Overweening Generalist

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sombunall Philosophical Problems

I picked up the neologism "sombunall" from Robert Anton Wilson, who was heavily influenced by Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics. Because in the sensory-sensual phenomenal-existential world no one can ever say "all" about anything - we are almost always abstracting -  he advocated the practice of using "some but not all" instead, which turned into the new word "sombunall." So far, it has not seemed to catch on, but I'm putting in for sombunall right here, right now, and some but not all of you will find this idea worth practicing, if only to see how it might alter your consciousness over a week or three?

[Exercise: try to say all or "everything" about the gadget you're using now to read this. It's a digital gadget. It's some color or colors. It has words on it. These words indicate other words, people, ideas. If you're using, say, an Apple product, say everything about Steve Jobs: his life, character, his ideas, how he collaborated with others to get the gadget onto your table, lap, palm of your hand, etc. Then go into who influenced Jobs. Who were his parents? His parents' parents? What about the electronics inside the gizmo? What are they made of? Silicon? Who figured out that silicon was a good element to play around with when making gizmos? Do quantum mechanics figure into how your computer operates? How did those ideas come about? What about the idea of a "blog"? On and on and on: we CANNOT say "all" except in very restricted domains in which there are countings and everyone agrees upon the meaning of the countings and reasonings.]
I've been reading Aristotle on meteorology, and have been having a blast, and I'll try to relate that blast here soon, but I've been thinking about philosophy as an endeavor, and how distasteful many professional thinkers and philosophers have found the pragmatic movement. It's easy to see it lambasted as an anti-philosophy, because it seems to do away with the 2500 year old questions, or many of them.

A sort-of current philosophically pragmatist line: If, since at least Plato, we have tried to find a definition of "truth" that satisfies everyone and we have failed, perhaps it's time to drop the inquiry and change the conversation. Pragmatists think the old philosophical question has ceased to qualify as "edifying discourse." They'd rather keep things interesting. Because pragmatists see human knowledge as always contingent, and our language games (influence of quasi-pragmatist Wittgenstein here, and we're talking Philosophical Investigations) indicate that language does not "copy" the world, and rather, we think metaphorically and whether we know it or not, we are heavily influenced by "strong poets."

I see the haters of pragmatism as something like drug addicts: don't you go around saying that the quest for the ultimate definition of beauty is a defunct mission! I've put my whole life into that problem! I'm strung out on beauty! Or rather, capital B Beauty. I will be the one who finally - somehow - gets to the One True Essence of Beauty. (il est ridicule!)

Cool. We're not saying you shouldn't "do" that pursuit; we're only saying you will not find a final vocabulary in which everyone will agree what "beauty" "really is." And fer gawdsakes: as least be a little playful in your quixotic quest. Your humorless thick academic prose about beauty seems unseemly!
Beware the semantics of "pragmatic." You will see it used disparagingly, and often in a way that seems to want you to unpack it mentally as "soulless and uncaring and bureaucratic." This is not the pragmatism I'm talking about here.
The briefest outline of pragmatic thought for further inquiry and delvers and the gloriously inquisitive: Charles Saunders Peirce (say "Purse") ----> William James ---->John Dewey----->Richard Rorty.

                                               John Dewey: merged pragmatism with Hegel
                                               and scientific inquiry: "Instrumentalism"

There seem very many interesting sidelights to these guys (all Americans, so maybe that's part of the distaste?), and I'm leaving out a tremendous lot of top-notch people thinking in the pragmatic vein.
By way of tantalizing illustration: In an interview of Richard Rorty from 1998, in Munich, conducted by Wolfgang Ullrich and Helmut Meyert:

Q: How can we relate the idea of the heroic poet with the liberal ironic figure whose model we ought to emulate?

Rorty: In my book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, I defined irony as recognition of the contingency of one's "final vocabulary." This is simply consciousness of the fact that the deepest convictions one holds are the result of past poetic and creative achievements. This goes along with the recognition that there will never be a final poem. There will always be space for self-creation, because no previous act of self-creation can be ratified by some nonhuman authority.

When it comes to philosophy, however, it doesn't always make sense to call the supersession of one poem by another a victory. Sometimes, within philosophical traditions, problems aren't solved --- they, along with the ways in which we formulate them, are simply forgotten. In Nietzsche's words, "Philosophical problems are not solved, they become frozen."

Nietzsche is completely right. Russell made the same point when he said that nobody had refuted Bergson, but everybody had become bored with him. Philosophical problems are transitory, as are the vocabularies with which they are formulated. For this reason, there will always be a tension between the clarity of the old languages and the crudeness of the new suggestions about how we might speak. - from Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself: Interviews With Richard Rorty, p. 72

                                  Richard Rorty, my favorite academic philosopher of the late 20th c.
I've read a lot of Rorty, and he's open to someone finding some new way of reading, say, Bergson here, and opening up a novel and fruitful discourse on the phenomenon of how we experience time, or even humor, two topics Bergson wrote on. And there was a time when Bergson was on a hot streak. Henri Bergson had his halcyon days, aye.

One of the most difficult but rewarding books I've ever read was Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which provided a very convincing argument for something I had been piecing together for a long time, via my readings of the so-called "Great Books," yet Rorty articulated many tens of times better than I ever would or could have: our ideas and language do not "mirror" the "true world." The idea that we can arrive at truths that "correspond" to some putative "actual reality" somewhere "out there" has been an idea that has held sway in Western thought for around 2600 years at least. And the 20th century epistemologies strongly suggest it's wrong: language doesn't "copy" the world, it's a part of the world. We are natural beings who somehow, via the wonders of evolution, arrived at a seemingly freakish mode of symbol manipulation. And we mistake these symbolizings for Ultimate Reality. (Well, sombunall of us do. Others of us seem to have happily glommed on to Rorty's sense of "irony.")
And for the present-day "neo-pragmatist" philosophical thinker, you consider sociopolitical problems as a species, your own and others' quest for self-creation and your own unique vocabularies as another species. How these two species meet seems up to you. But something like "Missing Public Discussions" seems to me NOT philosophical as a species. Rather, it seems to me entirely public, and of interest to everyone in anything that would seek to self-describe itself as a "democracy."

Here's 2 mins of Rorty on "Truth":

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