25 January 2008

Quietism, Theories, and Nonsense again

Wasting time checking old posts on Blogger blogs for comments I've missed, I found this by Duck over at Currence's place:

[W]hen McDowell is speaking in his "Wittgensteinian" voice, he sometimes says of what he rejects that "[such-and-such locution] seems like it expresses a thought but actually it doesn't." So it's like disjunctivism at the next level up: "philosophical" truths are either obvious trivialities dressed up in hifalutin language, or they're not even coherent thoughts at all (so we don't need to see ourselves as substituting true doctrines for false ones). I think I get this, and I like the apparent self-similarity across level here (which I haven't seen much comment on), but sometimes I *do* want to see myself as doing the latter rather than being *required* to call "nonsense".

Scattered comments:
That is a nice little bit of parallelism, and not one I can recall noticing before Currence's thread.

This way of putting things sounds very like the Tractatus -- some apparent sentences do not, after fiddling with them a bit, express a thought i.e. they are merely sequences of signs which haven't been given a use, though we may have mistaken them for a sentence we understood. And "philosophical" sentences are either trivialities (being either tautologies or sentences which draw attention to features of our notation, such as Occam's Razor, and which are unneeded by anyone who has mastered the notational art), or nonsense which hasn't a use of any kind. In either case, philosophical sentences are not ones that turn out to be either true or false, depending on the way the world turns out to be upon investigation, and so philosophy is not composed of thoeries -- is not a body of doctrine. I suspect the Tractatus is where McDowell draws the thought-talk from, at least.

Of course, it wouldn't take much tweaking to make it sound like the later Wittgenstein -- swap talk of "appearing to have a sense" with talk of latent nonsense, and tell a story about what makes something "coherent" that doesn't make reference to some especial notation.

Either way, I think Duck is right to object that McDowell would object to the claim that "[highest common-factor] views at least manage to say what they claim to, even if they end up falling to one side of the oscillation." For example, consider the Myth of the Given. The notion that the world's impact on a thinker has some rational role to play in that thinker's cognitive life, and even that (in one sense) this impact is independent of the thinker's activity (in that it is not willed), is quite correct. But the Myth of the Given only appears to say this -- since it wants to say also that the world's impacts on a thinker are non-conceptual in a stronger sense than that of not being willed thoughts, it can't tell an intelligible story about how the world's impacts are supposed to play a rational role in a thinker's cognitive life. It's not that the Myth of the Given gets the world's influence wrong, by telling a story which could be true of some creatures, but happens to be false of us -- sense-data theories and the like can't be made sense of at all; we cannot imagine creatures of which it would be an accurate account, let alone ask whether we are such creatures. Where there should be an account of how the unconceptualized datum constrains our conceptual maneuvers, if the theory is to be made robust enough that we can follow along with the account it's trying to give, instead there can only be slips (such as between the space of reasons and the space of nature (considered as the realm of law)) or hand-waving about how there must be a way to fill the gap, even if we haven't hit upon it yet (for clearly sensations play a cognitive role!). But a theory with such large explanatory gaps can't plausibly be judged false -- for all we know, any objections we might bring against it could be addressed by the hypothetical material which has not yet been worked out. But neither can it be judged true, since the gaps might be a critical flaw, never repairable. The sense-data theorist has not finished telling her story about how sensations play a cognitive role, and one shouldn't judge a story before its finish. And so there is a clear sense in which whatever replaces the sense-data account will not be an instance of replacing a false theory with a true one, and in which we have not been able to understand the sense-data theory (since no one has ever said how it's all supposed to work, except in a hand-wavy manner).

Consider also the other pole of Mind and World's dialectical shuffle: "Davidsonian" coherentism. Here, the threat is of making thought into a "frictionless spinning in the void", of losing contact with the world at all; the challenge is that Davidson's account does not give a plausible explanation for how our thoughts could have intentional content. What is called "perception" in Davidson's account is at least something conceptual, something which can play an inferential role, and so (unlike in the Myth of the Given) it is intelligible how percepts could play a rational role in a thinker's cognitive life, once a thinker has percepts. But Davidson's account labels "percepts" just beliefs whose efficient cause is the objects they are about. But Davidson's account of causation does not (at least here) allow that causes can also be reasons -- "the only thing that can count as a reason for a belief is another belief", and the world's impacts are not beliefs. Hence the world's impact on me is no reason for my believing that I perceive that things are thus-and-so. But this shows that what Davidson calls "perception" is not perception as we are generally interested in the term -- as an event in which something happens to me and I notice a fact in the process. So Davidson is not, it turns out, discussing perception -- he is discussing the orthogonal category of thoughts which are efficiently caused by the objects they purport to be about. But how an epistemic theory handles perception is where we can judge whether or not the theory gets the facts right about how our thoughts are about anything. So if Davidson does not discuss perception, then he does not give us an account of how our thoughts have intentional content. But if he didn't give us an account of this, then he did not give us a false account, which needs correcting. Rather, the lacuna in his thought seems sizable enough that it's questionable whether he was discussing thought at all, since what he's discussing does not have a clear way of having content, and thoughts without content are not anything we can recognize as the sort of things we think.

In both cases, the oscillatory slips spoil the whole piece -- rather than talking about perception, since both accounts fail to consider natural-causal events which are simultaneously reasons, both accounts end up discussing... well, nothing I can recognize as something philosophers are interested in. Though if we haven't seen the ways in which the Given and "frictionless spinning" both slip into a muddle (in particular, by ignoring the fact that the realm of nature is not just the realm of law -- that natural causes can also be reasons), then we can take both or either to be discussing perception. But once we stop oscillating, we stop viewing them this way. They just seem confused.

There is an ambiguity in "false doctrine" or "false theory". Consider the analogous case in Christianity of Church doctrine and "false doctrines" -- heresies. Take one of the extravagant forms of Gnosticism, such as the doctrines of Basilides. The whole system of Basilides is called "heretical", and one can equally lambast it as "false doctrines", "opposed to the true Gospel", "pernicious lies" etc. etc. But there are two ways in which one can say that Basilides's system is heretical, is not something passed on by the Apostles -- Basilides asserts some things p where the Church asserts that not-p (such as that Simon of Cyrene was crucified on Good Friday, and not Christ, or that God the Father is not the God worshiped by the Jews, but rather is a rebellious angel), and Basilides also asserts some things q which the Church does not assert the contradictory of (such as the order of the procession of the Archons, or the details of how Not-Being gives rise to Being through the panspermia; the Church does not have any notion of Archons, and so does not order them; neither does she speak of God as Not-Being, and so no account is needed of how Not-Being gives rise to Being). Both p and q are "false doctrines", as they are not part of the teaching of the Church. But only doctrines of the p-sort are replaced in Church doctrine with "true doctrines"; doctrines of the q-sort are simply discarded, and nothing put in their place. (A memorable line from Irenaeus concerning certain doctrines of the Gnostics: "To refute them it is only necessary to make their doctrines publicly known.")

I want to say: all philosophical "theories" are "false doctrines" of the q-sort.

But perhaps I should not say this.

Consider the standard Cartesian story: It appears I might be in error in all of my beliefs about the world; I convince myself from pure reason that God exists and would not allow this; ergo whatever I clearly and distinctly discern is true of the world.

One might say that this is all unintelligible, since it's not conceivable that all of my beliefs about the world might be false, hence we can't understand what Descartes was feeling at the onset (and further can't imagine what he thought was needed to treat whatever he thought he was suffering from). (This seems to be the strategy in which we "tell the skeptic to get lost", since Rorty/Davidson do not appear to think that merely rehearsing the content of their own articles will suffice to sway the skeptic.)

Or one might say that it's simply false that I might be in error in all of my beliefs about the world, and/or that I can prove the existence of God through "pure reason", and/or that God's existence is incompatible with my universal erring, and/or that the criterion of truth is my clearly and distinctly perceiving a fact. (Note the and/ors -- one might disagree with the Cartesian reasoning only in part, or hold only part of it to be intelligible enough to agree or disagree with.)

If one went the latter route, one might replace the Cartesian system with something equally bad, or worse. But must one do this, if one goes the latter route? And if one might not -- then what is the harm in choosing the latter route rather than the former? (Or perhaps in going both ways, as the mood suits? For if neither leads into confusion, then it does not seem to matter which way we opt to speak.)

Perhaps the skeptic would not need to be told to "get lost" if we both showed why we are inclined to assert the (at least apparent) contradictory of his doctrines and why we do not find his doctrines something we can sympathize with (but not either alone). In which case refusing to entertain the notion of philosophical doctrines as p-doctrines would be detrimental to the good of our friend the skeptic. So in talk of sense and nonsense, too, one ought to keep shifting one's posture, so as not to get stiff (C&V 27).

One might speak of "true doctrine" as being what is opposed to "false doctrine", meaning by the latter q-type doctrines. "True doctrines" would just be the ones that aren't things one doesn't cotton to -- "truth" here (as Rorty claims is true generally) is just a compliment we pay to a set of sentences; there might not be anything else in common among the sentences (for they might include metaphors, which at least on a Davidsonian account might very well be false sentences, but none the worse for wear for all that). But calling sentences we like "true" (regardless of whether we hold them all true) needn't lead us into confusion (though it might). Homonyms are a perfectly cromulent part of language. And perhaps certain metaphors may consistently prove useful in dispelling certain confusions -- and so one calls them "true", not meaning to say anything about their truth-value. Just as one called the q-type doctrines "false" without being committed to their having a sense.

One might also simply mean "true" and "false" in the normal sense -- is there a clear line between philosophical talk and the human sciences, between the arena where there are only truisms and confusions and the arena where we can speak of true and false theories without shame? And if not the human sciences, what then of the other sciences? I do not see that there clearly is a line here, in all cases, at all times. (Though one could draw one -- but this would seem to be to say ahead of time what the sciences can talk about, which I don't see is possible. For they might change in all sorts of odd ways. Prophecy is not the business of philosophy, to quote Hegel. And if the sciences can't talk about something, why shouldn't this be a finding of the sciences? Is it a conceptual matter that one can't talk about what happens beyond a singularity? Was it a conceptual confusion that lead many of the moderns to believe that we could never know what the stars were composed of? I should think that the answer one gives to these questions would depend on a great many other, related questions -- and it is not clear to me that there is only one set of answers which is a respectable one, here. I take this sort of thing to be one of the lessons of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." There is no analytic-synthetic distinction worth having because one can shift around what one calls "analytic" and what one calls "synthetic" without falling into falsehoods -- one holds one point steady, and revolves the others about it. But one could have done this with points which are currently revolving. And so being held steady is not a property held by the point, but only by the manner in which one holds it.)

On the parallelism noted at the start of this post: Good things to believe and bad things to believe can be indistinguishable to those what consider them, at least for some people some of the time in some cases. This is a way of putting it that makes the parallelism appear obvious. And also it holds for non-disjunctive views of perception, and views of philosophy as a body of doctrine, as well as for McDowell-type views. A narrower way of putting it, which aims to exclude the former sorts of views: Good things to believe and bad things to believe can be indistinguishable to those what consider them, and they might not have anything in common apart from that. (So they might not share a common "representational content", or they might not both be "theories" aiming to address some common problem.)

(When I say "scattered", I meant it.)

Since I am posting anyway: Now-Times is looking pretty good; I've just begun to dig around in its archives.

Discussion about the relation of the Science of Logic (and the Encyclopedia) to the Phenomenology is currently going on in a thread there; the ball's in my court at the moment. Weedling out just what I want to say about ss25 of the Encyclopedia. Though it's worth noting that a search seems to show that this is the only place in the Encyclopedia Logic where the Phenomenology is mentioned, and there's only one unambiguous reference in the Philosophy of Spirit that I find -- ss418 has a brief reference to the "here" and "now" of Sense-Certainty. Given this paucity of direct references, it simply seems implausible to me that the Phenomenology is supposed to be a preface to the Encyclopedia system; if it was that important, it would be said more clearly. (And so I am also skeptical that it is to be a necessary propadeutic to the Logic, given that I'm inclined to view the Greater Logic as just the first part of the final system, in accord with ss11 of the Logic -- Hegel publishes the first part of the system early, and by the time he's finished working out his system he's no longer using the Phenomenology to start it. Though Hegel clearly thought at the time of writing ss11 that this would be the role the Phenomenology would play, I don't think it ends up shaking out quite as Hegel imagined.)

I also liked what I read of Inconsistent Thoughts, which I found via the Philosophy Carnival thing. Dialetheism is neat.

1 comment:

J said...

Alas, like most dogmatists you never quite understood the problems of Descartes' supposed classic, the Cogito, puto. Having the ability to doubt one's beliefs about the external world does not therefore mean those doubts are warranted; nor does the primacy of consciousness (yes, let's grant "there is, or appears to be, thinking") somehow imply that consciousness is separate from bio-chemical reality (or Osiris forbid, immaterial). Anyone who really took Descartes' systematic doubt seriously should start their deeep metaphysical thoughts by say sewing one's mouth shut, or maybe cutting off an arm.