Sunday, February 28, 2016

249. Duration: the whole and the parts

A key feature of Bergson’s notion of ‘duration’ is that it constitutes a flow of connected, heterogeneous parts, where a moment now arises from moments past and anticipates moments to come. The paradigm case is that of a piece of music, where moments make sense only as connected parts in the whole of the piece, as part of a melody, say.

The meaning or quality of the whole changes, or falls apart, when it is disassembled into its parts. The meaning of a part depends on the composition of the whole.

In this kind of talk, the fundamental problem of language appears, again, in the way it is formulated, can only be formulated, suggesting that the ‘parts’ exist by themselves, apart from the whole, and are somehow fixed, while in being parts of the whole they themselves become a form of flux. How can we sensibly talk of elements that are not fixed?

In this blog, in the discussion of meaning (in item 32), I proposed that not only the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meanings of the words in it, as was recognized by Gottlob Frege, and became a standard part of analytic philosophy, but also that the meaning of a word is a function of the sentence it is in, and of the broader action context of the sentence.

The wider significance of this is that judgements of what is appropriate or adequate, in language, science, and morality, depends on the context.

In that view one casts a critical eye on absolutes, i.e. claims, in knowledge, ethics and interpretation of texts, that something applies everywhere and always, regardless of conditions. Bergson was not just critical of universals, giving precedence to individuals, to concrete, specific conditions, but, if I understand him correctly, went so far as to reject universals altogether.

I did not do that. Without universals there is no generalization and no abstraction from specific experience, no inference of general concepts, and hence no science. I claimed that we need universals, but only temporarily, as makeshift, and in their application they need to be enriched with contextual specifics, and in that process general meanings may shift or break. That is part of my thesis of ‘imperfection on the move’. I will come back to this in the following item in this blog.

Bergson associated perception and sense making with memory. Clearly, when we speak and act, perception is affected by memory, by previous experience. But sense making also guides and limits memory. Otherwise we would be swamped by waves of memory, unable to focus and act. Focus entails limitation. Bergson suggested that sensori-motor activity operates to limit and focus memory.

I discussed these issues in a series on ‘The whole and the parts’ (items 184-186). Specifically, I employed the notion of a script, as a structure of connected elements. This includes words in sentences, connected by grammar and syntax; elements of a theory, connected by logic or mathematics; elements of a practice, connected by causality; notes in a piece of music, connected by principles of composition; and games, with actions connected by rules of the game. Along these lines, indeed Bergsonian duration is pervasive. Life itself is to be appreciated as a connected whole.

The action context triggers one or several scripts, and we try to make sense of what we see and hear by trying to fit it into the script. This is called ‘framing’. We cannot make sense, we disregard, or fail to notice, what cannot be fitted into some script. That yields a form of prejudice but also enables fast response. That was needed to survive, in evolution.

All of this, I hope, contributes to a further elucidation and understanding of Bergson’s notion of duration. Or am I distorting it? In following items I continue this quest, from different perspectives.    

Monday, February 22, 2016

248. Connections with Bergson: The linguistic U-turn

Here I start a series to explore connections of this blog with the thought of Henri Bergson.

These days I found out that what I have written in this blog resembles the thought of Henri Bergson, in some important, but certainly not in all respects.

I tried to read Bergson before, but found his writing difficult to understand, until I turned to the secondary literature. That has frequently happened to me before, with Kant, Hegel, Habermas, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Levinas, and Deleuze, to name a few. In content I largely prefer continental philosophy to analytic philosophy, but in style I prefer the latter. Analytical philosophy often is a fountain of clarity compared to the pit of obscurity of much continental philosophy. However, perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the fact that continental philosophy is more willing to turn to the fundamentally more obscure issues of philosophy. However, there are exceptions: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are a pleasure to read.

First, I turned to a book on Bergson by Deleuze, but that hardly helped. From that I find that I still fail to understand much of both Bergson and Deleuze. Then, recently I found a helpful, clear exposition of Bergson, in Dutch, by Hein van Dongen.[i]

To my surprise and delight I then found that my claim of an ‘object bias’ in language, introduced in item 29 of this blog, comes close to a similar claim by Bergson.

I claimed that language, and consequently many concepts and much thought, are biased by an aptitude and irresistible inclination, developed in evolution of the human being, to conceptualize things as if they were objects moving in space. This fundamentally distorts the views we have of abstract categories such as meaning, thought, identity, happiness, justice, culture, ….. , the proper handling and understanding of which now forms the challenge for survival of the human species. Here and there I tried to conceptualize differently.

Bergson had a similar claim, that in language we have a distorted view of everything in terms of objects that are fixed and distinct from each other. In particular, we are captive to a spatial notion of time as a succession of distinct moments, like separate objects juxtaposed in space. Here also, the explanation is that this bias arose because it served survival in past evolution.

As noted by Hein van Dongen, after the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, where models of thought were sought in ordinary language, this constitutes a U-turn, a turn away from language as fundamentally misleading. But of course that presents a huge problem: how to use language to turn away from language. That probably accounts for much of the apparent obscurity of this kind of philosophical talk. Yet it is not an entirely hopeless endeavour, Bergson was convinced. One can seek recourse to metaphors and images.

But the use of metaphor can be misleading. After all, the use of objects as metaphor for abstract concepts is precisely what is now misleading us. So, we should look elsewhere. For example, in item 209 for the notion of identity I used the notion of networks of connections between people. 

Bergson proposed a conceptualization of time as ‘duration’, as a coherent, connected flow of heterogeneous elements, in ongoing flux of change, emergence, as fundamental to both thought and outside nature. I will return to this theme in following items in this blog.  

Similarly, I have followed a pragmatist line of thought, in a philosophy of process, in an interaction between thought and action in the world. That, I argued, is also connected to the thought of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. The pragmatist philosopher William James and Bergson were acquainted, and there is a similarity between Bergson’s notion of duration and James’ view of the ‘stream of consciousness’, which was probably inspired by Bergson’s duration.  

[i] Hein van Dongen, Bergson (in Dutch), Amsterdam: Boom, 2014.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

247. Language, nature and ethics

What do Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein have in common? A separation between on the one hand reason/science, in descriptions of the world, and on the other hand normative values/ethics. We can reason adequately about the phenomena in the exterior world, in theories or mathematical or logical models, even though we cannot know the noumena: the world as it is in itself.[i] Values/ethics, on the other hand, are of a different order. About them we can have subjective certainty, Schopenhauer claimed, in the realm of our will.

However, while Kant formed ethics according to reason, the others thought that in values/ethics there is a lack of reason and logic. There, we are in a realm of paradox where ordinary language does not apply. There, rational speech becomes nonsensical. In that realm we need art (Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein), or a leap of faith (Kierkegaard).

Are there other ways to ethics than art? For Schopenhauer it was music. For Wittgenstein it was Western movies. Earlier in this blog (92, 120) I proposed that reading literature may exercise ethics, may ‘make people better’. If ethics is not a matter of reason and legislation, it is more matter of practical wisdom, in an assessment of the contingencies of life, the vicissitudes of fortune, and ethics is a matter of storytelling. As in Greek tragedy, myths, and epics, and yes: literature.

I do not accept a radical separation of fact and value. Facts are cognitively moulded perceptions and the cognitive apparatus is value-laden. Moral prescriptions are not free from facts: rules that are at odds with capabilities and human nature are empty. But that is not what I want to discuss here.

Earlier, I proposed that language is deeply metaphorical rather than ‘truly’ descriptive. However, in descriptions of objects moving in time and space our categories, embodied in language, though not justifiable as correspondence with nature, are reasonably adequate, or else we would not have survived in evolution, where survival depends on adequate conceptualization of things (prey, predators, enemies) moving in time and space. However, in categorizing values and ethically relevant abstractions, such as freedom, democracy, happiness, identity, justice, culture, …. we may think we are producing ‘common sense’ but we are crafting metaphorical constructions from intuitions and concepts from time and space, yielding an ‘object bias’.

In this form the duality of nature and values/ethics, and the problem of language in the latter re-appears. But here a connection between the two orders is given. Poetry may help to twist the metaphors of common sense, and to produce new ones, breaking open our blindness, producing a new view also of the natural world. Modern physics, of the very small and the very large, also does not satisfy our intuitions of objects, and can only be captured adequately in mathematics.

[i] In his earlier work (of the Tractatus), Wittgenstein still maintained a correspondence theory of truth, with the claim that logical or mathematical models can truly represent relations in the world. Later, he recognized that the Tractatus was a Platonic illusion. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

246. Is it wrong to be right?

Philosophers often say that it is the task of philosophy to ask questions, not to answer them. In Socratic debate, Socrates only elicits, by intellectual midwivery, the recognition by the debaters of the errors in their thought. Socrates is cagey, not giving his own view.

To me, this is a cop-out. One should be willing to commit to one’s views and defend them, claiming one is ‘right’, and submit to the criticism of others. By not doing so, Socrates robs himself from the opportunity to learn, as if he has nothing to learn, thereby violating his own principles.

My position follows from my pragmatist stance concerning knowledge. It is by bringing one’s views into practice and into debate that one discovers their limitations and opportunities for improvement. In the quest for knowledge, not answering questions and committing to the answers is self-defeating.   

It has happened to me several times that people tell me I am wrong when I talk in terms of ‘who is right and who is wrong’, because, they claim,  my stand on knowledge disallows me to do that. A decent relativist is supposed to say that there ‘is no right or wrong’.

Concerning truth, I have adopted a ‘relativism light’. Absolute, objective, universal truth cannot be achieved, and knowledge is socially constructed. Claims to truth depend on the context and on the perspective taken. However, that does not mean that ‘anything goes’, that any opinion is as good as any other. One must be prepared to offer, defend and revise arguments. For this I adopted the term of ‘warranted assertibility’, and in ethics ‘debatable ethics’.

What remains of older, more ambitious claims of rationality, of Enlightenment values, is this: the commitment to debate on the basis of arguments. This may resemble the position of Habermas, but counter to his view I do not think that debate can be ‘herrschaftsfrei’; free of power, domination. In preceding items in this blog I followed Foucault in recognizing the role of interests, positions and power, individual and systemic, in knowledge. Also, rationality is limited in subconscious drives. There is only limited free will (see item 5). It is not always, perhaps never, possible to achieve full mutual understanding, in view of what I called ‘cognitive distance’. But all that does not yield an excuse not to try to cross that distance as much as possible.

I think we should commit to arguments, as long as we believe in them, saying ‘I think I am right’ but being prepared to concede 'no, you are right’.  If we surrender claims of right and wrong, what is the point of debate?

The commitment to debate entails that one offers arguments for one’s views, in terms of purported facts, logic, coherence with accepted views. Recognizing that none of this yields ‘rockbottom truth’, one is still seeking the best arguments, in deciding who is ‘right’. The debate may be undecidable, resulting in rival views co-existing together. But each side will pursue further arguments to boost the warrant of assertibility. And upon debate one might conclude that one is right here and the other there. While it is odd to say that something can be both true and false, in debate one can be partially right or wrong.

While I admit that in some ways the distinction between normative and descriptive, between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, is problematic, I think that in some ways it is still valid and useful. The search for warrant applies normatively and descriptively. Normatively because that is what debate should be about.

Descriptively, people want to be right as part of an inherent drive to exist, to manifest themselves, in what is called the conatus essenti (e.g. with Spinoza), and to win, in a Nietzschean will to power. Trying to win arguments transcends physical violence. I would add the spirit of Levinas, discussed in item 61, with the awe for the ineliminable otherness of the other, as a fount of spiritual awareness, and, I would add, a source of learning that contributes to the flourishing of life (see item 64).    

It all  becomes problematic when the Levinassian spirit is lacking, and one side subdues the other, imposes his/her ‘truth’, or when one’s position in some institutional structure imposes it. This I grant to Habermas. ebermas. HThen, one may hope to have the courage to rebel or opt out.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

245. Forms of realism

I discussed realism before, in item 28 in this blog, but here I want to elaborate.

According to ‘metaphysical realism’ ideas of the world are realistic, objective. According to Plato they exist independently from the thinking subject, but can be grasped, with difficulty. According to the ‘rationalism’ of Descartes, they are innate, given to us by God, in pre-established harmony with reality.

According to empiricism (think of British philosophers Locke and Hume), knowledge is realistic because based on elementary observations (‘sense data’). Ideas arise by association between such elementary observations. But how objective are the elementary observations?

According to philosophical idealism, observations, even elementary ones, are formed by ideas in the form of mental categories. According to Kant, our perceptions of the world are formed by fundamental categories of time, space and causality, and we do not know the world ‘as it is in itself’. This caused a revolution in the theory of knowledge that still reverberates in philosophy.

Later philosophers (e.g. Hegel) contested the notion of the unknowable ‘thing in itself’. How can we even know whether or not we know, if our ideas are formed by mental categories? Classical scepticism (Phyrronism) renounced judgement on the issue (called ‘epoché’): we cannot know whether or in what sense we have true knowledge of the world in itself. That is the line I take.

Some philosophers have tried to get away, more or less, from the Kantian constraint.

In his ‘phenomenology’, Edmund Husserl claimed the possibility of ‘bracketing’: setting aside forms of thought about the world, the whole of ‘symbolisation’, to see how phenomena enter our experience. I think it is an illusion to think that we can set aside all forms of thought.

Jacques Lacan, and following him Slavoj Žižek, assumed that the ‘Real’, beyond the established symbolic order, shows up as a ‘gap’ in that order, manifests itself in contradictions. I accept that contradictions may indicate the falsehood of our conceptualisations. 

I do think that our conceptualisation of the world can and does change. Einstein’s theories transformed our notions of time and space.

As formulated by Žižek[i], there has been a shift from the question ‘how, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality’ to ‘How can something like  appearance arise in the midst of reality?’

That is the line I have taken in this blog, developing an argument from evolution. As I argued in item 28, if we assume that the world does exist in some form, whether or not we know it, and it is difficult not to make that assumption, then the basic notions or mental capabilities with which we have developed those ideas must have been realistic in the sense of being adequate for survival in evolution.

We are inclined to think of the thing in itself as a substance. The priority, in most of human evolution, lay in dealing with objects in time and space, such as food, prey, shelter, enemies, weapons, … I proposed that this has yielded the object bias, a tenacious grasping for substance. Perhaps reality may better be conceived as a wave phenomenon, or a field of force, or a network of relations. But whatever new way of looking at the world we come up with, we cannot be sure that it is the final revelation. The intuition of substance is inadequate for abstractions, such as happiness, love, knowledge, meaning, justice, identity, nation, morality, etc. This is important because the proper conceptualization of such abstractions may now be crucial for survival of the human species.

To see how ideas may be constructed from action in the world, I developed a ‘cycle of discovery’ (see items 31 and 35). The basic logic is as follows. An established view is carried into a new area. There, it encounters misfits, things that cannot be accounted for. This exerts pressures to adapt. First, one will seek solutions from established repertoires of thought and practice. When that fails one seeks inspiration from practices in the new environment to mend the problems, experimenting with hybrids, combinations with the old. This yields insight into the potential of novel elements as well as obstacles in the old logic that prevent the realization of that potential, and insights into how one might try to alter the old logic. This yields new prototypes that need to be tested, and this will sooner or later converge on a ‘dominant’ design that develops into a new standard.    

In this, realism enters in two ways. First by submitting what exists to the stress of novel conditions, with novel demands and opportunities. Second, in competition between old and new, and between different versions of the new.

[i] In his Less than nothing.

Monday, February 1, 2016

244. Žižek and Foucault

In the preceding item of this blog (243), on Heidegger and Levinas, I discussed possible ways around finitude, evitable death. Here I discuss possible ways out from collectivity.

Foucault sinhowed how practices and thought are caught in social systems (of the prison, clinic, psychiatric ward, etc.) that damage people and are yet tacitly, implicitly taken for granted, so that even the victims resign themselves to them.

In earlier items of this blog I discussed the notion of ‘system tragedy’, where people are ensnared in structures of different levels of interlocking institutions, positions, roles, practices, prisoner’s dilemma’s and discourses, guided by ideologies that block their recognition

Žižek, following much of Lacan (though not always faithfully), similarly talks of the ‘symbolic order’, framed by ideology, which is difficult to escape or change from within. Instead of recognizing the inevitable imperfections and prejudices of any.such social order, those are attributed to outside causes or agents (races, religions, immigrants,…).

Earlier, in items 36 and 37 of this blog, I contrasted democracies with authoritarian regimes, with the former acknowledging its imperfections, with elections as a means to weed them out, and the latter projecting an image of infallibility, hiding or denying failures or attributing them to outside causes. However, democracies also cannot escape the guidance of ideology, such as market ideology, that blind liberal democracies to the failures that are breeding revolt

How to get away from the collectivity, the symbolic order, as an individual?

In his late work, Foucault ended up proposing to ‘shape the self as a work of art’, somehow beyond the reach of the system. How can this be done without falling into solipsism, idiosyncratic isolation? Žižek[i] proposed that one can only escape by a revolutionary ‘act’ that is blind, without argument or justification, throwing itself off the cliff of established order. Being constituted by the symbolic order, in escaping from it one commits symbolic suicide.

So, how to proceed?

Lacan and Žižek depart from a notion taken from de Saussure that ‘a word means what others don’t’. Thus, no word has meaning by itself (is ‘empty’, in one of the hyperboles of Lacan and Žižek), but only as part of the whole of the symbolic order. That produces the ineluctable system in which one is caught. Then the only way out is destruction of the whole of that order, or. symbolic suicide (Žižek), or solipsism (Foucault).

I think that perhaps there is another way out, in the indeterminacy and open-endedness, the vagueness of meaning. The symbolic order is ‘gappy’. It is not a closed, rigorous logical order with necessary and sufficient conditions for something to fall under the ambit of the meaning of a word. For any definition that you may give of the notion of a ‘chair’, I can give you counterexample. This indeterminacy of meaning offers scope for deviance and transformation.

To be more precise and analytical[ii], I return to the account of meaning in terms of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ that I used before in this blog. One the one hand we have existing concepts, ‘paradigms’, wrapped in clouds of connotation that are partly idiosyncratic to the individual, from where words are cobbled together in sentences, ‘syntagm’, where relevant meanings are picked out from the cloud to fit the context, in conjunction with those of the other words in that sentence. Novel contexts, yielding novel and odd looking phrases, may cause a shift of meaning of a concept used in the sentence, a reshuffling of the set of connotations That happens most prominently in poetry.

This yields room for freedom within the symbolic order. Perhaps this is also how one might understand Foucault’s notion of ‘creating your life as a work of art’. There is room for more or less odd, eccentric shifts of meaning. And sometimes those are adopted more widely, causing a ripple in the symbolic order.

Here I recall de Saussure’s distinction , used before in this blog, between the given, intersubjective linguistic order, in ‘langue’, and the idiosyncratic living practice of language, in ‘parole’, which may shift the order in time.

Of course, one will often be left holding an unassimilable oddity that may never be adopted in the established order. But even then one does not stand emptyhanded, necessitating Žižek’s blind dive or Foucauldian solipsism. One may persevere in trying to show how, crazy as it seems, the shift does work in the novel context.

[i] In his Enjoy your symptom, 1992.
[ii] To use a word that may cause horror and trigger ostracism from post-modern discourse that sees itself as antithetical to analytical philosophy.