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, May 31, 2013

Justus Buchler (part 2: Natural Complexes)

(This is the second of two posts on Justus Buchler and cross-posted on After Nature, whose author, Leon Niemoczynski, should be credited with much that is good in them. As in the previous post, I have drawn considerably on the able exposition of Kathleen Wallace in two fine articles. Do I have to say "the faults remain my own" for a blog post or does that go without saying?.)

The previous post discussed Buchler’s philosophy of experience and judgment. Here I want to follow up with his account of the world in which experience transpires.

Buchler moves from a concern with human judgment and practice to the broader question of what, in general, exists, and what may be said of it. This does not indicate any change of position on Buchler’s part, as far as I can tell, but it makes explicit a formerly unstated ontology, an ontology as roomy as one could wish. With Wittgenstein, he might say that “the world is all that is the case,” but with two caveats: first, for Buchler the world is comprised of things, not facts--except that facts are also things, as indeed are rocks, paintings, theorems, marriages, courts, bank accounts, comic book characters and the settings of fantasy novels. Second, there is no sum, no totality of such things; for Buchler, “the world” is a term useful for communication, but metaphysically speaking there is no “world,” no final, complete super order which is a “thing” comprised of everything. In Buchler’s capacious view of the world where the world is “whatever is, in whatever way it is,” we cannot say that there is “a” world, some distinct totality of whatever is in whatever way it is. In this way Buchler is not only one of the most radical empiricists in the American tradition, but he is among the most radical pluralists. In his words, the orders of the world are “innumerable.”

Buchler’s considerable ambition here is worth underscoring here. He is seeking terms general enough to talk about the being of anything at all: e.g., a haricut, a bowling ball, a grudge, a waterfall, a well-executed swan dive, the wiping out of a species by a predator, the Planck length, Benjamin Franklin’s invention of bifocals, the love of Desdemona for Othello, the building of the Great Wall of China. Note that such a list includes ordinary “objects,” as well as possibilities, relations, fictional entities, changes, processes, and events. Generally speaking, the key feature of Buchler’s metaphysics is this: When describing the world we cannot do so in terms of metaphysical “simples.” Whatever is, is “complex.” This means, first, whatever is, in any way, (so there are no modal restrictions); and second, whatever is locates, but is also located by, whatever else is.

This vision of the world is richly pluralistic. No one thing any more “real” than any other thing, a radical egalitarianism which Buchler's expresses with the shorthand “ontological parity,” a phrase whose significance in his thought can hardly be overstressed. (Its rough equivalent today is “flatness.”) Moreover, and complementing this parity, all things are what they are in relation to at least some other thing, whether by including some other thing pertinent to it as a “trait” which belongs to it, or by being included within some larger or more common relevant “order” which locates that thing itself as a trait. This is Buchler's doctrine of “ordinality,” and indeed Buchler's philosophy is sometimes referred to as an “ordinal metaphysics.” Thus, all things, being naturally complex, are orders in that they contain traits as located features of the world. Those traits in turn serve as orders which further locate other traits, and so on all the way down. Likewise, any natural complex is also itself a trait in the sense that it is located by some other more encompassing order, and so on, all the way “up,” so to speak. So all things, being naturally complex, are both traits located by other things but also orders which locate other things. “Natural complex” and “order” thus become interchangeable. These twin notions of “ontological parity” and “ordinality” with their corresponding terms of “trait,” “order,” and “natural complex” brings us to Buchler’s specific metaphysical program, spelled out in his later work.

Buchler’s metaphysics is outlined in his book Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. The book is originally divided into four chapters (the second expanded edition has additional valuable material, including the essay “Probing the Idea of Nature,” which anticipates many developments in more recent “without-” or “after-” nature pluralism-ecologies). Three of these original chapters lay out a pair of concepts or categories intended to address an aspect of his metaphysics.

The first such pair, alescence (derived from coalescence, a “coming together” of complexes) and prevalence (derived from “prevail”), aims to conceptualize permanence and change. Buchler intends these terms to cover the full range of what may figure as the grammatical subject for the copula “is.” Both terms are essential, for neither existence by itself nor becoming by itself is a broad enough category to capture the being of any being; not all complexes change, and not all complexes are entities.

For Buchler, complexity in the metaphysical sense—a complex’s “constituted-ness”—is irreducible. Each complex has what Buchler calls an order, and its being the complex it is follows from its being situated just as it is in this order. No complex is ontologically prior to its relations or its qualities; Buchler says rather that it “prevails” as related, as qualified. (Ordinality and relation are the second pair of categories addressed in the book.) While a complex may have ordinal locations in common with other complexes, still, since each complex is itself an order, it is also different from every other complex.

An example may help. A city is a city because of its situation in the order of cities; this situation means that it is related to other cities, having common qualities, e.g. commerce, governance, law, all of a certain type. These aspects, n.b., are also complexes. Any city qua city thus prevails in the order of cities, not over other cities laterally, but over its own traits; it is in turn also located in orders of human habitations, political institutions, natural ecosystems, and so on. But a city is also an order itself, and as such, locates other complexes: its various populations, its legal codes, its traffic laws, and on and on. Any complex thus is irreducibly complex, has relations and traits in common with other complexes, and is also irreducibly itself, i.e., is capable of being singled out as distinct. Because all complexes are irreducibly complex, no complex is more or less complex than any other; relatedness cannot be limited in principle.

There is, however, a Buchlerian distinction between two sorts of relation between a complex and its traits, the “weakly” relevant, which pertain to a complex’s range or scope, and the “strongly” relevant, which determine the complex’s character or quiddity, its “integrity”. Because every complex is specifically located, no trait or complex affects all other traits or complexes, even though every trait and every complex relates, strongly or weakly, to some other trait or complex. This again shows Buchler’s strong pluralism. For, were all complexes inter-related, there would either be one single complex, or at least complexes would not be separately distinguishable.

Buchler sets out a series of generalizations which may be seen as his system in skeletal form:
• If A is one complex and B is another, they may be related or unrelated.
• If A is related to B, B is related to A.
• If A is related to B, each is a determinant of the scope of the other.
• If A is related to B, each is relevant to the other.
• If A and B are relevant to each other, A is related to B.
• If A is related to B, each may be either strongly or weakly relevant to the other.
• If A is a determinant of the integrity of B, it is thereby a determinant of the scope of B.
• If A is a determinant of the scope of B, it may or may not thereby be a determinant of the integrity of B.
• If A is related to B in order O, it may not be related to B in order P.
• If A is strongly (or weakly) relevant to B in order O, it may be weakly (or strongly) relevant to B in order P.

(Metaphysics of Natural Complexes, 2nd ed., pp 108-109)
As distinguishable, complexes have boundaries, or limits. Limits themselves may be indeterminate, but the existence of such limits is entailed by the determinedness of a complex. For Buchler a limit is indeterminate insofar as it entails possibilities, and determinate insofar as it entails actualities; possibility and actuality constitute Buchler’s third set of concepts.

Since any possibility is itself determinate (prevailing, as it must, in a specific ordinal location), a limit’s indeterminateness is thus “determinately indeterminate.” A complex has a range of possibilities; but this same range will also exclude certain possibilities. However, as regards its possibilities, the limit of a complex is indeterminate. It becomes determinate upon the event of actualization, which in turn is a condition of further possibilities. This means that the limit, and thus the determinateness, of any complex, is not itself finally determinable.

All such terms—traits, relations, limits, possibilities, actualities, and so on—are themselves complexes. Buchler’s ontology is thus one of the most starkly “flat” of which I know, and this underscores one dimension of his relevance speculative realism. But Buchler seems to me less concerned than much recent philosophy to accommodate science. He espouses no stark anti-scientistic attitude, but he is aware that science operates on a different level. Thus, Buchler wants to formulate a coherent and useful vocabulary for proception regardless of its biological substrate. In principle this can be extended well beyond the human, beyond the terrestrial, or indeed the biological. This quest for conceptualizations adequate for accounting for experience per se, and not any psychological account of experience, is to my mind very Husserlian.

Historically, one can situate Buchler as part of that largely Anglo-American stream of thinkers that descended from the first confluence of Whitehead, Bergson, and pragmatism. This stream includes figures such Charles Hartshorne, John William Miller, Dorothy Emmet, Paul Weiss, Brand Blanshard, Timothy Sprigge, and Robert Neville—all figures whose work is outside the twentieth century’s prevailing academic philosophical fashions, and, not coincidentally, who were reading Whitehead before he was re-discovered by Deleuze and Stengers. (Some of course were Whitehead’s students.) In Buchler’s case one obstacle to recognition is plain old unfamiliarity—“if he’s so great, why haven’t I heard of him?” How did it come to be that such a monumentally ambitious and formidable American philosopher has been so neglected? In part it may stem from a dread of parochialism—the singular challenge of a prophet receiving honor at home—but there are more substantive reasons. Buchler’s style is occasionally challenging (he has a minor penchant for neologism), although when you compare him with Heidegger, this seems a quibble. I sometimes think Buchler’s neglect in speculative realist circles may have something to do with his close proximity of Peirce. The concern to avoid the faintest whiff of correlationism has led to a skittishness about anything that smacks of either pragmati[ci]sm or of semiotics; the former seems too relativist, the latter too close to the much-despised linguistic turn.

I would like for this précis of Buchler’s philosophy to spark some interest in his work, not just because Buchler is relevant to a number of already-stated speculative realist themes. He has also articulated a possible way of negotiating what I think are the challenges facing speculative realism. These are, on the one hand, the relation of order and hierarchy to flat ontology (which Buchler addresses with the pairing of ontological parity and ordinality), and on the other, the articulation of philosophy’s self-understanding as an undertaking that is human, but not inherently restricted to homo sapiens. The way Buchler moved from his early work on human judgment and experience to his later metaphysics (and then circled back to poetry, in a work I have not treated here) gives an example of how philosophy may seriously and systematically eschew anthropocentrism without being overly troubled by the “correlationist” bugbear.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews V: RateYourMusic

This month's Blog Review is in music. Strictly speaking, it's not a blog, but a site; I'm counting it because it is frequently updated, and full of consistently interesting material. If you look waaaaay down towards the bottom of the blogroll there to the left, you'll see it -- Rateyourmusic. It's down towards the bottom because I have never managed to make the feed link work, but if it did work, it would consistently be toward the very top. This is because Rateyourmusic is one of those crowd-sourced sites with several million users all over the globe, and the reviews come in all the time. Obviously, as there's no one reviewer, the material that gets reviewed and the opinions that go into the reviews are (and it gives me great pleasure to use the word "literally" correctly) literally from all over the map. I have learned of so much music just by reading these listener reviews. As I'm writing this post, I've hit refresh a number of times. Albums reviewed in the thirty minutes I've been drinking tea and casually typing include:
•Miles Davis' Workin' with the Miles Davis Quartet (1959)
•Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience (2013)
•The Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream (1993)
•Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (1968)
•Government Issue's Legless Bull E.P. (1981)
•Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (1979)
•Throbbing Gristle's The Second Annual Report (1977)
•The Monks' Black Monk Time (1966)
•the debut eponymous album by Norwegian band Kvelertak (2010)
Radio Onsen Eutopia, the latest (2013) release by Japanese pop-star Etsuko Yakushimaru.
These names were not all known to me, despite my poseur pose; some are merely names, and of those that aren't, many are not within spitting distance of my top-10,000 list. But that's the point: random reviews of music from every genre and everywhere in the world. Reviews range from a a single sentence ("My God, if there are ten other krautrock albums as worth listening to as this one, I want to know;" "This album gets billed as a really subversive 'easy listening' piece of work but I really don't get it") to a two or three long paragraphs; and the writing is, as you might expect from a million+ users, pretty uneven, but it isn't hard to find a reliable voice and stick with them. You can also just glance at the (utterly unscientific) ratings, from half a star to five, see what jibes with your own tastes, and go from there. And ratings come in sans review as well (and much faster); again, while I've been writing, people have listed and rated albums by Tribe Called Quest, Keith Jarrett, Butthole Surfers, the Bee Gees, Bad Religion, Sil Austin, Coil, Steely Dan, Bob Log III, Peter Gabriel, the Japanese saxophonist Kaoru Abe, and Jon Brion's soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among many, many others. But OK, 'nuff with the name-dropping. Point is, this is like wandering through a Borgesian labyrinth-record store. There is a downside -- one must turn elsewhere to listen to any of these recordings (say, Spotify or SlackerRadio or GrooveShark, or the old standby Youtube ... what an odd nomenclatural era we live in) -- but to read the raw or well-crafted impressions of self-selected reviewers whose only credentials are sufficient enthusiasm for spend hours detailing their strong opinions, this is the only place you need go. You can waste hours just watching the reviews roll by, or you can find one user with a library you admire and whose reviews you like, and follow your ears. Or you can join and start writing your own. (I've listed and rated 500 albums but I have yet to review any.)

I just refreshed again. Here is Glue (1968) by Peruvian psychedelic band Laghonia; Cosmogramma (2010) by American multi-genre producer Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Captain Murphy, a.k.a. Steven Ellison (also Ravi Coltrane's cousin, for what that's worth); Ekassa - Talk of the Town Vol. 2 (1973) by Nigerian guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo; and Four Sonatas for piano and violin by Charles Ives, recorded by Valentina Lisitsa and Hilary Hahn. I rest my case.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Justus Buchler (part 1: Human Judgment)

(Note: I initially composed these two posts at the suggestion of Leon Niemoczynski, author of the blog After Nature (where they are being cross-posted). We had discovered a mutual interest in the work of philosopher Justus Buchler (1914-1991) and lamented the neglect suffered by this profound, and profoundly under-rated, philosopher; especially given that many of his ideas seem deeply relevant to current debates in speculative realist circles. Niemoczynski not only contributed significant editorial guidance, but also re-fashioned or wholly contributed several of the (now) more lucid passages. So these two posts are in a strongly relevant sense co-authored. At the same time, I don’t wish readers to hold Niemoczynski responsible for the occasional editorial asides I allow myself, and for "any mistakes that remain...," etc, the mea culpas ought to be mine. I have therefore left the first-person pronoun alone.)

Justus Buchler was one of the most original, radical, and untimely American philosophers in the twentieth century. Buchler’s work does not belong to the general trend of analytic philosophy with its large bias for issues in the philosophy of language and mind; likewise, the laborious textual-explicative continental fashion is not Buchler’s, although there are clear parallels between Buchler’s work and Husserlian phenomenology which stands behind the continental approach. At a time when many philosophers were turning to language, science, or the history of their own discipline, he attempted again a philosophical system, combining the rigor and flexibility that are required to make thought commensurate with what we know, and able to rise to what we don't know yet.

Buchler’s early works concentrate on human experience; his later work widens focus to articulate a general ontology of “natural complexes,” a term indicating the infinite analyzability and infinite encompassability of any single existent in the universe (insert your favorite litany here). He also laid out a specific aesthetics of poetry in his late book The Main of Light, as well as striking a blow or two for freedom in standing up to Senator Joseph McCarthy and serving as an official for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Buchler’s project is philosophical in the classical sense, which is to say, his aspirations are universal. A philosophy of human experience should “encompass aspects of human life reflected by the sciences and arts, by moral and religious attitudes, and by what takes place psychologically, socially, technologically,” as he characterizes his project in Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment. At the same time, Buchler is concerned with “human experience” because he is a human being addressing his thought to human beings; he does not consider the human represented a privileged ontological nexus. In this, Buchler’s work offers one crucial bridge between the anti-anthropocentric standards of recent speculative philosophy, and the “humanistic” or “correlationist” tendencies of the thought against which speculative realism specifically has reacted.

These two posts aim to lay out a broad outline of Buchler’s thinking with an eye specifically to relating it to contemporary metaphysical concerns, to which I believe it to be deeply pertinent. Buchler articulated an uncompromisingly “flat” ontology, as the current catchword has it (Buchler’s phrase was “ontological parity,” meaning that no one existent is any more real than any other); but he did so with an overtly pragmatist method and methodology, eliding the (in my opinion) frequently overstated demarcation between ontology and epistemology. The first post concentrates mainly on Buchler’s first book, Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment; the second post, primarily on the book where he first set out his ontology, Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. Secondary literature on Buchler exists, but my unscientific impression is that it is nothing like that on, say, his near contemporaries Gilles Deleuze or Wilfrid Sellars; for guidance in which points are essential to present, and often for the presentation itself, I have relied on two excellent articles by Kathleen Wallace: the entry in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, and one in The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy. Interested readers are referred to these for starters, and will no doubt detect both my debts and any mistakes I have made.

Buchler sets out to build a philosophy that accounts for whatever is, in whatever way it is. He aims to construct nothing short of a full-fledged metaphysical system. This may sound highfalutin’ (and was increasingly unfashionable at the time), but for Buchler, a metaphysical system is simply a conceivable way of thinking about its given subject. Qua metaphysical system, it claims a kind of universality; but no system is a Nagelian “view from nowhere,” or a uniquely mandated foundation. It is “necessary” only in context, i.e., only to the extent that the axioms are required to formulate adequate categories for addressing the subject matter. Such categories might be Kant’s necessary a priori conditions for thinking, or Aristotle’s kinds of being, but Buchler obviously demurs from the epistemological modesty of Kant or the ontological surety of Aristotle. True to his pragmatist heritage (he was a Charles S. Peirce scholar and wrote his dissertation on Peirce, titled Charles Peirce’s Empiricism), Buchler acknowledges all such sets of categories as human constructions; they are made to interpret experience in the world, and they succeed or fail as such. Buchler does not strongly distinguish between reality as it appears to human beings and as it is in itself (though he does not dispute that human beings may be constitutively limited in what they can observe or indeed experience); in some manner, categories by definition are both about the world itself and about one's experience of it. This is, one might venture, simply common sense. All categories have some ground outside the human being, for the human being has such a ground.

Although, as mentioned, Buchler did not spell out his ontology in book form until mid-career, his equal-opportunity metaphysics is evident from the outset. Experience, he cautions, is to be thought of as neither subordinate to knowledge, nor as an incipient form thereof. Knowledge is a form of experience, but not a privileged form, and should not be conceived solely on the model of “assertive judgments,” as Buchler calls what Russell or Wittgenstein would have called “propositions.” Moreover, experiences that do not register to thought, to which cognition or even consciousness may in fact be irrelevant (or vice-versa), still remain experiences. (This highlights the way in which Buchler rejects mind/body dualism: for him, the body is not to be accounted for with physical processes, while consciousness remains as the special realm of the human per se.)

When a primitive hunter scans the bush for tracks, when a potter works clay on a wheel, when a rescue worker performs CPR, each deploys knowledge (albeit non-propositional knowledge), just as does a string theorist or a cryptanalyst. This knowledge is not to be reduced to a mental states or process; indeed, Buchler is unconcerned with the specifics of the human psychology (or neuropsychology) that undergirds, say, the muscle memory of the rescue worker or the highly attuned senses of the hunter; rather, he is interested articulating philosophical categories adequate to human experience of whatever psycho-physiological undergirding.

Buchler follows Peirce in regarding not only various human artifacts, but also states of affairs, or facts, as signs. This leads him to question the very distinction between sign and world, albeit from a quite different perspective—and with quite different effect—than in standard-issue post-structuralism. To say that the world is sign does not mean that the world, as idealism would have it, is itself “mental” (Buchler is in some ways closer to the pan-experientialist account of Whitehead). For Buchler, it is rather that meaning is generated in proception, a term for a more broad notion of experience and its activity:
The interplay of the human individual’s activites and dimensions, their unitary directions, constitutes a process which I shall call proception. The term is designed to suggest a moving union of seeking and receiving, of forward propulsion and patient absorption. Proception is the composite, directed activity of the individual. (Toward a General Theory, 2nd ed., p 4)
Any complex that modifies or reinforces an individual’s proceptive domain is a procept. But, n.b., this does not imply consciousness. “To be a procept is not necessarily to be noticed, felt, or attended to in awareness.” (ibid p 7)
A judgment is about a procept, but also about the individual who judges. It occurs at and from a given perspective; but perspective involves the whole situation in which judgment occurs, of which the judge is one factor. Perspectives, for Buchler, can be both repeated and shared, and this makes judgment inherently social, practical, and corrigible.

Buchler enumerates three sorts of judgment: active, exhibitive, and assertive. As Wallace points out, these roughly correspond to the Aristotelian gradation of reason into the practical, the productive, and the theoretical; however, Buchler would reject Aristotelian prizing of the theoretical as best. A mode may be contextually preferable, but that is all. Sometimes one starts with a theoretical or assertive mode and works towards another: e.g., when a music student begins, much “knowledge” is memorized and intellectual, but in a virtuoso’s performance, the conscious principles have all been sublimated into the exhibitive or practical.

An active judgment is evaluated formally on a scale of right and wrong; an exhibitive judgment, on a scale of good and bad (in terms of excellence, not of morality); an assertive judgment, on a scale of truth and falsity. Such appraisals may overlap; a proof in geometry both asserts a claim and exhibits a form, and so may be evaluated both as either true or false, and as beautiful or awkward; and such a proof in the midst of a lecture is also appraisable as, say, helpful or not, for listeners.

While writing this essay, I usually have music playing in the background. This music—its genre, its volume, its lyrical content, its instrumentation—is encountered and assimilated not just according to my biology, but proceptively—it is fitted into my memories conscious and unconscious, into my plans and intentions and my contemporary state. Buchler would say that I am situated in a number of “orders,” or “spheres of relatedness,” for instance the order of my writing; of acoustics; of the room I am in; of the social production and consumption of music. I shift distractedly, lose my train of thought, pause; then I get up, cross the room and turn down the volume knob on the stereo. This act constitutes what Buchler calls an active judgment, regarding a number of things: the loudness of the music, my ability to concentrate, my essay, the way my concerns and intentions are currently arrayed. As I write, I may strike out a line and revise it, seeking a more felicitous rhythm or formula. This too is a judgment, an exhibitive judgment: I discriminate the felicitous form of the act (in this case, writing) and attempt to carry it off. If instead I had said, “that’s too loud,” or “that sentence isn’t quite right—there, that says it better,” I would be making what Buchler calls assertive judgments; but Buchler insists that the exhibitive or active modes are equally judgments, without being reducible to the assertive.

These are the broad outlines of Buchler’s account of experience and judgment (note the Husserlian resonance), insofar as a necessarily brief summary can present it. Part two will expand upon these ideas and describe Buchler’s general metaphysics of natural complexes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Overheard in my head

-- No time to lose!

-- Whoah, slow down. Relax. Breathe. Feel your being. Here. This moment. Now.
There, you see?
When you inhabit eternity, there is no "time," to lose.


-- ....What do you mean, "when"?