Learning, Discipline and the Thought Experiment

A sign has to have meaning before it can be true or false, and so setting one’s filters for discourse ingestion on meaningful/meaningless should be more effective than setting them for true/false. Setting one’s filter to sift the meaningful out from the meaningless also opens another option denied the one who stays set on determining truthfulness: the option of conferring meaning on an otherwise meaningless sign. Distinguishing between truth and falsehood is a waste of time unless we are situated within a disciplinary space with shared frames and criteria—insisting that we are telling the truth while our opponents are lying is almost always an attempt to jigger the rules so one can declare oneself the winner. The left looks for statements it can find deficient in truthfulness as measured by some fact-checking mechanism also established by the left, so that it can then accuse the speaker of being a “liar” and attach “liar” to that person’s name every time it is mentioned, like a Homeric epithet. They can then frame their questions as follows: how can you believe what he says, since he has racked up 273 lies over the past 3 years? But when the right does the same thing, even if I’m more likely to agree with where the truth lies, it ultimately serves the same purpose of forcing everyone to line up in qualified vs. unqualified terms. Everyone is throwing everyone else out of their playpen. But focusing on meaning allows us to be both more generous and more disabling, as the situation calls for.

Here’s one of Charles Sanders Peirce’s most famous statements, in this case offering a definition of, essentially, “meaning” (for Peirce, the whole purpose of pragmatism was to determine the meaning of signs):

 

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

 

So, what is our conception of, say, a dog (what is the meaning of “dog”)? It will bark under certain conditions, it is different from a cat in certain ways, from a wolf in other ways, if it is your dog it will be loyal and obedient if well trained, when you pat it it wags its tail and looks up at you, and so on. We can get extremely abstract (a four legged mammal…) or concrete and intimate (it brings your slippers) depending on the attentional or disciplinary space in which the word “dog” is used. Nothing in Peirce’s definition requires the more “scientific” meaning. The definition of a dog in terms of its devotion to its owner (when I come home he comes running and wagging his tail) will generate new questions that will add to “our conception of these effects” just as much as a definition found in a biologist’s taxonomy. However, unless said ironically, or in some fictional context, or as part of some insider discourse, the sentence “the dog is flying home” is meaningless. Of course, though, that sentence can be made meaningful in another way: as an example in a discussion like this.

 

What a disciplinary space is created to do is to take “given” meanings and make them relative or regional. A dog is devoted to its master; but sometimes dogs turn on their masters; so the meaning of “dog” must include the devotion and the possibility, however minimal, of “betrayal”; and the new meaning will include both in a less anthropomorphic and anthropocentric frame: dogs generally respond to certain cues of dominance, which accounts for the “devotion” and, when those cues are “processed” under specified conditions, the aggression to their masters. Or whatever—I don’t know much about dogs. Within one space, “dogs are devoted” retains its significance; within another, it is meaningless, and is replaced by “dogs respond to cues of dominance.” And that will in turn be replaced by something else. At each point along the way a new given is introduced, waiting to be relativized or regionalized. And the biologist studying canines goes home and pets his dog, and there is no cognitive dissonance.

The (anti)political attempt to establish centrality by dispersing the fogs of liberal obfuscation operates on several levels. It must honor all the traditional forms of life targeted and demolished by liberalism, even if it can’t restore them (although avenues of restoring what can be should be explored); it must engage in historical analyses of those forms of life, or their vulnerabilities and the intellectual and physical weapons used to attack them; it must distinguish, in the contemporary order, between what can be attributed to the civilizing and centralizing work that started long before liberalism and what can be attributed to liberalism itself; it must develop theoretical and eventually institutional means for suppressing liberalism, in all its forms and all the nooks and crannies in which it hides, while extricating healthy social and technological relations and materials from its deformations; and it must inhabit and rework all of today’s institutions and disciplines in order to accomplish all this. (It must also acknowledge irreparable harm done, and that would unavoidably have been done, to traditional modes of life by any, even the most orderly, form of centralization.)

The theory of disciplinarity I have been advancing is meant to help with this. Disciplinarity in a strong sense is a result of the grounding of science in the laboratory and the experiment, which seems to emerge slowly in the later middle ages (e.g., Okham’s razor), get presented more explicitly with Galilleo, and doesn’t really get institutionalized until the 19thcentury. I am pretty sure that Peirce was the first to treat the experimental method as a model for thinking in general, defining signs as such as means of inquiry (you can always conceive more effects of an object). Attempts to restore the originary structure of Christianity, for example, will rely on the disciplinary modes (and a careful sifting of what is valuable from them) of textual and historical analysis developed far more recently, i.e., on treating Christian texts, documents and histories as one would treat any texts, documents and histories. At the same time, though, disciplinarity is a form of discipleship, a mode of authority and inquiry into the divine that reaches back into antiquity and is central to the founding of Christianity; moreover, discipline is simply a more deliberate form of deferral, so Peirce’s definition of the sign as, essentially, anything one could form a disciplinary space around, is continuous and consistent with the originary hypothesis, which sees signification and meaning as an effect of deferral. Disciplinarity and discipleship alike are landmarks in the history of modes of deferral, which becomes the history of civilization—Peirce was also clear that the purpose of signification was to conduct such inquiries as would modify “conduct,” which for him meant “self-control,” i.e., discipline. To use the word “dog,” then, is to initiate an inquiry into all our possible relations with dogs, an inquiry that transforms our relations with dogs into one vehicle through which we modify our conduct in shared and deliberate ways—so as to enable us to conduct more inquiries. One effect might certainly be to make us better dog owners.

Disciplinarity in this, now, broader sense, one that acknowledges the equal legitimacy of all modes of inquiry, is characterized by discovery and revelation. This is really what the laboratory brings to the surface: it isolates one specific thing that we don’t know, and it sets up a scene in which we can come to know it. The scientist sets something up that comes unbidden in divine revelation—but is that completely true? Doesn’t divine revelation, or the more secular revelation provided by a startling poem, for example, require some kind of preparation and openness, even if one doesn’t know exactly what one is preparing and being open towards? In more ordinary circumstances, when one is, for example, worried about whether someone else can be trusted, one finds a way to bring the question of their trustworthiness into focus—to abstract it from all their other “characteristics,” to gather “evidence,” to “test” it, etc. In the process those other characteristics, which have been “bracketed,” enter back into the inquiry, transformed by it. The less of life that is covered by ritualistic prescription of behavior, the more must be covered by such “procedures.” The trick of progressivism is to attribute this kind of learning to society as a whole, as represented by self-certifying experts, and the state that employs them. So, for example, once “we” have concluded that “race” is a meaningless concept, “we” can go about abolishing all social distinctions based directly or indirectly on “race.” We can, in response, make a Hayekian argument about the distribution of knowledge throughout society, or invoke Chesterton’s fence, but we can also simply take the claim head on: lots of people use the word “race” in lots of different ways and choosing a specific, narrowly genetic meaning, and to purport to settle that meaning in accord with an arbitrarily chosen criterion (like the fact that there are more genetic differences within than between races) is to offer a power rather than inquiry based conclusion. The approach I am suggesting asks about the meaning of words; it doesn’t decide in advance that specific disciplines have the sole right to determine those meanings. And it also keeps in mind that those disciplines never have a final meaning either.

The adoption of any kind of dissident stance implies constant testing of prevailing assumptions, for others as well as for oneself. The cross-disciplinary means of doing so is the thought experiment, which we can get better at constructing and enacting. A thought experiment tests the meaning of a word, or a particular use of a word, or a sentence (a proposition), or a broader argument or mode of thought. The goal is always to de-anthropomorphize, to take a sign that has a (received) meaning in itself and treat it as a sign that has meaning for an (actual or possible) disciplinary space. All exchanges should target some element of the other’s discourse for disciplining—it is a favor we do each other. Look for some “hinge”: something in the sign that, if the rest of its meaning were left constant, but the meaning of that part of the sign changed, would lead to incommensurable uses. Make one of the possible meanings as obvious as possible, and the other as unlikely as possible (the range can then be narrowed as needed). Peirce’s approach is a good one: what form of conduct would follow from adopting one shade of meaning as opposed to another? Inflate the differing consequences while compressing the difference in the “shading”—constructing the greatest diverging effects from the smallest differences yields the most information. This method for the instantaneous creation of a disciplinary space should work equally well for solitary musing as for engaged, even confrontation encounters with allies and enemies alike. The criterion is internal to practice: which form of conduct improves existing and generates new spaces of inquiry? Self-control is simultaneously the control of the effects of practices; others are invited to replace meaninglessness with meaning.

As an example, let’s take Jonathan Chait’s recent amusing claim that Trump has been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987.What are all the effects of our conception of this object, this sign? Here we can see the limits of truth testing: there’s no way any of us can prove that Trump has not been a Russian sleeper agent since 1987. (The more “verifiable” truth claims become the only legitimate form of discourse, the more you, paradoxically, incentivize the production of claims that are absurd but cannot be falsified.) One of the effects is that we can imagine everything Trump has done the last 30 years as spy work, providing what might be entertaining explanations of “The Apprentice,” his buildings in Manhattan, his proclivity to take wives from the former Soviet bloc and so on. Who knows what and whom else might be swept up in this net? Another effect is that we are left to consider why his Soviet and then his Russian handlers seem to have had a sharper sense of, or concern for, the interests of Americans than American leftists (or many conservatives, for that matter) seem to. Another effect is that we can assume everyone who is similar to Chait ideologically either agrees with his theory, or will eventually come to embrace it (it’s a, if not necessarily the, logical conclusion of the whole Trump collision narrative), so they can all be asked to endorse or repudiate it. Yet another effect is that we can now frame every other political figure of even (what the hell!) public figure in terms of all the signs suggesting that some other country might be pulling his or her strings.

We can use the boundary between “Trump is a Russian sleeper agent” and Trump is, well, Trump, as a way of generating conceptual distinctions, hypotheses and conduct—in this case, for the most part, potentially very productive meme-ing and trolling conduct. The claim itself means something. The fact that this particular person makes in this particular venue means something. That others who respond in certain ways to the statement means something. That the statement can be seen to be modeled on previous claims and campaigns means something. That other statements can be modeled on it in turn means something. The way to generate all these meanings is to, on the one hand, take the claim as literally as we possibly can, enter the world it constructs, let that world invade the world of the things we normally take literally; and, on the other hand, mark everything in the reality that we know that does not require the Trump as a Russian sleeper agent hypothesis to make sense. In the end this will get us to the truth, because with a truthful sign the invasion by the world constructed by the sign we are studying of the world as it exists without that sign would not provide a jarring juxtaposition; it would fit in seamlessly. Even after repeated tests.

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