[KB] Incomplete Nature

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Thu Aug 7 13:43:05 EDT 2014

Thanks, Clarke.  I may have more to say about Deacon's intriguing, but anfractuous, argument, and intersections with Burke's thought, later.

On Thu, 8/7/14, Clarke Rountree <rountrj at uah.edu> wrote:

 Subject: Re: [KB] Incomplete Nature
 To: "Edward C Appel" <edwardcappel at frontier.com>
 Cc: "kb at kbjournal.org" <kb at kbjournal.org>
 Date: Thursday, August 7, 2014, 1:31 PM
 What an
 intriguing and insightful review. It seemed to end too
 On Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 12:03 PM, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com>
         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
         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.
 KB mailing list
 KB at kbjournal.org
 Dr. Clarke Rountree
 Chair and
 Professor of Communication Arts
 342 Morton
 University of Alabama in Huntsville
 Huntsville, AL  35899
 clarke.rountree at uah.edu

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