Saturday, July 7, 2012

How a Leaf Thinks Its Root: Continuity, Experience, Thought

This is a study of the implications of continuity for experience, where “continuity” and “experience” have the significations given to them in the American tradition of philosophy in such thinkers as C.S. Peirce, John Dewey, and A.N. Whitehead. Rather than define these terms as I have done many times before on this blog and in my glossary, I will instead exemplify them through their use in am example that should indicate the unusualness of their denotation.

The leaf becomes “aware” of its root, for example, through the capillary actions that bring it sustenance. It need not “know” what its root is; it needs no idea that mirrors the facts of roots. It needs only the continuous connection and the ability to make use of it. Yes, this implies that the leaf’s being aware of its root is multiply realizable; the root could in fact be many different things, but the only thing that matters in this sense of “awareness” is a functional identity, not an essential one.

Likewise, a human becomes aware of the world through a continuous connection with it. Knowledge is not a matter of ideas mirroring facts and is more than a formal system of justifying a belief. Knowledge is demonstrated through the ability to use one’s connection with the world to produce an anticipated effect; all knowledge is a form of abduction. Yet, going deeper, Dewey claims that all reflective thought is abduction in How We Think. We encounter something in the world, and the encounter is felt as a pervasive quality of the situation, we might become drawn to the encounter and experience or think it as a meaning. To experience something as meaningful is to anticipate how to interact in the encounter, whereas familiarity with an encounter implies a richness of meaning. However, the more familiar something is, the less aware we are of this richness, as its novelty has been bled and absorbed into habitual actions rather than careful and curious ones.

In the leafy and human cases, there is no need for the correspondence of an idea to its reference. Experience is informative not because of some mirroring, but because the occurence of an event may be taken as a sign for the future. The reliable ability to recognize an event as a sign for the future is the basis of meaning and how an experience become one of knowing rather than mere experiencing. This is a non-representational and non-cognitivist understanding of experience that is not exclusive to humans, since anything that can transact or interact in nature can “experience.” Given that definition, in principle everything that exists can “experience,” and this definition places the human conscious experience in continuity with the rest of nature. It is no longer a mysterious, unexplainable, or dualistic notion.

1 comment:

  1. All the world may become a vehicle for some sign. But which sign? For what interpreter, or whom?