[KB] Incomplete Nature

Clarke Rountree rountrj at uah.edu
Thu Aug 7 13:31:28 EDT 2014


What an intriguing and insightful review. It seemed to end too quickly!



On Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 12:03 PM, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com>

> Burkophiles,
>         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.
> Ed
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Dr. Clarke Rountree
Chair and Professor of Communication Arts
342 Morton Hall
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Huntsville, AL  35899
clarke.rountree at uah.edu
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