Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sophia and the Toy Chair

Sophia was maybe eighteen months old, maybe a bit younger, when she delighted her grandmother with a bit of business with a toy chair. It was a tiny plastic chair for dolls, about two inches tall. Sophia tried to lower herself down into the chair. What is philosophical about this (or at least psychological; I'm thinking of Kant) is that she has the concept of chair way before she has a working grasp of spatial relations. Kant thought that the mind was a concept engine, organizing everything into categories (for better or for worse: his analysis of prejudice and stereotypes is based on this and is spot on I think).

Friday, February 16, 2007

Is Existentialism an Eliminativism?

Partisan formation around the old "Continental-Analytic" split (now completely passe, it seems to me) reified over the years into a view of things where, broadly speaking, existentialism was a part of the philosophic "left" and particularly represented a defense of the freedom of the individual. In its most debased form this interpretation placed existentialism as a kind of refutation of Newtonian determinism. Reading Sartre in Contemporary Philosophy this semester, this seems to me all wrong. I think that Sartre is a kind of eliminativist about the self, certainly he is about any classical, Platonic/Christian concept of a transcendent self (he's explicit about that), but his whole theory rests on the idea of consciousness as a no-thing, the negation that emerges in dialectic with the material world. "I am not that," is Sartre's Cogito. He wants to be a materialist, and maybe even a reductive one. Isn't Marxist dialectic (an uppermost concern of Sartre's) a sort of reductive materialism? There is nothing beyond the physical state of affairs; that is the ground of all of the rest of being. "Existence precedes essence" points ultimately to Hume's psychology. When I did a Kant seminar a few years ago and we read the first Critique, it struck me that all of Sartre was already there in Kant (not an idiosyncratic stance by the way). Take away transcendental rationalism (as Sartre, at least programmatically, certainly aims to do) and you get...Hume. Or maybe Sartre is Berkeley! Kant hated it when people said that he was Berkeley, but they did say so at the time.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Wittgenstein and Physicalism

Wittgenstein can be read as both a physicalist and as an anti-physicalist. It may be that the two interpretations are compatible because there is a difference between metaphysical physicalism and epistemological (or "reductive") physicalism. On the one hand, Wittgenstein is deeply committed to the view that intentional/semantic properties are not real. This is a core intuition for him, and one of his basic points. There is no internal mental content, no meaning somehow under the surface of language. Intentional and semantic predicates can only intelligibly be applied to public referents. This is the physicalist intuition that motivates behaviorism, Wittgenstein, and Ryle. On the other hand, Wittgenstein is committed to a version of functional-role semantics: language is misconstrued as neutrally or passively naming or describing an independent, external world. Rather speech acts are forms of behavior with (myriad) functions, all specific to specific "forms of life," literally specific to creatures with such-and-such bodies in such-and-such environments and so forth ("If a lion could speak we would not understand him."). Thus, classical metaphysics is brought to an end (so Wittgenstein thought with many others of his era), but also eliminated by functional-role semantics is the epistemic privilege of science: all speech behaviors are essentially pragmatic and thus a correspondence theory of truth is misconceived according to this pragmatist/anthropological view of language. So he shares with the physicalist the metaphysical intuition that intentionality/semantics must be washed out of a coherent account of the world, but rejects the program of reductive materialism. (PS Thanks to Fernando Birman of Columbia University for a nice presentation today here at the University of Puerto Rico)

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Some Good Philosophy Behind the Strange Doctrine of Occasionalism

I've long been persuaded that Spinoza has something very valuable to say about the mind/body problem, and on a good day I'm even able to talk about what that might be. I also have been coming to appreciate Leibniz, initially insofar as he seems to go beyond Spinoza on the metaphysics of modality (with his anticipation of "possible worlds"). But I have long regarded as mostly just bizarre Leibniz's doctrine of "parallelism," the view that the mental and the physical (and indeed all the myriad substances that he took to exist) were set in a kind of pre-established harmony, each one unfolding according to its own essence alone, with God alone as the real causal force explaining the whole state of affairs. Malebranche's "occasionalism" does not add much to Leibniz but it does make one point more clearly: Individual things have no causal force. Causality is a property of God alone.
Today I'm thinking that this 17th century philosophy has some very fine stuff to it, especially when we consider it in the context of philosophy of mind. The two metaphysical problems are causation in general and mental causation in particular. Does the (Spinoza-like) claim that God is the only cause really constitute a defensible position on causality? A standard response has been that to say that God is the "real" cause is vacuous, amounting to nothing more than the assertion that the causal relations are primitives (unanalyzable givens). However, taken as a general response to the problem of causality, this seems in fact to be very close to Hume's view that, other than the observable regular correlations themselves, there is nothing that can be observed to be a "causal power." "God made the world that way" is no more or less acceptable than "Nature is made that way."
Let's think about the metaphysics of mental causation. Parallelism suggests that we will not find a causal relationship between the mental and the physical, in either direction, because the mental and the physical are not in a causal relationship. Of course this is true if we deny a priori that the mental and the physical are metaphysically distinct (and like most philosophers and scientists in this area I doubt that they are metaphysically distinct). Strictly speaking it is a mistake to talk about a causal relationship between a thing and itself. But these 17th century rationalists were mind-body dualists, so they could, conceptually speaking, entertain the idea of causal relations between mental things and physical things. The idea here is that two correlated things could both be caused by a third thing, that thing being God in this literature. Compare this with Spinoza's view: Everything (God) has both a physical and a mental description. On the Leibnizian view, there is an underlying causality that explains both the mental and the physical state of affairs. Nor does this need to be treated as a gnostic religious mystery or anything other than the primitive that it is: when there is a perceptual experience of the color red, there is that qualitative experience, when there is damage to the body, there is this one.
I used to suggest to my students that simply mapping correlations between physical states and mental states was not adequate for naturalism about the mind because causal relations are not the same as (merely) correlative relations, and thus there is some unresolved conceptual difficulty for psychology, etc. Now I'm no longer sure about that. It may be that when these correlations are familiar enough and well-studied enough, the "conceptual" mystery will simply evaporate, like the old problem of the "life force" in biology. And that, I guess, is what I'm seeing in Leibniz and Malebranche: the world is made in such a way that the mental and the physical accompany each other. There is no hidden causality between them. That does not seem to be such a bizarre thing to say after all.

Robert Solomon

Philosopher Robert Solomon passed away unexpectedly on January 2nd. He was a long-time professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of many books. He was best known for his work on the emotions that was of interest to virtue theorists, cognitive scientists, and others. He was also a noted scholar of existentialism including Nietzsche and Sartre, and was also the author of a number of teaching textbooks and had a lifelong interest in the pedagogy of philosophy. I was acquainted with Prof. Solomon briefly during the late eighties and early nineties through his visits to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I was a graduate student at the time. Prof. Solomon's long relationship with the Boulder department had its roots in the sixties and seventies when Boulder was known as a center for phenomenological studies (in my time the department was moving in other directions, but I was fortunate enough to attend Hazel Barnes's valedictory seminars on the Early and Late Sartre my first year and took a number of courses with Forrest Williams). Prof. Solomon was of that populist American school of professors who take a sympathetic interest in naive undergraduates and have a more critical manner with probably-pretentious graduate students. He was a bohemian figure, a contrarian who always wanted to challenge the received view of things. This semester, by chance, I am using A Short History of Philosophy, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, cowritten by him with Kathleen Higgins. It includes generous coverage of Indian, Chinese and other traditions and much provocative treatment of philosophical chestnuts: the authors challenge the notion that the Presocratics are best understood as "the origins of natural science," or that Early Modern philosophy is a contrast between the "Empiricists" and the "Rationalists," for example. There is a refusal to separate philosophy from art or from religion, and an insistence on some political awareness of the context of canonical writers. Robert Solomon was an energetic and humane philosopher.