Is there nothing solid anymore?


A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that. [See these posts on the truths of dots, and philosophy of dots]  Eternal verities that turn out to be contingent conventions; precise definitions that reveal themselves as maddeningly circular; substances that are mostly void, and so on.  A few examples:

  • Matter:  seems pretty solid, but as we know from modern physics, it’s mostly empty space.
  • Self:  long after David Hume noticed the self-deception inherent in the concept, the notion is being revised under the influence of contemporary neuroscience away from a unitary, unvarying core to something more fluid.
  • Organism:  the image of a well coordinated mechanical apparatus is giving way to the notion of a living thing as a community of smaller organisms and enormous collections of cells that somehow coexist in the same space.
  • More on the disappearing self, the void, and organisms here and here.

And just what does that have to do with the two marvelous books I’ve placed at the top of this post?  Of course, for some people, standard English, the Queen’s English (note, it doesn’t even stay as the King’s English) is an immutable and well-defined path from which only the uncouth will stray.  Jack Lynch demolishes this view in his book by giving an intellectual argument why this is absurd, and then providing individual historical treatments of the never ending battle between the language idolaters and the realists,  prescriptivists and descriptivists. 

He is remarkably fair in his assessment, giving the maven worshippers of linguistic non-change their due – useless to assert that fixed standards are never useful; just try to get an executive job with a corporation by speaking like a rapper in the interview – but even those fixed standards are not fixed in time.  We try to grasp the language in its static entirety and we come up with…nothing.  Like trying to get your arms around a drifting mist.  (You can read about my own struggle with my inner language snob here)

Just as I finished Lynch’s book, I started Robb’s on the geography of France.  The first several chapters are devoted to the mind boggling linguistic diversity that was French culture up until WWI.  Like examining a block of steel at the atomic level and finding vast reaches of nothing instead of solid stuff to bang your head against, when you try to reach in and grab the French Nation, there is nothing but a stupefying mix of local patois, communes, castes, entirely separate languages, and hardly an awareness that this thing called France – What, where is it?  In Paris, you say? – exists.  What a hoot that is, to conceive of the French State, the gold standard of centralized cultural and political authoritarianism, as something of an illusion!

How different is this from other countries?  My guess is that it may be similar to the cultural history of Italy, Spain, or Germany, but certainly not most of the English-speaking world.  Didn’t England succeed in forcing it’s language pretty much over the Isles long before the 20th century, despite the tenacity of local accents and dialects?  Certainly, the royal center made its presence known by edict and sword pretty uniformly.

Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent.  But these two books comprise an argument for the opposite view.   What good is system building if it is based on doing violence to the facts?

9 Responses to Is there nothing solid anymore?

  1. So you’re reading La Terre AND The Discovery of France at the moment?

  2. It always makes me happy when reading trends converge.

    • lichanos says:

      Unrelated note – Lately, when I read a Balzac or Zola novel, I’ve been making a little family tree in the back for reference, otherwise I can’t keep the characters straight. I should have started a long time ago!

  3. Man of Roma says:

    A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that.

    Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent. But these two books …

    This preoccupation of yours must correspond to something deep you have inside. I don’t have it. And the history of thought always comprised both the being and the becoming since its beginnings.

    The Eleatic school (what is real, or arché, never changes, and it is reason, logos etc. which of course will be a contribution to Plato and rationalism), and…

    Heraclitus, who lived in the ever changing world of Ionia (Asian minor, in contact with boiling East) and who preached that change was at the base of the universe. “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

    Besides, knowledge & science, they sure love the ‘being’, ie concepts, theories, but are obliged to change them and reach new epistemological paradigm shifts (Thomas Kuhn and so forth).

    Just a stab. Hope the more rigorous mind of an engineer won’t get …vexed?

    • lichanos says:

      …something deep you have inside…

      Yes, I have always felt this way, that things were bewildering, no matter how much one knew about them. The adult world always seemed arbitrary, unattractive, and pointless to me as a child. It still does. I’m with Heraclitus, but that crystalline precision and clarity of the other way is so attractive…

  4. Man of Roma says:

    Bewildering … if you mean baffling, yes, I also find both attractive, and I don’t think one has to choose between the two.

    I always was fascinated by dialectic because, ok, it was a myth of my young years – from Socrates to Hegel, Marx, Adorno and the school of Frankfurt -, but also because it allows contradiction, and, in this case, a ‘non choosing’. Heraclitus for example is obscure, he never clearly chooses between the two.

    An example of dialectics – I’m digressing – was passed to to me by Magister as for pessimism and optimism. He said he was at the same time pessimistic, due to intelligence, and optimistic, due to will, which if you reflect on it, it’s an impressive attitude, very complex, but I later realised it was Gramsci who said that, and possibly it was not even Gramsci, it was someone else who invented this dialectic idea (a French philosopher?), but I forgot who the hell it was.

    • lichanos says:

      I don’t get your Magister’s idea. I don’t set much store by Will as a philosophic idea, but that’s another story.

      As you say, dialectic has been around for a long time, and came to mean something under Hegel that was new to its history. Personally, my notion of it is best exemplified by the paradoxes of Zen and Oscar Wilde.

  5. Man of Roma says:

    I don’t get your Magister’s idea. I don’t set much store by Will as a philosophic idea, but that’s another story.

    Sounds like cunning, like a trap lol [I know it isn’t]. I have reason for not revealing M’s identity. In any case I wanted to reply, so I read many pages on M’s concept of will. It is too complicated. I had to read it over and over again. I don’t know if I want to get back to that.

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