Biology, Pragmatism and the Question of Contradiction
In his papers, books and conferences, Maturana frequently begins proposing that: Everything is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or herself.
In this paper I intend to analyze logically this proposition, trying to focus the question of contradiction.
In Maturana's work, we do not find more than traces or clues that could help us in this kind of philosophical investigation. However, if we take logic as the main philosophical method these clues would be sufficient.
According to Maturana, logical contradictions are not serious mistakes because they are supposed to be prompt and plentifully solved. In contrast, emotional contradictions would be really dangerous, because they occur as an opposition between our doing and our desire, generating suffering and immobility. Nevertheless, it seems that he accepts the logical method as a philosophical and argumentative method because he uses logical principles in his argumentation. He also claims that every discourse without logical mistakes is obviously a rational discourse.
Then, I would like to use a specific kind of reasoning as the filament of this discussion. I reefer to the argument of the performative contradiction, central in contemporary philosophical discussion.
The argument of performative contradiction had been used by Aristotle to justify the Principle of Contradiction. As shown by Cirne-Lima, contemporary philosophy has rescued this type of argument trough the Philosophy of Robert Heiss, Austin and Apel.
In one of his papers, Apel points to the historical origins of the argument that he proposes as a method to establish a non-metaphysical ultimate foundation to knowledge and ethics. In this article, Apel begins his argumentation by partially accepting the Münchhausian's trilemma. As has been demonstrated by Hans Albert every ultimate foundation implies: either a) in a regression to the infinite; b) in a logical circle in which part of the argumentation includes exactly that we would suppose to be settled; or c) in a dogmatic interruption of the foundational regress. Apel accepts only partially this trilemma because he believes that this difficult in the structure of ultimate foundation is applied only to Metaphysical Philosophy and not to Post-Metaphysical Philosophy. In fact, Apel attempts to demonstrate the possibility of a non-metaphysical ultimate foundation.
Apel reflects about the Falsificationism and attempts to transport into Philosophy what was supposed to be the mechanism of Natural Science. Apel rejects the idea that the necessity of an ultimate foundation should be abandoned together with Metaphysics. On the contrary, Apel points to the necessity and urgency of a specific philosophical ultimate foundation to prevent the unlimited Falsificationism that puts in doubt and shows as plausible of falsification even what was supposedly a postulate. In this respect he is in agreement with the Second Wittgenstein when he stated that all doubts are always formulated within its own language game. Apel interpreted it as identical to his claim that all discourse suppose rules of validation. Since all propositions will be necessarily true or false, our hypothesis, pretentiously true, would be inter-subjectively admitted as valid and then universalized, or empirically invalidated. This would be the normative condition of possibility to any discourse and argument, including Falsificationism as a Principle. It is rational and for that, undoubtedly and undeniable foundational. Apel claims that the presupposition of existence and discursive rules could not be denied without contradiction. Consequently, it is an a priori, evident and unquestionable. To Apel, this method, which indicates the condition of possibility of the rational discourses, implies neither a cosmogony nor an ontological explanation of the world. It is simply the self-certification of the Argumentative Reason. Thus, it is rather a non-metaphysical ultimate foundation than a metaphysical one.
Apel refuses the Pragmatic Linguistic Philosophy. He considers Rorty's proposal that the pathway for the definitive surpassing of Metaphysics would be the detranscendentalization of Philosophy as indefensible. He claims that when we think the conditions of the possibility of knowledge, as well as the conditions of possibility of the argumentation as worldly and contingent objects, we get into a performative contradiction. According to Apel, when we abandon the Universal Philosophy we have to abandon rationality as well, and consequently, Philosophy itself.
The performative contradiction appears when trying to think everything as contingent, (including truths and principles that validate the argumentative rationality) we would expect this to be inter-subjectively accepted. Thus, we would be proposing that there are not universal foundations or validations for our statements and simultaneously expecting that such statement would be universalized. The abandon of Philosophy occurs when the exacerbate self-criticism of reason would lead us to a non-critical position and the non-distinguishableness between fanciful and rational discourse; to Literature instead of Philosophy.
In their turn, the pragmatic philosophers understand that Wittgenstein's sentence as meaning that doubts or arguments are found only in language. Since the language games are contingent to the social and cultural way of life, what is judged as an a priori truth is neither evident nor fundamental.
Notwithstanding, they are frequently pointed as irrationalists since their theses are often interpreted in a context where they become logically inconsistent. These theses are reduced to enunciations as: Everything is relative or Everything is contingent, what proves the pragmatism fallacy. According to the formal logical criterion, such enunciations are self-contradictory and irrational. In fact, if what the pragmatists say would be reduced to propositions as those, their arguments would be inconsistent. Such enunciations present a negative self-reference and for that are logically and formally false.
Rorty rejects this kind of criticism. Through this rejection we can ascertain the presence of two excluding Philosophies, impossible to be understood under the same criterion and vocabulary.
He emphasizes that the pragmatic philosophers could not accept their opponents' vocabulary. According to him, philosophers who refuse the greek distinction among things as they are in themselves and their relations with other things or other versions of this dichotomy such as: the distinction between absolute and relative, founded and fabricated, objective and subjective, natural and conventional, reality and appearance, or the uniqueness of the truth and the multiplicity of the opinions, are considered as relativists and irrationalists. He says that this happens because their opponents not only insist in using the platonic vocabulary, but also consider an indication of irrationality the non-utilization of this vocabulary. Rorty illustrates this assertion mentioning Whitehead's famous sentence that stated: The history of western thinking is the history of a long footnote in a Platoon's work.
Rorty shows that any investigation that does not involve platonic dichotomies would not be considered as philosophical investigation in the Occident. He claims that, if we admit an identity between rationality and the use of platonic vocabulary, he himself would certainly be indicated as an irrationalist. Nevertheless, he remains capable of argumentation. He does not find himself as a vegetable or as an animal, only as a person that refuses to speak in the platonic way.
Consequently, Rorty refuses the accusation of contradiction and rejects the way his work is read. He claims that when he says that we should abandon the idea of a truth that is in front of us waiting to be discovered, he is not saying that he discovered this truth in front of him.
He is only saying that some expressions are not useful because they generate more problems than solutions, they are not intrinsically philosophical and deserve analysis. He also indicates that he is not contradicting the notion of essence or truth because to do so he would have to use the vocabulary he is trying to abandon.
Rorty does not search out a Philosophy that analyzes the pros and the cons of a thesis but that which evidences a competition between a prejudicial vocabulary and a new one, even if not completely formulated. It is through his comprehension of Philosophy that his answers to his critics become plenty of meaning. To Rorty, his critics use a vocabulary that he does not use, in a context that he does not find himself.
Rorty proposes Philosophy as a re-description of the things, with the intention to establish new standards of linguistic behavior that once adopted would permit us to look for and find new standards of non-linguistic behavior and a subsequent social transformation. He is not interested in exhaustive conceptual analyzes or in the test of thesis, but rather in the establishment of new questions and vocabulary. In this context, what is contradictory is the Transcendental Pragmatic Philosophy since being pragmatic is exactly to avoid the transcendentalism.
On the other hand, he does not agree that it is necessary or desirable to establish a genuine philosophical method or a decision criterion that could validate our arguments. He thinks that the research for criteria is part of the strong belief that the world or a I inside ourselves would have an intrinsic nature that reveals things as they are in themselves. He thinks that the pursuit of essence is not the philosophical mission, but only a way of privileging some language games in disadvantage of others.
Rorty proposes to substitute the distinction between appearance and essence to the distinction between more and less useful. To deal with this question, he uses Dewey's theoretical perspective.
Dewey studied how the scholastic term specie, correlated to the Aristotelian concept of eidos, was associated to the unmoved, since it resorts to the concept of idea, essence and form. Consequently, knowledge was always understood as the grasping of the permanent end, the fixed truth that changes accomplish. He thus emphasizes how Natural Selection Theory allowed a transformation of this philosophical tradition. The very title of Darwin's main book is, to Dewey, a sign of the great breakthrough he made possible. Thereafter, even species will be understood as having an origin and also as ongoing entity. Consequently: a) the human cognitive phenomenon could be seen as an evolutionary process in which old questions are replaced by new ones as new methods, intentions and problems arise; and b) Science could be thought in terms of replacement of questions and answers.
This is the focus provided by Dewey's proposition of a pragmatic philosophy. He understood the old philosophical ideas as habits, predisposition, attitudes of preference or rejection. He dealt with concepts and philosophical questions as something that could and should be abandoned in favor of new interests or new vital necessities. He claims that we should not try to solve old philosophical questions but merely abandon, disapprove and deny them.
As Dewey, Rorty also uses Darwinism to explain human cognitive phenomenon and talks about the words as tools, more or less useful that make possible our interaction with our medium. In spite of using the term more and less useful he does not accept the idea we could be more or less in contact with reality in any given moment of our history.
However, because of the vocabulary utilized, Rorty brings into his Philosophy some of the problems of Darwinism. When using terms such as more and less adapted, and more or less useful, Darwin and Rorty resorted to the idea of optimization, and consequently, the possibility of a finalist reading of their works. In Darwin, this was identified as a purpose in Nature, in spite of his efforts to deny it. In Rorty, this is pointed as an intention to find the truth that he has endeavored to dissipate. Although he insists in abandoning an old vocabulary, at this moment, he forgets to abandon an old way of speaking. Specially when he uses the Causality Principle.
I cannot listen the term cause without hearing in it an indication of an independent world of objects. Although Rorty defines causality as a mere succession of events, there is no way to say that without thinking the medium as something that is previous and independent of the organism in it indicated. Nothing can follow another thing without the former being necessarily precedent and, consequently, independent from the latter. If we maintain the causal concept, we will most probably keep the notion of purpose and, with this notion, the possibility of criticizing or seeing our discourse as contradictory.
Rorty makes clear that to think an organism independent of its medium, is a Cartesian and non-Darwinian presupposition. However, what is not clear, also in Darwin, is how we can speak and think about what is more or what is less without any optimizing perspective of the process in question.
I believe Maturana solves this difficulty. He does not consider the cognitive process as a process of replacement of an old vocabulary by a newer and more useful one. Neither he says that we should abandon a given way of speaking, he simply does it. He talks about evolution and cognition as a historical drift, as a history of conservation and transformation. What is preserved in the evolutionary process is the autopoietic identity of living systems that can be accomplished in different ways and what is preserved in the human cognitive process is the operational coherence of language that makes possible the configuration of different domains of reality. Life and rationality are always conserved although they are in permanent movement. The word Science does not mean a fixed truth, as the word species does not mean anymore an unchanged essence. They are both historical processes.
Maturana certainly agrees with many questions presented by the pragmatism. For instance when he claims that: a) an ultimate foundation of knowledge is impossible; b) there is no sense talking about an a priori truth; c) the intention of justifying our arguments through principles we imagine unconditional does not conduct ourselves towards the truth, but towards the imposition of our arguments; d) no argument is independent of the criterion of validation we use when we assert them; and e) when he turns the theory of evolution into a matrix for the understanding of the cognitive process. However, Maturana's thought differs in some aspects from the American Pragmatism. First, he does not see any difficulty to establish a criterion of validation of our arguments and explanations or a demarcation between Philosophy and Science. On the contrary, he sees in the criteria of validation of our explanations the possibility to universalize our arguments and to corroborate our thesis. Second, he abandons any attempt to approach causality, because he claims the impossibility of instructive interactions between living systems and their medium. He believes that causality always involves the transmission of something from one to another, it always involves the conception of a kind of instructive relation among entities existing independently.
Regarding Apel's thinking there is nothing else to say than that his criticisms do not apply to Maturana's work. The relation between Maturana's and Apel's works are that of a deep opposition and mutual exclusion. First of all, because Maturana does not describe the language in semantic terms, he does not use the notion of speech act, nor starts with the distinction between form and meaning. On the contrary, he defines language as coordinations of coordinations of conductual actions, and he indicates semantics as secondary to these coordinations. Second, because he does not see Science and the drift of scientific theories as something guided by the Principle of Falibilism. Moreover, he rejects Falibilism as an appropriate criterion to appreciate and describe the scientific knowledge because it ignores the biology of the observer and consequently ignores its own object of study - the possibility of the operation of Science. Third, because he does not see Science as a hypothetical knowledge or any applicability to this concept. Finally, because he does not analyze the conditions of possibility of the discourse, but the conditions of possibility of our human being. He claims that our biology is our condition of possibility, but he does not do that with a transcendental meaning as in Kantian Philosophy. Our biology, although a conditio sine qua non, is not previous to ourselves, nor transcendent to us, because our being is our doing.
Let's return now to what was said in the beginning of this paper and analyze the proposition: Everything is said by an observer to another observer that could be him or herself.
Although it is not correct indicate this enunciation as a postulate it can be logically examined. In fact, I see this sentence not as a basic premise, but as a nucleus, as the center of a circle that is Maturana's theory. Then, what we have in the center of this theory is a tautological proposition. Everything is said by someone, it could be not different.
However, this proposition, that is tautological and always true and necessary, brings inside itself the contingency, implies the diversity and non-necessity of our arguments and believes. If everything is said by someone, all theory, all truth that someone indicates will always permit an ironic, although non-Socratic comment: This is what you are saying!
Conversely to what is done with the pragmatics' sentences, nobody can say that we are being contradictory at this moment, because even if he or she ignores the terms employed by Maturana, such as his definition of language, he or she could not point a negative self-reference. There is no way to establish a contradiction between the intention and the speech act in this case.
Maturana had created a positive self-reference. He does not say that everything is contingent, but that everything is said by somebody; he does not say that our arguments are always contingent, but that all arguments are universally validated in their domain of validation.
Nevertheless, when he puts the contingency and relativism of everything that is said inside a tautological proposition, the discourse that is brought forth from it erases, unmakes, turns to non-sense that kind of Philosophy that could not accept it, but that could not either demonstrate it as wrong. Maturana strongly criticizes the notion of an universal reason, he dissipates concepts and fundaments of traditional Philosophy, but he accepts its criterion. Because he accepts its criterion he becomes extremely careful about this aspect. Consequently, his discourse is rigorous and plenty of nuances, what makes the reading hard but also always bright and inviting.
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