Traditions of Unknowing

May 30, 2014 § 9 Comments

04-Dennis-Wojtkiewicz-fruit_4[Image: Dennis Wojtkiewicz]

In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept.

In this post I want to explore the two moments in the life of a concept again, but this time I want to reverse the procedure. Rather than describe how a conceptual tool becomes an internalized capacity, I aim to describe the process of unlearning or unknowing a concept. I have been thinking about the importance of unknowing ever since picking up Whitney Bauman’s new book Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary EthicIn this work Bauman thematizes the importance of learning to unknow by drawing from several traditions of unknowing, including the traditions of deconstructive philosophy and negative theology. Bauman’s aim is to, “break apart the process by which concepts constrain and choke identities and life so that multiple identities and lives can come to exist” (21). Certainly, Bauman’s concern here is with the ethics and politics of identity, but he also wants to explore what, exactly, concepts are. For Bauman, “Technology and concepts are equivalent; they shape reality and bodies . . . Concepts help to shape our realities into specific ways of becoming” (6).

Bauman is also very clear that his philosophy of concepts is not a form of Idealism, but is rather an irreductive and immanent naturalism of emergent and multiscalar levels. Humans, like all living creatures, are meaning-makers, and one of the ways in which humans make meaning is through the creation and inheritance of concepts. On this point Bauman also recognizes the ecological nature of the subject-concept relation. Along side the “histories, languages, genetic evolution, stable climate, and surrounding earth communities that make meaning possible,” humans “make meaning and are made by this meaning” (22). These statements track nicely with the two-moment account of concepts-as-tools and concepts-as-capacities I articulated in my earlier post. For Bauman a concept is a tool, equivalent to a technology, and it is a symbiotic agent, transformative for the subject and generated by people in specific ecological contexts.

The importance of unknowing in this discussion lies precisely in Bauman’s ethical concern with how concepts “constrain and choke identities.” Bauman’s point is that meaning-making practices have consequences for the living out of genders, laws, rights, economics, ethics, and institutions. In response to the constraints enacted by inadequate conceptual understandings, Bauman’s work is principally aimed at cultivating what he calls a “planetary identity,” or a polydox and planetary ethic that refuses the stifling and violent nature of globalization; but Bauman is not merely trying to persuade his readers to value a new understanding of what a planetary subject might look like, he is also making the case for unlearning another understanding of what globalization has to be — globalization as monological, heteronormative, christian, capitalist, and so on.

In my view such a practice of unlearning represents a third dimension of concepts. In the process of learning, the concept is viewed from the outside, as a tool taken up in thought, reading, and discussion. As the concept is slowly understood, the subject gains it as a new mode of understanding, and the concept becomes part of the subject’s perceptual ability to encounter the world. However, the new conceptual capacity does not simply transform the subject, it also displaces some of the conceptual understandings the subject already enacts. In many ways this displacement, whereby the acquired capacity is transformed back into a tool that can be discarded, is the goal of all critical philosophy. The critical maneuver aims to unlearn in us a variety of naive or outmoded conceptual understandings about reality. Here the two moments of the concept are reversed: Through learning, the concept-as-tool is integrated into the subject as a capacity, but through the critical practice of unlearning the concept-as-capacity is revealed once more for what it is — not an innate component of all subjects, but a tool that can be rejected, often with great difficulty, for pragmatic, aesthetic, ethical, or logical reasons.

The ecological approach to concepts and subjects is in this way both critical and constructive. Every conceptual capacity is a creative event that also acts as a displacing agent in the business-as-usual nature of concepts, which through unlearning can re-appear to the subject for what they really are: skillful means for gaining access to reality in certain ways but not direct bearers of reality in itself. Insofar as a concept will necessarily make absent some aspects of phenomena just as it brings to presence others, it is an organized form of unknowing that coalesces boundaries and connections, presence and absence, knowing and unknowing. In my last post I ended by saying that an “I” is always an “I-in-the-making,” and to this we can now add that an “I” is also a process of unmaking, unlearning, or unknowing.

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§ 9 Responses to Traditions of Unknowing

  • Reblogged this on Footnotes 2 Plato and commented:
    Adam Robbert on the ecology of ideas…

  • noir-realism says:

    What’s fascinating is how close we are in some ways, yet far apart in others… I know from my own investment in martial arts and the specific traditions of Buddhism that influenced me when I was younger have invested my secularization of certain East/West paradigms into a specific type of spectral materialism that is neither in alignment with Zizek and Badiou, not with the Buddhistic paths of the Mādhyamaka forms I was exposed too.

    But still very beautiful, the path you’ve measured for your self. I commend you.

  • dmf says:

    so I would agree that habits of thinking/grasping only really drop away when they are replaced by new habits/orientations, but I think that there are real practical/physical limits to how much this is (can be) consciously undertaken/cultivated (so called negative-capability is a myth), that we don’t really have a good grasp on these sorts of happenings, and that they are certainly heavily tied in/to our cognitive-biases. do you know Stanley Fish’s diagnosis of theory’s hope:
    http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/courses/PoliticalScience/661B1/documents/StanleyFishTheorysHope.pdf ?

    • dmf says:

      ah that’s not quite the essay I was thinking of, will keep hunting for a more explicit spelling out of his take on critical self-consciousness fallacy or antifoundationalist theory hope.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      I’ve been thinking about this issue in terms of what it is we actually do when we think about concepts. If we have gotten to the point where we can say something like “an internalized concept is an acquired perceptual capacity” then this raises some interesting questions about how those capacities play out when turned toward thinking about other concepts. In other words, thinking about conceptual capacities is itself dependent upon a certain set of conceptual capacities. Critical philosophy seems especially tuned to this idea. My question is, then, what kinds of capacities are required to investigate concepts given that our understanding of concepts is limited by our capacities? There’s risk of infinite regress here, but I think ecology can help put some constraints around these kinds of affordances that allow us to explore the issue without suggesting we have same kind of pure access to our own conceptual habits and personal biases, or that we are able to simply exchange conceptual capacities at will.

      • dmf says:

        sure part of the proto-typing is to emphasize both the experimental and the task/context specificity (including something like leaving the working-parts exposed and showing tool marks) so as to remind later users that it may well need to be tweaked/remixed/bricolaged/hacked if not just scrapped.
        but ya know me I’m not ready to talk in general in terms like “an internalized concept” and looking forward to when you get a chance to walk us thru such an occurrence/doing…

  • […] in terms of an ecological account of the subject-concept relation. In my previous posts (here and here), I have emphasized a level of conceptual understanding that presupposes both language and the […]

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