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Thursday, May 03, 2012

shock 2 - excursus on analytic philosophy and history

shock 2
    So far, I have followed a favorite method of mine: what you might call Bertrand Russell’s accidental contribution to historical science. Russell was as an ardent devotee of the cult of substitution. From the point of view of ideologiekritik, substitution is where philosophy in the 20th century absorbed the wisdom of the bourgeois political economists of the late  19th century - substitution taking over the function that was once held, by the classical economists, by a more naive form of competition and utility.  By invoking the substitution of goods, economists were able to incorporate the price system and technology without going back to the old classical economist's labor theory. And by invoking substitution, Russell could logicize mathematics without worrying about any nasty semantic residues.  What could be substituted could be equated: what couldn’t posed philosophical and logical questions that will shape our formal solutions (for instance, the introduction of type-token hierarchies). The idea of substitution is so powerful that it remains, generally, out of the spotlight - no Being and Substitution treatise exists, as far as I know, in the philosophical canon. Substitution is our zero.

In the canonical instance of the author of waverly, King George IV (the face card is drawn from the mental pack, bringing us back, by a Tory reflex, to England) may believe that the Author of Waverly wrote Ivanhoe without believing that Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe – since King George IV did not know that the anonymous author of Waverly was Walter Scott. We, however, do.  Our intellectual historical horizon can be defined, at least roughly, by the substitutions of descriptions that we can make, as much as our location in technology space is described by the substitutions we can make between tools.  
    To expand this beyond the propositional attitude: in the history of shock, we see a distinct difference between the ancient notion of numbing and coldness, and the modern moment of the blow and fire. The latter is hard to substitute for the former. And yet, the experience of Greek fisherman with the tornado puts us, looking back, in the position of saying that the Greeks were talking about shock; that is,if our own idea of shock is coherent.
    Etymologically, the numb is the secret sharer of shock.
    In a letter to Benjamin Franklin published in the Philosophical Transactions (1775), a John Walsh communicates an experiment made with the torpedo that proves that the fish does direct  its electric shocks – although without sparks. “Indeed, all our trials have been upon very feeble subjects, whose shock was seldom sensible beyond the touching finger.” What I want to point out here is that these are “shocks” – not a poison, or a numbing fluid. Although it is still not totally clear what a shock is, or at least how it is caused. The shocks and jolts tpo which insentient things are subject are merely rather sensational collisions, but the shock that the human body is subject to seems more mysterious and compelling. For what is true about the torpedo is true about us – we too have nerves. This is where the shocked present was bound to dwell.  

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