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Words and Worlds: philosophy, language and truth

Since it is now too late for anybody to steal bits of this, I can post it.

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Words and worlds: philosophical literary struggles with language and truth.
Copyright: GS Dann, May 2007

Introduction: Ceasing to be whole and becoming partial.

,“What is truth?,
,“What is knowledge?,
,“What is reality?,
,“What am I?,

Humanity has sought answers to questions like these for a very long time. Asking
them, or gaining the capacity to ask them, led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from
Eden. The serpent did not lie, Eve did not die. But the day humans learned to use
language to ask these questions a sequence of events began which may yet lead to the
self-destruction of the human race, victims of our own runaway success (if we can
call it that) and our failure to think holistically.

Antiquity , Parmenides and Lao Tsu

Parmenides initiated this debate for western Philosophy, in a poem known as ,“On
Nature.. The bulk of this poem consists of two sections, one entitled "The way of
truth" (aletheia) and the other "The way of appearance/opinion" (doxa.) The doxa
represents illusion or deception, the world we know through our fallible senses, whilst
aletheia represents knowledge gained via pure reason.

The picture painted by Parmenides concerns the relationship between duality and
unity:
The mortals lay down and decided well to name two forms (i.e. the flaming light and
obscure darkness of night), out of which it is necessary not to make one, and in this
they are led astray.
(8, 53-4)

Parmenides here echoes Lao Tsu and the over-riding principle which runs throughout
the Tao Te Ching, although the Tao Te Ching makes clearer the interdependence and
reconciliation of perceived polar dualities. One must not mistake Yin for Yang, but
neither exists in isolation and together they form a unified whole.
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 2)

The Way of Truth contains an ontological argument against ,“the being of non-being..
For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are.

Something exists necessarily; a state of absolute nothingness cannot prevail.

Taoism states it slightly differently, attempting to describe something which


transcends ,“is,and ,“is not., and implies that neither senses nor reason to leads to this
knowledge.
Since before time and space were, the Tao is.
It is beyond ,“is,and ,“is not..
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 21)

Kant , Phenomena and Noumena

The Parmenidean division of aletheia and doxa, along with the claim that pure reason
can support aletheia, leads to a series of questions which remained unasked and
unanswered until the publication in 1781 of Immanuel Kant’s ,“Critique of Pure
Reason,with its demand for a ,“Copernican Revolution in philosophy. Before Kant,
warring parties of what he called ,“transcendental realists, conducted unresolvable
battles about ,“What reality is,(and one glance at the current chaotic and turbulent
state of the philosophy of cognitive science will confirm that these battles continue to
this day, regardless of Kant) One group, the empiricists claimed that this knowledge
can only come via the senses. The other, the rationalists claimed it can only come via
pure reason. Kant’s revolution involved ceasing to ask what reality ,“is, and starting to
enquire about the conditions of the possibility of experience instead. He undermined
the foundational assumptions made by both parties and split the world into
phenomena and noumena, or the ,“world as it appears to us, and the ,“world as it is in
itself., declaring noumena forever unknowable. He changed the question from ,“What
is it?, to ,“How could we know?., thereby eliminating the verb ,“to be, from the
question, establishing modern epistemology and marking the first step towards the
end of ontology. Whether Kant made a substantive claim about noumena depends
upon whether Kant proved the non-spatio-temporality of noumena and whether a
negative claim about something amounts to a claim about that thing. Either way, we
can say little or nothing about noumena.

Kant claimed that ,“synthetic a priori constraints, determine the world we experience,
and the way we experience it. Since all human minds share certain essential
similarities, phenomenal reality becomes objective for humans. Culture does not
construct it (it does not vary across different cultures and different eras) yet it remains
a construction. The objectivity depends on each of us constructing it alike. So for
Kant the focus has moved from the supposed ,“object itself,to human enquirer. This
enquirer, the human mind, has the capacity for ,“a priori cognition,(cognition
independent of experience) but only with regard to what we ourselves contribute to
these objects of experience. The mind gives form to the object rather than the object
informing the mind.

Schopenhauer , knowledge of self and knowledge of Noumena


If you want to be given everything, give everything up.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 22)

Arthur Schopenhauer provides the next step in this genealogy, and the first beginnings
of a new type of philosophy. He recognises the epistemological limits set by Kant, but
tries to fill in the missing part of the picture without any attempt at supporting the
filling with reason. Instead, support comes from looking inside yourself and seeing.
Schopenhauer believed that he alone had properly understood Kant. He equated
phenomena with Berkeley’s ,“ideas,and noumena with the ,“I,or ,“will.. Knowledge
of self therefore becomes knowledge of things-in-themselves, although Buddhism
rather than Taoism influenced the thinking of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, in going
beyond Kant, did so in such a way that makes it impossible to separate
Schopenhauer’s philosophy from Schopenhauer himself. His own subjective attitudes
have clearly shaped his philosophy (which he does not hide) even though the
underlying metaphysical problems belong to the whole of humanity.

Schopenhauer elevates art above reason - the world of science and reason provides no
home for the genius. He starts the move towards a philosophy which has given up
hope of ever finding the absolute truth about reality. Indeed he has effectively given
up hope altogether. Some of his writing reads like a therapy for desperate people,
soothing words about the ubiquity of human suffering, such as the following quote
(Schopenhauer, 1851, section 8 ,“On the sufferings of the world.):
In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting
before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to
appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear. For to him who does know,
children can sometimes seem like innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to
life, who have not yet discovered what their punishment will consist of.

From a literary point of view, I should also note that German history takes a slightly
different path to that taken by rest of Europe. What went into literature elsewhere at
this time went into philosophy in Germany. People like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
played in Germany the role played elsewhere by people like Dostoyevsky and
Dickens. In the wake of Goethe, Germany produced great philosophers instead of
great novelists.

Nietzsche - on Kant and Schopenhauer


Nietzsche felt Schopenhauer’s desperation. In ,“Schopenhauer as Educator,in the
Untimely Meditations (Nietzsche, 1873-1876, part 3, section 2) he says
It was in this condition of need, distress and desire that I came to know Schopenhauer.
I am one of those readers of Schopenhauer who when they have read one page of him
know for certain that they will go on to read all the pages and will pay heed to every
word he ever said. I trusted him at once and my trust is the same now as it was nine
years ago. Though this is a foolish and immodest way of putting it, I understand him
as though it were for me he had written.

Nietzsche refers not only to Schopenhauer’s simultaneously brutal, gentle and honest
account of the condition of humanity, but to his relationship with the idea of absolute
truth (part 3, section 3.)
“‘¦the philosopher in Germany has more and more to unlearn how to be "pure
knowledge": and it is to precisely that end that Schopenhauer as a human being can
serve as an example.

Later in the same section he refers back to Kant.


If Kant ever should begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the
form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism.

Nietzsche then quotes Heinrich von Kleist, as an example of the experience of the
effect of the Kantian philosophy:
Not long ago," he writes in his moving way, "I became acquainted with the Kantian
philosophyââ‚”and I now have to tell you of a thought I derived from it, which I
feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shatter you so profoundly and
painfully as it has me. ,We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth
really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be. If the latter, then the truth we
assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavour to acquire a possession
which will follow us to the grave is in vain.

Nietzsche’s comment on this:


When indeed will men feel in this natural Kleistian fashion, when will they again
learn to assess the meaning of a philosophy in the "most sacred part" of their being?

And a further clarification:


â₦this is how Schopenhauer's philosophy should always be interpreted at first:
individually, by the individual only for himself, so as to gain insight into his own
want and misery, into his own limitedness.

The section from which I took the above quotes ends with a summary of Nietzsche’s
assessment of Schopenhauer’s view:
The thinkers of old sought happiness and truth with all their might, and what has to be
sought shall never be found, says nature's evil principle. But for him who seeks
untruth in everything and voluntarily allies himself with unhappiness a miracle of
disappointment of a different sort has perhaps been prepared: something inexpressible
of which happiness and truth are only idolatrous counterfeits approaches him, the
earth loses its gravity, the events and powers of the earth become dreamlike,
transfiguration spreads itself about him as on summer evenings. To him who sees
these things it is as though he were just beginning to awaken and what is playing
about him is only the clouds of a vanishing dream. These too will at some time be
wafted away: then it will be day.

By this point, Nietzsche sounds more like a poet than a philosopher, conjuring up
imagery reminiscent of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ,“Ode,(published in 1874, exactly
contemporaneous with the Nietzche’s Untimely Meditations). Somehow, one must
lose the world in order to find it.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

Nietzsche - on Truth and Lie

Nietzsche reduces all truth to metaphor. In part I of ,“On Truth and Lie in an extra-
moral sense,(1873), he provides possibly the most eloquent description of the nature
of truth which exists anywhere in philosophy or literature:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and
anthropomorphisms,in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced,
transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use
seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one
has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without
sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no
longer as coins.

Nietzsche’s love of philology and etymology allowed him to see all too clearly that
language consists to a large extent of metaphors (indirect comparisons between
things), metonyms (the description of something via a simplified characteristic such
as ,“crown,as a name for the monarchy) and anthropomorphisms. When we carry out
a genealogy of words, we see that we create new concepts/words out of old ones. So
words and concepts carry their (human) histories with them and ultimately this makes
truth itself all too human.
As a genius of construction man raises himself far above the bee in the following
way: whereas the bee builds with wax that he gathers from nature, man builds with
the far more delicate conceptual material which he first has to manufacture from
himself. In this he is greatly to be admired, but not on account of his drive for truth or
for pure knowledge of things. When someone hides something behind a bush and
looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to
praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking
and finding "truth" within the realm of reason.
So humans invent words and concepts and then try to use them to arrive at what
humans call truth, but for all our striving, we never arrive at pure truth, only at
something that we put there ourselves. We have no ,“pure facts,to feed into the
process (with the possible exception of Parmenides’ ,“Nothing cannot be, something
always is.., restated by Nietzsche in his doctrine of the ,“Eternal Return..) ,“Garbage
in, garbage out., so to speak.

I will return to part I of ,“On Truth and Lie,later in this essay. Part II begins with a
discussion of science. Science, like language, constructs new concepts, but it does so
in a much more restrictive manner.
Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science
works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of
perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and
renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering
framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world.

Science tries to build a single coherent body of knowledge about the empirical world.
It does this on a realist foundation which has become sacrosanct to the extent that
questioning this foundation remains heresy within the scientific community. The work
of Kuhn and Feyerabend should have shattered this cosy illusion, but the ,“The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions,remains highly controversial within scientific
circles. Kuhn’s account of science as occasionally lurching between incommensurate
paradigms, the precise timing and dynamics of the lurch governed by human nature
rather than reason, unsettles many science-oriented people , regardless of the fact that
Copernicus and Galileo’s own revolution provide a paradigmatic example of the
psychology and politics involved in a ,“paradigm shift.. At the critical point where the
concepts change, human subjectivity intervenes in the supposedly objective
progression of scientific ideas. Feyerabend’s claim that we cannot find or specify any
single scientific method and that effectively ,“anything goes,provokes even more
controversy and vitriol than Kuhn.

Even though it sometimes fails, science nevertheless aims at rationality.


â₦.the scientific investigator builds his hut right next to the tower of science so
that he will be able to work on it and to find shelter for himself beneath those
bulwarks which presently exist. And he requires shelter, for there are frightful powers
which continuously break in upon him, powers which oppose scientific truth with
completely different kinds of "truths" which bear on their shields the most varied sorts
of emblems.

Much of the scientific community feels threatened when confronted with the idea
of ,“non-scientific truth.. How would one justify any other kind of truth?
Subjectively? No, science tries to eliminate subjectivity in order to arrive at the truth.
Subjectivity has become taboo. See (Wallace, 2000, p161) for an account of just how
taboo):
In recent years, proponents of eliminative materialism, including Patricia and Paul
Churchland, have argued that subjectively experienced mental states do not exist, for
no account of such states can be given in terms of neuroscience. Moreover, they
present this theory as a fresh, astonishing hypothesis that should startle modern
thinkers much as the heliocentric theory unsettled the scholastic contempories of
Galileo. Two things are indeed astonishing about this materialistic account of our
existence: (1) that its advocates so enthusiastically embrace an unconfirmed,
speculative theory that utterly denies the validityâ₦of their personal inner life;
and (2) that anybody believes there is anything fundamentally new in this updated
version of materialistic reductionism..

So this taboo of subjectivity leads to lifeless, mechanistic doctrines like behaviourism


and eliminative materialism, doctrines which totally deny the subjective element of
truth/knowledge affirmed as highest by Lao Tsu and Schopenhauer. ,“Subjective
truth,becomes oxymoronic. Material truth matters, all else we can discard. The very
language of so-called ,“folk psychology,must go the same way that alchemy did
because minds don’t even exist. If you observe the bunker mentality and ideological
zeal exhibited by the self-appointed ,“defenders of science,such as Richard Dawkins
or Daniel Dennett, you can understand the appropriateness of Nietzsche’s account of
the situation.

Nietzsche goes on to explain that we cannot extinguish the desire for truth by the
failure of reason to take us where we want to go. Kant made the same claim in the
Preface of the Critique (Kant, 1781, (Preface A, xiii)):
To be sure, my answers to these questions have not turned out to be such as a raving
dogmatist's thirst for knowledge might expect. Nothing but magical powers - at which
I am no adept - could satisfy that kind of thirst for knowledge.

For Nietzsche, this unextinguished desire turns to art and literature to express itself.
We have then a distinction between two different sorts of person, or two different
ways of approaching the truth , the rational and the intuitive, the scientist and the
artist or the mystic.

Wittgenstein , Language as a game


True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

True words seem paradoxical.

(Tao Te Ching, verses 47 & 78)

On completing the Tractatus (Wittgenstein, 1921), Wittgenstein retired from


philosophy, believing he had solved all the major problems in philosophy. In this
book, he claimed that language gains it’s meaning by picturing the logical form of
something in reality. The Tractatus tries to place a limit to what we can say with
words, contrasting it with what we can ,“show.. It ends:
7.0 Whereof I cannot speak, thereof I shall remain silent.
He did not mean that what we cannot speak of does not matter or that we should
dismiss it as without value. On the contrary, value must come from outside the world
which language pictures.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein tried to draw attention to the ultimate paradoxes as the
border between what we can say and what we cannot say. If ultimate truth lies
anywhere, it lies on the boundary. True words look like ultimate paradoxes.
5.64: Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.

The mature Wittgenstein’s view of truth echoes that of Nietzsche. In ,“The


Philosophical Investigations., Wittgenstein tries to show us that all the different uses
of language operate like different sorts of games. They have different rules and
different assumptions. Truth exists only within the context of a specific language
game. We can forget about absolute truth. For Wittgenstein, philosophy has become
an entirely therapeutic exercise, conducted in natural language. We should attempt to
dissolve philosophical problems, not solve them. In effect, philosophical problems
turn into ,“grammatical,problems. Philosophical theories don’t really exist, because if
they did, then ,“everybody would agree with them..

Rorty , the argument about Fictional Discourse

In (Rorty, 1982) Richard Rorty offers us his assessment of the underlying factors
which drive the current debate about the ontological status of fictional discourse. He
analyses four of the competing viewpoints and then explains why all of them depend
on the same misplaced ,“Parmenidean urge..

Rorty starts with Russell’s ,“Semantics as Epistemology.. Rorty claims this view
depends on something he calls ,“the axiom of existence.:

,“(1) Whatever is referred to must exist..

According to Russell’s view, statements about fictional entities must refer to


something which actually does exist; hence statements about Sherlock Holmes refer
to Conan Doyle’s stories. This view relates to Wittgenstein’s ,“picture theory.,
insomuch as both of them involve a claim that the meaning of a sentence depends
upon some sort of hook-up to (or picture of) reality , a view of language as ,“a mirror
of nature..

After the later Wittgenstein’s theory of language games had undermined the younger
Wittgenstein’s ,“picture theory., various replacement theories of fiction emerged.
John Searle’s concept of ,“speech acts,focuses on meaning as use. For Searle, when
we refer to Holmes we don’t talk about Conan Doyle’s stories and neither do we
pretend to refer to a real Holmes. Instead, we really refer to a fictional Holmes. Searle
still holds on to some form of (1), but because it refers to a fictional referent, this
defeats Russell’s point in proposing (1) in the first place - he wanted to refer to
realities, not fictions.

Rorty chooses Keith Donnellan as a representative of ,“causal theories of reference., a


group which includes Kripke and Putnam. These theories deny that we use proper
names only by possessing identifying descriptions of what they refer to. Donnellan
wants to explain how we can understand each other when using a singular expression
with no referent (such as fiction which has become included in some people’s version
of reality , e.g. Santa Claus). Donnellan invokes historical connections as a means of
distinguishing between fictional and real referents. John F. Kennedy no more exists
than does Santa Claus, but our historical connections with JFK ensure that we refer to
a real historical person and not a mythical character. Donnellan tries to avoid a
perceived ,“idealism,in Searle and Russell’s positions, since both of them imply
that ,“something in the speaker’s mind,establishes reference. In other words,
Donnellan has a physicalist agenda and aims to recover the hook-up between
language and reality which seems threatened by Russell and Searle. Donnellan’s view
implies we can ,“make true and intelligent assertions about the spatio-temporal world
which contain no referring expressions., which causes problems. Donnellan also
defends Russell’s (1), but it leaves him unable to say what propositions certain
statements, both intelligible and true (e.g. ,“Santa Claus does not exist..), express.

The section on Donnellan ends with the first hint of what really motivates Rorty’s
paper. All the above views have a common motivation to find a theory of language
usable as a defence against brain-in-a-vat skeptics. Rorty believes this realist project
cannot succeed. No effective philosophical defence exists against a brain-in-a-vat
skeptic, semantic or otherwise, so we gain nothing by warping our theories of
language in a doomed attempt to provide one.

The last of the four views, Meinongianism, grants existence to any sort of intentional
object, including fictional, hallucinated and ,“incomplete,objects. This view replaces
Russell’s ,“Whatever is referred to must be an object,with ,“Whatever is referred to
must exist.. Holmes becomes ,“an incomplete, possible, non-existent object â₦
,This leads to an apparently infinite array of partially complete ,“Holmes objects..

However, by this point in his paper, Rorty would rather pursue his wider project, and
that involves a discussion about whether we can dissociate the whole notion of ,“truth
by correspondence with reality,from physicalism , from the idea that ,“all truth is,
somehow, truth about the layout of the spatio-temporal world.. He offers two
alternatives: firstly, to adopt a pure language game approach and completely sever the
link between language and reality, and secondly, a realistic epistemology and picture
theory of language which ,“disallows truth about fiction altogether..

Rorty’s dispenses with the first and accepts a full-blooded language-game approach to
language, with no such thing as ,“reference,understood as a relation which satisfies
(1). Instead, the speaker just refers to whatever he talks about. No philosophy of
language can answer the question of how language hooks up with reality, because no
answer exists. Why, he asks, did philosophers ever take (1) seriously in the first
place?

We should now just abandon the ,“picture picture,and accept that all language consists
of game-playing and that we cannot provide a justifiable hook-up between language
and reality. However, we do need to distinguish
between ,“responsible,and ,“irresponsible,discourse , between science and ,“myth-
making..
The penultimate section of Rorty’s paper therefore focuses on the relationship
between physicalism and factuality. The need to equate truth or knowledge to ,“truth
or knowledge about the spatio-temporal world,underpins the whole debate. This
drives (1), but if we defend (1) as ,“a prolegomenon to a realistic epistemology., then
it will surely fail in its purpose. This, however, does not render it pointless. Instead, it
leads to a way of differentiating between science and non-science , it gives us a way
of distinguishing science from myth-making. Perhaps by treating language as a
picture of reality, materialistic science can justify its demands that we accept its truth-
claims on its terms.

Scientific language at least must attempt to hook up to physical (or empirical) reality,
but no such obligation applies to the poets. Rorty closes the paper by pointing out that
the literary culture, unlike the scientific culture, critically depends on the history of
western metaphysics.

Rorty’s paper ends:


â₦it would be well that [the absurdity of the picture picture] should not become
widely known. For the ironist poet owes far more to Parmenides and the tradition of
Western metaphysics than does the scientist. The scientific culture could survive a
loss of faith in this tradition, but the literary culture might not.

Science, at least for 99% of the time, has no use for metaphysics. We could arguably
make exceptions in the cases of quantum mechanics, cosmology and cognitive
science, but apart from these specific areas, science can operate perfectly well without
any recourse to philosophy. Should the mainstream scientific world ever manage to
catch up with Rorty (bearing in mind my previous comments about Kant and the
current state of cognitive science), then the scientific culture could survive a loss of
faith in the philosophical tradition.

Authors make much of the ambiguities regarding the nature of existence, with
deliberate plays on the very fictionality of the fiction. Neither William nor Henry
James, Rorty tells us, would have anything to say in a world without people like
Russell. Perhaps Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World provides an obvious example -
part novel, partly an introduction to the western philosophy, the account of philosophy
progresses in the form of mysterious letters sent to Sophie. As the story progresses,
the main characters gradually discover that they themselves exist only as fictions in a
book. Gaarder uses notions of truth and fictionality as a device to introduce the reader
to metaphysical dilemmas in the philosophy lessons contained in the letters.

Rorty , Philosophy without Mirrors

Rorty’s hopes that analytic philosophy, whilst having failed to deliver the solutions to
the problems it aimed to solve, has nevertheless earned itself a critical role in the
history of ideas, showing us a route around scientism. Rorty defends a position
which ,“does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a
matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.,(Rorty, 1991, p.1) His
anti-representationalism bypasses the entire realist/anti-realist debate by rejecting the
idea that beliefs can represent reality. The fundamental appearance/reality distinction
has subsided, as have claims about privileged forms of representation.
In his 1979 magnum opus ,“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature., Richard Rorty
surveyed the current debate and concluded that the time has come to write an obituary
for philosophy-as-we’ve-known-it. He argues that philosophy has so far depended on
two theories which have proved inadequate: a representational theory of mind and a
correspondence theory of truth, with mind and language thought of as a mirror, and
philosophy responsible for the business of polishing the mirror, so that it provides us
with an ever-more perfect reflection of reality.

On knowledge as needing a foundation: (p157)


The major point I wish to make about the necessary-contingent distinction is just that
the notion of ,“the foundations of knowledge,, truths which are certain because of
their cause rather than because of the arguments that are given for them , is the fruit of
the Greek (and specifically platonic) analogy between perceiving and knowing. The
essential feature of the analogy is that knowing a proposition to be true is to be
identified with being caused to do something by an object. The object which the
proposition is about imposes the proposition’s truth. The idea of a ,“necessary truth,is
just the idea of a proposition which is believed because the ,“grip,of the object upon
us is ineluctable.

Thus this argument dates all the way back to Parmenides and doxa and aletheia ,
between mere appearance and ,“gripped by the real.. The everyday practice of science
has no use for a distinction between ,“sense data objects,and ,“real external objects..
Its methods and truth claims apply just as well to them both. Science requires a
working assumption of materialism/naturalism/realism, but we should not confuse this
pragmatic move with a truth claim about the ,“true nature,of reality. The whole of Part
I of ,“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,defends Rortyan materialism and
naturalism, but defends them as a useful tools rather than true. We must then make it
clear exactly what uses we have for them, such as the everyday practice of normal
science. It may prove less than useful for other purposes, such as trying to understand
human minds and behaviour, art, Kuhnian paradigm shifts, literature, religion or the
history of philosophy between Parmenides and Wittgenstein. If we want to stand a
decent chance of understand those things then perhaps we may need to suspend our
belief in materialism and think about the world through various other ,“reality
tunnels..

This raises a question about whether or not we can ever get all the accounts of reality
to cohere. Even with a coherency theory of truth, a completely coherent account may
prove impossible.
Our present notions of what it is to be a philosopher are so tied up with the Kantian
attempt to render all knowledge-claims commensurable that it is difficult to imagine
what philosophy without epistemology could be. More generally, it is difficult to
imagine that any activity would be entitled to bear the name ,“philosophy,if it had
nothing to do with knowledge , if it were not in some sense a theory of knowledge, or
a method for getting knowledge, or at least a hint as to where some supremely
important kind of knowledge might be found. The difficulty stems from a notion
shared by Platonists, Kantians, and positivists: that man has an essence , namely, to
discover essences. The notion that our chief task is to mirror accurately, in our own
Glassy Essence, the universe around us is the complement of the notion, common to
Democritus and Descartes, that the universe is made up of very simple, clearly and
distinctly knowable things, knowledge of whose essences provides the master-
vocabulary which permits the commensuration of all discourses.

Rorty tells us we must set aside this picture of knowledge, common throughout
philosophy and science and replace it with Hermeneutics (literally meaning ,“the
study of theories and methods of the interpretation of all texts and systems of
meaning.). This in effect means we must cultivate the ability to understand things
from other people’s point of view. We must ,“find new, better, more interesting, more
fruitful ways of speaking.,We must not privilege any one type of discourse as the one
which delivers ,“the truth about reality., and that includes science as well as
philosophy.

Kai Nielsen (Nielsen, 2003, p270) on Rorty:


With the abandonment of foundationalism and with it a Kantian understanding of the
key task of epistemology, we abandon a classical self-image of the philosopher as
someone who stands in some privileged perspective and can tell us in all domains, or
indeed in any substantive domain, what counts as genuine knowledge. We give up the
deceptive self-conceit that the philosopher can know things that no-one else can know
so well.

Robert Anton Wilson , Guerrilla Ontology


Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.


She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 71)


We are all greater artists than we could possibly imagine.

The quote directly above comes from ,“Prometheus Rising., the book version of
Robert Anton Wilson’s psychology Ph.D. thesis. He refers to our sub-conscious
world-making - the fact that we make our worlds rather than finding them. Wilson, a
prolific novelist and self-styled ,“guerrilla ontologist,wanted ,“to get people into a
state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism
about everything.,His method of doing so involved presenting his readers with so
many different versions of truth and lie that by the time they’d finished reading one of
his books, they had lost their certainty about anything at all, although they may now
have a better understanding about the way things look from somewhere-else , more
often than not somewhere unfamiliar. He loved conspiracy theories, simultaneously
debunking them and concocting them. His best known work, the cult
classic ,“Illuminatus Trilogy,(co-authored with Robert Shea) consisted of a seamless
mixture of fiction, well-researched fact, some of it misreported deliberately, and
material derived from the strangest of the letters sent to Playboy during the time
Wilson edited that magazine. He called the result ,“Operation Mindfuck..

Wilson claimed to have no beliefs at all. The following quote comes from the preface
of the 1986 reprinting of Cosmic Trigger.
It should be obvious to all intelligent readers (but curiously is not obvious to many)
that my viewpoint in this book is one of agnosticism. The word ,“agnostics,appears
explicitly in the prologue and the agnostic attitude is revealed again and again in the
text, but many people still think I ,“believe,some of the metaphors and models
employed here. I therefore want to make it even clearer than ever before that

********** I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING ************

It seems to be a hangover of the medieval Catholic era that causes most people, even
the educated, to think that everybody must "believe" something or other, that if one is
not a theist, one must be a dogmatic atheist, and if one does not think Capitalism is
perfect, one must believe fervently in Socialism, and if one does not have blind faith
in X, one must alternatively have blind faith in not-X or the reverse of X.
My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a
doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of
existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a
person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and
might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence
of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended.

Wilson claimed that we must not confuse any grid we use to organise our experience
of the world with the world itself. Philosopher and mystic Alan Watts put this as ,“the
menu is not the meal.,Semanticist Alfred Korzybski used the slogan ,“The map is not
the territory,to say the same thing. Wilson wanted to liberate people from the self-
created prison of a too-restrictive belief system or a one-dimensional attitude to the
truth and his method involved stealth and shock. He deliberately antagonised ,“true
believers,of all creeds. The preface continues:
Finally as a matter of some entertainment value, not all the mail I have received about
this book has been intelligent and thoughtful. I have received several quite nutty and
unintentionally funny poison-pen letters from two groups of dogmatists --
Fundamentalist Christians and Fundamentalist Materialists.
The Fundamentalist Christians have told me that I am a slave of Satan and should
have the demons expelled with an exorcism. The Fundamentalist Materialists inform
me that I am a liar, a charlatan, fraud and scoundrel. Aside from this minor difference,
the letters are astoundingly similar. Both groups share in the same crusading zeal and
the same total lack of humor, charity, and common human decency.
These intolerable cults have served to confirm me in my agnosticism by presenting
further evidence to support my contention that when dogmas enter the brain, all
intellectual activity ceases.

As an example of Wilson at work, the following quote (from ,“Prometheus Rising.,


p201) appears in the description of what Wilson calls ,“the collective neurogenic
circuit., the seventh of Timothy Leary’s eight ,“mental circuits., split into
four ,“antique,circuits, active in most people, and four ,“future,circuits which in most
people lie inactive, waiting for a James Joyce or an Aleister Crowley to come along
and activate them.
The ,“language,of this circuit is the multi-level language of Finnegan’s Wake, where
Finnegan is Finn-again, Finn Mac Cool of Irish legend reborn and Huck Finn again
also, sailing down ,“Missus Liffey., both the river Anna Liffey in Ireland and Huck
Finn’s Mississippi; where Mark the Wan is King Mark, cuckolded by Tristran, but
Mark the Twy is Mark Twain, married to a wife he called ,“Livvy., just like the Irish
river, and Mark the Tris is cuckolded Mark and cuckolding Tristran in one; while
Marcus Lyons is all of them, plus Mark the apostle, his emblematic lion (always
shown with him in medieval art), Leo the lion, Leo in the zodiac and all associated
fire-signs, and of the Four Old Men who haunt the dreamer all night long,
symbolising the four evangelists, the four bedposts surrounding the sleeper, the four
antique circuits, the four suits of the Tarot or ordinary playing cards, the four elements
of the ancients, and all the other fours which Jung has found present in the ,“collective
unconscious..

Many words and many worlds, all interweaved and overlayered, plurality and unity
presented together. Wilson simultaneously tried to make sense (and nonsense) of
quantum mechanics, Yoga, Gurdjieff’s self-observation exercises, general and special
relativity and a long list of other things. The book concludes with the slogan ,“The
Whole System is a Whole System.,Obvious enough, you might think, but certainly
not to everyone.

The final message posted on his blog, five days before his death on January 18th of
this year reads:
I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I
deeply implore you to keep the lasagne flying. Please pardon my levity; I don't see
how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.

E-Prime , English without fig leaves.

Wilson acted as a promoter and populariser of a form of the English language


called ,“E-Prime,which prohibits the verb ,“to be.,The inventor of E-Prime, Alfred
Korzybski, had pointed out that the verb ,“to be,provides endless opportunities to
make claims which sound meaningful but actually mean nothing at all.

At many critical points, supposedly logical and meaningful statements and arguments
spin on nothing more than a fig-leaf apron in the form of an indiscriminate usage of
the word ,“is.,If you cannot translate a sentence using the word ,“is,into E-Prime, then
it probably doesn’t mean anything. What does statement ,“Consciousness is brain
activity,mean? It looks like an attempt to make a statement which simultaneously
makes use of two different and incommensurate language games. ,“Brain activity,here
clearly belongs to the language game of materialistic science. But the
word ,“consciousness,does not even exist in that language game. ,“True., to a
materialist, effectively means that something existing in mind or language accurately
mirrors something ,“out there,in material reality. The ,“â₦is brain activity,part of
the sentence refers to a real ,“external,brain, not the one in the mirror. The
word ,“consciousness,does not exist ,“out there,in material reality, so this
statement ,“consciousness exists,should evaluate ,“false,by the materialist’s own
normal standards of judging truth. A truly rational materialist therefore ought to deny
that the word ,“consciousness,refers to anything at all. The claim ,“consciousness
exists,only makes sense in a specifically 1st-person, subjective language game.
Rorty’s tale of ,“The antipodeans,in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature makes this
clear enough. The antipodeans invent neuroscience before inventing the wheel
(somehowâ₦), thereby failing to set up the mind-body problem in the first place
because they never define the word ,“consciousness..

How could we translate the original claim into E-Prime?

Well, we could translate it as ,“The word ‘consciousness’ means brain activity., but
that just renders the original claim as pointless as the statement ,“Squares are
squares.,If it means anything else, such as ,“consciousness supervenes on brain
activity,then the statement will not achieve what the materialist who makes it wants it
to achieve, because it will specify some sort of relationship between the concept of
brain activity and the concept of consciousness (as the totality of subjective
experience) which will in turn lead to something like epiphenomenalism or
anomalous monism. The traditional arguments about the mind-body problem don’t
even get started in E-Prime. Either you bypass the argument and fast-forward to the
conclusion, or the questions simply disappear because you cannot even ask them in E-
Prime.

I started this essay with four questions which have dominated philosophical thought
for most of its history. I will now offer a fifth, which only appeared more recently.
Heidegger claimed that despite the obsession of western philosophy with the idea
of ,“being., it had failed to provide a proper account of this concept. In response, he
asked: ,“What is the Being of being?,

If you try to translate the first four questions into E-Prime, they become definitions of
words or concepts.

,“How do I define the word/concept ‘truth’?,


,“How do I define the word/concept ‘knowledge’?,
,“How do I define the word/concept ‘reality’?,
,“How do I define the word/concept ‘I’?.

This forces us to acknowledge Nietzsche’s attitude to the meaning of words and the
nature of truth. Even the concept of ,“truth,lacks a non-subjective definition.

(From On Truth and Lie, part I):


If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare
"look, a mammal" I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of
limited value.

We can translate question 4 (,“What am I?.) into E-Prime as ,“What class of animal
do I belong to?., but the question then loses all philosophical interest. It wasn’t what
the questioner tried to ask. The questioner may not even know himself what question
he tried to ask. Maybe he tried to ask what Heidegger asked.

E-Prime forces us to describe things from our own subjective perspective, and it
forces us to explain what we mean every time we feel tempted to use the word ,“is.. In
E-Prime, you cannot even ask most of the really difficult questions that philosophy
has never conclusively answered. You certainly can’t ask ,“What is the Being of
being?,E-Prime forces you to focus on a clear specification of relationships , the user
naturally becomes ,“a scientist of relationship.,

I have written the whole of this essay in E-Prime, as an example of what English
looks like without ,“to be.. Nowhere in the text of this essay will you find any
instances of any form of the verb ,“to be,except in quotes taken from other people or
direct references to the word/concept ,“being..

Conclusion: Becoming partial in order to become whole.


If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 22)

In ,“The Madness of the day.(Blanchot, 1935), Laurence Blanchot delivers a first-


person narrative account of a shattered person who has long ago given up on any
search for truth, or for a coherent story of ,“who he is,or ,“what he is.. But in allowing
himself to become shattered, he has attained some sort of peace - wholeness achieved
by ceasing to strive to become whole.
I had to acknowledge that I was not capable of forming a story out of these
events. I had lost the sense of the story; that happens in a good many illnesses.
But this explanation only made them more insistent. Then I noticed for the first
time that there were two of them and that this distortion of the traditional method,
even though it was explained by the fact that one of them was an eye doctor, the other
a specialist in mental illness, constantly gave our conversation the character of an
authoritarian interrogation, overseen and controlled by a strict set of rules. Of course
neither of them was the chief of police. But because there were two of them, there
were three, and this third remained firmly convinced, I am sure, that a writer, a man
who speaks and who reasons with distinction, is always capable of recounting the
facts that he remembers.

A story? No. No stories, never again

I will conclude with two quotations from Island, Aldous Huxley’s final novel and his
attempt to construct a vision of a true utopia , Huxley’s Eden. On the fictional island
of Pala, an isolated community founded by an eastern mystic and a Scottish scientist
exists in a state of harmony between themselves and their environment. Their society
actually works. A visiting journalist, a spy from an oil company interested in
exploiting Pala’s oil reserves, but increasingly aware of how the runaway ,“success,of
humanity will lead to the destruction of Pala, and humanity with it, asks about science
education. The answer applies far beyond ecology in the natural world. This essay has
called for diversity among ways of looking at the world. It has asked for conceptual
biodiversity.
,“How early do you start your science teaching?"

"We start it at the same time we start multiplication and division. First lessons in
ecology."

"Ecology? Isn't that a bit complicated?"

"That's precisely the reason why we begin with it. Never give children a chance of
imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very first that all
living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds
and streams, in the village and the country around it. Rub it in."

,“And let me add," said the Principal, "that we always teach the science of
relationship in conjunction with the ethics of relationship. Balance, give and take, no
excesses---it's the rule of nature and translated out of fact into morality, it ought to
rule among people..

The final quote comes from the ,“Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What.., the
Palanese ,“Bible..
Patriotism is not enough. But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion
is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is
action, however disinterested, nor however sublime, is contemplation.

Nothing short of everything will really do.

References:

Blanchot, L. ,“The Madness of the Day., 1935.


Huxley, A., ,“Island., 1962.
Kant ,“Critique of Pure Reason., 1781
Nietzsche, F, ,“Untimely Meditations., 1873-1876
Nietzsche, F, ,“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense., 1873
Nielsen, Kai, ,“,“Rorty., in ,“The World’s Great Philosophers,(Blackwell, 2003)
O'Shaughnessy, A., Music and Moonlight, 1874
Rorty, R, ,“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1979)
Rorty, R, ,“Is there a problem with Fictional Discourse?., (Consequences of
Pragmatism, Essays 1972-1980) (1982)
Rorty, R., ,“Objectivity, Relativism and Truth,(Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991)
Schopenhauer, A., ,“Essays and Aphorisms., 1851
Wallace, B.A., ,“The Taboo of Subjectivity.. (OUP,2000)
Wilson, R.A., ,“Prometheus Rising., (New Falcon Publications, 1983)
Wilson, R.A. ,“Cosmic Trigger., (New Falcon Publications, 1986)
Wittgenstein, ,“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus., 1921
Last edited by UndercoverElephant on Sat May 12, 2007 2:27 pm, edited 2 times in
total.
"The poets did not win; the philosophers surrendered." (Umberto Eco)
"Nothing short of everything will really do." (Huxley)
"God is, as it were, the sewer into which all contradictions flow." (Hegel)

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