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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ontoscopies: metaphysical reasoning through picture investigation

I've been reading Anne Sexton and Peter Handke. Sexton's Death Notebooks and Handke's Essay on tiredness. While writing something on pictures in my Buca L'Ombrello blog, I had some thoughts about how I understand philosophy. I self-quote some bits:

<< The intensity of the picture is enough for me. I don't mind how sad or upsetting a film or a book is - to have a convincing picture is the pinnacle of overcoming the uninspiring. In pictures also dwells Coetzee in his Elizabeth Costello episodes. Dialogues are indeed sometimes explicit scaffolding for pictures. Anne Sexton is summoned in the poem: "Interrogator: One day is enough to perfect a man. Anne: I watered and fed the plant." Peter Handke, in his Essay on Tiredness, is also summoned by an interrogator of sorts. Handke speaks of the heartlessness of his attempt to content himself with "investigating the pictures, or images, that my problem engenders in me, with making myself at home in each picture and translating it as heartlessly as possible into language with all its twists and turns and overtones." Then the interrogator comes in asking about Handke's remarks on the tiredness of working in common and comparing it with the tiredness of solitary work. Handke replies: "When I told you all that, it wasn't for the sake of contrast, but of the pure picture; if such a contrast nevertheless forces itself on the reader's attention, it must mean that I haven't succeeded in communicating a pure picture. In the following, I shall have to take greater care than ever to avoid playing one thing off, even tacitly, against another or magnifying one thing at the expense of something else [...]". The contrast is an after-effect. [...]>>

I then proceed to say that I think in pictures, in plots and not in oppositions: to affirm rather than to dwell in contrasts. To investigate a picture, as Handke puts it, seems a good methodological guideline for metaphysics. In the book I wrote this year, hopefully to appear soon, I present three ontologies under the name of ontoscopies. They are pictures of things driven by fragments, doubts or rhythms. They are pictures: perceptions of what there is. But, maybe because, as Whitehead would insist, perception is constitutively creative, they contrast with each other. What I try to do there is to explore the pictures - something emerge not from the picture, but to its investigation. Hence, for instance, intuition is gained by exploring the world as composed centrally of doubts (or of contagious rhythms). Such method is thoroughly pluralist - there are always more than one picture - while being decidedly realist - there is a reality to be found through the pictures.

To some extent, also, the method contrasts vividly with the pursue of criticism and argument. Determinate negation is the opposite of a picture. Pictures can be convincing to the point that there could be no denial of them that can be held without appealing to another picture. Pictures are denied by other pictures (and deconstruction is at its best when another picture frictions the target one). Negation in itself is often presented as if it can be persuasive simply out of the difficulties of the picture under criticism. I reckon, though, that presenting pictures have often more direct persuasive effects. It is maybe one of those failures in rationality like those that Kahneman and Tverski diagnosed and reported. Like some of the others, though, it is a heuristic failure - it somehow points towards several directions at once. Replace a world of rhythms by, say, a world of arbitrarily timed events. Both pictures suggest. Dealing with pictures is like speculating - a good persuasive picture commands support but also up to the point when an alternative picture replaces it.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Truth-makers and truth-consortia

I think there is a lot to unpack in Latour's observations about truth. I think his thoughts here are in the right directions. For example, in Irréductions 2.4.8. he goes:

Une phrase ne tient pas parce qu'elle est vraie;
c'est parce qu'elle tient qu'on la dit vraie.
Elle tient à quoi? Mais, justement, à beaucoup de choses.

Truth is what is maintained - it supervenes on its truth-makers, on what contributes to it. I wonder whether I can understand truth in terms of supporters, of what holds a relation of instauration, of sponsoring the true proposition (or belief, or statement, or sentence). My model is that of an agreement, but not only with the human agents but between a sufficient number of relevant actants. If it is so, the truth-bearer is somehow a truth-maker, a contributor.

Truth could then be taken to be a report on the agreement between sponsors. Truth lies in the agreement between sponsors – but it is always subject to new tests of resistance, as Latour puts it (Irréductions, 1.1.5). The agreement is always up for grabs: any sponsor, including those who can state truths (and falsities), can affect it. Stating that the snow is white is endorsing that this is the case. Endorsement, in this case, is almost entirely irrelevant, but it is not always so. Truth could be therefore better presented as an agreement between truth-bearers and all its other truth-makers; “the snow is white” is true provided that all flocks of snow behave in coherence with it, implicit lightning conditions satisfy it etc.

The import of endorsement has to do with the fact that truth, for Latour, is produced. Latour talks about this production often when considering the activities of the scientists: the results are independent of the humans but scientists produce them at great cost . He analyses correspondence – what he broadly refers as an adequatio rei et intellectus – as a difficult construction that requires action taken on both sides, in the intellectus side and in the res side to which the former intends to correspond. He provides a detailed example of how a map of Mount Aiguille is maintained. The map is intended to convey something true and in order to do so its maintainers have to make sure some things hold together: the landmarks signed in the maps have to be preserved in the mount (houses, tracks, roads), the changes in the mount through season or the passing of (some) years have to be discarded by the representation of the map. Clearly, as he points out citing Borges famous claim about a useless map of scale 1, a complete isomorphism between the truth-bearer (the map) and the truth-maker (the mount) would amount to no more than a duplication of the mount. The map has to select some features of the mount to rely on and has to make sure these features are stable enough. Truth-bearing, as much as truth-making, is about maintaining. (It is perhaps even more graphically clear if we consider GPS navigation devices guided by bar and QR codes.) In order for the map to be kept updated, the mount has to be maintained in a certain way that enables the map to depict it. Latour writes in AIME, chapter 3:

[W]e can talk about correspondence [...], but this “co-response” is no longer the one between the “human mind” and the “world.” No, we now have a tense, difficult, rhythmic correspondence, full of surprises and suspense, between the risk taken by existents in order to repeat themselves throughout the series of their transformations on the one hand and the risk taken by the constants in order to maintain themselves throughout another no less dizzying series of transformations on the other. Do the two series sometimes respond to each other? Yes. Do they always do so? No. If it is true that it takes two to tango, it is equally true that it is meaningless to speak of co-responding unless there are two movements in the first place, each of which will respond to the other—often multiplying their missteps.

He changes the focus from something that corresponds to something else to a co-responding movement on both sides where truth is maintained. Truth, as he points out later in the same book, goes hand in hand, and not in opposition, with good constructions. Something that is well-constructed could be, precisely because it is well-constructed, true. Truth is not an episode of resemblance of something else, it is rather an engagement with things that enable the extraction of good constructs. Those are resilient if they display a low cost of maintenance. Truths require efforts of the same kind of those needed for a construction of anything resilient: good materials, reliable connections, responsive interlocutors, an amount of indifference to change and a capacity to neglect details. Some constructions are not true – but this is because they have not engaged with sponsors enough to make it hold together. It is somehow like a failed negotiation. It is a matter of how many sponsors are hired in the maintenance process - and how good, how relevant, how well-sponsored they are.

This emphasis on production could also help bridging the old gap between knowing that and knowing how. To know something, arguably, is to be part of a truth-consortium: to be part of a network that sponsors a truth. If I hold a truth-bearer that is part of a consortium of sponsors that is enough to make the truth-bearer true, I know it. It is a state in which I am, but also, it is a production, an action, the result of a practice of coming to terms with the world (calibrate my thinking - my beliefs - to what I endorse as strong enough to be hold up).

Monday, 15 December 2014

Whitehead, the ontological distinction and an ever-growing world

If we accept an ontological distinction between the ontological and the ontic we can maybe see in Whitehead an ontological dimension of growing: the world is itself ever-growing. Cosmic epochs follow one from another, God is incomplete, novelty is introduced through any act of prehension, objective immortality registering what is achieved in the world are ontic counterparts of an ontological drive towards growing. To be is to grow, to be in an ever-growing process. It is an interesting conception of becoming: the movement of self-expansion is a feature of being qua being. What grows depends on the actual ontic population (in Whitehead, it is composed of actual entities). There are, therefore, different ways to expand and to promote expansions - mostly to do with making room for further elements in that population. Novelty arises from everywhere in a non-structured manner - prehending is creative. But growing is ontological constitutive: it is of the very nature of being exposed to whatever exists.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Whitehead and Leibniz on written events (and God being up for grabs)

I've been thinking of Whitehead's system as a monadology that turns Leibniz up side down. In the last pages of Process and Reality - on God and the world - Whitehead comes up with a conception of God as an incomplete actual entity whose derivative nature depends on what takes place in the world. This could be read as an interesting reversion in the direction of fit present in Leibniz. Leibniz has that events are somehow written in the predicates that constitute his substantial monads - according to Couturat's principle of reason, any event follows from the nature of the worldly monads. These monads where chosen by God when he chose the best of all possible world - God dealt with worlds, not with specific monads. In Whitehead, the nature of God is itself under constant creation by the world, ever enlarging itself. Events are not what follows from God's creation of the world but rather they are inscribed in God's (derivative) nature. Events don't follow what is written, they write. Whatever takes place produces the writing: the ever enlarging inscription of the nature of God. Instead of what has been written, the world is what writes up God.

Indeed, God's imperfection is what makes the world improve. Whitehead can also be read as a radical form of Jewish Tikkum Olam (the doctrine that the world was made imperfect so that we can gradually improve it through our deeds). In Whitehead God itself is open to the improvement that can be achieved by our (worldly) deeds. God, and not only the world, is therefore up for grabs. Does anyone know of a Jewish take on process theology?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Revista das Questões is out

Eclair and myself have now for some time read and discussed Jabès and his tonality in philosophy. This led to this multilingual Journal of Questions, titled after the Livre des questions. The idea is to bring together contributions from my Anarchai group and from Eclair's Blanchotian Group for thinking the outside. The journal also wants to be peri-academical and reflect the interfaces between philosophy and translation while creating a community of those who feel questions ought to be cherished quite apart from any attempt to answer, solve or dissolve them. They transcend whatever we end up doing with them. The first issue was out yesterday.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Whitehead's externalism

Whitehead's philosophy of organism is presented in Process and Reality as rescuing some lost elements in Descartes and Locke. In particular, elements related to the conception of perception according to which the subjective capture of the perceived item leaves its mark in the perception process. As a consequence, there is a revamping of the distinction between extension and mentality - in terms of a theory of extension and a theory of prehension respectively, or a morphology of the concrete and a genetics of its concrescence relatively independent. To be sure, mentality becomes the object of something Nietzsche once heralded as a universal psychology while extension becomes the object of a study of the concrete formed by the multiple and often mutual prehensions. It is a Cartesian division and Whitehead (Part IV, chapter 1, section V) is clear about how hard it is to consider actualities without parsing them into the publicity and the privacy of things. But the ontological bifurcation is what is to be resisted: physical and mental operations are inextricably intertwined (Part IV, chapter V, section III). The big break with the Cartesian scheme of things is the absence of ontological bifurcation - eternal objects, actual entities and prehensions are both public and private, although they appear in two aspects (eternal objects as universals and as sensorial qualities, actual entities as superjects and as subjects, prehensions as containing objective datum or agency and as containing subjective forms). The dual aspect approach can remind Spinoza, but I take it to to be closer to a monadological approach where monads are inextricably associated to their territories and no territory can subsist without a monad (extension in Leibniz is also Cartesian - no empty space).

But the biggest revamping of Locke and Descartes - or at least of the received reading of them - is the externalism of the philosophy of organism. In a sense, the distinction between DISC and ACCESS, made by Pritchard implicitly in his Epistemological Disjunctivism and explicitly in Evidentialism, Internalism, Disjunctivism (Dougherty, T. (ed.) Evidentialism and Its Discontents, Oxford UP, 2011), can be applied to Whitehead's reading of Locke's indirect perception. The perceiver has reflective access to the region of space (see Part IV, chapter 5, section II) that is perceived although there is no discrimination of whether she captures a there is in the res vera. Still, she perceives the res vera. There is room for reflective access - what is absent both in reliabilist forms of externalism and in a purely causal account of perception (somehow present in Whitehead, for efficient causation is a mode of perception) - while there is no New Evil Genios scenario (see Lehrer, K. and S. Cohen. ‘Justification, Truth, and Coherence’, Synthese, 55: 191–207, 1983) for a (veridical) perceiver and her counterpart whose brain is in a vat are not at the same justificatory status.

I find interesting that indirect perception (or perception with subjective mediation) can be thoroughly externalist. Locke - and Descartes - can be read as externalists if we buy into this distinction between ACCESS and DISC (between reflective access and discriminabilty). The distinction seems to be enlightening and makes explicit a dimension that is hidden in Bergmann's characterization of access (in Justification without awareness). Whitehead's externalism has that what is perceived moves agency even though one can have a very different and indeed completely novel take of what she perceives. In that sense, Whitehead (and, if he is right, Locke, as much as disjunctivism) advocates that one can have perceptual contact without cognitive contact.