Wednesday, September 26, 2007

from:
http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html
courtesy of Erik, as in the comment below.

What I've done is stolen excerpts and added commentary. I realize this is something of a straw-man approach, but I'll try to be intellectually honest about this.

The author begins with his own background in philosophy, why he entered the field, and why he left.

"Philosophy doesn't really have a subject matter in the way math or history or most other university subjects do. There is no core of knowledge one must master. The closest you come to that is a knowledge of what various individual philosophers have said about different topics over the years."

This is partly true. I agree that philosohpy doesn't have a subject matter, but it seems presumptuous to claim a subject matter for the sciences or history. Indeed, one of the achievements, if I may use so misleading a word, of post-war continental philosphy is the theory that subjects or disciplines create their own subject matter. Michel Foucault (the so-called "historian of the detail") pioneered this way of thinking in the late 60's in his studies of the penal system, the insane assylum and the clinic (_The Achaeology of Knowledge_ seems to be a good place to start. I've not read the books on the aforementioned subjects, but have begun this last one, and it acts in some ways as a summary). We might say that, by talking about an object (madness, for example) in a systematic way, we create it. Of course, we cannot talk about it before it exists, so there is the problem. I've not yet got to Foucault's theory of how these objects originate, but I would provisionally suggest that they originate from objects that have themselves already originated by the same mechinisms. For example, madness might be a refiguring of possession (in the Biblical sense).

Ultimately, every subject matter, every collection of objects of a given discourse, could be seen as defined by, and understood in terms of, the discourse used to describe it. Everything then is inextricably tied to words, and, in so far as we are able to communicate an object to someone else, that object could be said to be only words.

Graham reaches this same conclusion, to some extent, turning to Wittgenstein:

"The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy, and break down if pushed too hard."

But where this errs, it seems to me, is its contextual exclusivity. Graham suggests that only in math and science do concepts keep from getting fuzzy (and why should our concepts always have to remain so hard and rigid all the time? Why do we insist upon keeping them erect?); but I would suggest that it this is true in almost every discourse that doesn't involve reflection upon itself. Things break down in philosophy (lately) because it is the role of the philosohper (if philosophy isn't dead) to break it down (word). But if you looked at music theory, you'd see the same lack of fuzzyness you find in math (usually).

"The most valuable way to approach the current philosophical tradition may be neither to get lost in pointless speculations like Berkeley, nor to shut them down like Wittgenstein, but to study it as an example of reason gone wrong."

I've not read Berkeley or Wittgenstein, but I would like to point out that Wittgenstein has been hugely influencial; he doesn't seem to have shut anything down, but rather to have blown things up. I do agree that it's important to read philosphy as an example of things gone wrong (maybe not reason, but then again maybe), but I'll get to that later.

Graham offers the following as an example of post-Wittgenstein "word salad":

"Gender is not like some of the other grammatical modes which express precisely a mode of conception without any reality that corresponds to the conceptual mode, and consequently do not express precisely something in reality by which the intellect could be moved to conceive a thing the way it does, even where that motive is not something in the thing as such. [14]"

I admit I have no idea what this means. So I read the footnote.

"[14] This is actually from the Ordinatio of Duns Scotus (ca. 1300), with "number" replaced by "gender." Plus ca change."

This is not an example of post-war philosophy, it's nearly ancient. So of course it's a word salad: it's excised from a discourse with which none of us is likely to be familiar, it's a translation from a dead language, and a word has been inexplicably replaced with another. This is really odd to me. There are a Brazilian examples of equally convoluted text from his target group that he could have chosen, and which would have been extremely effective in supporting his point. I can't imagine why he used this. Maybe I've missed something?

Graham has a solution for what is wrong with philosophy. It began with Aristotle, whose goal was "to discover the most general truths," but while remaining nobly impracticle. Here's Graham's counter-proposal:

"I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question:
What are the most general truths?
let's try to answer the question
Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?"

1) I was looking through my roommate's introductory combinatorics book at dinner. I don't think applicability is going to keep us from wandering off into any swamps.
2) Aristotle, according to a professor of mine who has a PhD in Classics, forms the base of most Catholic thought since the 10th century (when students in Paris rioted for the right to read him). Regardless of his intentions, Aristotle has been hugely applicable, although, as Irigaray points out, not always in a good way.
3) I would suggest that Aristotle's problem (and philosophy's in general, pre-war) isn't that it's unapplicable, but that it privileges generality. Why isn't that questioned here? What does posing the question "What are the general truths?" do to affect (or even effect) it's answer?

This last is my chief objection. What is the benefit of generality? and, perhaps more importantly, what are it's risks?

One of Graham's arguments seems to be that philosophy actually has nothing to say. It's not so much that it's necessarily confusing, but that it's deliberately confusing, in order to get tenure:

"In order to get tenure in any field you must not arrive at conclusions that members of tenure committees can disagree with. In practice there are two kinds of solutions to this problem. In math and the sciences, you can prove what you're saying, or at any rate adjust your conclusions so you're not claiming anything false ("6 of 8 subjects had lower blood pressure after the treatment"). In the humanities you can either avoid drawing any definite conclusions (e.g. conclude that an issue is a complex one), or draw conclusions so narrow that no one cares enough to disagree with you."

I think we should look at this first from a different angle. Philosophy is certainly not the only opaque academic discipline. The sciences in particular, who are estemed for their applicablitiy, are quite impenetrable to me once one gets above the high school level. It seems to me that philosophy gains its obscurity not from a desire to befuddle a committee in the interest of sneaking into the academy, but rather in the interest of not being fuzzy. Philosophical texts are impenetrable not to keep people from seeing the man behind the curtain (and how often has it not been a man, after all?), but in order to be precise. Precision, as I've hinted at above, requires jargon. I can't talk about math in lay-terms, because that wouldn't be precise enough for math. Similarly, a philosohpy can't discuss sublimity without the discourse on sublimity. This is why I can't make any sense of Graham's quote from ca1300: I don't speak that jargon; it's not confusing or fuzzy, it's obscure. To condemn philosophy for obscurity makes no more sense than leveling similar charges against biology or mathematics.

"You can start by writing things that are useful but very specific, and then gradually make them more general. Joe's has good burritos. What makes a good burrito? What makes good food? What makes anything good? You can take as long as you want. You don't have to get all the way to the top of the mountain. You don't have to tell anyone you're doing philosophy."

This is the beautiful conclusion. And I'm not being snarky at all; I realize my tone may sound defensive in some of the above, but I really do like this ending. It is important to remember that philosophy doesn't hold a monopoly on abstraction, wisdom, truth, or anything but a partcular(ly obscure) way of talking. Access to this way of talking can be useful, of course; with out it, I wouldn't know to ask "what is good?" and "what are the implications of supposing there is a single unifying characteristic amongst all good things?"

"Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover."

This, however, is what it ultimately comes down to. What Graham is interested in doing is laying claim to things. He is directly in, as I understand it, the Kantian tradition (Kant also wanted to simplify language and make words unfuzzy).

So here's what I think:
Philosophy has often been quite obscure. Whether this was necessary depends on one's point of view. It was necessary to communicate the intended information (the information in another form would be different information), but if the information itself was not useful (who decides?) then the obscurity (which is, to some extent, the informatin) was also not useful, maybe. I've read some obscure stuff, and some of it I understood little enough that I must own that maybe it didn't mean anything (what does it mean to mean?). (It's interesting, as an aside, that Hegel, in his _Phenomenology of Spirit_, uses textual obscurity to mirror his points: when he's describing a particularly dizzying element of the spirity, his prose gets even dizzyinger than usual.)

Philosophy has always been about application, even when it's said by the author to be otherwise. I won't get into my opinions on the unknowability of authorial intention (I don't think it's knowable), and that's not important here, I think. What is important is how the text can be said to function in discourse and the history of discourse. We read Aristotle for a reason (and it's not just so we can laugh at him: he thought high notes were higher because they travelled faster, and never mind testing this hypothesis): he shaped much of the history of thought in Europe. Gayatri Spivak's _Critique of Postcolonial Reason_ starts with excellent readings of Kant, Hegel and Marx in terms of their influence on (or perhaps their reflection of) the development of European colonialism, for example. Even Aristotle's privileging of impracticality is a polical maneuver: who has time to behave impractically, and why would it be in Aristotle's interest to call such people noble?

The preference for generality needs to be questioned (and has been elsewhere).

There's a lot to be said for using big words just to be pretentious :)

1 comment:

erik said...

Nice response. The main point I took away is that in most fields, including philosophy, as you get more advanced, you need to use more specialized language to make your discussions precise and concise. Therefore discussions about philosophy that seem overly obfuscated to a lay person may actually be that way by necessity, not because the author/speaker was just trying to sound smart.