Posts Tagged ‘theory’

People of science, people of faith, please…

April 10, 2008

Please read the comment threads on the previous two posts, my most substantive posts ever, perhaps. It seems to me that we are getting somewhere, on our efforts to theorize the arts and sciences so as to do full justice to the natural sciences without demeaning the humanities, or the cultural and religious ways of knowing…. I need your thoughts. And please ask others to read, and comment, too. (It’s okay to be saucy, and gut-honest direct, but because these are such difficult issues we’re tackling, all of us will also need thoughtfulness, humility, and respect. (I myself have been called to account, quite rightfully, for not realizing that my own wording was going beyond passionate into the realm of disrespectful…to my great regret. So we’ll keep on calling each other to account.)

Scientists are impatient; theorist will “cut language at the joints”

July 11, 2007

Okay, the scientists are impatient with the theorist and want her to quit stalling and explain her thing. So, remember back when we talked about how we determine that physics is “cutting nature at the joints”? (And remember how it was pointed out to me, by one of you scientists, that this phraseology comes from a Platonic dialogue? Surely you haven’t forgotten THAT!)

Well, you remember how you know you’re on the right track in physics because of plank’s constant turning out to be a fundamental unit or “step” in the structure of things? (And those “energy steps” happen in all waves, we just can’t see it on the macro scale? That is really fascinating.) And so, you also know, because the maths keep turning out elegant and the formulas reduce themselves so neatly and niftily — and of course you have your experimental verifications….

Ahem, some of us, not to mention anyone by name, should take a look at the debate between Carnap and Popper over “verification” as the ultimate standard in “truth-statements.” It isn’t, Popper argued, and won, because great theories in physics, for instance, are too often bold new reconceptions that convince other physicists through their elegant formalisms and cannot be verified until much later on. That’s why Popper argued instead for “refutability” instead of “verification.” A statement is meaningful and non-trivial if it can be refuted, according to Popper — at least in principle, even if not in actuality. A statement is not meaningful only if it can be verified, because too often important scientific statements can’t be, when they are made.

Well, here’s the deal with my field of theory. Since Saussure, we poststructuralists have been pretty sure we are cutting nature at the joints, based on the new paradigm Saussure came up with for his “new linguistic science.” In about 1906-1909, he pronounced in his lectures — does this sound familiar? — that current so-called linguistics was not yet a science (not an ike or episteme), because it had failed to identify a single formal kind-of-thing as its own peculiar object. (This in spite of the great advances in historical linguistics during the 19th century, in which Saussure had been an extraordinarily precocious doctoral student and professor.)

So to show you where we poststructuralists “cut nature at the joints,” I will need to show you a Saussurean-inspired speech diagram and lay out for you all of its component elements.

Now therefore, I’m going to try to do what David and Gavin did — explain an extremely complex field in which decades of advanced work has gone on in a way understandable to non-specialists. First, two qualifications.

1) Your typical humanities person could not, I suspect, follow Gavin and David’s expositions. I could BARELY follow them, after going through a physics course for five years in a row as a team-teacher. (I was the one who made the social and historical connections as we proceeded through the development of physics, and the one who helped the humanities and arts majors, because I knew what was hardest for them — when it was hardest for me!) And since then, I’ve been reviewing the 60 pages of QM that David and Gavin gave us and reading Penrose and other sources. (I will get back to you physicists with some “advanced” (I hope) questions when I have gotten them all clear in my mind.) So, I think this is a very hard task I am undertaking, and I don’t know if it can succeed.

2) Poststructuralism in the United States had a huge hey-day in the 1970s and 80s and is now widely regarded as passe. I do not think it is passe, of course. Just as I do not think it was understood deeply enough over here. (There were some notable exceptions, Geoffrey Hartman and Barbara Herrnstein Smith come readily to mind, and Paul DeMann, who sort of did his own thing with it, and others). This however is forgivable because we have not had a structuralist movement here or a truly structuralist linguistics (a Saussurean linguistics). So again, this makes the effort I’m undertaking even more difficult and unlikely to succeed.

But I have had something of a revelation.

The reason poststructuralism is not “dead and gone” and the reason that it still has a long future ahead of it, is precisely because of the way poststructuralism speaks to the inveterate “two cultures” divide that has been such a persistent problem for us in the Anglo-American world.

In other words, I think that poststructuralism speaks directly to the problem of “social construction” vis-a-vis the “objective” reality of an external world, and that it may well be the major resource that is available to us that can do so. (Phenomenology is another candidate, and hermeneutics/Habermas has something to say….)

The rest of my revelation is that I don’t think people are reading poststructuralism this way, at least not nearly enough (but I must say that I had the advantage of a great teacher of my own, who died too young). The key to threading our way through the problem of observer-observed is right here in an everywhere implicit Saussurean prinicple: that of SELECTION AND COMBINATION. Formal selection and combination. So we’ll work on this together. (No, I’m not giving up on Plato’s Ion, btw.)

The fundamental explanatory models or paradigms, the ones every poststructuralist has always in mind, are the ones Saussure introduced over those three years of lectures that he never planned to write up into a book (because it was too daunting and the times weren’t ready for it). In the eight decades since then that linguists and theorists and semioticians have had to monkey around with those lecture notes, we’ve probably made every possible mistake and every possible reductive reading that can be imagined — all the things that Saussure knew were going to happen, have happened.

So we’d better start reading him better, hadn’t we? And we can, partly because we have had all this history (though most of it not in the U. S. or Great Britain), and therefore we can better avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred. (History is an unending series of thought-experiments that actually happened! You can quote me on that.)

One of Saussure’s more recent expositors, Roy Harris, remarks that one cannot read the Course in General Linguistics, or spend time with this posthumously published book over several years as he did, and not come away with the lasting impression of a truly great mind at work, behind those interpolated student notes. I agree with Roy Harris 100%, and I think that we have scarcely begun to read Saussure as an epistemologist — a philosopher and theorist of how humans come to know. Nor have we yet begun to interpret his brilliant construct called the “phoneme” anywhere nearly as flexibly and fluidly and philosophically as we need to do. (The phoneme is the crux of everything.)

Derrida was Saussure’s best reader, I believe, and much of what Derrida has done, I think, is already implicit in Saussure’s new paradigms for thinking about how language as a semiotic system can throw light upon the structuring of human perception. Taking the work of these two together, Saussure and Derrida, and then adding in the work of the psycho-analytical poststructuralists, we have what we need in order to understand ourselves and our violent world. (Then, as always, we have to choose.)

But what we have here, what I will be explaining, is not to be taken as a Positive Truth, because this kind of strong positivity involves such rigid negations. (I’ll show you this.) Rather, it is a way of working with positivities. (A way that keeps them more honest and introduces into them some tolerance and play. This is what some of us have to learn to do with regard to ourselves, in psychotherapy, if we have emerged into adulthood with rigidly non-adaptive personality structures that no longer serve us well….)

We cannot avoid positivities (along with their negations), nor should we wish to, given the human condition, because we are who we are by being made out of them, but knowing that, we can find ways to make limited and modest interventions that may (or may not) point toward health, that may point toward responsibility, that may point toward joy and juissance (to use a well-earned Kristevan term).

Okay, so it now seems to me, after my revelation, quite natural that a trendy and fashionable French poststructuralism (but shallowly understood) was swept up and appropriated in a hit or miss manner by new movements (such as that in the social sciences) over here, movements that are widely viewed as introducing cultural “relativism” and undermining the objectivity and credibility of scientific methodology and results.

Hence our “Science Wars.” Hence the tragic renewal of the wars of science and religion. Hence, I’d better get to work and speak to all of this myself, a more ambitious project than simply teaching the history of literary theory….

So I’ll explain Saussure, the way I see him, as meaningful and signifcant for our future. Meanwhile, bear in mind that poststructuralists, as one specific strand within the wider phenomenon called “postmodernism,” themselves never had any reason to deny scientific method and results — and they didn’t.

If anything, Sokal’s book shows that they were all too eager to (mis)appropriate science to broaden the implications of their own work. (By the way, notice that Sokal and Bricmont found nothing to hang on Derrida at all. I’m still not sure that Lacan was as off-base as they think, because he did have physicists and mathematicians in his seminars, but he was a one-man circus and ego-show. But a magnificent thinker. On Kristeva, okay, she got it wrong, but mostly, it seems, in her very early work, which she seems to have repudiated.)

Btw, while we’re on this subject, yes, Sokal & Bricmont say they have no intention of impugning the non-scientific work of these theorists, and yet they do precisely that nonetheless, over and over again. (Ah well, I tend to agree with Derrida, who simply sighed and said: “pauvre Sokal.”) However, keep pressing me on this issue. If I’m not facing up to the problems of postmodernism enough for you, keep asking questions.

I work best that way, I’m afraid.

Coming soon, Saussure’s speech diagram and “cutting language at the joints.”

(For that niftly little course-module on Saussure, click here.)

Theorist abases herself in dust and ashes….

July 2, 2007

Oh boy! Our conversation partner named Hi strikes again! And so, as a result, I have a terrible confession to make. And you poor scientists, no wonder you tend to think you ought to hate us lit theorists….

So I go over on Hi’s link to read Bruno Latour’s mea culpa issued in about 2003 (it looks like) and I am stunned at the words Latour is now “taking back.” Well, he should take them back! I cannot believe he ever said them in the first place. Science’s findings have no objective reality and are purely “socially constructed”!? Good grief….

I have to tell you that I have taught the history of literary theory for 25 years and I have studied French and Continental Saussurean structuralism and post structuralism for 28 years and yet I never knew exactly what our American scientists were referring to when they conveyed to me their scorn for “social constructionism.”

However, I am not alone in my lofty aristocratic theoretical ivory tower and my pure theoretical blue-bloodedness. I have been so deeply engaged with the four decades of Continental structuralist thought, which shifts into post-structuralism during the career of Roland Barthes and is so intellectually dynamic in the thought-work of Derrida and in Lacan and their compatriots Julia Kristeva and Helene Cicioux and Luce Irigaray (the fire-brand of the group but a wildly amazing theorist) and how all of this intersects with the phenomenological lines of thought running from Husserl through Heidegger and back to the first group (and now add Levinas) — this entire great generation of French theorists now passing off the scene (and often crudely imitated in the US because of the lack of structuralist foundations in our intellectual tradition) — well that’s a run-on sentence!

But I was so engaged with all of this that I failed somehow to focus on this upstart group over in the American social sciences who were actually doing something called social constructionism! They weren’t at my university, and they weren’t in my reading of theory. But I am appalled that I was so unaware!

I apologize and abase myself in dust and ashes! No wonder Hi thinks I am intellectual dishonest in painting my own theoretical movement as “a breath of fresh air,” which he insists it was/is not.

However, if you take a look at two very useful guides, Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism and David Macey’s Penguin Guide to Critical Theory, just for an example, you will read about poststructuralist and postmodern theorists for a long time without encountering this social sciences movement, which I guess is American, although Bruno Latour is French and was working out of the French philosopher of science Baudrillard (and I have encountered both of their names but not studied them).

Clearly, we need to have some big clarifications made here, as to what I am defending and what goes waay beyond the pale. Remember, I was very disappointed to find Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense misinterpreting (in my honest and appreciably informed opinion) some of the best and most difficult theoretical minds — Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva — and travestying them and conveying false impressions of them to American scientists.

But I am in no way defending this American movement of social constructionism, which appears to have some of its roots in John Searle and the Anglo-American analytic tradition, which is very different in style of thought from my own theorists. (I do not find most analytic philosophers “breaths of fresh air” — I’m sorry! I don’t hate them; they sometimes do very interesting things; they just aren’t my style of thinkers. Besides, doncha know, “some of my best friends are analytic philosophers”! )

So in the days to come I will do a post or two setting out the various threads of what we so confusingly call postmodernism. Right now, though, I want to say that I am comfortable only in talking about and advocating for the rigorous thought of the poststructuralists! (The French folks I named above.)

Also, there is always the huge question of the cultural context, in determining what is and is not “a breath of fresh air,” and no one is a better theorist for that than Derrida, by the way…. (His work is set in the context of the strong and stable totalizing claims of the French Enlightenment, and would not be liberating in a less stable environment. You could do some Lorentz transformations on it, though.)

This contextualism is part of what poststructuralism teaches us. Never forget that poststructuralist thought is always first of all structuralist and Saussurean, except sometimes in the U.S., when it can become a parody of itself as a result, I’m afraid. (See my “Very Poor Postmodern Thought” post and my son’s couple of very poor postmodern courses at university! He also had some superlative theoretical courses.)

In Saussurean thought, any x takes its meaning from the y’s and z’s (and actually, from the other x’s, as in f(x), x = x, we find three different x’s) with which it is most often and most strongly contrasted, in terms of the operative functional and formal relationships.

Accordingly, there can be a strong contrast in our perception of things only where there is a great deal of identity, as with “black” and “white” being strong contrasts only by being identically “elements on a single spectrum of colors” and furthermore by each being located at an extreme end of the spectrum. (Things take their identity from their positions in a system, not their physical constitution.)

Or in politics, shifting to a somewhat different semiotic structure in play, Republicans and Democrates (because we have a binary, two-party system) necessarily make the strongest contrast with one another precisely because they are so alike, in the potent center of the political spectrum. So it can certainly be the case that in one sense “there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them,” viewed in a wider political spectrum of possibilities, and yet those very differences can still make all the difference in the world. (Can you tell that I was tempted to vote for Ralph Nader in the Al Gore/George W. race in 2000? I shudder to think of it, though it didn’t matter in the end…) Also, in the same way as with black and white, the two extreme ends of the political spectrum are frightening alike….

In Saussure, with respect to human sign-systems, a “relationship” is always inherently constituted out of a structure of “identity” and “contrast.” This is so different from our Anglo-American intellectual tradition, which is oriented toward knowing physical objects scientifically and mathematically within the Cartesian paradigm, that it take quite a bit of getting used to. (I would say about five years of constant thought and work in the semiotic disciplines, in my case….)

But remember that the formal-kinds-of-things in view here are quite distinct: science studying physical structures and theory studying perceptual, semiotic structures of human perception. Maybe this would help us formulate some of the differences between the various disciplines in the liberal arts, at some point?

If some of you are interested, I found a wonderfully clear and informative site that takes you briefly through Saussure’s theory of signs. I found it after Paul told me to prove I was not “a crazy person” by being a bit more clear and explicit! And then when he came back and re-entered the conversation and proved not to be a “crank” himself, I decided to post this link for his benefit, and that of others. So click here.

But I gotta tell you that I myself could never explain Saussure this clearly and distinctly (that’s Descartes’ imperative for “ideas,” by the way, that an “idea” is true by being “clear and distinct”!) — because if I were teaching it, I would be pacing around and drawing all over the blackboard about how each of the clear distinctions turns out to be constituted reciprocally and mutually out of all the dynamical relationships of identity and difference and how we can only make progress in formalizing this stuff by keeping that constantly in mind…. (If I were to put more of my lit theory course on line we’d get into this.)

Okay, I have my work cut out for me, learning about social constructionism, and I think I’ll use another post on Kevin Hart to separate out some various threads of “postmodernism” for us all . I also have another “Wily Socrates” post and something else brewing up on Saussure.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Gavin’s latest thoughts on the wonderful “ink-and-paper book” analogy, in which he raises the toughest questions of all. (Note the original description of my weblog at the top of this page….) Are we really ready for these questions yet? I get tired just thinking about it, right now. But I will re-enter that discussion eventually. What about the rest of you?

Gavin is in a way getting us back to the old “gnomes with shovels” discussion (which I partially side-stepped with my “immanence and transcendence”) and all the questions about the soul, about which I have said nothing, and yet I still get mild flack coming at me about this topic, from both sides simultaneously, from my soul-oriented poet friends and from anti-soul physical scientists. (I don’t mean to say all poets are soul-oriented or all physical scientists are anti-soul. I know personally that neither is the case.) That old “gnomes with shovels” discussion lapsed too soon, and maybe it should be renewed….

Is the concept of the soul a “supernatural” concept? Yes, in Cartesian terms. No, in Greek formalist terms. Eeek! I’m quaking in my boots, just mentioning these topics. It shows how much trust we’ve built up in our conversations here, that we are broaching these controversies at all.

So if you are new to the conversation, be sure to be thoughtful and respectful of everyone’s diverse backgrounds and views — remember that I won’t mind using my delete button, which I have never needed to do, hurray! (Saucy is okay. Blunt is okay. If you visit many blogsites, you know exactly what’s not okay, unfortunately…)