On Philosophy

July 1, 2009

The Virtues of Unintuitive Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 3:38 am

It is commonly thought that being intuitive, or agreeing with common sense, is a virtue in a philosophical theory. But the opposite is really the case. Philosophy that is intuitive is rarely worth reading; we are only bettered by philosophy that strikes us initially as unintuitive.

With the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, no one is philosophically perfect. Everyone has places where their views need refinement or revision. It is because of this that we read, and sometimes write, philosophy. A philosophy that tells us that we are completely correct as we are is useless to us. We know that we are far from perfect, and we seek to find out how we are defective. A completely intuitive or a completely commonsense philosophy is saying just that, that we are completely correct. At best such a philosophy is useless, and harmful if we take it seriously, since it erects barriers to revising our mistaken beliefs.

My point is that to be worth reading a piece of philosophy should be at least a little unintuitive. It should challenge what we think to some extent. It is in the places where it challenges us that we have a chance to grow. Where it tells us that we are wrong is where we are presented with a new way of looking at things. And it is through such options that our philosophy improves. Now this is certainly not to say that, every time we find something that challenges what we currently think, we should change our minds. Although if that were the case it would take only two contradictory authors to keep us busy, since after reading the first the second would be a challenging new viewpoint to adopt, and then the first would be again, and so on. But every time we are faced with a challenge that we take seriously it gives us something to think about, and if we are wise enough then we will change our views in response to these challenges exactly when doing so would better our philosophy. Now certainly it is possible to improve without these external challenges, but in their absence I think it would be easy to rest content with a defective philosophy, or simply to be blind to significant alternatives.

Is this the death of intuition and common sense as a standard for philosophy? Probably not. Those who like such standards are rarely blind to the obvious consequence that taking them to be the standard implies that we are always correct in our philosophical judgments. There are ways to deflect the ugly implications of this consequence. One way is to simply deny that it is a consequence. This can be done by claiming that there are conflicts in our unreflective judgments that need ironing out, and thus that we can’t simply accept all of our intuitions as is. I’m going to simply pass over this response since it doesn’t seem plausible to me. First it’s not clear how conflicting judgments are to be corrected. What makes changing one a better idea than changing the other? And, more importantly, it is obvious that this approach aims for mere consistency. But why suppose that every philosophical deficiency gives rise to contradiction? Is it not possible to be consistently mistaken? There is nothing inconsistent with believing that one is under the power of an evil deceiver, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to think.

Another possible response is to accept that our unreflective judgments are basically correct, and to argue that philosophy’s job is not to change them, but to systematize them. I consider this to be a much better response, in part because it has the guts to bite the bullet. Does that make it unintuitive? In any case, it forces us to compare the value of revising our philosophical judgments towards some more perfect ideal to the value of systematizing our judgments. This leads us to the more general question of what the value of systematization is. In general systematization allows us to extend from a few knowns to unknowns. For example, a system of laws allows the law to apply to every possible case, while a simple collection of rulings does not. And I think some would claim that this is what goes on in philosophy, that a system of philosophy is supposed to extend our intuitive judgments into areas where we lack them. But I’m not sure that it is necessary. For example, I have never found myself with a shortage of ethical intuitions, although at times what was clear was only that the act in question was neither completely good nor completely bad. They probably aren’t all the best, and I’m sure that many of them are products of biases rooted in childhood. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Even on more metaphysical matters I find myself with an abundance of intuitions. For example: are dolphins conscious? My unreflective intuition is that they are not. Of course on reflection I begin to doubt this, especially in light of my little experience with them, and then I am not sure any more. But the intuition is there.

Perhaps at the end of the day it becomes a personal matter. I have plenty of intuitions, but little confidence in them. So if you have only a few intuitions but absolute confidence in them perhaps there is nothing a can say to convince you that you shouldn’t make systematization your highest priority. I have an intuition, however, that more people are like me than this hypothetical you.

Now in saying that unintuitive philosophy is the only kind worth reading I don’t mean to erect counter-intuitiveness as a new standard in place of intuitiveness. I am not encouraging taking the most unintuitive philosophy we can find to be the best philosophy. Once we see that a piece of philosophy is unintuitive to some degree it passes this test, and we must resort to other standards to decide between them. Moreover this is a personal test, about what is worth our time, not a guide to stocking library shelves. There is nothing that is intuitive to everyone, and so there is no philosophy that everyone should avoid on that basis (although there are examples of philosophy no one should read for other reasons). And certainly a philosopher cannot be expected to produce something they disagree with just because it is unintuitive. Everyone finds their own theories intuitive on some level, or at least has come to find them intuitive after working with them long enough. Nor should they strive to produce something other people find unintuitive. Like great art, great philosophy is apparently derived from inspiration and not from a formula.

What’s the point of all this then? The point is not to take one standard, intuitiveness, and replace it with another. The point is to highlight that by taking intuitiveness to be a standard we are causing ourselves to be stuck in a philosophical rut. We find what we currently believe to be intuitive, because we are used to it. And if we chose what to believe on the basis of how intuitive we find it to be we will never come to believe anything different. What I desire is not an inversion of this principle, but a suspension of it. And, like Descartes, I think the best way to achieve this suspension may be to create some contrary force to keep it in check. In this case the contrary force is seeing the unintuitive aspects of theories as presenting new options, which are chances for philosophical improvement. In a perfect world this idea meets our natural resistance to unintuitive ideas and negates it in the philosophical sphere.

May 11, 2009

The Philosopher As Artist

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 2:57 pm

It is common to view the philosopher as a kind of scientist, a view I call “the philosopher as scientist”. Philosopher as mathematician also has some traction, but then again mathematician as scientist is extremely popular itself, and so, by the transitivity of analogies, this is not really an alternative. In any case, through “the philosopher as scientist” we are encouraged to understand the task of the philosopher as basically the same as that of the scientist, but with a different subject matter, and with mental experiments (a.k.a. intuitions) in place of physical ones. Just as science is expected to strive towards some final and perfectly correct theory, so philosophy expected to tread on a similar path. Little good comes of thinking in this way, since philosophy bears little resemblance to science, and less to math. A better model – although deficient in its own ways – is see the philosopher as a kind of artist, and thus philosophy as art.

End Products

Let’s explore this analogy by considering how art is different than science, and then by thinking about which of the two is more like philosophy. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that science is an act of discovery, while art is an act of creation. Science is out to capture the facts about the world, and the closer it comes to reflecting those facts the better we judge it to be. Art, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to reflect anything. Some art is non-representational. Other works picture scenes that have never occurred outside of the artist’s imagination. In any case, every work of art adds something new to the world – even artistic photographs – while science succeeds only when it perfectly copies what is already there. Although some sculptors speak figuratively of their work already being present in the raw stone we know that this is not literally true. What art is adding is not something physical; science produces something new in this sense as well: new printed pages full of figures and theorems. What a work of art creates is some new perspective, some new idea, some new thought crystallized into physical form and inserted into the public sphere. This is how even a photograph can be creative – an act of creation – in the artistic sense; through the photograph some beautiful image is made physical and public that previously existed only privately in the mind of the photographer.

Philosophical activity, I claim, is better understood as an act of creation rather than an act of discovery. But what is philosophy creating? Art has largely emotional import and gives us new emotional perspectives on the world; it provides mainly emotional insights. Philosophy seems to do basically the same thing, but on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one; it provides intellectual or conceptual insights. The best philosophy provides us with new concepts, new intellectual tools, that let us understand the world in a novel way. Consider Sartre’s invention of “bad faith”, for example. Through the idea of “bad faith” Sartre describes self-deception as it never had been before; specifically as embracing a self-conception that runs contrary to our true natures – often our radical freedom. It is not the case that bad faith is the only valid way of understanding self-deception, and that every other theory is somehow a mis-characterization of it. No, bad faith is a new way of looking at self-deception, a new way of understanding its significance, and a new way of connecting it to other aspects of life. Self-deception existed before Sartre, but bad faith did not, just as beautiful women existed before Leonardo da Vinci, but the Mona Lisa did not.


Another substantial difference between art and science is that in science it is possible to order every theory from better to worse, and to speak about one theory improving upon or replacing another. But when it comes to art no such ranking is possible. There is good and bad art, but it is hard to draw such absolute comparisons between good art. And certainly one piece of good art does not replace or supersede another. A work by Monet does not supersede one by Rembrandt; after Monet Rembrandt’s work does not become a mere historical footnote in the development of art. But of course in science this happens all the time. General relativity theory replaces Newtonian mechanics, making the latter good only as an engineer’s approximation and for teaching students. But Rembrandt is not considered only an approximation to the “true” beauty captured by Monet, or vice versa. In art there is room for many different works of art, each of which can be a success in its own way. But in science where two theories deal with the same subject matter there is room only for one; eventually one of the two must be shelved as less correct.

Again, I think it is obvious that in this respect philosophy is more like art than science. Of course philosophers argue amongst each other as if philosophy was like science, and spend large amounts of time trying to “prove” that their position is “correct” and that those of their opponents are at best approximations to the philosophical “truth”. But if they really feel that this is how philosophy should be then they must also think that philosophy is an abject failure. We still teach and read Plato and Aristotle, and not as mere approximations; they still have interesting things to say to us. If philosophy is really like science where better theories are supposed to supersede worse ones then we haven’t made any progress in the last few thousand years, at least when it comes to the subjects Plato and Aristotle talk about. Obviously it would be absurd to say this. It is absurd even to think it. Philosophy makes much more sense when we understand it in basically the same way we understand art. Yes, there is good and bad philosophy, and some philosophy is better than others, just as there is good and bad art, and some art is better than others. But there is room for as much philosophy as we like on any subject, so long as each is adding some new interesting perspective none has to invalidate the others, even if they make contrary claims. Philosophers making contrary claims is like two artists paining the same scene in a different style; the fact that they differ does not mean that we have to throw out one of them.

The Creative Process

Art and science also have substantial methodological differences. In science new theories are motivated by experiments. Experiments yield data, and when that data conflicts with, or simply isn’t explained by, existing theories there is room for new science. The process of producing new scientific theories is a slow and incremental one because of this. First you have to find data that needs explaining. In light of that data you form a hypothesis. You then test the hypothesis with further experiments, which usually prompt revisions and thus the need to collect even more data. And eventually you end up with something that is worth being called a new theory. Art is nothing like this. Producing good art is not an incremental process. Sometimes the artist is simply inspired, and the very first thing he or she sets out to create is great art. Of course most artists aren’t so lucky, they spend many years developing technical skills, copying the work of other artists, starting projects that don’t turn out exactly as they would like, and in general waiting for inspiration. But, while all that effort may be necessary preparation, the great art that follows on its heels is not a continuation of it. Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and he was right in the sense that his work built upon what came before. But an artist cannot say the same thing. While art does not exist independently of its history, it does not build upon it, but rather exists in reaction to it.

Once more there are stronger parallels between philosophy and art than there are between philosophy and science. Philosophy does not appear to be an incremental process. There are no revised or improved versions of the Republic. Now I am not denying that philosophy changes over time. Often new philosophy will be developed in light of criticisms leveled against existing positions. But I think it would be a mistake to understand this process as analogous to the revision of a hypothesis in the light of new data. In general philosophers don’t revise their theories, they move on to new ones. Sometimes a criticism is met with change, but it is just as likely to be met with a criticism of the criticism. On the other hand, the process that produces philosophy looks a lot like the process that produces art. Like the artist, most philosophers spend the early part of their careers developing technical skills and imitating the work of other, more famous, philosophers. They don’t produce brilliant new ideas, they make small revisions and small objections to existing positions. This is a lot like the young artist who does his or her best to imitate a famous style, adding only a few flourishes of their own. This phase may never come to an end; there are both philosophers and artists who do technically proficient work but are never truly inspired. Some, however, are inspired. These lucky individuals make a sudden leap past their previous work and produce something new and original. It’s not an incremental improvement over their past work or the work of some other philosopher, it is something never before seen.

History of the Discipline

Finally let’s take a brief look at the historical “progress” of the arts and sciences. Of course “progress” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to art, since art doesn’t improve as much as it finds new things to explore. This simply highlights the fact that art does not have a linear history; there is not a single narrative strand that ties everything together. Rather the history of art is characterized by a number of movements, many of which overlap. And within each movement there are usually a number of different schools and styles. Overall the history of art is one of diversity. Science has no room for this sort of diversity. The history of science can be understood as a monolithic enterprise. Although there have always been disagreements within the scientific community, it has always been the case that scientists everywhere have been doing the same thing. In other words, the history of science is not littered with movements that are largely incompatible with each other as the art world has been.

It’s hard to deny that the history of philosophy bears a striking resemblance to the history of art. The history of philosophy is littered with different schools or movements, such as Rationalism, Empiricism, Existentialism, and so on. Each of these movements is largely incompatible with the others, and each philosopher, or at least the major historical figures, tends to work primarily within a single one of them. The history of Chinese philosophy is an even better illustration of this similarity; in translation one of the early periods of Chinese philosophy is described as the time of the hundred schools. And the six major schools of this period existed largely contemporaneously with each other. It is hard to make sense of this within the scientific paradigm. Science just doesn’t have schools or styles. Or maybe it has exactly one style that all scientists share. If we were to really press the analogy between science and philosophy we would be forced to construe these schools as something like failed theories. But this hardly does them justice, both because some of them still have traction and because they were hardly monolithic, there are substantial disagreements within a single school of philosophy that makes understanding them as a single theory difficult.

So What?

All I’ve done so far is point out that there are more similarities between art and philosophy than there are between science and philosophy. By themselves these similarities show nothing, and we could choose to see philosophy as a kind of science in spite of them. But that choice would be a problematic one. Because if we continue to view the philosopher as a scientist in light of these dissimilarities with science we will be led to conclude that philosophy is defective. We would see the substantial number of ways in which philosophy is unlike science as ways in which philosophy has historically been a failure. You would feel the need to essentially start over in some radical fashion, to do philosophy in some new way that eliminates these “problems”. But then you are hardly doing philosophy anymore. What you would essentially be saying is that the vast majority of what has been called philosophy was a mistake, and that you would rather do something new, something different, but keep the old name. Isn’t that somewhat disingenuous? If you want to do something radically different it would be more honest to distinguish it from the long tradition you are reacting against.

I think that this is an attitude that you wouldn’t get far with. It is not clear what changes you could enact that would make philosophy fit into a scientific mold. And it is hard to have a positive attitude about philosophy if you see almost all existing philosophy as wrongheaded. This is why I think it is better to understand the philosopher as an artist. By doing so we are able to make sense of philosophy as we know it. The features of philosophy that have been described here are expected for art, and thus they don’t stand in need of correction. There is no need to radically revise philosophy, even if you would like to start a new movement within it. Of course if you adopt this attitude towards philosophy you will be dissatisfied with those who adopt the opposite, and who try to eliminate the artistic aspects of philosophy. But, from this perspective, seeing the philosopher as a scientist is just one movement among many, and no movement lasts forever.

April 9, 2009

Ontology as Metaphilosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy,Ontology — Peter @ 5:56 pm

Ontology is something of a fad in philosophy; sometimes it is regarded as the core and foundation of metaphysics, and at others it is held up as an example of what not to do. But what is ontology? Ontology, like philosophy in general, is an activity – something that philosophers do. The practice of ontology produces a system of categories, a division of the world into distinct kinds of things. What these categories are supposed to reveal is debatable. Many say that the category system sheds light on the nature of being by revealing what kinds of being there are. (This is where the word “ontology” comes from, it literally means the study of being.) Others of a less metaphysical bent say instead that the categories reflect fundamental divisions in the world. In any case the results are taken to be deep and important in some way.

Ontology as it is customarily conceived is a questionable practice. Focusing in the results rather than the process, as is common, some ask the ontologist “how do you know?” Where does the knowledge of how to divide up the world into parts come from? And what sort of reasons are there to favor one proposed category system over another? For there certainly are an abundance of them. The ontologist has no good answers to these questions. He has many bad ones of course – bad answers seem popular in the defense of philosophy. He might say that he has some special insight into the nature of the world that his ontology reflects. The questioner obviously lacks this insight, if he is raising such questions, and so this answer doesn’t go far. Since some special insight is about the only way to justify claims about the fundamental nature of reality that are not obvious to everyone the ontologist often retreats at this point. Ontology is presented as merely a study of concepts, or of language, or of the forms of experience. These answers are equally unsatisfying, this time because they make ontology significantly less interesting, and possibly not philosophy proper at all.

The root of these problems does not lie in ontology though, but in the ontologist and his questioner. And their problems are rooted in the history of philosophy. Before the modern era there was no such thing as philosophy, and no such thing as science. There was instead philosophy-science, which was called philosophy. Philosophy-science is both like and unlike philosophy as we know it, and like and unlike science. It is like both of them because it encompasses the topics and questions of both science and philosophy. Philosophy-science asks questions about ontology and ethics. It also asks questions about the nature of the heavens and the origins of life. But this does not make philosophy-science philosophy or science any more than the shaman is the same as a doctor just because they both may offer opinions about what made a man sick. Philosophy-science is different than philosophy and science because it uses methods appropriate to one to address the questions of the other, and vice versa. It treats their questions and problems as amenable to the same sort of solutions. It treats philosophical questions as matters of fact that we can discover answers to, and it treats scientific questions as things that we can figure out by reasoning about them.

Both science and philosophy came out of philosophy-science, but science made out better because science was seen as breaking away from philosophy, rather than the other way around. The first scientists still were burdened by the legacy of philosophy-science and assumed that the world made rational sense, and thus that they could discover scientific truths by uncovering what was rational. This was science as Descartes pursued it. This was often bad science. Scientists eventually were able to move beyond this, in part because they saw themselves as breaking away from the tradition of philosophy-science. This gave them sanction to challenge the paradigm they found themselves in, and eventually to reject many of the ideas they inherited from philosophy-science about how their questions could be answered. Philosophers, unfortunately, did not find themselves in this position. They conceived of themselves as still doing the same sort of things the philosopher-scientists before them had done, minus a few topics and questions that the scientists had taken as their own (an ever-growing list, in actuality). Indeed this is how most modern philosophers read authors such as Aristotle and Descartes: they read the bits and pieces of them that have to do with philosophical issues, and largely ignore the pieces that have to deal with scientific ones. This is a strange way to read these authors. They certainly didn’t see themselves as engaging in two very different sorts of activities; they saw their work as a single continuous project that involved the same investigative skills applied to different topics. Is it not strange to pick out only pieces of their work as properly philosophical, and worth reading, when the authors themselves didn’t make that distinction? Why should their work be philosophically respectable and enlightening some of the time and irrelevant at others?

In any case, the long and short of it is that modern philosophers carry with them a legacy from philosophy-science that leads them to view every philosophical question as a scientific one (i.e. one where there is a discoverable matter of fact) and to apply methods to answering them that turned out to be next to useless when dealing with those same sorts of questions about different topics. Once what they are doing has been framed in this way it seems impossible that anyone could take it to be a good idea, although I must admit that I myself once subscribed to it. So, to return to ontology after this lengthy digression, the problem at the root of ontology that leads to those annoying questions discussed earlier is the assumption that ontology deals with some discoverable matter of fact. With that assumption questions along the lines of “how do you know?” are more than justified, and obviously answers that appeal to the ability of reason alone or some special insight will be unsatisfying, since reason alone/special insight isn’t any good elsewhere.

Solving ontology’s problems requires coming to understand it in a way that doesn’t presuppose ontology is seeking to uncover some matter of fact. Rather than taking ontology to be an act of discovery we can take it to be an act of creation. If ontology was art it wouldn’t be the kind that attempts to capture some existing scene on the canvas, but rather that which aims to create some new beauty that has never before existed. Admittedly this doesn’t say much about what ontology is about, it just opens up new possibilities. Here is my suggestion: ontology is a kind of metaphilosophy – ontology sets up a framework or structure for other philosophy to be done within.

Admittedly, even that isn’t saying much. To explain why we need ontology allow me to describe some fictitious philosophy. Suppose someone presented us with an ethical theory that explained why we shouldn’t harm other people by appealing to the fact that they are featherless upright bipeds with binocular vision. In one sense this theory fits the “facts”, it picks out human beings in general as a class that gets special moral treatment. But is it a satisfactory explanation? Of course not; properties such as “bipedal” simply aren’t philosophically or ethically significant. On the other hand properties such as “rational” are. If someone said that people deserved special ethical treatment because they had the capacity for reason we would take their proposal seriously, even if we disagreed. Deciding which properties are philosophically significant is the task, or at least one of the tasks, of ontology.

Of course no ontology consists of a giant list with every property, each marked as significant or not. That would be both absurd and impractical. Ontologies tend to deal with the big picture, and more specific matters are left to common sense. For example, it is common to divide properties from substances at the top level of an ontology. This can be taken to indicate two things. First that it is philosophically acceptable to appeal to the fact that something is a substance or a property to explain something about them. For example, you could say that a chair is in at most one place because it is a substance (versus a property, which can be in many places at one time). Secondly it describes what needs to be explained (or at least what is worth thinking about). The aforementioned ontology would be holding up substances and properties as in need of explanation, meaning that some philosopher should come up with a theory about the nature of substances, and that another should come up with a theory of properties. This of course goes hand in hand with the first point, since what you can explain by appeal to substance or property depends on what you think is always true of those categories.

This process can be iterated to get down to more specific issues, such as whether “bipedal” is admissible in a philosophical explanation. By iterated I mean that each of the categories of the ontology can be given their own ontology, and so on. For example, we might give an ontology of properties and divide them into the mental and non-mental. We might then give an ontology of mental properties and divide them into the intentional, the qualitative, and so on. Just as with the most general ontology, each time we do this we commit ourselves to the divisions being philosophically significant (i.e. a good thing to give philosophical explanations in terms of) and we hold each up as being worth of philosophical investigation (into their nature, i.e. “what is the nature of non-mental things (such that they are distinct from the mental)?”). Given the unpopularity of ontology philosophers rarely do this; and given that each sub-ontology is less significant than the one that came before it there is a point where it doesn’t make much sense to. However, I think that in doing philosophy we often end up committed implicitly to ontologies with metaphilosophical import, which finds an expression in our selection of topics and problems that we consider worth theorizing about and in the kind of theories we bother to consider.

Perhaps this view can be best summarized by saying that under it ontology becomes a lot like an agenda for philosophizing. The ontology describes a grand plan which describes both what is philosophically important and what future work needs to be done. Then the actual work of philosophy can get started, inspired and directed by this ontology, which aims to give a philosophical treatment to every item in the ontology. When everything was said and done and compiled into one very large book the ontology would be the table of contents. For every item there would be a corresponding chapter that described its nature and philosophical import. This analogy also suggests that the ontology might come last. After the book has been written then the author or editor goes back over it, organizing it and dividing it into sections. This doesn’t make ontology, so understood, any less a metaphilosophical project. Metaphilosophy can, and often does, come last, prompted by the desire to reflect on and understand what has come before.

October 6, 2008

Analytic Philosophy And Phenomenology

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 11:30 pm

Previously I described the framework under which phenomenology works (or, more precisely, a charitable reconstruction of that framework). With that in hand it is now possible to discuss how the analytic method is similar to the phenomenological method, and whether they are faced with common problems.

The easiest way to go about making that comparison is to see where analytic philosophy fits into the larger phenomenological framework. Under that framework each discipline studies a region, or some subset of a region. Thus we can begin by asking which region analytic philosophy aims to study. If we have the origins of analytic philosophy in mind it is natural to conclude that it studies the formal region. Originally analytic philosophy was defined, indeed named, after the a priori analytic truths it was supposed to capture: namely those tautologies sentences that follow from the meaning of words. (Note that other a priori analytic truths include mathematics. Since mathematics falls under the formal region it is extremely natural to conclude that analytic philosophy, as such, does so as well.) Thus we could say that the goal of analytic philosophy is to describe formal systems, almost extensions to logic, from which all the truths about, say, justice can be deduced.

The problem with this picture is that the conception of analytic philosophy as a formal discipline doesn’t seem to fit actual analytic philosophy. First, when it comes to formal disciplines right and wrong have a different kind of meaning than in philosophy. For example, a mathematician working on non-standard analysis (calculus) does not accuse those working on standard analysis of being in error. Error in the formal arena is not something that is said of a system as a whole, rather it is something that crops up only internally, often in the form of a faulty proof. If analytic philosophy was a formal discipline we would expect that there would be no disagreement regarding whether one analysis of personhood, for example, was better than another. As with calculus, all consistent systems would be accepted as non-competing variants. If one philosopher was to correct another it would only be to point out that their conclusions aren’t entailed by their premises. But this not how analytic philosophy proceeds; analytic philosophers are quite committed to the idea that there is some best theory about personhood, and to arguing against those they see as worse.

A second problem with taking analytic philosophy to be a formal discipline is that it appears to have a subject matter. And a proper formal discipline is ideal; it has no subject matter of its own, but may be applied wherever it fits. Now this is not to say that formal approaches are never conjoined with some subject. Indeed phenomenology itself is supposed to be a formal approach to consciousness. However, we would never bill phenomenology as a formal discipline, given that it applies its formal structures to consciousness (and develops them explicitly to fit consciousness). And, inasmuch as analytic philosophy applies its formal structures to things such as personhood, it cannot be described as a purely formal discipline.

So if analytic philosophy is not purely formal then we are left with the regions characterized by objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity. Since analytic philosophy is, as was noted above, apparently committed to the idea that there is some single correct theory about its subject matter it seems natural to say that it studies some part of the objective region. (Since the existence of one universally correct answer is characteristic of objectivity.) However, we already have a discipline that studies the objective: science. And there is only one correct (or, at least, optimal) way to study each region. Thus if we claim that analytic philosophy falls under the objective region we must bite the bullet and accept that analytic philosophy is a kind of science. This would in turn mean abandoning those intuitions that analytic philosophers are so fond of appealing to, because the scientific method rejects intuition. What we would be left with might resemble Kornblith’s work: an attempt to find natural kinds that we can label with the familiar philosophical terms. But, while Kornblith (and a number of other contemporary philosophers), may be satisfied with this, it hardly is representative of the majority of contemporary analytic philosophy. It would seem that we are better off rejecting analytic philosophy’s ostensible commitment to objectivity, and looking for some other region for it to fall under.

Next up is subjectivity, i.e. consciousness. I think it is safe to gloss over this possibility without giving it much consideration. It is true that some have characterized analytic philosophy as studying our concepts (through conceptual analysis), and it is at least possible to understand that as a study of how we conceptualize our own experience. However, this seems like an extremely bad fit for analytic philosophy. If analytic philosophy is the study of concepts as we find them in consciousness it would be hard to salvage anything from its commitment to there being better or worse answers to philosophical questions. Now, admittedly, phenomenology does seem to be equally committed to the idea that it has some of the right answers, and it does study the subjective. If we must we can rescue phenomenology by construing it as a study of common forms of subjectivity, and reminding ourselves that it is not in the business of providing necessary and sufficient conditions for consciousness. But when we get into specific details of consciousness, such as how an individual is conscious of the personhood of a person it seems foolish not to expect that to vary greatly from individual to individual.

This leaves us with the intersubjective. And the most important members of the intersubjective region are senses. (Note that Husserl himself put senses as a third top level in his ontology, but I think he was wrong in doing so. Senses would not exist without thinkers and they are shared between thinkers, thus they appear to be prototypically intersubjective.) Taking analytic philosophy to be a study of senses does seem to be a good fit. Since senses often manifest in concepts or through language this approach is in general agreement with those who claimed that analytic philosophy was a study of concepts or of language. And it also manages to salvage some degree of the objectivity that analytic philosophers were after: senses are shared between people and so argument is possible about who is more accurately capturing the sense of a term. (This suggestion also agrees with one of the proposals I made in a previous paper concerning how the intuitions appealed to in analytic philosophy could be rescued from their apparent failure to capture anything objective.)

Certainly this clarifies the nature and project of analytic philosophy. But does it solve its problems? Or do its problems now apply to phenomenology as well, inasmuch as phenomenology deals with senses? In one way its problems are solved. Worries about whether intuitions are really reliable guides to things such as knowledge can be dismissed, since: a) intuitions are reliable guides to senses, and b) no one expects complete agreement about the intersubjective. However, new problems are created by this treatment of analytic philosophy, which I maintain are at least potential problems for phenomenology as well.

The first problem is that, with respect to many philosophical issues, we expect how things “really are” (how things in the objective region are) to have some bearing on philosophical matters. For example, whether we can have knowledge in a situation, one may expect, should depend on some objective facts about the world (such as whether the objective world actually exists, whether we are hallucinating or not, whether our senses are reliable, and so on). However, a subjective or intersubjective treatment of knowledge can never include such issues. It can only inform us about the conditions that we think must hold before we recognize some experience as providing knowledge. But this is not the same as asserting that those conditions must really hold. In other words, it can yield only an internalist account of knowledge. And similar issues can be raised with respect to ethics, the mind-body problem, and so on. These problems, however, can be solved. As I detailed in yet another paper, while phenomenology cannot address such issues, by its very definition, and neither can any other single-region discipline, the possibility for cross-regional disciplines exists. To summarize those conclusions: it is possible to develop cross regional theories, but only on the basis of completed theories about the regions to be bridged in this way.

In that way the traditional problems of philosophy, as conceived of traditionally (in ways that are inherently cross-regional) can be addressed, although not by philosophy alone (or at least not by analytic philosophy or phenomenology alone). Unfortunately there is still one large problem remaining that is not so easily resolved. So far all the approaches described here, both single regional and cross-regional, produce descriptive theories. With respect to the subjective and the intersubjective they report on how we in fact experience and conceive of things. And any cross-regional discipline is in the business of drawing correlations between the findings of different regions; it builds on “finished” theories about a single region, but it cannot go back and revise them. This puts us in a difficult situation, at least with respect to epistemology and ethics. In both of those fields there is the expectation that a good theory can correct what we think about ethics or epistemology. For example, a particular epistemic theory might revise the way we collect evidence. But a purely descriptive approach can never do that. If a particular subject experienced the magic 8 ball as providing evidence then a phenomenological analysis of the sense of evidence for this individual would, indeed must, sanction the magic 8 ball as providing evidence (because what it is reporting on is the forms of this individual’s experience, and would get those experiences wrong if it did not report the magic 8 ball as evidence providing). Could we fix things at the cross-regional stage? No. Certainly at the cross-regional stage it might be noted that certain natural kinds (such as reliability) are correlated with many of the individual’s experiences of events as evidence providing, except for a few oddballs, such as the magic 8 ball case. But this mismatch does not imply that there is something wrong with the magic 8 ball case; rather it simply indicates that what is experienced as providing evidence doesn’t correlate with a single natural kind, which is probably true of many senses.

Clearly solving this problem is trickier. One way to go might be to lean on the expectations that we associate with certain senses. Evidence, for example, we expect to be highly reliable; i.e. to experience something as providing evidence is to develop some specific expectations about which future experiences we will and won’t have (i.e. that we will have those that agree with the evidence and won’t have those that disagree with it). Then, building on the correlation between our experiences of particular facts and the way things objectively are, we could say that, with respect to the magic 8 ball, it is not the case that those expectations will reliably be fulfilled. Thus we go cross-regional and back again to demonstrate the experiencing the magic 8 ball as providing evidence is, in an indirect way, inconsistent with the sense of evidence (i.e. that evidence as experienced by this individual in internally inconsistent). Unfortunately while this is a step in the right direction it is not a complete solution. First of all it doesn’t motivate revision in a particular direction; in the case discussed here both ditching the magic 8 ball as providing evidence and relaxing the expectation of reliability are ways to resolve the problem, and this approach does not prefer one to the other. Secondly it is not clear that we will always be able to make this move. Even with respect to evidence I can imagine problematic pathological cases. For example, in the magic 8 ball case our subject may believe that there are malicious demons who change the way things are whenever he checks up on the information the magic 8 ball provides. Thus in the case of the magic 8 ball he does not form the expectations that we were leaning on. And I don’t think that there is any way around this. Now if we had a prescriptive approach we might point out to the individual that he might as well stop thinking about the magic 8 ball as providing evidence, given that he never acts on that information (since he believes that the demons will interfere if he does). The function of evidence is to prepare us to take action, and so it is effectively the same as taking it not to provide evidence if the evidence it provides can’t be acted on. Thus, for the sake of a simpler epistemological theory, he should revise his opinion of the magic 8 ball. But we do not have a prescriptive approach.

October 4, 2008

Reinterpreting Phenomenology

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:41 am

It is natural to assume that continental methods are radically different analytic methods, and thus that criticism leveled at philosophical methods would have to treat each separately. But I’m not sure that is really the case. A cursory glance at the phenomenological method, characteristic of a great deal of continental philosophy, reveals that it is described as a study of essences of consciousness, which are revealed through eidetic intuitions and eidetic variation (as are all essences). This is analogous to the analytic method, which is often described as a study of concepts that are revealed through specific intuitions and thought experiments / intuition pumps. At least from a distance it appears that these methods are essentially the same, that the differences are purely terminological, and thus that any criticism leveled at one will apply to the other.

Of course we should not allow ourselves to be misled by superficial similarities either. There do appear to be differences between the phenomenological method and analytic method when we get into the details. But can these differences shield the phenomenological method from criticisms leveled at the analytic method? Let’s find out by first taking a look at how the phenomenological method works, exactly.

Fundamentally the phenomenological method is grounded in ontology. At the highest level things are divided into three broad categories: facts, essences, and meanings (sense). We will set aside meaning here and consider only facts and essences. Under the category of facts fall particular objects, such as a tree or a table. Under the category of essences fall ideal objects, which are not in space and time, properly speaking, but which are classifications that divide things according to what they are. Essences themselves are further divided into two subgroups: material essences and formal essences. The material essences are ways of dividing the world of objects, and the most general divisions possible of this sort are called regions. Husserl names three regions: Nature (things in space-time), Pure Consciousness (that which is experienced), and Culture (that which we jointly constitute). For reasons of simplicity we can gloss these three categories as: objective, subjective, and intersubjective, respectively. (Husserl might not have described them in this way, but his own method implies that these are valid ways of describing the region, since objectivity, for example, is more general than appealing to falling in space and time, given that it also includes the fabric of space-time itself). And under each region are sub-essences, such as being a particular kind of tree, which are less general. The formal essences, in contrast, are those that are so general that they apply to everything: essences such as number, property and object, necessity and possibility, and so on.

Now before we go any further we must describe two ways something can fall under an essence. I will describe these two ways of falling under as formally falling under and materially falling under. For something to materially fall under an essence that means that it is an object and that the essence applies to it. A particular lamp post, for example, materially falls under the region of Nature because it exists objectively. For something to formally fall under and essence means that it is itself an essence that is a sub-type or sub-category of the larger essence. The essence of lamp posts, for example, formally falls under the region of Nature.

With this ontology set up we can now get to the payoff. First Husserl asserts that there is a unique way to study the objects that materially fall under each region. And the best way to study objects that materially fall under Nature is through the scientific method. Already this has some interesting consequences. The first is that natural laws, which are objective, and thus fall under Nature are best studied through the scientific method (as I assume is obvious). But since they aren’t properly studied by the phenomenological method, which looks at essences, this in turn means that natural laws are not essences (see Ideas 1:15). And, logically, the same could be said about natural kinds, if they exist. Natural kinds are therefore not essences, and if we were thinking about examples such as “a kind of tree” or a “lamp posts in general” in terms of natural kinds or as referring to a natural kind we would be misinterpreting them: natural kinds are to be studied by the scientific method, not the phenomenological method. A second consequence is that essences can be studied in their own distinct way as well: through eidetic intuition and variation. Eidetic intuition discloses essences to us from the intuition of particular objects; eidetic variation is “free phantasy” where we entertain different cases in order to prompt eidetic intuitions.

So far so good. But now questions arise regarding the details of the method. Since essences have a way of being studied it would seem that they must be specific kinds of objects that themselves materially fall under some region (Husserl explicitly says they are a kind of object, see Ideas 1:9), in addition to formally falling under other essences. Which region do they materially fall under? The official answer is that they materially fall under the formal category (even though they formally fall under more general essences; this is why I made that distinction previously). But does the official answer make sense? Husserl seems to indicate in places that essences are objective. But if they were objective then they must fall under Nature. And if that were the case the right way to study them would be through the scientific method, not eidetic intuition and variation. Clearly this contradicts what Husserl claims about them. And it would also amount to naturalizing philosophy, which he is an opponent of.

Another interpretation that is closer to the text would be to take Husserl’s essences to have a Kantian favor: to take them as transcendentally structuring the possibilities for experience. This is implied by Ideas 1:18, for example, where Husserl remarks that the regional Eidios of Nature exhibits a necessary material form of all the objects in the region, and on the next page gives (Euclidean) geometry as an example of this, saying that it is the “ontological discipline relating to … spatial form”. There are obvious parallels with Kant here, and, as with Kant, if this claim is not to be trivially refuted by pointing at special relativity we must take it in the sense the Euclidean geometry structures spatial form as disclosed to us in experience. Thomasson (Conceptual Analysis in Phenomenology and Ordinary Language Philosophy) also seems to favor such an interpretation of Husserl. She describes Husserl’s essences as being analogous to concepts in analytic terms, and takes Husserl’s “free phantasy” to be a tool to explore what we can and can’t imagine or conceptualize. Again, this points to a reading of Husserl where the essences structure the possibilities for experience, or at least of conceptual experience.

But, however close this reading is to the words of the text, it seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the phenomenological project. The previous interpretation would seem to imply that essences fall under the subjective: they are products of our mind – structures of our experience (properly, structures of possible experiences). But Husserl is firm in claiming that essences are objective, or at least not subjective. Secondly, it would seem to lead to a kind of psychologism. If essences, which includes mathematical essences, are simply structures of what we can possibly experience, then some theoretical psychological study could uncover those same limits. This means that the rules of logic, for example, are products of our particular psychological construction and limitations. And Husserl is, again, firmly opposed to psychologism of any sort. Now at this point we could simply take these apparent inconsistencies to be real inconsistencies. Maybe Husserl didn’t realize that essences qua structures for possible experiences would lead them to materially fall under the subjective and to imply a kind of psychologism. But I would prefer to keep looking for a more charitable interpretation.

Any such interpretation must keep essences from materially falling under any of the regions (objective, subjective, or intersubjective), both because of the problems described above, and because each of those regions already has particular kinds of intuitions that disclose it, which are distinct from eidetic intuitions. But how would that be possible? Aren’t those three categories exclusive? Not necessarily. Let’s begin our search for a fourth possibility by considering non-standard logics, and mathematics in general (which Husserl does not substantially engage with). Given the existence of such things is the “objectivity” of classical logic thrown into doubt? It must be; no longer can we claim with a straight face that there is one universally necessary logic. We must instead accept that we have a choice between logics. But neither does this make a logic itself a subjective construct; a particular logical system is pinned down completely by its rules and axioms. To suppose a different rule or axiom is simply to talk about a different logical system – in that way they still have a kind of objectivity (i.e. the nature of a particular logical system does not vary from person to person or culture to culture, even possibly). A logical system is thus neither objective, nor subjective, nor intersubjective. We need a new term then. For the moment let’s use the clumsy “objective-subjective”. To be “objective-subjective” requires two things. First that we have a choice about whether to apply a particular system to a situation (i.e. we impose it, it is not found in the objects themselves) and secondly that what a particular system is has an answer that is completely fixed, such that any variation is to simply entertain a different system. Being “objective-subjective”, I maintain, characterizes formal essences. And eidetic intuition and eidetic variation are ways in which we invent or discover (pick your poison) particular formal systems. Of course this means that, in a way, philosophy qua phenomenology, as the study of essences, is a great deal like mathematics (specifically applied mathematics); a sister discipline if you will. The similarities between mathematics and phenomenology have also been noted by Haaparanta (The Method of Analysis and the Idea of Pure Philosophy in Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology).

That, in a broad sense, is how phenomenology works. There are, of course, some major details that are missing. I have described the sense in which phenomenology is a study of essences, but not the more specific way in which it is a study of the essences of consciousness. Why just consciousness? Well there are two reasons for Husserl to narrow his project in this way. First if he was just studying essences in general he would end up doing math or ontology in general, under this picture; which has adequate coverage already. And, more importantly, Husserl believes that the region of pure consciousness has never been properly studied before, as it is in itself, at least in part because the method for studying it as it is in itself (epoche) was previously undiscovered (although Husserl believes that Descartes just missed it). Thus Husserl sets off on the project of describing an eidetic science for this new region via the method he calls phenomenology. In a sense then this business about ontology and essences is a framework to fit the intuitions about pure consciousness and the theories they prompt, Husserl’s primary focus, into. However, here I am more focused on the framework because it is what is analogous to the methods of analytic philosophy (analogous to phenomenology would be the analytic study of experience & its structures, not analytic philosophy in general).

I’ll leave a discussion of how this framework differs from analytic philosophy and whether it manages to shield phenomenology from certain problems facing analytic philosophy (and whether it gives rise to a new batch of problems) for another day.

Note: Observe that the interpretation I put forward here also helps justify the ontological framework that motivates and justifies phenomenology itself: The ontological framework is simply a formal structure, it is not necessarily the only correct ontological framework, but it is a useful one we choose to project onto the world / our experiences of the world, in order to better work with it.

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