Individuation. Thought of the Day 91.0

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The first distinction is between two senses of the word “individuation” – one semantic, the other metaphysical. In the semantic sense of the word, to individuate an object is to single it out for reference in language or in thought. By contrast, in the metaphysical sense of the word, the individuation of objects has to do with “what grounds their identity and distinctness.” Sets are often used to illustrate the intended notion of “grounding.” The identity or distinctness of sets is said to be “grounded” in accordance with the principle of extensionality, which says that two sets are identical iff they have precisely the same elements:

SET(x) ∧ SET(y) → [x = y ↔ ∀u(u ∈ x ↔ u ∈ y)]

The metaphysical and semantic senses of individuation are quite different notions, neither of which appears to be reducible to or fully explicable in terms of the other. Since sufficient sense cannot be made of the notion of “grounding of identity” on which the metaphysical notion of individuation is based, focusing on the semantic notion of individuation is an easy way out. This choice of focus means that our investigation is a broadly empirical one drawn on empirical linguistics and psychology.

What is the relation between the semantic notion of individuation and the notion of a criterion of identity? It is by means of criteria of identity that semantic individuation is effected. Singling out an object for reference involves being able to distinguish this object from other possible referents with which one is directly presented. The final distinction is between two types of criteria of identity. A one-level criterion of identity says that two objects of some sort F are identical iff they stand in some relation RF:

Fx ∧ Fy → [x = y ↔ RF(x,y)]

Criteria of this form operate at just one level in the sense that the condition for two objects to be identical is given by a relation on these objects themselves. An example is the set-theoretic principle of extensionality.

A two-level criterion of identity relates the identity of objects of one sort to some condition on entities of another sort. The former sort of objects are typically given as functions of items of the latter sort, in which case the criterion takes the following form:

f(α) = f(β) ↔ α ≈ β

where the variables α and β range over the latter sort of item and ≈ is an equivalence relation on such items. An example is Frege’s famous criterion of identity for directions:

d(l1) = d(l2) ↔ l1 || l2

where the variables l1 and l2 range over lines or other directed items. An analogous two-level criterion relates the identity of geometrical shapes to the congruence of things or figures having the shapes in question. The decision to focus on the semantic notion of individuation makes it natural to focus on two-level criteria. For two-level criteria of identity are much more useful than one-level criteria when we are studying how objects are singled out for reference. A one-level criterion provides little assistance in the task of singling out objects for reference. In order to apply a one-level criterion, one must already be capable of referring to objects of the sort in question. By contrast, a two-level criterion promises a way of singling out an object of one sort in terms of an item of another and less problematic sort. For instance, when Frege investigated how directions and other abstract objects “are given to us”, although “we cannot have any ideas or intuitions of them”, he proposed that we relate the identity of two directions to the parallelism of the two lines in terms of which these directions are presented. This would be explanatory progress since reference to lines is less puzzling than reference to directions.

The Mystery of Modality. Thought of the Day 78.0

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The ‘metaphysical’ notion of what would have been no matter what (the necessary) was conflated with the epistemological notion of what independently of sense-experience can be known to be (the a priori), which in turn was identified with the semantical notion of what is true by virtue of meaning (the analytic), which in turn was reduced to a mere product of human convention. And what motivated these reductions?

The mystery of modality, for early modern philosophers, was how we can have any knowledge of it. Here is how the question arises. We think that when things are some way, in some cases they could have been otherwise, and in other cases they couldn’t. That is the modal distinction between the contingent and the necessary.

How do we know that the examples are examples of that of which they are supposed to be examples? And why should this question be considered a difficult problem, a kind of mystery? Well, that is because, on the one hand, when we ask about most other items of purported knowledge how it is we can know them, sense-experience seems to be the source, or anyhow the chief source of our knowledge, but, on the other hand, sense-experience seems able only to provide knowledge about what is or isn’t, not what could have been or couldn’t have been. How do we bridge the gap between ‘is’ and ‘could’? The classic statement of the problem was given by Immanuel Kant, in the introduction to the second or B edition of his first critique, The Critique of Pure Reason: ‘Experience teaches us that a thing is so, but not that it cannot be otherwise.’

Note that this formulation allows that experience can teach us that a necessary truth is true; what it is not supposed to be able to teach is that it is necessary. The problem becomes more vivid if one adopts the language that was once used by Leibniz, and much later re-popularized by Saul Kripke in his famous work on model theory for formal modal systems, the usage according to which the necessary is that which is ‘true in all possible worlds’. In these terms the problem is that the senses only show us this world, the world we live in, the actual world as it is called, whereas when we claim to know about what could or couldn’t have been, we are claiming knowledge of what is going on in some or all other worlds. For that kind of knowledge, it seems, we would need a kind of sixth sense, or extrasensory perception, or nonperceptual mode of apprehension, to see beyond the world in which we live to these various other worlds.

Kant concludes, that our knowledge of necessity must be what he calls a priori knowledge or knowledge that is ‘prior to’ or before or independent of experience, rather than what he calls a posteriori knowledge or knowledge that is ‘posterior to’ or after or dependant on experience. And so the problem of the origin of our knowledge of necessity becomes for Kant the problem of the origin of our a priori knowledge.

Well, that is not quite the right way to describe Kant’s position, since there is one special class of cases where Kant thinks it isn’t really so hard to understand how we can have a priori knowledge. He doesn’t think all of our a priori knowledge is mysterious, but only most of it. He distinguishes what he calls analytic from what he calls synthetic judgments, and holds that a priori knowledge of the former is unproblematic, since it is not really knowledge of external objects, but only knowledge of the content of our own concepts, a form of self-knowledge.

We can generate any number of examples of analytic truths by the following three-step process. First, take a simple logical truth of the form ‘Anything that is both an A and a B is a B’, for instance, ‘Anyone who is both a man and unmarried is unmarried’. Second, find a synonym C for the phrase ‘thing that is both an A and a B’, for instance, ‘bachelor’ for ‘one who is both a man and unmarried’. Third, substitute the shorter synonym for the longer phrase in the original logical truth to get the truth ‘Any C is a B’, or in our example, the truth ‘Any bachelor is unmarried’. Our knowledge of such a truth seems unproblematic because it seems to reduce to our knowledge of the meanings of our own words.

So the problem for Kant is not exactly how knowledge a priori is possible, but more precisely how synthetic knowledge a priori is possible. Kant thought we do have examples of such knowledge. Arithmetic, according to Kant, was supposed to be synthetic a priori, and geometry, too – all of pure mathematics. In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant listed ‘How is pure mathematics possible?’ as the first question for metaphysics, for the branch of philosophy concerned with space, time, substance, cause, and other grand general concepts – including modality.

Kant offered an elaborate explanation of how synthetic a priori knowledge is supposed to be possible, an explanation reducing it to a form of self-knowledge, but later philosophers questioned whether there really were any examples of the synthetic a priori. Geometry, so far as it is about the physical space in which we live and move – and that was the original conception, and the one still prevailing in Kant’s day – came to be seen as, not synthetic a priori, but rather a posteriori. The mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß had already come to suspect that geometry is a posteriori, like the rest of physics. Since the time of Einstein in the early twentieth century the a posteriori character of physical geometry has been the received view (whence the need for border-crossing from mathematics into physics if one is to pursue the original aim of geometry).

As for arithmetic, the logician Gottlob Frege in the late nineteenth century claimed that it was not synthetic a priori, but analytic – of the same status as ‘Any bachelor is unmarried’, except that to obtain something like ‘29 is a prime number’ one needs to substitute synonyms in a logical truth of a form much more complicated than ‘Anything that is both an A and a B is a B’. This view was subsequently adopted by many philosophers in the analytic tradition of which Frege was a forerunner, whether or not they immersed themselves in the details of Frege’s program for the reduction of arithmetic to logic.

Once Kant’s synthetic a priori has been rejected, the question of how we have knowledge of necessity reduces to the question of how we have knowledge of analyticity, which in turn resolves into a pair of questions: On the one hand, how do we have knowledge of synonymy, which is to say, how do we have knowledge of meaning? On the other hand how do we have knowledge of logical truths? As to the first question, presumably we acquire knowledge, explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, of meaning as we learn to speak, by the time we are able to ask the question whether this is a synonym of that, we have the answer. But what about knowledge of logic? That question didn’t loom large in Kant’s day, when only a very rudimentary logic existed, but after Frege vastly expanded the realm of logic – only by doing so could he find any prospect of reducing arithmetic to logic – the question loomed larger.

Many philosophers, however, convinced themselves that knowledge of logic also reduces to knowledge of meaning, namely, of the meanings of logical particles, words like ‘not’ and ‘and’ and ‘or’ and ‘all’ and ‘some’. To be sure, there are infinitely many logical truths, in Frege’s expanded logic. But they all follow from or are generated by a finite list of logical rules, and philosophers were tempted to identify knowledge of the meanings of logical particles with knowledge of rules for using them: Knowing the meaning of ‘or’, for instance, would be knowing that ‘A or B’ follows from A and follows from B, and that anything that follows both from A and from B follows from ‘A or B’. So in the end, knowledge of necessity reduces to conscious or unconscious knowledge of explicit or implicit semantical rules or linguistics conventions or whatever.

Such is the sort of picture that had become the received wisdom in philosophy departments in the English speaking world by the middle decades of the last century. For instance, A. J. Ayer, the notorious logical positivist, and P. F. Strawson, the notorious ordinary-language philosopher, disagreed with each other across a whole range of issues, and for many mid-century analytic philosophers such disagreements were considered the main issues in philosophy (though some observers would speak of the ‘narcissism of small differences’ here). And people like Ayer and Strawson in the 1920s through 1960s would sometimes go on to speak as if linguistic convention were the source not only of our knowledge of modality, but of modality itself, and go on further to speak of the source of language lying in ourselves. Individually, as children growing up in a linguistic community, or foreigners seeking to enter one, we must consciously or unconsciously learn the explicit or implicit rules of the communal language as something with a source outside us to which we must conform. But by contrast, collectively, as a speech community, we do not so much learn as create the language with its rules. And so if the origin of modality, of necessity and its distinction from contingency, lies in language, it therefore lies in a creation of ours, and so in us. ‘We, the makers and users of language’ are the ground and source and origin of necessity. Well, this is not a literal quotation from any one philosophical writer of the last century, but a pastiche of paraphrases of several.

Catharsis

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One of the ways in which Freud was able to reveal repressed unconscious representations in discourse was through a technique popularly known as “the talking cure”. Coined by “Anna O” – a patient of Josef Breuer, Freud’s family doctor – the talking cure was considered by Freud to be effective in the treatment of hysteria. The technique, not unlike the notion of “free association”, requires the patient to say out loud whatever comes to her/his mind no matter how insignificant or superficial it may seem. By encouraging the patient to concentrate on putting neurotic or psychotic experiences into words, the uninterrupted narrative flow allows the psychoanalyst to reconstruct the patient’s unconscious mind. Focusing on unconscious representations revealed during discourse, the psychoanalyst is able to perceive lapsus or other manifestations of the unconscious which may escape the patient’s field of perception. At the discretion of the psychoanalyst, these unconscious representations are in turn brought to the patient’s attention who will ideally be able to understand the root of an undesired behavior. According to Freud, becoming familiar with the exact nature of these neurotic and psychotic behaviors makes it possible for the patient to suppress them.

The success of the talking cure, also known as the cathartic method, depends on the patient’s ability to put thoughts into words through the free assembly of signifiers. Through extensive research on the connection between the spoken word and the idea it represented, Freud argued that the organization of words, as well as their subsequent verbalization, have a direct link not only with cognition, but also with kinesthetics. In their analysis of the case of “Anna O.” – a patient of Breuer suffering from acute hysteria – both Freud and Breuer recognized the therapeutic benefits of the cathartic method. During the course of her hysteria, the patient essentially repressed the anguish of her father’s death into the unconscious mind, the cathexis of which resurfaced as a series of somatic manifestations. The patient’s symptoms, ranging from partial paralysis to severe coughing, completely disappeared toward the final phases of her treatment, much to the surprise of Freud and Breuer. They later attributed the patient’s cure to her verbalized reenactment of emotionally charged scenes associated with her father’s death, in the same manner as Aristotle remarked on the soothing effects of catharsis.

Further elaborating on Freud’s relationship between thoughts and words, Lacan perceived the unconscious mind. as being comprised of individual signifiers. Combining Saussurian linguistics and Freudian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s perception of the unconscious mind expounded on the ‘word-presentations’ mentioned by Freud in The Ego and the Id. Whereas Freud conceived the unconscious mind as containing “thing-presentations” that could be verbalized in the conscious mind, only by their subsequent passage through the pre-conscious, Lacan demonstrated that these “thing-presentations” already behave like signifiers without first having to filter through the pre-conscious. Lacan points out that the unconscious is manifested not only in speech through unconscious lapsus, but also in dreams, qualified by Freud as “the via regia to the unconscious”.

Because dreams both contain verbal cues and take on characteristics of linguistic tropes such as metaphor and metonymy, Lacan reasons that the unconscious must be structured like a language. To support this theory, he likens metaphor and metonymy to two functions of Freud’s dream-work: condensation and displacement, respectively. According to Lacan, metaphor behaves like condensation in that a signifier belonging to a particular signifying chain can be substituted with a new signifier from a different signifying chain in order to be reassigned a new meaning. Thus, metaphor appears both in narration and in dreams when a signifier-word is attributed a meaning other than that which is normally associated with it. In this way, condensation acts as a censoring agent to protect the ego from images, drives or impulses that it has repressed. Closely related to metonymy, dreams can also be censored through displacement. Instead of compressing images, drives or impulses into a metaphor as is the case with condensation, displacement disguises unconscious representations by replacing a repressed signifier in a signifying chain with another signifier from the same chain. This implies that the signifier that has been replaced in the signifying chain is related to the new signifier, as is the case of metonymy which uses only one part of a thing to describe the whole thing.

It would appear that, like language, the unconscious is governed by the relationship between individual units, in much the same way that words are governed by the rules of grammar and tropes to create meaning. In this respect, not only are unconscious and conscious signifiers similar to one another, but Freud’s cathartic method further corroborates their equivalence. With the assistance of a psychoanalyst, the “talking cure” brings unconscious drives, impulses and the images they create to the conscious realm through psychic discharge, which in the context of psychoanalysis, takes on the form of verbalized discourse. Instead of remaining confined to the unconscious and surfacing in unexpected or undesired ways through psychotic or neurotic behaviors, unconscious cathexes are channeled into language which, as Freud pointed out in “Words and Things”, is closely related to somatic activity. If unconscious cathexes can be converted into speech instead of into debilitating behaviors, then the connection between elements of the unconscious and those of the conscious can be clearly established.

But, for Freud, art is (as is love) an attenuated and inhibited form of sexuality that has a “mildly intoxicating quality of feeling.” The full power of human affects is exhausted and satisfied only in sexuality, “the prototype of all happiness.” For Lacan, the deepest passions are not localized or limited to genital sexuality, but engage the entire corporeal being in many, unpredictable forms of jouissance. Art is a way into jouissance. By doing violence to its own structural and meaning-making properties, art bewilders, perplexes, shocks, or enraptures, causing a “resonating of the body” that the speaking being (‘parlêtre’) wants and enjoys, even at the price of pain or anxiety. It has techniques and ways of making interventions that psychoanalysis can perhaps adapt for producing an encounter in the analysand with his or her own wordless real. By contrast, though Freud praised art for preceding psychoanalysis in understanding our psychic constitution, he did not see it as having any kind of direct application or usefulness for analytic practice. For the late Lacan, psychoanalysis is no longer the Freudian “talking cure” but a search for new paths to accomplish a kind of tuning of the jouissance that underlies all thought and discourse.

¿..Structuralism..?

This is a puerile dig from the archives. Just wanted to park it here to rest and rust and then probably forgotten, until a new post on structuralism as a philosophy of mathematics comes up, which, it shall soon. In the meanwhile, this could largely be skipped.

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Structuralism is an umbrella term involving a wide range of disciplines that came to fruition with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The basic idea revolves round the study of underlying structures of significations that are meaningfully derived from ‘texts’. A ‘text’ is anything that owes its existence to a document or anything that has the potential of getting documented. The analyses for the discovery of structures underlying all these significations and texts and the conditions of possibilities for the existence of these significations and texts is what structuralism purportedly does. Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’, published posthumously, and seeing the light of the day because of his students’ note taking influenced ‘Structural Linguistics’, thereby explaining the adequacy of language for describing things concrete and abstract and in the process expanding the applicability of what language could do.

The starting point of Saussure’s analysis is Semiology, a science that undertakes the study of signs in society. These signs that express ideas build up the system of language for him. Signs are comprised of langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue is an abstract homogeneous system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, whereas parole is a concrete heterogeneous act of putting language into practice. In Saussurian jargon, Langue describes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole describes the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguist subject. Signs attain their iconic status for Saussure due to meaning production when they enter into relationships with their referents.(1) Every sign is composed of a pair, a couple viz, signifier and signified, where signifier is a sound image (psychologically considered rather than materially), and signified is a concept. Signifier is the sensible part of the sign. A signified on the other hand is a connotation, an attachment that the signifier carries, a meaning, or a mental image of an entity that somehow misses out manifesting in the proximity. In other words, the signified of a signifier is not itself a sensible part of the sign. Signifier without the signified and vice versa strips a sign of its essence and therefore any meaning whatsoever (metaphysics ruled out for the moment!), and meaningfulness of signs in any discourse is derived from internal systemic relations of difference. This is precisely what is meant when Saussure says that language is a system of differences without positive terms (for the record: this is accepted even in Derrida’s post-structuralist critique of Saussure). The positivity of terms needs deliberation here. We recognize language, or more generally the marks inhabiting the language by virtue of how each and every mark is distinct/difference from each and every other mark inhabiting the same language. This distinction or difference is neither a resident with the sensible part of the sign, or signifier, nor with the mental/insensible part of the sign, or signified. Now, if the signifier and the signified are separated somehow, then language as guided by differences connoting negativity is legitimate. But, as has been mentioned; a sign is meaningful only when the signifier and the signified are coupled together, the meaning attaches itself a positive value. This only means that language is governed by differences. In the words of Saussure,

Whether we take signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or a phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.

Signs were value laden, for only then would linguistics become an actual science, and for this realization to manifest, signs in any language system were determined by other signs in the same language system that helped delimiting meaning and a possible bracketed range of usage rather than a confinement to internal sound-pattern and concept. A couple of ramifications follow for Saussure from here on viz, signs cannot exist in isolation, but emanate from the system in which they are to be analyzed (this also means that the system cannot be built upon isolated signs), and grammatical facts are consolidated by taking recourse to syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses. The former is based on the syntactic or surface structure in semiotics, whereas the latter is operative on the syntagms by means of identifying its paradigms. The syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses were what made Saussure assert the primacy of relations of difference that made any language operate. Syntagms particularly belong to speech, and thereby direct the linguist in identifying the frequency of its usage before being incorporated into language, whereas, paradigms relationalize associatively thus building up clusters of signs in the mind before finally imposing themselves on syntagms for the efficient functionality of the language.

So, fundamentally structuralism is concerned with signifiers and relations between signifiers, and requires a diligent effort to make visible what is imperceptible and at the same time responsible for the whole phenomenon to exist, and that being the absent signified. The specialty of absent signified is to carry out the efficacy of structuralism as a phenomenon, without itself sliding into just another singifier, and this is where Derrida with his critique of structuralism comes in, in what is known as post-structuralism. But, before heading into the said territory, what is required is an attempt to polish structuralism by viewing it under some lenses, albeit very briefly.

Structural anthropology as devised by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Structural Anthropology (1 and 2) studied certain unobservable social structures that nonetheless generated observable social phenomenon. Lévi-Strauss imported most of his ideas from the structuralist school of Saussure, and paralleled Saussure’s view on the unknow-ability of grammar usage while conversing, with the unknow-ability of the workings of the social structures in day-to-day life. Thought as such is motivated by various patterns and structures that show proclivities towards redundancy in these very various situations. This means that the meaning or the signified is derived from a decision that somehow happens to have taken place in the past, and hence already decided. And the very construction of thoughts, experience is what structural anthropology purports to do, but with beginnings that were oblivious to social/cultural systems and wedded to objectivity of scientific perspective. Although criticized for the lack of foundations of a complete scientific account and ignorant towards an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience, the structural anthropology remains embraced amongst anthropologists.

Other important political variant of structuralism is attributed to Louis Althusser, who coined the idea of structural Marxism as against humanistic Marxism by emphasizing on Marxism as a science that has ‘studying’ objective structures as its goal, as against the prison house of pre-scientific humanistic ideology embraced by humanistic Marxism. The major tenet of this school of Marxism lay in its scathing critique of the instrumentalist version that argued for the institutions of the state as directly under the control of those capitalist powers, and instead sought out to clarify the functionality of these institutions in order to reproduce the capitalist society as a whole.

After these brief remarks on structural anthropology and structural Marxism, it is time for a turn to examine the critiques of structuralism in order to pave a smooth slide into post-structuralism. The important reaction against structuralism is its apparent reductionist tendency, wherein deterministic structural forces are pitted over the capacities of people to act, thus anthropologically weakening. Within the anthropological camp itself, Kuper had this to say,

Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of the millennial movement and some of its adherents thought that they formed a secret society of a seeing in a world of the blind. Conversion was not just a matter of accepting a new paradigm. It was, almost, a question of salvation.

Another closely allied criticism is confining to biological explanations for cultural constructions, and therefore ignoring the social constructions in the process. This critique is also attached with the Saussurian version, for it was considered as too closed off to social change. This critique could not have been ameliorated for the presence of Voloshinov, who thematized dialectical struggles within words to argue for the language to happen primarily through a ‘clash of social forces’ between people who use words, and thereby concluding that to study changes in signs and to chart those changes mandates the study of class struggles within society.

(1) Back in the 19th Century an important figure for semiotics, the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, isolated three different types of sign: The symbolic sign is like a word in so far as it refers by symbolising its referent. It neither has to look like it nor have any natural relation to it at all. Thus the word cat has no relation to that ginger monster that wails all night outside my apartment. But its owner knows what I’m talking about when I say “your cat kept me awake all night.” A poetic symbol like the sun (which may stand for enlightenment and truth) has an obviously symbolic relation to what it means. But how do such relationships come about? Saussure has an explanation. The indexical sign is like a signpost or a finger pointing in a certain direction. An arrow may accompany the signpost to San Francisco or to “Departures.” The index of a book will have a list of alphabetically ordered words with page numbers after each of them. These signs play an indexical function (in this instance, as soon as you’ve looked one up you’ll be back in the symbolic again). The iconic sign refers to its object by actually resembling it and is thus more likely to be like a picture (as with a road sign like that one with the courteous workman apologising for the disruption).