342. Process philosophy
According to Kant, we can know neither the ‘thing in itself’, out in the world, nor ourselves. Hegel turned this epistemological gap: we don’t know, into an ontological one; it does not exist. Žižek went along with Hegel, and, following Lacan, proposed that people craft an illusory ‘object-a’, for things and selves, as discussed in the foregoing items in this blog.
This objet-a is part, I propose, of what I have called an ‘object bias’: the irresistible urge to see the world and ideas, concepts, meanings in terms of objects.
Here I propose an alternative: let us shift the focus of our understanding of the world from object to process. I have argued for that in several places in this blog, concerning being, identity, cognition, truth, meaning, and democracy. I summarize this below.
I have referred to Heidegger’s view of ‘being’ not as a noun but as a verb. I deny identity as some fixed given, with some enduring essence, and presented it as a process of emergence in acting in the world. As an alternative to the idea of identity as an object I proposed the idea of identity as a position in developing networks of contacts with people. Inspired by Levinas’ philosophy of the other, I proposed that identity is developed in interaction with others, and that intellectual and spiritual progress requires openness to opposition by the other.
In all this, I use the view from pragmatic philosophy ( Peirce, James, Dewey) that cognition is developed from interaction with the physical and social world. Instead of truth as some ‘thing to be found’, I employ the idea from pragmatist philosophy of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, in a process of debate, and ethics not as a fixed order but as ‘debatable’, in Aristotelian ‘phronesis’ or practical wisdom, where ethical judgements depend on context.
I also use the work of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone that feelings, ethics and morality arise from interaction in movement and bodily interaction with others. This yields a ‘dynamic congruency’ between emotions and movement that is not a given but is ongoing. Among other things, this yields mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are not present at birth and are not genetically determined in later development. Like other mental constructions they arise from networks of neuronal connections that emerge and develop in time, ‘sprout’ and are ‘pruned’ depending on how often they are activated and how productive they are. It is no coincidence that they arise in the motor regions in the brain, which govern movement.[i]
I present meaning not as some fixed reference, with a word as a label attached to a thing it refers to or ‘denotes’, but as a process of sense-making, of how to identify whether something belongs to some class, or whether something is true. This is done on the basis of connotations one attaches to things. I adopt the distinction between reference and sense from the logician/philosopher Frege. Reference concerns something as ‘given’, sense concerns ‘the way in which it is given’, as Frege put it, which I turned into ‘the way in which we identify something, an X as an Y’.
Sense depends on experience: connotations are collected along the course of one’s life, in a culture, in a series of contexts. A life course is unique to a person, and hence sense varies between people, yielding ‘cognitive distance’.
Reference can be undetermined, with uncertainty, or difference of opinion, whether some object belongs to a class or not. It can also change. I used the example of a stuffed cow used as a chair. New connotations emerge from action in the world, and they may remain idiosyncratic or become publicly adopted. I used the ‘hermeneutic circle’ as a model of meaning change.
Perhaps the distinction between sense and reference can also be used to clarify Žižek’s notion of ‘master signifiers’ attached to the idealized ‘object-a’. He uses the example of the monarch as the master identifier of the social order. Here, the ‘objet-a’ is the intended reference, and the ‘master signifier’ is a leading sense maker for identifying it.
The peculiarity here is that what is referred to does not in fact exist, is a ‘phantasm’, as Žižek calls it, but people believe, or make believe, that it does exist. In other words, the reference has no ontological anchor, so that the sense of the signifier cannot be tested, and master signifiers can be manipulated, and become an instrument of ideology.
Žižek used the example of ‘professor’. Other scholars may have the same degree of knowledge, talents, and scientific achievements as the professor, but are not professors. Thus, Žižek claims, the term ‘professor’ is ‘empty’. It is not. It has sense, in helping to identify someone as a professor, also to people who cannot judge his/her qualities. It brings in a link with official standards, procedures and authorities appointed to appoint professors.
Thus, a master signifier yields institutionalized sense. Is it thereby indoctrination? It certainly is, but it is also a pragmatic necessity to avoid endless debate between different senses of scholarship, in order to get on with the job of appointing professors.
For democracy, I proposed to replace the current perspective of positioning, in voting for a political party and its programme, once in four or five years, by an ongoing process of being involved in making and implementing policy, in a ‘commons’, at least on a local level, in citizens councils.
To summarize all this, I used the motto of ‘imperfection on the move’.
[i] Maxine Johnstone, ‘Movement and mirror neurons: A challenging and choice conversation’, Phenomenology and the cognitive sciences, vol. 11/issue 3, p. 385-401.