Wandering Significance and Surfaces (and, as always, molecules)

Whoops. Research fail for the past month and a half. Personal life took over.

Over at the University of Pittsburgh a group of graduate students has been getting together to discuss Mark Wilson‘s book Wandering Significance. It is big. It is pink. It contains wild reflections on language, science, mathematics, engineering, Mozart, childhood books, old movies, and drums. The general consensus is that the book is weirdly wonderful and unlike nearly any other philosophy text most of us have read in the past few years. (Of course, I haven’t read Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings, so I might be missing something). But it is not for the faint of heart or short of attention span.

I recently wrote up a bunch of my notes from the reading group in order to procrastinate on writing a prospectus, and I was reminded of some of the concerns I have been mulling through in recent months. Particularly, I am concerned about surfaces. How do we define them? How do we model them? How come some of our very useful models of fluid dynamics cannot accommodate the idea that the identity of the molecules laying on the surface of a body changes over time, and that their chemistry changes with this change in position relative to a surface? People mainly talk about surfaces in solids. I think it will be interesting and perhaps instructive to talk about them in fluids. Maybe.

The short story is, I am thinking of writing a paper on surfaces–how we model them, especially in fluids; where the models of them fail to describe the situation at hand. I might have to bring up some concerns about whether or not there are genuine discontinuities in physical systems, as would occur when a molecule goes from being on the surface of a body to not. Our concept of what a surface is has a lot to do with the way we delineate objects from other objects–Descartes recognized as much in the Principles of Philosophy when he wrote on the distinction between internal and external places. occupied by an object.

This is about where the paper is now. I hate this stage of the process, where there are connections between concepts and literatures but no clear outline of an argument yet. It is frustrating and anxiety-inducing. That in itself seems related to some of the arguments Wilson is making in the Big Pink Book. How concepts start to extend themselves beyond familiar borders of denotative and associative territory, and in so doing form the basis of extensions and changes in knowledge, or at least in the way we interpret and connect the knowledge we already have.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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