Mission Possible?

Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.

When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:

Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:

Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.

Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).

When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.

Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.

Argument

Greta
Greta Thunberg, who started it all

Today is the day of the Global Climate Strike, in which young students all over the world will present strong arguments that the global Powers That Be had better pay attention to climate change and do something about it – something far more drastic than the piddling measures taken by most governments so far. We owe these youth our best efforts to support and follow up on their demands. To do that, or even to live responsibly in the Anthropocene, we need to appreciate what a genuine argument is.

Don’t argue with me!

That’s how the boss asserts his authority. What he really means is:

Follow my orders! Don’t argue against me!

Can you argue with people without arguing against them?

Not if an argument is just a verbal dispute, a “fight.” But when we talk about “having an argument”, that’s what we mean, isn’t it?

The Oxford English Dictionary says that an “argument” is ‘A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind; a reason urged in support of a proposition’; or, ‘A connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position (and, hence, to refute the opposite); a process of reasoning; argumentation.’ As Peirce puts it, ‘An “Argument” is any process of thought reasonably tending to produce a definite belief. An “Argumentation” is an Argument proceeding upon definitely formulated premisses’ (EP2:435). A single statement may be called an “argument” if and only if it forms part of a process of reasoning, but not all parts of the process need to be explicitly stated or ‘definitely formulated.’ The element of conflict may enter into the process if one argues for or against a ‘position’ or proposition, while facing opposition. But as we all know, when two people “have an argument,” the element of conflict often overwhelms the element of reasoning – especially when the feeling of being right matters more (to one or both people) than the truth of the matter being argued about.

In Turning Signs – with a few exceptions, such as Humpty Dumpty’s “nice knock-down argument” in Chapter 2 – the word ‘argument’ refers to a sign which embodies a process of reasoning. In a nutshell, it says that ‘if you believe A, you ought to believe C, because C logically follows from A.’ A here, which may consist of more than one statement, is called the antecedent (“going before”), while C is called the consequent (“following with,” according to the Latin roots). The “following” relation itself should be called the consequence, according to Peirce.

But also according to Peirce, the reasoning process goes much deeper than anything humans do “on purpose,” as we say. We know that our actions have unintended consequences (as well as intended ones) because nature itself has tendencies leading some things or events to follow from others, just as the consequent follows from the antecedent in an argument. Indeed Peirce claimed that the Universe itself is a vast argument (EP2:193-4), of which all human argumentations, and even our greatest works of art, are nothing but dim reflections.

No matter how strongly the youth of the Global Climate Strike fight for their cause, the inhabitants of Earth will all be the losers if we humans fail to see the truth of their argument, and act accordingly.

Invitation to Immanence

Last week, blogger and cultural critic Adrian Ivakhiv responded to my post on ‘Holocenoscopy’ with a post on his own Immanence blog which takes my own thoughts on the “Anthropocene” a few steps further. Since then most of my prime reading time has gone into his new book Shadowing the Anthropocene, which i bought and downloaded (PDF) from punctum books. It offers some fascinating insights, both theoretical and practical, on how we can live through these trying times. Also, being a lover of cinema, I’m delving into his earlier book Ecologies of the Moving Image.

Besides thought-provoking movies and the “AnthropoScene,”Adrian and I have several interests in common, including Peircean and process-oriented philosophy and an ecological perspective on things. His work strikes me as complementary to mine in that he is much more broadly acquainted with recent theorizing in the “social sciences” and “humanities” than I am, while my sources in Turning Signs incline more toward the “natural sciences” of biology, psychology, neuroscience etc. I don’t know how he will feel about my characterization of him above as a “cultural critic,” but it seems clear that we are both boundary-crossers in terms of the traditional disciplines, although (unlike me) he’s employed as an academic (University of Vermont). Anyway i find his work very refreshing and i’ll be exploring it for some time to come. I would recommend that readers of Turning Signs take a close look at his blog, at least.

for Sake

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life [psyche] will lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life [psyche] for my sake [ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ], he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?

Luke 9:23-5 (RSV)

Is his sake like your sake, or my sake, or God’s sake? What is a sake anyway? Are there any synonyms for that word? Where did it come from?

It came into English originally “for God’s sake,” according to the online etymological dictionary (consulted 25 March 2018):
{sake (n.1): “purpose,” Old English sacu “a cause at law, crime, dispute, guilt,” from Proto-Germanic *sako “affair, thing, charge, accusation” (source also of Old Norse sök “charge, lawsuit, effect, cause,” Old Frisian seke “strife, dispute, matter, thing,” Dutch zaak “lawsuit, cause, sake, thing,” German Sache “thing, matter, affair, cause”), from PIE root *sag- “to investigate, seek out” (source also of Old English secan, Gothic sokjan “to seek;” see seek).
Much of the word’s original meaning has been taken over by case (n.1), cause (n.), and it survives largely in phrases for the sake of (early 13c.) and for _______’s sake (c. 1300, originally for God’s sake), both probably are from Norse, as these forms have not been found in Old English.}
So we trace it back to a Proto-Indo-European root *sag- (which, as the asterisk signifies, is our best guess at what the original prehistoric form would have been, working back from the actually attested forms).

Who is the one ‘for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’? Was or is the primal person a seeker for his sake? Is there a primal cause, or purpose, or crime? Who is trying this case?

The answer is always there, but people need the question to bring it out.

— Thomas Cleary (1995, 164)

Kingdom Come

we’re flying high on a wing and a prayer
I hope we know when we get there

Oysterband, ‘Wayfaring’

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

… or as the King James Version has it, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Its coming is unobservable, like the time you are living in. We cannot observe spacetime: we can only observe differences or changes in the current state of things. Can you direct your attention to the ground of your attention (and your intentions)?

In the Gospel of Thomas, the question was put to Jesus by his disciples:

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”
“It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”

logion 113 (NHS)

At another time they asked him a very similar – or is it the same? – question:

His disciples said to him, “When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”
He said to them, “What you look for has come, but you do not know it.”

Gospel of Thomas 52 (NHS)

In Greek/Coptic, the word for ‘rest’ here is anapausis. Some say this is a mistake for anastasis, which means ‘resurrection’ – another event connected to the coming of the Kingdom and the new world. But perhaps ‘rest’ is just the other side of the coin of ‘resurrection’ – both beneath our knowledge, like the water underground.

Die Aufgabe

Franz Kafka

Du bist die Aufgabe. Kein Schüler weit und breit.

This is one of a series of aphorisms written by Franz Kafka in 1917-18. An Aufgabe is an assignment given by a teacher as a problem to be solved by a student. But in this case

You are the problem and there is no student available (or able?) to solve you.

Who made you a problem, a task to be done, a mission to be accomplished?
Can a problem solve itself?