I want to write about this Quanta Magazine article: What Is Life? Its Vast Diversity Defies Easy Definition. but I’ve not got enough spare time. Too many irons in the fire or plates spinning or which ever metaphor you favour.
My interest in the insufficiency of language is what attracted me to the article, and is probably how it ended up in my feed. To highlight some aspects, in 2011, Russian geneticist Edward Trifonov reviewed 123 definitions of life and found as many definitions as authors. Although he discovered some core shared features. His version distilled to self‐reproduction with variations.
The article mentions Wittgenstein’s language games—and rightfully so. But it underscores the point that language is an approximation of reality. My working position was that naming objects is simple—in fact trivial—, but naming abstract concepts presents challenges. Now, I find that the challenge sets in earlier than even I expected. Language is truly insufficient.
The first step to recovery is to admit there’s a problem.
As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.
To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.
The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.
We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.
The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.
I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.
In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.
OK, so this isn’t at all about Foucault’s rhetoric. My main riff this year is the assertion that there is no Truth, only rhetoric—or should I rather say Rhetoric. I created a Reddit post asking for references to other philosophers (or whomever) who had made a similar claim, to which I was offered Vico and Rorty. Unfortunately, there were only two responders, and their assistance was superficial.
What I did encounter by one of the responders was a criticism similar to that levelled at Foucault, hence the inspired title of this post. This critique at its essence is that having proposed no positive solutions to the issues I point to, I cannot defend my position. In fact, as with Habermas‘ fault with Foucault, evidently, I have disarmed myself.
I find this line of argumentation weak tea at best. To argue that one has no claim to declare something incorrect if they don’t have a correct replacement for it is absurd. For example, I don’t know what 13,297 ÷ 1,492 equals arithmetically; but I can assert with confidence that it does not equal 2. Moreover, to criticise, one doesn’t need the ‘ability to generate positive alternatives’.
“There is no truth but rhetoric.”
So when I say there is no Truth but rhetoric (for non-ontic concepts), I am making a Truth statement. As such, this assertion—by my own admission—is only as strong as the rhetoric I can muster to its defence. Alas, my defences are weak, and so the argument fails. Were I to make a stronger argument—a more convincing argument—, it might be accepted as Truth.
Evidently, my first mistake was to separate ontic and non-ontic, which is to say things existing apart from their given names and those whose existence is entirely fabricated. An ontic thing might be a stone, a tree, a planet, a star, or the sensation of pain. These things exist even without language, a label, or an observer. As Saussure and other structuralists have noted, in semiotics, there is the signified (or referent) and the signifier—the object and the identifier. In the context of language, these are tautological.
Non-ontic things are conceptual, freedom, truth, justice, rights, gods, and so on. I may opt to replace non-ontic with language-contextual or some such to sidestep the taxonomical quagmire. Or perhaps I’ll adopt the dichotomy of concrete versus abstract. These concepts do not exist outside of language. They are wholly constructed in a complex system created by humans—and humans whilst humans have done OK with complicated systems, they have an abysmal track record when it comes to complex systems. By analogue to the physics of solids, there is more space than atoms, and the atoms and their constituent particles are in constant motion—zero-degrees Kelvin, be damned. Our senses perceive something to be there, but as in that scene in The Matrix, ‘there is no spoon‘.
In my mind, leveraging Saussure’s ideas are useful to depict the differences in the concrete versus the abstract.
The famous painting depicted above illustrates explains the difference between a signifier and a referent. In this image, there is only the signifier. Magritte makes clear the distinction with the text, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe: This is not a pipe. It is merely a depiction of one. To be even more arcane, the image is a signifier to another signifier that in turn refers to the referent.
A sign is the device that encapsulates the concept. It may be visual—an icon (an illustration of photograph) or a written word or even Braille—or it can be spoken or signed, as with American Sign Language. These are all signs.
Notice when one considers a sign that a concrete cat (or in French, chat), it is pretty clear to what one is referring. Above the line, we see the signified, the idea conveyed by the sign. This doesn’t mean that everyone sees the silhouette depicted above, but it is a catlike thing, a feline animal, a mammal, normally with four legs and a tail. Perhaps you are thinking of a particular cat. But to someone with a grasp of the language in which you are communicating, when you say cat, there is little room for ambiguity. In fact, if you are trying to teach someone a different language, say, French, you could show them the cat with the chat signifier, and they would grasp your meaning almost instantaneously.
All language is arbitrary and socially constructed, so there is no connection between the words—say, the spelling or shape of a word—and its referent. The words cat and chat do not look like cats.
There are concrete things that cannot be so readily translated into an icon; for example, the wind. However, one could fairly quickly be able to articulate or gesticulate, as the case might be, the notion of wind. The same cannot be said for the abstract concept of justice.
As I’ve mentioned before, justice, especially one of the restorative or retributive varieties, is a euphemism for vengeance. The distinction is supposed to be found in the intent, but intent cannot be known; it can only be inferred. And, speaking of Foucault, justice can only be delivered from a power position.
But the notion of justice relies heavily on social construct; it has geo-spacial dependencies. What is considered to be just in ancient times may not be considered just now. What is considered just in one country might not be considered to be just in another. And this is more than a difference in instantiation. It is due to the arbitrary if not capricious articulation of a nebulous concept.
Returning to Foucault, (Christian apologist) Nancy Pearcey declares his stance paradoxical: “[when someone] states that it is impossible to attain objectivity, is that an objective statement? The theory undercuts its own claims.”
First, Pearcey merely asks a question about objectivity, but it doesn’t matter. The answer is: this may as well be an objective statement, but it’s just another language game. Wittgenstein (and Russell and Heidegger and Rorty…) was on the right path when he pointed out that the ambiguity inherent in language provide cover for all sorts of mischief. I’m only pretty sure that Derrida might yield paydirt as well. Besides, let’s pretend for a moment that there exists some objective truth, there is no reason (language game; except in accepting the broadest definition, reason is a capability elusive to many if not most humans) to expect that this truth is either accessible or verifiable anyway. The best one can do is to pose a more convincing rhetorical argument.
Reason /ˈrēzən/ (noun) the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic
A similar critique has been advanced by (another Christian apologist) Diana Taylor, and by Nancy Fraser who argues that “Foucault’s critique encompasses traditional moral systems, he denies himself recourse to concepts such as ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, and therefore lacks the ability to generate positive alternatives.”
So whilst I’ve just managed to stream-of-consciousness my contention, I am not in a position to resolve anything. For now, I’ll settle for documenting my position as I continue to search for other supporters and formulate a more cogent response, a more robust rhetorical presentment.
If anyone can direct me to resources relevant to my position, let me know in the comments. I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t agree—which would be expected, as this is the accepted orthodoxy—feel free to comment as well.