Postmetaphysical Thinking (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), Jürgen Habermas

The most successful critiques of a tradition are those critiques that not only represent a countervailing tradition of thought to that being critiqued, but that also permanently change the nature of the thought that has been critiqued. One of the strengths of philosophical thought, i.e., one of the things that gives philosophical thought its perennial nature, is that it is continually engaged in a process of self-critique. In other words, philosophers are always criticizing other philosophers, but through this process we learn things. Another term for this is reflexivity. (Of course, dear reader, I understand that many poor souls feel that philosophy is a useless enterprise, as I have recently written about in connection with science; I pity these poor souls, and I hope you will join me in this commiseration.)

Philosophers have not only criticized other philosophers but have, in particular, engaged in a reflexive critique of metaphysics for centuries, not withstanding the fact that these philosophers themselves formulated alternative metaphysics, and only philosophers practice metaphysics. Leibniz reacted against Scholastic metaphysics, which he called “vain philosophy,” Kant reacted against Leibnizian metaphysics (primarily in the form given it by Christian Wolff), positivism and empiricism reacted against idealism in the Kantian tradition. In more recent developments, structuralists reacted against the subjectivism of phenomenology, post-structuralists reacted against structuralism, and so forth.

During the twentieth century almost all philosophers, even those of deeply divergent traditions, analytical and continental alike, explicitly rejected metaphysics and set forth programs of philosophical thought that would proceed on the basis of philosophy without metaphysics at all. But as Mark Twain famously said that the rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated, so too the rumors of the death of metaphysics have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, I recently wrote about The Apotheosis of Metaphysics, noting how the recently emergent school of object-oriented ontology takes the metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality to a new and greater heights.

A critique that changes all subsequent iterations of a tradition constitutes an intellectual revolution. Cantor’s set theory and transfinite numbers implicitly constituted a critique of finitism among mathematicians. Since then, when finitism has been re-asserted after Cantor, it is a finitism very changed by the fact of Cantorism, which cannot be ignored. The intuitionism of Brouwer is a very different creature than the careless dismissal of the infinite as a mere façon de parler, as the great mathematician Gauss contended:

“…so protestiere ich gegen den Gebrauch einer unendlichen Größe als einer vollendeten, welche in der Mathematik niemals erlaubt ist. Das Unendliche ist nur eine ‘Façon de parler,’ indem man eigentlich von Grenzen spricht, denen gewisse Verhältnisse so nahe kommen als man will, während andern ohne Einschränkung zu wachsen verstattet ist.”

Metaphysics today is like post-Cantorian constructivism — every idea that is employed ultimately refers back, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the conceptual revolution, even if the response to that revolution is reactionary or counter-revolutionary. The anti-metaphysical animus of twentieth century philosophy was something of an intellectual revolution, and the post-metaphysics of today bears the marks of its influence.

Continental philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote a book about Postmetaphysical Thinking, in which he lays out what he sees as the primary thematic motives underlying metaphysical thinking, and those countervailing thematic motives that have emerged as drivers of postmetaphysical thinking. Readers will not be surprised to hear that I view Habermas’ post-metaphysical thinking as simply a new iteration of metaphysics: a new species of metaphysics emergent from descent with modification. And, I think, Habermas seems to be aware of this, and his critique is tinged with a diagnostic air; he understands that, if you wait long enough, the bus of philosophy will always make another stop.

Ideas, like bodies, contain traces of their past. This is as true of metaphysical ideas as of any other more familiar ideas. Descent with modification makes of an evolved entity a palimpsest in which the history of that entity can be patiently teased out by the careful eye that looks beneath the surface. As Ortega y Gasset said of man, we can say of ideas: ideas have not an essence, but a history. Or, rather, ideas have both an essence and a history.

The history of an idea is marked by the continual reassertion of the essential character of idea, but the essential character is also marked by its historical evolution. The continuity of ideas in history displays a high degree of historical viability, which is to say that the rate of change of ideas is slower than that of, say, social institutions (which are frequently shaped by ideas), but more rapid than that of geological features (which, I have argued, shape ideas in the very long term). Since we routinely make use of a concept like geological time, we might also posit an ideational time as being the scale of time at which ideas evolve. Indeed, this might be taken as a definition of what I initially called integral history, but which I have since come to call (in my own, personal iteration of ideational descent with modification) metaphysical history, as a division within the more comprehensive context of ecological temporality.

This reflection gives me some food for thought in the development of my conception of ecological temporality, into which I can hopefully more fully integrate the idea of an ideational temporality.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.

One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with “idiom” construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.

The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.

We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominate position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.

Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by scientific popularizers that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.

A recent paper in Science by Sacha Kocsis, Boris Braverman, Sylvain Ravets, Martin J. Stevens, Richard P. Mirin, L. Krister Shalm, and Aephraim M. Steinberg, Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer, points to new ways of thinking and talking about quantum theory. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“A consequence of the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle is that one may not discuss the path or “trajectory” that a quantum particle takes, because any measurement of position irrevocably disturbs the momentum, and vice versa. Using weak measurements, however, it is possible to operationally define a set of trajectories for an ensemble of quantum particles. We sent single photons emitted by a quantum dot through a double-slit interferometer and reconstructed these trajectories by performing a weak measurement of the photon momentum, postselected according to the result of a strong measurement of photon position in a series of planes. The results provide an observationally grounded description of the propagation of subensembles of quantum particles in a two-slit interferometer.”

There is a good article by Jason Palmer of the BBC, Quantum mechanics rule ‘bent’ in classic experiment, about the paper and its ramifications. Palmer writes that researchers, “say the feat ‘pulls back the veil’ on quantum reality in a way that was thought to be prohibited by theory.” If one wanted to go seeking headlines, one could say something dramatic like “Scientists break the laws of quantum physics” — you get the idea.

But what has been thought to be prohibited is in large measure a limitation upon the current language of quantum theory and, to a certain extent, an artifact of particular experiments. As more sophisticated experiments are conceived and conducted, we may someday know quite a bit more about quantum theory than has been thought possible to date.

In Palmer’s BBC story there is an excellent quote from Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University:

The trouble with quantum mechanics is that while we’ve learned to calculate the outcomes of all sorts of experiments, we’ve lost much of our ability to describe what is really happening in any natural language.

I think that this has really hampered our ability to make progress, to come up with new ideas and see intuitively how new systems ought to behave.

Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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pictogram - man with idea

Philosophical thought is often believed to be remote from the concerns of quotidian life. One of the reasons that I created this particular forum was to attempt to show the deep and systematic way that philosophical ideas penetrate even the most mundane and ordinary concerns of our daily lives.

Personally I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing. When people do lie in their bed all day and do nothing they are diagnosed with a mental illness, because science is today the paradigm for dealing with such matters. However, we are under no obligation to participate in this paradigm, and we can recognize the possibility of an existential malaise that is the visceral corollary of a philosophical position. This is only one of many ways in which a theoretical attitude can have practical consequences.

If philosophical ideas often seem distant from ordinary concerns, philosophical argument must seem an order of magnitude further removed from life, with its remarkable subtleties and its complex details that demand our careful attention, but I want to try to show how philosophical reasoning and argumentation have a basis in matters familiar to almost everyone.

There is a passage from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World in which he gently makes fun of those who presume to offer up, as authoritative arguments, their gut feelings:

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”
I say, “I just told you what I really think.”
“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”
But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1997, p. 180

While I am not without sympathy for Sagan’s point here, it strikes me as inadequate from a philosophical point of view. Sagan, whatever his reputation as a sage, was ultimately and spiritually a scientist. His thoughts are formulated like a scientist, and science-like observations (which presumably exclude gut feelings) are as crucial to science as science-like reasoning, science-like theories, and science-like predictions.

However, as philosophers we are not limited to science-like observations, any more than we are obligated to participate in the scientific paradigm of existential malaise as mental illness. In fact, as philosophers we not only have the intellectual right to pursue matters on the cusp of the ineffable, but in fact we have an intellectual duty and obligation to do so. We must go farther and test every possibility of evidence or we will fall short of full possibilities of theoretical thought.

Obviously, Sagan did not think that gut instincts constituted “evidence.” Certainly untutored instincts do not constitute scientific evidence, but they are nevertheless evidence of something, and this evidence is of the greatest philosophical interest. The point here is not whether or not our intuitions are evidence, but what the value of what evidence is, what that evidence means, and what place it ought to hold in a given body of knowledge.

There would probably be a way to formulate this in terms of Bayesianism (and hopefully some day I will take the time to work out this formulation), but I won’t pursue that at present. I will, however, pursue an alternative method to doing justice to our intuitions, instincts, and feelings.

Therefore, and without further ado, my sure-fire, quick-and-easy, step-by-step method for formulating a cogent philosophical argument merely on the basis of one’s gut instincts is as follows:

Step 1: Review the current positions and arguments in any area of philosophy that strikes your interest.

Step 2: Search your feelings for your visceral reactions to these ideas and arguments. (If you have no visceral reaction whatsoever to ideas, you probably aren’t cut out to be a philosopher.) You will notice that some of your visceral reactions to ideas will be sympathetic, and some will be antipathetic. That is to say, you will like some ideas, and other ideas you will dislike.

Step 3: Turn your attention to your viscerally negative reactions to some ideas. Examine these reactions carefully. Ask yourself, “Why do I react strongly against this idea?” Inquire carefully into your intellectual likes and dislikes.

Step 4: If you can bring your feelings to a level of explicit consciousness, you will notice that your antipathetic responses to some ideas usually follow from the fact that the ideas in question have ignored or contradicted something that you intuitively know to be the case, and perhaps also to be important. Ask yourself, “What is the intuition to which this idea has not done justice?”

Step 5: Bring your neglected or contradicted intuition to full and explicit consciousness. Develop a theoretical exposition of this intuition (or these intuitions, if there are several) on its own terms.

Step 6: Compare this exposition of your neglected intuition with ideas and arguments to which you felt an immediate sympathy. Does it tally with them? If yes, you can develop your exposition of your intuition in the context of known theories.

Step 7: If your neglected idea does not tally with existing ideas with which you are sympathetic, you will need to go up to a higher level of generality to find a systematic theoretical context in which you can formulate an exposition of your intuitions.

Step 8: If you can’t find any systematic theoretical context within which you can fit the exposition of your neglected intuition, then you will have to construct an entire metaphysics from scratch, and you’re in for a long, hard slog. Enjoy it.

Step 9: Once you have an exposition in a fully developed metaphysical context of some gut instinct to which current philosophical ideas and arguments do not do justice, confront those ideas and arguments with your now powerfully formulated exposition of their ellipses. Wait for the sparks to fly.

Step 10: If no sparks fly, and your powerful formulation of an ellipsis in contemporary philosophical thought falls dead-born from the press (or, rather, falls too low in Google rankings to ever be seen or read by anyone), prepare to die gracefully and await posthumous discovery and fame. For a philosopher, patience is a virtue and death is the least of considerations when it comes to the value of an idea.

So, there you have it — ten easy steps to philosophical wisdom, and a method for doing justice to matters of the intellect that the intellect sometimes neglects, to do justice to that which we know in our bones. Of course, if you know something in your bones that doesn’t mean that it’s true, only that it has a place in our thought. The next step is to determine what the proper place is in out thought for our instincts, intuitions, and feelings. That will require a further method.

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Euclid woodcut 1584

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Studies in Mathematical Intuition

1. Epistemic Space

2. The Ethos of Formal Thought

3. Fractal Intuitions: Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

4. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

5. Fractal Intuitions: Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

6. Fractal Intuitions: A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

7. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

8. Fractal Intuitions: A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

9. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method

10. Exaptations of Intuition

11. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

12. Saying, Showing, Constructing

13. One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism

14. The Church-Turing Thesis and the Asymmetry of Intuition

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

In what I have come to call Metaphysical Ecology I took Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecology, extended it, and applied it to time, yielding what I call Ecological Temporality. I then applied ecological temporality to the philosophy of mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. There are many potential applications of ecological temporality that I hope to spell out in future posts.

Darren Staloff

Today I was listening once again to Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past, from The Teaching Company. Unfortunately, The Teaching Company has discontinued this title, though it is certainly among the most rigorous and detailed of the philosophy titles that The Teaching Company offered. Knowing how much I enjoyed this, and knowing that it is no longer available, I bought a second, used copy for myself through Amazon. It was because I just received this “back up” copy that I have been listening through it again.

In this most recent listening I realized that the different levels of time that Fernand Braudel recognized in his historiography — the history of the event, the history of cycles, or conjunctures, and the history of the longue durée — and which he especially lays out in his essay “History and the Social Sciences,” collected in his On History, can be given an exposition in terms of ecological temporality.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Braudel’s tripartite division of historical time scales roughly corresponds to the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Braudel wrote:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

This assertion must be seen not only in the context of Braudel’s own concern for the long time span, the longue durée, but also in the context of a famous passage of his that I have quoted on several occasions:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

For Braudel, the choice of the longue durée “according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions” is a choice to be concerned with what is permanent rather than what is ephemeral. Taken to its logical extreme, the structuralist conception of history becomes what I have called a top-down temporal model. However, we need not extrapolate the doctrines of structuralism to their logical extremes, but can rest in a middle ground. One way to do this would be to integrate the structuralist perspective into a ecological structure emphasizing the interaction of temporal orders of magnitude.

Braudel’s tripartite distinction can be (perhaps imperfectly) assimilated to ecological temporality by identifying the short term history of the event with meso-temporality (the social time that is the interaction of individuals experiencing micro-temporality), identifying the history of conjunctures with exo-temporality (temporal interactions on the level of discrete social systems or dynamical systems), and identifying the longue durée of classic structuralist historiography with macro-temporality. In this ecological schematization of Braudelian temporal categories, Braudel does not recognize a history of internal time consciousness (perhaps that would be relegated to psychology), and he does not go as far as metaphysical temporality (no historian any traditional sense of the term does go this far).

If the history of events is ephemeral and disappears into oblivion as soon as it is glimpsed, from the point of view of metaphysical history, the longue durée no less disappears into oblivion, it just takes longer for this to happen. And the longue durée would count for nothing, indeed would not exist, if it did not descend into the individual consciousness, and if the individual consciousness in turn did not impart its fragment of temporality to the turning world.

In Braudelian terms, the history of the event flows into the conjuncture, and the conjuncture flows into the longue durée, just as the longue durée shapes the conjuncture, as the conjuncture shapes the history of the event.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ecological Temporality

23 March 2011


How swiftly Time before my eyes rushed on
After the guiding Sun, that never rests,
I will not say: ‘twould be beyond my power.
As in a single moment did I see
Ice and the rose, great cold and burning heat
A wondrous thing, indeed, even to hear.

Francesco Petrarch, Triumph of Time (TRIUMPHUS TEMPORIS, from Petrarch’s Trionfi)

Metaphysical preamble on Ecological Ontology

Recently in Integral Ecology I began to formulate an extended conception of ecology that was indebted to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model of social interconnectedness, though intended to go beyond both the biological and social scope. Yesterday in Metaphysical Ecology I explained why I will discontinue my use of the terms “integral history” and “integral ecology” in favor of metaphysical history and metaphysical ecology. Ultimately, this is the more appropriate terminology for what is, at bottom, a philosophical project of seeing the world whole.

Metaphysical ecology is nothing but the extension of the concept of ecology until it coincides with ontology. This yields an ontology founded in scientific empiricism and methodological naturalism.

To define metaphysical ecology as “nothing but…” is what logicians call an “extremal clause,” the purpose of which is to put an end to any further elaboration of a definition (usually stated in recursive form) and to confine ourselves only to that which has been stipulated. Such definitions are often thought to be reductivist. Reductivist definitions are not necessarily a bad thing. When we define water as H2O we are reducing the macroscopic features of ordinary experience in order to account for water as a chemical molecule understood in the context of atomic theory. Many reductive definitions are like this, giving us more theoretically powerful formulations because they are contextualized within an established and more comprehensive theory.

Reductive definitions, however, have a deservedly bad reputation because of the misuse and abuse to which they have been put. When we say that “x is nothing but y” we are doing an obvious disservice to the true nature of x. Consider such statements as, “Pinocchio was nothing but a puppet” or “Hamlet is nothing but a play” and you will understand what I am getting at. However, in the present case of defining metaphysical ecology in terms of ontology we really have not introduced any unwarranted or arbitrary limitations into the concept of ecology since ontology is the most comprehensive philosophical category.

There is a sense in which it is ironic to even consider time in an ontological context, as ontology has been anti-temporal almost from its beginnings to the present day. Traditional Western metaphysics pursued the tradition of setting up a distinction between appearance and reality, and, in its most traditional forms, would consign time, the temporal, and the ephemeral to the sphere of mere appearance. It is to the credit of contemporary analytical metaphysics, seeking as it does to exemplify the spirit of scientific naturalism, has reconciled itself with the reality of time, so that the main stream of Anglo-American analytical philosophy is as concerned to produce an adequate metaphysical theory of time as it is concerned with any other feature of the world.

While I have noted previously (in The Apotheosis of Metaphysics) that contemporary object oriented ontology reinstates the traditional distinction between appearance and reality in an especially elaborate and robust form, the larger philosophical trend until just recently, both on the continent (in the form of phenomenology) and in the analytical tradition (in the form of phenomenalism and empiricism) was the collapse of the distinction between appearance and reality and the simultaneous attempt to formulate a unified account of the world. it could be argued that the distinction between appearance and reality is more fundamental than the doctrine of the unreality of time, since if the distinction is denied there is no category of appearance to which time is to be consigned.

In any case, ecological temporality as I attempt to formulate it below is probably consistent with either the retention or the denial of the distinction between appearance and reality, and thus could even be seen as being consistent with the doctrine of the denial of the reality of time, in so far as ecological temporality can be given an exposition as mere appearance. However, in spirit, my ambition for ecological temporality is that it should be understood as science extrapolated to the limits of philosophical thought, and therefore constituting a naturalism that sees no need for anything beyond the world of naturalism, and therefore no need for a distinction between appearance and reality.

From Ecological Systems Theory to Metaphysical Ecology

As noted above, I began my exposition of metaphysical ecology in my post Integral Ecology. There I began with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological distinction between micro-systems, meso-systems, exo-systems, macro-systems, and chronosystem. The last of these, the chronosystem, is shown in the following illustration as an additional “halo” surrounding the nested bio-ecological levels centered around the individual person.

I think that Bronfenbrenner’s treatment of the chronosystem was inadequate, radically so, and his treatment of ecological levels could be improved, so, building on his bio-ecological model, and also separating time into its own hierarchy from micro-system to macro-system and beyond, I reformulated metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality as shown below.

Here is my revised version of the ecological hierarchy:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

Metaphysical Ecology (or metaphysical system): Ultimately, the metaphysical level of the ecological system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical history. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

And after having separated Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem from the ecological hierarchy and extrapolated the chronosystem on its own, here is my formulation of a ecological hierarchy for time, or a temporal ecology, if you will:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded.

While the illustration of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem as an additional concentric level is accurate in so far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. It is accurate because everything within the ecological systems is subject to time, and therefore to show time (i.e., the chronosystem) as embracing all the ecological levels is accurate. However, each level of ecological structure is subject to each level of time. Here is an illustration of how each level of the ecological systems are ultimately subject to metaphysical time:

The same kind of illustration could be drawn to show how all levels of ecology are subject to micro-temporalities, meso-temporalities, exo-temporalities, and macro-temporalities. It would require a rather large illustration to show all the possibilities, so I have put them in the chart form below.

Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or, if you like, what I have been calling integral history, but which I will now call metaphysical history) stand in a systematic relationship to each other. Better, they stand in an ecological relationship to each other. Firstly, however, the systematic relationship: each level of metaphysical ecology can be given an exposition at each level of metaphysical temporality. This means that there are twenty-five possible perspectives on the interaction between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality. I have diagrammed these possibilities in the chart below.

In the technical terminology of the theory of relations, the blue circles on the left are the domain, the gray circles on the right are the range, and the both together are the field of the relation. A diagram that traces all possibilities of field of the relation is confusing to the eye (being a little too complex to have immediate appeal to geometrical intuition), so it might be better understood by considering a simpler diagram of a subset of the field of relations between one term in the domain to the several terms of the range. Here is a diagram that shows only the relations of a single micro-system of ecology to the levels of temporality:

If we take the single term from the domain to be a person, the person’s relation to micro-temporality is what Husserl called internal time-consciousness (one’s relation to oneself), the relation to meso-temporality is the individual’s relation to inter-subjectivity (the social world of which we are a part, and the venerable philosophical question of other minds), the relation to exo-temporality is the individual’s relation to temporal systems of which he is not an immediate participant (e.g., what’s happening on the other side of the planet, or in the Andromeda Galaxy, which could be given an exposition in terms of the relativity of simultaneity), the relation to macro-temporality is the individual’s relation to the historical era of which he is a (temporal) part (e.g., one’s place today in the history of industrialized civilization), and the relation to metaphysical temporality is the individual’s place in the whole of metaphysical history (one’s place in the world from the beginning of time to the present). Each of these permutations can be extrapolated from each term in the domain to each of the terms in the range.

A convenient way to express these relationships would be to refer to the terms of the domain with a capital “S” with a subscript to indicate the ecological level (Smic, Smes, Sexo, Smac, and Sint), and similarly to refer to the terms of the range with a capital “T” followed by a subscript to indicate the temporal level (Tmic, Tmes, Texo, Tmac, and Tint). In this way each of the twenty-five permutations in the upper diagram can be expressed, for example, like this: Smic/Tmic, which is the topmost line in both diagrams. However, a more intuitive way to express the relationships between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality would be to join the two at the level of the individual, which is the microsystem in common, and then to represent their possible relationships as a graph:

This makes the unity of micro-systems — ecological and temporal — obvious, but gives the impression that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality diverge, though, as I wrote above, they coincide very much as micro-systems coincide. I could say that these schematic delineations of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or metaphysical history, if you prefer) are alternative formulations of the same state of affairs. Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history coincide; the difference between the two is only the perspective one takes on the whole field of ecology. Metaphysical ecology approaches ecological structures structurally and synchronically (one could even say, to preserve even greater symmetry, that metaphysical ecology approaches temporal structures synchronically); metaphysical history approaches the same ecological structures functionally and diachronically.

The point of taking an ecological perspective, however, is not to reduce matters to their smallest and simplest terms, or to erect hierarchies and classification schemas, but to see things whole. It is my purpose, in so far as it is possible, to see time whole, and that means all parts of time related to all other parts of time, and, in the spirit of the observation above that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history are alternative formations of the same state of affairs, to see the several parts of time in relation to all other temporal-ecological structures and vice versa.

There is an ecology of time itself, an interrelationship of the various parts of time to the whole. As the ecological perspective in biology seeks to demonstrate by way of science the perennial mystical insight of the connectedness of all things (called panarchy in ecology), so too an ecology of time understands the connectedness of all times, of all moments to other moments, and of all moments of time to the whole of time. The ecological perspective provides us with a conceptual structure in which these relations of connectedness can be systematically delineated.

Once time is understood ecologically, one can bring this ecological temporality to a systematic understanding of ecology itself. We have seen that ecology has been defined as the science of the struggle for existence. This struggle takes place in time, and it takes place on many ecological levels simultaneously.

It would be counter-productive to attempt to pluck one paradigm of biological competition out the “levels of selection” controversy and to defend this at the expense of other paradigmata of selection. The world is a complex place in which almost also logical distinctions are muddied in practice. Thus selection is not one thing, but many things taking place over different ecological levels and also at different temporal levels. There is selection at the level of the genome, and therefore selfish genes, but there is also selection at the level of the individual, and at the level of the community and its niche, and at the level of the population and its biome, and ultimately on levels that transcend life and reach up to the life cycles of the stars — galactic ecology (or, as I would prefer, cosmological ecology, which converges on metaphysical ecology).

The generalization of ecology to metaphysical ecology demands that we also generalize those biological concepts that constitute ecology. One of these concepts to be generalized is that of a trophic layer. Biology online defines trophic as follows:




(1) Of, relating to, or pertaining to nutrition.

(2) Of, or involving, the feeding habits or food relationship of different organisms in a food chain.

Trophic layers are thus layers, i.e., stratifications, of feeding relationships. We know that the primary relationship in nature, red in tooth and claw, is that of feeding. Biological ontology is a system of relationships based on feeding. In nature, one can eat or be eaten. Most likely, one with both eat and be eaten in turn. When big fishes eat little fishes, and the little fishes eat even smaller fishes, we call this a food chain. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Ecology defines food chain:

Oxford Dictionary of Ecology definition of food chain

However, feeding relationships rarely constitute a simple linear chain, so ecologists have also defined a food web. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Biology defines a food web:

The updated fourth edition of the Dictionary of Ecology is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of ecology available. Written in a clear, accessible style, it contains more than 6,000 entries on all aspects of ecology and related environmental scientific disciplines such as biogeography, genetics, soil science, geomorphology, atmospheric science, and oceanography. The information covered in the dictionary is wide-ranging and includes plant and animal physiology, animal behavior, pollution, conservation, habitat management, population, evolution, environmental pollution, climatology and meteorology. It also features many line drawings and useful appendices including estimations of population parameters, the geologic time-scale, SI units, and--new to this edition--a web-linked appendix of relevant organizations including both governmental agencies and conservation societies. Fully revised, updated, and expanded, with over 100 new entries, this fourth edition also contains new web links for dozens of entries--which are accessed and kept up to date via the Dictionary of Ecology companion website. The dictionary will be invaluable to students and professionals interested in ecology, biology, conservation, and the environmental sciences as well as general readers with an interest in the natural world.

In the conceptually extended context of metaphysical ecology, rather than trophic layers, food chains, and food webs, I will instead posit metaphysical trophisms, ontic chains, and ontic webs. In Integral Ecology I observed that in the extended sense of (what I know call) metaphysical ecology, man does not live by bread alone. What this means in a metaphysical context is the human relationships, while not independent of feeding relationships, transcend feeding relationships and also include other kinds of relationships.

Metaphysical trophisms may sound difficult and abstruse, but it is really quite simple. What we have here is nothing but Plato’s famous definition of being: to be is the power to affect or be affected in turn. One way to affect or be affected is to eat or be eaten. These special cases of the Platonic definition of being define food chains and food webs, and these in turn define trophic layers. In the extended conception of metaphysical ecology we return to the abstract generality of the Platonic formulation, so that the power to affect and to be affected are the relationships of ontic chains and ontic webs, which taken together defined metaphysical trophisms.

I am not going to even attempt at present an exposition of metaphysical trophisms. Suffice it to say for the moment that metaphysical trophisms offer the possibility of an extremely fine-grained account of the world, but this possibility can only be redeemed through a fairly exhaustive treatment of a novel form of fundamentum divisionis significantly more complex than categories. Trophisms are more complex than categories because there are many different ways in which one object can affect or be affected by another, and each of these ways can be explicated exclusively in terms of the agent, or exclusively in terms of the sufferant, or in terms of the reciprocity of agent and sufferant.

What I would like to touch on at present, to give an initial sense of ecological temporality and its potential for conceptual clarification, are what we may call time chains and time webs, in parallel with the food chains and food webs of ecology in the strict and narrow sense of the term. Temporal chains and temporal webs are special cases of what I above called ontic chains and ontic webs, which are features of a more general ontological conception.

Micro-temporalities in relation to themselves and in relation to other micro-temporalities; taken together, interacting, they constitute meso-temporality.

When we consider some of the traditional philosophical conceptions of time (as well as intuitive conceptions of time), we can see that they fall into readily recognizable patterns that can be analyzed in terms of ecological temporality. For example, Husserl’s emphasis upon subjective time consciousness (and I should point out that I am in no way critical of this emphasis) is clearly what could be called a “bottom up” time chain, such that the whole structure of temporality, from the largest structures of metaphysical history down to the smallest structures of micro-temporality, are ultimately driven by (and presumably reducible to, thus constituting a reductive definition) the mind’s temporality.

Augustine (whom Husserl cited in his Cartesian Meditations) also reduced time to the perspective of the individual, though with the superadded metaphysical doctrine that time itself is unreal and has no ultimate place in the structure of the world. What this means in terms of ecological temporality is that the whole structure of metaphysical time is mere appearance erected upon the experiences of the individual. (Odd, is it not, then, that Augustine should be equally famous for his philosophy of history as given exposition in his City of God?) Augustine’s classic exposition of time is in Book XI of his Confessions, where Augustine writes in Chapters XXVII and XXVIII:

It is in you, O mind of mine, that I measure the periods of time. Do not shout me down that it exists [objectively]; do not overwhelm yourself with the turbulent flood of your impressions. In you, as I have said, I measure the periods of time. I measure as time present the impression that things make on you as they pass by and what remains after they have passed by–I do not measure the things themselves which have passed by and left their impression on you. This is what I measure when I measure periods of time. Either, then, these are the periods of time or else I do not measure time at all.

What are we doing when we measure silence, and say that this silence has lasted as long as that voice lasts? Do we not project our thought to the measure of a sound, as if it were then sounding, so that we can say something concerning the intervals of silence in a given span of time? For, even when both the voice and the tongue are still, we review–in thought–poems and verses, and discourse of various kinds or various measures of motions, and we specify their time spans–how long this is in relation to that–just as if we were speaking them aloud. If anyone wishes to utter a prolonged sound, and if, in forethought, he has decided how long it should be, that man has already in silence gone through a span of time, and committed his sound to memory. Thus he begins to speak and his voice sounds until it reaches the predetermined end. It has truly sounded and will go on sounding. But what is already finished has already sounded and what remains will still sound. Thus it passes on, until the present intention carries the future over into the past. The past increases by the diminution of the future until by the consumption of all the future all is past.

But how is the future diminished or consumed when it does not yet exist? Or how does the past, which exists no longer, increase, unless it is that in the mind in which all this happens there are three functions? For the mind expects, it attends, and it remembers; so that what it expects passes into what it remembers by way of what it attends to. Who denies that future things do not exist as yet? But still there is already in the mind the expectation of things still future. And who denies that past things now exist no longer? Still there is in the mind the memory of things past. Who denies that time present has no length, since it passes away in a moment? Yet, our attention has a continuity and it is through this that what is present may proceed to become absent. Therefore, future time, which is nonexistent, is not long; but “a long future” is “a long expectation of the future.” Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; a “long past” is “a long memory of the past.”

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat. Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past. The more this is done and repeated, the more the memory is enlarged–and expectation is shortened–until the whole expectation is exhausted. Then the whole action is ended and passed into memory. And what takes place in the entire psalm takes place also in each individual part of it and in each individual syllable. This also holds in the even longer action of which that psalm is only a portion. The same holds in the whole life of man, of which all the actions of men are parts. The same holds in the whole age of the sons of men, of which all the lives of men are parts.

Thus does Augustine “explain away” time, but, at the same time, attributes time to the human mind, and so commits himself to a “bottom up” theory of time. While I find Augustine’s theory of time to be inadequate, it is at least more of a theory than Plato had, and in the context of platonism it accomplishes all that a theory of time could hope to accomplish even while declaring time to be ultimately unreal.

Saint Augustine asked 'What then is time?' and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

The obvious antithetical view to the “bottom up” time chain is the “top down” time chain in which it is posited that all time in the world, at all ecological levels, follows from the over-arching structure of time which imposes its nature and character upon all subordinate temporalities, so that time and change are imposed from above rather than rising from below.

Plato, whom Augustine followed so closely in so many matters, including his denial of the ultimate reality of time, provides a perfect illustration of a philosophical “top down” time chain. Although for Plato there is no metaphysical temporality but only metaphysical eternity, such that the former is illusory appearance while the latter is reality, in one famous passage Plato wrote that, “time is the moving image of eternity.” Thus, for Plato, the over-arching reality of eternity trickles down into the interstices of the world, the appearance of time penetrating down from above.

Plato implicitly invoked a top-down model of time by making eternity generative of time; eternity is the Platonic form, while time in the mere image of eternity in the cave of shadows. For Plato, time and eternity are related as appearance to reality.

There is, furthermore, an intuitive correlate to this Platonic conception of time as the moving image of eternity, and this is the familiar sense in which people invoke Fate or Destiny as implacable temporal forces from on high that direct the lives of men below. This is famously expressed by Hamlet when the Prince of Denmark says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” (Act V, scene ii) And all of the familiar mythological images, from the Fates and Furies of Greek tragedy to the Norns of Norse mythology, when the gods decides the fates of men ultimately powerless to shape their own destinies, represent a strongly top down model of temporal ecology.

The three norns: one to spin the thread of life, another to mark its length, and a third to cut the thread.

Top-down time chains are also common in contemporary scientific thinking and especially in cosmology. Some theorists of time as an expression of increasing entropy (the thermodynamic arrow of time) and the expansion of the universe (the cosmological arrow of time) come close to saying (without actually making it explicit) that if entropy could be reversed or if the universe halted in its expansion and then began to contract that time itself would reverse and subjective internal time consciousness would also reverse. However, it is much more common among scientists simply to pretend that subjective time consciousness doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, that it isn’t important — perhaps it is a mere “user illusion.” Because of the distaste for philosophy, and especially for metaphysics, among scientists and most others wedded to methodological naturalism, thinkers of this stripe rarely bother to assert that subjective and internal time consciousness is unreal in the same way that their opposite numbers assert the unreality of cosmic time, but in effect the positions are perfectly symmetrical. The scientific denial of subjective time (and hence temporal chains driven from the bottom up by individual time consciousness) is an implicit assertion of the unreality of internal time consciousness.

An explicitly top-down model of time from John G. Cramer's paper, “Velocity Reversal and the Arrows of Time”

As I wrote above, the point of taking an ecological perspective is to understand the interconnections between things, and for this reason either a “bottom up” or “top down” model of temporality is inadequate. Temporal chains, whether bottom up or top down, represent a simplification and idealization of the way that temporality acts in the world, just as food chains are simplifications and idealizations that do not possess this linearity in fact. An adequate conception of ecological temporality would recognize simultaneously occurring top down and bottom up temporal processes, as well as temporal interactions from any one temporal level to any other temporal level. This more adequate model of time yields a time web rather than discrete time chains.

This post constitutes only a first sketch of ecological temporality, and I hope that it has given you something to think about in relation to time. There is more more to say by way of elaboration and extrapolation, especially on the topic of metaphysical trophisms, but I will finish for now with only one further observation.

One of the most influential philosophical developments of the last part of the twentieth century was the introduction of Kripkean semantics, which displaced theories of naming and reference widely prevalent in analytical philosophy, especially those traditions deriving from the work of Frege and Russell. Kripke replaced the quasi-logical theories of reference with one based on the highly intuitive idea that names are derived from initial acts of baptism, and these acts of baptism are passed down along a causal chain from the past down into the present. Thus Kripkean semantical theory is often called the causal theory of reference. It seems to me that Kripkean causal chains are simple, linear time chains, and as such constitute simplifications and indeed idealizations of reference. In the messy real world of time webs, we cannot count on a single, linear, unified casual chain to transmit acts of baptism from the past unbroken into the present.

Saul Aaron Kripke (born November 13, 1940)

Kripke's causal theory of reference has been highly influential, but it runs into trouble when causality must be traced through a temporal web, just as Newtonian mechanics runs into trouble with the n-body problem.

This is as much to say that ecological temporality suggests a more complex theory of reference than that embodied in causal theories of reference, and this would be an interesting application of a philosophical theory of time to a philosophical theory of reference.

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What follows is a reformulated version of my Integral Ecology post, rewritten to conform to the changed terminology that I adopted in my post Metaphysical Ecology.

I have substantially expanded on some of the ideas below in a further post, Ecological Temporality. .

Food webs are basic structures of ecology, with the latter understood in specifically biological sense.

On the Extension of Concepts and Ecology sensu stricto

In this forum I have had occasion to attempt the extension of some familiar concepts, as in order to achieve an understanding of the most abstract, general, and comprehensive features of the world and our experience of the world we must transcend the strictly parochial and particular origins of our ideas in limited and local circumstances and re-define our concepts without reference to anything specific or particular. Such extended concepts involve a transition from the practical and the scientific to the abstract and the philosophical. /span>

I count this conceptual development as part of the Copernican Revolution, which usually takes the form of seeking non-anthropocentric formulations of ideas with anthropocentric origins. In this spirit I have suggested that a conception of metaphysical history can be drawn out of traditional historiography. (I have further formulations in the same spirit that I plan to make available in the fullness of time.)

Since man does not live by bread alone, the bio-ecological structures of human experience involve more factors than the food web illustrated above.

In the same spirit of what I have called metaphysical history I would now like to introduce the idea of metaphysical ecology as an extension, expansion, extrapolation, and generalization of ecology as the term is usually understood and employed. That is to say, metaphysical ecology is a philosophical ecology, in which we have passed from the concrete, scientific conceptions of ecology in the narrow sense to the abstract, philosophical conceptions of ecology in a philosophical sense. /span>

Firstly, I want to briefly consider what ecology has meant heretofore. What is ecology in its initially narrow meaning? What is ecology sensu stricto? There has been some lack of precision in the definition of ecology, so these definitions have lacked the formal exactitude that one might expect (or hope) from the biological sciences. Nevertheless, there have been enlightening even if not formal definitions of ecology.

Another biologically specific conception of ecology.

Ecology, unlike traditional history, is not a specifically anthropocentric concept. On the contrary, a narrow definition of ecology is admirably non-anthropocentric. For example, here is the first sentence of What is Ecology?:

“Ecology is concerned with the relationships between plants and animals and the environment in which they live.”

What is Ecology? D. F. Owen, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 1

This definition is biologically specific and not anthropocentric, so the primary task of extending and expanding our conception of ecology is not one of disposing with anthropocentric prejudices but of formulating a definition of ecology that is not specifically biological.

A generalization of ecological thinking to cosmology: galactic ecology.

A somewhat more comprehensive definition of ecology can be found at the Biology Online website:

(1) Ecological science: the science concerned with the interactions of living organisms with each other and with their environment, also called bionomics.

(2) A branch of biology that deals with the distribution, abundance and interactions of living organisms at the level of communities, populations, and ecosystems, as well as at the global scale.

(2) The system within the environment as it relates to organisms living in it.

(3) A branch of sociology that deals with the relations of human beings with their physical and social environment, also called as human ecology.

This definition of ecology includes the extended sense of ecology employed by Urie Bronfrenbrenner, which we will consider in more detail below, because Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (sometimes called the bio-ecological model) represents an extant generalization of ecology.

Most intriguingly among the traditional definitions of ecology, there is Ernst Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence. (There is a wonderful discussion of this in The Science of the Struggle for Existence: On the Foundations of Ecology by Gregory J. Cooper, one volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology; all of the volumes of this series are of the greatest interest.) Here is Haeckel’s definition of the discipline he himself founded:

“By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature — the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including, above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contract — in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.”

Haeckel was the one who introduced the concept of ecology, so his definition is of particular interest. While it is expressed in a nineteenth century idiom that is redolent of the idea of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson saw it), Haeckel’s definition of ecology will prove suggestive in a formulation of battlespace in terms of metaphysical ecology. Although Haeckel’s intriguing definition of ecology was not Bronfenbrenner’s point of departure for a generalization of ecology, I mention it here because I will return to it below.

Introducing the Concept of Metaphysical Ecology

In its most common signification, ecology is narrowly biological in conception. The reference to the inorganic context of life is there only because life always occurs in an inorganic context. Life is the focus. Bronfenbrenner’s exposition of bio-ecology, or ecological systems theory, represents a significant generalization of the concept of ecology, and this generalization requires that we arrive at an abstract conception of ecology in order to understand its relevance to non-specifically biological subject matter. What is the implied abstract conception of ecology? I call the implied conception metaphysical ecology.

The extension of the idea of ecology already pursued to date has been formulated in the context of the fields of social work and psychotherapy by Urie Bronfenbrenner, especially in his book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA., 1979). This is a systematic exposition of what he calls ecological systems theory, which systematically places individuals within progressively more comprehensive and inter-related social structures.

Bronfenbrenner formulated the following bioecological categories:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

The Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course, as well as sociohistorical circumstances.

Since I already have a conception of metaphysical history that accounts for “events and transitions over the life course,” I would eliminate the category of chronosystem from the subdivisions of bio-ecology, leave open the litany of bio-ecological categories for the possibility of yet more comprehensive formulations (e.g., larger social constructs than cultures, such as civilizations), and further articulate Bronfenbrenner’s singular chronosystem as metaphysical history by formulating its subdivisions on a similar plan to that of ecological systems theory, something like this:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded.

This in turn suggests a further extrapolation of bio-ecological categories in place of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem:

Metaphysical system (or Metaphysical Ecology): Ultimately, the metaphysical system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

With this revision in mind, I would lay out Bronfenbrenner’s schema of bio-ecological categories as follows:

The Micro-system

The Meso-system

The Exosystem

The Macrosystem

The Metaphysical System

As I noted above, Bronfenbrenner does not take as his point of departure Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence, and then proceed to extend and expand this definition. I would like to suggest re-thinking Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory in terms of Haeckel’s definition, because in this case bio-ecology becomes an extension and expansion of the struggle for existence. When we think of ecology from a point of view of its extrapolation to a completely comprehensive conception of metaphysical ecology, Haeckel’s definition remains valid — even at its most comprehensive level of metaphysical ecology, ecology is still about the struggle for existence — and so we see in retrospect that Haeckel himself had a highly abstract and comprehensive conception of ecology. This suggests the possibility of the application of integral of ecology to human struggles in the form of war.

From Battlefield to Battlespace

The earliest known battles of human history, which followed upon the emergence of settled agricultural societies, literally took place in open fields; there was, from the beginnings of conflict organized under the auspices of civilization, a field of battle, so that the term battlefield was literal. Over time, and with the increasing sophistication and complexity of civilization, battle also became more sophisticated and complex.

The war chariot was a game-changing weapons system of early human history, but optimal use of chariots required a flat and level battlefield.

Col. T. N. Dupuy wrote of the physical terrain of battle in early warfare:

“The phalanx and its individual units were capable of limited maneuvers in combat formation. In battle the invariable deployment was a long, solid line with narrow intervals through which the psiloi — light troops — could pass. Battle was waged — usually by mutual accord — on the flattest ground available, since movement over rough ground created gaps that could be fatal to the cohesion of the formation.”

The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Colonel T. N. Dupuy, Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980, p. 11

This is attested in ancient sources, as, for example, in Book 7 of The Histories Herodotus quotes the Persian Mardonius as saying to his king:

“…the Greeks are pugnacious enough, and start fights on the spur of the moment without sense or judgement to justify them. When they declare war on each other, they go off together to the smoothest and levelest bit of ground they can find, and have their battle on it — with the result the even the victors never get off without heavy losses, and as for the losers — well, they’re wiped out.”

The chariot also experienced its optimal operations on flat, level ground, and while there was, as Dupuy notes, a social consensus to fight battles on wide, level fields — not unlike the parade ground upon which such soldiers would have been drilled — there were also instances in antiquity of armies denying flat, level ground to forces that required such conditions for optimal operationality. The perpetually open flank of a battle fought in wide and open country also established norms for the order of battle that were impracticable in forests, jungles, mountains, and other forms of difficult terrain that would figure more prominently in the later history of war.

The efficacy of the phalanx formation in battle demanded a high degree of drill so that the whole column could move as one. This worked best on flat and level ground, making the battlefield (understood literally) its optimal theater of operations.

When, after the Industrial Revolution, war was also industrialized, and the world experienced its first great industrialized war with the First World War (the “proof of concept” of industrialized war), battles could be fought for months at a time over multiple and distinct kinds of terrain, and could involve resources that had little to do with the literal physical space in which combat occurred (for example, with the introduction of radio, the electro-magnetic spectrum became increasingly important). In response to this growing complexity of the battlefield, contemporary theory of war employs formulations in terms of battlespace rather than battlefield. The formulation of the idea of battlespace is a conceptual innovation that reflects the systematic exploitation of the nexus of science and technology that characterizes institutions after the Industrial Revolution. A fully articulated doctrine of battlespace is a conceptual improvement over the continued use of “battlefield,” but can go beyond battlespace to the yet more comprehensive conception of battle ecology.

From Battlespace to Battle Ecology

We can employ the concepts of metaphysical ecology to bring more analytical clarity to the contemporary concept of battlespace. I suggest that the very idea of battlespace is unnecessarily limiting, not least because it is a spatial concept, and we can formulate a much more comprehensive concept. The metaphysical ecology surrogate for battlespace (or, rather, the more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure within which the concept of battlespace can be located) is what I will call battlespace ecology.

The DOD defines battlespace as follows:

“The environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and the included enemy and friendly forces; facilities; weather; terrain; the electromagnetic spectrum; and the information environment within the operational areas and areas of interest.”

The DOD further defines battlespace awareness as follows:

“Knowledge and understanding of the operational area’s environment, factors, and conditions, to include the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants, weather and terrain, that enables timely, relevant, comprehensive, and accurate assessments, in order to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and/or complete the mission.”

The Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Operations MCDP 1-0 (Forward by J. L. Jones, General, United States Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2001) defines battlespace as follows:

“Battlespace is the environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and accomplish the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain within the assigned AO and the commander’s area of interest. Battlespace is conceptual—a higher commander does not assign it. Commanders determine their own battlespace based on their mission, the enemy, and their concept of operations and force protection. They use their experience and understanding of the situation and mission to visualize and adapt their battlespace as the situation or mission changes. The battlespace is not fixed in size or position. It varies over time, and depends on the environment, the commander’s mission, and friendly and enemy actions. Battlespace is normally comprised of an AO, area of influence, and area of interest.”

In the above, “AO” stands for “area of operations.”

The concept of battlespace and knowledge of the battlespace (which latter is the formal surrogate of the intuitive experience, i.e., the lived experience of the battlespace) as defined above is clearly a more comprehensive conception than the traditional concept of battlefield, yet its formulation in spatial terms implies conceptual limitations, even if we allow for abstract spaces such as intelligence and the electro-magnetic spectrum.

The Marine Corps definition is admirably comprehensive, but it can be given further conceptual rigor and can be assimilated to a comprehensive conceptual infrastructure by placing battlespace within battle ecology. In battle ecology, the individual items mentioned in the definition — “air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain” — can be treated as concrete or abstract spaces that find their place within a comprehensive ecology.

Bronfenbrenner pioneered a comprehensive conception of ecology, and while most of his formulations are embedded within therapeutic concerns, the imperative of arriving at an absolutely general conception applicable to all experience is implicit throughout Bronfenbrenner’s text. Here is Bronfenbrenner in a passage that is as applicable to battlespace as to psychodynamic structures, in criticism of the tradition he inherited and which he sought to transcend:

“…even when the environment is described, it is in terms of a static structure that makes no allowance for the evolving processes of interaction through which the behavior of participants in the system is instigated, sustained, and developed.”

Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Chapter 2, “Basic Concepts,” p. 17

While the Marine Corps definition given above does allow that battlespace is not fixed and varies over time, the greater generality and comprehensivity of battle ecology systematically integrates the changing factors of the battlespace into the personal temporality of the soliders within the battlespace, the temporality of history in which these events are embedded, and all levels of temporality between subjective time-consciousness and objective history.

This graphic focuses on the role of the individual soldier and his lived experience of battle.

The concept of battle ecology (or, if you prefer, battlespace ecology) can be formulated in parallel with the formulations of Bronfenbrunner’s bio-ecology, specifically:

Micro-battlespace: The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Meso-battlespace: Relations between micro-battlespaces or connections between battlespace contexts.

Exo-battlespace: Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Macro-battlespace: The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Metaphysical battlespace: Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The specifically temporal aspects of battlespace ecology can also be formulated in parallel to the formulations of metaphysical temporality above:

Micro-battlespace temporality: The temporal setting in which the soldier fights. (This is what Husserl called subjective time-consciousness, and forms the basis of all lived experience.)

Meso-battlespace temporality: Relations between micro-battlespace temporalities or connections between temporal contexts of the battlespace. (If we accept Husserl’s treatment of internal time consciousness as characterizing micro-battlespace temporality, then meso-battlespace temporality embodies what Husserl called inter-subjectivity.)

Exo-battlespace temporality: Links between temporal battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active combat role and the individual soldier’s immediate temporal battlespace context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded, which is not a specifically military concept (nor specifically strategic or diplomatic, etc.), but which is the same metaphysical temporality I have been developing in several posts to this forum — i.e., the most comprehensive and abstract conception of time, beginning with the individual’s subjective time-consciousness, coincides with Metaphysical history.

One important lesson of this last conception — that of metaphysical temporality as the ultimate setting of less comprehensive temporalities in which battlespace ecology is contextualized — is that any specific and particular conceptual inquiry, when pursued to the farthest reaches of abstraction, generality, and formality converges with other specific and particular inquiries that also have this purified conception as the natural teleology, if you will, of intellectual inquiry. The further lesson of this observation, in turn, is that all specific, particular, concrete, empirical, and peculiar conceptions ultimately have abstract and general ideas as the conceptual setting that gives them meaning. In other words, there is a conceptual ecology also that obeys many of the same principles of conceptual extrapolation as formulated above.

The distinct microsystems of battle ecology are interrelated at the level of the mesosystem; in traditional terminology, distinct tactical initiatives are unified within battle operations.

One immediate benefit of formulating military campaigns in terms of metaphysical ecology is a clarification of the relative roles of tactics, operations, and strategy. Tactics always take place on the level of microsystems. Any particular operation is the coordination of relevant microsystems, so that the mesosystematic level of battle ecology could also be called the infra-operational level (or the intra-operational level). The relation between different operations takes place at the exosystematic level of battle ecology, so this could also be called the inter-operational level. Strategy takes place on the level of the macrosystem. Grand strategy involves the coordination of macrosystems specific to distinct areas of human endeavor, and its proper setting is integral history taken whole.

This diagram focuses on the micro-systems of battle ecology, which micro-systems are the abstract spaces of battlespace.

With this delineation of tactics, operations, and strategy within battle ecology in mind, the concept of battle ecology can be translated into more traditional military terminology as follows:

Tactical Environment (the micro-battlespace): The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Intra-Operational Environment (the meso-battlespace): Relations between micro-battlespace or connections between battlespace contexts.

Inter-Operational Environment (the exo-battlespace): Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Strategic Environment (the macro-battlespace): The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Grand Strategy (the metaphysical battlespace): Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The idea of metaphysical ecology as here first formulated is, in virtue of its comprehensive definition, not specific to an exposition of battlespace ecology. Battle ecology is a special case of metaphysical ecology, just as the bio-ecology of individuals, families, and communities in their social setting (the occasion for Bronfenbrenner’s formulations of ecology in an extended sense) is also a special case of metaphysical ecology. Moreover, as both being special cases of metaphysical ecology, both battle ecology and bio-ecology find their place within the more comprehensive conceptual structure of metaphysical ecology. In other words, in Bronfenbrenner’s words, both are macrosystems that stand in relation to each other within metaphysical ecology.

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Naturalism and Suffering

12 March 2011


Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 1755.

The scale of destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami that has just struck the northern part of Hokkaido in Japan (2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami — 東北地方太平洋沖地震), cannot but remind us of other natural disasters, some of them in the recent past, and some long past. It is likely that the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 26 December 2004 was the worst natural disaster that has (or will) occur in my lifetime, in terms of total casualties, with almost a quarter million dead, most as a result of the tsunami following the earthquake.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 became a point of contention between a naturalistic view of history and an eschatological view of history.

The most famous earthquake and tsunami in Western history is the disaster that struck Lisbon in 1755. I previously mentioned this in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities. I mentioned in that post Nicholas Shrady’s book, The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which presented in some detail the intellectual controversy that emerged following the disaster. Shrady cited the work of Gabriel Malagrida, whose 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:

“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”

There are probably people who continue to think such things today, and a few who say so in private, but this is not the dominant narrative today. We certainly bear traces of a past dominated by an eschatological conception of history, but civilization has largely moved beyond this. Now, whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not, Occidental civilization today embodies a naturalistic conception of history. The transition from medievalism to modernism was also a transition from an eschatological Weltanschauung to a naturalistic Weltanschauung. This does not mean that we have “solved” the problems of an earlier era, but only that we have moved on to other problems.

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer

As I said above, we bear the traces of our history, and some of us bear these traces more heavily than others. Recently I have been listening to Bart D. Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman is a serious scholar of early Christianity, and, by his own account, someone who started out as a sincerely and devoutly believing Christian, only to find that he had lost his faith after many years of study and confronting the problem of suffering.

Ehrman writes:

Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of people about issues pertaining to suffering, and I am struck by the kinds of reactions I get.

After briefly discussing avoidance of the issue of suffering altogether and those responses to the problem of suffering that he considers to be answers that are “too pat” to be satisfying, Ehrman moves on to a third category of responses to suffering that he cannot accept:

Other people — including some of my brilliant friends — realize why it’s a religious problem for me but don’t see it as a problem for themselves. In its most nuanced form (and for these friends everything is extremely nuanced), this view is that religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems. (p. 15)

In Ehrman’s formulation of this view that he cannot accept, there is an echo of a famous passage from Hume, who wrote in his essay on miracles:

“…we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”

This passage from Hume has become a standard point of reference not only for those who followed Hume and formulated the naturalistic conception of the world that dominates our thinking today, but also fideists who see in this the last remaining legitimate form of an uncompromising expression of faith: faith is a miracle, therefore proof in and of itself of what faith wants to believe. Thus this from Hume is, at once, both purple passage and locus classicus.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually become contemporary scientific naturalism.

Ehrman writes that he respects this view and sometimes wishes that he could share it, but ultimately he cannot share it. He writes, “The God that I once believed in was a God who was active in this world.” He makes it clear that his confrontation with suffering was crucial to his loss of faith, and he further makes explicit that his remarks about his faith are all in the past tense, so there is no question of an equivocation in his belief; he is not about to say that he will change his mind if only someone can show him an intellectually legitimate way to formulate the problem of human suffering.

The Eschatological Conception of History

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

Ehrman is living a conundrum. He has abandoned the faith that the world has a particular metaphysical and eschatological structure, but he hangs on to the idea that our suffering must be expressed in eschatological terms, and our response to that suffering must also be expressed in eschatological terms. If it is not so expressed, according to Ehrman, it is avoidance, too pat, or a naturalism that he cannot share. But he has nothing to offer in place of naturalism, except strong feelings of its inadequacy.

I have encountered this attitude elsewhere, and when I thought about it I realized that I had written about it. In my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception I wrote:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Ehrman does not express himself in terms of war, but there is a close parallel between those who reject utilitarian and pragmatic assistance because it does not come wrapped up like an eschatological care package, and those who cannot accept a naturalistic conception of human suffering because it does not answer their deepest needs and longing to do justice to a noble and honorable conception of man, but a conception rooted in an eschatological conception of history that is no longer defensible in rational terms.

For Ehrman, human suffering is a cosmic grievance, and a cosmic grievance can only be addressed by a cosmic remedy. I don’t think that Ehrman is alone in this. Indeed, what makes his view interesting is that he is able to give eloquent expression to something that is sharply and poignantly felt by many who do not have the means to express themselves so well.

The question, then, as I see it, it not how to give the proper cosmic response to the cosmically formulated dilemma, but rather this: is our modern naturalism merely a superficial overlay, so that the vital forces that drive life remain profoundly and unalterably eschatological, or is the kind of attitude Ehrman expresses typical of a transitional age, indicating that we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the naturalism formulated by visionaries like Hume? There are, of course, other possibilities as well — and interesting possibilities at that. The only reason I am going to bring this post to an end at this time is not because I am satisfied with what I have said, but only because I am tired.

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I dreamed a dream…

10 March 2011


Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

Last Saturday night I had a stomach ache when I went to bed. As a result, I tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully, and when I did sleep I dreamed vividly. This is unusual for me. I rarely remember my dreams. This is more or less a choice. I find the irrationality of dreams irritating, so I have made no attempt to remember or cultivate them in my life. As a result, my dream life has withered. (Everyone knows that the more time you spend trying to remember your dreams, or even cultivating them by keeping a dream journal, the more likely you are to recall them. The opposite is also true.) When I sleep, I usually disappear into oblivion until I wake; my rupture with the world is complete and absolute. It therefore takes a relatively powerful dream to break through my benign neglect of the dream world.

For me, even more rare than a dream is a dream that is philosophically significant. I have had a few philosophically interesting dreams in my life, but only a handful in total. Nevertheless, I know it from my limited experience to be a fascinating experience. There is a famous story that English philosopher G. E. Moore (a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) had a dream in which he was unable to distinguish tables from propositions. Since G. E. Moore is known for his “common sense” philosophy, one can understand how disturbing such a dream might have been.

My philosophical dream that occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning did, in a way, concern itself with propositions, but only indirectly — it didn’t involve mistaking propositions (abstract objects) for anything else or mistaking tables (concrete objects) for anything else (much less each other). What I did experience in my dream was a kind of experience — experience without language, as though I were living in the world of our pre-linguistic ancestors.

In my dream I can recall encountering objects in all of the ordinary ways that we encounter objects in our experience, but primarily seeing them. I moved through a world of objects, and in my dream I had no words whatsoever to describe these objects, but I knew what they were, and I had definite feelings toward them (for example, feelings of desire or avoidance), and perhaps it could even be said that I had ideas of these ordinary objects, but the world of this particular dream was most definitely a pre-linguistic or non-linguistic world. Within the dream my experience of the world was utterly unmediated by language or the concepts institutionalized in language. For me this was a unique experience, and quite different from anything I have experienced previously either in dreams or in waking life. Perhaps dreams of non-linguistic experience are common, but I am unaware of this since I have made no study of dreams.

I began thinking of this dream as soon as I woke up — the power of the dreamed experience stayed with me for some time, and though I took no notes at the time I can still recall it several days later –and I immediately realized that there is an established terminology in phenomenology for such experience: prepredicative experience. So I dreamed prepredicatively.

The term “prepredicative” is introduced in Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. This was actually a manuscript assembled by Ludwig Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, though under Husserl’s direction while the latter was still alive. In his Introduction Landgrebe called the book, “a collaboration of a wholly unique kind” (p. 7).

Throughout his philosophical career, Husserl bent every effort to try to get to the experience itself without any mediation. An obvious corollary of this philosophical project was to get at experience, including the fundamental and constitutive experiences of logic, without recourse to language or even to the concepts employed in language. One can see this quest for unmediated experience as Quixotic yet doomed, or as simply foolish. There are few in the Anglo-American tradition today that even believe anything like this is possible. Most philosophers today believe that they have “seen through” any and all attempts to get at “pure experience” (which was what William James called it).

It is actually quite difficult to pluck out a good quote from Husserl that perfectly expresses his position in a pithy aphorism. Husserl does have some pithy aphorisms — like to the things themselves — but these are few and far between. For the most part, reading Husserl is a lot like reading medieval logicians like Ockham and Buridan: you have to put in several years of study before you can even understand what he is getting at, and why it is so difficult for him to express what he is getting at in clear and concise language. Anyway, for a flavor of Husserl’s ruminations on the prepredicative, consider the following:

“An object, as the possible substrate of a judgment, can be self-evidently given without having to be judged about in a predicative judgment. On the other hand, a self-evident predicative judgment concerning this object is not possible unless the object itself is given with self-evidence. For judgments of experience, this is, to begin with, nothing astonishing; indeed, in this case we seem only to be expressing a truism with the allusion to the founding of predicative self-evidence on the prepredicative. But the return to objective, prepredicative self-evidence obtains its proper emphasis and full significance only with the stipulation that this relation of founding concerns not only judgments grounded in experience but every self-evident predicative judgment in general, and therewith also the judgments of the logician himself, with their apodictic self-evidence, which, after all, make the claim of being valid ‘in themselves,’ i.e., regardless of their possible application to a determinate range of substrates.”

Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic, revised and edited by Ludwig Landgrebe, translated by James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 20, emphasis in original

Now that this definitive quote from Husserl has cleared matters up, we can move on.

I consider my dream to be a sufficient thought experiment to prove to me for my own purposes that prepredicative experience is in fact possible. This is definitely an odd claim for me to make. Most if not all thought experiments are based on conscious intentions to think in a certain way about certain things. I cannot tell anyone except a lucid dreamer (and I have never myself experienced lucid dreams) to try this thought experiment, so it is not that kind of experiment that admits of repetition and independent confirmation. Nevertheless, I have experienced it myself and now “feel it in my bones.” While dream evidence (which sounds frighteningly like “spectral evidence” ) is not science, it is philosophy, at least in so far as I understand the openness of philosophical inquiry to any method whatsoever.

Moreover, I will make the further and perhaps even more tenuous claim that my dream of prepredicative experience is just about as close as someone from our age can come to experiencing the pre-linguistic world of our early ancestors, which would also have been innocent of those concepts that were built up with the use of language over the past fifty thousand years or so since anatomical modernity made speech possible and an ordinary part of human experience.

At this point in my exposition I am likely to lose even sympathetic phenomenologists, since there is a strong resistance among those who take up philosophical questions in this spirit with identifying ideas or experiences with particular historical instantiations. This resistance has a long, complex, and interesting history. Both Frege, the ancestor of analytical Anglo-American philosophy, and Husserl, and ancestor of continental philosophy, are part of this story.

Frege was dead-set against confusing the origins of things for the things themselves, and especially for confusing logic with any natural history of how logic came about in human experience. His writings frequently contain passages like the following:

“While the mathematician defines objects, concepts, and relations, the psychological logician is spying upon the origin and evolution of ideas, and to him at bottom the mathematician’s defining can only appear foolish because it does not reproduce the essence of ideation. ”

Gottlob Frege, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System, p. 24

This position consistently rejected by Frege is sometimes called psychologism, or logical psychologism. The early Husserl had psychologistic tendencies, but Frege wrote a devastating review of Husserl’s book Philosophy of Arithmetic, and Husserl henceforth explicitly repudiated logical psychologism. J. N. Mohanty wrote an entire book, Husserl and Frege, to prove that Husserl was moving in this direction anyway and that Frege did not “convert” Husserl to anti-psychologism, but it seems clear to me that Frege, at least at this point, had a decisive influence on Husserl.

Frege also wrote the following in a posthumously published manuscript:

“‘2 times 2 is 4′ is true and will continue to be so even if, as a result of Darwinian evolution, human beings were to come to assert that 2 times 2 is 5. Every truth is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological make-up of anyone thinking it.”

Gottlob Frege, “17 Key Sentences on Logic” in Posthumous Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 174

I do not disagree with Frege, and I am not suggesting a psychologistic approach to logic, or even a more vague psychologistic orientation of thought, but because of my dreamed experience I have come to think that it is possible to speak meaningfully of experience independent of language and the infrastructure of concepts made possible by language. It therefore also seems entirely reasonable to me that say that we might be able to speak meaningfully of the genesis of language and language-dependent concepts from a pre-linguistic stage of human experience. Moreover, I will assert that under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, it is possible for those of us living long after the introduction of language to experience something analogous to the experiences our ancestors prior to language.

None of this strikes me as particularly controversial, much less heretical, but I know the history of these ideas well enough to know why such claims — especially when interpreted unsympathetically — could be construed as controversial. That is why I have filled in a little more background of the intellectual history than I do in most posts. It would be easy to devote a weighty volume, indeed several volumes, to an exposition of this idea, why it is controversial, and how it is to be understood in a way that does not contradiction the clarifications of Frege and Husserl, with which I have no issue. Perhaps if I live long enough I may eventually write those volumes. In the meantime, I wanted to set down the idea before I forgot it.

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To continue with the Wittgensteinian theme of yesterday’s guest post from William Lyons (A Play about Wittgenstein), the author of the soon-to-be-produced play about Wittgenstein, The Crooked Roads, I’d like to consider Wittgenstein’s transitional period. Scholars of Wittgenstein distinguish between the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations and the ordinary language philosophy that this book spawned. Between these two periods concerned, respectively, with the formal character of language and the informal character of language, Wittgenstein wrote much and published nothing.

Almost everyone has heard, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”) from the Tractatus, and probably most have heard, “Back to the rough ground!” and, “Nothing is hidden” from the later Wittgenstein (although I note that neither of these examples appear on the Wittgenstein page of Wikiquote).

Wittgenstein was no less aphoristic during his transitional period, and his posthumously published works that fell between the Tractatus and the early drafts of the Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical Remarks, Philosophical Grammar — are a rich source of ideas. While Wittgenstein had a program and a method when he wrote the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, during his transitional period he was groping for answers. His former thought had come to seem inadequate to him, and he had not yet arrived at the ordinary language method that he employed in his later period. I find the tentative and exploratory character of the transitional works to be quite congenial.

There is one line from the Philosophical Remarks that has haunted me for years, and I don’t think that this has achieved the recognition it deserves. In fact, I have never heard anyone quote, and I have never seen any cite, this line: “Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.” I stumbled upon this not long after acquiring my copy of Philosophical Remarks, and I have remembered it and thought about it time and again over the years, much as I continue to think about the line attributed to Valery, too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.

Like much in Wittgenstein it sounds more like a Zen koan than an aphorism of Western philosophy. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What contrasts with the form of the world? This is more a locus of meditation than an answer to a question.

Here’s the quote from Wittgenstein with some context:

That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc., etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and can never strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought, and its impossible we should since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 80, section 47

This observation is not so distant from another quote from Wittgenstein that I previously mentioned in my second reflection on the Paul Valéry line above, in Of Seeing and Forgetting…

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

One can feel Wittgenstein struggling toward the ordinary world in these quotes, as though it were difficult to grasp. And perhaps it was difficult for Wittgenstein to grasp the ordinary world in which we walk up and down and feel our own bodies. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard wrote this about the relationship of the wise man to simplicity:

“…is it not the case that what is most difficult of all for the wise man to understand, is precisely the simple? The plain man understands the simple directly, when when the wise man sets himself to understand it, it becomes infinitely difficult. Is this an indignity visited upon the wise man that his person is so emphasized that the simplest things become the most difficult things, because it is he who is concerned with them? By no means. When a servant-girl weds a day-laborer everything passes off quietly, but when a king weds a princess it becomes an event. Is it derogatory to the king to say this about him?”

Like much that Kierkegaard wrote, this passage has a beautifully poetic quality to it, and even a fairy tale quality to it also. If Hans Christian Anderson had written philosophy it would have sounded like this.

After Wittgenstein heroically struggled toward an understanding of simplicity, he ultimately institutionalized that understanding in a new philosophical method that placed a ordinary language describing an ordinary world at the center. Yet I still find some value in the struggle itself, before any answers have been formulated, and for serious thinkers the struggle is never finished.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Play About Wittgenstein

21 February 2011


William Lyons wrote a comment to my post The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club regarding the production of his play about Wittgenstein. I invited him to write about this in more detail. What follows is from Mr. Lyons.

Perhaps a bit of background may help. I’ve been a student or teacher of philosophy for most of my life (I’m now officially in retirement since 2004, according to current EU rules) but, in my later years, I became interested in theatre. In particular I’ve become involved with what I call “theatre of thought” — the attempt by me to write plays that are more thoughtful and challenging than the usual fare. In particular I’ve engaged with such topics as intellectual courage and cowardice, honour and treachery, integrity and the lack of it. The scenery in which I’ve sought to dramatize these concerns has been the lives of some famous philosophers.

The play, “The Crooked Roads” (the title is part of a famous quote from Blake, a poet much admired by Wittgenstein), is centred on the life of the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is about the traumatic and alienating effects of the life of and with a genius. It was completed at the end of 2004 and won the START Chapbooks drama competition, run annually in conjunction with the Clonmel Literary Festival, in Ireland, 2005. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was the scholar of contemporary Irish theatre (particularly of the work of Brian Friel), Dr Patrick Burke. In his report he said that “The characters are well drawn within a delicate and keenly crafted plot that both satisfies and informs the audience. Lyons has succeeded in giving us a tight lens through which to examine his subject”. Among the places that we applied to for a grant to support a professional production of the play was the APA (American Philosophical Association). The APA were both very generous and very encouraging. The chief adjudicator of the APA review process involved took the trouble to write to me personally saying that “it [the play] was terrifically interesting and beautifully done…I much look forward to seeing it on stage…So many, indeed virtually all details throughout struck me as just right in tone and spirit… Almost forgot: absolutely brilliant closing line of Ottoline’s: ‘What about them?’”

As Wittgenstein is the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century, every indentured academic in philosophy or student majoring in philosophy will come across the work of Wittgenstein. I became very interested in his work, in particular in what is often described as the radical changing of his views about language and meaning from his earlier “Tractatus period” to his later “Investigations period”. But at the same time I became fascinated by his life and read as much as I could about his life and background. In particular I was struck by the intensity and seriousness of his intellectual and moral integrity which in turn, however, led so often to angry and disappointed feelings towards those around him whom, he felt, often did not merely not live up to these same high ideals but did not even seek to embrace them. I also became very interested in what seemed to me to be his traumatic experiences during WW1 (with the background of the ordeals of his brothers in that same war). In a sense, before WW1 he was a young, very clever and very ambitious bourgeois Austrian intellectual, perhaps thinking of a career in academia. After WW1 he seemed to want to divest himself of all this –- of his nationality and family, his wealth and academic ambitions — and to live an austere hidden life. But, of course, his intellectual brilliance and high ideals made sure that he was a failure at the “humble tasks” that he chose to do, such as school teaching, and drew him back to philosophy. Then there is the tension in Wittgenstein between wanting to avoid academic posturing and his desire to stop his “students” from plagiarising or misusing his work, a tension between intellectual pride and personal humility. So the play seeks to bring out all the ten sions with Wittgenstein and between Wittgenstein and others. It is a picture of a troubled but brilliant soul.

The director of “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is Nick Blackburn, who is a recent graduate in English (PhD, with an emphasis on drama) from Wittgenstein’s old college, Trinity College, Cambridge. He is also a graduate of the Young Vic “Genesis” Directors’ Programme and has worked with the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio at Cambridge, with the ENO (English National Opera) in London and with the Wooster Group in New York. My understanding is that, in bringing this Wittgenstein drama to the modern stage, he has been working with the young Austrian award-winning film director, Christoph Rainer, so that there will be “filmed elements”. I don’t know the details as, in this post-modern age, “the text” becomes the property of the director and cast, and the author is kept firmly at arm’s length!

Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, is probably the equivalent of Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway but is a theatre noted for putting on new and innovative drama. It also includes a cinema and art galleries, and so is a centre for the arts in west London.

A second “theatre of thought” play of mine, “The Fir Tree and the Ivy”, is about “trahison des clercs” played out against the background of the rise of National Socialism and the complex relationship between the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and his one-time student and later famous political thinker, Hannah Arendt. It was completed in 2005 and won the prestigious Eamon Keane Full Length Play Competition in 2006, part of the annual Listowel Writers’ Week, in Ireland. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was Ben Barnes, Artistic Director at the Abbey Theatre 2000-2005.

A third “theatre of thought” play, “Nimbus Clouds”, the earliest, is a comedic “Greek” play that includes a Greek chorus who sing and dance their lines. The play is based very loosely on Aristophanes’ “Clouds”. The characters are borrowed from that play as also is a little of the structure, but the text itself, now a serio-comic drama about the fragility of morality and the hazards of education, is completely new. Centrally, for Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates as a buffoon, there is substituted the wise and ironic Socrates of Plato’s dialogues. This play won a minor award in an international dialogue competition that included a rehearsed reading of a segment by actors of the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm. It was also given a full rehearsed-and-acted reading, sponsored by the Society of Irish Playwrights at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, directed by Colette O’Connor with actors from the Abbey Theatre. It has since been developed into a full-length play.

I hope the above makes a little clearer the sort of drama I am interested in and the sort of play “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is.

With my best wishes to all at “The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club”,

William Lyons

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