13 January 2009

First impressions of "The Representation of Life"

This quarter is busy. I'm currently sitting in on four classes (three of them seminars) in addition to the courses I'm actually signed up for. And I'm considering trying to sit in on the Mill seminar, since apparently Donatelli wants more people in there and I figure he's a very pleasant lecturer in "Twentieth Century Moral Philosophy.

All of this is very tiring. I have been getting to sleep pretty early recently, just because I can't stay awake anymore after days like these. So, I haven't found time to edit/revise a post I wrote up about Thompson a week ago. It seems a shame to not post it, so here it is, sans revisions. I stuck it behind the fold, since it's rough.

This quarter is looking pretty good so far!

A while back someone recommended Thompson's stuff to me as being a contemporary attempt to "rehabilitate Hegel" (in a similar vein as McDowell). Having read "The Representation of Life", I can certainly see what he was getting at. This article reminded me quite a bit of Jim Kreines's "The Logic of Life: Hegel's Philosophical Defense of Teleology", which is now available in the Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth Century Philosophy -- though I read it online in January of '07 (I know the date because I know where I saw it linked).

I like Kreines's article a lot better, though I should perhaps reread it before coming down too hard on Thompson. (A quick glance shows that "The Representation of Life" is footnoted once, so Kreines plausibly draws some of the things I like from Thompson.) I certainly prefer Kreines's context as a way of getting at these issues -- discussing teleology in light of Kant strikes me as a promising approach; discussing it in light of Frege seems to lead to really awkward prose and load-bearing metaphors. (You can discuss teleology with Kant and he provides you with ready-made terms: regulative ideal, constitutive ideal, reciprocal causation of whole and part. Frege gives you nothing to work with except for the idea of a logical distinction akin to concept/object.) Kreines's article is a pleasant read; Thompson's prose is... distinctive.

It saddens me to see that Thompson wants Swampman to do work for him. I still think that Swampman is a lousy "intuition pump", and I'm not a fan of those to begin with. Extending Swampman-type conclusions (not only can't he think, but he can't be alive!) seems to me to be hopeless -- if anyone is convinced by this sort of hypothetical, it can only be because they already agreed with Thompson to begin with. Kreines's article mentions the same idea (a simple one-celled organism created by a lightning strike) in the context of a Kantian response to Hegel, and I'm inclined to prefer his take on it to Thompson's: skepticism is unmotivated here, because insofar as the thing maintains itself organically it looks like a perfectly good organism. Swampman would only look like he can't be alive, then, because we look at him at a snapshot, or else we dogmatically presume that since his birth was miraculous he can't be a perfectly normal animal. Kreines stresses that such an entity might reproduce ("reproduce", to avoid begging the question against Thompson), and that the offspring would be unproblematically alive: they have the features they have because of the sort of thing they are. (If it's "indeterminate" what sort of thing they are, which seems to be the sort of thing Thompson wants to say about Swampman, based on his "poly-metamorphic butterfly" example -- well, I guess I don't see what's the problem with having an "indeterminate" species. It's not as if it's utterly indeterminate; many things are ruled out by even a snapshot of Swampman's life/"life". An elephant doesn't look like Swampman even for an instant, so he can't be an elephant, etc.)

Looking to Hegel rather than Thompson also makes it less unsettling to see natural selection so rarely mentioned when talking about specieses. I suspect Thompson would stress that he's discussing something logical/conceptual rather than empirical, and so Darwin is out of place here; I worry about the idea that we can happily talk about how we understand living things without looking at... how we moderns understand living things. (Is it a form of scientism to feel unnerved that when Thompson gives examples for how species are described, he cites Aristotle's Historia animalium?)

I don't know what Thompson is trying to get at when he mentions "Cartesian-Davidsonian" intermediaries at the end of section two. I think he's siding with Anscombe against Davidson, but I can't tell quite what the issue under discussion is. Hopefully reading Intention will clear it up.

I don't like the ethical direction things seem to be heading.

If someone then asks, "But what does 'what most of them do' have to do with what it does?", the answer will have to be, "Not much, really." But if, in the other case, someone asks, "What bearing does 'what they do' have on what it does?", the answer will have to be, "Everything." A true judgment of natural defect supplies an 'immanent critique' of its subject.
Well, it could show that (say) some wolf is a bad wolf. But a bad wolf may be just what one wants, or just what the wolf wants. ('The' wolf does not live particularly long in many environments. 'The' wolf suffers in many circumstances. In view of these sorts of aristotelian categoricals, wolves might be advised to be bad wolves.) -- I can easily imagine someone thinking that one ought to be "more than human" -- that to be a "good human" (and not more) is really something blameworthy. (Nietzsche probably said something like this. Kojeve clearly has something like this kicking around.)

I don't want to give the wrong impression: I find a lot of what Thompson says perfectly congenial. I'd just prefer to get it from other sources. Such as Hegel directly.


jon said...

If I had more time I'd write you something longer, since I'm kind of a Thompson fanatic, but: here are some virtues of the Representation of Life, as I see things:

1) I suspect it has therapeutic and critical value in addressing a certain target audience, which in includes Quinean naturalists. If philosophers sympathetic to empiricism can appreciate that purely empirical thought necessarily fails in capturing the category of interest which underlies pretty much all contemporary philosophy that is in some way humanistic (much broader than "ethics"-- though here the essay is particularly useful in therapeutizing away the skeptical fascination with is/ought distinctions), then much more interesting philosophical activity becomes available to the mainstream.

2) The essay has broad appeal beyond institutionalized Anglophone philosophy. Candace Vogler thinks it may, practically speaking, be very effective in discouraging use of the normative/positive distinction in the social sciences and elsewhere in the university, since it seems to show that the distinction is incoherent.

My point is, the value of the essay comes from its ability to convince, very broadly speaking. You, me, and your blog's audience are the choir, and it's not as concerned to preach to us.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"You, me, and your blog's audience are the choir, and it's not as concerned to preach to us."

Fair enough. Though that doesn't make e.g. the swampman example any less bothersome -- some of the details of Thompson seem to me to need revision.

I'd be surprised if Thompson was more effective in discouraging the fact-value dichotomy than, say, Hilary Putnam, or any number of other figures. But maybe I'm missing something special about Thompson's way of rejecting it.

Hopefully I get around to reading "Naive Action Theory" and whatever the third chapter is called sometime before the sun goes supernova.

J said...

Ah yes JS Mill. Sort of underrated, in ways. One nice thing about Millian inductive logic (a precursor to positivism in ways); Mill insists on facts, evidence, proof, and yet understood probability and contingency, to some extent.

Evidentiary requirements apply, everywhere. Even academia. I wager Mill, if reincarnated would object to some of the more Mob like aspects of Academia, Inc. : The Reincarnated Mill (possible worlds, dewd!) might Like, maybe, ask Herr Doktor Professors (even the gurus of Philosophy) to provide proof of their educational skills and acumen: say, like something objective--GRE scores posted next to their "PhDs". Zut

Ben Wolfson said...

I just reread the essay and was once again disappointed by the use of the Swampman example (as you might imagine); I had forgotten about it. "Naive Action Theory" I like a lot. One of the arguments in it gets made in nearly exactly the same terms (the one that mentions the argument from illusion), but in greater detail, in Stout's Things That Happen Because They Should, a book that is, on the whole, hard to follow. Galton's The Logic of Aspect, which Thompson recommends in a footnote, is also worthwhile.

Ben Wolfson said...

... incidentally if you still have the pdf of Kreines' paper, and if, moreover, you emailed it to me, I would be in your debt. The libraries here do not yet have the book.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I do and I have done.

Perezoso said...

Action theory! Deep.

Start with disproving Hume's points on the fact/value distinction. Buena Suerte

Tim Thornton said...


I'm very slowly coming to grips with Life and Action. Who else is reading it? I think I need help.


Daniel Lindquist said...

"I'm very slowly coming to grips with Life and Action. Who else is reading it?"

Literally everyone at the University of Chicago. I exaggerate less than you'd think. It's pretty crazy how popular he is here. Voegler assigned "The Representation of Life" for her course on Gender & Sexuality. They read it for day one.

On the internet: Ben Wolfson has at least read the first two parts and has a post of some sort on each, and jon (the commenter earlier in this thread) is a huge fan of all things Thompsonian. He actually mentioned you in real life the other day, as "that philosophy of psychology blog guy" IIRC. (We are both in Anton Ford's seminar on "Action and Practical Knowledge", which has just started discussing Thompson, after five weeks of Anscombe's "Intention" and some other, lesser works from Setiya and Velleman. Who are pretty much there for Anscombe-Thompson to beat on.)

I haven't finished "Naive Action Theory" yet; I'll try to post on it when I do. But, busy busy, so no promises.

(I'm not actually enrolled in Ford's seminar; I'm just sitting in on it. Along with Pippin's seminar on Hegel's "Lectures on Fine Art" and a totally-crazy seminar taught by Irad Kimhi, who's a visiting professor from some obscure college in Israel with zero publications to his name, called "Active Thoughts". It's about Frege and Aristotle and Spinoza. I have considered posting my notes from the first class, just to give an idea of how wild it is. Trip and a half. Thompson showed up to it once; he flew in that morning and left that afternoon. Apparently he was considering showing up more, but changed his mind. Anyway -- I'm sitting in on those three seminars in addition to taking three courses for credit, and working on my MA thesis. And I've been going to a lot of workshops -- I'm skipping a discussion of chapter six of "The Varieties of Reference" at the Philosophy of Mind Workshop this evening only because it's a downpour here. So, that's why the blog has been slow. I have been busy.)