Upwards of fifty years ago, the hard-nosed empiricist philosopher Bas van Fraassen wrote some words that have stuck with me ever since. I beg a measure of patience, because I am quoting from memory (my copy of the book is buried among 55 boxes in a pole barn). Basically, van Fraassen said this: “I can believe in witches and fairies; indeed, I may have met a few. But I cannot for all the world believe in a ‘set’.”i A “set” in this instance is a mathematical entity as in “set theory.” What van Fraassen the very hard-nosed empiricist is saying is that witches and fairies are objects of direct (and possibly personal) experience, whereas mathematical sets – which, mathematicians assure us, are surely among the most rational things in the world – have no such connection to experience. As such, “sets” have far less basis (in van Fraassen’s hard-nosed estimation) for anything like rational justification. And while van Fraassen’s empiricism would have been much improved had he gone radical – á la William James and Alfred North Whitehead – rather than following David Hume, his point is still well worth taking. If witchesii and members of the fae are supposedly “uncanny,” what in the hell does that make a “set,” even an “ordinary” one? (The weird ones get downright wyrd.)
Following up on the previous essay, I want to talk about our relatedness to the uncanny (which I’ll now treat as uncontroversially real) from a Whiteheadian perspective. The uncanny manifests itself in us. But if Whitehead is correct, then that manifestation takes two special forms: first there is the internalization of relatedness, in which we draw the uncanny into ourselves as part of ourselves, as how we realize our selves to ourselves. But secondly, there is the externalization of relatedness in which we pro-ject ourselves onto the world. These forms of relatedness will require spending a few words on the badly framed traditional question of “internal” and “external” relations; badly framed because it takes those relations as given rather than as processes in realization. At the very end, I’ll come back to the significance of this essay’s title.