'Continual beginnings'


Wanting to branch out a little, I spent today gathering some readings and materials on cognitive sciences and philosophy's relationship to them. I had been directed to this interest by a link posted at wood s lot to an interview with Richard Powers. I found the interview to be fascinating, but that's not what I wanted to talk about here.

Searching through the college's database I found a lecture delivered by Eva Brann in 1985 entitled "Mental Imagery (The College and Contemporary Cognitive Science)." As far as I can tell it's never been published, but I wanted to share some excerpts here.

In this lecture, she discusses the contemporary battle between philosophers and scientists over the terms and methods to use in discussing the mind's cognitive powers, especially the power of imagination. Put very simply, she describes the shift in our description of the mind's power from 'analog' to 'digital.' Her intention, I think, is to show that this shift in terminology is not illuminating, but rather obfuscating -- resulting in a detrimental state of affairs and little true philosophy.

The cognitive scientists decide what method of theorizing will keep their inquiries within the concerns of science, and then more or less knowingly move to exclude from being what their canon excludes from notice -- that after all is just what it means to turn human beings into experimental subjects. And they do this without let or hindrance, not to say without connivance, of a large part of the philosophical community. For the contest about who asks the questions has been won by the scientists, in this case the cognitive scientists ... and they sit outside calling the digital tune, while the professional philosophers skulk at the windows making comments. This state of affairs can't help but eventually arouse our community's anxious interest, because, while our program is built on the trust that the important questions are perennially the same however diverse the attempted answers, the capitulation of philosophy to science makes urgent the question of questions I mentioned in the beginning, namely whether the terms of the questions themselves may be transformed radically and beyond translation from age to age.

Later she discusses the promise of reconfiguring the debate of analog v. digital into an inquiry [infused by new study and understanding] into the powers of intellect and imagination.

One of the chief boons will be that the traditional pair, unlike the contemporary set, is not an opposition but a conjunction, and that however imagination and intellect are considered as equally and unseverably necessary to knowledge, reflection on thinking, reasoning, acting intelligently, takes on a very different coloration than when the faculty of imagery is regarded as an analytical embarrassment. What I mean is: to my mind what the contemporary world needs most urgently is a revision of its mode and its understanding of rationality.

I agree with her -- at least so far as despite just scratching the surface of the debate I have recognized a deep disappointment with the sorts of argumentation that I have cursorily explored in my philosophical readings. I hardly ever understand why they're arguing!

I wanted to mention Ms. Brann's discussion of some thoughts raised by Richard Rorty in a lecture delivered at the college some years before her 1985 lecture occurred. She mentions the idea of homogeneity and Rorty's phrase 'the social justification of belief:'

'We understand knowledge,' Rorty says, 'when we understand the social justification of belief,' meaning that knowledge arises not from taking in and testing for oneself what the world has to give, but from devising a language for obtaining the concurrence of the community accredited to judge, while learning means being absorbed into that society which carries on the pertinent, essentially terminological conversation. To me this view of a community of learning seems like philosophy’s self-imposed revenge for its voluntary subjection to science, for it is modeled on he current philosophy-of-science-view of science as a social construction (which, by the way, apparently infuriates practicing scientists, insofar as they pay it any mind). Now this college is not only a program but also the community designed for the study of the program, and those of our students who were self-aware members of the former should make peculiarly discerning judges of the pervasive and potent view I’ve just described. For the community Rorty projects is a spatially scattered league of competent professionals whose largely written communications are aimed at the fixation of shared belief, while St. John’s is a living community of people of carefully guarded amateur status who converse with each other face to face, to save their souls, and, standing somewhat apart, prepare for the four years to grapple with a present that has been twenty-eight hundred years in the making.

Now a lot of that goes far beyond my grasp of the situation – both when this lecture was given, and today when things may be vastly different [though I doubt it]. But I had an ‘ah-hah’ moment when I read her description of our community – our ‘carefully guarded amateur status’ and how we ‘converse face to face to save our souls.’

Teaching the theology section of the graduate program has made many things abundantly important to me. One is something I mentioned recently – that this sort of thinking is not a privilege, it is not a luxury or a diversion, it is necessary to the survival of the free-thinking, intentioned human being [despite the inherent pleasure of the activity]. Another thing that I continue to recall is a phrase I read in J.K. Huysmans À rebours -- an ultimatum posed first to Baudelaire, and second to Huysmans, by Barbey d'Aurevilly:

You have only to choose between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross.
The story is that both chose the cross. I can't really spell out what it is about that phrase that keeps returning to my mind, but I can say that reading lectures like the above really serve to highlight what it is that drew me in to philosophical studies, and what keeps me excited.

Her conclusion:

Under these circumstances it is not so surprising that, while in the sciences hopes are high, the dominating philosophical mood is, according to temperament, either a rage for finis-writing or a lugubrious nihilism -- a zealous anticipation of an end to philosophy which is no consummation but either a self-destructive bang or an unravelled whimper of mere endless argumentation. But I imagine that some of us can think of an understanding of philosophy by which it escapes these ignominies. If philosophy is directed wonder then we need not follow the lead of the sciences in asking only warrantably pursuable questions or abandon answers because their complete formal justification proves elusive. Then we are permitted to assume that when something arouses such wonder in us it is given to us, first and last, as wonderful, however relentlessly we may work it over in between.