Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Philosophy of space

To: Marcus M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophy of space
Date: 16 March 16:21

Dear Marcus,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 March, with your fourth essay for The Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In what ways does the nature of space pose a problem for philosophy?'

Why and how does the concept of space figure in 'ideas, things and events'? In a world without space -- a purely mental realm -- there can still be ideas and events but no things. This might seem a rather questionable claim. Isn't my idea of Paris, or the event of feeling a stab of toothache a kind of 'thing' existing in my mind? What makes a thing a thing? whence the thinginess of things?

Your answer, 'Space creates the concepts of 'one' and 'two'' is right on the button.

There is a paper by the British philosopher P.F. Strawson, 'Self, Mind and Body' (reprinted in 'Reading Philosophy' Blackwell 2004, the course book for the University of London External Diploma Programme) where Strawson challenges the Cartesian concept of a soul by pointing out that, if I am a Cartesian soul inside this physical body, there is *no difference* between the hypothesis, e.g. that at this moment one Cartesian soul is thinking about what to write next in this email, and the hypothesis that a hundred identical Cartesian souls are thinking a hundred identical thoughts. The body provides the basis for individuation.

I remember as a second year undergraduate grappling with this argument. It is quite subtle. Strawson is not making a sceptical point. He's not saying, 'There might be a hundred identical souls or there might not.' He is saying that the concept is unintelligible BECAUSE it is cut loose from body, and thus deprived of a principle of individuation. 'There is no entity without identity.'

It is not easy to count clouds. Tracing the outline doesn't work, when clouds overlap. Yet we can watch two clouds merge, and when that happens it seems to be true for a time that we have two overlapping clouds. Then there is only one. But there is no precise point where two become one. Is this a counter-example to Strawson's principle, 'no entity without identity'?

Clouds are 'entities' or 'things' in a rather low-level sense. The key to identity, as you have seen, is 'connectedness'. The most basic kind of connectedness is occupying, or being seen to occupy, contiguous points in space. However, even in clouds we see a higher-level principle of organization. It is a question of Physics how and why clouds form, why they have different characteristic shapes, cumulus, cirrus etc. Even so, we will have problems deciding whether a given example is an example of two cumulus clouds in the process of merging, or only one.

In principle, one entity can occupy several different disconnected spaces. (In fact, this is what clouds are -- suspended separate droplets of water.) Another interesting case is where several spatially separated parts of a single functioning entity communicate through a radio link.

Events can be separated by space and still be one event (e.g. the Olympic games). They can also (obviously) be separated by time. Events pose a special problem which we don't have with physical things, namely, the possibility of broader and broader contexts. There is a sense in which -- from a far perspective -- the 16th Century was an 'event'.

Linguistic units, such as words and sentences require a medium which need not necessarily be spatial (if we abstract from the question whether there could be a non-spatial reality). Words as sounds are spread out in time, just as words on a page are spread out in space. In both cases, there is no reliable physical means of distinguishing words, if one does not know what the words mean (it is only an accident that English text has spaces between words -- you would still be able to read this ifallthespaceswereremovedlike this).

It is from the organizational perspectives of grammar and semantics that collections of words are identified as 'sentences'.

The concept of metaphorical space -- as in your example of the space between literary or artistic productions -- is an interesting development from the primary notion of physical space as an essential component in individuation. Once again, the linking thread is the abstract notion of a 'principle of organization'. A novelist writes one novel, then another, and it is only apparent (perhaps to the novelist too) with the third novel that this is in fact a single literary work.

I like the idea of 'tentative spaces'. So much of philosophy is concerned with putting distance between this theory and that, or this idea and that, or on the other hand, obliterating distances, claiming that this theory is really a version of that, and so on. The philosophers' 'principle of organization' is dialectics.

All the best,