Relationism, Absolutism and Language


There is no doubt that the objects of sight and touch, such as hurricanes, our use of language tends to treat as ‘real’.  That is to say; as ‘things-in-themselves’.  This is in spite of the fact that we are, in this case, aware that they are inflexions or ripples in a continuing spatial-plenum or ‘flow’.


Mach would say that this habit of reducing the objects of sight and touch to ‘things-in-themselves’ derives from convenience, from ‘the economy of thought’.  Mach further suggests that;


“Science itself, … may be regarded as a minimization problem, consisting of the completest possible presenting of facts with the least possible expenditure of thought. –Ernst Mach [the emphasis is Mach’s].


Poincaré, in writing about ‘science and reality’ cites John Stuart Mill in noting that our language invites us to declare ‘thing-in-itselfness’ to whatever we define.  As Mill says; “every definition implies an axiom, that in which we affirm the existence of the object defined.”


Nietzsche and Poincaré both write about how a sight and touch event [a visible and tangible emergent physical phenomena] can similarly be declared to be its own source of causal agency.  Nietzsche cites the ‘double error’ we make when we first assign a word to something like a flash in the sky, i.e. ‘lightning’, endowing OUR object of sight and touch with ‘thing-in-itselfness’ or ‘being’, and proceeding to use this noun together with a verb, as in ‘lightning flashes’ to make it appear as if ‘lightning’ is the animating source of the flash.   Poincaré refers to this flawed logical inference as ‘petitio principii’, where the left hand side of a definition, ‘lightning’ already contains the information on the right side that is used to define it; i.e. ‘lightning = a physical phenomena that results in a flash in the sky’.  This circular reasoning makes it appear as if we have identified some ‘thing’ that is causally responsible for a ‘result’.


“Hurricane Katrina is wreaking destruction on New Orleans.” seems to be a straight foreward statement, but it includes this same ‘petitio principii’.  The effect of this ‘petitio principii’ is to give us a sense of ‘closure’ by way of local cause and effect.  This closure relieves us [gives us the economy of thought] so that it isn’t necessary to carry our inquiry back any further than ‘Katrina did it’, even thought ‘Katrina’ and/or ‘hurricane’ is just a word we use to endow ‘thing-in-itselfness’ or ‘being’ to an object of sight and touch, a ripple in the flow, that is by no means ‘really’ the ‘thing-in-itself’ that our language so effectively makes it appear to be.


We similarly say that “Jean Valjean did it” [stole the loaf of bread that ended up costing him 19 years in jail] but doesn’t Jean Valjean have some of the same attributes as the hurricane?  Isn’t he something that is stirred up in the flow, the dynamic Oneness of nature?  Emerson’s view is that the evolutionary animating force that is the genius of nature ‘not only inhabits Jean Valjean, but creates him’. 


In any case, it is evident that language plays a role in shaping our interpretation of physical phenomena by the manner in which we are able to declare ‘thing-in-itselfness’ by way of word-representations to stand in for ‘objects of sight and touch’ such as ‘features in the flow’ of nature.


That what we know as ‘reality’ is somewhat shaped by language seems evident.  If one asked Jean Valjean to comment on the wisdom of “We must call a thief a thief”, he might tell a story of the unbearable pain of hearing starving children crying as they are put to bed hungry.  In effect, he is bringing to bear Mach’s principle which gives a different view of the ‘sourcing of his behaviour’ so that it is no longer seen as originating solely within his interior, but derives from the condition of the space he is situationally included in.  Mach’s principle says that; “The dynamics of the habitat are conditioning the dynamics of the inhabitants at the same time as the dynamics of the inhabitants are conditioning the dynamics of the habitat.”


Now, that seems easier to understand in the case of hurricanes or convection cells in the flow-space of the atmosphere, but Mach is saying that it applies generally in the universe and he derived it from the relationship between inertia and acceleration in the celestial dynamic.  Inertial guidance is based on it, and inertial guidance systems ‘work’.  For convenience and economy of thought, most scientists [those who make the political decisions as to what we shall all regard as science] feel that ‘absolute space’ is a close enough approximation to the relational space of Mach.   But if space were absolute, inertia would be the property of matter/mass and inertial guidance would not work.


Language plays a major role in helping us to forget about these subtleties.  There is an ‘economy of thought’ in having only to deal with ‘a thief is a thief is a thief’, and being able to forget about conditions of the living space wherein extreme imbalances ‘spawn balance-restoring dynamics’ such as the emergence of Robin Hood bands which some people call ‘thieves’.  There is an economy of thought in being able to see the animating source of behaviour as coming from the interior of a ‘thing-in-itself’ made from an object of sight and touch, as in ‘the thief steals’ and ‘lightning flashes’.  That is, we do not have to bother with the upstream origins of the ‘thing-in-itself’ which has emerged in the flow and which never leaves the flow and is inhabited by the flow and reclaimed by the flow.


The absolutist-realist is willing to just ‘call a thief a thief’, while the relationist-pragmatist-idealist acknowledges the convenience of the absolutist-realist worldview, but resists accepting it as ‘reality’, and instead associates physical reality with the spatial-relational flow itself, which precedes ‘thing-in-itselfness’ and the absolute, locally originating animative sourcing that it is convenient to associate with it.


If the mind is troubled, in reflecting on this, by the impressions that we are fully in control of our own behaviour, that part of our behaviour that is driven and inside-outwardly directed from our interior, which we tend to split apart from that part of our dynamic that is outside-inward derived, like our movement when we are hit by a truck, picked up by a tornado or swept off into the flow by a tsunami.   Are these really ‘two separate animating sources’ of our dynamic behaviour?


Well, I used the words ‘our behaviour’ here, but who says ‘we have a behaviour’?  Does the hurricane ‘have a behaviour’?  Does lightning ‘have a behaviour’?


After we use language to endow a ripple in the flow with ‘thing-in-itselfness’ [‘being’] then we are obliged to give it ‘its own behaviour’ since it is no longer a mere feature in the flow that we are able to distinguish with sight and touch [the objects of sight and touch do not have to be seen as ‘things-in-themselves’].  The vortices in the tidal currents we swim in we can see coming and feel pulling on us, which makes them objects of sight and touch, but endowing them with ‘thing-in-itselfness’ derives from language and grammar.  That is, once we endow them with thing-in-itselfness, as with ‘hurricane’, we follow this up, linguistically, by endowing them with ‘their own behaviour’.


Imagine you are driving in your car and at the same time, rolling a cigarette [not a recommended behaviour, I know, but one that is often successfully done without incident].  You are steering the car with your knee [one can get very adept at this].  Your knee seems to be very much in control of its own behaviour.   Your hands seem to be very much in control of their own behaviour.  Imagine the flow that has two hurricanes going at the same time.  Each hurricane, we say, has its own behaviour.  One is going to head for Louisiana and Texas and the other is going to head up the Atlantic coast for Nova Scotia.   But both hurricanes are ‘coming from the same flow’; i.e. they are both experiencing inclusion in the same flow.  They are dynamic activities in a common flow which appear to each be ‘doing their own thing’, … to ‘have their own behaviour’, … or is that, … ‘their own agenda’? [The ‘double agent’ can have two agendas at the same time but only one behaviour at any given time; i.e. we seem to confuse ‘agenda’ for ‘behaviour’, the psychical for the physical, idealization for reality].   The dissolution of the ego that often comes with the drug LSD that allows the deeper self to surface, opening one’s feeling of connectedness with others and otherness, seems to be suggested here. 


That is, while the rational mind insists that ‘I’ am controlling my knee and ‘I’ am controlling my hands, there is something a bit weird going on here as they are doing very different things; i.e. one is steering a car and the other is rolling a cigarette.  Is this feeling not comparable to that experienced by a man running a family farm where the chuckling baby he hoisted in his arms is now the teenager picking fruit up there while the child he bounced on his knee is now pushing the lawnmower down there.   True, in this case he does not physically control their actions, the common flow that he and they are included in seems to be the animating source.  Is it possible to feel this ‘loving connection’ more generally, in regard to the ensemble of actors and activities in the community, …  and perhaps more generally still, to feel it in regard to the diverse multitude of actors and activities in the habitat?  And if so, if we return to the experience of the  hands rolling the cigarette and the knee driving the car, … is there not a sense that the universe is expressing itself through us [that it does not all just ‘start from us’], that, as Schroedinger says, our deepest ‘self is like the canvas that accumulates the coloured brush strokes of life experience. 


I can see where the ecstasy of loving relation splashes a broad splotchy band of red carelessly across my soul, the encounter with the bear in the forest, some razor-thin bear-claw stripes of bluish purple tinged with red.   The sped-up time-lapse photo-frames will show my life-canvas taking form, in the manner of, but without the darkness of, the ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’.


Language seems to be able to weave tales of life and living in many different shapes and forms.   In regard to the difference between ‘our agenda’ and ‘our behaviour’, as Mach says;

“That which is given to all in common we call the ‘physical’; that which is directly given only to one we call the ‘psychical’.  That which is given only to one can also be called the ‘ego’ [ich].” – Ernst Mach, ‘The Guiding Principles of My Scientific Theory of Knowledge’.


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language shapes ‘reality’;


“The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously  built up on the language habits of the group . . . We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”  – Edward Sapir


Benjamin Whorf points out that the study of an exotic language very different from our own, such as the Hopi language, allows us a mirror back on what our own language is doing to us [how it is shaping our ‘reality’].   For example, the ‘plural’ in Hopi is very different from the plural in English.  There is no ‘imaginary plural’ in Hopi such as ‘ten days’.  The Hopi language does not have expressions for ‘units of time’ since there is only the continuing present which is coloured by sunlight cyclically coming on and going off.  Time is understood and expressed only in the experiential sense of ‘becoming later’ and never in the sense of ‘units of time’ being lined up like bottles in a row so that we might examine their contents [‘what was your summer like?].  In English we would say; ‘I stayed for ten days’, but this is not possible in Hopi.  In Hopi, one would have to use an operational expression and say ‘I left after the tenth day’ or ‘I left before the eleventh day.’   The same for ‘waves’.  The plural of waves in Hopi does not conceive of waves as a multiplicity of things in themselves like bottles lined up in a row spatially, but as a ‘group dynamic’ [an operational view].


[This same difference arises in Poincaré’s discussion of the difference in how realists and pragmatist idealists deal with ‘infinity’.  the latter require an operational definition for ‘getting there’ while the former envisage numbers as already lined up in a row all the way out there.  See Poincaré’s Dernières Pensées, Ch. V. and Whorf’s Language, Thought and Reality, pp. 139-]



Summarizing; i.e. pulling things into coherent confluence;


A basic difference between the ‘absolutist-realist’ view and the ‘relationist-pragmatist-idealist’ view that emerges in the difference discussed by Whorf, between how Hopi and English handle the ‘plural’ parallels very closely the difference discussed by Poincaré between how ‘absolutist-realists’ and ‘relationist-pragmatist-idealists’ handle the concept of ‘infinity’.  [once we define a unit of ‘space’ or a unit of ‘time’, … are there as many of them as you like? … are there an ‘infinity’ of them?].


In one way of viewing, both space and time are represented in terms of ‘units’ arranged in a row, in ‘succession’, and in the other way of viewing, the expressing of extension in space and duration in time is by operational definition; it is becoming longer, or it is becoming later.  In the latter case, the sense of extension is understood in terms of ‘something becoming extended’ as in a ‘symphony movement’.  The symphony seems to be ‘headed somewhere’ and the ‘movement’ is a phase in the unfolding of the symphony and while it can be examined as something in itself [‘ein Ding an sich selbst betrachtet’], it cannot be regarded as something in itself [‘ein Ding an sich’].


In English, it is common to talk about ‘your summer’ as one of the bottles lined up in a row [summer of ’42, summer of ’43, summer of …]  that you would like to examine the contents of.  In Hopi, it is more like ‘the summer movement in life’s continually unfolding symphony’.  In English it is common to talk about waves in the ocean as ‘bottles lined up in a row’, some large and some small, the occasional ‘rogue’ etc.  In Hopi, they are seen as a group of movements in a larger symphony.  


The question explored by Whorf in his inquiry into Hopi which reflected back to inform him on the influence of his English in shaping his worldview, Whorf expressed as follows;


“That portion of the whole investigation here to be reported maybe summed up in two questions: (1) Are our own concepts of ‘time,’ ‘space,’ and ‘matter’ given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of the particular languages?  (2) Are there traceable affinities between (a) cultural and behavioural norms and (b) large-scale linguistic patterns?”


Whorf’s conclusion is that language clearly does shape our cultural and behavioural norms.  


As Stuart Chase writes in his Foreward to ‘Language, Thought and Reality’ [a selected collection of Whorf’s writing];


“The thoughts of a Hopi about events always include both space and time, for neither is found alone in his world view … Properly to understand Einstein’s relativity a Westerner must abandon his spoken tongue and take to the language of calculus.  But a Hopi, Whorf implies, has a sort of calculus built into him.  [I would put the analogy in reverse, the Westerner employs a built-in differential calculus which automatically splits everything into successive units while the Hopi retains the natural relational between things].


“The formal systematization of ideas in English, German, French, or Italian seems poor and jejeune” — in dealing with certain classes of phenomena, when contrasted with the flexibility and directness of Amerindian languages.  Whorf demonstrates the trouble we Westerners have with masculine and feminine genders and with our built-in, two-valued, either-or logic.


“Does the Hopi language show here a higher plane of thinking, a more rational analysis of situations than our vaunted English?  Of course it does.  In this field and in various others, English compared to Hopi is like a bludgeon compared to a rapier.” – Whorf


Whorf’s hypothesis and Poincaré’s hypothesis on the influence of language in shaping our world view or our ‘reality’ are self-similar;


“We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.” – Whorf


“At all times, there have been opposite tendencies in philosophy and it does not seem that these tendencies are on the verge of being reconciled. It is no doubt because there are different souls and that we cannot change anything in these souls. There is therefore no hope of seeing harmony established between the pragmatists [-idealists] and the Cantorians [-realists]. Men do not agree because they do not speak the same language, and there are languages which cannot be learned.” — Poincaré


 Poincaré’s view appears ‘more bleak’ than Whorf’s, but the views are essentially the same, that our language shapes our ‘reality’.  Poincaré also sees the ‘bludgeon’ versus ‘rapier’ difference between the absolutist-realist’s logical view and the relationist-pragmatist-idealist’s intuitive view and he describes it in ‘Intuition and Logic in Mathematics’ in ‘The Value of Science’ and in Chapter V. of ‘Dernières Pensées’.


Hold in mind Whorf’s comparison of English [realist] and Hopi [relationist] re the ‘unitization’ of space and time in English [bottles in a row, of time and/or of space whose contents can be separately examined] and Poincaré’s comparison of ‘realists’ and ‘pragmatist idealists’ [relationists] in the mathematical sciences;


“… infinity can have no other meaning than the possibility of creating as many finite objects as we wish.  “But the Cantorians are realists even where mathematical entities are concerned.   These entities seem to them to have an independent existence; the geometer does not create them, he discovers them.  These objects exist, so to speak, without existing, since they can be reduced to pure essences.  But since, by nature, these objects are infinite in number, the partisans of mathematical realism are much more infinitist than the idealists.  Infinity to them is no longer a becoming since it exists before the mind that discovers it.  Whether they admit it or deny it, they must therefore believe in actual infinity.” – —Henri Poincaré, ‘Dernières Pensées, Ch. V. Les Mathematiques et la Logique  

Clearly, the views of Whorf and Poincaré are grouping people in the same way on the basis of how language influences their view of ‘reality’.  While Poincaré sees people as being ‘born this way’ [one way or the other], Whorf sees people as being conditioned in their view by the language group they are born into.  Whorf’s investigation is broader than Poincaré’s since Poincaré did not have any Hopis to study in the intellectual circles he was included in.


Nevertheless, the investigations of both Whorf and Poincaré have affirmed that language shapes our view of reality, and in the same way; i.e. a language can facilitate the unitization of space and of time which implies an infinite number of units [implies infinity is real, which corresponds to the absolute thing-in-itselfness of the units], or it can retain an understanding of spacetime as non-unitized and render ‘unitization’ by way of an operational definition; “my life’s continual becoming was shined upon by ten sunrises” rather than; “I consumed ten day-units of time” [I stayed for ten, ‘thing-in-themselves’ days].

These two realities were the source of basic disagreement between Poincaré and Einstein, evidence of which I have included in the footnote to this note;


Finally, while the view of the absolutist-realist is in opposition to the view of the relationist-pragmatist-idealist, the view of the relationist-pragmatist-idealist is not in opposition to the view of the absolutist-realist.  That is the RPI acknowledges the AR’s view of reality as being an ‘idealized reality’ based on notional ‘thing-in-themselves’ representations which has pragmatic utility but they do not accept that view as ‘reality’.  Physical reality, to the RPI, is ‘relational’ rather than unit-based.


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Footnote: The Disagreement Between Poincaré and Einstein on ‘the new physics’ of relativity and quantum mechanics.



Enrico Giannetto, in The rise of Special Relativity: Henri Poincaré’s works before Einstein [ATTI DEL XVIII CONGRESSO DI STORIA DELLA FISICA E DELL‘ASTRONOMIA] brings forth some differences in the experiential/epistemological context coming from Poincaré, as contrasted with Einstein, in regard to relativity.


In Giannetto’s review, the work of Poincaré in relativity, which seems to have preceded Einstein’s, was also ‘coming from another place’, and that place is evidently ‘relationist-pragmatist-idealist’ as contrasted with Einstein’s absolutist-realist position.  Giannetto says;

 “I have also to stress that one must distinguish the question of the creation of the new theoretical framework from the question of its    institutionalization as a discipline separated from other branches of physics, which is a sociological question as long as its disciplinary constitution – that in our times has brought also to the institution of specific universitary chairs – involved the diffusion and acceptance by the international physicists’ community.  This sociological aspect is indeed related to the Einstein-   Minkowski’s presentation of special relativity, to their axiomatic (not problematic) formulation, to their epistemological views which, beyond the seeming conflict of “philosophical relativism” and objectivism, contributed to a specific historical episteme or regime of truth that has still its roots in that historical western form of life.  In my opinion, Poincaré’s position (problematic formulation of the theory, “conventionalism”, non-separability and historicity of physical systems, features of which I will give some account in the course of this text) was not viable to be embodied in this form of life and so some “revolutionary” aspects of the new physical framework (given by Poincaré) have been lost.”


 Here we see the same ‘difference’ between Poincaré and Einstein as in Mach’s and views relative to the majority, where the suggestion is that relativity is not simply a specialist science, but that it points to a way of understanding the world in a manner that transcends the traditional ‘mechanical’ way.  Einstein, Planck and the majority that carried the day in interpreting relativity, brought it forward as a ‘specialist science’; i.e. theirs was an interpretation “that has still its roots in that historical western form of life”

Peter Galison in ‘Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps’, brings out this same point, that Einstein and Poincaré “were two scientists infinitely close yet infinitely distant” … that [to Poincaré] “Einstein’s quantum physics seemed less well suited for science than for a teratological museum.”.   At the 1911 Solvay Conference that both Poincaré attended, Poincaré, commenting on the new physics said;


“What the new research seems to throw into question is not only the fundamental principles of mechanics, it is something that appeared to us till now inseparable from the very concept of a natural law.  Could we still express these laws in the form of differential equations?


Besides, what struck me in the discussion that we just heard, is seeing the same theory sometimes relying on the old mechanics and sometimes on new hypotheses that negate them; one must not forget that there isn’t a proposition that one can’t easily prove insofar as one inserts into the demonstration two contradictory premises.”


It seems as if Poincaré saw Einstein as mixing apples and oranges together in the development of an interpretation or framework for ‘the new physics’.  Galison further brings forth evidence of their ‘crossed purposes’.  After the meeting Einstein said;


“H. A. Lorentz is a marvel of intelligence and tact.  He is a living work of art!  In my opinion he was the most intelligent of the theoreticians present.   Poincaré was simply negative in general, and, all his acumen notwithstanding, he showed little grasp of the situation.”


To Poincaré as with Mach, science employed ‘conventions’ such as ‘geometries of space’ that were chosen ‘for convenience’ and for Einstein, the mathematical conventions that provided the foundations for expressing theory were approximating ‘reality’, rather than in the service of ‘economizing on thought’.


The questions of the ‘reality of atoms’ contested by Mach was a case in point.  As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports;


“… one of Einstein’s main goals in his early work on Brownian motion (Einstein 1905b) was precisely to prove the reality of atoms, this in the face of the then famous skepticism of thinkers like Mach and Wilhelm Ostwald:

“My principal aim in this was to find facts that would guarantee as much as possible the existence of atoms of definite size.… The agreement of these considerations with experience together with Planck’s determination of the true molecular size from the law of radiation (for high temperatures) convinced the skeptics, who were quite numerous at that time (Ostwald, Mach), of the reality of atoms.” (Einstein 1946, 45, 47)”


What Mach and Poincaré were objecting to was the equating of a measured object of sight and touch with ‘reality’ in the limited sense of ‘thing-in-itselfness’.  How many atoms exist in the universe or have existed?  If we go by the operational definition where there are only as many atoms as we can make measurements of [the measuring action seems to define the existence of the thing], such an infinity never happens in the experience of a real-world human being; i.e. the concept of ‘thing-in-itselfness’ or ‘being’ is defined by the measuring process and is thus ‘idealization’ rather than ‘reality’.


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