Via Adolfo Neto on G+, I came across an interesting blog post, ‘Richard Feynman on the folly of crafting precise definitions’. Feynman is known not only for having been a brilliant physicist (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965), but also for his outspoken personality (see here for a collection of his memorable quotes). He was a keen popularizer of physics, but often expressed harsh opinions on other fields of inquiry, the humanities in particular. Indeed, the quote that is the starting point for the post on precise definitions just mentioned does not paint a very favorable picture of philosophers:
We can't define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers… one saying to the other: “you don't know what you are talking about!”. The second one says: “what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?”
It is harsh, but I’m afraid it is not entirely unfair. The Socratic method of questioning the exact meaning of concepts is of course at the heart of philosophy from the very start, and there is much to be commended about realizing that we often do not know exactly what we 'mean' with the terms and concepts we regularly employ.
Yet, Feynman’s quote resonates with a worry I’ve had for a long time concerning the methodology of analytic philosophy: the excessive focus on providing necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as A. (Naturally, Wittgenstein had similar worries much before me.) In schematic form, we could say that philosophers seek precisifications of the following schema:
x is A <=> x is B, C, D …
where A is the concept to be analyzed in terms of (presumably) simpler concepts B, C, D... A paradigmatic case is the definition of the concept of knowledge as true justified belief. Now, one of the problems with this methodology is that it opens the door to a cottage industry of counter-examples, one more far-fetched than the other (Gettier cases, Barn facades… For the real guide, see here), which either satisfy the definiens but not the definiendum, or the other way round. Now, what bothers me most about this approach is that it forces us to focus almost entirely on borderline, atypical cases of something counting as A or satisfying properties B, C, D…; but if the goal is to attain a better knowledge of property A, looking at the borders rather than at the core does not strike me as the most suitable approach. (This observation is corroborated by psychological studies on categorization, suggesting that we categorize mostly taking something to be a prototypical example of A, and then moving on from that – what is known as ‘prototype theory’.) In fact, I have very general reservations regarding Kantian obsessions with borders and demarcations in analytic philosophy; it does seem to entail a certain degree of the 'paralysis of thought' described by Feynman.
In the context of our frequent musings on the analytic/continental divide in this blog, and in particular concerning methodology, I was wondering to what extent Feynman’s description above also applies to continental philosophers in general. I’m inclined to think that it does, but in a very different way; while analytic philosophers seek the holy grail of necessary and sufficient conditions (sharp borders), continental philosophers typically engage in enterprises of genealogy and deconstruction. (I’m fully aware that this is an over-simplification of things.) Would these be two interpretations of a common source, namely the Socratic method of questions and answers?
As for Feynman, while he may not have thought much of us philosophers, the famous anecdote which opens Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind is perhaps one of the best illustrations of the idea of extended cognition ever formulated. So perhaps unbeknownst to Feynman, there was a little philosopher (of mind) living inside him after all. (This is a reference to a joke that circulates all over South America: “Do you know what the ego is? It’s the little Argentinean who lives inside you.”)