Saturday, May 14, 2005

Archimboldian Philosophy

If only because it saves effort, we routinely overestimate the consistency of our world. In the formula of Mary Douglas, dirt is matter out of place, but if we don’t care to notice the disarray, the dirt doesn’t really matter. That there are chambermaids with the souls of duchesses and duchesses with the souls of chambermaids may occasion an observation or two in Proust, but it hardly threatens the class system. That our stream of consciousness is “a shitty run of category mistakes and non sequiturs” is equally inconsequential. Which is a good thing, because our Zeitgeist, like the clothes of the lady in the limerick, is surely in patches with everybody out of kilter in time, genre, register, and discipline. While there are certainly plenty of 21st Century polemicists with the outlook (and talents) of off-brand 18th Century philosophes, the serious discussion of real issues is sometimes reminiscent of that ancient precursor of the Internet, the Talmud, except that the sages aren’t talking with one another in the same language. Reading Brian Joseph and Richard Janda’s long and extremely eccentric introductory chapter to the Handbook of Historical Linguistics the other day, I couldn’t decide if I was more reminded of the Baroque splendor of the Nuova Scienza of Giambattista Vico or the oppressively relentless whimsy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The motley is not merely stylistic. Trying to come to terms with language change, Joseph and Janda manage to meander through the particulars of a half a dozen intricate debates in other fields including thermodynamics, history, paleontology, developmental biology, theology, and philosophy as if wrestling with the Great Vowel Shift or the etymology of “Bunk” requires a comprehensive theory of Time itself in the historical linguist. The first sentence of an Old Chronicle of the City of Barcelona reads “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Similar quirk. The odd thing about this performance, however, is its reasonableness under the circumstances. These guys are presumptuous, but they have as good a right to be presumptuous as anybody else. Hubris is sometimes a duty.

Joseph and Janda face the problem, ubiquitous in our age, of dealing with the general in the absence of the universal. Instead of relating linguistic change and (for example) evolutionary change by abstracting out a purified philosophical sense of change, the authors use professional-level concepts of each alternatively to traverse the broken ground of various theoretical and practical issues. Sometimes punctuated equilibrium is good to think with, sometimes the ergodic hypothesis, sometimes the properly linguistic notion of grammaticalization. The absence of a master level of discourse rules out the drafting of a map, but not the writing out of an itinerary, always provided we can put up with the inelegance of literary forms required to match such a jumpy methodology. It’s not that anybody who wants to deal seriously with great issues has much choice, after all. Veritable knowledge cannot be any more compact and homogeneous than the reality it addresses. Coming up against the real strangeness and multiplicity of the world, it has at last become necessary for thought to conform to its object at the cost of forgoing the dream of an integral knowing subjects or even of integral totalizing disciplines. In the Bible, God inflicted the confusion of tongues on the people for trying to build a tower to heaven. In this version, we’re actively promoting that same confusion precisely in order to build the tower.

By the way, the advent of what I’m call Archimboldian thought, hardly spells the end of traditional philosophy. Much of what professional philosophers do is appropriately specialized and technical and can be cannibalized to good purpose by the scavenging bricoleur. Meanwhile more traditional “Great Ideas” philosophy also endures and prospers as a specialized form of public relations that satisfies the public’s metaphysical needs. The whole is just another one of the parts, but that’s hardly fatal to the commercial prospects of the next dozen versions of retail holism.

—the Librarian

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