Wednesday, June 1, 2016

De Sousa on two stances in philosophy

I have been reading The Philosophy of Poetry edited by John Gibson (Oxford, 2015).  Sometimes it is not the main point of an article that gets one thinking but something said almost as an aside. In "The Dense and the Transparent" Ronald de Sousa says that how reasonable it is to assume that philosophy must do things in language depends on one's stance on a "bifurcation in philosophy."  "On the one hand, the philosophical tradition has been associated with wisdom, and with the pursuit of insight into the nature of the human condition.  On the other hand, it has been associated with a method which puts argument at the centre of its pursuit of truth.  In this patter perspective, the central enterprise is the pursuit of truth, and philosophical truth is pretty much defined as what can be made, from raw material of experience, by reason and argument. We can't argue without language.  Philosophy remains essentially tied to language, at least in its 'analytic' incarnation."  (41)  Well, how much of this is true? Can't we have both, for example by eliminating certain features?   I would favor both wisdom and truth but not the view that philosophy is essentially tied to language if that means always or necessarily.  I get the feeling that de Sousa favors the analytic incarnation described but wishes to take the other version seriously.  I would reverse that myself, and in this I would be following Plato.  Sure, argument is at the center of philosophy, but argument only helps one move up "the line," get out of the cave, and up the ladder of love.  But this is only half the story of philosophy.  The point of philosophy for Plato, and I suppose for me in this instance, is in grasping the essences, and particularly in grasping Beauty itself which he also describes as the Good itself.  One uses arguments to refute hypotheses, but each of these refutations is just another step up the ladder.  Grasping Beauty or the Good itself is enlightenment:  this is a matter of having a method for grasping essence and for seeing the good or beauty in things, even in very particular things.  (Philosophical insight often involves argument as part of the process, often this argument taking the form of multiple arguments in back and forth debate, but then it can also come from repeated observation and inductive form of philosophy.)  Grasping essences intuitively is not a matter of argument (or is only so to the extent that the articulation and actualization of the grasping takes the form of writing in which reasons are given).  Argument is only a preliminary or ancillary to moral and aesthetic taste, taste with respect to the good, i.e. that which is valuable, or the value-dimension of existence.  This is what Plato means, or should mean, when he says that truth and being emanate from the Good much like light and nourishment emanating from the sun.  To put this in a different way, the business of philosophy is to arrive at powerful metaphors of the sort that Morris Weitz in his discussion of the role of theory in aesthetics called honorific definitions, which themselves are ways of understanding, not "real definitions."  These live metaphors manifest the capacity, at that moment, to perceive things in their essential nature (as this evolves), but they are not, and this is the great mistake even of some Platonists, to be considered eternal and unchangingly correct definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  Unfortunately, Plato himself appears to have lost this insight when he came, in the Sophist, to see the path downwards in terms of mere categorization and sub-categorization.  He was seduced by his Pythagorean friends and lost sight of the pragmatism contained in the idea that only the user of a bridle (thus, not the god) knows its essential nature.  The great thing about the philosopher king/queen is that he/she, once she gets the hang of the world of the cave upon return, will be able to discern not the details of the shadows themselves, but their inner nature, the extent to which they participate in the good/beautiful. Since taste (the capacity to perceive beauty in particulars) is the dominant mode of the philosopher king/queen and taste has to do with particulars not universals (once the Good or Beauty itself is grasped, the Forms are only hypotheses which may be discarded or seen as merely heuristic ideals) the mature philosopher King-Queen is more like a poet than like an analytic philosopher, i.e. with regards to his/her approach to language and truth.  It is also ironic and interesting that whereas transparency may be a virtue in the upward path, it is density of language and experience that plays the predominant role in the downward path.  But de Sousa talks about clarity as though it were solely the domain of analytic philosophy with its high regard for the forms of formal logic and definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  There are other kinds of clarity:  the clarity of choosing exactly the right word for the context, for example, but then this is a clarity more evidence in poetry.  Also, formal logic is based on modus ponens which itself begs the question in a formal way since the whole idea of validity is to make a nice neat transition from A (the reason) to B (the thing supported) by way of introducing an intervening premise, if A then B, except that you cannot support the move from A to B just by repeating it!  We give reasons in support of conclusions and if others accept them it is not because of artificial question-begging intervening premises previously accept but because we just think A is sufficient reason for B.  But as de Sousa himself observes in the same article people are seldom convinced of anything by arguments, i.e. by being presented with a valid deductive argument for the touted conclusion (except in mathematics, I suppose.) --- nor should they be.  Arguments in this sense of the word "argument" are just window dressing, or at best, moves in the language game of back and forth argument, a much more complex and interesting human activity.   

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