Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Kind of Tragic

Billy Beck questions "P," a philosopher:

I have questions for you.

Why is it that people in your line of work insist on using terms like “rational agents” when the plain fact is that you’re talking about human beings?

Why don’t you guys speak plain English?

I’m serious. I’m not being facetious about this.

"P" responds: There could be rational agents who are not human beings, Billy. Aliens, for example. Not all humans are rational agents and not all rational agents are humans.

Billy: You know, I had really hoped that you weren't going to answer with something like that, although I've been around enough to know what to hope against.

Science-fiction has no place in philosophy, and the fact that acanemia harbors it now only consolidates my conviction that I'm living through The Endarkenment, being conducted by straight-up fucking idiots.


There is a place for hypothetical reasoning in philosophy, but it should be informed by reality. There is also every justification for the -distinction- between the proper structure of an argument (“validity,” in philosophical terms) and the truth value of the premises of an argument, the chief one being the utility of the machines and communication methods we are using right now.* The problem is that Billy’s correspondent “P” is blindly accepting the collapse of philosophical inquiry into logical formalism, which suggests that he’d be better off as a mathematics professor. Actually, -one- philosopher in the modern analytic tradition has noticed that Billy has fired him, Jerry Fodor:

Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it's mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it's mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in. As far as I can tell, 'Continental' philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the rest) continue to hold their market. Even Hegel has a vogue from time to time, though he is famous for being impossible to read. All this strikes me anew whenever I visit a bookstore. The place on the shelf where my stuff would be if they had it (but they don't) is just to the left of Foucault, of which there is always yards and yards. I'm huffy about that; I wish I had his royalties.

Royalties aside, what have they got that we haven't? It's not the texture of their prose I shouldn't think, since most of us write better than most of them. (I don't include Kierkegaard. He was a master and way out of the league that the rest of us play in.) Similarly, though many of the questions that Continental philosophy discusses are recognisably continuous with ones that philosophers have always cared about, so too, by and large, are many of the questions that we work on. For example, Kripke's metaphysical essentialism (of which more presently) has striking affinities with the metaphysical Realism of Aristotle and Augustine. True, we sometimes presuppose more logic than you're likely to come across on the omnibus to Clapham. But I'm told that an intelligent reading of Heidegger requires knowing more about Kant, Hegel and the Pre-Socratics than I, for one, am eager to learn. Anyhow, our arguments are better than theirs. So sometimes I wonder why nobody (except philosophers) reads (Anglophone, analytic) philosophy these days.

But, having just worked through Christopher Hughes's Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity, I am no longer puzzled... (snip praise for Hughes)

And yet I can't shake off the sense that something has gone awfully wrong. Not so much with Hughes's book (though I'll presently have bones to pick with some of his main theses) as with the kind of philosophy that has recently taken shelter under Kripke's wing. There seems to be, to put it bluntly, a lot of earnest discussion of questions that strike my ear as frivolous. For example: 'I have never crossed the Himalayas, though I might have done. So there is a non-actual (or, if you prefer, a non-actualised) possible world (or possible state of the world) in which someone crosses some mountains. Is that person me, and are those mountains the Himalayas? Or are they (non-actual) individuals different from me and from the Himalayas?' Or: 'Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?' But how could it not? Is it that, chemistry having discovered the nature of water, philosophy proposes to undiscover it? In any case, could that really be the sort of thing that philosophy is about? Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time? A brief sketch of how we got into this, and of Kripke's role in getting us here, is the burden of what follows. I offer a very condensed account of changes, over the last fifty years or so, in the way that analytic philosophers have explained to one another what it is that they're up to. It is, however, less historical than mythopoetic. The details aren't awfully reliable, but maybe the moral will edify.

Stage one: conceptual analysis. A revisionist account of the philosophical enterprise came into fashion just after World War Two. Whereas it used to be said that philosophy is about, for example, Goodness or Existence or Reality or How the Mind Works, or whether there is a Cat on the Mat, it appears, in retrospect, that that was just a loose way of talking. Strictly speaking, philosophy consists (or consists largely, or ought to consist largely) of the analysis of our concepts and/or of the analysis of the 'ordinary language' locutions that we use to express them. It's not the Good, the True or the Beautiful that a philosopher tries to understand, it's the corresponding concepts of 'good' 'beautiful' and 'true'.

This way of seeing things has tactical advantages. Being good is hard; few achieve it. But practically everybody has some grasp of the concept 'good', so practically everybody knows as much as he needs to start on its analysis. Scientists, historians and the like need to muck around in libraries and laboratories to achieve their results, but concepts can be analysed in the armchair. Better still, the conceptual truths philosophy delivers are 'a priori' because grasp of a concept is all that's required for their recognition. Better still, whereas the findings of historians and scientists are always revisable in principle, it's plausible that the truths conceptual analysis reveals are necessary. If you want to know how long the reign of George V lasted, you will probably need to look it up, and you're always in jeopardy of your sources being unreliable. (I'm told he reigned from 1910-36, but I wouldn't bet the farm.) But the philosopher's proposition that a reign must last some amount of time or other would seem to be a conceptual truth; being extended in time belongs to the concept of a reign. Historians might conceivably find out that George V reigned from, say, 1910-37. That would no doubt surprise them, but evidence might turn up that can't be gainsaid. Philosophy, however, knows beyond the possibility of doubt - beyond, indeed, the possibility of coherent denial - that if George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while. The truths that conceptual analysis arrives at are thus apodictic, rather like the truths of geometry. Such a comfort. Ever since Plato, philosophers have envied geometers their certitudes. So it's not surprising that the story about philosophy being conceptual analysis was well received all the way from Oxford to Berkeley, with many intermediate stops.

Still, there was felt to be trouble pretty early on. For one thing, no concepts ever actually did get analysed, however hard philosophers tried. (Early in the century there was detectable optimism about the prospects for analysing 'the', but it faded). Worse, the arguments that analytic philosophers produced were often inadvertently hilarious. Examples are legion and some of them are legendary. Here are just two that will, I hope, suffice to give the feel of the thing. (Truly, I didn't make up either of them. The second comes from Hughes, and I've heard the first attributed to an otherwise perfectly respectable philosopher whose name charity forbids me to disclose.) First argument: the issue is whether there is survival after death, and the argument purports to show that there can't be. 'Suppose an airplane carrying ten passengers crashes and that seven of the ten die. Then what we would say is that three passengers survived, not that ten passengers survived. QED.' Second argument: the issue is whether people are identical with their bodies. 'Suppose you live with Bob . . . who went into a coma on Wednesday . . . Suppose that a friend calls on Thursday and says: "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" You might naturally answer: "Yes, but he's in a coma." Now fill in the story as before, but suppose that Bob had died. When the friend says "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" would you really answer, "Yes, but he's dead," even if you knew that Bob's (dead) body still exists and is still in England?' Presumably not, so QED once again. Now, I don't myself believe that there is survival after death; nor do I believe that persons are identical with their bodies. But, either way, these arguments strike me as risible; dialectics dissolves in giggles. If, as would appear, the view that philosophy is conceptual analysis sanctions this sort of carrying on, there must surely be something wrong with the view. So much for stage one. (Fodor goes on to discuss the analytic/synthetic dichotomy and Kripke, it is an interesting analysis)


Philosophy is about what's necessary, possible, and impossible, Billy, not about what is actual. Science is about what is actual. Think of it this way: Philosophy is about the logical structure of the world. Science is about the physical structure of the world. Philosophy is form; science is content. To test philosophical theories, we have to imagine alternative worlds. The real world doesn't furnish all the examples we need. For example, to test our intuition that it's rational agency rather than humanity that makes a moral difference, we have to imagine meeting aliens who are rational like us but not human. Would their being nonhuman matter? If not, then humanity is morally irrelevant.


You could get a job in any half-assed church with an outlook like that.

I have enormous problems with The Russian Rage (Ayn Rand), and she would not have stood my company for five minutes. But she's absolutely right about this. No "philosophy" that does not take its foundations from and address human life on earth is worthy of the name. And your final line above gives it all away.

This stuff is not a parlor game, and you people are doing enormous harm.

It's no bloody wonder that this culture is in the shape it's in.

I'm not kidding. It doesn't make me happy to tell you this, but there is just no way around it.

This is completely outrageous. And, as nothing more than a consumer at the street level, I'm here to tell you that you're all fired.

Fodor is the only one who has appeared to notice this. The problem, of course, is that if you are not “moralizing” about “rational actors,” you are really doing NOTHING.


Somebody needs to do the conceptual stuff we philosophers do. It has fallen to philosophers to do it. What do you expect us to be, preachers? Moralizers? But we have no moral authority. Our expertise is in logic, not living.


My god... I don't understand why the nearly schizophrenic dissociation in this stuff isn't obvious to you. Look at that last sentence of yours. If I heard someone saying something like that in ordinary everyday life -- at the supermarket, around the bar, or wherever -- I'd be getting ready with a butterfly net. No normal human being goes around propounding that sort of dichotomy. Certainly not out loud, anyway, although about a hundred twenty-five years of Pragmatism certainly have taken their toll. It really isn't terribly uncommon to find people piously holding forth on the difference between "theory" and "real life" in, say, politics, which doesn't really surprise me a great deal. Politics is where philosophy is mostly (semi)consciously applied these days.

It's curious that you should mention "authority". Let me tell you something, man: the work that you people do sooner or later filters down to the man in the street. He might not know where a lot of his thinking comes from, or even that others are leading him. This is mostly because he just about never examines critically what goes on around him. If, in a discussion around a bar, he says something like, "Well, that might be true for you but it's not true for me," it's a one in a thousand shot that he's going to be able to reach back a hundred years and cite someone like William James as his authority. And the fact that he can't do that doesn't matter. What matters is intellectual leadership.

You're probably never again in your life going to have some ex-biker and touring stage-lighting director stand up straight and tell you that "you're fired". Nearly none of them have sufficient brains in their heads for a move like that.

Whether they know it or not, a great deal of the quality of their whole life depends on what people like you teach them, mostly by long-distance osmosis.

And strictly speaking, very little of it is "conceptual[izing]" at this point. It's bloody fantasy on stilts. If you're not about "living", then what the hell good are you? Who needs you, and for what?

"Preachers"? C'mon, man: just about everybody in the field is preaching, all day long. It's the Church of the Space-Alien Control-Variables, preaching that symbols are more important than people. "Moralizers"? Don't think that people aren't getting moral messages from professional philosophy's Adjusted-Specs Examination With Zircon-Encrusted Tweezers routine. You don't care to "moralize"? Fine, then. Look around you. The reluctance to "moralize" is in nearly full effect, and fifteen year-old kids are summarily killing each other with baseball bats and semi-automatic weapons.

Who's going stop this or even slow it down? The Church? They're in worse shape. Parents? Hell, man; they're passive carriers of the rot that philosophy has been throwing down longer than they can see.

I say the second sentence of your paragraph above is presumptively backwards: philosophy has "fallen" to doing what it's doing. What philosophy "needs" to do is attend its original program, which is to teach people how to live. And dinking around with experimental laboratories in cosmic space doesn't qualify. (snip closing remarks)

What the learned philosopher is doing is collapsing all of philosophy into linguistic/logical analysis, the old sad addiction of the logical positivists. Ironically enough, my philosophy professors, from the Aristotle scholar, to the expert on Marx AND the Kantian have all noticed the horrible results of this “trickle down” nonsense that you notice. Prof. Bondeson, our Ancients specialist, has even had his teaching assistants threaten to split heads if he get warmed-over relativist vomit in his class papers...

in his Medical Ethics class. (be very frightened!)

Billy is quite correct to call "P" on his contradictions, the claim that "humanity is morally irrelevant" is definitely a "moralizing" one with important real-world consequences, as we have been so recently reminded by the Schiavo case.

1 comment:

turtlecat said...

Being an ex-philosophy student this is a wonderful thing to read. I went to UC Santa Cruz, where most of the professors were spending there time figure out if tears were an emotional thing or not, or if vision was a revelvent philosophical topic. The only teachers I found interesting taught the 'continental' philosophers, who could use a good thwack of the get real stick too. The loss of 'moralizers' and the like seems to have something to do with the spread of democracy, and the stance of acceptance that it brings (not something I am speaking against). The notion of acceptance still has not been worked out on a broad public scale. This has left those who do speak of morals sounding like zealous religious freaks, ridiculous hippies or just plain arrogant. If would be great to have a public discussion on morals. The Religious right is purporting to have one, but really they are hijacking the political sphere by pushing the moral issue, which works because of the discomfort that most feel when they approach it.

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