Jan 30 2018

Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)



[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.

Nov 6 2017

Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power


Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three, there is a jump. In the case of quantity, there is no such jump; and because jump is missing in the world of quantity, it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate…. In other words, number is of the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is of the world of analogic and probabilistic computation.

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

As I said in my previous post, while I initially found much to be lacking in David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016), it was worth reading, particularly for what I consider to be this book’s most profound passage, found amid a discussion concerning new digital/analog challenges at Camp Walden:

“Let say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he [Sol Birenbaum] said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe I should talk with’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion. Birenbaum believes the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch. [2]

With regard to how those transfers transcend geography, let me note that I just finished Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and some of what Sax’s example shows seems to be what Anderson was getting at when he showed how maps are an essential part of the way modern communities and nations imagine, reimagine, (or distort) themselves as well as their neighbors.[3]

Digital mapping (through GPS, Google Maps, satellite imagery, etc.) might very well offer examples of transfers of authority that lead to social cohesion. For example, the famous nighttime photos of North Korea apparently show that the Hermit Kingdom is geographically quite cohesive in its lack of electricity.

These questions surrounding transfers of authority via technology are a part of our liquid modernity. As Kevin Kelly writes in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016): “In order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs…. Liquidity offers new powers.”[4]

But as Bateson reminds us—Lord Acton’s dictum was a little off—for power alone doesn’t corrupt; it’s the myth of power that leads to corruption.[5]



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 49.

[2] Sax, The Revenge of Analog, (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2016) 234–35.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (New York, NY: Verso, Revised Edition 2006) 170–78.

[4] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 65, 74.

[5] Bateson, Mind and Nature 223.