Friday, June 29, 2012

The Logic of Problematicity

John Dewey claims that we begin to reflect when a situation becomes problematic. We “feel” a difficulty and the unproblematic situation becomes problematic. I would ask a critical and logical question about this model that is insufficiently discussed in the scholarship. [The following is a proposal.]

If one situation is continuous with another in time, then how does a problematic situation emerge from an unproblematic situation? Continuity is not identity, but then, when does the situation stop being one and become the other? The common response is that any situation contains both problematic and unproblematic elements, i.e., the “precarious” and “stable.” However, this just defers the question: how does the precarious emerge as dominant rather than the stable? The usual rebuttal that we "feel a difficulty" is, again, a deferment. A complete solution should explain how a spontaneity might become the catalyst for a problematic situation. Expansive rebuttals that include the concepts of “felt difficulty,” from How We Think, “tension” from the Studies in Logical Theory or the Logic, or “impulsion” from Art as Experience are also insufficient because none of these explain continuity. I suspect that scholars mentally plug Peirce’s “synechism” into the “continuity” hole when it arises, or if they are like Berstein (cite), call Dewey on being vague.

Why does this matter? It is a logical problem with practical consequences. The logical problem lies in explaining the gestalt shift between a situation experienced as problematic and one not. Insomuch as the two situations are continuous with stable and precarious elements in each, the assertion that a "felt difficulty," "tension," or "impulsion" occurs does not tell us what differences *made a difference*. Continuity implies that given any problematic situation and an unproblematic one before it, there was a transitional situation. Was that situation problematic or not? The question can be infinitely repeated, because continuity implies that given any two moments there is always a third between them. When did the situation become overtly problematic?  The solution that every situation has problematic and unproblematic elements neglects to explain the qualitative difference. The practical consequences include issues of discernment and sensitivity: what counts as problematic? When is harshness experienced as cruelty? When is anger experienced as racism?

I will dispel the vagueness about how two situations may be continuous, non-identical, and yet display the inflection point that is a problematic situation. I will turn to Tom Burke’s distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” continuity. Horizontal continuity is continuous interaction among entities, whereas vertical continuity implies self-similar continuity. While the former case includes spatiality, the latter includes temporal or historical continuity. I will show that the vagueness about the continuity of the unproblematic and problematic is the conflation of horizontal and vertical continuity. Claiming that every situation contains precarious and stable elements is a case of horizontal continuity; it makes claims about the potentialities of the situation. However, the gestalt shift from unproblematic to problematic is a shift in conscious experience, in how the situation is interpretted, which is primarily a case of time, history, and vertical continuity. When does a difference make a difference? The conventional response that every situation is precarious and stable ignores the temporal element element of continuity. I aim to address this vagueness.

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