In attempting to give an initial outline of a philosophy of glimpses it is useful to begin with an image to help sketch out some of the thinking which underpins this idea. Armoire Surréaliste (below) is a painting by Marcel Jean, painted whilst he was in exile in Hungary in 1941.
The wardrobe itself is interesting, being constituted of a series of doors of differing sizes beyond which we can see a landscape, rather than the drawers and wardrobe spaces we might expect. I have found this image enthralling since I first saw it a couple of years ago as it opens up a series of questions and points for reflection. In relation to doing research, there are two main aspects of this image I find fascinating.
Firstly, there are a number of openings onto the landscape, some large, some small, some open almost fully, others ajar. Consequently, in attempting to observe the landscape beyond we have a series of restricted views, glimpses of the landscape beyond; to create a fuller picture of the landscape we need to extrapolate between the glimpses. Is the landscape a coastal environment, or given the darker foreground, is it an estuary or even a riverine environment? We have no way of telling the scale of the white cliffs (or banks) and hence we are left with a partial view which we need to interpret. In this way I see this as an analogy of our perception of the world and by extension the research processes we develop to understand it.
If we collect one type of data, for example interviews, then we're opening one of the wardrobe doors which might give us an interesting view of a part of the landscape beyond, but only a small part of it. Much remains hidden, but if I then used further data collection techniques, I would open further doors meaning that I uncover ever more glimpses which allow me to see more of the phenomenon I'm interested in. However, even if I open all of the doors I will always be left with the need for extrapolation and interpretation and I will hence always have a partial view; I will never be able to see everything, there will always be elements which remain beyond my view.
Secondly, the landscape in the painting is caught at a particular instant. Whilst we might think of such a landscape as being both primarily material and generally ‘static’ it is in fact in a state of constant change and flux. The landscape is primarily processional in nature and change is ubiquitous, hence not only do we only see glimpses of landscape through the doors we are able to open but we also only see glimpses of a landscape in flux. We see it at a ‘static’ point in time, which is not an accurate characterization of what is in front of us. Some processes are rhythmic, some are not, some occur over very short timeframes, others over very long time periods. Hence, we are looking at a huge tangle of processes which interact in predominantly complex ways, processes and interactions which might be fully or partially hidden. If we are very interested in this landscape we might decide to observe it for a time to see how it changes but if we do this we will still only get to see some processes and we may not see how these processes relate in any detail or we may only get to see what is actually quite unusual behaviours but we might not realise this.
In these ways Marcel Jean’s painting begins to open up the basic characteristics of a philosophy of glimpses founded on process philosophy and complexity theory, associated with the realisation that our attempts to see and engage with this reality is partial, incomplete, fleeting; we are seeing this reality through a series of glimpses. In a future post I will begin to outline some of the work of Alfred North Whitehead on process philosophy to develop this idea of glimpses further.
Processes are the central elements of a processual metaphysics. But how can they be defined? A definition is given by Rescher (1996: 38);
‘A process is a coordinated group of changes in the complexion of reality, an organised family of occurrences that are systematically linked to one another either causally or functionally. It is emphatically not necessarily a change in or of an individual thing, but can simply relate to some aspect of the general condition of things.’
Hence processes and events are linked, developing over time, not only existing in the present, but also the past and future, meaning that processes flow through time, with a spatiotemporal continuity. This continuity means that a process is not a random juxtaposition of unconnected events or occurrences, but are causally and/or functionally linked. Over time, processes therefore actualise some possibilities whilst not fulfilling others.
In this way, experience is an example of process. Experience is constituted of a coherent series of occurrences and/or events. These events develop over time, and hence there is the emergence of a past, the present of any occurrence/event within the experience, and the move towards a future, making the experience a flow over time. But the events are not random, they have spatiotemporal continuity, and therefore there is a shift in the process from possibility to actualisation.
This example also shows that process does not occur through its continuing and essential properties, as would be the case with ‘substances’,
‘by its history, by the temporal structure of its descriptive unfolding across time. The identity of a process is constituted through a sequential pattern of action.’
(Rescher, 1996: 40-41)
Therefore, the core of a process is a group of changes through events/occurrences which have spatiotemporal coherence, flowing through time, and which are constantly moving from possibility to actuality. In turn a process is characterised/identified though its pattern of action or events.
With this as a basic definition of process, Rescher (1996) then goes on to offer different ways in which processes can be classified, hence identifying different ways of grouping processes. As he says,
‘The taxonomy of processes is a complex and diversified venture, and the present indications do no more than make a start, with the distinction between physical and mental processes playing a role of particular importance.’ (42)
Three different ways in which he presents classifications are.
1. Productive and transformative processes: product-productive processes produce actual products, which can be characterised as things or substances (e.g. manufacturing cars) AND state-transformative processes, which transform states of affairs in general and can lead to further processes without producing particular things. Process metaphysics stresses transformative processes as fundamental.
2. Owned and unowned processes. Owned processes are those owned by agents, for example a barking dog, in other words, the processes are owner attributable. Unowned processes are ‘free-floating’, and are not the result of actual agents, e.g. rising temperature or flashing of lightening. Unowned processes are important in process metaphysics because it identifies that processes can occur without the need for substances.
3. Thematic nature of processes. For example, physical causality – related to physical changes; purposive/teleological – related to achieving deliberate objectives; cognitive/epistemic – relating to intellectual problem-solving; communicative – relating to transmitting information.
Hence, by considering the nature of process, we can begin to expose a huge complexity in the nature and classification of processes, but also the potential for processes to interact and create a metaphysical perspective. How these might relate to complexity is something I’ll consider in a future post.
Rescher, N. (1996) Process Metaphysics. An introduction to process philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press.