Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Essentialism & Connectivism

Trying to define something, even from the inside-out as I am attempting to do with my definition of Connectivism, introduces the sticky issue of essentialism. According to Wikipedia, Richard Cartwright has defined essentialism as "the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of … attributes all of which are necessary to its identity and function." In his book From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power (2001), Saul Newman says that essentialism is the core political and philosophical issue of our age. The problem with essentialism is that it gets all tangled up in power. Some people always appropriate the power to define what others should be and who belongs inside the blessed group and who is relegated to the outside. The problem for Connectivism is that essentialism implies a nugget at the core of any entity or knowledge that is indivisible and indispensible and that is transferable to others of similar kind either through genetics or through social, religious, educational, or governmental ritual blessings.

I think I have tried to avoid essentialism through my use of the term DNA. In other words, I have started my definition of connectivism by talking about the DNA of connectivism, but this DNA can quite easily be viewed as essential, and taken one step further, as essentialism. It is a short intellectual step from saying, "At the core of connectivism lies the conviction that knowledge is a network phenomenon," to saying "Connectivists must believe that knowledge is a network phenomenon." It doesn't help much, to my mind, to say that the first view is descriptive and the second is prescriptive; so before I continue defining connectivism, I want to address the issue of essentialism.

I chose the term DNA only half consciously, but it isn't such an unfortunate choice, I don't think. DNA is itself a network phenomenon. Look at the images from Wikipedia:

Which of those nodes in the spinning double helix above is the essential characteristic that you are positing for whatever life form emerges from this DNA? The correct answer is none of them. The essential attribute that we want to assign to any entity is always an emergent property of some network, and that network is itself an emergent property of some other network, all the way down to strings (at least, we think so now—strings are as far down, or in, as we can push reality just now). The DNA that provided the starting point of Keith Hamon was itself an emergent property of a network of genes, which were a network of smaller things, all the way down. While we can actually locate the gene for my blue eyes in that spinning double helix above, my blue eyes aren't there in that DNA sequence. None of me is there. I am an emergence of this DNA, which forms a starting point for me, but is not sufficient to explain me. Though I cannot ignore this DNA in trying to define myself and become myself, I cannot reduce myself to this DNA, either. What is essentially me, then, is a dynamic interaction of networks on scales below me (DNA, for instance) and scales above me (society, for instance). I emerge both from the givens of those other scales (a gene for blue eyes and a meme for Judeo-Christian culture) and from the interactions between myself and those other scales. The interactions of characteristics on the scale of me with my DNA on one hand and society on the other (to pick just two other networks to which I belong) not only perturb me, but they also perturb those other networks. So where are the essential, stable characteristics of me that one can point to? I don't see them. If you see them, then you are focusing on one particular network scale and calling that the essential scale. I think you're wrong.

I am not quibbling with words here. I'm pointing to a problem with shifting among network scales, or levels. Any characteristic that I note at one network scale—my blue eyes, for instance—disappears when I shift down or up to another network scale. Moreover, those characteristics tend to shift through interactions with the other scales.

Consider Keats' sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The beauty, the meaning, and the passion for learning that we recognize in this poem (what we might call the poem's essence) is an emergent property. As soon as we dissect the poem into its individual words, we lose the beauty, the meaning, and the passion. We lose the poem. Though the poem absolutely depends on the properties of those individual words and sentence structures, it cannot be reduced to those structures. It cannot be reduced to the sonnet form: fourteen iambic pentameter lines arranged in two parts of two quartets and two tercets. Those things are essential starting points, DNA, but they ain't the poem.

So what prevents DNA from sliding into essentialism for me is that DNA is a beginning point not an ending point. It is a generative point, not a fixative point. It is where you start becoming, it isn't what you are.

But I can also avoid avoid entangling DNA with essentialism by distinguishing between two kinds of essentialism. I owe this distinction to a discussion about essentialism with Bruce Hood on the Edge website. Hood, an experimental psychologist, talks about what confers identity and uniqueness, and he works with two concepts that he picked up from the Medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus: quiddity and haecceity.
Quiddity is the invisible properties, the essence shared by members of a group, so that would be the 'dogginess' of all dogs. But the haecceity is the unique property of the individual, so that would be Fido's haecceity or Fido's essence, which makes Fido distinct to another dog, for example.
I think that quiddity is the aspect of essentialism that troubles me most, for it is the kind of essentialism most implicated in my mind with the abuse of power. Quiddity views an entity solely as a member or not of a particular group. Haecceity, on the other hand, sees an entity as itself. In Haecceity, then, essentialism is not what confines a person to one group or another, with all the resulting social, economic, and political implications of such an assignment; rather, essentialism is what distinguishes one entity from all else. For me, that essentialism is the intersection of all the biological, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, political, and economic arcs that run through my life to meet in this place called me at this time. In Randall Collins' terms, I am the precipitate of all those different arcs. I am the result of shifting warm fronts and cold fronts, rising and falling barometric pressure and humidity, shifting winds, that all converge to make me sunny or cloudy, cold or warm, balmy or stormy. I can deal with this sort of essentialism. What I can't accept is static essentialism—weather that never changes.

By the way, I don't mean to imply that Bruce Hood would agree with my use of these terms or my definition of essentialism. I think he is talking about essentialism in a slightly different way, but without reading much more, I can't say for sure. I'm using these terms to suit my own purposes.

Hood does say, though, that he thinks the self is an illusion or a narrative, by which I take it that he thinks the self is a creation of imagination, a cognitive construct that seems to be necessary to maintain some sense of sanity and balance in the world. But we are not, in fact, a single entity, not even in our brains. As Hood says, "We're not integrated entities inside our head, rather we're the output of a multitude of unconscious processes." He goes on to clarify:
I happen to think the self is a narrative, and I use the self and the division that was drawn by William James, which is the "I" (the experience of conscious self) and the "me" (which is personal identity, how you would describe yourself in terms of where are you from and everything that makes you up in your predilections and your wishes for the future). Both the "I", who is sentient of the "me", and the "me", which is a story of who you are, I think are stories. They're constructs and narratives. I mean that in a sense that a story is a reduction or at least it's a coherent framework that has some causal kind of coherence.

This actually resonates with the ideas of John Locke, the philosopher, who also argued that personal identity was really dependent on the autobiographical or episodic memories, and you are the sum of your memories, which, of course, is something that fractionates and fragments in various forms of dementia. … As we all know, memory is notoriously fallible. It's not cast in stone. It's not something that is stable. It's constantly reshaping itself. So the fact that we have a multitude of unconscious processes which are generating this coherence of consciousness, which is the I experience, and the truth that our memories are very selective and ultimately corruptible, we tend to remember things which fit with our general characterization of what our self is. We tend to ignore all the information that is inconsistent. We have all these attribution biases. We have cognitive dissonance. The very thing psychology keeps telling us, that we have all these unconscious mechanisms that reframe information, to fit with a coherent story, then both the "I" and the "me", to all intents and purposes, are generated narratives. The illusions I talk about often are this sense that there is an integrated individual, with a veridical notion of past. And there's nothing at the center. We're the product of the emergent property, I would argue, of the multitude of these processes that generate us.
If even our sense of self is ever shifting under the influence of forces that we don't control and are hardly aware of, then where is the static essentialism that people want to discover in others and in the world? I don't think it exists.

Rather, identity emerges in the interplay of lights that illuminate the dark from time to time, with different colors, different intensities, and different angles. We form these shifting lights into patterns that help us make sense of what we see only dimly, and we postulate a position for ourselves in this light show. Identity emerges from this, and then the lights change. Damn!

Well, this didn't go exactly where I thought it was going, but that's what makes it fun. I'll tell you a story about my hippie friend Boer. It was a cold, winter's day in 1970, and I was sitting with Boer as he tripped on acid. He asked me for a piece of paper, announcing that he wanted to write his name. He took up a pen and then paused, before saying, "I don't want to write my name. I already know my name. I want to write something I don't know so that I can read it and learn."

This has been my ambition for the past forty years. Sometimes I almost get there.


  1. Brilliant thoughts Keith. You certainly have my neurons busy!
    I wonder if somehow your message ties into the famous quote of Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message".
    Could we create a similar phrase for Connectivism?

  2. Thanks for reading, Susan, and thanks even more for curating me in Scoop.it.

    The connection to McLuhan is just right, I think, and if I had to chose a quote for Connectivism, then it might be something like Knowledge is a network phenomenon.

    It seems to me that most all of the discussion about Connectivism, including Siemens' list of characteristics, connect back to this one insight. But I'm still looking.

  3. Something short yet quite insightful into this discussion is chapter 1 of Thomas Aquinas' On Being and Essence. In it, he talks about the broader topic of being and couches his discussion of essence within it. In other words, he understands what a things is (essence) in terms of what is (being). Essence is being in terms of its definition of genus and species (example: the genus of human is animal and the specific difference is rational). Quiddity, which he introduces here as well, is being concerning the same but as related to the intellect. This is not a subjective idea; rather, it is basically what the intellect grasps from the thing in reality, its essence as intellectually held.

    The thing that is hard for us moderns to get about this medieval way of thinking is that for Aquinas, what is in the mind and what is outside the mind is the same thing. The mind does not have a copy of the thing it knows; it possesses the thing itself. You might think, “Isn’t what we have in the mind simply different for everyone under the conventional gui8se of it being the same and therefore becomes an excuse for abuse?” This concern has nothing to do with the quiddity per se; it is rather a moral error of judgment. There are human beings, and we know them as such because we have intellects that can grasp the quiddity of humanness. But how we treat human beings is a matter of imposing or denying them treatment that is becoming to them as human beings. Such behavior is recognized as wrong precisely because we have a firm grasp on their humanity, not in spite of it. We would not even be able to recognize inhumane treatment of others unless we could see them as humans in the first place.

  4. Can I suggest that the answer is hidden behind your use of the words "I don't think it exists" - you've fallen (as we all always do) back into dualism (something either must be or must not be and can't be both) when what you are describing, emergence and supervenience (look it up), speak to how scale and meaning are pointing us towards non-dualism (something can be both/neither *at the same time*). I highly recommend reading any of Stewart Kaufman's work in this regard (e.g. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/kauffman06/kauffman06_index.html is a great introduction.)

    What you call "essentialism" I think of as Aristotle's "law of the excluded middle" - the first piece of logic that went on to define Western thought and its successes. It is so clearly not "wrong" - its results are everywhere around you, and indeed for English speakers especially to think there is anything that doesn't follow this law seems non-sensical. And yet... we are beginning to sense (and I believe this is across many, many disciplines, and isn't that new - has been dawning in the West for at least a 100 years) that it is a way of knowing that constructs identity through division and difference, not relation. And it is not that constructing identity through relation is right where the other is wrong, but it is a different way of knowing that brings different results. Is there a "self"? Of course Hood is right, that we're "output of a multitude of unconscious processes." And of course, his very speaking of this seems laughably wrong. But how can this be? Because they are both equally right/wrong, and if you need to collapse it one way or another (which to act, you do) then you'll get a different set of results. But you can simply hold them, as you say "dancing."

    I appreciate what you are trying to grapple with here. It is very hard to communicate because once we do so in language (surprise!) we're back in dualism. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

  5. Thanks for the references to both Aquinas and Kaufman. I will try to follow up with both.

    I particularly appreciate Scott Leslie's connection of essentialism to the heart of Western thought and the heart of Western language. It is very difficult to speak at any length without resorting to essentialist and dualist terms. I think this is one reason Deleuze and Guattari wrote in the strained style they developed for A Thousand Plateaus. Of course, they were also just having fun, but they definitely wanted to avoid essentialist and dualist language as much as possible, and they realized that they could hardly use standard French (or English) to do it.

    So now I'll be silent. :-)