[KB] Incomplete Nature

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Thu Aug 7 13:03:41 EDT 2014


	I want to call attention to a recent and important book, important in its relationship to Burke studies.  The book is Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton, 2012, hard cover; 2013, paperback).  It’s by Terrence W. Deacon, anthropologist and neuroscientist, Chair of the Anthropology Department at Cal Berkeley.  Of course, no reference is made to Burke in the book.  Not in rhet/comm or literature, Deacon is, as we might surmise, oblivious of Burke and dramatism/logology.  Yet, the problem Deacon describes and addresses, and the manner in which he grapples with it, albeit by way of an alternative vocabulary, seems uncannily Burkean, in its own way.

	I’ll set aside for now whether Deacon convincingly demonstrates how mind emerges from matter, or at least that that transformation does occur without some sort of deus ex machina, a question still vexing most honest neuroscientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and philosophers.  I’ll stick with this anthropologist’s analysis of what he suggests is the sharp existential dislocation scientific naturalists, or mechanistic materialists, ignore: that between purely physical, chemical, or biological explanations for all causality, on the one hand, and the “radical[ly] discontinuous” kind of causation implicit in the conscious, subjective, self- and species-aware thoughts, sentience, ideas, experience, meanings, evaluations, and mental images of possibilities, leading to longings, wishes, purposes, aspirations, and schemes, indeed orientations toward end-directed, consequence-directed actions, processes, and forms of causality, that
 characterize homo sapiens, on the other.  (I’m quoting all through this list from Deacon, with the exception of “species-aware.”  That terminology comes from Feuerbach, and parallels Burke’s discussion early in P&C of the symbolizers’ capacity not just for “criticism,” but also for “criticism of our criticism,” which is to say, the metaperspective.)

	Deacon takes issue with the likes of B. F. Skinner (behaviorism a bête noire of Burke’s, as well), Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Francis Crick, who reduce human functioning to purposeless interactions of chemicals, nerve cells, ultimately “pointless,” “pitiless” quantum particles.  “What’s missing?” Deacon asks.  “Ironically and enigmatically, something missing is missing.”

	Deacon goes on: “As I reflect on this odd state of things, I am struck by the fact that there is no single term that seems to refer to the illusive character of such things.  So at the risk of initiating this discussion with a clumsy neologism, I will refer to this as an ABSENTIAL feature, to denote phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence.  This could be a state of things not yet realized . . . .”

	Anyone familiar with Burke will conjure a ready name for the source of this “absence-based causality,” which Deacon seems to have just stumbled upon, along with its near-inseparable association with the notion of “purpose” and the  synonyms for “purpose.”  It’s called the “negative,” and Burke was there with an explicit tie-in between these two terms, the “negative” and “purpose,” in 1945, in the Grammar (pp. 294-97).

	In addition to his insistence on the complicating of the scheme of causation that results from conscious, human end-directedness, that “absential” feature scientific materialisms don’t usually take cognizance of, while they subtly introduce teleologic explanations into their theories without acknowledgement, Deacon offers an interesting gloss on Burke’s claim that “action is not reducible to terms of motion” (1968).  Burke has in mind the “meanings” of those marks on a page or sounds in the air.  They seem to lack location, extension, the measurable properties of material elements, no matter in what ways “there can be no action without motion.”  For Deacon, what is “not reducible” is that absential idea itself, the negative.  “There are no components to what is absent,” he says.

	“Order” is based on “restriction,” Deacon says, whereas Burke would, again, highlight and substitute the “negative” as preferred term.  Deacon echoes the pentad, by way of the complicating schema of Aristotle’s four causes.  Deacon reprises the notion of “magic” (PLF), although he claims the magic is only apparent, not transcendental.  (Burke, in any case, has in mind the notion of a  coercive “magic spell,” incantation, mesmerizing influence, as much as the idea of an “act” as exhibiting, however tiny, some “new” thing [GM]).

	I offered in a conversation in St. Louis the notion of primitive animism as paradigm for the inexorable human tendency to insinuate drama into, or superimpose drama on, the inanimate materials and mechanistic motions of nature.  Deacon suggests the “homuculus” as that exemplar, the “little man” of old supposedly in spermatozoa.  That “active principle” sneaks into philosophic and “naturalistic” explanations of almost any and all kinds.  Deacon particularizes.
        Dense and technical, and studded with neologisms (there is a glossary), Incomplete Nature is a tough read.  But its emphasis on what could be called “natural teleology,” a teleology that infuses the life processes of nonverbal animals as well as, on a higher level of operation, us symbolizers---the appearance of both have resulted in “dislocations” of a kind the science of recent vintage has tended to dismiss.
I’ll emphasize once more: Deacon does not venture outside current and basic conceptions of evolutionary science per se in his critique of errant scientist causality.  NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel commits such “heresy,” as a reviewer in The Weekly Standard ironically put it.  Nagel’s tome is entitled, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Nagel has been roundly condemned by the usual suspects.


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