Thursday, 14 April 2016

Reading David Pears' "Wittgenstein" (1971)

My general attitude to Wittgenstein's thought is that I prefer not to read it, because it means things are problematised which it is the work's aim to be able to see as not a problem. If Wittgenstein wanted to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle, then he himself is (or was) in the bottle and I don't want to get in it too, in order to understand the work (W's work) that shows the way out.


I recently bought and read David Pears' introduction to the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Fontana Modern Masters, 1971)
Well, in fact I have read, so far, only the portion of the book relating to early W's 'Tractatus Logico Philosophicus' (TLP).

I came to Pears' account after having read Janik and Toulmin's "Wittgenstein's Vienna", and also Ray Monk's "Wittgenstein", and after having watched a documentary from Oxford in mid-1970s, in which Pears describes his first encounter with TLP, which seemed a transformative moment for him.
I am interested in reading the account of someone, such as David Pears, who really thinks TLP is worth attending to!

Well, anyway, there is Pears' account of the problem at which W was getting at in TLP. He describes TLP as a work of critical philosophy, similar to that of Kant. Kant aimed at a de-limitation of reason from within reasoning, and postulated certain a priori knowledge  of the world, synthetic a priori 'truths'. Kant wrote in the belief that Newton's theories were true.

W aims at a de-limitation of thought through a de-limitation of language in which language is in some direct contact with the world, or rather not a de-limitation of thought but a de-limitation of what thought can be put into language.

But Pears' account stresses the language W has in mind is a kind of basic language, and the important thing is the logical relationship between words, propositions and complexes if propositions, which structure W believed (at that time) would be common to all language. So W is concerned with the world and people in the world, who are thinking, and language is the mode or medium of their thought.

Well, I'm also remembering that W came into this from engineering mathematics. How does mathematics have a grip on the world? With Russell's and Frege's attempts to reduce Mathematics to Logic, the question becomes How does logic have a grip in the world? But it's not that Logic has a grip on the world. Logic is the operation that happens that relates propositions which claim or state certain states if affairs in the world. Logic alone has nothing to say of states of affairs in the world, but only of what relations there are between those propositions. So the question becomes How do propositions (language) have a grip on the world?, and from this, what logical structure is there which holds all those propositions together, which complete concatenation and complex of propositions (because language is the medium of thought) will be the limits of my (sayable) world?

Pears wants to show the structure of a deduction that W makes in TLP, reminiscent of the deduction Kant makes in CPR (the transcendental deduction) and to do this, Pears describes W as having had three premises, which Pears calls X, Y and Z. I forget now which is what.
'Y' is that a proposition gains it's 'sense' (has a grip on the world) by picturing the world, or a 'fact'.
'X' is ...
'Z' is to do with complexes of propositions (maybe something about there being 'atomic' (most basic) propositions(?)

Well, the upshot seems to be that to make the deduction W makes is to see that the whole thing hangs together only if there is a sort of synthetic a priori truth about the world, but which is denied within W's opening premises. This seems to be why W regards TLP as itself 'non-sense':  it is an attempt to say the unsayable.

So anyway, the account Pears gives of all this... I had the impression of it being very pleasing to Pears. But I also found it less tractable than the account given by Janik and Toulmin. After a couple of years I can still conjure up something of the flavour of the 'space' of 'facts' and what W intended by a 'fact' that distinguishes it from 'objects', from the account of TLP by Janik and Toulmin. Pears talks at one point, discussing the possible (logical space) of facts, about a physical model that occupies a space and turns the logical space of facts into 'p' and 'not p', for example, and this is picturing of facts that happens in language, etc.

So anyway, I come at this, again, from having sought for (without knowing, because it was not my problem), and found, Popper's criticism of the linguistic focus of philosophy. I am still inclined to be very skeptical of claims of THE PRIMACY OF any philosophising that takes analysis of the meaning and application of words as the method, or the problem.

So anyway, I then take up W's 'Philosophical Investigations' (PI) translated by Elizabeth Anscombe.
The first statements concern a theory, or description, of learning of, or acquisition of, language by the early Christian thinker Augustine.
This is W's starting point in PI.

At this point, I am again wondering over this view of language that makes of philosophy the investigation if how language functions. Ok, so it's no longer (as it was in TLP) something that has a 'most basic' form (ur-script), to which all languages could be reduced, but that detachment is still there. Speech as an action comes into view, but it seems there is still an over-emphasis on function.

What I'm more sympathetic to, is indicated in the 2014 Gifford Lecture by Rowan Williams, material language (?), where he draws attention to our bodies (voice, tongue, lips) put into some sort of configuration or position, that is our response to the world, when we speak. Dr Williams draws on Merleau-Ponty.

Another thing, for me, is a connection between voicing, language, understanding, being acknowledged. I think this is also addressed in Dr Williams Gifford Lecture. I suppose all this could also be framed in terms of language's "function". But it really seems secondary.

I think of the story 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears', and a baby hearing the story told (for the baby there isn't 'listening', I think, but there is 'voice' and other sound, and there are images - the pictures in the book, the body and mouth of the parent or grandparent telling the story, and the baby's own inner life of responses, as well as noises - not quite yet under control in terms of speech - and movements - also not quite under control.
So the story is told and I think, what interests me, is that there is, to begin with, merely an association of images and movements and sounds. Repeated tellings repeat those associations. Ok, maybe this kind of thing is given sympathetic treatment in W's PI. I don't know. But here I think of a sort of humanising. Something shared, so the baby and the teller know they are in the same relation to the story, that "your [baby's] responses are like mine, and I [teller] understand you".

I feel this sort of thing probably is addressed in PI.
I know that what is sometimes (mis-)called W's "Private Language Argument" (it is, I understand, no "argument") appears in PI.

From what I understand, W explores the notion of a private, un-teachable language, and shows (?) that it can not occur, even if it is pre-supposed in certain modes of thinking. I associate it, for some reason, with Descartes, but can't remember why.
I associate the private language with the kind of thing that can happen in life, in which a child's (or even a baby's) responses are not acknowledged, and where the child might not be given to understand "my responses are like yours, I understand you", and the acquisition of language, alike with the acquisition of ranges of bodily response - emotions, self-imagining, fantasy, is given over to the child's accommodating itself to what he/she perceives to be the environment's needs, that is, given over to reasoning, even before there is speech.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Average Protestant is 3000 hits old!

Today I was delighted to see that my blog, Average Protestant, passed 3000 page downloads.
Thanks to Biff and Soren, Martin, Ludwig and Karl, thanks to Marilynne, Rowan and all my buddies at art school.
Please leave a message, or a comment.
Thank you readers!

Thursday, 28 May 2015

I used to say. at a time of desolation, art is the proper response to life.

"art which incorporates disenchantment into itself is the true means of responding to a world that tries to administer and control everything."

From interview, Andrew Bowie & 3AM magazine

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Psychoanalysis and philosophy (psychoanalysis is not science)

One way that psychoanalysis can (as Rudiger Safranski says, somewhere in his biographical study of Heidegger) un-do, or under-determine philosophy.

Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis?
These are bodies of thought and practice based on a ideas about the human organism and formation of the personality.

Think of the child who comes from a place of complete satiation (warmth, nutrition, containment) into the world of light, cold and hunger, utterly dependent on mother.

What of the personality?

What about the omniscience of the infant?

There is no sense of a boundary between the infant self and the world.
What appears to the baby is it's world.
Urges are there. And I believe there are also fantasies,
Biological urges, yes. But not wholly determining for the organism. Fantasies too. Fantasy is in the realm of significance, and of meaning.

Karl Popper was called to investigate the status of science and claims to 'knowledge', and doubted the claim of psychoanalysis to be a 'science'.
Somewhere in his critique, he comes to a point about human theorising. The earliest kind of theorising, he says, resides in some kind of "biological expectation". There is no infinite regress in human theorising, because it starts with expectation in the organism, which can be either met or not met. This includes, Popper says, the expectation of parental love. Not exactly an 'urge', or, to use Freud's term, a 'drive'.

It's hard to stay in touch with the stresses and impulses that brought me to really need philosophical enquiry like that of Karl Popper. At some level I felt under attack, and in my view a quality running through Popper's work is that of defensiveness. To read him is to have the impression of someone under attack. His whole effort of thought is aimed against certain claims to true knowledge in the form of 'science'. He addressed his critique of those claims to the claimants, scientists, but in doing so, he did not want to be seen to be laying the grounds for the elimination of the prestige of science. He did not want to alienate his audience, scientist-philosophers, and on the contrary wanted to have their blessing. He wanted to be seen by that group, his target audience, to have a better philosophy of science than theirs, but his was a philosophy which asserts that there is no certain knowledge. (Although Marjorie Grene pointed out that Popper asserted certain knowledge of what we do NOT know - and I think - from the little I've read of her - she rightly questioned the obsession of philosophy with knowing, episteme). He was caught between wanting to anticipate and then demolish and then improve on every counter argument that could be thrown at him by the scientist-philosophers who upheld the notion of true knowledge ( = mathematical science), and then, to ensure continuation of the prestige of science, and in a rather grandiose sense to re-bestow this himself and therefore retain the feeling of being in its glow, work even harder trying to shore up the sanctity of science with his emphasis on a demarcation between science and 'non-science'. The result was an unfortunate lack of concern in Popper's work with showing or exploring what legitimates the claims to knowledge of 'non-science'.

When I was reaching for Popper's philosophy, I felt under attack. And there were, not equivalent, but parallel forces at work in myself: I wanted to demolish claims to knowledge of a powerful institution (my father) but also to be seen by that institution to be upholding a better theory of knowledge, and even more urgently, to not be seen to be irrational or 'irrationalist'! I pressed Popper on the institution, as it manifested in my own mind, as a way of saying "Your claim to knowledge, and hence your prestige, and your sense of justified de-valuation of non-science, is based on a false idea!", but was not able to leave it at that: I had to have the institution, force the institution, to acknowledge that its claim to knowledge is false, correct its views (so to speak) and therefore not have a breach with the institution. I needed to have the institution love and understand me.

Theorising goes on to which our knowledge, Popper claims, conforms. We are already theorising when we test or observe the world. His philosophy is Kantian. We are actively processing our perceptions. There is a mental component of all which we take to be knowledge of our world. That is how the idea of 'biological expectation' surfaces in Popper's work.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Yeti view of religion - sine qua non of 'New Atheism'

In his four Yale "Terry lectures" (2009), Terry Eagleton gives repeated reminders of the extremely narrow platform from which so-called 'New Atheists' so confidently pronounce on the falsity of religion. It is their frequently asserted, or implied, and automatically assumed concept of "Religion" (singular) as faith in the existence of a supernatural being. Daniel Dennett's definition of religion (from his book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon") is often cited as typical:
"social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought".

Eagleton refers to this as the "Yeti view of religion".

The typical view of New Atheists, and, he stresses, many Christians, contained in this definition, is that God exists rather as the Yeti exists, or Ley Lines or the Loch Ness Monster. The enlightenment-rationalist Dawkinses then, having taken up this view of religion as all that religion is, find that all that is needed to demolish Religion is lack of evidence in the sense that we should be able to use the same techniques to prove the existence of God as we would use to prove the existence of necrophilia or Justin Bieber.

It is nigh-on pointless to try to persuade anyone (particularly of the Dawkins-stripe) who takes this "Yeti view of religion" that they might be missing something. This is because he will most probably insist that only what is rational to believe is scientific. The moment one attempts to engage with him from the starting point of science and empirical evidence (for example to question, as William James did, and so as did Karl Popper in a different way, that "evidence" may not be completely free of human interests) one has already given some tacit confirmation that his Yeti view of religion has some traction, that it presents a real challenge. But having begun to engage in that way, the onus will be very great indeed to bring the discussion, and the skeptic's attention, to consideration of philosophical aspects of science, and hence to metaphysics, which could show up religious thinking as containing any reason at all. (A great onus simply because philosophising is difficult and not everyone likes it or is prepared or motivated to enter into it). Put this kind of discussion on a stage, with a live audience, and the temptation to resort to rhetorical performances and knock-down arguments will often be too great, and the result will be "opponents" talking-past each-other with little or no communication.

The best of these live discussions, in my view, was that between Richard Dawkins and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, moderated by (Agnostic) philosopher Anthony Kenny, which took place in 2012.
In this discussion, in my view, Dawkins' limited view of religion shows up in what he does not say, and (together with this, and just as importantly) the way he does not say it.

One good thing about this discussion is that, at around 18m30 (in answering Dr Williams's query that Darwin's theory and science in general does not do well in addressing the phenomenon of consciousness) Dawkins asserts his commitment to philosophical materialism. This is a great help for anyone who wants to try this engagement via philosophy, because materialism has certain consequences and counter-arguments that can be addressed. And note Dawkins's prior statements to the effect that he has faith in the idea that all complex things can be explained as the result of the interaction of their simpler parts.

At around 29m, Anthony Kenny queries Dawkins' belief that there is no free will and asks him to comment on the "gene determinism" that his readers often attribute to him. As Kenny acknowledges, Dawkins rejects "gene determinism" (that not just all our development but all our actions are genetically determined), but he queries how Dawkins' squares his rejection of gene-determinism with his belief that there is no free will. As Kenny puts it "Usually, being a determinist means not believing in free will".
Dawkins responds that he rejects "gene" determinism, but maintains determinism in general. He says (in that characteristic tone of authority, which seems so out of place, especially given that he's talking to a philosopher) "You can be a determinist without being a genetic determinist." (!?)

It seems to me that this begs the question that genes are part of the universe: if determinism holds in the universe, then are genes not determined along with the humans in whose cells they are found?

Dr Williams comes in here, and asks of Dawkins "Does it [determinism] mean that in principle every decision is predictable?" (If the universe - including human subjects - is wholly determined, and one has confidence in knowing how all the matter in the universe interacts, as strong scientist-materialist-determinists claim, then one might well be led to take on the belief that all decisions are predictable. So this seems a fair question).
Dawkins replies that he is hesitant over decision-predictability "because of quantum indeterminacy", but he quickly adds (as if this is the alternative) "but I don't believe you can get away from determinism by postulating that there is a ghost inside that takes decisions which are somehow independent if physical reality".
(This is an example of Dawkins' Cartesian view: there is material, physical reality and then there is immaterial spirit. He takes over this philosophical dualism without question.)
Dr Williams responds: "I don't think that believing in free will commits you to a ghost taking decisions independent of physical reality".

Seeing an opportunity to bring Dawkins to philosophise, Dr Williams poses to Dawkins the possibility that the distinction between mind and absolutely inert stuff is not where it is thought to lie; that the constituents of the universe do not resolve into, on the one hand, inert matter, and on the other hand, mind or spirit. If that is so then, he says: "a decision is not something that an independent homunculus inside me makes never mind what happens [but] it is something that emerges from a set of physical conditions not wholly determined but innovating".
Dr Williams offers the notion of "stuff" as active and not inert, and he puts this as a question and a challenge to Dr Dawkins' received Cartesian view.

Dawkins replies, consistent with his materist-determinism: "They [the set of physical conditions] could be wholly determined, but you would have the illusion of freedom."

Dr Williams comes back immediately with the question: "How would you tell the difference?"

At this point Dawkins recalls certain neurological experiments which revealed that actions we take over bodily movement (like picking up a glass) are decided in the brain before we become conscious of deciding them, and this is, for him, evidence that we have the illusion of free will. 
Dr Williams returns that this "less than clinching" because it desks with rather uninteresting decisions. The clinching evidence would concern the kinds if decision over who to marry, who to vote for.
Now Dawkins comes back (as if Dr Williams, or for that matter anyone who has a reasonable grasp if the significance if these issues, has not already reached this conclusion) "It's quite difficult to do experiments on that kind of..."
Exactly, Dr Dawkins, exactly.

I think these exchanges show up Dr Dawkins lack of awareness of the philosophical problems thrown up by his assumed philosophical position, and his, well, inability to philosophise.

Dawkins concedes: "Well I'm not a philosopher, that would be obvious. Perhaps you should have invited a philosopher instead" (!!)

In this way, Dawkins simply brushes of and absolves himself of responsibility for holding the beliefs he does hold. He simply gives to "philosophers" that responsibility, and carries on as if his views have met no challenge whatsoever.

This is an example, I think, of the kind if difficulty faced in trying to philosophise with the Dawkinses who hold the Yet view of religion.

There, I have said enough.

Please listen to the discussion, and tell me that you think.

No there is more here.
At about 53 m, there is a question that is being clarified by a member of the audience. The question is:
"Human beings are immensely imperfect, with so many of our potentialities unrealised. Are these failures of evolution or failures if design."
Here is a very good and insightful question. 

Dawkins' immediate response is to think of "imperfections" in terms of physiological "design", and calls up the laryngeal nerve which originates in the mammalian brain but passes around the heart before arriving at the larynx. He explains this feature in evolutionary terms, but he would not regard this (though he does not say this) as an "imperfection", because he denies any notion of "perfection" in nature. Every physical form in nature, every state of inert matter, is just as accidental and arbitrary as any other.
Dawkins acknowledges that this says nothing about "unrealised potentialities", and wonders if the questioner is thinking of this in terms of the doctrine of original sin.

Clarification is sought from the questioner. What does she mean by "imperfection" and "unrealised potentialities"?

The questioner clarifies that by "imperfections" and "unrealised potentialities" she means the occasions of tragedy in human life, such as babies born but soon dying, people not being able to achieve what they could have achieved in different circumstances, and so on. "Do we need an explanation", she asks, for these occasions of un-fulfilment?

Firstly, it is a good question, because it acknowledges the fact (and it surely is a fact) that humans require meaning in order to survive. A meaningless world is unendurable, because suffering is everywhere with us.
Secondly, It is a good question because it calls up the idea of perfectibility. There is nothing that can be thought of as imperfect unless there is something more perfect against which it is compared.
Thirdly, it is a good question because it refers directly to the competing world views offered by the protagonists: Atheism and Christianity.

On the one hand, we are offered by the materialist-determinist-atheist the prospect of blind evolution and inert matter unfolding in lawful ways throughout the universe until the end of time, in which case do I understand the meaning of the occasion of imperfection in human life and tragic things through this story and hope that evolution will move to a state where there is less imperfection?
Dr Dawkins' answer is: "No! Stuff happens!"

But notice that he adds that "Death before reproduction is what natural selection is all about, and it's tragic" (at 55m). But "tragic" is a human sympathy, a meaning, and his use of the word here is, I'm sure, genuine.

With that "No" Dr Dawkins' intolerance shows through (also seen in the 2006 BBC film "The Trouble with Atheism"). He finds the need for meaning to be an in-eliminable human weakness - a defect which he does not regard himself as having. His "No!" carries that force. He really wants the questioner to not seek meaning for tragedy. And yet - which suggests he's not super-human after all - he doesn't stop at calling suffering in nature "tragic". (Even my perception that things are "tragic", rather than simply indifferent, presupposes my investing things with meaning - but why should we assign any meaning at all to the pure accident of forms around us, whatever they are, especially if we are also purely accidental agglomerations of inert matter?
Why then should we want to live?) The whole new-atheist-aligned talk of "illusory" self-consciousness implies, indeed their matter-spirit dualism leads us to conclude, that our reality is "really" this complete meaninglessness. Dawkins, like his fellow 'New Atheists, doesn't take God's absence seriously.

On the other hand, we have the notion of a God-designed world, in which case, why doesn't God act to make the world more perfect?
Dr Williams response is to caution against the notion of God as a designer, because all we have to understand "design" by is what it is like for us to design. He emphasises the intelligibility of the universe (and we humans the ones finding it intelligible) as part of what he means by God as an ultimately unknowable creative intelligence.

One final thing.
Towards the close, around 1hr19m, Dr Dawkins, in some exasperation, wants to know, given the very beautiful and inspiring theories of origins developed in physics and biology, why the priest wants to "clutter up your world view with something so messy as a God". Why, he asks, resort to ancient scripture for anything when we have 21st century science.
Once again, we meet Dawkins' lack of awareness of, and more importantly, lack of respect for, the dimension of meaning in life and of Christianity. As Dr Williams responds, the account in Genesis offers a different kind of account, that can and has and does (for many people) satisfy the question of the meaning of my place in time and the universe
Williams: "I don't see God as this extra thing shoe-horned in..."
Dawkins: "Well that's exactly how I see it".

No movement whatsoever. It's depressing.
I like Dawkins' accounts of evolution. He just can't philosophise. He knows he can't but he persists, hectoringly, demandingly, in challenging others, including philosophers and Theologians, to justify themselves to him, in terms, of course, satisfactory to himself.
I'll stop now.

Just to return to the part of the discussion in which Dawkins claims that there is no free will. A very great deal depends on his having assumed mind-body (Cartesian) dualism. But it requires philosophical work, which he is either not prepared or not capable of doing, to understand its influence.
Dawkins points to the experiment of the person lifting the glass and on the basis of the results of that experiment he says "You see the decision to lift the glass was taken long before the person was conscious of having taken the decision, therefore free will does not exist, it's an illusion."

Anthony Kenny: Most philosophers don't like the naive picture of free will that that experiment presupposes ... that there is a soul inside in which mental events occur that are the causes of bodily events. ... It's surprising that you [Dawkins] should accept it [i.e. accept the experiment and what it 'shows'] because it's very much the 'ghost in the machine' picture [Dawkins tacitly accepts the mind-body duality picture but denies there is a ghost]. You say, "Ah! The 'machine' works before the 'ghost' does", but I think most philosophers today believe that the whole idea of constructing mind and body like that is quite wrong."

RD: "But why doesn't it destroy the idea of free will?"

AK: "Because it only shows the order of events in an act that is undetermined may not be what you would have expected if you had the false philosophical idea."

The experiment presupposes, and 'tests for', the mind-body duality - the false philosophical idea. The experimenter anticipates mental activity giving rise to physical activity, and looks closely at the brain (where it is supposed the immaterial mind must be seated), then finding that the physical activity precedes the brain activity concludes there is no mind.

Only someone who holds the mind-body duality to be true would attempt to find evidence for mind with this kind of experiment - as if 'chopping up' the brain will somehow show "Aha! You see, there's nothing extra there!" It is very odd that one should look to demonstrate the non-existence of something immaterial by examining material as minutely as possible in order not to find it.

I find brief and sensitive - and humane - reflections on the incoherence of Cartesian dualism (and the un-knowing perpetuation of it in para-science writing) in Marilynne Robinson's "Absence if Mind - the dispelling if inwardness from the modern myth of the self". See the chapter "Thinking Again".

See essay by Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, here:

Monday, 22 September 2014

(Not quite) Richard Rorty vs Jerry Coyne, on "The Compatibility of Science & Religion"

Richard Rorty's talk on "The Compatability of Science & Religion" is available on YouTube here:

Rorty (1931-2007) espoused philosophical pragmatism and a pragmatist view of language.
My understanding is that he came to this position via analytic philosophy, in which the main concern is the analysis of language (and therefore of thought).

In this talk, Rorty rehearses and develops pragmatist (James & Dewey) notions of different descriptions of things - such as scientific and theological descriptions - as serving different needs (towards human happiness), there being no one description that is closer to "reality" than any other, and this being a kind of utilitarian concept of language. 'True' is 'belief that works'. This Pragmatist approach towards language gives up on attempts to search for "truth", in the sense of descriptions of the intrinsic nature of things, or what things really are in themselves.

He says, at about 17 minutes:
"These philosophers [Pragmatists] all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence: any proposed test would have to compare the way we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about; and we have no idea what such a comparison would look like."

He goes on to discuss William James' essay "The will to believe", which is James' reply to the charge made by scientist-positivist W K Clifford that religious belief is intellectually irresponsible and "sinful" because it is belief on "insufficient evidence". 
In reply James questions the assumption that evidence "floats free of human interests". 

On the egalitarianism which runs through Mill's (utilitarian) and James' (pragmatism) work, Rorty says: "[it] is a moral attitude which ... could only flourish in a culture which had been told, century after century, that God's will was for human beings love one another."

The conclusion of the talk is something along the following lines (I'm paraphrasing). 
Lives that have been "smooth" (Rorty's term) may not contain moments of agony where religion or religious kinds of experience arise. A person asserting that religion is not any kind of knowledge or source of knowledge, or not serving any kind of dimension of human life, may well have known only that kind of "smoothness". (There is a temptation to deny feelings in others that are unknown to oneself, maybe accompanied by feelings of indignation that others should claim to have had those unknown feelings). Meeting such a person, and wanting to challenge his assertion, it is pointless to urge them to agonise or wax philosophical.

Now, having listened to Richard Rorty (philosopher) it might be interesting, or a challenge, or curious, to hear Jerry Coyne (evolutionary biologist) lecture on "Why science and religion should not cohabit" (the in-compatibility between science and religion), here:

In the opening few minutes, the premise of Coyne's lecture emerges: that there is a conflict because religion and science - he claims - compete as accounts of 'what there is'. I don't accept this characterisation of religion. (Compare the passage in Rorty's talk in which he mentions the period in which, on the whole, religious institutions - at least the Christian religion - stopped attempting predictions of events in nature when science was seen to do this better). But Coyne, lecturing in Edinburgh University, UK, may be describing a particular section of the religious community, in the US especially, that is opposed to certain scientific claims or theories and offers alternative revelatory claims or speculations as preferred accounts of 'what there is'. It strikes me that Coyne takes this form of religion to be what religion is, opposes it, and builds his presentation on this narrow platform. In my view it is a too-limited view.

Philosophical reflection on the metaphysical aspects of science, the philosophy of science, or epistemology - how and what we can know - bring one into contact with the issues Rorty raised about "truth" (e.g. the passage in his talk quoted above, about truth as correspondence). Through this effort of reflection it may be possible at least to see where Rorty is coming from, so that whether one agrees or disagrees with his philosophical pragmatism, one will at least have developed appreciation of the different philosophical positions and, with that, the humility to acknowledge that these are open questions, and demanding of the best intellectual efforts to address adequately. Only when one's assumptions and myths are challenged - when life is not "smooth" - will study of these things appear as important or necessary. Only an unchallenged mind is going to dismiss them as nothing at all to bother me about.

Compare Rorty's closing statement on the "smooth" life, free of agony (as one in which religion and faith can appear as alarming, irrational or barmy) with the more acerbic but (I believe) similarly intended words from Terry Eagleton's 2009 lecture "Christianity: fair or foul" (

"The trouble with the Dawkinses of this world ... is that they don't find themselves in a frightful situation at all. ... [For them] things are just not that desperate enough and in their view it's simply self-indulgent leftist rhetoric to imagine that they are. Your average liberal rationalist doesn't need to believe that despite the tormented condition of humanity there might still, implausibly enough, be hope, since he doesn't believe in such torment in the first place."

I borrow from the same lecture by Terry Eagleton* the following analogy to help convey the flavour of Jerry Coyne's lecture at Edinburgh University: Listening to Jerry Coyne lecture on religion and theology is like listening to someone talk about a novel as if it is a piece of botched sociology.
That says it all.

*(Eagleton's lecture is one of four presented in his "Reason, Faith and Revolution", 2009)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The violence of surfacelessness in conceptual visual art

I am thinking of what Duchamp called "non-retinal" visual art, and of its violence.

Such "conceptual" visual art, of which I take Duchamp's ready-mades to be the type, such as his "bottle rack", is art that by-passes the body. This is because it lacks surface, which is the same as lacking touch.

I mean that when we contemplate, say, "bottle rack", in the art-space-gallery, there is no call to consider the object other than in its signifying or symbolic potential. I suppose we can, if we want, consider the aesthetic (by which I mean sensory-perceptible) qualities of the ready-made, and certainly a bottle-rack (like many other things) has a strangeness, and perhaps a strange beauty, when seen out of its normal context. Its "look", though, is as it is. And the artist is presumably not selecting the ready-made for its surface-visual seductiveness except at a relatively superficial level. It's "look" is what it already is. The placing of it in the space of art, and its naming as art, is what sets the thoughts going towards meanings, such as "Is this art?", "What was 'retinal' art, if this is 'non-retinal' art?"

When I look at a painting I see a surface that has been touched (or from which touch has been withheld - but in which case touch is still implied, by its absence).

A photograph has no surface.

I saw the John Stezaker show at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2012(?)
I feel (I nearly wrote "fear") that the work is substantial. The choice of photographs (1930-1950s period, am I remembering rightly?) makes me think of things just beyond memory, now looking too distant to have influence. Then the splicing and slicing interruptions of the visage are very powerful. The synapses are severed as one looks.

From Charles Baudelaire "The Desire To Paint"
"She is beautiful, and more than beautiful: she is overpowering. The colour black preponderates in her; all that she inspires is nocturnal and profound. Her eyes are two caverns where mystery vaguely stirs and gleams; her glance illuminates like a ray of light; it is an explosion in the darkness."

I found myself feeling quite nauseous. Again, it was something about the work by-passing the eye and going straight into the mind, straight into meaning. I'm not sure what I mean by this. I think of Duchamp's term, "brain-facts".

The photograph has no surface.

In by-passing the body, conceptual visual art, deploying objects (including humans) and resolving things to their meaning in a system of objects, in particular arrangements, does a kind of violence. I think it acts to separate the intellect from the senses. One ends up being, not an eye, but a camera.

Painting is also "conceptual", or can be, but it has a surface.

Link to blog, where is an article on the non-retinal