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Thursday, May 31, 2007

The hard problem

Posted by Adam Roberts on 05/31/07 at 03:02 AM

Jerry Fodor’s recent LRB review of Galen Strawson’s Consciousness and its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? is a model of its kind; a sympathetic and intelligent account of Strawson’s book (which I haven’t read) and a deft account of the philosophical problem it addresses.  That problem is ‘the hard problem’, or ‘what philosophers have come to call “the hard problem”’:

The hard problem is this: it is widely supposed that the world is made entirely of mere matter, but how could mere matter be conscious?  How, in particular, could a couple of pounds of grey tissue have experiences?

It’s a good question, and Fodor outlines a number of ways of approaching it.

Until quite recently, there were two main schools of thought on this issue.  According to one, the hard problem is actually very easy: the answer is that consciousness ‘emerges’ from neural processes.

That is the explanation that gets my vote; it’s a concept I first discovered in Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, eloquently and (I’d say) persuasively argued there.  Fodor goes on:

According to the other view, the hard problem is so hard it can’t be real: consciousness must be some kind of illusion.  Many of this persuasion tried hard to convince themselves that they are, in fact, not conscious, but few of them succeeded.  Centuries ago, Descartes suggested, plausibly enough, that the attempt is self-defeating.

Fodor then tarries briefly over ‘another way to respond to the hard problem’.

One might hold that the world isn’t entirely made of matter after all: there is also a fundamentally different kind of stuff—mind-stuff, call it—and consciousness resides in that.  Notoriously, however, this view has hard problems of its own.  For example, if matter-stuff and mind-stuff are of fundamentally different kinds, how are causal relations between them possible?  How is it possible that eating should be caused by feeling peckish or feeling peckish by not eating?

‘For this, and other reasons,’ Fodor says, sweetly, ‘mind-stuff has mostly fallen out of fashion, and I won’t dwell on it here’

The subject of Fodor’s reviewerish attentions articulates a fourth way of tackling this rock-hard hard problem.  It’s a sort of Holmesian ‘eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ solution, and it is uneuphoniously called Panpsychism.  The case is something like this: there are things in the universe, and also there is consciousness, and these two qualities interact.  They can’t, therefore, be radically different; but it’s hard to see how consciousness can be made out of thinginess.  Therefore things must be made out of consciousness.  Or put it another way: everything is consciousness.  This doesn’t seem to me to be the same thing as saying that ‘everything is conscious’, but that also seems to be Strawson’s conclusion.  It is the result, as Fodor notes, of following to their conclusion a number of, in themselves, reasonable enough premises: that there is such a thing as consciousness, that the cosmos is made out of one single kind of stuff—‘monism’ I believe that’s called—and that there’s no such thing as emergence.  I’ll come back to this last point in a bit, but to stick with Fodor for a moment:

Strawson is prepared to follow the trail to the very end.  I, for one, think that’s how philosophy ought to be done.  You can’t make metaphysics out of fudge.

Mmmm.  Fudge.

So, then, if everything is made of the same sort of stuff as tables and chairs (as per monism), and if at least some of the things made of that sort of stuff are conscious (there is no doubt that we are), and if there is no way of assembling stuff that isn’t conscious to produce stuff that is (there’s no emergence), it follows that the stuff that tables and chairs and the bodies of animals (and, indeed, everything else) is made of must itself be conscious.  Strawson, having wrestled his angel to a draw, stands revealed as a panpsychist: basic things (protons, for example) are loci of conscious experience.

If this seems counter-intuitive, we might perhaps console ourselves with the thought that lots of things in the world are counter-intuitive.  Moreover, this is by no means a new conclusion (there was a panpsychist vogue in the eighteenth-century, for instance), and ‘the hard problem’ has of course been bickered and struggled over by generations of philosophers.  This in turn leads to my problem with the problem, or the point (a key one, I think) in the train of argumentation that eludes my capacity to understand it.

Here it is, and it takes off from a philosophical discussion I heard on Radio 4 many years ago.  I can no longer remember who was discussing the issue with whom, except that they were two posh-sounding British academic philosophers (one of them might have been Brian McGee Bryan Magee), and that they disagreed over this question.  The way could-be-McGee explained it was as follows (I, of course, paraphrase):

I like to think of this as the thermostat problem.  For some philosophers, consciousness possesses a unique and distinctive quality that other forms of calculation or reaction—by computers, say, or insects—simply lack.  For these people the problem of consciousness inheres in its very richness and strangeness.  But there are other people who consider consciousness to be nothing more than a complicated—admittedly enormously complicated and developed, but at root similar—version of what happens in the simple thermostat.

I think, at this point, could-be-Magee’s interlocutor interrupted with some eloquent polysyllabic harrumphing.  But he pressed on.

Of course the human mind is incomparably deeper and richer than anything that might be supposed to occur within a thermostat.  But it’s possible to argue that in a sense the thermostat possesses a rudimentary form of consciousness.  That, in other words, when the room temperature reaches a certain level the thermostat responds, in a manner of speaking ‘decides’, to switch itself on, or off.  This may seem like a long way from the appreciation of a beautiful sunset, or the ability to compose Fidelio, but in fact what we call consciousness is actually a large number of subroutines and responsive-reactive-considerative loops like a thermostat’s, perhaps many thousand of them of varying degrees of detail, all layered over one another and arrayed to process sensory input, actual and possible responses and all in parallel, that feels to us, as this goes on, like the unitary ‘consciousness’ which msteemd-colleague believes to be unique and indivisible.

I suppose it’s unlikely that could-be-Magee used a word like ‘subroutine’, or brought in the computer analogue.  This whole exchange, so imperfectly remembered here, probably predated home computing.  But you get, I hope, the gist.  The colleague responded by saying, in effect, that it was trivially obvious that human consciousness is more than just a switch, even a switch of the order of a thermostat, and blah blah, and so on.

Now this is the problem I have.  Speaking personally I can well believe that my own consciousness is a complexly sedimented parallel series of thermostat mini-consciousnesses, distantly premised upon some relatively simple nervous responses (flight-eat-mate-fight) and botched together by the clichéd ‘millions of years of evolution’.  Which is to say, it doesn’t outrage my sensibility to think of a thermostat as being, in a small way, conscious.  But at the same time I can understand that for some people this is a ridiculous supposition—I can see why some people assume that a difference not merely of degree but fundamental kind separates human consciousness from that of a thermostat.

In other words, emergence explains the problem to my satisfaction, but I can see why other people have a problem with it.  This is Fodor’s account of Strawson’s objection:

[Strawson’s thesis is:] ‘For any feature Y of anything that is considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ But Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be.  In particular we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are constituents.  It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are.  How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter?  If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those.

Not having read Strawson’s book, I’m obviously not in a position to quibble with what I take to be his argument (I only have Fodor’s version of his argument), although I’d say there are several problems with that premise ’For any feature Y of anything that is considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’ Why the myopic focus on X? (‘and X alone’ … why?) The way individual molecules aggregate into a river is one thing (that, clearly, is X alone); but the whole point about consciousness is that it develops—has developed, over millions of years—reactively, a series of elaborate feedback loops taking in the subroutines themselves and the external world, and some features of that external world (food, threats, other humans) in particular.  In other words ‘X’ in this case, is, kind of, ‘everything’, which rather dilutes the force of Strawson’s premise.

But I don’t want to go off the point.  The main thesis is clear enough.  For the Dennettites, saying ‘a thermostat is conscious’ is a conceptual stepping stone on the path to explaining our consciousnesses in material terms.  Stones are not conscious; thermostats are conscious in a tiny little way; human beings are very conscious.  For other thinkers this won’t do: thermostats are assembled in easy-to-explain ways from unconscious matter and therefore must be unconscious; our consciousness is something different.

This is the problem I have.  Strawson’s premises leads him to the position of arguing that not only thermostats but absolutely everything is conscious after all.  But that’s the step that’s needful to convert a person to Dennettism.  In other words, like asking the left-hand identical twin at the fork in the road ‘which way would your brother tell me to go?’, either pathway leads to a Dennettian conclusion.  Either thermostats possess a rudimentary form of consciousness, and our own much more complicated forms of consciousness are assembled out of numerous versions of thermostat-think, or thermostats don’t possess consciousness, because consciousness is something too subtle and sophisticated to emerge from mere switchism, which leads logically to the panpsychist conclusion that everything possesses consciousness, in which case thermostats do too, and we can follow Dennettt’s steps to the non-panpsychist conclusion.

This is what seems to me self-defeating, or paradoxical, about the panpsychist position.  As I understand it: the Strawsonian view of consciousness starts from the belief that there is an uncrossable chasm between unconscious matter and conscious mind, which in turn leads to the conclusion that everything must be conscious, which means that there wasn’t an original problem in the first place.  I’m sure I’m missing something.

The obvious objection would be to say: ‘a Dennettite may believe that a thermostat has a kind of consciousness, but wouldn’t believe that the components out of which the thermostat is made are conscious—so the Dennettite sees a different kind of thermostat to a panpsychist’.  But I wonder if she does.  By any Turing-test, surely, both groups see the same thermostat. More; the panpsychist doesn’t need consciousness to go any lower down the hierarchy than a thermostat to solve the particular problem s/he has set her/himself.


Strawson’s position is ‘if there were only unconscious matter, there could never be conscious things’, whereas Dennett’s is ‘once upon a time there was only unconscious matter, but now there are conscious organisations of matter (and quasi- or proto-conscious organisations like thermostats, amoebas, etc.)’. Because Strawson thinks that the emergence of consciousness is impossible, he thinks that, necessarily, either everything is conscious or nothing is. And since we have good Cartesian reasons to think that the second option is false, he goes for the first. Dennett thinks that Strawson’s dilemma is a mistake, because consciousness can be built from nonconscious things (emergence is possible). So, the world consists of a range of things from entirely non-conscious (rocks) through slightly conscious or proto-conscious (thermostats) to conscious (us). The difference which allows Strawson to resist your fork, then, is that he thinks there must be consciousness ‘all the way down’ if at all; Dennett doesn’t, even though he’d agree that it’s (trivially) true that if there’s consciousness, there must be the possibility of consciousness all the way down. Put another way, the difference is between thinking that rocks are conscious, and thinking that rocks have the potential for consciousness.

By on 05/31/07 at 05:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How about this: a human (as much as, say, a bird) is a form of life, a thermostat (or a PC) while also largely a “feedback-controlled system” is not.

If you bring in the analogy between *machines* and *life forms* as basis of an argument (or rather Strawson does?) you end up discussing *life* rather than *consciousness* and this then takes you to the whole Maturana/Varela type of discussion on “Autopoiesis” etc…

Whether “life” is simply a gigantic number of “thermostats” is maybe not so easy to decide but at least it brings the investigation back to the firm groung of materialism (and one may find it quite telling that at least some in the AI field seem to have moved from the goaö of “artificial consciousness” to that of “artificial life” in the form of “Embodied AI” - specifically in trying to build “intelligent” and “self-conscious” robots.)

By on 05/31/07 at 06:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Would this problem go away if we ditched our fetishistic attachment to ‘consciousness’ as an ontologically special thing, as the proponents of the ‘3rd culture’ (like, I think, Dennet) would have it?  Isn’t the terror of the resultant ‘determinism’ just a kind of romanticism?

By on 05/31/07 at 07:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[take 2] Seems to me ‘panpsychism’ is more matter/mind being like matter/energy. I think Penrose (Roger that Sir) poses more interesting entanglement questions in The Emperor’s New Mind.

By nnyhav on 05/31/07 at 08:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some sociologist should write about the mannerisms of philosophy professors. The sociologist would begin with the habit of calling one another “philosopher”— really, aren’t we all philosophers? And the “hard problem” description is a peculiar form of self-congratulation. The hard problem, sort of like nuclear fusion or the three body problem. Hey, we’ve got problems too! Hard ones! And maybe if we could just think really hard about it, maybe we could solve it. Newsflash: Anaxagoras banged his head against the same problem over 2500 years ago. This “problem” is as old as philosophy.

By on 05/31/07 at 09:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  I love “Eloquent polysyllabic harrumphing.” Such a great phrase.

2.  I haven’t read any Strawson, but if Fodor’s summary is apt when he characterizes Strawson as equating emergent consciousness with the miraculous, I can’t see how a panpsychic metaphysics is necessary.  What crosses my mind is a question about how if other naturalistic phenomena were obscure in the way that consciousness is causally & mechanisically obscure, if such a happenstance wouldn’t necessitate (for philosophers) a specifically metaphysical definition of reality (as opposed to a specifically physical definition of reality) about all sorts of things, rather than being focused so particularly on mind.  For instance, consider photosynthesis.  I can still hardly believe that via very complex cells and molecules found in cells, the coordination of sunlight, CO2 and water can somehow make glucose and energy---the fact that these cells do this, is, to me, only slightly less of a “miracle” than the fact of consciousness. That photosynthesis and consciousness both “work” on a distinctly emergent level doesn’t seem to necessitate any metaphysic beyond an understanding of these emergences as causally epiphenomenal and supervenient to their physical properties and the features of their cells.  I don’t know if this is the forum for discussion of this sort but I’ve always wondered if this distinction is really missing something or if I might be right. 

3.  I’m not sure where Dennett is at on this, so I’ll ask.  Would I be right to say that when he puts forth an argument for emergence he is referring to weak emergence?

By I. Eaton on 05/31/07 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your posh-sounding philosopher chappie was more likely to have been Bryan Magee. I believe “Brian McGee” was the original owner of Homer Simpson’s fake ID.

By on 05/31/07 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

antirealist:  “Bryan Magee” ... yes!

By Adam Roberts on 05/31/07 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In reply to an earlier commenter, this problem is called “the hard problem” not because philosophers like to feel important, but rather in comparison to a different problem regarding consciousness (called, unsurprisingly, “the easy problem").  In other words, it’s comparative (it is the harder problem).  Also the full name for it is “The hard problem of consciousness“, though the last is generally left off because, well, it’s obvious. 

Also, no, we aren’t all philosophers.

By Dr Pretorius on 05/31/07 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree there’s no reason to make such a fuss over the phenomenon of human consciousness. The emergence of digestion seems to me just as miraculous, and the miracle seems just about as indeterministic.

However, I’m with Mr. Waggish: the sensible alternative isn’t to admit that everything is conscious but to admit that human beings aren’t. Most people who talk about consciousness drastically overstate both its power and sustain: “I think, therefore there is always thinking.” It doesn’t take anything as strong as anesthesia to make mine lapse, and I see plenty of examples of semi-consciousness around me every day.

As I’ve written before, outside a monotheistic mindset there’s no need to maintain a strict binary between free will and predestination. Conscious decision-making plays much the same role as a voter in a US presidential election. Yes, such a thing exists, and it has some effect, but it flatters itself outrageously.

By Ray Davis on 06/01/07 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s all the same problem. Trying to distinguish easy from hard implies you’ve got some handle on the problem.

By on 06/01/07 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An extension of why it is called “the hard problem”:  It is assumed that the easy problems are those that could potentially be solved with a functionalist approach to the mind e.g. mental organization, reporting of pain and other cognitive states etc. Note that none of these problems are actually easy, merely that they are easier to explain than the inner life which some organisms experience. Understood in this manner consciousness does not have the essential utility. Related to this is the problem of the philosophical zombie that acts exactly as a regular person, but does not have conscious experience. The p-zombie would completely fulfill a functionalist explanation, but would still be lacking consciousness. How is it possible that something that does not seem necessary would exist? Thus “the hard problem of consciousness.”

By on 06/01/07 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bjakad: “It’s all the same problem. Trying to distinguish easy from hard implies you’ve got some handle on the problem.”

We do have some handle on the problem, including useful distinctions between different parts of it and a good idea of which putative answers might apply to which parts. That’s why Strawson and Dennett can be precisely compared, why their arguments can evaluated, why Fodor can write an interesting review of Strawson’s book, and why Adam R can blog interestingly about it. Why do you suppose otherwise?

By on 06/01/07 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, now that I have actually read the post (for some reason I had a vibe that there would be people who didn’t know why consciousness is called the ‘hard problem’...maybe my consciousness was interacting with my computer’s consciousness) my biggest problem with Strawson is that it doesn’t even seem to be a solution. Since we aren’t exactly sure what ‘consciousness’ is, other than that we ‘obviously’ have it,’ it seems just as problematic to bequeath it upon everything else in the universe. In other words by performing a basic inversion may explain why consciousness is possible, but it does not help to explain what it is. With panpsychism it still must be explained why both my television and i are conscious. Oh good, that sounds like a much easier problem…

On a related note I think that David Rosenthal’s HOT theory is much more interesting and more likely of a solution.

Also, how is it that analytic philosophers of mind can get away with saying the craziest things? Consciousness is a hard problem so everything must be conscious. Science can’t explain colors, so colors must be epiphenomenal.

And Continental philosophers are accused of having crazy ideas, but they don’t hold a candle to panpsychism and epiphenomenalism.

By on 06/01/07 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We have no idea what the causality is—if there is even a causality—but we’re already distinguishing one causality (the easy kind) from another.

By on 06/01/07 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Books about the mind/body problem are real things; and they are caused, however indirectly, by consciousness. Therefore, epiphenomenalism is incorrect.

Just my contribution to that old art form, Eloquent polysyllabic harrumphing.

By Jim Harrison on 06/01/07 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know if that’s fair, Colin - Continental philosophers are usually just accused of not being careful with their craziness.  I do agree that Strawson’s panpsychism is confusing at best - after all, what makes the hard problem really hard isn’t, from what I can tell, that we don’t know how to solve it.  It’s that we don’t really have a good grasp on what a solution to it might be.  (Like an awful lot of problems in philosophy, though perhaps more than most others are, the problem is less of a question and more of a general area of utter confusion.) I think there may be a more fruitful way of asking the question than the way you have, though - after all, even if we don’t have a deep explanation of what consciousness actually is we do seem capable of talking relatively sensibly about it all the same.  (The problem may be simply that it’s not clear that our talk about physical things and our talk about consciousness aren’t in some sense incommensurable with each other - and if this is the case there’s a real puzzle when it comes to talking about panpsychism.)

Also, bjaked, what the devil are you talking about?

By on 06/01/07 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My smart-aleck answer to the question “how could matter be conscious?” is “It isn’t.  Next question.” My point is that it’s highly misleading to pick out the material object and ask “hmm, how did consciousness (that slippery, quicksilver stuff, I mean thing, I mean property, I mean, um, I’m not sure what I mean) get in there?” As I also like to say, my *brain* isn’t conscious at all (nor is my body)—*I’m* conscious.  (I can just imagine a cheesy horror flick: The Man Whose Brain was Conscious!) Now of course materialists react to this with horror, as if it made me a dualist; and the conversation goes downhill from there, with all of us eventually walking away shaking our heads.

Anyway, it seems to me that panpsychism is no help here; but “emergentism” seems as well to be more of a restatement of the question (albeit a possibly helpful one) than a substantive solution (which would, I think we can agree, have much more of an empirical component than we are used to thinking of solutions to philosophical problems as having).  I have mixed feelings about Dennett; but at least he hasn’t drunk deeply of the Cartesian koolaid like Strawson has (and, in another sense, Fodor—although I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what Fodor’s problem is).

Interesting post, though!

By Dave Maier on 06/01/07 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim Harrison: “Books about the mind/body problem are real things; and they are caused, however indirectly, by consciousness. Therefore, epiphenomenalism is incorrect.”

That begs the question, since the epiphenomenalist’s claim is precisely that consciousness doesn’t cause anything: it’s a side-effect of the processes which actually cause books about the mind/body problem.

bjakad:  I share Dr Pretorius’s puzzlement. Was your last remark about ‘the causality’ (which causality?) intended as a response to me? I’d find what you’re saying easier to follow if you’d connect it more closely with the material we’re discussing, rather than making gnomic remarks. And to be honest, I’d find what you’re saying less irritating if you’d stop blandly asserting that nothing is known about issues which are the subject of an enormous amount of serious work by philosophers, cognitive scientists, novelists, etc. You can’t seriously mean that none of that work on consciousness is of any value at all, can you? If you do mean that extraordinary claim, then I think you need to make an actual case for it, and demonstrate some knowledge of what you’re dismissing.

By on 06/02/07 at 08:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

really, aren’t we all philosophers?


By Kieran on 06/02/07 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Odd that an unconscious process would yield books that happen to be about consciousness, granted that consciousness isn’t supposed to be able to do anything at all. After all, there aren’t any books about the whipped creme/body problem; but they should be just as likely as books about the mind/body problem if consciousness is only invoked by chance.

I’m aware that epiphenomenalists have to claim that consciousness is not the cause of books about the mind/body problem. I’m just pointing out that this claim is actually quite remarkable.

By Jim Harrison on 06/02/07 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jim H: sorry, I was misled by your ‘therefore’. I mostly agree with you: consciousness is something we can know about, and how could something with no causal powers be an object of knowledge? But I don’t think that ‘unconscious’ is the relevant alternative to ‘conscious’ here - the epiphenomenalist would presumably agree that we are conscious of many of the processes which lead to the production of books. She’d just claim that those processes would still do that even if there were nothing it was like to have or undergo such processes, i.e. if they were non-conscious. But I agree that this claim is ‘actually quite remarkable’...

By on 06/03/07 at 09:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

how is it that analytic philosophers of mind can get away with saying the craziest things? Consciousness is a hard problem so everything must be conscious. Science can’t explain colors, so colors must be epiphenomenal.

And Continental philosophers are accused of having crazy ideas, but they don’t hold a candle to panpsychism and epiphenomenalism.

I’m with you, Colin. This analytic philosophy stuff is all way too whacky for me ...

By on 06/04/07 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rob, I realize it is common knowledge that continental philosophers are typically accused of having crazy ideas by analytic philosophers. Nevertheless, it isn’t true. (Continental philosophers are often accused of having bad arguments on behalf of their crazy ideas. Quite a different kettle of fish, for better or worse.)

Analytic philosophers obviously couldn’t consistently deplore crazy ideas, per se, because they’ve got crazy ideas all over. (Which is to say: I think what YOU think is a ‘gotcha’ is more like a reductio ad absurdum on certain preconceptions you have concerning what analytic philosophy is like.)

By John Holbo on 06/05/07 at 02:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

hey, John. No “gotcha” intended. (Nor, in passing, and OT, was any intended in my comments re Fish.)

I’m just saying that it all too whacky for me. I don’t get the exigency, if you like, of the problem. I don’t see a problem. But that’s a comment about me, not about analytic philosophy, etc.

By on 06/05/07 at 02:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Do “continental” philosophers make bad arguments or do they investigate the paralogisms involved in philosophical arguments? If there is no autonomous, singular, complete, self-consistent, and certain set of premises from which all conclusions can be necessarily derived, then the conclusiveness of philosophical arguments is “necessarily” drawn into question, n’est pas? It was Hegel who “showed” that a complete system of logical reasons, which could conceptually conjure the being of the world as a whole, must be circularly self-enclosed and “presuppositionless”, eh? And that is precisely the metaphysical belief par excellence. Logic functions to exclude possibilities by virtue of the “law” of non-contradiction, but it little avails to exclude all possibilities, but rather allows for an indeterminate number of compossible “positions” depending on conflicting premises. And isn’t that the “game” played by Analytic philosophy, premised on the purification of logical techniques of argument? (There is even a “divine commandment” school of Analytic philosophy, accomodating religious fundamentalists, dependent on the logical clarification of its eponymous heading). Instead, isn’t it more reasonable to “conclude” that there are disparate kinds of reasons,- formal, semantic, pragmatic, functional, evidential, ethical, economic, etc.,- that might be put together in a more or less reasonable way, such that arguments are not either valid or invalid, but more or less sound. And “soundness” is a “function” of judgment, which can’t be replaced by any formalize procedure, and can neither overcome, nor escape the individual and collective fates of those whose judgments are called into question, when the stakes must be payed with their lives.

By on 06/07/07 at 01:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m unclear who John C. Halasz’s comment is directed at: who are the analytic philosophers since Godel who imagine that there is an ‘autonomous, singular, complete, self-consistent, and certain set of premises from which all conclusions can be necessarily derived’? Halasz seems to be attacking a straw-man, or at least a vastly out-of-date picture of what is actually done by philosophers in the analytic tradition (or genre, or style, or whatever it is).

By on 06/07/07 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sam C — I can’t speak for john c halasz, but I’m guessing that he’s responsing to the following comment from John Holbo:

rob, I realize it is common knowledge that continental philosophers are typically accused of having crazy ideas by analytic philosophers. Nevertheless, it isn’t true. (Continental philosophers are often accused of having bad arguments on behalf of their crazy ideas. Quite a different kettle of fish, for better or worse.)

I confess that I’m surprised that john halasz’s comment can be read as an attack on analytic philosophy, whether in its straw guise or not. Here’s how I read it:

Neither “tradition” of philosophy believes that there is an “autonomous, singular, complete, self-consistent, and certain set of premises from which all conclusions can be necessarily derived”. So why the fuck are philosophers of every stripe still going around rubbishing and rejecting competing traditions of philosophy on the basis of the form of reasoning or logic that they privilege or practice with regularity?! Can’t we just get past this pathetic antagonistic and defensive attitude and the false choice that it presents us with? Must EVERY statement about “analytic philosophy” from a “continental philosopher” (and vice versa) be received as an attack on and rejection of the logic, etc., of that discipline?

Apologies to john c. halasz if I’ve put words in his mouth which he would not endorse (and for implying that he speaks French).

By on 06/07/07 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Sam C. I know realize that when I spoke of “payed with their lives”, I was using the transliterated Arabic spelling rather than the English, or vice versa.

By on 06/07/07 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rob: I took it that JCH was replying to Holbo’s comment, too. What I was replying to was this:

And isn’t that the “game” played by Analytic philosophy, premised on the purification of logical techniques of argument?

The answer to this rhetorical question is ‘no’. That isn’t the game played by ‘analytic philosophers’ since around 1930, to my knowledge: the Hilbert/Frege project is long-dead.

Really, I don’t buy the analytic/continental distinction as much more significant than the distinction between, say, science fiction and fantasy. There are easily distinguishable examples of each, but also many crossovers, and they use many of the same methods and rhetorical moves. I completely agree with JCH that there are many different kinds of reason, and that there’s no algorithm for deriving all and only true statements (and I take it that he’d agree with me that there are such things as unsound arguments, and that we can sometimes identify them). I also completely agree with your suggestion that we should stop making silly generalisations about each other’s modes of writing and arguing - and I was therefore objecting to what looked like, exactly, a silly generalisation.

By on 06/08/07 at 05:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The last few comments have used up the year’s entire supply of scare quotes.  Please, save the scare quote trees from overharvesting.  I suggest “one” use per comment at most.

By on 06/08/07 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, Sam C.

I don’t know enough about analytic philosophy (or about its understanding of itself, at any rate) to know what kinds of descriptions of it would be objectionable to those who identify with it in any way.

By on 06/11/07 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suspect that this thread is dead now, but can I just mention that I don’t find JCH’s characterisation ‘objectionable’, as if we were trading insults. I find it factually wrong, and have said why.

By on 06/13/07 at 05:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sam C:

For the record, I did post here 4 long paragraphs of “clarification” in response here last Sat. , but they didn’t register for some reason. So be it.

By on 06/13/07 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

JCH: That’s a shame. If you could stand trying again, I’m still interested…

By on 06/15/07 at 04:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sam C:

I didn’t save a copy of that post, so it’s lost in cyberspace. I won’t try to redo it all, but I’ll sketch some points from memory. I began by questioning your history of Analytic philosophy as immediately reponding to Goedel in the 1930’s, if only because Goedel was a technical result in formal mathematics and not directly philosophically relevant. But I did acknowlege that nowdays much “Analytic philosophy” is effectively post-Analytic, and thinkers/writers in that style/tradition do address a broad range of issues. But earlier Analytic philosophy was much taken up the logical positivism and its criticism. And I regard the rise of logical positivism as a damaging regression in thinking, that eclipsed and suppressed older sounder conceptions rather than improving upon them, not just with respect to the understanding of science, (e.g. Whitehead), but with respect to the broad range of issues concerning rational normativity that could be considered the “proper” subject-matter of philosophy.  But to address such issues simply on the basis of the “correctness” and rigor of formal-logical arguments is to beg the question. So much of later Analytic philosophy is in recovery, a sort of Philosophers Anonymous, reconstructing views and positions already attained elsewhere. I cited the case of Davidson who in the ‘90’s arrived at a position where he recognized that he basically agreed with Gadamer, and simply quoted chunks of “Truth and Method”, simply indicating his agreement. But, of course, “Truth and Method” was published some 35 years earlier and available for inspection all along. Yet I recently read a thread on the virtues of “clarity” that are supposedly unique to Analytic philosophy, in which Gadamer was specifically fingered as one of those obscure and irrationalistic continental philosophers, when Gadamer, at least, writes straightforward conventional academic prose, and further is more of a scholar, concerned with a broad range of scholarly activity, than a decisively ‘original” philosopher. But then Gadamer taught us to expect such prejudices.

I went on to roughly characterize the “continental” side of the divide, defining it as post-Hegelian, a forteriori post-Kantian lines of thinking, preoccupied with the critique of metaphysics, “groundlessness”, the collapse of rational systematicity, the contingency and finitude of existence, and the historicity and temporality of thinking, which issues didn’t seem to register with the same force in the Anglo-Saxon world dominated by traditions of logical empiricism, though of course there were episodes of cross-Channel exchanges and influences. As a result of these issues, “continental” lines of thinking are much more oriented toward and against their traditions, and rely on textual/interpretive modes of criticism.  I traced the divide to Kant’s notion of the synthetic a priori, and it’s development into the “transcedental dialectic”, whereby the “ideas of reason” were at once the source of rational criticism and the cause of “transcendental illusion”. This basic move in the self-critique of reason, followed out through Hegel’s dialectics, the critiques of ideology of Marx and Nietzsche and beyond, results in a situation there can be real, hence “necessary” illusion, such that falsehood and error are not simply mistakes in logic, and truth can be blocked off from or opposed to reality. We are faced with the resulting paradox then that truth and falsehood co-exist, that error might in some sense contain or hide in itself truth, and the truth must in some sense contain its own error. And if there is no timeless truth, by the same token there is no pure, complete and final truth, (which ideal would be a religious aspiration rather than a philosophical possibility). Further, the orientation deriving from Kant toward conceptual mediation of experience of the world, rather than toward establishing empirical truths about the world, implies a different conception of the interface between mind and world, which is another factor determining the orientation toward textual interpretation. Any text interrelating more or less complexly more or less complex matters is bound to contain ambiguities. But there is always a question of whether those ambiguities are de dictu or de re, since conflicts and entanglements are all but inevitably bound up in the relation between text and world. Disambiguation is necessary to rational interpretation and criticism, but it’s doubtful that it can be achieved once and for all, attaining complete clarity. ( A simple example is when Wittgenstein declares that his aim is to undo “the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”, a deliberate ambiguity in which both senses are clearly fully meant.) So rationally reconstructing and formalizing arguments still leaves the question of whether the argument of the ‘original” text was adequately understood and interpreted by its formal reconstruction. And interpreting and/or reconstructing an argument involves an understanding of what an argument is aiming at and attempting to do, not just whether the argument reaches its conclusion from clear premises and formally valid inferences. If one doesn’t address the former point, which also likely involves an entanglement of an argument with other arguments, then one is liable to miss the point.

My last paragraph asked why Wittgenstein is considered an Analytic philosopher and is claimed by them as one of their own. Because, to my mind, at least, he’s not, but clearly devolves from the Kantian side of the divide, Vienna being somewhere on the continent, and his entire engagement with philosophy from beginning to end needs to be understood as a Krausian vocation. More to the point, I view him as, if not overthrowing Analytic philosophy, attempting to show its essential impossibility, qua a logical clarification of language with an at least implicit view toward the certification of knowledge. Bluntly put, language is prior to logic, knowledge is not grounded in certainty in any of the senses or ways construed by traditional epistemology, and it’s not the business of philosophers to tell scientists what their knowledge should be, even if only with regard to its form, but such empirical and conceptual issues are to be worked out by scientists themselves in regard to their own disciplines and their ongoing research, and, at any rate, is beyond the competence of philosophers as such. And, of course, he famously does not argue, but unsayably shows, and scorns attempts to develop philosophical theories, so treating his paragraphs as a set of technical points on the way to developing better grounded and more accurate theories is rather to miss his point. Wittgenstein implicitly rejoins very ancient traditions of philosophy as an ethical practice, as literally a discipline for the conduct of life, as a “medicine for the soul”, which is much different from the “scientific” spirit of Analytic philosophy. (Of course, I realize that some Analytics have picked up on and are strongly influenced by Wittgenstein).

Of course, I’ve only read a few Analytic works, presumably far less than you, and I’m not presuming to condemn the whole field, which in its technicality and specialization is too vast to be encompassed by anyone. (But the same goes for “continentals”: how many different interpretations of Heidegger are there? Forget about Nietzsche!) But then, not being professionally obliged to read any kind of philosophy, or virtually anything else, I pick and choose to read what I think might be interesting and informative in accordance with personal concerns. But in your zeal to uphold the honor of Analytic philosophy, which I wasn’t in any case attacking wholesale, you seem to have missed the force of the main point I attempted to make in my original comment on this thread, in response to the Holbo/rob spat, yes. What should philosophers be doing? Should they be endlessly refining logical techniques and arguments, so as to elaborate systems of logically compossible, but often mutually exclusive positions to be argued ad infinitum? Should they, in other words, concern themselves with filling in all the gaps in arguments, as if arguments should somehow be continuous, trying to get them to run and purr like a Porsche, even though strictly logical arguments prove in the end to be inconclusive, or, if they are conclusive or synthetic, they likely involve paralogisms, not the least through the reliance of logical arguments on supplementation by basically rhetorical means and forces? Or should they be investigating the gaps between arguments, the limits, and differing orientations and stakes of argument, inquiring into the fate of “reason” in the world and of the needs and norms underlying and tied to that fate, rather than just assuming that formal logic gives us a timelessly assured self-possession of “reason”, guaranteeing its fate?

Levinas once remarked that one could spend one’s entire life writing works on methodology, and thereby miss the chance to say something of substantive interest and importance. He was, of course, referring to Husserl, whose lifetime was spent trying to establish the method of his phenomenological program, only to end in distress with “The Crisis of the European Sciences” , and from whose work Levinas’ own work devolves, though in that odd position of deep endebtedness, making a phenomenolgical critique of phenomenology as a whole, thus comprising an anti-phenomenological phenomenology. I suppose the issue boils down to whether philosophy can be a disengagement of reason from the world, or must it be an engagement with reason in the world.

Well, this is not quite the same as my prior lost comment, and I added or omitted some points, which I can’t recall. So be it. It’ll have to do, however “scandalously”.

By on 06/16/07 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

john c. halasz,

In general, I don’t think it is fair to accuse Sam C. of zealotry, just for wanting to correct what seemed to him (and me) like pretty serious misconceptions on your part. I think his point was that you just don’t seem to know enough about analytic philosophy to be generalizing so confidently and I am inclined to agree. I am not also sure why you accuse Sam C of thinking analytic philosophy starts with Goedel. Earlier in the thread, he pretty clearly suggested that a certain line came to an end with Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, which basically proved the logicistic program couldn’t be carried forward. (Well, never mind about that.)

A couple points. As a Davidson student in the mid-90’s, who has read everything he wrote in that period, this Davidson-was-a-Gadamer-follower line is very surprising to me. I think I would have noticed. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Please rock my world by providing me with that citation you say you’ve got.

Also, regarding Wittgenstein you write: “Bluntly put, language is prior to logic ... “

Bluntly put, if you think Wittgenstein thinks THAT, you are about as confused as it is possible to be about Wittgenstein, both early and late. The early Wittgenstein takes logic to be transcendental, whereas language is obviously an empirical construction. The later Wittgenstein’s whole philosophical purpose is to foil these sorts of metaphysically speculative attempts to ‘explain’ - i.e. establish priority relations. How could you possibly show, by the later Wittgenstein’s lights, that language was prior to logic? You’d have to find a case of ‘non-logical language’, I suppose, and then explain how logic could be built up from there. But what would even count towards something that was totally ‘non-logical’ being a language at all? This seems totally wrong-headed to me, as a suggestion about Wittgenstein. But again, if you can defend the proposition that Wittgenstein thinks language is prior to logic ... go ahead and surprise me. I will be VERY surprised.

Also, as someone who wrote his dissertation on Schopenhauer’s influence on the early Wittgenstein, put me down as someone who believes you cannot possibly understand his ‘Krausianism’ except through Russell and Frege. Often his ‘continental influences’ are read as excuses to ignore his character as an analyitic philosopher. I think the correct view is: those influences explain why he was attracted to Frege and Russell. (Hint: Frege’s Begriffschrift is attractive for many of the same reasons Loos’ modernist architecture is attractive. Not that Frege thought you should cite “Ornament and Crime” on his behalf, but that is indeed how Wittgenstein thought. I think.)

Finally, if you are going to regard Wittgenstein as continental just because he was Viennese, do you also regard logical positivism (the Vienna Circle) as continental? And, if so, why do you blame analytic philosophy for the excesses of logical positivism?

By John Holbo on 06/17/07 at 02:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me clarify the Gadamer point a bit: it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if someone wanted to do a Davidson and Gadamer comparison-and-contrast study. I can certainly see how the comparison column could fill up tolerably. But it would, for a variety of reasons, be very surprising if Davidson himself undertook the exercise - or had even read Gadamer. So I genuinely do want to get that citation, if it exists.

By John Holbo on 06/17/07 at 06:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Prof. Holbo:

I’ll readily admit to being confused. To be confused is human, to forget divine. And you’re perfectly entitled to pull rank on me, especially with respect to Davidson, since I’ve only read a few of his essays and two books on him. And the comments about Davidson on Gadamer are third-hand hearsay on my part. My apologies. I believe, however, the chunk quoted from Gadamer is in the essay “Dialectic and Dialogue”. Also, there’s “Gadamer and Plato’s ‘Philebus’”. They both can be found in the final collection of Davidson’s papers, I think. Though it wouldn’t surprise me that Davidson would take up Gadamer in the end. He started out in classics and wrote his dissertation on “Philebus” and Gadamer’s original academic specialty was as a Plato scholar. I do have some sense that Davidson’s views devolved or evolved toward some proximity with Gadamer. “Radical interpretation” is, after all, holistic and circular, though you can still call it triangular, if you’d like. My sense of earlier formulations of Davidson’s “principle of charity” is that it implicitly repeats an Hegelian-style rationalism, whereby all rationality reduces to or is incorporated by my rationality, else the other is not “rational”. Gadamer, who was a “student” of Hegel and influenced by him, articulated his notion of “hermeneutic charity” precisely to resist such Hegelian rationalism and its reduction of the rationality of the other. But Gadamer always placed the main emphasis on “die Sache”. (Derrida fans feel free to chime in here.)

“Bluntly put” means “as a quick shorthand”. Yes, early Wittgenstein is transcendental and incomprehensible. Later Wittgenstein is de-transcendentalizing. I read PI a long time ago, and I don’t currently own a copy. But if you want a citation for a claim that I didn’t make, at least not in the sense you want to construe it, there is that passage about “strange as it may seem” what is required is an “agreement in judgments”, which nonetheless leaves logic in its place just as it was. I would make the claim on my own behalf that “making sense” is “prior”, not “metaphysically”, whatever that would mean, but in the order of understanding, and that “making sense” occurs first of all and mostly, but not only in the medium of natural language. At any rate, there are well-known differences between material implication in natural language and formal logic. And, oh, saying “hello” or gesticulating by rubbing your chin with the back of your hand would be instances of “non-logical language”.

That the Vienna Circle was Viennese is sheer pedanticism. So was Ernst Mach. Wittgenstein did meet with the Vienna Circle in Vienna…and read to them from Tagore. Austrians are not Germans, (though they’ve managed to convince the world that Hitler was a German, whereas Beethoven was an Austrian), and, going by my Hungarian grandfather, I can tell you that a certain Anglophilia was considered smart and fashionable in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And if one wants to understand “Krausianism”, then one should read some Kraus, and some Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard. A version of the ideal of “authenticity” is at its core. (“Woran man nicht sprechen kann, muess man schweigen”: that’s not just a comment about the logical status of logical statements, but also the expression of a kind of “authenticity”). And the same fellow who admired Loos also donated anonymously a stipend for Trakl. But what I’d said was that Wittgenstein was on the Kantian side of the divide with respect to the synthetic a priori, which is what “makes” him “continental”. (Yes, I know a bit about Sellars, but, like I said, Analytics are often recovering things already dis-covered elsewhere). There is a nice essay by one Cora Diamond in her book “In A Realistic Spirit”, comparing Wittgenstein to the sophisticated neo-Humean empiricism of Frank Ramsey: so close, yet so far away, (though the same could be said at crucial points about Kant and Hume). And, his private motivations aside, I do think of Wittgenstein’s work as devolving from Kant, though he’s not a Kantian or Neo-Kantian. It’s a complex relationship. It’s difficult to attribute positions or views to Wittgenstein, since he scrupulously avoided expressing any such things. He do the police in several voices. But I think one of the main upshots and implicit aims of PI is to bring about the critical dissolution of epistemology, of the epistemological project in modern philosophy, of which Kant was the greatest instigator and exemplar. If you don’t get that, then your just missing the whole “psychoanalytic” dimension of the work. In effect, Wittgenstein treats epistemological theories as defense mechanisms against the heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, containing concealed epistemic fantasies of our real relation to the world that distract us from understanding our “true need”. But unlike Freud, who claimed to have invented a method that detects the hidden sense behind apparent nonsense, Wittgenstein attempted to show the hidden nonsense in apparent sense. The appeal to “grammar” within a form of life would be a sort of replacement theory of Kant’s transcendental critique, except that Wittgenstein scorns and refuses philosophical theory, and is de-transcendentalizing philosophy, and is intent on liquidating epistemology, and Kant’s transcendental apparatus is a prime example of the sort of “fifth wheel” explanations Wittgenstein is targeting. And the apparent aim of the dissolving criticism of epistemological problems is to attempt to bring about a transformation of philosophy into a kind of post-epistemological ethical practice that brings about a releasement from the constrictions of false philosophical problems and their abstractive mistakes/distractions/reifications toward an appreciation of our “true need”, orienting ourselves to finding our way about in the world. The so-called “private language argument” attributed to Wittgenstein, which is not an argument and not quite about “private language”, is a confutation of the skeptical/sollipsistic philosophical “problem of other minds”, but it doesn’t work by a logical correction of conceptual mistakes, still less purport to offer a proof certifying the existence of other minds. What it shows is that if one attempts to coherently raise a skeptical doubt about other minds, one loses the grammatical alignments with others by which one understands one’s own mind, such that the skeptical question can not even be coherently raised, but is itself based on nonsensical confusions, though incoherence and confusion are not somehow rendered impossible, excluded, or prohibited. But the further upshot to dissolving the false philosophical “problem of other minds” is to bring about a transformation of perspective, (a change not of the intellect, but of the will, he would say, with a residue of Schopenhauer), wherein we recognize in the false problem of others minds a defence against, concealment of, and distraction from the recognition of the real problem of other minds, which concerns the uncertainties, confusions, misrecognitions and miscommunications that riddle our relations with others, for which there is no theoretical “cure” other than particular attentiveness and acknowledgements. Particular problems can be disambiguated one at a time, but one never attains complete transparency or clarity, purging the world and human relations of all ambiguity, partly because that just not how language actually “works”.

So the upshot here is that the “traps” that Wittgenstein seeks to unriddle are not just “technical” logical/conceptual issues, but have a somewhat obscure existential sense. Which goes to the aims with which Wittgenstein is going at those logical/conceptual issues, which aren’t the “standard” aims of Analytic philosophy, given his refusal of philosophical theorizing and his evasion of taking or stating any positions or views. Is there anything “like” Wittgenstein and his highly idiosyncratic approach to philosophy in the whole rest of Analytic philosophy? (N.B.: I haven’t read McDowell yet, who apparently is rather influenced by him, so maybe.) There are echos of Kierkegaard in a few sayings in the Nachlass, and I think it’s reasonable to regard Wittgenstein as a kind of existential philosopher, though not an “existentialist”. Given his Kantian declension and the level and “depth” of his critique of metaphysics and its implications against the “whole” prior tradition, which is comparable to Heidegger’s, I think Wittgenstein can be reasonably viewed as a “continental”. But that’s just my “prejudice” showing.

One of the standard complaints against Analytics is that they often don’t read the arguments of others very well, assuming their own reconstructions instead. I don’t know why you accuse me of accusing Sam of thinking that “Analytic philosophy began with Goedel”. I didn’t bring up Goedel; Sam did. And he did so in response to a list of “traits” in my first comment on this thread, which were basically those of the claims of the Hegelian system, the point being that the implications of the impossibility of systematic “closure” gradually dawned on the continentals in the aftermath of the collapse of the credibility of Hegel’s system, which developed into problematics concerning the loss of the self-grounding capabilities of philosophy, of its “autonomy”, and a historicizing/anthropologizing turn, (which can be found as well in Wittgenstein, by the way, courtesy of Sraffa and Gramsci). In your zeal to claim the body of your Hector, you distained to comment upon my characterization of “continental” traditions, retrospectively telescoped and synoptic though it must be. My response to Sam was only that I think it took sometime for the realizations involved to take hold. But then Goedel is a formal technical result in mathematics or mathematical logic and has no other direct significance outside that context. It’s only indirect significance to anything else is by analogy, since formal mathematics is generally conceived to be the best possible case of proof procedures, (which I think I stated in my lost comment post). But a more substantive, rather than just formal, wrestling with the issues of “incompleteness” had long since already been underway on the continent, even giving rise to reconstructive, “foundationalist” efforts, as well, such as most prominently Husserl’s phenomenology with its peculiar conception of philosophical evidence, from which much 20th continental philosophy devolves. But you seem, even more than Sam, to jump to conclusions about just what is being (attempted to be) said, in an excessively defensive posture, as if only certified professional members of the Analytic philosophy guild properly understood “things”, and those woolly Teutonic barbarians outside the gates must be corrected in their confusions and kept in their place. Not only is there no crime in others thinking and understanding differently, but that defensiveness and the distortions it gives rise to show that philosophical problematics, problems and positions always contain a component of existential “justification”, just as Wittgenstein indicated.

By on 06/17/07 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can cite the Gadamer/Davidson bit! (I think I’ve even mentioned it in one of these threads before; maybe it was on Clark’s blog.)

“Gadamer and Plato’s Philebus”, final page. (p.275 in the “Truth, Language, and History” collection.) Davidson cites half a page or so from “Truth and Method” and says “I am in agreement with almost all of this.” (He then reprises his criticism of the “requirement of a shared language” from “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”.) The entire essay is a good read. (It was published in the Open Court volume on Gadamer in 1997, so I could see it having been overlooked.)

jch’s description of Davidson as reinventing the Gadamerian wheel strikes me as a bit over-the-top. But he really does mention how uncanny it was that he and Gadamer ended up with so much common ground, despite starting from such radically different points of origin (Heidegger in one case, action theory in another).

By on 06/17/07 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good heavens john, I only wrote my dissertation on Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer. I realize that doesn’t make me your equal, so perhaps it makes sense for you to lecture me so high-handededly in this comment box about how “if one wants to understand “Krausianism”, then one should read some Kraus, and some Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.” Then again, perhaps not. (Why deny me my humble allotment of scholarship? Just because you yourself don’t understand the Tractatus? What makes you so superior, eh? Sheesh.)

As to the ‘the Vienna circle was Viennese’ is sheer pedanticism. Yes, of course, I was attempting to expose the absurdity of your own rather pedantic citing of Wittgenstein’s Viennese ancestry. (In future I will be less Krausian in dealing with you - less irony to expose the nonsense of one’s opponents. You don’t seem to take to it at all.)

I don’t mind your characterizations of continental philosophy in terms of post-Kant. I also don’t mind someone who wants to discuss Wittgenstein as part of that broad stream. I am such a person. But it seems to me that you are being a bit elaborate about claiming Hector’s body. That is, there is no sense to doing what you are doing, i.e. trying to muscle Wittgenstein elaborately over to the continental side, away from the analytic. Better just to try to understand what he is up to. You are over-eager in claiming that the continentals have said it all already - that the analytics are just damaged goods, and this is confusing you about figures like Wittgenstein.

In short, it seems to me that you are commiting all the sins that you so indignantly accuse others of commiting. I would suggest: lightening up.

Thanks for the Davidson-Gadamer reference, though. That’s interesting and I will want to follow up.

By John Holbo on 06/17/07 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

john c. halasz: you’ve read a hell of a lot of philosophy for someone who is not “professionally obliged to read any kind of philosophy, or virtually anything else”! Or perhaps it’s because you’re not professionally obliged to read that you find so much time to read — I know I rarely find time nowadays to read anything other than emails and assignments (and blogs).

At any rate, I wonder if at any time during your cook’s tour of philosophy you ever had the chance to visit John D. Caputo’s Against Ethics (1993)? It’s probably my all-time favourite book, and though it’s heavy on the Derrida and ignorant of Wittgenstein, I reckon its erudition — not to mention its fabulous style — may appeal to those who show your familiarity with the last two millenia or more of philosophy.

By on 06/17/07 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I wouldn’t claim great familiarity to two millenia of philosophy: just a few decades of groping. I ‘m just a working stiff, but I try not to work too much. As the people of New Hampshire have it: “live poor or die”. I’ll take your recommendation under advisement though.

Prof. Holbo:

One of the finer points that Davison makes is that there can be no strict markers for rhetorical “forces”, since they too would only be subject to rhetorical “forces”, though he’s far from the only one to have noticed that. That’s not as basic a point as Wittgenstein’s that there can be no rules for the application of rules, for similar reasons, but that gets you deep into the “Schematism” chapter, and you never know when or where you might fall out of the bottom of that.

But if you don’t know how to read by now, no one can teach you. Just join the rest of us. I actually typed: “(he)…clearly devolves from the Kantian side of the divide, Vienna being somewhere on the continent.” Note that “somewhere”, which is ambiguous: it could mean historico-culturally, having a Middle European complexion, or geographically, in which case I’m apparently unsure just how to locate “Wein” on a map, or, hey!, both. I think reading that as a claim that Wittgenstein’s “Viennese ancestry” is a sufficient condition for making him “continental” is tendentious, if not downright obtuse. As if I’d never considered the Vienna Circle. (Or for that matter Austrian economics. Given how riddled Austro-Hungary was with bureaucratic hierarchies, famously lazy and incompetent, there was a utopian streak to market libertarianism: Kafka was a social realist!) But I’ll apologize for having missed your subtlely confuting irony of my pedanticism.

You basically made two points against me. 1) “You don’t know or understand Davidson well enough and are seriously confused about him”:  O.K., fair enough. 2) “You don’t know and understand Wittgenstein well enough and are seriously confused about him”: uh-oh, peacock feathers!

I don’t believe in an unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion, as some of the leading figures I prefer attests: but your tendency toward aggressive defensiveness and truculent tu quoque and desire to strictly patrol the boundaries of the acceptable and permissible do arouse my suspicion and resistance. I actually don’t think the continental/Analytic distinction is the most interesting classification or take on differing philosophies. It’s been understood at least since Heidegger on the continental side that necessary forms and obligatory grounds for philosophical activity are lacking, and any number of projects can be undertaken in the philosophical field under its quondam auspices. One needn’t concern oneself solely with “die Hauptfrage”. I take an eclectic and pluralistic approach to the business, with differing projects being evaluated in terms of what distinctive and non-trivial insights they have to contribute. It’s only insofar as Analytics continue to insist on obligatory forms and elaborating systematic intentions sine qua non, and treat take-it-or-leave it as an obligatory stance rather than a live option that I take objection to such disciplinary strictures. You don’t like my easy ironies and sly innuendos. So be it. But I wasn’t trying to muscle Wittgenstein’s corpse over to “our” side, only trying to fairly characterize him. The “Hector’s body” remark was, er, a joke. Joke 1: that makes us wooly Teutons the Greeks, ( or is that only an “inside” joke on “our” side?). Joke 2: that make you guys the progenitors of the Roman Empire. 3) Overdetermined point: you’re hectoring.

I came up into the philosophy rackets on the Frankfurt School line of the continental choo-choo. So I was puzzling about that Kraus guy they were talking about long before I got to reading Wittgenstein. I wasn’t claiming that you don’t know Kraus, and I already got the Frege connection, but I was insisting that there’s more to it that just sleek architectural lines and form following function, (though I don’t know a thing about architecture other than that I like Borromini). In particular, though Wittgenstein could be characterized somewhat as an anti-modern modernist, and had mostly conservative tastes in many areas, he was influenced by expressionism and some other modernist currents, if only often through a reaction of distaste, and that, oddly enough, though sotto voce, the issue of expression counts a good deal in his thinking. And that goes to the ideal of “authenticity” that lurks behind his work. Also, the “philological” approach of PI does seem to stem pretty directly from Kraus’ approach, with its examination of linguistic particulars of sloppy and distorted expression as tell-tale signs of the corruption of thought and life.

That the latest “thing” is often enough a recycling of the same old thing through historical forgetfulness is a leitmotif of Adorno. “All reification is forgetting”. That’s, of course, different from the motif he takes from Benjamin, that the oldest in the old is the mark of the authentically new, which is a Messianic theme. But I wasn’t claiming that Analytic philosophy is just “damaged goods”. All philosophy is just damaged goods and so are we. It’s the failure and refusal to recognize that that’s the problem.

As to the “Tractatus”, I’m glad that you managed to find those transcendental objects and atomic simples under the table somewhere. Congratulations!

By on 06/18/07 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

john writes: ““(he)…clearly devolves from the Kantian side of the divide, Vienna being somewhere on the continent.”

Dude, this is also true of the Vienna Circle. That was my point. Not just that it was in Vienna but that it is basically a post-Kantian sort of thing. Well, anyhoo.

Here’s the thing. I was sort of making fun of you for committing the very sin you were complaining about. You write: “But your tendency toward aggressive defensiveness and truculent tu quoque and desire to strictly patrol the boundaries of the acceptable and permissible do arouse my suspicion and resistance.” But you are simply projecting, my dear fellow. I am the analytic guy who, in order to understand a classic analytic philosopher - Wittgenstein - happily spent a few years reading Schopenhauer and Kraus and all the rest. That is, I am the guy who, whatever his faults, is quite careless of the analytic-continental divide. Whoever I have to read, I’ll read them. You, by contrast, seem to me very concerned to talk down analytic philosophy at the expense of continental philosophy. Why do I infer this? Because you hastily draw conclusions to that effect about figures you clearly don’t really know about - like Davidson and Wittgenstein. In every case, the objective seems to be to slight analytic philosophy. I don’t really care about that, but it is likely to deform your thinking. I’m just suggesting that you should be more open to thinking outside the tradition you are familiar with - less defensive, less eager to claim Hector’s body, as you put it. (Free advice from a free wanderer across the traditions. It’s good stuff, this wandering. You should try it.)

By John Holbo on 06/18/07 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I take it all back, john: you’re a fine guy and we shouldn’t be arguing, and I’ve only been needling you, not saying anything that is honestly likely to be philosophically improving.

But I do think you know less about analytic philosophy than you seem to think you do (or than you would need to, to be generalizing so sweepingly and confidently). For example, you now write: “It’s only insofar as Analytics continue to insist on obligatory forms and elaborating systematic intentions sine qua non, and treat take-it-or-leave it as an obligatory stance rather than a live option that I take objection to such disciplinary strictures.” What are your grounds for generalizing about analytic philosophy in this way? Who are you thinking about? Which writings?

You may say that I’m just being defensive, but I would say: I care about this stuff, because a lot of it is interesting and valuable, and it seems reasonable to insist on a little more care in treating it. Your over-eagerness to subordinate Davidson to Gadamer, for example, is just likely to result in a failure to appreciate what might be interesting about Davidson. You do yourself a favor by being more open.

Sorry to be so high-handed about delivering the message (just because I thought you were being high-handed, so I was having fun giving back in kind).) That was rather immature of me, hmmm, yes?

By John Holbo on 06/18/07 at 10:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the advice, Chief Two Face. The part of John Emerson was played by john c. halasz. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

By on 06/20/07 at 02:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I always get along fine with John Emerson, so everything must be fine, then.

By John Holbo on 06/20/07 at 07:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Politics is what a man does to conceal himself, and what he does not know."- Karl Kraus

By on 06/20/07 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"My public and I understand each other very well; it does not hear what I say, and I do not say what it would like to hear.” - Karl Kraus

By John Holbo on 06/21/07 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Psychoanalysis is itself the sickness, for which it claims to be the cure"- Karl Kraus

“In psychoanalysis, nothing is true, except the exaggerations."- T.W. Adorno

What is this? “Duelling Banjoes”? Or “Duelling Krausmers”?

By on 06/21/07 at 01:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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