Monday, December 29, 2008

One last party

Or Philosophers' Carnival, anyway. Read now, drink later!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sometimes a tie is just a tie

I learned something interesting today. In a book on body language, underneath a picture of a man stroking his cheeks (with one hand – you know the gesture), we are informed that one of the meanings of this gesture is that "the person has been successful in an undertaking in the former Yugoslavia." I had no idea that body language could be so specific!

Okay, they probably didn't mean it that way. But the interest of this book is indeed the cross-cultural variety of meanings of various gestures. It certainly isn't the surprising amount of material which is blindingly obvious to anyone who's ever participated in an actual conversation in the USA. "Sadness is generally betrayed by the mouth, which tends to droop at the corners, so emphasizing the generally slack and unanimated appearance of the face. The lips may quiver if you are on the verge of tears." Who is this book for, anyway? Escaped androids from an MIT lab?

There's also a fair amount of what strikes me as dime-store evo-psych just-so stories. "A domineering speaker raises a forefinger and beats it up and down in an action that is symbolic of a stick (or an ape's overarm blows) pummeling an opponent into submission." Beating, okay, but why the ape? Or this one: a female courting signal is that "the woman might [look] at the man over a raised shoulder for longer than people normally look at each other," which does indeed sound seductive (imagine Keira Knightley doing it, for example), but here's the explanation: "Self-mimicry; the shoulder resembles the breast and so is sexually inviting" – which, well, I dunno.

Back to ambiguous cross-cultural gestures. The one in which the head is "jerked sharply backwards" (I think I've seen this one in the movies – "ehh!") is negative in southern Italy, as I would have expected, but it means "yes" in Ethiopia. No wonder those two countries couldn't get along! Also, the authors acknowledge that some gestures are inherently ambiguous. Under "male courtship signals," one such gesture is indicated, followed by a few "possible alternative meanings" in parentheses:
Straightening the tie (nervousness; habit; tie might need straightening).
You think??

Friday, December 19, 2008

Logic time!

This may be an internut chestnet by now (I mean, an internet chestnut), but it was new to me. There is indeed a unique solution – but in order to get it you have to help yourself to that information, which is something I find mildly annoying in logic puzzles like nurikabe and such, but there it is. Hint: that an answer choice makes the thereby completed statement true is not sufficient reason to regard it as the correct answer (see #19 for an example!). Be careful! A mistake early on means that when you run into trouble you have to start over.

HT: A math teacher blog here (he's not sure what the ultimate source is - probably Lewis Carroll or some other joker). There's an inconclusive thread on the solution here. [Update 12/22: link fixed]

1. The first question whose answer is (B) is —
(A) 1 — (B) 2 — (C) 3 — (D) 4 — (E) 5

2. The only two consecutive questions with identical answers are —
(A) 6 & 7 — (B) 7 & 8 — (C) 8 & 9 — (D) 9 & 10 — (E) 10 & 11

3. The number of questions with answer (E) is —
(A) 0 — (B) 1 — (C) 2 — (D) 3 — (E) — 4

4. The number of questions with answer (A) is —
(A) 4 — (B) 5 — (C) 6 — (D) 7 — (E) 8

5. The answer to this question is the same as the answer to question —
(A) 1 — (B) 2 — (C) 3 — (D) 4 — (E) 5

6. The answer to question 17 is —
(A) C — (B) D — (C) E — (D) none of the above — (E) all of the above

7. Alphabetically, the answer to this question and the answer to the following question are —
(A) 4 apart — (B) 3 apart — (C) 2 apart — (D) 1 apart — (E) the same

8. The number of questions whose answers are vowels is —
(A) 4 — (B) 5 — (C) 6 — (D) 7 — (E) 8

9. The next question with the same answer as this one is question —
(A) 10 — (B) 11 — (C) 12 — (D) 13 — (E) 14

10. The answer to question 16 is —
(A) D — (B) A — (C) E — (D) B — (E) C

11. The number of questions preceding this one with the answer (B) is —
(A) 0 — (B) 1 — (C) 2 — (D) 3 — (E) 4

12. The number of questions whose answer is a consonant is —
(A) an even number — (B) an odd number — (C) a perfect square — (D) a prime — (E) divisible by 5

13. The only odd numbered problem with answer (A) is —
(A) 9 — (B) 11 — (C) 13 — (D) 15 — (E) 17

14. The number of questions with answer (D) is —
(A) 6 — (B) 7 — (C) 8 — (D) 9 — (E) 10

15. The answer to question 12 is —
(A) A — (B) B — (C) C — (D) D — (E) E

16. The answer to question 10 is —
(A) D — (B) C — (C) B — (D) A — (E) E

17. The answer to question 6 is —
(A) C — (B) D — (C) E — (D) none of the above — (E) all of the above

18. The number of questions with answer A equals the number of questions with answer —
(A) B — (B) C — (C) D — (D) E — (E) none of the above

19. The answer to this question is —
(A) A — (B) B — (C) C — (D) D — (E) E

20. Standardized test : intelligence :: barometer : —
(A) temperature (only) — (B) wind velocity (only) — (C) latitude (only) — (D) longitude (only) — (E) temperature, wind velocity, latitude and longitude

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Diminishing returns?

This week's Carnival is another sparse one. End of semester, or are we all carnivaled out?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Buddha post

Brian B. on the new Buddha Machine:
I don't like the FM3 Buddha Machine, but I kind of like it, too. It's a little Chinese gadget that plays a few ambient loops from a crappy little speaker. You had to make repetitive ambient loops play on a cute gadget for people to be interested in them: they have apparently sold thousands of these little things, way more than most ambient CDs sell, and they are expensive, too. This just proves you have to put something willfully obscure into the shape of something fun and somebody will likely purchase a few of them. I think the Buddha Machine would have been a lot cooler if it were not created by artists as an objet, but instead was some kind of crappy Chinese toy gone horribly wrong. It was supposed to play the love theme from Doctor Zhivago ("Lara's Theme"), but instead the stupid thing broke in transit and just grinds out a few tones until the batteries die. It's like the last few moments of a music box as it winds down, which are, as we all know, the most melancholy moments of music, any music, no matter what music, you will ever hear. I have an old music box that plays "Jingle Bells" and when it gets down to the end, that slow slow "Jingle Bells" is just the saddest thing you've ever heard. It's putting the Christmas tree of thirty-two Christmases out to the curb at the same time, it's like every day becoming December 26th at the stroke of midnight.
Not simply an excellent writer, Brian provides us with glorious ambient mixes as well – check them out here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Return to the source

This week the Philosophers' Carnival returns to its origin at Philosophy, Etc. Richard tells us that interest in the Carnival has dropped off somewhat, so we will be returning to a three-week cycle. We who have not submitted posts must hang our heads in shame. Let's do better for the next edition on 12/8!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I believe n = 81

What is billed as the nth Philosophers' Carnival is mighty sparse, but check it out anyway. When you get time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

An Election Day haiku

Today's the day: vote!
Please do not forget to vote
Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote!
And now, an Election Day sonnet: ... oh, never mind.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Real goldfinches and robot cats

Daniel doesn't like what John Haugeland says in "Objective Perception." In the former's words: "The very idea of giving a "constitutive ideal" for "thinghood" strikes me as inadvisable." Yet it seems that we can always try to say what we mean by "thing," such that if (Ex)(x lacks some property p), then x isn't a "thing" after all. After giving some examples, Daniel admits that:
[Everything in this paragraph seems like an overwrought version of Austin's bit about the finches that suddenly explode etc., and what we should say about them. I can't recall where that passage is. I need to read more Austin.]
Well, everyone needs to read more Austin. Here's the quote from "Other Minds". Even in special cases (of deciding "whether it's real"), "two further conditions hold good": first, that it's not true that just "because I sometimes don't know or can't discover [e.g. because it flies away], I never can." The second is that "'Being sure it's real' is no more proof against miracles or outrages of nature than anything else is or, sub specie humanitatis, can be. If we have made sure it's a goldfinch, and then in the future it does something outrageous (explodes, quotes Mrs. Woolf, or what not), we don't say we were wrong to say it was a goldfinch, we don't know what to say." [Philosophical Papers, p. 88]

However, he also goes on to say that "It seems a serious mistake to suppose that language (or most language, language about real things) is 'predictive' in such a way that the future can always prove it wrong. What the future can always do, is to make us revise our ideas about goldfinches or real goldfinches or anything else." [88-89]

This is almost right, but it makes it sound like the case is asymmetrical: that the future can't always prove our beliefs false (rather than our "ideas"), but that our "ideas" are always vulnerable to (forced?) revision. What I would rather say is that both our beliefs and our meanings are corrigible, which nicely combines the ideas that a) beliefs are corrigible in the light of further experience, and b) the interconstitutive nature of belief and meaning implies that the same is true of meaning. While it may be natural in any one case to do one rather than the other, ultimately the choice is up to us. Neither "the world" on the one hand nor "language" on the other (as it seems some want to say) can determine our choice unilaterally.

I've always taken this to be the moral of Putnam's robot cat example. If those things turn out to be robots, then we have two choices: we can say either that a) the supposedly analytic and thus unrevisable sentence "cats are animals" has, mirabile dictu, turned out to be revisable after all, as cats have turned out not to be animals after all, but are in fact robots; or b) that "cats are animals" remains analytic, but that, mirabile dictu, it seems that there are no cats among us after all, as those things we thought were cats have turned out to be robots instead. I don't remember, but I think Putnam himself may have claimed that we must say (a) here, but it sounds better to say instead that we are not forced to say (b) (i.e. due to the incorrigible qua non-empirical analyticity of "cats are animals"), but can say what we like.

In general, my motto in such cases is that when something unutterably weird happens, it may be that whatever we say will sound unutterably weird, which means that examples like Swampman (or Twin Earth, or grue, or whatever) are nearly always not worth it – if there's really a point there (beyond what I just said), you can make it better some other way.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Passing the time

Seeing as there isn't any more baseball until Wednesday, now would probably be a good time to check out the latest Philosophers' Carnival.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Not necessarily

The 79th Philosophers' Carnival might be here, or possibly not. Better go check!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Manny being Manny, alas

With Jason Bay poised (knock wood) to pick up ALDS MVP honors, most of Red Sox Nation may be feeling pretty good about now re: the Manny Ramirez trade. But while I can hardly knock Bay – nor regret the removal of Craig Hansen from anywhere near the pitching mound, with Sox in the field anyway – I never thought that trade was a good idea.

Neither does ESPN writer Bill Simmons, a Red Sox fan who lives in L.A. He's got a long article at about the resulting turmoil in his soul:
On the day the deal happened, I e-mailed my friend Tony, a die-hard Dodgers fan, and guaranteed him Manny would crush baseballs for six solid weeks. There was no doubt. I saw everything coming before it happened: the "Mah-knee! Mah-knee!" chants, the palpable buzz at Chavez Ravine, the steady stream of line drives and the bombs, amused smiles from teammates, the giddy hop in his step, the "Thanks again for trading Manny!" e-mails from my Yankee friends, the playful joshing with teammates, everything. Now the Dodgers are gunning for their first World Series in 20 years, led by the supposedly washed-up slugger who's only hitting .396 with 17 homers, 53 RBI, a .489 OBP and .743 slugging percentage in Dodger blue. [...] He's back in my life, only not the way I hoped.
The whole article, complete with Fosteresque footnotes and a further dire prediction (take a guess), here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

PC #78

This week's Philosophers' Carnival is at Practical Ethics. Not much for LEMMings, but check it out just the same!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

That was close

Thanks to my post yesterday, I have avoided the unprecedented situation of putting up *four* consecutive posts linking to Philosophers' Carnivals. Now that that danger has passed ... here's the latest Philosophers' Carnival.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ironies abound

Richard Rorty famously defines an "ironist" as "the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires" (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity p. xv). Rorty has his own story about what this means, and what it is to "face up" to it, a story which most interpreters, myself included, aren't particularly happy with. On that account, it remains unclear how one can regard one's beliefs as "contingent" without thereby simply giving them up. The resulting skepticism, perversely unacknowledged as such, is precisely not what the doctor ordered. Or so I claim.

On p. 96-7 of CIS, Rorty comes very close to spelling out an explicitly Pyrrhonist position: "The goal of ironist theory is to understand the metaphysical urge, the urge to theorize, so well that one becomes entirely free of it. Ironist theory is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one's predecessors to theorize." Remarkably, given the use of that familiar image, the accompanying footnote cites neither the ancient Skeptics nor even the early Wittgenstein (TLP 6.54), but instead the later Heidegger's "motto of ironist theorizing": "A regard to metaphysics still prevails even in the intention to overcome metaphysics. Therefore our task is to cease all overcoming, and leave metaphysics to itself" (Time and Being, 1962).

I don't know about Heidegger, but in Rorty the thought seems to be this. Traditional metaphysics is a mug's game; but if philosophers proceed in the usual fashion to try to show this once and for all, all we'll get is a philosophical theory, or doctrine, to that effect. But philosophical theorizing just is "metaphysics" in the controversial sense – that is, it succumbs to the same questionable urge (to escape finitude, or whatever). Instead of the traditional doctrines, then, we must target the urge which made them, or even their negations, seem necessary. If "overcoming" requires refutation, and refutation indulges the suspect urge, then we must abandon "overcoming" as well. We might not be happy about having to "leave metaphysics to itself," where anyone can still trip over it if they're not careful, but it can't be helped. We'll just have to develop other ways to help each other avoid that pitfall. Rorty's conception of pragmatism as "anti-authoritarianism," for example, exhorts us to spurn the siren song of metaphysical transcendence, with its chimerical promise of ideal grounding for our beliefs and values, in favor of more homespun methods of coping with our problems.

In chapter 5 ("Self-creation and affiliation: Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger"), Rorty explains why literature of a certain kind is better than philosophy for doing what needs to be done:
So the lesson I draw from Proust's example is that novels are a safer medium than theory for expressing one's recognition of the relativity and contingency of authority figures. For novels are usually about people – things which are, unlike general ideas and final vocabularies, quite evidently time-bound, embedded in a web of contingencies. [...] By contrast, books which are about ideas, even when written by historicists like Hegel and Nietzsche, look like descriptions of eternal relations between eternal objects, rather than genealogical accounts of the filiation of final vocabularies, showing how these vocabularites were engendered by haphazard matings, by who happened to bump into whom. [107-8]
I'll get back to raking Rorty over the coals some other time, but let me get to my point here. To that last quotation is appended its own footnote, which reads: "There are, of course, novels like Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus in which the characters are simply dressed-up generalities. The novel form cannot by itself insure a perception of contingency. It only makes it a bit harder to avoid this perception."

I like Mann a lot, but that's definitely a fair criticism (q.v. The Magic Mountain, or anything else for that matter). However, the impetus for this post is that I'm just now (very slowly) reading Doctor Faustus, and on p. 45 our narrator Dr. Zeitblom is telling us about the early years of his friend Leverkühn, the subject of the book:
In those years school life is life itself, it stands for all that life is, school interests bound the horizon that every life needs in order to develop values, through which, however relative they are, the character and the capacities are sustained. They can, however, do that, humanly speaking, only if the relativeness remains unrecognized. Belief in absolute values, illusory as it always is, seems to me a condition of life. But my friend's gifts [i.e., Leverkühn's] measured themselves against values the relative character of which seemed to lie open to him, without any visible possibility of any other relation which would have detracted from them as values. Bad pupils there are in plenty. But Adrian presented the singular phenomenon of a bad pupil as the head of the class. I say that it distressed me, but how impressive, how fascinating, I found it too! How it strengthened my devotion to him, mingling with it – can one understand why? – something like pain, like hopelessness! [Lowe-Porter translation, altered slightly]
So described, the young composer sounds quite a bit like Rorty's "ironist," and indeed, the next paragraph discusses "one exception [i.e., mathematics] to [Leverkühn's] uniform ironic contempt." Here, though, the skepticism is explicit. Belief in absolute values, however necessary "as a condition of life," is always illusory. The only alternative to "absolute" is "relative," and regarding some value as (merely) "relative" is equivalent to rejecting any claims it may have to validity. Where Leverkühn differs from Zeitblom is that the former did not let the recognized illusoriness of absolute value stop him from acting as if he accepted it. He even excelled at what others took seriously, while he himself saw it as merely a game – one he was good at, but a game nonetheless.

No doubt Rorty takes his own position to differ, not simply from Zeitblom's, but also from that of Leverkühn. (He might, for example, have mentioned this passage as anticipating his own views, rather than simply knocking the book for not being sufficiently Proustian.) As I read him, I think Rorty would say that in allowing a norm or value to structure one's actions – to be seen as "playing the game" at all – is, in that context, to accept it as fully as it makes sense to do so. To demand a further "metaphysical" commitment to its truth (pardon me, Truth) is to fall into unintelligibility, or at least disutility. That's why recognizing "contingency" isn't the same as skepticism or nihilism.

Now, this is indeed a more attractive thing to say. It's just that I don't think Rorty can do so consistently. For example, Rorty tells us repeatedly that his pragmatism points us past the "stale dichotomy of realism and anti-realism"; but he just as consistently endorses anti-realist doctrine when it suits him, as in the continuation of the very definition of "ironism" with which I began. Ironists, he says, are that way because they are "sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance." Naturally going "beyond realism" will involve rejecting realist doctrines like this one. Still, when overt appeals to anti-realism are qualified, in the definition of the central concept of one's view, only by words like "sufficiently," it's hard to see how that itself is sufficient for us to avoid the one as well as the other.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I see I already have a post called "Summer's almost gone," so this one will have to have a different title

Hope everyone's had a good summer, but it's back-to-school time now. Get into the spirit here, with yet another Philosophers' Carnival!

P.S. Yes, I do hope to post again, sometime.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Keep it alive

in '75" was the Official Slogan of the Oakland A's that year, after they won it all in 1972 (against the Reds), '73 (Mets), and '74 (Dodgers). However, as anyone who remembers Carlton Fisk's famous Game 6 home run that year will know, "it" was not, in fact, kept alive. The next year they traded Reggie Jackson (against my better judgment, as I recall), and "it" was officially dead and buried.

Perhaps "it" lives on, however, in Philosophers' Carnival #75. Go check!

Sunday, July 27, 2008


... is the number of the latest Philosophers' Carnival. So since nothing seems to be happening here, you better go over there.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Manfred Frank makes an important distinction

In The Subject and the Text, currently available only in a shamefully expensive hardcover edition from Cambridge, Manfred Frank tries to show how well Friedrich Schleiermacher "lends himself to getting the dialogue moving" between certain contemporary philosophical movements.
[In a few countries] there have been fruitful discussions between positions of analytical philosophy and of phenomenological hermeneutics. But the few, timorous attempts to initiate a discussion between representatives of these two movements and French post-structuralist semiologists have met with almost no response. [p. 1]
I'm not sure I would characterize What is Neo-structuralism? as "timorous", exactly. Maybe he's referring to attempts other than his own. In any case, a footnote insists on an important distinction to be made here.
My respect for the representatives of this direction of thought calls for a distinction to be made between them and those befuddled opponents of enlightenment (allegedly) following in Foucault's footsteps and above all the intellectual Calibans of the 'Anti-Oedipus', whose garbled 'discourses' one can hardly study without experiencing the sort of pleasure that Schopenhauer felt when reading Hegel.
From my brief perusal of that volume some time ago, I don't remember What is Neo-structuralism? being so harsh on Deleuze. "Intellectual Calibans," phew! I wonder what exactly set him off.

And unfortunately Google Books allows only brief glimpses of The Subject and the Text. So we'll have to leave it at that for now.

Monday, July 14, 2008


This started out as another microreview, but it became both macro, on the one hand, and not so much a review of the book as another philosophical rant. Too bad, I should do more of the latter anyway.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman, is another pop-psych book, like Blink and The Tipping Point. It spends its time going over some things which may already be familiar, like the dollar auction (here, due to inflation, a twenty-dollar auction), group conformity experiments, the money-splitting experiment, etc. It's short, and these things are neat, so you might want to check it out. (That's the microreview part. On to the rant.)

Here are the authors on diagnosis bias. After relating how student evaluations of a visiting lecturer can depend to a surprising degree on whether the students are told in advance that he is regarded by others as "very warm" vs. "rather cold", they claim that this phenomenon extends as well to such things as dating, where we really might have thought we were reacting not to short descriptions we had heard in advance, but what we had experienced for ourselves over an entire evening:
[A] single word has the power to alter our whole perception of another person—and possibly sour the relationship before it even begins. When we hear a description of someone, no matter how brief, it inevitably shapes our experience of that person.
Fair enough, and of course this result is congenial to anyone suspicious of, say, the neutral Given. Here's their example (pp. 73-4):
Think how often we diagnose a person based on a casual description. Imagine you're set up on a blind date with a friend of a friend. When the big night arrives, you meet your date at a restaurant and make small talk while you wait for the appetizer to arrive. "So," you say, "what do you have planned for this weekend?" "Oh, probably what I do every weekend: stay home and read Hegel," your date responds with a straight face. Because your mutual friend described your date as "smart, funny, and interesting," you laugh, thinking to yourself that your friend was right, this person's deadpan sense of humor is right up your alley. And just like that, the date is off to a promising start. But what if the friend had described your date as "smart, serious, and interesting"? In that light, you might interpret the comment as genuine and instead think "How much Hegel can one person read?" Your entire perception of your date would be clouded; you'd spend the rest of dinner wracking your brain over the difference between Heidegger and Hegel and leave without ordering dessert.
Because of course no one who's smart, funny, and interesting could ever spend his or her weekends reading Hegel. That'd be crazy!

Seriously, though, the authors oversimplify. They make it sound like once you have preconceptions (which everyone does), you're irrevocably committed to a certain interpretation of your experience. This strikes me as a facile recoil from a naïve commitment to an impossible "objectivity" (in this sense, an ideal detachment from our subjective perceptions) to an implausible determinism, analogous to the relevant sense of "historicism," i.e., the sort of thing of which Gadamer is often accused by his realist critics.

As I read him, however, it is instead this recoil itself which is Gadamer's target (as well as Davidson's, mutatis mutandis). I'll put the point in Davidsonian terms, but if this isn't what Horizontverschmelzung is all about, then I'm not getting Gadamer at all (which is of course a possibility). The process of interpretation isn't simply one of gathering all your data as "objectively" as possible and (thus) only then engaging our subjective faculties to arrive at a possible meaning. It's interactive, in that we interact not only with other speakers, but also with the world. That is, interpretation (into meaning) and inquiry (into fact) are two aspects of the same process. We attribute belief and meaning to our interlocutor at the same time as confirming or modifying our own beliefs and meanings, and in conveying our interpretation to others (or simply manifesting it in our actions), we express our own beliefs and meanings simultaneously as well, for further interpreters to unpack, and so on.

This means that while our initial reactions may indeed depend (surprisingly) sensitively on our preconceptions – or "prejudices" (Vorurteile) as Gadamer provocatively calls them – we may find that modifying them will be necessary if we are to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation. In fact, again, since interpretation just is inquiry (and, crucially, vice versa), we can purposely tailor our interaction to subject our preconceptions, and (what Quine calls) our "analytical [semantic] hypotheses," to test.

Let's say I've been told my date is "serious." She deadpans that her weekends are dedicated to Hegel studies. Maybe I am indeed less likely to regard that comment as a joke than if she's been described to me as "funny." But that doesn't mean it's not a joke. In particular, I don't have to spend the rest of the date worrying about how I got stuck with such a geek (or, more likely in my case, about whether I should wait until the next date to propose marriage, or can I pop the question over dessert). Nor should I necessarily feel safe in laughing ironically, acknowledging her humor, if I've been told she's "funny." Maybe, although indeed funny, she's also a Hegel scholar, and to laugh at how she spends her weekends will be an insulting gaffe.

If there's any doubt – and why shouldn't there be some, as we've just met – I can just ask: "Really?" As with the original remark, here the right intonation can render this rejoinder perfectly noncommittal between acknowledging and continuing the joke, or taking it seriously and allowing an elaboration. Maybe I'll get
Yes, I'm currently rereading Glauben und Wissen – usually translated Faith and Knowledge, but "Glauben" means "belief" as well as "faith" – because I really think Hegel's conception of skepticism, especially early on, before the Phenomenology, is key to any really useful contemporary appropriation of his views.
Now I've learned something: she's probably serious (be still, my heart!). It could still be a joke; but even if so, I've learned that a) she knows something about Hegel, so she can't think it would be crazy to spend one's weekends on him; and b) her sense of humor is such as to try to squeeze every last drop of irony from one's facetious suggestions.

If I maintain my noncommittal tone, the ball begins to shift (if I may so abuse this metaphor) over to her court. If she's joking, she will probably eventually need some overt acknowledgment from me that I have so understood her. She may escalate the facetious scenario to more and more outrageous heights, to provoke an actual laugh. Maybe she'll tell me that she reads Kierkegaard in the shower, and puts Adorno's Negative Dialectics under her pillow at night in lieu of actually reading it. It would be a good idea for me to laugh at this point, if only to curtail a line of conversation which is providing diminishing humorous returns (or to confirm that she is in fact joking rather than very unusual indeed, and perhaps not as marriageable as all that). Or she'll laugh herself and acknowledge the joke, perhaps continuing in an overtly humorous rather than ironic vein. ("No, I'm kidding, I was a philosophy major, but now I'm all dialectic-ed out; actually I just use the Phenomenology to prop up the air conditioner.") And of course I might have gotten that last one as an immediate response to my initial "Really?"

My point is not that our interpretive preconceptions can be overcome with careful inquiry. Maybe they can, in particular cases, or even most; but a general claim to that effect would simply be a re-recoil back to a dogmatic commitment to ideal objectivity – a one-sided assimilation of interpretation to ("objective") inquiry, rather than a recognition of their interconstitutive nature. We hardly need chaos theory to tell us that the course of a conversation may well be significantly constrained by how it begins – we all know the experience of getting off on the wrong foot (i.e., and never regaining our footing). But significant constraint falls well short of determination. More to the point, our interpretive practices, qua doxastic as well as semantic, are designed precisely so that we may use the third point of the interpretive triangle, our shared yet objective world, as leverage.

This would also be a good time to note that Gadamer's ideal of Horizontverschmelzung is just that: a fusion of horizons, not anything more drastic. When we have so fused our horizons, we're still a) two different people; b) with (some) divergent beliefs; and c) (some) divergent linguistic dispositions. We have simply come to understand each other, to the degree appropriate to that judgment in the context. We've overcome what are interpretable in retrospect as obstacles; yet while we can now see ourselves as occupying the same space, we may still be standing as far away from each other as we started out. Which is why hermeneutic philosophy may not be so opposed to Wittgensteinian "quietism" as people think: in the former case as well as the latter, the idea is not so much to go somewhere as to find out where we are, even while allowing that doing so need not require that we stand stock-still in order to find our bearings. Of course, Wittgenstein himself could be clearer on this point ...

Allons enfants

Allons, c'est à dire, à la Bastille Day edition de la Carnivale des Philosophes. D'accord?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Existential generalization

The latest issue of Newsweek (billed as The (mostly) Big Thoughts Edition) features a Quiz whereby one may test one's knowledge of important matters. As usual, some of the questions are easy if one has, over the past decade, been avoiding Mars ["Which of the following [alcohol, carbohydrates, protein, fat] contains the most calories?"], and some of them only purport to test one's knowledge, as opposed to one's ability to guess ["Between 1980 and 2006, how many weather-related disasters caused more than $1 billion in damages at the time of the event?"].

One question, though, was neither of these. "How many presidents," the Quiz demands to know, "achieved the rank of general or higher?" Our options: 2, 3, 5, 7. First off, "higher"? I don't suppose they mean Commander-in-Chief, because then the answer would, I imagine, be 43 (or 42, if we only count Cleveland once). And the only reason that we know that it is Presidents of the U.S.A. whom we are looking for (so Charles De Gaulle doesn't count) is a big picture (not the one above), of our 18th President. Now of course once we've established what we're talking about, anyone over the age of 30 should be able to get two more of these guys right away, as we went to grade school back in the days when such facts were impressed upon us as the branding iron is impressed upon the helpless calf. But I digress.

And this indeed is Newsweek's own answer: the guy pictured, that guy, and that guy. No more. But there are more, aren't there?

As it happens, Wikipedia is a bit coy w/r/t a couple of them, and I'm not so motivated as to, like, get out biographies from the library. But the other guys were certainly generals. I await the outraged cries, in next week's letters section, of the editors of X's collected correspondence, and the curator of the Y estate.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Party pooper

Professor Brooks seems ambivalent about readers' suggestions for the latest Philosophers' Carnival:
Unfortunately, while not all will appear, a great many do.
This is a job for Language Log!

[Thanx to Daniel for the LL tip!]

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Microreviews born of stinginess

I have to take these books back to the library, so I better say something about them now or hold my peace at least until I can get them out again. Ten cents a day may not sound like much, but ... okay, well, it isn't much, but I'm cheap.

First we have The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, by Austin Dacey, who (the blurb tells us) has a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy. This is a fine entry into the religio-cultural wars, much better than those of either the Four Horsemen (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) or what Dawkins calls their "fleas" (A. McGrath, J. Haught, etc.). I have been particularly disappointed by the latter crew. When your opponents lob softballs in your direction, making a point of their ignorance (comparing theology to "fairy-ology" and bemoaning the expenditure of university resources on such inanities), you're supposed to take your time and hit them out of the park. But so far all I've seen is nonsense on the order of "science can't account for love." My word, I think we should be able to do better than that.

Dr. Dacey is a member of the secularist camp (The Secular Conscience is published by Prometheus Books). His main point is that secularists are wrong to demand the removal of religion from public life on the grounds that it is "a private matter." Such a demand not only alienates religious believers, denying them (as they rightly point out) the right to full participation in public life, but also shields religiously motivated claims from the (presumably) reasoned criticism of secular (and other religious) critics. Dacey explains this view in terms of the concept of conscience, which is an essentially public phenomenon: one's conscience is what tells one what to do, what moral stance to take in public matters. As a secularist, he presents this refreshingly anti-dualist argument in explicitly naturalistic terms, which bothers me slightly for reasons we need not go into here (basically, naturalists have a bit of work to do in order to be entitled to such arguments qua naturalistic; a minor point in this context, I suppose). On the other hand, if naturalists start to see a public/private dualism as something to avoid, then I'm all for it, and we can work the kinks out later. The book is very clearly written, and maybe I'll get it out again for a closer look later on.

Our second book is What is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Ed Regis. Dr. Regis is also a philosopher, and this small volume is a look back at Schrödinger's famous essay of the same name, from the perspective of recent attempts to create "living" cells in the laboratory. What, one might very well ask, are we even talking about here? Regis is also a very clear writer (see, analytic philosophy training is good for something), and the book combines a brief history, a provocative discussion of the central issues, and a peek into the contemporary laboratory.

Some of the history is devoted to giving forgotten innovators proper recognition, allowing the reader to drop the names (should one remember them with cocktail in hand) of Johann Friedrich Miescher (who first isolated what turned out to be DNA in 1869), Marshall Nirenberg (who discovered in 1961 that mRNA coded for proteins), and Santorio Santorio (a pioneer in the study of metabolism, whose 1614 treatise Ars de statica medicina was "arguably the first diet-craze book in history"). This last gentleman is introduced in a most interesting chapter called "ATP and the Meaning of Life," which will make you look at the Krebs cycle in a whole new way (that is, if you have an old one at all).

Metabolism, in fact, turns out, in Regis's view, to be the key factor in any workable definition of life. He rejects the pessimistic attitude which masquerades as a virtuous anti-essentialism, which would have us abandon the attempt to choose among "a wretched excess of competing definitions." In general, I agree that such virtue need not require that we throw up our hands in futility, and Regis makes a good case for metabolism, arguing against the "dormant spore" objection, the "candle flame" objection, and the "automobile" objection (use your imaginations). Yet at the end he admits that "this [definition] might have a rather short half-life" [heh heh].

Our third book returns us to the religio-cultural wars. You may have heard about this one, about which there has been a raging controversy. Antony Flew is yet another philosopher, and the purported author of There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. The book's cover matches the subtlety of its subtitle: over an inverted photograph of the man in question appear in red block capitals the words THERE IS NO GOD, with the NO scratched out and replaced with a handwritten "A". Then follows the subtitle, with the middle three words in bold. Directly underneath, nestled in Flew's hair, we have Francis S. Collins's blurb: "Towering and courageous.... Flew's colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized." Take that, you, you, ... atheists!

The controversy I mentioned concerns, as you might expect, the question of whether or to what extent Professor Flew is the author of this book at all. It's credited (in big letters) to Flew "with" (in smaller type) one Roy Abraham Varghese, about whom I know little, but he's apparently either an evangelist himself or closely associated with same. Not that that disqualifies him from co-writing this book, of course, given its purported content, but you can see how it might be troublesome if there's any question about Flew's competence. For that is indeed what critics assert: that unscrupulous fundies have exploited the man's supposedly diminished faculties for their own propagandistic ends, putting into his mouth all sorts of things he has never believed (see, e.g., here, and here, and here).

I'm not going to worry about all that, as I have no interest in Flew's reputation. (I do find it interesting that someone I have barely heard of is hailed by enthusiastic blurbers (i.e., the usual suspects) as "one of the leading analytical philosophers of the twentieth century", a "major thinker," and "a stellar philosophical mind" – now, at least, that he has come over to their way of thinking. But let's let that pass.) Surely Flew suffers from at least some deficit; what philosopher allows a work which purports to signal a major shift in doctrine – or anything else for that matter – to be written by someone else? Whether or not the views expressed here are actually his, it would beg the question to appeal to Flew's apparently diminished cognitive powers as showing that the arguments presented in this text are lame. For that we need to take a look at the text itself.

As it happens, that's all we need to do. Whoever its author, There is no a God is embarrassingly awful, even by the woeful standards of analytic philosophy of religion. Only two thirds of it (158 large-fonted pages) is Flew's text; there are two appendices, one a bilious attack on the "New Atheism" by Varghese, the other an earnest apology (billed as a "dialogue" with theologian N. T. Wright, but Wright does virtually all of the talking) for the divinity of Jesus, based on the compelling evidence of ... the empty tomb. The first half of Flew's contribution is biographical (then I had a debate with so-and-so, in which I argued in such-and-such a manner), followed by brief and bizarrely quotation-ridden outlines of the usual familiar theistic talking points, complete with chatty, pointlessly long-winded apologetic parables ("Imagine entering a hotel room on your next vacation. [...] You glance into the bathroom, where personal care and grooming products are lined up on the counter, each one as if it was chosen specifically for you [etc., etc.]"), and innumerable self-righteous affirmations that he, unlike some people, is committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead.

Not all of this material is jaw-droppingly stupid, but there's certainly nothing new here. I won't go over it all (use your imagination), but I did want to share one bit that quite literally left me agape (no pun intended). In 2004, Flew tells us, he announced at the beginning of what was to have been a debate on the matter, that he "now accepted the existence of a God," agreeing with another symposiast that "recent work on the origin of life pointed to the activity of a creative Intelligence." (No, that's not the stupid part. Hold on, it's coming.)
I was particularly impressed with Gerry Schroeder's point-by-point refutation of what I call the "monkey theorem." This idea, which has been presented in a number of forms and variations, defends the possibility of life arising by chance using the analogy of a multitude of monkeys banging away on computer keyboards and eventually ending up writing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Schroeder first referred to an experiment conducted by the British National Council of Arts. A computer was placed in a cage with six monkeys.
I can't even write all this out; it's too gruesome. Many entirely pointless mathematical-sounding calculations later:
After hearing Schroeder's presentation, I told him that he had very satisfactorily and decisively established that the "monkey theorem" was a load of rubbish, and that is was particularly good to do it with just a sonnet [...]. If the theorem won't work for a single sonnet, then of course it's simply absurd to suggest that the more elaborate feat of the origin of life could have been achieved by chance.
Yikes. I think that's the worst of it, but if you do choose to read this book: you have been warned.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Alaaf to you too

Travel to The Ends of Thought and behold the marvels of the Philosophers' Karneval!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Threescore and ten

-th Philosophers' Carnival, that is. Check out the photo of Kripke and Fodor (plus two other guys)!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Davidson and Gadamer

Recently a few friends stopped by to discuss Davidson, and Clark brought up Derrida's criticism of Gadamer, which he thought might be similar to Dummett's criticism of Davidson (i.e., as committed to something unpleasant or other, I didn't really get it). We ended up talking past each other – I don't get Derrida at all – but I did want to say a few things about the comparison on the one end between Davidson and Gadamer.

I imagine that some of our trouble came from the fact, as I did mention in that discussion, that Derrida's criticism is directed at Gadamer, not Davidson, so it's not really appropriate to speak Davidsonian in response, as I was doing. The similarities between the two are undeniable, but of course that doesn't make the two positions identical. In his article in Gadamer's Century, McDowell defends the two against charges of relativism, of which he takes them both to be innocent for pretty much the same reasons, and so in that context it's easy to elide the differences and just regard Gadamer as one of the good guys. I shouldn't do that.

But as Clark was describing it, Derrida's charge seems not to be one of relativism, but instead of dogmatism. Where we assume that communication is successful (such that our task is to explain how such a thing is possible), it may yet be that there is instead a "radical rupture" of some (necessarily) mysterious kind. This claim sounds to me like the ontological cum semantic equivalent of Cartesian radical epistemological doubt: offended by our seeming complacency concerning the apparent smoothness of typical conversation, the skeptical soixante-huitard imp hops in with dire warnings of ruptures and fissures and cracks, oh my!

Naturally Davidson comes in for a version of these charges as well (if not from Dummett; cf. Stroud and C. McGinn, who reject, on Cartesian grounds, the anti-skeptical consequences of Davidson's account of interpretation and belief), but Gadamer's case is a bit different. From Habermas, as one might expect, the charge against Gadamer took a characteristic form: if our conception of an objective world is limited by our cultural/linguistic horizons, then we won't have the detachment necessary to perform Critique. We dogmatically assume the world is as we have traditionally construed it, and even when we open our horizons up to achieve Horizontverschmelzung (I love that word) with the Other, we still don't acknowledge the absolute otherness of the objective world: now we both "could be wrong" about it. (Or something like that; I can go look.) Incidentally, people have been known to say the same thing about Wittgenstein, or at least "Winchgenstein."

But now two things occur to me about that. First, that accusation does indeed sound like Stroud's criticism of Davidson. And second, this criticism is pretty similar to that directed at Gadamer's supposed relativism (think, for example, of the various definitions – that is, by opponents – of "historicism"): Gadamer is held to claim that our beliefs are culturally determined (dogmatism), so the denizens of the various cultures never reach out to an objective world, rendering them equal in their futility (relativism). This makes sense, in that that Janus-faced flaw is absent from Davidson and (as I've been able to read him so far) Gadamer as well, and telling the proper story about interpretation can bring both of these things out at the same time (as in McDowell's article). I mean, seriously, if Gadamer were really interested simply in retreating from realism to relativism, Truth and Method wouldn't need to be 600 pages long. The tough part is drawing the proper consequences from a) the linguistic structure of cultural tradition and b) the plurality of same in a single objective world. The optimistic thought of Davidsonian Gadamerians is that T & M contains a helpful post-Heideggerian analogue to Davidson's rejection of the scheme-content dualism. But I haven't even read it, so I wouldn't know. (Maybe Malpas's article in Gadamer's Century can tell us.)

Still, if Derrida's criticism were similar to Habermas's, then maybe Gadamer would have said so (and thus not respond, as Daniel paraphrases him in comments, with "Huh?"). But I've never read that exchange, as I've heard before that it was a total train wreck.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

More brain food (Davidson and Deleuze)

John Protevi informs us that his entry on Gilles Deleuze is now up at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Better delayed than at no time!

Also, while I was over there at SEP I stopped by the Davidson entry by Jeff Malpas. Nothing new there, except that I followed the link to his website, where he has posted a number of papers (scroll all the way down), including a couple on Davidson and/or Gadamer, as well as (oh, happy day) the complete text of a newly revised edition of his book on Davidson, which is now entitled Davidson's Holism: Epistemology in the Mirror of Meaning. Here's a snip from the intro:
[T]he holism that is the central focus for my account became an increasingly important, if sometimes still under-developed, theme in Davidson’s own writing over the last fifteen years or so. The idea of triangulation, in particular, which can itself be seen as a development out of the notion of charity, and the associated idea of the indispensability of a notion of objectivity in understanding, is particularly significant in this regard. In triangulation, arguably the central idea in Davidson’s later writing, the idea of what I here termed ‘psychological holism’ (which on my account is seen as itself incorporating an externalist commitment) can be seen as being developed through the notion of the interdependence, not only of the attitudes and behavior of individual agents and speakers, but also of the concepts of the subjective, the objective and the intersubjective.
Tell it, brother! I took the original version of this book out of the library once during my early acquaintance with Davidson's work, but (heh heh) never got to it. Again, better delayed, &c.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Three Shadows

First Second (:01) is a primo arty comix imprint that just gets better and better. Recently I've read and enjoyed the cleverly meta The Fate of the Artist, the utterly charming The Professor's Daughter, Malaysian cartoonist Lat's Kampung Boy, a peek into another world (I see the second one is out now), and the almost unbearably moving Laika. Now comes Cyril Pedrosa's exquisite Three Shadows, featuring richly detailed and expressive line drawings and a thrilling, poignant tale of magic and loss. Check 'em all out!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Free food (brain variety)

In case you missed it (as I did, although I think someone may have mentioned it at some point), the April 2008 issue of the European Journal of Philosophy is free online. Some interesting stuff!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Davidson and Dummett

In Davidson's response ("The Social Aspect of Language") to Michael Dummett's criticism of Davidson's 1986 article "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," he says that "what bothers Michael is [...] my failure to appreciate that the concept of a speaker meaning something by what he says depends on the notion of a shared language and not the other way around" (Truth, Language, and History, p. 111). Naturally I agree with Davidson here; but I do have a few concerns about some of the sub-morals to be drawn. I intend to talk about those concerns eventually, but first let me deal with a broader issue, which is that Dummett doesn't seem to have any idea what Davidson is talking about, something which (as you can imagine) renders his criticism somewhat ineffective.

Apparently Dummett thinks that in speaking this way Davidson violates Wittgensteinian strictures against "private languages". But an idiolect isn't the same thing as a "private language" at all. Wittgenstein's target in those famous sections of PI is the Cartesian idea that one can fix the meaning of one's own words by a form of "inner ostension" – that I can as it were "point" to some "inner" mental item and say "when I say X I mean that." This is a fairly specific manifestation of the more general Cartesian picture which has been Wittgenstein's target from the beginning of the book.

As an aside: this can help explain a strange phenomenon in contemporary attitudes toward Philosophical Investigations. Most analytic philosophers who deal with Wittgenstein at all regard the first quarter or so of the book as nothing more than throat-clearing and hand-waving. That's why Kripke's book had such an impact. It said: when most people think of PI, they think of the Private Language Argument. But there's some stuff before that (i.e., the rule-following considerations), of which the PLA is just a specific instance! Well, yes (duh); but with that in mind, perhaps we might keep going back before §142 (imagine that) to find the real core of the book. On this latter reading, the PLA, while interesting, in one sense doesn't really tell us anything we couldn't already have guessed. The book's real subject is the more general (and deep-seated, so much so as to be virtually invisible) Cartesian attitude, and what it takes to render it both visible and treatable at the same time (which turns out not to be as easy as it sounds, as the two tend to get in each other's way).

Now Davidson doesn't make as big a deal about his anti-Cartesianism as Rorty does (his own or Davidson's), which is ironic as Davidson's is the more effective version. But in any case, it would surely be odd for Davidson to set up his entire interpretive system as he does specifically to avoid the Cartesian "inner" – and then fail to notice that he falls into what by that point in PI is a fairly straightforward manifestation of that idea.

But of course he doesn't do this. "Idiolect" is Davidson's term for that structured set of linguistic dispositions attributed by an interpreter to a particular person at a particular time and place. The basis for these attributions, in Davidson's account, is of course the interpreter's observations of, and interactions with, the interlocutor in question, over a period of time. It is not new to "Nice Derangement," but goes back to "Radical Interpretation" and other mid-70's papers, that such attributions of a person's meanings cannot be delivered independently of attributing beliefs to him at the same time – and this requires shared interactions with an objective world. There is no question of meaning's dependence on a purely subjective "inner."

The worry about "inner" ostension of meanings was the typically Cartesian one that for all we know from the "outside," someone might mean something entirely different from the meaning we attribute to him on the basis of his verbal and physical behavior (and our own understanding of our shared environment). Dummett's criticism amounts to the charge that in making the idea of a "shared language" dependent on attributions of meaning achievable without previous agreement (i.e. "linguistic conventions"), Davidson leaves open a very real possibility of attributing to a speaker some meanings he had not "agreed to" and might therefore have his own ("internal"?) ideas about. Or something – I don't even see room for such criticism here, but it must be something like that or the PLA couldn't come up at all.

For this is exactly wrong. The whole point of "Nice Derangement" is to account for the manifest success of communication and understanding, even in cases, such as malapropisms, where such success cannot be accounted for by the traditional model (of previously established linguistic conventions). Of course, in any particular case, you may simply deny that understanding has indeed occurred – just as you may feel obliged to say of any of my beliefs that they "might be false"; but part of Davidson's point is that such skepticism about meaning would manifest exactly the sort of theoretically-driven perversity as does Cartesian skepticism about belief.

In any case an "idiolect" is precisely not a "private language." In attributing meanings to a speaker, I thereby indicate that they are shared: we have used his language to communicate. In this sense, defining a "sociolect" such as English or Flemish is, as Davidson elaborates Dummett's complaint, "the philosophically rather unimportant task of grouping idiolects". Naturally languages of this sort are "shared"; but at the more fundamental level, the sharing in question is not at all dependent on the sort of "linguistic conventions" one uses to make the broader, relatively (conceptually!) straightforwardly empirical charaterizations of languages made by linguists.

Now it may seem as if idealism or instrumentalism threatens here, as if I have denied the very possibility of "getting someone wrong." You might think this if, like Dummett, you thought that only (pre-existing) shared rules can provide objective grounding for attributions of meaning. But this is false. Naturally, again, you may dispute my attribution of certain meanings to our informant's utterances; but that just means that you are not satisfied that communication has occurred, i.e., you feel that we interpreters need to continue the process of interpretation further – that I have jumped the gun. And again, just as in the other skeptical case, what you may not do is allow that communication has occurred, but that (due to the lack of previously established agreement about meaning), my attributions are somehow still suspect. It's like saying "yes, we should believe that P; but is it really true?" Compare: "yes, you two succeeded in communicating; but is that what he really meant?" In either case, to ask this is to grant something in one breath and take it back in the next (not good).

Of course people say that first thing too. And this last bit (about the parallel) is my line, not Davidson's. Davidson doesn't say much about epistemology, which leads him into some trouble by my lights, but we'll leave that for another time.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

There'll always be an England

A right clever quip from the BBC:
A man who allegedly photographed more than 3,000 women's bottoms as they toured Venice has been arrested.

The man was stopped after police became suspicious of a large bag he was carrying as he followed women through St Mark's Square.

He has been charged with infringement of privacy. It is a cheeky crime, which could earn this 38-year-old Italian from six months to four years in jail.
I say! Quite! This reminds me of an interview with Brian Eno, in which the interviewer brings up Eno's self-documented fondness for what the interviewer (a Yank, no doubt) referred to as "women's bums" – to which a horrified Eno replied, "'bottoms'! Please!"

Stop me before I descend into talk of Sinn and Bedeutung...

More Rorty links (plus two bonuses!)

A sociological explanation of Rorty's philosophical development (book review interview with author)

Raymond Geuss on Rorty (complete with reference to Stalker)

Rorty and Davidson in conversation (video)

Bonus #1: an older Davidson interview

Bonus #2: Philosophers' Carnival #69 (somewhat abbreviated this time, methinks)

(ht: Adam K, Leiter, Tom, Dan)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Open sesame

The 68th Philosophers' Carnival has an Open Source theme. If you don't know what that means, then click you must.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The relevance of Wittgenstein to ... well, never mind what

Earlier today, Brian Leiter linked to this blistering salvo, which would be of little interest to those of us who do not care whether what Andrew Sullivan says about William Kristol reveal the former to be an anti-semite, except that all of a sudden, an impassioned debate broke out in the comments about ... Wittgenstein's influence on contemporary analytic philosophy. Much of this is familiar (Jason Stanley drops by to disparage Hegel), but some of us (I include myself) can't get enough. Check it out!

UPDATE [4/28]: Phew. N interlocutors, N + 1 opinions about Wittgenstein. See also here (not sure if it's a propos or just timely).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Library book sale, pt. 2: the anticlimax

After the excitement narrated in my previous post, in which much fun was had in the Religion section of the book sale, we turn to the remainder of the current haul. The next port of call was the Literature section, where I found this:

Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation and other essays (1966)

Most of these essays are on stuff that was hip at the time. e.g., Godard, Bresson, Camus, Lukács, Weil, Ionesco, Resnais, Artaud, and Norman O. Brown. The title essay was supposed to be controversial, but what she seems actually to be arguing against looks pretty lame, making her thesis relatively commonsensical:
Of course, I don't mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, "There are no facts, only interpretations." By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain "rules" of interpretation.

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really—or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C? [...] The modern style of interpretation [as in Marx and Freud] excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.
Sounds nasty, all right. Note the offhand "(rightly)" in the first paragraph. Somehow I don't trust Ms. Sontag to be able to tell us what sense that is, in which N. is right, especially as she gets the quote wrong: it's not "there are no facts," (as of course there are facts), but "there are no 'facts'", where I take the scare quotes, in the spare and artificial context of The Will to Power, to indict, not the objectivity of the real world, but instead the hyperobjectivity of Platonism. FWIW; I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that overanalyzed little snippet either way.

Next we have:

Italo Calvino – The Uses of Literature: Essays (1986)

I like Calvino's fiction (Invisible Cities, If on a winter's night a traveler); maybe if I read this one I'll stop mixing him up with Umberto Eco. One of the essays is called "Philosophy and Literature." After starting off with just those two, he continues:
What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.
A three-way, eh? (Those Europeans!)

Kathleen Coburn, ed. – Coleridge: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967)

I think I've already snagged the Sartre and Emerson volumes in this series (Twentieth Century Views), which must have come out later, as they're not listed on the back cover with the earlier ones, which are more traditionally literary, albeit wideranging (Jonson to Beckett). In the final essay in this one, Dorothy M. Emmet discusses Coleridge's interest in Kant et al:
My own view is that this philosophy [German Idealism] gave [Coleridge] a general intellectual apparatus with the help of which he tried to say what he had to say and to give a more systematic appearance to his empirical discoveries, but that he was not concerned to make himself into a post-Kantian idealist on the German model. True, in the collection of extracts from the notebooks called Anima Poetae, he says "In the preface of my metaphysical works, I should say: 'Once for all, read Kant, Fichte, etc., and then you will trace, or, if you are on the hunt, track me.'" But here he is answering charges of plagiarism, and seeking to make a kind of omnibus acknowledgment while saying at the same time that the thoughts had been his own before he had heard of these writers. in any cas the track of Coleridge is more complex than Kant and Fichte: among other paths it leads along the road to Xanadu.
Wild woodcut-ish drawing of the Ancient Mariner on the cover. Here's another take, by Hunt Emerson:

Moving right along, next I moved myself right along to the Sociology section, where I found:

Raymond Aron – Main Currents in Sociological Thought II: Durkheim, Pareto, Weber (1970)

Volume I, just for the record, features Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, and "the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848". From the preface of vol. II:
I must force myself to recognize the merits, however splendid, of Durkheim, whereas Max Weber never irritates me even when I feel most remote from him. As for Pareto, he no longer provokes me to any strong reaction one way or the other.
I think we can all relate to that. Right next to the Sociology section was the Science section (usually slim pickings there, mostly way out of date), where I picked up:

David Bodanis – The Secret Family: Twenty-four Hours Inside the Mysterious World of Our Minds and Bodies (1997)

Our author knowing a good thing when he sees it, this book is a sequel to The Secret House and The Secret Garden. These books all feature a wealth of bizarre tidbits of information, usually about what's going on at the microlevel of whatever he's talking about. This provides an excuse for lots of colorful thermograms and photomicrographs and whatnot. For example, the back cover shows sweat droplets, the hottest and coolest areas of a woman's body, the liquid glue on the back of a yellow post-it note, and "monolithic slabs of vitamin C." If any of our family had basal cell carcinoma, on the other hand, we'd probably see this one (courtesy of the Loyola University Medical Education Network:

I was ready to go at this point, but the next one happened to catch my eye on the way out.

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections (2001)

This guy was in my class at college (I think; I never met him). I borrowed this book once, but never got to it. Could be a while, but at least now I have it.

And just for good measure, while checking out I grabbed one more:

Samantha Ettus, ed. – The Experts' Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do (2004)

I'm not convinced that all of these things are such that everyone needs to know how to do them (swing a golf club?), but some of them look useful, and there are some amusing celebrity cameos. Here's Tucker Carlson on how to tie a bow tie. After the complicated technical stuff, there's this:
5. Tighten by pulling on the opposite folded ends. Adjust by fiddling. This is the subjective, artistic phase of the process. You may opt for the loose, floppy glass-of-cognac-in-the-morning Churchill look; the precision-perfect Fruit of Islam, Farrakhan-bodyguard look; or somewhere in between. As in life, somewhere in between is probably best.

6. Admire handicraft in mirror.

7. Consider whether you really want to do this. Keep in mind that when you wear a bow tie, people will make assumptions about you, and probably should. The good news is, you'll never commit adultery when you wear a bow tie; you won't have the opportunity. The bad news is, strangers will snicker at you in airports. Is it worth it? Only you can be the judge.
Or your wife, I imagine.

That's all, folks! See you in October!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Library book sale!

It's that time of year again! (Actually they do it twice a year, April and October.) Let's see if I can remember the order in which I picked them up.

Right off the bat I headed to the Religion section – because that's where the philosophy books would be if there are any this time. The first book I snagged was not one of these.

Martin Marty – Martin Luther (2004)

This is from the Penguin Lives series of biographies. I read the Proust one, which was pretty good. I look forward to learning from Professor Marty where exactly "here" is, where Luther was standing (metaphorically speaking). And of course I'm always up for a good Diet of Worms joke (yuk!)

Ralph Walker – Kant (1999)
Roger Scruton – Spinoza (1999)

These are from the Routledge series "The Great Philosophers". Even at six bucks (list price; I paid 15 cents), they're kind of a rip (50+ short pages), but some of them are interesting. I've got the Schopenhauer, Derrida, and Collingwood ones already (never gotten to them in fact, but the Collingwood one looks good, by Aaron Ridley I think). Walker's essay is on the moral philosophy, while Scruton's is a general intro to his guy.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila By Herself (1562, trans. 1957)

Another Penguin book, this time a Penguin Classic, with the Bernini sculpture on the cover. Check out the typically off-the-wall episode on that work in Simon Schama's series Power of Art. (I haven't seen the Van Gogh episode, with Andy Serkis; that ought to be good – "the crowses, they wants us, gollum!").

Right, St. Teresa. The famous sculpture depicts her recumbent; but as you may know, that wasn't always the case, as editor J. M. Cohen recounts in his introduction:
There are several descriptions by her fellow nuns of moments when they saw her with glowing features, writing as if at a heavenly dictation. But not all the supernatural states that possessed Teresa were equally welcome to her. She herself tells how, in prayer, she would be lifted into the air, to her own consternation and to the alarm of those sisters who were praying beside her in the choir.

These mysterious levitations were matched after her death by the equally mysterious incorruptibility of her body. Both are well-known phenomena which occur in the histories of many saints and that can only be accounted for by some actual change in the physical structure that takes place at the same time as spiritual transformation. In Teresa's case the fragrance that surrounded her uncorrupted body led to most disgraceful results. In the wild rush to acquire sacred relics, various of her limbs were torn from her corpse. Her old friend Father Gracián, who had only lately so disappointed her by failing to accompany her on a journey, inaugurated her dismemberment by cutting off one of her hands.
Eww. The next book I espied was a nondescript-looking volume with a plain brown cover:

Swami Vivekananda – Jnana-Yoga (1961)

This is from the Advaita Ashrama imprint out of Calcutta (price: Rs. 3/4). According to Wikipedia, Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 (an anti-Yankee Doodle Dandy, died on the Fourth of July), and introduced Yoga to America at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Here are the last two stanzas of the opening selection, "The Song of the Sannyasin":
Few only know the truth. The rest will hate
And laugh at thee, great one; but pay no heed.
Go thou, the free, from place to place and help
Them out of darkness, Maya's veil. Without
The fear of pain or search for pleasure, go
Beyond them both, Sannyasin bold! Say––
"Om Tat Sat, Om!"

Thus, day by day, till Karma's powers spent
Release the soul for ever. No more is birth,
Nor I, nor thou, nor God, nor man. The "I"
Has All become, the All is "I" and Bliss.
Know thou art That, Sannyasin bold! Say––
"Om Tat Sat, Om!"
I assume "Om Tat Sat" means something like "Tat Tvam Asi" (thou art that; though apparently on one interpretation it means "thou art not that". Go figure.).

Michelle Goldberg – Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2007)

The cover blurbs on this one use phrases like "civil liberties under siege by holy rollers," "take over America," "potent wake-up call," and "terrifying," as well as a lot of other heavy breathing. I dunno. I guess I'll read it though. It's pretty short.

Mark Epstein, M. D. – Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness; Lessons from Meditation and Psychotherapy (1998)

I think one subtitle is plenty here. Anyway, it seems that "the Western notion of self is deeply flawed [...] Happiness comes from letting go." This looks to be breezy personal reflections rather than a learned tome.

Robert Linssen – Living Zen (trans. 1958 (from French))

This one, on the other hand, seems to be more in the learned tome mode. From the Introductory Note:
If Zen is approached with the usual mental attitude, it will seem quite incomprehensible. Our average Western intellectuality would consider its paradoxical language simply as a play upon words. Its full significance is revealed only when we approach it in a different manner, making our minds available to the new processes of inner perception which it suggests. [following sentence underscored by previous owner] A certain flexibility of thought is necessary so that the study of a new subject may be fruitful and revealing.
Later on [p. 81]:
Reality Transcends the Duality of 'Mobile and Immobile'

A clarification of our views on the problem of movement is desirable. Without this there might seem to be a number of contradictions.

It may be said with good reason, that movement is a function of time. As Kant expressed it: 'We create time ourselves as a function of our receptive apparatus.'

This is obvious.

Therefore we must make it clear that in the preceeding lines we have considered movement as the essence of phenomenal reality.

The complete Reality of the universe includes the phenomenon and the noumenon. It is neither movement, as we know it in the manifested universe, nor immobility, as suggested by the mind (that is to say the notion of immobility in opposition to our idea of movement).

It is obvious that Reality Itself, in its entirety, is beyond the traditional oppositions of mobility and immobility.

Moreover these divisions are arbitrary. The experience of Satori is a result of emancipation from the arbitrary practice of partitioning our mind.

It is absolutely useless and vain to try and imagine or think of a reality that includes and dominates at the same time the two aspects of mobile and immobile. All discussion in this field leads us astray.

Got that? Write that down. (As John A. Davison would say.)

Nice Zen garden on the cover. (Not this one though.)

Mortimer Adler – Six Great Ideas (Special TV Issue, 1981)

That part about this being a TV Issue refers to the genesis of this book in interviews with Bill Moyers (fun fact: Moyers was LBJ's press secretary for two and a half years). Check out the back-cover picture of Adler with Moyers in Aspen, both perched on what I can only assume is the latter's motorcycle. Holy frijoles, what a time capsule. The hair, the leisure suit, the goofy grin – Bill, Bill. The eighty-ish Adler looks comparatively distinguished in his frumpy suit pants (no jacket or tie; it's probably hot out), gesturing forward past Moyers's unheeding rightward-facing pose, as if to say, get us out of here, you freak.

As for the text, I think last time I picked up Adler's Ten Philosophical Mistakes, believing that one to have more entertainment value. But I'm sure that since one of the G. I.s here is "Truth", this one will have its, uh, moments as well. At least this one doesn't bill Adler, as I believe the other one does, as "America's Foremost Philosopher." Dear God, could that ever have been true?? The mind reels.

Basil Willey – The English Moralists (1964, paperback ed. 1967)

The title phrase appears on the cover of this book no fewer than five times, as if someone is practicing calligraphy or something. Whatever. It actually begins with Plato and Aristotle (who were not English at all), but by chapter 9 the author feels that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter Bacon, followed by Hobbes, the Cambridge Platonists, Sir Thomas Browne (a mere "note" for this guy), Locke, Shaftesbury, Addison, Hume, Chesterfield, Burke, and Coleridge.

Whew, that's enough for now. That was just the Religion section. Tune in next week (or whenever I get to it) for the rest.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Route 66

The route to Philosophers' Carnival #66 begins here.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Axis of rotation

In an attempt to avoid an unprecendented situation in which three successive posts linked to Philosophers' Carnivals, I have determined to post today. The reason I haven't been posting is (naturally) not that I have too few ideas, but that I have too many (plus philosophical, or at least bloggy, or maybe even honest-to-goodness, ADD). I've also been reading books, of the dead-tree variety. I just finished Axis, the second in (what will be) Robert Charles Wilson's Spin trilogy. As Amazon reviewers point out, it suffers a bit from second-in-a-trilogy syndrome, in which you have to move the arc along (on the one hand) while leaving something for the bang-up finish (on the other), while still telling a coherent, relatively stand-alone story on the third hand. (Remember, The Lord of the Rings isn't a trilogy, but one long book broken into three volumes by the publisher.)

I won't go into the plot, except vaguely, but if you liked Spin, you will want to read this one too. (If you haven't, stop reading this now and read that instead.) We don't find out that much about the mysterious Hypotheticals (and something tells me he's not exactly going to spill all in the finale either), but of course since the whole business revolves around them, everything weird that happens is related to them in some way. The events take place on the far side of the Arch which our heroes pass through at the end of the first book, but some time has passed since then, and the novelty of the Spin, and that of the colonization of the new planet, has worn off somewhat. In fact, a lot of the new generation doesn't seem particularly interested in all that stuff, as their entire lives have taken place post-Spin. The two main characters in Axis are typical damaged souls in the Wilson mold (q.v. Blind Lake and The Chronoliths as well as Spin itself), but there are other new faces as well, and our heroes from the first book are not forgotten (I better stop there).

I've also been reading some uncharacteristic material as well, which I don't want to blog about until I have something I know I want to say. Definitely thought-provoking though!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Erin go bragh

Philosophers' Carnival, St. Patrick's Day edition. G'wan with ye now, and check it out!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Number 64

Philosophers' Carnival #64, that is. And the Great Title award this time goes to [rustle rustle] ... Practical Ethics, for "Come Mr Branson Mon, Tally me Biofuel". Nice one!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

All hail teh internets

I was reading this thread at Leiter's about the nature of philosophy (glad to see people thinking about that, but I wasn't too jazzed about any of the answers there), and a mention of David Lewis reminded me that I had always thought there was an interesting comparison between Lewis's modal realism and Deleuze's conception of the virtual (unfortunately, I'm not well-versed enough in either to make anything of that myself). So I thought, huh, let's see what Google has to say about "Deleuze virtual David Lewis". First result = a pdf of the fifth paper on this page, entitled "Deleuze and Lewis on the real, the virtual, and the possible". Bingo! Not only that, this paper turns out to be a chapter from this book, the full text of which is available in pdf form at that second link, along with a lot of related material. Now if I just had time to read it ...

Also, random link-following has revealed that another discussion of the a priori is taking place here. Check it out!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Aspect blindness as ominous portent of Great Cthulhu's imminent return

I see the page 123 meme has come around again. (See here for last time. Which reminds me, I should finish labeling my archived posts.) Daniel (my tagger) has a good one (as in relevant to the blog's content), but (in that respect) it will be hard to beat this one – yikes, that's creepy.

Speaking of creepy, check this out. I don't want to obey the rules this time, since I haven't moved the books from the last book sale off of my desk, and we've already heard something (something more entertaining than p. 123, I can assure you) from The Golden Bough. So this is 123/5 from another book I'm currently reading:
If someone had come then to lead me away to a place of execution I would have gone meekly, without a word, without so much as opening my eyes, just as people who suffer from violent seasickness, if they are crossing the Caspian Sea on a steamer, for instance, will not offer the slightest resistance should someone tell them that they are about to be thrown overboard.
No, it's not H. P. Lovecraft, though this whole passage does sound pretty overheated out of context (that's some simile, isn't it?). I actually prefer the rules of the previous go-round, which told you simply to give the one sentence, letting us guess the context. This time we are told to provide three more sentences, which is a bit less fun; but let's go ahead anyway, and see if we can't give Tom (above) a run for his money.

The cause of our man's malaise, it turns out, is writer's block:
Whatever was going on within me, said Austerlitz, the panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangement of parts of speech, punctuation, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog.
Whew! Glad I wasn't reading Proust. But let's go on – he's just getting warmed up:

I could not even understand what I myself had written in the past—perhaps I could understand that least of all. All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us. The very thing which may usually convey a sense of purposeful intelligence—the exposition of an idea by means of a certain stylistic facility—now seemed to me nothing but an entirely arbitrary or deluded enterprise. I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature, and the sight of it increasingly filled me with feelings of horror and shame.
Wow. Bet you didn't see that coming! (Great book, btw.)

I don't feel like tagging anyone, but if anyone wants to join in, go ahead.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hacker on Quine

As I mentioned in my last post, this one is about Hacker's paper "Passing By the Naturalistic Turn: On Quine's Cul-de-sac" (which is, again, available on his website). In this paper, unlike (say) Grice & Strawson's defenses of analyticity, Hacker's criticism of Quine takes a particularly broad form. As the title indicates, his subject is "the naturalistic turn," as pointedly opposed to "the a priori methods of traditional philosophy". The paper discusses three aspects of Quinean naturalism: naturalized epistemology, "ontological" naturalism, and, most broadly, "philosophical" naturalism. Hacker defines this last as
the view that [in Quine's words] philosophy is 'not ... an a priori propaedeutic or groundwork for science, but [is] ... continuous with science' [...] In the USA it is widely held that with Quine's rejection of 'the' analytic/synthetic distinction, the possibility of philosophical or conceptual analysis collapses, the possibility of resolving philosophical questions by a priori argument and elucidation is foreclosed, and all good philosophers turn out to be closet scientists. (MS p. 2)
For the record, Hacker believes that regardless of what Quine's arguments show about "the" analytic/synthetic distinction, the philosophical project of "conceptual analysis" is not threatened:
The thought that if there is no distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, then philosophy must be 'continuous' with science rests on the false supposition that what was thought to distinguish philosophical propositions from scientific ones was their analyticity. That supposition can be challenged in two ways. First, by showing that characteristic propositions that philosophers have advanced are neither analytic nor empirical [but still a priori]. Secondly, by denying that there are any philosophical propositions at all.

Strikingly, the Manifesto of the Vienna Circle, of which Carnap was both an author and signatory, pronounced that ‘the essence of the new scientific world-conception in contrast with traditional philosophy [is that] no special “philosophic assertions” are established, assertions are merely clarified’. [The Scientific Conception of the World: the Vienna Circle (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1973), p. 18] According to this view, the result of good philosophizing is not the production of analytic propositions peculiar to philosophy. Rather it is the clarification of conceptually problematic propositions and the elimination of pseudo-propositions. (p. 3)

[So instead of being "continuous" with science, Hacker claims, philosophy is] categorially distinct from science, both in its methods and its results. The a priori methods of respectable philosophy are wholly distinct from the experimental and hypothetico-deductive methods of the natural sciences, and the results of philosophy logically antecede the empirical discoveries of science. They cannot licitly conflict with the truth of scientific theories – but they may, and sometimes should, demonstrate their lack of sense. (p. 4)
Myself, I never thought that the point about "continuity," about which naturalists make so very much, was that helpful. "Continuity" is cheap. Sure philosophy is "continuous" with science; but it's also "continuous" with art, literature, religion, law, politics, and, I don't know, sports. But I am being perverse here. Let me try instead to be not-perverse.

As previous posts (not just recently but going back to distant 2005) may or may not have made clear, I want 1) to follow Wittgenstein in not only distinguishing philosophy from empirical inquiry (scientific or not), but also seeing it (in some contexts, for certain purposes) as an activity of provoking us into seeing differently what we already knew, by means of (among other things) carefully chosen reminders of same; but at the same time 2) to follow Davidson in pressing Quine to extend and (significantly!) modify the line of thought begun in "Two Dogmas," one which recasts empiricism in a linguistic light and purges it of certain dualisms left over from the positivistic era.

What we've seen so far is that Hacker and Quine are in firm agreement that I can't have it both ways. Either there's a solid "categorical" wall between philosophy and empirical inquiry, or we level that distinction to the ground. It's true that I couldn't have it both of those ways; but I don't want either of 'em. My concern here, as always, is to overcome whatever dualisms are causing confusion; and overcoming a dualism isn't the same thing as obliterating a distinction. In fact, in my terminology, we overcome the dualism only when we can see how the corresponding distinction is still available for use in particular cases (of course, I can reject distinctions as well if I want, for philosophically uncontroversial reasons). So, for example, when Grice & Strawson object to Quine by claiming that the concept of analyticity still has a coherent use, I don't think I need to object. If you want to use the concept to distinguish between "that bachelor is unmarried" and "that bachelor is six feet tall," go right ahead. I just don't think that distinction has the philosophical significance that other people do. In particular, I don't need to use it, or the a priori/a posteriori or necessary/contingent distinctions either, in explaining my own idiosyncratic take on "therapeutic" philosophy. In fact, I find that explanation works better when we follow Davidson in stripping the empiricist platitude (what McDowell calls "minimal empiricism," that it is only through the senses that we obtain knowledge of contingent matters of fact) of its dualistic residue, and meet up again with Wittgenstein on the other side of Quine. (And yes, I used the word "contingent" there – anyone have a problem with that?)

On the other hand, it also seems to me that after the smoke clears and everyone (*cough*) realizes that I am right, each side can make a case that I had been agreeing with that side all along: Hacker can point to the sense in which philosophy on my conception is still a matter of (what he will continue to call) clarifying our concepts, with an eye to dissolving the confusions underlying "metaphysical" questions; while Quine can point to (what he will continue to call) a characteristically "naturalistic" concern (if that naturalism is perhaps more Deweyan than his own) with the overcoming of the conceptual dualisms left over from our Platonic and Cartesian heritage – e.g., those between the related pairs of opposed concepts we have been discussing. Yet it seems to me that neither side can make the sale without giving something up (something important) and thereby approaching what seemed to be its polar opposite.

We've already seen the shape of this idea. On the one side, Hacker's insistence that, as he puts it, "[t]he problems [here, skeptical ones] are purely conceptual ones, and they are to be answered by purely conceptual means" [p. 9, my emphasis]" sabotages the anti-dualist content of the anti-skeptical critique with a dualistic emphasis on the "purity" of its form (itself held in place by a corresponding dualism of form and content). On the other, Quine recoils from the dualism of pure abstract a priori and good old-fashioned getting-your-hands-dirty empirical inquiry by eliminating the former entirely in favor of the latter. This insufficient response to one dualism leads inevitably to another: in Quine's case, this means (as Davidson argues) a dualism between conceptual scheme and empirical content, which ultimately (or even proximately!) proves to be pretty much the same as the dualisms (analytic/synthetic, observational/theoretical) Quine was supposed to be showing us how to discard.

We'll leave Davidson for another time (the interpretation business might take a while, though it does come up below), but as my subject here is the Hacker article, let me continue by discussing an area of agreement with Hacker: his dismissal of Quine's naturalized epistemology. (Yet of course even here I do not draw Hacker's moral, exactly.) No one disputes that there is such a thing as empirical psychology, so in one sense the focus of "naturalized epistemology" on resolutely third-person description of the processes of information acquisition by biological organisms is unobjectionable. The problem comes when this project is taken to amount to or replace philosophical investigation (however conceived) of knowledge and related topics.

I'll just mention two points. First (although Hacker doesn't put quite it this way), Quine's naturalistic aversion to "mentalistic" concepts leads him to assimilate the theoretically dangerous (in this sense) first-person case to the more scientifically tractable third-person case – after all, I'm a human being too, so what works for any arbitrary biological organism should work for me too. This makes the "external world" which is the object of our knowledge something no longer opposed (as in the (overtly) Cartesian case) to something mental, but instead to the world outside our (equally physical) sensory receptors. But now Hacker wonders about the status of our knowledge of our bodies; or of ourselves, for that matter. Quine is left in a dilemma: "Either I posit my own existence, or I know that I exist without positing or assuming it." As a result (see the article for the details) "[i]ncoherence lurks in these Cartesian shadows, and it is not evident how to extricate Quine from them." [p. 6]

This is (given the difference I've already mentioned) remarkably similar to Davidson's criticism of Quine in "Meaning, Truth, and Evidence":
In general, [Quine] contended, ‘It is our understanding, such as it is, of what lies beyond our surfaces, that shows our evidence for that understanding to be limited to our surfaces’ [The Ways of Paradox, p. 216]. But this is mistaken. The stimulation of sensory receptors is not evidence that a person employs in his judgements concerning his extra-somatic environment, let alone in his scientific judgements. My evidence that there was bread on the table is that there are crumbs left there. That there are crumbs on the table is something I see to be so. But that I see the crumbs is not my evidence that there are crumbs there. Since I can see them, I need no evidence for their presence – it is evident to my senses. That the cones and rods of my retinae fired in a certain pattern is not my evidence for anything – neither for my seeing what I see, nor for what I see, since it is not something of which I normally have any knowledge. For that something is so can be someone’s evidence for something else only if he knows it.
No, wait, that's Hacker again, from later in the paper (p. 13). Here's Davidson, criticizing as "Cartesian" Quine's "proximal" theory of meaning and evidence:
The only perspicuous concept of evidence is the concept of a relation between sentences or beliefs—the concept of evidential support. Unless some beliefs can be chosen on purely subjective grounds as somehow basic, a concept of evidence as the foundation of meaning or knowledge is therefore not available. [...] The causal relations between the world and our beliefs are crucial to meaning not because they supply a special sort of evidence for the speaker who holds the beliefs, but because they are often apparent to others and so form the basis for communication. [p. 58-9]
The relevant stimulus is thus not "the irritation of our sensory surfaces" but instead the rabbit whose appearance prompts the utterance of "gavagai." (See the rest of this key article; it's reprinted in the fifth volume of Davidson's papers, Truth, Language, and History, which I think is now available cheap.) Again, though, this is for reasons concerning the conceptually interconstitutive nature of meaning and belief, not a simple recoil from naturalized epistemology to conceptual analysis. That is, while considering these matters conceptually, as Hacker does, Davidson's argument presents a specific conceptual analysis (if that's what we want to call it) which in its content may be just as fatal to the "purely a priori" as is Quine.

Jumping ahead a bit, we can see on the horizon, even here, a cloud the size of a man's hand. For Davidson's contextually healthy insistence that (as he puts it elsewhere) "only a belief [here, as opposed to sensory stimulations] can be a reason for another belief" can, in other circumstances, manifest itself as a content-threatening coherentism. In "Scheme-content dualism and empiricism" (which I hope we can get to later), McDowell registers puzzlement that Davidson's criticism of Quine is that the latter's conception of empirical content as sensory stimulation (i.e., in its conceptual distance from the "external" world) leads merely to skepticism (not that that's not bad enough!) rather than an even more disastrous loss of the right to be called "content" at all. (At another level, this same consideration tells against Hacker's insistence that "conceptual analysis" are simply matters of language as opposed to matters of fact, i.e., about their referents in the world.)

Hacker too finds Quine's own response to skeptical worries to be nonchalant. In Quine's view, he says, since we are concerned with knowledge acquisition as a scientific question, "we are free to appeal to scientifically established fact (agreed empirical knowledge) without circularity." (Hacker's comment: "That is mistaken.") The philosophical problem of skepticism is not concerned simply with deciding whether or not we have any knowledge, so that it may be dismissed in deciding that, in fact, we do. As Hacker points out, one form of skepticism arises
from the thought that we have no criterion of truth to judge between sensible appearances. Citing a further appearance, even one apparently ratified by ‘science’, i.e. common experience, will not resolve the puzzlement. Similarly, we have no criterion to judge whether we are awake or asleep, since anything we may come up with as a criterion may itself be part of the content of a dream. So the true sceptic holds that we cannot know whether we are awake or asleep. We are called upon to show that he is wrong and where he has gone wrong. To this enterprise neither common sense nor the sciences can contribute anything. [Again, as cited above, Hacker's conclusion, now in context, is that] [t]he problems [skepticism] raises are purely conceptual ones, and they are to be answered by purely conceptual means – by clarification of the relevant elements of our conceptual scheme. This will show what is awry with the sceptical challenge itself. (p. 8-9)
There's more in this vein, attacking Quine's offhandedly deflationary conceptions of knowledge ("the best we can do is give up the notion of knowledge as a bad job") and belief (beliefs are "dispositions to behave, and these are physiological states"), and "the so-called identity theory of the mind: mental states are states of the body." Hacker's comment on this last is typical ("This too is mistaken"), and here too I agree. (Nor, since you ask, am I happy with Davidson's early approach to the mind-body problem, i.e., anomalous monism. But let's not talk about that today.)

Still, I can't see that Hacker's more extreme conclusions about the relation of science to philosophy are warranted. It's true that we can maintain that firm boundary by definitional fiat. But it's just not true that "the empirical sciences," if that means empirical scientists doing empirical science, cannot possibly contribute to our understanding of (the concept of) knowledge, or even provide a crucial piece of information which allows us to see things in a new way. After all, that's what the philosopher's "reminders" were trying to do too. And if a philosopher's "invention" of an "intermediate case" (for example) can provide the desired understanding (PI §122), then so too might a scientific discovery. All we need here, to avoid the "scientism" Hacker fears, is the idea that even the latter does not solve problems qua discovery, even if it is one – and that just because the philosopher's reminder might have done the same thing even if invented and not discovered.