Category: Words

LA POSSIBILITÉ D’UNE ÎLE

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According to the Supreme Sister, jealousy, desire and the appetite for procreation share the same origin, which is the suffering of being.  It is the suffering of being that makes us seek out the other, as a palliative; we must go beyond this stage to reach the state where the simple fact of being constitutes in itself a permanent occasion for joy; where intermediation is nothing more than a game, freely undertaken, and not constitutive of being.  We must, in a word, reach the freedom of indifference, the condition for the possibility of perfect serenity.

Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island.

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INFINITE NATURE, INFINITE PHILOSOPHY

Nature itself will always dwell out of reach.  The scientific logos cannot catch what in Nature cannot be turned into logic or mathematics.  Nature is like a living body covered with a coat – the scientific logos might one day catch each of the coat’s fibers that form a beautiful and harmonious whole, and find each fiber interwoven with all the others, but nevertheless, the coat is not the body of the person.

The paradox of all this, of science’s unrelenting, progressing, but also infinite journey towards “understanding” Nature is this: Nature is constantly revealing itself to us “naked,” without a coat.  It does so in the guise of the sensitive, richly diverse world that all men, of all times and places, can witness.  It is as if modern science, heavily influenced by Plato, would in fact blind us in its frantic pursuit from the presence of the infinite Nature.

Marcel Conche, Philosophizing ad Infinitum: Infinite Nature, Infinite Philosophy.

THE AUGURIES OF SCIENCE

We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation.

It was a competition that first came into absolute focus with the late Renaissance, particularly in the imprisonment of Galileo in 1633. The stated and superficial reason was that his publications had not been first stamped with papal approval. But the true argument, I am sure, was no such trivial surface event. For the writings in question were simply the Copernican heliocentric theory of the solar system which had been published a century earlier by a churchman without any fuss whatever. The real division was more profound and can, I think, only be understood as a part of the urgency behind mankind’s yearning for divine certainties. The real chasm was between the political authority of the church and the individual authority of experience. And the real question was whether we are to find our lost authorization through an apostolic succession from ancient prophets who heard divine voices, or through searching the heavens of our own experience right now in the objective world without any priestly intercession. As we all know, the latter became Protestantism and, in its rationalist aspect, what we have come to call the Scientific Revolution.

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PSYCHE/SOMA

All this curious development of the sixth century B.C. is extremely important for psychology. For with this wrenching of psyche = life over to psyche = soul, there came other changes to balance it as the enormous inner tensions of a lexicon always do. The word soma had meant corpse or deadness, the opposite of psyche as livingness. So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. And dualism, the supposed separation of soul and body, has begun.

But the matter does not stop there. In Pindar, Heraclitus, and others around 500 B.C., psyche and nous begin to coalesce. It is now the conscious subjective mind-space and its self that is opposed to the material body. Cults spring up about this new wonder-provoking division between psyche and soma. It both excites and seems to explain the new conscious experience, thus reinforcing its very existence. The conscious psyche is imprisoned in the body as in a tomb. It becomes an object of wide-eyed controversy. Where is it? And the locations in the body or out-side it vary. What is it made of? Water (Thales), blood, air (Anaximenes), breath (Xenophanes), fire (Heraclitus), and so on, as the science of it all begins in a morass of pseudoquestions.

So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins its huge haunted career through history, to be firmly set in the firmament of thought by Plato, moving through Gnosticism into the great religions, up through the arrogant assurances of Descartes to become one of the great spurious quandaries of modern psychology.

At the beginning, we noted that archaeologists, by brushing the dust of the ages from around the broken shards of pottery from the period of the Dorian invasions, have been able to reveal continuities and changes from site to site, and so to prove that a complex series of migrations was occurring. In a sense, we have been doing the same thing with language throughout this chapter. We have taken broken-off bits of vocabulary, those that came to refer to some kind of mental function, and by their contexts from text to text, attempted to demonstrate that a huge complex series of changes in mentality was going on during these obscure periods that followed the Dorian invasions in Greece.

Let no one think these are just word changes. Word changes are concept changes and concept changes are behavioral changes. The entire history of religions and of politics and even of science stands shrill witness to that. Without words like soul, liberty, or truth, the pageant of this human condition would have been filled with different roles, different climaxes. And so with the words we have designated as preconscious hypostases, which by the generating process of metaphor through these few centuries unite into the operator of consciousness.

I have now completed that part of the story of Greek consciousness that I intended to tell. More of it could be told, how the two nonstimulus-bound hypostases come to overshadow the rest, how nous and psyche come to be almost interchangeable in later writers, such as Parmenides and Democritus, and take on even new metaphor depths with the invention of logos and of the forms of truth, virtue, and beauty.

But that is another task. The Greek subjective conscious mind, quite apart from its pseudostructure of soul, has been born out of song and poetry. From here it moves out into its own history, into the narratizing introspections of a Socrates and the spatialized classifications and analyses of an Aristotle, and from there into Hebrew, Alexandrian, and Roman thought. And then into the history of a world which, because of it, will never be the same again.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR

I think this is the right place to say something more about ‘it’.  Though of course there is no ‘right’ place or time, since there was no particular moment marking – then or now – ‘its’ beginning.  And yet there did come a period when everyone was talking about ‘it’; and we knew we had not been doing this until recently: there was a different ingredient in our lives.

Perhaps I would have done better to have begun this chronicle with an attempt at a full description of ‘it’.  But is it possible to write an account of anything at all without ‘it’ – in some shape or another – being the main theme?  Perhaps, indeed, ‘it’ is the secret theme of all literature and history, like writing in invisible ink between the lines, which springs up, sharply black, dimming the old print we knew so well, as life, personal or public, unfolds unexpectedly and we see something where we never thought we could – we see ‘it’ as the ground-swell of events, experience . . . Very well then, but what was ‘it’? . . . I am sure that ever since there were men on earth ‘it’ has been talked of precisely in this way in times of crisis, since it is in crisis ‘it’ becomes visible, and our conceit sinks before its force.  For ‘it’ is a force, a power, taking the form of earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night distorting all thought by fear – ‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.

‘It’, in short, is the word for helpless ignorance, or of helpless awareness.  It is a word for man’s inadequacy?

‘Have you heard anything new about it?’
‘So and so said last night that it . . .’

Worse still when the stage is reached of ‘Have you heard anything new’, when ‘it’ has absorbed everything into itself, and nothing else can be meant when people ask what is moving in our world, what moves our world.  It.  Only it, a much worse word than ‘they’; for ‘they’ at least are humanity too, can be moved, are helpless, like ourselves.

‘It’, perhaps – on this occasion in history – was above all a consciousness of something ending.

Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor.

THE EGO TUNNEL

We are Ego Machines, natural information-processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is a tool—one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behavior and understanding the behavior of others. We each live our conscious life in our own Ego Tunnel, lacking direct contact with outside reality but possessing an inward, first-person perspective. We each have conscious self-models—integrated images of ourselves as a whole, which are firmly anchored in background emotions and physical sensations. Therefore, the world simulation constantly being created by our brains is built around a center. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our selfmodels as models. The Ego Tunnel gives you the robust feeling of being in direct contact with the outside world by simultaneously generating an ongoing “out-of-brain experience” and a sense of immediate contact with your “self.”

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MIRROR NEURONS

From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”

Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.

Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.

The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”

Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.