Monday, 16 March 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 5

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

In part 2, I talked about a lack of emotional sensation that I discovered during my counselling sessions.

In part 3, I blamed everything on boiled potatoes (and allowing my everyday life to become too bland).

In part 4, I surveyed the rise of analytic philosophy and attempted to show how it rejects the spiritual and the emotional.

Part 5: Aesthetics and Anaesthetics

I only recently made the etymological connection between 'aesthetics' and 'anaesthetics', but it's hardly an earthshaking revelation. Aesthetics is (roughly) the study of art, a fundamentally sensory thing; anaesthetics make us numb, insensate. The common Greek root originally means perception.

It would not be too far wide of the mark to describe analytic philosophy as anaesthetic. Above all else, what analytic philosophy denies is the subjective. It is the search for objective answers to the grand philosophical questions. The whole analytic construction of 'rationality' opposes the value of personal perspectives, appealing to a transcendent reason which may or may not bear any real connection to the divine intellect of the early modern or classical rationalists.

But analytic philosophy undoubtedly has its advantages. The detachment it advocates can be absolutely crucial for some debates. It's particularly important when responding to criticism; one cannot, after all, take up the point of view of another while clinging to one's own. There are other ways to develop the ability to detach, but practice in the analytic method is a particularly effective and pure one.

(Note: it's far from perfect, as anyone who's ever pricked the ego or threatened the funding of an academic can attest).

And the analytic tradition in philosophy has real triumphs to its name, too; the systems of formal logic developed in the first half of the twentieth century are not just a huge step forward over their arcane predecessors. They are legitimately powerful tools of reasoning, at least within the limit of Gödel's theorem, and underpin much of modern computing.

Another important product of the analytic tradition, one that is rather more complicated to endorse, is its discourse on meaning. This is usually what definitions of analytic philosophy centre on, but the analytic discourse on meaning is almost exclusively linguistic - it concerns words and sentences, spoken and written. In aesthetics, on the other hand, languages are only a small subset of things that mean (the first part of this video has a pretty robust introduction to some of these ideas, referencing the omega of analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein).

And in aesthetics, meaning is a very different beast to the meaning of the analysts. It is lived, experienced, bodily, not a clinical study of how words point to things in the world. Analysts have devoted a great deal of work to establishing what it means to say something exists; in aesthetics, the question is simply 'is it felt?'

The modern technophile's - my - obsession with transcending 'meat' (as William Gibson perfectly put it in Neuromancer) is born of this analytic understanding of meaning, thought and reason. We disdain bodily hedonism for the 'higher pleasures' of the mind, and in doing so fail to realise that our 'higher pleasures' are really just contempt for other ways of seeing the world, other tools that are in their own way as valuable and in many ways richer than those we have learned.

Aesthetic comprehension, in a way, is a much more basic part of the human condition than analytic. This, perhaps, explains some of our disdain; a baby can feel, but only a sophisticated adult can 'really think'. That we can believe this while yearning for our lost, or innocent, or joyful childhoods is a testament to the spectacular power of the (archetypally white, male etc.) privileged ego.

(part 6)

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