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A Genealogy of Nothing: Ether and the Case for Fallibilism

[The following essay is directed toward an imaginary positivist with unflinching faith in the veracity of Einstein’s research programme of relativity, because of relativity’s overwhelming empirical success. Rather than being anti-science (quite the opposite, actually), my humble goal here is simply to show that empiricism does not provide the full picture, and that fallibilism is justified as a default position when considering contemporary science. I would have liked to explicitly dwell upon specific philosophers of science (particularly Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend), but that will have to wait for another time. Lastly, this is unfortunately not an introductory essay, and is directed toward those who are at least superficially familiar with relativity and the history of physics preceding it.]

The pessimistic meta-induction is the supposition that just as so many theories in the history of science have been superseded, current theories will likewise be found to be unsatisfactory, despite their empirical success. This can be taken in a strong or a weak sense: the strong sense implies that current theories are completely wrong (just as phlogiston, to contemporary scientists, is completely wrong), and the weak sense (fallibilism) acknowledges the empirical success of current theories while insisting that they may be incomplete—epiphenomena, of sorts, of a larger pattern. It is the aim of this essay to make a case for fallibilism, illustrating its case with examples from special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory; once the latter case is made, the strong pessimistic meta-induction will be left as a possibility, since by definition no positive case (save the explicit falsification of current theories) can be made for its correctness, but only a negative case. Starting with a brief glance into Einstein’s epistemology, the historical development of the concept of ether will be documented, and upon finding that it is not necessarily as “superfluous” as Einstein may have once thought, the implications of this incompleteness will be examined.

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” Einstein is reputed to have said. This strikes the reader as a surprising statement to come from one so notorious for the abstruseness of his theories, but it reveals a striking distinction for philosophies of science: that between how a theory works (in all its mathematical intricacy) and what it means. As Hegel writes in his Shorter Logic,[1] “The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” Here we see that Hegel rejects the mechanical in favor of the conceptual, presumably reacting to the reductionist tendency of scientists to favor the former at the expense of the latter, but we see in Einstein a desire to retain the two in all their incommensurability. Yet, we can also proceed backwards from Einstein’s distinction: if mathematics is a formal delineation of the relations between terms, then insofar as mathematical physics is an empirical science, its terms cannot merely be mathematical variables, but objects, to which correspond concepts. With physics in particular, however, the boundaries separating concepts are of prime importance, and it is these mutable boundaries that pose the primary weak point of scientific research, to the point where fallibilism becomes a rational mindset for scientists regardless of the empirical success of any given theory taken on its own. Read the rest of this entry


A Brief History of the Real, or, Laruelle’s Niche: Ontological Reification

[Note: After actually reading Laruelle, I disavow everything written in this post. It completely misses Laruelle’s point, and I’m only leaving this post up to let it serve as a bad example.]

The responses by An Und Für Sich to Graham Harman’s review of Laruelle have reminded me of an old argument I had against his ‘Non-Philosophy’. My argument centres around a single aspect of Non-Philosophy―namely, the notion of ‘The One’―largely because my exposure to Laruelle has been limited to Anthony Paul Smith’s “Introduction to Non-Philosophy” (notes) and Alexander Galloway’s “François Laruelle, or The Secret.” Nevertheless, I feel that it adequately situates Laruelle within the tradition of Continental philosophy; to make it more accessible, however, I will preface it with in-depth background information.

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The Dialectical Moment: A Schema of the Adjacent Possible

Steven Johnson, an expert on creative geniuses and their ideas, has developed a concept which he calls the ‘adjacent possible’―roughly, the set of possibilities available with the resources and techniques of a given point in time. To illustrate, Gutenberg could not have built his printing press until a variety of minor inventions had been made, e.g. the wine press, which was the basis for his design. Johnson states that his concept provides a more cogent alternative to words such as zeitgeist, but it could be argues that much of the time the word zeitgeist is used, the ‘adjacent possible’ is the notion to which it refers.

G.W.F. Hegel is famous for his philosophy of history & the zeitgeist, as exemplified in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. The most common interpretation of Hegel’s method was developed by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus and popularized by Marx, with three stages: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. (Hegel himself never used this terminology, and in fact disparages cold, rigid formulas in his preface to the Phenomenology, but Chalybäus’s formula works well enough that it has been preserved for over a century; nevertheless, the close reader of Hegel should bear the above in mind.) In the Thesis stage, an idea or historical stage (‘moment’) occurs. In the Antithesis stage, a historical moment occurs that is entirely opposite to that of the Thesis state. Finally, in the Synthesis stage, the contradictions of the Thesis & Antithesis stage are resolved (‘sublated’), and the Synthesis becomes the Thesis for a new Dialectical process.

The concept of the adjacent possible can be used to make sense of the famous quotation by Hegel, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” There are many interpretations of the above quotation, which can seem deceptively simple. It might be clearer to think about this phrase as “What is thinkable is possible, and what is possible is thinkable,” the latter part referring to the adjacent possible: an idea becomes thinkable only after its conditions have made their way into the zeitgeist.

I have a rule that I’ve developed for myself regarding interpretation, however: the meaning of a quotation can only be fully expressed by the words that the author has used. Disregarding translation from the German, as well as textualism, the following answer emerges: Hegel wanted to emphasize the actualization of elements in the adjacent possible, and his use of the word ‘rational’ is peculiar to his own notion of ‘reason in history’.


**Note: This new emphasis by Steven Johnson on the possible strikes me as a Deleuzian twist to Hegel. Perhaps this betrays that Deleuze’s antagonism may have been brought on by ‘anxiety of influence‘ rather than simply disagreement.

Mikhail Bakhtin: An Extremely Short Introduction


A professor at my school, Michael Gardiner, not too long ago brought to my attention the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian social theorist who lived in the initial two-thirds of the 20th century. I recently read his first book on Bakhtin, The Dialogics of Critique: Mikhail Bakhtin & The Theory of Ideology (1992). The book itself was interesting, if somewhat dense at times (though I’m sure that Bakhtin’s own texts are exponentially more dense), and admirably contextualized Bakhtin and his work’s importance within 20th century theory. On the whole, Bakhtin doesn’t appeal to my interests, but his work has gained new relevance and popularity in the face of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, notably the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Félix Guattari was influenced by his work, and Bakhtin has gained a voice in contemporary hermeneutics, sociolinguistics, and ideology critique. Rather than focusing on these subjects, however, I feel that it would be useful to outline as clearly as possible the more abstract of the new concepts which Bakhtin introduces, and to suggest ways that they can be utilized for contemporary analyses.

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