We have now found out that many things which we felt to be basic realities of nature are social fictions, arising from commonly accepted or traditional ways of thinking about the world.
These fictions have included:
1. The notion that the world is made up or composed of separate bits or things.
2. That things are differing forms of some basic stuff.
3. That individual organisms are such things, and that they areinhabited and partially controlled by independent egos.
4. That the opposite poles of relationships, such as light/darkness andsolid/space, are in actual conflict which may result in the permanent victory of one of the poles.
5. That death is evil, and that life must be a constant war against it.
6. That man, individually and collectively, should aspire to be topspecies and put himself in control of nature.
Fictions are useful so long as they are taken as fictions. They are then simply ways of “figuring” the world which we agree to follow so that we can act in cooperation, as we agree about inches and hours, numbers and words, mathematical systems and languages. If we have no agreement about measures of time and space, I would have no way of making a date with you at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue at 3 P.M. on Sunday, April 4.
But the troubles begin when the fictions are taken as facts. Thus in 1752 the British government instituted a calendar reform which required that September 2 of that year be dated September 14, with the result that many people imagined that eleven days had been taken off their lives, and rushed to Westminster screaming, “Give us back our eleven days!“
Such confusions of fact and fiction make it all the more difficult to find wider acceptance of common laws, languages, measures, and other useful institutions, and to improve those already employed.
But, as we have seen, the deeper troubles arise when we confuse ourselves and our fundamental relationships to the world with fictions (or figures of thought) which are taken for granted, unexamined, and often self-contradictory. Here, as we have also seen, the “nub” problem is the self-contradictory definition of man himself as a separate and independent being in the world, as distinct from a special action of the world. Part of our difficulty is that the latter view of man seems to make him no more than a puppet, but this is because, in trying to accept or understand the latter view, we are still in the grip of the former.
To say that man is an action of the world is not to define him as a “thing” which is helplessly pushed around by all other “things.” We have to get beyond Newton‘s vision of the world as a system of billiard balls in which every individual ball is passively knocked about by all the rest! Remember that Aristotle‘s and Newton‘s preoccupation with casual determinism was that they were trying to explain how one thing or event was influenced by others, forgetting that the division of the world into separate things and events was a fiction. To say that certain events are casually connected is only a clumsy way of saying that they are features of the same event, like the head and tail of the cat.
It is essential to understand this point thoroughly: that the thing-in itself (Kant‘s Ding an sich), whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, is not only unknowable—it does not exist. This is important not only for sanity and peace of mind, but also for the most “practical” reasons of economics, politics, and technology. Our practical projects have run into confusion again and again through failure to see that individual people, nations, animals, insects, and plants do not exist in or by themselves. This is not to say only that things exist in relation to one another, but that what we call “things” are no more than glimpses of a unified process.
Certainly, this process has distinct features which catch our attention, but we must remember that distinction is not separation. Sharp and clear as the crest of the wave may be, it necessarily “goes with” the smooth and less featured curve of the trough. So also the bright points of the stars “gowith” (if I may now coin a word) the dark background of space.
In the Gestalt theory of perception this is known as the figure/ground relationship. This theory asserts, in brief, that no figure is ever perceived except in relation to a background. If, for example, you come so close to me that the outline of my body lies beyond your field of vision, the “thing” you will see will no longer be my body. Your attention will instead be “captured” by a coat-button or a necktie, for the theory also asserts that, against any given background, our attention is almost automatically “won” by any moving shape (in contrast with the stationary background) or by any enclosed or tightly complex feature (in contrast with the simpler, featureless background).
Thus when I draw the following figure on a blackboard—
and ask, “What have I drawn?” people will generally identify it as a circle, a ball, a disk, or a ring. Only rarely will someone reply, “A wall with a hole in it.“
In other words, we do not easily notice that all features of the world hold their boundaries in common with the areas that surround them— that the outline of the figure is also the inline of the background.
Let us suppose that my circle/hole figure were to move through the following series of shapes:
Most people would thereupon ascribe the movement, the act, to the enclosed area as if it were an amoeba. But I might just as well have been drawing the dry patches in a thin film of water spread over a polished table. But the point is that, in either case, the movement of any feature of the world cannot be ascribed to the outside alone or to the inside alone. Both move together.
Our difficulty in noticing both the presence and the action of the background in these simple illustrations is immensely increased when it comes to the behavior of living organisms. When we watch ants scurrying hither and thither over a patch of sand, or people milling around in a public square, it seems absolutely undeniable that the ants and the people are alone responsible for the movement. Yet in fact this is only a highly complex version of the simple problem of the three balls moving in space, in which we had to settle for the solution that the entire configuration (Gestalt) is moving—not the balls alone, not the space alone, not even the balls and the space together in concert, but rather a single field of solid/space of which the balls and the space are, as it were, poles.
The illusion that organisms move entirely on their own is immensely persuasive until we settle down, as scientists do, to describe their behavior carefully. Then the scientist, be he biologist, sociologist, or physicist, finds very rapidly that he cannot say what the organism is doing unless, at the same time, he describes the behavior of its surroundings. Obviously, an organism cannot be described as walking just in terms of leg motion, for the direction and speed of this walking must be described in terms of the ground upon which it moves. Furthermore, this walking is seldom haphazard.
It has something to do with food-sources in the area, with the hostile or friendly behavior of other organisms, and countless other factors which we do not immediately consider when attention is first drawn to a prowling ant. The more detailed the description of our ant’s behavior becomes, the more it has to include such matters as density, humidity, and temperature of the surrounding atmosphere, the types and sources of its food, the social structure of its own species, and that of neighboring species with which it has some symbiotic or preying relationship.
When at last the whole vast list is compiled, and the scientist calls “Finish!” for lack of further time or interest, he may well have the impression that the ant’s behavior is no more than its automatic and involuntary reaction to its environment. It is attracted by this, repelled by that, kept alive by one condition, and destroyed by another. But let us suppose that he turns his attention to some other organism in the ant’s neighborhood—perhaps a housewife with a greasy kitchen—he will soon have to include that ant, and all its friends and relations, as something which determines her behavior! Wherever he turns his attention, he finds, instead of some positive, causal agent, a merely responsive hollow whose boundaries go this way and that according to outside pressures.
Yet, on second thought, this won’t do. “What does it mean”, he asks himself, “that a description of what the ant is doing must include what its environment is doing?” It means that the thing or entity he is studying and describing has changed. It started out to be the individual ant, but it very quickly became the whole field of activities in which the ant is found. The same thing would happen if one started out to describe a particular organ of the body: it would be utterly unintelligible unless one took into account its relationship with other organs.
It is thus that every scientific discipline for the study of living organisms— bacteriology, botany, zoology, biology, anthropology—must, from its own special standpoint, develop a science of ecology—literally, “the logic of the household“—or the study of organism/environment fields. Unfortunately, this science runs afoul of academic politics, being much too interdisciplinary for the jealous guardians of departmental boundaries. But the neglect of ecology is the one most serious weakness of modern technology, and it goes hand-in-hand with our reluctance to be participating members of the whole community of living species.
Man aspires to govern nature, but the more one studies ecology, the more absurd it seems to speak of any one feature of an organism, or of an organism/environment field, as governing or ruling others. Once upon a time the mouth, the hands, and the feet said to each other, “We do all this work gathering food and chewing it up, but that lazy fellow, the stomach, does nothing. It’s high time he did some work too, so let’s go on strike!” Whereupon they went many days without working, but soon found themselves feeling weaker and weaker until at last each of them realized that the stomach was their stomach, and that they would have to go back to work to remain alive.
But even in physiological textbooks, we speak of the brain, or the nervous system, as “governing” the heart or the digestive tract, smuggling bad politics into science, as if the heart belonged to the brain rather than the brain to the heart or the stomach. Yet it is as true, or false, to say that the brain “feeds itself” through the stomach as that the stomach “evolves” a brain at its upper entrance to get more food.
As soon as one sees that separate things are fictitious, it becomes obvious that nonexistent things cannot “perform” actions. The difficulty is that most languages are arranged so that actions (verbs) have to be set in motion by things (nouns), and we forget that rules of grammar are not necessarily rules, or patterns, of nature. This, which is nothing more than a convention of grammar, is also responsible for (or, better, “goeswith”) absurd puzzles as to how spirit governs matter, or mind moves body. How can a noun, which is by definition not action, lead to action?
Scientists would be less embarrassed if they used a language, on the model of Amerindian Nootka, consisting of verbs and adverbs, and leaving off nouns and adjectives. If we can speak of a house as housing, a mat as matting, or of a couch as seating, why can’t we think of people as “peopling,” of brains as “braining,” or of an ant as an “anting?” Thus in the Nootka language a church is “housing religiously,” a shop is “housing tradingly,” and a home is “housing homely.” Yet we are habituated to ask, “Who or what is housing? Who peoples? What is it that ants?” Yet isn’t it obvious that when we say, “The lightning flashed,” the flashing is the same as the lightning, and that it would be enough to say, “There was lightning“? Everything labeled with a noun is demonstrably a process or action, but language is full of spooks, like the “it” in “It is raining,” which are the supposed causes, of action.
Does it really explain running to say that “A man is running“? On the contrary, the only explanation would be a description of the field or situation in which “a manning goeswith running” as distinct from one in which “a manning goeswith sitting.” (I am not recommending this primitive and clumsy form of verb language for general and normal use. We should have to contrive something much more elegant.) Furthermore, running is not something other than myself, which I (the organism) do. For the organism is sometimes a running process, sometimes a standing process, sometimes a sleeping process, and so on, and in each instance the “cause” of the behavior is the situation as a whole, the organism/environment.
Indeed, it would be best to drop the idea of causality and use instead the idea of relativity. For it is still inexact to say that an organism “responds” or “reacts” to a given situation by running or standing, or whatever. This is still the language of Newtonian billiards. It is easier to think of situations as moving patterns, like organisms themselves. Thus, to go back to the cat (or catting), a situation with pointed ears and whiskers at one end does not have a tail at the other as a response or reaction to the whiskers, or the claws, or the fur. As the Chinese say, the various features of a situation “arise mutually” or imply one another as back implies front, and as chickens imply eggs—and vice versa. They exist in relation to each other like the poles of the magnet, only more complexly patterned.
Moreover, as the egg/chicken relation suggests, not all the features of a total situation have to appear at the same time. The existence of a man implies parents, even though they may be long since dead, and the birth of an organism implies its death. Wouldn’t it be as far fetched to call birth the cause of death as to call the cat’s head the cause of the tail? Lifting the neck of a bottle implies lifting the bottom as well, for the “two parts” come up at the same time. If I pick up an accordion by one end, the other will follow a little later, but the principle is the same. Total situations are, therefore, patterns in time as much as patterns in space.
And, right now is the moment to say that I am not trying to smuggle in the “total situation” as a new disguise for the old “things” which were supposed to explain behavior or action. The total situation or field is always open-ended, for
Little fields have big fields
Upon their backs to bite ’em,
And big fields have bigger fields
And so ad infinitum.
To sum up: just as no thing or organism exists on its own, it does not act on its own. Furthermore, every organism is a process: thus the organism is not other than its actions. To put it clumsily: it is what it does. More precisely, the organism, including its behavior, is a process which is to be understood only in relation to the larger and longer process of its environment. For what we mean by “understanding” or “comprehension” is seeing how parts fit into a whole, and then realizing that they don’t compose the whole, as one assembles a jigsaw puzzle, but that the whole is a pattern, a complex wiggliness, which has no separate parts.
Parts are fictions of language, of the calculus of looking at the world through a net which seems to chop it up into bits. Parts exist only for purposes of figuring and describing, and as we figure the world out we become confused if we do not remember this all the time