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Once we make certain discoveries, it becomes difficult to state them as propositional knowledge. Or even to state what question the discovery was the solution to. Because we ourselves have changed as a result (roughly the point of a digression of Cavell's in "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy"):

"The more one learns, so to speak, the hang of oneself, and mounts one's problems, the less one is able to say what one has learned; not because you have forgotten what it was, but because nothing you said would seem like an answer or a solution: there is no longer any question or problem which your words would match. You have reached conviction, but not about a proposition; and consistency, but not in a theory. You are different, what you recognize as problems are different, your world is different" (85-6).

This analogizes philosophical problem-solving to therapeutic problem-solving, but it's not clear that the description is true of both, always. Or that the reasons for the dissolution or disappearance of the problem are parallel.

When one solves one's personal problems, the ones that seemed like insoluble mysteries, sometimes the problems do disappear; but usually one can say what the solution was, if there was one. Oftentimes fitting poorly with one's environment makes us think there's some deep problem within ourselves that vanishes when we find new jobs, places, neighbors, or relationships. The problem dissolves because it was caused by something external to oneself in the first place. You aren't different, necessarily, but your world is. (You might be different in that you have firmer ideas about what your scene is.) But the wrongness of a certain environment or path or person is still something one can state, even after the problem has dissolved.

For philosophical problems, it's somewhat different. The problems seem to arise in this way: when we first learn abstract concepts, they seem to present us with many possible problems, incompatibilities, paradoxes. It becomes puzzling how the world could ever have come together out of piles of opposites. But this is a view from 'above'; on the ground, concepts aren't so monolithic. The learning that resolves our paradoxes is simply detailed experience of life--and life with language--on the ground; in its minutiae, in its (ugh) ordinariness.

Some people, no doubt, address themselves to problems that seem to be both simultaneously. A young person's philosophical worries are tinged with the wrongness of his or her life thus far. Many of the questions I used to care about seem inane now. Those that remain concern the nature of inquiry and discovery, and the nature of thought and experience. These things are interesting because they are so complex that philosophers' accounts invariably leave things out. The questions I still care about arise from complexity, rather than from from stark oversimplification.
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I was impressed by "On Truth and Falsity in their Extramoral Sense" when I was 17. Looking at it again, I see why: that was my first encounter with the paradox of analysis--i.e. the tradeoff between informativeness and truth in analysis. (If you define A in terms of B, this will be informative, but will probably not seem to account completely for A's A-ness, to put it generically.) I first encountered it under that name in John Wisdom, I believe, much later. Not that I'm surprised to turn up more consistency in revisiting my own past.....

But I'll let the eloquent, ornery German speak for himself. Page numbers from one of those Cambridge chronologically organized collections.

"[Underlined by my young self] If [man] does not mean to content himself with truth in the shape of tautology, that is, with empty husks, he will always obtain illusions instead of truth" (90).

"Every idea originates through equating the unequal. As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea 'leaf' has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences, through a forgetting of the differentiating qualities...." (95)

And I can't leave out this delightedly excoriating passage:

"What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins with their images effaced and now no longer of account as coins but merely as metal" (92).

The essay's rather haphazard according to my standards these days, but I dearly miss this sort of writing in philosophy. And I wish I could take my 17 year-old self and say, "Hey! That's the paradox of analysis you're interested in! Go Alta-Vista that!"
apolliana: (Default)
This post is about the phenomenology of inquiry. In a previous post, I discussed the thought, to be found from Plato to Wittgenstein, that what the philosopher seeks is something so close to her she cannot see it. Consider also a line from my 3rd favorite poet: "things seen up close enlarge, then disappear" (Gjertrud Schnackenburg, "Snow Melting").

These thoughts fit well with the idea of knowledge-as-recollection of something one already knew, from the Meno, and with Meno's paradox: how can we seek what we do not already know? Socrates's answer to this question is, per recollection, that we seek what we did already know, but didn't know that we knew.

One way this might be the case is that what we seek is a feature of the way the world is represented to us (Kant), rather than the world itself--so it does not seem to us like an object. Another is for what we seek to be the natures of our concepts, however we think those are marked out (actual, complex patterns of word usage--Wittgenstein, or more abstract mental representations). That's why Kant compared his approach to explaining to experience to the Copernican revolution: it changed the focus of the investigation from external to internal, from what presents itself to us in experience to the way it is so presented.

A corollary to the idea that what the philosopher seeks is somehow too near to present itself to her as an object or an answer normally would is that when one does find whatever it is one was searching for, it may not seem like an answer to the question; the perspective of the inquirer shifts radically between question and answer, and the two do not meet each other. This is more evident in life than in philosophy; but it's present in philosophy too--throughout, in small quantities.

(One way to divide up philosophers is according to what attitude they take towards the paradoxical question that is only partly met with some answer or other:. Possible deflationary viewpoints are: hold that it's meaningless, the result of what Kant calls transcendental illusion, or simply ill-informed. And of course according to how successfully they think these questions can be addressed.)

Some lovely expressions of the thought that by the time you reach the answer, it's not clear that it's the kind of answer one expected, or that it fits the initial question appear in Eliot's Four Quartets--themselves extended meditations on paradox, that of 'reconciling time with timelessness.' (Also the most perfect work of any art-form in existence, to me; I keep them in my nightstand always.) Here are some passages.
"And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment" ("Little Gidding," 31-6).

"The moments of happiness--not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination--
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness" ("The Dry Salvages" 89-96).

"Time is no healer: the patient is no longer here....
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus" ("" 131-140).

In my freshman year of high school, shortly before I read these, I came to the conclusion that most paradoxes were only paradoxical because the element of time--through which one thing can change into its opposite--is removed. Restore it, and the paradox vanishes. This is really only a statement of the law of noncontradiction: nothing is both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect. But at different times, or in different respects, it might have the property of being A and then that of being not-A. This is not true of the most famous philosophical paradoxes, however; nothing so obvious explains how something comes from nothing, or how free will is compatible with determinism. But the failure-of-fit between question and solution often does have an intervening process. In life, this is a change in oneself of some kind (one's beliefs? presuppositions? desires?). In philosophical inquiry, one follows along some path of analysis, but then finds that the original question has vanished, or changed, or not been done justice to; or perhaps one thinks it was no longer a good question to have asked. Both involve changes in things that are not the inquirer's focus, so she does not notice them; they're in her mindset, or her method of inquiry. It's important to be aware of this subtle sleight-of-hand when doing philosophy. In its own way, I think it's the most important thing philosophy has to teach.

Lest I seem unphilosophical by quoting a poem, the Four Quartets also contain a description of poetic practice which could equally apply to philosophy:

"and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate--but there is no competition--
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps nether gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business"
("East Coker" 172-189).

I think Socrates, the Socrates of the Meno, would agree.
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)
"...[C]onditions which often look alike/Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow..." (Eliot, "Little Gidding," III).

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
The Rundown )
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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?


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.


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