[xmca] Monism Is Not Reductionist

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Mon Mar 12 2007 - 20:53:05 PST

Dear Martin:
  I guess my realism comes from my usual thick-headed reading of Lenin's great book, Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Bakhurst criticizes this book, but his main complaint is that it was used by the Stalinists, not that it is philosophically wrong. Ilyenkov was certainly a great champion of it. Unlike Bakhurst, I see no contradiction between Materialism and Empirio-criticism and the Philosophical Notebooks (but that's probably because I can't really make head or tail of the Notebooks!)
  In Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin argues for a "salto mortale", that is a leap. I interpret this to mean that instead of taking our own consciousness as primary and then trying to discover facts about the world (e.g. through activity or through conceptualization), we need to begin by taking the world as given and assume that it is our own activity in and conceptualization of the world that needs to be explained. We can explain it by assuming that the world got here first, and we are rather dull-witted latecomers, endowed with perception that works pretty well, process of conceptualization that work rather less well, and meta-consciousness which is highly inconsistent.
  That is what I meant when I said that what is in the blocks is wood. It seems to me that if you can assume that commodities exist whether you are conscious of them or not, you can CERTAINLY assume that wood exists whether or not you call it wood. I think this is really what Bakhurst means by confronting reality directly. He means that the wood was here first, and human minds decided to call it "wood" a whole lot later, and that the basis of this naming process partakes as much of shared perception as it does of conceptualization.
  I would disagree that wood is a concept, at least in the sense that Vygotsky uses the word. One way to think about Vygotsky's distinction between heaps, complexes, and concepts is to say that the ways in which we think about things are gradually moving away from being ruled by perception and becoming more and more ruled by abstract thinking as we move from heaps to true concepts. When I say that "wood" is in the blocks, I mean something that I see and that other people see, not something that is an alternative to glass or plastic.
  Of course, it IS possible to get from perception to concepts; that is what historical consciousness does. But perception does not go away. I think that smysl is rather closer to perception, and znachenie rather closer to conceptual thinking. For example, "bamboo" is a kind of grass, not wood, in this part of the world. That is just the way we conceive of it, but it is probably based on the perception of how it grows.
  A. A. Brudnyi (on p. 66 of the book I'm reading on the subway, "Recent Trends in Soviet Psycholinguistics") talks about "situational" semantics versus "structural semantics" (what he means is the difference between smysl and znachenie, or pragmatic meaning and purely abstract dictionary definitions of words in terms of other words). He quotes a colleague, Abaev, on the expression "iron discipline" translated from Russian into Ossetian entirely loses its temper, because in Ossetian, iron discipline is compared with steel. He notes that when you borrow words from a foreign language, you take them out of their systemic network, and this allows the more situational local aspects (e.g. comparison with steel) to come to the fore.
  The other position, the position that we have to start out by naming something as "wood" rather than atoms or quarks or an optical illusion, and that this is a purely conceptual act with no valid perceptual correlate (what Andy calls a "substrate"), is of course a Cartesian one; it is exactly the way in which Descartes began his radical skepticism. But I don't see ANY difference between Descartes position and the position of upward reductionist social-constructionism. They seem to me to be one and the same. They both assume that wood exists as soon as consciousnesses say it does and not before.
  About a year ago I was reading an essay by somebody called David Field about Romantic Classicism, something Field noted quite correctly was not only a social construct but also an anachronistic one: the Romantic Classicists no more new that they were romantic Classicists than the Baroque musicians knew they were Baroques (every always thinks they are Moderns, and of course they are all perfectly correct, except for the post-modernists). But because the word "social construct" has simply become a synonym for "naive misunderstanding", Field began to wonder if social constrution was not itself a social construction.
  What a question! Nobody, as far as I know, claims that it is a force of nature. It is only people who secretly treated the process of social construction in a Cartesian way all the long who can even come up with the idea that the fact that something is socially constructed means it is "wrong". That kind of "social construction" is indeed a misunderstanding (and also a contradiction).
  I don't think Marxists have this problem: we just start with reality and assume that human concept formation is the thing we have to explain, and proceed with some faith that in the end it will turn out to be a part of that reality itself. After all, everything else has.
  Upward reductionism (e.g. reducing my statement about wood to an act of conceptualization quite independent of my perception and other people's cognition) riles me because there is a strong trend in linguistics these days to treat conversation as occurring basically without any cognition at all (as a machine existing independent of volition). One piece of evidence for this is the fact, which I cheerfully admit, that hardly anybody actually begins an utterance with a precise idea of how it is going to end.
  But for me this is simply evidence of the temporality of utterances (that is, the fact that they unroll in real time, and they change as we unroll them, and as we think about them, and as we gauge the reaction of our audience, and as we make up new arguments). And temporality is surely as much an aspect of cognition as it is of perception.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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