Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Baby steps

Okay, I said I was going to start 'er up again, but not surprisingly that is easier written than done. So let's start out small. I direct your attention to the Amazon widget, which I have restocked with more timely items than were in it previously. I'm up to page 587 or so of Anna Karenina, which means that after reading it for six weeks I am about a third of the way through. Right now (in Part Three) Anna's sister-in-law Darya Alexandrovna Oblonsky (aka Dolly) is talking with Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a rejected suitor for the hand of Dolly's sister Kitty, at Dolly's summer house. I expect we'll get back to Anna within the next hundred pages or so. (I should mention that the direct link to Amazon provided by the widget is to an edition of the book different from that indicated by the icon, so beware.)

I've already finished the other fictional work, The Half-Made World, which was pretty good but falls short of unconditional recommendation. It was recommended by a couple of people on a thread at Crooked Timber, where I have found they know their stuff, esp. when said stuff is science fiction-y; this book is an example of the subgenre known as "steampunk," if you know what that is. Without going into detail, I really like the set-up here, and the characters are great. I wasn't sure about the ending though, as it remains unclear whether the author is setting up a sequel or just allowing us to imagine for ourselves what happened next. Good stuff.

I've just started the Garry Hagberg book, which looks really good, if a bit intimidating in its thoroughness. The Cartesian subject/object dualism, which still pervades philosophy even after all this time, has two main aspects (duh). I say (duh), but in practice it seems very difficult to see them as related at all, let alone different aspects of the same thing. The Cartesian conception of objectivity is most directly manifested in doctrines of "metaphysical realism" in Putnam's sense (when arguing against it, that is, not when, Kerry-like, he was for it before he was against it). In such contexts we fight against it by trying to show how the Cartesian picture, in its seductive urging that we simply identify it with prephilosophical common sense ("of course there's a real world out there!"), forces incoherence upon us. I guess that's what we do in the other context too (where the bait is instead "of course my mental states are 'inner'!"), but the details end up making the two cases very different in practice. Anyway, in these former contexts we tend to spend all our time arguing about the possible senses in which the world is "real" or "independent" or "objective," and the Cartesian subject figures simply as the supposedly detached observer of the objective world however construed.

However, we can't arrive at a stable position no matter what we say about objectivity, unless we also deal with the Cartesian subject itself (qua Cartesian). Here our target is the Cartesian "inner," as manifested for example in Nagelian qualephilia or more overtly dualistic doctrines in the philosophy of mind (Chalmers, G. Strawson, etc.). But of course in this case the main charge against "dualism" has been led by materialists and other naturalists concerned to make the world safe for empirical science (here, brain science and other sorts of empirical psychology, including but not limited to evolutionary psychology). So what we end up with is a lot of straightforward reductionism/eliminativism and its more discreet heirs, all concerned to emphasize (properly enough as far as it goes) the publicity and non-spookiness of "subjective" phenomena like mental states. However, in its often overt scientism this line tends to leave in place, or at the very least not replace, the very conception of objectivity which is the subjective correlate of their target. This leaves them open to counterattack, although rarely in those very terms.

In any case these two anti-Cartesian projects have not really been brought into line with each other in a satisfactory way. Rorty and to a lesser extent Dennett (in his case you have to dig it out as he is not exactly forthcoming on the matter) have been onto this, but each takes some pretty important missteps by my lights. Davidson and Wittgenstein are more promising guides, even though – or possibly because – neither makes a big deal out of marrying the one criticism to the other, instead simply pursuing a more unified project from the beginning, and only subsequently allowing us to take this or that aspect of it for this or that purpose. (Or maybe we're just slow.)

Hagberg sees himself as promoting a Wittgensteinian view of subjectivity, as manifested in discussions of autobiographical writing, the philosophy of same, autobiography as philosophy, etc. – where the very overlapping of these topics is meant to bring out the Wittgensteinian nature of each, which seems promising. I read an earlier book, Art as Language, in which he argues, along Wittgensteinian lines, that art is not a language, making one wonder if perhaps another title would have been better. This new one, Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness, looks to be written in the same style. I shouldn't complain (especially as I can do no better myself), but I have to say that this style – very, very carefully setting out the position and arguing very, very, carefully for its truth, or at least provisional plausibility, very, very carefully anticipating and defusing every. possible. objection. – makes me crazy. In some cases this is just what we want, but in Wittgensteinian contexts it really seems like one risks getting the words Just Right at the expense of messing the tune up big time. Alice Crary and Oskari Kuusela do it too, which is why I started their books with real anticipation but bogged down, like, right away. Like I said, though, I've just started the book so maybe I'm wrong.

One person who can't be said to do this is Cavell (but of course there are corresponding dangers to this approach too, as anyone who has tried to wade through Stephen Mulhall's books can tell you). His latest, which looks wild but which I have not yet begun, seems to be autobiographical, but only deals with the last few years, and only a particular line of thought/events within that time. I'll say more when and if I get to it (or not).

Lastly we have another book on Wittgenstein, on a topic very close to this blog's heart: aspect perception (and indeed there the d/r is right on the cover, along with the kid from Jarman's Wittgenstein, which I just saw the other day). It's a collection, and one of the editors, William Day, was a very advanced grad student in my program when I was there. This meant of course that I rarely saw him, and in fact I didn't even meet him until several years in, at a conference. Nicest guy you'll ever meet, and very impressive – as articulate on these matters as your humble blogger is stammeringly incoherent. So I very much look forward to reading this.


Peter Greene said...

Duck-Rabbit lives! Quackhop, lippety. And thanks for the post. What a nice surprise to find you in my Reader thingy.


Duck said...

A surprise indeed! Thanks for stopping by.

Ben W said...

Do you recommend the Jarman film?

Duck said...

The Jarman film is interesting, and the guy who plays LW is good (and looks like LW too, mostly), and they don't make a hash of the philosophy like they might've (script by Terry Eagleton), but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it. Michael Gough is entertaining as Russell though.