Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Sat Jun 24 19:42:16 MDT 1995

Hans D,

Thanks very much indeed for your post in response to me and Joe.

I now have a sense of how, blindfold, we are all positioned round the
same elephant trying to determine its shape and its - ontological -
nature. The same issues can be expressed in the old parable too, it seems
to me.

It was a bonus to get a handle on Kant that made sense to me for the
first time in my life. I know how important he is said to be in the
history of western philosophy but I never got into him.

Most important for shared issues on this list, I was happy with your
example from economics. I assume what you say here is consistent with the
idea of _emergent_  properties of an economic system which the
neo-classicals just present in a reductionist way as a mass of individual
atomised economic agents.

Your passages about relationships were helpful - the nutshell example
from Marx in comparison with Stirner.

I accept your point about the relationship between teacher and student.
Although my field is not child psychiatry, a respected British child
psychiatrist (I think Fairbairn but I would welcome correction) has
posited convincingly in my opinion, that there is in a sense no such
thing as an isolated baby: there is a mother-baby relationship. The
interactions between the two are complex, highly subtle and inseparable
from the child's development.

Although we are getting a bit technical here I think that the scope of
relevance of marxist ideas is significantly enhanced by a dialectical
understanding rooted in material reality of the interconnection between
individual psychology and social psychology. I think it is often best
to think of a psycho-social context combined. My own conviction is that
with a flexible but robust sense of this framework it is possible to
navigate between the concrete and different levels of abstraction in a way
that allows us to reapply marxism creatively in many levels.

I will post separately however on the even more highly specialised
question of the ontology of mental illness, which some who may have got
this far in my response, might wish to skip.

To come back to the level of the general and what ontology is from a
dialectical point of view -

My dictionary enlightened me that dialectics was originally derived from
structured mediaeval monastic argumentation. Whether we are talking about
Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist or ancient Chinese dialectics, what I am
translating in my mind is that these are all ways of describing a
universe [NOT in my opinion limited to sociological phenomena] which
consists of matter in constant motion forming swirling patterns with their
own dynamic momentum, sometimes apparently very stable ("objects"),
sometimes through interaction with other patterns or "objects" unstable,
and poised on the verge of qualitative change.

I believe that with
computerised technology in only the last few decades the modern western
scientific idiom has come to see that simplistic linear models of science
are incomplete, and that in addition to the theory of relativity, and the
uncertainty principle, the chaotic behaviour under certain conditions
of non-linear equations, model how patterns for long periods of time
may appear so stable as to appear absolutely predictable and unshakable,
and yet may go into a phase change as qualitative as that between ice and
water, capitalism and socialism, and back again.

So I see the frequent reappearance of dialectical thinking in human
cultures as a reflection of the non-linear nature of much of the recurrent
phenomena of the bit of the universe we inhabit.

That is where I am positioned, blindfold in front of the elephant. I hope
what I say about my position, and my acceptance of what you have
described, confirms rather than disconfirms my sense that
we are groping the same ontological animal.


Chris B, London.

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