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.


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