Monday, 22 December 2008

On Culture and Fluidity

The city: neon and plastic, alienated, the temporary unsustainable pleasures of capitalism, commerce, the movement of money made material. The human disappears, indeed seeks disappearance in consumption, seeks dissolution in brand names, a plastic imitation of the eternal.

And it is because so much in our culture is transitory, temporary, that we seek meaning in symbolism, in the "added value" of conceptual branding, that give us an intimation of the eternal: the logo, as the word implies, is a manifestation of an ideal. Thus, we approach the eternal, the transcendent-conceptual via its form, the logo.


The reason the world seems impermanent, and that we are so troubled by impermanence, is because we objectify everything - we attempt to create discrete, persistent entities, concrete objects which are outside of us... but persistence demands dissolution. For, by its very nature extension in time must come to an end.

So, our attempts to inject or present the eternal (that which is perceivable in the human mind, the ideal, the abstract-transcendent), in the actual (the material-temporal world) lead always to disappointment for the condition of the real, material world is precisely fluidity - to impose (to interpret) a solid, persisting nature on any part of it, to understand it as an object with walls, that can be separated and understood in isolation from the environment of which it is a part, makes inevitable the eventual, apparent disintegration of that 'object' as the flow pulls apart the elements which happened to coincide long enough to be given that form by us. There never was an object, just different cycles momentarily in unison.

Understanding this should not pose a problem: persistence is found conceptually, in the realm of thought; in ideas and principles, i.e. in the abstractions that humanity is capable of. We only encounter problems when we forget this and try to reclaim it by applying it to an external material world.


If it were possible to solve the riddles presented by language, one feels we would be close to solving most of the uncertainties and disagreements native to humanity. If this were possible. But this would presume there were an actual resolution, a visage behind the masks. An expression not distorted by grammatical form and semantic nuance. This would presume there were actual thoguhts prior to being shaped into words. Perhaps there are, perhaps there is some formless, void material that the semantics of culture and thought make into particular utterances. But this prima materia is prior to any possibility of expression, even to oneself. Experiencing it and making it meaningful, pulling it into the social sphere in which the individual consciousness is formed means dragging it through the conceptual filters that make it thinkable.Further: If these riddles were solved (if) we would find all that is valuable in human life torn asunder. For it is the lacunae of meaning which provide for romance, art, magic, love, all that is beautiful and makes life worth living. This scientistic search for an absolute truth, this negating of the individual by locating life 'within' a grander, concrete material framework, is what I am most opposed to.

Aesthetics and Selfhood

To wonder why we cannot "perceive perception" is a fallacy based on a linguistic misunderstanding: it is like asking why we cannot paint red red, or eat eating. Perception is not an event in the world, or a relation between two objects; it is a transcendent, and it is what constitutes the world. It is perception which gives the world its form and shape, and what makes objects what they are (i.e. gives them their object-nature).

This is why perception can never happen within the world. To perceive someone preceiving would place their world, their selfhood, entirely within mine - and they would become a function of myself, an object of mine rather than a subject in their own right. They would be a figment of my imagination.

The corollary of this: although the self is transcendent, it does not transcend other selves. Selfhood itself is transcendent. It can never be contained in a world for it is the condition of a world, the canvas on which a world is drawn. Selfhood is the boundary condition of a world, and likewise we may understand God as the boundary condition of the world (I speak metaphorically - this is not supposed to be taken literally or mapped in any way on to reality). Just as 'I' cannot be proved (subjectivity cannot be established within the world for it is only that by-which a world exists), God too cannot have a presence within the world, as it is the limit, the boundary by which world-ness is defined. God is never object but only subject, the subject of subjects, the boundary condition by which subjectivity is possible.

As such it is undefinable, it is that by-which, i.e. Being. It is the sine-qua-non of life.

The Rebirth of Metaphysics

If modern philosophy has seen the end of metaphysics (as is often claimed), everyday life will see its rebirth.

As AC Grayling postulates in last week's New Scientist unless we subscribe to a very narrow view of what we mean by 'mind', i.e. equating it with brain activity, then actually understanding how the mind functions will also embrace, also extends into, language, society and history. This means we can only understand thought (what we use the word mind to mean) by extending this beyond subjectivity, and into the web of social life with which the self interacts and finds definition. So, just as Saussure claimed about language, that the units (words) which comprise it are not understandable in isolation; in fact, lack any meaningful content outside of their relation to other words, so the units of society (people; minds) are also not understandable in isolation. The symbols we use to designate a person (i.e. their name) do not refer beyond themselves to any entity whether spiritual or physical, neither to immaterial souls nor to biophysical bodies and processes. A person is a prolonged social event which only has meaning in terms of its interactions with the rest of the world: we are defined by our social role and by our activity. We are happenings, not objects.

And this is why I say that in fact we are now witnessing the rebirth of metaphysics - for this extended concept of selfhood is nothing if not metaphysical. It involves a reassessment of the previous 'spiritual' or supernatural implications of the word, but I have a strong feeling that those associations were always misinterpretations of these complex concepts anyway. It is easy to mistake subtly shaded meanings for bluntly literal ontological ones.


I worry sometimes that there's too much truth in the notion that one cannot separate the philosophy from the philosopher.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

God and Existence

The problem with discussing religion (or God) as something which is true or not, is that this places it within a universal context of truth. In fact, for many (especially the more mystically inclined), God (or their religion) is the universal context within which factual truth is one subject. The debate on the existence of God attempts to make God not context but subject within the context Truth (or Fact). Such is to vastly misinterpret not only the role and nature of religion, but also the nature of human epistemology.

Because we have the words 'God' and 'exist' which we use meaningfully everyday, we think we can combine them in a way which meaningfully maps onto reality and can be judged either true or false. But this forgets that all thought (and language as an expression of thought) comes from the context of an individual mind in which God either is or is not part of the context which defines the qualitative nature of all other, contingent, truth. Those attempting to prove God's existence regardless of individual consciousness seem to be on a false path from the start. They seem to pose a question such as "How does the world look when everyone is blind?" Those attempting to place a conditional on the context of God (i.e. agnostics) so they don't affirm the conclusion within their axioms are likewise doomed to failure. God is simply not an objective fact. It is intimately bound up with subjectivity itself - they are inseparable. One is condition of the other. For the religious (the monotheist) this should be clear: scripture never talks of God in separation from man. God and man exist solely in relation to each other, for each other.


Philosophers use words too much. This is why the field is so often devoid of any real insight.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Beyond Logic

Of course, what I have recently been primitively grasping at is the fundamental notion Wittgenstein was expressing the Tractatus: I have come to understand that the only truths that matter (and thus, the only accurate aim of philosophy) are the personal; the subjective. The truths of logic (which are what all external, or scientific, investigations lead to) are essentially meaningless: they every one reduce to tautology. Leibniz's A=A. Logic, science, mathematics...all are investigations of different ways of expressing this single principel which is their sole axiom. The arts (in the broadest sense) however, refuse any requirement of axiom. They begin from the individual, that is, life, with all the contradictions and irresolutions that implies.

This is why the philosophy that matters has to be carried out as an art. I want, I need, to say more than A=A.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The Religious in Life

Religion doesn't speak about the cosmos: the cosmos is irrelevant. What religion speaks of is the human soul. And this is not some 'thing' which exists in the cosmos, it is something which exists in human life. Thus, religion is not something which is believed: it is something which is done. To live religiously is to prioritise the human experience above the factual qualities of 'objective' cosmology - to say that what matters in life is the living, the peaks and troughs of lfie, and the forging of the 'soul' through our experience.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Popular Misconceptions of Descartes' Cogito

It seems that the true meaning and intention of Descartes' famous principle has been somewhat misunderstood. Some have understood it but I think its true intent has often been obfuscated. I want to examine this.

Cogito Ergo Sum is usually translated as I think therefore I am. This in itself may be misleading. We can see this if we deconstruct it:

(i) think... therefore ...(i) am

translates as

"i" possess the quality/activity "thoughts"... therefore ..."i" am a stateable bearer of properties

It should be obvious that if we accept the condition "'i' think" then the conclusion "'i' am" follows; no further logic is necessary to extract this from the conditional. If it is true that 'i think' then we know immediately that 'i am'. The second half is in fact the hidden axiom upon which the conditional first half is based. In order to 'think', I must 'be'. If it is true that 'i think' then clearly (without any more logical steps), i must be. I cannot think if I am not.

Of course, one needs to understand: if there are thoughts (which we know there are) then the existence of thoughts is apparent. If Descartes is wholly identifying 'i' and 'thoughts' then his logic is secure. Could it be that all he intended to say in the first step was that, these thoughts, these phenomena which are all that I am, exist. Existence is apparent and this I can give the handy label 'i'.

In Descartes' reply to Mersenne, he establishes that existence is not found from thought by any logical proces or manipulation: existence is already present within the axiom of "i think". 'i think' being a self-evident assertion (notwithstanding the separation of 'i' and 'think' into separate ontologies via grammatical obfuscation), 'i' (that is, existence) is already apparent - it has already been stated and does not need to be deduced.

Thus, the cogito ergo sum (much clearer in Latin) is merely an articulation of identity, of A=A.

Thus, I believe that Descartes is not setting out to prove the existence of a mental, cohesive, self...but to establish a criterion of truth. Cogito ergo sum makes it clear that there is, despite scepticism, ascertainable, definite, knowable and self-evident truth. That this truth is contentless is not the issue. The fact is, that truth can be established where there is no room for doubt. This is Descartes' gift: the grounding of solidity and the establishment of a basic epistemological principle. "is". There are thoughts. If there are thoughts, and those thoughts are me, then i am.¹ A=A is not effaceable. If "there are thoughts", then "there is a definite criterion of truth". The conditional statement at the beginning of the formula, "if 'i think'..." leads immediately, without application of logic or any other data, to "then there is such a thing as existence, for existence need not be any (cannot be any) more established than the fact we already know "i think". Perhaps a better translation would be:

thoughts? -> existence

¹Although the cogito can in this way be expressed as a syllogism, we must still understand that its conclusion is not really an extrapolation: it is already present in the first condition.

Post-Script. Since first posting this it has been brought to my attention that Descartes originally formulated the cogito in French, and it does in fact contain the personal pronoun. Perhaps then I am confounding my own intention with Descartes. My point in general however, still stands.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Submission: 2 of 2

"Absolute submission is a form of freedom"

What is meant by this? I will take it to the most metaphysical degree: The Enlightenment mind seeks knowledge, to conceive and understand all truth, and the rules by which reality operates. As such it is seeking a kind of apotheosis: it wants to become, or replace, God. It sees this absolute understanding of concrete reality as reachable, and the attainment as its duty and prerogative. By attempting to acheive objective knowledge of reality, the subject strives to transcend subjectivity. It attempts to place itself, its own understanding, its apprehension, 'outside' of the ontological structure of reality so that it has an absolute perspective which is no longer relative or conditional.

Yet, God is no more free than the human. In fact, less so. God cannot act. Bound by the lower truth of the organisms which make 'Him' up (as the human is bound by the lower truths of society, biology, physics which constitute an individual). In attempting to escape from particularity (the relative truths we as subjects inhabit) we approach the Absolute, which is not only non-material, but entirely determined by the particular. Thus, the 'ruler', the master, is more trammelled than the slave. Although the slave is materially in chains, his actions determined at every point, it is precisely this freedom from action which allows the internal evolution and self-realisation. Humans attempt to escape themselves and by doing this, escape selfhood. The quest for absolute truth is the walking into an inescapable trap, our minds ossified by truths so concrete we can no longer bend within them.

One may then call this a kind of sublimation. Freedom from choice allows that energy to be put into another use. Absolute freedom, by contrast, seems to negate itself the closer it is approached. A kind of purity, a liberation, can be found within the strictures of obedience, and even a new kind of integrity, within absolute acquiescence.

Submission: 1 of 2

I think there's something very healthy for man's spirit in obedience: in submission to a higher will or code. We can often lose ourselves in the struggle for autonomy. At the very least, accepting some kind of yoke on the conscious mind frees our perceptions to concentrate on other things; to take some elements of the world and behaviour on trust - to hand them over to another, preeminent, jurisdiction...this is not slavery. It is a mature admission of our individual imperfection. An acknowledging that we don't have all the answers and that some of our drives, impulses and preferences may be flawed. To accept a code of conduct and adhere to it is not immaturity: it is a setting of context for our own decisions.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Philosophy as an Art

I'm coming to think that philosophy is not so much a science as an art form. The most affecting and effective lessons are learnt not through the precise instruments of logic, but through the sublime expressions of the soul.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Sticks for Beating Philosophers With

Philosophy is a dead end. No single good thing has come from thought abstracted from everyday life. Those who really do good are those that live almost without thought, those who strive to help others with every action. Intellect helps no one. Intellect, even when true and pure in inspiration and just in its orientation, leads to political calamity, slaughter, abuse and a misguided literalism which destroys every good thing in the initial impulse.

But. The major problem really, is not the intellectual. This is the mistake that the Maoist revolution in China made. The intellectual is needed (desperately needed, if someone is to provide viable solutions to the dilemmas that now face humankind, and assist in constructing a world-view that will lead us into the future), but must be goaded into the service of just morality. It is moral considerations which must always come first, which must be the base for all further thought and action.

The major problem in fact, is when the intellectual is misunderstood. Those who do not share the sublimity of thought, then experience the power of thought in their (the intellectual's; the philosopher's) words, divorced from the extended world view which the philosopher inhabits. This is how atrocity happens.

So, what I should say is this: Philosophy is useless because so many are too stupid to understand it.

Monday, 9 June 2008

The Essence of the Matter

Essences. Tricky one. In a way this is related to universals, in another way to perspective. Think of a person. Some say the 'essence' of that person is information. That is, they can be wholly described as a pattern of information; and theoretically, be reinstantiated from that information. That information is usually a neurological one (but it could include much more) - a physicist may say that everything (or any particular thing) is wholly described by physics. That is, it can be reduced entirely to a description based on forces, particles, motion etc - it can be described by the categories, terms and concepts of physics.

But there is something wrong here. While we may concede that a planetary system, or a boat race, or an apple, can be described in solely physical terms, we find that this description is only satisfactory from a physics point of view: if one takes a sociological point of view, for example, no matter how much spatial and temporal detail we add into the description, we do not satisfy the criterion or the categories of the sociologist. Some physicists may argue that physics is "all-inclusive" and in fact the sociological factors are just an apparition generated from the physical mechanisms. However, this is to miss the point: the simple fact that physics does not have categories such as value, meaning, fun, nice, makes it unsuitable for certain modes of description. Ergo, it does not contain the whole picture: it is an interpretation. All the other modes of interpretation (eg religion; biology; art; medicine; psychology; choose any field you want) will suit certain situations and give answers which are valid in some specific way. If we begin with physics, pretty soon we must enter the field of biology and psychology if we are wanting to discuss social meaning; and then we will probably need sociology and religion to add the other dimensions to the picture, to make it fully rounded. A mental experience may appear reducible to atoms and forces, but this is only to look at it one way. The atoms are not its essence - they are just one valid description.

The problem is that physics descriptions always stay at the level of physics: but there is so much more to life than this. A human life is not reducible to particles, and not reducible to information. It calls on all those fields, all those levels of understanding. The essence of any "thing" is not in the thing, but dependent on the system we are viewing it from within (yet, it will never be sufficiently described from within any single system; or, any finite combination of systems). Because, as soon as we are abstracting and losing apparently 'extraneous' information, which in fact is only extraneous frmo the point of view we are looking at it.

More importantly, human experience, life from the inside, does not consist of atoms: experience happens at the meta-level, based on macroscopic objects and social processes. These are the constituents of life.

The Death of Philosophy

It seems that most of what pass for philosophers within academia, eek out an existence carving symbols on the walls in the dankest, darkest corners of the human mind.

Is this a noble profession? Can we argue that it is in fact, like pure math, an investigation of the most crystalline strata of human consciousness, that which is pure in its transcendence of the physical, its absolute dependence on the cogwheels of human thought to generate it?


Intelligence doesn't necessarily lead toward truth. It is merely a talent at manipulating conceptual thought. If intelligence begins to miss the point, it leads on very elaborate false paths. In order to find truth (to the extent to which this is possible) one must work to find a valid direction and orientation before applying intelligent thought to the issue.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Make Music Not Missiles?

So I keep seeing people wearing these T Shirts around Lancaster, and every time it makes me want to slap 'em. "Make Music Not Missiles"? It wouldn't insense me so much if I thought the wearers actually believed the slogan rather than just using it as a fashion statement.
Where did this T Shirt come from? From a sweatshop in Taiwan? What is it made from? Inorganically grown cotton, farmed by children in Uzbekistan where the people are conned into growing crops for us to wear instead of feeding themselves? The kind of economic exploitation which leads to massive resentment against the culture making the most of such situations for its own shallow 'benefit' Do you know why missiles are made? Because of inequalities around the world leading to the kind of anger which can be manipulated by extremists into terrorism and outright war.

But the extremists - and the arseholes sanctioning environmental and human rights abuses in the name of capital - can only win if the people allow them, by not playing the game and thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions and purchases.

T shirt is from Top Man. I don't have any personal problem with Philip Green, owner and 7th richest man in the UK. I can't find any direct links between him and investment in arms companies (it would have been the perfect irony to end this blog with) - although that doesn't mean his money isn't being used to finance militarisation, either with or without his explicit approval. The passage of finance these days is so complex that it would be hard for there to be zero involvement. Probably, Green is a better bet than most multinational corporations. But this isn't a call to boycott one business and switch to another (which inevitably is what happens). It's a call to consider the implications of consumerism period.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

There is no mind-body problem

The problem is an illusion created once we start dividing the world up into concept words, and then keep trying to refine our conceptual boxes without realising that the words are abstractions, not indicative of essences. There is no mind-body, there is no i-you, there is only the world and I am the whole of my world; no more, no less.

So, when John Searle poses the question "How can subjectivity be a real part of the world?", the answer is that it is not: The world and subjectivity are the same thing.

It may appear a trivial point, but it makes no alteration to an object whether we measure it in Metres or Feet. This is why disagreeing over what we define as 'self', 'mind', or 'belief' is completely irrelevant. It has no bearing on anything, it is like arguing over which ruler we should use. We can refine the word 'self' so that it equates to the neurological brain structure, or so that it is a type of behaviour...but all this does is gives us a definition of the word. It does not mean that 'I' will continue to exist if I am simulated in a computer. Because, there is no 'self'...this is just a word we use to artificially glue together the sensations, thoughts, behaviours, attitudes, relationships, memories and physical body that seem to fit together under one umbrella.

In this way, we can see the crucial logic-gap in Richard Gregory's reply to Searles. In arguing for Artificial Intelligence, he claims that we should allow enough flexibility in the word 'belief' such that we are not automatically disallowing a mechanical structure, a thermostat, from having such things. It's a fair point. We can broaden the word belief so that it includes thermostat states (eg it being 'too cold in here'). But that does not magically make the thermostat state the same thing as a human belief (or vice versa). It merely means we've stretched the word beyond what we normally mean by it. The same problem is apparent in Norbert Wiener's cybernetic theory: We can reach a level of abstraction where machines and humans are functionally equivalent, and thus analogous. But, there is an obvious level of specificity where they are quite fundamentally different. The mere fact that we can find one way of describing two things so that they are the same, does not mean they are the same in every way. But many, especially in the field of artifical intelligence, seem to miss this.

But I digress. If we accept the postmodern line of thought, promulgated by various thinkers from many different fields, that there is no essential 'object', no separable objectivities correlating to our words which hold their determined natures 'out there' (this thought has been called many different things...the best of which I think is social constructionism). If we accept this, then the way we measure and define is of the utmost importance. For in this way, it is the kind of ruler we use which creates the properties we perceive. Thus, the language we use determines our world. This is not to say that it affects or alters objectivity, for 'the world', my world, is a synonym for subjectivity. The world we live in is formed via language, for it is our is through our language that we measure the world and thereby determine it to be constituted of feet or metres.

For this reason we should be supremely careful about the language we use.

One of the major problems comes when we begin to define self apart from life. For those who identify self with mental processes, they remove the self from the world and place it solely within the brain. No longer is the self constituted by the life it lives - that is, by living, and by making itself in the world - it is now a byproduct. And (in this view) the world exists without selfhood, this is the problem: we have separated self from world by using these definitions.

And, I think, it is language that has done this. By creating the illusion of a shared, non-subjective reality, we slowly have come to think that it is more important than the subjective. Perhaps we could never have done what we do as a species without this subjugation of the inner, of the personal worlds. Civilisation depends on language, and language's imputation of objectivity. Interestingly, it was precisely language that so mystified Plato (and Socrates): it created the illusion that there were abstract, ineffable forms behind the word-concepts we use. Language abstracts from reality, and then we attempt to argue that language defines a 'higher' reality than the material one we experience.

Further, the question of whether the mind is physical or non-physical is demonstrably false: there is no such tidy entity as 'the mind': it is just a category we use (and so, for clarity, are 'mental events', 'thoughts', 'qualia' etc). Like 'love'. The category is useful and it works, but we do not seek either a physical or non-physical entity called 'love'. We recognise it is just a useful word and everyone knows what we mean when we use it. The same with the word 'mind'...but we are tempted, led astray, into thinking that the individual world, subjectivity, equals the mind, in distinction from the body which houses the brain. Nonsense! Utter nonsense. There is just the world. No physical. No mind. Just world, just life.

Monday, 31 March 2008

On the Self

It is what happens around and to my body that creates the sense of there being an inner self. We would be wrong to claim there is such a thing, and definitely in no way does an 'inner' or 'core' self (aka a soul) precede embodiment and real world interacation. The inner self is made what it is from the outer.

In this way it is true, consciousness must always be consciousness of something: it is not a static but a process. Identity is not a static but is based on meaning, consistency and presence. We learn about and create our own natures by our responses to the situations we find ourselves in. It is not an independent nature which finds expression through the body and its situations, but is a nature brought into being by those situations.


it seems wrong in some way to say "I have a body". I would prefer to say "I have a mind". 'I' seems to be a much larger concept than the mind, which is the mere tip of the iceberg (although it claims rulership for itself). The mind, the self-conscious ego, is merely the most focussed part of the web of interactions, process and environmental interchange that makes up 'me'.

I think Wittgenstein said it better than most have understood: I am my world. I am not present 'in' the world any more than the eye is in the visual field. How sublime is this statement, how awe-inspiring the intellect that could produce it?

Sunday, 30 March 2008

A moot point

Sometimes, I lie awake at night wondering exactly what 'ineffable' means.

Friday, 28 March 2008

A vs B theism

Both the atheist and the theist are correct. The theist is correct metaphorically, the atheist is correct once they change their focus from what they are denying to what they are affirming.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Free Will Thought Experiment

Imagine awaking to find yourself in your body a year, two years, or five years in your past. Only your awareness is there, an observer to your actions - you have no control over your body or the choices you had then made - these are already set and determined. Although terrifying, this experience would at first also be fascinating - with the element of choice removed, you would be a static bystander, fulfilling absolutely the role of observer. After some time, your consciousness would drift, but unable to remove itself from the physical sensations aroused by the body's motion would soon fall into a state of identification with the experience, accepting the moment as its own.

The sense of boundary between the mind which experiences and the body which acts would blur. Subdued by its impotence, the mind would assure itself that the sense of control was unimportant - simply the experiences generated by the predetermined actions were the whole of its reality. As the moment of removal, the time when the consciousness was taken back into the past, approached and passed, the mind would feel no difference, still actions happened and the mind experiences. Its understanding of 'choice' has atrophied to nothing. Is there any difference at all? How can one tell?

If one analyses the psychological events surrounding an action outside of temporal awareness, they seem to ripple in both direction: prior, the coalescing of desire from nothing into the moment of electrical impulse, from brain to muscle. After, the fading of the memory from the moment of the experience to nothing - perhaps a trace remains, still gradually fading, etiolated and remoulded by contemplation.

The experience of motive and initiation is not necessarily any more important than the experience of memory. It need exercise no more definition than the memory over the actuality of the event. Physical laws retain their integrity when the direction of time is hypothetically reversed - could the same not be true of psychological laws?


I found this entry in my journal from 2002. It's an interesting thought experiment and demonstrates how the mind can assume the freedom of will. Many modern psychologists and neuroscientists argue that much of conscious thought happens after the decisions are made: that is, we create our motives after watching ourselves act. We delude ourselves that we are in control, while the subconscious and biological processes determine our response to our environments.

As Wittgenstein made clear, the self is not an epistemologically isolated entity, revealed through deliberate (consciously enacted) action. Consciousness comes to a belief/formulation of the self through watching one's own actions just as much as other people do. And, just as we perceive others and understand/postulate a 'self' encompassing these actions, as we know there is amind involved there that we can interact with, so we come to a belief about ourselves through perception of our own actions. We postulate agency, and a coherent single 'self' or 'nature' on our own behalf just as we do to others. But there is no single 'self'. There is no single 'me'. We are all a vague collection of actions, impulses and thoughts bagged together in the illusion of an identity. 'Self' is just a linguistic game. We should not be fooled by the pragmatic tools of our language into thinking there is some essential nature or object that they represent.

Monday, 21 January 2008

In Honour of Claude McKay

For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth, a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man's menace, out of time.

Outcast, by Claude McKay

I picked up second hand a copy of Fox&Kloppenberg's Companion to American Thought. The first entry I opened to was Claude McKay, a poet and novellist I had never heard of before. I found his story particularly fascinating. The following is edited from that entry.

McKay, Claude (b. Clarendon, Jamaica, 1890; d. Chicago 1948). McKay was born to a farm family and educated primarily by his brother, a free thinking school teacher. McKay served as part of the Kingston constabulary, however he found life there oppressive and felt himself increasingly alienated by this location between the urban elite and the great mass of the urban poor. He emigrated to the USA in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute but he soon moved to Kansas State University, shocked by the shocked by the intense racism he encountered in Charleston, South Carolina, where many public facilities were segregated. He also cited the "semi-military, machinelike existence there" as motive for leaving. Most of his poetry was written after this, while he was working menial positions in Harlem.

The political and racial sensibilities of McKay's writing quickly gained him a reputation as a protest poet. However, this focus has often served to obscure his identity as a poet of exile.The sense of rupture between the poem's narrator and an organic community is at the root of the speaker's anger. This opposition is also posed structurally with the black intellectual-artist-speaker anxiously mediating between the representation of the black subject and the received poetic forms of the metropole.

McKay joined the staff of Slyvia Pankhurt's Workers Dreadnought in 1919 upon his move to London. His engagement with the communist movement can be seen as an attempt to mediate the identity crisis of the black intellectual which McKay perceived acutely: that of alienation from the black community. McKay saw an alternative way of life in in the communists, who promoted a vision of a world in which distinctions of nation, class and race would become less important as markers of power and in which black intellectuals would have an organic relationship to society. McKay's address to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1992 prompted the Congress to declare African Americans to be "in the vanguard of the African struggle against oppression". McKay therefore had a hand in moving the struggles of African Americans from a relatively peripheral issue for the Communist Party of the USA to becoming the party's preeminent concern by the early 1930s. McKay however became disenchanted with the CPUSA for what he saw as it frustration of initiatives that arose from within the black community itself, such as cooperative movements and demands for jobs for African Americans in white-owned Harlem businesses.

His novels question notions of race and class within a world divided up by European and American capitalism. Home to Harlem explores the polarity of the implicitly effeminate black intellectual Ray, agonised by his alientation from black community and absorption in European "high" culture, and the virilely masculine Jake who is spontaneous and direct, acting without reflection or self-doubt. The books thus posits a new type of intellectual, not unlike Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual". This intellectual would be produced by and remain a part of the black masses rather than attempting either rise above or lead them from above.


McKay made one of the earliest attempts to articulate the problems of race and class in a global society. His struggle with his own identity and his sense of alienation from the very people he was trying to help speaks some tragically ineffable truth about modern life and the difficulty anyone attempting an intellectual challenge to the problems of the world faces.

Claude McKay's poems

More info on McKay

Thursday, 3 January 2008


I wonder if, as science explains more and more of physical reality and reduces it into unambiguity, we will reach a point where the entire course of history will be explained as a single line - and thereby the "now" of subjectivity which has been gradually shrinking, withering as humanity objectified life, would disappear - the fluid, "now" world of pre-rational thinking would be set in stone, dead, given a solid concrete narrative, perceived by the intellect and therefore made real; annihilated. The universe, no more based around consciousness, would abort itself, its lifeforce having committed suicide by self-autopsy.

Let's hope not, eh?