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. On the one hand, world appears to be the most necessary of concepts. What is there if not a world? Just as obvious it may seem is that the world must precede the person who lives in the world. To suggest the opposite, that the person precedes the world, sounds incoherent. On the other hand, if we accept that the only world we can know is the one that emerges upon 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 an already occurring state of affairs. 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 at minimum one that supports the kind of subjects that look back on it, if they can. But from where do we 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 become aware of the fact that experience—and the abstractions that 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 upon deeper examination seen to be an outside that emerges only 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.”

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.