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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, September 16, 2016


 In my 2013 essay AFFECTIVITY, MEET EFFICACY, I focused upon Ernst Cassirer distinction between “causality” and “efficacy.” Causality, the philosopher said, represented humanity’s ability to think about cause and effect in a rational, discursive manner, and from this we get the first stirrings of early philosophy, and later, the developments of science. Efficacy, however, belonged to the language of myth: it depends on a blurring of the distinctions between the objective and subjective worlds.

…the world of mythical ideas… appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy. Here lies the core of the magical worldview… which is indeed nothing more than a translation and transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence.

One mythical idea to which Cassirer refers occasionally is myth’s view of the origins of the world. Some mythical tales hold the world comes into being only because some giant being—Ymir in Norse stories, Purusha in Hindu stories—is torn apart, so that the different parts of the giant’s body become the earth, the seas, the moon, etc. Within the scope of these narratives, there is no attempt to provide a rationale as to why the world had to made from the flesh and bones of a giant. It is true purely because it confers the aura of human associations upon the whole of creation, even those aspects of creation that may seem entirely alien to human experience. This is what I’ve called “affective freedom,” humankind’s ability to imagine almost anything, whether it accords with experience or not.

Rational conceptions of causal relations, of course, could not care less about the aura of subjective emotions and drives: the desire is to extrapolate a closed system of relations that depend entirely on physical force: CAUSE A exerts FORCE B upon OBJECT C, resulting in RESULT Z. This tendency to rely exclusively upon material experience is one that I’m now terming “cognitive restraint.” Just as in psychology “the affective” and “the cognitive” describe complementary aspects of human mentality, “cognitive restraint” exists in a complementary relationship with “affective freedom.” In other words, human beings are entirely defined by neither: we need both the ability to imagine what seems impossible and to discourse about what we believe to be immediately possible.

I’ve written a lot on my blog about the concept of freedom, and it’s a major reason as to why I’ve devoted so much blog-space to such obscure concepts as “the combative mode” and the various forms of phenomenality, sublimity, and so on. But freedom without a complementary form of internal restraint is, as Janis Joplin sang, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even in fiction, where the boundaries of affective freedom *may * sometimes exceed those of religious mythology, cognitive restraint is necessary to make the essentially mythic ideas relevant to living human beings.

Human beings, we may fairly deduce, relate to the world in different ways than other animals. We cannot know what goes on in the head of a lion when it stalks a bird, and then fails to catch the bird because the latter flaps its wings and flies away, We can fairly guess that the lion is frustrated, and possibly with its limited mentality it might entertain the wish to continue chasing the bird into the air. But that would seem to be as far as a lion’s imagination could go.

We also cannot really know what thoughts may have passed through the mind of a Neanderthal hunter in the same situation. Maybe our caveman stalker had no thoughts at all when his prey escaped. Yet we can at least reasonably suspect that the primitive fellow may have entertained the idea of what it would like to be a bird: to sprout wings and chase the bird into its own territory. And once he had this thought—say, for argument’s sake, that no one had entertained the thought before him—he might not be limited to thinking only about filling his belly with bird-flesh. He nay have started to think about what it would feel like to fly, to be a bird; to soar above the limits of other cavemen. At this point he probably doesn’t  think about imitating the bird by designing his own pair of wings, but he may decide to translate this vagrant imaginings into a mythic form. The caves at Lascaux attest to some sort of mental alchemy that combined man and bird, even if today we can only look at drawings of bird-man hybrids and label them “portraits of shamans.”  They may have been just that, but their original context may matter less than their role in determining humankind’s affective freedom.

In one conversation I mentioned that humankind’s advancements in powered flight would have been impossible without this sort of internal, subjective appreciation for the possible thrill of flying. My opponent simply said something along the lines, “Yeah, but powered flight wouldn’t have been possible without science and logical thinking.”  Quite true; as far as achieving an effect in the physical world, wishing never makes it so. But my opponent in my opinion missed the point: the wish makes everything else thinkable. To the earthbound human who can only run and jump and swim, the idea of flying cannot be imagined as having some practical applications—not even just that of catching birds—until *after * it has been re-imagined as something that the earthbound human can imagine bringing into his own “sensuous, objective experience.” 

One of the greatest “myths” propounded by empiricist-types has been that of the “caveman-engineer:” the primitive who instantly sees some practical advantage in making a new type of spear or a rooftop, because he’s so much more attuned to the scientific principles in the physical world, even if he doesn’t have a scientific system as such. This very selective conception of the early scientist was of course an anachronism: an imagining of some 18th-century scientist born before his time; one who would be in no way influenced by the myths and religion of his time. This was one of many verbal strategies used by empiricists to tout the supreme importance of cognitive restraint, of valuing only practical cause and effect, and to consign myth to the dust-bin of “failed science.”

The mistake of utilitarianism—that the only things that matter are those which have a defined use—is one that depends upon the formulations of cognitive restraint. A utilitarian might allow some niggling truth to my “flying caveman” example, but he would view the caveman’s “fancy of flight” to be relevant to the human condition only because it did lead to a useful development. In contrast, the utilitarian would not be impressed by, say, Tolkien’s example of “arresting strangeness:” of imaging a world with a green sun. Even in the world of fiction, the world of the green sun would have no relevance unless it illustrated the restraints on physical life expressed through scientific fact. Thus, if autrhor Hal Clement devoted a book to explaining the makeup of a fictional world that happened to have a green sun for some scientific reason, then that, and that alone, would have relevance to utilitarianism.

What I’ve repeatedly emphasized that the world of affective freedom is a whole package: that the ability to imagine impossible things is crucial to human nature, whether it leads to specific inventions or not. Depicting a shaman as a bird-human hybrid may not have led directly to any fantasies of personal flight, and thus the shaman-dream might have no relevance at all to the development of powered flight. I argue, rather, that whether the subjective outpourings of myth and fiction do or don't lead to useful developments, all of them are equally important in determining the meaning of human freedom.

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