Transcendental Empiricism

Our Emerging Post-Modern Dark Age: an introduction

Invisible University

Philosophy lives only by going beyond itself; history without philosophy is only a screen on which to project the shibboleths of our time

the Encounter —­­­ the Event — Image of Thought­­­­ — Plane of Immanence

" . . . Deleuze's transcendental empiricism attempts to overcome the opposition between concepts and intuitions . . . that has characterized most of the history of philosophy and which arises from the assumption of a finite subject whose receptivity is conceived of as passive."  Bryant (ix)

Figure 1.  PISA Math Scores, 2003 - 2009: 21 Nations +
U.S. New England + U.S. South + OECD average
PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do – Student
Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I)

Why Math?

Figure 1 is just the tip of the iceberg, and is about more than cognitive development even though that is what it indexes.

Striking transformations of actual cognitive and expressive modalities are only now becoming intelligible (Flynn) and problematic (Hall).  Flynn is about the emergence on a large scale of formal operational cognitive capabilities; Hall is about the way a mass consumer culture of regressive narcissism undermines the development of these capabilities.  It is in this context that one should study Figure 1.  PISA Math Scores, 2003 - 2009.  Figure 1 is an effect of cultural-historical developmental processes, of which schooling itself is only one of several key inputs affecting the cognitive and cultural development of situated organisms (not Cartesian selves: an image of thought whose pervasive presence and perverse effects Deleuze warns us about). 

Cognitive development is usually seen in a progressive context: the assumption that development is linear, that it is normative, and that its ultimate goal is the Enlightenment trope of the rational individual in a market economy.  This is its ontology, and it is worse than naïve.  

Even so, this developmentalist idea has only taken hold on a national level in nations like Finland, where a once strong and now weakened social democratic pragmatism continues to inform policy.  In themccarthy United States developmentalism (Vygotsky et. al.) in the public sphere is not only absent but never really took root and is now demonized.  That this is so is related to the triumph of the forces of reaction over the Progressivism of the New Deal.  There are many who can take credit for the dismal situation represented by Figure 1.  You may recognize these two.

  Because Finland's cognitive achievement figures significantly in current debates on educational reform, these excerpts are worth bearing in mind.  They provide a reference point when considering the rhetoric of corporate-dominated think tanks that now dominate American discussions of educational reform.  Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World, and how they got that way (Simon & Schuster, 2013) is the latest of this genre (See my critique/encounter here.)  This book provides some extraordinarily useful material while at the same time expressing the primitive cognitive processes that dominate American public discourse.  (To see these processes in action click here.)  The Smartest Kids in the World also functions as an informercial for charter schools, right wing think tanks, and Wall St. dominated reform organizations.

 The developmentalist perspective is naïve not because it has failed--Finland is a stunning success story.  It is naïve because two of the most powerful ontologies of modern society, ressentiment (racism and all its cognates) and regressive narcissism(the psychological side of mass consumption in the post-modern era), are at best recognized only tangentially, if at all.  (Sahlberg and Illeris recognize the threat to development posed by the latter, but only tangentially.)

The developmentalist perspective is known as Cultural Historical Activity Theory (Cole 2007).

 notwithstanding its success in the nation where it was most fully implemented (Finland), does not address the vulgarity, violence and greed of modern life.  It does not address such phenomena as
The Stupid Party; it has nothing to say about fascism as a generic phenomenon of modernity and as a central feature of American life.  Nor does it have anything to say about the cognitive effects of our enormously powerful corporate networks devoted to the stimulation of desire and envy.  Cultural Historical Activity Theory is Hegel with a smiley face, a utopian Progressivism. But development can go awry; regression can occur; archaic forces persist and become the raw materials of opportunistic political elites: shit happens, and the smile is wiped off Hegel's face. That's in part what Figure 1 is about . . . and what this site is about.

Figure 1 is about the history and fate of the Enlightenment not as ideology but as developmental trajectory; and thus, not as something that can be neatly confined to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Figure 1 is about processes of production, not only of goods and services, but of human beings themselves.  And thus (but only incidentally) figure 1 is about America as a failed state, a state unable to develop its "native" population into a workforce capable of formal operational cognitive competence.  And Figure 1 may also be about the fate of nations and the future of "capitalism."  If so, then America is not exceptional; it is a premonition of things to come.  Capitalism is in quotes to indicate a challenge to the conventional meanings attached to the term; and even more, a challenge to the ontological status we grant to such abstract nouns.  To see what I mean by this, go to The Keynesian Elite in the New Deal State.

But first, to the idea of America as a failed state.

It is already clear that in the U.S. fundamentalist whites and blacks (and many working class Catholics--hence my reference above to America as a failed state in relation to its "native" population) have been disgorged from the project of modernity, and now constitute a barely literate mass, concentrated in the central cities, inner suburbs, small towns, and the rural heartland, and removed in toto from the possiblities of cognitive development implied by the term "education."  As the old America--Christian America--dies a sociocultural death (see links at left to New York Times articles), it is being replaced by newer populations capable, for now, of cognitive development (see Intel Finalists and Asian workers now dominate Silicon Valley tech jobs, San Jose Mercury News, 11-30-12)

Because the media performs this cognitive decline, the decay of reason is invisible within the cognitively decaying public sphere.  One can observe the rhetorical performances of talking heads through the prism of e.g. English Grammar for Dummies (Wiley, 2010) and spot the decay of the logical structure of language in: subject-verb agreement when the subject is modified by a prepositional phrase; uncertainty in the use of prepositions (the speaker knows a preposition belongs in a sentence but just doesn't know which one to use); the use of phrases such as very unique, very major and others where the meaning of the word being modified precludes such quantitative modifiers; use of terms such as over-exaggerated and over-hyped (redundancies indicative of semantic dissolution); misuse of fewer and less . . .  and so on into the night of cognitive dissipation.

This rotting away of the mind can also be measured and evaluated by deploying the resources of developmental psychology and psychoanalysis.  The objective is not to infer something ontological (remember, we are dealing with situated organisms, not Cartesian selves), but rather to analyze cognitive performativity. Releveant empirico-theoretical resources are assembled in Developmental Divergence and Ressentiment and the Mechanisms of Defense.  The latter is a plane of immanence; the former is a collection of empirico-theoretical resources, but lacks the inner coherence characteristic of a plane of immanence.  (But Bildung: Was Mozart a Communist, is a coherent plane of immanence, as is The Keynesan Elite in the New Deal State, 1910 to 1937.)

Figure 1 must be placed in context.  This context must be adequate to the task of covering the entire range of contemporary observable cognitive performances.  Merlin Donald, Juan Carlos Gomez, and James R. Flynn provide this context:

from Merlin Donald,  A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)

 . . . modern culture contains within it a trace of each of our previous stages of cognitive evolution.  It still rests on the same old primate brain capacity for episodic or event knowledge.  But it has three additional, uniquely human layers: a mimetic layer, an oral-linguistic layer, and an external-symbolic layer.  The minds of individuals reflect these three ways of representing reality.  (p. 262)

from Merlin Donald, "The mind considered from a historical perspective: human cognitive phylogenesis and the possibility of continuing cognitive evolution." In D. Johnson & C. Ermeling (Eds.) The Future of the Cognitive Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 360-61

Mimetic representations are evident in human children before they acquire language competence. . . .  They continue to be important in adults, taking the form of highly variable social customs, athletic skills, and group expressive patterns (such as mass demonstrations of aggression or rejection).

Flynn (at the right) is referring to the concrete operational and the formal operational stages of cognitive development.  Formal operational competence is the sine qua non of participation the modern economy of the third industrial revolution (see Blinder in cell to the right).  Right wing media perform at the pre-operational level or below.  Liberal media performances are at a pre- and concrete-operational level.  Formal-operation discourse is entirely absent from all media.  (see The Two-party System: Semiotic Regimes) (Deleuze: planes of immanence)

Thus, in today's America we see fundamental differences in cognitive functioning among different historically and sociologially defined subgroups of the population.  These subgroups can be defined by the nature of their cognitive-linguistic practice, including inventories of basic expressions and rhetorical maneuvers, such as are seen in the Youtube videos of the Palin and McCain rallies, Tea Party protests, and the mass of political ads produced for TV, as well as newscasts and talk show interviews.  Some of these materials are assembled in Ressentiment and the Mechanisms of Defense, which brings together Nietzsche's concept of ressentiment and the psychoanalytic concept of defense mechanisms (Freud et. al.) and characterological positions (Klein et. al.).  The cognitive aspect of these materials is dealt with in Developmental Divergence.  These two pages are essential if we are to understand the contemporary dissapation of Mind.

Figure 1 includes test scores of four New England states and three deep South states. Such refinements can be carried further by viewing Figure 1 through the prism of Intel Science Finalists.  The infamous racist text The Bell Curve, which makes a great deal of the 15 point gap between white and black IQ scores, glosses over its own observation that Ashkenazi Jews and Asians score about 15 points higher than whites (you understand of course that this is meant to be taken ironically: IQ is bullshit).  As Figure 1 suggests, one of the more interesting effects of racism is that it effectively prohibits conceptualizing the cognitive-performative inferiority of the whitest of whites: the severely and the really white base of the GOP (but not the merely and the nearly white). As the analysis of the Intel Science Finalists demonstrates, these are useful distinctions, closely related to the ARDA typology (fundamentalist Protestant, mainstrean Protestant, and Catholic), but with a more coloquial bite.

Consider The Stupid Party (so designated by the leader of GOP, Bobby Jindal): it has, with the collaboration of the liberal media as well as Fox News, conducted a decades-long jihad against modern thought, against the teaching profession, and against public schools, thus contributing to the situation represented by Figure 1. 

Then consider the force of narcissistic desire expressed within the field of mass consumer culture, orchestrated by multinational corporations, and celebrated by the media, which undermines to deadly effect the inner discipline that is the sine qua non for cognitive development: The crusade against reason meets the bio-industrial complex (see The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food). The result is entropy, the dissipation of Mind, instantly visible with the flick of a switch.  (CNN, Jersey Shore, Lizard Lick Towing, the Kardashians, etc.)  All this contributes to the effect measured by PISA and
represented by Figure 1.

Figure 1 is something that we encounter, that forces thought into new directions. In this sense it cannot be taken as dead data--it lives in the thought that it provokes--it's alive!