Sunday, 15 May 2016

Seductions of our Metaphors/ Bergson and James


Here Bergson and James are resorting to the same metaphors of dust that takes a form, that is given meaning through that form. They also reflect on ‘the sentence’ that has meaning as supervenient.

A philosopher worthy of the name has never said more
than a single thing: and even then it is something he has tried to say, rather than actually said. And he has said only one thing because he has seen only one point: and at that it was not so much a vision as a contact: this contact has furnished an impulse, this impulse a movement, and if this movement, which is as it were a kind of swirling of dust taking a particular form, becomes visible to our eyes only through what it has collected along its way, it is no less true that other bits of dust might as well have been raised and that it would still have been the same whirlwind. Thus a thought which brings something new into the world is of course obliged to manifest itself through the ready-made ideas it comes across and draws into its movement; it seems thus, as it were, relative to the epoch in which the philosopher lived; but that is frequently merely an appearance. The philosopher might have come several
centuries earlier; he would have had to deal with another philosophy and another science; he would have given himself other problems; he would have expressed himself by other formulas; not one chapter perhaps of the books he wrote would have been what it is; and nevertheless he would have said the same thing.
(from Bergson - The Creative Mind Lecture on Philosophical Intuition)

The rude synthetic vocal utterances first used for this effect slowly got stereotyped, and then much later got decomposed into grammatical parts. It is not as if men had first invented letters and made syllables of them, then made words of the syllables and sentences of the words;—they actually followed the reverse order. So, the transcendentalists affirm, the complete absolute thought is the pre-condition of our thoughts, and we finite creatures are only in so far as it owns us as its verbal fragments.
The metaphor is so beautiful, and applies, moreover, so literally to such a multitude of the minor wholes of experience, that by merely hearing it most of us are convinced that it must apply universally. We see that no smallest raindrop can come into being without a whole shower, no single feather without a whole bird, neck and crop, beak and tail, coming into being simultaneously: so we unhesitatingly lay down the law that no part of anything can be except so far as the whole also is. And then, since everything whatever is part of the whole universe, and since (if we are idealists) nothing, whether part or whole, exists except for a witness, we proceed to the conclusion that the unmitigated absolute as witness of the whole is the one sole ground of being of every partial fact, the fact of our own existence included. We think of ourselves as being only a few of the feathers, so to speak, which help to constitute that absolute bird. Extending the analogy of certain wholes, of which we have familiar experience, to the whole of wholes, we easily become absolute idealists.
But if, instead of yielding to the seductions of our metaphor, be it sentence, shower, or bird, we analyze more carefully the notion suggested by it that we are constituent parts of the absolute's eternal field of consciousness, we find grave difficulties arising. First, the difficulty I found with the mind-dust theory.
(from A Pluralistic Universe by William James: Lecture V)

In other times Berkeley would doubtless have formulated other theses; but, the movement being the same, these theses would have been situated in the same way with regard to one another; they would have had the same relationship to one another, like new words of a new sentence through which runs the thread of an old meaning: and it would have been the same philosophy.
(from The Creative Mind Lecture on Philosophical Intuition )

The theory of combination, I was forced to conclude, is thus untenable, being both logically nonsensical and practically unnecessary. Say what you will, twelve thoughts, each of a single word, are not the self-same mental thing as one thought of the whole sentence. The higher thoughts, I insisted, are psychic units, not compounds; but for all that, they may know together as a collective multitude the very same objects which under other conditions are known separately by as many simple thoughts.
(from A Pluralistic Universe by William James: Lecture V)



The philosopher does not take pre-existing ideas in order to recast them into a superior synthesis or combine them with a new idea. One might as well believe that in order to speak we go hunting for words that we string together afterwards by means of a thought. The truth is that above the word and above the sentence there is something much more simple than a sentence or even a word: the meaning, which is less a thing thought than a movement of thought, less a movement than a direction. And just as the impulsion given to the embryonic life determines the division of an original cell into cells which in turn divide until the complete organism is formed, so the characteristic movement of each act of thought leads this thought, by an increasing sub-division of itself, to spread out more and more over the successive planes of the mind until it reaches that of speech. Once there it expresses itself by means of a sentence, that is, by a group of pre-existing elements; but it can almost arbitrarily choose the first elements of the group provided that the others are complementary to them; the same thought is translated just as well into diverse sentences composed of entirely different words, provided these words have the same connection between them. Such is the process of speech.
(from Bergson: The Creative Mind Philosophical Intuition)

Bergson and James were great friends of course and we see them here playing in the same sand box. I’m sorry, I’ll get my coat.


We had the experience but missed the meaning says Eliot. How could cerebral events even coagulate into experience without meaning? The engine of scepticism would not turn over without that spark.



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