25 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 5

Earlier in this series I regaled you with some quotes from an ancient Ephesian named Heraclitus (535 BCE–475 BCE) one of whose sayings—"everything flows"—is the motto for this series of posts. Here are a few more:
  • All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.
  • We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.
  • This world-order, the same for all, no god made or any man, but it always was and is and will be an ever-living fire, kindling by measure and going out by measure.
  • Before you play with fire, whether it be to kindle or extinguish it, put out first the flames of presumption, which overestimates itself and takes poor measure because it forgets the way the world unfolds before you.
  • Man is kindled and put out like a light in the nighttime.
Flux. Opposition. Strife. Eternal Flame. Coming into being. Extinguishment. These dynamic Heraclitean themes have only slowly worked their way into the consciousness of Western philosophers.

The notion that reality is in flux and the motive cause of this flux is strife is an insight that became the backbone of G.W.F. Hegel's (1770-1831) systematic philosophy: the dialectic. His methodological insight is often shorthanded as thesis::antithesis::synthesis. In his Logic §§ 132-34, he resolves the antithetical notions of Being and Nothingness into Becoming [a notion metaphorized as skiing by Sartre in an earlier post].
"[Thesis:] Being, pure being, without any further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself. It is also not unequal relatively to an other; it has no diversity within itself nor any with a reference outwards. It would not be held fast in its purity if it contained any determination or content which could be distinguished in it or by which it could be distinguished from an other. It is pure indeterminateness and emptiness. There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure intuiting itself. Just as little is anything to be thought in it, or it is equally only this empty thinking. Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing
"[Antithesis:] Nothing, pure nothing: it is simply equality with itself, complete emptiness, absence of all determination and content — undifferentiatedness in itself. In so far as intuiting or thinking can be mentioned here, it counts as a distinction whether something or nothing is intuited or thought. To intuit or think nothing has, therefore, a meaning; both are distinguished and thus nothing is (exists) in our intuiting or thinking; or rather it is empty intuition and thought itself, and the same empty intuition or thought as pure being. Nothing is, therefore, the same determination, or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being.
"[Synthesis:] Pure Being and pure nothing are, therefore, the same. What is the truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being — does not pass over but has passed over — into nothing, and nothing into being. But it is equally true that they are not undistinguished from each other, that, on the contrary, they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct, and yet that they are unseparated and inseparable and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite. Their truth is therefore, this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: becoming, a movement in which both are distinguished, but by a difference which has equally immediately resolved itself."
Being flows into Nothingness, and Nothingness flows into Being. They find their unity in Becoming.

We also recognize Heraclitus in the dialectical materialism in Vol. 1 of The Capital (1873) of Karl Marx (1818-1883) developed under the direct influence of and in oppositional tension to Hegel's progressive idealism:
"[Dialectical Materialism] includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time, also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary."
Thus, from Heraclitus, through Hegel, and via Marx, we understand how a dialectical philosophical system seeks to incorporate into itself the contradictions of a recalcitrant Reality. The end point of the project of the Enlightenment (in both its rational and empirical forms) is the comprehensive, totalizing system.

This methodological insight, notwithstanding the terrors of the 20th Century playing out of these views in the political sphere, is a tacit recognition of the changing nature of Reality, both in thought and history. Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx believed the struggle was progressive. For Marx, it was Revolutionary. Hegel's principle interest, though, was to preserve the System. Marx's to resolve the class struggle.

Again: Flux. Opposition. Strife. Coming into being. Extinguishment.

Looking past their interests (for Hegel: idealism, progressive Statism, the System of thought) and ideologies (for Marx: class struggle, Stateless communism), we glean an insight into the truth of Reality (both subjective and objective) both men seem to have appreciated: that is, of Reality as ever-changing, in the flux of constant strife. Hegel and Marx sought to capture this recognition philosophically, politically, economically, and sociologically. As such they represent the first (Western) attempts to approximate an insight into the mechanisms of Heraclitean flux into a coherent philosophical approach to understanding the nature of Reality.


Karl Marx by Tommy Keene on Grooveshark

[apologies. i'm feeling Stereolab today.]

21 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Sort of: Sartre

"There is always in sport an appropriative component. In reality sport is a free transformation of the worldly environment into the supporting element of the action. This fact makes it creative like art. The environment may be a field of snow, an Alpine slope. To see it is already to possess it. In itself it is already apprehended by sight as a symbol of being. It represents pure exteriority, radical spatiality; its undifferentiation, its monotony, and its whiteness manifest the absolute nudity of substance; it is the in-itself which is only in-itself, the being of the phenomenon, which being is manifested suddenly outside all phenomena. At the same time its solid immobility expresses the permanence and the objective resistance of the In-itself, its opacity and its impenetrability. Yet this first intuitive enjoyment can not suffice me.

"That pure in-itself, comparable to the absolute, intelligible plenum of Cartesian extension, fascinates me as the pure appearance of the not-me; What I wish precisely is that this in-itself might be a sort of emanation of myself while still remaining in itself. This is the meaning even of the snowmen and snowballs which children-make; the goal is to “do something out of snow”; that is, to impose on it a form which adheres so deeply to the matter that the matter appears to exist for the sake of the form. But if I approach, if I want to establish an appropriative contact with the field of snow, everything is changed. Its scale of being is modified; it exists bit by bit instead of existing in vast spaces; stains, brush, and crevices come to individualize each square inch. At the same time its solidity melts into water. I sink into the snow up to my knees; if I pick some up with my hands, it turns to liquid in my fingers; it runs off; there is nothing left of it. The in-itself is transformed into nothingness. My dream of appropriating the snow vanishes at the same moment. Moreover I do not know what to do with this snow which I have just come to see close at hand. I can not get hold of the field; I can not even reconstitute it as that substantial total which offered itself to my eyes and which has abruptly, doubly collapsed.

"To ski means not only to enable me to make rapid movements and to acquire a technical skill, nor is it merely to play by increasing according to my whim the speed or difficulties of the course; it is also to enable me to possess this field of Snow. At present I am doing something to it. That means that by my very activity as a skier, I am changing the matter and meaning of the snow. From the fact that now in my course it appears to me as a slope to go down, it finds again a continuity and a unity which it had lost. It is at the moment connective tissue. It is included between two limiting terms; it unites the point of departure with the point of arrival. Since in the descent I do not consider it in itself, bit by bit, but am always fixing on a point to be reached beyond the position which I now occupy, it does not collapse into an infinity of individual details but is traversed toward the point which I assign myself. This traversal is not only an activity of movement; it is also and especially a synthetic activity of organization and connection; I spread the skiing field before me in the same way that the geometrician, according to Kant, can apprehend a straight line only by drawing one. Furthermore this organization is marginal and not focal; it is not for itself and in itself that the field of snow is unified; the goal, posited and clearly perceived, the object of my attention is the spot at the edge of the field where I shall arrive. The snowy space is massed underneath implicitly; its cohesion is that of the blank space understood in the interior of a circumference, for example, when I look at the black line of the circle without paying explicit attention to its surface. And precisely because I maintain it marginal, implicit, and understood, it adapts itself to me, I have it well in hand; I pass beyond it toward its end just as a man hanging a tapestry passes beyond the hammer which he uses, toward its end, which is to nail an arras on the wall.

"No appropriation can be more complete than this instrumental appropriation; the synthetic activity of appropriation is here a technical activity of utilization. The upsurge of the snow is the matter of my act in the same way that the upswing of the hammer is the pure fulfillment of the hammering. At the same time I have chosen a certain point of view in order to apprehend this snowy slope: this point of view is a determined speed, which emanates from me, which I can increase or diminish as I like; through it the field traversed is constituted as a definite object, entirely distinct from what is would be at another speed. The speed organizes the ensembles at will; a specific object does or does not form a part of a particular group according to whether I have or have not taken a particular speed. (Think, for example, of Provence seen “on foot;” “by car,” “by train,” “by bicycle.” It offers as many different aspects according to whether or not Beziers is one hour, a morning’s trip, or two days distant from Narbonne: that is, according to whether Narbonne is isolated and posited for itself with its environs or whether it constitutes a coherent group with Beziers and Sete, for example. In this last case Narbonne’s relation to the sea is directly accessible to intuition; in the other it is denied; it can form the object only of a pure concept. It is I myself then who give form to the field of snow by the free speed which I give myself. But at the same time I am acting upon my matter. The speed is not limited to imposing a form on a matter given from the outside; it creates its matter. The snow, which sank under my weight when I walked, which melted into water when I tried to pick it up, solidifies suddenly under the action of my speed; it supports me. It is not that I have lost sight of its lightness, its non-substantiality, its perpetual evanescence. Quite the contrary. It is precisely that lightness, that evanescence, that secret liquidity which ‘hold me up; that is, which condense and melt in order to support me. This is because I hold a special relation of appropriation with the snow: sliding. This relation we will study later in detail. But at the moment we can grasp its essential meaning. We think of sliding as remaining on the surface. This is inexact; to be sure, I only skim the surface, and this skimming in itself is worth a whole study. Nevertheless I realize a synthesis which has depth. I realize that the bed of snow organizes itself in its lowest depths in order to hold me up; the sliding is action at a distance; it assures my mastery over the material without my needing to plunge into that material and engulf myself in it in order to overcome it. To slide is the opposite of taking root. The root is already half assimilated into the earth which nourishes it; it is a living concretion of the earth; it can utilize the earth only by making itself earth; that is, by submitting itself, in a sense, to the matter which it wishes to utilize. Sliding, on the contrary, realizes a material unity in depth without penetrating farther than the surface; it is like the dreaded master who does not need to insist nor to raise his voice in order to be obeyed. An admirable picture of power. From this comes that famous advice: “Slide, mortals, don’t bear down!” This does not mean “Stay on the surface, don’t go deeply into things,” but on the contrary, “Realize syntheses in depth without compromising yourself.”

"Sliding is appropriation precisely because the synthesis of support realized by the speed is valid only for the slider and during the actual time when he is sliding. The solidity of the snow is effective only for me, is sensible only to me; it is a secret which the snow releases to me alone and which is already no longer true behind my back. Sliding realizes a strictly individual relation with matter, an historical relation; the matter reassembles itself and solidifies in order to hold me up, and it falls back exhausted and scattered behind me. Thus by my passage I have realized that which is unique for me. The ideal for sliding then is a sliding which does not leave any trace. It is sliding on water with a rowboat or motor boat or especially with water skis which, though recently invented, represent from this point of view the ideal limit of aquatic sports. Sliding on snow is already less perfect; there is a trace behind me by which I am compromised, however light it may be. Sliding on ice, which scratches the ice and finds a matter already organized, is very inferior, and if people continue to do it despite all this, it is for other reasons. Hence that slight disappointment which always seizes us when we see behind us the imprints which our skis have left on the snow. How much better it would be if the snow re-formed itself as we passed over it! Besides when we let ourselves slide down the slope, we are accustomed to the illusion of not making any mark; we ask the snow to behave like that water which secretly it is. Thus the sliding appears as identical with a continuous creation. The speed is comparable to consciousness and here symbolizes consciousness. While it exists, it effects in the material the birth of a deep quality which lives only so long as the speed exists, a sort of reassembling which conquers its indifferent exteriority and which falls back like a blade of grass behind the moving slider. The informing unification and synthetic condensation of the field of snow, which masses itself into an instrumental organization, which is utilized, like the hammer or the anvil, and which docilely adapts itself to an action which understands it and fulfills it; a continued and creative action on the very matter of the snow; the solidification of the snowy mass by the sliding; the similarity of the snow to the water which gives support, docile and without memory, or to the naked body of the woman, which the caress leaves intact and troubled in its inmost depths: such is the action of the skier on the real. But at the same time the snow remains impenetrable and out of reach; in one sense the action of the skier only develops its potentialities. The skier makes it produce what it can produce; the homogeneous, solid matter releases for him a solidity and homogeneity only through the act of the sportsman, but this solidity and this homogeneity dwell as properties enclosed in the matter. This synthesis of self and not-self which the sportsman’s action here realizes is expressed, as in the case of speculative knowledge and the work of art, by the affirmation of the right of the skier over the snow. It is my field of snow; I have traversed it a hundred times, a hundred times I have through my speed effected the birth of this force of condensation and support; it is mine."

— J.-P. Sartre, From Being and Nothingness

20 February 2013

Brief Interlude: Time Away

Rays on the wing
A hole in the ground? 
Copper Mine
On the ground and through the Pass

Western Magpie?
Ice, Ice, Baby
Life in a Western Town?
Top of the Hill
Aspens + Lodge + Chalets
Bumps and Runs (and Rays, Oh My!)
Unto these hills
The lodge ledge
No matter how you slice it...
...it's a chiasm
Night orbs and strings of orbs
Western Style = 1 lb: Defeated Wesdom
Back in the ATL

14 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 4: What's in a Name?

 Imagine you are an ancient ship owner. Your personal wooden vessel we'll call the "Theseus".

You launch the Theseus to lead your private fleet in pursuit of adventures all around the world. As time goes by, pieces of the Theseus weaken, erode, or get damaged in various battles and tight squeezes. As each piece gets damaged, you replace it with an identical piece of wood your shipbuilders manage to locate wherever it is you stop to lick your wounds and prepare for your next sally. Traveling in your armada you also have a supply ship. Periodically, it travels back and forth to your native land taking all the booty you've plundered and retrieving your mail and your favorite wines and goats, etc. Each time it returns, it takes the discarded pieces of the ship in its hold as ballast. You've instructed the captain of the supply vessel to store each and every one of these pieces, old masts, boards, ropes, etc. from the Theseus in your warehouse near the docks. By the time you sail back to your home port, you have replaced each and every piece of your original Theseus with new ones. What's more, once you return you discover that your industrious warehouse manager has taken all the pieces you shipped back, restored them, and constructed another ship from them, identical in every respect to the ship in which you first set sail those many years ago.  (See Plutarch, Life of Theseus; Th. Hobbes, De Corpore, 2.11)

Here's the question: Which of the two ships (or both) (or neither) rightly bears the name "Theseus"? Are they the same ship or merely identical copies?

Is the Theseus (a) the refurbished ship in which you sail home, or (b) the reconstructed ship made from all the origninal parts waiting for you in the docks by the warehouse or (c) both or (d) neither?

Philosophers love these sorts of puzzles. Solutions hinge on such things as whether we privilege proper names ("Theseus") or things themselves (any change in which destroys the original identity) or the component parts of whole things (the refurbished ship) or practical functions (what it means to be a ship). It challenges us to question what it means to "be" a "thing" or "the same".

Similarly, seeing Michael Apted's documentary 56 Up reminds me that people change over time. They grow. They degrade. They even change their names sometimes. The molecules composing their bodies change (though not, apparently, the electrons and quantum particles). How are the children in 7 Up the same persons as the near-geezers in 56 Up? What does it mean to "be" a "person"?

One way of looking at it is to think of, say, Suzy as the same person at each temporal interval. Thus "Suzy" has the same personal identity throughout the course of her life's changes. But, in the same way we might say Suzy has changed her hair color or painted her nails red, we say she is 'Suzy at time T1,' 'Suzy at time T2,' ... .

Of course, with living beings, the notion of consciousness throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the gears. We might then want to say that despite all the physical changes she's been through, Suzy's consciousness remains the same over the course of years. Suzy is psychologically continuous. Well, maybe. Fifty-six year old Suzy might be aware of having been through a painful divorce in her 40s—something that profoundly changed her, whereas seven year old Suzy would have no way of knowing this. Fifty-six year old Suzy might know what it means to suffer depression or to experience sexual ecstasy or to feel profound guilt and self-loathing, whereas seven year old Suzy in all likelihood would not. How, it seems prudent to ask, is this continuous?

The problem with this sort of analysis is that it attempts to preserve/privilege the concept of 'Being'. In Heraclitean terms, the river doesn't change, and Suzy is the same no matter at which point we enter her life (or she enters the river). This is handy for such things as language, naming and reference, analysis, understanding, etc. But, as Wittgenstein says, because of this we need to be wary of the things language does to our perceptions and understanding of reality. "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language." (Philosophical Investigations, § 109)

But, it seems to me, it is fundamentally delusional. Phrased another way: How is it that Becoming or Process (rather than Being or Stasis) is not considered the primary mode of existence?

Heraclitus's ancient intuition, a brief and, to my mind, profound insight into the true nature of things, was eventually overshadowed by the more pragmatic Platonic and Aristotelian and Christian notions of ideals and substances and attributes and souls that dominate Western thought to this day. Don't get me wrong, these latter concepts are important. But they have the potential to stand in the way of our recognizing and coming to grips with the true, that is to say fluid, nature of Reality and Becoming.



11 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 3


Nearly a year ago I posted my excitement upon hearing that Michael Apted was releasing another documentary in the "Up" film series, this time "56 Up". It is playing for one week only here in the ATL, and I got to opening night on Friday. It did not disappoint.

The series comprises footage of about a dozen British men and women at the ages of 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and now 56. There are interviews with people who are currently lawyers, teachers, a taxi driver, a forklift operator, a scientist, librarians, a local politician, a musician, and homemakers. Some have dropped out over the years. Each film brings the viewer up to date with each subject, showing highlights of the interviews from each of the past films.

We can follow these British members of m-m-m-m-my generation discussing their hopes and dreams, their feelings about love and family, work and play, and sense of self and society at each step along the way. In this most recent film, we catch up with them where they are today, reflecting on the persons they had been—their beliefs about what the future held for them at the time—and the realities of their lives today. There are stories of divorce, estrangement, love, fulfillment, disappointment, happiness, madness. The list goes on. It is the ultimate 'Reality' show.

What struck me as I watched the film: It felt like a reunion—in a good way. I felt like I was reaquainting with old friends, catching up on the stories of their lives, as well as contemplating my own life's journey.

It's an unparalleled filmic document. It shows us what film can be, even though there's really no plot. Not even a car chase. Just interviews and B-roll of about a dozen middle-aged British men and women. [One cool thing about the series is watching the development of film technology over the last 49 years, from grainy black-and-white to shitty color to hi-def.]

It made me ask myself what were my own hopes and dreams when I was 7, 14, 21, ... etc. Who was that callow tad? Where are the insightful interviews of him? Why isn't there B-roll footage of his life?

Oh, I can tell you where I was living and with whom at each of those points in my life. And what I was doing (school-wise, work-wise, play-wise, etc.). But I simply cannot recall what it was like to be in my skin at any of those ages, to think the thoughts I was thinking at those times, to feel what I must have been feeling despite my own predilection for acute self-awareness.

How, I wonder, am I (or any of us, for that matter) the same person I was (we were) at any of those staging points along my (our) life's way. I certainly have the same name as he did. And I bear a remarkable facial and physical resemblance to him, though, admittedly, the proportions have changed. I am not so young-seeming as he, either. Less hair, grayer hair, a bit slacker around the mid-section. Maybe wiser.

I'm reminded of J.M. Coetzee's novel Summertime. Here's the blurb:
"A young English biographer is researching a book about the late South African writer John Coetzee, focusing on Coetzee in his thirties, at a time when he was living in a run-down cottage in the Cape Towm suburbs with his widowed father—a time, the biographer is convinced, when Coetzee was finding himself as a writer. ...Summertime is an inventive and inspired work of fiction that allows J. M. Coetzee to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye..."
Perhaps I'll write a personal essay of my own or even a fictionalized account of myself at each of these random-year points in my own life focusing on what has changed and what has remained the same, what can be known and what only imagined. Maybe even as part of this Being v. Becoming serial post.

P.S. It looks as if all of the films are findable on the YouTubes, in discrete 15 minute segments. Do yourself a favor.

06 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 2(b): The River Twice—Πάντα ῥεῖ

  • To god all things are beautiful and good and just; but men suppose some things to be just and others unjust.
  • To those who are awake the world-order is one, common to all; but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.
  • They are estranged from that with which they have most constant intercourse.
  • ...though the truth is available to all, the many live as though their opinions were meaningful and true.
  • Life is a child moving pieces in a game. The kingship is in the hands of a child.
  • Human opinions are as children's toys.
  • Pride [hubris] needs putting out, even more than a house on fire.
  • Rhetoric is the prince of liars.
  • A stupid person tends to become all worked up over every statement [he hears].
    • The dogs bark at everyone they do not recognize.
  • Thinking is common to all.
  • It is common to all men to know themselves and to act with moderation.
  • Moderation is the greatest virtue, and wisdom is to speak the truth and to act according to nature, giving heed to it.
  • How can one hide himself before that which always exists and is available to all?
  • Nature loves to hide.
  • The hidden harmony is stronger than the apparent.
  • Those things of which there is sight, hearing, understanding I esteem most.
    • [Though] Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that do not grasp the deeper meaning.
  • ...in sleep the channels of perception are shut, and the intelligence in us is severed from its kinship with the environment. ... When it is separated in this way, the mind loses the power of remembering which it formerly had, but in the waking state it once more flows forth through the channels of perception as through so many openings, and making contact with the environment recovers the power of reasoning.
Πάντα ε (panta rhei): "everything flows" 
Changing, it rests.

The Same River? The Same Man?



In Kula
"Strap in, kids. Let's see how fast I can take this curve."
Orbs Over the Abyss
Down to Earth: Finding solid footing
Big Bamboo. "Dark enough for ya'?"

03 February 2013

Being v. Becoming, Pt. 2(a): The River Once—Πάντα ῥεῖ

  • Men that love wisdom must be acquainted with very many things indeed.
  • But a knowledge of many things does not teach one to have intelligence...
  • Wisdom is one thing: to understand the thought which steers all things through all things.
    • It is the thunderbolt that steers the course of all things.
  • This world-order, the same for all, no god made or any man, but it always was and is and will be an ever-living fire, kindling by measure and going out by measure.
  • Before you play with fire, whether it be to kindle or extinguish it, put out first the flames of presumption, which overestimates itself and takes poor measure because it forgets the way the world unfolds before you.
  • Man, too, is kindled and put out like a light in the nighttime.
  • All things come into being through opposition, and all are in flux like a river.
  • Sea water is very pure and very impure; drinkable and healthful for fishes, but undrinkable and destructive to men.
  • Πάντα ε (panta rhei): "everything flows" 
  • Upon those who step into the same rivers flow other and yet other waters.
  • No man ever steps in the same river twice, for neither is it the same river nor is he the same man.

River Stepping: ʻĪao Stream, Maui
[as often with pics: Click to embiggen, Scroll-over for hover text]

An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy: The Chief Fragments and Ancient Testimony, with Connecting Commentary, ed. John Mansley Robinson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968)
M. Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking (Harper & Row, 1975)