Monday, December 20, 2010

On Heidegger's Realist Historicism

As previously promised, I would like to say a word or two about my claim that Heidegger can be read as a Realist Historicist. My conception of Realist Historicism is drawn from Heidegger's early engagements with the problem of the origin of concepts and meaning. Rather than explain in detail what I take Realist Historicism to be and what its origins are, both explanations I present at length elsewhere, I will allow my discussion of realism and historicism generally to make clear the outlines of my own position.

Let me say first that there are absolutely legitimate reasons to be wary of calling Heidegger a historicist or realist. Heidegger follows his teacher Husserl in explicitly rejecting historicism. He is also very clear about his rejection of the idealism/realism debate, although he spends more time rejecting idealism than realism. The reason he rejects talk of idealism and realism, and one of the reasons he rejects historicism, is because all three theoretical positions are based upon the understanding of humanity as minds relating to objects. Insofar as Heidegger rejects mentalism and the subjectivism which he claims is inherent in the subject/object epistemic view of the human condition, he also rejects the theoretical positions that grow out of it. I do not dispute any of this, rather it is at the heart of my conception of realist historicism. Despite this fact, however, it is not at all unusual to find Heidegger discussed as a Linguistic Idealist, Transcendental Idealist or Transcendental Historicist. It is largely in contrast with these positions that I have developed my discussion of Realist Historicism. Insofar as I agree with the rejection of the subject/object distinction in understanding Heidegger it would be inadequate to call Heidegger just a realist or just a historicist. The conjunction of elements of the two positions creates, I believe, a third position that is not subjectivist or dependent upon a subject/object model. Let me make clear how this is so through an attempt to define the key terms in this discussion. In each case I will offer a traditional definition, the Realist Historicist definition and at the end I will explain the added element which unites the individually incomplete conceptions of realism and historicism to form the unified position.

Traditional Historicism:
The view that (1) all human knowledge is historical in nature and structured-by/relative-to the historical era in which it is found and (2) historical eras are disjunctive and unconnected. Comment: This view is a form of dogmatism and amounts to a seemingly self-contradictory claim that we can have no a-historical knowledge except for the dogmatic assertion that knowledge is relative to historical eras and historical eras are independent of each other.

Historicism in Realist Historicism
: The view that (1) all human knowledge as far as we can tell and based on what we have reason to believe is structured-by/relative-to the historical era in which it occurs, (2) as of now we have no reason to believe that we have access to a-historical knowledge that would apply to all historical eras and (3) it is as possible for eras to be disjunctive as conjunctive but we have no reason to think that it is necessary or universally the case that eras share elements. Comment: This position is a form of limited skepticism, specifically a Hermeneutic skepticism which finds no reason to believe that a-historical knowledge is possible and finds no model or conception of what such knowledge would be like.

Traditional Realism: The view that (1) there is an unchanging reality independent of the human mind (Ontological Realism) and/or (2) we are able to have access to this reality (Epistemic Realism). Comment: This position is only meaningful through reference to the divide between the human mind and what is outside of that mind, even when the goal is to show that the divide can be bridged.

Realism in Realist Historicism: The view that (1) what is presumed in traditional realism to be mental or subjective arises from Reality and so there is no "mind" or "consciousness" independent from Reality. (This is captured in Heidegger's insistence that the problems of modern epistemology are, generally, theoretical conceits and distortions. Since the being investigating reality is part of the being under investigation there is no gap to be overcome.) This ontological claim, reversing ontological realism, goes together with another ontological claim relating to epistemic realism. Specifically (2) all disclosure is disclosure of Reality, so we can know Reality, but (3) all disclosure is finite, so we never know all of Reality. In other words, Reality is always more than what we have actually said or thought of it at any given time ("Language is the language of Being, as clouds are the clouds of the sky." Heidegger "The Letter on Humanism"). This may, but need not, mean that Reality is independent at points from language or human practice (if the phrase "at points" is even meaningful in this context). We can't, however, say what this this would mean even as we can't say what history without time, or Dasein without history, would mean even though the skepticism we encountered in our discussion of historicism requires us to admit such things may be possible if not imaginable.

The Added Element: As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the new definitions of both historicism and realism are incomplete without the other. Specifically, our definition of historicism leaves undetermined what it means for something to be "historical" or why/how something can be "relative to a historical era". Similarly, our definition of realism fails to address what realism actually looks like when we have taken out those problematic terms "mind", "consciousness" or "subjectivity" which is necessary if realism is to have any meaning in a Heideggerian context. The completion of both definitions rests in an understanding of practices as the being of history and the being of the investigating entity which is mistakenly thought of as mind divided from reality. This shows up, for example, in Heidegger's conception of historicity i.e. the way in which humans are a carrying forward of inheritances and a projecting of these into the future so that things come to disclosure as meaningful within the "light" of the inherited project. History is made possible by these ongoing temporal events which, for short, we could call practices.

Realist Historicism: The view that (1) as far as we can tell and based on what we have reason to believe everything we know or experience shows up within human practices. Indeed, it is unclear what something would be without the mediation of practices. This is also the case for "subjectivity" or the "mind". This leads to two possible conclusions (2) either Reality just is ongoing practices or gives rise to practices as its mode of appearance. (As a side note, this allows for two types of Realist Historicism. There is what I sometimes call Practice Ontology which holds to the first option, and Heidegger's position which holds to the second as I shall discuss.) Heidegger's belief in origins and originary events (Ereignis) suggests that he held the second view since originary events arise independent of previously existing practices. In other words, the event ontology which is Heidegger's brand of Realist Historicism allows for two distinct types of events. Practices (i.e. ongoing events with origins) and Originary Events from which practices take their origin. The addition of practices as the ontological ground of our previous discussion of realism and historicism is clarified by a distinct characteristic of practices which ties into Heidegger's teleological world-holism. Specifically, practices are like words in that the existence of one word requires the existence of many words. This leads to the claim that (3) practices (as far as we have reason to believe) are interconnected and interdependent. Similarly, the temporal nature of practices means they (4) are historical and indeed, as Heidegger argues, the ontological ground of history.

When one combines 1, 3, and 4 from above one sees clearly that everything we know or experience depends upon the total complex of practices within which it arises and this complex is historical (i.e. temporally changing and tied to the coming-to-be and passing-away of practices and/or Originary Events in the past). This is Historicism. When one combines 1 and 2 we get our Realism.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The (im)possibility of an Anarcho-Capitalist Utopia

For all you politically minded readers out there, you might want to check out my friends' blog Forward Motus. Of particular interest is today's post, entitled "Anarcho-Capitalism and the Limits of the Market", concerning the limits of the market's ability to justly distribute goods and the example of medical drug development.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Echoes of May '68

I found this discussion of slogans being used for the student protests in London. Some of them are familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Paris May 1968 riots. Particularly "Demand the Impossible." Check out the rest, they are pretty interesting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Heidegger's Last Suggestion

In Richard Capobianco's new book Engaging Heidegger he offers us a new translation of a letter Heidegger sent six weeks before his death to the tenth meeting of the Heidegger Circle in the US. I find the letter, and the suggestion he makes for the direction in which those who follow his work might steer their research, particularly striking and so will share some key bits here:

"Thinking people greet one another by posing to each other questions... From the variety of questions that are necessary here, the following one may be stated:

Is modern natural science - as it is maintained - the foundation of modern technology or is it itself already the basic form of technological thinking, the determining fore-conception of technological representing and its constant intrusiveness in the implementing and establishing machination of modern technicity?

...In the few days of the Colloquium, you will not be able to answer, nor probably even to be able to pose adequately, this question concerning the relation of the modern natural sciences to modern technicity.

But it would be already sufficient and beneficial if each of the participants gave attention, each in his own way, to this question and took it up as a suggestion for his area of research."

Heidegger's closing suggestion to America's Heideggerians of 1976 is, then, that they each in their own way address the question of the possible connection between modern science generally and the distortive and dominating enframing which is found in purely calculative technological thought. This same suggestion had already been made in "The Question Concerning Technology", specifically that modern science is technological before it gives rise to the development of modern technology, but that not only enframing but the relationship between scientific thought and enframing was still this important to Heidegger at the very end is particularly interesting.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Quotation for the Day

In my spare time, when not reading academically motivated texts, I am currently reading Chalmers Johnson's book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. So far it is an exceptional, if rather depressing and disturbing, book. In the course of reading it I came upon a quotation from Hannah Arendt discussing Eichmann and the banality of evil which I thought I would share:

"However monsterous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect... was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Heidegger's "Evening Conversation"

As tends to happen, the SPEP discounts led to an influx of new books at my home. Amongst them are Tracy Colony's translation of Heidegger's 1920 lecture course Phenomenology of Intuition and Expression, Richard Capobianco's Engaging Heidegger, and Bret Davis' translation of Heidegger's Country Path Conversations. It is this last text I would like to briefly discuss now.

I had heard Davis discuss the process of translating the Country Path Conversations while at the meeting of the Heidegger Circle this past May and so had been looking forward to getting my hands on the book. As Davis tells us in his Afterword, Heidegger wrote these dialogues in the winter of 1944-45 when World War II was drawing to its end. We are familiar in translation with the nature of these dialogues primarily from "Conversations on a Country Path" which appears in the Discourse on Thinking and consists of a portion of the larger "Triadic Conversation" which is the first of the three dialogues in Davis' translation.

When I received the book I went immediate to the final dialogue entitled "Evening Conversation: In a Prisoner of War Camp in Russian, between a Younger and an Older Man". Although these dialogues represent an essential move in the changes in Heidegger's thought which occurred throughout the 30s and 40s, I have to admit that what drew me to this last dialogue was more of a historical and biographical than a strictly philosophical interest. Heidegger's sons were held in a Russian prisoner of war camp and were, I believe, still being so held at the time when he wrote this dialogue. If ever there was to be an insight into Heidegger's feelings towards the catastrophic events through which the world passed during the 30s and 40s it would, I felt, be found here. I was not, I feel, disappointed. This dialogue, which is born from a sudden feeling of healing experienced by a younger prisoner, becomes a meditation upon healing, waiting, devastation, malice and rage as well as the question of the identity of a people and the problem of nationalism. In the course of it Heidegger, although not in his own voice, offers us some of the most direct expressions of his feelings towards Nazis Germany I have seen (the places where he claimed to have struggled in thought against the Nazis during the 1930s, for example in his Nietzsche lectures and his Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), tend to be far less transparent.) If, however, we want to mention some elements of philosophical import I was particularly struck by the way in which the dialogue identifies the concept of a nation and the connected nationalism with subjectivism and the dominance of an interest in "work for the sake of increased possibility of work".

Here then are a few striking moments, without further comment on my part, from the dialogue:

"Older Man: ...And what is not all wounded and torn apart in us? - us, for whom a blinded leading-astray of our own people is too deplorable to permit wasting a complaint on, despite the devastation that covers our native soil and its helplessly perplexed humans."

"Older Man: This waiting people would - especially during a time when its essence still eludes it, and precisely because of this still unexperienced waiting essence - be endangered like no other.
Younger Man: And indeed, this people would be endangered not by threats from outside, but rather by the fact that it would tyrannize itself with its own ignorant impatience, and so would spur itself on to continual mistakes.
Older Man: And it would even do all this in the opinion that it is thereby following its essence, which would have to finally fight to win recognition from the side of other peoples.
Younger Man: While in fact this rash pseudo-essence remains a perpetually maldroit imitation of the foreign.
Older Man: It this people were to ever become a people that waits, then it would have to remain indifferent to whether others listen to it or not.
Younger Man: This people could also never, so long as it would know its essence, insist on its waiting essence as on a special calling and distinction.
...
Older Man: You mean that by becoming those who wait, we first become German?
Younger Man: Not only is this what I mean - since early this morning, it is what I know. Yet we will not become German so long as we plan to find 'the German' by means of analyzing our supposed 'nature'. Entangled in such intentions we merely chase after what is national, which, after all, as the word says, insists on what is naturally given.
Older Man: Why do you speak so severely against the national?
...
Younger Man: The idea of the nation is that representation in whose circle-of-vision a people bases itself on itself as a foundation given from somewhere, and makes itself into a subject. And to this subject everything then appears as what is objective, which means that everything appears only in the light of its subjectivity.
Older Man: Nationality is nothing other than the pure subjectivity of a people that purports to rely on its 'nature' as what is actual, from out of which and back to which all effecting is supposed to go.
Younger Man: Subjectivity has its essence in that the human - the individual, groups, and the realms of humanity - rises up to base itself on himself and to assert himself as the ground and measure of what is actual. With this rebellious uprising into subjectivity emerges the uprising into work as that form of achieving by means of which the devastation of the earth is everywhere prepared for and ultimately established as unconditional.
...
Young Man: The national and international are so decidedly the selfsame that both, by basing themselves on subjectivity and insisting on what is actual, know just as little - and above all can know just as little - whose business it is that they are incessantly conducting.
Older Man: The business of the devastation, and that means of work for the sake of increased possibilities for work. Thus we cannot become German - which means those who poetize and think, that is, those who wait - so long as we chase after the German in the sense of something national."

"Younger Man: And for a long time this may perhaps be the sole content of our teaching: the need and the necessity of the unnecessary."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Snapshots from SPEP, Montreal

I am back from this year's meeting of SPEP (The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) in Montreal. Montreal is a wonderful city and, as always, SPEP was very enjoyable. In fact, I have found that attending SPEP in the fall of each year re-energizes and refocuses me for the coming year. Unsurprisingly there was far too much going on to share it all but here are some brief highlights for anyone who is interested.

I got to see Charles Taylor discuss the possibility of conversation across religious boundaries and between theists and atheists. Although I am not particularly interested in theology or the new atheism, I found actually watching Taylor speak very fulfilling. I am a fan of much of his work and have presented papers expanding upon some of what he has done. In person he is exceptionally clear, direct, and likable.

I never miss a chance to see Babette Babich present. Not only are her papers always insightful, complex and thought provoking, her presentation style is entrancing such that every paper presentation counts as an artistic creation in its own right. Her paper addressed the ancient models for Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and ended with the suggestion that the work can be read such that Zarathustra is undergoing the process of dying throughout the work. I intend to reread Zarathustra with this in mind.

Peg Birmingham's Andre Schuwer Lecture on Arendt and Hobbes was also very enjoyable. She suggested that the will to Life is over emphasized in most readings of Hobbes' work and that, instead, much of what drives violence and social tension is the will to Glory. This, in turn, becomes the engine of social order insofar as what the state offers is not just protection for our lives (interestingly if we only cared about life security the state would be unable to provide it, as no one would be willing to risk their lives to fight for the state) but instead the chance for a meaningful death through sacrifice to the state rather than a lowly brutish death without glory as occurs in the state of nature. Hannah Arendt comes into play in the attempt to think through a non-sacrificial model for political action. Oddly enough what I was most struck by in the discussion of Arendt, however, was the extent to which her thinking in the 1940s associated the formation of a political people with the willingness to engage in violence and sacrifice. In general I am now interested in rethinking my previous engagements with Arendt.

Two papers were given by friends of mine who had also attended the University of South Florida for graduate school. West Gurley, who now teaches at Sam Houston State University, presented his paper "Reconsidering what it is to Pay Attention: Heidegger and Letting-Be-Ness" and Jessica Williams, who is still working on her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, presented her paper "Kant and the Ideological Effect of Judgment".

Gurley's paper argued that empirical attention studies have limited themselves to an intentionality derived conception of attention which assumed all attention to be divisible into subject and object poles. Such a model ignores, however, a more primordial state of attention when no object is focused upon but rather an openness is maintained within which alone subjects and objects can arise. Gurley further suggested that the limitation of attention studies to subject-object models may originate from the dominance of calculative thought as presented in Heidegger's "Memorial Address".

William's paper traced the influence of Kant's judgments of beauty and reflective judgments on contemporary discussions of ideology as found in Zizek and Jameson. Based upon the details of the relation between Kant's First and Third Critiques Williams then pointed out the limitations of the conception of ideology found in both Zizek and Jameson.

My own paper "Pushing the Hegelian Front: On Heidegger's Renovation of Dilthey" went well and I was very pleased with the audience, both in terms of the turn out and several of the people who specifically showed up. Presenting at SPEP is always a great honor, especially because it gives one the chance to present one's work to many people who have been essentially influential upon the formation of that very work. I had anticipated, and desired, more of the question and answer period to deal with interpretations of Hegel and Dilthey as well as their influence upon Heidegger but it mainly revolved around my ongoing project of developing an interpretation of Heidegger as "Realist-Historicist". Having noted that very sympathetic listeners often agree with my interpretation of Heidegger but object to my use of the terms "realism" and "historicism" I have decided that, in the process of translating my dissertation into a book, I need to better explain and justify my use of these terms. Admittedly, Heidegger himself rejected these terms when discussing them individually and believed himself to have escaped the epistemic picture which necessitated the divide between, for example, realism and idealism. But I do think my position is provocatively and productively different from standard understandings of either realism or historicism and is true to Heidegger's actual concerns and insights. I will be posting some brief thoughts which begin to organize some of my reflections on this matter soon by way of brainstorming for additions to the introduction to my book.

The paper which followed mine was by Francois Jaran and concerned the influence of Rickert upon Heidegger's turn to history in 1912. I found his paper to be both fascinating and very historically careful. It powerfully made the argument that Heidegger's first engagement with the work of Dilthey provoked in him resistance to the priority of history in Dilthey's work due to Heidegger's own interest in the seemingly ahistorical nature of mathematics. It took a real involvement with Rickert's Neo-Kantian conception of the history of philosophy as a history of problems for Heidegger to gain enough interest in history to re-evaluate Dilthey's importance.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Death, the Macabre, and the Morbid. Happy Halloween!

Halloween is my favorite holiday. In honor of it, here is an appropriately themed meditation on death from Michel Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic:

"To know life is given only to that derisory, reductive, and already infernal knowledge that only wishes it dead. The Gaze that envelops, caresses, details, atomizes the most individual flesh and enumerates its secret bites is that fixed, attentive, rather dilated gaze which, from the height of death, has already condemned life.

But the perception of death in life does not have the same function in the nineteenth century as at the Renaissance. Then it carried with it reductive significations: differences of fate, fortune, conditions were effaced by its universal gesture; it drew each irrevocably to all; the dances of skeletons depicted, on the underside of life, a sort of egalitarian saturnalia; death unfailingly compensated for fortune. Now, on the contrary, it is constitutive of singularity; it is in that perception of death that the individual finds himself, escaping from a monotonous, average life; in the slow, half-subterranean, but already visible approach of death, the dull, common life becomes an individuality at last; a black border isolates it and gives it the style of its own truth. Hence the importance of the Morbid. The
macabre implied a homogeneous perception of death, once its threshold had been crossed. The morbid authorizes a subtle perception of the way in which life finds in death its most differentiated figure. The morbid is the rarefied form of life, exhausted, working itself into the void of death; but also in another sense, that in death it takes on its peculiar volume, irreducible to conformities and customs, to received necessities; a singular volume defined by its absolute rarity."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Objectification, Representional Thought and Enframing

"If modern physics must resign itself ever increasingly to the fact that its realm of representation remains inscrutable and incapable of being visualized, this resignation is not dictated by any committee of researchers. It is challenged forth by the rule of enframing which demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve. Hence physics, in its retreat from the kind of representation that turns only to objects, which has been the sole standard until recently, will never be able to renounce this one thing: that nature report itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remain orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. Causality now displays neither the character of the occasioning that brings forth nor the nature of the causa efficiens, let alone that of the causa formalis. It seems as though causality is shrinking into a reporting - a reporting challenged forth - of standing-reserve that must be guaranteed either simultaneously or in sequence."

I would like to give some thought to this quotation from Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology". Much of Heidegger's work expresses concern over the distortive epistemic picture which occurs when we conceive of humans primarily as isolated minds interacting with independent objects. It is a rejection of this subject/object model of the human condition which is at the heart of Heidegger's critique of Descartes and his ongoing concern with the dominance of subjectivism in much Neo-Kantian philosophy and aesthetics as well as in Husserl's post-Logical Investigations work. Indeed it was the overcoming of the modern epistemic picture which Heidegger saw in Husserl's categorial intuition and which first drew Heidegger to the work of Husserl.

Related to the rejection of the subject/object epistemic picture is also Heidegger's rejection of the conception of knowledge as primarily representational. Indeed both his presentation of understanding in Being and Time and his conception of truth as most primordially aletheia or unconcealment are attempts to phenomenologically describe a space of shared lived involvement out of which subjects and objects arise as secondary abstractions. We see this same strategy in Heidegger's non-representational conception of the connection between truth and art found in "The Origin of the Work of Art". On this note it is particularly instructive to recognize that the truth revealed by the example of Van Gogh's painting of shoes is precisely what is not represented within the painting, specifically the world of the shoes' owner.

It is easy, therefore, to fall into the interpretation of the late Heidegger's conception of enframing which understands enframing's transformation of everything into standing-reserve, i.e. raw material, as a process of objectification. For example, when we contemplate the process whereby people become "human resources" it is very easy to consider this an example of objectification. There is also a sense in which this is not wrong. Enframing does indeed seem to first show up as the dominance of a certain type of purely representational thought which moves back and forth between a radical subjectivism in which man is the measure of all things and the connected radical objectification in which all things become simply objects for use. But part of Heidegger's larger point is that the epistemic world view which finds its most extreme manifestation in enframing is self-defeating. The triumph of the subject/object model of reality ends up doing away with both subjects and objects. Let us say more about what this might mean and how it relates to suggestions I have made concerning science and Speculative Realism in previous blog posts, for example here and here.

The rise of enframing is intimately connected with the role played by calculation in the birth of modern science. Specifically, with Galileo's division of primary from secondary qualities, whether something can be mathematically measured becomes the ultimate ontological standard. On the one hand, this ontological revolution limits the 'really real' to what is secure in the sense of remaining inter-subjectively constant. This dependability gets conceptualized as objectivity. Secondary qualities are rejected precisely because their is something unreliable about them, and this insecurity is translated into their being subjective. On the other hand, the mathematical standard of reality makes the mark of objectivity and reality non-experiential characteristics which depend upon specific human practices of abstraction. The implications of this historical development and the paradox I have attempt to gesture towards was already investigated by Husserl in his Crisis of the European Sciences. Indeed Husserl's conception of the crisis has several useful connections with Heidegger's own later conception of enframing.

The interesting point for us right now is that the abstract nature of mathematical characteristics suggests that a totally mathematical conception of reality would precisely not be representational or objectifying. This is so insofar as totally mathematical entities are not experiential. For example, we can symbolize 'one' or 'triangle' but we can not make representations of them insofar as representations require shared characteristics and we do not experience any such characteristics. This means that mathematics can not, strictly speaking, represent if by representation we mean something that can be experienced, or entertained in the mind, as a picture or model of something else. Of course we speak of mathematical models, but according to this view the phrase "mathematical model" is inaccurate. We have symbols of supposedly mathematical realities, but we don't have models consisting of mathematical characteristics which represent realities.

The entire previous discussion only follows if one entertains a certain nominalist conception of abstraction to which Husserl would object but, I have argued elsewhere, Heidegger likely would not. From this nominalist perspective, the reality underlying supposedly abstract characteristics or entities are specific practices of naming, discussing or thinking about concrete entities as organized into various groups. (Wittgenstein at times presents the view I have in mind, as briefly discussed here.) The abstract mathematical entity 'one' is, then, the practice of talking about, for example, a single coffee cup, a single book, a single dream, and a single dog as occupying the same group. There is, then, no mental entity 'one' and no real worldly entity 'one' but there is a social entity made out of a vast web of social practices which constitutes 'one'.

Putting aside this rather messy topic, the important point is that grasping something like mathematical truths amounts to being able to perform concrete worldly actions in a way which is in line with the standard mathematical practice. When we extend this view to a mathematical symbolization of reality we see that the "accuracy" of a symbolization will rest in its predictive power even as my grasp of a mathematical concept rests in my behaving predictably in line with the standard mathematical practice. When, then, we turn to those sciences which deal often exclusively with mathematical symbolizations of reality, such as theoretical physics, we are no longer dealing with any objectification or representation. Rather, everything is seen in terms of secured usability since to accurately mathematically symbolize simply means to make something predictable and manipulable without the need of coming into contact with any experience or model of the thing in question at all. This lines up with my rejection of the realist reading of cosmology on the part of some speculative realists. What much science offers us is not a story, model, or representation of nature but rather a symbolization tool securing future concrete outcomes. In these cases prediction is not an application of theory it is the meaning and being of theory. We see this nicely when Popper describes a good scientific hypothesis in purely futural terms. A hypothesis is a negative prediction insofar as it forbids something to happen, this is its meaning and the test of its value even if it is couched in terms of a story about what happened in the past.

To return to our opening quotation, physics for Heidegger eschews representation and objectification insofar as it translates reality into a mathematical symbolization whose meaning is the prediction of events. In other words, far from a representation, what physics offers us is a list of information about what will happen either unconditionally or if various events or actions occur. In this sense, then, these types of sciences are no longer in the business of offering accurate descriptions of nature but rather in the business of structuring and securing the use of nature.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Words, The Fossils of Concepts?

Check out the exceptionally enjoyable and interesting essay by the Leibniz scholar Justin E. H. Smith over at the great site 3 Quarks Daily.

Aside from offering a fascinating explanation for why the phrase "cheap whore" is an oxymoron and how the word "whore" is related to the word "charity", Professor Smith also calls for the creation of a paleontological branch of concept analysis which takes the study of etymology as a compliment to the study of concepts proper. This, of course, is based on the assumption that concepts are something more, less, or other than the words which express them.

In the course of calling for an etymological paleontology Professor Smith touches upon both Heidegger and Foucault. In supposed disagreement with Heidegger, whom he claims thought that the etymology of words directly provides access to what people who used those words were actually thinking, Smith calls for a practice that "takes the analysis of etymologies seriously not because they tell you what word-users are thinking, as Heidegger seems to have supposed in his reflections on the exceptional profundity of the Greek language, but rather what they have forgotten, what must have been at least dimly present to some speaker's mind at some point, even if the idea has receded so far into the past that the word once associated with it can now be expressed without implicating the idea at all."

Interestingly, at least for Heidegger scholars, Heidegger's analysis of truth as aletheia very often suggests precisely what Smith's paleontology would assume, namely that the etymology of the word directs our attention to how the concept in its early formation must have been thought even if later users of the word no longer thought in that way. It is precisely truth as unconcealment which Heidegger believes was mostly forgotten by the time philosophy proper got off the ground in Ancient Greece. Heidegger's etymology very often moves in the direction of clarifying what thought thinks in the mode of forgottenness. This alone might suggest that Heidegger's history of being is none too far from Smith's etymological paleontology. (It may also be the case that there is a shift from Heidegger's early involvement with Greek philosophy during which he does think Aristotle, for example, fully thought truth as unconcealment and his later work when he sees clearly that even the pre-Socratic philosophers are dealing with an insight that has been mostly forgotten but preserved in the language.)

In attempting to assess how close Heidegger, or contemporary Heideggarians, are to the analysis Smith is calling for the key point would likely rest on what we are to make of the idea that concept and word can be, at least in the course of analysis, somehow disconnected. Perhaps a Heideggerian, who might want to avoid the mentalistic implications of focusing too extensively upon concepts as something like meanings entertained in the mind, can make a similar distinction in terms of a word and what comes to unconcealment through the use of the word. It is fairly easy to see how the way that a word, or way of speaking, lights up the world during the course of everyday use is not necessarily the same as the etymological history of that word although the two things are very importantly, and unavoidably, connected. I do think a good Heideggerian would probably have to insist that it is not possible to have a complete and clear grasp of what a word causes to show up for us (i.e. its concept/meaning) without looking at the word's history and etymology. The Heideggerian view of meaning seems to necessitate that any meaning disconnected from the history of the meaning's development will fall prey to obscurities, contradictions and a general lack of clarity. But this is not to say that what I currently mean by a word, and what that word causes to show up for us, is the full richness of its etymological history or what that word meant at a time closer to its origin. It seems that this is clearly not the case both for us and for Heidegger.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Julian Young on Nietzsche and a touch of Nietzsche's Music

There is a very interesting interview with Julian Young concerning Nietzsche and Young's new intellectual biography of the man. Check it out. Also, on the website for Young's book, can be found recordings of performances of Nietzsche's own musical compositions. I found this VERY interesting, I had not previously had the chance to hear them. They can be found here.

P.S. The discussion concerning how we should think about Heidegger's History of Being continues in the comments section to my previous post. I have found it very thought provoking. Check it out if you haven't already and feel free to join in.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How should we think the History of Being?

I have been having a wonderful conversation in the comments section of my most recent post with the author of the blog Seynsgeschichte. Our conversation there had finally wandered into territory a little remote from the original blog post so I figured I would move it into a new blog post and come up with an excuse to continue the conversation and invite/encourage any other readers of this blog to join in. In his last comment Pseudonoma stated:

"As far as Seynsgeschichte itself, however, I am against all amorphous "loose" descriptions, and am equally dissatified by "narrative" accounts --which is why what you are saying, being neither one of these --is of great interest to me. For my own part I have a very particular reading of Seynsgeschichte, one which claims SG to elude all Niezschean or Foucalutian genealogy, while not simply refering to transhistorical universals, or any other for of seiendenheit."

I agree that Heidegger's conception of the history of Being is different from the histories of both Nietzsche and Foucault and also not concerned with the trans-historical. Let me say a little about the issue of Nietzsche and Foucault. I think that in Nietzsche's case, the concept of truth and a true history has been so problematized that his genealogies are to be thought primarily in strategic or (non-Heideggerian) poetic terms. They are re-descriptions which seek to shift the dominant metaphors through which we think key concepts. This isn't exhaustive of Nietzsche's history but it does make clear the sense in which history is always a history of the present, i.e. it is always a working over and working upon of current issues with the goal of bringing about future changes. In this sense history is strategic and not representational of "what actually happened" (an ontological entity whose very existence Nietzsche would call into question). I believe that Foucault's histories are similarly strategic histories of the present which refuse any belief in an "accurate" account but which general, nonetheless, follow the strategy of deriving historical change from within the micro power-structures which pre-exist the change in question. Some thinkers have claimed Heidegger must also hold such a view, i.e. that changes in the nature of the totality of practices for a life-world must derive from the practices which were in existence before the change occurred. I have called this, from time to time, the causal conception of history which understands historical events as caused by things which came before them. This seems an entirely inadequate way to conceptualize Heidegger's understanding of "ereignis", which I will generally translate as an "originary event". Heidegger's conception of history is not purely strategic, as he has not given up on the idea of truth but has rather altered the conception of it, and it is not causal insofar as originary events need not be understood as derived from what came temporally before them. I could say a lot more here but I will stop at these very brief suggestions for now.

I would like to hear more about how precisely Pseudonoma understands a "loose" description and a "narrative" account of the History of Being. I suspect I know what he means but I don't want to assume too much.

The introductory gesture having been made, then, I would like to offer two Heidegger quotations to get us on our way. Both are drawn from Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" as it appears in Krell's Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. The first quotation is a bit of a side issue, as it glances back towards the relation of Sartre to history as well as Sartre's ability to relate to Marx, but I feel it suggests that some of what I had previously suggested about Sartre's a-historicality was also on Heidegger's mind:

"But since neither Husserl nor - so far as I have seen till now - Sartre recognizes the essential importance of the historical in Being, neither phenomenology nor existentialism enters that dimension within which a productive dialogue with Marxism first becomes possible." (p. 243)

The next quotation will be lengthy but I think it provides us with some starting material for a consideration of the History of Being:

"When philosophy attends to its essence it does not make forward strides at all. It remains where it is in order constantly to think the Same. Progression, that is, progression forward from this place, is a mistake that follows thinking as the shadow that thinking itself casts. Because Being is still unthought, Being and Time too says of it, "there is/it gives." Yet one cannot speculate about this il y a precipitately and without a foothold. This "there is/it gives" rules as the destiny of Being. Its history comes to language in the words of essential thinkers. Therefore the thinking that thinks into the truth of Being is, as thinking, historical. There is not a 'systematic' thinking and next to it an illustrative history of past opinions. Nor is there, as Hegel thought, only a systematics that can fashion the law of its thinking into the law of history and simultaneously subsume history into the system. Thought in a more primordial way, there is the history of Being to which thinking belongs as recollection of this history, propriated by it. Such recollective thought differs essentially from the subsequent presentation of history in the sense of an evanescent past. History does not take place primarily as a happening. And its happening is not evanescence. The happening of history occurs essentially as the destiny of the truth of Being and from it. Being comes to destiny in that It, Being, gives itself. But thought in terms of such destiny this says: its gives itself and refuses itself simultaneously. Nonetheless, Hegel's definition of history as the development of 'Spirit' is not untrue. Neither is it partly correct and partly false. It is as true as metaphysics, which through Hegel first brings to language its essence - thought in terms of the absolute - in the system. Absolute metaphysics, with its Marxian and Nietzschean inversions, belongs to the history of the truth of Being. Whatever stems from it cannot be countered or even cast aside by refutations. It can only be taken up in such a way that its truth is more primordially sheltered in Being itself and removed from the domain of mere human opinion. All refutation in the field of essential thinking is foolish. Strife among thinkers is the 'lovers' quarrel' concerning the matter itself. It assists them mutually toward a simple belonging to the Same, from which they find what is fitting for them in the destiny of Being." (p. 238-239)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Husserl and Sartre on Transcendental Structure

At last year's Central meeting of the American Philosophical Association (A.P.A.) in Chicago and last year's meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (S.P.E.P.) in Arlington Virginia I presented a paper entitled "Phenomenology and the Problem of Universals". I was up to a lot of different things in both the short (S.P.E.P.) and long symposium (A.P.A.) versions of that paper and several of those projects are beginning to more clearly differentiate themselves and develop in directions of their own. One such project concerned my conviction that Husserl can not justify his faith that the Transcendental Ego has structure or, indeed, any fixed characteristics or processes. I have since come to appreciate that this was the founding insight of Sartre's life work as found in both The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothingness. In this post I would like to say a little about this subject.

I will very briefly present the basic shape of the argument I have made more extensively in my work concerning Husserl. It is pretty clear that Husserl intends transcendental phenomenology to be the study of the manner in which the Transcendental Ego constitutes experience. More specifically it is a study derived from the experience, arrived at through the epoche and eidetic reductions, of the Transcendental Ego constituting experience. Such a study, Husserl insists, yields universal laws and the direct experience of stable essences. These laws and essences are derived from, indeed must be derived from, stable processes and structures within the transcendental ego. To put it bluntly, stability in the transcendental ego explains the reality of universal laws. I have argued that, in the sense that the stable structure of the transcendental ego is what stands-below or underlies all objects, Husserl presents us with little more than a renovation of substance ontology. In other words, the central dogma of substance ontology is the necessity of a grounding structure or stability for any existent thing. Allow me to provide a bit of text from Husserl's Cartesian Meditations to support some of these rather blunt claims:

"Types of objects... were found to be clues for transcendental investigations, which belong together on account of their themes. The fact is that the constituting multiplicities of consciousness - those actually or possibly combined to make the unity of an identifying synthesis - are not accidental but, as regards the possibility of such a syntheses,
belong together for essential reasons. Accordingly they are governed by principles, thanks to which our phenomenological investigations do not get lost in disconnected descriptions but are essentially organized. Any 'Objective' object, any object whatever (even an immanent one), points to a structure, within the transcendental ego, that is governed by a rule." (Husserl, Cartesian Meditations Second Meditation section 22, emphasis is Husserl's own)

I have argued that the reasons Husserl gives us for believing in universal laws, among them the supposed direct and indubitable experience of universal essences he claims we can arrive at through eidetic variation, fail to provide any experience of the obviously or necessarily universal. In the case of eidetic variation we find that the power of variation itself depends upon idiosyncratic, not universal, capabilities. The power of variation, call it imaginative power, is directly comparable to sight and it is precisely the universal which sight does not provide experience of. Beyond this, however, the very existence of stable structures in the transcendental ego would be an unexplained and unexplainable mystery for transcendental phenomenology. To paraphrase a line from my paper, what reason could there be that the transcendental ego must behave in a certain way? From whence would it derive its necessary structures? If these structures and limitations are self-imposed what reassurance could we ever have that they will be consistently maintained over time? A Humean point seems appropriate here, based on observation of the constituting activity of the transcendental ego we would have the ability to generalize about past experience but we would never be justified to presume the future must conform to the past. Talk of universal laws and essences in phenomenology is, then, based purely on the dogma that there must surely be something constant that grounds the seeming stability of reality. I find this dogma utterly unconvincing.

Apparently I am not alone in this. Enter Sartre who, as early as 1936, had this to say about Husserl's dogma:

"Husserl, too, discovers the transcendental consciousness of Kant, and grasps it by the epoche. But this consciousness is no longer a set of logical conditions. It is a fact which is absolute. Nor is this transcendental consciousness a hypostatization of validity, an unconscious which floats between the real and the ideal. It is a real consciousness accessible to each of us as soon as the 'reduction' is performed. And it is indeed this transcendental consciousness which constitutes our empirical consciousness, our consciousness 'in the world', our consciousness with its psychic and psycho-physical me.

For our part, we readily acknowledge the existence of a constituting consciousness. We find admirable all of Husserl's descriptions in which he shows transcendental consciousness constituting the world by imprisoning itself in empirical consciousness. Like Husserl, we are persuaded that our psychic and psycho-physical me is a transcendent object which must fall before the epoche. But we raise the following question: is not this psychic and psycho-physical me enough? Need one double it with a transcendental I, a structure of absolute consciousness?

The consequences of a reply are obvious. If the reply is negative, the consequences are:

First, the transcendental field becomes impersonal; or, if you like, 'pre-personal', without an I.

Second, the I appears only at the level of humanity and is only one aspect of the me, the active aspect.

Third, the I Think can accompany our representations because it appears on a foundation of unity which it did not help to create; rather, this prior unity makes the I Think possible.

Fourth, one may well ask if personality (ever the abstract personality of an I) is a necessary accompaniment of a consciousness, and if one cannot conceive of absolutely impersonal consciousnesses.

To this question, Husserl has given his reply. After having determined (in Logische Untersuchungen) that the me is a synthetic and transcendent production of consciousness, he reverted in Ideen Zu Einer Reinen Phanomenologie Und Phanomenologischen Philosophie to the classic position of a transcendental I. This I would be, so to speak, behind each consciousness, a necessary structure of consciousnesses whose rays would light upon each phenomenon presenting itself in the field of attention. Thus transcendental consciousness becomes thoroughly personal. Was this notion necessary? Is it compatible with the definition of consciousness given be Husserl?"
(Sartre The Transcendence of the Ego p. 35-37)

As an aside, it is very interesting to note that Sartre, like Heidegger before him, thought that Husserl was really on to something in the Logical Investigations which he gave up on with his later turn to the Transcendental Ego. Heidegger saw in the Logical Investigations, especially in its concept of categorial intuition, an exciting new path to a new form of realism which, sadly, was not at all what Husserl likely intended.

Sartre himself will go on to insist on the reality, and foundational constitutive activity, of a pre-reflective non-personal consciousness. His rejection of the Transcendental Ego is a rejection of at least two ideas. First, that transcendental consciousness has any necessary structures and, second, that transcendental consciousness can be objectified such as to be experienced as "ego" or as "mine". There is, then, a fundamental difference between the ego reflected upon and the consciousness doing the reflection. For these reasons any supposed structures of the self, of the me or I, are neither known with certainty (the "I" is an object which transcends consciousness much as material objects do, such that we only ever have fallible hypotheses about their characteristics) nor structures of the pre-reflective consciousness by which they are objectified (consciousness always escapes the ultimate grasp of its own gaze and knowledge). For this reason Sartre asserts the same conclusion I drew in my paper. Husserl, if he were consistent and honest, should have asserted that we do not know for certain that any of the transcendental ego's processes are, or will remain, stable over time. For this reason at best we have only hypothetical, and arguably unconvincing hypothetical, knowledge of supposedly universal laws. At worst we have good reason to think that the idea of the very existence of the universal is incoherent. Sartre puts this very nicely in Being and Nothingness:

"It is futile to try to invoke pretended laws of consciousness of which the articulated whole would constitute the essence. A law is a transcendent object of knowledge; there can be consciousness of a law, not a law of consciousness. For the same reasons it is impossible to assign to a consciousness a motivation other than itself... We should fall into that too common illusion which makes consciousness semi-conscious or a passivity. But consciousness is consciousness through and through. It can be limited only by itself. This self-determination of consciousness must not be conceived as a genesis, as a becoming, for that would force us to suppose that consciousness is prior to its own existence. Neither is it necessary to conceive of this self-creation as an act, for in that case consciousness would be conscious (of) itself as an act, which it is not... One will perhaps have some difficulty in accepting these conclusions. But considered more carefully, they will appear perfectly clear. The paradox is not that there are 'self-activated' existences but that there is no other kind. What is truly unthinkable is passive existence; that is, existence which perpetuates itself without having the force either to produce itself or to preserve itself... Consciousness has nothing substantial, it is pure 'appearance' in the sense that it exists only to the degree to which it appears. But it is precisely because consciousness is pure appearance, because it is total emptiness (since the entire world is outside it) - it is because of this identity of appearance and existence within it that it can be considered as the absolute." (Sartre Being and Nothingness p. 15-17)

Sartre's own conception of radical freedom will follow directly from this unbridled unlaw-bound nature of consciousness. Freedom is always possible, and all determinations fail to be necessary determinations, because no worldly influence or motivation ever touches upon the free purely active nature of primordial pre-reflective consciousness. But this gives us precisely the world I insist Husserl leads us to but is afraid to enter, a world in which transcendentally constituting consciousness is without structure, limitation or law and, therefore, a world which is similarly without structure, limitation or law.

If, however, we begin to move away from consciousness and look instead to the sense in which the supposed experience of consciousness is derived from more basic worldly practice we begin to see where Heidegger will lead us. It is a world of non-stable historical essences found in shifting social practices and traditions.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Quotation for the Day

Hegel on philosophizing in natural language:

"But that which is in itself must just not have this foreignness for us, and we must not give it this foreign look by using a foreign terminology, but must count ourselves really convinced that the spirit itself is alive everywhere and that it expresses its forms in our own spontaneous natural language."

From Rosenkranz's Das Leben Hegels

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quotation for the Day

I have been brushing up on some Dilthey in preparation for my paper presentation at this years meeting of S.P.E.P., so I figured I would throw out a Dilthey quotation in honor of this lovely Thursday afternoon:

"The individual always experiences, thinks, and acts in a sphere of commonality, and only in such a sphere does he understand. Everything that has been understood carries, as it were, the mark of familiarity derived from such common features. We live in this atmosphere; it surrounds us constantly; we are immersed in it."

The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences p. 168

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Essay on Genet and Delacroix























Ingres' Paganini
Delacroix' Paganini

"There is something priggish about these young men of the school of Ingres. They seem to think it highly meritorious to have joined the ranks of 'serious painting'...a great number of talented artists have never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment. It is the same with their famous word beauty which, everyone says, is the chief aim of the arts. But if beauty were the only aim, what would become of men like Rubens and Rembrandt and all the northern temperaments, generally speaking, who prefer other qualities? Demand purity, in other words, beauty, from an artist like Puget and farewell to his verve!" Journal entry by Eugene Delacroix February 9th, 1847

I just had a brief essay published over at Escape Into Life. The essay, entitled "On the Disciples of Ugliness", discusses Jean Genet and Eugene Delacroix and the relation between beauty and ugliness which can be found in their work. In the essay I discuss a contrast between Romantic and Neo-classicist visual art, of perhaps Romanticism and a type of formalism, that is fairly nicely captured in the contrast between Delacroix and Ingres' Paganini's.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Poetry

If you are observant you may have realized I added a new link to my blog page. It is a link to three of my poems which were published on the excellent arts site "Escape Into Life". I highly recommend you check out the site even if you, perhaps wisely, have no interest in my poetry.

My Poems

Escape Into Life

Monday, August 16, 2010

The First Volume of Speculations and a bit more about Science

The first volume of the journal Speculations, dedicated to Speculative Realism, is now available. It can be purchased or downloaded for free here, you should check it out. As noted within the volume, not only is it the first journal dedicated to Speculative Realism it is also the first volume of a journal in which every contributor is a philosophy blogger on top of their academic credentials. It is a very interesting project. It's editor is Paul Ennis whose blog is worth checking out.

While perusing the volume I think I was most struck by Fabio Gironi's "Science-Laden Theory: Outlines of an Unsettled Alliance" which focuses on clarifying the origins and nature of the mixed bag which has come to be known as Speculative Realism as well as on investigating the movement's complex relationship to science. In connection with my previous blog post, it is the issue of the conception of science we find in thinkers like Meillassoux which most attracted my attention to Gironi's paper. The general idea is that, while continental philosophy became more and more correlationist, anti-realist and/or social constructivist in the previous century, science was left to be Reality's one remaining champion. As Gironi puts it:

"A reality in-itself which, having been banned by transcendental idealism and phenomenology first, became the open target of postmodernism and social constructivism later. This historical dismissal allowed science to claim privilege on ‘reality’; and yet, what for science was a reason for pride, to ‘postmodern’ eyes was a weak spot, so that science could be identified as the na├»ve—and yet powerful—cousin to be debunked. This is the attitude against which speculative realism is an internal philosophical reaction."

As my previous blog post should suggest, I think it is highly unlikely that "science" in general is a realist phenomenon or that scientists in general are realists. Einstein tends towards realism, for example, while Neils Bohr tended towards instrumentalism. I take the lesson taught to philosophers such as Duhem, Bachelard, Koyre, Kuhn and Feyerabend by the history of science very seriously, namely that there have been many very differently formulated sciences but nothing that could count as the basic characteristics of Science. This is the case both when we attempt to generalize over extended periods of history and when we generalize over the various individual disciplines out of which science is formed. I am tempted to suggest that when speaking of science we are, at best, dealing with a family resemblance. Certainly throughout history, and in the philosophy of science, realism is far from occupying a position of unquestioned dominance.

But the issue isn't about philosophy of science, and for now we might put the history of science aside. Instead let us look at the words of two fairly well respected scientists on the subject.

First we can look at Richard Feynman. In his paper "What is Science?", following an apology for even giving the talk considering his dislike for "philosophical exposition", he states that science is "the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past." In other words, science is defined for him primarily as a method for evaluating traditionally received wisdom and, through observation, developing new wisdom. In "The Uncertainty of Science" Feynman claims that science is a method of finding things out in which "observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea." It is important to observe that Feynman's commitment to the idea of science as primarily a method of discovery and critique prioritizing skepticism and observation is perfectly constructed to deflate the idea that science is based on something like the realist belief in a subject-independent and stable reality. Paul Feyerabend is, at times, just as committed to the idea of prioritizing observation and experience as is Feynman but he believes he can conjoin this priority with his various brands of anti-realism and relativism.

If we really pay attention to Feynman's view we can suggest two possible conclusions. Either the question of realism is an empirical question which observation must be allowed to investigate, in which case it seems pretty clear that no falsification of the various anti-realist positions has yet been produced, or realism is not something which observation can support or falsified, in which case it lacks any scientific status whatsoever. It is interesting to note that Thomas Kuhn DID think that the empirical data which makes up the history of science, for example the structure of paradigm change, suggested conclusions about ontology. Paul Feyerabend, extending and radicalizing Kuhn, thought that those conclusions supported relativism and anti-realism. Certainly both the data and the conclusions of these thinkers have been challenged but their existence should, at the very least, make us hesitate before we speak of science as unquestionably either essentially realist or as having produced discoveries exclusively supporting realism.

The suggestion that realism is a metaphysical position outside the boundaries of scientific inquiry is made, I feel, by Stephen Hawking when he embraces without reserve what he takes to be Popperian positivism. In The Universe in a Nutshell he states:

"Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory. (At least, that is what is supposed to happen. In practice, people often question the accuracy of the observations and the reliability and moral character of those making the observations.) If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes."

Let us say one is concerned with the question of reality as it applies to time. One goes to a physicist such as Dr. Hawking and asks "Is the nature of time stable and independent of human subjectivity?" The answer is likely to be something like the following: "I am not sure what sort of observational consequences either the realist or anti-realist hypotheses will have, and so I can't imagine a test of either hypothesis." But the question is clearly a meaningful and powerful question about the ontology of time. The scientist, as presented by Hawking, is not necessarily attempting to say what time actually (ontologically) is but rather avoids metaphysical claims in preference for claims based on predictive and observational content. One could be a realist, an anti-realist, or an agnostic on the issue and still do science just the way Hawking does. Of course many scientists do speculate beyond the boundaries of their strictly scientific work but their views are varied and not, strictly speaking, the views of "science". It is worth noting, for an example from philosophy of science rather than science proper, that Popper himself was a realist while many have wondered whether his actual philosophy does not rather lead to instrumentalism. At the very least we can say that his realism was methodological, taking the form of a regulative ideal, and seemingly unfalsifiable and thus unscientific by his own standards.

Let me end, then, by stating my concern in a very flatfooted manner. Speculative Realism seems very interested in defining itself as a philosophy, or collection of philosophies, with a specific relationship to science. I worry, however, that it may have too narrow a view of what science is and does. One wonders, for example, what the Speculative Realist champion of Realist Science would say to an instrumentalist or conventionalist scientist?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Berkeley and Meillassoux on what Science Says

While rereading Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge for some work on nominalism I am doing I stumbled upon an interesting moment. In section 58 Berkeley considers an objection to his proposal that things exist as ideas without existing as material objects potentially independent of any mind whatsoever. Specifically, the objector states that science has shown that the earth moves, but as no one can directly observe the movement of the earth science has asserted, and seemingly proven, a claim about something which no mind experiences. Berkeley responds by stating that what the well supported scientific theory should be understood to be about is what would be observed were one to place oneself in a given position in the future in relation to the earth. In other words, the content of the scientific theory is a prediction about future observations and applications based on past observations. Here is the text:

"58. Tenthly, it will be objected that the notions we advance are inconsistent with several sound truths in philosophy and mathematics. For example, the motion of the earth is now universally admitted by astronomers as a truth grounded on the clearest and most convincing reasons. But, on the foregoing principles, there can be no such thing. For, motion being only an idea, it follows that if it be not perceived it exists not; but the motion of the earth is not perceived by sense. I answer, that tenet, if rightly understood, will be found to agree with the principles we have premised; for, the question whether the earth moves or no amounts in reality to no more than this, to wit, whether we have reason to conclude, from what has been observed by astronomers, that if we were placed in such and such circumstances, and such or such a position and distance both from the earth and sun, we should perceive the former to move among the choir of the planets, and appearing in all respects like one of them; and this, by the established rules of nature which we have no reason to mistrust, is reasonably collected from the phenomena."

On reading this I was struck by a surface resemblance to the problem of the arch-fossil in Meillassoux's After Finitude. There Meillassoux claims that some science presents us with "ancestral statements" and the discovery of "arch-fossils". The first of these is understood as a statement about how things were before the development of thought in the universe. Imagine, for example, a hypothesis about the first few minutes following the Big Bang. The second of these are evidences which support ancestral statements. Consider, for example, light reaching the earth from a portion of space over thirteen billion light years away. Such light would be just now reaching us from a time comparably close to the time of the Big Bang and thus almost certainly from a time before the development of any consciousness or thought. Ancestral statements, then, speak of a universe without, and before, consciousness or thought and arch-fossils are evidences of such times. This point is central for Meillassoux for several reasons, not the least of which is that it allows him to claim that the completely honest correlationist must admit to rejecting science. (By a "correlationist", as I have discussed in other posts, Meillassoux means someone who claims that being and thought or being and consciousness are necessarily connect such that it ultimately makes no sense to speak of the one without the other. To be is to be given to consciousness.)

Of course Meillassoux stresses in his book that the problem of ancestral statements is not the same as the problem of the unobservered, i.e. the old problem of whether an event occurs if there is no one there to witness it. He wants to stress that ancestral statements and arch-fossils are not about things which just happen not to have been witness but are rather about things which based upon their very temporal nature could not have been witnessed. Their temporal being necessitates unobservability by consciousness. This being the case, Berkeley's example is not precisely the same. However, his answer is certainly the answer that many a correlationist is likely to jump to and one which Meillassoux, who so often takes Berkeley as a model for the most extreme of his enemies, is familiar with. What is odd, however, is that Berkeley's answer presents a plausible and coherent understanding of what the scientist is actually up to. Even today any number of scientists seem unlikely to object to his description. Meillassoux insists, however, that scientists mean their ancestral statements literally and it is only the sophistic correlationist philosopher who feels the need to hedge the meaning of their statements. Meillassoux states:

"Thus, a philosopher will generally begin with an assurance to the effect that his theories in no way interfere with the work of the scientist, and that the manner in which the latter understands her own research is perfectly legitimate. But he will immediately add (or say to himself): legitimate, as far as it goes. What he means is that although it is normal, and even natural, for the scientist to adopt a spontaneously realist attitude, which she shares with the ‘ordinary man’, the philosopher possesses a specific type of knowledge which imposes a correction upon science’s ancestral statements– a correction which seems to be minimal, but which suffices to introduce us to another dimension of thought in its relation to being."

The question, then, is what a scientific hypothesis actually means or, to put it differently, whether science is even able to formulate ancestral statements when we avoid short cuts or common language translations in our formulations of what a hypothesis or theory states?

Let me first state that it seems that we can find non-temporal arch-fossils and ancestral statements that allow us to clarify the problem by glancing at some of the major developments in twentieth century physics. Subatomic particles are, in their very being, un-able to be directly observed by anything like consciousness. They are small enough objects or events that it seems fairly safe to assert that their very being forecloses all unmediated observation. Statements about subatomic particles are, then, ancestral statements about a region of being, admittedly spacial and not temporal, which by its very nature is independent of any correlation with consciousness or thought. How, then, do scientists understand their hypothesis about subatomic particles? Do they always and simply intend them "literally" and in a naive realist sense? This seems pretty clearly not to be the case. Models of, for example, the structure of the atom are taken to be precisely that, models, partaking more of the nature of metaphor than of factual claims. The models attempt to capture in intuitive forms, as far as possible, the predictive and observational consequences of various theories while suffering from the various drawbacks associated with metaphors, i.e. they work in certain regards but not in others. Look at the debates between Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger concerning wave/particle duality or the uncertainty principle and you will see clashes over how much of the metaphors are useful and how much not. For example, does the uncertainty principle say something literal about subatomic particles, i.e. that they REALLY EXIST as something like waves of probability until they are observed and collapse into a given determined form, or does it say something about the limits of our observational capabilities and the inadequacy of our concepts (metaphors?) "wave" and "particle"? These are old problems and the general way out of them is to state that the meaning of the theories in question is their observational and predictive consequences and not the common-language stories about what the subatomic world is like which we attempt to spin out of them. One focuses on the differences which make a difference in scientific practice.

When I was an undergraduate student at Boston University I studied some physics with Dr. Lawrence Sulak, the discoverer of the finite mass of the neutrino. I was reading a book on super-string theory and asked professor Sulak what he thought about the theory. His response was that it was a beautiful fairy tale. His reasoning was that, at the time, super string theory had no observational or predictive consequences and so didn't exist as an actual scientific theory at all. Clearly here there are also echoes of Popper's proposal that a theory which can never be falsified, because it has no predictive consequences, is not science. One could envision using Popper's guidance to distinguish between the scientific and non-scientific content of a hypothesis which would be a practice of distinguishing between the observational-predictive content of a hypothesis and whatever else they may contain, such as the metaphorical content used to make a hypothesis more imaginable for both the theoretician and common public.

In theoretical physics it is not uncommon to find a very sharp and powerful distinction drawn between the real hypotheses, which tend to consist of mathematical formulations and observational predictions, and the every day common language translations of these hypotheses. To put this in more pragmatic terms, and to connect it with Berkeley's original claim, the hypothesis is about what one can observe now or in the future and what one can do with the hypothesis. This is, arguably, the scientific content of the hypothesis from the standpoint of at least some, and I suspect many, physicists. This point has become more and more important in physics because the hypotheses with which the physicist works have been getting harder and harder to capture in everyday descriptive language.

Astrophysics, because it works at a macro rather than micro level, tends to be more friendly to common language formulations and descriptions. Nonetheless it often enough finds itself forced to admit that the actual content of its theories are mathematical formulations conjoined with observational predictive content and not common language descriptions. Cases of talking about "the warpage of space-time by mass" are a fair example here. At best what we are dealing with in this case are mostly failed metaphors, failed because impossible to imagine even though formulated in everyday descriptive language, for a mathematical formulation of observational predictions. This, then, will be equally true of hypotheses which are taken to be about the universe before the development of consciousness. The scientific content of such hypothesis is conceivably held by some scientists to strictly be their observational predictions and applications, not their everyday descriptive formulation into a story about the early moments of the universe. For an ancestral statement, then, it is precisely not the ancestral part of the statement which seems to be its scientific content. For this reason we might even say that science conceived in this manner is unable to formulate ancestral statements.

I tend to side with Feyerabend on these issues to the effect that there is little to nothing that can be said about Science in general. However it seems to me that we have good reason to think that Berkeley's understanding of scientific practice may be less violent to it than Meillassoux's and, in fact, that Meillassoux may himself be caught in the position of having to admit that he is playing the role of the sneaky philosopher making scientific statements say something other than they actually tend to say.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Quotation for the Day

"I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy."

Walt Whitman

Friday, July 9, 2010

Todd May's Contribution to "The Stone"

The most recent post in the New York Time's philosophy blog "The Stone" is by the Foucault scholar Todd May. In it he takes up the issue of friendship in the age of economics. The point he makes, using Aristotle, perfectly echoes a point I tend to make in some of my classes using Heidegger's conceptions of calculative thought and enframing. When we conceive of our interpersonal relationships in terms of gain and loss we miss out on those relationships in which we come to see that we are part of another person or, in a community sense, part of something larger than our own concerns. As May puts it:

"Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be."

May points out that while we certainly CAN calculate such relationships in terms of what good or bad they provide, to do so is to miss that the nature of the relationship itself has nothing to do with beneficial or negative outcomes. This is a great piece for "The Stone". Check it out.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Zizek Assessing the Post-Hegelian Break

Creston Davis has posted on his blog Object Petit a Zizek's introduction to Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic, edited by Zizek, Crockett, and Davis himself. The introduction is an interesting read mainly concerned with interpreting the way in which Hegelianism itself changed philosophy in such a way as to dismiss the idea that the very existence of post-Hegelianism is a counter argument to Hegel. It ends with the rallying call for us to attempt to read the difficult history of the twentieth century in a Hegelian manner and with the promise that the true time of Hegel will be the twenty-first century. This rather reminds me of Zizek's confession in a recent interview that he is working on a huge book about Hegel which he intends to be his magnum opus.

I think the part of the introduction that most struck me was this paragraph:

In what, then, resides Hegel’s uniqueness? Hegel’s thought stands for the moment of passage between philosophy as Master’s discourse, the philosophy of the One that totalizes the multiplicity, and anti-philosophy which asserts the Real that escapes the grasp of the One. On the one hand, he clearly breaks with the metaphysical logic of counting-for-One; on the other hand, he does not allow for any excess external to the field of notional representations. For Hegel, totalization-in-One always fails, the One is always-already in excess with regard to itself, it is itself the subversion of what it purports to achieve, and it is this tension internal to the One, this Two-ness which makes the One One and simultaneously dislocates it, it is this tension which is the movens of the “dialectical process.” In other words, Hegel effectively denies that there is no Real external to the network of notional representations (which is why he is regularly misread as “absolute idealist” in the sense of the self-enclosed circle of the totality of the Notion). However, the Real does not disappear here in the global self-relating play of symbolic representations; it returns with a vengeance as the immanent gap, obstacle, on account of which representations cannot ever totalize themselves, on account of which they are “non-all.”

Obviously, if you read my blog, you have seen that I have been reading and thinking a lot about Badiou recently. I am interested here in the way in which Zizek picks something out that may indeed be central to Hegel but presents it in a way which sounds far more like Badiou than Hegel.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

From Nietzsche and the One to Heidegger and the Nothing

"The impasse of the Parmenides is that of establishing that both the one and the others [i.e. the many or multiple] do and do not possess all thinkable determinations, that they are totally everything and that they are not so. We are thus led to a general ruin of thought as such by the entire dialectic of the one." Alain Badiou Being and Event

One could assert that a major element in the history of philosophy stretches from Plato's dizzying Parmenides to a moment in Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. Although Nietzsche is not directly invoked, Badiou certainly sees his work as taking off from a realization that the thinking of the one and the many has been at the very heart of philosophy since its appearance in Plato as inspired by the Pre-Socratics and that, generally, we have not escaped from the manner in which Plato presented the problem in the course of his works. It is this escape that Badiou wants to stage drawing, fundamentally, upon a failure in the way that the Parmenides conceived of the problem.

The reason I suggest the history of the problem could be read as stretching from Plato to Nietzsche is because Nietzsche's unparalleled assault upon the two world dualism, which he sees as the heart of almost all metaphysics, can be read as a version of this same problem of the one and the many. Indeed, there is a way to read the conclusion of both Plato and Nietzsche's grappling with this problem as indicating, against each of their conscious wills, the way to jump out of the dialectic. It is, I would argue, precisely this point which Heidegger sees when he suggests that the challenge for philosophy now is to think the Nothing.

The Parmenides ends with an exhausting attempt to think out the speculative implications of positing the existence of The One and The Many. The conclusions, roughly, are that if The One exists it must be the only thing which can be thought to exist and all difference and plurality must be illusion. One of the main ideas here is that similarity and difference between things, such that we could compare The One to others, requires that parts or elements be discernible within The One and thus present or lacking in the others. However, if The One is truly one it has no parts and no elements, no characteristics which can be divided from its oneness. So, if The One exists we do away with similarity and difference, and thus with plurality. But, if this is the case, then oneness becomes meaningless and unthinkable.

"Thus if one is, the one is all things and is not even one, both in relation to itself and, likewise, in relation to the others." Plato's Parmenides

On the other hand, if The One does not exist we are left with an unthinkable multiplicity. This multiplicity is unthinkable because, again, similarity requires some level of oneness which is, in some sense, not total oneness. In other words, for the multiplicity to be a multiplicity of things we need a way to think the oneness of a thing and the oneness implied in sharing something with other things. The communion required for similarity itself requires oneness. This leads us to the ultimate conclusion of the dialogue:

"If one is not, nothing is."

It is possible to read the dialogue as a defense of the Parmenidean point that the ultimate truth of reality must be that change and difference are illusions. The one must be, but if the one is it must be all. However, as Badiou reads it for example, the dialogue actually demonstrates that the relation between the one and the many is the reef upon which the ship of thought is ruined. But, as our discussion should suggest, this reef is really the problem of similarity and it is this reef, I would claim, upon which Nietzsche built his entire life's work. (Think I mixed metaphors there? I rather think I didn't. If ever there was a thinker who willfully sought to build a perpetually changing and endangered edifice upon shifting submerged reefs of thought it was Nietzsche.)

If we look at some of Nietzche's early work we find a thread that continues throughout the course of the rest of his work. This thread is found, for example, in Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense when we are told that similarity and, eventually, truth are built out of the basic "lies" created through the limiting nature of our senses and the metaphoric nature of thought and language. All sameness, unity, stability and generality are constructed, artificially, through basic illusions overlaid on an actual flux of change and difference. Reality, then, is the unthinkable multiplicity without similarity or continuity and all else is a poetic creation. This same point is repeated throughout Nietzsche's work surfacing, for example, in The Gay Science and finally in Twilight of the Idols. If we look at the section "'Reason' in Philosophy" in Twilight of the Idols we see very clearly the presentation of reason as precisely this lie, or metaphor, constructing collection of instincts. However, it becomes clear that the drive to posit similarity goes beyond the construction of our everyday experience of the world. It eventually gives rise to the complete rejection of this world precisely because we STILL find, after all our processes of falsification of experience, too much change in the world. This leads to the positing of another world, the Real world, which is stable, unchanging and in comparison with which the world of experience and multiplicity must be rejected. We can see as well, here, the connection between this artificial origin of similarity/relation and the positing of a final, ultimate, singular perspective which would count as the Truth about any given subject. To achieve Truth is to see things from that perspective from which all difference and change disappears as illusory. From the rejection of this view we get Nietzsche's perspectivalism.

There is, however, a problem with the very chain of ideas I have just presented for Nietzsche. The problem is that the original insight that similarity is artificial arises from a Real World vs. Illusion dichotomy and, indeed, in Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense Nietzsche is at his most Schopenhauerian and metaphysical. For him, at that time, there sometimes seems to be a hidden ultimate reality, a thing in itself, which is something like chaos, flux or Will to Power. I believe Nietzsche ultimately does not hold to this commitment, but it is necessary in order to get into the viewpoint I have been presenting. The rejection of two world dualism, then, originates from a two world dualism.

It is precisely this point, in a lovely echo of Plato's Parmenides, that Nietzsche presents so clearly in the section of Twilight of the Idols entitled "How the 'Real World' at last Became a Myth". There we see how the two world dualism of Plato eventually leads to its own overcoming, just as the positing of either The One or The Many eventually lead to the collapse of both. The end of the story, likewise, is the same as the end of the Parmenides. Specifically, we end with a very troubling paradox.

"We have abolished the real world: what world is left? the apparent world perhaps? ... But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!"

This same paradox leads both Nietzsche and the characters in the Parmenides to the same conclusion:

"If one is not, nothing is." Plato

"The characteristics which have been assigned to the 'real being' of things are the characteristics of non-being, of nothingess -" Nietzsche

Although not seemingly the intended meaning, both moments in the history of metaphysics point us to the necessity of thinking the Nothing and its relation to being. What would it mean to reject the One, and thus the Many, and instead assert Nothingness? What does it mean to say that the characteristics of being are precisely those of the Nothing? This is the question which Heidegger believed could get us beyond nihilism and which Badiou, in a totally different manner from Heidegger, also seeks to answer.