Saturday, 31 March 2012

"Meaning" and the structuring of expectations

When Newman writes about the intellect, the principal category that he draws on to describe what it does is 'meaning'
"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause."
Here Newman is saying in a more modern way what Aristotle and Aquinas said many hundreds of years earlier. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the intellect is a power of the soul, and comprises an 'active' and 'passive' component. The distinction between the active and passive intellect is a distinction between potentiality and actuality in knowing; that human knowing passes from a state in which it does not think, to one in which it does. The passive intellect apprehends the forms of things we can understand. What "seizes" for Newman, Aquinas might call the passive intellect. But it's potential is the unity of the 'general law', and it is the active intellect which moves towards that potential. What is not clear in Aristotle (although Aquinas and undoubtedly Newman are more clear) is whether this 'active' intellect which moves potential knowledge to active knowledge is in fact God.

The question of what Newman calls 'meaning' and 'investing something with an idea' can now be considered in this process. Meaning can have components of both the passive intellect and the active intellect. The very 'seizing' of something relies on it carrying some meaning that we latch on to, and from there our active intellect drives us to realise the knowledge inherent in it. But the drive for knowledge, the process of realising it, is continually meaningful. And there lies a problem with the active/passive distinction in that it leads us to think we can have one without the other. There always appears to be a force that drives towards understanding (that is active); but with it there is that which apprehends form and recognises potential. But might it be that the active/passive distinction revolves around the principle of 'potentiality' itself, and that one way through this philosophical conundrum is to think about 'anticipation' and 'expectation'?

The recognising of potential suggests some anticipatory capacity within human perception: that what we perceive is somehow situated on a horizon of what we might expect to see. But human perception is highly complex, and whilst we can talk about 'expection' in a linear way (for example, 'expecting sales to be up next month' or 'expecting my daughter to be bored when we go on holiday'), lived experience is a continuous interaction with sensory-physical, social, biologicical and psychological perturbations. Every single tranche of experience may have its own 'anticipation' (do I anticipate the next beat of my heart or my next breath?... maybe if I'm scared...?)

That is where it may be more useful to think about a 'structuring of expectations'... where a multitude of different expectations coexist, interact and continually reorganise themselves and actions, and new perturbations occur. But what is interesting here is that we might be able to get a handle on expectations with our existing knowledge about 'information'.

It seems reasonable that expectations, even when they are subliminal, are probabilistic in some way: some things may be more expected than others; there are clearly moments when we recognise something as inevitable. Given this, a mathematics of expectation might be possible where we can:
a. analyse the structuring of expectations in a particular experience
b. simulate expectation systems given certain parameters.
I will continue this theme in a later post, but for now let us briefly consider the situation of the perception of something which we might find 'meaningful' (although prior to our understanding it). A chemical explosion of Sodium or Potassium on water is rarely not perceived as meaningful. The event is surprising and in so many ways unexpected. Water is not associated with fire (unless of put one out); neither is metallic-looking Sodium.  But when we put them together there is an explosion.

Now, in the context of the chemistry lab, this is done carefully with some planning. And there are expectations there too. The messages are "now we are going to do something special!". But there are also expectations socially, for all the other children in the class, being present at an event where 'now we are going to do something special' is occurring. Rumours will abound (other children may have seen this before). So generally there is a conflict of expectation between what is expected of the water and the metal, what is expected in the situation, what is expected socially, and so on.

Each of these layers of expectation have their own probabilistic natures. But whilst within the class there is a fairly high probability of something special happening (because the class has been prepared for it), there is a low probability when thinking about the water and the metal that it will explode. But then what happens with the actual explosion? The probability of something special in the classroom is realised, but the once incredibly low probability of an explosion with water and metal is also realised and coincides with the class expectation. It is as if there has been a 'transfer' of expectations from one dimension to another. Notwithstanding the force of the explosion, the intellectual effect is powerful. Potentiality is realised ("we can make a bomb!"), the active intellect is in full-swing.

At this point I think all I want to say is that Newman's description of the intellect as 'giving something a meaning' is a process whereby perception causes a restructuring of expectations - or a transfer of expectations, and that with this transfer, the processes of the 'active' intellect are set loose.

In the next post, I will pursue this idea as a way of understanding musical experience.

No comments: