An interview with Víctor Gómez Pin

This post is also available in: Spanish

A significant fraction of the philosophical discourse consists of comments on other authors. It seems like Philosophy has abandoned the task of thinking directly about the world.

Yes. That’s a problem. However, we have to distinguish between History of Philosophy -which is a perfectly licit discipline: comparing texts from different authors, confronting their opinions- and the history of philosophical problems.

Obviously, to confront the history of philosophical problems, the philosopher’s texts are very helpful, one more element, one more ingredient. The core of Aristotle is that he opens such an astounding pit of questions that I believe none of the problems he has posed has been answered. Of course, you can read Aristotle’s texts comparing them to those of Kant, but before establishing these comparisons, these links between philosophers, I think it’s fundamental to keep a clear idea of what is this thing we call philosophy: what are its basic dilemmas, of which, what we usually call Philosophy is but a manifestation.

To say it in an almost caricaturesque way: if you take a poll and you ask what a Philosopher is, people will tell you a Philosopher is a person which works on things nobody is interested in, using a terminology which, at best, is understood by his or her colleagues. My philosophical stance is trying to invert this image that has unfortunately been created. On the contrary, a Philosopher is someone who speaks about the problems everybody is interested in, Universals of the human spirit, things which we can’t help but being affected by, and on top of that, he has the duty to do it using the standards of clarity and distinction we associate with Descartes. He has the duty to do it transparently. Transparency in language doesn’t mean things won’t turn out to be complex later. I try for questions to be elementary, but to try to answer any of these questions, all the History of Science, all the History of Art, even all the History of the Philosophical Activity are insufficient tools.

Let me give you an example: what do Philosophers speak about? Well, they talk about space. Something which Aristotle already talked about… there’s a marvellous text in his Physics, in which he talks about it. The word for space in Greek is TOPOS. It’s not always translated as “space”, sometimes it’s translated as “place”. If you translate it as “space”, this leads us to think about an answer to the problem of space of a Newtonian type, which is very different to the Aristotelian notion. Aristotle, funny thing, quotes Hesiod, who said there’s nothing without a place. That is, topos, since there’s nothing which doesn’t have it. And Aristotle adds that it’s true, we can see the extraordinary power of the topos, but that nobody knows what TOPOS actually is. There is someone, he says, talking about Plato, who had the dignity of asking himself what that is. And Aristotle tries to give an answer to the problem of topos. If you take the answers which have been given, from Aristotle to contemporary topology, going through Relativity Theory, the Scientific Revolution, you realize the Aristotelian problem of the topos is still unsolved. Today we know what topos is not. We know it’s not what Kant and Newton thought: an empty frame which would remain even if we removed all matter and fields. That is, we know topos is not previous to matter and fields. We know that, from contemporary topology and Relativity Theory, we get a new outlook on topos which would be closer to Aristotle than to Newton. We can make a list with all the inadequate answers, but we still don’t know what it is. I suggest this is the case for each and every one of the great questions of Philosophy. For example and so that it doesn’t look like I’m avoiding an answer: the case of species. Aristotle is the first biologist, the first specialist in finding the species. The Greek word for species is eidos; that which is at the same time form and concept. Classifying the forms or species is his obsession, and he does it with very few means. And it’s not only his obsession, in his words, it’s everybody’s obsession. At the beginning of the Metaphysics, he says that every human aspires by nature to eidenai, which can be translated as to understand or specify. That is, finding the classificatory forms of things. Aristotle, of course, thought species were eternal. One could think Darwin then came and gave us the answer. Of course, today nobody in its right mind would deny Darwinism, that would be absurd, something absolutely nonsensical at a court of Reason, such as Philosophy should be. But once we know, thanks to Darwin, that species are not eternal, that they are also affected by time, it turns out Aristotle’s problem is still open: what is specifying? What is a species? What is the relationship between a species and an individual? Of course, we can know the genome of the entire human species, but finding your genome is somewhat more complicated, because it includes random aspects. That, notwithstanding the fact that it’s changing all the time. But that is something Aristotle already said when he said there is no science of the individual. This is something geneticists know by heart: you can have the species’ genome, but where are the limits of the species? These are open questions. And, like this, we could speak about anything you want. For example, regarding topos, René Thom even said the topological intuitions of Aristotle made him one of the greatest thinkers of the continuum. What you say about topos can also be said about cronos. You could speak about the great chronological intuitions of Aristotelianism. Aristotle defines time in terms which are almost analogue to the second law of thermodynamics. It is well known that Aristotle said time is the measure of change, but people usually forget he speaks about the destructive change. The measure of the generative change is not time. The process by which the seed becomes plant or the sperm becomes a human being, that process is not a time process. For that process you need the interaction of strange causes. The seed becomes a plant because you water it, amongst other things. For time to act, says Aristotle, the thing in itself is enough. If you leave the thing alone, there are only corruption processes. He doesn’t call the genesis processes temporal. And he points out that, as they say in Greek, one does not become fairer with time. Time is a process of corruption. It is almost the same definition of time that can be derived from the second law of thermodynamics. With this I want to say that questions are eternal, because they are Universals of the Human Spirit. It is true that, sometimes, Philosophical Historiography is mistaken for pure Philosophy, but it’s not. Historiography is necessary because, amongst other things, it makes it easier to move between writings. They quote each other; they reference each other because, indeed, there’s a problem behind. You can see the problem through the writings, but you cannot make an abstraction of the problem itself.

Let’s take the problem of infinity. Aristotle excludes infinity, the mathematical one and the cosmological one. The Cosmos is finite. Here’s another intuition. For Aristotle, the Cosmos was limited. The cosmological model of Aristotle is a sphere which is, thus, limited. The current model is still finite. What happens is that the current sphere would be a Riemann sphere. Of course, Aristotle didn’t know Riemannian topology, but he is much closer to the current models than Newton. From this exclusion of Aristotle, you can write a marvellous history of the problem. This exclusion of infinity, referring to mathematical calculus, seems to have been put into perspective by Newton and Leibniz with infinitesimal calculus. This is absolutely false . Up to the XXth century there never have been infinitesimals. Infinitesimal calculus was false infinitesimal calculus, because the infinitesimal notion was contradictory in itself and in the framework of real numbers. The Aristotelian prohibition of an infinite number in act, be it infinitely big or infinitely small, is kept until Cantor, at the end of the XIXth century, when he creates transfinite numbers and infinitely small numbers. But that is not Cantor any more, who excludes them, but Robinson, in the XXth century, in the middle of the XXth century, with the non-standard analysis. The problem of infinity, ghost of the human condition in the cosmological calculus -¿who hasn’t asked themselves as children where the limits were? -is a Universal problem of the spirit. All philosophical problems are Universals of the human condition. Anthropological Universals. I defend Philosophy as an anthropological Universal. There are questions which are present in every single society. Of course, because of some anecdotic, contingent circumstances, this may have crystallized in some cultures, which enables us to speak of Greece as the place where Philosophy crystallized. But, obviously, the German or English languages have explored more conceptual determinacies than the Basque one, but this is a pure contingency. When the Basque language has been given the opportunity, the conceptual determinations have been expressed in Euskera exactly as in German or English. I say this because one of the prejudices philosophers have is thinking there are languages which are more refined than others. Heidegger, for instance. example. I don’t object to anything in Heidegger’s life, like his being a petit bourgeois who wanted to be a dean. In Spain there has been a huge number of petit bourgeois who wanted to be deans, especially in the fascist regime. But in Heidegger there’s something really wrong. He even said that German and Greek had potentialities, whereas Latin and French had limitations. That really infuriates me. He was convinced that not every language is interchangeable and that some were better suited for expressing conceptual determinations. They are the ones who think that Philosophy is Greek and that, in order to do Philosophy, one must speak Greek. Speaking Greek is very convenient, because it allows you to read Aristotle directly, but Philosophy is an anthropological Universal. To do Philosophy all you have to be able to do is speak. Without speech, there’s no Philosophy. But every linguistic subject should be able to use his or her own language. Anything else is plain wrong. Here, in Europe, there’s a general belief that Philosophy belongs to us. But if Philosophy is our thing, cosa nostra, veramente, then it is just like a mafia. Interesting things in life are Universals. Music, for instance.

Music is an anthropological Universal. That’s why thinking about music is fundamental in Philosophy. There is no society without music. This has been checked many times by the anthropologists. Not only that: there is no society in which music isn’t also present in the fundamental moments of a symbolic nature: In the moments of death and of birth; in the burial and the farewell.

Philosophy is simply observing with a willingness to make an effort to apprehend the fundamental questions, which are almost the ones kids ask themselves, but knowing that, in order to tackle them, for example, the problem of infinity, of any child, we need all the History of Mathematics. To tackle the problem of music… because ¿what is music? ¿Does it have a purpose? By music people understand very different things, from Cage to rancheras. ¿Which are the invariant traits which allow us to say that something is musical? If we say music is an anthropological Universal, that there is no society without music, we are saying, some way or another, that for every individual, in one way or another, music has to be a part of their heritage. And in that case, what happens if someone is born deaf and dumb? Is he or she excluded? No, a sufficiently rich concept of music includes the possibilities to speak about music even when there’s no sound. In order to tackle these questions we have to listen to what the musicians have to say. To tackle this anthropological Universal we need the complicity of the great composers, in the same way that in order to work with the problem of infinity it is better to do it with the aid of Cantorian mathematicians. This doesn’t mean you’re going to replace your problem with theirs, but that Philosophy, without any shame, is intrinsically vampirical. That’s the way we, Philosophers, have to work. Not to betray our objectives, not to give up on Philosophy. I’m going to work with Physicists this year. I don’t give up on my problems; I’ll try to discover what the structure of Nature is: A classical philosophical problem.

Why can’t I just ignore Quantum Mechanics?

Because, naturally (when I say naturally I do it with my eyes on Aristotle, who said that it is in the nature of beings with language to try to be clear about the environment), since the beginning, questions about the mental structures of what we call the natural environment have been a problem for us: for the pre-Socratics and for any other society of which we have nay knowledge. Well, Quantum Mechanics absolutely subverts the conception we had about nature. And it does so in such a way that one of our contributors, the professor of Theoretical Physics in the University of Oviedo, Miguel Ferrero, has written a great paper which I often quote saying that Quantum Physics is not magic. Why? Because magic, from the magic explanation of the world to Einstein, included a series of axioms en relationship to what the natural order is, which Quantum Mechanics challenges. Let’s see the great ontological debate, since Aristotle, about the polarity continuum-discrete. Do we decide Nature is a space-time continuum or that it is ultimately built out of discrete elements? One of the answers is the Quantum Mechanics which I call discreticist. Amongst other things because in the problem of the ontological priority of the continuum or the discrete, Quantum Mechanics places the stress on the discrete. This is an old problem and there are others which call for attention even more. In the History of Philosophy there is such a thing as the Trascendentals. Francisco Suárez, a great Spanish philosopher, said so. At then he reduced the transcendentals: the possibility condition of the being is at least to have unity, that is, every being is undivided in itself and divided in respect to the rest of them. This principle of individuation is radically affected by Quantum Mechanics. And there are others which are also affected. The principle of locality, which says there is no action at a distance. Quantum Mechanics, in the ASPECT experiment and in further ones has absolutely questioned the locality principle. But there are things which are even more surprising. For example, you and everybody else have to have the guaranty (because otherwise you’d be lost in life) that, given the same conditions to the same causes, the same effects follow. It is a principle of regularity which is almost psychological. The causality principle says that, in the absence of new variables, like situations are followed by like effects. This is absolutely rejected in the mathematical formalism of Quantum Mechanics. These are matters which affect the Physicist in his or her endeavour and which, philosophically, constitute the greatest subversion in the history of the being and it is given by decadence. When I say subversion in the history of the being I mean subversion in the interpretations we make of the entity. Quantum Mechanics constitutes the greatest ontological subversion, and by ontology I understand the logos which we make of the ontos.

Many of the principles that Einstein himself vindicated as being a condition of possibility for Nature, the aforementioned ones, but also continuity, realism, are now being questioned. And what I say is that a philosopher who thinks about Nature and what used to be called Natural Philosophy cannot afford to isolate himself from the mathematical formalism of Quantum Mechanics, because this formalism has ontological corollaries which have a deep transcendence.

Should the knowledge in Philosophy come through Science?

Not necessarily, because reason is not exclusively a knowing reason. What I mean is that if we’re talking about knowledge we cannot abstract ourselves from Science. If I wanted, and I want to, think about what long ago would have been classified as Philosophia Naturalis, which is after all what Newton did, I cannot ignore all these informational elements that constitute Quantum Mechanics, neither those of Relativity Theory, because the ontological weight of Relativity Theory does not consist of making space relative: what happens is that, since Newtonian and Kantian space is absolute by definition, making it relative amounts to suppressing it. The essence of the Theory of Relativity is in a sentence from Max Born, Nobel Prize in Physics and Einstein’s colleague, in which he says space and time do not have a physical reality. So this is it. And, despite everything I believe Quantum Mechanics is a more radical subversion than Relativity Theory, amongst other things because saying space and time have no physical reality has no ontological consequences. In fact, Einstein savages other elements from Physics by sacrificing space and time. What I mean is that, if I want to do a rigorous Philosophy of Nature I need to be aware of these debates. I cannot ignore the mathematical formalism and I cannot ignore genetics either. And this happens because, well since Aristotle, we know there are more diverse modalities of Nature. There’s a more primitive, more elementary Nature, and this is the one Physicists study. Then, there is a great subversion in Natural History, which is the emergence of life and today, thanks to genetics, we have a fundamental weapon to know what that means. And I believe there is a third subversion, maybe the most radical of all, which is the emergence of language. Theologians say that verb became flesh and I don’t have the slightest doubt the flesh became verb, the gene became language. Or we wouldn’t be here, speaking.

Is language the constitutive element of consciousness?

Language is the fundamental constitutive element of human consciousness. I don’t exclude the possibility of other modalities of knowledge and consciousness. Animals already have knowledge, even if it doesn’t go through language. Even Aristotle suspected knowledge in animals was empirical knowledge, that is, individual. Today we could qualify: they also have access to a typology, but these typologies are not of an eidetic nature. They are not mediated by concepts nor by definition. Language is a very immodest sign code. The sign code used by bees is put to the species’ service. That of humans is not any more. Sign codes emit information, but if I say “the stone is a sword to take to time with trees of tears and ribbons and planets” I’m not emitting any information. Or, in any case, the information would be false. And if I add “because the stone has seeds and clouds, bird skeletons and twilight wolves”, you can try to reduce this to some information, but it’s a bit careless. It’s the own verb which speaks, the language itself, which is very ambitious and aspires to itself, to recreate itself. And it does so through art, specifically through poetry. And through Science. I believe Science is, and in that I agree with René Thom, the search for intelligibility. The further applications of science have nothing to do with it in itself. Science aspires to intelligibility and, as a tip, as some kind of residue, you get gadgets. Obviously, what are important are the corollaries that follow the mathematical formulism of Quantum Mechanics. When the Theory of Relativity is formulated and it destroys no less than the physical objectivity of time and space, there’s no practical requirement for it. When in the XIIIth century people argue about whether the Earth is flat or round, the consequences of the problem were non-existent, even though they could burn you at the stakes. Later they were. They burned you because of a theory. Theorein in Greek means “to see”. And let’s not forget that the Theorethikon is the theatre’s audience: the one who sees. Philosophy is simply the paradigmatic, crystalline expression of humanity’s effort to enrich its own nature, which means to enrich language. Language is enriched not by passively submitting to prejudices, but by working to dismantle them and to create a sentence which has never been said or a formula which has never been conceived. I often say to my social science pupils: if you manage to understand the formula of Special Relativity you will not be Einstein, but you will have felt his same emotion. Language complains if it’s not nurtured. Philosophy has to feed at the same time from Einstein and from Garcilaso, from other people’s work.

See this author’s biography.

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