Monday, March 11, 2013

Place and resistance

I've never been a real fan of Kant, but every time I cover some of his philosophy in any of my classes, I always keep coming back to his more poetic turn of phrase about the dove thinking that if there wasn't resistance, it could fly higher:

Mathematics gives us a shining example of how far, independently of experience, we can progress in a priori knowledge.   It does, indeed, occupy itself with objects and with knowledge solely in so far as they allow of being exhibited in intuition, but this circumstance is easily overlooked, since this intuition can itself be given a priori, and is therefore hardly to be distinguished from a bare and pure concept.  Misled by such a proof of the power of reason, the demand for the extension of knowledge recognises no limits.  The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  (from The Critique of Pure Reason)
In many ways, one could say that we need our own topological spaces as a kind of "resistance" for our embodied cognition.  Importantly, I'm not using the term "resistance" pejoratively.  I'm thinking of it in the same register as Kant.  The spaces give our biological cognition something to "push against" that is more than simply the body in which it (primarily) seems to be housed.  Of course, too much resistance can be counterproductive.  But too little can be equally problematic.  "Too much" resistance would be a space which has too many distractions -- whether they be things which are superficially distracting (i.e. noise, uncomfortable environmental conditions, etc); or more subtle, emotional distractions (good or bad memories).

But what would "too little" resistance be?  At first I thought that a space that was too comfortable either physically or emotionally would provide little of the resistance I'm thinking about.  Then I wondered if it would be a space that was somewhat empty -- devoid of objects and distractions, similar to a topological tabula rasa.  The latter, however, is not feasible in the practical sense of the word, really.  Unless we're talking about exceptional situations such as prolonged solitary confinement or sensory deprivation.  But if we remain within the confines of the Geneva accords, I'm thinking that the former is more suitable:  where too much comfort or even familiarity offers little resistance.  And, when we're too comfortable in a particular place, where does our motivation come from?  What do we "push against" in order to really think?  On top of that, we also need to consider that the desirability of these two aspects is situationally contingent.  Sometimes, we need a bit of ease.  We need to also take into consideration the fact that certain types of people will rely more heavily on the physical  "outer" spaces around them than others.

It's important to note, however, that it's not so much the presence of the "stuff," as it is how effectively it's utilized:  how efficacious is the environment to our thinking?

Regardless of the degree of integration with our topological spaces, those spaces act in a similar fashion to how Kant's "experience" provides a priori knowledge with something to push against.  Even though I'm not one for a priori knowledge, I think that Kant's metaphor is useful.  Affectively, no resistance = no ambition; no drive; no motivation.  Topologically, the spaces we occupy provide that needed resistance for our biological cognition.  The phenomena around us provide the stimuli through which a distributed cognition is woven.