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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Eco, "Kant and the Platypus," preliminary thoughts


It seems to me that most of philosophy, even as practiced today, as far as I understand it (and that would be, admittedly, too little) looks through the wrong end of the telescope. It sees the world (the cosmos) as an order of things preexisting and independent of us which we must catalog, explain, relate to each other as they exist in themselves, as though the universe were a machine, made by an intelligence, which had parts that did work that we could reverse engineer.

                We have to start with the perceiver, in a kind of Cartesian move. Not “I think there I am,” but “I perceive, therefore I misunderstand.”

                Even accepting the Derridian claim that there is no perception, by which he means only that there is no “pure” perception without language, without interpretation, without a system of ways of understanding that predate and predicate the perceiver, in which the perceiver isn't always already caught up, by which he isn't always already determined in advance—even accepting all this, we have to say that knowledge starts with perception. Call it “perception” if you like to get all the caveats written onto it, then forget the quotation marks because 1) they would be tedious to type every time, and 2) once you start using them, you cannot justify ever not using them until all words have them in layers, like the Menelaiad but moreso.

                The animal that has no language sees and interprets—food, potential food, prey, potential prey, enemy, potential enemy, mate, potential mate, safety, potential safety, warmth, cold, light, dark and all that might apply to the senses and to comfort or discomfort. We can’t really call these perceptions conceptual, but these are what we would call the categories of what non-human animals might perceive, some more, some less of course in obvious gradations.  The difference between knowing something and "knowing" it, between recognizing and raising to the level of language--that's where language, explicitly, steps in.

                The point is that all that animals have by way of perceptual “concepts” (which are not, of course concepts at all, but recognitions triggered when some sameness has been re-encountered)  we have too, though ours be contaminated or focused (when it is) via language.  We can talk about our perceptions and talking about them changes them, though I would agree with Scholes that they also put pressure on language. Underneath or alongside of our language the things that we perceive exist, some and perhaps most of the time, particularly when those things are things, objects, and not things more nebulous such as emotions, though even then, though we get the emotion entirely wrong, more often than not there is still a “thing” that we are getting or attempting to get.

                Again, here is the point: what anything is it is to us, for us, insofar as we can perceive it. “Being” itself is a question because those who attempt to define it try to define it via a language that cannot encompass it and a perception that cannot perceive it. We can only infer it from signs—I will not say "its" signs. Signs belong to US; they do not belong to Being.  A sign is not something that exists. It is something that is read. Nor does it exist until it is read. Signs come into existence with the act of reading them. They are neither meaning nor potential meaning.  A sign is always an analogy or metaphor, a seeing as.

                If all humans die but their books survive and some alien race finds them, will they be able to decode them? Very likely yes. This is not because of a potential in the books to be read but a potential in the reader to read. To say the books have a potential to be read is like saying that the ball rolls downhill because balls always want to find the lowest point or because gravity wants to pull all objects toward a center. Gravity and balls are without desire. But we have no better concept than desire with which to describe such things.  

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