Friday, January 25, 2008

Plummeting doves and other disasters

Currence likes Kant's famous comment in the Introduction
to the first Critique (A5/B8):
The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would still be easier in empty space.
Currence comments: "Talk about frictionless spinning in the void." This is of course a reference to McDowell's criticism of Davidson's "coherentism" in Mind and World. Interesting connection, and the image is certainly similar in the obvious way, but I'm actually put in mind of two other images which I think are more closely related than McDowell's to the point Kant is making here. (McDowell is accusing Davidson of succumbing to a dualism of reason and nature, but I don't think he takes him to do so because of this particular bird-brained inference, even if we can describe in similar terms the unfortunate dualistic result. For further thoughts on this matter see Daniel's post here, which just appeared while I was writing this.)

The first image is from Wittgenstein. The line of thought extends back several sections, so to see what he's after let's join in at §94 (I've altered the translation slightly):
"A proposition is a remarkable thing!" Here we have in a nutshell the subliming of our whole account of logic. The tendency to assume a pure intermediary between the propositional signs and the facts. Or even to try to purify, to sublime, the signs themselves. [...]
The first quarter or so of Philosophical Investigations is often regarded as preliminary throat-clearing, in which the mature Wittgenstein criticizes his former self, clearing the rubble away before getting on to his real arguments, about rule-following, "private" language, aspect-seeing, and other topics in mind and language. But "clearing the rubble" (as in §118) is how Wittgenstein describes his entire project, not just its unavoidable preliminaries. These earlier sections are not mere preliminaries, but are instead the beating heart of the book. The later sections, while important, are where Wittgenstein unpacks what he has already said and applies it to particular cases (which are themselves carefully chosen to reinforce the earlier points about language – that is, they're not merely applications of a supposedly already established general principle).

In fact, Wittgenstein mentions his former self only rarely. Yet it is true that that philosopher comes in for some pointed criticism here. Putting aside, if we can, the vexed question of whether the rejected view is a) false or b) nonsensical (and the equally vexed question of how exactly the criticized author of the Tractatus would himself regard these words!), let's look at how Wittgenstein characterizes the "illusion" which tempts us here (§97):
[Thought's] essence, logic, presents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to affect it.——It must rather be of the purest crystal. But this crystal does not appear as an abstraction; but as something concrete, indeed, as the most concrete, as it were the hardest thing there is (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus No. 5.5563).
Just so you don't have to look it up, 5.5563 reads:
In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order.—That utterly simple thing, which we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth itself in its entirety.
(Our problems are not abstract, but perhaps the most concrete that there are.)
Note that the first sentence there is something that the later Wittgenstein as well is concerned to stress [e.g. PI §98] – but he draws from it a quite different moral: not that in order to account for this everyday order we must posit [what he later calls, farther on in PI §97] a single ideal "super-order," but instead that when we are "dazzled by the ideal" in this way, we "therefore fail to see the actual [i.e. varied] use of the word [e.g.] "game" correctly." (§100).

This sets up (as I've bolded below) the famous image I wanted to mention as an interesting comparison to Kant's, in §107:
The more narrowly we examine actual language [searching for the elusive ideal order], the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement [impressed upon us, Wittgenstein believes, by our having "predicate[d] of the thing what lies in the method of representation" (§104)].) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.—We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!
(We've all seen that last injunction many times, but rarely, I think, with its proper force.) In any case, we might just as well say "We want to fly: so we need wind resistance. Back to the dense air!"

What I find particularly interesting here is that Wittgenstein and Kant strike upon such similar images in talking about what might seem to be rather different things. What this means, I take it, is that the error, the temptation, which they both aim to combat is so ingrained in our ways of talking and thinking that it manifests itself whenever we look to obtain a reflective perspective on them.

The second image returns us to a context which is (in one way anyway) more like Kant's than Wittgensein's. We find it in the "'Reason' in Philosophy" section of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche has just condemned everybody from the Eleatics through (what was then) last Tuesday for rejecting the testimony of the senses as an unreliable guide to really real reality, and he's still not finished with his denunciations. His ultimate target here is the First Cause, but in context the particular gripe looks to me the same as Kant's and Wittgenstein's: he laments our instinctive urge to prioritize, reify, and detach the abstract and general and necessary from the concrete and specific and contingent. (Of course, on most interpretations we find some inconsistency in Kant on this point; but in his comments immediately following the line about the poor dove, Kant explicitly mentions that this is what happens when "Plato left the world of the senses, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding").

Anyway, here's Nietzsche:
The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!—namely, the "highest concepts," which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning. This again is nothing but their way of showing reverence: the higher may not grow out of the lower, may not have grown at all. [...]
When we are concerned to grasp (only) the purest essence of concepts, we do not simply fail to do so (as if it simply eluded our clumsy grasp, like the "torn spider web" Wittgenstein has us trying to repair with our fingers in PI §106); indeed, even "success" in this endeavor, were we able to make sense of it at all, would merely capture, not reality at its highest, but its exact opposite: "the last smoke of evaporating reality." Here again, as in the other images, we see the (if you'll pardon the expression) essential perversity of the platonistic and/or Cartesian ideal – which is of course a theme on which Nietzsche plays many variations throughout his writings.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Inconsistent but timely

New Philosophers' Carnival at Inconsistent Thoughts. I should warn you that if you're bored by contemporary analytic philosophy, you won't find much of interest there. (You could always just get back to work, you know.) But don't let me stop you – go, go!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Format tweakage

As you can see, I got tired of the old look and am fooling around with a new one, so pardon the mess. Or make suggestions, if you want to help.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Bring out your dead

Philosophers, that is! The morbidly themed Philosophers' Carnival #60 is under way, so don't delay!

Among the non-morbid posts is this one, which addresses the Bennett and Hacker vs. cog-sci debate we were having earlier. Lots of comments there too!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

How do you say "Hidledy-ho, neighborino?" in French?

First movie seen in 2008: The Simpsons Movie
Second movie: Flanders

Now that's synchronicity! (BTW, the first one is funnier.)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is Rorty a "textualist"? And if so, is that bad?

Happy New Year to all. I'd like to begin this year's blogging (which may be sparser this year, as I have resolved to waste spend less time online) with one more post on Rorty, who as you know passed away in 2007.

As I have often complained, most of Rorty's early critics just weren't getting him at all. (This made it hard to see where he really does go wrong, and what to do instead.) Ernest Sosa's 1987 Journal of Philosophy article "Serious Philosophy and Freedom of Spirit" is a case in point. It's not directed against Rorty in particular, but against relativistic "free spirits" as a group and their attacks on realistic "serious" philosophy. Here's Sosa on Rorty's "textualism":
In the book of some free spirits [in Sosa's sense of "subjectivists" et al], the Word was not only in the beginning, but is even—incredibly—said to be everything.

[footnote:] According to Derrida, "there is nothing outside the text," and "there has never been anything but writing" [Of Grammatology, p. 158-9]. Derrida's pronouncements find an echo in Rorty's introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism [p. xxxvii]: "The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the texts, there is something which is not just one more text but that to which various texts are trying to be 'adequate.' The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that."

[continuing in the text:] Free spirits are often textualists, readers and authors who live for the conversation, the only point of which, insofar as it has any extrinsic point at all, is to go on and on without end. [p. 710]
So: what Rorty's work shows is that some wackos—incredibly!—think there's no real world out there. Yet of course there's a real world! (Sosa points us later to William Alston's "lucid defense" of "strong realism" in the appropriately titled "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World." I should point out that those capital letters are in the title only. I think.) No wonder "textualists" don't want to find anything out about the world – they don't think it exists. Instead of such "serious" (and boring) literalism, "playful" free spirits, like the childish and imprudent grasshopper as opposed to the mature and industrious ant, want the meaningless "language game" to go on forever. Sosa makes the customary qualifications (that "seriousness" and "freedom" are on a continuum, and that most people are in the middle rather than one extreme, where only the most hardcore Platonism seems to count as "extreme seriousness"), but he makes no bones about where his sympathies lie. Resisting realism in any significant way is equivalent to failing to realize that "dog" refers to dogs, rendering one a candidate for the lunatic asylum.

Speaking of "language games," Wittgenstein doesn't come in for especial abuse here, but at one point Sosa refers us to Kripke for further reflection on the dangers of relativism in Wittgenstein's "familiar theme" that "reasons inevitably give out." Putting Kripkenstein well to one side, together with his relativist demons, let's look again at that Rorty quote, this time without the distracting parallel to Derrida:
The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the ______, there is something which is not just one more _______ but that to which various _______ are trying to be "adequate." The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that.
Rorty's point about "texts" might just as well be put in terms of "interpretations" (and indeed, he sometimes brings in Nietzsche's famous but cryptic remark (about there being no "facts" but only interpretations, itself often interpreted as a skeptical point) here for this very purpose). This suggests a construal in terms of the Wittgensteinian image: reasons, like interpretations, give out (i.e. without ever reaching a transcendentally sanctioned stopping point). Now of course, as this formulation suggests, Wittgenstein's own suggestion is not that "everything is an interpretation" (let alone a "text") but that there is a way of following a rule which is not an interpretation. This wording seems to put Rorty and Wittgenstein at odds. (Not to mention Wittgenstein and Derrida: see Martin Stone's take on this matter in "Wittgenstein and Deconstruction" in Crary and Read, The New Wittgenstein and "On the old saw, 'every reading of a text is an interpretation': some remarks" in Gibson and Huemer, The Literary Wittgenstein, where the target is not so much Derrida as Fish; see also Sonia Sedivy's contribution to the latter volume.)

But forget the wording for a minute and look at the image. Following a chain of reasons or interpretations is likened to digging down for foundations. Some of us think that at some point we must strike upon a final, self-justifying reason, or a final interpretation which, unlike the others, represents the real independently of our interpretive conventions, simply in virtue of how things are. At the end of the chain of similar things, there is a final thing which is different in kind from the others ("not just one more ________"), such that we can bring the process to a definitive conclusion. Others believe that such a thing is impossible, yet the demand is still coherent (indeed, constitutive of inquiry in its essential orientation toward truth).

Here Rorty and Wittgenstein are in agreement. There is nothing like what Wittgenstein calls "rigid rails," which determine the ultimate correctness of our procedures from "outside" them. Nor, however, is there any need for any such thing. That is, we need not, as in Kripke or Crispin Wright, see ourselves as depending on such frail reeds as community agreement to substitute for what we thought we needed "rigid rails" to do. (So it is more toward these two than to Rorty, let alone Wittgenstein, that Sosa's realist bile should be directed.) Instead of this qualitatively distinct regress-stopper (or, again, a lame stand-in for same), we have only more of the same.

But that's only half the story. Even if there is no qualitatively different thing at the end of the chain of reasons (and thus no metaphysical gap to be bridged), there may be what we might as well call a quantitative difference in the successive iterations. In particular, the shared assumption of both skeptic and dogmatist that we cannot stop (i.e., until we reach the "end" so construed), is making me more and more frustrated with this pointless demand. Finally I've had enough. I can't think of anything more to say to you. I can't make it any more obvious than it already is. I'm going home. No, there isn't any shining transcendental justification here – it's just another reason. But if I had known that (the former) was the only thing that would satisfy you, I wouldn't have bothered talking to you in the first place. Yet your early demands for justification were innocent enough.

When, as Wittgenstein puts it, we "hit bedrock" ("when my spade is turned"), it is not, as on some interpretations, that, although I wanted to keep digging in search of ultimate validation, I must throw my hands up in despair that I cannot get it, and that I am forced to accept a substitute. There never was any such thing to be had, and the demand for it is incoherent. Again, contrary to Sosa's assumptions, this is not a (characteristically) skeptical or relativist point, but in fact is aimed in both directions. Just as the skeptic rejects each successive reason as not definitive (because not self-justifying), as part of his argument that maybe things aren't as we think they are after all, the dogmatist takes that bet and digs farther down in search of something that he hopes will really clinch the case. He agrees that without such a thing, we won't have shown that things really are as we think they are. In other words, the skeptic is just a frustrated dogmatist – and a dogmatist is a self-deluded skeptic (as other skeptics will be happy to point out). A pox on both!

"Hitting bedrock," then, on this construal, is not after all an absolute prohibition on continuing to dig. After all, different people have different levels of patience in dealing with increasing obviously poorly (i.e. theoretically, rather than practically) motivated demands for even firmer (say, ideally firm) foundations. Some would have stopped as soon as they see the skeptical/dogmatist pattern; some go on until they really can't think of anything else to say. What Wittgenstein wants us to do is not so much to keep going until "bedrock" is reached – which is after all what happens only when things go wrong in this way – but not to keep going, or try to, even after it's reached – which makes no sense. [Note: last sentence updated (1/6) to restore missing "not"]

But now what about that verbal difference between Rorty (or the textualist) and Wittgenstein? After all, what Wittgenstein says in making what I have suggested may be the same point is not that "interpretation goes all the way down" but that "there is a way of following a rule which is not an interpretation." When we juxtapose these two slogans, it does seem (as it does to Stone) that the two are irrevocably opposed. But Wittgenstein is using the term in a significantly different way. The former slogan, as I explained it, emphasizes the qualitative continuity of the series of reasons, such that no endpoint of the demanded form can be reached. That none is needed is a separate claim, which is what makes this locution look skeptical (and which may be why Wittgenstein tells us not to make it look like "there's something we can't do").

Wittgenstein's locution, on the other hand, emphasizes a discontinuity in the series, one which is meant to explain why I (may) now leave off digging. But he needs the relevant continuity as well in order for the point to go through. This is what is supplied in his case by the fact that everything in the series is an instance of rule-following, of being directed by reasons. That the final one is "not an interpretation" does not invalidate Rorty's (or even Derrida's) "textualist" way of making the point (that is, the point about continuity, i.e. the lack of the particular sort of transcendent or metaphysical discontinuity demanded by both dogmatist and skeptic). For Rorty, the "ubiquity of interpretation" is the Davidsonian point that each context of inquiry (fixation of belief) is one of interpretation as well (attribution of meaning), such that we can never come to the end of interpretation and read a bare fact off of the world, to serve in our ideally objective representation of same. (Indeed, in the Davidsonian context, that "interpretation is ubiquitous" is virtually trivial; yet there is no reason to deny that I may consider my translation manual to be essentially finished, if not, per impossibile, guaranteed to be error-free.)

For Wittgenstein, on the other hand, the non-ubiquity of "interpretation" means instead that a series of reasons, or instances of rule-following, should not be thought of as one of successive "substitution[s] of one expression of the rule for another", such that "each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it" (§201) – and this because "any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support" (§198). That sort of series really would go on forever; and the remark about rule-following without "interpretation" (in this sense) is meant to show how we can break it off.

Even if Rorty's "textualist" point can be squared with Wittgenstein's in this way, though, it does perhaps suffer from an insufficiently compelling characterization (compared with Wittgenstein's) of how the series of "interpretations" is actually broken off. I described it above as the point where one simply loses patience with the skeptic's perverse demands (and the dogmatist's equally perverse submission to them). There's not a whole lot to say about such an occurrence – except to argue that the demands really are perverse, which removes us from the scenario of the unending series of reasons, without seeming to resolve it at any particular point. This makes it sound like the point about the "ubiquity of interpretations" really is a skeptical one, and that its consequence is that we must indeed continue the process without hope of resolution.

This of course fits in with Sosa's characterization of the textualist (and with many other critiques of Rorty) as more concerned with "continuing the conversation" – now removed, qua (supposedly) skeptical concern, from determining the truth about anything (Sosa: "the only point ... is to go on and on, without end"). I've already suggested how we can see this as the opposite of Rorty's point. Let me finish by saying how I think this misinterpretation leads to another, concerning Rorty's insistence that "the only constraints on inquiry are conversational ones" – that is, as opposed to ones coming from the alleged intrinsic nature of reality, demanding to be mirrored in an ideally objective manner. This is of course closely related to Rorty's endorsement of Davidson's "coherentism," where "only a belief [i.e. and not the world] can be a reason for another belief." (I won't go into why Davidson himself need not be held to the idealistic consequences of this doctrine, but I do think even he may have to give something up.)

Here again it looks as if we're not trying to get reality right (whereupon we can stop conversing, having reached agreement both with each other and with the world), but simply to have a good time at the dinner party (which we hope will never end). After all, do we ever decide anything during such conversations? And do we mind that we do not? But here again Rorty is making what is at bottom a potentially useful point in a characteristically lopsided way (threatening its utility, ironically enough). For what are "conversational constraints on inquiry"? There are several, but the relevant one here might be one according to which we are not perversely to ignore the obvious in order to press a purely theoretical point about the nature of knowledge – or, in Peirce's words, to "pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts" ("Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," in The Essential Peirce, p. 29; right before this, he claims that "a person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim [i.e to begin with universal doubt and build only on ideally secure foundations]"). This perverse dissembling is exactly what the skeptic does in demanding to "dig below bedrock"; and that is exactly what keeps the conversation stuck in a rut rather than continuing in a natural way (e.g. deciding the consequences of what we have just agreed on).

Thus, following "conversational" constraints rather than illusory metaphysical ones coming from the world (in) itself can be perfectly compatible with agreeing that something is the case and considering that question settled for now. And I think Rorty really did see this, and at least sometimes meant it that way; but of course I also believe he sometimes let his aversion to realism overcome his better judgment, and, yes, lead him to recoil into relativism and/or skepticism. Still, Sosa's snark rubs me the wrong way, and I hope we never see any more blanket dismissals of a philosopher whom history may yet judge to have been not significantly more wrong than any other great philosopher.