Thursday, November 17, 2011

Intuition and the Feeling of Real

This is not about either ontology or epistemology. I don’t think. It’s about one’s intuitions, one’s sense of things.

Example 1: graffiti site

An example: the graffiti site. I’ve blogged quite a bit about graffiti and, in particular, about the graffiti site. The notion of a graffiti site is ‘real’ to me mostly because I’ve documented (that is, photographed and made notes about) a handful of sites over several years. Many of the photographs are available on the web, as are my comments. But, to use an old old metaphor, what’s in those documents is only the 10% of the iceberg that floats above the surface of the water. Most of what makes those sites real to me is beneath the water, in all those hours of experience that I have not and even cannot transform into sharable documents.

For some purposes those public documents, taken in conjunction with other such documents, whether on the web or in many of the books and articles about graffiti, are sufficient. But not necessarily for all purposes. When I argue that the site itself is the proper object for study and analysis and, in particular, when I argue that the site is an agent, NOW I’m drawing on my intuition, on the submerged 90% of the iceberg.

How does my reader get access to that? Here I assume a charitable reader who’s willing to grant that I know what I’m talking about, that I’m a serious thinker. But if that charitable reader doesn’t have their own well of direct experience with graffiti sites, I’m not sure how ‘real’ my assertions can possibly be to them. This reader may well believe me, but . . . something’s missing, something vital to the sense of reality that I’m trying to convey.

I suppose what’s missing is a certain kind of direct experience with graffiti. Without such experience, my propositions, even if granted, are likely to seem hollow.

Is appropriate direct experience irreducibly necessary for understanding? Can the needed intuitions be built only on direct experience, not on reports or documents of any kind?

Sensory experience would seem to be of that nature, wouldn’t it?

Example 1.1: film, screen shots

And that does seem to be, in part, why I like to include so many screen shots in my posts on films. It’s not enough that my reader believe me when I make this or that assertion about what’s happening on the screen. They need to see it for themselves. Including screen shots is a crude way of doing that. Ideally the reader—that’s you—wouldn’t simply take the screen shot at face value but rather would use it as a guide into the film itself.

Example 2: Church service and religion

Another, different example. I recently went to church for the first time in years. I went, not in the spirit of checking out a possible church I could attended, but because I wanted to check out the minister. But those two hours changed my sense of what religion is.

But not in the sense of giving me new ideas about religion, or new propositions about religion. I already had THOSE propositions, about how religion is more than believe in certain supernatural beings, about how it is belonging to a community, etc. I already knew that.

But sitting there in church that Sunday I saw the community all around me. Those abstract propositions gained life and substance that that didn’t have before.

Example 3: Objects

Third time around: and then we have object-oriented ontology, which, at least in Graham Harman’s version, builds an awful lot on intuitions gained from thinking about simple human scale objects, such as hammers or beach balls. We all have experience of such things, but it’s not clear how one can extend that kind of experience to very different objects, such as quarks and protest movements. That seems to me almost a slight of language. I don’t see why those basic intuitions grounded in human scale objects should simply transfer that anything language allows us to treat as objects.

And yet, it’s not clear to me that such transfer is actually wrong or misleading. I’d like to see an explicit construction of this, shall we say, intuition by proxy. Is that what Being’s supposed to be?

And then, I suppose, there's the ineffable, isn't there?

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