To Alina

05Feb19
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Near Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, 2014

We met at the Performing Arts Forum in 2013. After presenting for some fifteen plus hours you still had questions, many questions, questions about pessimism and nature and Schelling and nihilism and told me about the many shades of darkness. You talked about bringing me to Bucharest which sounded wonderful but far-fetched but I should not have doubted. Barely a year later I was there and we talked about wild dogs, and myths about gold, and you tolerated my bad jokes about vampires. You christened me ‘slime-heart’ and it stuck.

We met again in Berlin where in a sea of rationalism and computation you were flanked by Florin and Irina. You were the twitter spirit and foil of much seriousness and serious people and also everyone else. I remember how loud you said ‘OHH NOOOO’ when you found out how young Matt was while we were sitting by the banks of the Spree. We couldn’t stop laughing.

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HKW in Berlin, 2014

And right after Berlin we were crying-level gin-drunk underneath a baby-grand piano in Stuttgart talking about melodrama (what else?) while Irina was always the sage, the fairy godmother hovering above our puddle of tears. When I said I had not seen Written on the Wind you exclaimed ‘this is not possible!’ For a week we read about forests and philosophy and the art world and seemed to live off of polenta, boxed-tamarind, and cashews bought in bulk. At one point you laughed and said ‘ah, Ben, you are Romanian now…that is not so good for you.’ I have been trying for days to replay your laugh just right in my head, to get the shape of it just so.

It is not easy to rebuild your laugh…it started like a loud crescendoing ‘AHHH’ and then became this staccato of high squeaks and deep breaths that you could hear through at least five stone walls. Sometimes it ended in a small sigh. It fit so well to how you responded to ideas like they were a scandal or a bit of gossip that then immediately were turned into a joke: “There’s no crying in the space of reasons!” But this was just as serious as it was funny, it was the sign of some concept being digested (eternal feeding) – entering a hyper-connective research program, performance machine, and who knows what else hidden in your thin loping shadow.

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Channeling Douglas Sirk in Above the Weather

There was something (paradoxically?) exotic but minimalist about how you thought and what you said and wrote. There was no minimum safe distance between formal creatures and fleshier animals roaming between the dream world and the world dreamed to be real. The dreamer’s walk is purposeless. The purpose and her map lies within the dream. The dream only wants to dream itself.

I remember when you showed up to PAF with a dislocated rib from Danceweb with a ‘X’ shaped giant bandage that made you look like a stuffed animal a child had tried to fix and yet you still moved in your floaty way and were (as always) excited to talk about dance and abstraction and avatars and jaguars and autophagia and predation and being not quite human. We talked lit only by candles (a happy accident) in the foyer the night before you left about lovers and ex-lovers and you said ‘ah, we are closer now!’ which was so funny because it did not need to be said but you said it like it was a surprise and then it became one.

About being human…this is what I keep thinking about reading this, your last text. That in being post-human, inhuman, alien, a jaguar, still so much lies in between these figures as plans or sketches on the page and the small shifts in experience that follow from talk and experiences of thinking about them and not only thinking about them in the ‘acceptable’ quiet way. And this is a peculiar search, one that you were always doing and that we are doing with you but also now for you. We are hunting with you what is tied to our back which is also you and you are telling us about the map with your eyes closed.

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He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
   A perfect and absolute blank!”
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clock-king

I cannot hope to provide a complete or even thorough review of Reza’s Intelligence and Spirit. S.C. Hickman has provided some reflections here but it would be a tall order for anyone to do a proper review (though I imagine one is forthcoming). This introduction by Robin Mackay is very helpful.

Here I simply want to address some of the issues in Chapter 4 “Some Unsettling Kantian News, as Delivered by Boltzmann” (201-248). The reason for this is mostly that it crosses over with some of my current work on British Idealism as well as ideas in early 20th century philosophies of time. (For good stuff on this type of thing see the work of Emily Thomas here.)

It should go without saying that anyone coming into Intelligence and Spirit assuming it will follow Cyclonpedia or secretly be the Mortiloquist is in for some hard conceptual whiplash. But we can at least analogously say that if Cyclonopedia refused the theory/fiction divide, I & S refuses the analytic/continental divide in a similarly constructive manner. Because of the book’s broadly Hegelian stance, it essentially refuses the division between philosophy of mind and pragmatism which plays into refusing the difference between natural and artificial intelligences (at least at the level of constitution or any ontological branding). By suspending certain metaphysical and ontological stakes the book can ask how it is that we can construct piecemeal an idea of intelligence that could come from a being whose intelligence occurred in a similar but not equally tractable fashion. This leads to a pragmatically tethered form of speculation in terms of the creation of toy universes or toy models (123-124) which are explicit metatheories meant to be tested and broken in the real world (one such theory being the view of ‘ourselves’ as rational thinking entities capable of making these models). This is no simple matter however as it requires a rational skepticism that attempts to always find the ‘more neutral’ view from nowhere not to escape scrutiny but to avoid anchoring the view of ourselves in delusions, fantasies, or wrong-headed theories.

Continue reading ‘Time Melted Toy Brain’


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I am going to start writing on this blog again since I no longer have an immediate philosophy community and it’s at least one way to not go completely insane.

What is occupying my time these days is trying to work through the analytic/continental divide (instead of merely talking about it as a problem to be eventually overcome or that is hopeless). I have talked about the divide before but now for the last 2+ years I have been writing a book on the British Idealist F.H. Bradley. I have written a bit on him (here and here) but not so much on why I think he is important for the split.

The age-old split between the many and the one is a huge conceptual part of the break that Moore and Russell made against Bradley, Bosanquet, Green and the other ‘mystical’ British Idealists. The problem is is that the pluralism of the analytics is often not stated outright and instead emerges sideways through the use of terms like common-sense. In a similar fashion, the notion that there is something like self-evident or common sensical plurality for the early analytic thinkers is totally anathema to the British Idealists – since it seems to be a posit that denies that it is a mental activity.

This notion of mental activity is derived in part from Kant and from Hegel and will of course be rejected by much of the phenomenological tradition (the tension being marked by the myth of the given) with the strange consequence being that far too many analytic philosophers see continental philosophy as almost equatable with phenomenology and hence philosophers of mind can see their own unacknowledged assumptions as simply a matter of course, a methodological necessity.

But of course the very break away from continental philosophy (in its British Idealist form) was not merely the adoption of a new method and a renewed connection to the physical sciences but more a scientific (or really logic-like) stance. But because this stance became so popularized and associated with positivism far too many continental philosophers associate analytic philosophy as such with a defense of positivistic sciences.

This asymmetrical misrecognition (between phenomenology and positivism) is the tempting shape of the argument to trace partially because it is tractable in terms of the ‘big’ debates (Cassier-Carnap-Heidegger or Searle-Derrida or Ayer-Bataille-Merleau-Ponty) or in terms of the opposition of explanation (logical) and description (experiental).

Post-Speculative Realism many people have pointed out how the return to metaphysics in the 1980s and 90s culminated in both traditions in the early 2000s. Speculative Realism and the ontological turn on the continental side and the explosion of neo-Quinean approaches on the analytic side point to more and more adventures into metaphysics and ontology. But even this apparent similarity is muddled by the different approaches to history in both traditions. The very discussion of returns or turns in the continental tradition notes its more constructive relation to its own history whereas in the analytic tradition it is a discourse of problems that is largely ahistorical other than as very basic terminology borrowing.

I think that in the background a more closely knit relation can be made within the discourse of logic and the social dimension of thought. The analytic returns to German idealism (especially Hegel in the work of Brandom for instance) in a sense makes a historical return to a time before the split. This return carries the threat of a de-metaphysicalization of Hegel (see critiques from figures such as Brady Bowman) in the name of a kind of collective pragmatism.

The stakes of the metaphysical in relation to the pragmatic index a strand of thought that has long been abandoned and has not been properly reactivated in the approach of the analytic and the continental. Thinkers such as C.I. Lewis, Peirce, Bosanquet, and Royce saw idealism and pragmatism as necessarily connected and saw how idealism could be the underlying structure for a logic or system of signification that was neither a transcendental nor a modern logic in any strict sense. This strand brings to light not only questions of ethics in relation to the logical (something that Royce was especially interested in) but also the importance of logic which is not indifferent to its content (which in turn has import regarding the question of existence, the ‘x’ of ‘there is x).

The question of the status of logic, the question of what really the line is between the analytic and the speculative (as James Bradley renames the analytic/continental divide) is perhaps what has come to a head with the work of Irad Kimhi. It is difficult not to look at the response to Kimhi and his work as not mirroring (but in a way different respective to the split) the reception of Meillassoux. Both thinkers in short texts grapple with the capacity of thought to either escape the bounds of the subject or to reestablish that the metaphysical cannot leave the psychological. The fact that the former is a continental thinker and the later an analytic one is perhaps one of the more hopeful cross-overs of the divide.

 


Time Alone

23Mar18

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This originally appeared here as part of Emily Thomas’ series on the metaphysics of time.

Can two people ever experience the same now? The question can immediately strike us as naive, or not worth asking. Yet, for the British Idealist F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), the answer was a firm ‘no.’ The possible reasons why are numerous but, for Bradley, the two important and interconnected reasons have to do with the nature of experience and the nature of time.

It certainly seems true that, because each person is an individual with unique feelings and perceptions, two people cannot share precisely the same experience e.g. you may find hot food unbearable because of having more sensitive taste buds or I might crave jalapeños because they remind me of home etc. Memories, upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and a whole slew of other conditions make it near impossible to have any sense of complete sameness when it comes to experiences. But to what degree is this relevant to the problem of time?

Does this mean that two people can’t share the same moment of time? If some perceptual differences are already at work then our experience of time will likely differ too. An unpleasant memory of a car accident may colour future experiences of driving in such a way that everything ‘seems to be happening too fast.’ Hearing a song that reminds us of a past romance may seem to slow time while listening. In other words, the content of our experiences may reform the basic temporal structure of experiences with similar content.

But Bradley goes even further than this. Bradley argues that our limited understanding of time does not even guarantee that our private experiences happen in the same temporal order because everyone has a separate present structurally isolated from everyone else’s notion of self. Thus, for Bradley, there is the structure of our self which is split from what we wish to call that structure’s content (soul, mind, person). However, Bradley is also hesitant to view the universe as merely produced by our experiences, or to claim that the only real content in the world is human experience.

For these reasons Bradley cannot accept many of the standard models of time available to him at the turn of the century. Presentism (only the present is real) has too little structure, while eternalism or four dimensionalism (past, present, and future are real) requires ‘leaving experience’ and thereby is too structural or artificial i.e., four dimensional time seems rational but imposed upon experience for the sake of ease. Bradley provides a peculiar image of how he views time as a response to rejecting the above options:

“If it really is necessary to have some image, perhaps the following may save us from worse. Let us fancy ourselves in total darkness hung over a stream and looking down on it. The stream has no banks, and its current is covered and filled continuously with floating things. Right under our faces is a bright illuminated spot on the water, which ceaselessly widens and narrows its area, and shows us what passes away on the current. And this spot which is light is our now, our present. We may go still further and anticipate a little. We have not only an illuminated place, and the rest of the stream in total darkness. There is a paler light which, both up and down stream, which is shed on what comes before and after our now. And this paler light is the offspring of the present.” (Logic, 54)

Memory is notoriously unreliable but it does seem to have a direction, at least in terms of an increasing accumulation of memories, if not a necessarily clear order. For example, if I am trying to think of the heaviest storm I’ve ever been caught in, a basic order of at least before and after will emerge as I compare the various instances. And the future, at least in ‘our’ mental world, is constructed from what seems to be a coherent present. In essence Bradley does not claim that time is unreal, but that we have no reliable means for using it to understand our own experiences as fundamentally related to the experiences of others.

The dangers of such a fragmented world are illustrated in Christopher Priest’s novel The Affirmation which enters on a character writing a fantastical story while attempting to write his autobiography. As a result we are never sure whether we are reading  a fantastical autobiography or autobiographical fantasy. In the seemingly more fantastical manuscript the narrator wins a lottery in which he can receive immortality but at the cost of permanent retrograde amnesia. As part of the process he must submit his autobiography but he instead submits a text of which we must assume is his ‘real life’ since he no longer remembers.

As in Bradley, no hard division is maintained in The Affirmation between the wreck of our past, and the creative trajectory of the future. We cannot simply step out of the world-structure for a sense of ‘true’ perspective. Because of the radical division between selves, between presents, time cannot be only the measure of change but is the limit of the constructive power of the self which requires a collectivisation of presents to actually know, or build, a shared present. This affirmation (the book, the world) is where each narrative can coherently pass time together.

 


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For almost two years I have been working on a short book on the philosophy of F.H. Bradley. One of the most interesting aspects of Bradley is the role that he gives to experience and feeling. Though his foundation is a combination of Kant and Hegel (the emphasis of the self’s unity in the former and the monistic absolute in the latter) Bradley’s position is very much his own.

For Bradley, experience constitutes the basic fabric of reality. Every experience we have is an expression of an absolute experience filtered through finite centres (his name for the formal structure of an experiencing thing which includes, but is not necessarily restricted to, humans). Every thought, every judgment we make is a selection or abstraction from this massive ‘felt mass’ of absolute experience. The operation of selection that a judgment makes is, for Bradley, always an inference, at some level a guess about the greater state of things.

Every statement is a statement about the one world that we all inhabit, any local claim is a claim about what is possible as such not only in our experience but in the experience of any other finite centre. This is why for Bradley there are degrees of truth since a local judgment can be formulated in a way that maximally includes its external relations yet still holds internal coherence such that the judgment functions contextually.

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But since there is no way to excise oneself from the immanent field of judgement, since there are no simple experiences (contra empiricism), no way of easily peeling off the conceptual veneer from its sensorial basis, Bradley argues that we have to rely upon feeling (whether immediate, relational, or absolute) in order to direct our ideas not towards the absolute only and fully (which, for Bradley, would mean the suicide of thought) but towards a kind of intellectual satisfaction. This satisfaction is not one of reason per se  but one that attempts to align our thinking capacities with the richness of experience.

This is not to endorse a phenomenological position since Bradley has little patience for things in themselves, or for the power of the ego, or for the function of description as adequate philosophical practice. It is more the fact that, for Bradley, the category of experience comes the closest to describing the plasticity of that from which our thoughts seem to emerge and also effect. The metaphysicalization of experience changes the meaning of the phrases used to describe it. Immediate experience is not then a question of temporally immediate understanding, but rather immediate in that it is that aspect of experience which seems to reassert itself despite the function of our intentionality, of our focus. Immediate experience is still, for Bradley, conceptually coded (and therefore not falling into Sellars’ myth of the given) but is the entire field which affords seemingly simple experiences yet these experiences are a mix of conceptual coatings, feelings, and the push of the external world. Therefore its immediacy lies in the minimum abstract labor it requires compared the work of relational consciousness or in placing a judgment or thought in the context of the absolute.

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But what are the metaphysical stakes in Bradley’s claim that what is, is experience? Bradley thinks that the character of an absolute which guarantees that a plurality can be excised from it via abstraction requires that reality be experience-like in terms of being supra-relational. The fact that aspects of experience hold in place despite the different forms of attention and intent they receive pushes Bradley to think that while me must assume there is one consistent structured world, it is very difficult, because of our separate lives, to easily agree on any set of fundamental concepts. Yet Bradley thinks that immediate feeling (again thought as the complexity of experience forced on us) gives us some clue as to the close-knit nature of an experiential monism.

While one could then move into a panpsychicst position this would confuse the idealist stakes in Bradley’s account (and likewise in many easy dismissals of idealism). As I’ve probably too often repeated idealism is often dismissed in a single phrase namely that ‘idealists think the world is composed of mind.’ But, taking a look at a whole range of idealists, it would be far more accurate to say that idealists think the world may be more mind like than matter like. This does not mean the world is mind, or is composed of ideas, since the questions that follow the speculation ask about the worlds structure, the mind’s structure, and the relation between them. If the world was merely mind or idea then no further discussion would be required. Furthermore, this assumes we know what minds are like, and that when we say the world is mind-like we mean a general picture of mind and not a more narrow aspect of it. Comparing various forms of idealism would indicate that the latter is far more likely hence why for Bradley experience is a more tempting candidate whereas for Hegel it is reason and for Schelling it is nature thinking through us.

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That idealism simply makes the world mental is a short-cut critique since it ends up painting all of idealism as solipsistic when the emphasis  on experimentation and collective thinking (historically and politically) contravenes such a portrait. The upswing of their approach can be seen in the various replies Bradley and others made against the early analytic philosophers who attempted to say all of monism ended in error because it made analysis or individuation of any kind impossible. In arguing that the structure of the world may be mind-like in some way meant that the idealists were in general careful about putting too much emphasis on the explanatory of of analysis and its objects. That singular atomistic logic could properly render the world into easily describable bits is something that has run into enough problems over the last 100 or so years to make us question its authority. This is not to dismiss formalism or analysis all together but to point out that the early form of it suffered, and in some ways still suffers, from a tunnel vision about the authority of reason vis a vis the purported simplicity of the world.

One quite specific application of this is the logic of mass expressions. In the last few decades many logicians and thinkers have argued that emphasizing singular terms in logic and semantics is too limiting. Starting in the 1960s many strands of logic sought to deal with plural terms and the ambiguities that arise in regards to whether they are collective or distributive. Traditionally it has been assumed that plural terms were unnecessary since singular terms could just be added up to do the same work. But certain phrases seem to betray this. For example, when someone says ‘the soldiers surrounded the fort’ a collective or distributive account does not adequately express the intermediate functioning of ‘surrounded’ since it would take a vague amount to express surrounding.

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An even harder case is with concrete (iron, wine) and abstract (wisdom, pain) mass terms which have no minimal element (indexing Bradley’s complaint about fundamental divisibility). For instance ‘when I say there is beer on the table’ this could mean one can, two bottles, a pitcher, or a puddle of spilled beer from the night before. There is no smallest part and we can quite easily imagine that neither set-theoretic (modeled on belonging and counts) nor mereological (parts and wholes) approaches can account for how all these things can be coherently referred to the beer on the table. What makes Bradley’s thought interesting is that he thinks that even plurality is insufficient, that there must be some underlying structure that guarantees the necessary plural ways of referring to these felt masses. The fact that we can be in the same room and coherently talk about ‘the beer on the table’ while at the same time knowing that the judgment has meaning beyond its referent, suggests why all ideas are anchored to perception and felt content for Bradley (with the former being a selection of the latter).

If two people are talking what the perceive is clearly not what they feel but neither are the two radically disjointed. I may feel certain emotional states and environmental states but I am focused on the conversation, or half focused on it and checking my watch nervous about a future appointment. We could say that the collective mass of intentional focus is fighting against the distributive mass of felt immediacy. While I am trying to focus on what you are saying to me, and constructing the narrative and what it may mean outside what you are explicitly telling me, I am also aware of the experiential ‘spread’of the situation in which this collective is nested.

In this regard, for Bradley experience is the tissue that can be distributed and collectivized without exhausting its character and while remaining resistant to explanation by counts, aggregations, or divisions. Thus to say the world is like thought is not a short or a comfort. Nor does Bradley wish to invoke a kind of ineffability when he states that because of this inferential picture of the world’s mass we are left with only degrees of truth. The absolute is not to be discussed for its unreachable nature but as a motor for collectivizing thought and enriching the possibility of shared experience in the service of constructing the future.

 


Cyborgian Gaia

13Jun17

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Post-apocalyptic narratives crowd current fiction, television, film, and videogames. Horizon: Zero Dawn combines two versions of these narratives and actually makes an interesting, if slightly abstract, point about anthropogenic climate change. In the game you play a young woman named Eloy who is a hunter from a matriarchal tribe. The wilderness around you is rather primeval save the fact that many of the creatures in it are, at least, part mechanical. You eventually leave your enclave and search the world for answers as to your mysterious origin and how it relates to the fate of the old ones (the humans of the former technological world), and to the bit of technology (your focus) which provides you with insight to your surroundings. One immediately feels as if young Eloy would much rather be a cyborg than a goddess.

Continue reading ‘Cyborgian Gaia’


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There’s a very interesting (and extensive) interview with Pete Wolfendale over at Figure/Ground. One of the most exciting parts for me is the discussion of the analytic continental relationship which is something I have been working on more and more in the last 6 months (largely with Matt Hare at PAF).

Pete says:

The current renewal of metaphysics in the Continental tradition, of which SR/OOO is merely the most obvious expression, is not entirely dissimilar to the renewal of metaphysics in the analytic tradition that began in the 1970’s and has since snowballed. There was an anti-metaphysical tendency dominant in each tradition from their beginnings in the first half of the 20th century. Although there were always metaphysical outliers (e.g., Bergson, Sellars, etc.), the influence of phenomenology/post-structuralism in the Continental tradition (e.g., Heidegger/Derrida) and logical positivism/ordinary language philosophy (e.g., Carnap/Wittgenstein) in the analytic tradition cultivated a pronounced skepticism about the very possibility of metaphysical inquiry. Figures like Habermas and Rorty were even able to exploit this ‘post-metaphysical’ consensus as a means to build bridges between the traditions. The problem with the ongoing collapse of this consensus has been that the desire for renewed metaphysical speculation has rarely been accompanied by a response to the methodological problems posed by metaphysical skepticism. If you ask someone in the analytic tradition working on, say, the metaphysics of causation (e.g., Russellian eliminativism, Lewisian counterfactual analysis, causal law realism, powers metaphysics, etc.) what precisely ‘metaphysics’ is, they’ll likely say something like “the attempt to describe ‘the real structure of the world’, ‘what there really is’, ‘the fundamental constituents of nature’, etc.”, but they’re unlikely to be able to define these phrases with any degree of methodological precision. I think that if you ask someone in the Continental tradition working on, say, the metaphysics of agency (e.g., Zizekian/Badiouian ontologised Lacanianism, Deleuzian neo-Spinozism, Latourian actor-network theory, new materialism, etc.), then you’re apt to get a similar response, maybe using slightly different language. What this means is that ‘metaphysics’ has come once more to signify something like ‘first philosophy’, not in the sense of providing a methodologically perspicuous foundation for other fields, but in the sense of naming the place where we keep our foundational assumptions, whatever those assumptions happen to be.

I want to expand on some of the issues that I have encountered exploring particularly the relationship of predication and ontology. First, it is quite telling that when you speak to continental philosophers, or people who read continental theory broadly construed, there is a sense that continental philosophy is necessarily dry and concerned only with truth tables, predicate logic, and with serving science. This caricature is wedded to, as Pete’s suggestion above suggests, the Carnapian view of analytic philosophy.

The story goes that Carnap effectively banned metaphysics and ontology in the interwar years, claiming that both were abuses of language (either of language in general in regards to the former or of the meaningful intention of the speaker in regards to the latter). Quine then in the 50s supposedly single-handedly resuscitated metaphysics in the name of science. This picture of course would obscure the fact that Carnap admitted abstract entities in the name of good scientific methodology and Quine relied upon semantics to justify his holism.

Continue reading ‘Metaphysical Bridges’