Monday, January 12, 2009

Not Even by Rocks

Continuing from here

Pattern-making is an intellectually and emotionally pleasing activity, but without some representative or mimetic function both process and product lack depth. Comparing apples to oranges is pattern-making but that doesn't make it worthwhile to anyone but the enthusiast. Mathematical pattern is seen as compelling because complexity is compelling and because mathematics is felt to describe the world at its foundations. But mathematics is still more rigorous as form than representation.

Philosophy can't claim to have such rigor either way. The human capacity for inventing analogies is boundless and the ability to test them is limited. The application of language in symbolic logic can't model our experience. Yet the use of word forms in the context of number and of numerical jargon in common language makes it easier to dream of an equivalence of one with the other, to argue for a representational formalism of language long after most mathematicians have been forced to give up on the dream of perfect order.

Imagine Colin McGinn as Ken Starr and his moralizing screeds on religion and democracy like a treatise on a cum-stained dress. At some point while reading you'll start to wonder if his interests are other than he claims. If Starr/McGinn were merely a writer this would have the makings of a novel or as read against itself an interesting book: the autobiography of a prosecutor as lecherous prude or of an atheist philosopher as Catholic moralist. Writing is pattern-making and an audience can enjoy an author's company without having to agree with his beliefs, or even think them anything but absurd.

Art is the objective description of subjective experience. A seven volume novel originating in a flash of memory brought on by the taste of a cookie isn't about the cookie but its significance to the author. And no one else would care if the novel weren't crafted in such a way as to provoke a related engagement in the reader. Words aren't cookies, which is why a novelist, even one who's spent her entire career writing stories about one event or period -even the Holocaust- is called a novelist: labeled by trade trade before subject. The error of many scientists and philosophers (and prosecutors) is to mistake their preoccupations with aspect of the world with the world itself -"I am the law"- to imagine they can close the gap between self and world, self and other, ignoring the mediating form of language.

March 2008
I suppose it would be an arcane point, but (again) facts are mundane. Truths even at their simplest are mundanities compounded with values. The struggle for “objectivity” is the attempt to separate facts from values.

A month or so ago I scanned through a PBS documentary on space exploration, following the Cassini mission and the Huygens probe. After the landing on Titan one of the project managers, describing her near ecstasy as the data began coming in, referred to her relation to Titan as akin to love. This was said seemingly without self-consciousness or irony.

The rocks on Titan are facts. The landing didn’t change them atomically or Platonically. The desire for them or for knowledge about them, and all the psychological baggage that accrues to the process are something else. I was more fascinated by the wide-eyed childlike expression on the woman's face than by the rocks. That interest is what defines me as a humanist: an awareness of the difference between first and second order awareness, or first and second order curiosity.
Reason unmoored is hot air. McGinn's ecstasy of complexity is the ecstasy a mind and an ego, unchallenged by anything other than itself. Not even by rocks.
Jumping forward again, to May 24, 2009:
"An actual tree -coniferous, deciduous- is a non-contradictory thing but the 'living tree' of language is contradictory in essence."

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