Saturday, June 18, 2005

Strawson on totally awesome mistakes

An interesting feature at Mormon Metaphysics is the quotation appearing in a little box in the top right-hand corner of each page. It varies from page to page; I think they repeat, but I'm not sure how many there are, and I'm pretty sure it's random, in that there's no correlation between their content and the page they adorn. Maybe Clark will tell us someday.

I found the quotation below in the top right-hand corner of a page on which Clark discusses Taylor Carman's book on Heidegger. [In retrieving this url, I got a quote from Kafka this time; so I guess it is random.] A few years ago I sat in on the first half of Taylor's course on the Phenomenology of Spirit, until I got too far behind and I had to stop fooling around and finish up the damn dissertation. I have the book, and Clark says it's really good, so maybe I'll read it someday. Check back in 2013.

Anyway, here's the quotation, from P. F. Strawson:
One of the marks, though not a necessary mark, of a really great philosopher is to make a really great mistake: that is to say, to give a persuasive and lastingly influential form to one of those fundamental misconceptions to which the human intellect is prone when it concerns itself with the ultimate categories of thought.
I like that. For examples, my first thought was Descartes, then Plato (but something tells me Strawson's talking about Kant's "idealism"). People, like myself, who strive mightily against the all-too-pervasive misconceptions abounding in the wake of Plato and Descartes can forget the genius it requires to give these fundamental misconceptions a determinate form. Those who perpetuate the misconceptions -- our contemporary Cartesians and Platonists -- tend to see them (say, the conceptual self-sufficiency of subject and object) as the merest common sense, and the contribution of Descartes and Plato as on a par with other philosophers: i.e., as trying, and (ironically) failing, to establish their doctrines conclusively. The irony here, that is, is that it is on the basis of their (internalized) Cartesianism and Platonism that these people see the task of philosophy as trying to do what Descartes and Plato indeed failed to do, thus causing them to deny the label ("who, me? A Cartesian [Platonist]? But I reject skepticism [the Forms]!"). When we learn to see philosophy aright, though, we can see Plato's and Descartes's contributions, again ironically, as in line with Wittgenstein's ambition to (teach us to) "pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense" (PI §464). In other words, this is the flip side (the negative side) of what he is more usually seen as urging on us: to pass from failing "to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes" (§129) to, well, noticing it, and thus "command[ing] a clear view of the use of our words" (§122).

Actually, we don't have to see things Wittgenstein's way in order to appreciate Strawson's idea, which of course isn't simply that it's great that people have made big whopping spectacular mistakes so that we will know, at least, not to do that. In Hegelian terms as well, we are best able to make progress (say via an Aufhebung) when the dualism to be aufgehoben is explicitly and firmly established, so that we can really see the difference (so to speak) when (if!) the Aufhebung is performed properly. (So would Hegel agree that "it's always darkest just before dawn"? Is this the "night in which all cows are black"? Discuss.) Now of course Hegel made his own whoppers...

And even this way of taking the idea has a less fancy variant (that is, which still says more than the simple version), which is perhaps all that Strawson had in mind (I like my two versions better though). Refuting a silly error is hardly progress; it's more like retying your shoes after tripping over your laces. If we refute a deep, perennial error, now -- then we've made some progress. But that's only possible if that error has been rigorously distilled into a philosophical doctrine which we can argue against directly; and for that we owe a profound debt to the distiller. My problem with this is that on this conception of what's going on, the beast is felled, necessarily, only by an even meaner beast. It would be a type of skepticism to which I do not subscribe to claim that the new doctrine must be just as bad -- I've been known to advance, or at least endorse, a few doctrines myself -- but when the shiny new doctrine loses its luster, it can be all too easy to keep it around on the basis of its giant-killing abilities alone: for what if the giant, or his brother, comes back?


Clark Goble said...

It is random. It's a simple Python script that runs each time you load a page. (I have low enough traffic that I can do that)

I have a couple dozen quotes and have a file where I can add others when I find one I really like.

Clark Goble said...

Just to add, my all time favorite quote on the page is Pauli's "that's not right. That's not even wrong." If you've done much physics you'll understand immediately. In fact while grading physics questions 80% of the grade is typically for how far you got towards the right answer. A wrong answer isn't always that bad so long as you were at least thinking in the right way. An answer that isn't even wrong but just misguided has little to recommend it. In inquiry wrong answers often are more helpful than right ones since it can lead to new discoveries. Something "not even wrong" simply misguides people.

Probably relevant to your post as well.

Duck said...

Yes, Pauli's quote is similar to Strawson's, and your explanation is quite right. But it surely applies just as well to philosophy, don't you think? I can think of a whole gaggle of philosophers who aren't even wrong.