Archive for February, 2008



Let’s jump back to Habermas:

In linguistic utterances knowledge is expressed explicitly; in goal-directed actions an ability, an implicit knowledge is expressed; this know-how can in principle also be transformed into know-that. (TOCA, 8 )

Here Habermas is doing his best to relate all knowledge to linguistic claims. I think he’s doing this because later he will try to make the rationality of such knowledge depend on the defensibility of those linguistic claims in discourse.

I disagree with Habermas here, however.

The distinction Habermas between knowledge-that and knowledge-how is a distinction drawn by contemporary psychology as well, under the names declarative (or descriptive) knowledge and procedural knowledge. A primary difference between these kinds of knowledge is that people’s procedural knowledge is stored in procedural memory, which is a functionally and biologically distinct kind of memory. This is the kind of memory that lets you remember how to ride a bicycle, or tie your shoes, as opposed to remember what you ate for lunch yesterday or the capital of Vermont.

Much psychological and neurological work has been done on both kinds of memory, and one very robust result to come out of that work is this: while declarative memories can be easily brought to consciousness and articulated, it is very difficult if not impossible to do so for procedural memory. Typically, the question which proves this point to an introductory psychology student is: can you describe, in words, how to ride a bicycle?

The link between know-how (procedural knowledge) and linguistic utterances, then, is relatively weak.


Revisiting Debord 1:2 on contemplation

Earlier, I wrestled with this hermeneutic question:

(TSOTS-1:2-B-?) “Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.” What does this mean?

I think that with the new concepts and theory from Lukacs, we can make a first pass at a restating of this claim.

Recall that according to (CSTANCE-RAT-HET), one must take the contemplative stance towards a fully rational, heterological system. Assuming that Debord is drawing in part of Lukacs’ theory, it would be consistent with the text to infer that Debord is talking about bourgeois conditions of life here. With the rationality of systemic thought being a given under capitalism (according to the Marxist tradition), and the hetorological tendencies of bourgeois systematization, reality is both (a) “considered partially” (because it excludes the phenomena that relate to the subject’s powers of intervention on the contents of the system, and (b) “an object of mere contemplation.”

What about the bit about “in its own general unity”?

I want to refer back to the Lukacs passage quoted here. For Lukacs, “modern rationalism” is unique in that attempts to create a system that is both fully rational and total. In the case where this system is also heterological, this is a doomed mission. But doomed or not, there is a “general unity” to the rational system that is total with the possible exception of its own subject. It is this general unity that makes the contemplative stance so pervasive and pernicious.

With that, I think I’ll hold onto this elaborated version of the Debord passage:

(TSOTS-1:2-B-v1.0) [Under the rationalism that comes with capitalism,] reality considered [heterologically and hence] partially unfolds, in its own general unity [characterized by a system that is total except for its subject], as a pseudo-world apart, an object [towards which one must take the contemplative stance].
That makes for some pretty slow progress on Debord. But I think the concepts gleaned from Lukacs will come up again–I know Habermas uses them, for example. Hopefully tackling Debord will get easier as I read through TSOTS.


Rational systems and the contemplative stance

We have already noted that Lukacs writes,

As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative. The contemplative stance [is] adopted towards a … a perfectly closed system (HCC)

Now we are in a position to unpack this claim. Lukacs believed that capitalism causes people to seek to understand the world more and more rationally, i.e. through an increasingly rational system. However, because increasing rationality implies increased closure (c.f. (RATIONAL->CLOSED)), the result is a (perhaps real, perhaps perceived) inability to act freely upon the contents of the system.

That seems to be roughly Lukacs’ argument. There are complications in the logic, however. Clearly, if the acting subject is exogenous to the system, and the system is closed, then the contents of the system are impervious to the subject’s actions. But what if the subject is endogenous to the system? In that case, what is important, it seems, is not the closure but the rationality of the system, because in this case the subject’s actions must be deducible from the system’s axioms, and hence not independently caused by the subject.

I may well be wrong about this, but after my first reading of HCC, I gather that Lukacs accepts all this and casts the tension here in terms of the following class difference: the bourgeoisie characteristically rationalize the world, but leave their own subjectivity out of it, and hence understand the world as a partial system closed to them. The proletariat, however, exist in the same rationalized world but consider the world through a total system that permits them action within it, but only as a class and only in a way prescribed by the rationality the system (in this case, the historical dialectic), or else not at all.

There seems to be a useful conceptual distinction here for which, as far as I know, there are no preexisting terms. So I will make some up:

(DFN-AUTOLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) An autological system is a system whose contents includes its subject.
(DFN-HETEROLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A heterological system is a system whose contents do not include its subject.

What do I mean when I talk about a system’s subject? Recall that a system is a set of beliefs and valuations. For now, let’s say that a system’s subject is the person who has those beliefs and valuations. I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in these definitions as given, but I would like to move on for now and get back to them later.

Given these preliminary definitions, I think we can argue the following:

(CSTANCE-RAT-HET) One must take the contemplative stance towards systems that are both fully rational and heterological.

Why? Because:

  1. Suppose a system S is both fully rational and heterological.
  2. S is closed. (by (RATIONAL->CLOSED))
  3. The contents of S do not depend on any variables exogenous to S (by 2 and (DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0))
  4. The subject of S is not included in the contents of S (by (DFN-HETEROLOGICAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0))
  5. The subject of S is exogenous to S (by an unformalized definition of “exogenous”)
  6. The contents of S does not depend on the the subject of S.
  7. The subject of S must take the contemplative stance towards S if the contents of S do not depend on the subject of S.

I realize that I haven’t yet provided a definition of the contemplative stance here. I’m not sure it’s possible to do so given my current understanding of the term; I’ll try to use it in a way that’s consistent and provide a definition, perhaps revisiting this argument, later.


Fully rational systems are closed systems

Consider two kinds of systems that we have identified:

(DFN-RATIONAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A system is a rational system to the extent that its contents are deducible from its axioms.

(DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A closed system is a system whose content does not depend on any variables exogenous to it.

It is clear from Lukacs’ writing that he considers these two concepts to be connected in a certain way: he believes that a fully rational system must be closed.

Here is an argument for why he must be right:

  1. Suppose a system, S is fully rational.
  2. S is entirely deducible from its axioms (by (DFN-RATIONAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0)).
  3. That means that S’s contents do not depend on anything except that which is contained in its axioms.
  4. Anything contained in the axioms of S is endogenous (not exogenous) to S.
  5. Hence, S does not depend on any variables exogenous to it (by 3 and 4)
  6. S is closed. (by (DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0))

One day I’d like to make this argument more formal, but for now I think it will suffice to let me make the following statement with confidence:

(RATIONAL->CLOSED) If a system is fully rational, then it is closed.


Kinds of Systems, part 2

What is novel about modern rationalism is its increasingly insistent claim that it has discovered the principle which connects up all phenomena which in nature and society are found to confront mankind. Compared with this, every previous type of rationalism is no more than a partial system. (HCC, The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought)

Lukacs distinguishes between other kinds of systems in addition to the (ir)rational. The idea of “total” and “partial” systems also plays an important role in his analysis. I think the following tentative definitions reflect his use of the terms fairly well:

(DFN-TOTAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A total system is a system that connects up all phenomena.

(DFN-PARTIAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A partial system is a system that is not a total system, in the sense of (DFN-TOTAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0).

We have also discussed before, without adding a definition to our list, the concept of a closed system. We can try to sketch this out here:

(DFN-CLOSED-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A closed system is a system whose content does not depend on any variables exogenous to it.


Kinds of systems, part 1

For rationalism has existed at widely different times and in the most diverse forms, in the sense of a formal system whose unity derives from its orientation towards that aspect of the phenomena that can be grasped by the understanding, that is created by the understanding and hence also subject to the control, the predictions and the calculations of the understanding. But there are fundamental distinctions to be made, depending on the material on which this rationalism is brought to bear and on the role assigned to it in the comprehensive system of human knowledge and human objectives. (HCC, The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought)

A central concept of Lukacs’ that we have already seen here is the concept of the system. Although in my estimation Lukacs uses the term “system” somewhat inconsistently, I think that its most general sense in HCC (and the one I intend to stick to in this blog) is captured by the following definition:

(DFN-SYSTEM) A system is a set of beliefs and valuations.

Much more so than systems generally, Lukacs is interested in the systems posited by “rationalism”–by which he means a position he attributes to Kant and the bourgeoisie that insists, for class-based economic motivations, that the world be predictable and calculable. I hope to get into this topic in more detail later, but for now I would like to provide the following tentative definition that I believe is true to Lukacs’ use of the term “rational system.”

(DFN-RATIONAL-SYSTEM-v.1.0) A system is a rational system to the extent that its contents are deducible from its axioms.

I have attached a version number to this definition because I expect we will have to revise it in the future.

Other kinds of systems–partial systems, total systems, closed systems, open systems–are discussed by Lukacs. Definitions of these terms will be provided in the next post.