The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play

Featured image is Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The subject-object schema is not destiny. It is handed down to us from the time of Descartes and Bacon, quite late in the history of philosophy. After Kant, subjectivity became a prison from which we are never free to directly perceive or interact with objects as things-in-themselves.

In the 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein—starting from very different interests, training, and standpoints—looked to play and games as a way of moving beyond the Kantian trap.

How can something as seemingly trivial as play provide an answer to a serious philosophical problem? When we say “do you think this is a game?” are we not implying that the matter at hand is more important than such a thing?

Continue reading “The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play”

Modeling, Knowing, and Knowing Models

Featured Image is an illustration of Ptolemy’s system by Bartolomeu Velho.

What is a model?

The answer used to seem obvious to me. I was of one mind with Wittgenstein:

For we can avoid unfairness or vacuity in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as a sort of yardstick; not as a preconception to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

But to Aristotelians and Platonists, the model appears to belong to reality rather than being some separate thing we construct as a yardstick. And to Heidegger and Gadamer, preconceptions are front and center in establishing the conditions of understanding.

I wandered through conceptual murkiness as I attempted to understand these various lines of thought. When I encountered the Wittgenstein quote above, a particular conception of the model came sharply into focus.

In what follows, I will argue that Wittgenstein is right, but—as he would no doubt have happily conceded—incomplete in his treatment of models. I will integrate it into Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of understanding, which makes up our hermeneutic situation. I will try to avoid being overly technical—you can think of the hermeneutic situation as your standpoint, including your prejudices as well as the traditions of thought and practice in which you are embedded, and specifically how those things pre-form your interpretations.

Continue reading “Modeling, Knowing, and Knowing Models”

A World of Significance

Featured Image is Am Fronleichnamsmorgen, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

No one is born an empiricist or a rationalist.

A newborn does not construct reality from first premises or observe a neutral array of objects which must be interpreted. A baby is born into a set of natural relations, especially with the parents and especially with the mother.

Babies don’t have language pressed on them; they instinctively seek it out. Once they find it, they begin soaking it up like a sponge.

Everyone, whether an infant, a child, a teenager, an adult, or the elderly, are thrown into a situation full of significance. Life resembles a game in which both the rules and the purpose are hinted at but never revealed. We encounter most objects in their perceived relation to the game of life. The scissors in our desk in elementary school are not just some meaningless matter; its shape and its location in our desk already hint that it has some specific purpose.

The reason that the rules and purpose of the game are never completely revealed is that they are influenced—I hesitate to go as far as to say “determined”—by the playing of the game itself.

A lot of the game is mere doing—actually using the scissors to cut paper, going to school, sitting at your desk. But a great deal of the game is telling, or saying, or listening—which of course is a kind of doing, but a very special kind.

A community is sustained by a conjective web of significances, including practices understood largely inarticulately, and narratives that give articulated (as well as implied) purposiveness to the world around us.

This web can be usefully thought of in terms of network clusters, rather than something uniform and discrete.

Taken from CV Harquail
Taken from CV Harquail

We play sub-games with subsets of the community which nevertheless have implications for the larger game of the community at large.

Sub-games and sub-communities are sources of experimentation with new ideas, rules, and practices. They are therefore the sources of both creativity and disorder for the community at large.

The moves we make can have very different significance depending on which game they’re interpreted as being a part of. A constructive move in a sub-game could be a destructive or counterproductive move if interpreted as a part of the larger game, or a different sub-game. The reverse is also possible.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority can be seen as arguing that our current overall situation pushes us to make moves that are considered constructive within our sub-games but are destructive in the larger game. But our current media environment has largely dissolved the walls between such games, so that they are carrying on as before but the moves can no longer be made within isolated sub-games. We tend to view this as good when the moves made by our ideological enemies in previously obscured sub-games are now observable to us, and vulnerable to attack. But the cumulative effect of everyone pursuing such a strategy is negation and nihilism.

Let’s hope that we’re able to adapt the game of life to our new information environment so that such a result is no longer fore-ordained.

 

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The Gordian Knot

Featured image is Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta

One of the key disputes in the continental vs analytic divide in modern philosophy is one of style. German and French philosophers largely follow Hegel’s impenetrable style—or worse, Heidegger’s—while English-speaking philosophers largely follow Bertrand Russell’s approachable prose.

A problem arises immediately because the substance of philosophy is relevant to the question of its style. Consider that the conclusions of economic theory, which concern human beings, are thus relevant to the practice of economics itself.

Philosophy falls into a similar recursion, even when we are just talking about the style in which philosophy is done. Plato’s decision to write only in the form of dialogues was a conscious choice made on a philosophical basis; his master Socrates believed that written philosophy was a contradiction in terms.

What, then, are the philosophical presuppositions behind the stylistic divide in modern philosophy?

There’s a lot that can just be chalked up to bad or sloppy writing. I’m told that Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in a hurry and did not get it properly edited. Analytic philosophy itself is no stranger to putrid prose. One need not be a good writer to become a professional philosopher, even in the English-speaking world.

But Hegel’s writing style was, I believe, a choice. And Heidegger’s certainly was. Heidegger believed that common language came with philosophical assumptions baked in. That point is at least defensible. His solution, however, seems worse than the problem. The relentless neologisms and wordplay are all but impenetrable. George Steiner claimed that in German, the style has literary merit. Perhaps so, but I am in no position to judge that. All I know is that Gadamer, no great stylist, nevertheless was able to wrestle with the same perceived problem in a perfectly straightforward manner.

If we are going to write, we should strive to be good writers. In this way, I stand much closer to Russell than to Heidegger. However, being a good writer does not always mean making the simplest possible point in the simplest possible way.

I fear that for all the faults of the continental tradition (the USSR used Marx to justify mass murder, while Heidegger was a registered Nazi and delivered a speech touting their virtues mere months after Hitler was made chancellor), the analytic tradition too often thinks that the world’s problems are merely a set of Gordian Knots begging for Alexander’s solution.

I often think, these days, in terms of “low context” or “direct” speech as opposed to “high context” or “indirect” speech, distinctions I learned of in Arthur Melzer’s book Philosophy Between the Lines.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, for example, probably the most famous and influential writer in the field, distinguishes between what he calls “low context” societies like the United States and Europe and the “high context” societies found throughout most of the developing world. In the former, when one communicates with others— whether orally or in writing— one is expected to be direct, clear, explicit, concrete, linear, and to the point. But in most of the rest of the world, such behavior is considered a bit rude and shallow: one should approach one’s subject in a thoughtfully indirect, suggestive, and circumlocutious manner.

To forestall an objection from Ryan, Melzer does not rely on evidence from theorists alone. He also draws on practical guides created for people who have to work in other cultures which emphasize the pervasiveness of indirect speech outside of the west. The book assembles a formidable corpus of such practical and theoretical discussions, all pointing in the same direction—towards the existence of cultures favoring “low context” and “direct” styles on the one hand, and “high context” and “indirect” styles on the other.

The chief distinction is not between obscurantism and clarity, but how much of an onus is put on the audience. From one paper Melzer cites:

The burden for understanding falls not on the speaker speaking clearly, but on the listener deciphering the hidden clues. In fact, the better the speaker, the more skillful he may be in manipulating the subtlety of the clues.

To a western and especially an English speaking audience, this seems the very definition of obscurantism. But Melzer emphasizes the pedagogical value of making students pay close attention to a text in order to be able to understand it. What seems superficially easy to understand too often yields only a superficial understanding.

It is an uncomfortable fact for philosophers that stories are the chief means through which societies convey wisdom, not philosophy. Philosophy and art have struggled over which was the appropriate source of wisdom since antiquity. Philosophy succeeded in achieving a certain status among intellectuals. But most people, especially children, find more wisdom from cartoons, movies, or comics than from philosophy–continental or analytic, ancient or medieval. Eastern or western.

In my view, there must be great value in conveying ideas indirectly. Of the writers here at Sweet Talk, no one has demonstrated this more thoroughly than David.

The exact opposite is not true, however. Indirect and direct, high and low context communication, both have their place.

What should not have a place are bad writing, badly organized presentation, and intentionally opaque language.

Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger were not seeking to provide well written parables or even dialogues, for all of their love of dialectic. For all the talk about “dialectical” styles, they ultimately gave lectures and wrote essays and books. And the stylistic choices they made provided cover for later, more mediocre thinkers to shroud their mediocrity in impenetrable writing.

What can be considered good writing depends on the goal as well as the audience of the piece. Good writing for a technical audience will be different than good introductory writing. Conveying wisdom through poetry, parable, or essay will also be judged differently in each case. But having different standards isn’t the same as having no standards, and philosophical writing is too often synonymous with bad writing.

Ignorant, Humble, and Curious

Featured image is a scholar with his books and globe.

Meredith L. Patterson has a wonderful post on the Platonic dialogues, and the different roles particular characters fill in them.

At a high level, there are just two roles: smart guy and dumb guy. Socrates is the only smart guy, so if you are his interlocutor, you’re the dumb guy.

But on the dumb guy side, Meredith makes a further distinction:

Broadly, they fall into two classes: hubristic dumb guys and epistemically humble dumb guys. Hubristic dumb guys think they know all the answers, and by definition don’t, because nobody does. Epistemically humble dumb guys know they don’t know most of the answers, and don’t mind, apart from the whole not-knowing part, and would like to know more.

You’d think that for your self-image it would be better to be Socrates, but I honestly kinda like being the second kind of dumb guy.

I think this is on the mark. To see why, consider two extreme interpretations of Socrates.

Continue reading “Ignorant, Humble, and Curious”

Demonstration, Theory, and Practice

Disputation

It would be easy to take my personal intellectual journey from Deirdre McCloskey’s post-modernism to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to be a slide into relativism, given the reputation of such things. In fact, from the beginning it was a journey out of skepticism and into epistemological optimism, qualified though it may be.

If I have come to believe that knowledge is very political, in the sense of being unable to exist in an an individual vacuum without the context provided by groups, I have nevertheless come to believe that there is genuine knowledge.

In his first post here, Ryan made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied with that picture. He is even more optimistic—he believes that genuinely apolitical knowledge exists.

I am no master of epistemology or philosophy of mind. I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on why he’s wrong and I’m right. Instead, I want to pose a few questions. I have some preliminary answers to some of them, but the questions are more valuable than the answers.

Demonstration

A big part of my transition to relative optimism has been the abandonment of Cartesian foundationalism as the criteria for what knowledge is, and an embrace of classical notions of demonstration.

The most straightforward example is the defense of the principle of non-contradiction. We cannot prove that it is true in a foundationalist way, and it is the basis of the very method of proving things that we are attempting to defend. But we can demonstrate how it is impossible to make any argument without it. As I put it recently:

[I]t’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

Alasdair MacIntyre employed a similar sort of demonstration in critiquing Nietzsche and Foucault. If there is no truth, only positions that people take publicly in order to mask the cynical power relations going on in the background, then what is the status of this very claim? Is it true, or merely a mask for cynical power relations? And if the latter, does that not mean that the claim is false, and therefore some positions can be true and not just cynical power relations? Elliot Michael Milco makes a related set of arguments in his thesis.

One demonstration I came upon recently that I liked concerned the infinite regress argument for skepticism. This is the notion that we gives reasons for believing anything—we believe X because Y. But we have to justify our reasons with yet more reasons—and this chain goes on forever. We believe X because Y, which we believe because Z, and so forth. Because there is no foundational reason that we believe for no other reason, nothing is ever actually justified rationally.

In Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules he points out that this argument would imply we’re incapable of solving crossword puzzles. After all, our justifications for giving a particular answer for a particular part should follow the same logic that skeptics claim leads to an infinite regress. But it’s clear that we do solve crossword puzzles, when we have sufficient familiarity with the subject matter. So unless skeptics are prepared to insist that we somehow solve them irrationally, it would appear that their argument proves too much.

This sort of reasoning was the basis for my piece Science is Persuasion; Cartesian foundationalism has failed, yet still we have modern physics, medicine, and chemistry. Clearly we have knowledge. These sorts of demonstrations are more squishy than many philosophers after Descartes are comfortable with, but I’m convinced they are all we have, and that they are enough.

But What Is It To Know?

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.

Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

The part of Ryan’s post that seemed most similar to the demonstrations above was his discussion of consciousness, which he gives as an example of innate knowledge.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

This seems to me to get at the tension between theory and practice, a topic at least as old as philosophy itself.

Ryan’s argument boils down to the idea that it is self-defeating to deny the existence of consciousness. Yet there are people who do deny it—they are called eliminative materialists. The defense of the principle of non-contradiction is similar, as Milco’s thesis shows very capably—we can point out that it’s self-defeating to believe in its falseness, but that doesn’t stop someone from believing it is false.

The obvious argument is that in practice, we live as if we believe in consciousness and reality and causation (to name a few items on the skeptics’ list), and we argue as if we believe in the principle of non-contradiction, even if in theory we have explicitly declared that we do not believe in those things.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

These were the questions that came to my mind when I read Ryan’s post.

How We Think: a Simple Model

mind
Drilled Mind by Roman Klco

Forgive the clumsy workings of a mind untutored in philosophy of mind. But it has always been my way to read, and think, and argue, and then try to pull the threads together and see what emerges. What I lack in training I will try to make up for with brevity.

Crucial for understanding anything is understanding the context. The context is what is meant when people speak of the whole truth as opposed to partial truths. However, context—the whole truth—is boundless, and so whenever we attempt to grasp it, we’re always projecting and simplifying.

A partial truth might be dropping something, and a projection of the whole truth would be classical physics.

We can make sense of the centuries long tug-of-war between Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists from this perspective. The rationalist argument boiled down to the idea that we can never make sense of observed truths, which are always partial, without working out the whole truth abstractly beforehand. Empiricists basically believed the opposite; you add up a lot of partial observations until you get the whole truth.

Philosophical hermeneutics for the past century has taken another path, saying, in essence, you need both at once.

As Jonathan Haidt points out, people don’t really have a rational model of morality in mind when they make in the moment ethical judgments. His observation could be extended to nearly any judgement; more of the whole gets left out than is brought in explicitly. But there is an important two-way relationship between part and whole here. So how does it work?

Crucially, we externalize most of the tools for our thinking; Andy Clark calls this “extended cognition.” Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson point out that the most important way individual knowledge is externalized is through the social environment; that is, through other people. In large part this is accomplished by trusting the people in our lives and the people we perceive to be authorities on a subject, and having faith that the apparent contradictions or limitations to what is known can either be worked out, or aren’t very important.

But neither the trust nor the faith are blind. When we are confronted by partial truths, or assertions by people we trust, that stand in conflict with the whole truth as we understand it, or as other people we trust have explained it—they are subject to reevaluation.

Essentially, what the typical person brings to the fore in confronting the partial truths in their daily life is not an actual model of the whole, but prejudices. Hans-George Gadamer speaks of prejudices in just this sense as “pre-judgements,” similar to how a judge will make provisional judgments that influence the decisions he makes throughout the trial, before actually rendering a final verdict.

These prejudices aren’t simply mindless assumptions or “givens”, nor is the process by which we come to them. They always point back towards some skeleton projection of a whole truth, which can be fleshed out and scrutinized. Haidt leans hard on the fact that people will cling to their prejudices even when unable to come up with any reasons to justify them. But the fact that I might not be able to remember how to solve a quadratic equation in the moment does not invalidate mathematical reasoning as the correct way to solve such an equation. Nor does it mean I should abandon my belief in mathematical reasoning!

Context matters, and part of specifically human context is the knowledge that we have largely externalized. Haidt and his researchers are presumably complete strangers to their subjects, and the subjects in question knew that they were inside of a psychology experiment. Would the subjects have treated the matter differently if they were in a setting they trusted to be private, discussing the questions with a priest, a teacher, or other trusted moral authority who challenged their prejudices and explained the reasoning for doing so?

The very best projections of the whole truth that humanity is capable of mustering can get incredibly complex, and take years of training to really understand. Physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics, computer science, but also moral systems, offer up huge, interconnected sets of theories. Connecting these systems to people’s prejudices is a matter of persuasion. Non-specialists must be persuaded that specialists have authority on a given subject, and specialists must also persuade one another on any given point of contention.

Persuasion isn’t a matter of cold, logical syllogisms, but of rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean it is irrational. It appeals to thought processes as they actually occur in people. Among specialists, of course, this will often involve a great deal of technical details. But technical details alone cannot tell the whole story of what we ought to believe or why we ought to change our point of view.

In every case, the one attempting to persuade will draw on narratives and metaphors and examples from life that make the subject, as well as what is at stake, concrete for the people he wants to persuade. They will employ a situated reason. But reason, none the less.