In the previous posts, I’ve been pursuing the idea that our ability to understand experience – interpret it and offer explanations and justifications – requires making a Kantian move: we should postulate some structure inherent to our minds that formats experience and makes our understanding of it possible. I have also argued that this Kantian move cannot be identified with anything found through empirical psychology. But then what does such a “postulation” mean? Does the fact of this structure entail anything supernatural or spooky? I hope not.
In Mind and World, McDowell tries to answer this question by shifting the goal posts of what counts as natural, so that we do not limit what’s natural to the current domain of the natural sciences. Nature is bigger than that, he says. The basic situation, as well as McDowell’s response to it, is very clearly summarized by Jason Bridges in a review of a book by Richard Gaskin that responds to McDowell. According to McDowell’s view,
We are, or ought to be, attracted to the idea that perceptual experience is a “tribunal” — an occasion on which our thoughts are made to answer to the world they are about. Viewing experience as a tribunal involves supposing that experiences serve for the subject as reasons for and against judgments and attitudes, and in so doing, shape the subject’s judgments and attitudes. But there is a problem in seeing how this supposition could be borne out. On the one hand, human perceptual experience, being an instance of the more general phenomenon of an animal’s sensory capacities putting it in touch with the surrounding environment, is clearly a natural occurrence, and natural occurrences, as we moderns know, are the explanatory province of the natural sciences. On the other hand, we are attracted, or ought to be attracted, to the idea that the “space of reasons” is sui generis — that we cannot construct normative (justificatory, reason-involving) facts out of non-normative conceptual materials. This would exclude in particular the conceptual materials of the natural sciences, organized as they are around the concept of a natural law rather than that of a normative relationship. And so the question arises: how can we view an experience both as the natural phenomenon it evidently is and as belonging to the space of reasons — as the ‘tribunal’ conception requires?
Various philosophical views about experience, such as the myth of the Given and Davidsonian coherentism, can be construed as responses to an awareness, however inchoate or partial, of this problem. These views fail to solve the problem and are hopeless in themselves. A better solution is to see our way to a relaxed conception of the natural. We can give due respect to the role of the natural sciences in making the natural world intelligible to us while stopping short of presuming that everything that happens or is so in the natural world can be fully explained and understood in natural-scientific discourse. There is then no problem in countenancing an experience as natural even if some of the characteristic claims we make about that experience — as, for example, when we cite that experience as the subject’s reason for a belief — cannot be captured in natural-scientific terms.
So the dialectic is this. It seems like the domain of nature is the domain of causes. But the space of reasons is its own sort of domain, where reasons rule. McDowell’s gambit is to “relax” his conception of the natural domain so that it includes the space of reasons. I find this unsatisfying; it seems like a genuine conflict is being circumvented through creative rezoning.
In an earlier draft of this post, I tried out the idea that our ability to engage with reasons is the result of some virtual machine that runs on our brains’ hardware. The idea was appealing because, it seemed, I could insulate “what’s on the inside of the virtual machine” (reasons, explanations, justifications) from the causality of the hardware on which the virtual machine is running. But then I realized that such a ploy could not possibly deliver the sort of Kantian structure I am after; the virtual machine of reasons would be another empirical artifact, susceptible to natural forces and discoverable through cognitive science. So far as I can see, that can’t generate what I’m after.
The structure Kant and McDowell are postulating is transcendental; it must “take hold” prior to any understanding we achieve through efforts in cognitive science. This means it’s hopeless to base it on brain science. But then again, consider that when neuroscientists do their work, they approach it with a theory, and that theory, like any theory, is underdetermined by any evidence they find, and is also a structure through which evidence is parsed, understood, and assessed (see discussion of Kuhn, in part 1). The neuroscientists are also approaching their work, of course, with whatever fixtures are generally required by human understanding. These structures govern our interpretation of evidence and experience in just the way any lesser theory governs our interpretation of data; it’s just that it is a deeper theory, which has no alternatives. This means it’s not best to call it a “theory.” It’s a “theory” we cannot talk or reason ourselves out of: a fixed paradigm, a non-negotiable constraint upon our experience, or what Henry Allison (in Kant’s Transcendental Idealism) calls an “epistemic condition.”
But doesn’t such a fixed paradigm have to be grounded in material facts about us? Or, failing that, spiritual facts about our souls? This question launches us into Kant’s “paralogisms,” or the seemingly powerful but ultimately fruitless arguments about our nature as cognitive beings. He argues that we simply cannot answer this question; we cannot know ourselves. (It is worth noting that the motto of the CPR begins “De nobis ipsis silemus” – “Of ourselves we are silent”.) Thinking of this fixed paradigm merely as a paradigm, without trying to explain whose paradigm how how it came to be put in place, is as far as human inquiry can go.
For that reason, it is going too far to call this fixed paradigm “natural,” or (for that matter) to call it “unnatural” or “supernatural.” As the fixed limit of our understanding, it cannot be mapped into any domain subject to itself.
Nevertheless, I think Kant is right to see this as some kind of idealism. Not Berkeley’s idealism, of course. The view is idealistic in that its most basic fixture is something we arrive at through reflection, and posit as an apriori theory. A naturalist makes sense of experience by positing a world of objects, forces, and laws; a Kantian makes sense of experience by positing a fixed theory. While the Kantian cannot make claims about “the world in itself,” apart from all theories (they are more modest than the naturalist in this regard), we can say that the world humans experience is conditional upon something “theory-like.” That makes it idealism – or as Kant called it, “transcendental idealism.”
“When you have worked through it, by further reflection and some decision as to the immediate future it will turn into something like a path marked on a map, to be followed for a good while and possibly for the rest of your life. To put it another way, you will have made a Self, which is indeed a desirable possession. A Self is interesting to oneself and others, it acts as a sort of rudder in all the vicissitudes of life, and it thereby defines what used to be known as a career.”
Book review by Ollie Cussan of Pagden, The Enlightenment and why it still matters, in Prospect:
The Enlightenment’s great achievement, Pagden argues, was to repair the bonds of mankind. Its distinctive feature was not that it held history, nature, theology and political authority to the scrutiny of reason, as most of its critics and many of its champions claim, but instead that it recognised our common humanity—our ability to place ourselves in another’s situation and, ultimately, to sympathise with them. Adam Smith and David Hume taught us that man is neither a creation of God nor a selfish pursuer of his own interests; at the most fundamental level, man is the friend of man. This, Pagden argues, was the origin of cosmopolitanism: the central Enlightenment belief in a common humanity and an awareness of belonging to some world larger than your own community.
For Pagden, the significance of this turn in human thought cannot be exaggerated. Cosmopolitanism “was, and remains, possibly the only way to persuade human beings to live together in harmony with one another, or, to put it differently, to stop killing each other.” It is inextricably tied to the Enlightenment’s “universalising vision of the human world” that ultimately led to a conception of civilisation in which questions of justice can be applied and upheld at a global level. Pagden admonishes critics of the Enlightenment project such as Gray and Macintyre for reducing it to a movement based on autonomous reason and objective science. Instead, the Enlightenment was about sympathy, the invention of civilisation, and the pursuit of a cosmopolitan world order.
The central claim in Kant’s philosophy is that our experience is somehow formatted by the nature of our understanding. Why think this is so?
In part 2, I made a general case for thinking that humans are special in that we can understand – we can explain and offer justifications. We misunderstand and get many things wrong of course, but the entire endeavor, our participation in the space of reasons, is something special and itself in need of some explanation. One general reason for thinking that our experience is shaped by our understanding is the fact of this participation: we experience reasons, and see the world in as ordered in such a way to be explicable and comprehensible. We are always acting upon or seeking after an explanation of things. It’s the human way of being. That is possible only if the content of our experience is the sort of thing that fits into explanations.
Wilfrid Sellars made a simple argument for thinking that our sense experience is mediated by concepts. He argues that, of course, we use our sensory experience to justify certain beliefs we have about the world. But the sensory experience itself, the patches and changes of color and sounds and smells and so on, cannot by themselves play any role in any justification. Sounds and smells and colors are of the wrong logical type (really, they are of no logical type at all). Sensory experiences must be turned into judgments, which can then play some role in an argument, explanation, or justification. A judgment in this case consists in applying concepts to the content of experience. Applying concepts means applying one’s mind or understanding. Therefore, there is no bare “given” that justifies our beliefs; there is only a “given” as mediated by concepts and understanding. (This constitutes Sellars’ rejection of “the Myth of the Given.”)
Now this simple argument is enough to suggest what we might call a “thin” Kantianism: that all sensory experiences involve some basic recognition, in the form of judgments, plus whatever other basic attributes are required to render sensory experiences ready to play roles in explanations or justifications. This gets us as far as Hume (though Hume did not take proper note of the role of the mind in this, so far as I can see). But Hume infamously argued that thinly-interpreted experience still falls short of being able to justify many of the foundational beliefs we have about the world. We experience bread entering our bodies, for example, and then we experience the result of being nourished. But there is nothing in that first experience, nothing in even the most careful scrutiny of bread, which suggests any causal power to make us become nourished. At most, we can witness in our experience only correlations, and never instances of causation. Similarly, we experience a hunk of bread at one time, and a very similar hunk of bread an instant later; but nothing in the content of experience compels us to conclude that the two hunks are in fact one and the same. So experience does not show the existence of substances, or objects. And as with the bread, so too with our own minds: the mere fact that there is first one experience, and later another experience, coupled with the memory of the first, does not force the conclusion that the two experiences belong to any single, enduring self.
In short, this thin Kantianism yields only discrete experiences, and never anything more than that. Nothing in the content of such thin experience justifies any conclusions about enduring things or selves or special causal connections among the objects of those experiences. At this point we have a three options. First, we could try to live as if reality is nothing but a disordered grab bag of discrete experiences. Good luck with that. Second, we could follow Hume and conclude that we have learned something about the nature of philosophical justification: namely, that it is laughably inadequate. We will continue to believe in substances and selves in on-going interaction with one another, but we will also realize that there really is no philosophical justification for these beliefs. But even Hume himself was nervous about this. For he tried to construct some natural explanation for the fact that we end up with these non-justified beliefs. He constructed a psychology in which habit (or custom) brought us to these conclusions, despite custom’s lack of any philosophical justification. He later saw (in the appendix to the Treatise) that thin Kantianism was insufficient for allowing the possibility of even this project. We can put the point this way: if only thin Kantianism is true, then there simply is not enough in the content of experience to suggest the existence of a thing that has any sort of psychology whatsoever. If thin Kantianism is true, Hume’s psychological project does not even get started. (This problem with option #2 also attends to option #1: we might try to live as if reality is a grab bag of discrete experiences, but now must also be completely mystified as to why we should ever think otherwise, even mistakenly.)
The third option is to make our Kantianism thicker. This third option means taking two steps. The first step is described by Galen Strawson in his discussion of Hume’s quandary over his account of the self:
One might say that what Hume [as he writes his Appendix] sees is that his philosophy allows (demands, constitutes) a transcendental argument in Kant’s sense, an argument of a sort strictly forbidden to empiricists. It allows an argument not just to the conclusion that there is something more to the mind than a series of experiences – for that is something he never doubted – but to the conclusion that the nature of this something more is correctly and knowably characterizable in a certain metaphysically specific (albeit extremely general) way: either as a persisting single something or as a non-single multiple thing that knowably involves real connection in a way that is not knowable given empiricist principles. (The Evident Connexion, p. 134)
So what Hume sees is that he has to posit “something more” of a self – some thingliness or capacity which at the very least can establish connections among discrete experiences so as to get Humean psychology up and running. That is the first step: posit something that invests experience with connections. But if we rest content with taking only this first step, we run into two problems. First, all we have done is to salvage Hume’s skepticism about the extent of philosophical justification. That is, we have done what is minimally required in order to become good Humean skeptics about ever obtaining philosophical justification for believing in selves, substances, and causality. Maybe that is a good place to be; Hume himself seemed content with it, overall. But many have found Hume’s skepticism intolerable, even without recognizing the nature of the problem raised in Hume’s appendix. The second problem is more serious. If Kant’s arguments toward the end of the Transcendental Analytic (the Refutation of Idealism) are sound, then we will not be able to account for even an illusory sense of self unless we also establish that there are causal connections among the objects in our experience. The “something more” Strawson says Hume sees he needs is still not yet enough, according to Kant. Hume needs also causality among the objects of his experience in order to get enough materials to construct even a seeming sense of self.
So the second step (if anyone is still with me here!) in this third option is to posit a “something more” which not only establishes basic, non-causal connections among experiences, but also enduring object-hood and causal connections among the objects of experiences. This means, in short, that when we judge experiences, we conceptualize experience as consisting in substances and causes. We do not experience merely sensations, nor merely sensations that have superficial relations to one another; we experience objects in on-going causal relations to one another. And we have this experience only because of the judgments we make, which is to say because of the concepts we apply.
For the sake of keeping things more simple, I have just followed Kant here in thinking that human experience as we know it requires conceptualizing the world in terms of substances and causes. But it may be that Kant was insufficiently thoughtful about this. (A sentence I do not write lightly.) Is it possible to have human understanding without parsing experience in this particular way? Is it not a human possibility to experience and understand the world as consisting in stable, fluid processes, with only occasional causal connections, or only mere propensities and probabilities? Might a thoroughly quantum world be understandable to humans? Right now I am not as confident as Kant in ruling out these possibilities. I agree with him that there must be “something more” in our judgments of experience to yield a world comprehensible to humans, but I am as yet agnostic about precisely what this “something more” must consist in. For now I am just calling the whatever-it-is “MATH” – since whatever it is we impose upon experience, it had better explain, at the very least, why deeply important forces and features of the world are susceptible to mathematical description, and even require math for their expression.
In part 1, I gave a quick description of Kant’s epistemological project: to uncover what might be called the human “operating system,” or the fixed interpretive framework humans employ in encountering and understanding experience. I also made a couple of brief arguments for thinking that this project is not an exercise in psychological or historical or evolutionary science, since those sciences can only come up with contingent frameworks, and not frameworks necessary for the possibility of human understanding. In this post I’d like to suggest that this Kantian project opens up interesting possibilities for philosophy – particularly in hermeneutics (very broadly construed) and morality.
A striking feature of human encounters with the world is that we strive for understanding: we traffic in explanations, arguments, and justifications. We provide them, and we expect them from others; we engage in critical dialogue about them and discover lapses in logic or judgment. We can call this broad endeavor “participating in the space of reasons,” using a term put forward by Wilfrid Sellars and elaborated in a much greater degree by John McDowell. A first item to note is that reasons are not causes. When I argue with you, I present you with reasons for thinking I am right. I do not merely try to cause you to think I am right. If I were to do that, I might more simply poke you with a stick until I cause you finally to relent and say you agree. Reasons provoke us in a way very different from the way causes provoke us. Reasons engage our capacity to reason. We think through them, assess them, and adopt them or reject them on the basic of our beliefs and logic. I can be wrong in my reasoning, or my justification, while I cannot possibly be wrong in my responses to causes. My reasoning might be skewed or distorted in all kinds of ways having to do with my psychology and circumstance. But that still does not turn reasons into causes; indeed, if we try to reduce reasons to causes, we lose any coherent way of making any genuine sense of making mistakes in reasoning.
Now in a thoroughly naturalistic framework, reasons disappear. Or, at best, reasons turn into disguised causes. The reasons I have for (say) adopting Kantianism might be understood as covert causes – I have been effectively brainwashed by several philosophy books, or philosophy teachers, and provoked to utter certain strings of sentences rather than others, not really for any good reason, but because of factors in my environment or psychological temperament. What I claim to be “reasons” for my view are really idle wheels in explaining why I have the view I have; they are at most symptoms of secret underlying causes. The true explanation for what I say and do is discerned by examining what causes me to say and do those things. But taking such a strictly causal approach is hardly credible. For starters, it just doesn’t meet the “sniff” test: for it sure seems like we take reasons seriously, and act on them. (Indeed, very much so; we can’t help but do so.) But even apart from that, the “causalist” approach to reasons defeats itself. For anyone advancing such an account will argue for it by presenting evidence and reasons for thinking it’s true. If they really believed in their conclusions, they would not be so conscientious! (Or I suppose they might be, if they believed that by seeming conscientious, they in fact would be using the sharpest poking sticks to cause others to agree. But wait a minute; that still would be acting on reasons. We would have to say that the causalists were caused to seem to appear conscientious, and caused to seemingly “believe” they had “reasons.” Is this really how such causalists would understand their own arguments? Or do they in fact believe they have reasons for thinking their conclusions are true?)
The Kantian project of opening up a space for reasons, in the context of understanding the human operating system, preserves the possibility of genuine reasoning. When we participate in the space of reasons, we are operating against the backdrop of human understanding, which is a backdrop distinct from that offered by any causal explanation. It then wouldn’t make sense to collapse reasons into causes, since causes simply cannot do the work of reasons. Indeed, since causal explanations are explanations, there is reason to believe that the backdrop of understanding is prior to any understanding we have of causality. Our understanding is a broader framework in which causes, and our understanding of causes, become possible. In fact, we need that broader framework in order to construct and frame causal explanations of anything.
This participation in the space of reasons is plausibly what separates our kind of understanding from the minds of nonhuman animals. Don’t get me wrong – I love animals, and I think they experience pain and pleasure, and they do very clever things. But none of them understand anything. I cannot in any way apologize to my dog, or compensate her for not getting a walk, or demonstrate to her that it’s too muddy to go outside. I can’t argue with her or reason with her, and that’s not merely because I don’t speak Doglish. She hasn’t any participation in the space of reasons. I can care for her and sympathize with her and treat her decently, but that’s as far as our relationship can go.
This presents a further reason to be interested in the space of reasons – a moral reason. When I engage in reason with you, I accord you a certain kind of respect I cannot show to nonhuman animals. I would claim this respect constitutes dignity. The surest way to strip dignity from a human being is to put them in a circumstance in which their capacity to reason is removed (think of Alzheimer’s) or entirely disregarded (think of the basest slavery). If we ourselves have reason, we cannot help but listen to it and attend closely in ourselves. That intrinsic respect for reason itself extends to the reason I find in others – since as we are human beings, it is the same shared space of reason. We can understand one another. Normally, when you offer reasons, I naturally consider them as reasons, and assess them and try to understand them. If I were somehow to deprive you of reason, or ignore your capacity to reason, I would be committing “a sin” against the very reason I find within myself, the very thing that intrinsically calls for my respect. I do not think this general respect for reason generates the entirety of our moral obligation, though I think it captures something especially important in our dealings with one another. (But I’ll leave matters there for now, as I’m still thinking this part through!)
As the title of this post suggests, I’m intending to write several posts reflecting on Kant’s philosophy. I’m doing this because I have a distant goal of writing a book arguing that Kant was essentially right.
In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had essentially two goals: first, to provide a broad explanation of our knowledge of the world, and, second, to explain why we aren’t able to establish anything for sure about deep metaphysical topics, like God and the soul and human freedom. He accomplished both of these goals by making a single postulation: that all of our experience has a certain format due to the nature of human understanding. So our abilities and our shortcomings have everything to do with what our particular brand of understanding requires.
Two analogies help me to grasp Kant’s postulation. The two analogies get at the same idea, but I offer them both just to get us into the right space of ideas. The first analogy compares human understanding to a computer program. A program is fundamentally some specific way of coping with various domains of data. In a spreadsheet program, for example, we users make declarations about what kinds of data can be put into which cell in the spreadsheet – numbers, names, explanatory notes, and so on. Then, with the appropriate kinds of data, the program can perform all sorts of functions over these data, and get done what needs doing. Now imagine one of these programs becoming conscious – or, less bizarrely, imagine a human user confining all of her attention to just the boundaries of that program. The conscious being might well wonder how it is that the world works out to be so user-friendly, from the perspective of the program; in other words, why it is that the program is able to grasp hold of the world, represent it, and make useful characterizations of it. Who guaranteed that the world would be spreadsheet-expressible? The answer of course is that the programmers and the users have conspired to shield the program from all of the data that don’t fit its parameters. They have taken care not to put names in number slots, or to perform calculations over phone numbers. The programmers and users have in effect filtered the world so as to make the work of the program possible. The real world “in itself” in fact is not fit for a spreadsheet; it has only been interpreted in such a way as to appear “intelligible” to the spreadsheet program.
The second analogy is to Kuhnian paradigms. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn claimed that science progresses by big leaps from one paradigm to another. A paradigm, as everyone knows now, is a way of looking at the world; more particularly, it is a way to parse data and interpret experience, in light of a governing theory. The world as seen by Aristotle, Kuhn claimed, is not the same world as seen by Galileo: one sees substances striving toward natural states or resting places, and the other sees masses moving in parabolic motions. In Kuhn’s terms, their experiences are theory-laden with the particular theories they advocate. In the time of a revolution, opposing scientists talk past one another, as big chunks of their disagreements are over the right way of looking at things. Eventually, Kuhn claimed, the old guys die, the young ones get their jobs, and that’s the revolution. Now suppose that humans, in addition to all of the historical paradigms dished up by scientists and others, also share a basic, unshakeable paradigm that is intrinsic to their brand of understanding. That would explain why we can’t help but interpret experience is certain basic ways, and also why some thoughts that reach beyond the paradigm’s parameters are beyond any possible human understanding. That’s Kant’s idea: to articulate the single theory with which all of our experience is laden.
Those are the two analogies. Human understanding, according to Kant, is not totally plastic, not infinitely malleable; it has a specific format or structure to it, like a Kuhnian theory or a computer program. That structure characterizes what human understanding is – it determines the range of explanations humans can offer or comprehend. Moreover – and this is the tricky part – this structure is not something we know about, explore, or chart through psychology or history or evolution. If we could do that – if we could provide a naturalistic understanding of the nature of human understanding - then we would would be in the following position: we would understand how the world really works, and on that basis we would understand what leads human understanding to have the specific structure that it has. But, of course, there is for us no “understanding of how the world really works” that stands apart from human understanding. Aristotle or Galileo (or Kuhn himself) cannot simply “pop out to check” how the world really goes, and then establish a paradigm-free understanding of paradigms. A computer program cannot cannot adopt the perspective we adopted when we saw that the world itself is not spreadsheet-expressible. We are similarly confined within the kind of understanding we have.
Moreover, naturalistic explanations themselves (like those from psychology or evolution) presuppose paradigms that are thoroughly contingent. They have been constructed in real historical time, and they have competitors which, with a little work, can also provide coherent and compelling accounts of the ways human understanding works. But any such accounts constructed by modern psychology won’t be fixed parameters for human understanding so long as it is possible for humans to out-think those psychological parameters, and understand how things would be or seem if those parameters were otherwise. We can ask: how would the world seem to us if Piaget was right/wrong, or Skinner or Freud right/wrong; and the fact that we can consider these questions is evidence enough to show that a natural psychological theory does not reach after fixed parameters of human understanding.
If we want to discover those fixed parameters, we have to go transcendental. That is, we have to reverse engineer the parameters of human understanding, working from those features which are necessary for any possible human understanding, and what is evidently beyond any human understanding, and postulate a structure that has those consequences as consequences. That’s Kant’s project.
Last week my family watched Rise of the Guardians. The idea is that there are guardians on Earth who preserve important ideals: Santa Claus (wonder), the Easter Bunny (hope), the Sandman (dreams), and the Tooth Fairy (memory, stored in teeth). Then there’s Jack Frost, and nobody knows what he’s good for, including himself. (Spoiler: turns out he’s the guardian of fun). The whole world is being darkened by the Boogeyman, Pitch Black, who was responsible for the surfeit of fear during the Dark Ages, and is now sapping the world once again of wonder, hope, dreams, memory, and fun. Pitch and Jack have similar backgrounds: created by the Man in the Moon, they were then abandoned by him, and left with no feeling of purpose. Jack finds his purpose, allies with the guardians, and defeats the Boogeyman.
It’s a fun movie really. Obvious complaints can be made. (For one, it follows all American animated movies in making fun of foreign accents, and making all evil characters British.) But I must say that, in my neokantian enthusiasm, I found myself behind the project. Yes: we do need to safeguard wonder, hope, dreams, memory, and fun, and we must have the courage to defeat fear and pessimism, and create a future in which human virtues are preserved and elevated. We can and must work to make our future the United Federation of Planets, and not Brazil. I have this sacred hope. So I was rooting for the guardians all the way.
But at the end of the film I felt my eyes widen in shock and heard myself muttering, “No! No, no, no! They are getting it wrong!” You see, the guardians, aligned with the last remaining hopeful children on the planet, summon the power to banish the Boogeyman into a dark place from which he cannot escape until there is a sequel. But that’s wrong! Aeschylus, in the Oresteia, was working with the same plotline, and he saw his way clear to the right ending: the Furies must be transformed into the Eumenides, so that the fury of bloody revenge is transmuted into civic loyalty, and humanity attains a higher synthesis. The guardians could have and should have done the same – it would have taken only one of Jack Frost’s magical snowballs to conquer fear and transform Pitch Black into Stout Heart – that is, courage, something the guardians need to perform their function. The world then would have advanced into a newfound synthesis that left it stronger for having discovered and overcome its fear. And they still could have had a sequel, in which the guardians fight against a greedy Hollywood studio that wants to take all human virtues and sell them as merchandise.
What a deep disappointment!
I was rooting around today in an old zip drive and found an initial attempt at what I presented several years ago upon being promoted to professor. I ended up delivering something weirder (see here), but I was happy to come across these thoughts, and the fresh recollection of Zane Pautz. So, for what it’s worth ….
Living Under the Boundless Sky (written in Fall 2009)
When he kindly invited me to present this inaugural lecture, the Provost asked me to describe the path which led me to become an academic scholar, and to illustrate and explain the core of my academic interests. So let’s start in the beginning and see where it leads us. How did I ever come to be a professor of philosophy?
The question makes me think immediately of Zane Pautz. Dr. Pautz was a philosophy professor at Milton College in Wisconsin, a small and charming college which lasted from 1844 to 1982. One day Dr. Pautz was invited to visit my high school Humanities class and present a lecture on Philosophy. It must have been 1982, the very year that Milton College finally closed its doors. At the time I did not know that there were still any living philosophers; I thought they had went out with Zeus and togas. But I still remember that Pautz lectured about the five main areas of philosophy, according to Aristotle — Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, and Aesthetics — and I was decidedly hooked. At every question he asked, I jumped, thinking “Yes! I’ve always wondered that!” I decided, either then or shortly thereafter, to study philosophy.
(taken from Kronman’s Education’s End)
The pleasures of the intellect are notoriously less vivid than either the pleasures of sense or the pleasures of the affections; and therefore, especially in the season of youth, the pursuit of knowledge is likely enough to be neglected and lightly esteemed in comparison with other pursuits offering much stronger immediate attractions. But the pleasure of learning and knowing, though not the keenest, is yet the least perishable of pleasures; the least subject to external things, and the play of chance, and the wear of time. And as a prudent man puts money by to serve as a provision for the material wants of his old age, so too he needs to lay up against the end of his days provision for the intellect. As the years go by, comparative values are found to alter: Time, says Sophocles, takes many things which once were pleasures and brings them nearer to pain. In the day when the strong men shall bow themselves, and desire shall fail, it will be a matter of yet more concern than now, whether one can say “my mind to me a kingdom is”; and whether the windows of the soul look out upon a broad and delightful landscape, or face nothing but a brick wall.
Just returned from the Central APA which was wonderfully and surprisingly rejuvenating. In the past I have found such conventions numbing, but this time – and maybe ’twere just my ‘tude – I found a lot of nourishment at this one. (Also more general nourishment in the French Quarter.) One of my professional obligations was to provide a brief, conversation-starting commentary on Galen Strawson’s latest defense of his reading of the Appendix to Hume’s Treatise. As I have learned over the last few weeks, this is highly contentious territory, the battle raging between, on the one hand, the “Old Humeans” who believe Hume positively denied the existence of external objects, of necessary connections (i.e., real causes), and of any substantial self, and, on the other hand, the “New Humenas” who believe Hume was denying only systematic, philosophical knowledge of these matters. (For what it’s worth, I think Strawson and the New Humeans have the better interpretation.) While stewing over the possibilities, I crafted a little tale which I reproduce here for my own gratification:
“The Tale of the Prince and the Cobbler”
Once upon a time there was a Prince who desired both his court and his courtly philosophy to be secure, efficient, and rigorous. His predecessors had been lax in their administrations and had allowed many needless functionaries and figureheads to insinuate their ways into the royal system. “Enough!” cried the Prince. “I will no longer tolerate any entity that is not pulling its own weight!” And thus began the great ontological purge.
In his royal philosophy, the Prince tolerated no alleged ideas or concepts which could not be traced to actual sense-impressions. This seemed an eminently sensible approach, as it were, but others, and the Prince himself, were astonished to discover how little was left in the royal philosophy. For our actual set of sense impressions do not yield any well-founded ideas of causes, selves, or substances – the principal entities of any philosophical armory. Indeed, the Prince was so astonished that he found himself trying to explain how anyone ever came to believe themselves to possess these so-called ideas. He employed the royal psychology to this end.
Eventually the Prince wrote a treatise of his royal philosophy which aimed to demonstrate how little knowledge the combination of sense-impressions and reason really provide. And – while other philosophers of the realm cried out in consternation and disbelief – he felt satisfied in having brought greater security and efficiency and rigor to the royal philosophy.
Meanwhile, in the same princely realm, there lived a cobbler. He was a practical man, of course, though he was at the same time exceptionally well read in philosophy. But the combination of his practicality and his great learning had resulted in a great skepticism. For every day was filled with (on the one hand) seemingly endless disputes about the nature of mind and world, and (on the other) task after task of shoe production and repair, all of which met with great success. He began to suspect that not very much philosophical knowledge is really needed for success in navigating one’s way through the world.
To satisfy himself in this conclusion, the cobbler developed a philosophical epistemology exactly like that of the Prince, one rooted in sense-impressions and ideas drawn from them. And he then set about demonstrating how this philosophy fell comically short of providing any of the knowledge he employed on a daily basis in making and mending shoes. There could be no clearer demonstration, he felt, of the inadequacy of philosophical reason to provide the basic knowledge necessary for human life. And so he wrote a treatise demonstrating how little knowledge the combination of sense-impressions and reason really provide, and then returned to his work as a cobbler.
Amazingly, the Prince’s treatise and the cobbler’s treatise were identical with one another – word for word! As soon as he was informed of this, the Prince sent for the cobbler so that they could discuss their treatises (or their treatise?). But they were surprised to find they had very little in common. For the Prince was a great skeptic about knowledge: he thought there is very little of it, though we persuade ourselves there is more. The cobbler however was not this kind of skeptic at all – indeed, his daily work with shoes convinced him that he knew many useful things. Rather, the cobbler was a skeptic about philosophy’s ability to make sense of this knowledge. The two men finally agreed to go their separate ways – with identical books tucked under each arm.
My filmmaker brother sent me a link to this YouTube. As a complete coincidence, I also had the chance to talk today to my dear friend Rick, the poet and godscourge, who could well have written Minchin’s script. What am I saying, “coincidence”? It is clearly some sort of harmonic convergence.
The following is an excerpt from an essay I’m working on, meant to explain to non-philosophers what it is philosophers do.
Philosophy is the search for wisdom, and wisdom has two large components: what is (or “the True”), and what is valuable (or “the Good”). To be wise, you need not only to have skills and know facts; you also need to be able to sort through matters and focus on the most important elements. This is true in every field, because there is wisdom in every field. A wise lawyer knows the laws and procedures, and knows which ones to call into service. A wise plumber knows water, pipes, and tools, and knows how to determine whether a leak needs a small fix or a big one. A plumber or lawyer who knows stuff but cannot prioritize is worse than useless. Now a philosopher’s project is to discern the most important things – the True and the Good – about the biggest human endeavors, such as understanding the universe, creating social policies, treating others well, and finding meaning in the human experience. That’s wisdom in a formula: knowing the important facts about the most important matters; or, knowing the True and the Good. A philosopher aspires for this wisdom.
That sounds very grand, doesn’t it? But how on earth can anyone go about doing any such thing? Well, doing it requires doing two things. First, philosophers need to have a general knowledge of how theories work. A big component of an education in philosophy is working through grand systems of thought, from Aristotle and Plato through Augustine and Aquinas and Descartes and Leibniz and Kant to Wittgenstein and Carnap and Moore and Rawls. Working through these systems means understanding how they work and testing them against problems and objections and determining, in the end, what is right in them and what is wrong. Even if one sets aside the delight we experience in exploring these magnificent temples of theory, there is great value in these explorations because we learn how to handle great big theories: what they are presupposing, what would rank as a counter-example, how a defender might handle an objection, and so on. The more theories you work through, the better you get at grasping what we might call theory dynamics, or the ways theories generally work. This general ability makes philosophers fairly adept at jumping into any kind of theory and quickly gaining a good grasp of how it works and perhaps where it comes up short. It also ideally makes them good at explaining things.
The second thing philosophers need to do is study widely. What they study of course depends on what questions they are interested in. A philosopher interested in the nature of reality needs to read science. If I am interested in social policy, I should read politics, economics, or sociology. For ethics, I should be a student of the variety of problems people get themselves into – perhaps by studying legal cases, or by talking to others or reading about their experiences. For the meaning of life, I should be familiar with psychology, religion, and anthropology. In any of these cases, I do not need to be an expert, but I should be able to read the works of the experts and be able to gain a sound understanding of what is being proposed. I should be able to enter into conversation with an expert, and not impress them with any new insights, but at least demonstrate that I understand what they are talking about. It would be truly awesome if any philosopher could read broadly in all of these fields, but that is sadly impossible. These days most philosophers confine themselves to a single field, or in extraordinary cases, two. In super-duper extraordinary cases, perhaps three, but such ambition usually results in shallower understanding.
So theory dynamics and wide study are what prepares philosophers to do what they do. But this picture is not yet complete. There is a third component to doing philosophy that I would not call a method, but rather something like a drive that pushes the entire project forward. Philosophers strive to understand the True and the Good, and they will read widely to try to help that understanding along, but there is no guarantee that what they read will provide that understanding. It can happen that a particular science has not reached an understanding of the matter in which the philosopher is interested. Or it may be that the relevant sciences have not even tried to tackle the problem. Or it may be that current specialists regard a particular problem as solved, but the philosopher thinks an important mistake has been made somewhere along the way, or some alternative has not been duly explored.
The drive I am trying to describe is exactly the drive Kant described in his attempt to provide a motto for the Age of Enlightenment: aude sapere, or dare to understand. In the end, philosophers want to understand things for themselves. It is not enough to master what contemporary theories say if those theories are incomplete or if they are blind to other important truths or concerns. Our patron saint, Socrates, had many friends who thought they understood many fine things, but none of them could hold their own against his fierce interrogations. In the end, the explanations must make sense to me. If they do not make sense, then they are held in conceptual orbit, or put on the shelf, until something changes and makes us think that they might have merit after all.
From John McDowell, Mind and World (1994), pp. 77-78:
It can seem that we must be picturing the space of reasons as an autonomous structure – autonomous in that it is constituted independently of anything specifically human, since what is specifically human is surely natural (the idea of the human is the idea of what pertains to a certain species of animals), and we are refusing to naturalize the requirements of reason. But human minds must somehow be able to latch on to this inhuman structure. So it looks as if we are picturing human beings as partly in nature and partly outside it.
[Kant is getting excited! But hold on:]
But there is a way out. We get this threat of supernaturalism if we interpret the claim that the space of reasons is sui generis ["its own kind of thing"] as a refusal to naturalize the requirements of reason. But what became available at the time of the scientific revolution is a clear-cut understanding of the realm of law, and we can refuse to equate that with a new clarity of nature. This makes room for us to insist that spontaneity is sui generis, in comparison with the realm of law, without falling into the supernaturalism of rampant platonism.
So I can be a good naturalist simply by rezoning?
A colleague of mine took pity on my flailing about in the churning waters of idealism and recommended that I read some John McDowell. Though I try to read a lot, I always find myself astonished at having missed out on things, and that’s the case here.
McDowell’s Mind and World starts with an argument, due to Sellars, that there can be no pure “given” (data) at the basis of experience, and least not if we expect that data to play any role in justifying our beliefs about the world. For pure data, prior to concepts, simply cannot play any role in a justification. The data must be conceptualized, or formed into some manner of judgment, before they can become part of a justification. This is related to Kant’s transcendental deduction, which argues that sensory experience is possible only if the data get structured in such a way as to make concepts applicable to them. Concepts must be in experience in order for experience to be anything to us; experience without conceptual structure is, for us, “less even than a dream,” as Kant writes.
The rest of McDowell’s book (which I’m still reading) explores the implications of this insight, and I will write more when I finish. But I did have the chance yesterday to try out some implications in class. It seems to me that we have no choice but to take explanations and justifications seriously. When we are explaining a mathematical truth, or defending a moral act, or even explaining how we know the planets orbit the sun, we rely crucially on chains of reasoning whose validity is rooted in taking concepts very seriously. The only other way to look at our explaining and justifying is to see them as sounds and scribbles we initiate because we have been conditioned to expect that certain sequences will get others to behave in ways we want (nodding heads, going on to produce relevantly similar sounds and squiggles, etc). Exaggerating further, this would mean that the difference between poking you with a stick until you agree and convincing you with a cogent line of reasoning is only a matter of degree: both processes are merely causal. If we are to believe that explanations and justifications really are more than this, we must take concepts seriously. (Moreover, you shouldn’t provide me with an argument if you think I am wrong about this; you may as well just come after me with a pointy stick!)
I know that, in other essays, McDowell goes on to argue against the notion of a “thing in itself,” existing apart from all conceptualization. I still find myself believing in the “brute dumbness” of experience (see the 9 November post), and it’s hard for me to see any way of accommodating it without a radically indifferent world. But at the same time, I believe that such an indifferent world still has some structure or other; that its happenings can be explained, at least in principle; and hence that it must be “concept-ready.” Does this make me an Absolute Idealist?
Neal Gabler, over a year ago, in the NYT:
The post-idea world has been a long time coming, and many factors have contributed to it. There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.
There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.
But these factors, which began decades ago, were more likely harbingers of an approaching post-idea world than the chief causes of it. The real cause may be information itself. It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less.