Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is Hume Moore or Wittgenstein?

G. E. Moore tried his hand (irresistible pun) at overcoming the Cartesian skeptical problem, that if one grants that we only experience our own mental representation of the world, knowledge (about the actual world) is impossible. In "A Defense of Common Sense" (1925) and "Proof of an External World" (1939) he proposed that we can recognize paradigm cases of knowledge (famously including "That I have a hand"), and that establishing the truth of such knowledge claims establishes the falsity of the skeptic's claim that any knowledge about the external world may be false. I find Moore's style of argument, both here and in his exposition of the "naturalistic fallacy" in Principia Ethica, to be awfully fast, but one can see how Moore felt that he was carrying on David Hume's legacy with this kind of Modernist, anti-philosophical philosophy. If there is a conflict, Hume teaches us, between what ordinary people take to be simply given and what the rationalist takes to be logically necessary, then so much the worse for logic. I'm always careful to suggest to my students that the way to think about the possible significance of Cartesian skepticism is that it shows that rationalist philosophy has problems, rather than locating the problem in ordinary belief (if the student calls me at 2AM worried that the world is not real, my counsel is that he drink some water, go for a walk, and lay off those funny cigarettes).
However, Wittgenstein zeroed in on Moore's work, which Wittgenstein felt failed to cure the philosophical disease. He wrote a short manuscript late in his life that was finally published in 1969 titled On Certainty. On Wittgenstein's view, the problem was that the skeptic used the verb "to know" in a context in which it could have no meaning. It means something to say that "He knows that Aguadilla is north of here," or "He doesn't know if there is any spaghetti sauce left," because these statements are predictive of his actions and prescriptive of ours (this is the behaviorist side of Wittgenstein); Wittgenstein develops a type of functional-role semantics. Put another way, we are genuinely informed by ordinary attributions of knowledge because it could have been different: to say "he knows" makes sense because he might not have known. The external world as such, then, is not a legitimate object of knowledge. It is part of the context in which "knowledge" is possible. Thus, we neither know nor do not know anything about the existence of the external world; the verb "to know" can gain no purchase here. Moore's strategy for defeating Cartesian skepticism fails because Moore continues to commit the same "grammatical" (as Wittgenstein calls it) error as the skeptic. Moore no more "knows" that he has a hand than the skeptic "doubts" it: both are failing to make meaningful statements.
So a question of Hume interpretation: is Hume Moore or Wittgenstein? This is significant because standard Hume interpretation holds that he was a kind of happy skeptic. The standard line is that, since he held that the boundaries of sensory experience are the boundaries of knowledge, he fully embraced the Cartesian condition, that we can never know anything other than the "impressions" that are mental, not physical things. But I think that this phenomenalist reading of Hume owes a great deal to the early analytic philosophers such as Moore and notably Russell. Hume says that knowledge has limits, and that the philosopher must be comfortable with the fact that understanding can only be extended so far and no farther, on penalty of sophistry. This strikes me as much closer to the Wittgensteinian view that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world" than the traditional interpretation of Hume, that skepticism cannot be refuted and we are left phenomenalists. Note that Wittgenstein meant that the world establishes limits for language, rather than the reverse, a common error in reading him I think. So I need now to spend some time with the Treatise, if only I had the time.
(This page was anthologized at Meaning More, thanks to them.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

On Teaching "Contemporary Philosophy"

Here at the University of Puerto Rico, as in many undergraduate philosophy programs, we have a four-semester history of philosophy sequence: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, and Contemporary. "Early Modern" philosophy is a canonical category that is, I think, a valid way to sort a particular part of the literature, basically 17th and 18th century European philosophy from Descartes to Kant. It's a tight, well-defined topic: from the Discourse on Method (1637) to the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) is less than 150 years, and Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant are all part of the same conversation, investigating more or less the same metaphysical and epistemological issues.
The trouble is that about 100 years or so ago "Contemporary" philosophy was defined (for curricular purposes, anyway) as European philosophy since Kant (or since 1800, say), and in the year 2008 that is no longer a coherent sorting out of the literature. It has become mission impossible. There are two problems that I see as a professor. First, the historical period has simply grown too long, encompassing now the German Idealism of the early 19th century all the way to the Anglo revival of metaphysics of the late 20th century, by way of Hegel and Marx, Pragmatism, Modernism, Existentialism and Phenomenology, Analytic Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction, Cognitive Science, and branch stations along the way too numerous to mention. I'm familiar with this problem of what to include from teaching Humanities. One just has to accept that it is not possible to include everything significant, and try to choose a selection of topics that are both central and fun (and, assuming that one is not just deadwood faculty, mix these up from semester to semester).
But there is another problem with the idea of "Contemporary Philosophy" that is even more difficult. Even if we restrict ourselves to writers and themes that are generally accepted as "philosophical," we do not find a coherent conversation across the 19th and 20th centuries like we do with the Early Modern period. I try to break down what I take to be the superficial and insidious "Continental/Analytic" distinction in Contemporary in the same way that I reject the "Rationalist/Empiricist" distinction in Early Modern, and I have some success with that (for example it's true that Descartes and Kant are, unfortunately in my view, the granddaddies of both phenomenology and logical positivism. The more time goes by, the more alike they seem. It's amazing how much of Sartre is implicit in Hume. Etc.). But even that work won't really do, as I am painfully aware on the first day of a Contemporary course here in Puerto Rico (yesterday for example), because students have a reasonable expectation that the story of 20th century "philosophy" is more than the story of professional work in metaphysics and epistemology. What about Post-Colonialism? Today's students want some Eastern philosophy, and I do have a two-semester Buddhism course here every other year (thank God), but in Contemporary there is a palpable sense of disappointment, at least among some students, with the material. What about Feminism? I for one feel strongly that an introduction to 19th and 20th century thought requires some discussion of Feminist ideas.
So, what to do? At this point in my own intellectual life, the fact is that my interests run to good old metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and so forth: contemporary Contemporary philosophy! And I just take my students along with me where I want to go; that's the best thing that I can do for them. I do always enjoy teaching existentialism, and talking about ethics and political theory is another thing I get to do in class even though my own work doesn't run to those topics so much these days. A basic tactic of mine is to find a good book and let the book do the organizing: if this is Tuesday, it must be Pragmatism. This semester I'm going to use Anthony Kenny's Philosophy in the Modern World, the fourth volume of his history of western philosophy. I have confidence in Kenny, but I'm going to have to supplement him a bit. He's small-c conservative, with coverage of the religious writer John Henry Newman for example; I think I'll give them a blast of Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father somewhere along the line.