Procrustes: An Examination of Novelty

18 Sep 2004, Posted by Alexandros in Writings

In our thought, the essential feature is fitting new material into old schemas (= Procrustes’ bed), making equal what is new.1

What is it that the common people take for knowledge? What do they want when they want “knowledge”? Nothing more than this: Something strange is to be reduced to something familiar. And we philosophers – have we really meant more than this when we have spoken of knowledge? What is familiar means what we are used to so that we no longer marvel at it, our everyday, some rule in which we are stuck, anything at all in which we feel at home. Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security?2

Though dwelling on the motives behind knowing is interesting, this will not be of immediate concern. My objective is to point out certain things regarding the nature of knowing and then use them to clarify certain issues.

When we encounter something we do not know, it stands out as something we do not know by virtue of certain differences it exhibits compared to what we already know. For instance, notice what happens if we encounter a plant we’ve never seen before. Our ability to categorize it as a new plant presupposes that it has enough similarities with things we call plants, and certain differences from the plants we know already in order to be called ‘new’. Every possible ‘new’ object, event, process, falls within certain pre-existing categories (including that of ‘object,’ ‘event’, ‘process’) in which on the one hand we recognize as belonging to those categories, and hence similar enough to be categorized as being a member of one of them, and on the other hand, different in respect to other parts of its nature.

Novelty is a relational predicate; in order to be used correctly it necessarily has to make reference to another category. Something is ‘new’ and this ‘something’ has to be something (a process, object, feeling etc.) already recognizable within the categories you already have. Talking about ‘something’ without any reference to any other categories, is simply not making any sense. Something completely new, something that could not be categorized under any pre-existing categories we have, cannot be picked out at all, and thus cannot be the legitimate object of any meaningful discussion. In fact, in the previous sentence I contradicted myself. If something is completely new, I couldn’t have picked it out as something.

However, philosophers like Kant, tried to define the idea of a noumenal reality using only concepts negatively. Reality as it would be ‘in-itself’  – where categories like ‘substance’ and ‘causality’ do not necessarily apply. Regardless of his motivations for talking about such a reality, what I want to point out is that we could not make sense of such a reality; and it of course dawned on certain philosophers (Nietzsche, Quine, Rorty, Putnam just to name a few), that a reality which we could not make any sense, is in a significant sense, non-sense and should be dismissed as such. Thus, it is always something that is novel; an object, a process etc. Completely abstract novelty makes no tangible sense.

How is novelty handled? Let us introduce a provisional model of how novelty is handled and make it more complex as we discover its inadequacies.

As we’ve said above, what is novel will necessarily present itself within certain pre-existing general categories. However, it will stand out as novel, exactly because it does not fit as a proper member of the categories which we already have. For example, if we encounter a blue polar bear with three legs, on the one hand it will have all the similarities that it needs in order to be encountered as a polar bear, and on the other it will have certain characteristics which immediately set it apart as something novel (three legs, blue color). What set it apart as something novel, is not certain features which are completely unknown to us. Three legs, and the colour blue, are perfectly recognizable in themselves. What produces novelty, is the unsual configuration. We expect polar bears to be white and have four legs. When we encounter an animal that has all the characteristics of a polar bear except colour and four legs, then it is new in virtue of a different configuration of qualities (legs, colour) already known.

Novelty only makes sense within a framework and comes in degrees and the two ends are configuration and unrecognizability. Of course, novelty comes in degrees within a framework. We could see novelty in a scale like this:


Spectrum of Novelty

Let’s say we’re assesing the polar bear. If it is blue, then it is still a polar bear with a different configuration. It is new, so long as we keep in mind the category of a polar bear. Then lets say, that this polar bear, is blue, has three legs and one eye. Then we might still see it as a polar bear, but it certainly seems like a very strange, very different, new, polar bear. If we now see another polar bear with wings, different jaw structure, black and with two legs, we would be very reluctant to even call it a polar bear. This would be a new animal that is unrecognizable.

The number of categories you have is proportional to the amount of novelty that is exhibited. If you were equiped with four categories: object/process, motion/rest (categories which are highly inter-related) novelty would be impossible. Which means that the quality and number of your senses & concepts, determines the amount of novelty that you can grasp.

Using just the considerations above, how would we start answering whether the Universe exhibits novelty?

The problem as such, probably has its roots in the Newtonian world-conception. If the world is nothing but matter in motion, it seems very odd that anything new will ever come about. Yet the idea remained, that arrangements of matter caused certain effects other than matter and motion.

I want to connect it with causality and free will. Are all the effects present in the cause, and if yes, in what sense.

Related to the problem of novelty:

The Frankfurt School’s criticism of positivism is relevant to the problem of novelty and its relation to the social sciences. If we take determinism as true, then novel social organizations are excluded and individuals are turned into things…This goes back even further. The debate of the 17th century as to the ideas of active and passive.

It can be broken down to two attitudes towards novelty:

The unconvinced determinist: What he claims is that what was wrong, was not determinism as such, but rather the theory of causal connections that was being put forward. This of course, is an irrefutable position. Whenever something wasn’t predicted, we just blame it on the theory and deny novelty.

The novelist: What the novelist claims is that the universe is irreducibly creative and we, being part of the universe, are too. He doesn’t deny nor condemn the attempts of the natural sciences, but he believes them to be limited as the history of science shows. He has a more cultural bend since he believes that our beliefs towards our institutions affect our culture and how we view the world and our place within it. If we believe that the universe is a fixed system, then we become fatalists, give up responsibility and take existing social relations as inevitably determined. If on the other hand we view the world as creative then our outlook changes completely. The world is filled with possibilities again. It is the re-enchantment of reality.

What is important to point out is the following: Both attitudes conform with the evidence and neither can be refuted in a sense. Which means that our choice has to be made on extra-evidential grounds.

Which attitude supplies a poorer life? Which makes us feel mere playthings in a giant unfathomable machine? And last but certainly not least, which attitude would the status quo prefer to endorse?

On all these, the answer is the unconvinced determinist.

Thus, long live the novelist! Where art and truth combine to make re-enchant life not with illusions but with undeterminable truths.

What would an outline on Novelty look like?

  1. Introduction
  2. The Metaphysical Aspects of Novelty
    a. Ontology
    b. Novelty and Free Will
  3. The Consequences of the Metaphysical Aspects on Society
    a. Free Will and Society
    b. Determinists vs Novelists
  4. Conclusion

Could Novelty be combined with an examination on Change? Or Causality?

 


Notes:[1] WP *, 499

[2] GS, * book five, section 355.

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