Friday, May 7, 2010
Urg. I have the feeling that my last few posts are needlessly overcomplicated. I suppose I can hold onto the hope that they are complex rather than complicated... In any case, I'd like to point here in the end to one of my favorite distinctions, Arthur Koestler's "holarchy". Unlike the "holism" that often comes to mind as the opposite of reductionism, "holarchy" confuses in the first case any facile distinction between parts and wholes: in a holarchy, there are no parts and no wholes, but only "holons", that is, partsy wholes and wholsy parts. A holon is part of a larger whole and contains its own parts, which are themselves both wholes and parts. And in the end? It's turtles all the way down, of course!
Until the 11th!
Friday, April 23, 2010
Saturday, April 17, 2010
So far I’ve blazed on ahead, keeping my posts short and allowing each axiom to cascade into the next. Indeed, at the end of my last post I promised to turn to another axiom in the current post – After Two, Things Get Interesting Real Fast – but given the difficulties that an axiom like It Takes Two to Cogito offers, I am choosing now instead to dwell for a bit, to slow down, to offer examples and argue my case. The thing about the axioms I’ve been offering so far is that they are not, in fact, self-evident for most of my readers most of the time; in other words, they are not axioms in the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” sense, but instead in a utopian – or mutopian – sense of “if only we could hold these truths to be self-evident”. As I’ve suggested, the gistification of Axiomatix is actually to generate some new ways of thinking about and being in the world, since the ways that we modern humans have been going about things do not, it seems, have a very bright outcome in the near-to-middle future. In other words, I bring to the question of new ways of thinking – of new axioms – a lifelong concern with ecological ethics, and a recent turn to what I call the ecology of everyday life.
So, to make It Takes Two to Cogito a bit clearer, it might indeed help to draw on an ecological metaphor, one that also folds in the closely related axiom that Relation is the Smallest Unit. Consider that, in the common-sense way of thinking about things, the individual – the unique and separate being – always precedes the group, rather than vice versa. By this logic, in the beginning was the autonomic individual, and groups are only ever created by the social instinct that pushes these (suddenly plural) autonomic individuals together. And yet, many of our most basic experiences reveal this way of thinking about individuals and groups to be nonsense; as the fact of pregnancy and childbirth should well reveal, even “two” is not enough to begin with, for in the case of mammalian reproduction at least three separate individuals are always required! In no way does the individual ever precede the group – and yet, at the same time, how could the group ever precede the individuals that “make it up”? This is the classic problem of the chicken and the egg, a problem which can only persist if one insists that some particular unit is the smallest, most basic unit rather than, as I have, asserting instead that Relation is the Smallest Unit. Neither chicken nor egg comes first, but instead it is the relation between chickens and eggs that precedes them both, that makes them what they are. Feminist science studies scholar Karen Barad calls this kind of relationality between units that do not precede their relating “intra-action”.
I hope that these two axioms – It Takes Two to Cogito and Relation is the Smallest Unit – are starting to become a bit clearer now. As with the paradox of the chicken and the egg, the problems presented by Descartes’s Cogito axiom – “I think therefore I am” – simply evaporate when we replace it with “it takes two to cogito”. While the cogito is the ultimate expression of the autonomous self-creating being – leading to not only solipsism but to the infamous “mind/body problem” – the rejoinder that it takes two to cogito reminds us that without at least two there is no thinking, no tools for thinking, no language, no invention, no communication. This is not to say that you cannot have thoughts over there in your own little head, or me have thoughts here in my own little head, but it is only to say that the condition that makes those thoughts possible is not some purified, godlike space of absolute solitude and self-creation but instead a networked space of shared tools and materials for thinking. Indeed – as I’ll explore more in future posts – the notion that we “have” thoughts “in” our heads is itself an unfortunate offshoot of the Cartesian cogito: another implication of both Relation is the Smallest Unit and It Takes Two to Cogito is that thoughts, too, are relations, and so they can never really take place inside our skulls without also taking place "out there" in the world. Maybe thoughts don’t belong in “heads” at all! To again quote Rimbaud: “It’s wrong to say, I think; instead we should say, It thinks me.”
See you on the 23rd!
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Monday, April 5, 2010
This leads me to another axiom I'd like to expand on here, one that makes further sense of Two Descriptions Are Better Than One: Relation is the Smallest Unit. This axiom is a saying that Donna Haraway likes to use, and one that took me some time to understand. Indeed, what I like best about this axiom is the way that it turns common sense on its head, giving logical priority to difference rather than sameness. Rather than consider that "relation" is something that happens between pre-existing "units", Relation is the Smallest Unit suggests that it is in fact the relating that is the most basic and fundamental "unit". Consider what this axiom does, for example, to Platonic idealism: while Plato argued that the very existence of chairs or triangles implied a universal idea of chairNess or triangleNess, Relation is the Smallest Unit suggests instead that chairs and triangles are not only constituted by their internal relations but also by their external ones. You don’t get a chair without certain relations between the materials that make it up, without its relations with other kinds of furniture and other objects, or without its relation to some critter – human or otherwise – who might sit on it, knock it down, or what have you. Platonic chairNess, then, can be seen instead as a vastly complex knot of relations which for convenience we call “chair”.
Applying this axiom in our practices and theories can sometimes be hard, because the folk philosophy we grow up in and speak inside of in our everyday lives leads us instead to see a simplified world of discrete and separate objects and ideas which can then be related to one another. Taking it seriously, we can understand – for example – that “defining” something by what it “is” is hardly effective, and that the best way of defining things is through their relations with other things.
We can also understand that thinking never actually happens in just one head – or, to rephrase it as an inconsistent, ornery, and downright paradoxical axiom: It Takes Two to Cogito. Comments? Rants? Axioms?
Shall we cogito?
Friday, April 2, 2010
1) Relation is the smallest unit.
2) Two descriptions are better than one.
3) After two, things get complicated real fast.
4) Map is not territory.
Now, the thinking about thinking that I'm doing here in Axiomatix definitely has a goal, and I won't hide it from you: to arrive at and express in an axiomatic way what I call the ecology of everyday life, thereby making a difference in the futures we humans have before us. For some expressions of that end state, see my other blog on sense of wonder, here. For the moment, though, and in reference to the excellent comment my mathematician-philosopher friend Andrew Marshall provided on my first post, let me focus on axiom 2 above, "Two descriptions are better than one." This axiom is drawn from Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979); for anyone interested in axioms of thinking expressed by one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, check out his chapters "Every Schoolboy Knows" and "Multiple Versions of the World", available here.
For me, two descriptions are better than one expresses something vital to my discussion of axioms in general. First off, it suggests that no axiom is "universal". Indeed, anything that is universal - rooted in "one" - is supposed to be true all the time and in every situation. But if two descriptions are better than one, then there is no description which can claim to be the right one, the true one, the "universal". Is it your right eye or your left eye that gets the "right" perspective? Neither, of course: what you see is a composite of the two, giving you three-dimensional vision thanks to parallax. In other words, while one view suggests access to the truth, two views suggest instead that for every situation there are truths. An interesting misunderstanding that derives from this pluralization of the truth is known as "relativism": basically, since all perspectives are true, anything goes. What the doctrine of relativism gets right is that no one perspective can ever capture it all, can ever establish a universal, can ever get to the capital-T Truth. What it fails to take into account is the usefulness of multiple descriptions of the world, and the fact that having access to the so-called truth is not necessary for taking a stand and making a difference in the world that is (alas) the case. I understand the desire to found one's authority in the God-like perspective that capital-T Truth offers, but I advocate instead an ethics of power and knowledge that resituate that authority in myself and my choices, always open to correction and modification through relations with others, never final, never universal. In other words, the axioms I'm discussing here in Axiomatix are situated, local, and very possibly inconsistent. They do not express eternal verities. Instead, with the axioms I express here - and, hopefully, with those my readers offer - I hope to capture those contingent truths that pattern an ecology of everyday life that might lead to not only the survival but also the thrival of human beings on this planet.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
For the most part, we remain ignorant of our axioms. This is one reason that the Socratic Method is a powerful teaching tool: by asking questions and exploring the logical consistency of the answers, Socrates helped bring to light the axioms of his students and fellow philosophers. Unless you belong to a group that places great importance on orthodoxy – that is, one that includes the possibility of heresy – then you probably don’t have a very good idea of what your axioms are. The problem is that those axioms – self-evident truths that are often sexist, racist, heterosexist, speciesist, etc. – have even more power by being invisible to you. In the context of Axiomatix, therefore, I hold this truth to be self-evident: Knowing our axioms is the first step towards changing them, or, indeed, in embracing them more fully. I think, for example, that the Golden Rule – Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You – is a very cool axiom; I also think that, while many in U.S. American society pay lip-service to it, most of us do not in fact attempt to fully articulate it in our everyday lives. This is just one example of the kinds of axioms I’d like to explore here.
In my own work as a theorist and ethicist, I've had the opportunity to bring to light, reject, and transform many of my axioms. With Axiomatix, I'd like to continue that process, and I invite you to join me. What truths do you hold to be self-evident? What worlds and ways of being do those truths imply? And indeed, do you truly hold to them – do you practice them – or do you simply hope to? If you wanna play, try answering these questions, and maybe through conversation we can come up with some interesting new axioms - and some interesting new worlds and worldviews to live in.