Before there was photography, there was a philosopher called Fichte, who was driven out of his university classroom by a riot and hid out in a little hotel in the country, behind some window pots:
I mention him because I ran across him on the Northern Camino, that old salt road to Minsk. Smack dab halfway between Minsk and Santiago de Compostela he set himself up in the University of Jena, in the last days of the Holy Roman Empire German Nation, and won the adoration of his students and the hatred of their fathers by standing his students one by one in a corner and to hoots of laughter from their fellows, telling them that everything they saw in front of themselves was themselves, or “I”, and everything else, whatever it was, was “you”. The laughter echoed through the room and he had them eating out of his hand. What the fathers were so upset about is that they had sent their boys to university to learn how their identity was created not out of their own selves but out of the relationships with others around them, which was exactly what Fichte set out to break. The last few days I have drawn a parallel between the function of zero in mathematics and the function of Fichte’s “I” in society in order to suggest a third way, which includes the earth. I’d like to show you today more closely what I mean. First, though, a quote from Fichte:
Got that? First, the self is separate from others, and secondly it is a tool of philosophy, separate from bodily experience. To put that into perspective, let’s play Fichte’s game. Here’s a corner for you to stare into:
Wild Pear Leaves in October
The city has marked these for destruction. Wild pears just will not do! Sigh. (Yes, I have three small ones from this group growing in my garden now. Call me Noah.)
In Fichte’s world, this is the self, but not the body that apprehends it. Weird, eh? There’s more! As you stare at it, the world behind you (which you cannot see) is “you”, it is “other stuff”. Remember, though: you can’t see it, so it’s actually a remembered or imagined space, or in other words an intellectual space as fitting for philosophy as these leaves in front of you which are your self. Double weird. In a nutshell, Fichte is saying that one kind of intellectual behaviour is good, and all others are just material for the good kind to study. But look again…
If that’s you (or me, as the case may be), I’ll tell you this much: my mind grasps it first as an organ of my body, not as a separate philosophical apparatus. In other words, it may very well be my self, but this self is mind and body together and not apart, and since my body is of the earth as much as these pear leaves and the light that soaks through them I am as much pear tree as they are me. That’s not what Fichte had in mind, when he played this little game to set up a foundation for scientific study, but it’s there nonetheless. Fichte wanted to set a series of philosophical or even scientific rules in place of the pear leaves, as a way of apprehending what he would have called truths. Here’s the kind of thing he meant. First you look at that pear tree (it is yourself, remember):
and because you come to yourself through philosophy you cut yourself apart from that moment of physical apprehension and unity by writing it down like this:
And away you go. Mathematicians do much the same thing, by translating things like these intricate patterns of energy …
(x + y + z + r )× 0 = 0
Example of an Algebraic Equation for Zero
The letters and numerals above indicate placeholders for values that are not there. The other signs [ ( + ) x = ] indicate manipulations that have not yet been done. Everything is potential here. Nothing yet exists, except in the way that all potential things exist in the mind.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all mathematical on any of us here. I just want to point out a few curious little things. Remember, 0 is a placeholder for operations. It’s a potential state, that is written down to provide a reference point for other operations. Identity is the same thing. In other words, we can rewrite that equation like this (let “I” be your self):
(x+ y + z + r )× “I” = “I”
Example of an Algebraic Equation for “I”
The “I” works like zero, and erases the equation.
What an amazing bit of negation, eh! I bet you didn’t know you had it in you! But there’s more. Look at this:
Example of an Algebraic Equation for “I”, With Inserted Values
The “I” works like zero, and erases the pear tree. Two centuries later we get global warming.
Oh, and hiding out among the window pots? Yeah, finally the fathers of Fichte’s students got so annoyed that they told their sons that Fichte had said he would deny them the requisite religious stamp of approval on their studies (he said no such thing), thus denying them any kind of a career out of their university years. They lined up in the streets and pelted his classroom with rocks and broke the windows. Fichte fled. The next day, the poet Goethe, who was running the Duchy, sent Fichte away, although he loved Fichte’s ideas. In Fichte’s place, he gave us a new department of botany, logically arranged, and a new model for the university, which continues to this day, a brilliant model for separating humans from society and from the earth. There is, however, a different way. Remember, the whole point of zero and of the self was to create reference points. There is one that has been staring at us all along. It looks like this:
This is what Fichte surgically removed from the minds of his students, and from all of our minds since. I would like to suggest a simple thing: the zero that mathematics talks about is not zero, just as the self Fichte talks about is not the mind he adores. They are both the same thing and they look like this:
What does it mean? Well, it doesn’t mean anything. It just is. However, given that we humans are really great at suggesting that things mean stuff and have significance, I think we can say that now that humans have been almost totally separated from our planet, a new reference point is possible. Wherever the scientific eye (or “I”) is inserted into an observation, or wherever mathematics proposes a zero, and thus allows itself to split the physical world apart from unity into various states of potentiality, including quantum states and negative numbers and the whole beautiful thing, we can place the world and reverse Fichte’s magic. Nothing would change. He had us stare at it anyway, and when we did we saw ourselves. If we saw ourselves, it was ourselves. The business of it only being seen in the mind, well, come on, Fichte was a philosopher trained in a tradition of cognitive philosophy. Where else would he see it? What does it mean? It means that despite Fichte’s attempt to surgically separate the two, there is a reference point for mathematics and for technological society that is not grounded in self identity and high end individual thought but in the relationship between humans and the world and humans with each other. Accordingly, bringing complex mathematical and technological concepts back to the world as a final stage of their proof is vital. At the moment, engineers do this work, by building intricate or complex devices, or just big ones like roads and bridges. That is a cultural choice, and the thing about cultural choices is that they are choices. It might be that right where an engineer has decreed there is to be a bridge there is a pear tree, which means the engineer has to go back and design a bridge that includes a pear tree, or a city just has to leave a pear tree in a ditch so that it can do this:
Perry pear in the September rain
If we persist in Fichte’s error, we call this sentimentality. It is, however, life. If we keep killing that, we kill our selves. Literally.