Vehemence, Oy Vey!

I’m currently slowly working through Philip Fisher’s The Vehement Passions. Fisher begins by asking if there are any pair of words that seem as natural together as “dispassionate knowledge.” But the passions in at least one instance have always been seen as inextricably connected with the quest for knowledge: the case of wonder. Descartes considered wonder to be an impassioned state that makes learning possible at all. “In wonder we notice the background of a lawful and familiar world something that strikes us by its novelty and by the pleasure that this surprising new fact brings to us.” We all at every stage of life have a “distinct but provisional horizon” that separates the familiar from the unfamiliar and the unknown. Wonder lets us know where this horizon is at any given moment.

If it is only scientific knowledge that we are considering, then anger or grief would seem to “preclude clear thought”, that is “the pursuit of a continuous chain of thought and experiment, and the preservation of the calm atmosphere in which order and rationality make possible long and arduous projects.” But Fisher thinks that  “vehement passions” like anger, grief, shame and fear have a significant role to play in the quest for knowledge. Wonder is no mere exception to the rule. The vehement passions design for us “an intelligible world” doing so by means “of a horizon lines that we can come to know only in experiences that begin with impassioned or vehement states within ourselves.” For instance, just as wonder plays an important part in scientific thought, so anger plays a significant role where the discovery and delineating of injustice is concerned. The fact that we are surprised by wonder or anger is a clue that something new really is disclosed in “states of vehemence.”

How Do We Know Anything?

I’m re-reading T.S. Eliot’s doctoral dissertation which was on F.H. Bradley’s understanding of knowledge and experience. It’s incredibly elegant and profound prose.

When we use terms like “experience” and “feeling” we need to be careful suggests Eliot. Eliot here is explicating what the terms mean to Bradley, but he’s certainly a sympathetic interpreter. He thinks it’s important to resist the temptation to identify experience with consciousness, or to make experience and adjective that modifies a subject. Nor should experience be confused with immediate sensation, like “a panorama passing before a reviewer.” Likewise it’s not the content or substance of a mind.

Feeling is just as complicated to nail down. It’s not the feeling describe by psychologists, though it is related to what they describe and “continuous with psychological feeling”. Eliot thinks it’s important to note that while Bradley describes feeling as “the immediate unity of a finite psychological centre”, it’s not merely the feeling of a mind or consciousness. For Bradley feeling is the “the general condition before distinctions and relations have been developed, and where as yet neither any subject nor any object exists.” Feeling is anything that is “only present and simply is”. This means that everything actual must be felt, but that we only call something “feeling” in so far as we take it “as failing to be more.”

Experience then for Bradley, in contrast to most of his philosophical contemporaries, is not at “any stage of consciousness merely a presentation which can be isolated from other elements also present or subsequent in consciousness.” It isn’t “sense-data” or “sensations”, nor is it a stream of feeling that “as merely felt, is an attribute of the subject side only and must in some way be “related” to an external world. It’s also not more purely or immediately felt in the animal or infant mind than in the mind of an adult engaged in critical inquiry. Bradley is doubtful that there is such a thing as “immediate experience”. Eliot thinks Bradley understates matters, claiming that there certainly is no immediate experience at all.

If we’re going to develop a theory of knowledge, we have to postulate some given upon which knowledge is built. We’re then forced to take this construction as something which develops in time. We think of things presented to our notice at any or all given moments, and “of the whole situation in knowing as a complex with this datum as one of the constituents.” We also tend to consider the development of consciousness “in biological evolution as a development of knowledge”. If there is indeed a “problem” of knowledge so to speak then neither of these perspectives is irrelevant. But there’s a tendency to confuse the two and herein lies the issue. From the genetic point of view, all of the so called “stages” are actualities, “whereas the various steps of knowing in the mind of an adult…are abstractions, not known as separate objects of attention.” They all exist for us simultaneously without priority. In any stage of human development we don’t find feeling without thought, or presentation without reflection. Even at primitive levels of consciousness we find what we call feeling and thought, presentation, redintegration and abstraction, all at a lower stage. This calls into question the study of primitive consciousness because we find in our own knowing all the same constituents, if only in a clearer and thus more readily apprehensible form.

All that being said, if all the same constituents were present to us in every instance of knowing, “if none were omitted in error, or if none had any temporal precedence over another, all analyses of knowing would be equally tenable.” There wouldn’t be any real difference. Where there are no bones “anybody can carve a goose.” If we didn’t think that at some points in time our consciousness is nearer to “pure experience” than at others, if we didn’t at some points think of “sense-datum” as prior to “object”, or feel that “act” or “content”, or “immanent” and “transcendent” object were not in some sense independent from one another, and capable of “entering into different contexts as table and chair, the fact of their difference would be a perfect example of useless knowledge.” In Bradley Eliot finds this difficulty in an “aggravated form”, but not one that is more fatal than in any of his contemporaries.

We talk about immediate experience and contrast it with ideal construction. This immediate experience  is prior in time to ideal construction. But no actual experience can be merely immediate, for if it were “we should certainly know nothing about it.” We also can’t clearly draw the line between the experienced, the given and the constructed. Difference only “holds good” in a relative and fluctuating perspective. “Experience alone is real, but everything can be experienced.” There is no absolute point of view where real and ideal can be ultimately distinguished and labeled. “All of our terms turn out to be unreal abstractions; but we can defend them, and give them a kind of reality and validity (the only validity which they can posses or can need) by showing that they express the theory of knowledge which is implicit in all our practical activity.”

Although we really aren’t acquainted with any element of experience that we can truly identify as immediate, nor can we know immediate experience directly as an object, “we can yet arrive at it by inference, and even conclude that it is the starting point of our knowing, since it is only in immediate experience that knowledge and its object are one.” The fact that we can make this reifying move and to some extent make our immediate experience an abstract inferred object, but not an object “among others”, nor a term which “can be in relation to anything else” is an embarrassing problem. We’re forced to further abstraction, handling this “object” as if it were an adjective of either a subject or an object, as our experience or as the experienced world. But whether we choose to say “the world is my experience” or that experience is constituted by “that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not, we have been in either case guilty of importing meanings which hold good only within experience.” We can only discuss experience from various sides in an effort to correct the descriptions from other sides which are always partial and abstracted.

What Do We Talk About?

imagesRobert Harrison, host of Standford’s Entitled Opinions, recently remarked that contemporary sociological research shows that the overwhelming amount of human conversation across race, gender, culture and class can be classified as “gossip”. Most of the time most people talk about other people they know and their affairs. A minority of conversation fits into a second category, namely politics. The third, and by far the smallest category that most human conversation fits into, is talk about ideas. Apparently we spend the least amount of time talking about the most important things: the good, the true and the beautiful. Yikes!