Patchwork Epistemologies (Part 4): Warped by Language

← Part Three

The disconnection between these approaches to patchwork theory, in many people’s minds, may mirror the similarly contentious fault line between “continental” and “analytic” philosophies.

Each approaches a series of central problems from opposing directions, equipped with different tools for the job. However, despite their various disagreements, there is much to be said for a cross-pollination between the two approaches.

This came to mind explicitly whilst reading a book Reza recommended to me during the course of our conversation, after I explained that Intelligence & Spirit had pushed me down a deep dark well with Wilfred Sellars and Rudolf Carnap (that I found myself nonetheless enjoying, having never read either before).

The book he recommended was A. W. Carus’s Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought. In the preface, Carus writes:

[F]rom at latest 1687 or so, knowledge became irrevocably theoretical. A gap opened up between knowledge and the shaping of individual human lives, a gap that has grown steadily wider over the centuries since then. The old philosophical ideal of applying knowledge to the shaping of practical life seemed doomed to irrelevance. Its vigorous revival by the Enlightenment led only to the Romantic reaction, whose most persuasive argument was the obvious gap between the desiccated world portrayed in our increasingly technical knowledge and the rich intuitive awareness in which we live our actual lives (the Lebenswelt, as philosophers like to call it when dwelling on this contrast).

This gap between knowledge and life split the thinking world into two warring camps, which have gone by many names; ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Romanticism’ were among the early examples. Each side tried to bridge the gap between knowledge and life, to bring them back together, but from different ends, in different directions. One side insisted on life, and sought either to disqualify the new kind of knowledge from serious relevance for life, or to tame it somehow, to bring it within the ambit of practical and intuitive life, in the manner of Goethe and Schelling. The other side insisted on the new knowledge, rather, and required life to adjust; this was the stance of Diderot, the Encyclopédiste Enlightenment, and the positivist tradition. In various ways, nineteenth- and twentieth-century western intellectual life hinged on the conflict between these two stances.

This reflects the previously discussed bipolarisation of thought, it seems, likewise echoing Reza’s criticisms of the pathologisation of education and political intelligences. However, the response to this is not to argue for the sealing of an apparent cracked divide. To pursue this, as Carus suggests has been previously attempted, is a misstep.

Instead, I would argue, in the language of this blog, that the project of consolidating thought into a unitary project remains doomed to reductive failure. There is no desire here for a new philosophical universalism. The suggestion is rather to place the “analytic” and “continental” traditions in a particle accelerator — much like the “state” and the “subject” themselves in patchwork theory — so that we might smash them together and expand upon the fragments, in turn giving us a more accurate view of the universe as a multiplicitous whole.

Put another way, the message is: Affirm the differences and modulate accordingly.

With this in mind, we might think of Carus’s discussion of life and knowledge as similar to those things at stake in the context of the patchwork debate. For example, might we frame the state as an imposed (Enlightenment) “given” to which there are no just alternatives whilst also testing the bounds of the (Romantic) subject in much the same way?

The latter exercise is arguably an already common practice. We could list countless ways in which “life”, in this context, has been theorised and manipulated. I’m thinking of Mark Fisher’s Gothic Materialism here, for instance, and his rethinking of “life” through the tinkered-with vectors of mechanism and vitalism. Is Reza’s project similar, then? Albeit dragging knowledge into the ring as an amorphous “intelligence”, having previously been more of a focus for the analytic side of the Great Divide?

Communication and education reemerge here as near-universal topics of interest to various epistemologies which can nevertheless be explored through disparate avenues. Perhaps what best conjoins the two is “language” as that most fundamental marker of intelligibility, and the malleability of language in various contexts becomes a repetitive point of intrigue for me throughout Intelligence & Spirit, particularly when Reza deploys a Carnapian thinking — or, rather, invokes “Carnap on Acid“.

Reza’s Acid Carnapianism emphases “the unbinding of language and logic from concerns about representation and even meaning”, which, in Intelligence & Spirit, is seen as “the very recipe by which reality can be structured differently.”

Carnap’s most famous contribution to philosophies of language and logic was his demonstration of the very insufficiency of language to convey meaning unless the context of the system in which a concept is deployed is over-defined. This is useful for science and computational languages, most explicitly, wherein languages can be constructed anew for certain purposes within closed systems, but out in the world as we know it, this thinking throws the very idea of veritable meaning into abject (but nonetheless productive) chaos.

(Don’t hate me, Nyx, but) I think the Contrapoints video “Pronouns” might be a good pop cultural example for us to use in order to demonstrate how this kind of thinking is already being played out across the boundaries of contemporaneous left-right political debate.

(The segment of the video from 04:41 to 12:10 is the key bit.)

In the video, YouTuber Natalie Wynn takes on US conservative alt media pundit Ben Shapiro’s demonstrations of superior logic and factual warfare by framing his pet “debate” around the illegitimacy of transgender pronouns as an analytic question of language rather than biology, arguing that Shapiro’s conceptual crutch of biology is the only way in which his argument can stand up and is far more influenced by his feelings than the facts he holds so dearly. (Reza’s previously discussed comments on the fact-value distinction echo in my ears.) However, functionally, Shapiro’s argument crumbles when carried over into the social sphere. His terms are, therefore, insufficiently defined to make any claim to a socially functional use of language.

So, when Shapiro claims that “facts don’t care about your feelings”, what he means is the “neutral” but astute and trustworthy world of knowledge is irrelevant to your parochial life concerns. However, Wynn goes on to demonstrate how her logical structure for language — which we might call “gendered English” — is a socially constructed and functionally “intelligent” — in Reza’s sense — process which inherently adapts to the world around it and challenges how someone like Shapiro insufficiently structures our understanding of the human subject in the 21st century. (Can we see Shapiro get DESTROYED and NEGARESTANI’D brickwise in 2019?)

Wynn goes on to demonstrate how calling a transgender woman “she” is the logically correct response in the majority of social situations — rather than it just being an appeal to feelings. What’s even more interesting about this video and its exploration of the issue of transgender pronouns in particular, however, is that this display of a socialised logic doesn’t take away from the fact that her argument is a challenge to how most people have previously conceived of themselves as subjects, which is what so troubles Shapiro and his ilk.

The root of transphobia for many is a fear about the consequences of the deconstruction of sociolinguistic signifiers for male and female genders. What these consequences are, for most people, are moot but it is nonetheless true that this deconstruction is, in many ways, taking place — and has been going on for decades prior to our present moment too: it’s just now reached the mainstream.

The real questions in orbit of this issue become: “What are you so afraid of?” “Why are you clinging onto the raft of a rigidly gendered subject?” “How does this benefit you and/or the world at large?”

The answers, to many on the left at least, are perhaps obvious. Those who don’t want the world challenged are those that have the most to lose from the pecking order changing or being dismantled all together — middle class white men. But that is not to dismiss this demographic outright. They are, in fact, a very useful weather vane.

For instance, the transphobic response to such questions is recognisably something along the lines of “an increase in clinical cases of gender dysmorphia is just the spreading of mental illness.” Whilst that is an argument offensive to so many, again we might argue that this is also not, in itself, incorrect — if we are to understand mental illness clinically as a “disturbance” in thought which disrupts an individual’s ability to handle “life’s ordinary demands”.

The voice of Mark Fisher echoes through here, necessitating the interrogation of what “life’s ordinary demands” are exactly in a life under capitalism. The message of much of Mark’s thought was rather to recognise why we might be feeling this way, why it is so distressing, and how such feelings might be indicative of a shift in how we conceive of ourselves as subjects. We mustn’t individualise mental illness but consider the ways in which society encourages and sustains the production of such fraught existences.

Here, then, I may go so far as to argue that the Acid Carnapianism approach to mind is downright Ballardian. To quote my favourite passage from JG Ballard’s The Drowned World:

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.

Shapiro’s perfectly rigid hair alone is enough of signifier for the fact he has no interest in pursuing a Kurtz-gradient — or should I say “Kerans-gradient”, in this Ballardian context.

Whilst this may seem like a major tangent away from the topic at hand, I think it helps to demonstrate how these issues of mind, intelligence and AGI are connected to a persist thread on the politics of emancipation which runs throughout the text.

Very early on Reza highlights how the “desacralisation of the mind as something ineffable and given coincides with the project of historical emancipation”. Mind, in this sense, starts to resemble that overarching essence of such questions as those considered above. A mind aimed towards emancipation is a mind that is self-conscious and self-critical about what it is, but this is not to individualise such a process. To consider this process at the level of the social, as Reza does, makes the move towards artificial intelligence (and artificial general intelligence) seem almost obvious.

Although it is perhaps not so obvious from the rudimentary level of pop culture, where AI is constantly framed as an externalised self-critical self-consciousness. It is arguably the unfortunate myopia of the capitalist realist subjectivity which leads to such representations of intelligence being consistently sociopathic — a dull self-hatred in the narrative mirror. Intelligence & Spirit does well to challenge such a cliche, however, demonstrating how philosophy (of mind but also in general) has always been a project for the development of an AGI. The history of philosophy itself is an AGI production process through which we strive for an outside view of ourselves.

To Be Continued…


Leave a Reply