TFA and Perspective of Perspectives
I think Spiral Dynamics is more of the former, and Wilber’s quadrants is more of the latter; but there is much cross-over. Spiral Dynamics can be used to categorize, but I think this is a wrong use of it. Wilber’s quadrants can be used to represent perspectives which is how Wilber has tried to refine it, but still I find the quadrants disatisfying in this manner.
A perspective of perspectives is priveleged because it subsumes all else. Any model we create is created by humans on the planet earth during a very short span of time. I haven’t yet had a transcending vision of God’s view, and I’m not convinced anyone else has either. This notion of a perspective of perspectives is postmodern in the sense that it isn’t an objective framework that allows us to see outside of it, but neither can we separate it from what we are trying to explain by it. We are our perspectives meaning we change as our perspectives change.
Despite what to some may seem like subjective relativism, any model of perspectives isn’t separate from the context of the larger world that informs our perspective even if we don’t or can’t entirely comprehend it. We are part of the world and so our perspectives aren’t constrained by limited notions of individuality. We can infer that this perspective of perspectives somehow reflects a larger world context because afterall it is this that our perspectives have arisen or evolved from. There is no necessity to make any metaphysical interpretations, but speculating might be useful if it leads to new perspectives that we can then verify in our own experience.
Everything is a perspective including all aspects of an ITP. Its not having a balanced life that creates an integral perspective. There must be something within our awareness that connects it all even if only on a vague level of intention.
Basically, what I’m speaking about here is a TFA(Theory For Everything) rather than a TOE. A TFA doesn’t need to explain everything. It only needs to explain how we go about explaining and the constraints thereof, and there is no reason to assume that everything that we can explain is everything that exists. We don’t need to create a cosmological model of all reality nor a grand scientific synthesis nor theorize beyond our direct experience. A perspective of perspectives is a much less grand goal, but also much more subtle.
I have many thoughts on this matter, but I’m still thinking it all out. I’m pointing towards an archetypal explanation of model-making. The content can be anything, but there remains basic tendencies of how all models are made. And this inherent cognitive functioning of the human psyche effects the content that is modelled. We never see reality directly for what it is because we always are modelling whether consciously or unconsciously.
As an example of what I’m thinking about, check out C. J. Lofting’s theory:
Does anyone have any ideas relating to the idea of a “perspective of perspectives” or of a TFA?
Does anyone know of any interesting forum discussions about this or any interesting websites?
Replies to This Discussion
- Permalink Reply by marmalade on November 30, 2007 at 7:16pm
What I’m bringing up here also relates to the criticism of Wilber’s model dismissing the Western occult tradition. Fundamentally, the occult is about experience. Some people don’t like models such as Wilber presents because they seem too abstract. This is a challenge of studying Wilber. He covers so much material that it is difficult for anyone to research in depth in order to verify all of his sources. We just have to trust Wilber.
This is fine up to a point, but I want a basic framework that can be verified in my everyday and not-so-everyday experiences. For instance, I don’t simply accept spiral dynamics. I’ve looked at the world through this lense and it made sense of much of my experience. And hopefully science will further clarify its veracity or not.
Also, spiral dynamics appears to generally fit the modelling pattern of the chakra system. They aren’t the same, but maybe the same patterns in the human psyche have influenced both to create similar structures of meaning. As far as I know, Clare Graves wasn’t basing his research on the theory of the chakras. It doesn’t matter that the two theories are referring towards different views of reality. If there is an archetypal patterning process, then similar models will create simlar connections between ideas even when those ideas seem in disagreement.
I don’t know if that was a good example, but its an obvious comparison. What I’m interested in is similar to what Campbell was looking for in comparing myths from entirely separate cultures. So, I’m wondering whether there is a monomyth of models. Loftings basic idea is that all models begin with some basic duality and that is then fed back into itself to create further distinctions. The most clear example he presents for how this occurs is the I Ching. And the I Ching could be seen as a model of perspectives.
Beebe is a Jungian theorist who proposed that archetype, complex, and type are getting at the same notion. I take Wilber’s criticism seriously that there is a pre/trans confusion in Jung’s archetypes. Jung did imply a hierarchy of archetypes(see James Whitlark’s explanation of individuation as it relates to Spiral Dynamics), but he left this unclear. Similarly, how do memes, holons, and morphic fields relate? All of these kinds of ideas put forth that there is something that creates coherence in our experience in a predictable way.
I found an interesting thread discussion related to all of this at Integral Review Forums:
Thinking postformally about “theory building”
[quote="jgidley"]I see the link between architecture and thinking as one of the important contributions of postmodernism. Although it is emphasized by Steiner’s and Sri Aurobindo’s integral lineages, it is essentially overlooked in much other integral theory.[/quote]
This reminds me of how mnemonics was intimately connected with architecture.
[quote="bonnittaroy"]My feeling is that it depends upon one’s relationshipto one’s theory-making. Some people (like Shoepnehauer) build theories to try to get at what reality really is. They expect that the intellect is the portal to answer that question. Others, like Whitehead and Guenther, are theory-making to tease out what is implicit in their view, that may be hidden or unformed and as yet to be articulated. In the process, what is brewing there, becomes disclosed and “known” in a more conventional way. The theory can serve as a “marker” for other people to discuss synergistically implicit views, and move the understanding forward.
Theory making in the second sense is more like thought-experimenting. Or creating an aesthetic. This is not limited to philosophy. I love the way physicists do thought experiments like Schrodinger’s Cat and Wheeler’s Daemon.
The above comment pertains to people who actively see themselves as doing theory. But I would like also to explore how there is a kind of theory -building that is implicit in cognizing reality at all. Everyone has, at bottom, certain fundamental assumptions about reality– it is consumate with how reality arises at all. Reality arises such that I feel I am an individual being. But that is certainly just one view– based in a kind of implicit theory — the set of conditions of my cognizing mind.
Above that very fundamental level, there are the basic beliefs about reality that we hold — implicitly or explicity — that also are a kind of theory-building that is going on all the time. In the integral community, for example, there are fundamental beliefs that few people would consider “theory building” and many would consider a description of how reality really is, namely, the holarchic organization of reality, the hierarchic organization of reality, the notion of development and evolution. These are tenets that underwrite our more obvious practices of theory building, but they are in themselves, the product of implicit theory building.
I believe that an example of post-formal operations is to be able to “hold” each of these kinds of cognitive processes very very lightly — to be able to see them as processes that are going on all the time in a very intimate and implicit way. And to be able to make what is implicit, explicit — so we can be liberated from their limitations, while at the same time, expand our choice field as to what set or set of theories (thought experiments) might be more helpful/ useful.[/quote]
- Permalink Reply by marmalade on November 30, 2007 at 11:22pm
I can’t claim to entirely understand what Lofting is getting at here. I have a high tolerance for abstraction and I get the gist of his theory, but I wish he used more grounded examples. He speaks alot about mathematics and he loses me.
The emphasis on WHAT is an emphasis on an object, a bounded ‘thing’ that can be tangible (as in a ball) or intangible (as in a marriage). Note how the intangible reflects what we call nominalisation where a process (and so a relationship, ’.. getting married’) has been converted into a noun, a thing (‘this marriage…’).
Although the term ‘what’ has a general nature about it, it still has a ‘point’ or ‘dot’ emphasis and we can refine this emphasis further by introducing additional terms such as WHO and WHICH. These terms act to particularise the general in that the ‘what’ realm is strongly ‘dot’ oriented and as such favours clear, precise, identifications and so a more LOCAL, discrete perspective.
This emphasis on ‘dot’ precision forces a degree of focus that can distort all considerations of the context in which the dot exists in that the precision requires a dependence on a universal context to support it.
The emphasis on WHERE is an emphasis on a relationship, there is a coordinates bias ‘relative’ to something else. There is a more intangible element here in that a set of relationships can go towards identifying an object by implications; there is an intuitive emphasis where a pattern based on linking a set of coordinates is ‘suddenly’ recognised as implying ‘something’; in other words there is a ‘constellations’ emphasis where objects are linked together to form a pattern that is then itself objectified; for example there is a strong emphasis here to geometric forms –e. g. ‘triangles’, ‘cubes’ etc. which in basic mathematics come out of joining coordinates.
This emphasis on constellation formation means that, when compared to the realm of the ‘what’, the ‘where’ reflects a LACK in precision where (!) the identification of something is made by identifying a pattern of landmarks ‘around’ the something. There is thus a strong context-sensitivity in the ‘where’ analysis when compared to the more precise, almost context-free (or local context-ignored) emphasis in the ‘what’ analysis. Thus the transference of a ‘where’ to a ‘what’ through the process of nominalisation acts to de-contextualise or more so encapsulate the context with the text. (See figure 1).
In general the term ‘where’ is as general as the term ‘what’ and as such we can introduce additional terms such as WHEN and HOW to aid in particularising the general. When compared to the distinctions of WHO and WHICH, the WHEN and HOW terms are highly dependent on coordinates (space and/or time), on establishing specific ‘begin-end’ positions rather than emphasis on a point free of any extensions.>>
Recursion and Emerging Numeracy
The recursion process is where an element is applied to itself, thus the identification of an object causes us to zoom-in on that object for details. This process leads to the recognition of such concepts as an object’s negation that at the general level relates to the entire universe exclusive of the object, and at the particular level the objects direct opposite (e.g. positive/negative, earth/sky etc).
Analysis of the patterns that emerge from applying the what/where dichotomy to itself leads to the identification of four fundamental distinctions which we can tie to feelings and so tie to pre-linguistic understandings of reality. These distinctions are:
Note that a ‘part’ is the term we use for the combination of (a) an object and (b) a relationship to a greater object and it is the word ‘part’ that reflects what we can call the superposition of two distinctions – the distinction of ‘wholeness’ combined with the distinction of ‘relatedness’.>>
- Permalink Reply by BrightAbyss~ on December 1, 2007 at 1:03am
YOU: I think the best integral model is about perspectives
ME: we gotta start there. It’s all about perspectives. Descartes tried to build up from the cogito (1PP), and then Husserl, but Merleau-Ponty did it better… A naturalist (integral) philosophy emerges out of a deep understanding of human knowledge-making and perspectives…
YOU: This notion of a perspective of perspectives is postmodern in the sense that it isn’t an objective framework that allows us to see outside of it, but neither can we separate it from what we are trying to explain by it.
ME: You gotta read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. Especially “The Logic of Practice” – where he talks about “objectifying objectification”. I think you’d find a kindred spirit with re: to perspectives.
YOU: Despite what to some may seem like subjective relativism, any model of perspectives isn’t separate from the context of the larger world that informs our perspective even if we don’t or can’t entirely comprehend it. We are part of the world and so our perspectives aren’t constrained by limited notions of individuality.
ME: This is why we have to be happy finding our way (carving out an existence) & dwelling in ‘worldspaces’ – with very HUMAN knowledges generated out of our Life Conditions (cf. Wittgenstein’s ‘Forms of Life’) and articulated through the rich tapestry of experience, being and relating.
I think ‘contingency’ is a key concept for understanding embodied human knowing… But just remember our perspectives are not so totally divorced from the Real, because there is an intimacy and immediacy our being-in-the-world that necessarily encounters actual life conditions.
YOU: We never see reality directly for what it is because we always are modelling whether consciously or unconsciously.
ME: Idealism is a very sick joke played on us by our own abstractions… We are OF the world so we can directly ‘know’ it in so many practical and meaningful ways… Don’t fall into the trap of believing a priori that “we can never really know the thing-in-itself”. Human knowledge is grounded in human kinds of knowing, with its many faults, but – like you say- it is the ONLY kind of (contextual) knowing we have, so lets get over ourselves and get to the actual work of putting our models/worldviews/discourse in the service of HEALTH & ADAPTATION.
YOU: This is fine up to a point, but I want a basic framework that can be verified in my everyday and not-so-everyday experiences.
ME: Then I believe you came to the right place. For instance, if AQAL is Wilber’s metaphoric ‘Integral Operating System’ (IOS), then what this network/forum wants to facilitate is allowing people at higher ‘altitudes’ of consciousness to evolve IOS’s of their OWN – developing and operating “applications” relevant to specific individuals, groups, projects, and always in context.
In other words, this forum is wants to help people develop their own “integral operating systems” but with OPEN “sources” – ie, drawing from various theories and traditions, and data.
So if Wilber’s AQAL can be compared to MicroSoft’s Windows operating system, then our project (at the Integral Research Group) can be compared to Linux – in that we want to help create alternative OPEN SOURCE integral (OSI) operating “systems” (theories and practical applications).
You see, the door is wide OPEN to collaborative innovation re: discourse dynamics, integral thinking, healthy being and adaptive relations.
What say you?
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- Permalink Reply by marmalade on December 3, 2007 at 10:33pm
Bright Abyss: “we gotta start there. It’s all about perspectives. Descartes tried to build up from the cogito (1PP), and then Husserl, but Merleau-Ponty did it better… A naturalist (integral) philosophy emerges out of a deep understanding of human knowledge-making and perspectives…”
Basically, I believe the most useful integral perspective is the one that precedes the seeking for an integral theory. Integral isn’t an unnatural or even new phenomenon. In terms of Spiral Dynamics, the higher levels are somehow already implied by the lower levels. In terms of Jung, archetypes precede specific manifestations of them as symbols or whatever.
BA: “You gotta read Pierre Bourdieu’s work. Especially “The Logic of Practice” – where he talks about “objectifying objectification”. I think you’d find a kindred spirit with re: to perspectives.”
Thanks for the suggestion.
BA: “This is why we have to be happy finding our way (carving out an existence) & dwelling in ‘worldspaces’ – with very HUMAN knowledges generated out of our Life Conditions (cf. Wittgenstein’s ‘Forms of Life’) and articulated through the rich tapestry of experience, being and relating.
I think ‘contingency’ is a key concept for understanding embodied human knowing… But just remember our perspectives are not so totally divorced from the Real, because there is an intimacy and immediacy our being-in-the-world that necessarily encounters actual life conditions.”
I’m intrigued by what you said here. Could you explain some more? How do you relate this to an integral view? Did I seem to imply that I thought perspectives are somehow divorced from the REAL? What do you mean by the REAL? What do you mean by ‘contingency’?
BA: “Idealism is a very sick joke played on us by our own abstractions… We are OF the world so we can directly ‘know’ it in so many practical and meaningful ways… Don’t fall into the trap of believing a priori that “we can never really know the thing-in-itself”. Human knowledge is grounded in human kinds of knowing, with its many faults, but – like you say- it is the ONLY kind of (contextual) knowing we have, so lets get over ourselves and get to the actual work of putting our models/worldviews/discourse in the service of HEALTH & ADAPTATION.”
When I spoke of not being able to directly know reality, I was referring to mental knowing. I agree there are many other kinds of knowing besides this. I had to laught at you last sentence. I’m far from getting over myself and I’m no model of HEALTH & ADAPTATION. I’m a seeker and that is the best I can claim for myself.
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- Permalink Reply by marmalade on December 3, 2007 at 10:41pm
Chiron posted this at Lightmind:
By Colin McGinn
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
by Steven Pinker
The Stuff of Thought is Steven Pinker’s fifth popular book in thirteen years, and by now we know what to expect. It is long, packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written, and generally persuasive. The topic, as earlier, is language and the mind—specifically, how language reflects human psychological nature. What can we learn about the mind by examining, with the help of linguistics and experimental psychology, the language we use to express ourselves?
Pinker ranges widely, from the verb system of English, to the idea of an innate language of thought, to metaphor, to naming, obscenity, and politeness. He is unfailingly engaging to read, with his aptly chosen cartoons, his amusing examples, and his bracing theoretical rigor. Yet there are signs of fatigue, not so much in the energy and enthusiasm he has put into the book as in the sometimes less than satisfying quality of the underlying ideas. I don’t blame the author for this: it is very hard to write anything deep, surprising, and true in psychology—especially when it comes to the most interesting aspects of our nature (such as our use of metaphor). A popular book on biology or physics will reliably deli-ver well-grounded information about things you don’t already know; in psychology the risk of banality dressed up as science is far greater. Sometimes in Pinker’s book the ratio of solid ideas to sparkling formulations is uncomfortably low (I found this particularly in the lively and amusing chapter on obscenity). He has decided to be ambitious, and there is no doubt of his ability to keep the show on the road, but it is possible to finish a long chapter of The Stuff of Thought and wonder what you have really learned—enjoyable as the experience of reading it may have been.
To my mind, by far the most interesting chapter of the book is the lengthy discussion of verbs—which may well appear the driest to some readers. Verbs are the linguistic keyhole to the mind’s secrets, it turns out. When children learn verbs they are confronted with a problem of induction: Can the syntactic rules that govern one verb be projected to another verb that has a similar meaning? Suppose you have already learned how to use the verb “load” in various syntactic combinations; you know that you can say both Hal loaded the wagon with hay and Hal loaded hay into the wagon. Linguists call the first kind of sentence a “container locative” and the second a “content locative,” because of the way they focus attention on certain aspects of the event reported—the wagon (container) or the hay (content), respectively (the word “locative” referring here to the way words express location). The two sentences seem very close in meaning, and the verb load slots naturally into the sentence frame surrounding it. So, can other verbs like fill and pour enter into the same combinations? The child learning English verbs might well suppose that they can, thus instantiating a rule of grammar that licenses certain syntactic transformations—to the effect that you can always rewrite a content locative as a container locative and vice versa. But if we look at how pour and fill actually work we quickly see that they violate any such rule. You can say John poured water into the glass (content locative) but you can’t say John poured the glass with water (container locative); whereas you can say John filled the glass with water (container locative) but you can’t say John filled water into the glass (content locative).
Somehow a child has to learn these syntactic facts about the verbs load, pour, and fill—and the rules governing them are very different. Why does one verb figure in one kind of construction but not in another? They all look like verbs that specify the movement of a type of stuff into a type of container, and yet they behave differently with respect to the syntactic structures in question. It’s puzzling.
The answer Pinker favors to this and similar puzzles is that the different verbs subtly vary in the way they construe the event they report: pour focuses on the type of movement that is involved in the transfer of the stuff, while neglecting the end result; fill by contrast specifies the final state and omits to say how that state precisely came about (and it might not have been by pouring). But load tells you both things: the type of movement and what it led to. Hence the verbs combine differently with constructions that focus on the state of the container and constructions that focus on the manner by which the container was affected.
The syntactic rules that control the verbs are thus sensitive to the precise meaning of the specific verb and how it depicts a certain event. And this means that someone who understands these verbs must tacitly grasp how this meaning plays out in the construction of sentences; thus the child has to pick up on just such subtle differences of meaning if she is to infer the right syntactic rule for the verb in question. Not consciously, of course; her brain must perform this work below the level of conscious awareness. She must implicitly analyze the verb—exposing its deep semantic structure. Moreover, these verbs form natural families, united by the way they conceive of actions—whether by their manner or by their end result. In the same class as pour, for example, we have dribble, drip, funnel, slosh, spill, and spoon.
This kind of example—and there is a considerable range of them—leads Pinker to a general hypothesis about the verb system of English (as well as other languages): the speaker must possess a language of thought that represents the world according to basic abstract categories like space, time, substance, and motion, and these categories constitute the meaning of the verb. When we use a particular verb in a sentence, we bring to bear this abstract system to “frame” reality in certain ways, thus imposing an optional grid on the flux of experience. We observe some liquid moving into a container and we describe it either as an act of pouring or as the state of being filled: a single event is construed in different ways, each reflecting the aspect we choose to focus on. None of this is conscious or explicit; indeed, it took linguists a long time to figure out why some verbs work one way and some another (Pinker credits the MIT linguists Malka Rappaport Hovav and Beth Levin). We are born with an implicit set of innate categories that organize events according to a kind of primitive physics, dealing with substance, motion, causality, and purpose, and we combine these to generate a meaning for a particular verb that we understand. The grammar of our language reflects this innate system of concepts.
As Pinker is aware, this is a very Kantian picture of human cognition. Kant regarded the mind as innately stocked with the basic concepts that make up Newtonian mechanics—though he didn’t reach that conclusion from a consideration of the syntax of verbs. And the view is not in itself terribly surprising: many philosophers have observed that the human conceptual scheme is essentially a matter of substances in space and time, causally interacting, moving and changing, obeying laws and subject to forces—with some of those substances being agents—i.e., conscious, acting human beings—with intentions and desires. What else might compose it? Here is a case where the conclusion reached by the dedicated psycholinguist is perhaps less revolutionary than he would like to think. The chief interest of Pinker’s discussion is the kind of evidence he adduces to justify such a hypothesis, rather than the hypothesis itself—evidence leading from syntax to cosmology, we might say. Of course the mind must stock basic concepts for the general structure of the universe if it is to grasp the nature of particular things within it; but it is still striking to learn that this intuitive physics shapes the very syntax of our language.
Not that everyone will agree with the general hypothesis itself—and Pinker has a whole chapter on innateness and the language of thought. Here he steers deftly between the extreme nativism of Jerry Fodor, according to which virtually every concept is innate, including trombone and opera (despite the fact that the concepts must therefore have preceded the invention of what they denote, being merely triggered into consciousness by experience of trombones and operas), and the kind of pragmatism that refuses to assign a fixed meaning to any word. Pinker sees that something conceptual has to be innate if language learning is to be possible at all, but he doesn’t believe it can be anything parochial and specific; so he concludes that only the most general categories of the world are present in the genes—the categories that any human being (or animal) needs to use if he or she is to survive at all. Among such categories, for example, are: event, thing, path, place, manner, acting, going, having, animate, rigid, flexible, past, present and future, causality, enabling and preventing, means and ends.
The picture then is that these innate abstract concepts mesh with the individual’s experience to yield the specific conceptual scheme that eventually flowers in the mind. The innate concepts pre-date language acquisition and make it possible; they are not the products of language. Thus Pinker rejects the doctrine of “linguistic determinism,” which holds that thought is nothing other than the result of the language we happen to speak—as in the infamous hypothesis of the linguists Benjamin Whorf and Harold Sapir that our thoughts are puppets of our words (as with the Eskimos who use many different words for snow). The point Pinker makes here—and it is a good one—is that we mustn’t mistake correlation for causation, assuming that because concepts and words go together the latter are the causes of the former. Indeed, it is far more plausible to suppose that our language is caused by our thoughts—that we can only introduce words for which we already have concepts. Words express concepts; they don’t create them.
Let’s suppose, then, that Pinker and others are right to credit the mind with an original system of basic physical concepts, supplemented with some concepts for number, agency, logic, and the like. We innately conceive of the world as containing what he calls “force dynamics”—substances moving through space, under forces, and impinging on other objects, changing their state. How do we get from this to the full panoply of human thought? How do we get to science, art, politics, economics, ethics, and so on? His answer is that we do it by judicious use of metaphor and the combinatorial power of language, as when words combine to produce the unlimited expressions of a human language. Language has infinite potential, because of its ability to combine words and phrases into sentences without limit: this is by now a well-worn point.
More controversial is the suggestion that metaphor is the way we transcend the merely mechanical—the bridge by which physics leads us to more abstract domains. Pinker notes, as many have before, that we routinely use spatial expressions to describe time (“he moved the meeting to Tuesday,” “don’t look backward”), as well as employ words like rise, fall, went, and send to capture events that are not literally spatial (prices rising, messages sent, and so on). Science itself is often powered by analogies, as when heat was conceived as a fluid and its laws derived accordingly. Our language is transparently shot through with meta-phors of one kind or another. But it is far from clear that everything we do with concepts and language can be accounted for in this way; consider how we think and talk about consciousness and the mind, or our moral thinking. The concept of pain, say, is not explicable as a metaphorical variation on some sort of physical concept.
It just doesn’t seem true that everything nonphysical that we think about is metaphorical; for example, our legal concepts such as “rights” are surely not all mere metaphors, introduced on the shoulders of the concepts of intuitive physics. So there is a question how Pinker’s alleged language of thought, restricted as it is, can suffice to generate our total conceptual scheme; in which case we will need to count more concepts as innate (what about contract or punishment?)—or else rethink the whole innateness question. Not that I have any good suggestions about how human concepts come to be; my point is just that Pinker’s set of basic Kantian concepts seems too exiguous to do the job.
If the Kantian categories are supposed to make thought and language possible, then they also, for Pinker, impose limits on our mental functioning. This is a second main theme of his book: the human mind, for all its rich innate endowment, is fallible, prone to confusion, easily foiled. The very concepts that enable us to think coherently about the world can lead us astray when we try to extend them beyond their natural domain. Pinker discusses the concepts of space and time, exposing the paradoxes that result from asking whether these are finite or infinite; either way, human thought reels. As he says, we can’t think without these concepts, but we can’t make sense of them—not when we start to think hard about what they involve. For example, if space is bounded, what lies on the other side of the boundary? But if it’s not bounded, we seem saddled with an infinite amount of matter—which implies multiple identical universes.
The concept of free will poses similar paradoxes: either human choices are caused or they are not, but either way we can’t seem to make sense of free will. A lot of philosophy is like that; a familiar concept we use all the time turns puzzling and paradoxical once we try to make systematic sense of it. Pinker has fun detailing the natural errors to which the human mind is prone when trying to reason statistically or economically; human specimens are notoriously poor at reasoning in these matters. Even more mortifying, our prized intuitive physics, foundation of all our thought, is pretty bad as physics: projectiles don’t need impetus to keep them in steady motion, no matter what Aristotle and common sense may say. As Newton taught us, motion, once it begins, is preserved without the pressure of a continuously applied force—as when a meteor keeps moving in a straight line, though no force maintains this motion. And relativity and quantum theory violate commonsense physics at every turn.
Our natural concepts are as much a hindrance to thought as they are a springboard for it. When we try to turn our minds away from their primitive biological tasks toward modern science and industrial-electronic society we struggle and fall into fallacies; it’s an uphill battle to keep our concepts on track. Our innate “common sense” is riddled with error and confusion—not all of it harmless (as with the economically naive ideas about what constitutes a “fair price”).
Pinker also has three bulky chap-ters on the social aspects of language, dealing with naming and linguistic innovation in general, with obscenity and taboo words, and with politeness and authority relations in speech. The chapter on naming achieves something I thought was impossible: it gives an accurate exposition of the philosopher Saul Kripke’s classic discussion of proper names by a nonphilosopher—the gist of which is that the reference of a name is fixed not by the descriptive information in the mind of the speaker but by a chain of uses stretching back to an initial identification. For example, I refer to a certain Greek philosopher with the name “Plato” in virtue of the chain of uses that link my present use with that of ancient Greeks who knew him, not in virtue of having in my mind some description that picks him out uniquely from every other Greek philosopher.
Apart from this, Pinker worries at the question of fashions in names and how they change. He refutes such popular theories as that names are taken from public figures or celebrities; usually, the trend is already in place—and anyway the name “Humphrey” never took off, despite the star of Casablanca. It is fascinating to read that in the early part of the twentieth century the following names were reserved primarily for men: Beverly, Dana, Evelyn, Gail, Leslie, Meredith, Robin, and Shirley. But not much emerges about why names change as they do, besides some platitudes about the need for elites to stand out by adopting fashions different from the common herd.
I very much enjoyed the chapter on obscenity, which asks the difficult question of how words deemed taboo differ from their inoffensive syn-onyms (e.g., shit and feces). It can’t obviously be the referent of the term, since that is the same, and it isn’t merely that the taboo words are more accurately descriptive (excre-ment is equally accurate, but it isn’t taboo). Pinker reports, no doubt correctly, that swearing forces the hearer to entertain thoughts he’d rather not, but that too fails to distinguish taboo words from their nontaboo synonyms. The phenomenon is especially puzzling when we note that words can vary over time in their taboo value: damn used to be unutterable in polite society, while word was once quite inoffensive (Pinker reports a fifteenth-century medical textbook that reads “in women the neck of the bladder is short, and is made fast to the word”).
Of particular interest to the grammarian is the fact that in English all the impolite words for the sexual act are transitive verbs, while all the polite forms involve intransitive verbs: word, screw,hump, shag, bang versus have sex, make love, sleep together, go to bed, copulate. As Pinker astutely observes, the transitive sexual verbs, like other verbs in English, bluntly connote the nature of the motion involved in the reported action with an agent and a receiver of that motion, whereas the intransitive forms are discreetly silent about exactly how the engaged objects move in space. The physical forcefulness of the act is thus underlined in the transitive forms but not in the intransitive ones. None of this explains why some verbs for intercourse are offensive while others are not, but it’s surely significant that different physical images are conjured up by the different sexual locutions—with word semantically and syntactically like staband have sex like have lunch.
Pinker’s discussion of politeness verges closest to platitude—noting, for example, that bribes cannot usually afford to be overt and that authority relations are sometimes encoded in speech acts, as with tu and vous in French. Here he relies heavily on lively examples and pop culture references, but the ideas at play are thin and rather forced. But, as I say, he has a tough assignment here—trying to extract theoretical substance from something both familiar and unsystematic. Laying out a game theory matrix, with its rows and columns of payoffs, for a potential bribe to a traffic cop adds little to the obvious description of such a situation.
The book returns to its core themes in the final chapter, “Escaping the Cave.” Pinker sums up:
Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.
If that strikes you as a bit platitudinous, then such is the lot of much psychology—usually the good sort. What is interesting is the kind of evidence that can be given for these claims and the way they play out in language and behavior—not the content of the claims themselves.
But Pinker is also anxious to reiterate his thesis that our conceptual scheme is like Plato’s cave, in giving us only a partial and distorted vision of reality. We need to escape our natural way of seeing things, as well as appreciate its (limited) scope. Plato himself regarded a philosophical education as the only way to escape the illusions and errors of common sense—the cave in which we naturally dwell. Pinker too believes that education is necessary in order to correct and transcend our innate cognitive slant on the world. This means, unavoidably, using a part of our mind to get beyond the rest of our mind, so that there must be a part that is capable of distancing itself from the rest. He says little about how this might be possible—how that liberating part might operate—beyond what he has said about metaphors and the infinity of language. And the question is indeed difficult: How could the mind ever have the ability to step outside of itself? Aren’t we always trapped inside our given conceptual scheme? How do we bootstrap ourselves to real wisdom from the morass of innate confusion?
One reason it is hard to answer this question is that it is obscure what a concept is to start with. And here there is a real lacuna in Pinker’s book: no account is given of the nature of the basic concepts that are held to constitute the mind’s powers. He tells us at one point that the theory of conceptual semantics “proposes that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought,” as if concepts could literally be symbols in the language of thought. The idea then is that when we understand a verb like pour we translate it into a complex of symbols in the brain’s innate code (rather like the code used by a computer), mental counterparts of public words like move, cause, change. But that leaves wide open the question of how those inner words have meaning; they can’t just be bits of code, devoid of semantic content. We need to credit people with full-blown concepts at the foundation of their conceptual scheme—not just words for concepts.
Pinker has listed the types of concepts that may be supposed to lie at the foundation, but he hasn’t told us what those concepts consist in—what they are. So we don’t yet know what the stuff of thought is—only that it must have a certain form and content. Nowhere in the course of a long book on concepts does Pinker ever confront the really hard question of what a concept might be. Some theorists have supposed concepts to be mental images, others that they are capacities to discriminate objects, others dispositions to use words, others that they are mythical entities.
The problem is not just that this is a question Pinker fails to answer or even acknowledge; it is that without an answer it is difficult to see how we can make headway with questions about what our concepts do and do not permit. Is it our concepts themselves that shackle us in the cave or is it rather our interpretations of them, or maybe our associated theories of what they denote? Where exactly might a concept end and its interpretation begin? Is our concept of something identical to our conception of it—the things we believe about it? Do our concepts intrinsically blind us or is it just what we do with them in thought and speech that causes us to fail to grasp them? Concepts are the material that constitutes thought and makes language meaningful, but we are very far from understanding what kind of thing they are—and Pinker’s otherwise admirable book takes us no further with this fundamental question.
New York Times Book Review
Volume 54, Number 14 · September 27, 2007
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- Permalink Reply by marmalade on December 7, 2007 at 11:36pm
I just came across Gerry Goddard’s writings. His theory is based on archetypes and he references Richard Tarnas throughout his book. Tarnas wrote the book ‘Cosmos and Psyche’ which is an analysis of history using astrological patterns. He is the first writer who made astrology meaningfully accessible to me.
Here is Goddard’s book on-line that he finished right before he died:
Here is a quote from his article on postmodernism that seemed appropriate:
Is astrology just another dish to choose from the endless buffet of competing delights, just another Wittgensteinian language game, another social ‘form of life,’ or is it truly an ancient parchment that charts a way through this particularly difficult though fascinating terrain? In one sense, astrology is quintessentially postmodern in that it is entirely constructed of symbols reflecting and referring to other symbols within a multidimensional hologram or Indra’s net amenable to seemingly endless patterns of interpretation that richly resonate to the soul yet appear to lack any clearly identifiable concrete referents. As such, like other postmodern disciplines, it generally resists the attempts of science to connect specific symbols with specific facts, yet at the same time the astrological language appears to open and reveal soul dimensions that are more than the ‘mere’ play of socially constructed imaginations projected upon an unknowable objective world.
In this sense, astrology avoids the most radical postmodern conclusion — that words, concepts, and texts refer endlessly to other words and texts lacking any ultimate reference to objective facts, universal truths, or the ‘way things really are.’ I would like to suggest that astrology is indeed, as Richard Tarnas has described it, the ‘philosopher’s stone,’ a metaphysical or metapsychological map completely friendly to postmodern ideas yet charting them within a larger and ‘perennial’ perspective (a la Schumacher, Smith, Wilber), one that embraces the premodern, modern, postmodern, and transpersonal dimensions, pointing beyond both the old absolutisms and the current radical relativism to a higher resolution. The astrological perspective, as well as the now general perspective of postmodernism, reveals the cultural and historical relativity of these paradigms or beliefs, although astrology identifies and maps the whole process in a way that transcends the particular linguistic cul-de-sac of contemporary critical thought by revealing a more inclusive and holistic archetypal structure.
Upon the basis of the generally agreed-on meanings of the four mutable principles and their archetypal correspondence to the essential features of the postmodern mind, a case can be made which not only deepens our understanding of the principles but, through astrology’s capacity to map postmodernism (in relation to other historical stages and consciousness structures) within a larger historical and developmental perspective, may establish the astrological mandala as an effective key to understanding the greater evolution and structure of consciousness.
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- Permalink Reply by anemone on December 8, 2007 at 7:19pm
I have been an avid, though amateur student of astrology for years. I have read Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche, and attended a few workshops given by him last year.
I’ve never heard anyone state a connection between astrology and postmodernism quite the way you have above. It is illuminating to me to read your post. A more typical analysis involving astrology, on one hand, and postmodernism on the other, usually involves some remark on how the former is steeped in archaic and mythical lore and projection while the latter dismisses all narrative as textual constructs.
I like the way you have pointed out the flexibility and multi-faceted dimensions inherent in both world-views.
In the last year, however, I have come to feel that as powerful a tool astrology may be for psychological analysis, involving both individuals and group dynamics, it is not such a powerful tool of analysis at the macro, sociocultural or sociopolitical level of analysis, for example in making a useful comment on the larger forces shaping foreign policies of various governments, or the way public opinion is formed in a given society. This may, of course, be more a symptom of astrology’s current marginalization as an epistemological tool. If there were to be any dialogue with other established disciplines it is quite possible that it should prove instrumentally useful.
I will check out your Goddard post.
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- Permalink Reply by marmalade on December 8, 2007 at 8:54pm
Thanks for the response.
A: “I have been an avid, though amateur student of astrology for years. I have read Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche, and attended a few workshops given by him last year.”
You probably understand astrology and Tarnas better than I. For whatever reason, astrology never quite clicked together for me in the past.
A: “I’ve never heard anyone state a connection between astrology and postmodernism quite the way you have above. “
As much as I wish I had written that, I can’t take credit for it. Below the link is entirely the words of Goddard. I should’ve made that clearer, but this forum doesn’t allow the way of quoting that I’m used to.
I agree with your assessment. As I said, Tarnas was the first writer to present astrology so that it felt deeply meaningful to me… such that I could connect with the symbolism. And Goddard has presented astrology and Tarnas in a way that I have a better grasp of the system as a whole and how it might relate to my life.
A: “In the last year, however, I have come to feel that as powerful a tool astrology may be for psychological analysis, involving both individuals and group dynamics, it is not such a powerful tool of analysis at the macro, sociocultural or sociopolitical level of analysis, for example in making a useful comment on the larger forces shaping foreign policies of various governments, or the way public opinion is formed in a given society.”
What happened in the last year that has changed your perspective?
Are you saying that you have doubts about whether Tarnas’ analysis of history is meaningful?
Not yet. I just discovered Goddard and have only barely begun to read his work that I linked to in my previous post. I really haven’t a clue what all of this means. I’m merely a curious fellow and am over-joyed when I happen upon someone like Goddard. I feel that I’ve stumbled upon a treasure trove of insight.
I’m better at thinking out ideas when I have feedback, and so I’d be happy for whatever little nuggets you’d like to throw my way.
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