Philosophy Is Not Science Fiction

Hmmm, a couple of entries from my journal, November of `98. Ramblings on a volume of correspondence between two Peirceans, one a philosophy professor and the other a novelist. "Knowing how way leads on to way," this soon leads to various ideas for science fiction stories, and thoughts about some completely impractical science-fictional device which I once envisioned years and years back.

Back ages ago, my college philosophy professor, "Uncle Jim," once told me, "Paul, philosophy is not science fiction." Sometimes seems I have yet to absorb that lesson. I think I end up "tangled in my own briar patch" here. Oh, well, in a non-anal-retentive, non-Cartesian world, we can also learn from our mistakes... unlike the wonderful world of Cartesian modernity, where every intellectual sortie is a game of truth or dare...

Naw, I'm not gonna make it to church this morning. But then, throughout Presbyteriandom, this oughta be stewardship season, right? The doldrums of November, I mean. Well, we shall see. I may spend the day decompressing, though from what? Or, as I was economical yesterday, I may well head out again today for another day on the town.

Grief, Thief of Peirce [A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy] turns out to be an engaging book. I'm still not sure it's worth the $25 I paid for it, much less the $45 it would have cost me retail. But I do know that, had I let it slip through my fingers, I would have regretted it forevermore.

Fascinating insights into Walker Percy, one of my favorite novelists, and the man who, through his book The Message in the Bottle, turned me on to Peirce in the first place. I remember happening across this book in a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, back in 1983 or 1984 when I was living out West. What a discovery! What a revelation!

Grief also gives fascinating insights into Kenneth Ketner at Texas Tech, a Peirce scholar whose name is familiar to me from diverse points of contact in my studies. Now I also have a glimpse of Ketner as a person, and I learn that, "Choctaw Taoist" though he be, he is one of the good guys.

There are also some interesting comments on Peirce, and I think it is not just my imagination that some of these comments are all the more illuminating for being conveyed in the informal venue of personal correspondence. Yes, Peirce's interpretant is an especially knotty aspect of his semiotic. Though why does Percy keep wanting to drag "interpretant" back in the direction of "interpreter"? It seems to me that the ambiguity in the interpretant (and this insight is not original with me) is that it seems sometimes like "concrete interpretive result, and/or the potential therefor," and sometimes like "the matrix out of which interpretation can, like crystals out of a supersaturated solution, precipitate." But laying too much emphasis on "interpreter" smacks of psychologism, and should be quite an unnecessary move for someone whose theology is robustly trinitarian-- a point I should think Percy, a Roman Catholic, would have appreciated?!

Well, that's about all for now. For whatever reason, my mind really feels in "recycle" mode today.

Whilst recuperating from my latest migraine attack, I have been reading-- well, okay, leafing through Grief, Thief of Peirce. I still dunno if it's worth the $25 I paid for it, but it is an interesting book, and "right up my alley" on at least three distinct counts: (1) Charles Peirce and his semiotic; (2) Walker Percy and his thinking; (3) Kenneth Ketner and a peek inside the working skull of a real live Peirce scholar.

Ketner strikes me as a very simpático fellow, a down-to-earth small-town guy I suspect I might enjoy sharing beer and pizza with. A good chunk of the book is made up of a couple of appendices-- in one of which several of Ketner's essays are included, and Father Samway, S.J., ed., don't you think you could have included a breakdown of these in the table of contents, instead of just "Appendix II"? At any rate, I am intrigued to learn that one of Ketner's interests is, what might the social sciences, post-Cartesian, Peircean, look like? And I am intrigued also to learn that Ketner considers the novels of Walker Percy an excellent example of what-like...

Veddy, veddy interesting... The social sciences pursued along the avenue of the essay, the philosophical writing, and even the novel. Since Ketner construes these broadly, and is adamantly anti-reductive and anti-nominalistic, I think he is on the right track here. To borrow a distinction from Peter Berger [Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective], Ketner believes that a valid sociology, for example, would look more like a "humanistic sociology," and less like a number-crunching "statistical sociology." To Ketner, the purpose of a valid social science would be understanding and not control.

To all of which, I say, hurrah! (Understanding and not control: gee, that stands Marx's famous dictum on its head, doesn't it?!) Side tangents...

  • Ketner's vision of the social sciences in some way resembles what we might have today if modern thought had taken its cue not from Descartes but rather from Montaigne.

  • If the social sciences were to follow Ketner's suggested lead, they would be in continuity with most of what has passed for thinking and writing on the human condition, from time immemorial up to fairly recent years. Confucius, Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus, Macchiavelli, the aforementioned Montaigne, and for that matter Boswell's Life of Johnson and the novels of Upton Sinclair or Sinclair Lewis. We would get human thinking on human matters humanly expressed, instead of fifth-rate assistant professors seeking tenure by churning out footnote-heavy sociological tractates in wooden imitation of third-rate chemistry or physics.

  • Ketner's thinking corroborates what someone-- Santayana?-- once said about the worship of methodology: that method is the royal road to mediocrity. Contrast the idea I've encountered often enough in the academy today that it is metaphysically impossible to color outside the lines of method. (If it is really impossible, why waste breath saying so? We do not bother to insist that it is impossible to walk upside down, unaided, on the ceiling.) Ketner (and I) would say rather that methodology is a means of lopping off the heads of grain that stick up above the rest, while at the same time raising to the level of a paint-by-number mediocrity those who, without some cut and dried method, would never rise even that far.

  • My thought and not Ketner's... Would embracing irreducible triadicity have ramifications also in the physical sciences? Physics, chemistry, etc., are clearly not as badly wounded as the social sciences by the root assumptions of modernity. Still, even in physics there is the baleful prospect of "single vision and Newton's sleep." It is this that Goethe was attacking in his Farbenlehre, in which the scientist is not factored out of the equation. What might an approach like Goethe's mean for the physical sciences?

  • Even further off Ketner's tangent... Once we have granted that there is an irreducibly human aspect to the sciences-- and even to the sciences qua path to objective knowledge of external realities-- may there not open out of our knowing of things a dimension of our knowing which is parallel to this irreducibly human aspect? And might not this dimension, though epistemically valid in itself, lack an "exchange rate" with the "cash value" of the sciences as merely dyadically constituted? To put it baldly, may there not be some objective albeit "nonexchangeable" epistemic value to pondering the starry sky above, to meditating on the lazy drift of dust motes through a beam of sunlight, and the like? I do not want to fall here into the embrace of the New Age, but my "latter turning" has raised questions along this line which I cannot put down.

  • Thought seed for a science fiction story: In pre-revolutionary China, one reason the railroads spread through the countryside slowly was the difficulty of laying the rails in conformity with the principles of feng shui. Try to imagine a science-fictional world where this made full sense, and not just aesthetically, but as part of a human outlook in which truth, beauty, and goodness constituted one dust-mote-pondering seamless whole.

  • Another science fiction thought seed, this time from Jewish mysticism: Imagine a society where something analogous to the Tree of Life, the kabbalistic diagram of the ten sephiroth, was in common use as a "metaphysical slide rule." "This stretch of the river valley comes across as thus-and-such in Tiphareth, and such-and-such in Gevurah..." Readings off the Tree of Life might be, in this science-fictional world, intersubjectively confirmable or disconfirmable. If so, would this permit practitioners to converge inductively on a core of objective albeit "nonconvertible" epistemic freight? Can you imagine a science-fictional world in which something like a Journal of Sephirotic Analysis printed refereed articles detailing sephirotic "readings" which their author had undertaken using the Tree of Life as a metaphysical slide rule?

...Gee, this has led us far afield from anything that Ketner or Percy, much less Peirce, would approve of-- hasn't it?! I follow myself out far enough on this tangent, and I feel as if I'm rubbing shoulders with Art Bell!

I guess this is what three and a half years of hard times can lead to, if you don't watch out!

One closing note, and it's a dilly... A number of years back, I got the idea into my head of something I called the "parawave radio." Perhaps influenced by my reading of John Brunner's SF novel, The Stardroppers? Though based more, I think, on my experience of the world of radio as something not unlike a Kantian synthetic a priori. When did this idea first come to me? In the early Eighties? I have some memory of asking Steven, in the living room at Poynette, how some such device might actually be constructed, and I remember him reacting with some annoyance like, "What kind of stupid idea is this, anyhow?"

The parawave radio, in my imagination, was a device, sort of like a radio, which allowed you to tune in to various "frequencies" (not to be confused with any spectrum of radio frequencies) and receive vague signals, only a cut or two above white noise, out of which one could nonetheless "read" vague and haunting qualities of feeling. Part of my notion here came from the experience of tuning around on the radio dial, and letting myself "float" on that vague background murmuring of static, noise, squeals, and weak, indecipherable, duelling radio signals which you will find in between the stronger signals on the dial.

Part of my notion derived from the experience of hearing distant music, faintly but quite distinctly, in the thrum and buzz of a vacuum cleaner or an electric fan-- a sensation I refer to in Hermetic as mna sramo-- yes, you will find occasional reference to this experience in the psychological literature, or see also Kerouac's Desolation Angels, p. 138:

We know it all, we heard the heavenly music one night driving along in the car, "Did you hear that?" I had just heard clangor of music suddenly in the motor-humming room of the car-- "Yes" says Cody, "what is it?" He'd heard.

And part of my notion came from something I had once read, that according to James Clerk-Maxwell's original equations, it had been expected that any outgoing radio signal would be paired with a signal "incoming from infinity"-- well, where izzit?

The parawave radio, as I annoyed Steven by envisioning the actual construction of it, would have drawn on actual broadcast signals, only distorted and transformed to such a degree that various thrums and buzzes would be all that came through.

This vision eventually became a sort of artistic notion inside my head, which I did go so far as to reduce to a fairly detailed drawing of a parawave radio, with all its dials and knobs and switches. This drawing hung on the bulletin board out in my kitchen through much of the Durham Years. The parawave radio, as I came to envision it, was a wooden box with a hinged lid-- about the same size as an old portable wooden or bakelite radio of the Thirties or Forties. Open the lid, and you would find all the dials and controls-- and also on one side open storage space to hold the instruction booklet, as well as various quaint and curious color lithographed cards, which I envisioned as not unlike postcards or tarot cards or somesuch. By this time, I was imagining focusing on such cards as one integral ingredient of the parawave radio "listening experience."

("Tune to 53 red over 95 blue, phase 260, with the Shannon and Flettner stops engaged, and listen to the signal you'll find on that frequency while contemplating the new White and Black Sphinx card...")

It wasn't until these past several months, reading up on the Jewish kabbalah, that it occurred to me, "Gee, that diagram of the ten sephiroth is a lot like my old notion of the parawave radio, only minus the electricity, the dials, and the working parts..."

In short, with my vision of the parawave radio... why "radio"? Why not just cut the circuitry out of the circuit, so to speak, and keep the rest?

The result would certainly be in the ballpark of the kabbalistic diagram of the ten sephiroth, employed as a "metaphysical slide rule"...

Okay, by now I am completely tangled up in the briar patch of my own private mythos... So sue me!