Grammar and logic (4): narrative and knowledge

A strong narrative is the record of a conversation, allowed to unfold and develop as it is told. It is not just one person speaking at another person – nor is it merely a monologue – how boring that would be! Yet, for many years, that is precisely how narratives, as literature, were taught in America. The New Criticism held that a narrative was but a code for a moral embedded within it – what could this mean other than the mind of an inhuman genius had impressed itself upon the page, to be imposed on readers across generations? But in truth a good storyteller learns to keep two unseen yet undeniable facts in mind: first, that the storyteller is also the audience for other storytellers, and second, that there is always a responding audience to the story told. Thus, both at the first instance and the last, narrative is a social act, involving more than one voice, bearing the echo of many voices – some presumed, since yet unborn.

For many centuries, philosophers have believed that the syllogism is the primary structure of truth as it can be expressed in language. But if, as I have previously argued, logic is supplemental to grammar, then the principle structure of truth in language is the narrative, since all grammar establishes a temporal relationship – and primarily a relationship of ratio – between two substantives (events, entities, or both addressed in the same thought). The simple sentence “I walk” establishes a relationship between a (presumably) continuing entity and a transient event (the assumed continuity of the entity and the transience of the event thus establish that some temporal ratio exists, between entity and event, although it is as yet unclear to what precise degree).

Now, it is perfectly clear that if I simply announce “I walk”, this could very well be announced while I am sitting down, not walking any where. Indeed, it may simply be a general proposition, e.g., an answer to the question “what do you do in your spare time?” (“I walk”). So, as the statement of a present condition, nothing determines any truth value for it without first establishing a context; and Western philosophers have traditionally distrusted truths dependent on context; if it can be said that “the earth orbit’s the sun,” that ought to be a scientific statement of fact, whether there are any other planets in the solar system – indeed, whether there is any such solar system – or not.

That seems like a safe example. Actually, scientifically, it’s an embarrassment. The law of gravity, the field of attraction between two – or more – bodies in space, assures us that for the earth to orbit the sun as it does, there has to be other planets in a solar system much like the one already in existence, even presupposing that for some reason or other we had no further means of verifying their presence.

Well, all right, how about a triangle? Surely one doesn’t need a context to assert that a triangle has three angles!

As a matter of definition, no; but what good would this be if there were no such intellection as geometry? If there is no geometry, there are no angles; without angles, no triangles. Hence geometry IS the context of geometrical form. Descartes’ assurance, that we could wipe context from the mind and begin deducing the universe from virtually nothing, is pure hoodwink. To imagine an object floating about in space – the minimal empirical reality guaranteed in the Cartesian universe – then the empty space constitutes the context to the object imagined, QED.

But syllogistic formulae cannot be reduced to even this minimal criteria – and Descartes’ assertion that they could (the argument he uses to safeguard the object-in-space reality of his hypothesis is purely deductive) is grounded on an assumption that the assertion of being, just in and of itself, can function as a preliminary Universal Principle: If there IS being, then there must be some entity that IS. And from this, he wants to deduce what the primary characteristics of such a minimally existent entity might be. This he reveals as the ultimate outcome of a story – the story of his disappointment with the traditional philosophy of the Medievals, his decision to doubt everything in order to discover what could not be doubted, his need to ascertain other truths once the primary truth had been established – and so forth.

Descartes is one of the greatest storytellers in Western history; but he should have read more deeply into the Scholars he chooses to discard. The fact is, the presumption of being had been a philosophic stock-in-trade since Anselm, and was brought into its own as a principle in the texts of Abelard. If Descartes had actually bothered to study such texts, he would have noticed why this presumption was not considered adequate as a universal principle to be deployed as an axiomatic first premise in a syllogism: assuming it as a first principle means precisely that everything I assert can be derived from it since my assertions constitute prima facie evidence that being IS.

It is best to consider this in a conditional argument:

If being IS, then horses are; if horses are, they must be as something; that which is something exists; if a horse is something, it must exist; if horses exist, being IS.

The trouble is, one can exchange any noun for “ horse “ in this argument, and the argument would be just as true – unicorns, pink elephants, squared circles, or the present king of France. But by all means, let us reduce it to its “truest” fallacy:

For something to BE a something, it must exist. If something exists, then existence per se is proved. This sentence is a something; therefore, existence is proved.

Well, so what importance could this have? Descartes’ reply to that demand is to distract our attention from the question of being, into questions concerning entities that might possibly exist: if an entity exists, it must have height, depth, width, density, etc.

I note that one problem here is that, while an existent entity might require these qualities in order to exist, none of these qualities require an existent entity in order to vouchsafe their own existence. (“ Height “ is a concept, specifically a concept of ratio, and this concept pertains to any entity existent or not.) And that causes real problems for the Cartesian project, since most of these quality concepts could not possibly be derived by reasoning alone, but must be abstracted from empirical existence. Putting on the shoes of Descartes, we can see in this imaginary universe that the first object-entity imagined could be two-dimensional, and thus not require such qualities as “depth” or “density”; in which case, how else would I get such ideas, except by opening my eyes and looking around me at a three-dimensional universe. In other words, if we demand rigor from Descartes’ project of doubt, we should be stuck with a two-dimensional universe looking not very much like the multi-dimensional universe in which we live.

Of course, we ought to remind ourselves that Descartes actually has a hidden agenda – he is trying to promote a strictly mechanistic metaphysics that, if generally accepted, would allow research in the natural sciences (since all material entities can be conceived as mere machines for the purposes of analysis). But that is to read the text in its historic context – precisely the kind of notice Descartes seems to want us to abandon! Yet, out of its context, it can be easily shown that Descartes’ logical arguments always resolve into petitio principii, just one circle running into another, and then another…. In fact, some of his first readers pointed this out to him. Yet this is to miss the rhetorical flair of the text. Descartes “squares” his “circles” by telling a good story. Since he insists that his readers join him on his hypothetical examination of doubt and positive assertion, he obscures the fact that his assertions are merely that; not really propositions so much as proposals. Since as readers we need to wrestle not only with the logical argumentation of the text but with the narrative grammar, the rhetorical accomplishment of the text is to make Descartes’ arguments “seem” or “sound” plausible. In other words, the continuity of the text’s grammar assures us Descartes is developing a continuous line of reasoning – which, however, is not really happening. The Discourse on Method is really a handbook of metaphysical axioms, well disguised in a narrative of discovery.

Well, Descartes was a highly civilized thinker; so one can guess that he believed the stakes he was playing for were worth the risks of falling into logical fallacy. But perhaps as much was lost as gained through Descartes’ decision to abandon philosophical tradition and begin the Metaphysics from an assumed primary position as though tradition had never occurred.

“There is no doubt that in its first glorious century the appeal to reason and experience was a triumph for the human intelligence. Between Descartes and Newton Western man created those instruments of thought that set him apart from the other peoples of the world. And if you look at the average nineteenth-century historian you will find that to him European civilisation seems almost to begin with this achievement. The strange thing is that none of these mid-nineteenth-century writers (accept for Carlyle and Ruskin) seemed to notice that the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism. If, from the balcony of the Greenwich Observatory, I look beyond the order of [Christopher] Wren’s hospital I see, stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns and to support their painters and print the works of philosophers: fluid capital, a free economy, a flow of exports and imports, a dislike of interference, a belief in cause and effect.
Every civilization seems to have its nemesis, not only because the first right impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness but because of unpredictables – and in this case the unpredictable was the growth of population. The greedy became greedier, the ignorant lost touch with traditional skills, and the lack of experience narrowed its beam so that a grand design like Greenwich would now be thought of as a waste of money that no accountant could condone.”
(Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, p. 220)

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