Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Linguistic Argument Against Relativism

One of Wittgenstein's most famous arguments is known as the "Private Language" argument but it might be more accurate to refer to it as the "Public Language" argument, as the starting point is that language (like playing games) is the kind of thing that happens between people, out in the world. There are neither words nor rules "in the head" (Wittgenstein also doubts that there are any images or anything else to "look at" in the head, but that requires some additional attack. Roughly, I think that the idea here is that it explains nothing to posit any sort of "mental representation"). Language, furthermore, does not generally function on the model of "object-designation," rather there are myriad functions that are performed using language, all of them coordinations between subjects. Thus classical "meaning" semantics is replaced by a kind of functional-role semantics: the "meaning" of the utterance is just the pragmatics of the performance of the utterance. This public account of language, if correct, precludes the possibility of phenomenology. We can talk about "blue," but we cannot, using language, gain any purchase on "blue-for-me," or "blue-to-you." These are literally meaningless constructions, not because we are zombies (my students keep thinking that Wittgenstein is claiming that we are zombies), but because the quality of experience is beyond the reach of language. If "relativism" is the claim that there is no such thing as Truth, Wittgenstein's language argument exposes some philosophical (Wittgenstein would say "grammatical") confusion. On the one hand, he would take the point that there is nothing meaningful in any attempt to talk about "Truth" as something that "exists" independently of some specific, contextual "language-game." So what epistemologists have lately been calling realism (Arthur Fine?)is a misguided project. But by the same token, there is nothing in statements such as "What's true for you is true for you, what's true for me is true for me." Anything that's "true" (any actual use to which we might put the concept of truth) is necessarily intersubjective. I suspect also that the "end of objectivity" rhetoric of Richard Rorty, informed as it is by some serious consideration of Wittgenstein, is a misapplication: commitment to beliefs and principles doesn't evaporate along with classical semantics, any more than consciousness does.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Semantics and Uniqueness

For a while I've been thinking that I'm stuck between the two poles of Plato and Wittgenstein, although on some days I'm better at explaining what that means exactly than on others. Today in Epistemology we chewed over an inchoate idea that floated through my mind yesterday. (Wilbert Munoz pointed out that we were talking about metaphysics more than epistemology, which was true enough, but we got there honestly: we've been thinking about Nagel's attempt in The View From Nowhere to establish some way of talking about subjectivity as something in the world, and I'm pretty sure that Wittgenstein is right (contra Nagel) that this is not possible.)
Anyway, the half-baked ("inchoate" is a fancy-pants way of saying half-baked) idea was this: Wittgenstein argues that the semantics of all language is necessarily grounded in public, intersubjective referents, and that this extends to psychological ("phenomenological") terms (for example in the "beetle-in-a-box" passage). Meanwhile Plato seems committed to the view that any description of a particular is necessarily in terms of properties, and thus descriptions are composed of assignments to categories (I guess Aristotle thinks this too, although they have opposite accounts of primary being). If some particular had a property that was unique to that particular, could we name it? I have the feeling that the answer is going to have to be "no." So, the connection: the Cartesian claims that the taste-of-chocolate-for-me is a real element in the world, one that only I can know about etc. Wittgenstein counters that we can only talk about plain old taste of chocolate. Is the putative (or possible) uniqueness of the taste-for-me what precludes the possibility of meaningful reference to it? And does this reveal an unexpected similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein, inasmuch as both think that reference amounts to a kind of categorization? Just an inchoate note, I have to go make some photocopies for 11:30 class.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Philosophy and Ethics Across the Curriculum

This week we're discussing a bureaucratic issue here at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. The university is trying to develop "Ethics Across the Curriculum," specifically ethics seminars in the Agriculture, Business, Computer Science, Engineering, and Nursing programs, among other possibilities. The problem is, should my fellow philosophers and I insist that courses in ethics necessarily involve input from philosophers? (And, for example, should such courses be "cross-listed," given two course codes, one in philosophy? As I say, our problems are largely bureaucratic.)
I think that the answer is no. There are non-philosophical elements of my opinion, such as the fact that our little Philosophy Section is "the mouse that roared" so far as the Business School or the College of Engineering are concerned, but there is also a substantial philosophical point so I'm posting about it here.
It's true that in the classical tradition moral instruction, understood as How to Live the Good Life, was considered to be the province of philosophers. But at that time the term "philosophy" was much broader than it is now: there was "natural philosophy" and "moral philosophy," moral philosophy encompassing what today we would call history, political science, and in general the humanities and social sciences, although it is true that we have lost the classical idea that students ought to be studying to be good persons (perhaps this is too collectivist for us).
Today, philosophy is something much more specific. I would define it as the study of metaphysics and epistemology. However, that doesn't mean that ethics is not an area of philosophy. Ethics, like aesthetics, religion, psychology, science, and mathematics, to name some prominent examples, is interesting to philosophers because ethical propositions have a metaphysically and epistemologically ambiguous relationship to "natural" propositions, propositions about, roughly speaking, the physical world (I say "ambiguous," I don't necessarily believe that ethical propositions cannot be naturalized; I don't accept the "naturalistic fallacy" argument, for example).
I'm not, then, a metaphysics jock who "doesn't do" ethics. I'm covering ethical theory in my Intro course right now, as a matter of fact. I'm interested in empiricism and ethics, specifically non-cognitivist theories and the role of logic in ethical reasoning, and the difference in the way rationalist approaches and empiricist approaches fix the extensions of the sets of moral patients and moral agents (Kant thinks they're coextensive, Mill and Singer, say, do not), and I have discussed the naturalistic fallacy in earlier posts as well as the law of effect as a basic empiricist principle. I definitely "do" ethics.
It's just that I don't think that the metaphysical and epistemological investigations of philosophers qualify philosophers in any way as experts on normative ethical codes (specific ideas about what sorts of things are right and wrong), or as social and political critics (analyses of the justice or lack thereof of social and political arrangements). I think that there is a basic conceptual error here: the fact that ethics is philosophically interesting doesn't make it the exclusive domain of philosophers, or necessarily any domain of philosophers. Physics is philosophically interesting too, but if one wants to learn about physics the place to start is Intro Physics.
Where do we start if we want to learn ethics? I think that "ethics" is a highly heterogenous concept. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that if you want to learn how to be a good person, find someone who you feel certain is a good person and watch what they do. So for Agricultural Ethics or Business Ethics or whatever it may be, it seems sensible that one finds an instructor with some experience and reputation of ethical conduct in that field. I don't see how the student in another profession is going to be much improved by listening to a professional philosopher explain consequentialism vs. deontology, say, as philosophically interesting as that distinction may be.
One final thought for the blog (not something to belabor in a faculty meeting, in my opinion): philosophy isn't the most important thing in the world. Discussions of cultural and ethnic biases, of sexism and racism, of economic and social justice, are discussions that in my opinion, and speaking as a philosophy professor, are all more important than the rather abstruse topics philosophers choose to chew on. As a society we should be (and we are) spending more time on those issues than we are on philosophy. But that doesn't mean that those are the topics that a responsible philosopher ought to engage with, any more than a good professor of, say, organic chemistry or 17th century Italian opera needs to stop everything and plunge into a political consciousness-raising session.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Plato's Dualism

Plato's dualism is a dualism of matter and form. For Plato, the distinction between mind and body is one example of the larger distinction between form and body. As matter nears closer to form, it becomes more and more formally organized, the reverse as it recedes from form. Circular objects are good examples: the more perfectly circular particulars are closer to the form of circularity. But then the roundness of my finger, say, is a case of my person being a mix of matter and form. There are many ways that my body is exemplifying form. The fact that I can do logic and mathematics, then, is not the only form/matter distinction that I exemplify. This is the sense in which the mind/body distinction is only one example of a larger distinction, the real metaphysical distinction, matter and form. The significance of this for philosophy of mind, I think, is that there is nothing metaphysically unique about my rational capacity. Dualism, for Plato, is already established by my finger's having the property of circularity, a formal, not physical, property. The further intuition that thinking logically is somehow mental, whereas simply being round is not, is no part of Plato's dualism. So, perhaps, the claim that the "rationality assumption" in intentional psychology has no correlate in physical description is incorrect. Physical descriptions are shot through with references to formal properties, and so intentional psychological descriptions are not metaphysically exceptional in that sense.