Thursday, January 10, 2008

Whither philosophy?

In a comment yesterday, I asserted
A (good) philosopher is interested in how we can better use language.

That's at least how I conceive philosophy. If you have a different view of philosophy, good for you. But don't complain that I'm doing philosophy "wrong" because it doesn't conform to your views or even the views of the entire academic philosophical community, of which I am not, nor will I ever be a member.
This is obviously an outrageous comment, and deserves explanation.

"It's all very clever, Larry," a critic might say, "but is it philosophy?" It might not be good philosophy — each reader will have to judge the quality independently — but I say it is philosophy.

Now, if the entire academic scientific community said I was doing science wrong, I would at least take such criticism seriously. Scientists get to strongly "brand" their work for a number of reasons. Science means something, a meaning discernible independently of what scientists say: the definition of science is affirmed, not established, by the opinion of scientists. The definition of science is very specific. The definition of science is entirely methodological; there are no conclusions established as scientific by definition. (Of course, no small few conclusions are well-established by scientific methodology, but that's a horse of a different color.) And we must credit science and scientists (along with a lot of other people) for building our modern technological society. That value buys them quite a lot of confidence.

Philosophy, on the other hand, is all over the place: Spinoza to Derrida, Nietzsche to Hegel, Hume to Kierkegaard. Many works of pure fiction seem to have substantial philosophical content. Philosophy might be able to exclude My Little Pony, but little else.

Philosophy is resistant to any explicit definition: If philosophy is defined to be thus-and-such, then whether that definition is correct (or even meaningful) becomes an obvious topic for philosophical inquiry.

To the extent that there is are informal methodological criteria for philosophy, I assert I'm meeting those criteria: I'm considering the "big" questions: What is knowledge? What is good? What is true? I employ actual logic, and I pay attention to criticism of how well I do so. And I can hardly be faulted for appealing to intuition. I'm a terrible philosophologer — I'm not nearly as intimately familiar with the philosophical canon as someone with a PhD in philosophy — but neither am I entirely ignorant of prior work. And the philosophical canon is chock full of works that have little or no philosophological content.

Those who seem most keen on simply dismissing my work as unphilosophical seem to do so to protect particular conclusions, most recently my rejection of "justified true belief" as a definition of knowledge: asserting it is "irrelevant" (i.e. unphilosophical) that I find this definition fatally unclear. Dismissing a work on the basis of its conclusions, though, just establishes dogma; as an atheist, I object to dogma in any form, theological or philosophical.

Philosophy is fundamentally a pluralistic endeavor. I consider the objection, made explicitly or implicitly, that I'm not doing philosophy to be a non-starter.

25 comments:

  1. I'm a bit against the clock here so this will have to be brief. I wasn't saying that what you were doing wasn't philosophy; only that you had missed the point of some other stuff which is also philosophy. And whatever you want to call it, missing the point generally isn't good anything.

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  2. Philosophy is a broad enough discipline that any work of philosophy will "miss the point" of some other branch.

    Doesn't seem like much of a criticism.

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  3. No, that isn't true. If, when you criticise what someone else is doing, you simply misunderstand it, your criticism will probably not have any value. Compare: the world is a big place, and maps of different regions clearly don't have to resemble one another. What you are doing amounts to this: disparaging one map on the grounds that it doesn't resemble yours, and then, on being told this is a fatuous basis for criticism, saying, "Well, so what? The world's a big place. How do you know my map isn't right?" And you can call this approach philosophy if you insist; I still don't think it's worth much.

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  4. Why is your perspective privileged? Your criticism seems to apply more to itself than my original work. I said that the JTB definition, as a definition, was bad. You dismiss this criticism as "irrelevant".

    You have not actually shown that I've misunderstood anything. You've merely asserted that I'm full of shit and that my work is without value because it doesn't match your, and you haven't even shown that your map is a map of anything.

    You're doing nothing but defending philosophical dogma.

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  5. Do you have a clearer definition of "knowledge"? One which doesn't simply take the word and apply it to something else that's easier to define but which patently isn't knowledge? If you do, better keep it under your hat. Boyoboy, you're going to be rich.

    No one denies that a scientific, operational definition of the word would be a fine and interesting thing to have. But we don't have one. On the other hand, it turns out that people actually do have fairly robust and consistent intuitions about what follows from a true knowledge statement. If such-and-such a person knows P, it means that the person believes P to be the case, that P is the case, and that the person aquired the belief by epistemically reputable means - for instance, methods which usually gives rise to true beliefs. And yes, it's true that there are expressions here which are left unexplained. But philosophers are looking into that, too. The interesting thing is, most people who hear this little spiel about JTB tend to think it makes intuitive sense - that it captures something about what they take it to mean when they hear that someone knows P. They don't generally find it to be vacuous. So it looks like it actually is possible to say fairly definite things about the meaning of "knowledge", even if we can't really fully define it.

    Now, the Gettier problem is interesting, partly because of how long JTB had been taken for granted as a definition without anyone noticing the crack. What Gettier cases mean for JTB is this: it doesn't work as a logical analysis of knowledge; in effect, it isn't an adequate definition (and, mark you, philosophers have known and accepted this since, like, 1963; you're kind of flogging a dead sacred cow in that Emperor's-new clothes-speech of yours, if you follow me).

    It turns out that Gettier is really just part of a more general trend. There don't seem to be any convincing analyses of the sort that analytic philosophy was supposed to find. Which is sort of intesting when you think about it, because for a long time lots of really clever people really thought there would be. And since they were just supposed to be describing the language thay all spoke anyway, it's weird that they should have got it so wrong. Language, it seems, can mislead you even when you know it pretty well. Interesting? I think so. I suppose you think this is all just timewasting bullshit. Well, chacun a son gout.

    Onto your progamme. You prefer clarity to correctness. I sympathise. Thing is, the least clear thing you could do is to invent new definitions for words which everybody else already understands and uses every day. That's just a recipe for confusion and annoyance. If you do happen to have some crystal-clear operational concept up your sleeve which you think might be useful for epistemology - or anything else, for that matter - truly, I am all ears. However, I'd urge you not to call it "knowledge" - unless, you know, it really is knowledge. Otherwise all that clarity will just go to waste. I'm sure neither of us would want that.

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  6. One other thought. There are different kinds of definitions. There are the sort you get in maths or in legal documents, and there are the sort you get in the OED. Obviously, the OED ones aren't as clear as the legal ones, and don't preserve truth through substitution in the same natty way. But that isn't a good reason to throw out the OED, any more than we should give up carpentry because it's less exact than computer programming. Different standards of adequacy apply in different domains; and so it is possible to hold a definition up to an irrelevant benchmark.

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  7. Lake:

    Do you have a clearer definition of "knowledge"?

    What if I don't? The first step to solving a problem is to identify the problem.

    One which doesn't simply take the word and apply it to something else that's easier to define but which patently isn't knowledge?

    Without a clear definition, how would we know it patently isn't knowledge? I'm not a complete dumbass; I'm not going to talk about music and call it knowledge.

    On the other hand, it turns out that people actually do have fairly robust and consistent intuitions about what follows from a true knowledge statement.

    Do they? I'm not sure this is the case? I've read a lot of verbiage on "knowledge", and people's intuitions don't seem at all robust or consistent.

    Everyone has a lot of fun making up Gettier cases, though.

    The interesting thing is, most people who hear this little spiel about JTB tend to think it makes intuitive sense - that it captures something about what they take it to mean when they hear that someone knows P

    First of all, you're going to lose most people when you talk about what it means that "someone knows P". That's pure philosophy jargon. You are at best talking about most people with an interest in philosophy: In short, people who have been indoctrinated with philosophical dogma.

    Again, you're not defending the definition itself. You're using a pure argument from popularity: Most philosophers have been quite happy with JTB for many years, therefore it must have something going for it.

    But that's poor evidence: Positional notation in arithmetic went unnoticed for a millennium, escaping even the attention of geniuses.

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  8. You prefer clarity to correctness.

    You continue to maliciously or incompetently misstate my position, which I have taken pains to clarify: Without clarity, there can be no correctness.

    Since you cannot actually be bothered to critique my actual position, your participation is no longer welcome here.

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  9. I once listened to philosopher Colin McGinn, a founder of the "Mysterian School" of philosophy, then at Rutgers University, try to explain "justified true belief" for an hour. It made no more sense after than it did before. Much like the "is/ought" thing, I've sought explanation after explanation and it still doesn't make any sense to me. I'd say that it's hardly intuitive, since I'm generally considered a fairly bright guy.

    That said, I actually found this statement of Lake's to be pretty clear: "If such-and-such a person knows P, it means that the person believes P to be the case, that P is the case, and that the person aquired the belief by epistemically reputable means - for instance, methods which usually gives rise to true beliefs."

    It seems to me that philosophy is about 75% semantics, and that semantics is about 99% linguistic prestidigitation. So I don't actually hold much hope for lucidity. I think that's where Barefoot Bum's search for clarity is valuable. The problem is, first we need to establish an framework wherein everyone agrees on the language being used, and that's never going to happen.

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  10. Though, come to think of it, isn't the problem with JTB right there, in "P is the case"? It seems related to the "brain in a vat" problem: What about a schizophrenic, who knows that P is the case, utterly believes it to be so, and has arrived at it using all the methodology any other person would use. In his case, his knowledge isn't verified by other people, but is the result of the proper use of his faculties and sensory experience.

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  11. As a lay student of science and mathematics, I'm very suspicious of the what appears both correct and obviously correct. It's often right for the wrong reasons, especially if the intuition is complicated.

    It seems, for instance, obviously correct that the Earth does not move, and the stars and planets move around it.

    Some commenters seem to have missed the point: I consider neither justification nor truth (nor even belief) to be irrelevant or fundamentally incorrect with regard to knowledge. But these components of the canonical definition don't seem obviously clear, they're not irreducible, therefore they strongly resemble informal conclusions.

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  12. congratulations. you've written an essay that would be entirely appropriate for an introductory course in philosophy: derivative, reductionistic, and arrogant.

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  13. Sorry, your position - that "Without clarity, there can be no correctness" - is also false. We know tonnes of stuff without knowing how we know it. For instance, one needn't be able to state the rules of English grammar in order to speak English grammatically or spot errors. One doesn't need an operational definition of anything to ride a bike. Conversely, one could know the physics of cycling perfectly well and still fall off.

    Taking your principle, quoted above, at face value, one would presumably have to hold that "knowledge" doesn't mean anything, since it can't be defined to your satisfaction. Consequently, and pending a proper, scientific definition, any use of the word must be as good as any other with respect to its communicative power. But this obviously isn't so. If you start talking about a person who knows something false, your listeners will have a devil of a job working out what you're on about. Other ways of using the word don't have this problem, at least to the same degree.

    You have clearly taken against me. I am sorry about this, since I have found this discussion to be both fairly interesting and fairly enjoyable. But of course, if you do choose to delete this comment, I will regretfully take my leave.

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  14. Lake:

    I'm torn about how best to respond. On the one hand, you make an actual argument; not a particularly good argument, but an argument nonetheless.

    On the other hand, you're correct: I have taken against you. You've shown at least twice that you're willing to egregiously misstate my position, so I think it's not particularly productive to respond to your criticism.

    I will say this: There is considerable popular and philosophical controversy about whether we do in fact know anything. Many Christian theists would assert that we do know things about God, a matter of considerable controversy in atheist circles. Likewise, scientists assert we know things about evolution, itself a matter of no small controversy. And the Ancient Greek Skeptics would assert that we really don't know anything at all.

    Many modern philosophers not only question whether science really is knowledge, but come right out and say that science is just an arbitrary social construction, no less fictitious than any other literary genre.

    I will leave the rebuttal of your rather inept and perverse arguments to my readers, with the hint that there was no such thing as a spelling error in English until "correct" spelling was arbitrarily fixed by dictionaries.

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  15. So, by extension, there was no difference between intelligible and unintelligible English utterances until English grammar was codified?

    As a side note, I think this discussion would be much more profitable for all concerned if you could stop squaring up to me and generally chomping the scenery. There was no malice in my presentation of your position. I argued against the claim that clarity is essential to correctness the first time you made it, and again the second. In view of the fact that anyone who cares to can check back over the entire conversation any time they want, I find it bizarre that you are implying something different.

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  16. I think this discussion would be much more profitable for all concerned if you could stop squaring up to me and generally chomping the scenery. There was no malice in my presentation of your position.

    And yet you said twice that I cared more about clarity than correctness, an egregious misrepresentation of my position. I care just as much for correctness as clarity.

    Was this characterization malicious? I don't know. I don't much care. Discussions cannot proceed without a certain degree of ordinary charity and good faith. Whether good faith is violated by malice or stupidity, it is still violated, rendering further discussion unproductive.

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  17. Furthermore, Lake, your arguments are either intentionally perverse or utterly inept and stupid; I really don't see much value in offering a detailed rebuttal.

    For instance:

    So, by extension, there was no difference between intelligible and unintelligible English utterances until English grammar was codified?

    This assumes that ungrammatical sentences are unintelligible, an enthymeme so trivially and obviously false it is difficult to imagine a person able to operate a computer is capable of assuming it without intentional perversity.

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  18. What? Why would stupidity without malice be a violation of good faith?

    Actually, I'm not interested. It will be perfectly obvious to anyone following this discussion that you're on the run, seeing how you've resorted to nonsensical flourishes and character attacks in the face of quite patient objections. It would be unseemly to prolong this. But what amazes me is how personally you appear to take it; how twitchy and defensive, almost paranoid, you seem. I hope this isn't an accurate reflection of your state of mind. It doesn't look fun.

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  19. It would be unseemly to prolong this.

    Agreed.

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  20. How weird. You keep saying you won't, then you do.

    Obviously, some sentences are only slightly ungrammatical, so that one can reconstruct the speaker's intention with a fair degree of confidence. (Hey, check it out! The idea of reconstruction is a normative one, implying a standard of correctness.) And of course, from more extremely ungrammatical expressions, no sense can be made. But taking your position seriously, one couldn't draw distinctions between these various kinds of utterance unless someone had written a grammar book. Or does this absurd consequence not follow from your position? Try, if you can, to answer without the belligerent histrionics.

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  21. Barefoot,

    I think you are being a little harsh on Lake. Stating that his arguments are as you put it "rather inept and perverse" seems a little too much. I suspect misunderstanding was the worst of his crimes.

    On a side note, you may be guilty of missrepresting one of lakes points also. He suggest that someone not schooled in grammer rules could spot bad grammer. He never mentioned spelling errors. I'm sure there was no malicious intent on you part and that the misrepresentation was not intentional.

    The main reason for this post is that I can't really understand why you took such a fierce dislike to Lake. If someone saw an obvious flaw in a responce of yours to which you had not given a great amount of thought, I'm sure you would not be best pleased if they acused you of perversity on that basis. I think what Lake was suggesting with this

    "So, by extension, there was no difference between intelligible and unintelligible English utterances until English grammar was codified?"

    was fairly obvious (given a little charity and good faith - which you yourself state is required.) It is no doubt an exageration. Perhaps a better way of stating the point would have been

    "Was it impossible for someone not versed in grammer rules to spot unusal english sentence structure before grammer rules were codified"

    The implication being that grammer rules were originally defined by general usage. Defined from existing 'knowledge'?

    On the general topic of Epistemology (probably spelled wrong) I like (plato's I think) definition that Knowledge is the intersection between what is Known and what is true. This seems fairly clear and intutitive to me.

    I am a complete amatuer (as I'm sure you've guessed). I don't imagine my arguments to be particularly good. I am just starting out thought, so I'm ok with that. Feel free to give me both barrels. It's not always pleasent but it's a hell of a way to learn.

    All the Best.

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  22. First-timer: Perhaps I am too harsh. The guy rubs me the wrong way. So it goes.

    Let me note that your restatement of Lake's question goes far beyond a charitable interpretation: You inject actual sense into the question.

    "Was it impossible for someone not versed in grammer rules to spot unusal english sentence structure before grammer rules were codified"

    Sure. Like I said earlier, this sort of fuzzy intuitive groping is useful as a preliminary. But a true, detailed understanding of grammar couldn't occur until we constructed clear, unambiguous definitions of words like "noun", "verb", "adverb", etc.

    The notion of defining knowledge as "justified true belief" is akin to defining "intelligible" as "grammatically correct" and calling that a theory of semantics (meaning). I'm not saying that grammar is irrelevant to intelligibility or even meaning — the relationship between grammar and meaning is quite deep.

    It's just that as a definition it leaves much to be desired. There are intelligible sentences that aren't grammatical, and there are grammatical sentences that aren't intelligible.

    A similar example might be to define the word "ellipse" as "like the Earth's orbit around the sun." To object to that definition as a definition is not in any way to say that the Earth's orbit is not (at least mostly) elliptical, that the definition isn't (mostly) correct, it's just saying that a clearer definition (a locus or formula) is clearer and more useful.

    Note too that if we're committed to the notion that the Earth's orbit is elliptical, the clearer definition "sacrifices" some degree of "correctness": The Earth's orbit is not precisely elliptical in the mathematical sense, and we would like to talk about other shapes with the same mathematical definition that don't resemble the Earth's orbit at all.

    We haven't really sacrificed correctness, we've sacrificed only the literal obviousness of our beliefs about the Earth's orbit: We've moved the correctness to the definition of "ellipse".

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  23. And please note, the idea of the "literal obviousness" about the elliptical nature of the Earth's orbit is entirely artificial. I'm well aware of the history of solar-system astronomy and astrophysical theory.

    This is precisely the sort of niggling side-issue that some people like to pounce on.

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  24. First-timer1/14/08, 3:06 AM

    Barefoot,

    Thanks for the response. Some interesting points. I'll have to give them some thought.

    On an aside, I have been long frustrated by unsatisfactory definitions. There may be something to the idea that language itself has its limits but it feels sometimes like the definitions are just a little lazy. Such definitions are definately worth harassing.

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  25. There may be something to the idea that language itself has its limits but it feels sometimes like the definitions are just a little lazy.

    The idea that language is the limit of thought is a much subtler concept than many imagine. Natural languages are Turing-complete; we can describe any recursively enumerable set and compute any computable algorithm. The only difference between natural languages and artificial languages such as mathematics is that artificial languages are more precise, and natural languages handle jumping between levels and meta-levels compactly.

    I suspect that some people see the limitations of language as well-defined arbitrary walls which can be scaled by mysticism or some sort of "transcendental" ideation. But language is thought; so far as we've been able to tell, no form of thought escapes language. Thus we can just as easily say that thought is the limit of thought. Well duh.

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