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.