Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why Mark Johnson is a pragmatist, but cannot be accepted uncritically by pragmatists

Below is a draft from an article nearing completion.  It is taken out of context, which I'll supply if the article is accepted.  Comments are very welcome, especially if one can find another fully developed theory of the imagination.  No, Fesmire and all that other "dramatic rehearsal" stuff is not what I mean.  Read Johnson's Kantian explanation--that's the level being requested.  This is some of the material that built off my last SAAP presentation.

Mark Johnson maintains the only pragmatic theory of imagination other than Alexander's, who was the inspiration for Johnson and myself. 1  I will explain the limited role of Johnson's work in this essay, which also accounts for the unusual style of its exposition.  Johnson and I attribute the same inspiration for our theories, John Dewey, although our goals differ.  I aim to develop the classical tradition as a "neoclassical" pragmatist, while Johnson sees Dewey as the solution to many problems in the anglo-american tradition in which he was originally trained.  He incorporates scholarship from many, many sources that are not tested against or are obviously incompatible with the classical pragmatist tradition.  This is not a problem for Johnson, since he is solving problems in analytic philosophy, but his solutions are thereby not ipso facto answers for the pragmatist tradition.  We inheritors of the tradition cannot blindly accept any "pragmatic" theory without risking the introduction of contradictions and incoherency.  What is at stake is pragmatism as a tradition with something to offer to the contemporary scene rather than a toolbox to be regularly raided.  As pragmatist scholars know well, pragmatism is a wholly different tradition that encompasses novel theories in most fields, but this breadth and depth is not well known to other traditions.  In consequence, I will present a pragmatic theory of imagination based on the original works of and later scholarship on John Dewey for the purposes of growing the tradition.  Johnson cannot fulfill this role, although as I will indicate, his synthesis of pragmatism serves as a bridge for neoclassical scholarship to connect to contemporary cognitive science.  His theory is complementary rather than a competitor, and though I commend his work, I would chastise pragmatists who would embrace it uncritically as consistent with (neo)classical pragmatism.

Johnson's view is that we understand abstract thought in terms of simpler bodily activities and structures.  For example, "MORE is UP;" we understand quantity in terms of verticality due to our embodied nature, where being "taller" means being "more." (BitM, xv)   We project bodily understanding into abstract thought to render them intelligible.  The claim is radical, because it places the source and limitation of intelligibility in the body, not the mind.  So many philosophical concepts reputed to be basic to universal and disembodied "reason" must be derived and betray a vestigial Cartesianism.    For  my purposes, the details of Johnson's theory and not its implications are important.

"Imagination" is the projection of bodily experience into abstract thought.  It is understanding via "metaphoric projection," which is a "pervasive mode of understanding by which we project patterns from one domain of experience in order to structure another domain of a different kind." (BitM, xiv-xv)  Projection can also be understood as an "isomorphic" mapping from a "source domain" to a "target domain" (116).  For example, we understand "sexual appearance" as "physical force," and thus we speak of being overcome by an irresistible power as if by bodily confinement. (16)  The patterns of the simpler domain become projected onto the abstract one and serve to limit inference and meaning.  These understandings follow regular patterns called "schema."  The patterns to be projected are "image schemata," a "recurring, dynamic pattern of our perceptual interactions and motor programs that gives coherence and structure to our experience." (14)  The schema are the dynamic patterns by which imaginative projection orders experience into intelligibility.

Johnson attributes his theory of imagination and schema to Kant (BitM, 19, 156), but his only detailed discussion of Kant is illustrative rather than substantial.  3  Contra Kant, e.g., he views schema as organizing bodily structures and activity (20).  There are numerous other points on which Johnson's theory cannot be Kantian, but the illustration is apt, because most contemporaries have a Romantic view of imagination as the production of images rather than Kant's, for which imagination mediates between sensible intuition (percepts) and categorical understanding (concepts) such that sensation becomes meaningful.

"I have given considerable attention to Kant's account, because he makes a point upon which the entire argument of my book rests, namely, that all meaningful experience and all understanding involves the activity of imagination which orders our representations (the reproductive function) and constitutes the temporal unity of our consciousness (the productive function)." (157)

I will agree with Johnson that "all meaningful experience and understanding involves the activity of imagination," but not that "imagination orders our representations" or "constitutes the temporal unity of our consciousness". 2 (157)  Much of what he attributes to "imagination" I will ascribe to other functions such that the whole account of how sense becomes meaningful will be sympathetic but irreconcilable to his.  Specifically, habit orders experience, which is both a pattern and activity whose projective function of associating quality and meaning will be named "imagination."  This function is analogous to the Kantian synthetic function by which sense (felt quality) becomes meaningful.  Yet if one were to parse Kant's three-fold synthesis of imagination, e.g., cognizing a series of representations as a single object, as a temporal procession of objects, and as a recognition of what an object is, then one realizes that there is no correlate in my Deweyan pragmatic theory. 3.  There can be no correlate for many reasons, including conflicting theories of time; non- vs. representational theories of experience; process metaphysics wherein "experience" signifies across metaphysical, biological, and phenomenological domains per the principle of continuity; etc.  Many of these conflicts remain even when Johnson steps back from a Kantian articulation and approaches a more pragmatic one, as he did in his more recent books.4

In The Meaning of the Body, Johnson adopts his most Deweyan-pragmatic view to date.  However, he appropriates Deweyan terms without accounting for their original or modified signification.  For instance, most of what he writes about "quality," "feeling," "emotion," or "situation" (MotB, 56-70) is partially correct, but in a way that conforms to conventional expectations at odds with Dewey or subsequent scholarship.6  I will later discuss all of these these except "situation," and  the conflict--either between their original or my modified signification--will become apparent to anyone familiar with Johnson's work.5  

In closing, Johnson's theory is complimentary to neoclassical pragmatism, i.e., scholarship anchored to the living tradition, but need give no notification or rationale when it departs from the tradition while proclaiming to be "Deweyan."  Such scholars cannot uncritically or wholesale accept his theory, but should be partners in the larger discourse of contemporary philosophy.  To contribute to the discourse, I propose that Johnson's empirical work on "image schema" describe how feeling (the activity) becomes felt quality (the event) as organized by habit.  I will return to the topic at the end of the essay, by which time the implications of the proposal in the present framework will be more obvious.

The Motivating Question for Immanent Transcendence

It began with a simple question.  It ended in a labyrinth of arcane answers.  Who are we, when we are not whom we think?  People live a fundamental duality between making the world their own and sharing the world with us.  We step from the cliff and find ourselves on the other side, yet so few see the chasm between.

Plato acknowledged two dark horses of our nature, one firm and one spirited, and Aristotle likewise divided the wisdom of thought and act.  Both aspired for the harmony of the person with oneself.  A person without self-harmony or sophrosune would fall to viciousness and hubris, over-stepping human limitation.

When we step from our world and into the world of others, we bridge a chasm not only with them, but also within ourselves.  We are ourselves only because we were already someone else.  Personality is social first and individual second.  This leads to the moral duality of human nature that is a journey between hubris and tragedy.  When my world is not first my own, but is gifted to me by another, am I not also  burdened with their hubris?

When I step out over the howling deep and step down, am I greeting my fellows in the blindness of hubris or through the mornful eyes of tragedy?  If "I" am first "us," am I born with the living history of their hubris?  Yes.  We are Janus-faced, and the difference between tragedy and hubris is stoic acceptance and reconciliation.

The duality is known as the distinction between narrative self and behavioral or "performative" self.  Between the story that I tell to voice my identity, and the behaviors that enact this self.  A schism here is commonly known as hypocrisy, but that does not address my question.  My question is how our embodiment, which is so dramatically informed by our social, historical, cultural, economic, material, etc. conditions, limits the meaningfulness or intelligibility of experience.  For example, how can a person do something overtly racist or ethnocentric, but not experience the action as such, even when confronted with the act and its consequence?  If we are embodied beings first and thinking beings second, contra Plato and Aristotle, then how can we be at harmony with ourselves when the "we" from which we were born defiles the "I" that might be?  The harder question is how do we reconcile this knowledge, our bite of the apple of the tree of good and evil, with my hope to be other than who we were.

The insight that the author offers is to recognize both the necessity of this dilemma and the danger of its narcissistic recognition.  I have always done evil, because we have always done evil, but we did not always care.  Innumerable atrocities have been committed throughout history, but only recently have some had the narcissism to voice their repentance--as if changing my story edited our history and thereby its legacy in my flesh.  Too many of my contemporaries accept the lie of self-authorship and its narcissism.  The only other path is tragedy, the acceptance human limitation mingled with the will to be better than we once were.

What is Immanent Transcendence?

Human freedom.

If we accept that individuality emerges from social, cultural, linguistic, historical, material, and other conditions, and that individuality is the locus of freedom, then we are not free for the most part.  We are free only in those moments in which we transcend our conditions, and every moment is such a possibility as long as chance is loose in the world.  However, those conditions also empower us and give our existence meaning.  Perhaps only a mystic would appreciate a transcendence that becomes meaningless, perhaps finding peace in the no-thingness that is God.  But that is not he path of human freedom.  Freedom is the transcendence of desire, eros, conatus, and it may be found in human imagination.  Yet if transcendence is to be meaningful, how do we reconcile the common conditions of meaning with the uncommonness of transcendence?

Heidegger called it authenticity, but for him it was a momentary escape from them.  Its call was that of conscience that calls me back to myself by calling me forth to my ownmost possibilities.  He understood the dilemma of the social genesis of individuality, but posited alienation through conscience as a source.  He did so against the Catholic tradition of conscience as a tribunal.  How that that project the nullity, the not-yet, of my ownmost possibilities?

I do not believe that we should free ourselves from others for transcendence, but that we should free ourselves from impulsive desire, eros, conatus….  Meaningful transcendence cannot transcend the other, or even the other within myself that is my fallenness, but is a transition from lower to higher value.