Sunday


Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833 to 01 October 1911)

Every so often a term from philosophy — and by “philosophy” in this context I mean the kind of philosophy that is generally not read by the wider public, and which is therefore sometimes called “technical” or “professional” — finds its way into the wild, as it were, and begins to appear in non-philosophical contexts. This happened with Thomas Kuhn’s use of “paradigm shift” and with Derrida’s use of “deconstruction.” To a lesser extent, it is also true of “phenomenology” since Husserl’s use of the term. Another philosophical term that has come into general currency is “lived experience.” (There are also variations on the theme of “lived experience,” such as “felt experience,” which I found in Barry Mazur’s 2008 paper “Mathematical Platonism and its Opposites,” in which the author refers to, “…the passionate felt experience that makes it so wonderful to think mathematics.”) Recently I saw “lived experience” used in the title of a non-philosophical book, Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, edited by N. Spencer, A. Stevens, and M. Binder. A description of the book on the publishers website says that the approach of the volume provides, “…a more nuanced understanding of what it was like to live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC.”

This, I think, is the takeaway of “lived experience” for non-philosophers — that of “what it was like to live” in some particular social or historical context. One could easily imagine, “what it was really like to live” becoming a slogan on a par with Leopold von Ranke’s, “to show what actually happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”). Both could be taken as historiographical principles, and indeed the two might be taken to imply each other: arguably, one can’t know what it was like to live without knowing what actually happened, and, again arguably, one can’t show what actually happened without knowing what it was like to live. Actually, I think that the two are distinguishable, but I only wanted to make the point of how closely related these ideas are.

I believe, though I cannot say for sure, that the philosophical use of “lived experience” originates in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey. If Dilthey did not originate the philosophical use of “lived experience,” he did write extensively about it earlier than most other philosophers who took up the term. (If anyone knows otherwise, please set me straight.) Since I am planning on making use of the idea of lived experience, I have been reading Dilthey recently, especially his Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (which corresponds to the German language Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften), which has a lot of material on lived experience.

Dilthey is not an easy author to read. I have heard it said many times that Husserl is a difficult author, but I find translations of Husserl to be much easier going than translations of Dilthey. Dilthey and Husserl knew each other, read each others’ works, and they corresponded. Dilthey’s exposition of lived experience contains numerous references to Husserl’s Logical Investigations (Husserl’s systematic works on phenomenology mostly appeared after Dilthey passed away, so it was only the Logical Investigations to which Dilthey had access). Most interestingly to me, Husserl wrote a semi-polemical article, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in which Husserl discussed Dilthey in the section “Historicism and Weltanschauung Philosophy.” Dilthey did not agree with the characterization of his work by Husserl. It was Husserl’s article that was the occasion of their correspondence (translated in Husserl: Shorter Works), and it is a lesson in the unity German philosophy to read this exchange of letters. In their correspondence, Dilthey and Husserl were easily able to find common ground in a language rooted in 19th century German idealist philosophy.

While the apparent ground of their common outlook was expressed in the peculiar idiom of German philosophy, both were also reacting against that tradition. Both Dilthey and Husserl were centrally concerned with the experience of time. Husserl’s manuscripts on time consciousness run to hundreds of pages (cf. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917)). Of Husserl’s efforts Dilthey wrote, “A true Plato, who first of all fixes in concept the things that become and flow, then puts beside the concept of the fixed a concept of flowing.” (cited by Quentin Lauer in The Triumph of Subjectivity from Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. V, p. cxii) Dilthey’s own exposition of time consciousness can be found in Vol. III of the selected works in English, Drafts for a Critique of Historical Reason, section 2, “Reflexive Awareness, Reality: Time” (pp. 214-218), where it is integral with his exposition of lived experience.

Of time and lived experience Dilthey wrote:

“Temporality is contained in life as its first categorical determination and the one that is fundamental for all others… Thus the lived experience of time determines the content of our lives in all directions.”

Wilhem Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 214-215.

I suspect that Husserl would have agreed with this, as for Husserl time consciousness was the foundation of the constituting consciousness. Dilthey also writes:

“That which forms a unity of presence in the flow of time because it has a unitary meaning is the smallest unit definable as a lived experience.” And, “A lived experience is a temporal sequence in which every state is a flux before it can become a distinct object.” And, “The course of life consists of parts, of lived experiences that are inwardly connected with each other. Each lived experience relates to a self of which it is a part.”

Op. cit., pp. 216-217

Here I have plucked out a few representative quotes by Dilthey on lived experience; this may give a flavor of his exposition, but I certainly don’t maintain that this is a fair way of coming to grips with Dilthey’s conception of lived experience. The only way to do that is by the lived experience of reading the text through and deriving from it a unitary meaning. I will not attempt to do that in the present context, as I only wanted here to give the reader an impression of Dilthey’s writing on lived experience.

Dilthey, as I noted, is not an easy author. Both Dilthey’s and Husserl’s discussions of time consciousness and lived experience are opaque at best. I keep at Dilthey despite the difficulty because I want to understand his exposition of lived experience. However, as I keep at it I cannot help but think that part of the difficulty of the discussion is the absence of a scientific understanding of consciousness. As I have mentioned many times, we simply have no idea, at the present stage of the development of our scientific knowledge, what consciousness is. Trying to give a detailed description of time consciousness and lived experience without any scientific foundation is almost crippling. I believe that the effort is worthwhile, but it is as instructive in how it fails as it is instructive in how it less often succeeds.

In this frame of mind I recalled a passage from Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic:

“Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, Pomme treated and cured a hysteric by making her take ‘baths, ten or twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.’ At the end of this treatment for the desiccation of the nervous system and the heat that sustained it, Pomme saw ‘membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment … peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with the urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way.’ The same thing occurred with the intestines, which at another stage, ‘peeled off their internal tunics, which we saw emerge from the rectum. The oesophagus, the arterial trachea, and the tongue also peeled in due course; and the patient had rejected different pieces either by vomiting or by expectoration’.”

“…Pomme, lacking any perceptual base, speaks to us in the language of fantasy. But by what fundamental experience can we establish such an obvious difference below the level of our certainties, in that region from which they emerge? How can we be sure that an eighteenth-century doctor did not see what he saw, but that it needed several decades before the fantastic figures were dissipated to reveal, in the space they vacated, the shapes of things as they really are?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, New York: Vintage, 1975, pp. ix-x; Foucault cites Pomme, Traite des affections vaporeuses des deux sexes (4th edn., Lyons, 1769, vol. I, pp. 60-5)

Because of the theory-ladenness of perception, when the theory is absent or unclear, perception has little to go on and it is confused and unclear. We cannot describe with precision unless we can conceptualize with precision. The eventual development of an adequate science of consciousness — which may ultimately involve a revision to the nature of science itself — will issue in concepts of sufficient precision that they can be the basis of precise observations, and precise observations can further contribute to the precisification of the concepts — a virtuous circle of expanding knowledge.

I would not insist upon the theory-ladenness of perception to the point of excluding the possibility of any knowledge without an adequate theory to guide perception. In this spirit I have already acknowledged that there is some value in Dilthey’s attempt to clarify the idea of lived experience. If theory and observation are mutually implicated, and eventually can accelerate in a virtuous circle of mutual clarification, then the first, tentative ideas and observations on lived experience can be understood analogously to the stone tools used by our earliest ancestors. These stone tools are rough and rudimentary by present standards of precision machine tools, but we had to start somewhere. So too with our conceptual tools: we have to start somewhere.

Dilthey’s approach to lived experience is one such starting point, and from this point of departure we can revise, amend, and extend Dilthey’s conception until it becomes a more useful tool for us. One way to do this is by way of what has been called the knowledge argument, also known as the Mary’s room thought experiment. I have earlier discussed the knowledge argument in Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument and Computational Omniscience.

Here is the locus classicus of the thought experiment:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red,’ ‘blue,’ and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’ […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

The historical parallel of the Mary’s room argument would be to ask, if Mary had exhaustively studied life in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, and then Mary was enabled to actually go back and live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, would Mary learn anything by the latter method that she did not already know from the first method? If we answer that Mary learns nothing from living in Kush that she did not already know by exhaustively studying Kush, then we can assert the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened. If, on the other hand, we answer that Mary does indeed learn something from living in Kush that she did not learn by exhaustively studying Kush, then we ought to deny the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened.

While this exact thought experiment cannot be performed, there is a more mundane parallel that anyone can test: exhaustively educate yourself about somewhere you have never visited, and then go to see the place for yourself. Do you learn anything when you visit that you did not know from your prior exhaustive study? In other words, does the lived experience of the place add to the knowledge you had gained without lived experience?

While Dilthey does not use the term “ineffable,” many of his formulations of lived experience point to its ineffability and our inability to capture lived experience in any conceptual framework (as is implied by his criticism of Husserl, quoted above). If what one learns from what it was like to live is ineffable, then we could assert that, even when our conceptual framework was as adequate as we can make it, it is still inadequate and leaves out something of what what it was like to live, i.e., it leaves out the component of lived experience.

But, as I said, Dilthey himself does not use the term “ineffable” in this context, and he may have avoided it for the best scientific reasons. Our inability to formulate the distinctiveness of lived experience in contradistinction to that which can be learned apart from lived experience may be simply due to the inadequacy of our conceptual framework. When we have improved our conceptual framework, we may possess the concepts necessary to render that which now appears ineffable as something that can be accounted for in our conceptual framework. We must admit in all honesty, however, that we aren’t there yet in relation to lived experience. This is not a reason to avoid the concept of lived experience, but, on the contrary, it is a reason to work all the more diligently at clarifying the concept of lived experience. Employing simple distinctions like that between what it was like to live and what actually happened is one way to test the boundaries of the concept and so to better understand its relationships to other related concepts.

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Pierre Pomme (1735 to 1812)

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Wednesday


thinking about civilization

In my recent post The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I discussed Husserl’s conception of rigorous science and how Husserlian ideas were implicitly present throughout my own analysis of civilization. If the study of civilization can be formulated as a rigorous science, then Husserl has something to teach us. I followed up on this post on Husserlian science with another post, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, in which I used an example from Bertrand Russell to illustrate Husserl’s point. It was a particular pleasure for me to illustrate a Husserlian idea with a Russellian image, as Husserl and Russell stand at the respective heads of the contemporary division of philosophy into the continental and the analytical.

From the perspective of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of science (or philosophy of history, or philosophy of anything), Husserl doesn’t even exist. This is an unfortunate ellipsis. One of the things I have appreciated about the object-oriented philosophers (especially Graham Harman) has been their willingness to read across the conventional boundaries that divide philosophy today, and especially the division between analytical and continental philosophy. This is all to the good, and something I seek to put into practice as well. While my primary guides in philosophy of science relevant to formulating a science of civilization have been Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel — analytical stalwarts — I draw on Husserl, Karl Löwith, Blumenberg, and others, not out of a sense of eclecticism, but because they, too, have important insights about the nature of science in the modern world (to borrow a phrase of Alfred North Whitehead).

As I implied in my earlier discussion of Husserl, adapting Husserl’s insights to contemporary philosophy of science requires a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing the archaic elements still “sedimented” into Husserlian thought and the genuinely novel contributions that Husserl himself makes. Discussing Husserl in this way suggests an analogy with Marx: in order to make use of Marx today, one must equally proceed with a steady and sedulous hand in distinguishing that which is no longer defensible, from Marx’s genuine insights upon which philosophers today might build. Yet with all the enormous resources expended on Marxism, and the vast number of individuals who identify with Marxism, whether vaguely and passionately, I do not know of anyone who has systematically taken Marx’s insights that remain valid and translated them into the technical apparatus of contemporary economics. This is probably merely a reflection of my ignorance of contemporary Marx studies, but I can at least say that such an effort is not commonplace. One would think it would be.

The most glaring example of this is the attempt by contemporary Marxists to continue to flog the dead horse of the labor theory of value, which inevitably results in a Rube Goldberg theory of economic value, since economics has gone far beyond the theoretical framework available to Marx. As I have said in other contexts, there is no reason whatsoever that someone could not adapt Marx’s essential insights to the theory of diminishing marginal utility, or even something more contemporary. It is a remarkable contrast to look at the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman, who, even in proposing his prospect theory, has anticipated critics by openly acknowledging that, although his prospect theory possesses certain advantages over traditional marginal utility theory, it cannot account for disappointment and regret. This is the spirit of science at its best. It should come as no surprise that contemporary science at its best comes from someone who has spent a career studying cognitive biases.

Okay. So that was a bit of a digression, and merely in order to place Husserl in historical context in order to get a feeling for how the ideas of dead philosophers are treated. With Husserl, feelings do not run as high as they are do discussions of Marx, so it is less controversial to plunder Husserl for his valuable ideas while tossing aside the archaisms still embedded in his thought.

Today a further appropriation from Husserl’s thought occurred to me, and it is also another example of my proceeding according to an Husserlian method (as with Husserl’s idea of rigorous science has banishing profundity in favor of Cartesian clarity) without realizing that that is what I have been doing.

Recently I have been working on a lot of thought experiments in relation to civilization. Just this morning I came up with a great new thought experiment that I hope to elaborate (not here, and not today, but another time). I have been using thought experiments to explore the idea of civilization, to push the limits of civilization to try to discover what is implicit in our conception of civilization that we have not yet been able to formulate explicitly because we do not yet have a science of civilization. Not only do we not have a science of civilization, we also have no examples of civilization other than human civilization on Earth, and while on the one hand this can be subdivided into many distinct examplars of civilization, on the other hand they are all human and terrestrial civilizations, and for that we have no counter-examples. This poses severe limitations on our ability to think critically about civilization, and so I turn to thought experiments for counter-examples and contrasts.

An essay of mine appeared on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog, The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment, which is an example of using a thought experiment to explore the idea of civilization. This resulted in more comments than my previous couple of Centauri Dreams posts, but much of the discussion in the comments centered about the validity or invalidity of the zoo hypothesis. I did not argue for or against the zoo hypothesis; I only wanted to use the zoo hypothesis in order to explore the idea of civilization. I was asking myself this question: if you were entering into a planetary system in which you knew there to be an intelligent species, how would you go about conducting observations intended to identify and isolate the “big picture” of the civilization that you encounter? However, I didn’t make that motivation explicit. I wanted this essay to be readable and enjoyable, so I held back on explicit formulations in order to allow the narrative to do the work. Perhaps this was a mistake. But I did learn something from those who commented, even if few seemed to get the idea that I was trying to explore.

In elaborating these recent thought experiments about civilization I realized that, once again, almost unknowingly, I had been following Husserl’s lead. One of the methods that Husserl employs is something that he called, “Eidetic Seeing and Phantasy. Eidetic Cognition Independent of All Cognition
of Matters of Fact” and “The Role of Perception in the Method of Eidetic Clarification. The Primacy of Free Phantasy” (these are section titles from Ideas I; I don’t know why translators have rendered his as “phantasy” rather than as “fantasy”). Here is Husserl on phantasy as a method to converge upon essences:

The Eidos, the pure essence, can be exemplified for intuition in experiential data — in data of perception, memory, and so forth; but it can equally well be exemplified in data of mere phantasy. Accordingly, to seize upon an essence itself, and to seize upon it originarily, we can start from corresponding experiencing intuitions, but equally well from intuitions which are non-experiencing, which do not seize upon factual existence but which are instead “merely imaginative”. If we produce in free phantasy spatial formations, melodies, social practices, and the like, or if we phantasy acts of experiencing of liking or disliking, of willing, etc., then on that basis by “ideation” we can see various pure essences originarily and perhaps even adequately: either the essence of any spatial shape whatever, any melody whatever, any social practice whatever, etc., or the essence of a shape, a melody, etc., of the particular type exemplified.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 4

Husserl is not easy to read (which I noted back in I Dreamed a Dream…), and it’s difficult to find a good passage to quote, but here’s another to give you a little more of a flavor of Husserl on phantasy as a philosophical method:

In freedom we generate intuitive objectivations of the same any — “physical thing” — whatever and we make the vague sense of the word clear to us. Since a “universal objectivation” is involved, we must proceed by way of example. Let us generate optional intuitions in phantasy of physical things, such as free intuitions of winged horses, white ravens, golden mountains, and the like; they would, in any case, be physical things, and objectivations of them therefore serve as examples just as well as objectivations of the physical things given to actual experience. Effecting ideation on that basis, in intuitive clarity we seize upon the essence, “physical thing,” as the subject of universally delimited noematic determinations.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 149

Husserl even calls his method of using phantasy “experiments in phantasy”: .

“…should one say, as has in fact been said on other sides, that we owe geometrical insights to ‘experience in phantasy’ that we ought to effect them as inductions based upon experiments in phantasy? But why, we ask in contra, does the physicist make no use of such marvelous experience in phantasy? For no other reason than because experiments in the imagination are imagined experiments, just as figures, movements, multiplicities in phantasy are not actual but imagined ones.”

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 25

Earlier in the same text Husserl had justified the use of phantasy in geometry in contradistinction to the factual sciences:

The geometer who draws his figures on the board produces thereby factually existing lines on the factually existing board. But his experiencing of the product, qua experiencing, no more grounds his geometrical seeing of essences and eidetic thinking than does his physical producing. This is why it does not matter whether his experiencing is hallucination or whether, instead of actually drawing his lines and constructions, he imagines them in a world of phantasy. It is quite otherwise in the case of the scientific investigator of Nature. He observes and experiments; that is, he ascertains factual existence according to experience; for him experiencing is a grounding act which can never be substituted by a mere imagining. And this is precisely why science of matters of fact and experiential science are equivalent concepts. But for the geometer who explores not actualities but “ideal possibilities,” not predicatively formed actuality-complexes but predicatively formed eidetic affair-complexes, the ultimately grounding act is not experience but rather the seeing of essences.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, section 7

Here we see that, although Husserl does not use the term “thought experiment” he comes very close to this. It would be possible to reformulate everything that I have written about thought experiments in the study of civilization in terms of Husserl’s variation in phantasy; this would simply be an alternative formulation substituting the theoretical framework of phenomenology for the theoretical framework of thought experiments and contemporary analytical philosophy of science.

This reformulation would be an arduous task, as the greater part of Husserl’s Ideas I touches on the idea of seeking essences through variations in phantasy, so I could not so readily simply reformulate a paragraph from Husserl as I have, on other occasions, torn a paragraph out of another philosopher and reformulated it to make a point (as a recently did with a long paragraph from Plato in The Perfectly Scientific Man: A Platonic Thought Experiment).

Again, and as before, this can only be done by disentangling the useful elements in Husserl from those that we would no longer wish to employ. Philosophers today would not likely express themselves as Husserl did on essences, and many commentators on Husserl have acknowledged that Husserl’s use of the term “essence” is a stumbling block for his Anglophone readers. I could say that I was seeking the essence of civilization, but I prefer to say that I am exploring the concept of civilization. The former way of expressing the nature of the inquiry is perfectly fine, but vulnerable to misreadings and misconceptions.

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Wednesday


2011 pictures 166

In my previous post, The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I drew upon examples from both Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell — the Godfathers, respectively, of contemporary continental and analytical philosophy — to illustrate some of the concerns of constituting a new science de novo, which is what a science of civilization must be.

In particular, I quoted Husserl to the effect that true science eschews “profundity” in favor of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Since Husserl himself was none-too-clear a writer, his exposition of a distinction between profundity and clarity might not be especially clear. But another example occurred to me. There is a wonderful passage from Bertrand Russell in which he describes the experience of intellectual insight:

“Every one who has done any kind of creative work has experienced, in a greater or less degree, the state of mind in which, after long labour, truth, or beauty, appears, or seems to appear, in a sudden glory — it may be only about some small matter, or it may be about the universe. The experience is, at the moment, very convincing; doubt may come later, but at the time there is utter certainty. I think most of the best creative work, in art, in science, in literature, and in philosophy, has been the result of such a moment. Whether it comes to others as to me, I cannot say. For my part, I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, CHAPTER XV, “The Theory of Ideas”

Russell returned to this metaphor of seeing a mountain whole after having wandered in the fog of the foothills on several occasions. For example:

“The time was one of intellectual intoxication. My sensations resembled those one has after climbing a mountain in a mist, when, on reaching the summit, the mist suddenly clears, and the country becomes visible for forty miles in every direction.”

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914, Chapter 6, “Principia Mathematica”

…and again…

“Philosophical progress seems to me analogous to the gradually increasing clarity of outline of a mountain approached through mist, which is vaguely visible at first, but even at last remains in some degree indistinct. What I have never been able to accept is that the mist itself conveys valuable elements of truth. There are those who think that clarity, because it is difficult and rare, should be suspect. The rejection of this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work.”

Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Preface

Russell’s description of intellectual illumination employing the metaphor of seeing a mountain whole is an example of the what I have called the epistemic overview effect — being able to place the parts of knowledge within a larger epistemic whole gives us a context for understanding that is not possible when confined to any parochial, local, or limited perspective.

If we employ Russell’s metaphor to illustrate Husserl’s distinction between the profound and the pellucid we immediately see that an attempt at an exposition which is confined to wandering in the foothills enshrouded in mist and fog has the character of profundity, but when the sun breaks through, the fog lifts, and the mist evaporates, we see clearly and distinctly that which we had before known only imperfectly and at that point we are able to give an exposition in terms of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Russell’s insistence that he never thought that the mist contained any valuable elements of truth is of a piece with Husserl eschewing profundity.

Just so, a science of civilization should surprise us with unexpected vistas when we see the phenomenon of civilization whole after having familiarized ourselves with each individual parts of it separately. When the moment of illumination comes, dispelling the mists of profundity, we realize that it is no loss at all to let go of the profundity that has, up to that time, been our only guide. The definitive formulation of a concept, a distinction, or a principle can suddenly cut through the mists that we did not even realize were clouding our thoughts, revealing to us the perfect clarity that had eluded us up to that time. As Russell noted that, “this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work,” so too this is the deepest impulse in my attempt to understand civilization.

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Monday


Edmund Husserl wanted philosophy to become a rigorous science.

Edmund Husserl wanted philosophy to become a rigorous science.

In several posts I have discussed the need for a science of civilization (cf., e.g., The Future Science of Civilizations), and this is a theme I intended to continue to pursue in future posts. It is no small matter to constitute a new science where none has existed, and to constitute a new science for an object of knowledge as complex as civilization is a daunting task.

The problem of constituting a science of civilization, de novo for all intents and purposes, may be seen in the light of Husserl’s attempt to constitute (or re-constitute) philosophy as a rigorous science, which was a touchstone of Husserl’s work. Here is a passage from Husserl’s programmatic essay, “Philosophy as Strict Science” (variously translated) in which Husserl distinguishes between profundity and intelligibility:

“Profundity is the symptom of a chaos which true science must strive to resolve into a cosmos, i.e., into a simple, unequivocal, pellucid order. True science, insofar as it has become definable doctrine, knows no profundity. Every science, or part of a science, which has attained finality, is a coherent system of reasoning operations each of which is immediately intelligible; thus, not profound at all. Profundity is the concern of wisdom; that of methodical theory is conceptual clarity and distinctness. To reshape and transform the dark gropings of profundity into unequivocal, rational propositions: that is the essential act in methodically constituting a new science.”

Edmund Husserl, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science” in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, edited by Quentin Lauer, New York: Harper, 1965 (originally “Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft,” Logos, vol. I, 1911)

Recently re-reading this passage from Husserl’s essay I realized that much of what I have attempted in the way of “methodically constituting a new science” of civilization has taken the form of attempting to follow Husserl’s pursuit of “unequivocal, rational propositions” that eschew “the dark gropings of profundity.” I think much of the study of civilization, immersed as it is in history and historiography, has been subject more often to profound meditations (in the sense that Husserl gives to “profound”) than conceptual clarity and distinctness.

The Cartesian demand for clarity and distinctness is especially interesting in the context of constituting a science of civilization given Descartes’ famous disavowal of history (on which cf. the quote from Descartes in Big History and Scientific Historiography); if an historical inquiry is the basis of the study of civilization, and history consists of little more than fables, then a science of civilization becomes rather dubious. The emergence of scientific historiography, however, is relevant in this context.

The structure of Husserl’s essay is strikingly similar to the first lecture in Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World. Both Russell and Husserl take up major philosophical movements of their time (and although the two were contemporaries, each took different examples — Husserl, naturalism, historicism, and Weltanschauung philosophy; Russell, idealism, which he calls “the classical tradition,” and evolutionism), primarily, it seems, to show how philosophy had gotten off on the wrong track. The two works can profitably be read side-by-side, as Russell is close to being an exemplar of the naturalism Husserl criticized, while Husserl is close to being an exemplar of the idealism that Russell criticized.

Despite the fundamental difference between Husserl and Russell, each had an idea of rigor and each attempted to realize in their philosophical work, and each thought of that rigor as bringing the scientific spirit into philosophy. (In Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor I discussed Russell’s conception of rigor and its surprising similarity to Kierkegaard’s thought.) Interestingly, however, the two did not criticize each other directly, though they were contemporaries and each knew of the other’s work.

The new science Russell was involved in constituting was mathematical logic, which Roman Ingarden explicitly tells us that Husserl found inadequate for the task of a scientific philosophy:

“It is maybe unexpected and surprising that Husserl who was trained as a mathematician did not seek salvation for philosophy in the mathematical method which had from time to time stood out like a beacon as an ideal worthy of imitation by philosophers. But mathematical logic could not satisfy him… above all he fought for responsibility in philosophical research and devoted many years to the elaboration of a method which, according to him, was to secure for philosophy the status of a science.”

Roman Ingarden, On the Motives which Led Husserl to Transcendental Idealism, Translated from the Polish by Arnor Hannibalsson, Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975, p. 9.

Ingarden’s discussion of Husserl is instructive, in so far as he notes the influence of mathematical method upon Husserl’s thought, but also that Husserl did not try to employ a mathematical method directly in philosophy. Rather, Husserl invested his philosophical career in the formulation of a new methodology that would allow the values of rigorous scientific practice to be expressed in philosophy and through a philosophical method — a method that might be said to be parallel to or mirroring the mathematical method, or derived from the same thematic motives as those that inform mathematical methodology.

The same question is posed in considering the possibility of a rigorously scientific method in the study of civilization. If civilization is sui generis, is a sui generis methodology necessary to the formulation of a rigorous theory of civilization? Even if that methodology is not what we today know as the methodology of science, or even if that methodology does not precisely mirror the rigorous method of mathematics, there may be a way to reason rigorously about civilization, though it has yet to be given an explicit form.

The need to think rigorously about civilization I took up implicitly in Thinking about Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, and Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations. (I considered the possibility of thinking rigorously about the human condition in The Human Condition Made Rigorous.) Ultimately I would like to make my implicit methodology explicit and so to provide a theoretical framework for the study of civilization.

Since theories of civilization have been, for the most part, either implicit or vague or both, there has been little theoretical framework to give shape or direction to the historical studies that have been central to the study of civilization to date. Thus the study of civilization has been a discipline adrift, without a proper research program, and without an explicit methodology.

There are at least two sides to the rigorous study of civilization: theoretical and empirical. The empirical study of civilization is familiar to us all in the form of history, but history studied as history, as opposed to history studied for what it can contribute to the theory of civilization, are two different things. One of the initial fundamental problems of the study of civilization is to disentangle civilization from history, which involves a formal rather than a material distinction, because both the study of civilization and the study of history draw from the same material resources.

How do we begin to formulate a science of civlization? It is often said that, while science begins with definitions, philosophy culminates in definitions. There is some truth to this, but when one is attempting to create a new discipline one must be both philosopher and scientist simultaneously, practicing a philosophical science or a scientific philosophy that approaches a definition even as it assumes a definition (admittedly vague) in order for the inquiry to begin. Husserl, clearly, and Russell also, could be counted among those striving for a scientific philosophy, while Einstein and Gödel could be counted as among those practicing a philosophical science. All were engaged in the task of formulating new and unprecedented disciplines.

This division of labor between philosophy and science points to what Kant would have called the architectonic of knowledge. Husserl conceived this architectonic categorically, while we would now formulate the architectonic in hypothetico-deductive terms, and it is Husserl’s categorical conception of knowledge that ties him to the past and at times gives his thought an antiquated cast, but this is merely an historical contingency. Many of Husserl’s formulations are dated and openly appeal to a conception of science that no longer accords with what we would likely today think of as science, but in some respects Husserl grasps the perennial nature of science and what distinguishes the scientific mode of thought from non-scientific modes of thought.

Husserl’s conception of science is rooted in the conception of science already emergent in the ancient world in the work of Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy, and which I described in Addendum on the Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis. Russell’s conception science is that of industrial-technological civilization, jointly emergent from the scientific revolution, the political revolutions of the eighteenth century, and the industrial revolution. With the overthrow of scholasticism as the basis of university curricula (which took hundreds of years following the scientific revolution before the process was complete), a new paradigm of science was to emerge and take shape. It was in this context that Husserl and Russell, Einstein and Gödel, pursued their research, employing a mixture of established traditional ideas and radically new ideas.

In a thorough re-reading of Husserl we could treat his conception of science as an exercise to be updated as we went along, substituting an hypothetico-deductive formulation for each and every one of Husserl’s categorical formulations, ultimately converging upon a scientific conception of knowledge more in accord with contemporary conceptions of scientific knowledge. At the end of this exercise, Husserl’s observation about the different between science and profundity would still be intact, and would still be a valuable guide to the transformation of a profound chaos into a pellucid cosmos.

This ideal, and ever more so the realization of this ideal, ultimately may not prove to be possible. Husserl himself in his later writings famously said, “Philosophy as science, as serious, rigorous, indeed apodictically rigorous, science — the dream is over.”(It is interesting to compare this metaphor of a dream to Kant’s claim that he was awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Hume.) The impulse to science returns, eventually, even if the idea of an apodictically rigorous science has come to seem a mere dream. And once the impulse to science returns, the impulse to make that science rigorous will reassert itself in time. Our rational nature asserts itself in and through this impulse, which is complementary to, rather than contradictory of, our animal nature. To pursue a rigorous science of civilization is ultimately as human as the satisfaction of any other impulse characteristic of our species.

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Thursday


Edmund Husserl saw the imperative of humanity taking responsibility for itself.

I take the title for today’s post from Appendix X to Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which appendix was an attempt by Eugen Fink to provide an outline for the completion of Husserl’s last book. The last line of this proposed plan reads simply: “The indispensable task of philosophy: humanity’s responsibility for itself.” Fink showed his outline to Husserl in 1936, and although no systematic effort was made to expand Fink’s outline into a complete text, I think that Fink did capture Husserl’s outlook and intention. Given a thorough knowledge of Husserl, the text writes itself.

We cannot yet say that humanity has taken responsibility for itself, for its fate, for its continued existence in the world, but we can come to an understanding of how this might be possible. This is a visionary exercise, however, and there is more than one vision for a future of humanity in which mankind has taken responsibility for himself. I have written elsewhere on several occasions that there are many ways to divide up history, and that the work of historical periodization is never finished (e.g., in The Space Age). So too for the future: there are many ways to envision the future, and the work of such envisioning is never finished.

While there are many potential futures for our species, and even many distinct futures in which humanity takes responsibility for itself, one thing we can say about any and all of these scenarios is that, if we do attain to true self-responsibility as a species, this will merit a major turning point in human history, a point of transition equal to being counted as a shift in integral history.

The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization's level of technological advancement... first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev... a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy. (from Wikipedia)

On at least one occasion I have mentioned the Kardashev scale (in
A Quick Note on Heideggerian Cosmological Eschatology), which would measure human civilizations by the energy of which they are capable of harnessing. This is a very practical way, and an industrial-technological way, of measuring and classifying civilizations. According to the Kardashev scale, we have not yet achieved the status of being a Type I on the Kardashev scale, and I think that we can safely say that if and when we do pass that technological mark, it would constitute a shift in integral history and the advent of a new historical period. We should keep this kind of easily quantified periodization in mind when we consider more subtle and less easily quantified bases for historical periodizations. (Note added 06 December 2014: I no longer agree with some of the ideas expressed in this paragraph; I have written more in depth about Kardashev in What Kardeshev Really Said.)

Historians and anthropologists sometimes speak of a “Neolithic Moral Revolution” to indicate the emergence of social hierarchy and stratification, which emerges more or less coincident with settled civilization and urbanization. Settled societies that grow beyond the size of a hunter-gatherer band based on the extended family come to require socio-political organization, and this in turn begets social hierarchy. This is a shift in integral history of a very different kind than that which would be recorded by the Kardashev scale.

If and when it comes to pass that we do take responsibility for ourselves, this too would mark a shift in integral history like that of the emergence of culture and social structures in the Neolithic. We cannot pin down such a transition with the kind of precision that can be brought to the quantification of technology and energy use, but we can still recognize the significance of a periodization based on such a division.

In a couple of recent posts — Three Conceptions of History and Revolution and Human Agency — I outlined a conception of history that I called the cataclysmic, such that we understand “the cataclysmic conception of history to be predicated upon a presumption of the lack of human agency in the world (i.e., human non-agency).” I primarily developed this idea in relation to revolutions understood as dramatic changes in socio-political structures: we can understand our role in such events as being active agents in the accomplishment of a goal, or as passive sufferers to whom such events happen.

It has since occurred to me to think about the Industrial Revolution in this context, and I also thought in this connection about some posts I have written about the attempts by contemporary society to come to some kind of social consensus for living in an industrialized society. In Fear of the Future I wrote that, “Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization.” I also wrote that, “Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life.”

Societies can supply the materials, and individuals can invent things like the steam engine, but as of yet no one can control the consequences of their inventions.

Without realizing it at the time, I had formulated a cataclysmic conception of the Industrial Revolution as something that happens to us but which we do not control, except for some details. In hindsight, I see that I still agree with this conception, now explicitly understood as a cataclysmic conception. While the individual actions of human beings brought the Industrial Revolution to fruition (Watt’s invention of the steam engine would be an example of this), once begun the Industrial Revolution has wrought changes to society that neither individual nor society has the power to stop or to change.

There being entire societies around the world at the mercy of a transformation as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution has had profound consequences for individuals and societies alike. Both experience something like dissociation from extreme exposure to their own lack of control and helplessness. This has in turn led to the desire for the recovery of self-efficacy, which is sometimes imagined in surprising ways. Our film industry has created countless explicitly depicted apocalyptic scenarios, which in Fear of the Future I recognized thus: “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided,” and that, “While such images are threatening, they are also liberating.” (I have also discussed apocalyptic scenarios in Imaging a Worse World and Expanding on a Comment)

Thus an attitude of nihilism directed at industrialized civilization becomes both a form of protest and a gesture toward an ideal in which individual and social self-efficacy is restored through the elimination of a social force that has transformed our lives in a way that lies beyond our control. In the midst of our comfortable lives in industrialized civilization we forget the degree to which our ancestors were at the even greater cataclysmic mercy of the weather; one storm could mean starvation in the following season. But I think that these scenarios of self-efficacy through the extirpation of civilization appeal to something even deeper, perhaps to a Rousseau-like imagination of the noble savage. Indeed, it is the noble savage seen through the prism of democracy and Enlightenment universalism: every man a noble savage. It is bizarre, I admit, but that’s not my fault.

Charlton Heston as The Omega Man: Everyman a noble savage in the urban jungles of our post-apocalyptic future.

The very fact that we can recognize ourselves as being at the mercy of the forces of the Industrial Revolution and powerless to change what happens on a large scale points to a conception of social efficacy beyond any that has been instantiated in history to date. In some early posts to this forum I wrote about the possibility of intelligent institutions (in It Takes All Kinds to Make a World and Intelligent and Insightful Institutions, inter alia). There I made a rough distinction between unintelligent institutions that cannot cope with change, intelligent institutions can that can cope with external change, acute institutions that can cope with internal change, and ultimately insightful institutions that can proactively anticipate changes not in order to prevent them but in order to adapt all the more successfully to them.

Once seen in this perspective, we can imagine a world in which human self-efficacy has reached the point at which massive historical events like the Industrial Revolution could be managed intelligently, putting us in control of events rather than leaving us at their mercy. This conception allows us to define the kind of moral revolution mentioned above that would mark a shift in integral history:

Human beings and human civilization will have achieved maturity when they can take control of historical events that they themselves have set in motion.

The very idea of human beings taking control of their own destiny has been the basis of a great deal of apocalyptic and dystopian literature and film, as well as being the idea behind such movements as “transhumanism,” which probably has far more critics than advocates. Thus I expect the advent of human self-responsibility, thus also human maturity, not only to be difficult to bring about for the obvious reasons of human finitude and moral failings, but I expect that such developments that aim at ultimate human self-responsibility will be actively if not bitterly opposed, and that they will indeed be opposed on moral grounds.

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Caspar David Friedrich 'Sunrise Over the Sea': the dawning of human self-responsibility is as bright as a sunrise.

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Wednesday


Yesterday in Negative Organicism I referred to the weakening of compassion by immersion in a social whole as a “moral mechanism.” I acknowledged there that it probably sounds odd to speak of a “mechanism” in this case. What do I mean by this?

Ever since Western civilization was transformed by the scientifically-driven Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, philosophers have wanted to emulate the practical success and efficacy of science. In the ancient world, societies were built on the basis of philosophical ideas. But in the modern world, societies came to be based on scientific ideas. So philosophers wanted to make philosophy scientific. Husserl said that philosophy should be practiced as rigorous science. But there were problems with this, not least that few today would think of Husserl’s phenomenology as a rigorous science. The two greatest exemplars of scientific philosophy of the twentieth century — Bertrand Russell and John Dewey — disagreed profoundly on their approach and produced very different scientific philosophies.

So I have my own take on what constitutes scientific philosophy, and it is not likely to agree with what any other philosopher has to say on the subject. But, for me, scientific philosophy means searching for an explanatory mechanism. How is this distinct from science sensu stricto? I do not insist that mechanisms be embodied in a physical process. I take it that one can approach philosophy in a scientific spirit that scientists would nevertheless not recognize as science in the way that they practice it. For me, there are ontological mechanisms, epistemological mechanisms, axiological mechanisms, and, yes, moral mechanisms. In so far as we can explain our world — including the world of ontology, of epistemology, of axiology, and of morality — by an impersonal mechanism we are thinking scientifically. Philosophy is, in this way, scientific thought without being science simpliciter. It is scientific thought about objects that cannot be made the object of science sensu stricto.

Given the conception of scientific philosophy outlined above (perhaps idiosyncratic to myself alone), we could say that philosophy is science in an extended sense, not unlike my recent attempts to define history in an extended sense, which I called integral history. Thus philosophy is integral science. In turn, the conceptual resources of integral science turned upon the subject matter of history, both humanistic and natural, begets integral history.

This is an admittedly inadequate formulation of an inchoate conception of scientific philosophy. Perhaps, fate willing, I can clarify this in the coming years. That is the best that I can do for now.

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