He broke off [fell silent], and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the [communication] Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something "good enough" had long since been accepted by our race.

-The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster

Does this passage refer to any particular philosophy, which apparently holds that our ability to discern subtle and perhaps accidentally communicated messages, such as those in our facial expressions or tones of voice, are "the actual essence of intercourse," apparently the most important part of the message?

Or would you say that by the words "a discredited philosophy" Forster meant just an old-fashioned outlook which many people used to take?

  • 1
    Wow. I had forgotten how good Forster was. I see this as pre-positivism. When people still considered essences. After reading Dan Hicks' recent excellent philosophy of science post here, you can see traces coming back of a more nuanced science. I won't say science will explicitly consider essence again, but it seems to be becoming more nuanced. – Gordon Sep 25 '17 at 13:05
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    He almost certainly meant the word to have the "general outlook on life" meaning, not the "specific discipline that consists of metaphysics, epistemology, etc." meaning. There isn't any sort of context that makes sense for it to have been published in 1909 and have be referring to anything specific in philosophy. It sounds like he just wanted to add some sort of poeticism to the dystopian feeling of what the machine was doing. Along the same line I would disagree with the above comment and say that its conflating a philosophical use of the word "essence" with a poetic use. – Not_Here Sep 25 '17 at 13:34
  • Maybe he is referring to psychoanalysis, given how popular it became around that time, but calling that philosophy is poetic. If that is what he is referring to then it seems like he was just using the phrase to romanticize the past, given that the story takes place in the future relative to when it was written. If that is what he was meaning to reference, then he's not talking about philosophy. – Not_Here Sep 25 '17 at 13:42
  • @Gordon Scientific essentialism had influential supporters since 1970-s, e.g. Putnam and Kripke, the disunity of science school is not that recent either (Cartwright, Hacking), see Stanford Disunity Mafia. – Conifold Sep 25 '17 at 18:38
  • I don't doubt you. I was referring to Kolakowski's definition, part of his definition, on positivism: the phenomena only, not "essence". – Gordon Sep 25 '17 at 20:44

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