“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, October 19, 2007

like articles abandoned in a hotel drawer

'I tell you when I leave the Wise Man I don't even feel like a human. He converting my live orgones into dead bullshit.' "So I got an exclusive why don't I make with the live word? The word cannot be expressed direct.... It can perhaps be indicated by mosaic of juxtaposition like articles abandoned in a hotel drawer, defined by negatives and absence.... “ – William Burroughs

LI needs to plunge into a boring topic but fun fun fun I’m going to attempt this with the maniac eye of one of Burrough’s doctors, hop heading it through the normal to the ectoplasmic. Although this will just be a lecture in 18th century psychiatric fun, so… so bear with me… I’ll chain the fire doors just in case. And go back to …

To my lovely little post regarding ‘sensualism” (I like that term much, much better than sensationalism. Don’t you know, the Victorian historians would want to bowdlerize away the sex part of the philosophy, or even its distant echoes. But I’m not like them. I’m a much friendlier autofellator, don’t you know). Anyway, in that post, I made a point that I ought to modify, i.e. the detachment of the physiological from the philosophical, re history of philosophy, and Locke as the codifier of the subjective view, no doctors allowed. I should point out that empiricism, neatly pursued from Locke to Berkeley to Hume in various anthologies, has its edges rounded out in this separation. But this is to rely too much upon anthologies, an intellectual history that selects certain star intellectuals to light our path to good grades and empty heads. In reality, the Lockian dispensation was a disputed heritage even back in the day. There’s a line going through the minor figures who, nevertheless, each contributed their mite to the enlightenment episteme. Figures like David Hartley.

David Hartley M.D. The man made contributions in his day, especially to the curing of kidney stones, which could be done, according to David Hartley, M.D., with a little elixir he had tried his own self, during a painful and near fatal time of trial with said stones, an elixer devised by one Joanna Stephens. His campaign to get the government to reward Joanna Stephens five thousand pounds for her genius concoction found its way through the gears of the patronage machine and succeeded, in the end. But no one would remember him for this. No, it was his vibrationism, combined with sensualism by way of associationism, that seared his name into the common memory. Lightly seared, a little raw in the center.

Hartley was not the first to take up Newton’s suggestion, in the Opticks, that interior human body, like any physical body, was fundamentally vibratory. He conjoined that notion to Locke’s associationism. Of course, since he is following Newton’s footsteps and we are just a couple of decades away from the most modern of modern things, electricity, he is considered a forerunner of a more scientific way of looking at things. But it is a fair question to ask whether this was really a progress or a regress in neurology. After all, the humoral school at least had a firm grasp on the fact that human biology was chemical, whereas one could accuse Hartley of premature reductionism. Yup. I’ll do the honors. By taking us down to a lower, atomic level, Hartley was definitely responding to a reductionist bent that always evokes pious pledges of allegiance from scientists. However, until this day, nobody knows how that level of the human body really effects neurology, besides giving us pretty CAT scans of our Christmas Tree innards when plugged into some shock or told to look at pictures of mice or something. However, the chemical level is certainly where the action and the understanding is. Philosophers have a casual way of simply assuming the work of reduction is done, and talking about the brain as some kind of wired unit – and in fact, since Putnam’s essay that downplayed the matter of the brain in favor of the computational structure, it has been the cog psy credo that meat or silicon doesn’t matter, any more than it matters if you scribble out your mathematical formulas with chalk or ink. However, it is a credo that requires faith – for instance, the faith that because we can make computers to do thought like things and using algorithms to instruct themselves, we must be projecting what the human brain does. But when we look at the human brain, we definitely see organic chemical processes at work, often in ways that defy our localizations and that require us simply not to look at the unusual way the brain can refunctionalize, or the way the brain lights up in parts that shouldn’t light up when we turn on our Magnetic resonance scanning equipment.

However, I am not writing this post to discuss Hartley’s pioneering role in neuroscience. I’m more interested in his role in moral science. This is about happiness, goddamn it.

Nicholas Capaldi has this to say – ever so briefly – about Hartley in The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation:

“… associationism did not become an all-encompassing doctrine until articulated by David Hartley in his Observations on Man (1749). What gives special significance to associationism is the additional thesis of intellectual hedonims, namely, that the sole origin of human response to environmental stimuli is the desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.”

I think this is a pretty standard reading. It makes sense. Hartley influences the Edinburgh school, including Smith, who influences Bentham. Badda badda boom. Dat’s intellectual history, folks, as we all make like Jimmy Durante and say, in chorus.

But the interesting thing about Hartley is that his vibrationary philosophy – which made it hard for him to separate intellectual thoughts from passions – also made it hard for him to accept a straightforward hedonistic psychology, one in which we automatically seek the pleasant and shun the painful (about which I truly need to do a couple of posts – why this idea that emotions are all, at the center, about pleasure and pain?).

In the chapter of the affections, which I am now going to roll up my sleeves and dissect before your disbelieving eyes, Hartley begins with a semi-standard definition of the passions:

‘…That our passions of affections can be no more than aggregates of simple ideas united by association. For they are excited by objects, and by the incidents of life. But tthese, if we except the impressed sensations, can have no poer of affecting us, but what they derive from association…

Secondly, Since therefore the passions are states of considerable pleasure or pain, they must be aggregates of the ideas, or traces of the sensible pleasures and pains, which ideas make up by their number, and mutual influence upon one another, for the faintness and transitory nature of each singly taken. This may be called a proof a priori. The proof a posteriori will be given when I come to analyse the six classes of intellectual affections, viz. imagination, ambition, self interest, sympathy, theopathy, and the moral sense.”

As you can tell from this small sample, Hartley is a pretty eccentric writer. There are passages where he seems to prefigure Gertrude Stein with an almost painful relentlessness, forcing us to extract the sense from his monstrous sentences with the huge efforts of a man… well, of a man pissing out a kidney stone.

To be continued.

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