What four fields can do to a brain

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 5 Apr 1995 09:06:35 JST

response to a private message from Ray Scupin, who might, if others are
interested, by encouraged to post his original. We are talking abou
t the work of Maurice Bloch. The following is a jumble, but it does
illustrate what putting together some philosophy, math, genetics and French
savoir de literature can do. Some may see the result as pathological. I
find it fun. <g>


It's been a busy week; just now beginning to find time to organize
my thoughts regarding Bloch.

As I read you account of Bloch's thought, I am inclined to agree with
his broad conclusions: (1) there is more to thought than language and
(2) ritual represents an attempt to impose a particular view of the
world which, left to their own devices, human individuals might see
differently. (Actually, "view of the world" is too exclusively visual.
What ritual attempts to impose is a way of being in the world that
involves all the senses.)

At the same time, I note Bloch's characteristic style of argument,
which especially in his earlier pieces, seems so very French
intellectual. The tone (if not always the process itself) is like that
described by Levi-Strauss in the chapter of Tristes Tropiques, where
he describes his own, very French, training in philosophy.

"It was in that class that I first began to learn that every problem,
whether serious or trifling, may be solved by the application of an
always identical method, which consists in contrasting two traditional
views of the question; the first is introduced by means of a
justification on common-sense grounds, then the justification is
destroyed with the help of the second view; finally, both are
dismissed as being equally inadequate, thanks to a third view which
reveals the incomplete character of the first two; these are now
reduced by verbal artifice to complementary aspects of one and the
same reality: form and subject-matter, container and content, being
and appearance, continuity and discontinuity, essence and existence,

It would, I think, be unfair to Bloch to continue on as L-S does, "Such
an exercise soon becomes purely verbal, depending as it does, on a
certain skill in punning, which replaces thought: assonance, similarity
in sound and ambiguity gradually come to form the basis of those
brilliantly ingenious intellectual shifts which are thought to be the
sign of sound philosophizing." Bloch is more subtle and serious.

Still, I think, I detect some classic category play at work. The human
born a free and noble savage is everywhere in cultural chains
imposed by society. S/he retains, however, the ability to see around
them and to struggle against them. Anthropologists, with their focus
on custom and habit, tend to focus on explaining the chains but
neglect the struggling human who may, in fact, sometimes be able to
break them. To this point, I agree wholeheartedly.

The question remains: How does a (neo-) Kantian framework help or
hinder our understanding? Hume rejects Plato's dream that
philosophical reasoning can lead to discovery of Truth. He argues, in
effect, that all knowledge is mere opinion, confirmed by the senses
but always open to disconfirmation. Kant agrees that the senses are
not reliable, but to save the dream insists on the need for a priori
principles in which Truth is grounded. What he took to be True,
however, was the absolute frame of reference assumed by Newton's
physics and contemporary moral and aesthetic theories. Durkheim
observes that concepts of time, space, causality, substance (also the
Good and the Beautiful) vary in different groups. They cannot, then,
be absolute properties of Mind, universally shared by all human
beings. They are, he argues, imposed by Society. Thus, the view that
Bloch rejects. I reject it, too, but see the alternative somewhat

Suppose that we start with Levi-Strauss' vision of a "Mendelevian
table of the mind." Now, instead of a simple absolute frame of
reference, we confront a world in which the permutations and
combinations permitted by the human imagination are limited but,
(The geneticist Dobzhansky once remarked that the number of
possible combinations of human genes made possible by sex is larger
than the number of electrons in the visible universe.) Let us suppose
further that groups evolve which realize some of these possibilities.
Ritual supports the idea that these particular possibilities are all that
there is. If the group is isolated and lives in a
stable environment, most of its members will accept this conclusion.
born to be seers (shamans, artists, poets, philosophers, eventually scientists
too ) may glimpse them, and when the group meets other groups or faces a
changing environment, some of what they glimpse may then become more plausible.
That's how history happens.

Got to run now. The social fact for yours truly is having to make a
living <g>.

Hope you find this helpful,