Sunday, June 19, 2016

against the imagination

Vico, in the early 18th century, warned against the too extensive use of the “geometric” method in philosophy and the expulsion of rhetoric from the corpus. Twentieth century analytic philosophy is a viconian nightmare, but Vico’s worry that rhetoric would be expelled from the corpus was overblown. Instead, poetry returned under the aegis of a curious argument from imagination. Philosophical subcultures have formed around the consequences of imagining such things as zombies, or arguing about personal identity based on the tale of transposed selves going back to Locke (or, in reality, to Apuleius). The argument goes that the self is separable from the body of the self because we can imagine a dairymaid, say, transposed into the body of a king. Many subtle arguments have been  woven around such imaginary instances.
Myself, I like to imagine fantastic scenarios too. But the thing about most of them is that they never happen. In other words, the imaginative method is best for touching on what we don’t imagine. The fact or facts in natural history that have not been absorbed in our sense of the world, and, for that reason, that the imagination has yet to encounter. The personal identity argument is, to my mind, a case in point. We can well imagine a person’s mind being transposed into another person’s body. But what we see, overwhelmingly, is that this has never happened; nor have we any inkling that it will ever happen. This being the case, it seems that imagination, here, should lead us not to argue about what is proven by our imaginary case, but rather, what is proven by the insufficiency of our imagination to grasp one of the total facts of natural history. We should, I think, rethink what separability even means – and whether transposing an idea that originated in alchemy is valid in trying to understand other entities. The separability of the self and the body might well be imaginable only because the imagination is a crude concept mistaker, taking its mistaken presuppositions and projecting them on the world.

  This isn't what Vico meant at all, at all...


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