Sunday, September 28, 2008

Merleau-Ponty is close to Saint Agustin whose conception of time is strictly related to the ‘presence’ of the subject

Homepage > Arts and Cultures > The primacy of perception in the era of communication
[ FR ] [ IT ] Marco Cesario
To celebrate the centenary of the birth of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an international congress held at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris discussed once again the concepts of space and time introduced by this philosopher, whose work seems a seamless dialogue with other sciences such as psychology, neurology, physics, literature and art. A opportunity to debate not only his philosophical position set in current times, but also for using the instruments provided by his phenomenology so as to readdress the idea of space and time in the era of communication.

A transversal study of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of time and space does not mean only analyzing the relationship between those categories and objects and events perceived by the conscience, but also to open a constructive dialogue between pure phenomenology and others sciences such as psychology, psychoanalysis, literature, neurology, biology, physics and arts. The objective is to reconstruct and develop Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “this space and this time that we are” through the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Bergson, and Whitehead, but also through the work of Proust, Claudel and Simon.

These were the conclusions of the international congress of philosophy “Merleau-Ponty. L’espace et le temps”, which took place at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris to celebrate the centenary of Merleau-Ponty’s birth. The congress gathered together many experts from France, the United States and Japan, who attempted to answer the questions posed by Merleau-Ponty’s main work, Phenomenology of Perception (1945). The event has today a special meaning, because we should not only discuss his philosophical positions, but also use his ‘phenomenological instruments’ to rethink the categories of space and time in the age of global communication. The new technological instruments and the media’s increasing power, provide us with free access to knowledge, as well as the possibility to become actors in spreading this knowledge. This is an advantage compared to period during which Merleau-Ponty debated ‘spatial consciousness’ because these new technologies have provoked an enlargement of cognitive structures and perceptive consciousness.

A new conception of space In the Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty affirms that space is not the ‘real’ or the ‘logical’ ambit within which things are placed, but “the environment by which the position of things becomes possible”. From this point of view, space would not be a sort of ‘ether’ in which things are suspended but - as the philosopher himself explains - “the universal power of their connections”. I can stand between objects and consider space as their natural ambit or simply as their common attribute. But I can grasp the nature of space as from a subject and his interiority. Even if prior to me, space existed only in relation to a perceiving subject. When I observe the front of a house, I’m able to guess its dimensions and the position of the side-walls even if I’m not able to observe them directly. By isolating the house from its “horizon” (the other houses, the gardens etc), the house looks as if it emerges from a flat and bi-dimensional texture to become tri-dimensional. The house ‘comes out’ thanks to a special synthesis between what the eye is able to see and what the eye is able to guess, geometrically, behind the front. If I turn around the house, the front, the side-walls, disappear progressively and the back of the house suddenly ‘appears’. But the house I see is always the house observed from one or another precise point of view.

According to Merleau-Ponty, space does not exist by itself, but in relation to the subject and to the conscience’s phenomenal field. From this point of view, the body does not move because there’s an empty space. The body is “an attitude in view of a present or possible task” and space is the means for this possibility. The body is inside the space just as the heart is inside the body. It keeps the ‘vision’ of visible things alive and creates with it a system. If I walk in an empty space without having a global perception of all the possible perspectives opened by my path, I would not be able to judge those perspectives as different aspects of the same reality. Thanks to the presence of a subject within a situation, and thanks to its movement within space, this synthesis can be possible. The space is inside the subject and the conscience is itself spatial.

Space and neuro-cognitive sciences today Today, says Alain Berthoz, we cannot talk about a ‘singular’ space anymore, because for a living organism there are a multiplicity of mechanisms and levels of treatment of spatial proceedings. Following in the footsteps of Poincaré and Einstein, Berthoz refuses an ‘axiomatic’ approach to space, because it does not consider the role of sensible experience, of action and movement. According to Berthoz, today’s dominating idea of space is based on the preconceived idea that the brain treats spatial elements with the instruments provided by Euclidean geometry. Merleau-Ponty has also managed to avoid the classical concept of depth (based on the geometrical relations between distance, width and apparent surface) to introduce the notion of a ‘changing point of view’, which allows a virtual body to evaluate a viewed and not a measured width. In the famous example of a woman with a big hat passing through a slightly low doorway, the woman includes her hat within the boundary lines of her movement. The hat becomes definitely a part of her inner bodily scheme.

Space, motility and body art According to Merleau-Ponty, space is motility. To explore an object I must move towards it by putting it at a distance. If I change the perspective, the object’s perception also changes. Thanks to this movement, I am able to verify the depth and the thickness of the object. But the object I see is the consequence of an immediate synthesis of its geometrical proportions. According to Stephan Kristensen, of Geneva University, the subject should not be conceived as ‘substance’ but as a ‘mobile figure’ and the body is the condition of his subjectivity. From this point of view, access to the interiority is possible only through the exhibition and the representation of the body. Those concepts are the basis of modern body art. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, in fact, inspired artists like Vito Acconci and Lygia Clark.

Time and simultaneity: from Saint Agustin to Einstein passing through Freud and Proust Inspired by the ideas elaborated by Martin Heidgger in his famous lecture Der Begriff der Zeit (1925), Merleau-Ponty sets aside the conception of a ‘chronometric’ time. Time, according to Aristotle, is related to movement and duration in space. That is why it can be measured and quantified. But Merleau-Ponty’s spatial researches in the fields of neuro-cognitive sciences and experimental psychology caused him to abandon this concept of time. For instance, chronologically 3 comes before 5 but both are located within time and presuppose it. Time does not per se exist, but in relation to events occurring within it. By turning over the famous Heraclites’ metaphor, time would not be unidirectional, depending on an observer’s point of view. Time needs a “view over time”. According to Merleau-Ponty, the river is not coming from the past, passing through the present and going to the future. It is quite the opposite. The source looks like coming from the future and, once past the observer, the river falls to the abyss of past.

From this point of view, Merleau-Ponty is close to Saint Agustin whose conception of time is strictly related to the ‘presence’ of the subject in the past, the present and the future (thanks to the faculties of memory, attention and anticipation). But in the notes of Le Visible et l’Invisible, as emphasised by Mauro Carbone (Milan University), Merleau-Ponty refers also to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Proust’s Recherche. The idea of time would be connected with Freud’s unconscious and with an ‘indestructible’ and ‘a-temporal’ past. This past keeps living and modifying the present. Events do not unroll successively but simultaneously, beyond the distinction of time and space. By asserting that “reality only forms within the memory”, Merleau-Ponty means that the past is not just an illusion of reality but, thanks to temporal distance, it can develop its own meaning. Proust, in his famous pages in which he describes Méséglise’s hawthorns, by asserting that “the true hawthorns are those of the past”, paints the essence of a mythical time, a time “prior to time”, “further than India and China”. 8 Sep 2008 Send us your opinion. Write to us at

Friday, September 26, 2008

A difference arises between the human ease and the divine case

Three in one: believing in the triune God Christian Century, April 17, 2007 by William C. Placher
TO UNDERSTAND something complicated, we often begin with something similar yet simpler. The analogous ease gives us a start in the process of understanding, although, to be sure, later on we have to do some deconstructing, discovering how the two eases are different as well as similar. With respect to the triune God, the theological tradition offers two analogies--one social, one psychological--that give hints at insight even while reminding us that all analogies break down well before we reach real understanding of God.

Scripture tells us that human beings are made in God's "image and likeness" (Gen. 1:27-28), so human beings are an obvious place to start in looking for analogies for God. Two obvious features of human beings are 1) that we exist in relation with others and 2) that we think and consciously pursue goals.

In Aristotle's famous terms, humans are at once "political animals" and "rational animals." A person would not be human, Aristotle says, if he did not exist in relation to other humans, as part of a community. A person would also not be human if he did not engage in acts of knowing and willing--and at the core of willing is to desire or love something. From these two characteristics of humanity, theologians developed a "social analogy" and a "psychological analogy" to the Trinity...

A difference arises between the human ease and the divine case. In the ease of human persons, each has a different body and thus a different spatial location. Further, they can disagree with one another and thus find themselves at odds, or they can turn inward on themselves and attempt to deny their essential relatedness. The divine three, however, are not embodied, are always perfectly in accord, and always glorify one another in mutual love, so that they are inseparably one even while they are three.

In contrast to this, Augustine proposed a psychological analogy, which was further developed by Anselm and Aquinas. The human mind, this analogy begins, exists in knowing and loving. But knowing and loving are not activities in which the mind happens to engage; rather, the mind exists precisely in the doing of these activities. Further, a person cannot truly love some thing without knowing that thing (or one would be loving only a figment one's own imagination), and cannot truly know something without loving it (for one needs the empathy of love to achieve full understanding): "And so you have a certain image of the Trinity: the mind itself and its knowledge, which is its offspring and its word about itself, and love as the third element, and these three are one."

Aquinas developed this analogy in more detail. Consider a mind engaged in knowing itself. In order to know itself, it has to form a concept--an image or likeness--of itself, what Aquinas calls "a word of the mind." If it knows itself perfectly, then that word will be an exact likeness of the mind that knows. In this ease, furthermore, the word is brought forth by the mind and has the same substance as the mind; and when one thing brings forth another that has the same substance as the first, we call that "generation" or "begetting." Hence the second element in the psychological analogy can be called not only the "word" of the first but also "begotten," "child"--or, in a masculine-oriented way of looking at such things, "son."

Loving, however, is different from knowing. The will does not create a likeness of that which it wills but rather has an inclination to the thing it wills. While perfect love involves knowing what one loves, it is the knowledge rather than the love that creates the image of the object known and loved in the mind. "So," Aquinas explains, "what proceeds in God by way of love, does not proceed as begotten, or as son, but proceeds rather as spirit; which name expresses a certain vital movement and impulse." ...

As Aquinas noted, such analogies certainly cannot justify theological inferences; we cannot say, "This is true in the human ease, and the divine ease is analogous, therefore it, or something like it, must be true in the divine ease." The best justification of the explicit use of these analogies is that we implicitly use them anyway: the language in which we speak of the Trinity embodies a history in which these analogies are included. So better to get them out in the open, notice their limitations, and allow each to deconstruct the other.

Apart from their intrinsic inadequacies, the analogies also break down because of the imperfections of human beings, with whom they are drawing analogies. While I cannot be human except in relation to others, I am always curving in on myself and failing to be as fully open to such relations as I ought to be. While I exist as a thinking, willing being by knowing and loving the world around me, I never know or love perfectly, and therefore my knowledge and love never become identical with their objects...

William C. Placher is a CENTURY editor at large. This article is excerpted from his book The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, published this month by Westminster John Knox.
COPYRIGHT 2007 The Christian Century Foundation COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning [
7:46 AM]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Language itself, the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition, involves unconditional violence

ISSN 1751-8229 IJŽS Volume Two, Number Three
Slavoj Žižek

In his "Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin raises the question: "Is any non-violent resolution of conflict possible?"(2431) His answer is that such a non-violent resolution of conflict is indeed possible in what he calls "relationships among private persons," in courtesy, sympathy and trust: "there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language.’(245)

This thesis of Benjamin belongs to the mainstream tradition in which the prevalent idea of language and the symbolic order is that of the medium of reconciliation and mediation, of peaceful co-existence, as opposed to a violent medium of immediate and raw confrontation.2 In language, instead of exerting direct violence on each other, we are meant to debate, to exchange words, and such an exchange, even when it is aggressive, presupposes a minimum recognition of the other. The entry into language and the renunciation of violence are often understood as two aspects of one and the same gesture: ‘Speaking is the foundation and structure of socialization, and happens to be characterized by the renunciation of violence,’ as a text by Jean-Marie Muller written for UNESCO tells us.3 Since man is a ‘speaking animal,’ this means that the renunciation
of violence defines the very core of being-human: ‘it is actually the principles and methods of non-violence … that constitute the humanity of human beings, the coherence and relevance of moral standards based both on convictions and a sense of responsibility,’ so that violence is ‘indeed a radical perversion of humanity.’4 Insofar as language gets infected by violence, this occurs under the influence of contingent ‘pathological’ circumstances which distort the inherent logic of symbolic communication.

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?5 When we perceive something as an act of violence, we measure it by a presupposed standard of what the "normal" non-violent situation is – and the highest form of violence is the imposition of this standard with reference to which some events appear as "violent." This is why language itself, the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition, involves unconditional violence. So, perhaps, the fact that reason (ratio) and race have the same root tells us something: language, not primitive egotistic interests, is the first and greatest divider, it is because of language that we and our neighbors (can) "live in different worlds" even when we live on the same street. What this means is that verbal violence is not a secondary distortion, but the ultimate resort of every specifically human violence. Take the example of anti-Semitic pogroms, which can stand in for all racist violence. What the perpetrators of pogroms find intolerable and rage-provoking, what they react to, is not the immediate reality of Jews, but to the image/figure of the ‘Jew’ which circulates and has been constructed in their tradition.

The catch, of course, is that one single individual cannot distinguish in any simple way between real Jews and their anti-Semitic image: this image overdetermines the way I experience real Jews themselves and, furthermore, it affects the way Jews experience themselves. What makes a real Jew that an anti-Semite encounters on the street "intolerable," what the anti-Semite tries to destroy when he attacks the Jew, the true target of his fury, is this fantasmatic dimension.

The same principle applies to every political protest: when workers protest their exploitation, they do not protest a simple reality, but an experience of their real predicament made meaningful through language. Reality in itself, in its stupid being-there, is never intolerable: it is language, its symbolization, which makes it such. So precisely when we are dealing with the scene of a furious crowd, attacking and burning buildings and cars, lynching people, etc., we should never forget the placards they are carrying and the words which sustain and justify their acts. It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature at the formal-ontological level, when, in his reading of essence/Wesen/ as a verb ("essencing"), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence.

Traditionally, "essence" refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, "essence" is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language; his expression "Wesen der Sprache" does not mean "the essence of language," but its "essencing," the making of essences that is the work of language, "language bringing things into their essence, language ‘moving us’ so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are. … We share an originary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we ‘listen to language,’ when we ‘let it say its saying to us.’"6

For a medieval Christian, the essence of gold resides in its incorruptibility and divine sheen which make it a divine metal. For us, it is either a flexible resource to be used for industrial purposes or the stuff appropriate for aesthetic purposes. Or, for Catholics, the castrato voice was once the very voice of angels prior to the Fall. For us today, it is a monstrosity. This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language; it hinges on the shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence exists in this "essencing" ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Guru" and "Pundit" in Vivekananda's writings is closely related to the contrast between "book learning" and "experience

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Re: Jean Klein - Western Advaita kelamuni said Aug 6, 2:02 PM:
The use of the expression 'aham' would appear to indicate some Shaiva influence. Ramana also used the expression. There is much in Krishna Menon's writings that is very similar to the Ashtavakra Gita. Indeed, this work, and one's like it seem to indicate a kind of confluence of the classical teachings of Shankara on the one hand and Shaiva non-dualism on the other.

Religion figures in these processes in ways that transcend “beliefs”

Religion in the public sphere: Translation and transformation posted by Craig Calhoun

In my last post, I closed with two questions relating to Jurgen Habermas’s recent work on religion and the public sphere: First, is a genealogical or language-theoretical reconstruction of reason adequate without an existential connection between social and cultural history on the one hand and individual biography on the other? Second, is “translation” an adequate conceptualization of what is involved in making religious insights accessible to nonreligious participants in public discourse (and vice-versa)?
The two questions are closely related, for the issue is how communication is achieved across lines of deep difference. Helpful as translation may be, it is not the whole story. Rawls uses the notion of translation to describe the ways in which the rational arguments of religious people are rendered accessible to secular interlocutors. This would appear to involve a kind of expurgation as well, the removal of ostensibly untranslatable (because irrational) elements of faith. But translation is also a common metaphor for describing communication across lines of cultural difference; indeed many anthropologists speak of their work as the “translation of culture.” Translation implies that differences between languages can be overcome without interference from deeper differences between cultures, or indeed from incommensurabilities of languages themselves. It implies a highly cognitive model of understanding, independent of inarticulate connections among meanings or the production of meaning in action rather than passive contemplation. But the idea of translating religious arguments into terms accessible to secular fellow-citizens is more complicated. To be sure, restricting attention to argumentative speech reduces the extent of problems because arguments are already understood to be a restricted set of speech acts and are more likely to be commensurable than some others. But the meaning of arguments may be more or less embedded in broader cultural understandings, personal experiences and practices of argumentation that themselves have somewhat different standing in different domains. (To “translate” a classic religious argument for the existence of God—e.g., one of Aquinas’s attempts to transform faith into knowledge—into secular terms as a demonstration of God’s existence for unbelievers might be informative, but it could not reproduce the meaning of the original argumentative project.)

Bridging the kinds of hermeneutic distance suggested by the notion of having deeply religious and nonreligious arguments commingle in the public sphere cannot be accomplished by translation alone. Perhaps translation is not meant literally, but only as a metaphor for the activity of becoming able to understand the arguments of another—but that is already an important distinction. We are indeed more able to understand the arguments of others when we understand more of their intellectual and personal commitments and cultural frames (”where they are coming from” in popular parlance). In this regard Habermas sometimes signals a “mutual interrogation” or “complementary learning process” that is more than simply translation. This is important and true to his earlier emphasis on intersubjectivity. But this is still a very cognitive conception, and one that implies parties to a discussion—perhaps a Platonic symposium—who arrive at new understandings without themselves being changed.
Where really basic issues are at stake, it is often the case that mutual understanding cannot be achieved without change in one or both of the parties. By participating in relationships with each other, including by pursuing rational mutual understanding, we open ourselves to becoming somewhat different people. The same goes at collective levels: mutual engagement across national or cultural or religious frontiers changes the pre-existing nations, cultures, and religions, and future improvements in mutual understanding stem from this change as well as from “translation.” Sectarian differences among Protestants or between Protestants and Catholics are thus not merely resolved in rational argumentation. Sometimes they fade without resolution because they simply don’t seem as important to either side. A shifting context and changed projects of active engagement in understanding and forming intellectual and normative commitments changes the significance of such arguments (as for example when committed Christians feel themselves more engaged in arguments with nonChristians and the irreligious—including arguments with those who believe secular understandings are altogether sufficient—than they are in arguments with each other). But a process of transformation in culture, belief, and self is also often involved. We become people able to understand each other. This may improve our capacity to reason together, but the process of transformation is not itself necessarily entirely rational.

Habermas is right when he follows Weithman and Wolterstorff in insisting that the acts of translation necessary to the full incorporation of religious citizens and arguments into the public sphere are not the sole responsibility of the religious, but must be cooperative. But we also need to recognize that histories of mutual engagement that produce both common understandings and citizens able to understand each other are not simply matters of translation or advances of reason. They are also particular histories that forge particular cultural connections and commonalities.
Such cultures of integration are historically produced bases for the solidarity of citizens. Whether they can be construed in evolutionary terms as “advances” in truth or along some other dimension is uncertain. As Mendieta suggests, questions of religion crystallize the tension “between reason as a universal standard and the inescapable fact that reason is embodied only historically and in contingent social practices.” This bears on the nature of collective commitments to processes of public reason and the decisions they produce. The Rawlsian liberal model depends on a “reasonable background consensus” that can establish the terms and conditions of the properly political discourse. Wolterstorff doubts whether this exists. Habermas is more hopeful—and reason for hope seems strongest if what is required is only what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” not a more universal agreement. Hope may be still greater if the overlapping consensus may be forged in multiple vernaculars, and out of cultural mixing, not simply linguistic neutrality. This suggests, however, that what is required is a practical orientation rather than an agreement as to the truth. This is precisely Wolterstorff’s (and Habermas’s) concern: “that majority resolutions in an ideologically divided society can at best yield reluctant adaptations to a kind of modus vivendi”. A utilitarian compromise—based on the expectation of doing better in the next majority vote—is an inadequate basis for continuing solidarity where there is not merely a disagreement over shares of commonly recognized goods, but over the very idea of the good. “Conflict on existential values between communities of faith cannot be solved by compromise.”

This is of course a crucial reason why Habermas has held that we must separate substantive questions about the good life from procedural questions about just ways of ordering common life. I believe he retains the conviction that this separation is important and possible. It is intrinsic to his support for a “constitutional patriotism.” But it is challenged by recognition that for religious citizens to give reasons in terms “accessible” to secular citizens may be unjustly difficult or even impossible. And it is challenged further if one agrees that religious faith, but also specificities of cultural traditions, may make it difficult for citizens to render all that is publicly important to them in the form of criticizable validity claims.
Conflicts between world views and religious doctrines that lay claim to explaining man’s position in the world as a whole cannot be laid to rest at the cognitive level. As soon as these cognitive dissonances penetrate as far as the foundations for a normative integration of citizens, the political community disintegrates into irreconcilable segments so that it can only survive on the basis of an unsteady modus vivendi. In the absence of the uniting bond of a civic solidarity, which cannot be legally enforced, citizens do not perceive themselves as free and equal participants in the shared practices of democratic opinion and will formation wherein they owe one another reasons for their political statements and attitudes. This reciprocity of expectations among citizens is what distinguishes a community integrated by constitutional values from a community segmented along the dividing lines of competing world views.

The basic question is whether or how much commonalities of belief are crucial to the integration of political communities. How important is it for citizens to believe in the truth of similar propositions “explaining man’s position in the world”?
As Durkheim suggested by distinguishing mechanical from organic solidarity, communities are integrated in ways other than by shared values (constitutional or otherwise) and worldviews. But the Durkheimian binary is too simple. Habermas takes it over, to some extent, in the distinction of lifeworld from system. In general (and rightly), he sees a mismatch between the scale of integration accomplished on the basis of systems of money and power without the communicative understanding of participants, and the capacities of the lifeworld to generate such integrative understandings. Insofar as communicative action in lifeworlds yields diverse substantive understandings (and projects) of the good life, it cannot yield the necessary integration on a large scale. But to the extent that communicative action may underwrite agreement on procedures, it may generate a “mechanical” solidarity based on a common view of at least one aspect of the world. This is embodied in the project of constitutionalism, where constitutions are limited to procedural rather than substantive norms. As the phrase “constitutional patriotism” suggests, Habermas also hopes this will help to solve problems of motivation and commitment which are otherwise secured only in commitments to diverse ways of life and solidarities that are incommensurable (such as ethnicities). This invests a great deal of hope in the relatively thin commonality of similarities of propositional belief and acceptance of procedures (however valuable). Communities are also products of a variety of social relationships, recognized in varying degree by their members. Bonds of civic solidarity are produced in networks of practice and functional interdependence that are linguistically recognized as well as on the basis of values and propositions “explaining man’s position in the world as a whole.” Indeed, participation in the public sphere may contribute to this solidarity. Solidarity is not just a condition for reciprocal exchange of reasons in public discourse; it can be a product.

This is not the place to try to defend a different view of the production of social solidarity in which culture is not reduced to common propositional beliefs and the binary oppositions of mechanical and organic or lifeworld and system are complemented by attention to webs of social relations and processes of historical creativity and transformation in culture. My point here is the more limited suggestion that religion figures in these processes in ways that transcend “beliefs.”
Habermas seems to be considering this possibility in his most recent writings. In a post to The Immanent Frame, Charles Taylor notes that Habermas’s “position on religious discourse has considerably evolved; to the point of recognizing that its ‘potential makes religious discourse a serious candidate for possible truth content with respect to relevant political issues.’” (Translation of Habermas quote from Alex Skinner.) I look forward to exploring this interesting development in Habermas’s thinking at another time. This entry was posted on Monday, September 15th, 2008 at 2:14 pm and is filed under Religion in the public sphere.

"Abuse" of French Theory in fields such as Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Post-colonial Studies, and literary criticism

But the time and effort spent unearthing or bemoaning the passing connections between Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bono, Madonna, or The Matrix films with thinkers like Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, Virilio, and Foucault comes at the expense of a sustained engagement with the ways that American theorists such as Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and others actually appropriated, incorporated and applied the theories of these French intellectuals in their work. There is little or no discussion of the role of historians or philosophers in this reception (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, for instance, is entirely absent) and there is virtually no textual analysis. Even the chapter on "Academic Stars" (Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Fish, Edward Said, Richard Rorty, and Frederic Jameson) spends no more than five pages on any one thinker. On this level, those interested in the philosophical issues will be disappointed.

Rather than focus on the "use" of French Theory, Cusset spends the majority of his discussion of American academics focusing on the "abuse" of French Theory in fields such as Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Post-colonial Studies, and literary criticism in general. According to Cusset, it was in these "niche markets" of academic culture that the "most sophisticated tools of textual analysis and the new university came to be applied to subjects as wide ranging as gangsta rap, "Harlequin" romance readers, Star Trek fans, and even the supposed 'philosophical' subtext of the Seinfeld series." (135) Here, the counter-cultural inflection bestowed upon French Theory made it appear the appropriate tool for criticism of popular culture and allowed for the work of some of the most abstruse thinkers to seem like an appropriate tool for almost any text.

2008.09.07 François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, Jeff Fort (tr.), University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 388pp., $24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780816647323.
Reviewed by Ethan Kleinberg, Wesleyan University

Monday, September 15, 2008

At this point Shankara begins to sound more like Kant

Integral Post-metaphysical Spirituality > Open Forum Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 5, 6:58 PM:

On self-reflexivity: I believe we have discussed this elsewhere. It came up, I believe, when we were talking about whether or not it is possible to be “lucid” in the state of deep sleep. I expressed my doubts and brought up Shankara's position, which is that there can be no knowledge at all in the causal state, since there is no object of consciousness in such a state. Indeed, this is how the causal state is defined: as the absence of any object, any “other,” any second: not two. This is Shankara's conception of non-dualism. This idea goes back to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad whose teaching is: the eye that sees cannot see itself. So… if there is to be lucidity, there must be reflexivity, self-consciousness. And this implies an object. Here, the object is “itself” i.e., the reflexive cognition: I am aware. Descartes “cogito.” This touches upon another critique I suggested in another thread, namely, that there is nothing at special about “lucidity.” In fact, it , as I suggest, is merely the intrusion of waking self-consciousness into the dream state. (And this critique is not based on some a priori dismissal of such state on my own part. It is to a significant degree based upon my own search for a truly discrete state of consciousness. )

As an historical sidebar, the Chandogya Upanishad actually criticizes the Brhad Up on this account. What is the use, it argues, of having a causal state in which one is not self-aware? How, in other words, can there be moksha if one is not aware that one is released? (Good point, dude!) This is the primary reason why the “fourth” state is revealed in the Mandukya Up.

I also suggested that the Tibetan teaching of “taking the mirror mind into the state of deep sleep” was in fact merely an extension of an apriori doctrine, viz., the Yogachara doctrine of self-reflexivity. At this point, we get into the important question of whether or not some of these “teachings” are really just apriori idealizations, or whether they are in fact based on actual “experiences.” What I'm suggesting is the former, that it is sometimes the case that the “teachings” are stuff that looks good on paper, or coming out of the mouth of a Great Guroo, when they are, in fact, mere abstractions. That was the point behind the extensive analysis of the “always already” in the End of Enlightenment thread. In other words, the “always already” is really just the extension of a certain kind of thinking about being, what I call the “logic of being.” (At the same time, I think that this logic does jibe with a part of our brain, in the meaning centres, that says, “This shit's happened before. I know this shit already.”

Plato's amnesis. Buddhist smriti/memory. Kashmiri Shaiva “re-cognition. Strong shit; but also available on nitrous.) And it is not just Vedanta: In both Vedanta and Buddhism, there is kind of “conditional” logic concerning nirvana: ”IF there is to be release, here is what we need….” And then we are off to the races with various teachings about how to “get enlightened,” not much of which is based on actual experience, as the mystical empiricists suggest, but a lot of which are in fact based upon apriori speculation upon what is required.

What was I talking about initially? Oh yes, reflexivity…

We need to be careful when we talk about “self-luminosity” in regards to Mahayana and Advaita. The two ideas (sva-samvedana: Yogachara; sva-prakasha: Advaita) are completely different. In Advaita “self-luminous” refers to the idea that the Self needs no other light than itself. “Self-luminous” means that the Self stands by itself, as the Absolute Subject (Shankara) or the Absolute Object (Mandana).

In Mahayana, “self-luminous” refers to apperception, to the reflexivityof consciousness. In Mahayana there is no transcendental Self. Cosciousness (vijnana), which here is completely different from consciousness (cit) in Advaita, refers to mundane wordly consciousness… or cognition, to be precise. In Yogachara, it is part of the nature of consciousness (vijnana) to be self-reflexive. Shankara denies this, and he quotes Dharmakirti (as does everyone else) when he refers to the Mahayana doctrine. Shankara say this it impossible for consciousness to be self-aware, just as it is impossible for a tumbler to stand on his own shoulders. There is, to be sure, apperception. But this does not belong to the true Self. It is mere “aham-kara,” the mere reflection or “shadow” of the light of the true self in buddhi.

At this point Shankara begins to sound more like Kant. The Self, the nature of which is consciousness, is the transcendental condition of all experience. It would be impossible for the transcendental condition or cause of experience to itself be an experience, as this would imply that that experience has some other cause or basis. But for the Yogacharas, there is no problem here. Mundane experience is its own cause, or to be more precise, it has its “cause” in a colocation or network of mutually determined causes, which is the Mahayana's redefinition of pratitya-samutpada.

And in fact, Dharmakriti, who was perhaps the most brilliant philosophcial mind that classical India produced, picks up the pieces and runs with the argument:

“How is it that consciousness can produce its own object, ” asks the detractor. “”What the hey are you talking about when you say 'all is mind'?”

“Why should there be a problem with consciousness produciing its own object?” replies Dharmakirti. It does anyway. This is shown in the self-reflexive nature of cognition. In every cognition, we are always aware of ourselves, of what we cognize, and of the fact we are cognizing.” What a clever boy, that Dharmakirti.

By the way, Dreyfus is the man. He is precisely what we have needed for some time: someone who can think, and who can read Tibetan, and who has the time and patience and interest to cull the Tibetan commentaries for illuminating insights as to what Dharmakirti was on about.over and out, space cadet kela permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 5, 7:17 PM:
Jim, I apologize for all the grammatical errors in the above. It was basically written stream of consciousness and then posted with little to no editing. kela :-) permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 12, 9:29 AM:
“…the lifeworld…[has a] quasi-transcendental nature. The lifeworld itself cannot be the proper theme of communicative utterances, for as a totality it provides the space in or ground upon which utterances occur, even those that name it explicitly…it remains indeterminate…even for theory, which hence cannot adopt a transcendental approach to the lifeworld's structures themselves”

This is very interesting. I have often thought along these same lines. We can, of course, substitute “intersubjectivity” for “the lifeworld.”Here is the implication:In this case, subjectivity and intersubjectivity are not equal, not at par with each other. Intersubjectivity is the condition of the possibility of subjectivity. They are not “two opposing sides” that must be “balanced” in in some game of 4-square AQAL. To suggest that they are is to miss the point of post-Wittgensteinian and post-Heideggerian thought, and to use the concept of intersubjectivity in this manner distorts the meaning of the relationship between intersubjectivity and subjectivity. The idea that they are “not two” and “equal,” that “both must be taken into account” is as an abstraction based on pre-conceived notions, such as the idea that non-duality means “balance” and “harmony.” This kind of move constitutes an attempt to reassert the philosophy of the subject. permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 12, 11:37 AM:
Hi Balder,At the same time (and here I am in dialogue with myself), I think that the idea of intersubjectivity as some kind of quasi-transcendental “condition” is problematic. My sense is that both Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian thought imply something like this – a kind of inheritance from Kant. I have successfully argued this interpretation of them in the past. Philosophers like K.O. Apel use such ideas to bridge Anglo-American and Continental thought. But, as I say, such notions are also problematic. For one, their postulation constitute a kind of foundationalism of sorts, and certainly speaking about “conditions” in this manner implies the old-fashioned metaphysics. There is a quote from the later Heidegger in which he says that in his later thinking he was “fleeing from the transcendental horizon” that he thought characterized his earlier thinking. As to whether Derridean thinking implies “transcendental conditions” of this sort, well, interpreters are split. One debate in the nineties was between those who said yes (Christopher Norris) and those who said no (Richard Rorty). Rudolph Gasche seems to be saying that though Derrida uses transcendental arguments, this does imply that he is suggesting trancendental grounds. Indeed, the entire movement is toward the “deconstruction” of such grounds. I think we find a similar tension in Prasangika thought.To bring my other comments of today into the mix, the myth of the given seems to be inextricably bound with the notion of self-certainty. And to be sure there is an element of self-certainty involved in the Prasangika notion of pratyatma-vedya – a concept lifted from the Lankavatara Sutra, a work with several (“nonBuddhistic”) “representationalist” assumptions running through it, such as the idea of the finger pointing at the moon, and so on. permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 12, 12:01 PM:
Here is an abstract reflecting some of the issues that I'm on about. permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 12, 1:54 PM:
The idea of a darshana is itself poly-valent. Shankara plays precisely with this very ambiguity. When it suits him, “darshana” refers to final “realization”; at other times it refers to the teaching (upadesha) of advaita, and at other times it refers to his own system, to his interpretation of Vedanta.The tension between a “soteriological teaching” and a “philosophical system” is at the heart of Huntington's writings on Chandrakirti, which is perhaps why he refers to Rorty's disitnction between systematic and edifying philosophy as much as he does. He seems interested in a kind of defense, or perhaps a “most generous reading,” of Chandrakirti.It is true that the Indian tradition tends to speak of positions as static reified timeless stances: the uttara paksha and purva paksha is the usual dialogue form. This makes the doxgraphic format somewhat artificial. permalink

Re: Myth of the given kelamuni said Sep 12, 2:06 PM:
Similarly, we should not take the critique of subjectivity as some kind of suggestion that there is “no such thing” as subjectivity. The problem of dreaming has traditionally been a bit of a problem for those who argue from intersubjectivity. One way of dealing with dreams is to dismiss them as non-experiences. But the reality of lucid dreaming renders this argument absurd. Subjectivity is particularly important where personal meaning is concerned. My own sense is that, at this point, it becomes necessary to consider which kind of language is most appropriate. The “inner life” seems to need its own “language.” It is perhaps here that metaphor, myth, and conceptions of “soul” become relevant. permalink 10:46 AM

The unforseeable, the unanticipatable, the non-masterable, non-identifiable

Re: Myth of the given theurj said Yesterday, 9:52 AM:
Regarding Habermas' intersubjective lifeworld via communicative reason as a form of foundationalism inherited from Kant, Habbie has this to say in PT:

“The concept of communicative reason is still accompanied by the shadow of a transcendental illusion. Because the idealizing presuppositions of communicative action must not be hypostatized into the ideal of a future condition in which a definitive understanding has been reached, this concept must be approached in a sufficiently skeptical manner. A theory that leads to believe in the attainability of a rational ideal would fall back behind the level of argumentation reached by Kant. It would also abandon the materialistic legacy of the critique of metaphysics. The moment of unconditionality that is preserved in the discursive concepts of a fallibilistic truth and morality is not an absolute, or it is at most an absolute that has become fluid as a critical procedure. Only with this residue of metaphysics can we do battle against the transfiguration of the world through metaphysical truths…Communicative reason is of course a rocking hull-but it does not go under in the sea of contingencies, even if shuddering in high seas is the only mode in which it copes with these contingencies” (144).
Morris is not convinced though. Habermas tries to preserve the lifeworld from being radically indeterminate with his communicative reason, which, as we have seen, still leaves traces of a Kantian rational ideal. Haberams fears that without this quasi-transcendent, “rocking boat” form of reason we'd be lost in the “high sea of contingencies.” Whereas Morris says Derrida embraces radical indeterminacy without intersubjective agreement and it doesn't have the dour consequences Habermas supposes.
Morris says: “For Derrida, by contrast, what is indeconstructible [khora] is rather the formless, structureless space in-between, the abyss or chasm ‘in' which the cleavages between the sensible and intelligible, body and soul, can have a place and take place. It is this shuddering spacing without end and without bottom which gives rise and receives-give form by receiving imprint and inscription or by containing, without being either surface or receptacle, mother or nurse. It would only be this level, the spacing of deconstruction itself, that could be beyond the operation of the latter. This is not difference or differance, nor is it God, but it might be the condition of all, the condition for the very existence of politics and God” (DHR 242).
Now by the sound of it khora might be considered some form of at least quasi-transcendental foundation, the likes of Wilber's consciousness per se, as the completely open ground from which phenomena arise. But the latter suggests a foundational ground that existed prior to phenomena. Buddhist emptiness might likewise be considered a similar foundational ground if reified. But much like the emptiness of emptiness non-doctrine that prevents such reification, where emptiness itself is dependently arisen, so too with khora because it does not exist in as a fixed thing in anterior temporality. To the contrary its metaphor is more one of the empty spacing of the interval between sounds in music, without which they'd have no meaning or context. Or the spacing between words in this sentence and in the surrounding “margins” of the page. Hence it is the metaphor of the “margins.” However, without the words and their meaning a black page is nothing in itself. And that nothing is neither Buddhist emptiness nor Derridean khora.
Another perspective on this is “the non-identical condition of all identities. Every identity is non-identical in itself because it depends on difference with and to an other; no identity exists a priori or can be constituted in a singularly original way. This is not quite an assertion of the unavoidability of intersubjectivity but rather that of the radical incompleteness of any identity or subject, for non-identity is required to complete any recognition at all” (DHR 247).
So how then do we use such radical indeterminacy and openness to practical effect? How do we keep if from being just a flaland pluralism wherein everything is equal since there is no universal ground upon which to judge? I will let Morris and Derrida speak here, as they are far more articulate than I am:
“A democratic vision consistent with these unsettling and critical conditions must promote the recognition and exploration of the non-identical ‘grounds' of identity…. The result is a ‘philosophy of the limit' whose quasi-transcendental universal call denies the possibility of any metalanguage while trying to achieve ‘the effects of metalanguage'…. [it] need not, however, produce consensus or be oriented toward agreement as the result, but rather primarily intends understanding and an opening to the other….the call for a profound understanding that arises from the irreplaceable place in which identities gather themselves is a call for an openness to the new, to the unique other: ‘it should be anticipated as the unforseeable, the unanticipatable, the non-masterable, non-identifiable, in short, as that of which one does not yet have a memory'.
“This is why all insights into radical indeterminacy should not lead to utterly relativist or merely ‘social constructionist' conclusions: identity is and is not identical (with itself). There is no having one without the other. One deconstructs down to nothing (for no referent exists, finally), but the fact that there is no true origin or reliable stability to any identity does not mean that what identity names historically is not material and that its existence is not important for the political response to questions of recognition and understanding.
“More than this, however, the stress on the dynamic relations of identity and non-identity is also key if the positive effective of a deconstructive universal are to be realized. Speaking of the idea of ‘Europe', Derrida argues against the reconstitution of Europe's ‘centralizing hegemony' but also against a mere anti-hegemony of particularist assertions. One must not simply ‘multiply the borders, i.e., the movements and margins. It is necessary not to cultivate for their own sake minority differences, untranslatable idiolects, national antagonisms, or the chauvinisms of idiom'. But, he continues, responsibility consists
‘in renouncing neither of these two contradictory imperatives. One must therefore try to invent gestures, discourses, politico-institutional practices that inscribe the alliance of these two imperatives, of these two promises or contracts: the capital and the a-capital. That is not easy. It is even impossible to conceive of a responsibility that consists in being responsible for two laws, or that consists in responding to two contradictory injunctions. No doubt. But there is no responsibility that is not the experience and experiment of the impossible…. European cultural identity, like identity or identification in general, if it must be equal to itself and to the other, up to the measure of its own and immeasruable difference with ‘itself,' belongs, therefore must belong, to this experience and experiment of the impossible' (DHR 248-9). permalink

Re: Myth of the given theurj said Yesterday, 10:31 AM:
The following excerpt reminds me of how Derrida's description of khora is again like Nagarjuna's anti-thesis via the tetralemma. From On the Name, Stanford: SUP, 1995, p. 89:
“One cannot even say that it is neither this nor that, or that it is both this and that.” permalink

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Da was influenced by the rhetoric and schematizing of Neo-Vedantins like Vivekananada and Yogananda, whom he wished to emulate

Re: Integral Ideology kelamuni said Jun 27, 8:15 PM: Hi Jim,

The Indian context for “inclusivism” is actually quite broad, and covers a number of different but related contexts. It takes inter-traditional forms as well as intra-traditional. Intra-traditionally, it includes the Buddhist idea of skillful means (upaya-kaushalya) and the Vedantic notion of “differences in qualification” (adhikarana-bheda) both of which refer to the idea that specific teachings are to be assigned to specific students in accordance with their needs and abilities; the idea that certain teachings are merely propaedeutic (avatarana), which we find in both Mahayana and Advaita; the related Mahayana hermeneutic device of distinguishing literal teachings and “metaphoric” teachings (nitartha/neyartha); and the Advaita notion of “harmonization” (samanvaya), in which contradictory teachings are made consistent by reinterpreting them. All of these make use of a hermeneutic prodecure that primarily serves the theological/exegetical end of systematizing incongruent scriptural teachings found within a tradition, but it can also serve the polemical end of subordintating sister schools within a tradition. For example, in Madhyamika, the Yogachara scriptures are merely “metaphorically” true, while the Prajnaparamita scriptures are literally true; and vice versa for the Yogachara. This is actually the original context out of which arose the concept of the two truths.

Later, certain traditions start to say of other traditions that their conceptions of reality/God, etc. are “incomplete” (cf. the Jain anekantavada) or inadequate expressions of their own teachings. This is what Hacker means by “what you mean when you say x is what we mean when we say y, and y is a better way to understand it.” This idea actually has an ancient basis, as for example when the Chandogya Upanishad says that he who knows the true and absolute Being (sat), knows all teachings; or when the Buddha uses certain brahmanic concepts of the self in some of his discourses; or when the Gita says that all concepts of God are really expressions of Krishna. Later, Shankara also makes use of this idea when he says that all traditions ultimately seek the Self of advaita, but that they don't realize it (Brahma Sutra 1.3.33). Bhavaviveka may have revitalized the classical usage when he said that the Vedanta concept of brahman is an attempt at expressing the Buddhist shunyata, but due to the continuing influence of ignorance among the brahmanic sages, they don't quite get it right, and so they reify emptiness. The underpinning idea here is recognizable – that of priveleged access: “you don't get it 'cuase yer not realized yet.” The inter-traditional context is clearly polemical, and one might certainly question whether such an inherently polemical approach has place in a fair, evenhanded, scholarly account of tradition.

Vis a vis the given link, it is perhaps ironic that among Wilber's influences can be found not only the (European) Hegelian concept of Aufhebung (“transcend and include”), but Aurobindo's own “integralism,” his “synthesis of yoga.” There is also no question that Wilber's modelling relies heavily on Da's own schemas, such the “seven stages,” to which Da attempts to reduce the entire Indian tradition. In a note at the end of Eye of Spirit, Wilber refers to “the gross path or the yogis,” “subtle path of the sants,” “causal path of the sages,” and “non-dual path of the siddhas,” an ascending hierarchy of “paths” that clearly not only draws on Da's models but reveals their allegiance to Tantrism. Da himself draws upon the synthesis of Tantrism accomplished by the great Kashmiri Shaiva, Abhinavagupta, in particular Abhinava's idea of the four upayas (bhakti/yoga/jnana/”an-upaya”). Da was also influenced by the rhetoric and schematizing of Neo-Vedantins like Vivekananada and Yogananda, whom he wished to emulate.

The inclusivism of the Neo-Vedantins is basically an extention of the inclusivism of the Advaita doxographers who follow the 15th century, such as Madhava, author of the Sarva-darshana-samgraha, “Compendium of All Teachings.” These doxographers present the Indian tradition in terms of a hierarchy of schools: materialists at the bottom, followed by the heterodox Buddhists and Jains, then the logicians Nyaya-Vaishesika, followed by the Samkhya and Yoga, followed by the dualist and qualified non-dualist schools, and capped off with, no less than, the teaching of Advaita Vedanta. Standard textbooks of Indian philosophy still use this format. What the Neo-Vedantins do is universalize this tendency so as to include all the world traditions. Hence Radhakrishnan can say: “All true religion is Vedanta.” And we find Suzuki saying the same thing about Zen, and Idries Shah about Sufism. Indeed, perennialism is the locus classicus of the inclusivist tendency. It masquarades as a kind of pluralism. But in the end it is usually about the dominance of some agenda – Advaita Vedanta, Tantra, whatever.

Another irony is that it is precisely this Hegelian tendency toward totalitizing, this need for “das Absolute,” that the post-moderns like Bataille, Derrida and Foucault, following the events of '69, were fleeing from. Generally, it is a tendency that attempts to reduce the “you” to the “I,” to the Absolute Subject; a tendency in which the all-consuming European Eye sees everything as grist for its own consumption, for its own self-understanding. And now, ironically, the postmoderns have been reduced to a simple formula – the greenies – and thrown in a drawer like a trinket or novelty: “you now live at level 5 in the Integral Highrise” And that is because this is basically how Ken reads: he does not encounter the authors he reads, he does not engage them, grapple with them and allow them to transform his thought and being. He uses them toward his own end: he reads an author until he finds something useful, abstracts the bit he needs, and then ignores the bits that don't “fit.” It is no wonder, then, that reading is basically an exercise in “translation” for Ken. That is the only way he knows. permalink

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The resistance met in the 18th century by Giambattista Vico, the first true constructivist

Current Issue: AntiMatters 2 (3) August 15th, 2008 Prelude to the Fifth Issue 1-4 Articles
An introduction to radical constructivism
Abstract Ernst von Glasersfeld

The proponents of an idea, as a rule, explain its non-acceptance differently than do the critics and opponents. Being myself much involved, it seems to me that the resistance met in the 18th century by Giambattista Vico, the first true constructivist, and by Silvio Ceccato and Jean Piaget in the more recent past, is not so much due to inconsistencies or gaps in their argumentation, as to the justifiable suspicion that constructivism intends to undermine too large a part of the traditional view of the world. Indeed, one need not enter very far into constructivist thought to realize that it inevitably leads to the contention that man — and man alone — is responsible for his thinking, his knowledge and, therefore, also for what he does. Today, when behaviorists are still intent on pushing all responsibility into the environment, and sociobiologists are trying to place much of it into genes, a doctrine may well seem uncomfortable if it suggests that we have no one but ourselves to thank for the world in which we appear to be living. That is precisely what constructivism intends to say — but it says a good deal more. We build that world for the most part unawares, simply because we do not know how we do it. That ignorance is quite unnecessary. Radical constructivism maintains — not unlike Kant in his Critique — that the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential world can be explored, and that an awareness of this operating (which Ceccato in Italian so nicely called consapevolezza operativa) [2] can help us do it differently and, perhaps, better.

This introduction, I repeat, will be limited to the exposition of a few aspects. The first section deals with the relation between knowledge and that "absolute" reality that is supposed to be independent of all experience, and I shall try to show that our knowledge can never be interpreted as a picture or representation of that real world, but only as a key that unlocks possible paths for us (see Alcmaeon’s fragment).

The second section outlines the beginnings of skepticism and Kant’s insight that, because our ways of experiencing are what they are, we cannot possibly conceive of an unexperienced world; it then presents some aspects of Vico’s constructivist thought. The third section explicates some of the main traits of the constructivist analysis of concepts. Some of the many ideas I have taken over from Piaget as well as from Ceccato will be outlined and only sparsely supported by quotations. Piaget’s work has greatly influenced and encouraged me during the 1970s, and before that, the collaboration with Ceccato had provided direction and innumerable insights to my thinking. But for constructivists, all communication and all understanding are a matter of interpretive construction on the part of the experiencing subject and, therefore, in the last analysis, I alone can take the responsibility for what is being said on these pages.
The history of philosophy is a tangle of isms. Idealism, rationalism, nominalism, realism, skepticism, and dozens more have battled with one another more or less vigorously and continuously during the 25 centuries since the first written evidence of Western thought.

The many schools, directions, and movements are often difficult to distinguish. In one respect, however, any ism that wants to be taken seriously must set itself apart from all that are already established: it must come up with at least one new turn in the theory of knowledge. Often that is no more than a rearrangement of well-known building blocks, a slight shift in the starting-point, or the splitting of a traditional concept. The epistemological problem — how we acquire knowledge of reality, and how reliable and "true" that knowledge might be — occupies contemporary philosophy no less than it occupied Plato. The ways and means of the search for solutions have, of course, become more varied and complicated, but the basic question has, almost without exception, remained the same. The way that question was put at the very beginning made it impossible to answer, and the attempts that have since been made could not get anywhere near a solution to the problem.

The philosopher of science, Hilary Putnam, has recently formulated it like this: "It is impossible to find a philosopher before Kant (and after the pre-Socratics) who was not a metaphysical realist, at least about what he took to be basic or unreducible assertions."

[3] Putnam explains that statement by saying that, during those 2,000 years, philosophers certainly disagreed in their views about what really exists, but their conception of truth was always the same, in that it was tied to the notion of objective validity.

A metaphysical realist, thus, is one who insists that we may call something "true" only if it corresponds to an independent, "objective" reality. [4] On the whole, even after Kant, the situation did not change. There were some who tried to take his Critique of Pure Reason seriously, but the pressure of philosophical tradition was overwhelming.

In spite of Kant’s thesis that our mind does not derive laws from nature, but imposes them on it, [5] most scientists today still consider themselves "discoverers" who unveil nature’s secrets and slowly but steadily expand the range of human knowledge; and countless philosophers have dedicated themselves to the task of ascribing to that laboriously acquired knowledge the unquestionable certainty which the rest of the world expects of genuine truth. Now as ever, there reigns the conviction that knowledge is knowledge only if it reflects the world as it is. [6]

The history of Western epistemology can, of course, not be described adequately and fairly in a few pages. Given the limits of this chapter, it will have to suffice if I pick out the main point in which the constructivism I am proposing differs radically from the traditional conceptualizations. That radical difference concerns the relation of knowledge and reality. Whereas in the traditional view of epistemology, as well as of cognitive psychology, that relation is always seen as a more or less picture-like (iconic) correspondence or match, radical constructivism sees it as an adaptation in the functional sense.

In everyday English, that conceptual opposition can be brought out quite clearly by pitting the words "match" and "fit" against one another in certain contexts. The metaphysical realist looks for knowledge that matches reality in the same sense as you might look for paint to match the color that is already on the wall that you have to repair. In the epistemologist’s case it is, of course, not color that concerns him, but he is, nevertheless, concerned with some kind of "homomorphism," which is to say, an equivalence of relations, sequence, or characteristic structure — something, in other words, that he can consider the same, because only then could he say that his knowledge is of the world.

If, on the other hand, we say that something fits, we have in mind a different relation. A key fits if it opens the lock. The fit describes a capacity of the key, not of the lock. Thanks to professional burglars, we know only too well that there are many keys that are shaped quite differently from ours but nevertheless unlock our doors. The metaphor is crude, but it serves quite well to bring into relief the difference I want to explicate. From the radical constructivist point of view, all of us — scientists, philosophers, laymen, school children, animals, indeed any kind of living organism — face our environment as the burglar faces a lock that he has to unlock in order to get at the loot. This is the sense in which the word "fit" applies to Darwin’s and neo-Darwinist theories of evolution. Unfortunately, Darwin himself used the expression "survival of the fittest."

In doing that, he prepared the way or the misguided notion that, on the basis of his theory, one could consider certain things fitter than fit, and that among those there could even be a fittest. [7] But in a theory in which survival is the only criterion for the selection of species, there are only two possibilities: either a species fits its environment (including the other species), or it does not; i.e., it either survives, or it dies out.

Only an external observer who introduces other criteria — e.g., economy, simplicity, or elegance of the method of surviving — only an observer who deliberately posits values beyond survival, could venture comparative judgments about those items that have already manifested their fitness by surviving. In this one respect the basic principle of radical constructivist epistemology coincides with that of the theory of evolution: Just as the environment places constraints on the living organism (biological structures) and eliminates all variants that in some way transgress the limits within which they are possible or "viable," so the experiential world, be it that of everyday life or of the laboratory, constitutes the testing ground for our ideas (cognitive structures). That applies to the very first regularities the infant establishes in its barely differentiated experience, it applies to the rules with whose help adults try to manage their common sense world, and it applies to the hypotheses, the theories, and the so-called "natural laws" that scientists formulate in their endeavor to glean lasting stability and order from the widest possible range of experiences.

In the light of further experience, regularities, rules of thumb, and theories either prove themselves reliable or they do not (unless we introduce the concept of probability — in which case we are explicitly relinquishing the condition that knowledge must be certain).

In the history of knowledge, as in the theory of evolution, people have spoken of "adaptation" and, in doing so, a colossal misunderstanding was generated. If we take seriously the evolutionary way of thinking, it could never be organisms or ideas that adapt to reality, but it is always reality which, by limiting what is possible, inexorably annihilates what is not fit to live. In phylogenesis, as in the history of ideas, "natural selection" does not in any positive sense select the fittest, the sturdiest, the best, or the truest, but it functions negatively, in that it simply lets go under whatever does not pass the test.

The comparison is, of course, stretched a little too far. In nature, a lack of fitness is invariably fatal; philosophers, however, rarely die of their inadequate ideas. In the history of ideas it is not a question of survival, but of "Truth." If we keep that in mind, the theory of evolution can serve as a powerful analogy: the relation between viable biological structures and their environment is, indeed, the same as the relation between viable cognitive structures and the experiential world of the thinking subject. Both fit — the first because natural accident has shaped them that way, the second because human intention has formed them to attain the ends they happen to attain; ends that are the explanation, prediction, or control of specific experiences.

More important still is the epistemological aspect of the analogy. In spite of the often misleading assertions of ethologists, the structure of behavior of living organisms can never serve as a basis for conclusions concerning an "objective" world, i.e., a world as it might be prior to experience. [8] The reason for this, according to the theory of evolution, is that there is no causal link between that world and the survival capacity of biological structures or behaviors. As Gregory Bateson has stressed, Darwin’s theory is based on the principle of constraints, not on the principle of cause and effect. [9] The organisms that we find alive at any particular moment of evolutionary history, and their ways of behaving, are the result of cumulative accidental variations, and the influence of the environment was and is, under all circumstances, limited to the elimination of non-viable variants. Hence, the environment can, at best, be held responsible for extinction, but never for survival. That is to say, an observer of evolutionary history may, indeed, establish that everything that has died out must in some way have transgressed the range of the viable and that everything he finds surviving is, at least for the time being, viable. To assert that, however, evidently constitutes a tautology (what survives, lives) and throws no light whatever on the objective properties of that world that manifests itself in negative effects alone.

* Originally published in Die Erfundene Wirklichkeit, a volume edited by P. Watzlawick (Munich:Piper, 1981, pp. 16–38). English translation in The Invented Reality (New York: Norton, 1984,pp. 17–40).6 ANTIMATTERS 2 (3) 2008