Thursday, October 11, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, October 11

Thought for the Evening: Saturated Phenomena

Kant makes a distinction between intuition and concepts; both are thoughts present to the mind, but intuitions are singular, referring to objects as such, while concepts refer to objects indirectly by way of characteristics that they have in common. The intuition gives the object, and the concept thinks it. Thus the object cannot be linked to a concept except by intuition (which Kant associates with the senses and the imagination), but at the same time, we could not think about objects without concepts. In Kant's famous saying, "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." Kant also recognizes, however, that our concepts in some sense can be said to exceed our intuitions; we have concepts for which we have no intuitions, indeed, cannot possibly have intuitions. This raises the question: Is there some sense in which intuitions can be said to exceed concepts? And Kant gives some reason to think that this is so, as well: the aesthetic idea is one in which we have an imaginative intuition that cannot receive an adequate concept.

This serves as part of the background of Jean-Luc Marion's exploration of the saturated phenomenon, that which is experienced as being in a sort of excess of our ability to conceive it. Using Kant's categories, Marion gives an account of the saturated phenomenon as having four aspects:

(1) Quantity: It is invisable, beyond what can be pre-determined so as to be aimed at. You can reduce it to pre-established parts; there is always more to it. He gives the example of cubist painting, in which the painter tries to show you all at once all the sides of a thing, and thereby shows you that there is more to the thing than you would expect, and also that the sides proliferate perhaps uncontrollably when we try to capture a single thing from all points of view at once.

(2) Quality: It is unbearable. It is blinding or bedazzling; trying to capture it is overwhelming in some way. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the person who stands up and turns from the shadows to the light is dazzled, confused and blinded, until he gets used to it.

(3) Relation: It is absolute, which means here that it goes beyond what can be captured by analogy to other experiences. It stands out with a sort of uniqueness, so that if we try to capture it by comparison with other experiences, we end up with an 'infinite hermeneutic' -- to capture it by its relation to other things, we in a sense have to make our comparisons in a never-ending variety of ways.

(4) Modality: It is irregardable: while we can experience it, we can't hold the experience. We can glance but not stare, so to speak.

It is important to grasp, and is often missed by Marion's critics, that Marion is not describing a kind of rare and special experience; his whole argument is that saturated phenomena are quite common. It is unsaturated phenomena that are rare, because most of them are artificial. When do our concepts completely capture the experience they cover, giving it in its parts and in such a way that it can be clearly recognized and exactly compared with other things, so that it can be carefully and thoroughly examined? Usually only in cases like mathematics, or rigorous scientific experiment, or precise taxonomic classification, where we have carefully restricted -- impoverished -- the experience so that it fits the concept exactly. Mathematics is indeed the preeminent case, in which we have attenuated experience so much that we can clearly and exactly capture it.

Saturated phenomena, on the other hand, are found throughout common experience and show up regularly in philosophy. We can touch but not comprehend the infinite, says Descartes; Kant discusses the experience of the sublime; Husserl looks at our internal consciousness of temporal flux as something eluding precise conceptualizing. Historical events, and in literature fictional events, are experienced as saturated phenomena; so are paintings and sculptures. We often experience faces this way. So too, our bodies are experienced in this way in many of our experiences, and likewise in erotic encounters the body of the other. The uncanny, the horrific, the numinous, the suspenseful, are all saturated, and so also are objects of religious experience. A common feature of all of these is that they are cases where it's not so much our acting so as to perceive things, but our being acted upon so as to be made witness to something. It is not so much that we grasp them as that we are in the grip of them, in one way or another. (Obviously, it is not all in the same way because they each exceed relation.)

Thus human thought has a sort of double superabundance: concepts going beyond intuitions and intuitions going beyond concepts. But the Kantian dictum which I noted at the start is perhaps overly simplistic. Concepts ranging beyond intuitions are perhaps not wholly empty (e.g., flickering intuitions or connections to intuitions that, while very attenuated, are nonetheless real), and intuitions exceeding concepts are perhaps not wholly blind (e.g., if they have many concepts, or if there are intuitions that we can only sometimes and briefly grasp conceptually at the utmost wavering edge of our ability to conceive).

[Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, Kosky, tr., Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA: 2002).]

Various Links of Interest

* Dean McCartney, The Problem with Reinforced Concrete

* A letter by Galileo was recently discovered, but Thony Christie notes that it probably doesn't really affect much in our interpretation of events.

* Devon Zuegel, North American vs Japanese Zoning

* A fascinating summary of the problems local campaigns in the U.S. have to face (from a Democratic perspective).

* China is having problems with young Communists. They didn't learn that they were supposed to treat it as a symbolic way of saying, "Leave things to the state."

* Laura Booth interviews Donna Strickland, who recently won a Nobel Prize in Physics for her experimental work:

There's been a lot of attention on your position as an associate professor and not a full professor. What has been your response to that.

That I'm very sorry for the university because it's not their fault.

This is what people I don't think get, a full professor although it's a different name it doesn't carry necessarily a pay raise and I don't lose my job (if I don't apply to be a full professor). So I never filled out the paper work.

* Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Case Against Pope Francis. Dougherty is a bit harsh, but I think it is true that, if reform is the standard of success (and it was the success most people have been taking him to be trying to reach), the pontificate of Pope Francis is already a failure; there were warning signs in the fact that the people he was clearly trusting in the reform were all under various levels of suspicion for wrongdoing, and it became clear during the fiasco in Chile, when Pope Francis, ignoring the highly visible protests of the laity, installed a bishop widely recognized to have covered up child abuse, then sharply scolded people for 'calumny' when they continued to protest, then was forced by events to reverse course and investigate, through which it was discovered that the laity's accusations and protests had been mild and restrained as responses to the actual corruptions in the Chilean hierarchy. The McCarrick episode has established that he learned not a single thing from Chile, and that neither he nor his advisers really listen even now, so there does not seem to be a shift of policy in the foreseeable future. It looks very much like his tenure will turn out to be an endless series of squandered opportunities. So it goes; it's far from being an unprecedented thing in the history of the papacy.

* Ed Peters, The cerberus of clerical sexual misconduct: a canonical overview

* Michael Pakaluk, On Needing God -- and the Teaching on Hell

Currently Reading

Jules Verne, Family Without a Name
John W. O'Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council
G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention
Jules Verne, The Fur Country

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