The Practice of World

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world” — Octavio Paz. My friend Sam Mickey ends a recent post with this great quote.

The concept of world is tricky. What is there if not a world? Its priority and consistency is the basic explanatory fact out of which our notions of the living and thinking person are formed. To suggest the opposite, that the person precedes the world, would be incoherent. However, if we accept that the only world we can know is the one that emerges on the basis of our perception, our cognitive ability, our emotional disposition, our aesthetic sensitivity, and our embodied capacity, then saying that the person precedes the world makes some sense.

But this isn’t quite right, either. People do not emerge ex nihilo. They emerge in the middle of things. On this point science, religion, and myth agree. There must be a world prior to the subjects of that world, and that world must be one that supports the kind of subjects that look back upon it, if they can. But from where do they look back?It is in this sense that the concept of world is tricky. Since the world that is given for the subject must be one that aligns with what the subject is capable of encountering, and since that world must precede and therefore escape the totality of this encounter, we cannot take the givenness of the world or the primacy of experience as the basis for our concepts of world, scientific or otherwise. Instead, we must accept that experience—and the abstractions we derive from it—emerges within the midst of an ongoing and a priori construction.

We also trick ourselves when we take either pole of this correlation as the basis or ground for the other. In the first place, when we point to the world “outside” we do so only artificially; the world we point to is not a bare, empirical fact. Any world we identify is an outside that emerges on the inside of our conceptualization of it. Likewise with the subject. When we turn our awareness upon ourselves we encounter not a pure and given subjectivity but one conceptualized in this or that way. The subjects we take ourselves to be are not a ground of experience, they are an outcome of it, an outcome of our sense of world correlated with our sense of self. Mind and world are participants in the emergence of mind and world, as Hilary Putnam once put it.

The concept of world on this account emerges as a term of art, as something malleable, as something that can be shaped through effort and practice, as something that must be achieved again and again. Likewise, any student of history understands that the relationship between subject and world changes dramatically across time and space. “The concept of world,” writes Sean Gaston, “raises the problem of how one deals with what is always already there—the world—and to what extent one gives the subject the power to shape or to constitute a world or many worlds of its own.”[1]

Now is probably a good time to attune ourselves less to the concept of world as a given state of affairs and more to the practice of making a world, an exercise we must repeat everyday, regardless of our new circumstances.

[1] Gaston, The Concept of World, x.


    • I can’t see exactly what you’re getting at, but I keep trying. The essay you linked to seems full of appeals to concepts of world. Can you paraphrase?

      If it’s more a point about conceptuality not really playing a role in everyday sensory motor functions, I think we may just be at an impasse.


      • partly because of my poor writing communication I meant to say that I would send folks to read yer post not to refer them instead to the link, my point about world is that whatever we might make of it what it can’t be is an overarching/arche-typal view that somehow brings together and or grounds all of the many things we do.


      • nah my fault, one of life’s many ironies that I’m a good editor of other peoples’ writing but not my own. i like the entanglement aspect of ingold but don’t share his fixation with lines.


  1. “The world is everything that is the case” –that’s Wittgenstein of course. I like how it captures the in-transit state of “everything that is the case” and the in-transit state of all our opinions about it without seeming to have done anything tricky, its simple trust in everyday language. Also: “what can be said at all can be said clearly.”


    • my sense is that Adam (not unlike Merleau-Ponty) has some interest in making explicit what folks like Wittgenstein took on faith.


    • I’m enjoying these appeals to Wittgenstein, Claire, and to his faith that language can be clear about things, depending on the skill of the writer, of course. I think the rub here would be that “everything that is the case” would depend on each person’s ability to render, in language or perception or theory or whatever, what, exactly, is the case. Which is why I think it’s important to foreground the notion of a world-in-the-making in relation to our ability to make it available in this or that way. It’s a kind of regulative ideal (in the Kantian sense) but it’s probably more of a pragmatic achievement and situated effort, rather than a transcendental given. I heard the term “transcendental pragmatism” the other day. I quite like that.


      • Shotter has a pragmatist’s take on Wittgenstein and Heidegger on making our dialogical ways in/of the world:
        Wittgenstein often wanted to limit language (or at least philosophy like we are indulging in here) to what could be said and leave the rest unsaid, I take this as deeply conservative on his part but there are many uses to be made of his work that needn’t be so pious.


  2. I think Wittgenstein has a very strong interest in making things explicit, though I agree that, as with Augustine, a faith in clear language – or a faith that language can be clear about things – is somehow a component integral to his philosophy. At the same time both Augustine and Wittgenstein have a linguistic and rhetorical expertise that is unusual among philosophers; Wittgenstein at least was aware of the way his language was actually rarified, so that he also says the only people that are likely to understand his book are those who have “already thought the things expressed in it.” This is not completely disingenous. Both for him and for Augustine, the ideal readership is one that will not merely grasp but also *recognize* what they are getting at. However you see “faith” operating here, I am really suggesting that Wittgenstein’s version of “world” is already as explicit as it is possible for such things to be (at least for those to whom it is “recognizable” in the first place).


    • what do you make of the distinction between showing and saying, or very mainstream interpretations like “This point of view or attitude can be seen in the four main themes that run through Wittgenstein’s writings on ethics and religion: goodness, value or meaning are not to be found in the world; living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world, or life, or God’s will, or fate; one who lives this way will see the world as a miracle; there is no answer to the problem of life–the solution is the disappearance of the problem”


  3. I also think Wittgenstein would have agreed about the everyday philosophical “practice of making a world,” that it is “an exercise we must repeat everyday, regardless of our new circumstances.”


  4. Nice! This reminds me of Haraway’s sense of “worlding” and her oft-repeated phrase: it matters what worlds world worlds.


    • Definitely some parallels with Haraway here. Is that Marilyn Strathern’s phrasing originally? I think so.


      • She cites Strathern about it mattering what ideas we use to think ideas, what relations relate relations, stories tell sto but I’m not sure if Strathern says exactly “worlds world worlds.” Heidegger’s phrase “the world worlds” is nearby too.


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