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Re: [xmca] dichotomizing

When I was a student at the U of Chicago (some while ago!), I was taught (indeed it was a shibboleth of the day and place) that the making of categorical distinctions was the highest intellectual activity of Man (as he was, then). And that pretty much meant dichotomies.

When I came, about 10 or 15 years ago, to reflect seriously on some of the pernicious dichotomies of our culture and its politics (or maybe I should say perniciously abused dichotomies), such as those often mentioned (male vs female, implying only two sexes; masculine vs feminine, implying only two choices for our gender identity; gay vs straight, implying likewise for our sexuality), it seemed to me that the intellectual problem was not dichotomizing as a practice, but the ideological use of dichotomies as a way to suppress the otherwise pretty obvious fact that human diversity fills a high-dimensional space, even if cultural norms tend to make people cluster in subspaces of lower dimension. It is for ideological and political reasons that we push even very much lower-dimensional representations.

Some of those reasons are now pretty obvious: it's hard to justify the oppression of "women" or "gays" or "Jews" or "Blacks" or "peasants" or "children" if those categories dissolve on closer inspection into people who combine some degree of each possible feature defining the category or distinguishing it from others with some other degree on each other such feature. Like Zadeh's fuzzy logic (or natural language with its degrees and nuances) you can be a little more masculine in your voice and a little more feminine in your face, a little more one in your walk and little more the other in your dress, in your choice of job, your taste in music, and on and on across all the features (dimensions) that might be considered relevant to M vs. F. You can have more or fewer ancestors who count as this ethnicity or that one, more or fewer genes or phenotypic features that place you in this and that and some other "racial" category, or social class, or indeed biological sex.

But it's useful for forming political alliances to pretend to a more essentialist solidarity than the simple facts of diversity allow. And useful for elevating some categories of people and their interests over others. So politically maybe, in particular historical moments, sometimes for the better, sometimes (too often) for the worse.

Is it so difficult to cope with complexity? So hard to both know that in any (socially and culturally constructed, mediated) ontology, simplistic dichotomous categories are extreme oversimplifications, and at the same time to recognize that sometimes they are useful? Does our experience of life justify the belief that the useful must necessarily also be the perfectly "true"? True also is always more and less, and the possible number of dimensions or aspects we might need to take into account to determine how much truth there is in something is itself always unknown, always, it seems, larger than the number of dimensions we've been taking into account so far. This is not the same as the traditional (and I think very misleading) notion that all current well-justified beliefs are only approximations toward some final, even unknowable, truth. That's theology in new clothes. In a reality where the number of possible dimensions within which degrees of truthfulness need to be judged is itself always growing as we learn and think more, there is no valid notion of approximation, no asymptotic approach to a final point. There is, however, a sort of "learning by expanding", if I may call it that.

Making new categorical distinctions can be part of the process of expanding, and if they are, in the beginning, dichotomous, that's still potentially a good start. So long as it is not also the finish. So long as we realize that deeper understanding will always embed dichotomies in higher dimensional spaces of features and degrees. And that simple categories are never more than temporary utilities, tools for rough reasoning when nothing better is possible, or needed, and not to be taken too seriously.

At least that's what I think for now.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Mar 1, 2009, at 2:39 AM, Andy Blunden wrote:

Fascinating problem this dichotomising, isn't it Mike. Although dualism v monsim probably goes back 1,000 years in European civilisation, I think Martin picked the opening salvo of the war against dichotomy in that quote about Fichte.

Others who know more about French philosophy may correct me if I get it wrong, but I think the French - Foucault, Derrida in particular - and then after them people like Judith Butler, have been very successful in a method of uncovering and denouncing dichotomies, even making a big moral question out of it: it's become a moral outrage to use a dichotomy! In political practice it has been very successful mostly by *blurring the boundary*. So for example, if you thought people could be divided into male and female, this turns out to be a social construct with very blurred edges. If you thought people were either straight or homosexual, it turns out that there are dozens of kinds of sexuality. These strategies have been, IMHO, stunningly successful and need to be respected.

My quandry has been this: People like Judith Butler agree with Wm James that thinking in dichotomies is a fixed habit of thought, and add that it is oppressive and discriminatory. Does it make sense to say it is "wrong"? What I mean is, if I describe the world, I need to use some dichotomy, precisely because the manufacture of dichotomies is a fixed habit and objectified social practice which is productive of the rotten world we live in.

One approach is to denounce dichotmies and try to avoid them with categories which have blurred boundaries and multiplicity. Another approach is to use Marx and Hegel's approach which allows for a dynamic and productive monism, and out of this, we can derive and explain dichotomies and therefore see them as relative and come to the same critical attitude that for example Foucault of Butler come from.

So I think it is a very interesting problem, but I tend to react against gestures of denuniciation. I actually think that Hegel is the only one who really solved this problem by moving away from ontological solutions (there are many kinds of sexuaity, there are many not two kinds) to logical and methodological solutions - mediation, unit of analysis, trichotomy, etc.


Mike Cole wrote:
The rich discourse is washing over me and I am glad for the archive which
will allow me to return for proper study. Meantime, for
other pressing purposes I have come across the following from William James which may not be considered correct because it talks of a me-you dualism,
but might be considered useful to the current conversation on units,
microcosms, etc.
....One great splitting of the whole universe into two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the interest attaches to one of the halves; but we all draw the line of division between them in a different place. When I say that we all call the two halves by the same names, and that those names are 'me' and 'not-me' respectively, it will at once be seen what I mean. The altogether unique kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental psychological fact. No mind
can take the same interest in his neighbor's me  as in his own. The
neighbor's me falls together with all the rest of things in one foreign mass against which his own me stands cut in startling relief. Even the trodden worm, as Lotze somewhere says, contrasts his own suffering self
with the whole remaining universe, though he have no clear conception
either of himself or of what the universe may be. He is for me a mere part of the world; for him it is I who am the mere part. Each of us dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place. (Lotze is author of *Mikrocosmos, *among
other writings).
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Andy Blunden http://home.mira.net/~andy/ +61 3 9380 9435 Skype andy.blunden
Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:

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