15 May 2011

The Metaphysics of Lobstergod

DR linked to a silly "New Apps" post, "In Praise of the Incredulous Stare", and I'm proud enough of my comments on his comments on the comments to that post that I'm making a post out of them.

Here is a defense of philosophers who boldly go against common sense. It's weird (not exactly unusual, but disorienting) to see things from that point of view. In comments there, dmf writes that "If memory serves Rorty reads Davidson, after Kuhn, on "living" metaphors as non-sensical creations (perhaps provoked by encounters with the unassimilated) that evoke paradigm shifts and then are slowly incorporated into everyday use and slowly “die”." I don't know whether Rorty would have liked calling such things nonsensical (maybe that's just the word that Davidson uses, I don't know), but otherwise this idea sounds fine to me. It's hardly the same thing as philosophers claiming that possible worlds are real, though, or that nothing is a part of anything. Or so it seems to me.
Rorty wouldn't have been entirely happy with calling such things nonsense, and Davidson didn't. The problem with doing so is that the question of sense/nonsense is orthogonal to the issue of something's functioning as a live metaphor. A true sentence such as "Obama puts his pants on one leg at a time" or a false one such as "Love is a battlefield" can function as metaphors, and so can sentences like "Metaphor is the dreamwork of language" where I don't know what to say about its truth, falsity, or sensicality (does it presuppose that language can sleep? is "of language" an objective or subjective genitive?). And then some sentences of patent nonsense ("Books are rhomboid fluorine") and some sensical sentences ("There are black dogs") would be hard-pressed to do any work as metaphors. Sense/nonsense and good metaphor/bad metaphor are just independent axes of assessment.

Davidson says that metaphors function in the way that pictures do, and that "a picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture." A picture can lead its viewer to think of certain things alongside one another, or in connection to or contrast with one another, which he would not have otherwise done. But the way it does so cannot be reconstructed as by supplying things which can serve as premises in a valid inference to the conclusion which is the thoughts inspired in the viewer, or anything along those lines -- pictures are not the sort of thing that can have the sort of content a sentence has (that is "the wrong currency"). Not all of our thoughts are arrived at rationally (in a way codifiable in valid inferences), and this is a good thing: creativity is a lovely and useful part of our lives, for example, and it is not a rational process. To say of some connection between thoughts that it is merely causal, not rational, is not necessarily to denigrate it.

"It's hardly the same thing as philosophers claiming that possible worlds are real, though, or that nothing is a part of anything. Or so it seems to me."

I'm actually not sure that this isn't a profitable way to think about those guys: they're providing new ways of talking, ways which are initially (at least somewhat) metaphorical (thus their air of paradox), but which can sediment into just being one more optional vocabulary we can take up at leisure. I don't think that this is how *they* think of what they're doing (though I'm less sure of David Lewis than of Sider or van Inwagen), but then the Idealists, Realists, and Solipsists of PI 402 don't think that they're working in the way Wittgenstein there says they are, either. But it seems to me that the shoe fits: Lewis wants to make it no longer seem pressing to answer questions like "What are modal claims about?" by talking in terms of "real non-actual worlds", and a lot of opposition to "modal realism" attacks this shift of vocabulary as if they were attacking something they already were talking about, but which (before David Lewis) everyone knew was false ("There is only one world!"). What looks like (can look like) disagreements in metaphysics are actually disagreements about metaphysical vocabularies: there's only a show of there being some theses which one side accepts and the other rejects, since there's no agreement in how any such thesis is to be understood (even where, among the supposed theses, are theses which look like "...and we understand by this claim that...." or "...which is meant in the sense of..."). The two "metaphysicians" disagree with one another not over the truth-value of a proposition, but over how metaphysicians should talk.

I think this is quite contrary to the spirit of the "New Apps" post, but I'm not sure it isn't closer to what Deleuze & Guatarri actually saw as the value of their work: as I see them, they were providing new vocabularies we could take up (or not), not trying to make us better "understand" "common sense" in the way that "conceptual analysis" or Hume's psychological speculations were meant to. Guatarri said that what he really wanted to do was "say stupid shit. Barf out the fucking-around-o-maniacal schizo flow", and it seems to me that any value in such a project would be very different from anything Hume could see as the value of *his* project, let alone Sider or van Inwagen. "Creating concepts" in the D-G sense is saying "God is a lobster" and then talking about the God-lobster in geological terms, not "God is an entity possessing maximal greatness" and then trying to derive as many conclusions from this as possible. The point is just to get us moving in different directions and see where that takes us. The bizarre style of Deleuze/Guattari's work is not an accidental feature of their philosophy.

(This is an extension of my short post on Andy Clark's extended mind thing from a while back.)


david said...

Daniel, I know this was awhile back, and I don't know I you're thinking of this anymore. But I'd just like to point out that Brandom has an article that takes this line on metaphysics, Metaphilosophical Reflections on the Idea of Metaphysics I think it is. Metaphysics as a fight over vocabularies and all that. Perhaps you've read it.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I haven't read it, but I do still think about this sort of thing; thanks for the pointer.