Thursday 7 August 2014

The focus of thought: 'positions' versus 'problems'; of turf-wars and earth-wars

One thing that the AIME workshops encouraged me to think about a little more carefully was the status of the 'problem' as that which gathers, focuses and motivates thought. (I must thank Isabelle Stengers for reminding me of this.)

It seems to me that 'problem' should be contrasted with 'position.' These words represent two entirely different ways of arguing and thinking.

To argue from a 'position' (in the sense of 'that is my position,' 'I agree with your position on X but...') is to reason like a General; it is to make concepts into little tin soldiers, planes and tanks that are pushed around a map of philosophical terrain (probably a map of somewhere near the border of France and Germany!). Thinking is thus a war; there are enemy positions to be routed and strongholds to be fortified. The modest and realistic general will surely concede that outright and total victory is impossible in practice but the Prince of 'in principle' dictates that the goal must always be total domination.

However, at least as important as this inherent will-to-power is the continuity and identity that are thus stitched into the philosophical process. Any given conversation or argument becomes but a campaign, a battle, a skirmish in a longer war, an epic saga. Positions are always related to an author -- He who 'holds' them with chest-jutting pride. Sequences of positions mark out the 'careers' not of thoughts but of authors. Position-thinking always comes back to the ego of the author who 'holds' whatever bit of terrain at whatever time. It is ego-centric.

To think from (or rather around) a 'problem' is quite a different process. Every conversation is an event, a creative re-gathering of the past in service of whatever is presented. That which energises the philosopher here is not the vainglorious dream of conquering the world (whether by 'hard' or 'soft' power) but rather the pragmatic desire to settle the issue at hand. The philosopher's skill is no longer that of dominating the other but rather of re-gathering that which has always and necessarily dispersed since the last time, and differently. Her focus is not the safe, secure ground that she defends but the shaky, uncertain space that she must somehow weave.

Thinking from problems makes one less like a General and more like a herdsman. Every time a shepherd wishes to achieve something with his flock he must assemble it as a flock once again. As though Heraclitus was a shepherd: One cannot gather the same flock twice. Of course, there is continuity between assembly-events inasmuch as the shepherd doesn't go out and buy or steal a whole new set of animals each time. He responds to each problem he is faced with by working with the set of resources that he has at hand. There is a momentum built up through his day-in, day-out responsiveness to problems; a fragile, pragmatic identity. He never builds his flock from scratch at dawn -- if he is presented with such a need he is surely destitute. However, sheep get sick; they are born; they get lost; they age; they are selectively bred; they break their legs; they are eaten; they are traded; they are made into peace offerings, bribes... After every event the flock disassembles and it will never assemble in quite the same way again.

This is not a pacific, pastoral world; it is cold, harsh and offers no safety net; life and death hinges upon adequate or inadequate responses to problems. There are no soft-handed shepherds but more than a few Generals with immaculate cuticles [okay, it's a terrible metaphor but you probably get the point].

So, yes, concepts are a little like sheep -- more like sheep than like tin figurines being pushed around a map, anyway. Of course I am saying nothing in the least bit original here, I am just trying to assemble my own rather tired and skinny-looking herd in my own way!

The military/herding metaphors are illustrative if inelegant; they tell only a tiny little part of the story. Where the herding metaphor, in particular, breaks down is in the suggestion of isolation and individuality. Herds of thoughts are in fact chaotic, overlapping, intermixing thickets and soups rather than isolated, clumped dots on a hillside. We are all tangled up in each other's thoughts, utterances, things and concepts. We are all herders, weavers, world-makers -- but we make worlds together.

This entanglement destroys any possibility of a simple binary friend/enemy distinction. Silly declarations like 'realism vs. anti-realism' have no meaning here. These are tribal affiliations in old-fashioned turf wars. They are of no use in the infinitely more complex, problem-centred earth wars.