Saturday, August 01, 2015

"Unthinkable": Merging Foucault and Lakoff/Johnson via Borge's fantastic "Chinese" taxonomy

A light flashed for me, things clicked into place. I asked what Foucault meant when he said the Chinese taxonomy is unthinkable. That we could speak it and write it out, but not think it?

I know what “unthinkable” means here. Reading Foucault in the context of Lakoff/Johnson clarifies it. (Now that I see it, it’s obvious. Isn’t that the way of things?)

I’ll provide a more thorough account later, but for now I can say that the Chinese taxonomy’s unthinkability is due to it being inconsistent with the cognitive unconscious, which functions as a kind of transmission band for the mapping of the sensorimotor domain onto the abstract thought/self-awareness domain(s). Foucault writes:

  • "The monstrous quality that runs through Borges’s enumeration consists, on the contrary, in the fact that the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed. What is impossible is not the propinquity of the things listed, but the very site on which their propinquity would be possible." (Foucault, The Order of Things, Location 329)

These metaphors, “common ground,” “site of the possibility of propinquity,” expose the spatial character of our thinking. . . . Without a consistent set of spatial metaphors, we cannot think.

. . .

 (Later: Some clarification, but still with big supporting sections missing. . . . Sections provided by Lakoff/Johnson in Philosophy in The Flesh.) And I’m working on something longer, with more illustrative quotes from Foucault. Not so sure I can condense the L/J material, though.


I conclude from the Lakoff/Johnson analysis that the core, or framework of our thinking, the whatever-it-is that we move around and modify in our heads/minds when we are thinking, the very means by which we think is comprised of the spatial ‘metaphors’ that constitute the cognitive unconscious. Lacking that framework of spatial metaphors, we would be unable to think. . . . (The representations that comprise human thought are composed for the most part of the mappings from the sensorimotor domain to the abstract thought/self-awareness domains which constitute the cognitive unconscious. Just how this is so is laid out in detail in Philosophy in The Flesh, with plausible consistent theory, some empirical research evidence, and an outline of an extended research program for gathering additional evidence.)

[This, it seems to me, does leave a residue of mental processing in humans that might constitute a kind of proto-thinking, as engaged in perhaps also by animals which have not made the mapping from the sensorimotor domain to the abstraction/self-awareness domain leap (in evolution). That mental processing would be no more than proto-conscious. . . . It also leaves open the issue of what is involved in the speaking and writing out of the Chinese taxonomy, what is involved that is not thinking. Perhaps a more mechanical, formal processing than is (conscious?) thinking.]

The rules of language use, of how to construct sentences and lists, apparently allow us verbally and textually to create taxonomies that we are incapable of thinking through because those rules have more coverage than do the concepts making up the cognitive unconscious. (I am capable of thinking that sentence, as are you, because the metaphor, “coverage,” links and holds apart the rules and the concepts. Without the spatial metaphor of “coverage,” or some alternative such as “inclusion,” we would be unable to think that thought.)

The Chinese taxonomy is spatially inconsistent, thus unthinkable. Foucault, starting from this intuition —it is only an intuition for him because he doesn’t have the use of L/J’s systematic model of a cognitive unconscious made up of spatial “metaphors” as providing the means of thinking— from this intuition, and his analysis of Classical thought as depending upon a “tabula,” he elicits the systems of spatial metaphors that constitute the conditions of possibility of knowledge for each of the three epistemes he describes.



BTW, the space of knowledge for the Renaissance episteme is defined by “Paracelsian circles” while the space of knowledge for the Classical episteme is defined by “Cartesian order.” In contrast, the Modern space of knowledge is characterized by “the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another.“ (loc 5115) This, Foucault writes, is  “History . . . [as] . . . “the fundamental mode of being of empiricities, upon the basis of which they are affirmed, posited, arranged, and distributed in the space of knowledge for the use of such disciplines or sciences as may arise. . . . History, from the nineteenth century, defines the birthplace of the empirical, that from which, prior to all established chronology, . . . derives its own being.” Loc 5123

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Right-wing Republican Extremism as Rooted in a Medievalist Epistemology

The attitude toward knowledge exhibited by the extremist supporters of right-wing Republicans seems to be a reversion to the kind of thought that pervaded medieval Europe. It's an anti-modernism. The modernist attitude toward knowledge, which developed in the Enlightenment of the 15th to 17th centuries, with the growth of technology and the emergence of science, relies on reason and empirical evidence developed and tested by a community of independently thinking individuals. The medieval attitude toward knowledge, which had been locked in place for at least a millennium and a half, was that knowledge was only created by the Deity and only revealed in the Bible; thus, no new knowledge could ever be created or found outside the official interpretations of the Bible. Medievalist knowledge is strictly authoritarian and a priori, while modernist knowledge is anti-authoritarian and empirical.

Authoritarian knowledge tends to be extremely prejudiced, rigidly unchanging, and rooted in stereotypes, while modernist knowledge tends toward flexibility, openness to new information, and critical thinking.

{There is an authoritarian psychopathology at work here, based on a family structure that tends toward the gratification of pathological parental needs, in contrast with a family structure that tends toward meeting the developmental needs of children. Several books by George Lakoff discuss this. The website, psychohistory.com, does so as well. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's The Whole-Brain Child focuses on how to raise a child to realize hir full mental and emotional potential.}

I draw the medievalist-modernist epistemologies distinction from a fascinating book in the Oklahoma Project for Discourse and Theory series, Walden Browne's  SahagĂșn and the Transition to Modernity, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Browne, in turn, bases that distinction on Michel Foucault's discussion of Kant in Les Mots et Les Choses.

Thursday, January 03, 2013


There is an unacknowledged diversity of sexual reproduction in nature: "Welcome to the world of shelled sea-butterfly sex, in which the all-male population mate, store sperm, then change into females that fertilize themselves."

From: 
Bipolar Disorderby Gretel Erhlich
a review of Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land, 
James McClintock, Palgrave Macmillan.
onearth, winter 2013   http://www.onearth.org/article/bipolar-disorder

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Profit-&-Cost vs. Values (Comment to a student in my Sociology of Popular Culture course)

Mature capitalist industrialism has become so intensely commercial, so driven by the profit motive, that its influence intrudes into every corner of our lives. And it's difficult even for us to question whether this is a good thing. (For many of us, at least.) It's "just accepted." To some extent, they bribe us into accepting it, but to some extent, they don't even have to bribe us, we're so inured to the practice. We're deluded --not just by advertising, but by a whole complex of factors-- into thinking that "cost" and "profit" are the most important principles of decision-making. (Not just business decision-making, but political, public-policy, even personal decision-making.) We get distracted from what we really want and what we really need, like health and kindness and creativity and clean air. Money is too easy to count, so its more and more widespread use degrades our ability to reason in a more complex fashion than money allows. Some values just can't, really, be put into money terms. So, mental laziness makes us ignore those values, such as health and kindness and creativity and clean air and compassion.

Jean-François Lyotard attributes to this a differend and explains it in terms of the hegemony of the economic genre over (all?) other discourse genres: "The accelerating rhythm and, in general, the saturated scheduling of time in communities result from the extension of the economic genre to phrases not under the rule of exchange." (245)

This has also been called "the commercialization of everything."

Saturday, November 03, 2012

What is Occupy today?


The Occupy movement receded because the crisis receded. The Occupy movement is a reactive social movement; such movements gather in participants when the public space becomes sufficiently chaotic, when distress increases enough to knock people off their normal apathy-balance point and makes them willing to join together in ways which the apathy of normality does not allow. Furthermore, the organizational kernel of Occupy is not the classic rational-hierarchical model typical in the West. This makes it difficult for the bureaucratic-rational mind to understand. Rather, it is the emergent co-operative/distributive model that has only recently been evolving from the Western counter-cultural reaction against the dominative individualism pervasive in Western culture.

Occupy is not dead. It has not failed "to grasp the moment." It is in an "in-breathing phase" of creating connections between activists, establishing a workable culture of consensus/participation/co-operation (rather than a standard goals-focused hierarchical organizational structure) that will be capable of functioning effectively when the next shoe drops, when the currently-held-in-abeyance crisis explodes again.