Date: Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 22:50:28 GMT
STATISTICAL THOUGHT IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES:
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL BASIS
by Joe E. Dees
A substantial number of contemporary existentialists, most
notably Jean-Paul Sartre, asserted that humankind is free, and that to
be free is to be 'condemned to be free'. Because of the absolute nature
of human freedom, humans could not be determined. This view
condemned as impossible any attempts to categorize either the
behaviors or the views of humans in general, even (eschewing
identities) similar trends. Thus, probability was forbidden; humanitiy's
absolute freedom would not permit the existence of parallels.
This view was shown to be faulty by Sartre's contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It's fault lies in its fundamental self- contradiction. After first recounting the aspects of activity, temporality, contingency, chouce and commitment inherent in the existential view of human subjectivity, Merleau-Ponty presents Sartre's position. It is at the conclusion of this presentation that the axe falls.
"The result, however, of this first reflection on Freedom would
be to rule it out altogether. If indeed it is the case that our freedom is
the same in all our actions, and even in our passions, if it is not to be
measured in terms of our conduct, and if the slave displays Freedom as
much by living in fear as by breaking his chains, then it cannot be said
that there is such a thing as Free action, Freedom being anterior to all
actions...We may say in this case that freedom is everywhere, but
equally nowhere...the idea of action, therefore, disappears: nothing can
pass from us to the world, since we are nothing that can be specified,
and since the non-being which constitutes us could not possibly find its
way into the world's plenum. (From nothing, nothing comes.) There are
merely intentions followed immediately by effects...the very idea of
choice vanishes. For to choose is to choose something in which
freedom sees, at least for a moment, a symbol of itself. There is free
choice only if freedom comes into play in its decision, and posits the
situation chosen as a situation of freedom. A freedom which has no
need to be exercised because it is already acquired could not commit
itself in this way: it knows that the next instant will find it, come what
may, just as free and indeterminate. The very notion of freedom
demands that our decision should plunge into the future, that something
should have been done by it, that the subsequent instant should benefit
from its predecessor and, though not necessitated, should at least be
required by it. If freedom is doing, it is necessary that what it does
should not be immediately undone by a new freedom. Each instant,
therefore, must not be a closed world; one instant must be able to
commit its successors and, a decision once taken and action once
begun, I must have something acquired at my disposal, I must benefit
from my impetus, I must be inclined to carry on...Unless there are
cycles of behavior, open situations requiring a certain complation and
capable of constituting a background to either a confirmatory or
transformatory decision, we never experience freedom. The choice of
an intelligible character is excluded, not only becausethere is no time
anterior to time, but because the idea of an initial choice involves a
contradiction. If Freedom is to have room in which to move, if it is to be
describable as freedom, it must have a field, which means that there
must be special possibilities, or realities which tend to cling to being."
Sic transit Gloria, Jean-Paul; passim in pax. Merleau-Ponty's
arguments are basically that 1) absolute freedom, by virtue of its very
absoluteness, is empirically indistinguishable from the absolute
absence of freedom, 2) if all acts are free, then freedom is a
meaningless term, 3) if all one's choices are realized without a
mediating time, both time and choice of one alternative over another
cease to exist, 4) a commitment cannot be made to realize a goal
realized at the moment of desire, that is, the entire idea of effort
becomes an impossible delusion, and 5) there is no freedom without the
existence of a circumscribing field of unfreedom in which it can be
manifested, and with which it can be contrasted.
Granting Merleau-Ponty's point that freedom must be contingent rather than absolute, what necessary fields must it be contingent upon? Being-in-the-World is an individual being, and "is in each case mine" (Heidegger). Well, its essence "lies in its existence"
(Heidegger again). Are there any similarities there? Yes, three: the world, perception, and the body, the last two referring to humanity's manner of being-in-the-world. Merleau-Ponty discusses all three.
"If a friend and I are standing before a landscape, and if I
attempt to show my friend something ehich I see and which he does not
yet see, we cannot account for the situation by saying that I see
something in my own world and that I attempt, by sending verbal
messages, to give rise to an analogous perception in the world of my
friend. There are not two numerically distinct worlds plus a mediating
language which alone would bring us together. There is - and I know it
very well if I become impatient with him - a kind of demand that what I
see be seen by him also. And at the same time this communication is
required by the very thing which I am looking at, by the reflection of
sunlight upon it, by its color, by its sensible evidence. The thing
imposes itself not as true for every intellect, but as real for every subject
who is standing where I am."
Humans share a world, and share common perceptions of it.
But what is the nature of these perceptions?
"What prohibits me from treating my perception as an
intellectual act is that an intellectual act would grasp the object either as
possible or as necessary. But in perception it is "real"; it is given as the
infinite sum of an indefinite series of perspectival views in each of which
the object is given but in none of which is it given exhaustively. It is not
accidental for the object to be given to me in a "deformed" way, from the
point of view (place) which I occupy. That is the price of its being
"real"...Thus, there is a paradox of immanence and transcendence in perception. Immanence, because the perceived object cannot be foreign to hi who perceives; transcendence, because it always contains something more than what is actually given...the perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself...I wish only to point out that the accusation of contradiction is not decisive, if the acknowledged contradiction appears as the very condition of consciousness."
Therefore, perception is perspectival; this entails that it is
incomplete, involving the paradox of the object as both seen and
unseen. Also, as a subject need an object of which to be conscious, an
object needs a subject to be conscious of it. Their very nature is
defined correlatively. What, however, is essential to these bodies from
which humans perceive and act and in which their consciousnesses
"Whether or not I have decided to climb them, these mountains
appear high to me, because they exceed my body's power to take them
in its stride, and...I cannot so contrive that they be small for me.
Underlying myself as a thinking subject...there is...a natural self which
does not budge from its terrestrial situation and which constantly
adumbrates absolute valuations. What is more, ny projects as a
thinking being are clearly modeled on the latter...in so far as I have
hands, feet, and body, I sustain around me intentions which are not
dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a
way which I do not choose...it is clear that, one and the same project
being given, one rock will appear as an obstacle, and another, being
more negotiable, as a means...The probable is...in the preceived world.
The mountain is great or small to the extent that, as a perceived thing, it
is to be found in the field of my possible actions, and in relation to a
leve which is not only that of my individual life, but that of 'any man'.
Generality and probability are not fictions, but phenomena; we must
therefore find a phenomenological basis for statistical thought. It
belongs necessarily to a being which is fixed, situated and surrounded
by things in the world."
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