29 July 2007

Return of the backwoods philosopher

I've been busy since my last post here, working alternately on my book and on a review of Evan Thompson's book Mind in Life. Now i've finished the review and put it on my website; this book should be of great interest for anyone curious about how biology connects with phenomenology (the systematic study of experience). Or anyone interested in consciousness studies, actually.

So i now plan to resume posting of recent thoughts and readings which are separable from my main work in progress. Comments are welcome, of course, though i don't really expect any in the near future, since i'm out of all the usual loops, so to speak. In this respect i can identify with that philosophical ‘backwoodsman’ of an earlier time, Charley Peirce, who wrote of himself (at age 70) that he was ‘trying to come to understand the nature of the different kinds of reasoning’ and had ‘more and more led the life of a recluse in order to escape all distraction from that study’ (Ketner 1998, 62). That didn't stop him from publishing over 300 reviews, and if weblogs had existed 100 years ago i'm sure he would have used them too. (Not that my output can compare with Peirce's, either in quality or quantity!)

Peirce devoted himself to logic and semiotic not because these were special interests of his—and certainly not because they represented a viable career path!—but because they represent the scaffolding which supports all of the ‘special sciences.’ Philosophy, for Peirce, was the inquiry which ‘rests on no special observations, made by special observational means, but on phenomena which lie open to the observation of every man, every day and hour’ (CP 7.526). The very idea of a ‘specialist’ in logic or philosophy is oxymoronic.

Logic, like the logos of Heraclitus, is involved in the very possibility of learning anything. Heraclitus was among the first to make some observations that explain why it's difficult to discover anything new:

He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.

Lovers of wisdom must be good inquirers into many things indeed.

Whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer.

However …

Much learning (polymathia) does not teach understanding.

Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if their souls do not understand the language [literally, if they have ‘barbaric souls’].

(The translations here are mostly from Kahn 1979.) The ‘soul’ (psyche) here seems to be the faculty that integrates all the bits and pieces of experience and makes sense of it all.

Semeiotically speaking, the question here is how you can learn anything that you don't already know by reading signs.

The Sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant in this volume by the Object of a Sign; namely, that with which it presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it.

Where does this ‘further information’ come from? Merleau-Ponty (1945, 207-8) raises the question of how a listener can learn anything from a spoken utterance, ‘since it would not be understood if it did not encounter in the listener the ability spontaneously to effect it.’

People can speak to us only a language which we already understand; each word of a difficult text awakens in us thoughts which were ours beforehand, but these meanings sometimes combine to form new thought which recasts them all, and we are transported to the heart of the matter, we find the source.

Such a ‘difficult text’ is precisely what i call a scripture. Why does it have to be ‘difficult’? Because, as Wallace Stevens said of poetry, it ‘must resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ An easy text, like ‘easy listening’ music, is not going to take you anywhere you haven't already been. A new thought, or a new intimacy, does not come to us as the solution to an already-determined problem, as Merleau-Ponty goes on to say:

In understanding others, the problem is always indeterminate because only the solution will bring the data retrospectively to light as convergent; only the central theme of a philosophy, once understood, endows the philosopher's writings with the value of adequate signs.

So that's how a philosophical text can work as scripture: it's up to you, the reader, to get to the ‘central theme’ and thus to ‘the heart of the matter, the source’. And the same is true of mythic or parabolic texts, as Arthur Koestler (1964, 337-8) says:

All mythology is studded with symbols, veiled in allegory; the parables of Christ pose riddles which the audience must solve. The intention is not to obscure the message, but to make it more luminous by compelling the recipient to work it out by himself—to re-create it. Hence the message must be handed to him in implied form—and implied means ‘folded in’. To make it unfold, he must fill in the gaps, complete the hint, see through the symbolic disguise.

But of course you can't do your part as reader unless the writer has done his part as learner; and that explain's old Charley's need to avoid distractions.
For in order that I should be of the service to you that I hold it as the first duty of my remaining years that I should try with all my heart to be, this writing on my part and reading on yours, should amount to a heart to heart confabulation, without any reserve that can possibly obstruct it.

(This too is from Ketner 1998, 62, following immediately from the quote above. As always, my reference list
is key to all sources.)

I can't resist one comment: Charley, who defined ‘confabulation’ in the Century Dictionary as
‘easy, unrestrained conversation,’ would no doubt be amused at the meaning it's now taken on in the special sciences of neurology and psychology, as in Hirstein's Brain Fiction (2005) … but that's another story.