Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Engaged Analysis

A thinking person will wonder about the nature of things. Which features of experience are real and which are merely ideas that color our perception? This distinction between a realm of reality and a realm of ideas may not be very useful though, despite its prevalence. Perhaps it is not as prevalent as it seems, but it certainly has become fundamental in the modern world, supported for example in the writings of Descartes. But how else can we think about things?

Let us think of the world as being composed of a network of situations or encounters. Each situation has some kind of polar or vector character. One can separate the two faces of a coin, but the result is simply two thinner coins, each of which again has two faces. A magnet is also like this. One can cut a magnet in two, separating its north pole from its south pole. But the result is simply two smaller magnets, each of which has a north pole and a south pole. With an encounter, the polar structure consists of subject and object, distinguishable but inseparable.

These elementary encounters are inter-related in a variety of ways. The twelve nidanas of Buddhist Abhidharma are one way to map out their flow. Perhaps my own thinking here is just a part of my own struggle to understand this map! Another map which is much more familiar to a modern industrial citizen, like me, comes out of organizational management theory. There is a cycle of activity which involves:

  1. recognizing a problem,
  2. envisioning future situations where that problem has been resolved,
  3. selecting one such future situation as a goal,
  4. considering possible paths to reach that goal,
  5. deciding to commit to a particular path,
  6. acting to move along that path,
  7. assessing the results of that action,
which leads to recognition of a new problem and another iteration of the cycle.

Another way that encounters are related is through composition or hierarchy. For example, assessing the results of an action can itself be a complex project consisting of many more detailed cycles of planning, action, etc. These sub-projects will surely have lateral relationships among each other as well.

The stable objects that we perceive would consist, from this perspective, as repeating patterns of encounters. My sketch of nested projects is surely no more than a tool to help jog one’s perception of the world from static objects to networked flows. The particular connections and flows involved in a particular situation might better be seen through a different lens.

For example, I might say a particular word at a particular point in a conversation. That particular utterance can be seen as a member in a variety of different families.

  • That same word has been used by various people at other times and places.
  • That word is one of the words I uttered during that conversation.
  • Uttering that word was one of my actions taken in pursuit of communicating an idea.
  • The uttering and the communicating were part of my effort to change someone else’s thinking about some topic.
  • This debate was just one of many where people who adhere to one particular school of opinion try to convince those of some other school. Perhaps this was a discussion about the advantages of internally geared bicycle hubs versus derailleur gearing. An outside observer might well note that I was just parroting the views commonly expressed on internet forums dealing with bicycles.
  • These debates might well reflect the tensions and conflicts between competing bicycle parts manufacturers or divisions within large manufacturers, together with their associated retailers, media representatives, etc.
  • At the same time, this word could reflect some habitual psychological drive where, for example, I tend to push terms and concepts to ever more abstract levels, both as a way to assert dominance but also as a way to isolate and insulate myself from the dangers of engaging with the uncompromising details.
  • And still the word could resonate with books I have been reading recently and the current trends in publishing and how editors use vocabulary to position their products within market categories of readers.
Any given encounter will be connected in countless such ways with every aspect or dimension of the world. In examining a particular situation it may be useful to sketch out a first few layers of these relationships, but the prioritization and limits to this elaboration need to be a function of the projects with which the examining person is involved. The question that can be answered is not so much, “What is this thing,” but rather, “How am I involved with this thing?”

1 comment:

  1. This dipole theory of experience is much the same as the emic/etic distinction in anthropology: