Tuesday, May 03, 2005

My loooong day

This Saturday I got up at 5 AM, after a brief nap, and took a bus, waited around for a while, and then took another bus, switching there, after only a brief wait this time, to a third bus, arriving on the campus of Rowan University, in Glassboro, NJ, which, I have discovered, is waaay the hell down there, at around 11: 30. The occasion was the spring meeting of the New Jersey Regional Philosophical Association. (Thanks are due to Lucio Privitello for setting it all up!) In the second session (the first occurred while I was on bus 2 and bus 3), I gave a paper called "Pragmatism, Skepticism, and Taoism," which is an abbreviated version of a paper of the same title (let's not go there), which is to be published in The Journal of Chinese Philosophy early next year (look for it!). The longer version has a punchier punch line, but the shorter version makes a decent conference paper.

Here's what I said. Taoism is often presented as a form of skepticism, whether mystical (the ineffable Tao and all that) or linguistic/methodological (basically, words aren't stable enough to capture anything worth calling "knowledge" of the real). On the other hand, pragmatists are united in rejecting skepticism as foisting upon us entirely illegitimate requirements for knowledge, requirements which have lost all contact with the practices which they supposedly govern. So it looks like Taoists and pragmatists are on opposite sides of the issue. Yet surely they have common enemies as well (like most of Western philosophy). How should we think about this?

Now of course there are different kinds of skepticism, and that gets us part way home. Pragmatists are generally concerned with Cartesian skepticism, which presents us with an intolerable paradox: we are committed to seeing ourselves as knowing, but if knowledge is what it seems it must be, then we cannot justifiably claim to know. Taoists, however, see their skepticism (and their use of paradox) as precisely not intolerable but instead as a live philosophical option. We must see knowledge as impossible and learn to give up the aspiration to know. In the West, this kind of skepticism is known as Pyrrhonism.

Both kinds of skeptic oppose the idea, which we should call dogmatism, that we can meet the theoretical demands for justification for knowledge as typically construed, and they are right to do so. (As my commentator correctly pointed out, I do not go into the details of the typical construal, nor how dogmatist arguments fail, nor how the dogmatist conception of knowledge falls into incoherence. My concern here is for the structure of the dialectic.) Pyrrhonism is preferable to Cartesian skepticism in that it provides, if not a positive view, at least a positive spin on a negative view (we cannot know). But why settle for a negative view at all? In my view, the problem with dogmatism is not the idea that we can know, but instead the particular conception of what it is to do so, which is shared by both skeptic and dogmatist, who disagree only on whether we do or not. Another response to the problem is then to retain the idea that we know, but reject the flawed conception of knowledge which makes it look like we don't.

Of course this is not a new idea; but my point is that once we see things this way, we can think of the flawed conception of knowing as attackable from either side -- that is, as either skepticism (holding out for inappropriate levels or forms of justification) or dogmatism (claiming to have achieved same). The Taoist and Pyrrhonist barbs against dogmatists are well-aimed; but once understood we may be able to see them as usefully analogous to those directed against dogmatism (i.e. the objectionable conception of knowledge) in its skeptical form. This positive anti-skepticism is thus not (guilty of) dogmatism, yet endorses our claims to know, now in a theoretically unobjectionable sense (let's call this kind of anti-skepticism cognitivism).

In the second part of the paper, I relate a characteristically crisp Taoist anecdote (from the Outer Chapters -- that is, those attributed to the school rather than the person -- of Zhuangzi), and show how Zhuangzi's supposedly "skeptical" attitude can have just the sort of versatility we're looking for. In this sense, we may not need to think of Taoists as "skeptics" at all. Here Zhuangzi turns a flat-footed skeptical attack back on itself in a deliciously clever way. My "translation" -- not like I know Chinese or anything, it's more of a paraphrase of other translations. I leave the exegesis as an exercise for the reader (not too hard given what I've already said).

Zhuangzi and Huishi, a common interlocutor, are walking above the Hao river on a fine spring day.

Zhuangzi: Look how the fish are swimming: those are some happy fish!

Huishi: You are not a fish. How [or whence] do you know fish's happiness?

Z: You are not me. How do you know that I don't know?

H: I'm not you, so I don't know about you. You're not a fish, so you don't know about fish. Q.E.D. [or: I've run rings round you logically.]

Z: Let's go back to where we started. When you said "how/whence do you know fish's happiness?", you already knew I know it before asking the question. I know it from up above the Hao river.

Take that!

After my paper, I stayed for most of the next session and then took a bus and then another bus and then another bus. Phew!

The next NJRPA meeting is this fall at Felician College. This time, having learned my lesson, before submitting a paper I'm going to find out where that is.

Update: I see they're discussing this very issue (sort of) over at Chalmers's place...

1 comment:

Clark Goble said...

It is interesting though that the father of American pragmatism, Peirce, rarely talked about knowledge, except in a very loose and colloquial way. He did focus more on belief. It is thus often hard to unite modern epistemology and Peirce's thought. (Later pragmatists were a little more open to use of knowledge)

You're quite right to tie pragmatism and anti-Cartesianism together though. I'd add that not only to they have grave doubts about certainty (due to a thoroughgoing fallibilism) but also to Descartes' doubt and reduction which they find phoney.