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"Subjectivity is the Precondition for Knowledge": Mind Meets World

When we attempt to understand the world, sometimes we go so deep in, following so many idiosyncratic threads, stitching in so many strange designs that are only occasionally clear to even ourselves, that we despair of this quixotic project, certain we are only making things more obscure, more tangled. The threads we imagined in one moment of excitement and insight as elegantly woven become hopelessly knotted and confused, like the detritus in the old junk drawer. If even we cannot quite recall the correspondences between one strand and another, if even we cannot assemble the basic questions with which we set out, if even we are lost in a mess of details and cannot see any path back, how might others understand us? The torment of the mad researcher who accumulates so many bits of evidence, in the form of analogies, exempla, fossils, etymologies, logical arguments, irrefutable correspondences, who (even if she can keep track of their relations herself) goes into dark places where others cannot follow, is both my predicament and my subject at the moment. I want to understand that paradoxical process that impels a human being, a person whose passionate intent is to make sense of the world, to actually seem to lose her senses in the attempt.

We must find ways to make sense of the world, must bring various vocabularies to bear upon the inchoate infinity. People chart and map and define and delineate. We reduce, we conceptualize, we abstract, we compare, we discern, we discriminate, we create systems through which to see the world in different ways, based on differing values and with different professional and other deformations (a neuroscientist may see brain lesions while a mystic sees astral forces while a psychologist sees family trauma). People even work hard to make anti-systems, or to debunk those systems others have created, decrying systematization as a treacherous attempt to police the fluidity of reality, an idealization or projection of the meaning-making mind upon a world that cannot or should not be broken up or named or delineated. Others still are aware that conceptualization is only an approximation, an approach, a necessarily incomplete metaphor for the really irreducible variability of the world. Of those latter, there may be those who deem such provisional systematizations pragmatic and useful; and others who also deem them beautiful and necessary for the pursuit of a meaningful life. However one describes the world--even if the description is one that stresses its indescribability--one must however acknowledge that all of these methods of description have their own benefits and risks. Too much of a system is tyrannical; not enough of one is impractical.

The stakes are high. On the one hand, if we decry any and all systematization, we risk a loss of communication, a shared sense of reality, the practical ability to diagnose dangers and practice interventions (for science, as we know, often finds certain processes work, without quite knowing why), and, perhaps most importantly, we lose a sense of beauty and meaning--we are lost in a sea of possibilities, without any way to choose or care or arrange.

The dangers of systematization on the other hand are that it will keep people from seeing in new ways, that old systems or "social constructions" are false pictures of the world that privilege certain interests and inhibit the pursuit of alternate values and interests. Certain systems or ways of describing the world (mythographies, psychologies, economic analyses, socio-biologies, etc.) may make it more difficult to find or see what is actually there--if indeed there even is something, some one true thing or one nature of the world, which is itself highly questionable and contested. Systems also necessarily leave out and disregard anomalies, aberrations, individual iterations and tend to induce conformity and reduce creativity.

But the creation of systems, the tracing of patterns and correspondences is itself a form of creativity. The only kind. I just finished reading a magisterial and mind-blowing book by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison called Objectivity, which traces the history of the ways in which people represented the working objects of science in atlases from the 18th century to today. In their narrative, eighteenth century scientists practiced something Daston and Galison call "truth-to-nature"--a way of looking for the archetypical form of, say, a flower, rather than representing a single particular blossom with its possibly peculiar aberrations or imperfections. The result was a composite image made up of a series of observations of different flowers under different conditions which, in these scientists' view, best represented the truth of nature, i.e., its tendency toward universal harmonious forms and laws. This method of seeing is best exemplified by Goethe's idea of the Ur-Pflanze--a sort of ideal form of flower from which all real individual flowers could be traced. Alexander von Humboldt also embodies this sort of naturalist-philosopher, who saw echoes of the same forms everywhere, in rock faces, in water movements, in wind currents, in animal and human bones. It was not that these scientists did not see or note particularities, but that their epistemological ethos favored and sought out correspondences and essences. Starting in the early 19th-century, Daston and Galison explain, scientists began to be very anxious about what they perceived to be subjective distortions and projections, interventions of the scientist's eye, desire, ideal expectation onto the "thing in itself" under observation. This initiated a new epistemological ethos and new "scientific self" which they call "mechanical objectivity" that strained to eliminate all traces of the self and its suspect imagination, its shored up expectations, wishes, or distortions from the represented image. This was facilitated by the advent of photography and other mechanical aids that attempted to eliminate the human--not only human error, but also, paradoxically, human correction of any distortions made by the machines. Mechanical objectivity did not necessarily equal accuracy or truth, but it reflected a new ascetic ethos of Schopenhauerian willed will-lessness (famously decried by Nietzsche, who affirmed the value of taste and subjectivity over alleged "disinterestedness"). All of this, of course, is tied up in Kantian ideas about subjectivity and objectivity, universality and particularity which can get fairly complicated, because interpretations and legacies of Kantian interpretations become so tangled that they often end up--via an absurd game of trans-continental philosophical telephone--so garbled that they assert the opposite of what he meant. What is most important or interesting here, in the Kantian reception history, is that when he wrote of subjectivity and objectivity, he favored objectivity as a realm of communicable shared reason, which was not hampered by the particular subjective emotions and interests of an "interested" individual. Paradoxically enough, what he prized as autonomous will was a freedom that came from being unencumbered by individual perspectives or desires. The objective, then, was embodied in the universal. This is in line, more or less, with the 18th century nature philosophers, who were searching for an archetypal Ur-Pflanze, even though they allowed their subjective selves to direct the seeking for the universal. The image below, from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Nature (Art forms of nature) is a late iteration of this earlier model of composite harmony--he held on to the earlier ethos, despite a sea change in the scientific self. For when the majority of Haeckel's contemporary 19th century practitioners spoke of objectivity they meant by it explicitly the particular, not the general or universal, i.e., that which was not distorted by the individual's subjective eye. One of the main inherent problems with this particularity necessitated by the ethos of mechanical objectivity was that it tended--when taken to its extreme--to actually render the very purpose of science and the atlases that scientists made not only impractical but self-obviating. How could one represent an infinity of particulars? How could someone trying to learn to recognize a pathological condition do so when there was no guideline or norm against which to measure one? How could the scientist communicate what was essential and what merely accidental in the representation? When mechanical objectivity began to be seen as inadequate in certain ways by certain practitioners, some new strategies were attempted. One of these they call "structural objectivity," which aimed to eliminate images and subjectivity altogether by using mathematics and a symbol language--an almost utopian or dystopian form of communication that would overcome individual psychological perceptual differences, varying cultural perspectives, or the changing theories that were becoming more and more swiftly obsolete as new technologies exposed former errors. Structural objectivity stressed the structural relationships between objects rather than the objects themselves. And aimed at a pure, practically Platonic, access to a truth that was assumed to be out there somewhere. Rigorously anti-empirical, it also hearkened back to Kantian notions, in this case of a priori forms in the brain that were the source, they and he argued, of our conception of space and geometry. While some of their contemporaries argued that these forms did not in fact originate in the brain, and that mathematics themselves could be traced back to empirical experience of numbers, these structural objectivists--some of whom were known as Positivists-- asserted that the source of numbers and geometry was purely in the brain. One important difference between these seekers for structure and their 18th century predecessors was that while the earlier naturalists may have assumed a metaphysical dimension to their universals, these more modern scientists were content to approach material facts. Nevertheless, they asserted that these non-empirical structures were the sole means of attaining to objectivity. A second strategy for dealing with the limits of mechanical objectivity was something D. & G. call "trained judgment," an early 20th century development based, in part, on the new psychological experimental testing of perception revealing not only that different people perceived things differently, but that understanding could very well happen in unconscious and surprising ways. These new breed of scientific selves began to bring back the role of the self in observing, affirming the value of intuition and trained judgment in order to correct or amend (but not to eliminate) the findings of machine and mechanical objectivity.

This absurdly long but also absurdly insufficient summary (read their book!) brings us to an important point D. & G. make toward the end, about the value of the variety of scientific approaches and the reality that all of them have their own risks and benefits. "All epistemology," they write, "begins in fear--fear that that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades...fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive." Objectivity is, they note, only one technique to alleviate these fears; but they say it is so pervasive a concept because the fear it addresses is the deepest of all. Not a fear of the external world, they write, but of one's own subjective self. What is most extraordinary about this realization is their subsequent conclusion: "...there is no getting rid of, no counterbalancing post-Kantian subjectivity. Subjectivity is the precondition for knowledge: the self that knows." Did you get that? Without subjectivity there can be no knowledge at all. So while we may attempt to limit or restrain it--and for good and practicable reasons--to succeed in doing so would be disastrous, indeed, unimaginable. Which brings me to another part of all of this, another thread in my current tangled research, which is contemporary brain science and its investigations of the mind's apperception of the world. It seems that the brain likes to find patterns and see beauty and harmony. To an extent. The consensus seems to be that our brain rewards us with pleasure when we learn something. And we learn best when we see correspondences between things we previously saw as separate (Proust, lying in his bed, said much the same thing, noting that his greatest happiness comes when he finds similarities between two disparate things, when he, in other words, makes a metaphor; Musil also noted that though making metaphors always necessarily leaves things out, and is thus inaccurate--he was a scientist, remember--doing so brings meaning and excitement into the world). We seem to like a certain amount of harmony with a dash of something new and different. Too much monotony is boring and unstimulating. Too much chaos is noise and we cannot do anything with it. The brain, then, is rewarded by making connections and, scientists suggest, sees patterns when they are not even there, or completes forms when they are incomplete. Daston and Galison's discussion of snow flake depictions and drawn representations of milk droplets also makes this clear: when drawn observations were amended by photographic depictions, the viewers realized that they had idealized and beautified what was observed and the shocked and chastened milk-droplet scientist (Worthington) posited that observers might look at one geometrically symmetrical part of an object and then make the rest of the object conform to that part, even if in reality it was not symmetrical. But what does it mean that the mind likes patterns? And what does it mean that modern scientists and philosophers have been so hell-bent on debunking such idealizing seeing? Is it any more tendentious to assume that the world is beautiful and meaningful than to assume that it is not? It is proverbial by now to give more credence to the debunkers, who expose the intervention of the subjective self and reveal that the what is true about the world is that it is is broken, corrupt, unheroic, ugly, meaningless. But if this is taken to an extreme, does it not become an actually anti-natural attempt to re-wire the brain not to see as it has always seen, an attempt to break down the very processes by which we have evolved to learn and love and be in the world together? Cold comfort indeed, to live in a world that is exposed to be meaningless and random and not to even be able to use shared words or concepts or images to gripe with each other about it.

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