Thursday, 11 March 2010

More on Philosophy and Space

Modernity, it is claimed, is a historical epoch characterized by the attempt to universalise European culture in the name of ‘a priori truth’ and ‘rationality’. Central to this project was a particular notion of space and time, a notion that became increasingly problematic as the project of European modernity encountered its own internal and external limits.

After modernity’s early conceptions of empty space and linear time, its encounter with its cultural other transformed these notions into more relative variants; space in particular became enclosed as a culturally circumscribed ‘world’, grounded in familiar cultural practices and limited by cultural-difference as its cultural horizon.
We might then conceive of two modernities. Firstly, the age of radical modernity with its self-assured, expansive, conceptual confidence; and secondly the age of
20th centiry conservative modernity where the universal scope of reason begins to be questioned and reflexive philosophies of Kultur emerge to challenge the rationalist philosophies of modern European Zivilisation. On this account, conservative modernity is modernity at its moment of geographical and geo-political self-consciousness; the historical point at which modernity becomes aware of its own spatiality.

In this way, the philosophies of conservative modernity presuppose a new limited conception of space; infinite Euclidean space - where parallel lines never meet- is replaced by the ‘limited space’ of Riemannian geometries. The exapnding line becomes gthe infinitely self-enclosed and self-enclosing sphere.

Neil Turnbull

Ethics and Knowledge

Ethics and Knowledge
Neil Turnbull

As is now well known, in modern positivism the methods of experimental science are widely understood to provide general criteria allowing for demarcation between authentic knowledge and what is ‘merely opined’. As a consequence, in positivist thinking ethical reflection and judgement are relegated to the subjective realm, and any talk of ‘ethical thinking’ or ‘ethical knowing’ is seen as a category mistake. In the positivist’s epistemological universe, where these empirical facts reign and ‘the ethical cannot know’, modern science asserts its own counter-ethics: that we should refrain from using ethical terms, as they cannot be assimilated into a ‘unified science’ defined as the totality of current scientific theory..
In much of the hermeneutic tradition however, where knowledge is viewed as a sub-species of ‘interpretation’ and ‘understanding’, ethics and knowledge are more intimately related. For the orthodox hermeneut, all knowledge is viewed as both infused with and guided by wider sets of values; and for most hermeneutic thinkers scientific knowledge is perceived to be ‘only one type of knowledge’ that ‘cannot be taken as the canonical standard for all forms of knowledge’ (Bernstein 1985, 9). Hermeneutics thus allows for epistemological diversity, and opens up the possibility for both a critique of positivism and a reframing of theoretical knowledge within a more authentic form of thinking circumscribed by ‘the world’, ‘life’ or what Gadamer termed ‘the horizon of the good’. Seen thus, and as Heidegger famously claimed, ‘science does not think’; and if it did it would be forced to ask itself the Nietzschean question, ‘can scientists be said “to know” when their ways of knowing “harm” us?
However, contemporary hermeneutics has generally shied away from this question, and has instead emphasised what Gadamer termed ‘the lingusiticality of all human experience of the world’ that ‘points to a truth that goes questioningly behind all knowledge and questioningly before it’ (Gadamer 1977, 19). Thus for most contemporary hermeneuts, all forms of knowledge are simply forms of narration and, as such, of equal ethical value. However, this relativist hermeneutics seems both intellectually and politically timid. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate between ‘creationist scientists’ and evolutionary Darwinists. From the point of view of the relativist hermeneut, there is simply neither an epistemological nor an ethical issue here. Neither of these two ‘stories’ can justifiably count as knowledge, as both are simply the result different ways of narrating events that can themselves be variously, perhaps infinitely, narrated. But is such an aloof and ironic epistemic impartiality really appropriate in this case, especially when we reflect on the personal and political stakes involved?

Typically, those who want to defend evolutionary theory against creationism adopt a positivist stance, and appeal to the stubborn facts of the ‘fossil record’ and other phenomena that seem beyond the scope of ‘creationist thinking’. But might we be better served by a more assertive, non-relativist, non-positivist hermeneutics, that claims that ‘theory-choice’ works best when circumscribed by the ‘horizon of the good’? But what ethics, what a priori framework of values, could adjudicate in this case?
Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. Ethical knowing needn’t be grounded in a transcendent system of values, but only in a more ‘synoptic way of knowing’ that begins from what Wittgenstein termed an ├╝bersicht - or global overview - of the many and various ways of knowing the world. A synoptic perspective can be usefully seen as the epistemological equivalent of ‘horizon of the good’ in that it is a perspective that allows for a more sensitive mapping of the relationships between different ways and traditions of knowing. Synoptic knowing does not reduce knowledge to interpretation but allows us to see how different ways of knowing, in the broadest sense of term - to paraphrase Wilfred Sellars - ‘hang together’, in the broadest sense of the term. Thus rather than being dismissed as an impossible and pernicious ‘God’s eye view’, in epistemological terms the synoptic vision is a ‘cognitive good’ and a source of epistemic value that stands as an ethico-epistemic norm in its own right (to the extent that different ways and traditions of knowing can be judged and categorised according to the degree to which they approximate to it). Moreover, this hermeneutically sensitive epistemology can be discerned as the end result of a particular kind of global anthropological enquiry - what might be termed a transcendental anthropology of global knowledge (see Lear 1986) - that looks for complex relationships within a global assemblage of different and sometimes competing ways of knowing (epistemology, as the ancestor of synoptic hermeneutics, becoming the ‘mirror of the global’).

Thus conceived synoptically, ethical knowing becomes a matter of seeing historical, cultural, and geopolitical connections between different ‘knowledges’, and assessing the extent to which seemingly contradictory ways of knowing approximate to its synoptic standard. And when viewed in this way, we can see that Darwinism’s status is ambiguous: when synoptically mapped, it can be seen as a materialist variation on a creationist theme – the ‘blind watchmaker’ of evolution simply replacing the ‘intelligent designer’ of evolutionary theory - but a variation that that should be endorsed because it gave rise to an intellectual movement that approached the world with a more synoptic vision (that allowed biologists, and ultimately, the world at large, to see more). Thus modern evolutionary theory, and ultimately modern biology itself, has the epistemological and the ethical advantage over creationism, not because its theories are truer to the facts as such, but because of the scope of its thinking, the breadth and depth of its perceptions and, more generally, the synoptic extent of its hermeneutics.

Bernstein, Richard J. (1985) ‘Introduction’ in Bernstein, R. (ed.) Habermas and Modernity Cambridge: Polity.

Gadamer, H.G. (1977) Philosophical Hermeneutics Berkeley: University of California Press

Lear, Jonathan (1986) ‘Transcendental Anthropology’ in Philip Pettit and John McDowell (eds). Subject Thought and Context Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Philosophising the Icon

Modernity was the ‘era of iconoclasm’ where truth became conceived as 'inner and representational' rather than materialised in the artwork. As Gadamer pointed out, with the rise of modern subjectivism the artwork becomes reduced to the 'merely aesthetic'; to questins of personal experience alone.

However, in recent years we have the return of the icon; not only on our computer and television screens but also in terms of the idiom of the 'iconic' figure or idea.

How are we to understand the power of the icon in philosophical terms? Hegel did not like the idea of 'picture thought'; but might pictures in fact be the future of thought? Might we be on the threshold of new era of thinking where the distinction between thught and images collapses?

Neil Turnbull

Science and Exploding Frogs

The idea that science can be understood in terms derived from social, cultural and literary theory is of course a mistake.

Science is both cultural (what isn’t) and social (what isn’t). However, what is distinctive about science is its counter-cultural nature; its desire not for consensus and collective harmony but rather for dissensus and shock; specifically, to the attempt to shock by exploding frogs, burning insects and making strange gadgets. It is this that makes science fundamentally destabilising of extant culture.

Neil Turnbull

The Meaning of 'Critique'

As I understand it, 'critique', in the political not the epistemological sense of the term, begins with the critique of religion at the beginning of the 19th Century.

As we know, with the 'end of ideology' in the mid 1950s, critical thinking 'turned to language' and became a 'discursive endeavour'. As such, 'critique' became increasingly understood as the micro-critique of power through the careful analysis of the operation of language/representation in local settings.

Of course many found this idea of critique profoundly unsatisfying - largely because it seemed to imply an anti-realist rejection of the 'real material world'. It also opened the way for a relegitimation of the religious/spiritual as a mode of critique.

The question is where we can locate the resources for a serious, systematic and significant mode of critique today. Some have looked to the Deleuzian moment in contemporary philosophy and argued that it represents an attempt to rehabilitate a realist/materialist approach to philosophy. The Bergsonian aspects of Deleuzian thinking are more intriguing and maybe a vitalist conception of matter that collapses the distincttion between matter and form does offer some critical purchase.

However - its Reichian/Laingian roots notwithstanding - the critical dimensions of this aspect of Deleuzian thinking are not that easily discernible. What is the point of being a materialist without any sense of the historical? Where does history play itself out in Deleuze's flat process ontology? Might Deleuze, in just this way, be the quintessential neo-liberal philosopher?

The idea of critique that we seem to be left with is the idea of 'spiritually informed' critique of the present and, as such, the beginning of critique today must be a crituque of science as the great disenchanter. I think that this is where critique starts today, with the critique of science - and we are quite a long way from the 19th century here I think...

Neil Turnbull

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Space and Philosophy

One of the lesser known but more interesting features of modern philosophical discourse is its perennial use of spatial terms to express philosophical insights and answer philosophical conundrums. A cursory reading of the modern philosophical tradition, from Descartes to Wittgenstein, will reveal that philosophical reflection about the nature and significance of space has provided the philosophical discourse of modernity with a set of foundational concepts with which the traditional philosophical problems of ethics, epistemology and metaphysics could be conceived and resolved. This leaves the historian of philosophy with an interesting question; why have spatial terms been such a central feature of the philosophical discourse of modernity? Perhaps this question can only be answered if we situate the philosophical discourse of modernity within the wider project of western colonialism. Perhaps the ‘crisis’ of philosophy in the 20th century is the consequence of its lack of function in a post-colonial epoch.

Neil Turnbull

Class, Resistance and Opposition

Historically, philosophy has understood 'class' through an analysis of the lived experience of ideal typical male characters; the characters that dominated the 'shop floor'. As these characters have disappeared from the cultural scene, so many philosophers have claimed that class itself has disappeared. However, class remains a vital force in contemporary societies as it continues to function as a site of opposition to neo-liberal politics.

Class resists today via a politics excess and self-destruction (as such it is now is an underground phenomenon; a ‘universe of the undiscussed'). It is no longer a politics of based on shared values but a nihilistic politics of self-abasement.

Question: is this form of resistance in any way good or useful?

How can we convert this mode of resistance into meaningful and serious political opposition?

Neil Turnbull