Most of my philosophical work yesterday consisted of editing my Bergson essay from the longer version under review at Social Epistemology to a shorter version that can go to the Canadian Philosophical Association. I don’t really want to discuss that one in detail because it’s still under review. So the arguments themselves in all their gory detail will be absent from this post.
But I can discuss the editing process, because this is more complicated than I had originally planned. See, the essay with Social Epistemology’s reviewers is pretty complex. I treat Bergson as a case study to comment on particular aspects of philosophical disciplinary relationship with the sciences. So the beginning and end frame the general questions, and the bulk of the middle takes up the Bergson case. The case itself is quite complex on its own: I examine key points of how he adapted scientific research on neurology (Matter and Memory) and evolutionary biology (Creative Evolution) to his philosophical inquiries, tracing how he ultimately went wrong in his formulations of relativity theory in Duration and Simultaneity.
His neurological work is still relevant, because the basic concepts he discussed still hold true. His evolutionary work has become ridiculous because the science has completely moved beyond him, as it would when the discovery of bacterial diversity and DNA came well after his writing and his life. His treatment of physics he just wrote clumsily: all he wanted to do was establish that the theory of relativity can’t speak to the subjective experience of time, but he was interpreted as saying (and quite often actually said) that subjective experience gives a better insight into the nature of time than physics. I think some of Bergson’s ideas are really interesting and productive. Not all his ideas, though.
The CPA presentation is taking an entirely different tack, because I couldn’t jam all that analysis sensibly into 30 minutes. So it’s now an essay analyzing Bergson more historically. Specifically, it focusses on points in his philosophical development that would have led him to believe that philosophy was a superior form of knowledge to scientific inquiries, and how this arrogance also bled into his public life, and exacerbated political conflicts in the League of Nations, where he was active organizing their proto-UNESCO.
Essentially, I’ve had to rewrite that paper in the opposite order that I originally composed it. The old framework was General Issues > Early Bergson > Starts Going Wrong > Public Disaster > Reasons Why > Political Dimensions > Lessons for General Issues. The CPA version has become Public Disaster > Core Evolutionary/Philosophical Concepts > Reasons for Philosophy’s Superiority > Political Dimensions.
As a writer, think about how radical the changes to a project must be if tighter time and space constraints are introduced. Highly complex concepts can’t always be introduced in any time frame at all, at least not in their original style of presentation. It is true that any concept can be explained quickly, but the explanation doesn’t always take the same form. Changes in how much time you have to explain an idea can seriously affect how you explain that idea. Condensing isn’t just a matter of trimming sentences and making a text shorter, but reorganizing it so that a faster explanation still makes as much sense as a more relaxed meditation on details.
Speaking of how changes in time periods alter the nature of a creative work, on a recommendation from Edward Said, I’m finally going to check out Paul Virilio. Speed and Politics has been on my bookshelf for a long time, but was one of those that I never got around to, and there’s now a copy of Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles on my iPad too.
I had a mixed suspicion about Virilio for a long time, because my first introduction to him was a presentation of a chapter from Speed and Politics at Jockey Club during my undergraduate years. It seemed interesting enough, but at the time too simple. I didn’t really understand how the speed of transactions in a society could alter fundamental social relations.
Since then, I’ve read Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda, which has demonstrated the scientific principles behind qualitative phase transitions, and how those phase transitions operate in economic and ecological terms. So I’ve understood how changes in the speed of transactions and energy consumption can cause sudden massive changes to the system in question. Over the next week or so, I’ll see what Virilio has to say about this.