Sunday, January 4, 2009

Luhmann on sense-holes (there aren't any)

In the 60's, a lot of books on Zen Buddhism were floating around. I remember reading this "standard" koan in one by Alan Watts:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

It was clear to me then that there is no answer to this silly question, yet over the years I have thought back to it from time to time - I can't really say why.

Something else in the 60's also got my goat: the films of Antonioni, Godard and Co. These characters with long faces would hang around, mostly not answering questions other characters would put to them. Not only did they not answer the questions, they exhibited no reaction at all. I thought: all these depressive French and Italian bozos, what's in it for me?

The third ingredient in the resolution of the koan (including the koan itself) came from thinking about Ralf, my heroin-harried friend, who apparently resented some of the questions I would ask him when we talked. Mostly he just didn't answer them, literally not saying anything at all. Exactly as in Godard. Sometimes he would say "I don't know" or "What can I say?". He seemed to take my questions as aggressive maneuvers. But since I had recently read Bodenheimer's On the Obscenity of Questions, I figured I was in the know, and off that hook at least.

Then the illumination. It has to do with hearing what is not being said:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Student: !
The sound of one hand clapping is silence. Some questions have no answer. To some questions, no answer is the answer. To some questions, the answer is not of the kind you're expecting.

With this provisional understanding in my pocket, I could better appreciate Luhmann's detailed discussion of "Sinn" in Soziale Systeme, which I'm now reading.To compress it into a blurb, one might say that Luhmann sez: sense is the I of the beholder.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2, in English more or less. Unfortunately, I discovered that some of his Sinn-tences are a bear to put into intelligible English. German-wise everything's cool, though. Luhmann was no dark mutterer, but a lucid, learned old sweetheart with the occasional touch of good-humored malice.

With no philosophaster around to jump on my case, I might well, for "Sinn", just say "significance" or "meaning", maybe even "sense". Trouble is, "significance" connotes "signs", whereas Luhmann explicitly distances himself from the view that sense has anything to do with signs - in fact, he shows that signs work only because sense is already around. "Meaning" suggests concepts, intensionalities and all that cognitional-semiotic baloney, and Luhmann is not having any of that either. As Holden would have said, this guy just kills me.

So, in the following excerpt, I mostly left it at "sense" in the sense of "sensefulness", a non-existent word that would be the opposite of senselessness. The link, in German, contains longer passages.
Sense always refers to sense. It can never refer to something outside the domain of sense.... Systems that are tied to sense can never have a senseless experience, or act senselessly. ... [But] a preference for sense over world, for order over disturbance, for information over noise is merely a preference. It doesn't make their counterparts superfluous. Indeed we can say that the process that is sense (Sinnprozess) thrives on disturbances, feeds off disorder, and is supported by noise.

.. The generalisation called "sense" makes it possible to find a pragmatic solution for any logical problem. Even a contradiction, even a paradox, makes sense - as a contradiction, as a paradox. (Auch ein Widerspruch, auch eine Paradoxie hat Sinn.) Logic can exist only because this is the case. Otherwise, at the first contradiction we encountered, we would fall into a sense-hole and vanish. [Sinnloch, I kid you not, G.]
vibrierende Mülleimer

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