Not yet converted – An Unbalanced View

Where might you be at the end of your part-time Philosophy MA conversion course? What will you have discovered?

René Descartes

While I wait for the results of my exam to see if I will be allowed to take my full vows for the real thing, I thought it might be interesting to see what I think about it all.

What strikes early on is the shear intricate detail of the arguments made in pursuit of a case and a sort of cloud that hides a presumably obvious message as to what is being said. Even articles of supposedly model explication confound me. Kant, while difficult at the best of times, infuriates by throwing in a second proposition before you realised there was a first one *, and ‘formers’ and ‘latters’ send me scurrying back to work out if the point I am looking at is ‘for’ or ‘against’.

No wonder logic is an attraction with its supposedly clear air of precision. But I have to date found it surprisingly irrelevant and more a case of converting arguments into fine-sounding modus ponens for the sake of appearance – at least as far as I can tell.

I realise that I am signing my own death-warrant with these confessions. But while we are at it let’s get to some meat. It is obviously all Descartes’ fault. He started it off – or rather set it off again after many centuries of innocent ponderings. We must sit by a fire and split reality into a subjective ‘I’ and an objective ‘real’ world. We must then spend the next three centuries or so trying to argue against our initial assumption without changing it – the very assumption that we have made in the first place.

No wonder the arguments are intricate; nearly, but not quite reaching their target. Knowledge, scepticism, free-will, the mind-body problem, time, the reality of morality et al, confound and confuse in knicker-twisted knots of ‘formers’ and ‘latters’ and compatibilist compromises.

But if only we had listened to Descartes we might have noticed that only God is allowed to change goals without changing them – if you see what I mean. In our analytic world the goal we have set is firmly bricked across. It is impenetrable to mere mortals.

So why do we persist? And why do we not listen to alternatives as hinted loudly by Thomas Nagel+, and why do we not notice the full blown torpedo in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’? Why do we not actually look at the hands of G.E. Moore’s before they get entangled in a fancy modus tollens?

I obviously have a lot to learn. But despite my apparent cynicism I still hope I am given the chance to achieve conversion. My interim conclusion is that philosophy is oddly compelling. The question (to the latter point) is “Why?”

Martin Earl

* See page P13 of Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Gregor, M. (transl./ed) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). We are informed of the second proposition and then take a devil of time working out where the first one is within the previous six pages. (This is obviously Kant’s fault, not mine!)

+For example, “It is the aim of eventual unification [of the subjective and objective] that I think is misplaced.” Nagel, T. ‘Subjective and Objective’, in Mortal Questions, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979) p 213




5 thoughts on “Not yet converted – An Unbalanced View

  1. I sympathise with your views, Martin. My suggestion for an answer to your question “Why?” would be this: most of academic philosophy seems (oddly) committed to maintaining the linguistic bewitchment the later Wittgenstein tried to cure us all of: the traditional dichotomies (mind/body, objective/subjective, is/ought, etc), the pet conundrums of metaphysics (the reality of time, the self, causality, the nature of free will, etc) and the wildly conflicting multitude of fundamentally irresolvable moral “theories” all elegantly disappear as so-called problems, they stop to exist, they cease to be, they are no longer, … when the experiences that we continue to conceptualize in these outdated, folk-psychological terms are re-framed in a language that is more conducive to avoiding these “oddly compelling” linguistic muddles: (analytical) academic philosophy is oddly compelling because it is an attempt to solve linguistic puzzles by using those very same odd vocabularies that created those puzzles in the first place. Most people find this difficult to accept as they have grown quite accustomed to using those concepts, and in so doing, and in seeing the entire community use those same categories, have grown to believe they actually refer to facts of the matter. When this odd circularity is seen for what it is, I find that most of the original fascination subsides. There are new, better ways to frame the important questions that the noble discipline of philosophy has been trying to answer: they are informed by a serious study of how we really use words, and to what effect, and of how linguistic muddles originate in linguistic ignorance, or rather: in a philosophically irresponsible ignorance of linguistics.

    Frank Weyns

    • Hi Frank,

      I suppose my “way out”, or one “way out”, or a different view, is via Heidegger who starts from a different place to Descartes, with being rather than thinking, and for him, to be was to already be in the world that Descartes separated himself from. Analytic philosophy starts with Descartes’ initial premise that there is an ‘I’ that exists looking out on to an apparent world. And to me analytical philosophy then tries to do the impossible which is to use this analysis to destroy its own premise. It is rather like starting with the assumption that, ‘if it is raining you need an umbrella’ to disprove that you need an umbrella if it rains. Like a dog chasing its tail, a positive proposition can surely not entail its own demise. However, Cartesianism has been the basis for the development of the scientific objective view that has been immeasurably effective.

      But this is obviously different from what you are saying, not that I have not heard you say it before, but I would find it helpful to have a little more explanation. You say that all we need to do is sort out our language, never a bad idea in my view, and then traditional problems will disappear. This is something that the Logical Positives attempted, being partly influenced by the early Wittgenstein. But are you saying more than this? And can you give a layperson’s example to indicate how it works? What would be a better way of framing one of the old questions?


  2. Hi Martin,

    Your references to Descartes, Heidegger and the Logical Positivists are all very relevant to my point. The way I see it is as follows: Descartes, and Plato before him, were under the mistaken impression that we can grasp what is ‘out there’ (so-called reality) in a so-called objective way: i.e. that we can (or at least ought to try to) establish the so-called truth about what is ‘out there’ (so-called reality) beyond doubt. As is widely known, they were both mathematicians enamoured with the absolute certainty of so-called mathematical truth (e.g. the theorem of Pythagoras: the square of the hypotenuse = the sum of the squares of the 2 rectangular sides) and were desperately trying to find, by way of analogy, similar kinds of so-called truths outside/beyond mathematics, i.e. in day-to-day life, in nature and in society (ethics). In hindsight, this approach now seemed ill-advised, as we can see that the analogy cannot really be expected to work: mathematical truths are analytical truths, i.e. they are tautological: they do not provide us with any new knowledge beyond what we conventionally agreed beforehand: if we agree that 2 = 1 + 1, then saying that it is true that 2 – 1 = 1 is not the discovery of a truth, it is merely rephrasing the conventional definition of the number 2). In nature and society, this is not the kind of truth we are after: in this context we are not after analytical truths, but rather after synthetic truths: things that we find out about the world are not just logical consequences of conventional definitions, but derive from actual experience and subsequent linguistic conceptualisation of that experience.

    The fact that all we can ever experience (and conceptualise in words, and, therefore, all we can ever claim to understand) can only come to us through our 5 senses, means that, by its very nature, understanding cannot lead to so-called objective knowledge, as that kind of knowledge is knowledge that supposedly does not depend on our personal experience (so-called subjective experience), i.e. knowledge that does not (just) originate in our senses, which would be absurd, as it’s not clear how else we can acquire knowledge, if not through our senses (Hume)? The implication is that the distinction between objective and subjective (as regards understanding, knowledge, truth, etc) is a meaningless distinction, i.e. in light of the above, ‘objective knowledge’ now sounds like a concept we cannot possibly make any sense (literally!) of. So my point is that if we cannot make any sense of the concept of objective knowledge, as the opposite of subjective knowledge, then we are dealing with a pointless dichotomy, i.e. one that is not worth having, one that masquerades as an apparent, really important dichotomy, that we continue to discuss in philosophy for reasons that now no longer appear as (oddly) compelling. If we drop this dichotomy, i.e. if we choose no longer to use these words or pretend they are very important, then we lose nothing and gain quite a lot: objective knowledge (or truth), this concept we cannot make sense of, is not at all required for what we need: what we seem to need, what we seem to be in pursuit of when we look for objective knowledge, truth, reality, things-as-they-are-independent-of-how-we-perceive-them (Kant’s “Ding an Sich”) is one of 2 things: (1) a reliable understanding of the phenomena we perceive: i.e. a coherent ‘story’ about how one phenomenon (an ‘experience’) relates to the other phenomena; (2) what exactly it is that causes us to experience anything at all in the first place, regardless of how these experiences hang together.

    Taking each in turn:

    A reliable understanding of the phenomena is what, by and large, modern day science gives us (or at least tries to (quite successfully!): it translates our sensory experience into concepts, it tries to detect regularities in the phenomena we experience (e.g. gravity: every time I drop something it falls to the ground), and tries to express those regularities in mathematical form (Newton’s law of gravity). Every once in a while we observe that those initial laws no longer hold in certain cases (eg Einstein’s relativity: when objects move at speeds close to the speed of light, Newton’s law does not work all that well) and then we update these laws accordingly. We do so because the updated version accords better with our experience. This does not mean that we ‘know’, or that we have reached objective truth: it only means that our conception of our experience (things falling, moving etc) accord better with the updated formula (Einstein) than with the old one (Newton). This is good enough, and is actually as good as any understanding will ever be. It stops short of so-called objective truth, but as I hopefully indicated above, that notion is meaningless: i.e. nothing is lost by dropping the dichotomy, in that sense.

    Secondly, if what we are after is not just a coherent (scientific) account of these human experiences, but rather, an account of what it is that causes these experiences in the first place, why they are there, etc, i.e. the so-called true nature of reality that is the cause of our experience, then it seems we are confronted with an absurd pursuit: human understanding relies on being able to relate phenomena to their causes: that is the way we make sense of the notion of “understanding”: I understand gravity because Newton has given me a causal explanation; I understand why a car does what it does because I understand the rudiments of mechanics and combustion in ways that allow me to see how, causally, chemical reactions generate energy that is transferred to wheels etc). However, if that is how we make sense of things (because that is how our brains work), then that becomes a never-ending exercise: we need causes of causes of causes etc: this pursuit has, by definition, no end: i.e. to look for the ultimate cause of everything is an absurd pursuit (and the so-called Big Bang is no answer to that question either…).

    In short: all we are left with is to linguistically conceptualise our visceral (5 senses) experiences of the world and see how we can reliably link them together, in ways that resemble Newton (1) seeing the apple fall from the tree, and (2) repeating that in similar experiences and (3) expressing that in regularities captured in mathematical form.

    The Logical Positivists (inspired by the earlier Wittgenstein) were the last wave of this unfortunate, wild goose chase: it starts with Plato looking for Forms, goes on with Descartes looking for things he cannot possibly doubt, and ends with Husserl’s “Strenge Wissenschaft” and Carnap’s “Aufbau”, the latter two being attempts at doing one better than triumphant 19th century science by resp. phenomenologically, and logically re-constructing the world in ways that are more accurate than empirical science, for being logically more coherent. Quine’s refutation of Carnap’s program (see Robert Northcot’s lecture on naturalized epistemology this year) and Heidegger’s refutation of Husserl’s project put an end to both those pursuits.

    However, it is clear although the project of trying to understand the absolute, objective, etc nature of reality is a pointless pursuit (because understanding is by necessity mediated/limited by the senses, and relies on an infinite regress of causes of causes…), people may be disappointed by this answer (in spite of its good common sense) and continue to want to pursue that line of inquiry. This is similar to probing the cavity of a tooth that has been pulled: pointless but oddly compelling. It comes back to your point in Robert’s lecture: as long as anyone finds a question worth asking, they should be allowed to do so. And my answer: yes, but if we cannot reasonably expect an answer to that question, then we should not pretend too much 🙂 What I find less excusable is an apparent attitude among academic philosophers to sanctimoniously perpetuate this quest: they should know better.

    This is where Heidegger comes in (and allows me to express my views about Continental vs Anglo-Saxon (analytical) philosophy): Heidegger basically refutes his teacher Husserl’s phenomenological agenda that sees philosophy as a more rigorous way of doing science (see above): Heidegger is of course notoriously difficult to interpret, we can only guess, but the way I understand it (his reverence for Holderlin etc) is that he sees philosophy not as rigorous science (like Husserl) but as rigorous poetry: the main purpose of philosophy is NOT the epistemological pursuit of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, the attempt to understand the true nature of reality, but rather, to ‘inform’ us about what is worthwhile, or more correctly: to inspire a community to share (poetic) ideals they jointly pursue. His central notions revolve around the existentialist principle of Being as a possibility to realize a wide variety of human possibilities, inspired by (philosophico-)poetic narratives about authenticity (see Sartre for a more straightforward description of that same existentialist mantra). Continental philosophy (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, etc) is committed to generating inspiring visions of community that go well beyond the prior traditions of Kant’s “eternal peace”, Rousseau’s liberty, and a Christian ‘tolerance’ of just about everything). Whilst it is clear that many of these ideas were channelled into ill-fated (to say the least) political projects (communism, fascism, etc), it is equally clear that they were the only philosophy that ever made an inspiring difference in the 20th century: whether I REALLY exist is a question that is only of any importance to people who like logical, conceptual puzzles. The answer to that question (should there be one) makes no noticeable difference to anything significant, other than providing intellectual amusement, a poor excuse for the Socratic project of trying to answer the question of how to live.

    My views, in a nutshell 🙂



    • Hi Frank,
      Thanks for this very articulate reply and I am sorry that so much time has lapsed since you first posted it. But I hope better late than never.
      I entirely agree with your position on objectivity and your description of its inaccessibility as described in your first three paragraphs.

      My thought on this are that objectivity is a construct that we make from our subjective position. You might argue that the word is not needed, but I think it is useful for our co-operative attempts to ‘get on’ in the world. The important point is that we should realise its lack of necessary correspondence with so-called reality. I think your fifth paragraph says as much. The Philosophy Society has been running a reading group on David Bohm this summer, a former Birkbeck scientist and philosopher who wrote on how Special Relatively should change our perceptions. One of his views is that, not only would we not know if we had discovered objective truth, but, even more radically – and less supported – is that there is no absolute truth to reach. But how he knows this, I do not know. (See Bohm, D. (2006 orig. 1965) The Special Theory of Relativity Routledge: Oxon. Especially the appendix.)

      And of course your assertion in your sixth paragraph that we can never find the first cause of all causes, one cannot disagree with – unless one dreams up a God of some sort.
      You have a better memory than I do about what I asked in Robert Northcott’s Lecture on ‘Epistemology as Psychology’, but certainly making the point that we should be allowed to ask any question that we think worth asking is the sort of thing I would have raised. Referring to your reference to this in another blog, I am not saying that philosophes as philosophers should be able to ask any question they want; they have to be relevant to their discourse, but that philosophers should not propose that the rest of us should not consider any question out of bounds – that they should not pre-limit what is and is not meaningful to anyone.

      In other words I think it is really important not to find meaningless those questions that we can find no truth value for; even questions about first causes etc. The reason for this is not that I would want us to go on wild goose- chases, but that I would want us to press the question to the point at which we understand that we will find no answer. Knowing that a question has no ‘objective’ (I find the word useful) answer is, to my mind, useful in itself. When one has reached this stage one can then go in a different direction. And that direction might well be some sort of existentialism which, to my understanding and crudely put, first finds the limits to the ways we happen to exist and then explores the implications. Those limits can be provided by analytical philosophy if taken to its logical conclusions. We must remember that Heidegger was deeply entrenched in Western Philosophy and was responding to it. We might also remember* that Heidegger himself did not reach a full conclusion to his search in Being and Time. He did not finish his grand plan. But he would say that paths in the wood, Holzwege, are useful even if they do not lead anywhere. You know that you do not have to go that way again.

      Getting to this position of ‘not knowing’ then has profound implications for how we see where we are and therefore how we cope with it.

      But at the moment I am still exploring those analytical puzzles and enjoying them. Anglo/ analytic philosophy departments still have some useful life in them for me.

      And that is my view in a medium sized nutshell.

      P.S. Just read your exchange with Chris on “Why I love philosophy” and to put it into an even smaller nutshell, does your view at 21st June 2104, 11:46 indicate that you think there may be some useful life left in philosophy departments? That is, you would like them to move to a deeper level of challenging their concepts and if they are, then that is great? For you those concepts are hidden in the language we use and hence we need a linguistic approach. Indeed, that might be the only approach we need. I am not sure I think that is the case.
      P.S.S. Any reply must be shorter than my post here. New rules just inverted for you!

      *’We might also remember…’ is a strong phrase here. I really mean, if you have read, for example, bits of Polt, R. (1999). Heidegger an Introduction. UCL Press: London.

  3. I can only assume that what Bohm means is a very literal interpretation of the theory of relativity: that an observer’s perspective is always determined by his condition – i.e. any and all observers will always perceive natural phenomena in ways that depend on what speed and direction they travel relative to the objects under perception, and given that noone ever observes from what could be called absolute standstill (relative to what?), there are no absolute truths about any of the observed phenomena, they are all observer-dependent.

    However, if that is Bohm’s view then I believe that would be a very mild one: personally I believe the stronger view would be to say that the notions objectivity and truth themselves have no meaning, they are, as you seem to say, just useful linguistic devices that allow us to get along with everyone, they seem to do the trick in that we seem to have agreed by convention what everyone is meant to do whenever someone says “that is an objective statement” or “that is true”, but that does not mean the words themselves have meaning, its just the expressions that use those words that are meaningful, i.e. they codify certain linguistic practices that condition conventional behavioural responses. However, the words truth and objectivity would actually have to refer to something for them to have meaning in themselves (as opposed to having meaning as part of an utterance), and seems not the case: for that to be the case they would have to refer to the world-as-it-really-is, but we cannot make sense (literally!) of what the world-in-itself is, as we can only experience it as we, subjectively, do: i.e. there is no “beyond” as we cannot experience/describe it – and if we could it would not be a “beyond”. So there is no transcendental aspect to reality as Kant would have it, it seems he had poor schooling in linguistics. The transcendental, or rather the metaphysical would indeed have to be something more like Heidegger describes: our inability to explain existence (i.e. NOT the fact that there really is something out there that is in need of explanation, of inquiry). And as regards replacing “truth” and “objectivity” and “knowledge”, I would recommend replacing them with the pragmatists’ “epistemic success”: Newton’s laws are not “true”, they just seem to be (historically) very successful at predicting certain things (under certain circumstances).

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