Category Archives: Early modern philosophy corner
In the second half of the twentieth century there was either pessimism about or else just outright rejection of the ideal of “enlightenment,” a concept which could be characterized as the foundation for all discussion of politics in the modern era. “Enlightenment” as a Western European political concept, is essentially the idea that reason and rationality can show us the way toward social progress. That progress would be the result of ongoing dialogue. Democracy and other forms of government that allow for reasoned discussion and disagreement, which put the fewest impediments in the way of liberty and freedom of expression, are best according to that ideal, since they allow for the best chance of that development which depends upon free discussion.
Nevertheless, we can see actual and potential problems with liberty (gun control legislation or even the growth of fascism) and with freedom of speech (which seems to be subject to the influence of the media, or muted by political partisanship) present in our society and in modern history. The conclusion of some critics is that liberty is something too dangerous to be handed to the masses. There is too much potential for liberty to be manipulated in ways that lead the masses astray, sometimes with horrific results (e.g. the holocaust).
All this could very well make one think that the enlightenment project was misguided. I think a mistake was made in overestimating the extent to which we have actually developed. There is a distinction that must be made between knowing what is right and building that knowledge into a cultural norm that can be called true progress. In other words, the step from rational discussion to actual cultural changes, rooted in changes in actual human behavior, is much, much longer than the enlightenment philosophers expected.
The twentieth century bears witness to this: while to many people living at the start of the twentieth century authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascist ideologies might have seemed obviously wrong, there were equally obviously the seeds for such developments in human nature which were allowed to grow and were exploited by open societies that permitted such growth. If true enlightenment was attained at the end of the twentieth century, it would be in the form of the establishment of new cultural norms that reject such ideals and have the effect of guiding everyday people away from such behavior in their private lives. It would amount to a shift in consciousness and behavior on a social level.
This seems like a nice attainment, but certainly runs very much counter to the optimism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems that we must wait to learn things culturally, adopt ideals as cultural norms, even if just about everyone agrees upon them. Despite the extent to which the 20th century has disappointed our sense of our own progress, in a sense, putting such things as unjust authoritarian behavior behind us though a revaluation of values would be a major accomplishment. Arguably, such things as the growth of truer forms of equality in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st may have received some impetus by the growth of such consciousness; and again, what some perceive as fascist tendencies in Trump would not be so ruthlessly criticized were it not for the growth of such awareness.
A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:
Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve? One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge. Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way. The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience. Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?
Descartes, again, provides a foil. Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him). To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all objective basis for knowledge. At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God. But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God. But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?
What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted. Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles. Its value? We could KNOW things. But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences? Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE. It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?). Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences. But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.
Is there anyone who does not find this silly? It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers. Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know. Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact. One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions. Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble. What, then does this dispute amount to?
Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so. The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.
Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics. A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.). There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed. Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)). But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem. A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it? The answer should be straightforard. If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do? Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way. They assume that objects exist. Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case? Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience? While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?
It may be surprising for general readers to hear that Descartes’ famous “cogito” argument, which runs, “I think, therefore I am”, has been the subject of controversy among academics for the past few decades. “What is there to dispute?”, one might wonder. “Certainly”, it might be said, “Descartes must be right in saying that, if I am thinking, I must exist. The one seems to be sufficient evidence for the other”.
Against this line of thought has arisen the following joke which seems to have proliferated in intro philosophy courses, and runs something like this:
Descartes walks into a bar. The waiter asks, “Would you like a glass of Burgundy?” Descartes answers, “I think not”, and vanishes in a puff of logical dust.
The line of thinking here is that if “Cogito, ergo sum” entails that whenever Descartes is thinking he should exist, it should also entail that if Descartes is not thinking, he does not exist.
The latter inference conceals a fallacy. To see this clearly, consider what happens when the same type of reasoning is applied to the example red–>color. Suppose the argument is that whenever I have red I can infer that I have a color. According to the argument pattern in the joke, it should also be the case that whenever I do not have red I do not have a color. But this is obviously a mistake. Moreover, it is an example of an invalid argument form (P->Q, ~P/~Q) which is an involves the fallacy of denying the antecedent.
Here are the steps, for convenience:
(1) Red –> Color
(3) ~Color [Fallacy of denying the antecedent]
And now compare the same pattern to the one found in the Descartes joke-
(1) I think –> I exist
(2) I am not thinking
(3) Therefore, I do not exist [again, clearly a fallacy]
By contrast, note that when the argument is put into the form of modus tollens so that it runs, “I think -> I exist, I do not exist/I am not thinking” it comes out as a perfectly reasonable inference. However, the inference, “if I am not thinking, then I do not exist” cannot be logically derived from “I think, therefore I am”, except by introducing a fallacy.
We have an example above of an argument in which the cogito is treated as an inference. At first glance it seems obvious that it should be. This assumption has been challenged, however. In a 1962 article titled, “Cogito, ergo sum: Inference or performance?” Jaakko Hintikka argued that the argument at least need not be considered as an inference and may be interpreted as a performance. For example, Hintikka proposed the following reformulations of the cogito to bring out its performative aspect:
- “I am in that I think.”
- “By thinking I perceive my existence.”
By claiming that the cogito can be treated as a performance, Hintikka is aligning it with a category of other statements like “I pronounce you man and wife” or “Let there be light”. In each case, the sentence announces the action being performed. In the case of the cogito, or so Hintikka would have it, in the performance of the action announced in 1 & 2, one will become aware that one exists.
When viewed as a performance, the argument should not be seen (so Austin stated) as having a truth value (i.e. being true or false) but should be evaluated in term of whether it is successful or not successful. In other words, the success of 1 or 2 depends simply upon whether Descartes (or anyone else) is actually thinking.
Hintikka’s strategy becomes evident here: by recasting the cogito as a performance, the question of its cogency becomes less a matter of searching out the linkage between thinking and existing and more a question of simply performing a certain activity.
Hintikka’s distinction between treating the cogito as either an inference or a performance generates a false dilemma. I would like to argue that there is a way in which, by treating “I think, therefore I am” as an entailment the cogito can be viewed as both an inference and a performance without inconsistency.
[section explaining Hintikka’s motivation to be inserted here]
But how is this possible? It was stated above that inferences have truth conditions while performatives are either successful or unsuccessful. How then can they wind up in the same category? The answer is that the cogito ought to be viewed as a statement that is true or false when it is uttered by someone. This brings in both the performative and inferential aspects as follows: the statement as an inference is either true or false, but it is such that its truth or falsity depends upon whether the act of uttering it is actually (successfully) carried out. Whenever this is done, whenever someone utters “I think, therefore I am”, the statement automatically becomes true if the person uttering it is using the statement in a self-referential way. The fact that no one can deny the cogito, when uttered self referentially, makes it appear as though it were a statement (or proposition) and has independent standing as a true sentence; but, in fact, it is true whenever someone utters it. The fact that the Latin word “cogito” may also be translated as “I am thinking” may be brought in as further support for this view.
This is not a trivial point in the context of assessing Hintikka’s argument. First and foremost, it absolves scholars of the need to debate the relative merits of a performative vs. inferential view of the cogito, since they may be viewed, as explained above as working together synchonically. I would argue that the cogito is an example of a case where the two mutually exclusive categories may overlap and actually reinforce one another. By viewing the statement as an utterance we do not cancel out it inferential aspect. Indeed, it is difficult to see how that might be possible with the word “ergo” present in the very formulation of the cogito. Hintikka can only call the cogito a performance by eliminating the word; but arguably it is present even in his reformulations (see 1 and 2 above). Certainly, one can reason, however banal it might now seem, that if one is thinking, one, in fact, must exist; but, moreover, it seems that Descartes must have had the discovery of the linkage between the two concepts in mind when he made the cogito the starting point of his attempt at constructing a purely deductive philosophical system.