Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Problems from Urgency in Philosophizing

Due to the shortness of our time on Earth, or our natural propensity to jump to conclusions, or many other possible reasons, there is great urgency to not be at variance with others.  We form habits when trying to resolve these variances, such as, subjectivism, relativism, misology, that can become threatening to all rational discourse, and, not to sound alarmist, but over long amounts of time the adoption by society of these habits can even begin to be a threat to humanity itself.
Anxiety of some degree is always present for us when we perceive a task to be completed, and anxiety is to be relieved by bringing the task to its conclusion.  When we are in disagreement with others we naturally want to no longer be in a position to doubt our own perspective, which produces anxiety for us.  Sometimes we wish to conclude in order to continue carrying out a task, and time constraints may often make it necessary to resolve disputes quickly.  The concerns of subjectivism, relativism and misology mentioned above are all easy substitutes for reasoning that allow one to avoid all anxiety in the matter, as well as all real deliberation.  I say that these are all substitutes for reasoning, since they all usurp and undermine, in one way or another, what is required in reasoning – that a common position is possible.
Philosophizing certainly must assume that a common position is possible between those who are engaging in it, and while philosophizing there is not necessarily a clear call to action, which makes it hard to see why one must be so urgent in coming to a conclusion by adopting subjectivist, relativist, or misological tendencies, and most people agree on this point it seems.  Yet there are more subtle tendencies than these sophomoric ones, to list a few: projecting ones hidden agenda onto others (usually by accident), being suspicious others possessing hidden agendas, taking others to be irrational.
Ultimately I do not wish here to clear up all of these concerns, though I hope to do so over time.  For now I wish to urge considering the basis of argument and dispute so that as members of a community we may be clear on what expectations we have when we enter into discussions.  This will totally obliterate subjectivism, relativism and misology within the realm of discourse (these outcasts will need to build an edifice all for themselves in principle), but will help us to be clearer about avoiding the more subtle errors that we encounter, errors that I will term errors of suspicion.  Maybe it will also help to relieve the urgency we often find in our discussions.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What is the Archimedean Point in Descartes' Meditations?

My relationship with Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is one of loving frustration.For a cursory report of the history of my interpretation: I have gone from not being able to accept the Cogito, and being offended by the 'assumption' of God, to accepting the Cogito, and being suspicious of a change in method that resulted in a complete breakdown in meditation four.Most recently I have perceived something in the fourth meditation that may allow me to understand a continued continuity after the Cogito, and a chance to continue to meditate along with Descartes.I hope to present some of my recent work with the Meditations to get some feedback and answer questions (hopefully) about this approach.
In the first two meditations Descartes does a terrific job explaining what he is doing in such a way that it follows more like a story than an argument.In the third meditation, there is a change in presentation: what was a story of adventures in skepticism becomes more like a scholastic argument for the existence of god, specifically an ontological proof.The change in presentation left me wondering how to continue meditating along in the same manner as before, since, for example, it is easier to understand what it is like to doubt but much harder to understand what ‘eminence’ is like (this required some digging).Here I allowed myself to simply change my interpretive method to a more argumentative style, and could accept Descartes ontological proof with some reservations.(Descartes does not seem to be doing anything other than saying he is limited and therefore depends on something unlimited, which is acceptable taken formally – some concerns with this are still available to me, but I will spare them.)
The fourth meditation instantly frustrates readers with what appears to be intellectual negligence.Descartes declares God to be good:
“For, in the first place, I discover that it is impossible for him ever to deceive me, for in all fraud and deceit there is a certain imperfection: and although it may seem that the ability to deceive is a mark of subtlety or power, yet the will testifies without doubt of malice and weakness; and such, accordingly, cannot be found in God.”(
Where is the argument for this?Maybe we can attempt to construct something about evil as privation, and then argue that deception is evil, but I think there are some reasons this approach is to be avoided.At this point many readers I know throw up their arms in despair; I was included in this group until recently, when I found a new direction for my interpretation.
As Descartes continues in the fourth meditation he says something very interesting:
“It is the faculty of will only, or freedom of choice, which I experience to be so great that I am unable to conceive the idea of another that shall be more ample and extended; so that it is chiefly my will which leads me to discern that I bear a certain image and similitude of Deity.” (ibid.)
Speaking formally, our will is equal to God’s, though His has much greater extension (speaking materially).I had read this a number of times before – every time I had gone through the Meditations – but the last time I was reading it something clicked.
If we take Descartes to be looking for an Archimedean point on which he can build a trust in the world and proceed with certainty in his inquiries into nature, then it often seems as if the Cogito is this point on which everything turns.Now, while this is true, it often seems that the infallible ground of our knowledge is that we cannot doubt our own existence.However, I suggest considering that the real Archimedean point is found in the fourth meditation - our possession of unlimited will.What is the value of this suggestion?First of all, it leads us back to a new consideration of Descartes radical doubt.
If we can doubt the existence of everything “outside of us”, but cannot doubt ourselves, there is still no reason to act or take any cognition as the basis for action.If we do act, we are assuming a reason on which we have acted and a ground in taking the seeming appearing of the world around us to be legitimate.It seems to me that this assumption Descartes takes to be a good God. Now, before we get suspicious, we do not need to immediately pull in assumptions from Descartes’ (and our) culture when we are discussing God, rather we should consider exactly what Descartes requires from the concept ‘God’ for his argument and only that.First of all, we know we are limited, and depend on something unlimited; second of all, what appears to us is not a lie.I hope to focus on the second of these leaving the concerns about the first behind. The development up to the fourth meditation constitutes an epistemic theodicy.This theodicy seems to be required as an assumption, a priori, for anyone who involves themselves in the world through actions, since the ground of trusting “external” objects is something that assures their suitability to know them, which would need to be a being that can guarantee our continued existence (omnipotence), has a grasp of thing in themselves (omniscient), is required to acknowledge in every case (omnipresent), and would not lie to us (epistemically benevolent, which may be the only benevolence required). As a student of Kant, I immediately see a connection between the primacy of will in Descartes and Kant’s Practical Philosophy, I also see a relation to Kant’s moral proof of God.Now, Descartes does not necessarily see his argument as I do, however, this interpretive hypothesis explains a lot for me and gives me reasons to return to the text to explore the predictions it makes. I hope this hypothesis can help anyone reading this to also see if they can make sense of the continuity of the Meditations.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On Socrates and Telling People How to Read

   A common reading of Socrates is as a gadfly who provokes people into asking questions and thus helps them to attain wisdom through realizing that they do not understand some concept as well as they supposed.  However, Socrates characterizes himself as never intending to lead others into being ponderous, but rather as genuinely seeking to learn from them – it is only a side effect of his questioning that others are thrown into confusion, not the result of a scheme.  Now, there may be some textual evidence to support that Socrates is, at times, toying with an interlocutor, but to read Socrates as the essential gadfly is to make the hero of Plato’s dialogues into a trouble maker, and – I feel – this degrades Plato’s dialogues immensely.
   While I am interested in getting further into the literary discussion of the character of Socrates (and I hope that broaching the subject leads to at least some discussion on this matter), it is actually a different matter that leads me to bring him up.  The reason why I have always been so taken by Socrates is that he is always genuinely asking, and never telling others what they should do philosophically.  What would he tell them, seeing as he doesn’t himself know?  If he were to be able to tell you how you should live, he would be a sophist (as the concern of the Protagoras seems to characterize them).  What I mean is that in matters of loving wisdom, Socrates has nothing to offer in terms of advice; he only has questions, and questioning seems to nearly exhaust his own pursuit.
   We often tell others what to do with impunity in cases where we are concerned that they are acting contrary to their own ends.  For example, yelling, “Watch out!” to someone about to be hit by a projectile is not really is usually safely assumed to be a good idea, and acceptable behavior because you assume that this unfortunate does not wish to be hit.  What is more a matter of concern is telling someone what ends they should take rather than advising them how best to conform to their own ends.  This is a problem for me in philosophical discussions when I feel like I am on the verge of simply telling others how they should read a text.  This leads me back to my discussion of Socrates.
   In the reading of Socrates as a gadfly, he is covertly trying to get people to ask questions because he thinks that this will contribute to their living good lives, or becoming wise, in short, to become a lover of wisdom.  This version of Socrates can be seen as helping people to be more in line with their ends, and maybe the enthusiastic philosopher will allow themselves to see it in this way: everyone is really pursuing wisdom, though in a confused manner, and Socrates just helps them to recognize that they would better pursue their (essential) ends by asking more questions.  There is certainly a sense in which I find this agreeable, and I think this is a central element in Plato: everyone ultimately has the Good as their end.
   While I am happy to glibly agree with Plato that everyone does what they think in best, even if they are in error, I can understand concerns about this manner of speaking that would rather emphasize what we immediately hold as our task.  A distinction is here in order.  I take an end to be explicit when it is known to the pursuer that they are acting in order to attain that end; an end is implicit when it is being pursued without recognition, for example, if one end is assumed in following another end.  Gadfly Socrates is concerned with explicit ends, since he wants people to take being thoughtful as their goal.  The Socrates I idealize for myself is concerned with implicit ends, and so is interested in self-inquiry so he can discover what it is that he depends upon; for example, the way that Socrates inquiry into the virtues seems to lead to the consideration of wisdom as an implicit end of all of them so that the pursuit of courage is covertly a pursuit of wisdom.
   Now, my concern of telling others how to read philosophical texts aligns me with sophists since I am telling others what is good for them (though I don’t charge).  I am also sometimes like my less preferred Socrates, and simply pose interesting questions about what we depend upon in our interpretations of texts, and so reveal that a different end is already assumed in our reading than we recognize on the surface.  It is much less frequent in social situations that I attain to the ideal Socrates, and only for brief moments.  How might I increase my chances of simply participating in questioning, without anything to prove?  What is preventing me from attaining to this idea?  Ultimately I think that I get hung up on others who are going about different tasks then I am in questioning, and that simply ignoring them is not an option socially, and simple questioning isn’t necessarily met with sincerity – and quite frequently suspicion (a topic I hope to address soon).
   A parting concern: this reminds me a lot of an essay by Schiller (that I need to reread) on the difference between simple and sentimental poetry.  To present the matter of this essay in its relation to this blog post: Socrates is simple because he just attends to his questioning naturally, whereas I am sentimental Socrates (not that I have earned that name), since I react and attempt to act as Socrates while holding him as an ideal.  Schiller would seem to suggest that no matter what, Socrates will always have the advantage over me in his manner of the pursuit of wisdom.  This makes sense, unless I can manage to forget about Socrates and concentrate on the questioning.  This is a difficult task for me, since Socrates is a constant inspiration.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reflections on Philosophical Interpretation - I

   In order to help me to write more I have decided to start writing some reflections on Philosophical Interpretation.  I hope that these can be helpful for generating some talk on the blog about our engagements with text and each other.

   My study of Kant has afforded many benefits; one of the earliest I can remember was concerning the interpretation of earlier philosophers.  As a young undergraduate it was very easy for me to scoff as soon as ‘God’ appeared in an argument.  While studying the modern period in a history course I found that I had this reaction consistently in regards to Rationalists, whereas I found the Empiricists much more agreeable.  At this point in my work I have had a complete about face.  It isn’t that I have started to doubt the Empiricists (hereafter referred to as Quitters) but I have found that their project does not have the same depth as the Rationalists (hereafter referred to as Crazies).
   At the same time I was taking this history class I was also taking my first course on Kant, and was quite impressed with what I was finding.  The Quitters were certainly more agreeable to me, but I found that they were not quite working as hard as Kant who was not happy to simply stop at habit as Hume was.  What I see now is that this extra struggle that Kant put himself through ultimately relates him much closer to the Crazies – not in their method or conclusions, but in their concerns.  
   My first study of the Critique of Pure Reason had a profound impact on which concerns are proper to examine in philosophy, and which concerns are an embarrassment.  Kant had shown that there was real substance to the discussion of soul, world, immortality, freedom and even God.  Of course, these terms had come to have an entirely different meaning for me, as well as a rich context in which their consideration thrived.  The former usage and context remained, but I was less interested in my old concern with them.  Once I had mulled this over, and with the addition of another course on Kant just concerning his Practical Philosophy, I had found looking back at the Crazies and wondering if they were on to something, if they really did have the same concerns as Kant but poorly represented themselves.  Over the years, I continue to go back to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz to find inspiration in their enthusiasm and unique struggles with these concerns.
   The lesson learned here can be expressed as becoming interested in what matters to people; only after knowing what matters to a person does it make sense to engage arguments that attempt to pursue those concerns. And if my interpretation finds a problem in an argument, I often find that such problems are resolved by once again attending to what the concerns are.  Often that means that arguments are nothing but a way of trying to divine what matters.
   This component of my technique in philosophizing has been greatly helpful for furthering discussions that would otherwise have been impossible, and for keeping in mind my own concerns so that I can properly express myself according to what matters and not just some clever argument.  In practice, this has also been easy for others I know to adopt and benefit from.