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[Xmca-l] In Defense of Fuzzy Things
Andy has written a number of posts in which he has implied clarity is a
paramount goal in philosophical discussions, or, conversely, people are
"confused" by having read key texts in an order which obscures their
genetic relationship to each other.
What I want to suggest is that these two things are actually in
contradiction: if we want to understand how texts are genetically related
to each other, we have understand how the word meanings they contain can be
"fuzzy" rather than clear.
Fuzzy boundaries are, if you will pardon the expression, central to human
languages, including philosophical language (which is, as Halliday points
out, merely a tidied up version of naturally fuzzy language, an upstart
which has come back to berate its slovenly parents). Let me take the very
first sentence of "Thinking and Speech" as an example.
"This work is a psychological study of one of the most difficult, complex,
and intricately tangled questions of experimental psychology, the problem
of thinking and speech."
Vygotsky is very fond of triplets like these, and when we first read him,
we often take it as redundancy, and we are comforted, because if we don't
understand what he means by "complex" we can catch him on the rebound with
"difficult" and if that doesn't work, we get a nice concrete image with
But as the text unfolds, it transpires that something can be difficult
without being complex. For example, Vygotsky's interpretation of egocentric
speech is actually less complex than Piaget's, because it has fewer parts,
but it is quite a bit more difficult, precisely because it puts things that
are apparently quite different together.
Similarly, it transpires that something can be complex without being
difficult, e.g. the different senses of "consciousness" used by Freud and
Piaget, which Vygotsky sorts out with the simple example of tying his
shoes. The question of learning and development is "tangled" and
"difficult" but it has only two parts to it. So we have to say that there
is a certain fuzziness here, not unrelated to the fuzziness of "unit" and
"unity" that we've been discussing.
Let me take one more example: the idea of a "переживание". Should it be
"felt experience" or "thought over experience" or just "lived experience"?
The difference seems extremely important; as Andy points out, the concept
is undoubtedly related--genetically--to the emergence of "notion" or
"concept" through contemplation. Andy is doubly right to relate it to the
German Romantic idea of "Urphanomenon". We even find it in English in
Wordsworth's famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he defines poetry
as "emotion recollected in tranquility":
"(T)he emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the
tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which
was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does
itself actually exist in the mind."
But of course in order to see these quite distinct ideas as being linked,
we can't just see them as clearly distinct--it's sometimes more useful to
see them as being fuzzy. It seems to me that ontogenetically, a "переживание"
must needs be at first mostly a "felt experience", because the child
doesn't have much experience to recollect in tranquility. Only then can it
become mostly a "thought over experience", and it is only in the minds of
dinosaurs like me and Andy that we can say it is a thoroughly lived out
experience. (I have sometimes felt a little like a
placid, ruminant brontosaur set upon by a ferocious tyrannosaur, but I
console myself with the thought that where Andy says I am confused, I am
usually just plain wrong.)
Still, I think this fuzziness of my language doesn't preclude setting up
the kinds of distinctions that Andy finds so important in philosophical
language; on the contrary, understanding how things move seems to
necessitate a kind of "moving picture" approach where we can make many fine
distinctions and then try to link them fluidly, simply because that is the
way our language and our minds works. But there are two intellectual
operations to this: the ability to separate things out into separate
frames, and then the ability to join the frames in a single fluid motion.
Once we clarify, we have to fuzz out.
Take a look at this. It's actually a Flash Mob at Tesco's in Holland Park,
London, carried out as a sort of publicity stunt by a local opera troop
trying to publicize their rendition of Puccini's "La Rondine" (a kind of
verismo version of "Traviata", except that nobody dies). Like any Flash
Mob, the categories of experiencers are kind of fuzzy--at the beginning
it's a little unclear whether the cashier's assistant is in on the joke or
not: is she doing the Flash Mob or merely undergoing it? By the end it's a
party to which everybody is invited, even the Chinese tourists with their
cell phone cameras.
I think categories of experience are similarly porous, which is another way
of saying that they are warm and fuzzy: we all begin as outsiders, but
understanding is a process of becoming an insider. The question is: is
becomign an insider a process of transforming undergoing into doing, or is
it a process of transforming undergoing into doing? It's kind of fuzzy.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies