Casting about, meandering toward my book

Right now I am in a painful flitting-about, casting-about intellectual mode.

I was reading Garfinkel’s classic Studies in Ethnomethodology, which I am excited to say I was able to understand clearly this time. However, once I picked up the logic of the method, the technical details of his studies strained and eventually broke my patience. At least now I can add sociology to my “academic disaster averted” file, along with architecture, computer science, HCI and philosophy, as graduate degrees I would have never made it through.

I was originally reading Garfinkel because I started feeling the importance of indexicality in my own project of trying to redescribe philosophy not as a search for truth but as a process of conceptual adaptation of who we are to the conditions we find ourselves in — a process that is perhaps most fruitfully conceived as design and best approached with design practices. A central piece of this project is accounting for how we perceive elements (people, objects, locations, words, symbols) in our environment and spontaneously intuit their significance within their context. Ethnomethodology provides a sociological lens for seeing how this meaning-making/-conveyance happens in particular social settings, and offers a vision for how this happens in general.

My interest is focused on conceptions, which I define as “mind moves” of various kinds, the intellectual equivalent of learning a dance or a tennis swing, which once we acquire it, immediately becomes an extension of our mind, and intercepts our sense data and assigns it relevance, all without any explicit intention or verbalization. In fact, I think conceptions direct our verbalizations by exactly the same means that it directs our use of tools.

I see perception, intuition of whole-and-part, interaction, communication as guided by conceptions, any of which might be changed, and which, when changed, can alter the meaning and experience of everything — that is, transfigure it. I want to outline a philosophy of intentional, responsible transfiguration of the world around us, as we inhabit it, understand it, interact with it, and shape it, what I’m calling enworldment. I see it as a sober variety of existentialism, with the adolescent recklessness, self-absorption and melodrama that dogs existentialism matured out of it, tempered by a cultivated sensitivity and respect for transcendence.

My main text now is Susanne Langer’s Philosophy In a New Key, which I am rereading the first time in ten years. I recall the impression that her thinking was pretty close to my own, and affirmed many ideas that I’d acquired elsewhere, perhaps influenced by her (for instance, Geertz, whose quotes from her book inspired me to read her) but that the big novel takeaway for me was her insight that non-discursive language-defiant forms of knowledge can be embedded or performed in art and religion. This also is an attempt to reckon with conceptions, which Langer conceptualizes in terms of symbols.

But this time through, at this time in world history, I’m attuned to the presence of one of her influences, Ernst Cassirer. I know him best as a central figure in a book I bought years ago and never read, A Parting of the Ways. I’ve been poking around trying to get a sense of him, and he seems like a good hero for a person like me in times like these. In his time, the twilight of the Weimar republic, he was perceived as a hopelessly idealistic and out-of-touch liberal. At that moment, the world was dividing into extreme ideological factions, all of whom agreed on nothing except one thing: the irrelevance of liberalism. Liberal-democracy was regarded by all advanced intellects as a played-out failure, and all those who remained loyal to it were backwards. The future belonged to either Marxism or Fascism, and the only remaining question was which was destined to be on the right side of history.

I picked up A Parting of the Ways and sampled it to see if I ought to read it, and this passage jumped out at me:

Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant aimed to show that the Critique of Pure Reason does not present a theory of knowl­edge and, in particular, that it does not present a theory of mathematical natural scientific knowledge. The real contribution of the Critique is rather to work out, for the first time, the problem of the laying of the ground for metaphysics — to articulate, that is, the conditions of the possibility of metaphysics. On this reading, Kant argues (in remarkable agreement with the main argument of Being and Time) that metaphysics can only be grounded in a prior analysis of the nature of finite human reason. As finite, the human intellect (unlike the divine intellect) is necessarily dependent on sensible intuition. Moreover, and here is where the true radicalism of Heidegger’s interpretation emerges, Kant’s introduction of the so-called transcendental schematism of the understanding has the effect of dissolving both sensibility and the intellect (the understand­ing) in a “common root,” namely, the transcendental imagination, whose ultimate basis (again in remarkable agreement with the argument of Being and Time) is temporality. And this implies, finally, that the traditional basis of Western metaphysics in logos, Geist, or reason is definitively destroyed.

In the ensuing disputation Cassirer begins by announcing his agreement with Heidegger concerning the fundamental importance of the transcendental imagination — interpreted, however, in accordance with Cassirer’s own philosophy of symbolic forms, as pointing to the fact that the (finite) human being is to be defined as the “symbolic animal.” But Cassirer strongly objects to the idea that we as “symbolic animaIs” are thereby limited to the “arational” sphere of finitude. For Kant himself has shown how the finite human creature can nevertheless break free from finitude into the realm of objectively valid, necessary and eternal truths both in moral experience and in mathematical natural science. On this basis, Cassirer asks Heidegger whether he really wants to renounce such objectivity and to maintain instead that ail truth is relative to Dasein (the concrete finite human being). Heidegger, for his part, acknowledges the importance of this question, but he continues to reject the idea of any “breakthrough” into an essentially nonfinite realm. On the contrary, philosophy’s true mission — and our true freedom — consists precisely in renouncing such traditional illusions and holding fast to our essential finitude (our “hard fate”).

This put me on the edge of my chair. But I had questions about some of Kant’s terminology. What exactly is a “sensible intuition”? That led me to a paper by Marcus Willaschek, “The Sensibility of Human Intuition: Kant’s Causal Condition on Accounts of Representation”, and this slab of clarity, which I feel sure will allow me to make better use of Kantian language.

(SU1) Human beings can come to entertain mental representations in one of two
ways: either (a) as a result of an object’s causal impact on our minds (an affection of our “Gemüt”) or (b) as a result of some “spontaneous” activity of “uniting” various representations into a new one (cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU2) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1a) is a kind
of “receptivity” that Kant calls “ sensibility” (A 19, B 33).

(SU3) The capacity to come to represent something as a result of (SU1b) is a kind
of “spontaneity” called “understanding” (A 19, B 33).

(SU4) There are two basic kinds of “objective” representations (i.  e. represen­
tations that purport to represent objects other than a subjective state of mind), namely intuitions and concepts (A 19, B 33; cf. A 320, B 377).

(SU5) Intuitions are singular representations (that is, representations of par­
ticulars as such); through intuitions our minds do not refer to objects by means of general marks and therefore refer immediately (A 19, B 33).4
(SU6) Concepts are general representations (that is, they represent objects only
indirectly insofar as they exhibit “marks” potentially shared by other objects) (A 19, B 33).

(SU7) All intuitions in humans are sensible (A 51, B 75, cf. A 68, B 93); that is,
they arise from affections of our “sensibility” (A 19, B 33).5 Thus, human intuitions essentially involve a moment of passivity; through them, objects are “given” to us (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU8) All concepts are intellectual; that is, with respect to concepts, our minds
are spontaneously active. Through them, objects are actively thought by us by uniting various representations of them under a common one (A 19, B 33, cf. A 68, B 93).

(SU9) Human cognition requires both intuitions and concepts (A 51, B 75). (Very
roughly, concepts provide cognition with a content that can be true or false and stand in rational relations; intuition provides the link to reality or, as Kant puts it in the Critique of Judgment, to “objects” corresponding to our concepts; cf. 5:401.)

Sensible intuitions are the stuff of indexicality, which are, in turn, the stuff of understanding — and all of these are constrained by conceivability — our reperoire of conceptions. I think Kant’s famous table was meant as an exhaustive inventory of possible conceptions, but my taste inclines me to treat the table as a beginning of an expanding set with no determinate limits.

So now I’m curious about Willaschek. I see he has a new book out, which looks interesting and useful: Kant on the Sources of Metaphysics: The Dialectic of Pure Reason. I’ve downloaded a copy to read, and I can already tell I’m going to need this in my library.

Anyway, anyone who has made it this far, can see why I am perpetually out of both time and money.

I hope this also sheds a little more light onto what I am hoping to get at in my Philosophy of Design of Philosophy book project. What I am after reading Langer, Cassirer and others, including maybe (but hopefully not!) Kant, is to offload the burden of arguing a theory of conceptualization and instead to build upon a platform of existing theory to advocate approaching philosophy as a design medium, to develop an outline for how it is done, and to describe first-person what can be expected practicing philosophical enworldment this way, because it is truly weirder than hell to go through and demands explanation.

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