Friday, July 23, 2010

Walter Watson, The Architectonics of Meaning

The comment thread on the post "Critiquing Sustainability" over at the Sustainability History Project involved a discussion about alternatives to Brundtlandian sustainability. One commenter, Adam Kissel, wrote
    If the point is to thoughtfully consider challenges to a sustainability perspective, I think there’s a lot to think about by examining competition-based, power-based, and win-lose models, and how they either overlap with or reject various sustainability principles.

and suggested that I read Walter Watson's The Architectonics of Meaning to understand further this point.

I've recently finished this book and will begin to process it in this post, so I can respond substantively and succinctly over at the SHP.

Watson begins his analysis by asserting that there is but one world, and all sciences, literatures, historical interpretations, religions, and philosophies are interpretations of this one world. He draws upon all of these disciplines in his examples but focuses primarily on philosophy in his analysis because diverse interpretations are most evident in this discipline, concerned as it is with first principles and fundamental causes.

In noting that various schools of philosophy have endeavored--unsuccessfully--for millenia to come up with an unified, totalizing, and singular philosophy applicable in all times and places, Watson writes "That the greatest wisdom should enforce the most profound and persistent diversity is paradoxical only on the supposition that the truth admits of only one valid formulation." His book, then, is an attempt to approach the issue of a failure to achieve philosophical unity by exploring "the opposite possibility, that the diverse philosophies only appear to be incompatible, but are not really so." He illustrates the fundamentals of this approach by showing that two systems of measurement are not incompatible when each is considered within its own particular frame of reference: a gallon of water, to use my own example, equals 3.78541178 liters. Both of these measuring schemes are correct within their respective systems (pp. 2-5).

In explaining the sources of apparent incompatibilities between philosophic systems, Watson finds four basic features:
    1) There is a certain arbitrariness in the nature of thought and in its expression in words that gives rise to philosophic diversity;
    2) There is no way of avoiding this arbitrariness, since if one is to think or speak at all one must make some choice or other with respect to these arbitrary elements;
    3) Some kind of translation or conversion from one philosophy to another is possible;
    4) Different philosophies are incompatible only in the sense that one must think and speak in terms of one philosophy at a time, and not mix them up indiscriminately (p. 4).

Watson spends the bulk of the book describing, comparing, and contrasting the elements of his "archic matrix" in separate chapters. Gerald Press' review of Architectonics of meaning provides an effective summary of these chapters and the elements of the matrix[1]:
    [the book] presents an interpretive schema, called 'archic analysis,' in which different and apparently conflicting philosophies can be univocally characterized such that apparent disagreements may be seen as consequences of, metaphorically, speaking different languages, rather than saying different things . . .
    The book's premise, which Watson describes as "the most significant philosophic discovery of the present century" is "the fact of pluralism, that the truth admits of more than one valid formulation" (ix). The doctrine or vision encountered in a philosophy, novel, poem, work of visual art, or religious text . . . are determined by five conceptual elements that vary in a limited range of ways. First, epochs in the history of thought differ in what they consider the 'primary (or universal) subject matter'; from "ontic" epochs in which being (or things) is the focus of attention, to "epistemic" epochs focusing not on things, but on the processes by which we know them, to "semantic" epochs which focus on "the expression of knowledge in what we do and say" (8). These orientations, like the other variables, are "reciprocally prior"--i.e., each includes and accounts for the others--so that none is true to the exclusion of the others; and the selection of one or another is simply an arbitrary or conventional element in philosophies that, once understood, need not be seen as an incompatibility between them . . .
    Perspectives (Chap. 2) are ways in which texts present their own authorship. The Personal perspective is looking at whatever one looks at from what is self-consciously one's own (individual, national, cultural) point of view. Alternatively, the perspective may be Objective, that is, as things are 'in themselves'; or Diaphanic, that is, from the point of view of a higher power, such as God; or Disciplinary, that is, from a multiplicity of independent and impersonal points of view ('disciplines').
    Besides a perspective, every text also has its Realities (Chap. 3), the subject matter on which the text has whatever kind of perspective it has (what is being looked at from that point of view). A text's reality might be Existential, what exists or appears, phenomena; or Substrative, the material 'stuff' that underlies phenomena; or Noumenal, what transcends all appearances and existing things (Forms, Noumena, God); or else the subject matter is Essential, examining what each individual thing really is (its genus, kind, essence).
    Then again, every text is itself ordered or structured and, in turn, orders the real, what it is talking about from its particular perspective, in a particular way. Methods (Chap. 3) order parts in wholes, and are Agonistic (pragmatic, operational, rhetorical), in which things and texts are ordered in 'whatever way works' (validity consists in success and is determined in conflict); or Logistic (compositive, combinatorial), in which the parts determine the whole and there are necessary relations among things or ideas or propositions; or Dialectic, in which the whole determines the parts in a self transcending way that finds the truth in the whole; or else Problematic, in which parts and wholes determine each other reciprocally and we proceed from problems to their solutions in inquiry.
    Finally, every text has an aim (purpose, function) that it wants to achieve, which causes the text to function, just as principles cause things or thought to function. Principles (Chap. 4) may be Creative (arbitrary, actional), originating causes like free will or God; or Elemental (conservational, simple), causes that persist through change without themselves changing; or they may be Comprehensive principles determining the form or design of the whole, like Heraclitus' Logos or the Neoplatonic One; or, finally, principles may be Reflexive, causes of themselves, so that, unlike other kinds of principles, functionings are not seen as results of anything other than functioning itself.
    Any philosophy may, then, be univocally characterized by its perspective, reality, method, and principle: its "archic profile." Hence, epochal differences apart--and why they do not figure in the archic profile is never explained--there are 256 possible profiles. Four "pure" or archetypal modes--Sophistic, Democritean, Platonic, and Aristotelian--are discussed in Chap. 5, Archic Analysis, along with certain metapluralistic questions such as why there is an archic matrix at all.
    The Architectonics of Meaning . . . will be difficult to accept because, as Watson is well aware, its basic insight--that there is a multiplicity of valid formulations of the truth--runs counter to intuitions and commitments that remain deeply embedded in the spirit of individuals and cultures.

Watson makes a number of important points in his conclusion:
    why is there an archic matrix at all? . . . it arises because each of the causes can be taken as prior to the others, that is, because they are reciprocally prior to one another . . .
    The causes can be reciprocally prior to one another because they are different ways of knowing one thing. If we ask why there are different ways of knowing one thing, we are asking for a cause of the causes. If the set of causes is complete, this cause will turn out to be one of the four we have already identified, and, because of their reciprocal priority, the plurality will reappear. The basic fact here is just that the one world can be known in multiple ways, and the causes, and the archic matrix, identify these ways. The whole of every text is the work of an author, is about a reality, is an ordering of parts in a whole, and is for the sake of some function, and we can approach the whole ext through any of these as a starting point. The archic matrix and particular texts are not two different things that mysteriously correspond; they are the same thing in universal and in particular form. The mystery that the archic matrix should order intellectual history is just the mystery that any subject should be knowable through universals. The formulation of universals in any subject gives rise to a science, and the formulation of the archic matrix gives rise to a scientific form that philosophy is assuming today, and which I will call archic analysis(p. 160).
    The archic matrix orders not only expressions of thought about the world in poetic or scientific texts, but also interpretations of texts by one another. There is this difference, however, between the world and the text, that the world is not itself an interpretation, and has no archic mode, but a text is an interpretation and does have an interpretive mode (pp. 161-162).

Regarding the attempt to understand a text written in one archic mode within the interpretive framework of another mode, Watson writes
    Because the archic modes are reciprocially prior to one another, and thus only procedurally and not substantively incompatible, they can all give us the same truth. We do not distort a measured quantity by converting it to other units, provided the conversion is correctly carried out. A text although written in a particular mode does not have meaning only in that mode; it has meaning in any mode, a meaning that is brought out by interpretations formulated in the interpreting mode (p. 163).
    Once this reciprocal priority is recognized, the situation is radically altered. The endeavor to reach agreement on philosophic principles, although valuable in bringing to light the nature of these principles, cannot ultimately succeed, and if it did succeed would stultify rather than advance thought, and in any case is pointless, in view of the parity of archic modes (p. 167).

Watson discusses his understanding of the dominant philosophical approaches in the past as well as what he takes to be a different approach evolving as of the late twentieth century:
    Speaking roughly, then, one can say of the three great philosophic traditions that creative principles have been dominant in the West, elemental principles in India, and comprehensive principles in China. In no cultural tradition have reflexive principles been dominant. As we have seen however, reflexive principles bring the different philosophies of the different traditions together as complementary components of a single science, and thus provide a basis for the new universal tradition that is now emerging. The archic matrix makes clear the sense in which different traditions that appear to be incompatible need not really be so, but are determinately related to each other as participants in a common enterprise that respects rather than jeopardizes the integrity of its component traditions (p. 165).
    We must distinguish here between the archic element taken by itself and the archic element taken as functioning to form a mind or tradition. It is not as if the mind or tradition first existed as what it is and then selected its archic elements; rather it is the archic elements that make the mind or tradition what it is. The selection of archic elements taken in isolation may be a matter of indifference, but when they have been used to constitute a mind or tradition, the integrity of that mind or tradition is inseparable from the archic elements by which it is constituted . . . We can conceive the individual mind, then, as having two components, an archic component and what I will call a factual component. The archic elements from the factual materials into a functioning whole, and the stability of the archic elements is a consequence of this unity (p. 166).

Watson concludes by suggesting the analytical possibilities offered by an understanding of his archic matrix:
    With the abandonment of the attempt to secure agreement on philosophic principles, the nature of discussion and debate on particular issues is also radically altered. It becomes important to discriminate archic differences, which are undecidable, from factual differences, which are decidable. This of course is not easy, for what the facts are depends on the principles by which they are known. But by making this discrimination, one can avoid futile controversies on undecidable questions and direct one's efforts toward decidable ones. I have in this book sought to bring into awareness and multiple modes in which we become aware of the world. The result is therefore an awareness of the intrinsic diversity present in awareness itself. And this diversity must qualify even the awareness of this diversity (p. 168).

[1] Gerald A. Press, review of Watson, Architectonics of Meaning, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 26:3 (July 1988), 505-507.

Another source discussing Watson's formulation: James E. Ford, "Systematic Pluralism: Introduction to an Issue," Monist 73:3 (July 1990), 335-350.



  1. Great, thoughtful examination of Watson. Thank you for devoting your time to it. I hope that this book provides a framework for seeing how from a sustainability perspective one might be able to make sense of "everything," while at the same time from some other perspective one can make sense of "everything" without using any of the terms, methods, or principles of sustainability. An interesting question is where on Watson's matrix one would find the majority of sustainability advocates.

  2. this book provides a framework for seeing how from a sustainability perspective one might be able to make sense of "everything," while at the same time from some other perspective one can make sense of "everything" without using any of the terms, methods, or principles of sustainability

    Yes, this book has helped me see this. I'm still trying to figure out what seems to me the natural extension of this dynamic, however. For example, Watson shows how pluralism is the natural and unavoidable state of affairs, but what happens when competing philosophies are so different that adherents of one strive to eradicate the other, or the adherents of one philosophy use all of the resources, at the expense of other groups?

    That is, it's one thing if pluralism exists in the abstract realm of philosophy, but what are we to make of pluralism in the realm of day-to-day affairs, particularly in those places where philosophies/world views come in to conflict?

    An interesting question is where on Watson's matrix one would find the majority of sustainability advocates.

    This is an interesting question. It would be great if someone a firmer grasp of philosophy than I would take this up -- it would make for a fascinating article, if not a book!

  3. Inspired by Watson, David A. Dilworth wrote in 1989 his Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories.
    For an interactive version of 'The Archic Matrix' see:

  4. Thanks for the link, Anonymous. The matrix helps achieve one aspect of what I mentioned in my comment above: providing a comparative analysis of various philosophies/philosophers.