Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire
6 Feb. 95
Thought I’d better send you an updated version of my Introduction even though it may be later modified if Cora Diamond comes up with some points I think need dealing with. For one thing some things in my last letter may not make much sense without it to refer to. The note about Newton and Euclid’s definition of straight line has been a small bit expanded, though the implications of Newton’s putting mechanical practice at the foundation of geometry are not at all brought out. There is much to be done there.
At the moment I am working on the sources and implications of the 17C individualistic, atomistic picture of humanity and the reasons for the dominance of the Contract theories of society, of political obligation &c. There’s an example of nonsense - lying even in a question: the origins of society is a nonsense notion (and I would say the same for the origins of language). Contract Theories, or any others that may be proposed as an answer to the would-be question, turn out to be riddled with contradictions and incoherences and to make no sense at all if taken seriously. Those ‘theories’ turn out to be myths only and I aim to explore and try to bring out just what is their actual function as myths. Incidentally, I do regard the question of the origin of society as one that is incoherent and nonsensical without limit of time.
You may still find much to criticise in my treatment of Newton, but I hope you see it as moving in the right direction in trying to emphasise the need for a concept of absolute motion in order to maintain the Coperincan view and make the heavens available for the study of frictionless motion.
But in the end I want to insist on the deep importance of Poincaré’s analysis of the Second Law and what it shows us about them all and about the whole Newtonian system at whose base they lie. But I don’t think Poincaré’s description of them as ‘definitions’ is right. ‘Ways of looking’ and ‘methods of analysis’ I think capture their role and function much better. What the two descriptions have in common is withdrawing the ‘Laws’ and the whole system from competition in the ‘truth stakes’. If we enter them into the truth stakes we get claims for them as ‘cosmic laws’ and suchlike, and God starts getting pulled into the picture, and all that sort of thing that signals the higher nonsense - i.e. metaphysics (as secular theology, that is - not metaphysics as practised by Aristotle.) With truth goes reality as the dummy correlate required by it, and we can leave that pair for particular propositions and turn to a whole range of assessments for universal and timeless propositions - sense/nonsense, coherent/incoherent, applicable/inapplicable, illuminating/unilluminating, and so on. Of course the propositions have to get past the first two assessments before they get to be assessed in the other ways. (That is, I don’t think we have a place for the notion of illuminating nonsense but I wouldn’t want to go to the wall on that one.) I would certainly be prepared to call Lewis Carroll’s nonsense ‘illuminating’. But what it illuminates is the borders of sense - by deliberately and obviously going over them. Even unconscious nonsense can do that, though not for its proposer.
I’ll quit there since this was only meant to be an accompanying note.