Avrum Stroll on Surfaces

My primary research project at the moment concerns the philosophical significance of the human face in 20th-century philosophy and critical theory (in the writings of Wittgenstein, Levinas, de Man, and Deleuze and Guattari, among others). And so, naturally, I am also very interested in the more general concepts of surface and skin. Those who’ve kept tabs on recent critical discussions about architecture and design will know that “surface” and “skin” have become key terms in those highly theoretical fields (see, for example, the special issue of Architectural Design [guest edited by Mark Taylor] on Surface Consciousness or Ellen Lupton’s edited volume, Skin: Surface, Substance, and Design). It was while reading Mark Taylor’s own contribution (entitled “Surface-Talk”) to his edited special issue that I first heard of the philosopher Avrum Stroll’s book, Surfaces, which I wanted to bring to the attention of readers of this blog, because it is (among other things) a study of “the geometry of ordinary speech.” Spatial metaphors — especially those having to do with the relationship between surface and depth — are so pervasive and important in literary studies and literary theory (just think, for example, of Jameson’s influential claim about the depthlessness that characterizes postmodern culture) that I thought some readers of this blog might find Stroll’s philosophical investigation into the concept of a surface interesting and perhaps even relevant to their own work. So far, I’ve only read through the first third or so of Stroll’s book, but I’m already finding it a fascinating and profitable read. (–B.R.)

Here is an excerpt from the introduction, in which Stroll says a bit about the substance and methodology of his study:

… As the reader can well surmise, the book thus has several interconnected themes and subthemes. Some have to do with content, some with methodology. With respect to content, its primary project, as I have indicated, is the investigation of the commonsense notion of a surface. By the “commonsense notion,” I mean a concept that is pretechnical or at least nontechnical. In a nonpejorative sense of the term, we can say that it is a concept that belongs to folk physics or folk semantics. A second project, closely connected with the first, is an inquiry into what I have called “the geometry of ordinary speech.” This is the description of and investigation into the properties of a system of concepts of which the concept of a surface is an especially important member. My assumption in this study is that this system of informal geometry is an aspect or feature of a deep-lying, nontechnical view of the world that virtually all of us share. Moore called this “the Commonsense View of the world,” Wittgenstein describes it as “that which stands fast for us,” and John Searle speaks of it as “the background.” I do not argue in this book that there is some such picture of the world that we inherit — I have done so elsewhere in a series of papers — but rather I presuppose that there is. What I do argue is that the system of informal geometry I am now alluding to plays a special role in that commonsense view. It is that aspect of it that human beings employ for organizing and structuring the world in quasi-geometric terms. Although I do not argue that this informal geometry is deeper, more primitive, conceptually prior to, and indeed the basis for the refined and regimented mathematical and scientific treatments of geometric concepts, I in fact believe that these things are so. To argue this case in extenso would require another book. Instead, what I do try to show in this study is how such an informal geometric system relates to scientific and mathematical conceptions in certain cases where they impinge upon one another, in particular where and why they are at odds with one another. My treatment of these matters, then, is merely a first step, an effort to call attention to an interesting philosophical issue what will require further discussion and research.

With respect to methodology, matters are still more complex, and no brief account, such as an introduction mandates, will speak adequately to them. Perhaps the simplest description of my practice here is to say that this is an essay in conceptual analysis: the investigation into the concept of a surface. In that sense it is part of an enduring tradition in Western philosophy, a tradition that we can trace back at least to the Platonic dialogues and their treatment of such notions as justice and piety. But, of course, the methodology here is not identical with Plato’s; it is much more eclectic. One of its assumptions is that the nature of the underlying worldview that I have mentioned is to a considerable extent reflected in the way that ordinary, nontechnical persons speak about it — or the way that persons engaged in technical activities speak about it when they are not engaged in those technical activities. So throughout the book there is a constant eye on ordinary discourse. Searle has said, “The price we pay for deliberately going against ordinary language is metaphor, oxymoron, and outright neologism.” This is an insightful remark, one eliciting sympathy from me, but in my considered opinion, it is too strong. Like Austin, rather, I believe that ordinary language is the First Word if not the Last Word. So the book begins in Chapter 2 with a careful, phenomenological account of how ordinary persons speak about surfaces, aiming through such an endeavor to elicit the commonsense conception that is embedded in ordinary speech… (pp. 11-12)

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