Sunday, December 9, 2012

Playing with Language

The common view of language today seems the revolve around the idea of an "infinite semiosis" of one kind or another.  Words go from words to words in an intensional play among a network of meanings.  There is a cursory nod to reference, to the extension of things referred to by a word, but it is soon forgotten in a fractal animation of possible tropes.  With the question of reference left behind, though, there can be no question of the truth and falsity for what is being said.  And without any concern for truth and falsity, following Frankfurt's definition, it's all bullshit.

The object, shifting to the Peircean terminology, is left behind and forgotten because (1) it is placed at the beginning of the process and (2) it is understood materialistically (as opposed to semiotically).

ObjectSign1Interpretant/Sign2… → Interpretant/Signn

Where we ostensibly start triadically, we are immediately proceeding within a dualism of sign and interpretant.  It seems to me, the object should instead be at the center of each transition from sign to interpretant: Something more like:  

Sign1ObjectInterpretant/Sign2 →  Object → Interpretant/Signn 

a circular motion around the object that remains triadic.  However, this also requires that we realize the object itself as a semiotic entity — let's say our diagrammatic understanding, such as it is, of the thing in question — rather than as an opaque material reality.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Diagrams and Metaphors

For Peirce diagrams are part of triad of icons that contains images on the one side and metaphors on the other.  But if he doesn't say all that much about diagrams, he says even less about metaphors. In that light, however, James C. Scott gives an interesting example in Seeing Like a State.
When the first European settlers in North America were wondering when and how to plant New World cultivars, such as maize, they turned to the local knowledge of the Native American neighbors for help. They were told by Squanto, according to one legend (Chief Massasoit, according to another), to plant corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel's ear. [p. 311]
He notes with regard to this advice:
As a rule of thumb, it was a nearly foolproof formula for avoiding a frost. [p. 312]
And comparing it to a specific date or calendar event in an almanac Scott notes that this means is transferable to different latitudes and longitudes (wherever there are oak tree and squirrels) and is more efficient (as any specific date would have to be set more conservatively).  What strikes me is that it is a metaphor, a comparison of two systems whose diagrammatic complexity is ignored in favor of characteristics they share. Several hypotheses suggest themselves from this.
  1. Rules of thumb should generally be interpreted as metaphors.
  2. Rules of thumb (metaphors) generally come first and the diagrams later. Euclid's geometry, for example, was not so much abstractions directly from nature, but abstractions that could incorporate the geometric rules of thumb already in use (Euclid's Window).
  3. In using language, following Peirce, we go from the object to a sign (in name only) to an interpretant. In this way we can talk, endlessly it seems, without really knowing what we are talking about.
  4. Thinking diagrammatically is the effort of going back to the sign and laying out an analogous system that produces that interpretant, and others, from internally generated consequences.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Non-Implications (Part 2)

I put this question as to what Peirce himself meant by "non-implication" on Peirce-L.  A couple of responses there focused on the diversity, and sometimes disparity, of consequences that can implicatively follow from a term or concept.  "Non-implications" seems taken as referring to what are still implications but are ones not meant, not noticed, unexpected or unintended consequences of the term or concept.  In one of the posts, Eugene Halton modifies the passage from Peirce's to say:
In another sense, honest people, when joking, intend to make the meaning of their words multi-determinate, so that there shall be latitude of interpretation. That is to say, the character of their meaning consists in the implications and non-implications of their words; and they intend to ambiguate what is implied and what is not implied.
This semantic ambiguity is not only the basis of humor, but also of art. And I would argue it is the basis for trapping, tricking, and taking advantage of all sorts of unthinking animals, unsuspecting humans, and various situations.

Further still though, it is these different, and even contrary, consequences that drive us back into our understanding of a term or concept itself. Cathy Legg noted:
Plato was also brilliant at 'speaking doubly' for purposes of awakening philosophical insight …
Thus, for example, the disparity of the use-value and exchange-value as consequences of the concept of "commodity," that can be taken advantage of on a practical level, can also propel us to look at the diagrammatic structure of that concept, its applications and consequences, such that it does produce, rightly or wrongly, these contrary consequences.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


In a colloquium I recently attended this passage was cited from Peirce.
In another sense, honest people, when not joking, intend to make the meaning of their words determinate, so that there shall be no latitude of interpretation at all. That is to say, the character of their meaning consists in the implications and non-implications of their words; and they intend to fix what is implied and what is not implied. They believe that they succeed in doing so, and if their chat is about the theory of numbers, perhaps they may. But the further their topics are from such presciss, or "abstract," subjects, the less possibility is there of such precision of speech.  ["Issues in Pragmatism," The Monist, 1905]
What, however, are "non-implications"?

Apparently, non-implications can be looked at as just the negation of implication, in which case the non-implications would seem to refer to any exceptions to the implications.  That is, we would have certain implications or consequences by which a word or concept is generally understood, but to understand it clearly, we would also have to be aware of any exceptions to those inferences.  I'm not sure how must sense that makes, and it does seem a bit strict.  As Peirce says, "perhaps" we can do this with something like the theory of numbers but with other things it's not really feasible.

The speaker at the colloquium (Dave Beisecker of UNLV) approached this use of "non-implication" in terms of implications that would be "permitted" as opposed to those that would be "obligatory."  Diagrammatically, I find this proposal interesting.

For example, within the context of a roadmap inferences regarding distances and towns are obligatory but those regarding the shape of the roads or rivers drawn on it are not.  In general, some elements of any diagram (or concept) would seem to be functionally obligatory while others are not.

Or, in the case of Mark Twain becoming a steamboat pilot, he says:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! [Chapter 9, Life on the Mississippi]
Is that really true?  Twain goes on to describe a memorable sunset in vivid and exquisite detail. Don't those permitted inferences continue within the diagrammatic functionality of obligatory inferences, giving some color and life to sterility of the diagram itself?  It would seem such experiences would still be possible, that they are still part of the concept.  Is that where the diagrams of our thinking go astray?  When our concepts are not coupled to a direct acquaintance with the thing itself and all those merely permitted implications that can come along with the strictly functional ones?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Diagrammatic Violence

Diagrammatic thinking does violence to our experience.  The abstractions of the diagram take a rich, dynamic experience turning it into elements and ingredients that can be digested and implemented for its own purposes. As Elizabeth Grosz puts it in terms of the "intellect":
The intellect functions to dissect, divide, atomize: contemporary binarization and digitalization are simply the current versions of this tendency to the clear-cut, the unambiguous, the opposition or binary impulses of the intellect, which is bound by the impetus to (eventual or possible) actions. [Grosz, "The Thing"]
Grosz, via Derrida, traces this violence down to any use of language, to the possibility of language itself, but then asks:
Perhaps the question ahead of us now is this: what are the conditions of digitization and binarization? Can we produce technologies of other kinds? Is technology inherently simplification and reduction of the real? [Ibid.]
We can look to more primitive outlooks such as might make a canoe out of a tree and give thanks to the well-suited tree being sacrificed for that purpose, but there is still some diagrammatic violence being done to the thing itself.  Can we construct diagrams, or think diagrammatically, on some basis other than a select number of analogous relationships with their abstract endpoints?  I don't think so?  So then, the question is can we think, productively, other than diagrammatically?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Real and Replica

In the "Kaina Stoicheia" — a slow-read of this piece is going on on the Peirce list — Peirce distinguishes the replicas of representation from real things.
"In the first place, a sign is not a real thing. It is of such a nature as to exist in replicas. … A real thing does not so exist in replica. The being of a sign is merely being represented.  Now really being and being represented are very different." ["Kaina    Stoicheia," p. 303] 
But a thing like the chairs here in Starbucks are replicas as well, replicas of each other via a diagram or a design, which would seem to make the diagram the real thing and the chairs replicas.  Is this something true of commodities or mass-produced objects?  Or, is it more generally true? A kind of Hegelian reversal of what is real and what is replica?

As signs become symbols:
"I must and do admit that a symbol cannot exert any real force. Still, I maintain that every sufficiently complete symbol governs things, and that symbols alone do this.  I mean that though it is not a force, it is a law." [Ibid., p. 313]
As the symbol, with ongoing successful applications, takes on the force of law, it would seem to become the real thing.  That is, what were the "real things" would become instances of that law, replicas in terms of its applications, and the law would become the reality.
"A diagram, indeed, so far as it has a general signification, is not a pure icon but in the middle part of our reasonings we forget that abstractness in great measure, and the diagram is for us the very thing." [CP 3.362]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Same River Twice

Diagrammatic thought derives from Kant's notion of schema.  Hegel viewed Kant's triadic schema as an empty formalism and suggested instead "Notions" for science that are the "inner life and self-movement" of the existent thing.
"Science dare only organize itself by the life of the Notion itself. The determinateness, which is taken from the schema and externally attached to an existent thing, is, in Science, the self-moving soul of the realized content. The movement of a being that immediately is, consists partly in becoming an other than itself, and thus becoming its own immanent content; partly in taking back into itself this unfolding [of its content] or this existence of it, i.e. in making itself into a moment, and simplifying itself into something determinate."[§53, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller]
This sounds a lot like Mark Twain's riverboat pilot.  The "becoming other than itself" and "taking back into itself this unfolding" certainly sounds like what the river itself does, and perhaps its not a bad description of what science, via its experimentation, does as well.  The scientist, like the riverboat pilot, seems to their theory as tightly to its object or subject matter and to then build that theory (or Notion) by experimentally reaching beyond itself and then "taking back into itself" the results.  Perhaps Kant and much of modern thought is too close to mathematics, that more abstract, non-experimental kind of diagrammatic thinking.  Peirce tried to tie the two together:
"The chemist mounts an apparatus of flasks and tubes, places certain substances in the flasks, lights a Bunsen burner underneath, and watches to see what the result will be.  The mathematician constructs a geometrical diagram according to a certain prescription which describes the relations of the parts sufficiently for the purpose, and then looks out for new relations, not thought of in the construction.'' [Writings of Charles S. Peirce, Vol. 5, p. 381]
but I'm not sure it really works.  The mathematician may draw a diagram and then construct and look for new relationships, but the validity of those relationships does not then depend upon an experimental application of the diagram.  They are, instead, constructed and validated within the formal confines of the diagram itself.

Friday, June 8, 2012

From Metaphor to Diagram

Listening to the Daniel Coffeen's lecture, "Rhetoric of the Image + Merleau-Ponty's Chiasm," and the students' discussion (in the background) regarding David Shrigley's photograph on the left , I kept waiting for someone to say "it's a soccer field."  References were made to a "desolate scene," "barrenness," "background," "this area," "some field," a "vacant lot."  One student said "this soccer field, I guess" but didn't go anywhere with it.  For me, being specific about it being a "soccer field" brings it all together.  The housing in the background becomes a place where those absent soccer players live, the coconut looks like a soccer ball that could be used as a substitute in trying to be happy, but it also looks like it is hung from the near goal as a target for shooting practice.  It becomes a way for those kids in the rundown housing to shoot their way out of that situation and perhaps be happy in another more well-to-do life.

Regardless whether my interpretation is stupid, naive, or whatever — no connoisseur of such things is going to like  what I've done — what I have done is replace the metaphor of the photograph with a more or less explicit diagrammatic understanding of it.  For me, then, the metaphor is on it's way to becoming a cliché.  In contrast to that, though, consider the photograph on the right from Shrigley's home page.  There is a "sense" in which that cute little dog is dead.  It's not that it can't think; it's not that dogs do not have emotions, live, etc.  But there is a sense in which the dog couldn't have made that sign, or know what it means, and in that sense the dog is dead.  In this case, though, I have trouble making that sense explicit.  Maybe it's that the dog is incapable of self-reflective thought?  Maybe it's like Tournier's Friday who ceases to be human when taken out of human relationships.  Still, that's not quite it.  The photograph insists on remaining a metaphor, refuses to move toward being a cliché.  If I want to get at that sense again, I have to go back to it.

Peirce laid out an iconic trichotomy of image, diagram, and metaphor.
"Hypoicons may be roughly divided according to the mode of Firstness of which they partake.  Those which partake of simple qualities, or First Firstnesses, are images; those which represent the relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their own parts, are diagrams; those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else, are metaphors." [CP2.277]
Personally, I've never been a big fan of metaphors, or at least not of thinking in metaphors.  The devil is in precisely those details a metaphor glosses over.  But when there is a sense that can only be glimpsed metaphorically, that cannot be made explicit diagrammatically, then I have to admit, we're dealing with something special.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Habits and Belief

I've been reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business looking at it in relation to Peirce's notion beliefs and habits.  There is a diagrammatic view of habits — as cues, routines, and rewards – and various communities, as well as faith, that can play a role too.  Of course, Duhigg looks at habits from an psychological and mass-marketing perspective, whereas Peirce's concern was with an intellectual and scientific point of view, but the two perspectives feed into each other in interesting and fruitful ways.

One thing that caught my attention was Duhigg's notion of belief.  I always understood belief as referring to the habit; that is, being a habit meant the thing was believed and there was a willingness to act on it.  However, as Duhigg discusses in his chapter on changing habits, a willingness to act is not automatic with a habit.  A new habit can function flawlessly day after day, and then in an important or tense situation, can fail (the person reverts to their old habit) from an unwillingness, a lack of belief or trust, in the new habit.  Believing seems to be something over and above, separate from, what is believed.

Maybe this should have been obvious.  After all, Pierce characterized the methods of tenacity and authority as making no reference to the content of what was believed.  But perhaps believing should be seen as something separate from what is believed even with those methods of fixing belief that do focus on content?  Perhaps the scientific community is as necessary to scientific beliefs as the community of recovering alcoholics is to undoing a habit of alcohol abuse?  Perhaps induction is a faith in science to the point of being willing to act on habits whose only guarantee is that they are part of a process toward the truth?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Diagrammatic Hegemony

David Foster Wallace in "The Host" describes the following scene:
"Ms. B. [Ms. Bertolucci, Program Director] gently chides the new host for not hitting the Greg Haidl trial harder, and for usually discussing the case in his show's second hour instead of the first. Her thrust: 'It's a big story for us. It's got sex, it's got police, class issues, kids running amok, video, the courts, and who gets away with what. And it's in Orange County.'  When Mr. Ziegler [the Program Host] … protests that both Bill Handel and John & Ken have already covered the story six ways from Sunday every day and there is no way for him to do anything fresh or stimulating with it, Ms. B. nods slowly and responds:  'If we were KIIS-FM, and we had a new Christina Aguilera song, and they played it heavy on the morning show and the afternoon show, wouldn't you still play it on the evening show?'" ["The Host," p. 10]
The Program Director is looking at this from the point of view of the business, an impersonal logical construct indifferent to either one of them as well as to all those humans that make up its audience except as the figure into its calculations. What does this diagram for making money, or perhaps more generally, being a successful radio-business require?  The Program Host has what amounts to a personal objection — be it moral, aesthetic, thoughtful — to doing this particular thing.  But this  objection carries no weight with the Program Director.  What she wants done fits the firm's formula for success, and there is no such personal objection for her for the simple reason she does not have to do it. Her argument, of course, wins.
"[O]n tonight's (i.e., May 19's) program he does lead with and spend much of the first hour on the latest Haidl developments." [Ibid.]
The subtle imbalance in this ubiquitous kind of transaction has reduced the fullness of two human beings to the status of indices in an abstract and impersonal diagram that is dictating their actions.  We like to think we can dip into these diagrammatic mechanizations of our existence without drowning our humanity in the process. Are we just kidding ourselves?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pinning Down Irony

"And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down." [David Foster Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," p. [183]
For what Wallace calls a "malign addiction" — where the irony is in a thing, like TV or alcohol, that offers a cure or relief for problems it only makes worse — the only response possible would seem to be a 12-step program or TTDTO (turn the damn thing off). When the cure for doing nothing, the doing something of watching TV, is more of doing nothing, there is indeed no way to pin the irony down and make it productive.

But what of the Socratic irony: "All I know is that I know nothing."  Was that just a polite means of concealing his own wisdom?  Was the irony an unending (as in can never be pinned down) joke on others?  Or was it the positive basis of argument?  Of considering reasons for believing things (which he did not know) were true?  In a world of scientific explanations (beginning, as they do, from indisputable facts) and expert opinions (dispensed from above as encapsulated certainties) we forget the need for arguments, the need for reasons for what we believe is true, because, pinning down that Socratic irony, the only thing we can really know is that we know nothing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Creating Space

"The German word for 'uncanny,' as in Freud's famous essay on the Uncanny, is unheimlich — unhomely. The tourist thrives on the uncanny, moving happily through a phenomenal world of effects without causes. This world, in which he has no experience and no memory, is presented to him as a supernatural domain: the language of travel advertising hawks the uncanny as part of the deal."

The world of experience floods us.  Infinite combinations and permutations intoxicate us.  We see weird and wonderful things morphing from one to another.  We can pleasurably organize and describe this scene, pass our time taking pictures of it, explore it using maps and guides without really coming to a diagrammatic understanding of it ourselves.

But when Raban actually immigrated to Seattle, he could no longer remain a tourist:
"But for the newly arrived immigrant, this magic stuff is like a curse. … The immigrant needs to grow a memory, and grow it fast. Somehow or other, he must learn to convert the uncanny into the homely, in order to find a stable footing in the new land."
 Forming a diagrammatic understanding of his new home became a priority.  I don't think this is just a matter of doing things and getting around, for a tourist can do that, and I'm not sure it is just a matter of memories either.  The axioms of that first and foremost among diagrams, Euclid's geometry, created a space, and I think any diagram, by abstractly selecting only certain relationships from experience, also creates a "space."  Consider the aerial photo and map of the same region from a previous post to this blog.  The map is creating a space that the image, and perhaps the experience itself, lacks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Universal Diagrams

Even as we philosophically assess the diagram — its applications, logic, and consequences — we tend to look at single diagrams.  Looking at diagrammatic thinking only in terms of a single diagram is one-sided.  Diagrams evolve, interact with other diagrams.  They are limited by their own abstractive selections as well as by other diagrams, as complete and tightly strung as themselves, but nevertheless producing different consequences.

What's more, an exclusive focus on single diagrams flirts with delusions of universality.  Arendt noted the totalitarian emphasis on logic.
"The device both totalitarian rulers used to transform their respective ideologies into weapons with which each of their subjects would force himself into step with the terror movement was deceptively simple and inconspicuous: they took them dead seriously, took pride the one in his supreme gift for "ice cold reasoning" (Hitler) and the other in the 'mercilessness of his dialectics,' and proceeded to drive ideological implications into extremes of logical consistency …" [Hannah Arendt, "Ideology and Terror," p. 318]
This is an effect of taking a single diagram as universal. There is no need for concern with applications just as there is no need for concern with consequences.  Being universal, the diagram applies to anything and explains everything.  The only concern is with the logic of the diagram itself, and perhaps a "practical" concern with that circular fanaticism that goes all-in on realizing that universality.  Arendt continues quoting Stalin.
"The power, which Marx thought was born when the idea seized the masses, was discovered to reside, not in the idea itself, but in its logical process which 'like a mighty tentacle seizes you on all sides as in a vise and from whose grip you are powerless to tear yourself away; you must either surrender or make up your mind to utter defeat.'" [Ibid., p. 319].

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wedge Issues

A recent article, among others, in the Telegraph-News notes that Democrats are picking up on the Republican tactic of using wedge issues.  But I think this comparison overlooks a key element in the way wedge issues have worked.  Evolution, specifically the teaching of evolution in the schools, works as a wedge issue because an opinion one way or the other has no practical consequences for most people.  The majority of students are memorizing one thing and/or the other for an exam, and then they are done with it, as virtually all adults are, for the rest of their lives.  Their opinion, or what is done in the name it, is unhampered by any practical consequences for them.  A few people may resent the degradation of learning and scholarship — science teachers have balked at the insult to their discipline — but for the most part it is of little or no concern.

Abortion is a more interesting example, because it has been of practical concern to young people and their families at least as long I've been around.  But so long as the Republicans used a bait-and-switch of talking it up during the election and doing nothing about it once they were elected, it could function as wedge issue too.  And, it is precisely this, the fact numerous state legislatures are passing laws that threaten to take us back to coat hangers, back alleys, and unexplained vacations that mean it is not a wedge issue anymore.  It is becoming a real issue with practical consequences for more and more of the electorate.

Diagrammatically this brings out the necessity of there being practical consequences which can be assessed with regard to a concept or diagram.  Otherwise, anything goes.  And while we may still discuss the assumptions, applications, internal consistency, and even theoretical consequences of a concept, without practical consequences to the persons involved, all those things can be blithely ignored, distorted, and/or trivialized.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Diagrams Gone Bad

This is a route, more or less, that I learned to drive when I was stationed in Japan in the late 60s.  I learned a sequence of turns, marked by different landmarks, to get from the one place to the other.  This diagram could have gone wrong in any or all of three of ways.  
1.  The most obvious problem with the diagram was its lack of flexibility.  If I took a wrong turn at some point, I had no diagrammatic way of a) finding my way back to the route or b) recognizing the route when I did get back to it.  There could also have been other problems like ambiguous or non-unique landmarks.  On a more basic level, the analogy between the physical route and the diagrammed sequence could have been faulty.  Any of these problems in application might have led me to seek a different or more comprehensive diagram.
2.  The diagram itself might have been inconsistent.  This is not too common with something as straight-forward as a map, but it is all too common with more complex diagrams relying on things like logic or authority for their internal consistency — not to mention ideologies which are often intentionally inconsistent.
3.  The diagram could have produced consequences that didn't play out.  If it didn't lead to the proper destination, that would be a biggie, but there could have also been lesser inferences, things like indicating a left turn where none could be made or not clearly indicating which road where more than one veered off in a direction, that would have called for some kind of revision or notes to the diagram.
But if a diagram can be faulted on any of these three levels, it is by means of succeeding on each of these levels that it can, despite being a fiction, be tautly strung between our past and future experience.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Evolving Fiction

The irony of diagrammatic thinking is that a diagram is a "fiction".
"The work of the poet or novelist is not so utterly different from that of the scientific man.  The artist introduces a fiction; but it is not an arbitrary one; it exhibits affinities to which the mind accords a certain approval in pronouncing them beautiful, which if it is not exactly the same as saying that the synthesis is true, is something of the same general kind. The geometer draws a diagram, which if not exactly a fiction, is at least a creation, and by means of observation of that diagram he is able to synthesize and show relations between elements which before seemed to have no necessary connection." [CP 1.383]
The necessity — which itself can reflect a any kind of "consistency" — used to infer consequences that are taken to apply to that experience is created out of selective abstractions that are merely analogous in some way to experience.  Not only is this fiction deemed capable of inferring truth about experience, the diagram itself tends to become reality for us.
"A diagram, indeed, so far as it has a general signification, is not a pure icon; but in the middle part of our reasonings we forget that abstractness in great measure, and the diagram is for us the very thing." [CP 3.362]
This suggests a Hegelian manner of thinking with diagrams. We accept a diagram as "absolute," as reality, until cracks start to appear in our applications of it, in the inferences made within it, and/or in the consequences being inferred.  Then, at some point, we may just say "next" as Peirce accused Hegel doing, but in one way or another we replace that diagram with one more comprehensive or better-suited to our needs or just different.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Assessing a Diagram

Christopher Sims gave this definition of scientific thought.
"Advances in the natural sciences are discoveries of ways to compress data concerning the natural world — both data that already exists and potential data — with minimal loss of information." [p. 1]
Originally, it seems to me, the goal of the "natural sciences" was explanation, and then at some point that was reduced to "prediction", and now, apparently it's simply a matter of fitting past and future data to data-compressing correlations.  Whether for explanation, prediction, or fit the procedure may be diagrammatic, but assessing the consequences as a measure of diagrammatic thought, especially as the sole measure, seems to get increasingly rickety.  Later Sims laments:
"I think many economists now see themselves as experts in persuasion as much as experts in substantive knowledge.  They are willing to use arguments they know are flawed without explaining the flaws or to cite evidence they know could be shown to be misleading, for the sake of rhetorical effectiveness." [p. 9]
The diagrammatic purpose can only be realized in the motives of individuals users, and the reliance on assessing the consequences by itself is not much of a guarantee.  As Peirce wrote regarding the economics of research:
"It is to be remarked that the theory here given rests on the supposition that
the object of the investigation is the ascertainment of truth.  When an investigation is made for the purpose of attaining personal distinction, the economics of the problem are entirely different.  But that seems to be well enough understood by those engaged in that sort of investigation." [CP 7.157]
The economics of the diagram, the benefit versus the cost of using it, is the second measure, playing off the diagram's adequacy to its purpose.  These considerations determine whether we'll use a diagram or not, but there's a lot of slack in such determinations.  And, I don't think artificially adding the "ascertainment of truth" as a stipulated purpose will take up that slack.  We need to look at the consistency of the diagram itself, the inferences made within it, and the assumptions it makes.  We need to tighten things up between the experience to which it applies and the consequences which it then explains, predicts, and/or fits.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Conflicting Diagrams

When I was much younger, first
married, and living in a small rural town, I attended a local auction where I was able to purchase a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia for $4.00.  This was the result of two conflicting diagrammatic understandings — one of use-value, the other of exchange-value — as to how this object should be valued.  I found the one more appropriate from my own perspective and snatched up the "bargain".  But how would we say which one was true or false?  Or, assuming the diagrams themselves are not true or false, how would we judge which of the conflicting assertions was true or false?

With exchange-value the answer seems clear.  The auction itself set the value at $4.00.  More generally, someone might have paid that price knowing it was low relative to other markets.  A collection of potential markets would then be the measure.  But use-value is not so clear-cut.  For one thing, it's not quantifiable, not without any number of dubious estimates, and for many that alone is enough to reject it as "unscientific".  For another, even on a personal level, it still requires some fuzzy speculations as to just how useful a thing will be.

Despite their differences, however, both assessments reflect a reliance on purpose.  Garages and backyards of auction junkies are full of objects bought at a "good" price but never subsequently exchanged (or used), and personally, I toted that encyclopedia set around for years without me, or my children, ever actually using it.  Diagrams, first of all, seem to be assessed by whether they do, or do not, serve the purposes of those employing them.

My estimate of the use-value the encyclopedia set failed, and, thereby in a narrow sense, so did my diagram/concept of use-value.  More exactly, though, the failure in this case only showed that  something about my application of that concept was wrong.  I still favor use-value to exchange-value in my capitalistic dealings, but through that application, and others like it, I have learned to be more skeptical about the future uses a thing might have.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


In responding to Donald Davidson's confounding of language and conceptual schemes P. M. S. Hacker writes:
"[I]n the metaphorical sense in which a conceptual scheme is said to 'confront reality', it is not a language … but rather the grammar of the language, construed as the rules for the use of expressions that determine what does and what does not make sense.  For it is the grammar of a language thus construed which determines what is logically possible, i.e., what makes sense.  Grammar fixes the 'logical space' which the world (or reality) may or may not occupy.  And assertions couched in the language with that grammar are true or false according to whether things are as they are asserted to be." [Hacker, "On Davidson's Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," p. 298]
The constraints that a language exerts on a "system of generalizations" are constraints on what can be expressed, or more easily expressed, with that language.  These syntactic constraints are to a system of generalizations what the physical constraints of the piece of paper are to a Venn diagram.  One language, or diagrammatic medium, may be more amiable to one conceptual scheme than another, but, in either case, these syntactical constraints are generally taken as being part of the diagram's semantic nature and consistency.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Semantic Consistency

I don't know that we would want assert that all languages are tautological.  Logic certainly is, and perhaps mathematics, to the extent it is not axiomatically related to experience.  But it seems a bit strong to say something like "economic language" is made up of only tautologies.  More generally we might refer to a "semantic consistency" whereby the indices and relationships of a diagram, while they may be inspired by experience, are defined relative to one another within the confines of the diagram itself.  And where the consistency of a diagram is semantic — unlike where it is objective or axiomatic — the application of the diagram becomes a more pressing question.

Friedman's answer to this question is:
"[T]here inevitably will remain room for judgment in applying the rules.  Each occurrence has some features peculiarly its own, not covered by the explicit rules.  The capacity to judge that these are or are not to be disregarded, that they should or should not affect what observable phenomena are to be identified with what entities in the model, is something that cannot be taught; it can be learned but only by experience and exposure in the "right" scientific atmosphere, not by rote. It is at this point that the "amateur" is separated from the "professional" in all sciences and that the thin line is drawn which distinguishes the "crackpot" from the scientist." ["The Methodology of Positive Economics," p. 25]
This is no more than "common sense," what Deleuze called the "process of
recognition" that precedes "good sense", "the process of prediction" [Difference and Repetition, p. 285] deployed on a scientific level.  It is based upon an education in "the 'right' scientific atmosphere;" in particular, it is based on the specialization of "professional" schooling where an instrumental confinement to the diagram is embedded as a way of life. [see, "Re-Imagining the Academy: Louis Menand"] The problem is that it blinds its adherents to alternative diagrams, to there even being alternative diagrams, to different interpretations of the same situation, and it allows the importation of diagrams, with often tragic results, into situations where they do not apply.  Any diagram is a selective abstraction, one among several, and there is always the question whether it applies or not.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tautological Consistency

Milton Friedman ["The Methodology of Positive Economics"] describes economic science as:
"[A] system of generalizations that can be used to make correct predictions about the consequences of any change in circumstances." [p. 4]
And, he notes this system has two components.
"In part, it is a 'language' designed to promote systematic and organized methods of reasoning. In part, it is a body of substantive hypotheses designed to abstract essential features of complex reality." [p. 7]
He goes on to say:
"Viewed as a language, theory has no substantive content; it is a set of tautologies." [p. 7]
In one sense the economic language, like any other language and modern logic for that matter, is a set of tautologies.  Concepts such as supply and demand, perfect monopolies and perfect competition are defined relative to one another within the diagram.  The relationships between them are true, by definition, in all instances.

However, consider the accounting assumption, at least it was an assumption when I took accounting, that businesses are "on-going concerns."  Much of accounting, but especially the valuing of assets at cost, was based on this assumption.  It was part of defining what a "business" was, part of the accounting language, but it was not a tautology. The corporate raiders of, what was it, the 1980s, made a great deal of money, even went to jail, questioning that assumption.  There was a large and profitable difference between assets valued at cost in an ongoing concern and those same assets if the "business" was not to be an ongoing concern.

A language or logic does not sever its connection with experience by being tautologically consistent.  X = X is always true, but there remains the question of just what can and cannot be an X.  That tautology, and the diagrammatic inferences made employing it, will not work for something like Philip, who can be drunk or sober.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Assessing the Consequences

Peirce describes working with diagrams as follows:
"It is by manipulating on paper, or in the fancy, formulæ or other diagrams — experimenting on them, experiencing the thing. Such experience alone evolves the reason hidden within us and as utterly hidden as gold ten feet below ground — and this experience only differs from what usually carries that name in that it brings out the reason hidden within and not the reason of Nature, as do the chemist's or physicist's experiments." [CP 4.86]
He seems to have in mind the self-contained axiomatic diagrams, such as geometry or logic, and the "experimentation" he describes occurs within the diagram itself. It does not involve experience outside the diagram.  We might add new indices or relations to a map, to a steamboat pilot's knowledge, or to the sciences of chemistry and physics, but that would not be done working only within those diagrams.  It would be done by applying them to experience and measuring the inferences made against experience.  The diagram would be tied to experience both fore and aft as it were, and it is a peculiarity of axiomatic diagrams, not diagrammatic thinking in general, that they can cast off those lines and set sail.  And even having set sail, those axiomatic diagrams must be able to dock again, to measure their results against experience now and then.  Where there is an objective or axiomatic consistency on the input-side of diagrams, there is a consistency derived from assessing their inferences on the output-side.

This not to say diagrammatic thinking is necessarily experimental.  Any of Peirce's means of fixing beliefs — tenacity, authority, discussion, and/or experimentation — can be used to measure the consequences being inferred from a diagram, and thereby assess the diagram itself.  Even within the experimental means there are any number of criteria — truth, utility, beauty, goodness — that can be and have been applied.  This is just to say there is a measure in using the diagram that has a bearing on the structuring of the diagram itself.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Axiomatic Consistency

The pre-eminent exemplar of diagrammatic thinking is, of course, Euclid's geometry.  Unlike those diagrams relying on a constant conjunction with some particular object, the object of Euclidean geometry is axiomatically defined.
  1. "To draw a straight line from any point to any point.
  2. To produce a finite straight line continuously in a straight line.
  3. To describe a circle with any centre and distance.
  4. That all right angles are equal to one another.
  5. That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles." [Heath's translation]
Euclid's axioms set the constraints for what can and cannot be done in geometry, but they also specify the planar and three-dimensional space where the geometry can be applied.  The result is an implicative universality.  An axiomatically defined diagram can go anywhere, not because it applies everywhere, but because it specifies just where and when it will apply.  The axioms underpin an internally consistent unity, cut off from any particular object, that can also self-direct its applications throughout the universe.  It is a serious, if common, short-changing of axiomatic thought to limit the axioms to maintaining an internal consistency.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Objective Consistency

There's a tendency with diagrammatic thinking, one Peirce succumbed to as well, to discuss it in terms of science.  Mark Twain [in Life on the Mississippi] describes what he calls the "science" of being a steamboat pilot on the  Mississippi River in the late 1800s.  The amount of knowledge was immense, one way up the river, another going down, and constantly changing as the river changed. What's more, as with all non-tacit diagrams, the pilot had to "see" it. As Mr. Bixby put it:
NO! you only learn THE shape of the river, and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's IN YOUR HEAD, and never mind the one that's before your eyes. [p. 103]
Twain called what he was learning a "science", yet, unlike modern science, it concerned itself with only one particular object, the Mississippi River.  In fact, as the object, the river played the crucial role of underpinning the internal consistency of the diagram as well as the inferences being made using it.  It provided an objective assurance that a conflict resolution procedure would not be needed in applying the rules.  Rather than saying such knowledge is not really "science", that it is not diagrammatic because it is not generalizable, it might be better to realize that the modern sciences, and other more general kinds of diagrams, must maintain the same kind of internal consistency without that anchor in a particular object.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thinking Participants (cont)

The social sciences may mistreat thinking participants (my last post) in their theories, but the reality around us all the time is the avid willingness of thinking participants to take up residence in a single diagram. Many high-powered organizations have come to expect their employees/members to take up the diagrammatic underpinning of the organization as their own. Partly a matter complexity and partly a matter of loyalty, success within an organization often hinges on participant's ability to do that.

In the continuing tell-alls regarding Goldman Sachs, Jacki Zehner writes:

"I witnessed people getting promoted who were not positive 'culture carriers', … I sat and listened to arguments about how commercial people HAD to be promoted despite being poor team players, downright jerks or much more.

I also heard business leaders fight passionately for their people who were amazing positive culture carriers and less strong commercially.…  For both categories of people, there was frequently a fight and the more powerful leaders’ candidate often won.… What made the firm GREAT for so long is that one held the other in check. You need people who are very commercial but they cannot dominate or you risk the outcome that Mr. Smith described."
Two gotcha's present themselves here.
  1. The corporate diagram in its dominance tends to blind the participant to other diagrams. It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine other diagrams, with differently defined inputs, different inferences, and different conclusions all more or less consistent but guided by different purposes and motives. Whether the zealous participant wants to scam a client or help them, he or she will increasingly run the risk of being unable to discern what makes them tick.
  2. A total concentration on playing the game within the diagram results in the participant tending to take the game, the continued existence of the organization and it's diagram, for granted. Prudence dictates the ideal participant keep one eye on the "commercial" aspect of working the diagram for immediate profit and the other on the "cultural" aspect of maintaining the organization and its diagram over time. Yet such a balanced outlook possible? And how long can it last with onus of being "less strong commercially" hanging on it?
From the luxury of being retired, and having been a public employee, I have to say this looks like a Faustian bargain to me.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Natural and the Social Sciences

BookTV aired a panel discussion tonight — "Panel Discussion on the Global Economy" — that took place on February 16, 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During that discussion George Soros said:
"The natural sciences deal with facts that unfold independently of the scientific statements that are made about them. The facts, therefore, serve as an independent criteria by which the truth or validity of the statements can be judged. And that is what has enabled natural science to produce such amazing results. By contrast, the facts that form the subject matter of the social sciences are produced by thinking participants, and these agents think very differently from natural scientists. They don't have an independent criteria by which they can judge the validity of their views. Therefore, they base their decisions, not on knowledge, but on an inherently imperfect understanding of the facts."
This clearly attributes Peirce's scientific or experimental method of fixing beliefs to the natural sciences, but denies that method to the social sciences. What's more, when it comes to the social sciences, the other methods of fixing beliefs don't look that good either. The method of authority would make it difficult to refer to the social sciences as "sciences," but the a priori method would also render that designation suspect.

Soros goes on to say:
"Economics, which became the most influential of the social sciences, sought to escape this inferior status by taking an axiomatic approach similar to Euclid's geometry. But where Euclid's axioms resembled reality very closely, the axioms of the official market hypotheses distorted reality quite substantially, because they eliminated the uncertainty caused by imperfect understanding."
using precisely the standard Friedman (my last post) was arguing against — trying to match the diagrammatic assumptions with reality — when it comes to economics. Peirce and pragmatism would not offer Soros much support in this regard either. Peirce doesn't rely on the analogy between experience and a diagram, between the relationships of our experience and the relationships being diagrammed, to substantiate a diagram. Diagrams, even Euclid's, are judged by means of their results, by how the consequences diagrammatically inferred play out in regard to subsequent kinds of experience. Paraphrasing one of my undergraduate philosophy professors: "You build railroads with the parallel postulate; you send men to the moon without it."

The operative phrase in Soros' distinction between the social sciences and the natural sciences is not "external facts" but rather "thinking participants." Human beings, as the 3-dimensional creators and users of diagrams, with minds that are themselves diagrams, inevitably chafe at the constraints of being rendered into the 2-dimensional indices and relationships of a single diagram. Such social sciences are, indeed, "inherently imperfect understanding[s]" of their subject matter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Maps: Assumptions Made

Maps are one of the most common, and intuitively understandable, instances of diagrams.  And, if you compare the aerial photograph of the region around my boyhood home on the left with a road map of the same region below, you can see a clear example of the abstraction involved with a diagram. As Peirce put it: Diagrams are "a skeleton representation of the relations concerned in the problem before the mind's eye in a schematic shape." [CP3.556]  The map, in this case, has abstracted, selected and simplified, the relationships (roads) between the indices (towns) for the purpose driving in the region. And, doing this requires certain assumptions; assumptions as to what is "important" if nothing else.

The tendency, however, is to take these assumptions for granted. Milton Friedman [in "The Methodology of Positive Economics"] writes:
"… to suppose that hypotheses have not only 'implications' but also 'assumptions' and that the conformity of these 'assumptions' to 'reality' is a test of the validity of the hypothesis different from or additional to the test by implications. This widely held view is fundamentally wrong and productive of much mischief. [p. 14]
We rarely can afford the luxury of a "test by implications," that is of actually applying the diagram and then finding out it didn't work. More often we need to make a judgment prior to using the diagram as to whether it is appropriate for the situation and our purposes. Even the road map above, as functional as it may be for driving, is missing important information and perhaps making other inappropriate assumptions for, say, hiking. The hiker using this diagram and leaving it to be tested solely by the inferences that can be made from it may find him or herself in a very difficult situation.

More generally, though, I think saying we should not be concerned with assumptions is to say we should no longer be concerned with philosophy. For philosophy — before it became the chauvinistic and sectarian thing it is today — was concerned with just that: the assumptions a diagram, a conceptual system, or a set of beliefs might make; what others assumptions could be made; and what alternative systems might then be possible. Philosophy at the turn of the century did not consider questions within a minute domain of specialization, limiting itself to calculations within a given diagram. Philosophy was the discipline that considered questions regarding diagrams in general.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Charles S. Peirce defines "deduction" as:
"… [D]eduction consists in constructing an icon or diagram the relations of whose parts shall present a complete analogy with those of the parts of the object of reasoning, of experimenting upon this image in the imagination, and of observing the result so as to discover unnoticed and hidden relations among the parts." [CP 3.363]
However, while Peirce is specifically describing "deduction" as it functions within a certain kind of diagram here, deduction can also be understood syllogistically as it functions in the mediating aspect of diagrams more generally. For example:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
The major premise — "All men are mortal" — is part of an understanding of human beings, a diagram consisting of a set of beliefs regarding humans. The minor premise — "Socrates is a man" — is a factual statement applying that diagram to this aspect of experience, and the conclusion — "Socrates is mortal" — is a consequence, an expectation, deduced from the diagram. In this sense, the deductive aspect of a diagram lies in applying it to experience and using it, as the "middle term", to infer what can then be expected from experience.