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’


Translations

24Jul16

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A few brief notes on upcoming works in other languages. First, the Russian translation of Slime Dynamics (painstakingly done by Diana Khamis) will be coming out soon from Hyle Press.

My recent review of Ferraris’ Positive Realism has been translated by Carlos Lema into Galician. It is available here.

Lastly Anna Longo has translated my interview with Badiou from 2010 into French. And, in addition, two articles of mine will appear in French at the end of this year (or the beginning of next) – one on the relation between Iain Grant and Ray Brassier’s work on the problem of naturalism, and the other on experiment and fundamentality in the work of Schelling, Massimi, and Catren.


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“Shorn of its rational constraint, the banner of ‘realism’ by itself becomes strictly meaningless. In fact, the relations between ‘realism,’ ‘materialism,’ and ‘idealism,’ are of considerable dialectical complexity so I think it’s a mistake to brandish any one of them in isolation from the others. They derive whatever philosophical sense they posses from their contrastive inter-dependence. Just as the assertion of an unqualified or indiscriminate ‘realism’ is uninformative, the proclamation of ‘materialism’ has also become meaningless, a genuflection to academic orthodoxy often licensing positions that are indistinguishable from the most objectionable theses of idealism.” – Brassier, Interview in Realism, Materialism Art

Brassier’s sentiment in the above quote, combined with Grant, Dunham, and Watson’s ruminations on idealism as a realism of the idea, has led me deeper into the history of idealism. Examining the texts of figures such as Berkeley, Kant, and the post-Kantians, as well as the British and American Idealists, has quickly painted a very different image of the tradition then what is usually given. It seems clear to me that the positive or constructive project of idealism has been lost, and that the name has become a dumping ground for the negative aspects of philosophy (as Brassier suggests).

Going through the idealist canon one finds a number of idealisms none of which confirm to the most egregious stereotype of idealism generically – namely that the idealist position is an extreme form of solipsism, that the world merely leaps out of the mind. Starting with this as the strong form of ontological idealism, (SOI) a basic schema can be set up to try and track the general stance of idealism though this still does not do justice to its more specific claims, or its more constructive project.

Strong Ontological Idealism (SOI): All is Thought/Everything is mind. (Possible candidates – Sprigge, James Jeans, Eddington)

Strong Epistemological Idealism (SEI): Everything we know is mind. (Berkeley)

Weak Ontological Idealism (WOI): Everything is minds and ideas (British and American Idealism while German Idealism falls somewhere between WOI and SEI)

Weak Epistemological Idealism (WEI): Everything is in minds. (Kant? This is hotly debated still)

SOI – Most of the thinkers who might fall into this category are physicists from the turn of the century and into the 1950s. But even a figure like Jeans who discusses the cosmos as a ‘giant thought’ leaves questions. To say the cosmos is more like a mind than like a machine expresses more a skepticism regarding mechanism than a particularly strong thesis about the power, or being, of mind. Even if Jeans’ claim is that the cosmos is more mind like, this can still be read as a materialist claim about the mind (i.e., it is more like the cosmos than some would like to admit, i.e., its constitution deeply affects its behavior). Jeans and Eddington simply wonder if the indeterminancy which appeared to be at the heart of physics for them may apply to the very basic functioning of thought. More speculatively, the claim could be made is what exists is the mind of god and we are merely thoughts in that mind. As Jeans famously wrote in The Universe Around Us:

Finite picture whose dimensions are a certain amount of space and a certain amount of time; the protons and electrons are the streaks of paint which define the picture against its space-time background. Traveling as far back in time as we can, brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility.”

While I am skeptical as to the theological implications, such a claim is still far from the standard solipsistic claim aimed at idealism generally.

SEI – In his Metaphysics for the Mob John Russell Roberts demolishes the standard critique of Berkeley surrounding the damning phrase esse ist princi (to be is to be perceived). Roberts writes:

“Berkeley tells us, ‘‘[t]heir esse is percipi.’’ Clearly, the ‘their’ is anaphoric on ‘unthink-
ing things,’ what Berkeley also sometimes refers to as ‘‘sensible things’’ and some-
times as ‘‘ideas.’’ What Berkeley taught is that the being of sensible things consists in
their being perceived. But with that said, two all-important points have to be
insisted upon immediately. First, the same is not true of minds, what Berkeley more frequently calls ‘‘spirits’’ but also refers to (equivalently) as ‘‘souls,’’ ‘‘wills,’’ and ‘‘agents.’’ The being of spirits does not depend on their being perceived. In fact, spirits cannot be perceived. [T]he words will, soul, spirit, do not stand for different ideas, or in truth, for any idea at all, but for something which is very different from ideas, and which being an agent cannot be like unto, or represented by, any idea whatsoever.
The esse of spirits is not percipi. The second point is even more important: Berkeley is a monist. His is a monism of minds.” (5)

The skepticism which accompanies Berkeley’s thought (which anyone who has paid any attention to Hume would notice) is why he is in the strong epistemological camp since spiritual-substance, whatever it is that composes the self, is not known other than through its effects. Thus even in Berkeley something is not mind-like and even is ontologically outside the purview of mind other than as a supposition. There is a reason why the empiricists built on his work more than they tore it down…

WOI – The spectrum of this position runs somewhere between Hegel and Bradley in that there is some discordance between mind and idea (via negation for the former or in dissembling and reassembling experience for the latter) in which there may be something outside thought but only as a limit to which thought must approach. Thus ‘outside’ only comes into play as a epistemological motivator to indicate the failure of thought. Objective Idealism would fall into this camp (particularly of Peirce and Schelling) whereas absoluteness would as long as it is qualified by some form of indirect access (thus Hegel may fall into SOI.

WEI -Weak epistemological Idealism is probably the most common claim and could be applied to much of continental philosophy following Heidegger, and much of analytic thought that follows in the wake of Wittgenstein. Kant is arguably the progenitor since his form of thought admits there is something outside minds and ideas, but that speaking or thinking it is somewhat contradictory other than feeding into our senses and intuitions.

This general sketch is far from polished but I would hope it at least make the throwaway use of the term ‘idealism’ as a general insult in the realm of thought (or of politics in a different sense) problematic. If the term fits into an ecology along with realism and materialism, the purported limits of the former, and the indiscriminate meanings of the latter become more sharply focused. Without using idealism as that form of thought which studies the behavior of thoughts, that treats them as if they escaped their material or rational habitats, realism gets into troubling explaining imagination and materialism gets into trouble explaining abstraction (just for starters). Furthermore, and as I tried to discuss here, analytic philosophy in its turn to fictionalism has re-entered idealist terrain that it Moore and Russel had declared off limits.

Lastly, and to leave room for future writing, one of the central issues of idealism, particularly in the form of British Idealism, was not about realism or rationalism opposed to idealism (many of the idealists saw themselves as rationalists as opposed to empiricists or pragmatists) but about the tension between monism and pluralism, between identity and difference. The contours of this debate, how it played about between Bradley and James has a lot to say about current battles between flat and layered ontologies,


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Maurizo Ferraris’ recent short text Positive Realism (Zer0, Dec 2015) attempts to define what his form of New Realism is against, and what it builds off of, engaging a wide range of philosophical positions (metaphysical realism, internal realism, scientific realism, Markus Gabriel’s New Realism, Harman’s ontology and others) while making a general claim to a philosophy informed by common sense.

Ferraris is critical of both transcendental philosophy and the linguistic turn, of what he generally names constructivism and the ‘transcendental fallacy’ (3). These moves follow from a general anti-epistemological stance that is shared with Harman, Garcia, Gabriel, and others. Essentially these realists wish to claim that we are already in touch with the world, with objects, with things of themselves, and thus focusing on the question of access (of epistemology in particular) buries the ontological lead. Ferraris, along with these other thinkers, thus want to claim that the world is there before us, but not for us, and that this is should be appreciated as a positive philosophical feature.

Broadly put, Ferraris argues that constructivism and transcendental philosophy not only over-estimate the power of the thinking subject but also overlook the positive aspects of the world, the way in which the world, and objects of the world, invite us to act and interact with them (referencing J.J. Gibson) as well as make it difficult to determine the degrees of reality.

Continue reading ‘Perceiving Perception?: A Review of Ferraris’ Positive Realism’