Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Incivility Is The Master's Tool (But Michelle Wolf Was Fine And People Saying Otherwise Are Lying)

There is a pseudo-controversy around the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner.  To my friends not in America, this is an annual event wherein the press come and make nice with the ruling class they are supposed to be keeping honest. It includes a roast, wherein a designated court jester gets to roast those present and especially the President. Tbh it's generally a pretty gross and sycophantic affair. But, obviously, civility norms are very much relaxed at comedic roasts, and we all know that - that's pretty much the whole point. And if there is any defence to be had at all of the WHCD it's that at least we get the court jester speaking truth to power for just a little bit. But some folk on the right are pretending to be shocked, shocked!, at the ever so rude remarks of this year's court jester, Michelle Wolf. This is pretty transparently just propagandists attempting to marshal public sympathy for anti democratic (soft or hard) restrictions on criticism of Dear Leader, which is probably necessary for anyone in his orbit given how thin skinned a bully the man obviously is. And slow news days combined with a generally feckless and unscrupulous media have made this topic du jour among the chattering classes. (My only defence of adding one more hot take is that I am unimportant and can't make it any worse by posting!) None of what I say in what follows is intended to be inconsistent with this.

But it is inspired by a take I have seen a few people offer in response to the disingenuous behaviour of the propagandists. The idea is that given that Trump et al. obviously don’t care about civility norms, you’re fruitlessly tying your hands behind your back to insist on upholding them when in dialogue with the brutes. Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, don't obey Queensbury rules when they're hitting all and only below the belt, etc etc. One can see the intuition here fairly well; incivility is evidently a powerful weapon of rhetorical warfare (Trump is president!) and we shouldn't surrender it to people who will use the power they attain by it to do very great harm to a very great many people. I think that once upon a time I would have agreed (so, vain as I am, I certainly don't think this is an obviously wrong headed or foolish take or anything of the sort), but I'm now inclined to disagree.  This post is about why I changed my mind.

Audre Lorde - "Been waiting for you to get
the point of that slogan for a while now."
Consider the slogan "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house". The phrase can be traced to its use in this essay by Lorde, and while (as I discuss below) I think she's right, I think that people often use it in a misleading sloganeering fashion. As lots of folk have noted, after all, it is not so rare that the masters' tools really can dismantle the masters' house - there's no sympathetic magic involved in property relations, hammers may be quite indiscriminate in which windows they smash. This needn't be all that metaphorical: the same guns (maybe literally the same guns) that were once held by the slave masters could be used to drive the French from (what became) Haiti. The same goes for more abstract tools - saints and sinners alike can use statistics to compare quantities, the virtuous and the vicious may interview people to see what they think, the woke and the problematic equally well often make artistic depictions of their preferred form of society. So it goes. Not-that-thoughtful invocations of the phrase often aren't much more sophisticated than "The bad people did this so we ought not".



But in Lorde's initial usage she is pushing back against the idea that women must suppress or downplay their differences from one another to form an effective coalition - she thinks that to accept this is to take on a bit of dominant ideology that can't help build the kind of movement she thinks ought be built. I substantially agree with her here, and comparing her actual point with the sloganeering form has been a good object lesson in the misappropriation of black feminist ideas. I think that is because this particular tool (homogenise ourselves to act as a more effective unit!) has two features that are, if not absent, certainly less strongly present in some of the above cases. (i) regular and effective use of this tool will render the tool user unable to function in the kind of society we hope to build (ii) there are viable alternatives.

To illustrate, take the case of statistics - I presume that even when we get intersectional gay space communism (or whatever your favoured ideal) there will still be people counting things and making records of their results, indeed there will be no better way of working out how many horga'hns we'll need on Risa, and I don't especially mind people getting good at that and becoming used to thinking that way. In the case of using arms to drive out the French (then Spanish, then British) colonialists, there might just have been no other way of bringing the awful business of that national death camp to a halt. But, as Lorde argues, people who grow accustomed to having to suppress what makes them unique (and police such expression in others) are ultimately rendering themselves less like the kind of people we should hope will inhabit a better world, and they need not do so in order to build a strong movement. So when (i) and (ii) hold I think we should diagnose something to be a master's tool in Lorde's sense, and avoid its use.

Turn back to civility. I now think here is a case where both (i) and (ii) hold. On (i) - I take it that in the normal course of things, it is preferable that we generally behave pleasantly towards one another and do our best through our words and actions to express respect for one another and accommodate each others' feelings and sentiment. Habituating oneself to being unpleasant, hardening one's heart to fellow feelings and the sentiments of others, this is generally making yourself less like the kind of person we should like to have around. If it's avoidable, there's good prima facie case not to do it.  There are occasions when one really should not worry too much about niceties (it's a good thing indeed that the Haitian revolutionaries were not too concerned on this point!), but where one can... niceties are, well, nice, and that counts for something.


(I note that most times I have seen people disagree with this it has been one of the following three things: (a) people confusing, or cynically pretending not to see the difference between, disingenuous invocations of civility norms to silence dissent from actual concern for other people's well being. It's unavoidable that people will accuse any progressive movement of being incivil, that really does nothing for the question of whether we can or should hold ourselves to high standards of empathetic concern for our fellows. (b) angry young men on the internet, deceived by the kind of propagandists who say "Facts don't care about feelings!", and who think that one must be a wanker to be rational - they ought read this excellent post. And (c) middle class academics who don't actually know any working class people, but have an image of them as ever so rough and tumble, and who declare themselves against civility as a condescending means of expressing solidarity with their fantasy of the ghetto.)

And, (ii), it is avoidable. I can't prove this here (once upon a time this is the point I would have disagreed with) but I can indicate some reasons I disagree. First, I suspect it won't just not work but will be actively counter-productive. I am on record as having nothing against virtue signalling. My reason then was that I think that people respond to social incentives, and so if we make it socially rewarded to be decent then we might reasonably expect more people to be decent. Sure they'll be doing it for the sakes of being showy - but, hey, it'll do. I still think that, and so I worry about the social effects of making it be a sign of one's status as down-with-the-cause that one be a jerk for justice; I don't look at Ben Shapiro's online following and think to myself "There is a social environment I should like to emulate!" But let me now add that it seems that there is a second more positive case to be made for ostentatious virtue, which is that it has both theoretical and historical support.

W.EB. Du Bois - "When you think about it,
being decent means putting me in charge."
Gooding-Williams builds a very persuasive case that calling for knowledgeable people who ostentatiously embody the cultural values of the rural black population to take up leadership roles is the political message underlying Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk ... well, it was that plus a sales pitch that he, himself, embodied those very virtues! And it is the surface reading of Confucianism that ostentatious virtue is its prescription for good and effective political leadership. I recommend you check these out. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi seem to be two cases of something like these theories being successfully applied. (I sometimes wonder if St. Joan of Arc came to occupy the role she did by a similar process.) What these theories have in common is something to the effect that people find clearly displayed virtue suasive, and generally will be willing to engage in difficult common tasks with the decent. Ostentatious concern for the well being of others is something that can actually build up movements.



(Not, of course, that Gandhi or MLK or St. Joan of Arc were perfect political agents who achieved all they wanted to achieve, or that it would have been good had they done so: #NoHeroes. But, let's not kid ourselves, we'd be lucky to achieve anything so problematic as the movement for Indian self-rule!)

So, yeah, I think incivility is the kind of tool that would make us worse if we used it. Maybe we'd be able to win power, but we'd be less able to wield it to bring about the kind of society we should now like, because we'd no longer be the kind of people who'd fit into that very society. In fact, and relatedly, we'd be less likely to even want to use power for the common weal. A hardened heart can end up being quite indiscriminating in its indifference. The examples of leadership through ostentatious decency suggest that another way really is possible. I have not even nearly lived up to these principles myself, as I said I have only recently come to agree with this. And I don't want to ignore how hard it is to be Christlike and turn the other cheek when provoked by those who do not live up to these norms. We should hold ourselves to these standards, but be very forgiving of others who become angry or frustrated in the face of oppression, injustice, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When it comes to trying to change the world through decency, the road is long and the burden is heavy. But I think it's worth it all the same.

Xunzi - "Yo but isn't this what I
already said?"

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Line of Thought in Feminist Philosophy of Science

For my own purposes I am going to summarise a line of argument I think is largely drawn from feminist philosophy of science, maybe especially the work of Helen Longino - see here for an early and relatively complete outline of the argument I summarise below. I'm spurred to do this after some internet discussion made me see that I did not have the same understanding as my interlocutors regarding what the most influential strands of feminist philosophy of science have been. If we're going to disagree about feminist philosophy of science, I'd at least like it to be clear what kind of thing I have in mind! So I hope this fosters dialogue.

(Note that I don't claim any originality for this at all, in fact if I am right in my self-understanding then I am just summarising the results of a well known and developed research programme. I will often mention Longino, but she's certainly not the only person to contribute to this. Some of the relevant stuff is discussed here.)

The line of thought I have in mind can be broken down into four components:

(1) Empiricism - ultimately we evaluate scientific research programmes* in light of how well they help us predict the results of observations, experiments, and interventions. (A version of this - `contextual empiricism' - is, for instance, mentioned in the abstract of the Longino book I link above.) This finds its place in this research programme out of two sources - first, the long standing debate in philosophy of science about empiricism in the sciences. Second, the debates in the 80s and 90s among feminist theorists between `postmodern feminism', `standpoint feminism', and `feminist empiricism'. (For some discussion of the relationship between standpoint feminism and feminist empiricism, as well as other matters relevant to this blog post, see here.) While there have been various nuancings and rapproachments over the years, this is a line of argument typically made by people who went with the third of those options, or at least were very sympathetic to the kind of things that pushed people in that direction.

(2) Under-determination - the kind of evidence we can gather in science, and attendant suite of cognitive values like simplicity, explanatory power, etc, does not fully settle which of various options we should choose when we (or any of us individually) face forced choice situations. If we have to decide which theory to adopt (because, say, we have to take some costly action, and which action we shall judge best to take depends on which theory we endorse) then we shall very often run into situations where these purely cognitive virtues leave us with multiple mutually exclusive options that they jointly cannot distinguish between. Likewise, if we find there are persistent anomalies in the data and we have to decide what to revise, abandon, or adopt in response. This is a very well explored idea in philosophy of science quite widely, and there's a nice SEP article here. For a critical overview of its role in feminist philosophy of science in particular, see here.

(3) Pluralism - Suppose one is trying to do as best one can as an inquiring community at predicting the results of observations, experiments, and interventions. Then in bridging the gap between what the cognitive values + evidence can tell us and what you/we end up endorsing, you should allow for a variety of different `bridge principles' or contextually relevant means of responding to the data to flourish and explore their characteristic ways of inquiring. What's more, one should foster the right kind of virtues among the inquirers to ensure they hear each other's case out and generally remain in respectful dialogue despite this diversity in values and circumstances of inquiry. (This can loop back round into a defence of the empiricism, since it might be claimed that among the virtues needed are proper responsive to empirical evidence as an arbiter of disputes.) Longino defends this in broad detail here and also in a more specific set of cases here, and its also generally supported by a host of arguments in social epistemology, some of which I have even contributed to myself.

(4) Feminism - If one is trying to do as best one can as an inquiring community at predicting the results of observations, experiments, and interventions and accepts that one should thereby foster a variety of different styles of science or value-laden methods of overcoming under-determination, then among them are some characteristically feminist virtues or sets of virtues. This kind of case is often made by pointing to concrete instances of some such values making a positive difference in practice (I personally think that this is a-famous-but-under-appreciated-in-philosophy example of this), but is sometimes made by more abstract arguments that there are classes of problems wherein we should reasonably expect the kind of values associated with feminism to do a better job of things - see here for an instance of the latter.

(*What exactly we are evaluating in terms of its empiricist adequacy is itself a matter of a lot of dispute, don't read too much into my opting for research programmes here - I don't think that's a core commitment of this line of thought.)

So following this through from the beginning we have that - we evaluate proposals for science by basically empiricist lights, and accept that we thereby face an under-determination problem. We argue that by those same empiricist lights we will do better as a community to allow for a variety of responses to our evidential situation, and among those admissible modes of response shall be some driven by characteristically feminist virtues.

To be clear, there are tensions in this view. I'll mention two oft-discussed tensions just to illustrate. One might highlight a tension between (1) and (3); it seems like empiricist virtues are picked out as special, but shouldn't they be just one among many of the value systems scientists or philosophers endorse? Or one might wonder how to stop (3) + (4) collapsing into Feyerabendian anarchism (or Neurathian randomisation)? While this whole line of argument must be founded on some tolerance for the community exhibiting contradictory theories and value schemes, feminist philosophers don't tend to want to end up saying that feminist and misogynistic science each have equally valuable things to contribute! But many of the arguments deployed along the way to (3) and (4) seem like they might have that libertine consequence. Is this a bullet to be bit or is there some in principle difference that explains this tension away?

One might also just directly challenge one of the principles - (1) obviously gets challenged very often by folk with metaphysically realist sympathies, but I have even see people deny (2). This latter can be done by saying that we don't so often actually face forced-choice scenarios, and we should be willing to live in sceptical doubt without committing to options wherein cognitivist values don't settle the matter. I think that some of Haack's critiques of feminist philosophy of science amount to this argument, and my read on young Du Bois is that he would have been committed to something like this response to (2). This just to illustrate that even something as well attested to as under-determination can generate some dissent in philosophy.

And so it goes. But without wanting to settle the matter here -- I think I am pretty sympathetic to each of the points in (1)-(4) so I am not neutral either! -- it seems that this is a very prominent strand of feminist philosophy of science, and when we think of the contributions of feminism to theory of science this deserves some pride of place.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Ideal Generation of Philosophical Theses

Round here I do a fair bit of meta-philosophy. Sometimes I am opine about how we ought  decide upon our research questions, sometimes about how we ought evaluate our answers. Today I am going to pontificate about both at once. My aim in this blog post is just to write down in one place what seems to be the consequences of the picture I have drawn in a scattered fashion. Not only do I not claim any originality for this, my self-impression is that I am just making explicit a fairly widely held and probably communally standard picture in Anglo-American philosophy. I would be very unsurprised if somebody has published this before, please link me in the comments! Finally, not only does not my work not live up to the ideal to be expressed, but this blog post was in very large part inspired by recent self-critique, so I most certainly do not offer my own work as exemplifying this process. What follows is an idealised processes by which one might hit upon a position in philosophy.

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Inquiry begins in medias res, so the budding philosopher encounters a tradition or body of work leading up to now which includes some explicit pointers towards projects still to be undertaken. By familiarising oneself with that tradition, and perhaps bringing to bear an idiosyncratic sensibility or life history or knowledge of some external source, one identifies (i) a problem the tradition explicitly or implicitly points towards as open and significant (ii) and what would constitute an advance upon the presently available options.  That is to say, one formulates a position that, if adequate, really would constitute a response to a problem situation that tradition has identified as important. The work of (i) is coming to understand what problem situations the tradition identifies as important and why, the work of (ii) is coming to check that whatever position one formulates really does actually address that very problem.

None of this is any good reason to believe the position one thereby identifies. This is all the realm of Peircean abduction.  Rather, the role of the tradition is meant to solve the vexed problem of ensuring that one is not just pursuing higher order truths about chmess, that the position one seeks to defend represents something which, if correct, is worth knowing to be as such. The relationship to the tradition (as discussed here) in part achieves this in a quasi-Condorcet esque manner, just by appealing to the common consent and pooled wisdom of those who went before. If one has done one's job correctly in grounding the idea in what went previously, you have some kinda argument that this is the sort of thing a whole lot of folk past would say is worth doing. But, as was pointed out to me by Peli Grietzer in conversation about this, may also be thought to achieve this in a more constitutive fashion: the fact that it represents the culmination of a fine tradition may itself be thought to confer value upon considering an idea.

The position thus formulated, one submits it to test. This permits being broke into three substages. One (iii) identifies domains of application for one's position, (iv) deduces consequences of one's position in those domains, and (v) evaluates those consequences. Typically the processes involved in (i) and (ii) will have done at least some of the work of (iii) for you - previous folk were not discussing the idea in isolation - but it is worth keeping (iii) in mind as a separate stage. If only because one should be on the look out for novel or at least different places of application than that which one started with. It is a poor idea that only does what it was supposed to do.

People are also, to my mind, somewhat slapdash about (iv) - sometimes it is trivial to see what the consequences of one's ideas are, but things can be rather subtle and it is worth dotting one's ayes and crossing one's tees. (Here I have in mind Horsten's introductory book on axiomatic theory of truth, which I recently read and which amounts to an extended argument for the claim that in reasoning about truth the devil is in the details.) As far as possible I think one should approximate to actual deduction, genuinely valid argumentation from premises one can reflectively endorse. The further one departs from this, the less confident that one can be that what is being evaluated is the position one formulated rather than features of your argumentation. Lip service is often paid to this, but I think it is rarely actually done.

More rarely, but sometimes, people are resentful of the idea that they should offer clear and valid arguments linking their position to its consequences, and throw that Aristotle quote at me about only seeking as much precision as due. In such cases I am often reminded of Russell's quip about those who emulate the ancients in all but their virtues. But I will say this in concession to such people, the request that one be as precise as one can be on this front does need to come with a warning. Stage (iv) will often require precisifying one's initial looser or more broad formulation to such a point that it admits of being the basis of an argument that has consequences for some specific domain of application. A perennially tempting error of analytic philosophy is then to refute the precisification or show it has ungainly consequences in the particular domain in question, and consider this by itself a refutation of the original position that motivated the precisification. But it is always possible that there was a slip here, and the real spirit of the position was not adequately captured by the proposed precisification. Hermeneutic charity is very important at this stage, and it really would be inappropriate (a debators trick) to insist on the philosophical significance of a particular precisification just because it is dialectically useful to do as much.

Finally one evaluates the consequences of one's position in the domains of application one has identified. This is... difficult. Yet some such evaluative process must be carried out if one wishes to show that having outlined one's position one can now defend things that are true, useful, good, beautiful, edifying, or whatever positive value judgement one wishes to secure, since none of the preceding has yet done anything towards that. This list is deliberately varied and open ended to indicate that - while stages (iii)-(v) are consciously modelled on hypothetico-deductive models of confirmation in the sciences, I do not intend this analogy to be taken too seriously, and recognise that there are all sorts of values one might hope a philosophical position instantiates. The difficulty chiefly arises because rarely in philosophy is it the case that one's position will have clear consequences in a domain wherein we know what ought be said. Philosophical puzzle cases are sometimes constructed for this purpose, but by this point notoriously fail to induce uniform judgements about what is the normatively preferable response. I do not know of any general advice to give here, beyond that it should be reasonably clear why it is that the answer your position generates within the domain of application is an attractive answer to have generated.

To give a somewhat - only somewhat! - more concrete example, let me take a made up process in social epistemology. There is by this point a mass of work arguing for and against the claim that democratic judgement aggregation procedures are especially good means of discovering the truth about whatever the demos are reasoning about. Reading through this, one may be able to identify as worthy of consideration the claim that under some specially salient set of conditions democratic judgement aggregation will perform especially well by some measure of epistemic success. (Perhaps that had not yet been fully appreciated due to the cultural biases of those participating in the discourse hitherto.)  Voting theory being what it is, it may be possible to mathematically demonstrate the kind of if-then relation. This means wherever those conditions are met one's position commits one to thinking that there will be success in the relevant sense.

One may find that the relevant conditions have recently been met in deliberative panels concerning the likely effect of urban housing policy in Sydney, with some feasible modifications these conditions could be met in medical consensus conferences, and while these conditions are met by some powerful social institution, which claims to be epistemically conscientious, in fact a non-democratic judgement aggregation procedure is used therein. One can then test the truth of one's position by seeing how those panels in Sydney actually went, show that one can offer fruitful normative advice to those organising medical consensus conferences, and issue stern but righteous remonstration to the powerful social institution. From immersion in a tradition of research, bringing to bear one's own idiosyncrasies, one travels gradually from the formulation of a position to various grounds of test or evaluation.

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This, then, is a picture of a full process of philosophical theses generation in its ideal form. Before closing, two notes on some ways I think we typically deviate from this ideal, and three on what I take to be its personal implications. One especially salient deviation is that the kind of person who is typically sufficiently aware of the tradition leading up to now and the kind of people who are especially skilled at the hypothetico-deductive testing stage are not typically the same people. (I know of many exceptions to this - but I do think it is a frequent enough deviation from the ideal to be worth commenting on.) In theory a communal division of labour could make up for this kind of problem, but at least in philosophy - and I suspect many other fields - there is also often mutual hostility between the relevant folk, so they won't even read each other's work to offer guidance or take instruction. At worst, the practical consequence of this can be a community beset by valorised antiquarian irrelevance on the one hand and fad driven displays of virtuoso chmess performance on the other. Such a community achieves less than the sum of its parts. A more pleasant communal atmosphere of trying to recognise and respond to each other's varied strengths seems to me like it would be a real epistemic good.

Second deviation, I think a couple of mistakes are typical at the evaluation stage. First, people think the mere act of being a genuine response to the open problems of the tradition gives one reason to believe the claim. This is, more or less, what I attacked in the post on inference to the best explanation in philosophy. Second, the domains of application philosophers will look to in (iii) will be limited in a fairly arbitrary way by the kind of shibboleths that make for disciplinary boundaries. If there is any productive use for such disciplinary policing at all, and I have my doubts, I think that one's grounding in philosophy comes from the tradition one responds to, not the peculiar domains one applies one ideas in. I would be happy to give a philosophy PhD to somebody who, developing a position by working their way through Saint Augustine's ideas on time in some quirky fashion, formulated a position that they then showed had novel, plausible, and genuinely interesting consequences to open problems in cognitive psychology and fundamental physics. And, having hired such a person, I would encourage them to collaborate with people in a position to see if those consequences bore out in those domains. (I am not saying I think that particular dissertation is a good idea! I am also confident that this is the paragraph people are going to come up with tricksy counter examples to. Bring it, analytic philosophy.)

First personal note, I have not said anything about what particular tradition one must be responding to. This because, and I realise this creates problems with the paragraph above, I would prefer to be laissez faire here. If at all possible I should like it that turning to bodies of high theory from around the world, musical or artistic movements, ongoing political or social struggles, or the development of scientific and mathematical research programmes, can all allow for processes (i) and (ii) to fruitfully generate philosophical positions worthy of consideration in fashion (iii)-(v). If nothing else this, it seems to me, captures the brute fact that what is now recognised to be very good philosophy has in fact been done which was responsive to all such traditions. I am not sure what to say about selecting what tradition to respond to. Relatedly, and also troubling for this picture, are traditions which seem to come with explicit recommendations that one not engage in the processes (iii)-(v). For instance, but not the only instance, think of philosophy in the mould of the later Wittgenstein. I am more confident about the passage between (i) to (v) than I am about what should be done at either end. The as yet untheorised first stage of this process, and the consequences it has for the rest of the process, shall be the subject of my further thought.

(Note that this is also to explicitly acknowledge that deviations from the above picture are not simply errors, but very often represent the conscious adoption of a different meta-philosophy. I would certainly not want to give the impression that I think everyone is just trying and failing to live up to this ideal! There's a broad variety of actually practiced meta-philosophies just as there are a broad arrays of actually endorsed philosophies. The use of the indefinite article - "an idealised process" rather than "the idealised process" - was conscious and deliberate.)

Second personal note, the picture above does not really allow for much direct evaluation of, or comparison between, philosophical positions. One knows one's philosophical positions entirely by their fruits. Perhaps in domains of application one may be able to say that one prefers the results of one position to another (and in some cases one may even be able to construct dominance arguments, though I think this will in fact be very very rare) but it is not clear how this translates into an overall evaluation. For now I will simply say that I think this reflects the reality of philosophy as it is presently professionally carried out.  The only direct evaluation that really seems to me possible is aesthetic. The way folk decide how to favour broad philosophical positions, where any such decision occur at all, usually proceeds in a quite arbitrary fashion and probably depends a lot on the quirks of those involved, what they had for breakfast that morning, etc. Maybe this could be improved upon though by a better meta-philosophy or theory of our own method.

Third,  as it stands, I am not especially confident that this is a good idea. Perhaps I shall be dissuaded. Suppose, though, that I continue to believe that the above represents one ideal worth striving for in the generation of philosophical theses. I am genuinely torn as to whether I should therefore teach it to graduate students as something to be explicitly attempted. I am, in general, nervous about taking on the role of graduate student advisor (note to future students who may be reading this: I have, of course, totally overcome this by the time you are reading, and should be looked to as a rock of faith who is certainly not an insecure mess whose only distinguishing feature is that his name is on the office door). I worry that even if I am right and this is a good model, to promote its explicit use would be like the mistake of the New Maths proponents who mistook logical for pedagogical order.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Modernity and its Critique

As mentioned before, I have been following the Heidegger scandal from afar. In short, it's apparent that Heidegger's Naziism runs deep. As far as I can tell, the scholarly discussion after the publication of the Black Notebooks has largely resulted in acceptance of the claim that his Naziism is not so easily divorced from aspects of his thinking that people have wanted to take up and incorporate into their own work. The hard task of seeing what can be disentangled and how thus begins in earnest!

Well, recently, a tweet, a book review, and a blog post, have all got me thinking more about this. In the below I am going to outline a thought I have discussed in conversation with a few people but never run past people who I think know enough about Heidegger or the present scholarly debate on his work to really have it tested. Like my first blog post on this (first link!) it's very much an outsider's perspective, which means it runs a high risk of being either so obviously false that it's barely worth discussing, or so obviously true to the same effect. But I have a job now so don't need to worry about looking silly on the internet, woohoo! Without further, ado, then, my own attempt a contribution to thinking through what Heidegger's anti-semitism means for us today.


Martin Heidegger - ``Ready to hand? More like ready
to heil! Eh? Eh? You feeling me? I know you get me.''

Ok so to recap my first blog post's take on this, I was there pretty optimistic about disentangling Heidegger's general thinking from his bigotry. My thought was that the various aspects of Heidegger's philosophy was by very conscious design not logically intertwined too tightly, so it would be quite possible to adopt take from one area without risking any unfortunate entailments.

Now I am not so sure.

What caught my attention was the following from the review linked above:
As part of this approach, Sander Gilman's essay provides a helpful account of broadly defined anti-Semitic themes within German culture focusing on topics such as the Jews' nomadism, homelessness, and rootless cosmopolitanism. Against this background, Gilman then attempts to situate Heidegger's anti-Semitism within both the history of German philosophy and within European culture at large. Eduardo Mendieta follows upon this theme by underscoring Heidegger's critique of the Jews in terms of the mathematical-economic rationalism that, as "the embodiment of the domination of calculation and machination" (43), marks them as "worldless."
So here is a thing I often found myself thinking when reading Heidegger - what's so bad about using maths or thinking of things abstractly, labour saving technologies, and cosmopolitanism? Heidegger is in the business of making normative or existential claims, but some of his base judgements just strike me as unmotivated, or at least I do not know how to enter into them and do not feel inclined to share them. Where they are argued for, the argument often seems to circle back to something in this cluster - it's been some years (again, I'm an outsider, making no claims to authority, all this is just me throwing ideas I am not confident in out there for general consideration and critique), but I recall getting the impression that for Heidegger the problem with thinking of things in too abstract a fashion was that it cuts us off from our authentic connection to place, which I think I am meant to agree is bad because I agree that cosmopolitanism is bad. (Or maybe cosmopolitanism is bad because without rootedness I will grow to see the world in a abstract formal kinda way.)

What if the only reason Heidegger has for thinking these are bad is that he associated them with Jewish people?

I think that a tempting route for those looking to rehabilitate Heidegger is to attribute to him a set of false empirical beliefs which, having abandoned them, free the rest of his philosophy from the Nazi contamination. So Heidegger in his new notebooks says that the problems with Jews are metaphysical problems - the thought then might be that he was wrong to think that the real actual people, flesh and blood Jews, instantiate or are bound to bring about or are essentially tied to (or whatever) these metaphysically problematic things, and having freed ourselves of that bit of anti-Semitic folklore we're safe to try and extract the critique of modernity's problematic metaphysic.

This route won't work unless we have some reason to think that the existential situation of moderns, cut off from Being as we are, is actually problematic, if not just for being too Jewish for Heidegger's case.  But what exactly is the problem here? Do people really find it just self evident that cosmopolitanism is objectionable? That washing machines make the world worse? (Of course there are some technologies that have made the world worse - but I think it's obvious that Heidegger isn't and can't be just noting that trivial fact,  or making a consequentialist argument that on net new technologies tend to decrease quality of life. Technical thinking itself has to be the problem) That using mathematical abstraction to think about hammers is in itself evil or distressingly alienating? After reading the quoted passage from the review, I can't help but suspect that the order of normative judgement was not, for Heidegger, that these things are bad, so the Jews who do these things must be bad too. I think it might be that he thinks the Jews do these things, and since the Jews are bad these things must be bad. Well, I hope we all agree that this gives no reason at all to see in those things something problematic - what then are we left with?

(Maybe there's an interesting version of Heidegger which is just cut off from any critique of the existential and metaphysical situation of moderns? I don't see how that would go, but I'll just note that possibility as another route to realising my original idea, consistent with all I say here, that the logical looseness means that one can still do Heidegger without taking on board the Naziism.)

Undeniably many people do in fact seem to find something resonant in Heidegger's critique of our modern situation, and take themselves to be justified in doing so on grounds that are not tacitly anti-Semitic. All I am saying here is that I think that our greater understanding of Heidegger's anti-Semitism should give us pause in the following ways. First, perhaps Heidegger was just unusually clear sighted and explicit in realising the connection between the anti-Semitic tropes of his broader culture and his own philosophical inclinations, but that while we don't realise it our own beliefs are caused by a similar chain of associations.  After all, it's not as if anti-Semitism has been a small scale affair in the history of Europe and its thought! Can we rule out its subtle influence in our own case?

Second, I suspect that in left wing land a kind of loose association with critical theory has given Heidegger's normative appraisals a bit more cred than they would otherwise deserve. The railing against instrumental reasoning can sound a bit similar, after all. This, though, I think involves a quite deep misunderstanding of the critical theorists. (Here I am, again, not expert, but at least drawing on more recent readings, as well as the scholarship of Ruth Groff.) The critical theorists' critique of subjective rationality, the kind of means end reasoning they associated with capitalist societies, was not per se that it involved abstraction and calculation. Rather, the critique is that it is limited in its domain of application -- if we only use reason to discern how we should go about achieving our ends, we can end up with the awful situation of utterly unreasonable, deeply cruel, socio-political ends being pursued with the utmost efficiency. Like, they would have said, in the holocaust. So they tried to uncover aspects of modern society - its ideology, its culture industry, its undemocratic institutional arrangements and social mores - which they thought got in the way of reason being given full sway to bring to bear a comprehensive critique and set the task of making a better world. (Turns out that jazz is a huge part of the problem?) Think what one may of this, but it's not the claim that technology, abstraction, and calculation are in themselves evil. In some sense the problem is rather that the rational thought that might underlie some of these things isn't being pressed far enough. More enlightenment, not less! So I do not think that Heidegger's critique of modernity will be so easily merged with the critical theorists as some folk in left land might think.

Ok so that's all I got. As I said, maybe in Heidegger scholarship everyone views this as just obvious. Or maybe, conversely, there is some wonderful argument for the evils of algebra and dishwashers that does not rely on either anti-Semitic association or a confusion with the critical theorists' project, that my ignorance has caused me to miss, and which invalidates the above. I am being quite sincere when I say that I do not confidently rule either of those out. But for now, at least, I suspect that some of the fundamental normative judgements of Heideggerian philosophy may be inextricably bound to his anti-Semitism. What is more, I shall end by noting, I think that Heideggerianism is in this regard just a case study, wherein the scholarly community dedicated to his work has been unusually conscientious in taking problems of disentanglement seriously. This is the point made in the Drabinski essay linked to before the cut. The full decolonisation of philosophy may require a complex reckoning indeed.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Philosophical Temperament

When I was 14 my mother died. By this point I was rather a bookish child, and so my instinct was to turn to some text and find solace therein. My faith made the choice of text obvious, but, still, the Bible is a big book containing many literary mansions; what to read therein? What I ended up settling on was the Book of Job --  I read and reread this text, and for some time could quote lengthy passages from the Authorised Version off by heart. No stranger to teenage melodrama, I found myself really identifying with Job's dignified resolve in the face of a fundamentally unfair and (to him) inexplicable cruelty. It brought me comfort to think that I might hope in my own way to exemplify the same sort of courage, to squarely face tragedy as tragedy, yet never give in to the temptation to simply curse God and die. However, some years later when somebody else I knew was faced with their own loss, I recommended reading Job to them - but they found this perverse, utterly unhelpful, if anything it made it worse for them.

This grim little anecdote came to mind because I have recently been reflecting on philosophical approaches to tragedy - death of those we love, fears for one's own health or mortality, oppression, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, etc. It struck me that while many philosophers and philosophies do emphasise the importance of a kind of attitude they hope to instill, a properly philosophical temperament, there are a number of considerably different approaches to tragedy adopted by different traditions and thinkers. This blog post is going to do nothing more than just sketch my loose impression of what they are at a high level of abstraction, with no claim to completeness or originality in these observation. 

The four styles of approach to tragedy I have identified are as follows:

1. Socialise -  here the idea is to emphasise that it is admirably human, even refined and civilised, to indeed feel deeply the pangs of sorrow, anger, and grief, at loss or tragedy - and to try and provide social structures and valorised practices that will allow the individual to come to terms where that is appropriate, and make changes to avoid future instances of the loss where that is appropriate. An outlet for the expression and full feeling of sorrow is provided, and in this way it is hoped that the suitably refined person can `work through' the feelings in some productive way, and eventually reenter (a perhaps changed) society once this process is carried out. I am primarily thinking of Confucianism as the exemplar of this, but I think a lot of folk mourning practices have something like this underlying rationale, and I detect this attitude underlying the Epic of Gilgamesh so perhaps the author(s) had this ideal.

2. Dissipate - here the idea is that there is something we could teach people, which if fully and properly internalised (perhaps accompanied by appropriate changes in attitude), will allow people to see apparent tragedies as no-real-tragedy at all. Perhaps, for instance, I can be made to see that the real cause of suffering is not intrinsic to the actual or feared event, but really in my own attitude to this event, and this latter is under my control and can be modified to eliminate or much reduce the unpleasant sensation. Some forms of Buddhism and Stoicism, and more recently the work of Derek Parfitt in analytic philosophy, all seem like clear examples.

3. Compensate - here the idea is that we recognise that the tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but can be convinced that it shall be compensated by (indeed may actively help bring about) some great good in the long run, and we overcome our loss by focusing instead on that great good. We shall be reunited with those we love in a better place, the meek shall inherit the earth whereas the rich shall find it easier to pass through the eye of the needle than join those they once oppressed in this paradise,  and out of the latest ``defeat'' the workers have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. For me the clearest examples of this sort of tendency come from Christianity and Marxism and the thinking of Condorcet, but if I were less (shamefully!) ignorant of Islamic philosophy I'd be willing to bet this is a common tendency therein too.

4. Heroise - here the idea is that our tragedies are, or at least can be, indeed gratuitous and utterly unjustified, shall not be compensated (and even if it were this could never really be enough), but counsels that there is none the less dignity in the struggle against this inevitability. Stark as this can be, it at least lends grandeur to our shared condition, and that in itself can be its own comfort. This is what the young me saw in Job (and in conversation about these ideas, Jewish friends tell me it is a note they frequently hear struck in their own tradition), I think it is also found in the existentialist idea of imagining Sisyphus happy, and one also sees it in the African American tradition of validating the struggle as itself an impressive cultural tradition even where it has not led to the promised land. 

There is something to all of these, I think. There is a kind of bracing honesty to (4), a valuable resilience taught by those in schools that preach (2), traditions of type (3) can lend hope and the motivating light of faith even in the face of utter defeat, and (1) is both a humane and productive attitude to acknowledging grief and turning it to the good. 

That makes it tempting to try and combine all of them in a grand synthesis. I would be fascinated to read attempts at just that, if anybody knows of some. But I suspect this would be hard to do - when one looks to the specifics of the various theories instantiating these options they pull in different directions, and often it is precisely those elements wherein they differ that allow them to promote the philosophical temperament they seek to valorise. Perhaps, as I suspect was going on in my opening anecdote, they each speak to different characters or life experiences. In that case, humanity is collectively better for having traditions of all sorts be developed and available to those in need of consolation, as we each shall surely find ourselves at some time or another.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Zhengming

By Liam Kofi Bright and Aaron Novick.
(Joint work with equal contributions.)

Kongzi, on being asked the first thing to do in administering government, gave a surprising answer:

Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” 
The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names.” (Analects 13.3, tr. Slingerland)

Rectifying names (正名 zhengming), Kongzi says, is the basis of social flourishing. If names are out of order, speech will not match reality, plans will be impossible to put into action, culture will decline, and punishment will be ineffective. The central task of the gentleman, then, is put names in order. As Kongzi puts it, “The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in speech” (13.3).

We suggest that Carnap (though we expect that similar things could be said for others of the logical empiricists) had an interestingly similar conception of the philosopher’s intellectual task. Our aim here is to draw out these connections, focusing especially on Xunzi’s constructivist Confucianism and Carnap’s work on logical analysis. For Xunzi, we are highly indebted to Kurtis Hagen’s interpretation in The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction (2007, Open Court).

Xunzi attempted to provide a theoretical basis for Kongzi’s emphasis on the importance of rectifying names. This basis he substantially co-opted from Zhuangzi, who had argued for the conventionality of both language and social customs. Zhuangzi saw these insights as posing a serious challenge to Confucianism; Xunzi sought to show how they could support it. He granted that “names have no predetermined appropriateness” (“Correct Naming”, tr. Hutton), by which he meant not just that the application of a particular sound to a particular kind of object is arbitrary, but also that the the boundaries between kinds, (henceforth “kind-boundaries”) are themselves not to be evaluated against a standard set by nature or the metaphysical structure of the world. For instance, we may use the word “cow” to pick out certain animals. The animals picked out by our usage of this term will in some ways be similar to other critters that we do not label with “cow”. Likewise the critters picked out by “cows” will have certain dissimilarities with each other. The privileging of certain (dis)similarities as more important than others is a pragmatic matter: it requires the judgment that those (dis)similarities are relevant to the tasks for which it is important to distinguish cows from non-cows. (Throughout this paragraph especially we are following Hagen; see his book for a full defense of this interpretation.)

The question, then, is how names and their associated kind-boundaries are established. Here, Xunzi offers an empiricist, pragmatist theory. Kind-boundaries are established on the basis of perceivable similarities and differences. Each of the senses has a proper realm of differentiation (e.g. “form, color, and pattern” for the eyes), while the heart/mind (心 xin) “has the power to judge its own awareness,” i.e. to recognize what the senses detect and to form judgments on that basis.

Because kind-boundaries are not predetermined, the criterion of good judgment cannot be correspondence to reality. Rather, the criterion is pragmatic. Xunzi thinks that language is open to social design, and that it should be judged based on its effectiveness in facilitating social order and human flourishing. Consider the following passage, in which Xunzi criticizes claims advanced by earlier philosophers:
Claims such as “To be insulted is not disgraceful,” “The sage does not love himself,” and “To kill a robber is not to kill a man” are cases of confusion about the use of names leading to disordering names. If one tests them against the reason why there are names, and observes what happens when they are carried out thoroughly, then one will be able to reject them.
Appropriate naming is naming that can be put into practice with beneficial social consequences. As Hagen argues, this implies that there may be multiple acceptable systems of naming, each of which facilitates social ordering. The point is just to pick and adopt one, on the basis of its ability to be taken up and applied to good end by both the government and the people.

A central task of the intelligentsia, for Xunzi, is to rectify names. Often, the form that this takes is bringing into alignment the descriptive and normative aspects of thick concepts. This can be done by either insisting on stricter application of a term’s present meaning, or clarifying the sense of a term to resolve ambiguities. One of Kongzi’s central concerns, for instance, was to modify the sense of the word junzi (君子), which roughly means “gentleman.” Kongzi recognized that the term picked out both those who were noble by birth and also those whose behaviour was noble in the sense of being morally admirable, and, crucially, was often misleadingly used to imply that those who were noble by birth were therefore morally admirable. He thus claimed that the term was more properly reserved for those whose behaviour qualified them as moral exemplars (regardless of birth), and modified his use of junzi accordingly.

For Xunzi ideally a sage king or ideal ruler would judiciously design a language system and propagate it throughout the empire. But short of direct instruction from a sage king, the ruist (i.e. Confucian) intelligentsia, which a good ruler would employ as ministers, would also be engaged in zhengming.

Further, as part of the task of rectifying names, advisors to the ruler were expected to remonstrate: in effect, to call out the ruler for failing to live up to his obligations. Rectifying names involved clarifying social roles (e.g. “parent” signifies both a biological fact and an associated set of obligations), and this clarification was not merely theoretical. For instance, a ruler who governed oppressively must be corrected. At the extreme, a ruler who failed in his obligations could lose all claim to the title (and to life), as in this case, from the Mengzi (tr. van Norden), concerning the tyrant Zhou:
The King said, “Is it acceptable for subjects to kill their rulers?” 
Mengzi said, “One who violates benevolence should be called a ‘thief.’ One who violates righteousness is called a ‘mutilator.’ A mutilator and thief is called a mere ‘fellow.’ I have heard of the execution of a mere fellow ‘Zhou,’ but I have not heard of the killing of one’s ruler.”
Moving on to Carnap, we begin with the well known fact that he was a verificationist. The exact form that verificationism took changed over his life - for a reasonably mature and influential statement of his view see here. But the broad idea of the more mature position is that any claim that is a candidate for truth or falsity must either be analytic or stand in some kind of (dis)confirmation relation to empirical evidence. Simplifying somewhat, this is to say that if the “claim” or its negation is not made true by our logico-mathematical framework, and there is no empirical evidence an ideal (team of) scientist(s) could gather that should leave you any the wiser as to whether my “claim” is true or false, then I have failed to make a cognitively meaningful claim. The hedging of “cognitively” before “meaningful” is to accommodate Carnap's recognition that there are other things one may wish to do with language besides make descriptive claims, and he was fine with that; but he thought that it was improper to try and evaluate as true or false such linguistic acts as commands, questions, poetical expressions of our yearnings, or exasperated sighs.

Carnap was also a conventionalist about kind-boundaries. For detailed discussion of the origins and development of this element of his thought, see here. For our purposes suffice it to say that according to Carnap there are no natural kinds, joints in nature, or Platonic forms, which our linguistic practices must or will inevitably line up with or pick out and attach to. Rather, we may decide upon linguistic practices on the basis of their pragmatic usefulness in achieving certain practical or theoretical goals that various language forms stand to assist us in attaining.


Most famously this view is elaborated upon by Carnap in Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology - but the same idea can be found (perhaps in more restrictive contexts of application) in other works. For instance in The Continuum of Inductive Methods Carnap discusses how one should pick an inductive method as such:
The adoption of an inductive method is neither an expression of belief nor an act of faith, though either or both may come in as motivating factors. An inductive method is rather an instrument for the task of constructing a picture of the world on the basis of observational data and especially of forming expectations of future events as a guidance for practical conduct. X may change this instrument just as he changes a saw or an automobile, and for similar reasons.

Finally, we draw attention to the fact that Carnap also thought that an important task for a philosopher was bringing people into line with the austere verificationist standards he advocated. This was the basis for the (in)famous attack on Heidegger in Carnap’s The Elimination of Metaphysics. But such language policing was also advocated as a proper intellectual activity elsewhere. For instance in the Vienna Circle manifesto, which Carnap helped edit, it is said that in the glorious philosophy of the future “[n]o special 'philosophic assertions' are established, assertions are merely clarified”. Implicitly in the former but explicitly in the latter, it is clear that the authors of the manifesto believe that rendering language empirically tractable will assist the progressive segments of humanity hold to account the representatives of the failed ancien regime. Strikingly, it is even claimed that “in many countries the masses now reject [metaphysical] doctrines much more consciously than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean towards a down-to-earth empiricist view”. Carnapian linguistic policing is thus meant to help ensure our theoretical or scientific projects are fruitfully and efficiently carried out, and our shared social life is free of superstition and the obscurantist propaganda of tyrants.

To review, we have now seen that according to both Xunzi and Carnap the following are true. Linguistic categories do not and need not reflect some objective true or accurate mode of dividing up the world. Rather, we have a kind of epistemic free choice in deciding upon our preferred kind-boundaries. That is not to say, however, that there are no standards of better or worse for linguistic conventions: it is just that the appropriate way of evaluating proposed linguistic conventions is how well they help us advance our practical goals. Both Carnap and Xunzi think that if this is done properly we will end up with a system wherein our utterances are answerable to empirically discernible features of the world.  They then think an important task for intellectuals is to ensure that people are in fact engaging in this kind of empirically responsive and responsible speech.

As an aside, we note that there is even a kind of stylistic similarity between them in their more condemnatory modes. Here is Carnap on where Heidegger and those like him go wrong:
Thus, the words of the foolish person are hurried and rough. They are agitated and have no proper categories. They are profuse and jumbled. He is one who makes his words seductive, muddies his terms, and has no deep concern for his intentions and thoughts. Thus he exhaustively sets out his words yet has no central standard. He works laboriously and has no accomplishments. He is greedy but has no fame.
Compare this with Xunzi’s talking about those who lack enough culture to express themselves clearly:
The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude.

This degree of similarity between these thinkers so divided by time, geography, and culture, is, we think, enough to merit a blog post! However,  before concluding we note some pertinent contrasts. The first thing we acknowledge, just to satisfy the increasingly agitated scholars in the back, concerns the details of their metasemantic theories. Xunzi claimed that each word functions as a name for some feature of the world we can discern with our sensory apparatus, and that a sentence consists in stringing together names in order to ever more precisely narrow down the class of things one is concerned with. Desirable tractability of a sentence is thus achieved when each name is itself properly tractable. Carnap, on the other hand, had a more sophisticated syntactic theory, and eventually allowed that it is (logically interlinked networks of) propositions or sentences which must be answerable to empirical evidence, rather than individual terms. This is indeed a difference in the letter of their theories, but nonetheless we think the spirit is the same. These differences seem to us largely due merely to the fact that (writing thousands of years earlier) Xunzi had available a much less sophisticated theory of language and logic than Carnap.

The second contrast is the particular kinds of terminology to which Carnap and Xunzi applied their respective zhengming. Xunzi tends to be in the business of clarifying thick ethical concepts and policing usage of them to ensure that those so described live up to the attached normative requirements. Carnap, on the other hand, is largely concerned to clarify concepts for use in the mathematical or empirical sciences. This is not to deny that he would police language that was of socio-political significance - one of us has a published discussion of Carnap’s linguistic reformism regarding human racial taxonomy. But the direct analysis of thick ethical terms is absent from the vast majority of his corpus (though it is gestured to in the Aufbau).  Here it seems somewhat arbitrary features of what caught Carnap’s interest limited his philosophical purview, and Xunzi’s more expansive project of zhengming strikes us as liable to be more philosophically fruitful for anyone who wanted to revive this project.

Finally,  there is the question of why one ought be a linguistic empiricist of any sort - and especially how this aspect of their thought related to their conventionalism. Xunzi, as we read him, is clearer that the linguistic empiricism of his position in Correcting Names is itself a convention. It is a semantic stance one adopts or guiding principle to be used when engaged in zhengming, because shared and empirically tractable terminology is an enabling condition for various of the social goods Xunzi hopes to secure through clarification of terms. Carnap’s position on exactly why we ought be verificationists seems on the other hand to have been unclear, and at times in his intellectual development to have left him open to charges of vicious circularity or self-refutation. Perhaps in the end Carnap had a position close to that which we see in Xunzi. But, in any case, Xunzi has at least outlined an attractive rational for any project of empiricist zhengming, which it seems Carnap or those sympathetic to him may themselves wish to explore and adopt.

Both authors of this blog post are sympathetic to something like empiricist zhengming as a fruitful project for contemporary philosophers. We thus hope that, this connection being noticed, the modern heirs to the logical positivists and modern ruists may seek greater community and dialogue. However, we think there is something to be appreciated here even if one does not wish to take up the task of rectifying names through the logical analysis of language. Philosophy, at its best, embodies a kind of cosmopolitan ideal. The superficial distinctions between people are erased, and what remains are opportunities for peaceful collaborative effort in a transnational and transtemporal republic of letters. That thinkers as different as Xunzi and Carnap gesture towards a common project is, we think, an example of such cross cultural discourse that might inspire even those who do not share their peculiar concerns.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Visualising Philosophy

Recently Peter Wolfendale wrote up a very frank and honest discussion of his time in and out and on the edge of academia, and the relationship between this and his type II bipolar disorder. It's a long essay - insightful, but heavy stuff, so give it a read when you feel in a place to read about depression and its effects on a philosopher's life. (It will perhaps pair well with this interview with Carrie Jenkins.)

While it's not really the focus of the essay, I was really struck by PW's description of how he thinks about philosophical problems:

Here’s how I think about a philosophical problem. It is a branching tree of paths, splitting off into alternative solutions, each with their own forking reasons, each caught in dialectical interaction with its opponents. You choose a path that seems right, and if you’re lucky you outlast the alternatives, chasing them into dead ends of bare assertion or loops that beg the question (either is a pyrrhic victory). However, these looping paths are tricky structures. They don’t always lead back to the alternative solution you’re disputing, but to other branches of the wider philosophical tree. This is the interesting thing about infinite trees, they’re self-similar in a sprawling fractalline fashion. This means that what you originally think is a well defined local problem can force you to see it as a branch of a bigger tree, if you want to continue arguing against an opponent whose premises reach deeper into the problem space. The tree analogy is at risk of bursting here, so let me make an explicitly formal modification: the structures we’re talking about are in some sense like proof nets, but they’re more like (infinite) directed graphs. The directional asymmetry between question and answer remains significant, and we always have to start somewhere, at what looks like the root of a tree.

I found this to be a really striking and evocative metaphor. One gets a real sense of a lot of how PW is thinking about doing philosophy. First, one gets a sense that the ideas being interacted with come with independent structure -- one starts from somewhere in the network of paths, and follows where they lead. This, I take it, means that PW experiences philosophical ideas as having a kind of inner structure that he must respond to. Second, one gets both a sense of competitiveness and a sense of playfulness, the imagery seems to be a kind of homely one of children chasing each other round a large garden, or something of this sort -- among these paths a competitive game is being played, wherein one gains victory by successfully getting one's adversaries to admit defeat at the end of a chase because they chose a bad path (where the path is bad because of features of the path rather than the one who chose it). This, I take it, mirrors PW's experience of debate among philosophers and philosophies.

But, third, one gets a sense of exploration, one is only learning where the paths lead as one chases one's opponents around. This, I take it, tells us what PW takes to be gained by the game in the previous; it's not just frivolous one upmanship or the like, we are actually learning through doing. And, fourth, the game may go on forever -- the tree is infinite and so you will never reach the end of all paths. In the other direction, while one picks what looks like the root to start from, I take it the qualification is exactly to indicate that one may well be able to turn back and try to follow the paths up to their source... and maybe it is infinite in that direction too...

Here is a sense of philosophy as an unending quest to explore a vast garden through our mutual competitive play.

It is also totally different from how I would describe my own phenomenology of doing philosophy. For one thing, I don't really encounter ideas as pre-structured. In fact when I reflected on this I realised that I have a somewhat dualistic picture of doing philosophy. There is, it seems to me, the activity of having ideas. And then there is the idea of me producing ideas. I suspect this reflects poor self-esteem in some sense, but it doesn't really seem to me like the things that inspire me and make me able to work, and the things that I qua philosopher produce, are all that similar in type. Instead, it feels to me like there is a vast unstructured I-know-not-what that I may sometimes interact with through various interlocutors and texts and films and walks in the rain and the like, and through making myself receptive to this I am thereby provided with the means to engage in the workman like day to day activity that I engage in. What I produce will be small and structured, but that is a symptom of its artifice and artificer, not reflective of its ultimate source. I also feel I have somewhat different relationship to philosophy as a social activity; there's something frenetic, if not frantic, about philosophy as PW experiences it. (He writes about this aspect at length and movingly in the blog post above; you really should check it out!) Whereas for me philosophy is something that is done socially, but as a calm and calming and collaborative activity.

Following PW's lead and making my phenomenology of philosophy into something visualisable (and somewhat inspired by my advisor) I wrote a haiku:
Ocean of reason
laps gently against the bay;
castles in wet sand.
Have a Merry Christmas, and see yinz in the new year!