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Closure: A Story of Everything by Hilary Lawson
Sam Nico provides closure on a new book by Hilary Lawson.
An essential function of philosophy is to question assumptions in order to reinvigorate the systems built on them. At this point, at the beginning of the 21st century, systems of thought are beginning to atrophy and it is becoming paramount that philosophy rediscover its own traditions of criticism in order to prevent creeping dogma from entrenching itself too deeply.
This book is an attempt to plasticize reality, to make our ideas malleable and reworkable. It does so, not by invoking the principles of criticism, but by showing how criticism of sorts is generated by principles of what it calls ‘closure’. Briefly, it outlines how our conceptual structures are destined to be incomplete. By aiming our concepts at what is not contained in them (the uncontained is referred to as ‘openness’), it demonstrates how the aiming process itself impedes total containment, which is completion. Consequently, the idea of closure is actually a tension between these two words, ‘openness’ and ‘closure’, which generates our concepts, ideas and perspectives concerning the nature of reality; ‘closure’, as such a tension generates further concepts and therefore a nested structure of further closures.
This duologue – closure/openness – has a distinguished pedigree (although this is never alluded to) which can be traced back to the Greek ideas of the fixed and the loose (to peras and apeiron), is re-invoked by Kant’s noumenal (which gets a mention in passing), is improved upon by Schopenhauer’s idea of the Will and objectification of the Will, and can be found again in existentialist texts – notions such as Heidegger’s Dasein and Sartre’s in-itself and for-itself. In particular, it bears a marked resemblance to A.N. Whitehead’s notion of eternal objects and their prehension in actual occasions. Unfortunately, closure stands against them as a distant poor relation, beginning as a great-grandchild, but soon deteriorating into a distant cousin twice removed related by name only, as though it is embarrassed by such an association.
The linguistic analysis is handled well enough, though Lawson argues against the inordinate emphasis linguistic philosophy has received in the universities. Closure provides the means to allow it to move beyond itself by developing a method of self-reference within its own terms that is not regressive, and so capable of shedding light in other areas that have been allowed to lie fallow.
This is where the problems begin. In attempting to move beyond linguistics, closure turns itself from a principle into a theory. It assumes the mantle of a scientific idea by severing ties with the philosophy that gave it life. In so doing, it imagines it has something to offer, say, science, which in turn will reply that it already contains closure as part of its working method (through Popperian falsifiability, for instance). This is the carrying of coals to Newcastle, teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs etc. However, it discredits the philosophical tradition, and that is far more significant. It is as though the idea is looking for approval and reshapes itself into a more acceptable form, in this case a scientific theory, and betrays its own roots. Far more significant, by changing dimensions, it is no longer capable of the criticism and the vision that is so sorely needed to loosen up established assumptions, and which ironically prevent exactly the kind of closure that closure was originally intended for.
It is most certainly true that we are constrained by historical legacies and our physiology. This is well known, but Lawson makes no mention of the fact that particular systems of thought, perceived as forms of closure, are difficult to alter or overhaul because they represent the interests of the very parties in a position to alter them – who defend them from such alteration. Without this particular dimension, closure becomes self-serving, seeing only itself in everything, imagining itself to be a concept like Richard Dawkin’s notion of a meme, or Daniel Dennett’s of natural selection as an algorithm. In effect, the theory of closure becomes non-critical, and sees only forms of closure without being able to comment or criticise those things it applies itself to. Finance, for instance, is seen as a means of intervention that effectively realises a particular form of closure. Yet it cannot comment on the few holding the wealth against the majority of poor. So much so that even Stalin and Hitler were not such bad men, as they represented particular forms of closure. The irony is that while Lawson sees closure in everything, it becomes a myopic view, as he draws out the closure in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, but never gives a mention to the significance of death in this poem, or the function of memory.
This problem is created by the nonpolitical stance of the book, seeing such systems as extensions of child psychology writ large. Perhaps it has more to do with the context of closure reducing all the different things to sameness. This is in marked contrast to the much deeper view of closure inherent in Whitehead’s process philosophy, in which sameness is the source of all novelty. Furthermore, these three hundred pages continue to refer to the incompleteness of knowledge, an idea summed up in one short sentence in Whitehead, which warns against the dangers of taking the selection for the totality.
The greatest omission of all, however, is that there is not a single reference to ethics. Given its aim to turn itself into a pseudo-scientific theory, this is hardly surprising. Science at its worst defines ethics in terms of an evolutionary strategy for survival, and this is a view only possible in a perspective that holds itself falsely as a complete theory, or one nearing completion. It does not, however, provide any insight into the riddle of ethics, which has less to do with what can be discovered outside Plato’s cave, and more to do with why anyone who manages to leave it should return.
However, reading Closure was a philosophical experience akin to reading André Gide’s Pastoral Symphony in which compassion for another human being becomes something entirely perverse by the end, and yet the language of description is hardly altered. Closure becomes an ironic work, something clearly lost on the author but it is painful for the spectator to watch it develop from the outset, starting life as a philosophical idea full of promise and ending life as a quasi-rational concept with little value and no future. Most unfortunate of all is that it wishes to escape the strictures of a purely linguistic philosophy, only to discover it is actually trapped in a hall of mirrors of its own making and had never left at all. Perhaps this failure is the true reflection of the character of linguistic philosophy that has clearly absorbed the author and from which he cannot escape. In so doing, this book is worth reading for telling us what philosophy is not. Failure, after all, is the point of closure, and this book is therefore highly successful.
© Sam Nico 2002
Sam Nico is a freelance philosopher living in London.
• Closure: A Story of Everything by Hilary Lawson (Routledge £15.99)