Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tools, animals or islands

So, here I am sitting, struggling to follow my thoughts hoping them to carry me away somewhere, while stile hoping to get something useful out of it all in the end. Thinking must be an adventure. And as all games it has its techniques, its tools and its criteria. Recently I stood before the oneway alley of considering "the concept of the concept" and it actually seemed to open somewhere. Laboring to complete this text, I realised this was an illusion, but some of the minor points still made me want to display this somewhere rather than throw it in the dustbin immediately.

Why, yes, I am totally bored with semantic discussions and definitions, and it seems inexplicable that I have often during the past few years ended up in them, particularly in the process of trying to apply some rigor to talking about surralism (as seen on Icecrawler) but also in more or less fruitless and sometimes painful quarrels with friends over the mere concepts of for example anarchism, utopianism, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, male/female, metaphor/metonymy etc.

But to begin with, I accept an instrumentalist view of concepts as a bottomline; I consider them basically tools. It is POSSIBLE that they represent a potential underlying pattern of the world contributing to making it meaningful in employing them while talking about it, but that is not necessary in any strong sense, and it is certainly not the case that concepts are there to reveal a logical order of the universe and provide a universal classification of what there is. It is also POSSIBLE that they are some sort of immaterial beings, units of thinking and communication (perhaps like memes?), but that is not necessary in any strong sense and it is thinking and communication in themselves that are vehicles of passion, curiosity, refusal, desire and poetry and therefore weapons of surrealism.

(Some people may laugh when I talk against universal classification since I am professionally and passionately a biological systematist and I am enthusiastic over analytical procedures. Ok, let's get this straight. The reason biological organisms can be meaningfully and universally classified is that they are all historical products springing from the same unique lineage, which makes it possible to approach their diversity with particular and very distinct techniques and criteria, and it clearly delimits the sphere within which such an approach is meaningful. While conceptual analyses are just exercises of thought, experiments to see if something is substantially clarified or not, and can be fun.)

I repeat, I stick to an instrumentalist view and am happy to revive Breton's image from the 1942 Prolegomena of the surrealist toolbench. There is no need to feel obliged to reconcile on an analytical level those different conceptual framework which are operative in different particular spheres, separated by arbitrary historical divisions as much as the distinct diversity of the phenomena themselves - when choice of method and choice of theoretical vocabulary are connected to the sense of coherence of our task as brought about in the explicit historical tradition we're placing ourselves in as well as in the concrete totality of the project from the viewpoint of the spirit, this is still the opposite of eclecticism. (Eclecticism I consider as hotchpotch assemblages of viewpoints unconnected by historical or deep subjective necessity, patched together arbitrarily to fit the superficial whims and compromises of an individual personality, or a coreless organisation, or any project striving desperately to be contemporarily relevant rather than have an inner coherence.)

Of course some alternatives are better than others. And it is not a mere pragmatical question of doing the job; it must be possible to pin down criteria. And from the viewpoint of surrealism, it is not necessarily the logical criteria which are the important ones, such as complete consistency, explicability, non-contradiction, exhaustiveness...

First criterion: operativity - we need a concept only for something that we want to talk about, something interesting enough, and in this sense our population of concepts are determined by our collective and individual desires. The concepts are there as means for our bewonderment, thought, imagination, communication and action visavis the desirable, and therefore subordinate to our purposes in a wide sense. Concepts which do not interact dynamically with our real curiosity towards the unknown, or our moral and political needs, are poor concepts.

Second criterion: explanatory power, predictiveness. In order to apply a concept meaningfully to real phenomena those phenomena must actually have something in common, something which it interesting for us to note, and something which makes it possible for us to assume (predict) with some (statistical) precision other properties of the same phenomena. Strictly ostensive concepts, referring only to the particular aspect we define them to refer to, make up formal languages (mathematics, logics, computer languages) and will usually not have something to say about the world. Some people will defend such a view from a philosophically realist standpoint, but such metaphysical commitments are not necessary; a better rationale for it is purely methodological: if properties are unevenly distributed in the world and not showing a complete finemeshed chaos, then it will be interesting to group phenomena in this way. It is because of this that when concepts are fitted into an effective theory they will be able to reveal hidden or latent properties; they will be symptomatic - not due to an apriori valid theory but due to the testable predictions based on empirical observations about the covariation of properties integrated into such a theory. The best concepts are actually themselves theories, broadly applicable and usually (but not always!) revelatory, such as many of the psychoanalytical concepts, or one of the all-time favourites, the marxian concept of "ideology", suggesting that anyone rigorously defending a rigid system of personal opinions will have invested a lot of their hopes and disappointments in the system to the extent that it will replace and oppose the actual struggle for emancipation...

Third criterion: precision. To be useful (and indeed to be accurately predictive) a concept must have a defined range, it must have criteria or diagnostic characteristics which allows us to choose when not to apply it. This is to avoid arbitrariness as well as to keep at bay any possible urges to universal classification that will squeeze all available phenomena into a limited set of categories, that will be either rigid and thus inadequate to cope with all the heterogenous phenomena, or extremely flexible and thus loose their meaning. Sure, schematic designations can sometimes be revealing and sometimes open up imaginative possibilities, but then as temporary tools to provoke contrast, exception and flight.

Fourth criterion: historical sense. Even though the preceding three criteria could be fulfilled by temporary or individual constructions that bear little resemblance to what others might use the same concept for, such a conceptual arbitrariness will be confusionist and serve only to circumscribe an eventually dogmatic circle of "enlightened" or else to make communication and historical continuity difficult on the whole. In order to be a part of a broader project of increasing knowledge, concepts must be used in a sense which is in continuity with its historical use, considering the various distinctions and developments made over it during the time leading up the present. Of course concepts can be refined and developed, and of course various deviations can be pointed out by acknowledging contradictions with the sense of the concepts themselves, but it must not be denied that the usage made in history is a part of the operative sense of the concept (the "experience" of the concept is founded in the experiences of its defenders) and therefore of the concept itself, and cannot be disregarded without approaching one or other sense of idealist ahistoricism.


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