The World's Answering Machine
And I said, I said, ‘I spent the week deciding Kant was the first Modernist, then spent the weekend discovering that Clement Greenberg called Kant the first Modernist. Which is exactly what I hated about childhood the first time around: you thought you and the world were having a conversation but actually you were talking back to the recorded message on the world’s answering machine.’
(fr. Peli Grietzer, Amerikkkkka)
Reading Erving Goffman this past week has been a bit like this. It's not that I thought my ideas about opticratics and interpersonal games were original, but if you don't know where to find the ideas, or you're missing a searchable concept handle, your only recourse is plowing forward solo. Wheels may get reinvented at great energy cost. But maybe there are merits to this process!
The classic mistake of the old: Thinking there are no new ideas.
The classic mistake of the young: Thinking your ideas are new.
So—here we are in the middle-way, trying to strike a balance. Maybe novelty doesn't matter at all.
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But also, we are not simply trying to balance the two! To me the point of novelty has always been that one assumes something has to be truly new in order to be revolutionary. But things that are locked away in specific books, subcultures, and frameworks are just as unreachable as things that haven't been thought yet. I want to do something, and perhaps it's high time we talk about what our real goals are!
I know both you (@suspendedreason) and hazard (@hazard) have written on this and I should polish my thoughts on it and post them as well. But let me briefly mention three things that seem important to us:
- A method and example of a kind of living compendium to build ideas up that allow us to think critically about the inexact sciences. This is so vague to describe, but I do no think it is a vague idea at all: for instance, we would like to have a basic sketch of what kind behavior even needs to be explained, and I am not very satisfied with the taxonomies in Psychology, Cognitive Science, or even the Ethnography that I've read.
- We would like to find a workable vocabulary for talking about words. Philosophy continues to hopelessly confuse itself and linguists, in general, call this meta-talk that does not try to specify a very exact behavior anthropology and punts it to the future. If we are to escape conceptual engineering we need more than "I know it when I see it." with in-depth arguments that are always situation specific. We need pillars, the way Economics has supply and demand; however much I think Economics tends to confuse itself, I can't deny how useful that framing is.
- We need a way to keep ourselves honest, a way of deciding which of our ideas "pay rent". This goes back to @beiser's critique of my critique of "probabilism" as unfounded: I didn't present a clear enough description of what probabilism as it stands can't do, either by showing what it gets definitively wrong or by showing something I can conceive of that get's something significantly more right. Thinking about the kind of data we're comfortable founding our beliefs on will be key, and I believe what my next post will be about...
But one fourth thing that I want to ask if people would be interested in me fleshing out, as I'm keen to share it, but wondering if there's really any interest about it in these parts:
- One of my biggest, if not my biggest dream has been to create a true "narrative engine", an automatic machine that you can interact with like a video game or D&D Dungeon Master that will unfold a world as you ask about it and poke around. I have many reasons for desiring it, but perhaps the most basic is that this would implicitly define a kind of description of the narrative reality we live in. Anything that feels unnatural in such a narrative engine, would indicate a blindspot in the programming/data of the engine. One of the most interesting properties of such an engine, would be that the medium is inherently going to be spare compared to reality: a description of a room is so many orders of magnitude less information rich than a room itself. Therefore, a narrative engine must unfold along a learned notion of salience, of what a person would see in a room, how they would simplify it if they had to describe it. These are things we are not good at describing, and I think they are very difficult to describe without an alternative. Recently I have been playing the video game Disco Elysium. I have a played quite a few video games in my life, and I can say with deep certainty, that it is the first thing to come close to really trying to encode contextual social salience in its hard-wired narrative engine. I think this description-by-videogame is an interesting frame, would others be interested in hearing me flesh it out?
Reading up on Wittgenstein, I was struck by his stance on citation and originality. From the preface to Tractatus:
I do not wish to judge how far my efforts coincide with those of other philosophers. Indeed, what I have written here makes no claim to novelty in detail, and the reason why I give no sources is that it is a matter of indifference to me whether the thoughts that I have had have been anticipated by someone else.
He apparently got into quite a tiff, in his undergrad thesis at Cambridge, with his supervisor—Moore had reminded Wittgenstein he needed citations and a bibliography to pass muster; young Wittgenstein demanded an exception.