This is P.6 of "The Two Horns of Reaism and Non-realism"
I'd like to preface this with an exerpt from Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (I'll ultimately go another way):
Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It's the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that's fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I'm working on parts. I 'm working on concepts.
I was talking about these concepts yesterday when I said that a motorcycle can be divided according to its components and according to its functions. When I said that suddenly I created a set of boxes with the following arrangement:
And when I said the components may be subdivided into a power assembly and a running assembly, suddenly appear some more little boxes:
And you see that every time I made a further division, up came more boxes based on these divisions until I had a huge pyramid of boxes. Finally you see that while I was splitting the cycle up into finer and finer pieces, I was also building a structure.
This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge. Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured...so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom- phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.
The box "motorcycle" contains the boxes "components" and "functions." The box "components" contains the boxes "power assembly" and "running assembly," and so on. There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as "causes" which produce long chain structures of the form, "A causes B which causes C which causes D," and so on. A functional description of the motorcycle uses this structure. The operator's "exists," "equals," and "implies" produce still other structures. These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and structure of causation are just species, is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as "the system" is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There's no villain, no "mean guy" who wants them to live meaningless lives, it's just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There's no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone's mind -- number three tappet is right on too. One more to go. This had better be it -- .I've noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this...that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes...pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts...all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees "steel" as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone's mind. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's "potential"? That's also in someone's mind! -- Ghosts.
While thinking about my conundrum of representation - at least insofar as communicating it in such a way that finds some agreement - the above passage from Pirsig came to mind. The key notion to consider in dissolving the idea of philosophical representation and/or realism with respect to what Pirsig has said, is the whole idea that what we consider phenomenon, or the objective world is mostly a mental process. In other words what we see when we observe things and what we make of them stands in relation to a hierarchy or paradigm of thought in such a way that to speak of representation – whereas it may make a certain amount of sense within a given hierarchy - it falls apart outside of it, and is circular within it. Not to mention our adaptation of idea is more closely related to functionality then with accurate representation.
What I’d like to do first is recognize, as Pirsig did above, that things like government, motorcycles, map making, religion, physics, so on, are nothing more then systems of rational thought which can be seen as existing within a hierarchy. In other words, individual propositions in a language don’t stand independently in relation to the things they refer to, but rather stand within in a larger context where their truth value is relative to their logical consistency within the hierarchy. That the socialist concept of distributing the wealth is wrong or bad, is really recognition that within the hierarchy of Democratic thinking there is no such concept – which is why when one infers such a state of affairs, we all cry “SOCIALISM”, and not simply, “That sounds really shitty!”. It’s not that socialism is necessarily false, wrong or bad per se, it simply doesn’t fit into the context of our belief/value system – you could see this as a bit of dogmatic thinking, but I’ll get to that later.
That a motorcycle exhaust pipe is exactly that - and not just in statement but as represented on an engineering print – is true relative to the hierarchy of thought about motorcycles. Outside of that, or the hierarchy being unknown, there’s no telling what the piece could be and/or what it could be interpreted as. Perhaps an Australian shaman from the bush stumbles upon it and immediately proclaims it’s a religious symbol of some sort, whereupon all the people of his village bow down once a day to worship it. That sounds pretty wacky to be sure, and no doubt we’d say they were wrong about the odd piece of metal, but that’s simply because the system of thought we’re using to talk about the part is different from theirs. One might make the argument, well, it wasn’t intended to be a religious symbol from its inception and therefore on those grounds the shaman is completely cracked – he’s applying a system of thought to the part that doesn’t belong to it. But who’s to say that our current conception or system of thought about trees is the right one? The point is we’re interpreting an object relative the hierarchy of thought we’re working in, and relative to the use we find for a given object/concept.
In the case of map-making we again have a system of rational thought at work. On the one hand representation is a slick piece of rhetoric to apply to the map relative to what it’s doing – representing the terrain – however we miss the fact that what the terrain is exists within its own mental hierarchy. In this way (philosophically) we simply see the map representing (if anything at all) another hierarchy of thought. It represents, in the form of marks, scribbles, alphanumerics, etc., our very human rational thought process as it goes to work on it’s own needs and interests; it’s a concept worked out in paper, or to put it another way, it’s just more language. Again, as stated above, the map only makes sense within the context of rational thought it was conceived in; give it to the shaman above, and he might tack it up right next to his exhaust pipe and say it’s a picture of the God-head himself – on what grounds do we say he is incorrect. Once again, the idea of representation itself is nothing more then a concept which exists within a larger framework and who’s truth makes sense only within that context. Since the map is really just more language, the realist is stuck with the same problem of showing how language represents anything. Of course one could make the same argument about me, but as a pragmatist I defend my positions, well, pragmatically; if you don’t like them, or find no use for them, neither of us are any worse for ware.
Moving on, one of the road blocks that stand in the way of any two different understandings is generally one of dogma, or so I’ll argue. That a given thing is an exhaust pipe and nothing more, or that the part is a religious icon and nothing more (in statement or belief), is nothing more then a statement of dogmatic thinking. It’s an insistence that our language, along with our needs and interests surrounding the part, correlate; or more extremely (as we’re talking dogma here) that we represent reality as it is, properly. “It’s an exhaust pipe you religious wack-job!” Essentially what you end up with here is one hierarchy/system of thought claiming relevance over another hierarchy/system of thought and in some cases conflating purposes. On the one hand the westerner could assemble the part onto an actual motorcycle and demonstrate it’s use relative to his hierarchy, but on the other hand the shaman could do just the same – so long as both sides are unwilling to step out of they’re dogmatic little hierarchies, no real conclusion on the matter may be reached.
This leads me to another dogma of realism, which is the notion that scientific inquiry makes progress by finding out more and more about the same objects. But once again, this assumes (in true realist form) that we are building upon a system of thought which exists in the form of one big pyramid, as apposed to several competing pyramids, furthermore that the purposes these structures of thought serve are the same. Going back to the exhaust pipe, it’s easy to see from the outside looking in that their difference in opinion exists mainly in the purpose the object serves. Relative to this view point we cannot here make the claim that either side is incorrect, more right or more wrong; we can only say that this side or that sides purpose is meaningless to us.
In the same way we can move to an example given earlier, about where Aristotle’s ideas of motion stand relative to Newton’s. We may be tempted to consider the following statements, “Aristotle said mostly false things about motion”, or “Aristotle said mostly true things about what HE called motion, but we don’t believe there is any such thing.” Or we might want to say, “Here Aristotle goofed, even in his own terms.” Or, “here we have a statement which would be true if anything in Aristotelian physics were, but which, alas, refers to something which does not exist and thus is false.” What we’re trying to accomplish here is to distinguish between Aristotelian falsehoods which are the result of the nonexistence of what he was talking about, and those which result from his misuse of his own theoretical apparatus. However in both cases we’re making a judgment of a particular system of thought relative to the dogma of another system of thought – on the one hand, assuming we’re talking about the same things, he completely misconstrued and/or misrepresented the nature of motion. On the other hand, he was talking about ghosts and fairies that we can’t seem connect with any phenomenon by today’s standards. In both cases we neglect whatever practical purpose his dialogue about motion served at the time and instead substitute it with the practical purposes we have today – thus it is by those standards we make a call. Our current hierarchy of thought isn’t “more true”, it’s simply better suited to our current needs and interests. This is exactly the case between the westerner with the exhaust pipe, and the shaman with the religious icon – each is conceiving of a given thing within a different hierarchy of thought to serve a different need. There is no way of talking about their object that is more true then any other; it’s not more true to call it “A” instead of “B”, nor is it more true that it serves purpose “A” as apposed to purpose “B”. In the same way it isn’t more true to call motion “Aristotelian” as apposed to “Newtonian” (or visa versa), nor is it more true that motion serves an “Aristotelian” purpose as apposed to “Newtonian” purpose. Once again, it would be my argument that a shift in position is a shift in systems of thought relative to the purposes those shifts give us, not their “truthy-ness”.
Representation then, can only take place dogmatically (rhetorically) within a given hierarchy of thought. In other words if two speakers are agreeing to converse within a given context, they can make claims and/or arguments about correct representation only within that context. So you can say, relative to systemic world view “X”, it would be inaccurate to represent reality as containing a God as nowhere within the hierarchy is the logic, reason, or rational to deal with the concept. This of course doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist anymore then the exhaust pipe may or may not be an exhaust pipe or religious icon for the same reasons. The key point here is, that any idea, whether contained in what we’d call object or in dialogue, makes sense only within the context of the language it takes place within – the same is true for the idea of representation. If one would like to use it, fine, but as we cannot justify it outside of pragmatic grounds, then happy chit-chats to you.
The final matter I’d like to address is the idea of constraint, or being constrained by reality in such a way that this gives us a legitimate claim to realism. Since it’s obvious we bump into a world that seems to hold us back from doing certain things, it follows that there must be a world in itself that we have the capacity to represent. I’m not going to fully tackle this here, but say for the moment that, in much the same way the Buddhists say, “Desire is the cause of all suffering”, and Nirvana is the escape from this suffering, I will say, “Rational thought is the cause of all constraint”. It constrains us in governmental systems, religious systems, subject/object metaphysical systems, and in philosophical systems in general. Whatever our current forms of thought are that we hold dear to within any of those systems are the vary things that constrain us, they are the dogma of our lives. As Pirsig notes, through revolts within governments, scientific revolutions, or shifts in religious perspectives, we never get to the point of releasing ourselves from the real culprit of constraint and suffering, which is systematic reason itself. Our lives through these revolutions seem to have some short term gains, but we quickly fall into the same sorts of depressions that led us into the revolutions in the first place.
I’d like to paraphrase Nietzsche with the following:“When a thing becomes known to us, it ceases to be of a concern.” (he goes on to say from here, “…so what was on the mind of God when he said, ‘know thyself’,”) In other words it (the thing) becomes dogmatic, ordinary, meaningless, and so on. It becomes something that doesn’t quite get at the core of what it was we were trying to say, and as a result we build new systems of thought to deal with that new sense of emptiness we feel; which are interpreted as our new needs and interests.
Quoting Pirsig in ZMM again he states:
“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process. That is fairly well understood, at least in the arts. Mark Twain's experience comes to mind, in which, after he had mastered the analytic knowledge needed to pilot the Mississippi River, he discovered the river had lost its beauty. Something is always killed. But what is less noticed in the arts...something is always created too. And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it's important also to see what's created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, but just is.”