In the past few blog posts, I’ve dealt with the fact that different ideas can each be seen as fulfillments of each other’s own internal contradictions–in particular, the ideas of Judaism, Christianity, and Nietzschean egoism (which have all significantly contributed to my own view of the world). In one sense, Christianity as a historical movement grew out of Jewish culture, only to be itself surpassed by a postmodern individualism with Nietzschean affirmation of selfishness scattered throughout. However, the mere positions in time or space of these ideologies are not enough to determine whether one is more coherent or more true than the others. Although they appeared in determinate temporal order, considered apart from that history it can still be shown (in reverse order of their historical appearances) how Christian love is a fulfillment of amor fati, and is itself fulfilled in a Jewish tradition of reparative action in the world. Considered historically/geographically, one leads to another; considered intellectually in their own terms, each leads to the other. Such is the difference between physical and conceptual space.
These belief systems, like any symbolic entities, can be studied in either of two perspectives: sensible or intelligible. That language is the conjunction of sensible and intelligible, I believe should be uncontroversial. One might argue that the sensible can be reduced to the intelligible, or vice versa, but that’s irrelevant here; it seems inherent to the idea of language itself that it is (somehow) the pairing of sensible entities–visual patterns, audio patterns, hand patterns, and the like–with intelligible meanings: “thinkables” which may be considered true or false. Given a symbol, one can consider its sensible aspect–the sounds coming out of a person’s mouth when they say “The roof is on fire”–or the intelligible aspect, i.e., the idea that the roof is on fire.
Sensible context will determine the intelligible meaning of a symbol (e.g., whether “the roof is on fire” is a vital warning or a celebration of a bumpin’ party). In fact, historical and geographical (i.e., sensible) circumstances seem to be the only source of customary (common sense) definitions, by way of which a statement can mean anything at all. Sensible conditions (local customs of word usage, constitutive of a language itself) determine common sense, which must be taken as belief before any knowledge of intelligible logical relations between ideas can become possible (nothing is logically proven from nothing). However, this dependence does not mean there is no distinction between the sensible and intelligible aspects of language. Denying the distinction is equivalent to denying that language obtains at all; thus, in discussing language here I will take it as a given.
Common sense definitions are determined by historical and geographical circumstance, yet they are necessary for logical derivations. Truth in language, then, must have two aspects: a spatial-temporally determined component of “common sense” beliefs, and a component of philosophical knowledge logically derived from those beliefs. Common sense beliefs, then, are the foundation of philosophical knowledge; the philosopher locates the contradictions in common sense, simultaneously anticipating and creating its evolution in resolving them. This practice can be engaged in differing ways by two major philosophical traditions.
In one of these traditions, philosophies are studied in a “sensible” perspective, as the evolution of beliefs and the transformation of “common sense” as a physical phenomenon throughout all of known history and geography. The philosopher can then anticipate/create the next moment of common sense through synthesis of new concepts (as Deleuze might suggest), new definitions, new beliefs with inevitably political and/or religious significance. Alternatively, the other type of philosopher takes a more thematic approach, watching the clarification of highly localized common sense unfold in conceptual space, indifferent to the arrow of time. Conclusions can then be integrated into common sense as scientific clarification of what is already contained within it. This “analytic” philosopher finds wisdom in its intelligible aspect, as knowledge logically derived from common sense beliefs; the “synthetic” philosopher deals with wisdom in its sensible aspect, as the geographically and historically posited beliefs from which knowledge might be derived with logical precision. If philosophies were objects moving through conceptual space, one might say that the analytic philosopher measures their positions relative to each other–whether they are contained in each other or contradict each other in various ways. The synthetic philosopher, on the other hand, measures their velocity, i.e., the change in those logical relations as symbols and their meanings evolve (as common sense) through space and time.
Position and velocity are something that I had to measure often in my freshman physics classes at Gordon College, which I attended before transferring to UMASS Amherst. We did this often with the “photogate“, a simple measuring device which, when plugged into a computer, could record the times at which an object passed between its two photosentitive arms. An experiment would often entail the measurement of a projectile’s movement through two photogates and the calculation thereafter of the projectile’s average velocity or position as it passed between the two gates. However, the accuracy of a position measurement increased the closer the gates were to a single point in the projectile’s journey; the margin of error in a position measurement shrank with the space between measurements of the moving object, because it had less room to vary in position between the two data points produced. On the other hand, in measuring average velocity, the accuracy increased the farther apart the photogates were; more distance would make for more accuracy in such an ‘overall’ statistic. The ideal measurement of an object’s average velocity would take measurements with the greatest distance between each other, providing the least accuracy as to the projectile’s position. The ideal measurement of a projectile’s position, however, would be taken instantaneously, at a single time and place, but say nothing about where the object was before the measurement or will be after it. One could know the position of an object with high precision, or the velocity of an object with high precision, or both with low precision. It can not be had both ways.
The parallel here with philosophy is that the two approaches to philosophy–the synthetic approach of it as a sensible phenomenon and the analytic dissection of it as an intelligible collection of thoughts–are each incomplete without, yet irreconcilable with the other. One can measure the varying sway of philosophies relative to each other in time and physical space, or one can measure their (in)compatibility with each other in conceptual space, but one cannot measure both and still preserve the quality of both approaches. The very nature of logical analysis demands that some uncontroversial material is given to analyze in the first place; this frame of reference must be fixed in order for truths derived from it to have any meaning. History loses its honesty when relative physical power (or sway) of ideas is presented as proof of their validity; logical argument loses its honesty when it pretends that its “uncontroversial” assumptions are uncontroversial in all places and times. Thus, from the analytic frame of reference, synthetic philosophy is absurd; there is nothing in it reminiscent of the knowledge that analytic philosophers seek. Likewise, from the synthetic point of view, analytic philosophy is itself doomed to absurdity, for its fixation on “common sense” assumptions which are themselves products of historical and geographical environment. One can and must travel back and forth between these two realms, but it seems impossible to reconcile them both in one overarching approach. In this way, the duality of traditions in philosophy is not something to be overcome, but rather affirmed.
Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or Americorps.