Modeling the Other

17 July 2012

Tuesday


There is a well known passage from Henri Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics where he explains what it is that he means by “intuition,” which is a term Bergson invoked often:

“By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.

Perhaps this is not very helpful, but it occurred to me in thinking about the difficulty of understanding other people. Bergson formulated his account of intuition in a purely general way, in terms of placing oneself in an object. It may seem odd to think of placing oneself in an object that is not a person, but I think that Bergson intended to capture this level of generality.

There is a sense in which it would be much easier to attain this Bergsonian intellectual sympathy with a person than with an object that is not a person, give that we have the human condition in common with another person. But there is another sense in which it can be enormously difficult to attain intellectual sympathy with a person, because we know that there are persons with whom we disagree so profoundly that it might be easier to attain intellectual sympathy for a starfish that for a reprehensible individual. Nevertheless, we must make the effort.

There is no more important task in understanding how the world works than arriving at a sympathetic understanding of the perspective of the Other, even, if not especially, when the Other is one that one finds reprehensible. I feel that in several recent posts I have made substantial progress toward understanding political systems and their advocates that are fundamentally at odds with my own views.

Yesterday in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights I outlined a utilitarian conception of human rights that could be said to privilege the rights and needs of groups over the rights and needs of individuals.

A few days prior to that in The Fallacy of State-like Expectations I outlined a conception of international law that contrasted the primarily Western conception of an anarchical international state system with the rule of law observed internally within a nation-state to a conception of international order that privileges the actions of nation-states within their own borders as long as these nation-states do not interfere with other nation-states.

Before that, in commenting on an article in the Financial Times, Syria savagery suggests regime in despair at loss of control, I quoted this interesting characterization of a “social contract” that the author thought provided the basis of Syria’s stability:

“…the coerced social compact underpinning Syria’s security state is in tatters. The old deal was that the regime denied its citizens freedom and, in exchange, stamped tolerance on Syria’s religious mosaic. It offered real if stifling stability, and shared enough of the economic pie to keep the Sunni middle classes inside the status quo.”

I think that if these formulations are taken together they come close to understanding the internal self-justification of reprehensible regimes around the world. This is a problem that I have been pondering and writing about for some time. Early in the history of this blog, in Anniversary of a Massacre, I discussed how in Robert Kagan’s book The Return of History, Kagan suggested that one of the global conflicts that will characterize the future will be that between democracy and autocracy.

I argued in that and other posts that autocracy was simply an excuse for an elite to pillage its people, but now I see that it might be possible to formulate an account of autocracy that understands such a political force as a truly political and even a moral force. This is certainly an advance and an improvement of my understanding of the world.

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Friday


The thesis that epistemic space is primarily shaped and structured by geometrical intuition may be equated with Bergson’s exposition of the spatialization of the intellect. Bergson devoted much of his philosophical career to a critique of the same. Bergson’s exposition of spatialization is presented in terms of a sweeping generality as the spatialization of time, but a narrower conception of spatialization in terms of the spatialization of consciousness or of human thought follows from and constitutes a special case of spatialization.

One might well ask, in response to Bergson, how we might think of things in non-spatial terms, and the answer to this question is quite long indeed, and would take us quite far afield. Now, there is nothing wrong with going quite far afield, especially in philosophy, and much can be learned from the excursion.

There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus about “logical space,” at once penetrating and obscure (like much in the Tractatus), and much has been read into this by other philosophers (again, like much in the Tractatus). Here is section 1.13:

“The facts in logical space are the world.”

And here is section 3.42:

“Although a proposition may only determine one place in logical space, the whole logical space must already be given by it. (Otherwise denial, the logical sum, the logical product, etc., would always introduce new elements — in co-ordination.) (The logical scaffolding round the picture determines the logical space. The proposition reaches through the whole logical space.)”

I will not attempt an exposition of these passages; I quote them here only to give the reader of flavor of Wittgenstein’s . Clearly the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus approached the world synchronically, and a synchronic perspective easily yields itself to spatial expression, which Wittgenstein makes explicit in his formulations in terms of logical space. And here is one more quote from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, from section 2.013:

“Every thing is, as it were, in a space of possible atomic facts. I can think of this space as empty, but not of the thing without the space.”

I find this particularly interesting because it is, essentially, a Kantian argument. I discussed just this argument of Kant’s in Kantian Non-Constructivism. It was a vertiginous leap of non-constructive thought for the proto-constructivist Kant to argue that he could imagine empty space, but not spatial objects without the space, and it is equally non-constructive for Wittgenstein to make the same assertion. But it gives us some insight into Wittgenstein’s thinking.

Understanding the space of atomic facts as logical space, we can see that logical space is driven by logical necessity to relentlessly expand until it becomes a kind of Parmenidean sphere of logical totality. This vision of logical space realizes virtually every concern Bergson had for the falsification of experience given the spatialization of the intellect. The early Wittgenstein represents the logical intellect at its furthest reach, and Wittgenstein does not disappoint on this score.

While Wittgenstein abandoned this kind of static logical totality in this later thought, others were there to pick up the torch and carry it in their own directions. An interesting example of this is Donald Davidson’s exposition of logical geography:

“…I am happy to admit that much of the interest in logical form comes from an interest in logical geography: to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by. The location must be given relative to a specific deductive theory; so logical form itself is relative to a theory.”

Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, pp. 139-140

In a more thorough exposition (someday, perhaps), I would also discuss Frege’s exposition of concepts in terms of spatial areas, and investigate the relationship between Frege and Wittgenstein in the light of their shared equation of logic and space. (I might even call this the principle of spatial-logical equivalence, which principle would be the key that would unlock the relationship between epistemic space and geometrical intuition.)

Certainly the language of spatiality is well-suited to an exposition of human thought — whether it is uniquely suited is an essentialist question. But we must ask at this point if human thought is specially suited to a spatial exposition, or if a spatial exposition is especially suited for an exposition of human thought. It is a question of priority — which came first, the amenability of spatiality to the mind, or the amenability of the mind to spatiality? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the mind essentially spatial, or is space essentially intellectual? (The latter position might be assimilated to Kantianism.)

From the perspective of natural history, recent thought on human origins has shifted from the idea of a “smart ape” to the idea of a “bipedal ape,” the latter with hands now free to grasp and to manipulate the environment. Before this, before human beings were human, our ancestors lived in trees where spatial depth perception was crucial to survival, hence our binocular vision from two eyes placed side by side in the front of the face. Color vision additional made it possible to identify the ripeness of fruit hanging in the trees. In other words, we are a visual species from way back, predating even our minds in their present form.

With this observation it becomes obvious that the human mind emerged and evolved under strongly visual selection pressure. Moreover, visual selection pressure means spatial selection pressure, so it is no wonder that the categories native to the human mind are intrinsically spatial. Those primates with the keenest ability to process spatial information in the form of visual stimuli would have had a differential survival and reproductive advantage. This is not accidental, but follows from our natural history.

But now I have mentioned “natural history” again, and I pause. Temporal selection pressure has been no less prevasive than spatial selection pressure. All life is a race against time to survive as long as possible while producing as many viable offspring as possible. Here we come back to Bergson again. Why does the intellect spatialize, when time is as pervasive and as inescapable as space in human experience?

With this question ringing in our ears, and the notable examples of philosophical logical-spatial equivalence mentioned above, why should we not have (parallel to Wittgenstein’s exposition of logical space) logical time and (parallel to Davidson’s exposition of logical geography) logical history?

To think through the idea of logical history is so foreign that is sounds strange even to say it: logical time? Logical history? These are not phrases with intuitive self-evidence. At least, they have very little intuitive self-evidence for the spatializing intellect. But in fact a re-formulation of Davidson’s logical geography in temporal-historical terms works quite well:

…the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical position in the elapsed sequence of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what are following sentences it entails and what previous sentences it is entailed by…

Perhaps I ought to make the effort to think things through temporally in the same way that I have previously described how I make the effort to think things through selectively when I catch myself thinking in teleological terms.

In the meantime, it seems that our geometrical intuition is a faculty of mind refined by the same forces that have selected us for our remarkable physical performance. And as with our physical performance, which is rendered instinctive, second nature, and unconscious simply through our ordinary interaction with the world (all the things we must do anyway in order to survive), our geometrical intuition is often so subtle and so unconsciously sophisticated that we do not even notice it until we are presented with some Gordian knot that forces us to think explicitly in spatial terms. Faced with such a problem, we create sciences like topology, but before we have created such a science we already have an intellect strangely suited to the formulation of such a science. And, as I have written elsewhere, we have no science of time. We have science-like measurements of time, and time as a concept in scientific theories, but no scientific theory of time as such.

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Fractals and Geometrical Intuition

1. Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

2. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

3. Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

4. A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

5. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

6. A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

7. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

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