Friday, November 28, 2008

Philosophical Investigations

A probably unintended consequence of Chris Hedges' "America the Illiterate" column for Truthdig, is that it has inspired a prodigious level of literacy among those who decided to comment on it. Thus, there are times when reading these comments feels like sitting in on a graduate seminar in philosophy, which is why early stages of the discussion have prompted some of my own posts to this blog. Since such reading interests me far more than Black Friday, I wanted to address a few points that seem to have settled into the discourse alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.

Consider the following well-ruminated passage in a comment from "Anarcissie," which could well have been the product of a satisfying meal:

I find the first sentences of the Tractatus profoundly mystical: “The World is all that is the case.” ("Die Welt ist alles, das is der Fall.") When we say that X “is the case” we mean that X is a correct statement. Assuming that the German means the same as the English, then W. is saying that the world (whatever that is) is made up of correct statements—a patent absurdity, it seems. Then he goes on to say the world is composed of facts. So one wonders what W. was up to there.

What I find particularly interesting about this reading it that it nice sets the context for Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself, wondering that he "was up to there!" It would probably even be safe to say that the wondering had begun before the Tractatus had been approved as his doctoral thesis. By the time we get to the speculations in Philosophical Investigations, that foundation of facts as the compositional elements of the world has dissolved into what may be called a radically counter-analytical practice of language games. At the risk of carrying Wittgenstein's ball farther than he might have dared, one might say that the world is that which emerges through our conversations. Ironically, there are seeds of this thinking in Plato's "Theaetetus," that wonderful account of the failure to define the concept of knowledge. We do not emerge from the other end of this dialogue with a definition; but we have discovered that knowledge is tightly coupled to several other equally elusive concepts, the most important being, memory, description, and being itself. One might say that the lesson of Philosophical Investigations is that both the "being of the world" and being-in-the-world are emergent properties of the descriptions we exchange in our language games.

This provides as an interesting perspective on a passage from a comment subsequently submitted by "Shenonymous:"

Physicist Paul Davies said something to the effect that It is an illusion to believe that time flows. “This is because, in fact, time does not flow at all.” Davies quotes J.J.C. Smart, an Australian philosopher, who once wrote: “Talk of the flow of time or the advance of consciousness is a dangerous metaphor that must be taken literally...Certainly we feel that time flows. This feeling arises out of metaphysical confusion…It is an illusion.” Agreeing with Smart, Davies adds:

“In other words, the ‘river’ of time is not really there. That may seem as
absurd as claiming that material objects are not really there, but Smart is
on firmer ground on this one…Since Einstein, physicists have generally
rejected the notion that events “happen” as opposed to merely exist in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum.

Shenonymous then reinforced this perspective with the following passage from Plato's "Timaeus:"

They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent-all these are inaccurate modes of expression.

When you think about it, however, this passage has an interesting reductio ad absurdum, which is that, for all intents and purposes, we should be able to manage very well in a language consisting entirely of noun phrases. (Alain Robbe-Grillet put this to the test in his novel Jealousy.) Nevertheless, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that most (not necessarily all) of the languages in which conversations are conducted have not only verbs but also a rather sophisticated verb grammar whose structure is radically different from the grammar of noun phrases. Whether or not, from an analytical perspective, the flow of time is an illusion, I still have to wonder why it is that the language games we play over time have cultivated such a sophisticated grammar!

So let me put aside all of those great minds cited in the comments of Truthdig and offer a few morsels of my own thoughts. Most of these philosophical engagements are grounded in the world as we find it (thanks to Wittgenstein) through sensory perception; and most discussions of sensory perception begin with vision. The thing about vision is that any "object of perception" can be frozen in an instant of time (as it is when we "document" it in a photograph). The problem is that our understanding of visual perception is a poor foundation for our study of auditory perception, simply because sound cannot be so "frozen." At any instant of time, there cannot be a sound; one cannot even describe a sound (by, say, Fourier analysis) without having a sample of it in a time interval. I thus have a lot of trouble dismissing the flow of time as "a dangerous metaphor," since, without that flow there would be no auditory signals! For further details I would refer curious readers to Husserl's Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness. He did not get all the hard details of physics quite right, but his finger was pointing in the right direction!

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