Tag Archives: language

The self was a good idea but its time has come to fade away

Identity is the new Holy Grail. Everybody is looking for something that does not exist, and still would somehow magically transform their mediocre existence into the golden rule. The quest for identity responds to the post-modern question of belonging. Whether they are patriotic nationalist or universal subcultural causes, we constantly contrive collectives within which to identify with other people. This is post-modern because it is a melancholy for modern times when belonging belonged to the self-evident, except for those who self-evidently did not belong – the gays, the displaced, the ill, the Western Easterners, the out-of-luck. It’s the excluded who shaped these post-modern times because they frantically started a quest for being included ‘somewhere’. This was, for them, of the essence because not-belonging was the essential problem they experienced in modernity.

The rule is that the exception always has a tendency to become the rule. The exception is entropy, and it causes energy to shift to keep it under control. This is how in modern times the excluded discovered this problem of identity, that quickly became the post-modern problem for everyone. The meaning of life was transformed into the meaning of me and here we are trying to resolve our selves in an identity with others. Continue reading

The self is both made and explored with words

“The self is both made and explored with words; and the best for both are the words spoken in the dialogue of friendship.”
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self – The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 183.

In reading these pages, I was reminded by the abomination that is the word “paradigm”. Although I am largely sympathetic to the project of Charles Taylor in tracing the origins of self and identity, there is a certain something about it which annoys me. Thinking about it his pinpointing of pivotal moments in philosophy is the cause of this slight discomfort. In his own words I think his is the natural way of explaining, as against the more convoluted way which is less prone to be accepted in this scientistic bottom-up world. Sure, this way serves the purpose of bringing home the point that the way we see things naturalistically is neither eternal nor inescapable. Still it also exposes us to the risk of marking “paradigm shifts” showing side by side clear before’s and after’s and simultaneously expressing a strong valuation that such before’s are inferior and the corresponding after’s are superior. Thinking in “paradigm shifts” has led to the abominable results that we see all around us, marking in’s and out’s in the most uncharitable of ways.

The quote stresses, I think, not the discrete but the continuous; not the sudden but the emerging; not revolution but evolution. It connects the continuous evolution of language with its essence in friendship. The quote gets it all right. From that very first time that people pointed to the same thing in uttering or gesturing (hence thinking) the word “that”, the mechanism of development is a mechanism of co-operation (see P. Grice), a mechanism presupposing being charitable to understanding the other (D. Davidson) and best seen in one of Quine’s favorite metaphors of rebuilding the ship as we are sailing it:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
Otto Neurath, from Wikipedia. Continue reading

Poems for the mildly off-beat

As a freak of nature
I was
nurtured to be a fool.

It makes me terribly
sad so
joyous I want to be.

Foolish I want to be
but a
terrible silence mutes me.

Happy happy happy Continue reading

On Saying “That”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that the form of psychological sentences in English apparently evolved in much the way these ruminations suggest. According to the Oxford English Dictionary

The use of that is generally held to have arisen out of the demonstrative pronoun pointing to the clause which it introduces.

(..)” D. Davidson, “On Saying That” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 106.

Charles Taylor is right, the question ‘Why?’ is humanly unavoidable. My question is why this is so. If we know why we cannot but ask ‘Why?’, we have resolved that part of the mystery of life which tends to separate people. I agree with Charles Taylor as well that naturalistic reduction – scientism is the more appropriate label – is a moral hazard but I think science, under the lead of the human sciences, must address why this is so. The strategy for doing so is the most basic strategy of all science: to trace to the origins of the phenomenon, just like Charles Darwin did.

Well, I think the origin of the word ‘why’ lies in the word ‘that’. The latter word has been the object of intense scrutiny for instance by Donald Davidson. Its non-verbal equivalent, finger pointing, is a  necessary gateway between the realm of things and that of thought. The word ‘that’ presupposes a lot. It presupposes a lot of things of which at least two need to be complex enough to point to some third thing. These things qua things are the subject matter studied by so called hard science. Kant called this pure reason. Most have forgotten his critique of it though. Basically: that this hard science presupposes subjects that do the pointing and have mastered a language consisting of a lot more words than ‘that’.

Indeed, on the other side of the word ‘that’ lies our language and therefore also lie we qua humanity as studied by human science. These are sciences that do not merely use words but are, strictly speaking, about words. The division between the hard and human sciences cuts across scientific fields, in particular across psychology, which explains why they are internally so divided. It has become a vulgar truth of scientism that individuals become objective if they just follow the insight of the hard sciences; that the question ‘Why?’ Is just a phenomenon, that there is no basic reason why this is so, that the word is the mental equivalent of an appendix that just needs to be removed when it is inflamed. This runs counter to the origins of hard science in multiple ways. Just take “that”: it’s no small matter that before it can be uttered there need to be at least two beings complex enough to point to some third thing and identify it as the same. The work of George Herbert Mead is a work of hard science and already explains that it takes a community to create anything that can be properly called an individual.

Tracing our origin to the word ‘that’ establishes a before and an after but only what comes after is capable of examining what came before. People may have little patience nowadays to appreciate  a difficult point: still, the hard sciences presuppose human sciences and not vice versa. They will be as incapable of overtaking them as the tortoise the hare. Scientism is a dangerous, and harshly metaphysical, fallacy that subjects subjects to matter. It’s to be fought with the type of science so characteristic of a Ludwig Wittgenstein. That’s a fight we will fight insight by insight for the patient who know solutions don’t come cut and dried and overnight. Everything I ever wrote is dedicated to this fight.

Another fallacy is the Augustinian one of spiritualism in which the before and the after of the word ‘that’ are impermeable. The word then stands alone without its body, without grounding and (speaking as an as of yet unconfirmed autist) leads to the kind of mysticism and skepticism that throws a tantrum every time its selfmade why it is so gets challenged and changed. It ignores that desire, vital energy in the sense of Bergson, was there long before the word ‘that’ – and that this desire is as fully permeating the creation of anything in language as it permeates any living thing. It ignores the fact that human science is science as wel: a human activity of reason (and therefore of mathematics) that can explain why a tantrum is thrown. Philosophical hermeneutics as proposed by Gadamer is nothing else as tracing what is after ‘that’; it is the origin of humanity in the survival of ideas that fit the environment of reason.

Before the word ‘that’ there was only desire and its dynamics of energy shaping matter against entropy; all a mere matter of pure probability whether physical, thermodynamical or evolutionary. After the word ‘that’ there’s a new force of energy in the development of reason that shapes thought, basically around the mathematics of probability. We’re still discovering how this is all linked but one link is a priori necessary (even if it is real hard to synthesize): that we are creatures driven by desire in developing reason and creatures of reason in driving our desires. Neither reason nor desire can rule (in) us – this is why asking ‘Why?’ is so basic, so universal and so common to all of us. What rules in us is judgment (it is Deleuze who explained me why Kant wrote 3 critiques). If we realize we all ask the same question for a same reason we can transcend the specific comprehensive answers that we individually need at any given time. This does not discredit any of these answers as such but opens the playground to develop understanding – to develop our common language, to discover the Rawlsian overlapping consensus we all share. We may be just (im)probable creatures, but as creatures we are necessarily driven to adaptation to a common judgment sharing as we do a common desire and a common reason.

So in this Charles Taylor is most probably wrong: there is a universal moral claim of reason – there is a “basic reason” of morality. We should not seek it in what specifically comes after the ‘that’, in what we point to (we should not seek it in the specific answer we give at a certain point to the question ‘Why?’). We should see it in the fact that we all use ‘that’ in the same way to point to what we believe (this is the universal ‘Why it is so’ we all ask that same question ‘Why?’). This may seem opaque but it really isn’t. It’s something we know in everyday life and everyday speech. There is nothing ultimately arbitrary or relative or perspectivist in what we point to with ‘that’. A bird is a bird even if it may be difficult to be sure we are pointing to the same thing. The same is true for beliefs in a ‘that’-clause, they are not magically lifted out of the realm of logic to do with as we please (not even Humpty Dumpty can do that). We can hold many false beliefs but once somebody points us out that the earth is round we simply can no longer also believe it is flat. You cannot hide stupidity in personal opinion even if it has become the most popular political opinion. There always is a fact in the moral, however difficult and endless it may be to uncover all the facts.

Mind is made of words

Mind is made of words. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. 
 
I am made of your words and so are you now made of some of mine.
 
Chemistry and electricity give the mind a body. It is not the other way around.
 
When are we born? When do we die? These are the most questionable of questions.
 
The body is connected to the mind. The body is man or woman. The mind, it has the choice.
 
I can doubt all this because words are made up all the time. Words are never in time.
 
Bodies are time-bound. We can make them hell like birds making our own cages.
 
‘My words to your words, my mind to your mind’, is just what we are.
 
We cannot die, as long as we don’t try to fly. Only time flies.
Is this mysterious hogwash? It is less mysterious than the hogwash that sees mind in all matter. In essence the common fight of communism and capitalism is a fight against words, a fight for what matters. Capitalism merely is more cunning at it, discrediting words as just words, whilst crediting money as all that matters. The economy of minds gets modeled on animal biology, survival as the only test of fitness. That’s hogwash as well. Economics is not a mysterious form of exact science; it is a human science, a social science and only a derivative one at that. Poetry is first.

Continue reading

The Tunnel

“Poets are the bees of the invisible, Rilke said.”
William H. Gass, The Tunnel, Dalkey Archive Press, 1999, p. 110.

It should have been: ‘Poets are the bees of the not yet visible.”  Flowers that are not yet visible are invisible. And so are you. Am I. Some things remain invisible though & as such are not not yet visible. Maybe that accounts for Maeterlinck’s fascination with bees.

Was Rilke inaccurate (did he say that?) or does the invisible only apply to what’s ultimately going to flower? Truth as yet undiscovered still truth is. No matter if the words are well ordered. Rilke said; Rilke sad. It’s to a large extent how extent tends to some extent being turned into ‘extend’. A tunnel from the dark side to a more truthful state, of affairs.

Capisce?

Continue reading

The Dead

“- Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany, said Gabriel awkwardly
– And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
– Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.

– And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
– Well
, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.”
(James Joyce, Dubliners, The Dead, The Portable James Joyce, Viking, 1947, p. 205)

And well, we’re all stuck between where we come from and where we to go. Well, some of us want to go where we come from. And others come from where they want to go. The difference is not material but it is the difference between artists, broadly speaking, and bastards, narrowly defined.

The nostalgic focus on the material, on solutions that are both clear-cut and that cut clearly into same and different. It is not so with the optimistic for whom push never comes to shove; there always remaining a difference, in principle. Never mind the issues we face in interpreting what is around us. What counts is that we will never and cannot ever have a final interpretation even if we always will have issues to face.

I know this is not clear. But it is what it is, and, well, Continue reading