Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Accursed Ipsissimosity

Your vocabulary word of the day is ippsissimosity, a coinage by Nietzsche from the Latin ippsissima, “very own self”:
However gratefully we may welcome an objective spirit – and is there anyone who has never been mortally sick of everything subjective and of his accursed ipsissimosity? — in the end we also have to learn caution against our gratitude and put a halt to the exaggerated manner in which “unselfing” and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself, as if it were redemption and transfiguration. 
                — (Beyond Good and Evil, p126)
It is not completely clear what the word means, but I take it to indicate something like “the characteristic and intractable uniqueness of the individual”. For some strange reason it hasn’t caught on, and Nietzsche seems to have only used it once. I ran into it as I was pondering writing something on the differences between me and the “rationalist community”. Nietzsche seems to have some issues with the analogous rationalists of his day; that is, the bearers of the “objective spirit”. Like him, I have a good deal of positive regard for this spirit but can’t embrace it wholly; there seem to be a divergence between what I seek and what it seeks.

I am not surprised to find myself both in sympathy and conflict with Nietzsche, given that he manages to be in conflict with himself in the space of this short passage. It seems somewhat shameful to admit that I am not terribly interested in objectivity. Perhaps it would be a sin in any other form of writing – academic papers, journalism, anything claiming to speak with an authoritative voice – but this is a blog, and the whole point of it is that it permits me to write in a personal mode if I feel like it. It would make me happy, I guess, if whatever insights or truths I turn up here are true for other people as well as me, and if they are true for everyone, then objectivity has been achieved. Nice, but not my goal. I am more into selfing than unselfing, at least as far as writing goes. If you want the highly processed industrial intellectual product called “objective truth”, go buy a textbook in the field of your choice. Really, textbooks are wonderful things. The problem with textbooks, and maybe with our whole system of knowledge, is that they are boring, which is why students have to be force-marched through them, and why they usually require a human lecturer to re-personalize the depersonalized contents. The ability to do that is really at the core of the art of teaching, and it doesn՚t come easily or naturally.

The objective spirit has increased its scope into many more areas than Nietzsche could have dreamed of, while subjectivity remains something of a scientific and philosophical embarrassment. We know a lot about the brain from the outside, but scientific theories of consciousness almost always fail to deliver on their promise, which is to reconcile the objective scientific view of the self (the outside view) with the experience of subjectivity (the inside view).

There have been some trends, or a variety of related trends, in cognitive science and related disciplines like anthropology, which might be crudely lumped under the term embodiment or situatedness. An embodied mind is not some universal abstract reasoning engine, but instead strongly constrained by its structure and physical circumstances. Embodied minds have their thinking closely tied to physical action in the world. Classical Artificial Intelligence sought to make chess-playing programs, embodied AI is more concerned with helping a robot manage manage a simple physical task like making breakfast. Traditional AI took its inspiration from formal logic; embodied AI from animal behavior, anthropology, and phenomenology. Traditional AI universalizes Western styles of thought; embodied AI employs ethnography to try to understand particular context and culture dependent modes of thought.

The idea of embodiment always struck me as both stunningly good and rather obvious – or more precisely, the fact that it wasn՚t obvious and needed to be put forward as a radical insurgent movement was kind of alarming. It indicated that there was some kind of culture-level sclerosis going on, a form of brain-damage that I avoided mostly by unplanned deficiencies in my education. As an approach to the mind, it promised fixes for a variety of conceptual and technical problems with the more traditional approach. It fights the tendency in rationalists to see the abstract thought as the most valuable (or in extreme cases, the only) kind. However, embodiment seems to have somewhat fizzled as an intellectual revolution, (although I am no longer involved enough with the research community to know that for a fact). Despite having its origins in fancy Continental philosophy, it seemed to me to be a more pragmatic and realistic approach to the problem of intelligence, one that should appeal to engineers. That largely didn՚t happen, and I think it՚s because engineers are just as entrapped by the standard received mindset of Western culture as anyone else, possibly more so. Our idea of what the mind is pretty much hard-coded in our culture and breaking loose of those received ideas is not easy.

It also seems to me that in one sense embodiment didn’t go quite far enough, as though it too was making some kind of implicit promise that it wasn’t quite delivering on. Consider that everybody is embodied in roughly the same way, so thinking about embodiment doesn’t really address the false universalism of the standard models. Instead of the universal (Western) mind, we have a less universal but still somewhat generic culturally embedded actor.

Ipsissimosity goes a further and necessary step beyond embodiment. It acknowledges not just that minds are bodies, and bodies are situated, but that we are all inescapably and radically unique, we see the view from different places, our minds are not going to be the same because we don’t have the same problems to address.

Unfortunately this is also a radically unscientific position; not in the sense of being counterfactual, but in that it goes against the grain of the scientific process which is to generalize and regularize. You can’t have a science of the unique.

Maybe this has always been psychology’s problem. It wants to be a science and it also wants to be liberatory, but the universalizing and abstracting tendencies of science are inescapably set against the self՚s assertion of its individuality. This doesn՚t have to be a war to the death between science and the individual, although the culture seems to encourage this, probably because war sells newspapers. It՚s more a matter of each knowing their place, and of knowing what intellectual territory they should cede to the other.

8 comments:

Sid K said...

Your digression into approaches to AI is curious to me. Are you suggesting that somehow acknowledging the radical uniqueness of each individual might lead to a new way of designing AIs? Maybe it's just my Western bias, but to me these two things seem extremely disparate; but it has definitely piqued my interest to think deeper about this.

mtraven said...

Excellent question...and I'm not sure I have a good answer. I certainly don't have at my fingertips a new way of designing AIs, or I'd be doing it. Let's just say that there seems to be something quite broken in Western thought, and Nietzsche was trying to take a stab at fixing it, the situated action people were trying to take a stab at it (and did have some concrete ideas which did influence the field as a whole, but probably not enough), and I'm trying to do my own idiosyncratic part.

Sid K said...

I've been thinking about ipsissimosity. Indeed, your post has partly motivated me to read more about Continental philosophy which I always considered deliberately confusing. But maybe it was not the case that they were deliberately confusing (at least not all of them), but that they were up against really hard problems, such as the describing the phenomenon of Being; which philosophers in the analytic tradition didn't even consider as an important problem.

Anyway, reading the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Phenomenology, I came across this: "Importantly, also, it is types of experience that phenomenology pursues, rather than a particular fleeting experience — unless its type is what interests us." Would it be fair to say that ipsissimosity tries to capture even the fleeting experiences we experience everyday, which properly resists categorization into types? And the claim being that the importance of uncategorizable experiences--indeed maybe even undesrcibable or unsharable--is underplayed precisely because of its undescribability (by current conceptual vocabulary).

mtraven said...

Something like that...philosophy by its nature has to aim at the generic, I think. Even phenomenology. As the article you cited says, even though it purports to be about first-person experience, it is really about generic structures of experience, not any particular person՚s unique experience. Nothing wrong with that really, and as I said earlier, any kind of science or learning sort of has to be that way. But it means that phenomenology is an attempt at a third-person objective account of the first-person subjectivity, and so in some way falls short of what it promises.

This is reminding me of Martin Buber so I՚ll point to an earlier post of mine that talks about him at length.

Hal Morris said...

The link you gave seems broken

Hal Morris said...

It would be nice to have that Buber link. I'm no expert on Buber. but maybe he rescued the notion of contemplating well from solopsism be positing2 selves having to appreciate each other thru the awkward medium of physicality

Anonymous said...

Sorry 'self' not 'well'

mtraven said...

Sorry, here's a correct link for Buber.