Category Archives: Language

Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 

And the walls came crumbling down . . .

The subject-object dichotomy needs to be overcome.  Insisting on its trumps-everything-else realness is not sustainable.  But language starts to fail at that point.  The term “experience” arises, and we do not know what to do with it.  But how else do you ground any tale of worlds and minds?

Happily the term “language” itself is crumbling for me.  A rather old-fashioned faculty psychology has insisted that there be language, with syntax at the non-beating heart of it’s computational breast.  In insisting on systematicity, it forgot about voice, and the power of uttering.  Subjects now start to abound.  They are collective, and partial, and overlapping, and meaningful.

How then to speak?

Learning how to speak

The world, as Alva Noe says, does not just show up.  It is achieved.  We will bear this in mind.  The achieving is happily called “sense making”, a term of art in the enactive tradition that applies to the self-interested goings on of a cell as well as to the mastering of the world and self exhibited by people.  To speak of sense-making is to eschew speaking of perception and action.  It replaces both.

A second important  point to be established is found in considering the epistemological position of the cell that recurs in the enactive literature.  This oft-recounted tale involves a prototype of dynamical identity and autonomy, embedded in its world through a single gradient: a nutrient gradient.  We can contrast our understanding of what is going on with the perspective of the cell itself.  The subjectivity of the cell is laid bare, and it consists in a single discrimination between this way and that, between uphill and down.

Now we need to take a step back and combine these so that we can relativise our own position in the world.  We can know nothing of the petri-dish and the scientist’s lab, if we are hooked into our worlds (Umwelten) in ways similar to the cell.  As we uncover the nature of our reality, so too we will be describing our selves.  For the Umwelt of the cell is written in the language of its own constitution: its spatial and temporal properties, the timescales of its metabolism.  These are our necessary epistemological limits, but that is no bad thing.  It would be silly to ignore such obvious constraints on our understanding.

So we need to look at how the sense-making occurs, without postulating a pre-existing world, or self, as both arise together in a dance well known to Varela and the buddhists.  We can recognize some useful things:

  • The arising of world and self occurs in time.  I hesitate to call it real time.  But it is “real-time” that picks out the sensory basis of experience.
  • We seek the interface, but cannot rely on our spatial and temporal view of the world
  • One such interface lies in the micro-tremor of the eyeballs, by which the visual system stays in constant dynamic touch with a world
  • Another lies in voice: the magic relation between the real and the spoken that arises in real time
  • The voice gives rise to a subject

So the goal here, and the reason this Church does not pretend to the practice of science, is that it is concerned with learning how to speak under these circumstances.  As Latour is at pains to point out, we cannot make the fatal fundamentalist mistake of claiming that there are facts that stand and pronounce upon the real, divorced from the business of how we talk, what our dialogue is, and what its limits are.



Thoughts are like a laying down of paths. Each train of thought creates its own trail, influencing future thoughts, not of the same notional subject, but of the collective. The thoughts you experience are causally related to the thoughts others had in the past, that we see manifested in behaviors, and their mutual coordination.

Wu Wei and Control

If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.

Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.

Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.

Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.

The Explanatory Gap

So much effort has been uselessly expended in the attempt to bridge the presumed explanatory gap between mind and body, all under circumstances in which the “mind” half of the equation can not be identified anywhere. The Pharisee has a fairly clear agenda. We can recast this feeble discussion, and recognize that the gap to be bridged is between experience on the one hand, and language, on the other. Experience can not be communicated by language, but language contributes in the generation of a shared world, in which things have meanings grounded in collective activity.

The pharisee has colleagues . . .

. . . of course. The Anthropologists (culture), the Linguists (language) and the Geneticists (nature) are all trying to provide detail to the word ‘we’. But they don’t talk much to each other.

One prominent characteristic of Wikipedia and the crowd-sourced self-description of the world, is that it allows disparate communities to engage in some kind of cross-disciplinary chatter, albeit at a fairly superficial level. Usually, each discipline takes itself far too seriously to even try to make sense to the unwashed.

The ascription of agency varies across the global population too. I don’t think too many people have pointed out that the psychological solipsist model has profound implications for spiritual doctrine too. Animists differ, and could not sign up to psychology. But this is not divvying us up by language, culture, or genetic inheritance. The way in which we construe the relation between experience and the world provides an orthogonal direction, putting economists apart from shamen, and phonologists apart from historians. And we can map this, not by the genome, but by analysis of the language of intentionality.

 The P-world doctrine allows us to accord the experiential realm of a single organism a position in our ontology, without committing ourselves spiritually in one way or another.  That has to be a useful thing.

Embodiment as a band-aid

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone says it well.  In “Putting Movement into Your Life: A Beyond Fitness Primer“, she correctly laments the ridiculous reverential terms in which brains are spoken about, as if brains experienced anything.  She notes the rise of ’embodiment’ as a tag in cognitive science.*

She says:

[T]he term `embodiment’ and its derivatives are in fact nothing more than a lexical band-aid covering over a still suppurating three-hundred + year-old wound: seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes’s division of mind and body.

Thank you Maxine!

*True story: I once had to write a review of a paper that extended the entirely disembodied, symbolic, architecture of the ACT-R model by adding a [+embodied] tag.  It doesn’t get much more ridiculous that this, folks!