Monday, September 16, 2013

Betrachtungen eines Unphilosophischen (ter)

Nicht vom Wetter spricht sie, nicht vom Schneider,
höchstens von den Grundproblemen  beider.
-- Christian Morgenstern

[I wrote the following around twenty years ago, before I was baptised.  Just stumbled on it while cleaning up some files. 
Since that time, I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy, often with pleasure, and dabbled in composing some.  But the treatment here of the cognitive problem does not need revision or retraction.]

I must conclude, reluctantly, that I am of a not very philosophical cast of mind.  Intellectual, yes; thoughtful, I hope so; but philosophical, in the sense of spontaneously grappling with the questions that engage those denominated philosophers, alas not.
Had I never read a line of academic philosophy, I could contentedly have walked for ten decades down the lanes of life, kicking at stones and appreciating the trees, without once wondering, let alone worrying, whether a name denotes a universal, or rather a concept, rather than (snicker snicker) a thing. Left to my own devices, I would likely never have asked whether Being even had a nature. let alone what the bugger might be.

Such questions as these have never troubled my sleep; and it is only with the greatest difficulty than I can induce them to trouble my waking hours.  Yet we read, in the letters of our betters:

"What distinguishes a man from a word?  There is a distinction, doubtless."
--C.S. Pierce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities".

This I no more ponder than whether a hawk may be discerned from a handsaw -- indeed, it rather recalls the grotesque title of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  Yet Peirce concludes, alarmingly, that "The word or sign which man uses  is the man himself."  Should we be troubled by this?

Doing philosophy – well, I seldom do.  But when reading philosophy – something never undertaken save after a sound night's sleep, in the company of pots of strong coffee – I have often had the horrible experience of carefully lucidly processing each phrase of a sentence as it comes along, then finding, when I reach the sentence end, that the meanings of the initial phrases have evaporated:  as were intelligence but a porthole on a passing landscape, seizing each piece clearly as it looms into view, but at the expense of losing the last.  (That was rather a long sentence itself; let us pause.)
            Herewith a specific instance, taken from a little work in paperback (Arthur Danto, What Philosophy Is) known for being a relatively clear and non-technical introduction for the layman:
            "It is demonstrable that, for any system of sentences – any theory, say – which satisfies exceedingly weak and undemanding formal criteria, just this alleged desideratum can be achieved."
            This is not a long sentence; and for the first two-thirds of it, it actually calls up to me very visual ideas.  "Any system of sentences – any theory, say": I picture these sentences as speech-balloons, dangling from a mobile, with little hand-icons pointing at other sentences which they imply or from which they derive.  "Which satisfies exceedingly weak and undemanding formal criteria":  here our hypothetical theory is embodied as a sort of Doctor Watson, waving his hand with bluff good humor, in dismissal of the trifling demands made upon him: "No trouble at all, sir!"  And as for that initial "It is demonstrable that", well, we all know that "It is demonstrable that P" means (for the plain man) just that "P", and moreover gives you license to swallow P without troubling yourself to prove it or make it plausible, or even to understand it very deeply:  just one of those solid facts that people our Watsonian society, which the tradespeople have somehow seen to.
            Then comes "just this alleged desideratum".  Alas: this sends you haring back to the previous paragraph, or previous page.  And the "alleged" is troubling:  do we desire this (whatever it is), or do we not?  This centrifugal tension makes subtly more difficult the task of going back and finding the antecedent for "this".  It's not like "she": hmm, hmm, complicated, this, -- aha, Natasha Nikolayevna.
            Now:  one fact about philosophy, which makes the subject hard to follow, is rather to its credit.  Namely:  we never know what might be called into question.  So we can't just sit back and nod  as bits of received opinion are spooned into our open mouths.
            In many non-philosophical areas of life, we can count on so much that is unchallengeable, that their arguments are like sermons in a lazy church.  We can doze; we can idly watch the fly buzzing across the stained-glass windows; and miss nothing that is essential, for we have already all that is essential, the rest is embroidery.  As, in the radical Sixties, syllogism went rather like this.

     (1) Amerikkka is a honkey-assed imperialist pig
     (2) The righteous Vietnamese people are righteous, popular, and Vietnamese.
From this it follows:
     (3) Blah de blah de blah de blah (rahht ohwn!) 
Everyone goes home satisfied.

What does it mean, to be "unphilosophical"?  It cannot spring simply from stupidity – which is a general term; too much counter-evidence in collateral fields.  Nor ignorance – not after having sat at the feet of the philosophical:  for, failure to absorb their wise lessons would have to be due either to stupidity (already ruled out of court) or "unphilosophicality" : quite possibly present, but this is the quality to be explained.  (I recall a case from some years ago, in which some Brazilian peasants, or Indians, were brought to trial for having killed quite a number of people: and were acquitted, on the grounds of "invincible ignorance".  A charming verdict; egomet etiam, nolo contendere; but again, this is the explicandum, not the explicans.)
            One possible partial explanation is that, apparently, despite gross this that and the other thing, I do actually, more or less, in some sense, believe in God.  This may even be largely unconscious, but it does determine things.  As:  Good heavens!  Here He went and made Eden for our grandsires to saunter in, and angels to attend our fallen birth – and you're worried about the existence of tables??!??!*  Get a life, man!  Get an afterlife!
[*On page 100 of Danto's booklet, we have an image of the philosophically inclined scientist  swallowing an atom  but straining at a table.]

It is a stylistic characteristic of the philosophic genre, that its reported combattants are generally abstract and shadowy, unnamed figures.  Not Gould vs Dawkins, or Quine vs Chomsky, but: the Realist; the Representationalist; the Phenomenalist, each with his separate agenda; curiously dispassionate partisans, like players in a masque. 
            In one sense, this should make for clarity.  As, I may know a whole bunch about Chomsky, or Chesterton, or Orwell, but it is different from the bunch of things known by disputant P., and different still from the sub-bunch of things that have caught P's attention in the present case.  Hence, when P. says: "….(Orwell)….", a million bells go off in my head, which may obscure his message.  Whereas, when the don refers to the Realist, there is no clanging, nothing to refer to but the Realist's résumé.
            And yet and yet… It is with this as with the medieval allegories, where ((Danger)) orates to ((Faithful)) anent ((Beauty)), and the eyes turn to glass.  These creatures have no form – no warts – no tits – it is difficult to attend, hard to become engaged.

            This lack of philosophical engagement has few consequences for the practical matters of life, such as renewing a driver's license.  Still, it bothers me.  For, philosophy is reputedly fundamental – indeed, is so virtually by definition.  Smart people are presumably interested in problems of ontology, while stupid people are interested in football scores.  [A surprisingly large number of smart people are interested in baseball.  This cannot, then, be an intellectual failing; but it may be a perversion.  The question remains open.]

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~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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Yet I am troubled by questions of epistemology, for the good and simple reason that certain people whom I know  (those notorious Other Minds, in whose complete integrity I believe implicitly) seem to know (or say that they know) what I don't know; nor know I  how (or whether) they do know it.
CEO (cigar clenched in right mouth-corner, speaking laconically out of the left):  Nyaahh… Dis noo magneddic-stawritch standid, it'll nevah catch on, da mahhkit'll riject it.
Me (thinks): How the F*** does he know that?!?!?


On a good day, then, and with a good book, I can – granted, not do, but at least – read philosophy, and engage with it:  an EKG would reveal busy little blips and bumps, I'm not just flatlining with the book open, the mental equivalent of an all-day sucker.  And admittedly, most of the enjoyment comes from the crackling style (as with Quine) or the apt examples (Strawson, Geach), rather than from any genuine penetration into the delicious mysteries of what it means, what it really means, to say that x equals (wait for it) x.  So the author of the book need not feel that his labor is wasted:  here is John Q. Public with his engine turning over and that author's very book in his hands (those hands which might equally as well have held a breast, or a beer).  And yet – the book once laid upon the night-table, all its arguments and all its concerns  go out like a light.
            It is not so with, say, poetry.  To read poetry before retiring is as dangerous as drinking espresso for a nightcap: I toss and turn, the lingering rhythms like a hot blanket, which cannot be cast off till I drag myself out of bed, snatch a bathrobe, and WRITE - WRITE - INDITE!  Whereas philosophical propositions  spark no further fever.  I lay down the volume, fall into a dreamless sleep, and perhaps the next day have some vague lingering recollection – "Yes, that 'x' thing, it was equal to, let me see, was it 'y'? -- no!  'x', that's it!  x = x.  My, the things one learns."  Or:  “Is it true, that snow is white?  Mmmm..mmyes!”

            Perhaps a policy of not asking overmany fundamental questions too often, is not so much intellectual laziness, as the better part of epistemological valor.  For, truly to nail down the simplest everyday phenomenon, is largely beyond the reach of science.
(Physics is really good at addressing problems that it invented itself, like muons;  not so much when it comes to snowflakes, or lightning, or wind.)

            In addition, when you go to the scientist, thou sluggard, you find him not exactly bent over the philosophy-of-science books either.   And this, not only among those sooty alley-dwellers the chemists, with their practical pots, but even those austere, unstained – theoretical physicists, nay, mathematicians.  Mathematics does not need metamathematics to go about its business, whether devising formulae that will predict the stresses of actual bridges, or proving theorems about ideal manifolds in n-space.  (We may define pure mathematics as the subject in which Bertrand Russell does not know what he is talking about, though what he says is none the less true.)

~     ~     ~

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Thomas Mann, and I approved this message.)

Other  tragic examples:

Valéry était atteint  de cécité philosophique.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p. 234

Freud himself  confessed to an insensitivity to philosophy -- or at any rate, to academic philosophizing -- after reading a book a colleague had recommended:

“You cannot imagine how alien all those philosophical convolutions  seem to me.   The only feeling of satisfaction they give me  is that I take no part in this pitiable waste of intellectual powers.  Philosophers no doubt believe that  in such studies  they are contributing to the development of human thought;  but every time, there is a psychological  or even a psychopathological problem  behind them.”
-- quoted in Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p. 140.

(Assignment:  How do these observations apply to the case of Wittgenstein?  Discuss)

Latest update:  
"Even when I have moved away from observation,  I have carefully avoided any contact with philosophy proper.  This avoidance  has been greatly facilitated  by my constitutional incapacity."
--  quoted in Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p.335

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