New Year’s Post – Unpredictability and Remarks on Intelligence

At the beginning of each new cycle, the necessity to question what lies at the basis of the project itself.  To be inspired once more.

Happy New Year, full of joy and new meanings from DU group!


Paul Valery
Unpredictability and Remarks on Intelligence

The Outlook for Intelligence
Copyright 1962 ley Bollingen Foundation. Printed in the United States of America.

Unpredictability in every field is the result of the conquest of the whole of the present world by scientific power. This invasion by active knowledge tends to transform man’s environment and man himself to what extent, with what risks, what deviations from the basic conditions of existence and of the preservation of life we simply do not know. Life has become, in short, the object of an experiment of which we can say only one thing that it tends to estrange us more and more from what we were, or what we think we are, and that it is leading us … we do not know and can by no means imagine where.

(…) Furthermore, our language, and hence our logic, our concepts, our causality, our principles, have been found wanting: all this intellectual material will not fit into the nucleus of the atom, where everything is without precedent and without shape. Debatable probabilities have taken the place of definite and distinct facts, and the fundamental distinction between observation and its object is no longer conceivable.

What has happened? Simply that our means of investigation and action have far outstripped our means of representation and understanding (a crisis of meaning and representation).

(…) “Crisis?” he says first of all, “what exactly is a crisis? Let’s take a look at this term!” A crisis is the passage from one particular mode of functioning to another; a passage made perceptible by signs or symptoms. During a crisis, time seems to change its nature, duration no longer gives the same impression as in the normal state of things. Instead of measuring permanence it measures change. Every crisis involves the intervention of new “causes” that disturb the existing equilibrium, whether mobile or immobile.

How can we fit the idea of crisis, which we have now briefly reviewed, with the notion of intelligence?

We live on very vague, very crude notions, and, moreover, they live on us. What we know, we know from the operation of what we do not know.

Necessary and even sufficient though they are for quick exchanges of thought, there is not one of these incomplete and indispensable notions that can bear close inspection. Once our attention settles on one of them, we find in it a confusion of widely differing usages and examples that can never be reconciled. What was clear in passing, and readily understood, becomes obscure when we fix on it; what was whole breaks down into parts; what was with us is against us. A slight turn of some mysterious screw shifts the microscope of consciousness, adds the element of time to increase the magnifying power of our attention, and finally brings our inner confusion into focus for us.

Dwell, for example, however slightly, on words like time, universe, race, form, nature, poetry, etc., and you see how they divide to infinity, becoming incomprehensible. A few moments ago we were using them for understanding each other; now they change into means of confounding us. They took part, without our knowing it, in our plans and actions, like limbs so tractable that we forget them, until reflection sets them against us, transforms them into obstacles and difficulties. It seems, in fact, that words in movement and in combination are quite different things from the same words inert and isolated!

This general and indeed remarkable character of our instruments of thought is what engenders nearly all philosophical, moral, literary, and political life – all that activity which is as useless as can be, but also as helpful as can be in developing the subtlety, profundity, and proper action of the mind. Our enthusiasms and aversions depend directly on the vices of our language; its ambiguities promote differences, distinctions, and objections, all the sparring of intellectual adversaries. And fortunately they also prevent minds from ever coming to rest… We can observe, as we turn the pages of history, that a dispute which is not irreconcilable is a dispute of no importance.

Intelligence is one of those notions that derive all their value from the other terms coupled with them, by affinity or contrast, in some discourse. It is contrasted at various times with sensibility, with memory, with instinct, with stupidity. Sometimes it is a faculty, at other times a degree of that faculty; occasionally it is taken to be the whole of the mind itself, and is given the whole vague lot of the mind’s properties.

(…) The phrase crisis in intelligence, then, may be understood to mean the deterioration of a certain faculty in all men; or only in those most gifted in that faculty, or who should be; or again, as a crisis in all the faculties of the average mind; or further, a crisis in the value and prestige of intelligence in our society, present or to come. The someone being questioned sees at once five or six possibilities. He senses that the slightest further inquiry would bring out others. He wanders from one point of view to another, from crisis to crisis, from a crisis in one’s faculties, to a crisis in values, to a class crisis.

The Forgotten Space
Still from the movie
by Allan Sekula and Nöel Burch