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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Abstraction

The editor of a Ricoeur collection suggested, I’m sure knowing he was being simplistic, that the author recognized the old equation of fiction with the type and history with the facts. There are any number of reasons ultimately to reject that notion. But the suggestion will not go away, and should not because it’s not entirely false. Fiction is more like the general than it is like the particular and history more like the particular than the general on the whole. At the same time the whole question of the particular and the general—in whatever nuanced pairings these concepts appear—will always remain open, will always be to be explored and never be finalized precisely because, in good Derridian fashion, language itself is thoroughly entangled in the question. One might even wonder whether the very distinction “general/specific” is not itself a dubious metaphor driven by the observation of natural phenomena and the needs of language to abstract facts into classes in order to say something about them. You can’t give every tree its own particular name. And it’s true that in the observable world there are observable groups with an historical and ontological status that obviously justifies classifications—although the criteria of classification is not always and everywhere made by an appeal to history or ontology but are also made with reference to use. So there are trees and there are maple trees and oak trees—with all their subclasses. And every maple may be different from every other maple but any maple is more like any other maple than it is like any oak. And there are men and women. But, as we have more recently seen, the categories of “male” and “female” are far from obvious and can be rigorously maintained only with an great effort, one that in certain circumstances becomes unsustainable or no longer useful. It may also be other abstractions, just as justice, liberty, beauty (etc) take their substance from an analogy to the natural world and are maintained at great cost. We want to believe that beauty exists, and something certainly exists to which humans tend to respond in uniform (if not universal) ways—ways that are taught and maintained but also have to be understood as being to some degree “natural.” It would be hard to set up the experiments that would lead to definitive results, but some work is being done. And we know that although our dogs do not respond to music, some birds do. They have the brain for it. But is beauty just the shape of the brain? Is it those brains that produce these chemicals when faced with these things that create the illusion of beauty? This is not irrelevant even if, as I hope and expect, it’s not going to be the whole truth of the question. If we did not have eyes we could not see. Would landscapes still be beautiful? Perhaps they would, but not to us.

This casts us back to the one great Romantic insight, what Wordsworth refers to when he says, “both what we half create and what we perceive.” “Half” is an imprecise fraction. No one knows the proportion, but the insight is valid: there is no perception without creation. The question of objectivity is irrelevant. It does not exist as such to us or our reckoning, not even quite (I suspect) to our math—though math must come closest to it.

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