Sunday, 19 January 2020

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Part 5: In which Philosophical Psychology puts on a mask (kinky!) and dresses up as Cosmological Intuition (ooh, nasty!)
It is, perhaps, well-known that the derivation of the word “person” lies in the Latin persona, meaning “an actor’s mask”; a vital metaphor this: agent and alter-ego in one. The metaphysical hint is unmistakable. Oscar Wilde once quipped, give someone a mask and they reveal their true selves; and in revealing, we add, so they become. As consciousness is bodied forth by an other, so it is embodied in the “self”. Theirs is the mask we wear, the persona we appropriate and transform into a “self”, a conscious, personal reality, commissioned by the other. Thus does ‘[m]ind… everywhere flow into mind’[1] I learn to play my part in the dialectical exchange of perspectives on my self-enactment. Our first performance, then, is no monologue but a dialogue with the other. In such transactions are we made to be self-making.
The essence of consciousness, of “personhood”, is fragmentary; consolidated by exchanged perspectives. This is a commonplace of post-modern theories of identity as well as Farrer’s metaphysical personalism. The “unity” we call a “self” is actually a function of that primary dialectic of perspectives, the love-relationships into which we are born. In this way, those who had and held me have inexorably bound themselves, their image, into my every experience of consciousness. We are who we are by their grace and gift; wherein, St. Paul reminds us, works the grace of God.[2] Others give us the tools with which to make or ‘mend’ ourselves (as Eugene O’Neill suggests) using that same grace as ‘glue’.[3] They give us the language, the symbols, in which we think our thoughts and live our lives.
Such transactions are not only of philosophical psychology, however. ‘Otherness’ is a feature of cosmological schematics and social semantics. The cosmos is not made of ontologically independent units. It is primitively social or interpersonal; not just there, but given to us. And being given, it wears the mask of living process (as Whitehead and, more recently, Brian Cox analogically averred); so becomes a manifold energised by the quickening of a consciousness which constructs itself by passing itself through images of otherness.
Behind all this lurks an old Freudian tale. From deep within the fissures of fragmented psyche, comes the siren-call of cosmological metaphor; the self sings softly to itself of limitation and aspiration, of the wholeness which forever haunts its partial state. So consciousness goes in search of firmer ground, where such transcendent consummations may be found.
Ancient cosmologists wore their contingency on their sleeve so yearned to embrace The Necessary. Such speculations seemed both psychologically and metaphysically unavoidable, even undeniable; for only they could offer our ‘flickering, unstable, semi-transparent moment-to-moment “being”’ (as Sartre dubbed it) the chance to claim “real being”. So the guttering candlelight of consciousness craved the ‘solid, opaque, inert “in-themselves-ness” of things which simply are what they are’.
That too is an old story and the ending is well-known. Desperate to participate in the self-sustaining ontologicality of “real being”, those anciene métaphysique conceived consciousness as a desire for the impossible. To live such a project, cast oneself in ‘a condition of perfect stability and completion’, is what existentialists call ‘bad faith’: mauvaise foi. So the flame went out and consciousness discovered it was nothing but a shadow all along; ‘emptiness poised between two totalities’.
So much for ancient cosmologists. Modern ones have, of course, escaped the metaphysical mire in which philosophy and theology have long sought to drown one another. Striving after, not Necessary Being, but universal law, they preferred to go with their GUTs, Grand Unified Theories, that is. Such constructs are themselves reflections of a fragmentary consciousness, expressions of the self-same “aspiration-to-wholeness”; expressions which, it turns out, may also be doomed to failure.
Einstein, it seems, was right again: ‘[t]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’.[4] For the unity needed to make the cosmic manifold a manifold, and the laws according to which it operates universal, is notably absent. The sciences themselves tell us so. We should not mistake the ‘unimaginable free-for-all of numerous bits of organism, system, process’ for coherent unity or ‘world-pattern’.[5] Not a pattern nor an organism; no more, as Farrer held against the Whiteheadians, than ‘a superorganism , nor, indeed, a totality which exists as such at all’.[6] The universe is ‘a million million million bits of system, interacting as they can and largely with irrelevance to one another’.[7] Faced by such mutual indifference, one might better designate those allegedly universal laws as “local customs”.
Such a universe - if it can be so called - is a most inhospitable place; no consciousness could take root there and no knowledge blossom. As go the laws so goes predictability; practically anything might happen. How, then, could we even begin to make sense of the universe when there is, to the best of our knowledge, no sense to be found there?

Sense in a senseless universe? Now that is HOT! Don’t forget to tune in next time for what very well maybe the CLIMAX of our philosophical bump ‘n’ grind. Oh yeah! We can always hope! It has to end sometime! And maybe bad faith will finally get what it deserves in…
Bad Faith, Naughty Faith!
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Farrer, ‘You Want to Pray?’ in A Celebration of Faith, , ed. Leslie Houlden (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), 143.
[2] King James Bible, 1 Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
[3] Eugene O’Neill, The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960), 101: ‘Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!’.
[4] Rees, M. From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons (London: Profile Books, 2011), 80.
[5] Farrer, ‘Transcendence and “Radical Theology”’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 173.
[6] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 150.
[7] Farrer, ‘The Prior Actuality of God’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 187-8.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Apologies once again for the extended interruption to our usual service. This time it was cause by a) Christmas and all its associated indulgences (yes, I had a slight hangover); and b) the contraction of foul and hideous diseases (I had a cold). Having now fully recovered from both a) and b) we may now proceed with our sexy adventures in cosmological consciousness. Oh yeah!

Oh wait, it looks as though there may actually be some consequences to all this hot and dirty philosophical business. Uh oh.

Part 4: Where Do Babies Come From? 
Analogical thinking rests on our ability to recognise other modes of reality as being active agencies. But how do I know what active agency looks like? From my own case, rebounds the echo of ego-certainty. Perhaps; but in such truisms, lurks pernicious circularity. How did I come to be an agency capable of recognising its reflection in others? Where did “my own case” come from? Where else, P. F. Strawson observed, if not those others? A “case” is not a single integer. Arguments “from” are really arguments “back to”; they return us to the simple ontological facts of human existence.
   Logical philosophers will doubtless remind us that we have known as much since Strawson and Wittgenstein located the primary conditions for any thought at all in those who taught us how to think. Unearthing the roots of thought and action, however, it becomes clear that, as vital as their corrective was, those logical philosophers still somehow missed the point. After all, Farrer observed, ‘[i]t is not as though we believed in our neighbour’s personality because logical philosophers are able to exhibit the self-contradiction involved in denying it’.[1] Such intellectual conceit surely adds the insult of unnecessary demonstration to the injury of inexcusable doubt: bad faith atop faulty inference. “The other” is no philosophical puzzle for rational minds to solve but a matter of real practical urgency.
This is because our first encounter with others finds us supremely helpless. John Macmurray (Farrer’s tutor at Balliol) put the point with paradoxical perspicuity. We are, he said, ‘“adapted”…to being unadapted,’ that is, ‘“adapted” to a complete dependence’ on others.[2] The nursling has no control over her bodily movements, no capacity to initiate action or deliberately do anything. Her basic experience, therefore, cannot be the exercise of her own agency; for she is not an agent. Rather, that experience can only be of the agency first exercised on her by others. Therein lie the analogical foundations upon which our understanding of other agencies must rest.
Indeed, our primitive experience of another’s ‘disturbance-effect’ is likely why psychological development begins with the objectified ‘I’. The child conceives herself first as an object, innocent as the philosophical realist and as devoid of any other possible perspective. She is a thing in a world where all perspectives are one perspective; that is, her own; though, again like the realist, she does not know this. Her subjectivity, she later acquires as part of the process of learning that neither she nor her world are so ontologically or psychologically transparent.
This marks a subtle but important shift in personalist schematics. Traditionally, we are told that persons arise only in dialogue, between I and Thou. In a sense, however, studies in developmental psychology suggest otherwise. It seems that an I only develops when a Thou encounters an It and transforms it into and I.
To such subjectifying transformations we are well “adapted”; indeed, perfectly so. In Macmurray’s words, we are ‘made to be cared for’; and cared for we must be if we are to survive long. Being so “adapted”, how fortuitous then that we are born into a manifold of personal agencies or, to warm the face of such schematics, a world of families and friends, of inherently personal love-relationships. Farrer concurred with his former teacher: ‘[f]rom first infancy,’ he said, ‘our elders loved us, played us, served us and talked us into knowing them’. Had they failed us, we would not be.
Consciousness, then, is awakened, better still invested, in us by those who supply the mental resources with which we explore our world and ourselves. By means of such investments, the enquiring mind, takes its first steps. Our parents and teachers give us the tools with which we shape our own part in transactions: physical and metaphysical, cosmological and psychological. Before that, however
We learnt to talk, because [others] talked to us; and to like, because they smiled at us. Because we could first talk, we can now think; that is, we can talk silently to the images of the absent, or… pretend to be our own twin, and talk to ourself.[3]

Others supply the conditions of our conduct, both mode and circumstance of developing personality. I can think, that is, talk to myself, because they first talked to me and taught me to reply. I can even think “objectively”, that is, abstract from the immediacy of my experience, because they taught me rules for consistently organising and interpreting it. These rules, they called theories: scientific, philosophical, psychological, etc.; they mitigate the particularity of my perspective by co-opting me into a community of explorers, so make me one of them. In Farrer’s words, ‘[t]hought is the interiorisation of dialogue’.[4] Staking its claim to the terms and the structure of those transactions, the image of the other is thereby internalised, instilling the “self” with what Feuerbach called ‘the inner life of man’, our social self, our ‘species being’.[5]
The seemingly “objective” self of our psychological infancy is thereby displaced. Internalised otherness contrasts itself with that “externalised” or “objective” self. The nascent “self”, its needs, activities, and perspective, are passed through the image of the other. Being “filtered” in this way, the “self” is (re)evaluated and (re)constructed in relation to the other. In short, I learn to double myself so as to play the part of another within myself.[6] Colloquially, one might say I become a “self” by learning to put myself in the place of the other. The I is formed by re-enacting that place, that primary otherness. Being Thou unto others, the “self” is, to reiterate a favourite Feuerbachian phrase, essentially ‘species being’. Thus, the transactional structure of social conscience and conscious action are built-into the mode and act of self-construction by the other.
This overrules any ontological privilege or priority the ‘I’ might claim over interpersonal connections. Prior actuality, as Farrer dubbed it, cannot belong to the “self” for ‘mentality always was a social, not a solitary, thing.’[7] Metaphysically and psychologically, priority resides in the other for that is where my “self” is born. The “self” becomes a “self” only by being appropriated by others and learning to appropriate them in turn.

Oh yeah! That’s what I’m talking about! And I’ve been talking about it for ages! Now I’m trying to make it sound sexy by talking in this exaggerated way with lots of exclamation marks and playing 70s guitar wah-wah music in the background! Mmm, sexy metaphysics!
So come back next week – almost definitely next week, or the week after at the latest – for another instalment in Metaphysics: Down and Dirty Business! 

[1] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 129, my emphasis.
[2] Macmurray, J. Persons in Relation, (New Jersey/London: Humanities Press International Inc., 1991), 48.
[3] Farrer, ‘Thinking the Trinity’ in A Celebration of Faith, ed. Leslie Houlden (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), 74.
[4] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 126.
[5] Feuerbach, L. The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot, (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 2.
[6] Feuerbach, 83.
[7] Farrer, ‘Thinking the Trinity’ in A Celebration of Faith, 74.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Inscriptions: Latest Issue!

Vol 3, No. 1 (2020): Outsourced! Mediatisation and revolt

Outsourcing is a way to get someone else to act on our behalf. In psychoanalysis, the term is also used for instances of exteriorised reception, politics, or belief. This issue of Inscriptions considers cases when such outsourcing is non-subjectivised, i.e. when there is a knowledge ‘out there,’ in the Real, but where it is not yet possible to say who it is that believes. Tidhar Nir's essay on the experience of shock in art explores how the ego can be resituated within such knowledges, while Jørgen Veisland proposes a model for how the artistic imagination shields itself from, and yet incorporates, knowledges ‘in the Real.’ This ‘Real’ is very much present in the work of our editor Sharif Abdunnur, who explains what it is like to teach in the context of an ongoing revolt in Lebanon. We also present a series of paste-ups and murals by the street artist AFK that bring up complex debates while also giving us a glimpse into the holy.

To subscribe to the print edition of Inscriptions contact our publisher at

Open Call for Papers
We invite contributions to our upcoming open issue (vol. 3, no. 2). We are looking for well-crafted and skillfully written scholarly essays and literary fiction (poetry, aphorisms, short stories, fables, literary essays, etc.) that in some way engage our mandate. Submissions are due by 15 March 2020.

For submission instructions please see our website.

Open Access, no APCs
Access to content in this journal remains open on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge. We do not charge authors for submission or publication.

Inscriptions is published online and in print, and is indexed by, among others, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Our authors include Wolfgang Schirmacher, Siobhan Doyle, Christopher Norris, and Jørgen Veisland.

Our issues are archived electronically and in print by Norway's National Library: (

Recent Issues
Inscriptions 3, no. 1: Outsourced!, January 2020
Inscriptions 2, no. 2: Kierkegaard, July 2019
Inscriptions 2, no. 1: The Global Unconscious, January 2019
Inscriptions 1, no. 1-2: Consecrations, July 2018

Yours sincerely,
Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions

Inscriptions is an international, interdisciplinary double-blind peer-reviewed journal that publishes contemporary thinking on art, philosophy and psychoanalysis. ISSN 2535-7948 (print)/2535-5430

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

We apologise for the interruption in service last week. This was due to foreseen circumstances. And now, welcome back to the hottest series on the world wide web. The series in which the cosmos gets down and dirty with some seriously sexy symbolism. Oh yeah. Let’s get funky with it. 

Part 3: Birds, Bees, and Dirty Diagrams
To see how this works, consider Huxley on a most potent force of nature. In his discussion of love among the birds and beasts, the many splendoured facets of human love, as manifest in human action and relation, are used as explanatory constructs, a via analogia that illuminates the meaning of animal behaviour and its causes.[1] Huxley’s use of our emotional lives is analogical, of course; we cannot take literally his talk of ardent grebes, great tits, and blackcocks.[2] As Farrer reminds us, he who psychologises animals is himself an ass. With only a ‘very ill-defined’ sense of what other animals’ “subjectivity” might be like, we cannot suppose that having emotions is the same thing for them as it is for us. Thus constrained, we apply the model of our own action and experience, so get the animal’s action and experience into focus by sympathetic appreciation. How else should we even begin to understand animal behaviour or the action of evolution on it? What other interpretative key is there?
Such natural passions figure large among the birds and beasts in my backyard, but the fundamental constituents of the cosmos are energy and process. That is to say, concepts such as ‘process’, ‘energy’, and ‘activity’ are the basic elements of our cosmological maps; and they too are borrowed from the logically primitive experience of being an active agent. For, as Farrer showed, the model of our own activity is essential if we hope ‘to give content to the general idea that it [whatever “it” is] does act’.[3]
Thus, empirical metaphysics learned the lesson of empirical psychology. Before Farrer, the psychologist Jean Piaget, and before him, Feuerbach, found that the notion “object” originates in the child’s conception of “I”, the “I” objectified and projected.
This does not mean that our maps are constructed from simple anthropomorphisms. Rather, Farrer argued, we ‘erect a pseudo-genus of which “thing” and “self” are species’.[4] We construct a model from shared or common factors; the most common being ‘interference capability’. This ‘pseudo-genus’ supplies the framework within which those realities may be understood. Crucially, this analogical erection is dynamic: it may go up or down depending on the nature of the interference. Insofar as any interference resembles my own, I must suppose it to be the expression of an agency like me; but only to the degree that it does resemble my own. Those that are recognisably personal – loving, linguistic, or merely logical, for instance – reveal themselves on the upgrade; the more so as they outstrip my capacity to undertake them. When dealing with birds, beasts, and the basic processes of the universe, however, those “higher” features of personal consciousness are ‘washed-out’ and ‘an indefinable discount’ paid.[5] In seeking to comprehend such forces, that is, we downgrade the analogy accordingly.
As our interactions with, and understanding of, the world become increasingly sophisticated, our application of this graded model must do likewise. Complicated maths, the lingua franca of cosmologists conversing among themselves, is a prime example. Mathematics is a language; its terms as analogical as any other; its symbols, co-ordinates on our cosmological maps. Once again, we are not so naive as to suppose there is anything “out there” that precisely corresponds to them. Moreover, mathematical symbols and their configurations remain grounded in the analogy of our agency. The most basic calculations - on which the most complex ultimately rest - share the operative principle of all languages and substitute symbol for object. The very possibility of symbolising objects depends on being able to identify and re-identify the objects in question. This, in turn, depends on the capacity objects have for exercising ‘disturbance-effect’, to act on me and so distinguish themselves from me. For that, as suggested, is our criterion of real existence, what Buber might call the first ‘category of being’.[6]
However, complicated maths plays a more important role in our story. For it is not merely a symbol system; it is a vitally important one which enables our explorations and explanations to reach into the darkest regions of the cosmos. In so doing, it exemplifies the ampliative extension of consciousness which is to come. This is because the cosmologist’s calculations are not just diagrams of the universe; they are diagrams of a diagram. The cosmologist’s mathematical maps are symbolic representations of a matrix of forces which is itself a symbolic representation constructed from analogies of our own activity.
Farrer described our ordinary conception of “the universe” as resembling a ‘linear diagram of historical developments chalked on a classroom blackboard’.[7] The sciences have brought the image into sharper and, consequently, more poignant, focus. Our most advanced conceptions of “the universe” do not resemble such diagrams, they are such diagrams, mapped out in the hermeneutical imagery of mathematical equations.
Here, in the redoubling of our analogies, we see the defeat of simplistic anthropomorphisms, those lares and penates masquerading as “real beings”. Analogising our analogies elevates the analogising consciousness high above the realist’s household ghosts and gods; most pernicious of all, his Perfect Personal Agent.
Equally, it reminds traffickers in mathematical and other scientific models of the foundations of their own constructs. Moreover, the very “impersonalism” which, we are told, is the true character of the cosmos, is itself such a construct, one rinsed almost clean of any hint of personality; almost, but not quite, since the basic idea of activity must remain. This much we cannot do without; abandon action-concepts and the entire edifice of our understanding crumbles; we make a nonsense of both the diagrams and diagrammatising procedure which is scientific exploration.
“Impersonalism”, then, is an abstraction, a projection that is meaningful only because of the personal action from which it springs; the two cannot be coherently separated.
But this is not the end of the story. To fully understand Farrer’s via analogia, we must turn to philosophical psychology.

And you know what they say: philosophical psychology is the sexiest kind of psychology!
Remember to come back next week – or possibly the week after, given that it’s Christmas – for more wet and wild adventures, of:

Is That an Analogy of a Personal Cosmos in your Pocket or are you just Anthropomorphising?

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Huxley, J. New Bottles for New Wine (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1959), 213-232
[2] It is, perhaps, worth noting here that, while the word “love” roams free about Huxley’s article, unconstrained by parenthetical qualifications, the word “courtship” is more firmly anchored to its analogical origins with quotation marks.
[3] Farrer, The Freedom of the Will, 189.
[4] Farrer, Finite and Infinite, 67.
[5] Farrer, ‘Causes’ in Reflective Faith, 213.
[6] Buber, M. I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 43.
[7] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 169.