Language and Lies
. . . a people who love drink and honor lack of clarity as a virtue, for it has the double quality of a narcotic that both intoxicates and befogs.
Nietzsche - 'An Attempt at Self Criticism'
We can learn a lot from looking carefully and with as much clarity as we can muster at the view of science and of human knowledge, language and concepts that pictures them as in themselves, and necessarily, coercive and restrictive, as interposing between ourselves and some external reality, a grid or web of ideas which, as human artifacts, necessarily misrepresent that reality. This view has been expressed in different ways by many of the contemporary French philosophers ranged under the 'poststructuralist' label and has been taken up elsewhere. It comes originally from Nietzsche, where the most concentrated source is a short piece called 'Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense'.
There are two quite different aspects to this picture that take very different types of analysis. One is social and involves trying to look at the place and suitability of the notion of coercion in talking about language and concepts; the other is metaphysical and concerns the sense that can be given to the phrase 'external reality'. That phrase has too long been used as though it were unproblematic.
The social dimension of the picture and the questions it raises is a result of the fact that if we are to take the notion of coercion at all seriously and not as an overheated poetical flourish, we have to recognize a personal or social agency behind it. That agency has to be agency in the strict sense involving intentionality and purpose. Except jokingly, I do not say that I was 'coerced' into stopping my car by the fallen tree.
Naturally, if we are pressed to designate an agency of that kind in order to justify the use of the words 'coercive' and 'oppressive', an obvious candidate, pretty well the only candidate, is going to be a culture or a society. Individuals, whether individual teachers, parents, peers or siblings, might be seen as the instruments of that cultural coercion, but they should not be seen as acting on their own behalf or according to their own lights in inducting the child into the practices and the language of a culture. That independent acting would not provide the uniformities of concept and understanding that could issue in a common language and common way of life.
Of course, those individual teachers, peers and parents may impose their own agenda on top of that process of primary socialization and coerce the child in other ways that might be either corrupting and damaging, or else might benefit the child, enhancing later life with skills, sensitivities and enjoyments the child might not have had if it had not been pushed unwilling to school or dragged in from play for piano lessons.
However we are here only concerned with the coercion that is meant to attach to a particular set of concepts, a language, a world view and perhaps a way of life, so that our interest is only in the culture, and the individual concerns us only as agent or instrument of that culture in the process of that socialization which is here being seen as coercive and to result in the imposition of views and concepts that blind and narrow.
There are, of course, all too many examples of the cultural imposition of views and attitudes of just that damaging kind: the blind racism among the neo-nazis, the Aryan Brotherhood, or in some segments of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland; or the pitiful but necessary acceptance by women in certain cultures of the outrageous practice of female circumcision (an Egyptian woman once described it as 'tidying things up'!) - all would be good examples of such constricting and damaging cultural impositions.
It would also be fair to describe some of these views as having been coercively imposed. In prison in the US, for example, it is necessary to join one gang or another in order to survive, and the Aryan Brotherhood is generally the largest and most dominant. Joining them means accepting their racist beliefs and acting on them. What may feel uncomfortable at first is soon seems natural and unforced as the comfort and safety of belonging overwhelms initial reservations.
The question we have to address, however, is whether all cultures together with their concepts, systems of knowledge and practices, are coercive impositions on the individual, - whether they are that by their very nature, and without distinction. One thing we have to look at here is the role and appropriateness of the word 'coercion'.
Like the word 'violent', the word 'coercive' implies not only a disruptive agent but that there is a natural and unforced direction and development which is being deflected and distorted by something external. If we want then to describe humanity as a whole as being coerced in some way, we have to ask: 'By what external thing?' There are not many choices for answer. And we have also to ask serious questions about the implied existence of a 'natural' development of the individual human and the implied existence of undistorted apprehensions and perceptions by the imagined individual human who has not been shaped by socialization and acquiring the language of some particular society.
In effect we have to confront the question whether there is a universal and a historical human essence that is given with the biological makeup of the species (As has been assumed by so many philosophers and others. It appears in the Cartesian 'innate ideas', for example) - or whether humanity is precisely that species that has transcended the forces of natural selection and whose nature is determined, and its development driven, by social and historical forces.
From this latter point of view, the human essence is not seen as a 'natural' one but as a social and historical one. Any individual who is imagined as existing entirely outside and untouched by, those human social and historical forces would be a member of the biological species only and only potentially a human being in a full and proper sense. If Aristotle is right in describing humanity as zoon politikon, there is no humanity outside of society and history and the picture of language and culture being 'coercive' begins to evaporate. Language and culture become conditions of one's humanity and one's rationality itself and are not barriers to some abstract and 'universal' humanity set outside all society and culture. We will have to return to the myth of the feral individual implied in this latter picture.
But we need first to come down from that metaphysical pinnacle where the questions are abstract and ahistorical ones concerning the coercion of an ahistorical abstraction called 'humanity' by some other ahistorical abstraction called 'language' or 'culture' so that we end up talking about 'essences' and not about concrete things that may actually exist somewhere and at some time. When we have come back to earth where we can look at actual historical cultures and social forms together with their organizing myths and linguistic tropes we can analyse concretely the actual and genuine sources of coercion that have existed in almost every society and culture up to the present.
None is perhaps so deeply, and at the same time so invisibly coercive and oppressive as that social form that flew the Enlightenment flag of 'The Liberation of Humanity'. The sources of this oppression are nicely hidden behind the 'impersonal forces of the Market' which are presented to us as though they were laws of nature - not of physical nature, perhaps, but of the nature of humanity and of societies as such. Not only are the sources hidden, but the character of the oppression is hidden by dressing it up as the very opposite of an oppression - as an opportunity. That opportunity, which the Enlightenment proclaimed as a liberation, was the new 'opportunity' to sell to another one's ability to work, that is, to put one's human creative capacities underthe control of another, to alienate them in return for a wage that enables one to live. This act of alienating of one's human creative capacities is then presented as the natural condition and aspiration of humanity, so that someone who has not been able to sell their human creative capacity to another is regarded as failing in some way or as being simply misfortunate in being 'unemployed'.
That social form whose central organizing feature is the buying and selling of that human creative capacity and the accruing of its products to the purchaser, is now dominant in the world and shows itself able to overwhelm and obliterate all other social forms. It is perhaps the unconscious sense of the coerciveness of this particular concrete historical reality that may be showing itself in an abstracted form in many of the themes characteristic of poststructuralism. There is perhaps in those themes a recognition of the hidden coerciveness of this now dominant social form, a recognition that is distorted and displaced by being abstracted and attached not to this specific social form but to some 'essence' or essential nature of cultures or societies in themselves.
This abstract treatment not only turns our eyes away from the specific oppressions of this particular social form but gives us the message that there is no point in trying to struggle against those dehumanizing oppressions because any other social form will be as oppressive. (I am going to have to defend the use of the word 'dehumanizing' here - particularly since I have criticized the Nietzcchean/poststructuralist picture of the coerciveness of all cultures and languages in so far as it requires a conception of a 'natural' human development and apprehensions of the world that might lie outside of all culturation. That is for later.)
If we come down from that pinnacle of abstraction, we can point to and specify the oppressiveness of many particular social forms - the slavery of the ancient world, the antebellum South, Sudan and Arabia, the oppressions of feudal serfdom, or the outrageous oppression of women by the Taliban and to a lesser, though still unacceptable extent in many Muslim societies. And we must not forget the oppressiveness of that social form that requires people to alienate their human creative capacities, to put them in the hands of another in order to live
By looking at those specific societies we can uncover the mechanisms of coercion, mechanisms which are both physical and ideological. We can then look at systems of ideas whose function is to benefit one segment, - and not only to disadvantage another segment but to convince both the oppressed and the oppressors that the arrangement is just and natural.
But if we turn from these specific forms of coercion or oppression by specific forms of society back to the abstract thesis that every form of society or culture is oppressive in itself and by its nature, then we have a thesis which is dubious in so far as it has any content at all and is not simply gaseous. Also, one of the strange consequences of trying to attach coerciveness abstractly to cultures and societies as such is that, as we noted above, we get a theoretical hankering after that impossible creature of an earlier metaphysical imagination - the abstract, pre-social human individual who nevertheless is already kitted out with some kind of human nature and some kind of primitive, natural and asocial apprehension of the world.
If we are to talk about coercion and distortion, then we are committed to the existence of the possibility of a natural and undistorted life, a socially uncoerced apprehension and development. We seem to be back with the 'wolf-children' that so fascinated the Eighteenth Century. Neither Nietzsche nor any of the poststructuralist have given an adequate account of this unsocialized human creature of the imagination. Not surprisingly, - for they have not addressed themselves to the question of what the humanity of this creature would consist in.
Nietzsche tries with his idealisations of ancient Greek culture and his talk of the 'Apollonian' and the 'Dionysian' elements of it, to give us his conception of what a 'really human' life and spirit would be, but that is quite a different thing from defending the thesis that there could be some development that could be called 'human' outside of social and cultural contact with others, - and to specify what that development would be. Perhaps the most important thing about Nietzsche's attempt to define an ideal for humanity and in that way give a conception of what progress might be is that in forging it he looks within human history and human societies and not outside them. Those who want to picture all human cultures and their languages as coercive and distorting must, by contrast, look outside of history and historical societies for their conception of the undistorted life and undistorted apprehension. We have already raised the question whether the humanity of members of the genus homo is a biological given or is the product of their personal history and socialization. This question goes to the heart of the issue of the coherence of the picture we are considering and will have to be dealt with carefully.
The Enlightenment claims to be liberating all of humanity with the knowledge systems and the social systems that were then being forged have turned out to be manifestly false. In the face of this failure Nietzsche and the poststructuralist philosophers have wanted to turn the Enlightenment optimism on its head and to suggest that all cultures and conceptual systems are in and of themselves oppressive, and so we get the natural sciences, the centerpiece of Enlightenment 'liberation', described as 'Eurocentric' and as 'patriarchal' and even 'phallocentric' and so forth by poststructuralist philosophers
But those descriptions themselves create a certain tension because their tone of criticism and even condemnation seems to imply and require a standpoint outside of the cultures and knowledge systems being criticised, - a standpoint that is not subject to the same criticism as biassed and representing only an arbitrary point of view. We may doubt whether there room for such a standpoint within this picture. This tension itself also creates a hankering after the notion of an apprehension that is unmediated by culture, an 'original intuition' either belonging directly to the individual unspoilt by the socializing process, or else, - in the bizarre fantasy of Deluze and Guattari - an individual 'liberated' by schizophrenia from the oppressive overlay of civilization.
What is interesting and striking about this attempt to reach back behind what are regarded as the oppressive overlays of civilization, is that it seems, as we have said, to take us back to the Eighteenth Century hunt for the elusive 'wolf-children' and to the mythical 'pre-social individual' that was required by that equally mythical account of the 'origins of society', - the Social Contract Theory. Of course this feral individual of modern theory is not required to have the language and reason and calculation of advantage that was necessary to that wonderful earlier creature conjured up by the Social Contract Theory. Those earlier 'natural', pre-social individuals had laid on them the momentous task of conducting negotiations for the founding of society itself, creating the social out of a pre-social barbarism.
The only theoretical task laid on this later feral individual born out of post-Enlightenment disillusion is that of revealing to us the supposed falsehood and oppressiveness of all socially and linguistically mediated forms of apprehension - though that is a large enough task in itself. Those descriptions of language and culture as 'coercive' and 'oppressive' necessarily and in themselves can only be licensed by showing us that there is an alternative unmediated and uncoerced pre-cultural intuition that can be set along side of the oppressed one. Our latter-day feral individual is meant to do that for us.
One thing we would need to know in order to give substance to this picture, is whether the 'original and unmediated intuitions' of this imagined feral individual are claimed to be the same for every such imagined individual 'unoppressed' by culture and language or else 'freed by madness' from it.
Unfortunately for the project of making out such a claim, there is no way in which an identity or even similarity between those 'intuitions' of separate feral individuals could be discovered in the absence of a common language and way of life. There is even no sense that we could give to the notion of the 'original intuitions' of those individuals being the same or different, - nothing for that sameness or difference to consist in. The consequence of that is that we would then have no reason to regard them as 'intuitions' at all or as telling us anything about anything. It begins to look as if nothing can be found to correspond to that phrase 'the original unforced intuition' and this throws a doubt over the whole attempt to portray language and culture as in themselves coercive and oppressive. The coercive can only be contrasted with the natural and unforced. Where there is no place and no possibility of the latter, the former has no place either.
Taking another tack in the attempt to give us some sense of the ways in which our culture and even our physical being may limit and determine our conceptual and perceptual grasp - even if not oppressively - Nietzsche often suggests that we consider imaginatively the different perceptions of a bird or a bee, a fish or a plant, so that we can consider the radically different possibilities in perception - differences so radical that we might be justified in saying that the bee or the snail do not simply have a different perspective on our world, but inhabit radially different worlds.
But we must be careful here, because there are serious questions about the legitimacy of transferring wholesale the notion of 'inhabiting a world' from humans to other species. At a minimum, I think we need to insist that the legitimacy of that phrase would require it that the inhabitants of these 'different worlds' mark a distinction between themselves and the 'world' they are being said to inhabit. This rules out solipsists and probably our snail, as well as infants in their first weeks.
We may well be persuaded by our imaginative projections that the perceptions of a hawk, a hare or a hippopotamus are as different from one another as from human perceptions. Though we needn't reach for such exotic examples. Even among the human inhabitants of one city, the bond trader, the traffic cop, the homeless street person, the artist, the pickpocket, will all have very different perceptions when looking down the same street at the same time. The traffic cop will see the illegally parked cars or the driver jumping the lights; the bond trader may manage not to see the street person, while the pickpocket is sizing up the chances of bumping into the bond trader 'accidentally', and the artist is taken by the juxtaposition of the homeless street person in his cardboard, and the well-lit display of furniture and bedding in the adjacent shop window.
But we have to ask just what those differences of perception show us apart from the fact that what we see or hear, taste or smell is a matter of our interests, training and skills. Can those differences show us negatively that the differences of perception that reflect those differences of interest and training are evidence of a coercion and distortion by that training and culturation? Or do they not rather undermine that picture and that notion of coercion by suggesting that there is no one 'correct' and 'objective' view of things that has got distorted by the learning of language and the acquiring of skills and interests?
This question brings us face to face with the metaphysical aspect of our problem - the question whether we can give sense to the notion that there is some single 'external reality' and a single way of viewing it which is independent of and prior to all language, training, socialization and interests?
But before trying to tease out the metaphysical assumptions needed to give sense and substance to that picture, we need to look at an example of Nietzsche's that has been thought to support the picture of language and culture as coercive and oppressive, though that example could be taken to show the opposite, namely that there is no single objective view that we are being blinded to by being inducted into a particular culture and linguistic group.
In trying to combat the Platonic view encapsulated in the myth of the Forms and to show that language has a human origin and does not take its origin 'from the essence of things' Nietzsche takes the example of the formation of the idea of leaf, and through it tries to show the essential falsehood of any human language. He says:
Let us especially think about the formation of ideas. Every word becomes an idea when, rather than serving as a sort of reminder of that unique, entirely individualized first experience to which it owes its origin, it instead simultaneously must fit innumerable, more or less equal (which means never equal and therefore, altogether unequal) cases. Every idea originates through equating the unequal. As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea "leaf" has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences, through a forgetting of the differentiating qualities, and this idea now awakens the notion that in nature there is, besides the leaves, a something called the leaf, perhaps a primal form according to which all leaves were woven, drawn, accurately measured, colored, crinkled, painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy had turned out correct and trustworthy as a true copy of the primal form.
('On the Pathos of Truth' from Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books (1872)
This can stand to draw attention to the implausibilities that leap out at us as soon as we try to take Plato's demiurgos as anything but a mythical picture meant to put a comfortable order onto ordinary facts. However, I have myself italicized the word 'arbitrary' in the above passage in order to call attention to its failure as an inditement of language itself for perjury or a conviction of it for falsehood through 'equating the unequal'. There are two things to note here: One is that Nietzsche is misusing the notion of equality in describing the formation of an idea as requiring 'the equating of the unequal'.
Things are equal or unequal only under some aspect or in some category. Things may be equal or unequal in age, size weight, color, number, taste, or whatever, but there is no sense to their just plain 'being equal' or 'unequal'. The notion of 'absolute equality' is a non-starter because in its ideal completion there would no longer be two things to be set equal. And it makes no sense, and we are told nothing, if someone says that the thing is 'equal to itself'. [The notion of identity does not suffer that fate because we can identify something from one moment to another - so that latter notion therefore, by contrast, has an important use.]
If through our use of the word 'leaf' we set two things equal, that means they are being said to be equal as leaves and in no other way. We may go on to make further distinctions among leaves, describing them as 'palmate', 'pinnate', 'ovate', 'compound' and so forth, but they are all still leaves and from that point of view quite equal. There is no falsification in that equation, nor are the simplifications involved in the classification itself arbitrary ones as Nietzsche has suggested. The simplifications that any people makes in forging its language and system of identifications it develops, reflects its way of life and the interests and skills that have developed among that people. And as that life, those skills and those interests progress and change, so will the language.
It is by talking about some abstract essence called 'language' something separated from any particular people and its life, interests and skills, that we get into tangles, confusions and mystifications. When we return to earth we can see that the simplifications that go into their language and the identifications that any people makes are in no way arbitrary, as Nietzsche claims in the above quotation, but are reflections of their interests, their skills. their practices and their whole way of living in the world.
This is perhaps the moment to pass on to the general 'problem of reflection' because the accusations against language of coercion,distorting, and lying (even if this is as Nietzsche says lying in a 'non-moral sense' to which no blame attaches) all of them require a contrast between an accurate and a distorted reflection of something.
There are several difficulties with the metaphor of 'reflection' - particularly where the paradigm examples are the inanimate (mirrors) and the involuntary (reflexes). We will have to examine these difficulties with a view to moving back to the center of attention the human activity of reflecting on things in the sense of 'turning one's gaze on' and 'examining' and bringing out what is implicit. The injunction to 'reflect on your actions' or 'on your motives' is a call to look for and to bring out what is implicit in them. We can also reflect on practices to bring out and formulate the rule implicit in them. [We will have to deal another time with the question whether the practice is prior to the implicit rule or the rule prior and determinative of the practice - as is suggested by the once common phrase, 'rule-governed behavior'. We will need also to question the assumption that there must be a definite determinative priority in one direction or the other.]
It is perhaps itself a 'reflection of' the dominance of the 'mechanical world-view with its aim explaining all things mechanically, that the passive and involuntary 'reflection of' has provided the dominant sense for 'reflection', pushing to the margin ad obscuring the human activity of 'reflecting on' even where, paradoxically, it is human knowledge and understanding that is under examination and being reflected on. In the Nietzschean picture language is being seen as a mirror, but as a faulty and distorted one that reflects things badly.
The problem lies in seeing human language, and human knowledge in terms of that 'mirror' metaphor at all, with its implication that they stand in a passive relation to something (something which tends to get called 'the world' or 'external reality'.) In the above passage, Nietzsche implies that language ought to stand in a perfectly passive relation to 'the world' but that it fails to do so and is prevented by the intervention of the human activity of 'omission of differences' which he then wrongly describes as 'arbitrary' as a result of the picture he is working with. As we have pointed out above, there is no arbitrariness in the many different simplifications that go into the making of the great variety of human languages.
Those simplifications and those identifications will be different for different languages certainly, but that fact does not carry the implication that they are therefore arbitrary. On the contrary, it calls attention to the fact that languages are human artifacts which are shaped by their role in human life and that the differences between the different languages arise from the range of forms of human life in which they function. Those differences in the identifications made in different languages are not the products of some imperfect mechanical process. As artifacts, those identifications are the result of human activity, the shaping of a language to meet new needs, possibilities and aspirations - possibilities and needs that may have been generated in part by earlier developments and distinctions made and embodied in the language.
Despite his strictures on 'the shallow optimism of science', Nietzsche seems to have fallen under the spell of the scientistic world-view in his conception of an ideal and proper function of language as the mechanical and passive 'reflection' of some single 'external reality' confronting all of humanity indifferently - rather than seeing the great variety of human languages as the product of an active human engagement with the material world in which those humans carry on their greatly different forms of life.
We would expect great variety and great difficulties of inter translatability between the languages of the nomads of Mongolia or the Sahara, the Innuit in the Arctic wastes, the stone age tribals of New Guinea or the Amazon, the primitive agriculturalists of Africa, Asia and the New World, and that group of languages which Benjamin Lee Worf called 'standard average European'. And they don't disappoint us. We would be astounded if the language of any of those tribal peoples matched our own completely, word for word, distinction for distinction, and that astonishment is evidence that we don't seriously believe that all of humanity confronts a single 'external reality' which the languages of the world attempt to reflect. The fact that the picture is not seriously believed in makes it harder, not easier to combat.
Now we need to turn to another aspect of the 'mirror' metaphor and what it implicitly claims about the nature of the world that gets reflected.
The World as Material and the World as Form
Myths and fantasies involving mirrors and reflecting surfaces such as still water have from the myth of Narcissus onward involved seeing them either as windows onto, or gateways into separate worlds. Narcissus fatally takes his image in the pool to be his deceased twin sister and dies trying to join her. Alice enters a reversed world through the looking glass, a world in which the sentence comes before the trial and the White Queen remembers things that happen 'the week after next'. The protagonist in Cocteau's film Le Sang du PoEt begins his adventures by diving through the mirror and swimming into a surreal dream world, and in Borges' invented Chinese myth the mirror-creatures threaten to get out of hand and act independently, perhaps even conquering the reflected world.
All of these fantasies are fantasies precisely because they deliberately violate the fundamental fact about mirrors that mirrors reflect the visible form of the things placed in front of them without their matter. And this tells us something about the conception of the world that is implied in the use of the metaphor of reflection to characterize the concepts of knowledge and truth, and it raises some questions about the appropriateness of that metaphor and whether the metaphor is helpful or misleading in our attempts to understand and give a coherent account of human knowledge.
The first thing to notice about the mirror metaphor is that it represents human knowledge and understanding as passive and at best mechanical. In the end this picture is part of an attempt to carry forward that program of explanation that constitutes the 'mechanical world-view' a program and an ideal of explanation which, for important historical reasons came to dominate the intellectual scene in the seventeenth century. The mirror metaphor leaves nothing for the human side but the possibility of imperfection and distortion, a falling away from the true reflection of a mechanically perfect surface. In this conception, reflecting is not an activity and there is nothing for humans to do except perhaps to 'cast the beam' out of their eye. And even what that might consist of is made impossible to understand if one takes that metaphor seriously and follows out its logic.
This metaphor and conception of reflection also carry with them the implication that there is only one correct view and only one true language which captures correctly that which is there to be reflected. The sounds assigned to ideas and distinctions may differ, but in so far as they are advancing (where this gets the sense of 'advancing on the truth') all languages must converge. And, of course, convergence has been made the test if not the meaning of 'truth', by Peirce, for example.
Of course we do in fact find convergence in the development of the languages of the world. The French, for example, have found to their distaste an invasion of Americanisms which no laws and no minister of culture have been able to prevent. But this is hardly because the American language better reflects an abstract reality and truth. The understanding of that convergence is also not advanced by appealing to an abstract and transcendent 'truth' or 'reality' whose mode of action on human consciousness would be impenetrably mysterious and beyond unravelling.
On the other hand, that convergence can easily be understood concretely and historically. American dominance of film and TV production has, for example, led to the dissemination throughout the world of a set of values and aspirations associated with a seductive picture of life as it is purported to be lived in America. The desire to participate in that supposedly desirable life can manifest itself in minor imitations of dress and talk as well as in those values and aspirations.
One needs also to look at the enormous social changes that have been wrought throughout the Third World, for example, by the imposition of market relations on nomadic, peasant and tribal societies and the destruction of their subsistence economies and their absorption into the the global, commodity-producing, market-driven network organized and policed by the IMF and the World Bank. Those changes have inevitably brought with them linguistic changes that reflect, and are made necessary by the tremendous changes in the life and organization of those societies.
When we have at hand concrete historical explanations of convergence of that kind, of what use to us are explanations that appeal to abstractions such as 'truth', 'reality' and so forth?
That program and set of aspirations which has been called 'the mechanical world-view' has dominated the intellectual landscape of the modern era and largely set the agenda for philosophy and shaped the ruling conception of what is an adequate explanation. The acceptance of that program and that agenda insured that the mechanical interpretation of the metaphor of 'reflection' as a representation of human knowledge and understanding would displace the conception of reflection as turning one's gaze inward or onto the activity or the practice one was engaged in so as to improve it or advance it, to embrace or reject it.
The mirror as an image of human knowledge and its relation to its object becomes one of a mechanical process in which humans are passive receivers not active participants. The mechanistic agenda combines with the equally dominant individualist agenda in which the collective and the social is required to be seen as no more than an aggregate of individual motives and actions. The combination these agendas produces a false conclusion to the passivity of human collectivities and of humanity as such, from the passivity with which any individual human receives the accrued knowledge, language, skills, customs and practices of the surrounding culture. This false inference reinforces and is reinforced by, the passive/mechanical reading of the image and metaphor of the mirror.
One can't describe either the 'mechanical world-view' or the individualistic paradigm that have dominated the modern era as 'incoherent' because they are both of them better understood as offering us a set of aspirations, a program and a set of standards of what we are to count as an adequate explanation in their respective areas rather than being seen as an actual theory or account which could be true, false or incoherent. They are best described as unrealistic and unhelpful, as requiring us to take a narrow view that ignores or denies the existence of facts and phenomena that are obvious from other perspectives. The determinism about which generations of philosophers have pretended to worry while at the same time going about their lives without a thought of it, is simply the product of the unrealizable fantasy of carrying through to some imagined end, the mechanistic program of explaining everything in mechanical terms. But the strength of the commitment to the mechanical paradigm can be measured by the fact that determinism was thought to be a 'problem' and not simply evidence for the unrealizability of that program of universal explanation.
The main success of the project of explaining mechanically and causally everything including human knowledge, judgment and action has been in generating intractable pseudo-problems such as that of determinism. However, the historical motivations for adopting that project have long since disappeared. Originally, that motivation was the ideological one of breaking the hegemony of the feudal system by displacing the associated theological world-picture which had been articulated by the scholastic philosophers. The newly emerging scientific forms of understanding were co-opted and given the impossible task of giving a complete scientific account of the world that could stand against the theological and overthrow it.
This inappropriate and impossible task laid on the sciences and scientific forms of understanding has generated nothing but mischief, mystification, pseudo-problems and serious misunderstandings of the sciences themselves. Even now there are scientists and others who think that the problem of the 'origin of the Universe' is a mystery that can be laid to rest by the sciences. That they are wrong in this belief, any serious analysis of progress and development in the sciences would show them
If we put aside the project of explaining everything mechanically and causally and allow ourselves other forms of understanding, we can see the mischief caused by the mirror metaphor as a representation of human understanding as passive. We can then move back to the center of our thought the human activity of 'reflecting on', a move and change of perspective which transforms and dissolves many problems. The chief point is that if we are to understand human activity and the languages, institutions, sets of values, ways of life, and systems of knowledge which humans have created, we are going to have to see humans as active agents and not the passive transmitters and transformers of causal impulses coming from elsewhere.
The first and greatest problem that gets transformed by this move and change of perspective is the problem of progress and development, whether in the sphere of science and knowledge generally or in the area of the moral or social. It has seemed almost universally and not just to those laboring to fulfil the mechanistic dream that the ideas of progress and development in themselves require a standard, goal or limit that is external to the activity or endeavor such that it can act as a test or measure of it. It has seemed that examination, measurement, comparison and criticism are possible only from a standpoint which is not only independent of the activity, practices, system of values or institutions under inspection, but a standpoint which itself is based on a fully articulated set of values and is at the same time justified by principles that are external and independent with a force and appeal that is supposed to bear on every individual human from whatever culture and circumstance simply in virtue of their humanity and human rationality. Lying behind this view are all of Plato's arguments for the existence of the Forms, and lying in its path are all of his later arguments in the Parmenides to show that the Forms are fifth wheels that can have no place or function in human life or understanding - and therefore, one might add, no existence.
In any case this fine ideal has not surprisingly proved impossible to achieve in practice. This for the simple reason that it requires us to step entirely outside our human skins and look down god-like on ourselves, our beliefs and our fellow humans as though we were a transcendent form of being in touch with Plato's transcendent and ultimate realities as well as ultimate, unassailable and potentially universal forms of rationality.
If we are going to make progress in unravelling these matters we are going to have abandon that ideal and that project which dates from a historical era which needed metaphysics to take on the role of a kind of secular theology and turned it into a hunt for absolute and transcendent entities and principles that stood outside of and confronted all of humanity equally. We are going to have to content ourselves with an account of progress, development and criticism which finds its base within human life and actual human abilities.
It is here that moving 'reflecting on' to the center gives us some purchase even though it will not generate that Archimedian fixed point outside the world that the old metaphysics thought necessary to make sense of the notion of progress as well as to enable and justify criticism.
Reflecting on our actions, practices, way of life, institutions, beliefs, theories, assumptions, aims or values and trying to formulate the principles involved or simply to describe them to ourselves is precisely to attempt to set ourselves outside them, to put ourselves in a position to accept, reject, or to modify them.
As with all human endeavors, to make the attempt is not to be guaranteed success. We may fail to identify the principle and we may misdescribe the actions and the aims. This may be because we are not very good at it. We may not be very articulate, or have the right vocabulary, the right perspective or good tools of analysis. Some people are admired as 'reflective' and good at drawing out and setting out those implicit and underlying principles, attitudes and motivations. Those people are thought to be worth listening to. It was once regarded as the role of fiction to set out and describe characters, actions and ways of life in a way that made their moving principles apparent to the reader whether or not they were presented as being apparent to the protagonists.
And some fiction has set before us subtly and convincingly described examples of what we recognize as self-deception. This self-deception may be powered by an unrecognized unwillingness to recognize the implicit principles or assumptions in our actions and decisions because of the perhaps painful and difficult changes that would be enjoined on us once we had seen our behavior or way of life for what it was. Then there are whole ideological systems of thought whose very function and role is to prevent a body of people from getting a clear view of their situation, relations and the principles driving the social arrangements of which they are a part. These ideological systems of ideas should not be thought of as the Machiavellian inventions of manipulative ideologues (though this can happen). They are generally and on the whole more like the myths that primitive people often make up to give a rationale for practices and rituals that have grown up in ways and for reasons that they do not grasp. These myths and ideologies are perhaps the obverse of the reflective activity that we are talking about. Ideology and myths conceal and obscure rather than reveal the reasons for and the principles implicit in practices and institutions.
Not only are there those many ways of going wrong in our attempts to stand back from or outside of practices, behaviors and ways of life that we take part in, we have to add that reflecting on is an activity that never comes to a natural end. It will not give us the ultimates and absolutes that the metaphysicians look for. On the contrary there is always need for enlarging the scope of the reflection to reveal assumptions and doubtful principles that may have limited or distorted those earlier reflections.
Rather than engaging in the fruitless search for absolutes, ultimates and the the transcendent, the function of philosophy needs to be seen as an endlessly reflective one that aims to uncover implicit principles so that we may recognize and either embrace, reject or modify them. But that reflective function also requires philosophers to search out confusions and distortions that may stand in the way of getting a clear view and in that way genuinely distancing ourselves from the behaviors and practices that we are trying to examine.
This process is endless because each act of reflecting and each uncovering of distorting assumptions and confusions itself may itself be subject to other and different distortions and confusions which will need to be uncovered. But progress will have been made, nevertheless even though it will be a progress that is defined as an improvement over what was rather than than as an approach to an imagined absolute goal lying outside the series.
Each imperfect act of reflection if honestly conducted represents an advance in that it lays before us a new act or practice to examine, accept, improve or else to reject as having been colored by confusions or lack of clarity. In that way, though we can never put our human frailty behind us, we can work to identify and to advance past any particular failing. If we aim for more, for the transcendent, we will, like Thales, fall into a well while gazing at the stars.