shandian Hacking

There’s nothing LI likes better than a good Shandian essay. Robert Merton used that phrase to refer to his essay concerning the origin of the phrase, “on the shoulders of giants” (as per Newton’s mock humble saying, if I have seen farther, it is only because I was standing on the shoulders of giants), and what he means by it is that the essay is the correspondent of the kind of search you might go through looking through your personal papers for one particular paper. Such searches tend to get go into odd corners – one finds oneself reading a diary entry, when you meant to be looking for your passport – that are constrained by the fact that you are going through one loosely organized jumble. The grandfather of the Shandian essay is surely Plutarch, whose inquiries into the “word ei graven over the gate to Apollo’s temple at Delphi’, or the origins of Isis, tend to swallow up vast masses of ancient learnedness on the way to solving rather trivial problems.

Given this debauched taste of mine, I was very pleased, yesterday, to stumble upon Ian Hacking’s essay, Canguilhem among the cyborgs. LI is tempted to say that Hacking is the kind of analytic philosopher that only a continental could love, but this is a bit of an exaggeration. Still, although he comes out of a mainstay analytic philosophy hub, Stanford, where he was one of Suppe’s students, I believe, like other Stanford pragmatists (Cartwright, Dupre), he has somehow absorbed a ‘tone’ that isn’t well liked in analytic philosophy, where dullness is considered a mark of truth. He is also quite trans Atlantic, very much at home in France. His essay in honor of Georges Canguilhem is about one of those French masters known mainly as a mere name in these here states. The essay makes the case that Canguilhem, much more than any of the big name muckety mucks like Wittgenstein or Heidegger, was much more radically anti-Cartesian than is usual in our philosophy. Descartes has become the philosopher one loves to blame for dualism, and one loves to use as a signpost for an old style of thinking that we have all surpassed. Of course, that’s all bullshit.

“It is commonly said, nowadays, that in philosophy we have overcome Descartes, dualism, the ego and epistemology, thanks to the work of famous men, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, or less widely known earlier figures. Deeply involved as I have been, from time to time, with the thought of Wittgenstein and some of those earlier figures, such as Pierce, Herder and Hamann, I have never been much impressed by the alleged termination of Descartes. In many respects I find more in common between Wittgenstein and Descartes than difference. You will see from my first tow epigrapsh that by highly selective quotation I can even make Descartes sound like Donna Haraway, the feminist socialist student of the sciences who delights in metaphor and the blurring of distinction.”

The epitaph from Descartes is, well, fucking beautiful:

… toutes les choses qui sont artificielles, sont… naturelles. Car, par exemple, losqu’une montre marque les heures par le moyen des roués don’t elle est faite, cela ne lui est pas moins naturel qu’il est à un arbre de produire ses fruits.

Which reminds me of Rene Char, except that it is better than Rene Char.

However, according to Hacking, Canguilhem made an observation about Descartes, and an observation about organisms and machines, that helped Canguilhem, in some slight way, surpass Descartes. LI should humbly remonstrate that the image of philosophy as a race in which figures are passed by seems to be a misunderstanding of what philosophy does. It isn’t a science in that sense. But, with that protest lodged, this is how Hacking figures that Canguilhem gets by the ever tricky Rene: Canguilhem “saw how central to Descartes was the idea that animals are machines.” And he begged to differ. Machines, to Canguilhem, are extensions of man – and that phrase, which reeks of McLuhan, is oddly unfished for resonances by Hacking, who is teaching, after all, in Toronto. But never mind that – Hacking’s point is Canguilhem points to a moment in Descartes thinking about the machine and the soul that is supposed to prove, in a sense, that animals are machines – as well, although this is sotte voce, as the human body.

“Since the body is a machine, it must in principle be possible to build a machine just like a human body. For technical reasons, we cannot do it. In principle, we could make a bird that would fly, but we are unable to make small enough springs and coils to pull the trick off. So Descartes imagines God – not man – making a perfect automaton for the body of a human being. Yet, according to Canguilhem, this is nto straightforward. The notion depends upon an idea of God the Fabricator and on there already being living creatures upon which the machine is modeled. Neither we nor God get beyond teleology. Machines are so made because we make them for a purpose, or in imitation of something already alive. Canguilhem’s fascination with the vital, with life as a precondition, is evident here.”

Now one might reply that since 1952, when the essay was written we have – in this round of cards between the organic and the machine – played some more, and the machine is currently ahead, with DNA as the machine. The molecules are the machine. And yet it isn’t so simple as that after all, for this machine doesn’t work as a machine without a code. And when it does work as a code, it only works as life. It isn’t really clear why we should call the molecules plus code – that thing which distinguishes DNA from any other crystal in the universe, as far as we know – a machine, except that we have built machines – plunging us back into the logical problem of God building the machine in Descartes’ imaginary instance.

Hacking, having led us to the man-machine breakdown in 1952, next goes on a long journey through cyborgs. Which, in my next post, I’ll write more about.


and, a shout out there for the GOP on this night of nights. Lovely that your president fucking broke you, as he has fucking broken everything in his reign of error. So, here it is - Death of a Party.


Dominic said…
What you need is a good scream. Corpsepaint optional.

Do you think Canguilhem might be where Searle got that distinction between "intrinsic" and "derived" intentionality from?
roger said…
Well, dominic, you are knockin' me off my feet with that conjunction of names. I have no idea if Searle knew about Canguilhem. Looking around, I see that Searle was well acquainted with Israel Rosenfield's excellent little book, the invention of memory, which is full of Frenchness, so ... perhaps there is some indirect connection.
I liked that alice coopery scream, too.
Alan said…
and that phrase, which reeks of McLuhan, is oddly unfished for resonances by Hacking, who is teaching, after all, in Toronto.

Maybe Hacking's still enough of an analytic philosopher that he's not willing to risk the social opprobrium that would be directed at him were he caught paying attention to a non-Approved maverick like Mcluhan.