PERCEPTION IS PARTICIPATION

Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter- of tension , communication , and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor- as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation . We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation , by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

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Conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “Caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed worldviews, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects ” and natural “objects,” and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use. While both of these views are unstable, each bolsters the other; by bouncing from one to the other- from scientific determinism to spiritual idealism and back again- contemporary discourse easily avoids the possibility that both the perceiving being and the perceived being are of the same stuff, that the perceiver and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element, that is at once both sensible and sensitive. We readily experience this paradox in relation to other persons; this stranger who stands before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I , too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient . Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity- a mountain lion, for instance, that I unexpectedly encounter in the northern forest? Indeed, such a meeting brings home to me even more forcefully that I am not just a sentient subject but also a sensible object, even an edible object, in the eyes (and nose) of the other. Even an ant crawling along my arm, visible to my eyes and tactile to my skin, displays at the same time its own sentience, responding immediately to my movements, even to the chemical changes of my mood. In relation to the ant I feel myself as a dense and material object, as capricious in my actions as the undulating earth itself. Finally, then, why might not this “reversibility ” of subject and object extend to every entity that I experience? Once I acknowledge that my own sentience, or subjectivity, does not preclude my visible, tactile, objective existence for others, I find myself forced to acknowledge that any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

THE FOREST AND ITS TREES

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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION

Life is of the psychological order, and it is of the essence of the psychical to enfold a confused plurality of interpenetrating terms. In space, and in space only, is distinct multiplicity possible: a point is absolutely external to another point. But pure and empty unity, also, is met with only in space; it is that of a mathematical point. Abstract unity and abstract multiplicity are determinations of space or categories of the understanding, whichever we will, spatiality and intellectuality being molded on each other. But what is of psychical nature cannot entirely correspond with space, nor enter perfectly into the categories of the understanding.

Is my own person, at a given moment, one or manifold? If I declare it one, inner voices arise and protest—those of the sensations, feelings, ideas, among which my individuality is distributed. But, if I make it distinctly manifold, my consciousness rebels quite as strongly; it affirms that my sensations, my feelings, my thoughts are abstractions which I effect on myself, and that each of my states implies all the others. I am then (we must adopt the language of the understanding, since only the understanding has a language) a unity that is multiple and a multiplicity that is one; but unity and multiplicity are only views of my personality taken by an understanding that directs its categories at me; I enter neither into one nor into the other nor into both at once, although both, united, may give a fair imitation of the mutual interpenetration and continuity that I find at the base of my own self. Such is my inner life, and such also is life in general. While, in its contact with matter, life is comparable to an impulsion or an impetus, regarded in itself it is an immensity of potentiality, a mutual encroachment of thousands and thousands of tendencies which nevertheless are “thousands and thousands” only when once regarded as outside of each other, that is, when spatialized. Contact with matter is what determines this dissociation. Matter divides actually what was but potentially manifold; and, in this sense, individuation is in part the work of matter, in part the result of life’s own inclination. Continue reading “BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION”

LANGUAGE & ANARCHY IN THE DAODEJING

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Throughout the Daodejing there is a sustained suspicion of language.  Chad Hansen has even characterised this text as being fundamentally “anti-language.”  In describing the evolution of Daoism, Hansen suggests that “Since language is an instrument of social control, we should avoid it – and everything that goes with it.”  One point that Hansen is making here is well taken: “Trained discriminations are not a constantly reliable guide to behaviour.  Culturally motivated preferences based on those distinctions are, on the whole, unreliable.  And they control us in insidious, unnatural ways.”  But it might be a case of throwing out the baby with the befouled bathwater to extrapolate from the entirely reasonable claim about Laozi’s Daoism that “as anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority” and then to infer that this means “the way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language.”

While we might find a palpable irony in one of the world’s literary classics offering a critique of the language in which it is written, it is undeniably the case that a major theme of the Daodejing is that an uncritical use of language can lull us into a distorted understanding of the nature of the world in which we live.  That said, language also has an important function for Daoists who rely heavily upon oral transmission to pass on their ideas to subsequent generations.  Broadly speaking, in the absence of the divorce between philosophy and rhetoric that occurred in classical Greece, there is an appreciation in the classical Chinese tradition of performative and perlocutionary power of language that not only describes a word, but more importantly, commands a desired world into being.  The Daodejing is not an exception to this sensibility.

What then is the Daoist reticence in the use of language?  The Daodejing is not a discursive, expository Aristotelian treatise that, in a linear and sequential way, sets out to explain the way the world is.  Rather, it is a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition.  Michael LaFargue offers an alternative reading strategy for the Daodejing in suggesting that, rather than anticipating some literal, univocal interpretation for each passage, we ought to search the text empathetically for the point that it is trying to make relative to concrete life situations.  After all, even though empirically the claim that “a watched pot never boils” is demonstrably false, that does not diminish the saying’s psychological insight for those people who are given to watching pots.

The philosophical problem that provokes the Daoist mistrust of language lies in the possibility that a misunderstanding of the nature of language has the potential to promote the worst misconceptions about the flux and flow of experience in which we live our lives.  There is an obvious tension between the unrelenting processual nature of experience and the function of language to separate out, isolate and arrest elements within it.  To the extent that it is the nature of language to arrest the process of change and discipline it into a coherent, predictable order, there is the likelihood that an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character that it really is.

The assumption, for example, that there is a literal language behind the metaphorical can introduce notions of permanence, necessity, and objectivity into our worldview that can have deleterious consequences.  Corollary to such notions are dualistic categories, such as reality and appearance, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, reason and rhetoric, that encourage a finality and thus a kind of dogmatism in our judgements about the world.  Such assumptions in parsing our experience lead to the exclusionary prejudices familiar in foundational ways of thinking.

Of course, the alternative to this “myth of the given” foundationalism is not its twin: a divisive and intolerant relativism that promises a different yet equally final judgement for each discrete person or community.  In the Daoist processual worldview, there are not the gaps in experience that would permit either an exclusive foundationalism or an equally exclusive relativism.  The ethos of the world is not a given, but an ecological achievement that is increased or diminished by human participation and behaviour.  Morality, then, is an ongoing negotiation in which some consensual and thus appropriate good can be produced by considering the needs and possible contributions of all things concerned.

Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, A Philosophical translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant.

LOGOS AND DAO: A NON-METAPHYSICAL INTERPRETATION

Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.

One may say that Heidegger was trying to think in a non-metaphysical way in reaction to the dominant metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy, but the fact that Zhuangzi was thinking in a non-metaphysical way did not arise out of a genuine need to overcome a metaphysical opponent. Both thinkers are after a way of thought that is squarely located in this world, opposed to dualism, and that has no need for metaphysical principles. Heidegger argues that Heraclitus was not a metaphysical thinker in the first place, since the particular form of metaphysics that we are discussing did not arise until Plato.

There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change.

Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signaling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. As Heidegger says: “Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being”. Both the Daoists and Heidegger are extremely aware of the shortcomings of their respective societies’ current views of language, and both try to redirect us toward a different understanding of language that would take us closer to our world.

Both Heidegger’s Heraclitus and Daoists, then, suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. Such a form of responsiveness that Heidegger and Zhuangzi proclaim is not devoid of meaning, but is ultimately a form of responsibility: to follow the injunctions to let things be as they inherently are.

There is no real creator entity in classical Chinese thought, and metaphysical notions of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’ are largely absent as well. The assumed equivalents you and wu rather mean ‘present’ and ‘absent’, or ‘having’ and ‘not-having’. Most of the classical Chinese assumptions fit in more with a process-oriented worldview than with one that is based on a metaphysical and onto-theological one. As such, we would be well off to be more careful when interpreting concepts such as dao in familiar metaphysical ways. Maybe a non-metaphysical reading is more relevant to classical Chinese philosophy, and such considerations can also lead us, like Heidegger, to reassess our own most important notions, like logos, and, equally important, might give us resources to understand better the Chinese philosophical tradition, which is generally conceived as non-metaphysical.

Burik, Steven.  Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation
(Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 23-41)
Read the whole article here

PHILOSOPHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS

We experience objects as colored in themselves, even though it is now known that they are not. The neural system responsible for the internal structure of our color categories also creates for us the experience of color.

We experience space as structured by image schemas (as having bounded regions, paths, centers and peripheries, objects with fronts and backs, regions above, below, and beside things). Yet we now know that space in itself has no such structure. The topographic maps of the visual field, the orientation-sensitive cells, and other highly structured neural systems in our brains not only create image-schematic concepts for us but also create the experience of space as structured according those image schemas.

We experience time in terms of motion and resources, even though neither of those is inherent in time itself. Our metaphors for conceptualizing time in terms of motion not only create a way to comprehend and reason about time in terms of motion but also lead us to experience time as flowing by, or ourselves as moving with respect to time.

We experience the imbalance of an unrighted wrong. Yet the notion of justice as Balance is not part of an objective universe. The Moral Accounting metaphor not only provides us a way to conceptualize justice in terms of balance but permits us to experience unrighted wrongs as imbalance and the righting of wrongs as recovery of balance.

Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualization of the world. Indeed, in many cases (by no means all!), the same hidden mechanisms that characterize our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. This does not mean that all experience is conceptual (far from it!); nor does it mean that all concepts are created by hidden mechanisms that shape experience. However, there is an extensive and important overlap between those mechanisms that shape our concepts and those that shape our experience.

There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is.

We have evolved so that the hidden mechanisms of meaning produce a global experience for us that allows us to function well in the world. Our preponderance of commonplace basic experiences-with basic-level objects, basic spatial relations, basic colors, and basic actions leads us to the commonsense theory of meaning and truth, that the world really, objectively is as we experience it and conceptualize it to be. As we have seen, the commonsense theory works very well in ordinary simple cases precisely because of the nature of our embodiment and our imaginative capacities. It fails in cases where there are conflicting conceptualizations or worldviews, and such cases are quite common.

Because the mechanisms of conceptualization are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding.

A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be.

What the classical correspondence theory of truth misses is the role of human beings in producing the human notion of truth. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualize situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations. Those conceptualizations required to produce the very notion of truth are themselves produced by the hidden mechanisms of mind. To understand truth for a language user, one must make those mechanisms of conceptualization visible. That is one of the central enterprises of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.

This becomes especially clear in the case of metaphorical thought. The embodied correspondence theory of truth for language users allows us to understand what we ordinarily mean by truth in cases where metaphorical thought or a particular framing is used to conceptualize a situation. As we saw, when we conceptualize time as a resource-and live by this metaphor-then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely. If we conceptualize a situation in terms of Time As A Resource, then it might be true that I wasted a lot of your time or that you squander your time, even though time independent of the metaphor is not in itself a resource.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

THE REMARKABLE CATEGORY OF BEING

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“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed. In order for people to get along in life they need to be able to identify things like chairs, people, light switches, friendships, political institutions, and harmful objects. They also need to have a great deal of basic knowledge about these things, if they are going to survive and flourish. But it seems extremely odd to say that they need to identify and have knowledge of “Being.” And yet this is what metaphysics defines as our most noble philosophic task.

We have been suggesting that Being, like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle. We have argued that Aristotle was able to create the field of metaphysics only by adopting and adapting these shared folk theories and metaphors. The logic of Plato’s and Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, and indeed their entire philosophic positions, are significantly based on metaphorical concepts and are made possible by folk theoretical assumptions.

Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organized by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organized in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top.

Many people think it obvious that the world must consist of basic substances that underlie the properties we experience. But there is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics. Many philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Whitehead, and, more recently, Rorty, have shown that the form/matter model is only one possible way of understanding things, and a mostly distorting way at that. Likewise, the idea that substance must be the ontologically basic entity is today almost totally discredited by a large number of philosophical traditions.

Nevertheless, the quest for Being goes on, and it is still regarded in many quarters as the ultimate philosophical project. The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behavior, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being.

The search for Being is for many people the search for God. The issues surrounding the quest for Being have always been at the center of Western theology and are still there today. God is widely regarded by theologians and laypeople alike as the ultimate causal source and sustainer of all that is, as the ultimate source of all that is good, as present in every existing thing, as having a plan that gives purpose to the world and meaning to human beings, and as being not merely all-powerful but also all-knowing. Most of these are the properties of Plato’s Idea of the Good, that is, of the essence of essence. This is no accident. Most of the medieval conceptions of, and arguments for, the existence of God stem directly from Greek metaphysics, partly from Plato’s Idea of the Good, but especially from Aristotelian views of causation and change.

The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are thus anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry. The Folk Theory of General Kinds is required in order to state any generalizations at all. Otherwise, all knowledge would be utterly specific and could never be projected to new cases. The Folk Theory of Essences is commonplace in virtually every science, because science is always looking for the properties of things that make them what they are and explain their behavior. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is present in every mode of scientific explanation that seeks ever more comprehensive explanations to cover ever greater ranges of phenomena, for example, theories of everything in physics and theories of life in biology.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.