What is the nature of metaphor? What constitutes an effective analogy? What is distinctive about the analogies used in science and mathematics? Can scientific metaphor enrich the wider world of discourse? And how do we deploy metaphor and analogy to achieve our goals? These are some of the questions I’d like to explore in this blog. My aim is not necessarily to answer them, but to explore them, and to see what arises from discussing them.
I have a habit of juxtaposing words in nonsensical ways, for the “sound-sex” of it, as Stephen Fry invites us to do. For instance, well before I had an inkling of what “dialectical materialism” meant, I twisted the phrase into “analectic immaterialism”. Half the fun is then deciding what such a collision of words might mean. (Analectical immaterialism, if you’re curious, came to suggest a quasi-mystical political philosophy that combines Confucius with postmodernism.) “Axis, Praxis” was another lexical copulation of this sort. (For the full effect, introduce a gentle pause between the words, half way between colon and semicolon, and emphasize “Praxis” with the zeal of a Marxist and/or Evangelical preacher. I’ll explain why in a moment.)
“Axis, Praxis” refers to the relationship between the ways we arrange our information (axis), and the ways we then use this information (praxis). The word axis comes from the Latin for axle, and is most familiar to us in the system of perpendicular lines bequeathed to us by René Descartes: the ‘x axis’ and the ‘y axis’. Coordinate systems such as the Cartesian one (there are quite a few) allow us to associate numbers with geometry. The intuitive conceptual clarity of vision (our primary sensory modality) is fused with the precision and reliability of algebra (our most lucid ‘modality’ for reckoning with unknowns). The technical uses of the word are not crucial here: in the title of this blog “axis” is a shorthand for any system used to order information. An axis is a spine: it gives structure to the amorphous perceptions, inferences and opinions that constitute the flesh of an informational organism. As is evident from a piece of graph paper, axes act together to frame a picture, rendering tangible the relationships between the picture’s parts: we can then measure distances, angles, and degrees of curvature. And in measuring them precisely, we can communicate them unambiguously. But for a given object or process, there is in general no unique set of axes that is always and everywhere recommended. Before solving physics problems we are always warned to choose our axes carefully. (And as we all know, not labeling them can have dire consequences.) The choice of coordinate axes is often more art than science, and depends on what we intend to do with the information thus represented. Which brings us to praxis.
Having ordered our information, what do we do with it? “Praxis” comes from the Greek for “to do” or “to act”. I could have used the somewhat less interesting cognate “practice”, but “praxis” has a certain piquancy. This may have something to do with the almost paradoxical fact that two historically antagonistic modes of thinking/acting employ the term. In Marxist thought, praxis came to mean the deployment of theory in the service of political or socioeconomic change. It was Marx, after all, who said “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The other stream of thought that uses the term “praxis” is Christian theology — none other than Marx’s opium of the masses. Praxis is the practice of faith. Preceding Marx by over a thousand years, the Byzantine theologian Saint Maximus the Confessor said that “theology without action is the theology of demons.” In modern times, liberation theologists — influenced by socialism’s emancipatory ideals — used the term to express how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be lived in the world. So praxis is all about action — the kind that can bring about revolutions: internal/spiritual or external/political (and perhaps — as a dialectical synthesis — both). From the point of view of strict dictionary definition, “praxis” is not very different from “practice”. But its connotation of world-changing, soul-saving deeds gives “praxis” a vitality that is missing from “practice”, which conjures up the quotidian repetitiveness of “piano practice” or “football practice”. (We can ask a speculative question about praxis: history has given us religious and political praxis, so what might scientific praxis look like? Would it be distinct from ‘the’ scientific method?)
So “Axis, Praxis” is about ordering the world in order to act in the world. The two processes are intertwined, because our actions determine what we know and how we (can) represent it, and our knowledge determines what we (can) do. This is vague enough to sounds a tad ambitious: it just might entail talking about all of human knowledge and behaviour (?!). But my goal is not to explain (or even list) all our axes of knowing and our praxes of change. I want to survey the space, look at illustrative examples, and see if anything interesting emerges from a view that is by necessity wide and fuzzy. In parallel, I want to see if nontechnical discussions have anything to gain from scientific language and metaphor. Can science offer axes around which to orient our day-to-day praxis?
(Feel free to regularly bombard the commentspace with suggestion, criticism, argument, execration, refutation, and refudiation, as well as complaint of a stylistic, typographical, or grammatical nature. Nitpicking welcome. And I’m not the best proofreader in the world.)