apolliana: (Default)
For a long time I've had the feeling that there's a bias in contemporary philosophy against arguing for 'big' positions--the kinds of positions those who hold (or discount) hold (or discount) in a fundamental way. The thought is: if you give an argument for one of these positions, the only people you convince will be those already convinced.

What remains to philosophy is--must be--to only solve problems within these fundamental framework views. But that makes it difficult to ever interact with those who reject them, UNLESS your M.O. when interacting with them is to always accept others' presuppositions and to try to work things out within their views.

That's all well and good, I suppose. But it seems to be ignoring a herd of elephants in the room. (That, and I'm absolutely terrible at accepting presuppositions I object to.)
apolliana: (Default)
The point of saying something often makes what is said more clear, but not always. Nor would I want to say the 'point' is always obvious from the circumstances (environment, and other people) surrounding the speaker; the thoughts of the speaker might have more light to shed on the matter. Where, metaphorically, is the 'point,' anyway? I'd say in the inclinations and needs of the speaker. 'Point' might be another way of saying 'intention.' I'm not generally a fan of explaining meanings in terms of speakers' intentions, if only because it isn't clear that there's always something we can call an 'intention' behind what the speaker says; and certainly not an intention that his words mean? [something or other] (cf. Kripkenstein).

This, then, is another reason the point of saying something does not make the meaning of 'know'--or any other term--so clear that it precludes philosophical questions about the concept the term refers to. When the question is about knowledge, what constitutes 'knowing' is not always clear. In classrooms, it is often the ability to answer a question by repeating a prompted fact. But such 'knowledge' isn't tied down by an account, making it rather superficial. This superficiality will usually be apparent to both the student and the teacher. Everyone knows that we call this 'knowledge' only for convenience of expression. What constitutes knowing whether the bank is open is less clear; I'm inclined to say that this isn't something anyone not present at the location can truly be said to know.

Thus, I believe, philosophical questions about knowledge arise naturally from the slipperiness in our ordinary uses of the term. Like any term which implies success--or at least goodness--at something, using it invokes a scale of possible degrees of this success; invoking part of this scale invokes the whole of it.

To say that all ambiguities in our words are removed in 'ordinary' as opposed to 'philosophical' contexts is to overlook the ordinary situations from which philosophical questions arise. Which is to overlook a fundamental characteristic of 'ordinary' experience.

Now, there may be problems with not knowing which particular criterion for knowledge one has when one talks about knowing, or with using more than one criterion for knowledge at once; but the problem will not be that it doesn't ordinarily happen. Perhaps there are reasons to outlaw it in an ideal language. But this is very different from saying that outside of the context of philosophical discourse this ambiguity does not happen.
apolliana: (Default)
"There might be extraordinary facts, even about our everyday experience, which plain men and plain language overlook" (J.L. Austin, "The Meaning of a Word," 69).

One of the most common objections to understanding philosophical problems by comparing them with ordinary ways of speaking is that not all of our ordinary ways of speaking are correct. We may have language games that need to change, because they're based on empirical or ethical mistakes (blaming animals, for example; or talking of some people as if they are less human than others). I very much doubt any ordinary language philosopher would have claimed that how we do speak is always how we should speak; but it is not obvious why. The answer, I suspect, will also explain the way the appeal to ordinary language is supposed to work.

How do we discover that it's wrong to blame animals? It doesn't work, primarily. It causes unhappiness and fails to facilitate anything positive, other than the expression of anger. If it's a language-game (is it, even? we pick it up from other people, but it's practiced on non-speakers), it doesn't do much. It might as well be a "wheel turning idly."

The most important concept in the PI has long seemed to me to be the "very general facts of nature" that form the background to our language-games. If certain very general facts of nature were otherwise, our language games would be different too. That is, "the way we speak" does not exist in a vacuum. It depends on much else. Thus "the way we speak" cannot be the only evidence we consider. What, then, are "very general facts of nature?" Physical facts, certainly, but also the reasons for which we speak (the kinds of aims we have--grounded in physical facts).

But that is all, so to speak, from a third-personal point of view. How does it look from the inside?

The way we should speak depends on a great deal. It depends upon what we're talking about, and what the best description of the case is, given our knowledge, and purposes. The fact that we do sometimes blame animals thus does not imply that we should, given other facts to which we may appeal. It's not the appropriate response. Finding the best description of a strange case, a misunderstanding, or a clash of concepts involves finding the best, most appropriate response. To do this, we must be open to other ways of considering the case in question. For this purpose, many other language-games all have to be functioning too; we must accept sensory evidence, understand and consider competing theories, and empathize. We cannot step outside of language even in bringing this evidence to bear on what we say.

The activity of doing philosophy, in my own practice, is an attempt to find the best description of things; however, the 'things' I want described, and the descriptions I find more salient are those which are "closer to home." I'm no Quinean because I do not give primacy to the same conceptual schemes. To do so would be to abandon my grounds. Our language is crucial to the evidence we already have for things--to what we are committed to; we can't simply remove it, as Quine imagines we can, to see the world as (Humeanly) only behavior and "stimulations of the nerve endings." That may be an appealing minimalist picture, but once we've done that we're no longer talking about ourselves. That picture is wrong because that is not how we are. (Kant was right about this.) Philosophy needs to start in the middle of things, or else it will not address philosophical problems, which arise in us there; throwing out the distinction-richness of the language we ordinarily help ourselves to is a way of not listening to or answering the person asking the question. There is, then, a given; but it is not as simple as sense-data. It is the body of language we acquire and the distinctions we learn to make within, and through it.

I do hold that philosophical problems, to the extent that they are properly philosophical, arise from conflicts among concepts. Some of these conflicts are superficial, and can be undone. (And the wonderful thing about Wittgenstein's method of dissolution, at least in theory, is that it works from the inside. The way it works, in the ideal, is that you find that you are committed to these ordinary ways of speaking, and discover for yourself that the problem arises from a confusion. You discover commitments you already had--not unlike a kind of recollection.) Some of these conflicts are, I think, not at all superficial, and cannot be undone (in this category fall all philosophical problems describable as "conflicts of perspective (1st v. 3rd)). But they can be best described, and perhaps the best description will work some kind of knot-untangling magic; I doubt it, but we will be braver and less idle if we try. Not least because the countless philosophers out there not working in these frameworks keep describing things with abysmal impoverishedness.
apolliana: (Default)
I'd forgotten that Austin said anything like this. (How could I have?!)

"Although it will not do to force actual language to accord with some preconceived model, it equally will not do, having discovered the facts about 'ordinary usage' to rest content with that, as though there were nothing more to be discussed and discovered. There may be plenty that might happen and does happen which would need new and better language to describe it in. Very often philosophers are only engaged on this task, when they seem to be perversely using words in a way which makes no sense according to 'ordinary language.' There may be extraordinary facts, even about our everyday experience, which plain men and plain language overlook" (J.L. Austin, "The Meaning of a Word").


That might as well be my motto.
apolliana: (Default)
"...[C]onditions which often look alike/Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow..." (Eliot, "Little Gidding," III).


I.Tortoises
As proposed in the previous post, the Tortoise is someone who, like The Tortoise in the Lewis Carroll fable, demands an explanation of something that, for structural reasons, does not admit of explanation. Some examples of 'structurally inexplicable' things include modus ponens in classical logic, the justification of inductive generalizations, whether external world skepticism is true, and why there is something rather than nothing.

Related predicaments ensue, as Peter Railton points out in "How to Engage Reason," whenever an extra step seems needed to explain the transition from one thing to another--e.g. from a belief and desire judgment to an action (or perhaps an intention). Although an action is not a fundament of a system of reasoning, it is irreducible. There is a transition one must make or not make, and no volume of rational support will make it for you.

Tortoise-inviting transitions are similar to those that invite the Paradox of Analysis, but not identical. The Paradox of Analysis arises when a concept cannot be fully captured in an analysis of its meaning in other terms. But a transition, like those listed above, is not a concept, but a relationship between a basis and a conclusion. In both cases, something goes uncaptured, but in tortoisean cases what is not captured, or rather 'secured,' is that one will accept reasoning performed correctly using a given basing relation. (I want to distinguish between the two because The Paradox of Analysis can arise with any concept one attempts to analyze, whereas difficulty seeing why something follows from something else is less prolific.)

One may also ask tortoisean questions about something that is seems to basic to admit of explanation without reference to a particular system of explanation, if it seems none suits the phenomenon. In a way, what one is doing in such a case is turning the mysterious thing--e.g. how basic actions are possible--into something the transition to which needs explaining in the way the transition from (A, (A-->B)) to B does (to a Tortoise). One takes a position from 'below' the thing, and asks how it ever occurs. Yet the answer the Tortoise wants will have to both take into account how it seems to the Tortoise when it happens, and provide an explanation from 'below.' The ideal explanation will cover the movement from one side of the transition to the other without leaving any gaps into which doubt can be inserted. Some examples include: basic actions, action following from practical reasoning, committing oneself to some goal, thinking, imagining, believing, desiring, and having experience as of objects in the world.

II. Ways of Responding to a Tortoise
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The Rundown )
apolliana: (Default)
James Conant distinguished between "Cartesian skepticism" and "Kantian skepticism" ("Varieties of Skepticism"). Each has many criteria, but roughly, the Cartesian skeptic considers what ought to be required to have knowledge and finds it lacking in even the most ordinary case, whereas the Kantian skeptic looks at, say, knowledge [though Kantian skepticism can apply to a vast range of topics], and is simply baffled as to how it is even possible. For the Cartesian "it looks as if there is something we cannot do," whereas for the Kantian it "looks as if there is nothing to do (not even dream), where we had previously thought there was something" (107/111).

I'd like to put a finer point on Kantian skepticism. I think the simplest incarnation of the Kantian skeptic (sorry, Kant) is the Tortoise, from Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles". Presented with a simple inference, the Tortoise asks for further justification, to which Achilles can only respond by providing another inference, for which the Tortoise again demands further justification, ad infinitum. The Tortoise accepts nothing as basic. This is not unlike the difficulty of justifying an inductive inference without appealing to induction. Our Tortoise might as well be asking the Kantian question, how is modus ponens possible?

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If this is the right way to think of Kantian skepticism, or Kantian questions, they start with an inability to see something as 'basic' (as 'bedrock') which must be seen as basic, or, perhaps, with a question that cannot be answered or phenomenon that can't be explained from within the framework in which it's asked. More modus ponens inferences will not enable the Tortoise to understand modus ponens inferences. What will help the Tortoise? --Some other kind of explanation. Probably exercises in aspect-perception. Phenomena as basic as modus ponens invite puzzlement; it's natural to want to know why they work. That which must be taken as basic invites the need to understand it the way we understand everything we understand through it.

Other predicaments that inspire Tortoise-like responses:

  • basic actions--how do we make them happen?

  • induction--how do we justify inductive inference?

  • how do we know our own mental states?

  • in what does following a particular rule consist?


There is more to each of these, of course, even by way of large patterns. For instance, I think it's helpful to think about both the problem of justifying induction and rule-following as drawing on an inevitable switching between foreground (a given instance or something that conforms to the inductive law or of following a rule) and background (the entirety of the inductive law, the entirety of the rule--which both cover an infinite number of cases).

I will not pretend otherwise: for me, all interesting philosophical questions are Kantian questions. I'm not sure I can defend this preference, except to say that a concern for what can be explained and how concerns inquiry in all domains--not simply philosophy; though wherever it arises, it is philosophy.
apolliana: (Default)
"I believe that if, faced with the extraordinary pronouncements of metaphysicians, we avoid asking them to define their terms, but instead press them to present us with instances of what they refer to contrasted with what they do not refer to, then their pronouncements will no longer appear either as obvious falsehoods or as mysterious truths or pretentious nonsense, but instead as confusingly presented attempts to bring before our attention certain not fully recognized and yet familiar features of how in the end different types of questions are met." ("A Feature of WIttgenstein's Technique," in Paradox and DIscovery 101-2).


My fondness for John Wisdom stems from his being broadly and Ordinary Language philosopher who nevertheless believes that the things philosophers worry about are not nonsense, but have substance either as clashes between--for lack of better word--language-games, areas of discourse, or as revealing to us other aspects of our experience that for one reason or another find expression as philosophical questions. That, broad though it is, is my general theoretical orientation. I could not be a dogmatic ordinary language philosopher because I do think some philosophical questions worth pursuing.

The Received (Dogmatic) View is that all philosophical questions arise from 'misused' terms, terms applied out of their natural homes; and what we must do to answer these questions is to remind the asker that she doesn't know what she's talking about. If the asker returns her words to their natural habitats the questions will disappear. I think this turns a blind eye to philosophy--and not only to philosophy, to a real, important feature of experience: a feature of experience not unlike aspect phenomena. My metatheory is that philosophical questions arise from the contrast--not only that, but the 'flipping'--of multiple natural, but evidently opposed, ways of viewing the same subject matter. There are very good reasons for this, where it occurs.

I think philosophical dilemmas are interesting for conceptual reasons, structural reasons. For example, extreme external world skepticism shows us something about the limitations of knowledge based on evidence, and is insoluble for the same reason that it's impossible--that it may not be possible to doubt all our beliefs about the world simultaneously, without retaining one on which to base the doubt. But taking this sort of interest in philosophical problems does not mean that I think they are 'constructs' (whatever that means), of some kind, or ought to disappear with a shift in one's attitude towards the world (though that may happen--but that's not the most interesting thing to say about them). The skeptical mindset may be a peculiar one to get into, but it's not simply that.

Does this amount to the same as Wisdom's "not fully recognized and yet familiar features of how in the end different types of questions are met"? Possibly, though I would subsume "how different types of questions are met" under aspect-switching phenomenology; from one point of view, we are tempted to address the question as to whether the will is free by referring to causal chains, and from another, with the conviction that we could have done otherwise. And in a way, "how in the end different types of questions are met" is exactly what we learn from the skeptic above: we learn about what it means to base a belief (or a doubt) on evidence, and how our ability to meet certain questions runs up against the limits of our methods of finding out about things.

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