30-03-09

Der Nörgler am Schreibtisch

" (..) Warum wurde mir nicht die Körperkraft, die Sünde dieses Planeten mit einem Axthieb umzulegen? Warum wurde mir nicht die Gedankenkraft, die geschändete Menschheit zu einem Aufschrei zu zwingen? Warum ist mein Gegenruf nicht stärker als dieses blecherne Kommando, das Macht hatte über die Seelen eines Erdenrunds? Ich bewahre Dokumente für eine Zeit, die sich nicht mehr fassen wird oder so weit vom Heute lebt, dass sie sagen wird, ich sei ein Fälscher gewesen. Doch nein, die Zeit wird nicht kommen, das zu sagen. Denn sie wird nicht sein. (..)" Karl Kraus, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, suhrkamp taschenbuch, 1986, p. 671.

(amateuristic English translation below)


I am an optimist. Not the optimist of the times Kraus chronicled. I am an optimist of the time that he predicted would never come. But, being an optimist, I don't get it; I don't get it why, despite Kraus, we wound up in another world war; simply don't get it why, for all the advances we did make, we still see words used in service of this, that or the other pet belief of one or another set of 'in'-people domesticating us to pets.

The point is, I guess (or at least that's been chasing me ever since I read the quote above), that we make steady progress (ignoring times of intermittent world war type collapse) but that each time in itself we wind up in the worst possible world that we'd be able to have at that specific time.

Let me in turn try to chase the thought that has been chasing me for a week now.

I'm not a fan of 'possible worlds' logic and certainly not the kind that - in an almost mystical way - tends to give a lot of reality value to worlds possible but not actual. I do however think I can make sense of 'the worst possible world at a specific time' & more specifically as per the following.

Each specific time, or instant ot historical period, is characterized by many a possible way of organizing. At least, to limit ourselves to the really real, there are at any time a range of actual (politicial, judicial, economic) systems in place. We can therefore - glossing over many important qualifications no doubt, but bear with me - quantify at a specific time over these actual systems. If we can quantify over such systems, and we can make sense of the predicate 'better than' predicated of such systems, we are in good shape. Indeed, any world that doesn't maximize its better systems is worse, and any world in which the better systems are, in effect, minimized is the worst.

OK, fair enough with rather more than a whiff of poetical liberty (& I do apologize for the buckets full of implicitly assumed non-trivial premises but I'm chasing - only if I catch it will I be able to give it a thorough going-over). But I did introduce maximize (& minimize, but you'll forgive the one even if you don't forgive the other) and that, at least, requires me to pause (the jump from systems to worlds would as well - but whether you forgive me or not - I will pass that one for now). Maximize implies that there is an action that could at least be taken but who is the actor? & what action?

Time for some more boldness. Time to get back to Kraus.

My suggestion is that the actors would be the people living at that specific time, and the action would be to use their knowledge of better/worse systems. I guess by now I've lost any credibility I had when I started but my suggestion poses an interesting constraint: the actual systems over which I was quantifying have to be 'visible' to all actors, i.e. not only have they be known but also understood (it isn't, by the way, at all necessary they be completely understood, they need only be relatively clear and only insofar as the 'better/worse' relation is concerned).

An example from Kraus' time. There was the Austrian system and the British one, & the British one was better (if an historian reads this: just assume with me, for fun if not for anything else). Both systems were visible to each other: there wasn't lack of communication. In fact there were people like Kraus that were vocal in the worse on the fact that there was 'better' to be had. In the Austrian empire one could make a lot of excuses on why they stuck to the 'worse' - but not because of lack of knowing the 'better' (& remember: this is no longer about the ideal 'best', at any time - lots of criticism applies to what I say but not that of utopianism). Opting then - not only to stay in the 'worse' - but also to go to war with the 'best' is - at least close to very categorically - the worst possible situation; the situation that minimizes.

At this time I can relax the quantificational diversion - the worst possible world at a given time is the world that takes minimal account of the knowledge & criticism that is available at that given time. Minimal account does not mean 'no account' as it is perfectly plausible that, however much the Austrian rulers tried, they were unable to disregard entirely the knowledge & criticism waged at that specific time (& in fact, it is part of the Kraussian story how these rulers quite deliberately saved appearance by lip service to modernity; &, in double fact, isn't that something that rings a bell, across all times, including in our time?). Given we do progress, the argument isn't too hard that in actual dynamic reality the 'minimal account' is not zero (yes, I will have to allow this over a considerable longer stretch of time than: from instant to instant, otherwise the world war data would not falsify the theory).

So, enough chasing done, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can be the grumbler and I can be the optimist. Grumbler because at any given point in time, including a time like the present, we are as worse off as possible (statically). Optimist because I can see the evolution over sufficiently large stretches of time as showing this clear progress that nobody would deny if for instance speaking over the last century.

In a short way: things progress extremely badly.

The reason for this, and therefore the reason for the conundrum with which K. Kraus expresses his frustration in the quote, is that "the word" (knowledge, criticism) isn't allowed to 'flow' (more: the word is actively blocked and abused by the people which happen to be in charge at a given time). My optimism, to close on the up, is that it nevertheless flows and, like water, can't be blocked indefinitely. Kraus could not see that because he could not see the progress over time, yet. Better still: progress has to be self-reenforcing - the more the word has flown the more rapid it will flow next. But, unfortunately, the mechanism of delay by the powerful is still with us. Although we know the tricks of propaganda and abuse of power, we haven't been able to get rid of them - the word is still more controlled than that it controls our progress (and possible the point of irreversibility has not been reached) :-(

Ouf!


The grumbler at his writing desk

"(..) Why didn't I get the bodily strength, to fell with one blow of the axe all the sins of this planet? Why didn't I get the strength of thought, to force this defiled mankind to an outcry? Why is my voice of opposition not stronger than these hollow commands, that have in their power the souls of this globe? I keep documents for a time, no longer capable of grasping them or so far from now, that it will say, I am a manipulator. But no, the time will not come to say this. Since that time will never be. (..)'


Whilst writing this I was listening to Bill Laswell; both Dub Chamber 3 & Land of Look Behind

22:53 Gepost door Guido Nius in Vrije tijd | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: dynamics, boldness, competition, tones, kraus |  Facebook |

08-03-09

Studies in the way of words

"So one might, in the end, be faced with the alternatives of either reverting to their theoretically unambitious style or giving up hope altogether of systematizing the linguistic phenomena of natural discourse. To me, neither alternative is very attractive." Paul Grice, Studies in the way of words, Prolegomena, p. 4, Harvard University Press, 1989.


I have decided to re-read Grice after I completed my reading of Davidson. I think it more & more likely that some kind of "stepping stone theory of language" - as per  my not (yet?) published thesis on common sense reasoning - might just be the sort of alternative that Grice would have found attractive.

That's of course not much more, presently, than a hunch but it's precisely things like hunches that continue to present difficulties for theories like the one of Davidson (it will be necessary for the reader to bear with me even more than usual, my sincerest apologies). A hunch is not something irrational (let alone antirational) even if it is in itself theoretically unambitious. Hunches do not commit someone to give up hope of a systematic treatment of natural reasoning, not even hope of systematic treatment of hunches.

Truth be told, hunches and intuition are suspect because they tend to be spoken by 'believers' that not just lack intellectual ambition but are proudly affirming that it's a sort of sin (mystery-murder!) to have any ambition that way. Such a point of view is, not just merely unattractive, but positively lethal (albeit temporarily cosy). An hunch is indeed a call to action but it's a call to a specific sort of action i.e. the action of an investigation into the rational merits of the hunch - any other action on hunches can only be justified by appeal to lack of time or another rational argument preventing a subject to thinking on the actual merits of what your hunch is about. This being said, I do not doubt (although I do not know for sure) whether there are no intuitions that don't admit of further rationalizing (philosophical litterature suggest there are some such), but if this were the case it would not prevent us from at least having ambition to detail which intuitions are of this kind and why this is so (contra Grice - he implies that the 2 alternatives are equally unattractive and this is not so unless he is sure a third alternative exists, which he says he is not).

Before saying anything ambitiously positive I feel compelled to add a 3d alternative (also unattractive, and this time equally unattractive than a no-intellectual-ambition one): the alternative is of overly ambitious regimentation. The traditional rationalist assumption that everything can be systematized, because everything is systematic, is also lethal (Popper said how, Quine/Davidson say why). Regimenting the facts, in some or other preconceived scheme, always leads to paradoxes (call it, on a lighter note, the Kantian hunch). Either these paradoxes are assimilated as mysteries in a scheme (and so back to lack of ambition, cfr. scientism) or they are denied (& then we have the overambitious that looks eerily similar to the overzealous but is worse: the overzealous always have a rest fraction of mystery, & therefore some openness to novelty). So, again contra Grice, the implicature there are only 3 alternatives is a real error (there are at least 4) and the topological map of the ones describes here at least supports the hunch that more theoretical ambition is not necessarily better.

So why the hell quote something and then go off on a tangent condemning it? Well I don't know; these things just happen but - as it happens - it allows me to express something I wanted to express:

Grice's hunch is, I think, correctly critical of a certain strand of thought coming from the great Witt over people like Ryle, Austin, Strawson to him: they are theoretically too unambitious. At the same time, I think, another strand of thought running over Quine & Davidson is, for all they say themselves, theoretically too ambitious. How's that possible? Is there some ideal level of ambition in between? & what would it be for there to be some sufficiently unmabitious level of ambition? I do not think we'll need to bother too long with such paradoxes; these two strands of thought - that is at least my conjecture, or hunch - deal with two qualitatively different aspects of the (still assumed indivisible) phenomenon of human thought.

Davidson's tradition is focused on standard (deductive) reasoning and - in line with the nature of logic - it is theoretically ambitious. Grice's tradition on the other hand focuses on common sense (inductive) reasoning and - in line with the tendenciy of common sense - it is theoretically unambitious. The problem for both traditions (& maybe not for Wittgenstein because he suitably split himself in two) is that they're discussing things as if there were only one aspect - as if deduction, knowledge and beliefs are things single humans do on the background & as if the fuzziness of the type of human acting we know from individuals is a fact about this world.

The former therefore tends to overregiment (even if the stated goal is not to do so) and, more specifically, assume humans have intellectual superpowers (a consistent belief system) that happen to be impaired by a lack of adequate processing powers. In the latter then again we see the theoretical lack of ambition Grice is on about. By the way, Wittgenstein in this sense doesn't have the better of anybody because the guy didn't attempt to integrate, only to delineate.

The truth then is probably  -turning the 'probably' of a hunch into something quite a bit more definite would be a worthy project indeed - and quite symbolically not in the middle. The truth, according to my present hunch, consists in systematic interactions between the purity, the extensionality and eternality of logic (with pure combinatorial productivity) and the fuzzy, intensional here-and-now-ness of our practical reasoning (with its impredictable creativity of imagination).

I think Grice - to some extent unwittingly as a contemporary of Davidson involved in an endeavour very different from theirs - launched himself into a project at the level of the 'systematic' in the (alas, too long) sentence before this. But - from the angle of his tradition - he thought it was about unfuzzying the fuzzy of the last part of the sentence. Thence the charge of 'theoretically unambitious', and the lack of mention of the theoretically overambitious .

I have to stop here: I think I have (for myself at least clarified) what programme is there to be had. I think it is an important program because it enables to find a real and systematic place for the traditional dichotomies of static & dynamic, synchronic & diachronic and pure & practical reason. The important corrolary will be in ethics where we can move on from the stalemate of relativism vs. absolutism. A nice corrolary will be that the field of common sense reasoning can finally be discussed on own merits (and relatively unknown philosophers like Kyburg saved from oblivion).


Whilst writing this I was listening to "Stimmung", KarlHeinz Stockhausen, by Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices, published by harmonia mundi.

18:02 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: language, convergence, dynamics, scientism, grice |  Facebook |