“No variation of things arises from blind metaphysical necessity, which must be the same always and everywhere.” [A cæca necessitate metaphysica, quæ utique eadem est semper & ubique, nulla oritur rerum variatio.]--Isaac Newton, General Scholium (1713), Principia.
This week we're celebrating three hundred years since Newton published the General Scholium, attached to the second edition of the Principia. The passage above was only inserted in the final (1726), third edition. The argument of the sentence seems to be something like this:
A1: (Metaphysical) Necessity <--> Homogeneity
A2: Homogeneity and Variety are disjunctive alternatives (suppressed premise)
P: We observe variety
Therefore, no metaphysical necessity
From textual context it is very clear that Newton wants to defend the legitimacy of final causes. In particular, in circles around Newton it was common to refer to Spinoza as having defended the system of “Blind and Unintelligent Necessity” (S. Clarke (1705) Demonstration, 12.102); or “A Blind and Eternal Fatality” (S. Clarke, Demonstration, Intro.8);
or "blind mechanical necessity” (H. More, Confutation of Spinoza, 91). In fact, More refers to Spinoza as that “completely blind and stupid philosophaster” (H. More, 91; recall!) So, because Spinoza's denies final causes, the necessity he defends is unguided and undirected, that is, "blind." In the quoted passage above, Newton is, thus, offering an empirical argument against a metaphysical thesis: observed variety is not compatible with Spinoza's proposed system of nature. Moreover, the General Scholium argues more generally that we do not just observe variety, we observe quite determinate and peculiar variety (of the sort that leads Newton to offer his famous argument to a designer).
A naturall foole that could never learn by heart the
order of numerall words, as One, Two, and Three, may observe every stroak
of the Clock, and nod to it, or say one, one, one; but can never know what
houre it strikes...Nor is
it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise,
or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs)
excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon
by them: but they are the mony of fooles...one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth Feare; and one Cruelty,
what another Justice; one Prodigality, what another Magnanimity...such names can
never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and
Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their
inconstancy; which the other do not.--Leviathan, 1.4
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.--Wallace Stevens.
Despite the helpful reminder of 3AM Magazine, we at NewAPPS failed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. Seneca's mysterious, terse (under 325 words) tenth Letter, brought me back to Stevens' early poetry. Stevens talks of the (nightly) "torment of solitude," faced by the poetic mind (who happens to be a religious skeptic). Yet, Seneca seems to suggest that some of the very best people should seek solitude; in particular they should living
with their conscience [conscientia] (recall eight letter). But presumably Stevens's poetic disbeliever is expressing his conscience faitfully.
"I have no great faith in political
arithmetick, and I mean not to warrant the exactness of either of these
computations." Adam Smith (1776) Wealth of Nations.
While Ancient writers (Pliny) certainly noted the existence of
fossils, the meaning of the existence fossils was explosive during the eighteenth
century. In posthumously published work on Discourse on Earthquakes (1705), the secretary
of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, had while surveying fossil evidence suggested that "There
have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find
none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers
new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning." (here)
As it happens, Adam Smith's two best friends in old age, James Hutton and Joseph Black, the editors of his posthumous (1795) work, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), understood what was at stake. For, in 1785 Hutton gave
a public lecture, “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and
Stability,” at University of Edinburgh. Due to Hutton's illness, Black gave
the lecture on Hutton’s behalf. In the lecture Hutton used geological and
fossil evidence to argue that the Earth was almost certainly older than 6000
years. We do not know for sure if Smith attended the lecture,
although he was in town.The argument was elaborated in far greater detail in Hutton's (1788) Theory of the Earth, which made him an international celebrity. The significance of this episode to the history of geology and Darwinism is much studied.
But what does this have to do with the history of economics?
Smith's closeness to Hutton may provide additional clues for one of the enduring mysteries of the history of economics: why did Adam Smith forsake the deployment of a mathematical model in the Wealth of Nations (1776)?
All nine of the Schock winners thus far were or are eminent philosophers, and most of us can only aspire to emulate the quality of their work as best we can. Even if one allows that "The Schock" only seems to go to male, analytical philosophers, each winner is an important and interesting philosopher, deserving of significant honor. Having said that, The Schock Prize judges had four or five chances to honor David Lewis, and failed to do so. (Lewis died in the Fall of 2001.) Lewis is arguably the most significant and influential (analytical) philosopher of the last quarter of the 20th century. (Perhaps, Deleuze is the only contemporary that will match his enduring significance, but he and Foucault died before the Schock got up and running.) So, while one can excuse the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) to play it safe and not award the prize to, say, Derrida (and, thus, avoid the predictable outcry), not giving it to Lewis means they failed to grasp the nature of analytical philosophy in their own time. That in addition, they passed on Gadamer, Ricœur, Goodman, and, thus far, Habermas suggests that the Schock has a long way to go before it can establish itself as the ultimate arbiter of general philosophical excellence.
Meena Krishnamurthy has a blog post about the relative absence of political philosophy in the The Philosopher’s Annual since 2002. This surprised me a bit because it seems to me a field that has been very fertile over the last decade. From afar it looks as if the grip of Rawls on the field has been loosened, and there is a lot of important and urgent work on legitimacy, international (and inter-generational) justice, democratic theory, and, of course, the role of religion today. (Of course, a lot of this is pursued in critical discussion with Rawlsian ideals.) Not to mention that the period has seen Libertarian ideals articulated and renewed with remarkable philosophical ability, and ongoing formal work in social choice theory. Anyway, go read her post.
UPDATE: Ryan Muldoon points out that formal work in political theory by Peter Vanderschraaf has been recognized!
Reflect that nothing
except the soul is worthy of wonder; for the soul, if it be great, naught is
Over half a decade ago I invited Peter Sloterdijk to a
workshop; twenty-four days later, I inquired if the invite was received. I went
ahead and planned the workshop without him. Not long before the workshop I
heard from his 'assistent,' who was volunteered by Herr Prof. Dr. Sloterdijk to
take his place. I felt bad for the 'assistent,' who confessed to having lack of
time to prepare. I declined to put him on the program. But I did ask him to convey to Prof. Sloterdijk the thought
that "he needs to realize this is no way to treat a colleague who (for
example) may write his obituary one day."* (Not nice, admittedly, but it
captured my outrage.) Much to my surprise, Sloterdijk answered the following
week that there must have been a confusion because he had already written me a
letter to inform me of his absence. After a round of apologies, we left it at
By 'celebrity philosopher' I mean to convey a philosopher
whose name is familiar beyond her own academic milieu; possibly her ideas and
works are discussed not just in professional venues, but also in a wider
context. So, I am not talking about somebody who offers a 'philosophy' to
media-stars nor does a 'celebrity philosopher' have to possess mass fame. In
our day, my old teachers, Daniel Dennett and Martha Nussbaum are paradigmatic
celebrity philosophers. When I label somebody a ‘celebrity philosopher’ I do
not intend to convey a judgment of quality one way or another.
There is a new edition of Toland's (1704) Letters to Serena, edited by Ian Laesk. It is the first modern, English language edition. (I have not read it yet.) In order to celebrate this great news, I want to point to one non-trivial, generally overlooked feature that helps to explain the enduring significance of Toland's Letters (for other features, recall here, here, here, and here).
The official aim of the fourth (out of five) of Toland’s
rhetorically complex Letters
is to show that Spinoza’s “system is without foundation.” While there may be “incidental truths” to be
found in Spinoza’s system, it is “false” (Letter 4.4, p. 135 [I quote by letter, paragraph, and page-number). In particular,
throughout the fourth letter, Toland echoes Henry More’s criticisms of Spinoza[or so I claim]
and argues that Spinoza’s account of motion and its relationship to matter is
confused. Toland claims this criticism sets up his own positive
argument, to be offered in the fifth letter that matter is “necessarily active
as well as extended.” (Letter 4.17, 161; repeated in Letter 5.1, 164). In
particular, he praises those mathematicians, which
“compute the quantities and
proportions of motion, as they observe bodies to act on one another , without
troubling themselves about the physical reasons of what every person allows,
being a thing which does not always concern them, and which they leave to the
philosophers to explain.” (Letter 5.9, 177).
To this claim Toland attaches without
comment a quote in Latin from the scholium to proposition XI of Newton’s Principia. An innocent reader could not avoid thinking
that Newton endorses Toland’s stance.
He may say with Parmenides, who, upon reading a philosophical discourse before a public assembly at Athens, and observing, that, except Plato, the whole company had left him, continued, notwithstanding, to read on, and said that Plato alone was audience enough for him.--Adam Smith
The English Bill of Rights (1689) expressly forbids ""cruel and unusual" punishment, and this found its way into the U.S. Constitution. One important, enduring argument against such punishment -- and many other forms of cruelty that may not, in fact, constitute 'punishment' -- can be found in Seneca's Letter 7: viewing and otherwise participating in the degradation and cruelty of others, even in the context of justified punishment [ille meruit ut hoc pateretur], can harm not just the victims or punished, but perpetrators and spectators alike. This is especially so if the cruelty produces pleasure as it is likely to do at public spectacles [spectaculo]* because then this pleasure makes our soul receptive; a desire for more cruelty creeps up on us [per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt].
Seneca's particular target is the institution of aestheticized, public spectacles of cruelty and inhumanity [crudelior et inhumanior].** He emphasizes the significance of audience participation [spectatoribus suis obiciuntur]. He reorients and subtly transforms Plato's arguments for censorship of the arts to focus on the more pernicious institutions that indirectly teach people to celebrate cruelty. Seneca's argument applies to a lot of issues that we are not likely to consider primarily in terms of political speech: mass sporting events; war coverage; disaster tourism, and any form of entertainment that rely on the pleasures derived from exposure to the suffering of others. (This is not to deny that the targets of Seneca's argument can overlap with Plato's, and that his argument is indebted to Plato's moral psychology.)
"What Tarquin the Proud said in his garden with the poppy blooms was
understood by the son but not by the messenger.--Hamann,"--Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard.
"If wisdom were give me under the express condition that it must be
kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is
pleasant to possess, without friends to share it."--Seneca (Letter 6).
Can philosophical writing legitimately call attention to its own limitations? By 'limitation' I do not merely mean (a) the ways in which it its possible philosophical aims are constrained by or even unattainable due to the written form, but also (b) the ways in which it might fall short of other philosophical activities. (Let's leave aside the ways in which it falls short of non-philosophical activities.) For, while (a) can be viewed as a species of self-awareness or truth in advertising, when (b) is true, we might wonder why one is writing at all and not just engaging in those other activities (which by stipulation are better at whatever one is trying to achieve)--at its extreme, then, there might be circumstances where persisting in philosophical writing, however much required (say) for one's sanity, might be an instance of ἀκρασία.
In an otherwise effusive letter (six), Seneca explicitly calls attention to the limitations of his writing when it comes to pursuit of wisdom [sapientia]. At first it seems (echoing Plato's Phaedrus 275a) that he is primarily interested in claiming that "the living voice [viva vox] and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than
the written word."[Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit.] We might think we're in Derrida's territory. But not all speech is created equally; in context, Seneca rejects learning by attending lectures or even philosophical dialogue. What really facilitates philosophical learning is observing exemplary behavior that can be copied [breve et efficax per exempla]. It's not clear this primarily involves speech at all. Rather, it requires living together with a proper model. Seneca advocates this residential-college approach by comparing it favorably to his own way of teaching, which (among other things) in each letter involves, (i) assigning (authoritative) maxims to be memorized (recall, and here, here) [deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta], and (ii) assigning selected admired texts. In fact, Seneca insists that what, say, Socrates said was far less relevant than his practices (or norms) [plus ex moribus quam ex verbis Socratis traxit] to Plato and Aristotle.*
Itis the profession of philosophers to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice. A dangerous profession, since philosophers are more easily
discredited than platitudes, but a useful one.--David Lewis, Convention.
Of course, as philosophers, our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms is real, and important. Far be it from me to claim
that we’d be better off if we all had to be more conventional or
couldn’t play around with taboos. Doing so is essential to both the
philosophical method and the high quality of life we enjoy as
Recently, Rebeca Kukla published an insightful post at Leiter on the significance of the norm of social-norm violation among philosophers, including the one that encourages avoiding the appearance of concern with looks and dress. She argues that the benefits (i.e., "high quality of life") of the norm
of social norm violation are unevenly distributed within philosophy. Her cogent argument against the norm turns on "the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession." While Kukla does not spell it out entirely, it seems she thinks that if we adjust the internal-to-philosophy norms we could distribute the current benefits to philosophizing more widely within philosophy without "undermining our commitment to challenging and
questioning norms." She, thus, views philosophy as a moral or at least professional community.
Seneca, too, is concerned with the norm of social norm violation and warns against "repellent atire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard..." (Letter 5.) Seneca rejects the excesses now associated with the Cynics, but apparently commonly thought to be the 'philosopher's way' (even if "discretely pursued"). Anticipating Mandeville and Veblen, Seneca treats these instances of social norm-violation as expressing the desire to be conspicuous [conspici]. The "self-display" associated with self-punishing [poenam] norms (or what Hume would label 'monkish virtues') comes at the expense of making a contribution to society [proficere].
Cuiuscumque humanae mentis ideae aliae adaequatae
sunt, aliae autem mutilatae et confusae.--Spinoza, Ethica 3p1dem
Last week I had the good fortune to examine a PhD dissertation, "Lutheran Astronomers after the Fall (1540-1590): A reappraisal of the Renaissance dynamic of religion and astronomy," by the Ghent historian of science, Nienke Roelants (now: Dr. Nienke Roelants). One thing (among many) that I learned is that Luther and Melanchthon promoted an epistemology that includes a doctrine that has something like these five components: (i) in our Post-Lapsarian state, we need (ii) a mental emendation, that
(iii) makes exact/clear (iv) the (innate) confused idea [of God] we already posses; (v) this emendation is rarely complete in an ordinary life. Part of the process of such emendation is (a) by way of the rigorous (mathematical) study of nature, and (b) by copying the right sort of exemplars.
Descartes' version of the doctrine of innate ideas is that these are always clear and distinct in us. (Is that so? Descartes scholars should feel free to correct me.) So, that once one learns to recognize what is already in one's mind by way of the study of geometry, one has access to clear and distinct ideas. (He attributes a version of this to Plato's Meno in a letter, I think, to Voetius.)
NewAPPS is about three years old now. We have a wider, more durable, and pleasingly engaged audience than we ever imagined. Our activism and discussion about professional issues have generated quite a bit of publicity and controversy. Yet, one feature has not received much public comment: week in week out, we produce free-standing philosophical essays (generally between 800-1200 words) that are nothing like journal articles nor (generally) even appropriate as drafts of journal articles. Of course, often we develop themes and even an identity over (explicitly and implicitly connected) series, but, in principle, each of the posts is independent. While plenty of other philosophical blogs also offer free-standing philosophical essays, these tend to be longer, or more narrowly focused on an area of expertise, and (generally) not as frequent. (Of course, many of us were inspired by Crookedtimber and Thoughts Arguments and Rants.) To be 'historical' about it, our philosophical blogging is -- despite our analytical or continental identity -- closer in spirit to the kind of thing one might find in Bacon's or Montaigne's essays than anything we have been trained to write.
Can you tell I am pretty proud of this? (Yeah, check 'vanity' in Montaigne!)
While there are precedents in the Ancient world (Epicurus' and Cicero's Letters), Seneca's Letters are the ground-zero for philosophical essayists. (I welcome alternative candidates.) I have been blogging about the Letters, but an extended discussion with my PhD students* made me realize the significance of Seneca's adopted constraints of form. For, the first four letters conform to a very tight 'template.' (These letters have an average of 383 words!) I am using 'template' to capture something about structure/form.
Each letter starts with an arresting and almost invasive claim.
Each letter encourages the recipient/reader to memorize some non-philosophical claim.
Each letter draws attention to the teacher-student relationship and, in doing so, draws attention to some persona, 'Seneca,' behind the letters.
man has ever been so advanced by Fortune that she not threaten him as greatly
as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the
sea is moved to its depths.—Seneca,
In context, Seneca’s acceptance of epistemic uncertainty (or here) is as
much about natural events (the sea) as political events—in the previous line we’re
reminded of the fates of Pompey, Crassus, and Lepidus. Political mastery does
not guarantee immunity against a violent end. Seneca is not blind to the probable destination of his political
fall. More important, the violent underpinning of Roman political
institutions means that nobody is truly master [dominus] in their “own homes” [domesticis]: “just as many have been
killed by angry slaves as by angry kings.” Somebody that “scorns his own life” [vitam suam contemptsit] will not be
afraid to die, in order to kill. Seneca offers a veritable picture of a state of nature under the rule of law:
“every one possesses the power which you fear.”*
One might think that Seneca is anticipating Spinoza: the state of
nature is never fully absent in civil society. But Seneca’s position here is
compatible with a more optimistic possibility: if one can remove the sources of
anger and scorn of self, one might have a more secure and, perhaps, even less
uncertain environment. One may not be able to calms the sea, but the ship of
state might be made more even-keeled. It is an open question if Seneca’s
proposed emendation of minds [emendato
animo] is strictly limited to a kind of enjoyable [freuris] self-help (recall),
or (if we cheating-ly glace ahead toward Letter 7)
also by way of improved state institutions and social norms.
"Some men shrink into dark
corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day."--Pomponius, quoted by Seneca, Letter 3.
Our personality shapes, as Pomponius's maxim suggests, how we view the world. This is why any interpretation of a layered text often reveals as much about the interpreter as it does about the text. In the third letter, in the context of discussing a discussing true friendships [verae amicitiae], Seneca discusses three kinds of human types: (i) the gullible, (ii) the suspicious, and (iii) those that trust after a considered judgment (if this were a Platonic dialogue, we'd be looking for a fourth.)
Seneca does not explain much how good judgment is attained. He does exhibit a feature of it in the start of the letter:
You have sent a letter to me through the hand
of a "friend" of yours, as you call him. And in your very next sentence
you warn me not to discuss with him all the matters that concern you, saying
that even you yourself are not accustomed to do this; in oother words,
you have in the same letter affirmed and denied that he is your friend. Now if you used this word of
ours/a in the public [publico] sense, and called him "friend" in the same way in
which we speak of all candidates for election as "honourable gentlemen,"...
Thus, a discerning judge pays attention to (a) the match between words and actions, and (b) does so by relying on (some) logic. More subtly, such a judge is aware that (c) the meaning of words is very context sensitive; in particular, (d) Seneca relies on a distinction between public the and private speech.* As we have seen, public speech is encountered in the market-place and politics, both the realm of uncertain uncertain and fickle popular opinion. One can have thousands of Facebook friends, but one's popularity need not imply credibility (and not all followers are steadfast).
The reader may have a sense that we have gone off the rails. To be honest, I share that sense. The claim that the category of sentence carves at the joints, for example...strains to the breaking-point my intuitive grip on the notion of joint carving...[I]t's evident from examples that there just is a metaphysically significant notion of saturation. I invite the skeptical reader not to simply dismiss the issue, but rather to join my struggle to make sense of this notion, and perhaps come up with something better. T.Sider, Writing the Book of the World (257) [emphasis in original--ES.]
An uncharitable -- not to be confused with the "skeptical" -- reader might interpret the passage above as a rhetorical way to dismiss an important worry (recall my earlier post). But this would miss what is at stake here; Sider here recognizes (to speak pompously) the crucial, world-historical significance of his project, which madly pursues the 'linguistic turn' to its near-breaking point within analytical metaphysics. For, with 'saturation' Sider makes clear how his knee-jerk realism and his embrace of the method of final (or fundamental) language come together: the world consists of joints and these correspond to "a linguistic category: that of the complete sentence in a fundamental language. In a fundamental language, a language in which the category of sentence carves at the joints, sentences are always "metaphysically complete"--saturated." (254)
Now, this is not the place to offer Sider's ingenuous and persuasive argument for his idea that "there's something metaphysically distinctive...abut all parameters being filled. When all parameters are filled, we can call the result a [metaphysical] fact." (252). Let's accept that a fully regimented fundamental language contains a primitive operator that attaches to a dummy sentence-variable. We have here a way of thinking about submission to fact (recall and here) that is internally satisfying (and consistent). To put Sider's insight more informally, but it in the spirit of Sider, "when God created the world" she needed sentences to write the book of the world.
Sider's picture comes attractively close to offering a metaphysical bedrock that dispenses with the Principle of Sufficient Reason (and, thus, exorcise the ghost of Bradley's infinite regress that has haunted analytical philosophy since inception).
At 280 words -- shorter than most frivolous blog posts -- Seneca's first letter to Lucilius takes full advantage of the economy of Latin prose. Its brevity may, thus, be thought to be an exemplar of what it seems to preach (in the first sentence): not to lose time.* Economy is a major theme of the letter as it explores the nature of possession, scarcity, value, profit, and other familiar economic concepts. In fact, in the brief span of the letter Seneca introduces two conceptions of economy (or axiological frameworks): in one we exchange commodities governed by the values established in the market, that is, uncertain popular opinion; in the second necessary loss reigns.+ Given that Seneca devalues the "foolish" attachments formed in the former (and seems to embrace the latter), we ought to reconsider the idea that losing time is a problem.
In order to teach a political economy that is an alternative to the usual one, Seneca turns to a bit of metaphysics: time is our only intrinsic property--our other properties are alienable. Seneca suggests that time's supreme value is due both to this peculiar fact and the necessity of our mortality. In this first letter, Seneca does not fully explain why the time(s) of our lives is the only such intrinsic property. (One may wonder why not the space of our lives?) If we substitute dying (for time(s) of our lives), the thought presents itself that the reason why the time of our life is our only intrinsic property may be that one's death(s) is the only necessity in a life. (We can, after all, not pay our taxes.)
Clearly, for Seneca to think or have a name is not necessary.
"Scientific philosophy" as I will be using it here is an eighteenth century invention by now-forgotten philosophers (McLaurin, 's Gravesande) or not read as philosophers anymore (Euler) (and then opposed by now-canonical philosophers like Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and folk that are fun to read like Mandeville and Diderot) that, after the split between philosophy and science, was re-introduced into philosophy by people like Russell, and echoed by Carnap, and Reichenbach. Scientific philosophy has six characteristics:
‘success’ trumps other
(rational/methodological) claims. Given that scientific philosophers sometimes retreat to the idea that philosophy is an a priori discipline, the 'empirical' (in 1) is often re-packaged as, say, inference to the best explanation in light of a variety of enduring 'scientific virtues' (i.e., simplicity, scope, predictive power, fruitfulness, exactness, etc.)
(a) Physics is the foundational science and/but it (b) has no need
for ultimate foundations. While 2(a) may seem obvious (see, e.g., Ladymann & Ross) due to its universal scope, its foundational nature was contested well into the nineteenth century. One could imagine, say, the science of information taking over as the foundational science in the future.
Within scientific philosophy reason
limits itself in various ways: in doing so (a) it avoid the fallacy of systematicity because it does not try to say
everything about everything; (b) it embraces the intellectual division
of labor (from 3(b)); it avoids the fallacy of (metaphysical) foundationalism because it has no
need to try to to secure its practice in un-shakeable, first principles
(see 2(b)). So, it is no surprise that Russell rejected the principle of sufficient reason or Bradley's regress argument.
is a self-directed, autonomous practice; once one has mastered certain rigorous tools, one moves
from one given experiment/solution (etc.) to the next problem. Given the emphasis on rigor, it is no surprise that:
Scientific philosophy is often opposed to a licentious or unintelligible
alternative(s) associated with past failures, sometimes even moral. (Exhibit a.) It, thus, embraces commitments to transparency (and clarity).
offers submission to the
facts (recall) and is disciplined (recall) by way of a careful, painful, modest and most
importantly open-ended progressive method. This entails that any scientific philosopher will enter a pre-existing, moving research trajectory and can expect to die before any destination is ever reached.
Last week I received a widely distributed announcement on a conference celebrating "The 'Stanford School' of Philosophy of Science." The 'core' members of this school are taken to be: Nancy Cartwright (Durham), John Dupré (Exeter), Peter Galison (Harvard), Peter Godfrey-Smith (CUNY), Patrick Suppes (Stanford). The parenthesis are the current affiliation of the 'core' members; this immediately suggests that if there is a 'school' at all we are either dealing with a historical phenomenon or very distributed one. Scanning the list of the 'next generation' confirms that Stanford is not the current base of the purported school.
First, I adore much of the work done by many in the 'core,' but the idea that this group is a 'school' is deeply flawed. For, Suppes is far better understood (as he does himself) as belonging to the first generation (including Kyburg, Pap, Isaac Levi) intellectual off-spring of Ernest Nagel, who successfully created American analytical philosophy by combining the Scientific wing of Pragmatism with the new approaches emanating from Vienna, especially, and Cambridge (recall and here). In his autobiography, Suppes describes how assimilated from Nagel the significance of history of science.
It may well be irrational to believe that history is progress after the unprecedented moral and political calamities of the twentieth century. But it does not follow, as [John] Gray apparently assumes, that history has no meaning. There is another possibility. To my knowledge Gray never endorses it, and it extremely difficult for a post-Darwinian mind to grap, but it has been presumed true by most civilizations and philosophies of the past, and is still so regarded by many non-Westernized cultures today. The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history's development is backward not forwards. History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.--David Hawkes reviewing John Gray "The Silence of Animals" in TLS (30 August, 2013).
Let's distinguish four main conceptions of history:
Eternal Return. Within philosophy this goes back to Book 3 of Plato's Laws. It was revived by Nietzsche (and is part of the sub-structure of much continental philosophy and via Ian Hacking it is seeping into philosophy of science). It accords well with a cyclical conception of history with a rise and fall narrative or with periodic destruction of civilization(s) (think of the Atlantis story in the Timaeus and Bacon's riff on it). I expect it to become increasingly attractive to people as we head for man-made environmental catastrophe.
Some months ago I wrote two posts on the concept of indirect proofs: one presenting a dialogical conception of these proofs, and the other analyzing the concept of ‘proofs through the impossible’ in the Prior Analytics. Since then I gave a few talks on this material, receiving useful feedback from audiences in Groningen and Paris. Moreover, this week we hosted the conference ‘Dialectic and Aristotle’s Logic’ in Groningen, and after various talks and discussions I have come to formulate some new ideas on the topic of reductio proofs and their dialectical/dialogical underpinnings. So for those of you who enjoyed the previous posts, here are some further thoughts and tentative answers to lingering questions.
Recall that the dialogical conception I presented in previous posts was meant to address the awkwardness of the first speech act in a reductio proof, namely that of supposing precisely that which you intend to refute by showing that it entails an absurdity. From studies in the literature on math education, it is known that this first step can be very confusing to students learning the technique of reductio proofs. On the dialogical conception, however, no such awkwardness arises, as there is a division of roles between the agent who supposes the initial thesis to be refuted, and the agent who in fact derives an absurdity from the thesis.
This splendid review by Kelly Sorensen of Wolterstorff's recent volume of essays (edited by the distinguished philosopher, Terence Cuneo [this goes unremarked in the review]) calls attention to six "arguments against public reason liberalism." The first two are described as follows:
First, public reason liberalism actually is not realistic
enough. One's capable adult fellow citizens clearly do not universally
endorse the same reasons. So public reason liberalism has to idealize --
it has to imagine what reasons capable adult fellow citizens would endorse
if they met certain hypothetical conditions, with the presumption that a
consensus or convergence about these reasons would emerge. The
hypothetical conditions vary from one brand of public reason liberalism
to another...Why think
disagreement about these reasons will disappear under idealization? ... So public reason liberalism is not realistic
enough: we are stuck with pluralism, and we cannot idealize our way out
Second, public reason liberalism is paternalistic and patronizing,
despite its lip service to respect. Suppose Jones favors some policy on
religious reasons that do not qualify as public reasons. Smith, a fan of
public reason liberalism, is stuck with telling Jones, "You shouldn't
express your reasons in public discussion, and you shouldn't vote on
them. Here instead are the kinds of reasons that count -- reasons you
would endorse if you were not under-informed and rationally impaired."
Jones will of course find this condescending and patronizing.
Some might wish to explore the degree public reason Liberalism (Rawls, Larmore, etc.) can respond to these problems or needs to be amended by what Sorensen calls "aspirational public reason liberalism." That's not my concern here. Rather, it's fascinating (to me) to see the embrace of political pluralism by a central figure in Reformed philosophy and theology. (Now, one might claim that this just continues Dooyeweerd's embrace of pluralism in a religiously divided society, but Dooyeweerd's philosophy has its own problem(s) with paternalism. [Recall this on Dooyeweerd & Plantinga.]) Progressive and Conservative American protestant political thought is generally characterized by monistic conceptions of the good, which animate a variety of (often noble) moral 'crusades.'
Let's distinguish between Mythical history (Myth) and Mistaken history (Mish).
Myth uses narratives about the past to indicate conceptual linkages among (various) and within natural and social kinds.
Mish contains factual errors about the past.
It's possible that Myth = Mish; but Myth need not be Mish (nor does Mish always need to be Myth).
In reflecting on the public and private responses I have received to my criticisms on Thomas Nagel's abuse of history (here and here), I realize I need some such distinction. (In particular, I thank Mazviita Chirimuuta for making me see what's at stake here!)
Myth and Mish are both compatible with (i) messy history, that is, one that suggests the past is (always more) complex and ambiguous (etc.) and (ii) clean history, that is, one that extracts some determinate claim about the way it was (other than being messy). In practice, Myth tends to be clean (but, say, Foucault practices the genre, in part, by being very messy). Mythical history (be it Mish, clean, messy, or not) is philosophially interesting because it can structure how we think about the world and the way we conceive of the nature of the the problems at hand (or overlooked).
Let me here observe too, continued CLEANTHES, that this religious argument, instead of being weakened by that scepticism so much affected by you, rather acquires force from it, and becomes more firm and undisputed. To exclude all argument or reasoning of every kind, is either affectation or madness. The declared profession of every reasonable sceptic is only to reject abstruse, remote, and refined arguments; to adhere to common sense and the plain instincts of nature; and to assent, wherever any reasons strike him with so full a force that he cannot, without the greatest violence, prevent it. Now the arguments for Natural Religion are plainly of this kind; and nothing but the most perverse, obstinate metaphysics can reject them. Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity. Who can behold the male and female of each species, the correspondence of their parts and instincts, their passions, and whole course of life before and after generation, but must be sensible, that the propagation of the species is intended by Nature? Millions and millions of such instances present themselves through every part of the universe; and no language can convey a more intelligible irresistible meaning, than the curious adjustment of final causes. To what degree, therefore, of blind dogmatism must one have attained, to reject such natural and such convincing arguments?--Hume, Dialogues 3.
In her post yesterday, Helen de Cruz asserted that Cleanthes "makes an important empirical claim, namely that belief in a designer flows spontaneously, irresistibly and non-inferentially from our consideration of order in the natural world." Because Helen only quoted the sentence on with "anatomise the eye," she left me the straightforward rejoinder that according to Hume such anatomizing always presupposes expert judgment/taste/cultivation. In response, the up-and-coming Hume scholar, Liz Goodnick, pointed to more evidence for Helen's position. (I think it is a bit misleading to call that evidence "Later in Part III,"--it is the very same paragraph, and part of a single, non-trivial argument, but strictly speaking Goodnick is correct.) I am afraid that in larger context the claim by Helen and Liz cannot be sustained, or so I argue below the fold in some detail (apologies).
In many respects, Hume was a cognitive scientist of religion avant la lettre: his Natural history of religion, Enquiry and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion contain bold hypotheses about the origins of religion in human nature (NHR), the reason why people believe in and transmit miracle stories (Enquiry, On Miracles), and the intuitiveness of intelligent design/creationism (NHR and Dialogues). Many of these hypotheses are still being explored by current cognitive scientists of religion (CSR for short) who share Hume’s taste in making bold conjectures about the cognitive, historical and cultural factors that underlie widespread religious beliefs and practices. Recent Hume scholarship asks whether Hume thought that belief in creationism/intelligent design is a natural belief. The answer is not at all obvious, since Hume voices several seemingly conflicting opinions. In this blogpost I want to argue that Hume’s ideas about the intuitiveness of creationism/IDC are very relevant to cognitive science today, and that belief in intelligent design is not a natural belief, but that some of its constituent beliefs are.
"Strauss' interpretation of Plato is wrong from beginning to end." M.F. Burnyeat.
Although we philosophers are thought of as a cerebral bunch, our loathings can be pretty intense. I need not mention the hundred-year, fraternal civil war, which around here we label a 'divide,' between analytic and continental philosophy; we are not known for our fondness for what passes as 'theory' among literature and cultural studies departments (and I have experienced plenty of uncivil behavior from folk in, say, science studies in return). But when professional philosophers are not just puzzled by the Straussians they encounter, we reserve a special kind of bile and invective against them, especially as Strauss's students found their ways into advising Goldwater and Reagan (and beyond); once I was halted in my invective against Wolfowitz by (The University of Chicago's) Ralph Lerner's, 'Paul once sat in that chair, and was no less passionate than you.' Undoubtedly a few of us were at least mildly irritated by reading Steven Smith's very respectful review of books on the legacy of Strauss in a recent New York Times Book Review--"doesn't he know that 'Strauss is not a Philosopher!'"?
In his famous essay, Burnyeat (a former teacher) overreached. Invoking "ordinary scholarship," Burnyeat treats Plato (surprisingly Popperian) as a "radical utopian," primarily relevant for opening up "a reasoned debate on the nature and practicality of a just society" (emphasis in Burnyeat). Given that Burnyeat was in no sense an ordinary scholar, who also searchingly pioneered the historiographical construction of the classics, these lines are painful read; Burnyeat reduces the significance of Plato's political philosophy to being a forerunner of Rawls. Those of us living in the shadow of the surveillance state may find Strauss' "anti-Utopian teaching" ("invented" or not) about Plato a useful touch-stone, sometimes. For in Republic and Laws surveillance are ever-present and its limits thematized. The cause of Burnyeat's overreach is that Plato's Laws has always been a blind-spot to him (and until recently ordinary analytic scholarship).
At some level, Burnyeat must have known he overreached, because he allowed the original and reprinted version of the piece to have a clear reference to a famous short story by Oscar Wilde, -- which may be read as an allegory on philosophical madness [Murchison is introduced as a truth-teller] ! -- that ends with that enigmatic "I wonder."
The ideal of a pure language in which a pure, pared-down, unambiguous translation of
the truths of pure mathematics can be effected deserves a more extended discussion
than I have given it here. But I will limit myself to pointing out that this ideal language is very far indeed from the languages of man as conceived by Whorf; for to Whorf the least visible structures of a language, those that seem most natural to its Speakers, are
the structures most likely to embody the metaphysical preconceptions of the language
Community. On the other hand, the case of gravitational attraction does not at all
demonstrate what Whorf asserts about Newtonian cosmology as a System, namely that
the key concepts of the cosmology emerge smoothly from or fit smoothly into, the
structures of Newton's own language(s). Instead we find in Newton a real struggle, a
struggle sometimes — e. g., in the General Scholium to Book III of the Principia —
carried out in awareness of the issues involved, to bridge the gap between the non referential
symbolism of mathematics and a language too protean to be tied down to
single, pure meanings.--J.M. Coetzee (1982) "Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language," Journal of Literary Semantics.
Among recent philosophy the Whorf hypothesis is primarily an object of curiosity as background to Kuhn's Structure (and maybe Quine's Word and Object), although two of my favorite philosophers, Lieven Decock and our very own Helen de Cruz (and a few others), work on it. (Undoubtedly part of the lack of interest is recent, philosophical abhorrence of relativism, but the thesis has not disappeared from linguistics and psychology.)* A charismatic economist, Keith Chen, rediscovers a version of it in economics by focusing on the surprising impact of linguistic structure and financial activity (saving rates)--here's a popular video. (HT Hülya Eraslan; I ignore my methodological qualms today.) In the article quoted in the epigraph above (it's his conclusion), Coetzee is interested in the version -- he attributes it directly to Whorf -- that "we see nature along lines laid down by our native languages." I call this version, the "narrow Whorf thesis" (to distinguish it from broader claims about linguistic/cultural relativism and also Whorf's explanation for the narrow Whorf thesis.)
Now, what does the narrow Whorf thesis have to do with Newton and Coetzee?
The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to
such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a
crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the
physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness,
meaning, intention or purpose. The physical sciences as they have
developed since then describe, with the aid of mathematics, the elements
of which the material universe is composed, and the laws governing
their behavior in space and time.--Thomas Nagel in the NYT.
I have blogged about a variant of this mythological (I think Heideggerian) history before. (This is not to be confused with other blogging at NewAPPS on Nagel's recent views, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) If all you know is Descartes then this myth might seem plausible. But the Cartesian 'crucial limiting step' was successfully rejected throughout the seventeenth century. Many philosophers are familiar, of course, with Leibniz's monads, but may dismiss Leibniz as not really contributing to the scientific revolution (as opposed to mathematics and mathematics). So, let's focus on Newton. When he thought through the metaphysics of body (in critical response to Descartes), he embraced the idea that an
extended body had to be the kind of thing that was capable of exciting various perceptions in the senses and imagination of minds (this is from a piece known as "De Gravitatione;" I am linking to a very nice treatment by Zvi Biener and Chris Smeenk.) While this doctrine is not stated in the Principia; there are glimpses of it in the General Scholium (added to second edition) and in his Opticks. Newton is not ideosyncratic; as I learned from my PhD Student, Marij Van Strien, through the second half of the nineteenth century leading physicists (including Maxwell) were tempted by anti-reductionist conceptions such that mind was not excluded from their inquiry.
The following three sub-fields are highly specialized: Ancient philosophy, seventeenth/eighteenth century philosophy, and philosophy of physics. The following sub-fields have a low level of specialization: metaphilosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of probability, philosophy of the social sciences, decision theory, and philosophy of race and gender. Highly specialized sub-fields tend to require extensive knowledge in some area beyond the typical training of a philosopher, and outside of philosophy proper.--Brad Wray.
Brad Wray, a Kuhnian-naturalistic philosopher of science, has mined the PhilPapers data with an eye toward "the degree of specialization in each area of specialization" in the discipline. (Wray is a bit too confident that this is a "representative sample of the profession;" I worry about selection and, especially, geographical effects; even so the numbers are pretty large (3,226 people in total and 1,803 'philosophy faculty or PhD') so that the results can be illuminating if used with caution.)
Wray: "The degree of specialization of an area is a relative measure of how specialized a particular area is" and is calculated as follows: "The number of people who claim the area as their primary area of specialization/The number of people who claim the area as an area of specialization." I have posted a chunk of the abstract, which contains the core results, in the epigraph above. One of Wray's finding would not have surprised Adam Smith: "an analysis of the data suggests that the size of a specialization is correlated with the degree of specialization."
Wray's crucial result (which seems to have been explored at the prompting of a referee) is this one: "a high degree of specialization is the exception, not the norm in philosophical specialties. Many specialties seem to depend, to a significant degree, on the involvement of many who work in the area but who do not identify the area as their primary area of specialization." Of course, this says nothing about the way in which specialists set the agenda with a specialization.
Either way, this data suggests that there are still quite a few generalists in philosophy (it is amusing to me that I work in a 'specialist' area because us 'early modernists' cover two hundred years of systematic philosophy with ongoing discussions pertaining to M&E, value, science, and increasingly philosophy of religion). The question as to what degree Wray's pattern is born out by publication and citation-data is worth exploring in the future.
One can’t help but share in
Chagnon’s frustration at the hasty decision of the majority of his disciplinary
peers to disown its historical connection to any branch of the complex and
variegated scientific tradition. After all, until very recently (and to some
extent to this day still in languages such as French and German), a ‘science’
was any relatively systematic body of knowledge, anything the goal or product
of which was scientia, and it is only
in the very most recent times that the notion has been reduced to the figure of
somber men seeking to run the world on the basis of claims of unassailable
expertise. Yet the cartoon version of science that Chagnon proposes in
response, in its total failure to recognize that there might be special
problems of theory-ladenness, power inequality, looping effects, prejudice --in
a word, all those factors that make the scientific study of humans a more
delicate matter than the study of other domains of nature--, can easily make
one wish to take the ‘postmodern’ turn oneself, if only to get away from this
astoundingly simplistic pretense of scientificity.--Justin Smith (writing about Napoleon
Chagnon’s book, Noble Savages: My Life
among Two Dangerous Tribes- The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon
& Schuster, 2013).
Justin is one of the leading historians of philosophy of my generation. He is also a staunch defender of the fact that "one can in fact approach the subject matter
of anthropology naturalistically, using the conceptual tools of European
traditions of thought, and still come up with theoretically sophisticated
accounts of indigenous beliefs that remain nonetheless sensitive to the actual
concerns, to the ‘voices’, of the people being studied." (He also wants to bring some anthropological methods into the history of philosophy.)
[This post was inspired by an email correspondence with John Doris.--ES]
The sciences play an important role in (at least) two ways of doing philosophy these days: (a) as an ingredient or constraint in so-called 'naturalistic turns;' (b) as an object of study in Philosophy of X (POX) -- with X = any particular science -- or General Philosophy of Science (GPOS). This (a-b) is not to deny the existence of other roles of science in philosophy, including: (c) functioning as the exemplary model of doing philosophy--I tend to refer to this as "Philosophy as Normal Science" (PANS; regular readers know I want us diminish PANS) and (d) being a source of discipline of philosophy (as, say, Williamson wishes). In practice, there are lots of blended positions. I will not define "philosophy" or "science", and I recognize that those of us that work in Europe (and, perhaps, elsewhere) are often taught (and paid/evaluated) to think of ourselves as scientists.
Here I focus on some problems that (a) and (b), especially, share in practice. The source of these is that we philosophers are generally not practicing scientists. (What I am aboout to claim also applies to those that have a PhD in some science, but it may not apply fully to those that also have ongoing research projects within some science.) This means that any science we rely on (in a-d) will be inevitably: (i) dated (science can move very fast as Bertrand Russell emphasized--it is hard enough for the professionals 'to keep up'); (ii) potentially misunderstood (we are -- despite our fabulous reasoning and conceptual skills -- not the experts in the science, after all); (iii) a partial perspective (most sciences are much larger than philosophy and can have a huge division of intellectual labor). Even if one were to ignore the effects of (i-iii) in (a-d) bits of science 'travel' from properly (stabilized) scientific domains/contexts to philosophical contexts; it is, thus, very likely that (iv) science will be partially transformed in translation (one need not be a Quine-ean holist, Kuhnian incommensurabalist to see that any disciplinary appropriation is not prima facie truth or meaning/pragmatics preserving). In practice, i-iv can be blended--and, perhaps, the list ought to be longer. I call the effects of i-iv, "NAPPs." The idea is that NAPPs is internal to naturalism (and not to be confused with excesses such as scientism or positivism).