3QD: Living through lives of others

Observations are laden with theories, or so we are told, and theories are laden with cultures. There’s a good reason for thinking this. Theories, after all, spring out from people’s heads. But people’s heads grow within languages and cultures, along with whatever biological constraints lay at the foundations of our being. So anything coming out of our heads is going to bear the imprint of those complex systems. When you speak, a culture is speaking through you, with your own distinctive garnish.

Eight heads, M. C. Escher (1922)

This plausible observation, however, exists in tension with one of the guiding principles our culture speaks through us. That guiding principle is methodological individualism, or the basic strategy of understanding the big stuff by understanding the little stuff. Society is just people, we observe, and languages are just how these people say what they say. So if we understand the people, we will understand the larger cultures and languages they compose en masse. Better yet, understand the individual brains of these individual people; for certainly anything they do will be issuing from what is inside their heads. Better yet still, understand neurons and their local neighborhoods, for certainly the brain is not doing anything more than they are doing. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll just be paying attention only to what the quantum physicists say. And at that point you’re a goner, for sure.

We live in an epoch of nominalism: a general distrust of any explanation that proceeds from the big stuff downward. All causality is a local exchange between concrete individuals; larger patterns result from these, just as — in not a wholly unrelated way — economies exist through the exchanges of rationally self-interested individuals. Our culture is formed around the crucial notion that all social facts rest on the consent of individuals disposing of their individual liberties as their own reasons see fit. As Nietzsche once recognized, as scientists we generously extend these republican ideals to nature as a whole, interpreting it as a state teeming with wayward individuals governed by stern and inviolable laws. What is done in the large is only as real as what is done in the small.

But we just might be oversimplifying things a tad.

Read more here.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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4 Responses to 3QD: Living through lives of others

  1. Alex Tarbet says:

    Really interesting read. I want to blurb from the perspective of classics, which is disintegrating for this very reason. Methodological individualism: not an attractive partner. Very narcissistic, won’t carpool, never pays for dinner, spends too much time in the bathroom alone. Doesn’t know how to advertise and tends to exclude everybody except a select few who happen to have the toolkits and the money to do highly individualized work. I don’t know if you saw that Howard is closing its classics program because some philosophers are in charge of the money and figured it was a good idea. I wonder what this sort of method has to do with it. Nobody is willing to take really narrow language classes because disembodied, minute semantic studies of dead languages don’t have any relevance to anyone living in the current century, I suppose. The attempt to atomize things into coherent individual parts and then reconstruct them into something “correct” from inside an airtight textual bubble is a creepy sort of art form that borders on sociopathy. Always tainted with the observer’s eye and all its biographical imperfections, has had a historical tendency toward white nationalism. People sitting in rooms staring at a text trying to make it universally coherent from the bottom up, never thinking about themselves as subjectivities or the big picture. How this sort of thing became the “humanities” and how to undo that, the big questions for then next generation.. Philosophers or philologists reading an ancient author alone in a dark room with each other (shudder) have a totally different process – and smell – than the rest of the humanities. I have fallen asleep watching this firsthand at the graduate level more than once and now have many brain tumors and nightmares. They look very closely at each semantic unit and try to figure out the *internal* meaning of the single phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, book, then divide that into authors, schools, other disembodied categories so that everything is nicely organized. Like a tea cupboard. The goal seems to be putting stuff in cupboards and then closing them, locking them up, and hanging them on the wall of the office. Fully quantify and contain something away from all its messy details and especially anything to do with the political needs of the present moment, “the Stoics thought such-and-such – that’s jolly, we’re done here, publish it and let’s have tea.” The problem is that this won’t sell to anyone. Anytime this sort of work is done, there are so many gaps being filled by current cultural knowledge in a subconscious way. Anyway no wonder humanities departments are closing – why in the world would a young student in this century want to do that sort of work except, ironically, as a form of imaginary escape from reality? Fascinating that the individualistic methods of philosophy/philology lay claim to rational objectivity but have always been an fantastic and fictional escape from reality in the scholar’s own life. I wonder if the humanities can ever be anything but a mental escape from the shitty reality of being actually human.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    I agree with you that the culture (with accent on the “cult”) of academic disciplines is actually keeping scholars from any real engagement with people facing the real and existential problems of living human lives. And its for banal reasons: each discipline is a profession with narrow gates and cruel gatekeepers, and success is in the eyes of qualified professionals, leading to an an accelerating arms race of shibboleths to keep the unwashed out and allow for hierarchies among the blessed. (Hesse’s glass bead game is disturbingly on-target.) The system requires radical reform. The only solution I’ve found as an individual is to get tenure and start engaging in more public discussions. Incentive: the discussions become much more interesting!

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    • Alex Tarbet says:

      The radical reformer types I have encountered in the humanities seem to do as poorly as the old traditionals in terms of communicating with actual humans outside the academy. They have tried to get away from what you call methodological individualism. But they are still largely rich and exclusive with a new glass bead game about theoretical stuff nobody can possibly understand even after years of high training. It’s a sort of ink squirt of the circus octopus. Everyone claps our hands because ultimately we agree with the politics, but everyone is still blind. Below the performance is a higher level of the same privatized elitism enjoying the saucy flavor of rebellion and the tang of faux revolution. There’s a risk in radical reform to create a new an exclusive clique, more of the same smelly bathwater but throw the baby out too. I wonder if a moderate position is even possible. I am learning quickly that if you try for a moderate stance you just become hated by both sides, and it causes so much cognitive dissonance to the true believers to have a nuanced position that they just can’t figure you out and march on without you in opposite directions, tearing the middle apart.

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      • Alex Tarbet says:

        I guess I should clarify exactly what I mean: There’s a tendency to completely leave a field because of its methodological individualism in order to head over to big picture-style theory, but neither side seems really well equipped on its own to do much of anything. History seems like a nice middle ground a lot of the time, since historians generally employ both discrete information and high general trends, but philology and philosophy at this point are totally detached from that at this point, on their own out there.

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