Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Philosophy as Science vs. Philosophy as Art

I argue against Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" from the standpoint of an aesthetician.  In his efforts to bring philosophy closer to science, Peirce took it further away from art.  That's a problem.  I advocate something more like Rorty's idea of philosophy as an on-going conversation.  Peirce's scientism infects his entire theory, in particular, his theories of truth and reality.  (This is important since although Peirce's own influence was and continues to be limited, the position he advocates, in particular his scientism, is the strongest voice in contemporary philosophy.)  Whereas it makes sense to talk about truth and reality in the realm of science in Peirce's terminology, this leaves out half of philosophy, half of truth, and half of reality.  The other half revels in differing opinion and the pleasures of debate --- until the end of time.  Let us speak of the art, as opposed to the science, of philosophy, or philosophers as artists, as opposed to philosophers as scientists.  Well, perhaps opposition is too strong a word.  Tolerance would be better.  And currently there is little tolerance for philosophy as art or as close to the arts.  Peirce writes that some thinkers have “perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure [so much] that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled.”  He even thinks that such people are thereby led to dislike positive discoveries.  This, he thinks, is "debauchery of thought" since the soul of thought is production of belief.  Yet I suspect that if I viewed the very same (unnamed) thinkers I would look upon them much more positively.  A very large part of philosophy is not much like science.  And the more philosophy is like science, the more it just gives way to science itself.  Natural philosophy became physics in the 18th century: and this is as it should be.  Philosophers are happy to give up to science what rightfully belongs to science.  Philosophy can even be defined as inquiry that is not resolvable by scientific investigation.  "What is science?" for example is a question that science itself cannot answer:  it is philosophy, philosophy of science.

I have a philosopher friend, a real fan of Peirce, who likes to make fun of philosophers for never really quite discovering or settling on anything.  But this is much like criticizing painters for never arriving at their final painting, or painting itself for generating new schools and styles.  And it is just as absurd.   Philosophy is a creative activity and the writings we produce are much like works of art.  Philosophical disciplines consist in large part in a long list of succeeding definitions of the key concepts of the discipline, all couched in articles and books.  Aesthetics for example consists largely in succeeding competing theories of art.  This is as it should be.  (This does not indicate failure anymore than the history of art indicates that art is a failed enterprise.)  Each generation of philosophers must engage in their own debates about fundamental concepts and must come up with their own definitions and supporting theories.  Even Peirce recognizes that beliefs are fixed only to be unsettled again. Thought does not in fact end with the fixation of belief, although one episode of thought may.  The love of philosophy as an art (or as something closer to art than science) is a love of something that does in fact give pleasure, and is also love of it partly for the pleasure it gives. To that extent, Peirce may be right.  But these philosophers are, most of them, also committed to the truth.  Still, the conception of truth here is not the same as Peirce's.  

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," Peirce gives us two figures made of dots starting with five dots on the left in the first and starting with four dots on the left in the second.  The figures are seen to be the same when one is rotated, but look very different as presented on the page.  Peirce thinks that belief that dots are arranged in the first figure and the belief that they are arranged in the second are the same belief since the two figures are the same. To assert one and deny the other is, he says, a false distinction.  He warns us not to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking about.  We should especially not see the quality of an object as essentially mysterious.  He even observes that we believers in inescapably mysterious aspects to reality may no longer recognize the object if it becomes intelligible (presumably through scientific method).  He sees such people as opponents of rational thought, and believes that they are interested in perpetuating a deception.  And he finds a similar deception in mistaking a mere difference in grammatical construction for a distinction of ideas expressed. But the real problem is failing to see that grammatical differences and different ways of expressing things really do make a difference.

Perhaps a more problematic deception for our own time comes however from scientistic philosophers like Peirce. It is the deception that views things that are really quite different as essentially the same.  The assumption that there is nothing mysterious in the universe, that everything may be explained by science, is also deeply problematic.  It can never be proved, and Peirce himself relies on a myth to back it up, i.e. that everyone who pursues scientific method is fated to agree in the end.  (This is what he means by truth!) If you want to agree with Peirce consider that on his view everyone debating about the nature of justice is fated to agree, maybe a thousand years from now, or maybe later, as long as they follow a science-like philosophy.  That view is not only unbelievable but, if it were true, it would eliminate the possibility of human creation and re-creation of the very concepts that order our lives.  It would eliminate not only philosophy but any activity that involves cultural creation.   Moreover, it is somewhat hamfisted to assume that one can clearly distinguish between the parts of our thoughts that are subjective and merely grammatical from the ones that will lead to this science-like truth.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Heidegger's Aesthetic Approach to Phenomenology in Being and Time Introduction II

The method Heidegger seeks to use is phenomenology, which is commonly characterized by the cry of "To the things themselves!" (I am working with Being and Time tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, SCM Press, 1962) My working hypothesis is that this means something radically different in Heidegger than it did in Husserl, that the things themselves are no longer placed in opposition to things that are not phenomena.  Hediegger does not in any way see humans as walking in bubbles of experience. 
An epoche is not even necessary.  Rather, phenomena simply consist in the entities we experience.  Subject/object dualism is deconstructed.  But what else is new?  I suspect that the analysis becomes fundamentally aesthetic, not because of the primacy of aesthesis, the Greek for perception, but because of primacy of metaphorical seeing.  That is, metaphorical seeing is the core of Heideggerian approach to ontology.  Heidegger does not much use the term "essence," but the goal of his effort is revelation of the Being of beings, which I would call the essential nature of beings (recognizing that these are not Platonic Forms but rather aspects that change over time.)  Heidegger uses false or questionable etymologies to structure our thinking in a such a way as to undercut traditional ways we might look at phenomenology, ontology and philosophy in general.  The phenomenon becomes something that shows itself, and thus is no longer thought of as something internal or subjective.  His derivation of phenomenon from phaino for "bring to light" takes us to seeing phenomena as moving temporally from the obscure into light rather than as objects there simply to be described.  The idea that the object "shows itself" indicates that the viewer is not the sole active agent in the person/entity relationship.  The phenomena include not only the things that are in the light but also things than "can be brought to light."  Moreover a phenomenon can "show itself as something which in itself it is not" and can then "look like something or other," which is a matter of "seeming."  Yet, Heidegger argues, the two ideas of phenomenon (bring to light and seeming) are "structurally interconnected."  First, something has to claim to show itself before it can show itself as something it is not.  This he distinguishes also from symptoms or appearances.  "Appearing" involves something not showing itself, rather than something showing itself as what it is not, as in "semblance."  Also, appearance involves the showing itself of something: it is just that something appears without being an appearance, appearing taking on three meanings, as announcing-itself and as what does the announcing, and as mere appearance, the phenomenon being something that hides itself in the appearance. 

The concept of "seeming" seems at first to be entirely negative, but takes on a different aspect when we look at the second part of the analysis of the word "phenomenology."  Logos is understood in many ways, but Heidegger characteristically traces it back to one Greek insight, that it is a function of discourse, which, in his understanding, lets something be seen in its essential nature.  Again, discourse does not occur in an experiential bubble.  Genuine discourse takes its clue from the thing itself, making it accessible to the other party in the discourse.  So it is a dynamic involving three things, the phenomenon and two interlocutors. 

Now for the aesthetic part. Heidegger sees discourse as "synthesis" in the sense not of a "psychical binding" (in the way Kant would see it) but as letting "something be seen in its togetherness with something" i.e. "seen as something."  This is the metaphorical moment which I have referred to in my working hypothesis, that Heidegger sees phenomenology as revealing essences that are essentially metaphorical, the Being of beings as metaphorical, as seemings, but of a particular powerful, truthful, rather than the (usual) untruthful, sort.  This is why a correspondence theory of truth will not work here.   Truth is something that happens in the synthesis of what is with what it is not; a revealing that also, at the same time, conceals.  We, in talking, let the hidden thing be "seen as something unhidden" or, in the false mode, cover it up.  Truth is this process in which we let something be seen. 

For Heidegger, aisthesis, "the sheer sensory perception of something" is "true" in the Greek sense of true, although not in the contemporary propositional sense.  He takes this to provide a kind of insight into truth, the idea being that the noein "is the perception of the simplest determinate ways of Being which entities as such may possess" and which can be perceived just by looking.  The next stage is the synthesis structure when something is being seen as something and thus possibly covering it up, the true judgment being the opposite of this.  What Heidegger seems to be suggestion is that the Platonic doctrine of ideas is correct if understood in a different way, i.e. under this Greek notion of truth as unconcealment.  (The emphasis on aesthetisis seems to indicate that the uncealment happens in the live interaction of the human creature with its environment, to use Deweyan terminology.)  What is shown in phenomenology is "something that proximally and for the most part does not show itself as all:  it is something that lies hidden, in contrast to that which proximally and for the most part does show itself."  (59)  The is why phenomenology is hermeneutics:  it is interpretation which reveals the hidden.  

So phenomenological reveals Being but not in the mode of judgments under the correspondence theory of truth but in the mode of revealing the hidden while at the same time keeping something hidden by the fact that the truth is metaphorical, a seeming, although a powerful one.  No doubt this is a stretch:  my apologies to Heidegger scholars.  But something to think about.      

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Diotima's Valentine Advice

So what does Socrates' "instructress in the art of love" have to say about the topic?  The issue is related to aesthetics since beauty is the most famous of the aesthetic terms, and beauty is the object of love.  I will be using the Jowett translation of the Symposium as found in Art and Its Significance edited by Stephen David Ross.  This comment is not going to be a summary or even a scholarly discussion of Plato.  I am more interested in meditating on a couple main points. First, Plato (or Socrates, or Diotima) begins by giving love an important metaphysical and epistemological position as between the gods and mortals in the realm of intermediary spirits, and between ignorance and knowledge.  It turns out that love is very much like Socrates, poor, a philosopher, a searcher after beauty. One could fairly say that love is the muse of Diotima, Socrates and Plato.  The philosopher then becomes situated also between ignorance and knowledge in the realm of opinion which, although, right, is not yet not backed up sufficiently with reasons (nor perhaps can it be).  It is inspired opinion not unlike that which Socrates elsewhere attributes to the Rhapsode Ion.  The second point, related to the first, is that love is creative activity directed towards eternal possession of the good. The object of love is not just beauty but that which is generated out of beauty. The greatest of the lovers, and the greatest of men, are the poets. But "poet" is broadly understood as any creative maker who aims after the good, not just as a maker of verses. The goal of love is the eternal, to be god-like.  One way humans can achieve a kind of eternity is through physical procreation.  Plato however considers more important a mental union of souls in which something new is created together.  Creative activity for Plato is ultimately collaborative.  The lover and the beloved work together to produce offspring in art and science and not just and not only in the physical production of children.  Bear in mind that the creation of a family, the nurturing of children, is also for Plato, not just physical. Eternal fame is the object of the second layer of love. This can be achieved in the realm of what is commonly called poetry, i.e. in epic poetry of the sort that Homer wrote.  But it can be even more effectively achieved in the political realm through the creation, or recreation, of the laws of society.  Moreover, we exist in a world of change and creativity is always a matter of recollection, of re-creation.  The individual must constantly create and re-create himself too, and this too is part of the rhythm of love.  Love loves "everlasting possession of the good" in the sense that it loves the procreative and creative process.  "Birth in beauty" is birth inspired by beauty. The true lover discovers that there can be beauty in every domain. Beauty inspires.  The Valentine's Day message from Cupid. god of love and philosophy is that the beauty of a couple's love can combine all of these dimensions or simply be focused on the friendship that Plato saw as far closer than that between those who beget moral children. Plato of course failed to see the possibility of combining the two and seems unfortunately to pose a false dilemma, where one can either love at the lowest level of the ladder of love or at the highest, but not at both.  The true lesson (contra Plato's actual position) of the ladder of love is not that the first rungs should be tossed away but that all rungs should be taken together, that it is capacity to move up and down the ladder that is philosophy.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Emerson's Deep Aesthetics of Nature

Emerson's book Nature, his first, published in 1836, continues to be a source of inspiration and provoking thought.  If we are looking for an aesthetics of nature which is not committed to an objectivist or physicalist view of nature but rather sees the relation between man an nature as intimate and laden with meaning, then this is a good place to start.  Even in the short "Introduction" Emerson observes that every man's condition is already the solution to the puzzles posed by nature since he acts this solution "in life" before he understands it "as truth."  But what is investigated when we investigate nature?  Emerson sees it in two senses, first as everything that is not me, and second, in the common sense of "essences unchanged by man." These essences are not Platonic Forms, however.  Rather, they include "space, the air, the river, the leaf."  Nonetheless the difference between the two senses of nature is of little importance since he believes that the things that are changed by man (through Art, as in a house, a canal, a statue or a picture) and hence are not nature in the second sense, are matters of simply mixing man's will with the things of nature, i.e. through various activities.  In the end he is hoping to get a true "theory of nature" which will explain all phenomena, especially things like "language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex" under the general heading of creative change.  This is speculative thinking, but hopefully not unsound or frivolous.

The next chapter, titled "Nature," is perhaps the most famous.  The dominant metaphor here, as in the chapter on beauty, is the ball.  It is important to tease out the overall meaning of this metaphor throughout Emerson's thought.  First he speaks of a special sort of solitude that happens in apprehension of the stars at night.  "One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime."  These stars are seen in a poetic way, as being not only "envoys of beauty" but also providing light "with their admonishing smile." He anthropomorphizes them.  He compares them to the "city of God."  But it is not just the stars:  all natural objects impress us in a similar way if we are open ourselves to this possibility.  Thus, "Nature never wears a mean appearance."  This idea is what philosophers now call positive aesthetics of nature.  However, this is not a cognitivist theory.  Clearly what is in mind is something more poetic.   He is not speaking of the "stick of timber" but the "tree of the poet." What is perceived in this poetic sense is "the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects."  That is, "the whole" is at issue.  The perceived whole has its own unique quality.  

Where the first ball was the firmament of the stars, the second is the landscape.  As Emerson looks over a landscape of farms in the morning he claims that no one owns it, even though there are owners aplenty of farms and woods: "There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts."  So, it is the ball of our perceptual field with its horizon and which, when perceived aesthetically, is integrated.  This is not nature distinct from man, but neither is it a mere projection of our imagination onto nature.  We will discover that the aesthetic ideal of Emerson involves a fusion of the two.  In order to get at the uniqueness of this vision, which is different not only from that of the wood-cutter qua wood-cutter but from that of the scientist-qua-scientist, Emerson calls on us to see nature as an infant would.  The sun, for example, is only deeply seen when it "shines into the eye and the heart of the child."  Otherwise it just illuminates things.  "The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood."  This lover gets a "wild delight" from nature even when suffering from sorrow (although this point is modified or perhaps contradicted at the end of the chapter).  Moreover, "every hour and season yields its tribute of delight" although these can be tied to different states of mind ranging from the breathless to the grim.  Each change of nature "authorizes a different state of mind."  But it is the exhilarating moment that stands out the most:  "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration."  Haven't we all?  And aren't experiences like this really why we are nature lovers?  Earlier, Emerson had mentions the experience of the sublime before the starry heavens:  here he speaks of gladness "to the brink of fear."  It is this kind of experience which religious thinkers draw on when they think of their God.  Emerson himself is a religious thinker, but strangely can express his feelings about nature in ways that can inspire an atheist, as least one that allows that the world-as-experienced can have a spiritual aspect, and does, at its best.  Emerson sees his egotism vanish when he looks up into the infinite having taken the stance of the child.  He says that  "In the woods, we return to reason and faith" by which he means that we return to the capacity for mind to grasp and actualize this spiritual aspect of existence.  "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God."  And this all has to do with being a lover of "uncontained and immortal beauty," something he believes can be realized more in the wilderness than in the city streets.  Beauty happens especially in the "distant line of the horizon."  I take it he is referring to the experience of looking out onto a calm sea or lake from the shore. 

Indeed, Emerson argues, there is in nature (fields and woods) an "occult relation between man and the vegetable."  Don't get too wrapped up in the idea of "occult."  This simply means that in one's experienced world it seems as though the trees recognize me as I do them.  Don't think he means this literally.  He says:  "this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both."  It lies in the harmony, and because of this necessary aspect or our contribution to the experience of nature, we need to bear in mind that when we experience some calamity it is natural for us to feel contempt for the landscape.  

For a discussion of the chapter "Beauty."  See here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Truth as Having Three Aspects

“Truth as having Three Aspects”

Tom Leddy, Annual Philosophy Conference, San Jose State, May 3, 2008

My own interest in truth as a concept (and not as a goal) comes by way of my interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, although much that I have to say about truth comes from my reading of some of my favorite philosophers, Plato, Nietzsche, James and Heidegger. But before I go into that I want to say one little thing about debates over the nature of truth.  One of the oddest things about such debates, and I imagine someone somewhere has already noted this (Rick [Tieszen] says it has been discussed in the philosophy of mathematics), is that whatever you are doing when you present a theory of truth you are claiming that your theory is true, and in claiming your theory is true, you must, to be consistent, be claiming that it meets the standards set by your theory of truth.  So this is a paradox of truth, that any theory of truth is going to be self-confirming if self-consistent.  For example, someone who believes in the pragmatist theory of truth is not going to think his or her theory of truth is true primarily according to the correspondence theory of truth.  Not only that, he/she will think it true according to the specific version of the pragmatist theory he/she is offering.  If not, then he/she is being inconsistent.  In short, your theory of truth is going to be judged true because it fits whatever theory of truth you are actually presenting.  You are going to assume your theory of truth in the very act of evaluating it.  On the face of it then, based on this paradox, the whole project of a theory of truth seems hopelessly circular.  It isn’t just circular in the relatively innocuous way in which some theories in aesthetics are circular.  These theories are circular because they include the word "art" in their definition of art.  One might always argue that such a circularity is merely apparent and that the second appearance of the term art is eliminable in some way.  But whenever you present a theory of truth you are presenting it as true and hence as meeting your theory of truth.  So unlike circularity in theories of art, theories of truth will always be circular.  To get a picture of what I am talking about imagine any theory of truth stated in sentence form with quote marks around it and followed by the two words “is true” and then consider replacing the word “true” in this second instance with the theory of truth itself, i.e. the supposed definition of truth, and you will see something very much like what happens when you get a circular definition of a term, a kind of endless regress.  I don’t know how to resolve this question, so like most people, I’ll just ignore it.

What interests me the most about truth is whether and to what extent the theories of truth that have been offered mainly to satisfy needs in other domains in philosophy actually apply or apply in the same way to the domain of aesthetics and philosophy of art.  On the face of it there would seem to be a problem since many of the phenomena that would be dismissed outside of the world of art as simply false or cognitively meaningless are taken quite seriously within the world of art.  Fictions and metaphors are two examples.  The faculty of imagination is taken very seriously in the world of art, perhaps more so then in the worlds of science, history and philosophy.  OK I know that there are lots of exceptions (for example philosophers use science fiction examples), but this does seem to me to be roughly right.  A tricky aspect of this is that aestheticians, who are often philosophers first and art lovers second, often stand for philosophy and not for art in this matter and often insist on giving a certain primacy to concepts of truth that are perhaps more important for science, history or philosophy then for the arts.  So the question I would like to ask is whether truth is different in the arts, or put differently, whether there is a sense of “truth” that is more appropriate to the arts.  Any answer to this question would have broader implications for a theory of truth.  That is, an excellent theory of truth should cover all sorts of truth including the sorts that are most appropriate for the arts.

The most immediate question related to this that comes to mind is whether works of art have cognitive value.  It has often been argued that they do not.  It is claimed that visual arts do not usually assert true sentences and that even when they do, as when a sentence appears on a canvas or is spoken in a performance piece, the truth of these sentences has nothing to do with the value of the work, and thus has nothing to do with art as art.  I think that knowledge is more holistic than that.  If art can give us some greater understanding of the world, and I think that it can do that sometimes, then it also allows truth to emerge.  So even when an artwork does not give us true propositions it still has something to do with truth.  Another way to look at this is that people are not just artists or scientists or philosophers but have a little of each in them, and that when their knowledge increases in one area this is not unconnected with advances of knowledge in other areas.  That is, if a culture is an organic whole the gaining of truth is not to be limited to activities within science or science, history and philosophy.  I would add that if it is questionable that art gives us truth then it is almost equally questionable whether philosophy does.  Whatever truths philosophy can give us are, by the very nature of philosophy, not verifiable in scientific terms:  if they were then they would be scientific, not philosophical truths.  This is also the case for history, the truths of which are not based on verifiable experiments.  It the term “truth” is to be broad enough to include the truths of philosophy and history as well as those of science there is no reason in principle why it could not also be extended to art, or even for that matter to religion.

Anyway, from thinking about truth and art in this way I have come to think of truth in a pluralist way.  Shortly I am going to give a definition of truth, but before I do this I should say something about what I take philosophical definitions to do.  I see philosophical definitions as primarily directed to concepts that are essentially contested, that is, concepts over which there is a philosophical debate about the definition.  The concepts of triangle and water are not essentially contested.  There are not any ongoing debates over the essential nature of these things.  There is no philosophy of triangles or of water.  Essentially contested concepts give rise to competing “philosophy ofs” that thing.  Democracy, love, art, good, knowledge and true are all concepts of this sort. Contra Plato, Aristotle and many contemporary realists, there are no eternally and unchangingly true definitions of these concepts.  An argument against this form of realist would take longer than we have, but briefly, all proofs for such entities fail.  Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to try to come up with a definition of such concepts and to engage in debates about those definitions.  Such definitions, their explication, and the debate that surrounds them help us to recalibrate our understanding of the world so as to better respond to changing conditions.  Philosophers tend to try to come up with a definitions of art, and such subconcepts of art as architecture, which are both uniquely right and eternally true.  However I prefer definitions like that of Robert Venturi for architecture.  Recognizing that every architect works with a definition of architecture in mind, and that every generation has its own definitions, Venturi consciously called his definition “our current definition.”  In a sense he was projecting a definition that he hoped would be true for his generation, and if not so, at least for his firm.  The definition of architecture that he provided was “shelter with symbols [or decoration] on it.”[1]  I will not now go into why this was such a powerful definition, or how it changed our everyday built world, although I will say that it formed one important basis for the entire style of postmodern architecture.  I am more interested in the characteristics of the definition as a definition.  These include that it was novel, not based on a dictionary meaning, and provided guidelines for how to produce good items of the type defined.  It had an evaluative dimension and a future-oriented one.  The power of this definition can be expressed in part by saying that it is true.  This would not be so, however, if the only theory of truth was the correspondence theory:  there is nothing which the phrase “architecture consists of shelter with symbols on it” that accurately matches something in reality.  Yet it does fit something; something more in the realm of potentiality than in that of actuality.  I think that most philosophical definitions are better seen as like Venturi’s definition than like definitions of triangle or water.  I would also suggest that art gives us truth in a similar way, that for example, Venturi’s actual architectural practice contained implicitly the truth of philosophically stated definition, and that the definition would be meaningless without the art practice context in which it occurred.

Truth is also an essentially contested concept perhaps every bit as much as democracy, art, and architecture.  Such concepts do not simply exhibit differences in people’s attitudes towards the subject matter in hand but also their general attitude towards life.  I suspect that different types of people are attracted to the correspondence, coherence, pragmatist and deflationary theories of truth.  If true, my own view of truth will probably only attract a certain type of person, only persons with theoretical commitments similar to mine.  My ideal however would be to provide a theory of truth, or more modestly a suggestion about how one ought to develop of theory of truth, which would work particularly well for our own time, for example in the way that Venturi’s theory of architecture worked for his own time.  But this is just to say that I hope my theory of truth meets my own standards of truth which, in turn, are, as I mentioned earlier, dependent on my theory of truth.   

My theory of truth (to use the simpler phrase) is pluralist.  My pluralism is of a special sort and should not be confused with relativism or with the idea that there are just distinct domains each with its own appropriate theory of truth.  As I see it, truth has three sides or aspects (I would consider candidates for a fourth or fifth side…I am not wedded to the number three).  These three sides are all in constant conflict with each other, each side receiving ascendency at different times in history in the process of reformulation to meet the needs of the place and time in which the theory is put forward.  My theory thus incorporates the essentially contested natured of the concept of truth, while at the same time being nothing more than just another offering in the contest over the nature of truth.  The conflict between these three sides is often fruitful, and I doubt that truth would be a lively or even a useful concept if this was not the case.  Nietzsche was the first, and perhaps the only philosopher, to define an essentially contested concept in terms of conflicting sides.  In The Birth of Tragedy he defined art in terms of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality.  Most definitions of concepts are in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions and I am not saying that Nietzsche’s definition of art could not be stated in this way.  But Nietzsche was unique in saying that the two key conditions of a concept are dynamically related to each other, that they can conflict, and that they can also be periodically reconciled.  He thought that the Apollonian and the Dionysian were reconciled in Greek tragedy and then again later in Wagnerian opera. Part of the reason why I think that viewing other essentially contested concepts in this way is that I believe Nietzsche’s approach was immensely useful in the domain of art.

So what are the three sides of truth?  The first has to do with one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth and that to which it is said to be truth.  This covers the correspondence theory of truth, which is often expressed in terms of the formula “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.  But my view of this aspect of truth goes a bit beyond the correspondence theory because it does not limit the candidate for truth to sentences.  No one doubts that it is often useful to speak of sentences as being true to the facts or of beliefs as corresponding to reality.  One could even state non-scientific, non-mathematical truths in terms of the traditional truth formula, i.e. “the sentence “Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality” is true if and only if Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality.”  However, as we shall see, this formula does not capture the other two aspects of truth.   As I said above, this aspect of truth is not limited to sentences.  It also includes any situation in which there is a good one-to-one fit or match between two things, for example when we say that we have “trued” the spokes on a bicycle.  This is the precision or accuracy aspect of truth.  When applied to representations such as sentences and pictures it entails that the true item must be an accurate copy of the original.  For example we can speak picture as being true to its subject in that it copies the subject well.  A portrait of someone can be spoken of as being true in this sense although often the truth of a portrait also reflects some other aspects of truth, as for example when it is not only accurate but also captures something of the sitter’s essence.  This would take it into the last aspect of truth.  But first, let us turn to the second aspect of truth.  

This second aspect might initially be thought to be associated with pragmatism.  But Peirce’s definition of truth in terms of  “concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief” would fit the first aspect of truth better.  Peirce was still working with a correspondence theory but he was at least heading in another direction by way of emphasizing process and future orientation.  I don’t like the phrase “pragmatist theory of truth” because it confuses Peirce’s and James’ theories.  The second aspect of truth is best expressed by James’ idea of truth which I see as a considerable advance of Peirce’s.  It is often not observed that James begins his discussion with the idea that truth is a matter of agreement.[2]  So he is not exactly disagreeing with the correspondence theory of truth, but he is taking the idea of agreement in a different direction.  In particular he rejects the idea that truth must be a matter of copying reality.  He also rejects the idea that truth is an inert, static relation. Rather, true ideas are ones that we can prove to be true, and their truth lies in the process of verification.  As he puts it, “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”  James understands this process as one of “agreeable leading” in which the ideas “remain in agreement.”  (In this he seems to have incorporated an aspect of the coherence theory of truth.)  For James, verification takes place in experience.  He also thought that one could not talk about truth without talking about the practical value of truth.  For example, when you are lost in the woods, thinking truly that there a house at the end of a path can be immensely important.  This would seem to some people to mean no more than that truths are useful.  But James believed that to say that something is useful because it is true means the same as to say it is true because it is useful.  Truth is a matter of experience, of going from one moment in experience to another that is more worthwhile.  A true thought is a leading that is worthwhile, a dipping into experience to make connections that are useful.  When we see the house at the end of the path the initial thought of the house is verified, made true.  This is what James meant when he said that truth is that which is good in the way of believing. 

James’ idea of truth seems consistent with the thought about truth that the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambatista Vico provided. Vico said that verum ipsum factum--"truth itself is constructed."  No one would deny that true sentences are constructed.  But the claim isn't that the bearer of truth is constructed.  Rather, truth itself is constructed.   I am not entirely happy with the construction metaphor.  It is not as though we take smaller elements, add them together, and get truth, a building-like entity.  But I do think there is some insight contained in the statement.  Truth wouldn't exist without the making activity of  intelligent beings.  This is also similar to Heidegger’s idea that truth is something that happens.  However, Heidegger’s idea enters more fully into the third aspect of truth. 

The third aspect of truth is the quality of heightened reality we experience when we believe we have captured the essence of something and the first two aspects have been or could be met.  It is exemplified in Venturi’s definition of architecture, but also in virtually any definition offered by a thinker in a philosophical contest over some essence or nature.  I think that Plato describes this aspect nicely, although in a tentative way, in his theory of truth as described in the section of The Republic traditionally called “the line.”  There, Plato describes the truth as something that comes from the sun, which in his story represents the Good, the very essence of the essences themselves.  In pursuit of the nature of the Good, which for Plato is the highest of the Forms, the true becomes manifest as a kind of light reveals the essences of things, what he considered to be the Forms.  As I my Socratic quest article, although I do not accept Plato’s Forms I do think that the Socratic search for essences is well worth the trouble and that trying to come up with definitions can be immensely fruitful, as in the case of Venturi’s definition.

This point may seem surprising to some, but I think that Plato and Heidegger totally agree on this point.  For Heidegger in his great essay The Origins of the Work of Art, Van Gogh’s painting lets truth emerge by revealing to us the equipmental nature of equipment, in this case a pair of shoes.  These shoes, it turns out, can only be understood existentially and phenomenologically in terms of the experience of the shoe-wearer in her interaction with her world and with the earth.  Heidegger’s idea that truth is unconcealment goes along with the notion that this aspect of truth is that in which the essential nature of a thing reveals itself in a vibrant and startling way. I would say that truth, when it happens deeply in this way, is emergent upon an activity, for example upon the activity of Van Gogh's painting, and then again, in a somewhat different way, upon the activity of Heidegger's interpretation of the painting, and then again, quite possibly in our interpretation of Heidegger.   Heidegger not only shows how art can be true but how a concept of truth limited to the accuracy aspect or even to the accuracy plus the pragmatic aspect would be incomplete.

Finally, I would argue that none of these aspects of truth are reducible to or replaceable by any of the others.  They are equally important sides to truth, what I call the sides of accuracy, usefulness, and radiance.  Moreover, only when truth has risen through these three stages that we get the final story about truth.  There is a ladder of truth just as there is a ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium, although unlike Plato I would not recommend discarding the first stage when we reach the last.  Accuracy could be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in radiance.  But so too, radiance (e.g. the experience of sudden insight) can only be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in accuracy.  Exclusive focus on one side of truth neglects its rich and full character and leads to difficulties, illusions and even sometimes to disaster.  For example if one were to just see truth in the last, Platonic/Heideggerian way without any attention to the accuracy or usefulness sides of truth then one might become immersed in harmful illusions as Plato and Heidegger themselves were when they pursued friendships with vicious dictators in the belief perhaps that good ends justify distasteful means.  To return to Nietzsche’s metaphor but in a different way I would say that truth combines and Apollonian and a Dionysian.  An overly mechanistic approach to truth that focuses on such concepts as accuracy, precision and correctly copying, fails in the same way that an overly Apollonian approach to art fails.  Truth also has a Dionysian side, a side that is entirely ignored when the truth about truth is summed up in a statement like “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.”  

Truth is a triune concept, all sides in constant, necessary, often fruitful, and often harmful conflict.  One side regards one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth (proposition, picture, etc.) and that to which it is said to be true. The second is best expressed by William James' idea that truth is that which is good in the way of believing.  The third is the quality of heightened reality we experience as when we believe we have captured the essence of something (e.g. conceptually or through art).  None of these is reducible to any of the others.

[1] Robert Venturi.  “Architecture as Decorated Shelter.”  Aesthetics:  A Reader in the Philosophy of the Arts.  2nd ed.  David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown eds.

[2]  William James.  “The Meaning of the word truth.”  Pragmatism:  The Classic Writings.  H. S. Thayer ed. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1982). 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Some unorthodox comments about pragmatism

I have generally been positively inclined to pragmatism and have even called myself a pragmatist from time to time.  But there are some things that bother me, in no particular order (but based at first on reading Richard J. Bernstein's The Pragmatic Turn).  The general theme is:  what happened to insightful vision?  I am wondering whether attacks on such things as pictures, representations, and so forth, haven't gone too far.

According to James, Peirce says "The soul and meaning of thought...can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief..."  Well, of course, this depends on what you mean by "thought" and "belief."  In a fairly ordinary sense it seems to me I have all sorts of thoughts (ideas, notions, things that "enter my head," representations, images) that are not directed towards some endpoint of things held true.

OK.  So this leads me to the actual passage in Peirce:  "We may add that just as a piece of music may be written in parts, each part having its own air, so various systems of relationship of succession subsist together between the same sensations. These different systems are distinguished by having different motives, ideas, or functions. Thought is only one such system, for its sole motive, idea, and function is to produce belief, and whatever does not concern that purpose belongs to some other system of relations. The action of thinking may incidentally have other results; it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought. But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief. Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself."

The argument is circular.  If it is not leading to fixed belief then it is not thought even though it was previously called thought.  It belongs, as he puts it, to another system with "different motives, ideas and functions."  In particular it could have been something that was thought but was " the purposes of pleasure" and which themselves, apparently, never "get finally settled."  So, on his view, it is only "thought" as he specially defines it if it is in the "gets finally settled" mode.  He isn't really talking about the other things we call thought.  Or if he is, he thinks they are "perverted" and he is saving the honorific (for him) term "thought" for the stuff that leads to fixed beliefs.  No reason is given for why using thought to produce pleasure rather than the fixation of belief is a perversion of anything.  Clearly in thinking about those who would be vexed by the thought that the matter of their concern might finally be settled he is thinking about the perennial questions of philosophy, although it might not so much vex those people as lead them to think "oh well, then this is a matter of science, not of philosophy." And yet Peirce may see this as being vexed in some way, or he might misunderstand the real source of their vexation which is, to be brief, that they don't buy into the idea that this arena is now the province of science (as for example when neuroscientists think they have wrapped up the nature of the mind, way too prematurely...)  What Peirce speaks of as the "debauchery of thought" is just a Dionysian approach to thought which is not to his scientistic taste.  I just do not see why "thought in action" has to be directed to "thought at rest."  So what is Peirce doing?  Like all philosophers he is arranging his own thoughts about abstract concepts and the way things go with respect to the humanities and the sciences in a way that pleases him, privileging one sort of activity over another.  This is just bully and bluster, and of course it leads some philosophers who take it seriously to downgrade aesthetic experience in the realm of thought and interpretation...all the greater pity.

"Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."  It depends on what you mean by "practical."  If "practical" is limited to what people commonly consider to be practical then there is a serious problem here.  If practical really just means "effects" and the effects may be not very practical at all in the eyes of many, for example the production of a great painting, then the claim is more plausible.  It is certainly a good idea to include within our conception of an object, particularly an abstract object of philosophical inquiry, for instance "art," our "conception of the effects" of art, for example, although normally we would distinguish between the effects we can conceive art as having and the effects that art actually has, and between that and the effects we think that art should have, i.e. our conception of its function.  But what about our conception of the relations between that object and a host of other things, for example the relations between art and knowledge or between art and religion.  Does it clarify things much to say that this is only understandable in terms of possible or conceivable or actual or proper effects?

After recently rereading Descartes Meditations and teaching it I found myself wondering what the point of Descartes really is.  Now, on reading Peirce again, who is so much opposed to Descartes, I find myself wondering about Peirce.  He writes "a  belief that the ultimate test of certainty is found in individual consciousness, rather than by relying on the testimony of sages" is a Cartesian assumption that is problematic.  Sure, but how about the idea that a feeling of certainty (which is attended by something like the phrase "aha...this must be this") is necessarily attached to a new idea (a personal vision) and that this is the basis (whether individual or cultural does not matter) for future creative work.  That's a possible way of translating Descartes into something more plausible, and it also shows a neglect by pragmatists of that aspect of thinking.  

Peirce writes:  "We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived from hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts" and "We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognition."  Sure, but how about this:  we have a power (not incorrigible) to intuit patterns in our experienced world which is not derived from hypothetical reasoning based on knowledge of facts, although such reasoning and such knowledge usually play important roles in crating that intuition. This intuition is a personal vision that collects and organizes the data, both facts and values, and projects into the future.  

He also says "we have no power of thinking without signs" and yet we do have the power to think, and thinking is usually a matter of getting some sign-less hunch, perhaps associated with a sign, into propositional form.  Peirce seems to be getting only one side of the creative process in thinking. 


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Joseph Margolis Reinventing Pragmatism

Joseph Margolis is one of my favorite philosophers.  He has certainly done a lot of important work in aesthetics.  This blog post however will be on his book Reinventing Pragmatism:  American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca:  Cornell, 2002) where he basically says little about aesthetics or art.  This is not a book I recommend for beginners.  It largely consists in a debate between Margolis and various contemporaries concerning the possible uses of pragmatism.  It is extremely dense.  I found myself trying to keep a tally of the things which Margolis seems to believe just to keep straight what he is saying apart from his various arguments against his fellow philosophers.

Naturalism is good.  
Naturalizing is not.  (I take it that naturalizing is a naturalism committed to Cartesian assumptions...see below).
Pragmatism is good but needs to be interpreted in a different way than Putnam's or Rorty's (i.e. by incorporating relativism and historicism)
Pragmatism can be associated with a good form of realism.
Historicism is good.
Cartesianism is bad. Descartes' "realism requires a radical disjunction between cognizing subjects and cognized world and pretends to reclaim an objective and neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from out inquiries, a world uncontaminated by the doubtful beliefs and appearances that occupy us in the process" (13)  He further explains Cartesian realism as "correspondentist in some criterially explicit regard, favors cognitive faculties reliably (even essentially) qualified to discern the actual features and structures of independent reality, is context-free and ahistorical, strongly separates human cognizers and cognized world, and is committed to one ideally valid description of the real world."  (38)  
Cognitive privilege is bad.
Constructivist realism is good.
Postmodernism is bad, particularly Rorty's version
Relativism can be coherently formulated, and as such is good.

Granted, Margolis has some style quirks that may be irritating to some: he often seems overconfident in his claims to have refuted opponents (something that seems somewhat inconsistent with his advocacy of relativism.) He plays a very aggressive game. Also, although he often complains that his opponents have no arguments for their positions, I often find Margolis's jumps from final premise to conclusion surprising, if not breathtaking. A few more intervening premises might have been helpful. Complaints aside, the overall scope and vision of Margolis is both impressive and convincing. And one gets a sense of some in reading this book of the battles within contemporary philosophy, battles that not only occur between such current thinkers as Rorty and Putnam, but also that extend back to such thinkers as Parmenides, Protagoras and Plato. As mentioned the bete noire of the book is Descartes, or more specifically Cartesianism (on Margolis's view, Kant was a Cartesian too). He sees most of his opponents as accepting some such position. His heroes on a grand scale are Hegel (or what he often refers to as post-Kantianism) and Dewey. Rorty is attacked for his advocacy of Postmodernism. He also has some critical things to say about such thinkers as Davidson, Brandom, Devitt, McDowell and Quine.

So what does Margolis believe? As we have seen, he likes to talk in terms of isms. But in each case you need to understand that the ism he advocates is understood in his own way. He clearly favors pragmatism (mainly of the Deweyan sort), historicism (here he usually refers to Hegel), flux (the idea that there are no necessities or demonstrable invariances), holism, relativism (of a moderate sort in the sense that it may serve a useful function in some sectors), naturalism (but not the naturalizing move of much analytic philosophy), constructivism, realism of the constructivist sort, and symbiosis of the subjective and objective. He rejects the idea that there is any "neutral grasp of the way the world is apart from our inquiries." (13) He also rejects necessities de re and de cogitatione and even the necessity of bivalent logic, although a "relativistic logci" could be compatible with the use of bivalence. He also has it in for extensionalist logic. As a strong follower of Dewey, he sees knowledge as a matter of the interaction of the live creature and its surrounding environment. In sum "there cannot be any uniquely correct catalogue of 'what there is' in the way of entities or essential attributes."

Why is it that Margolis holds such an outlier position in advocating a relativist and constructivist version of pragmatism vs. both Putnam and Rorty? It is because, as a philosopher of art as well, he does not limit himself to a small set of examples from the sciences in developing his overall philosophical perspective. For Margolis, judgments that would be seen as logically incompatible need not be judged as such: "interpretations of artworks ...that could not (bivalently) be jointly true of the same referent may, on a suitable many value logic, be jointly valid" although still logically "incongruent" in not being able to be incorporated into a single valid interpretation.

My only real objection to Margolis is that he fails to see the role that such things as essences, relativized and historicized, play in our actual experience.  There are essences even though they are, to use Margolis's own language, "provisional, perspectived, 'interested,' 'instrumental'...fluxive, constructed..."  (117)  These are objects of intuition closely tied to world as we experience it.  And they have what Aristotle referred to as potency or potentiality.  Essences are not just concepts but ways of seeing that are also ways of being.  They are attached to concepts.  They are also deeply aesthetic in nature:  they have aura.  Essences draw from the past and point to the future.  Moreover, essences are metaphorical in nature:  they involve a violation of conceptual order.  They are the objects of creative insight.  From the Spinozistic perspective, they are the spiritual aspect of the world, the other aspect of which is the material.  Essences are in a sense fictions, but fiction plays a real role in human experience.  The doctrine of flux is false if it means that there are no invariences, no necessities within experience.  I agree with Margolis that we cannot demonstrate modal invariences or necessities, but we can experience such things in a fictional way...and moreover, these experiences, and these things, are essential to what it is to be human.  There are invariences, necessities, a priori, the transcendental, if all of these are placed under quote marks:  a world of fiction that still plays a role in our lives.  The whole idea of pragmatism, that truth and meaning is best seen when looking at consequences, fits well with this.