered as an individual, the primitive, insofar as he thinks and acts independently of these collective representations when possible, will usually feel, argue and act as we should…the inferences he draws will be just those which would seem reasonable to us in like circumstances. If he has brought down two birds, for instance, and only picks up one, he will ask himself what has become of the other, and will look for it. If rain overtakes and inconveniences him, he will seek shelter. If he encounters a wild beast, he will strive his utmost to escape. (How Natives Think p79)
But there remains a difference. The stars, the ocean, the birds, the rain, the wild beasts themselves are not experienced in the same way by the primitive and the European, Lévy-Bruhl thinks. “The very material upon which this mental activity is exercised has already undergone the influence of the law of participation.” (my emphasis).

The problem with the argument that only the assumptions and not the manner differ, is that it does not account for the great tenacity of these assumptions, their incredible recalcitrance in the face of (what would count for us as) “evidence,” and the unremitting sense one gets in reading ethnographic reports that the natives really seem to experience something different from what we would experience. In fact, there is no clear demarcation between “beliefs” and “experience” in the sense that the counter-argument would have it. This is clearly seen in cases of spirit or ancestor possession, or faith healing, or cases of shamanic killing like “voodoo death,” or the famous Australian kurdaitcha, or bone-pointing. One does not writhe, babble in glossolalia, or enter trances; one does not heal—and above all one does not die—merely upon the basis of a hypothetical or even a stipulated “belief;” these things occur because the belief is held in a way that involves the whole self.

All of these issues informed Lévy-Bruhl’s debates with contemporaries and all have contributed to his ambiguous legacy. The difficulties about incommensurability remain current even now. There is no consensus over the nature of the “mythic” or “magical worldview,” but what is not in dispute is that it is different.

Trying to think this difference involves us in considerable paradox, and is a matter of ongoing debate. Lévy-Bruhl's legacy is not yet spent. My use the notion of participation (qua metalepsis) is informed by David Abram’s detour through phenomenology (in particular Merleau-Ponty, who as is well known writes of the reciprocal relation between world and mind: “the world looks at me when I look at the world”); by Owen Barfield’s account in Saving the Appearances; and by Gerard Genette's narratology; but also via its previous resonances in Malebranche, the scholastics, neo-platonism, Renaissance tropology, Aristotle, and Plato. It seems to me that a word with such venerable and versatile heritage has depths worth plumbing. Lévy-Bruhl's work is valuable in reminding us that it is not just a matter of chasing down footnotes; it bears on the parameters of reality.