Saturday, February 28, 2009

J. L. Austin and conservatism

Given my recent posts on tradition and on the early modern philosophers’ transformation of traditional philosophical vocabulary, it seems appropriate to reprint this February 2005 piece from the now defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog. Readers of chapter 6 of The Last Superstition will find the critique of eliminative materialism briefly hinted at here developed there in detail.

I have no idea whether J.L. Austin’s political views were conservative or not. A kind of conservatism did underlie his approach to philosophical questions, however, and in particular his commitment to paying careful attention to the nuances of ordinary language. The following passages from his classic essay “A Plea for Excuses” exemplify this conservatism:

“[O]ur common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon – the most favoured alternative method.”

“Certainly ordinary language has no claim to be the last word, if there is such a thing. It embodies, indeed, something better than the metaphysics of the Stone Age, namely, as was said, the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. But then, that acumen has been concentrated primarily upon the practical business of life. If a distinction works well for practical purposes in ordinary life (no mean feat, for even ordinary life is full of hard cases), then there is sure to be something in it, it will not mark nothing: yet this is likely enough to be not the best way of arranging things if our interests are more extensive or intellectual than the ordinary. And again, that experience has been derived only from the sources available to ordinary men throughout most of civilized history: it has not been fed from the resources of the microscope and its successors. And it must be added too, that superstition and error and fantasy of all kinds do become incorporated in ordinary language and even sometimes stand up to the survival test (only, when they do, why should we not detect it?). Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word.”

(From pages 182 and 185 of Austin’s Philosophical Papers, Third edition (Oxford University Press, 1979))

Antony Flew cites these passages in his book David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science as evidence of a Humean conservatism in Austin’s method. They seem no less Burkean and Hayekian in spirit (maybe Hayekian especially, given the reference to natural selection). Nor does the similarity to Burke and Hayek lie merely in the respect for convention that these passages exhibit. It is evident also in Austin’s openness to departing from convention under certain circumstances (an openness conservatives generally exhibit, contrary to the usual caricature), and in the way those circumstances are understood. Like Burke and Hayek, Austin takes the deliverances of tradition, and not armchair speculation, to be the proper starting point for inquiry. Also like them, he considers convention most valuable and likely to reflect reality precisely where it touches on matters of everyday human concern. He is less explicit about what criteria he thinks ought to guide us in departing from convention when it concerns such matters, but it is not hard to see that his method would seem to imply that our approach ought to be piecemeal and tentative, and guided by the principle that the departure should leave as much of convention intact as possible.

(One important difference between kinds of conservatism is a difference in the specific criteria they would recommend for determining what counts as an acceptable change to tradition. All conservatives, it seems to me, are open to some kinds of change, though all conservatives would also put the burden of proof on the innovator. But conservatives whose position is grounded in a non-naturalistic metaphysics – Thomistic natural law conservatives, for example – would probably regard that burden as more difficult to meet than conservatives who are metaphysical naturalists would. The former sort of conservative is more likely to regard certain elements of tradition as having a deeper basis in human nature, and might therefore be more inclined to treat them as “non-negotiable.” If you think some element of tradition reflects something metaphysically essential to human nature, you are going to fight for it to the last breath. If instead you regard it as merely central to a certain historically contingent cultural framework, then however valuable you find that framework, you will be more likely to give up the fight for it if you think it is a lost cause. An interesting question is which of these attitudes will be taken by the conservative who thinks of the relevant element of tradition as biologically essential – not essential in some deeper metaphysical way, but not a mere cultural artifact either – especially if he thinks genetic engineering might some day upset the biological status quo. But this takes us far away from Austin…)

Austin’s concerns are language and the concepts we bring to bear on the analysis of philosophical problems, and while what he says surely has implications for political philosophy, it is important to consider what sort of conservatism it might imply where epistemology and metaphysics are concerned. My own view is that anyone sensitive to the considerations Austin raises should be very suspicious indeed of metaphysical programs that are radically revisionist in what they say about human nature. Eliminative materialism, which holds that our conception of ourselves as thinking, hoping, believing, desiring, feeling, reasoning beings is radically false, would be only the most obvious and extreme example of a metaphysical program of this sort.

In an earlier post I noted that Quine, despite his political conservatism, was an eliminativist of sorts, and suggested that this fact is a curious one. Quine in one way, and Austin in another, raise for us the issues of what sort of relationship tends to hold, and ought to hold, between a philosopher’s political and moral commitments on the one hand and his metaphysical commitments on the other.

(Some Quine/Austin trivia: Those familiar with Austin’s classic Sense and Sensibilia probably realize that the title is a takeoff of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Quine says in Pursuit of Truth that he gave his Kant Lectures at Stanford the title “Science and Sensibilia” as a “takeoff of John Austin’s takeoff.”)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TLS radio podcast

The podcast of my interview on The Jeff Whitaker Show from last Thursday is now available for your listening pleasure. My segment begins a little more than halfway through the show. Jeff slightly mispronounces my name. It's not "Fess-er" but "Fay-zer," like the phasers of Star Trek fame. (As a student once put it on a kind end-of-semester evaluation: "Set your phaser to fun!" Been trying to live up to that ever since.)

Tone deaf

Bill Vallicella gets email from a reader who, to quote one of the Geico cavemen, is “not 100% in love with [my] tone” in The Last Superstition. According to this reader (who, to be sure, does say some kind things about the book), my polemical style, no less than Daniel Dennett’s, is depressing evidence that professional philosophers “can and will immediately sacrifice civility and courtesy if they think it will best serve to advance their metaphysical/social/political ideals.”

This is unjust. As I make clear in the book and have made clear in earlier posts here, I take the tone I do with the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, et al. because they have been “asking for it.” I would never take such a tone (“immediately” or otherwise) with a serious atheist like Quentin Smith, J. J. C. Smart, or the late J. L. Mackie – regardless of whether doing so would “advance [my] metaphysical/social/political ideals.” Perhaps the reader in question also believes that policemen returning fire toward armed bank robbers who are shooting at them contribute to the crime rate just as much as the latter do. If not, I would ask him to consider that sometimes it matters “who started it,” and that in issues of public controversy as much as in maintaining law and order, rough tactics must sometimes be used against thugs who would otherwise trample upon the innocent. (The “innocent” in the case at hand being unwary non-specialist readers who might be deceived into thinking that the New Atheists must, given their bravado and public stature, have at least something of interest to say.)

Anyway, I have addressed the issue of the occasional appropriateness of polemics in philosophy at length here and, most recently, here.

Check out the comments section of Bill’s post for a drive-by piece of lightweight New Atheist-style commentary from A. C. Grayling, whose volume Against All Gods has at least one advantage over the better-known works of the Big Four: it is as thin physically (64 pages) as it is intellectually.

UPDATE: The reader in question kindly clarifies his remarks in the comments section below.

Ashes to Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday. National Review Online has posted a symposium on the meaning of Lent, to which I have made a brief contribution.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oderberg's Real Essentialism

I have recommended David Oderberg's excellent recent book Real Essentialism to anyone interested in a detailed and rigorous exposition and defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, informed by a deep knowledge of the metaphysics literature in recent analytic philosophy. I am delighted to find that Google Book Search has a fairly generous sample of the book available here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wiley-Blackwell responds

In response to my second National Review Online piece on the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization controversy, Wiley-Blackwell representative Susan Spilka has posted the following statement:

Dear Mr. Feser,

Please allow me to clarify a few points in response to your February 17th article.

First, we have not responded to Mr. Kurian’s accusations characterizing the content issues because we have a process in place for a peer group of scholars – the Editorial Board – to do that job. They are better qualified to evaluate the work and determine if revisions are necessary. Mr. Kurian agreed to and helped prepare Wiley-Blackwell’s agreements with Editorial Board members and is bound to fulfill his responsibilities in relation to them.

In addition, in your article, you confuse different facets of the publishing process: printing with publishing, and copy editing and legal vetting with a substantive review of the content. It is indeed unfortunate that the content review by the Editorial Board is taking place later than anticipated, but that does not negate the need to do so to ensure the quality of the work’s scholarship.

No decision was made by anyone at Wiley-Blackwell to "pulp" the first print run. Anyone who claims that such a decision was made is wrong. Mr. Carpenter did indeed have a conversation with Mr. Kurian regarding the first print run and specifically the effect changes would have on copies already printed. During that discussion, Mr. Carpenter proposed ways in which the first print run could be salvaged.

Wiley-Blackwell will more publicly announce its further plans once the Encyclopedia's Editorial Board has completed its review.

I appreciate the response. A few comments. First, as readers of my second piece know, I had originally asked Ms. Spilka not merely if Wiley-Blackwell had demanded the changes in content alleged by Kurian, but specifically if Wiley-Blackwell and/or the Editorial Board had demanded them. It is important to note that in none of Wiley-Blackwell’s statements on this matter, including this one, has the publisher or its representatives denied that the Editorial Board demanded these changes.

Second, as I also noted in my second piece, Kurian denies that his contract even mentions either an editorial board or its right to review anything, and has challenged the publisher to provide documentary proof to the contrary.

Third, with respect to Ms. Spilka, I am not at all “confused” about the “different facets of the publishing process.” I am well aware that printing is not the same as publishing, and that copy editing and legal vetting are distinct from a “substantive review of the content.” Here is something else I know about the process: that a “substantive review of the content” typically takes place before a work is printed and bound, not afterward. In the present instance, to say that this review is occurring “later than anticipated” is, to put it charitably, rather to understate things. To put it less charitably, it is to obfuscate.

Finally, Ms. Spilka reiterates Wiley-Blackwell’s recent claim that no decision was ever made to pulp the existing print run. I have to say that I am wondering whether there is a lawyerly use here of the word “decision.” As I noted in my second article, Kurian names Philip Carpenter as the Wiley-Blackwell official who told him that the existing print run would be pulped. Is the claim now simply that this had never actually been “decided” upon – leaving it open that it was at least suggested, and perhaps favored by at least some officials at Wiley-Blackwell, as one of several possible “effect[s] changes [might] have on copies already printed”? Spilka’s statement certainly leaves this open. Is Wiley-Blackwell denying that Carpenter even raised the possibility of pulping the print run in his conversation with Kurian? Notice that Spilka’s statement stops short of saying this. And as I said in the article, given how explosive the “pulping” charge has been, it is simply amazing that Wiley-Blackwell did not deny it clearly and explicitly from the start – the publisher’s first reply to Kurian did not even address the issue! – if in fact there is no truth in it.

One more development: Christianity Today says it is looking into the story.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Conservatives and tradition

A left-of-center friend of mine recently complained to me that conservatives are “guilty of appealing to tradition when it suits [them], and not when it doesn't.” This is a common charge, but not a fair one. There is not, or need not be, anything arbitrary in the fact that conservatives uphold some traditions but not others. For no serious conservative, nor indeed any unserious conservative that I can think of, has ever said that traditional practices and beliefs are always good, or ought always to be preserved. The conservative attitude to tradition is far more nuanced than that.

What is true is that conservatives tend to hold that the fact that a practice or belief is traditional should lead us to regard it as innocent until proven guilty, and to put the burden of proof on the innovator rather than on the upholder of tradition. To be sure, in some cases that burden can be easily met, and the guilt established quickly. Still, the fact that a practice or belief has survived for some time at least says something for it, and should make us at least cautious of discarding it glibly. This is not dogmatism but simply common sense. It parallels the attitude of medieval scholars toward ancient authorities, which is often caricatured as blind subservience but was nothing of the kind. Aquinas himself said that the argument from (human) authority is the weakest of all arguments. But as Christopher Martin points out in his fine Introduction to Medieval Philosophy, Aquinas and other medievals still regarded it as an argument, and a serious one: by no means conclusive, often mistaken, but nevertheless not to be dismissed.

(As Martin also notes, the difference between the medievals and the moderns on this question is not that the medievals respected authorities and the moderns do not. Modern people appeal to authority constantly – “All biologists accept evolution,” “Most economists think minimum wage laws increase unemployment,” “Nine out of ten doctors agree,” and so forth. The difference is that the medievals frankly acknowledged that they take authority seriously while modern people like to pretend that they don’t.)

So, when can the innovator’s burden of proof be taken as having been met? When is a traditional practice or belief to be upheld and when abandoned? To some extent this has to be answered on a case by case basis, but the cases fall into several distinct classes:

1. Some traditional practices might reflect something deep in human nature itself and thus be inherently necessary to human well-being.

2. Some traditional practices might not be inherently strictly necessary to human well-being, but may nevertheless tend to promote the well-being of any human society given the concrete circumstances universal to human societies.

3. Some traditional practices might play such a crucial if contingent role in maintaining the well-being, not of all societies, but of some particular society, given its own concrete circumstances.

4. Some traditional practices might not themselves directly have even this sort of conduciveness to the well-being of a society, but might nevertheless be logically, sociologically, historically, or psychologically connected to traditional practices that are conducive in this way, so that to eliminate them would indirectly threaten the directly beneficial practices.

5. Some traditional practices might not play any of the roles described in 1-4, but the mere fact of changing them might, given circumstances, upset the stability of a given society even though they have no intrinsic value.

6. Some traditional practices might be harmful in some respects, but eliminating them might do even greater harm.

7. Some traditional practices might be benign but not particularly beneficial – they can be either kept or abandoned with no harm of any sort, or with only trivial harm.

8. Some traditional practices might be harmful enough that eliminating them will do more good than harm.

Some conservatives would hold that there is a rational standard independent of tradition (e.g. natural law theory) by reference to which all such traditional practices can be judged. Others would hold that there is no standard apart from existing traditions themselves, so that the criteria for evaluation must be internal (e.g. an appeal to consistency). But what makes them conservatives is that, like the medievals, and like Edmund Burke, they insist that a traditional belief or practice is owed at least some serious consideration before it is abandoned. It should be conserved until we know that it is better to abandon it, rather than abandoned until it is proved to be beneficial. In particular, we need to know which of 1-8 it falls under. And we need to keep in mind that, human affairs being as complex as they are, it is not always going to be easy to determine what function a traditional practice serves even when it does indeed serve one – and that, accordingly, the bad consequences of abandoning it might be discovered only when it is too late.

(I discuss these matters in greater detail in my article “Hayek on Tradition,” though these days I would put much greater emphasis on classical natural law theory than I did there.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TLS on radio

New Jersey readers and podcast listeners everywhere might be interested to know that I will be on The Jeff Whitaker Show Thursday at about 3:35 pm Eastern time to discuss The Last Superstition. Tune in and see if I can boil down 2,500 years of philosophy into 25 minutes, including commercials. With a head cold.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More on the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization controversy

I have a follow-up piece posted today at NRO’s The Corner. Inside Higher Ed ran an article on the story yesterday. It seems to me that there are serious questions to be raised about Wiley-Blackwell’s official statements on this matter, questions which are not being asked by others who have commented on this story so far (including the Inside Higher Ed piece). I raise them in my article.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Brin on conspiracy theories

Science fiction writer David Brin offers some sympathetic criticism of my recent piece “The Trouble With Conspiracy Theories” (originally posted here, and reprinted at Brin suggests that:

there are ways that a tight-knit “inner conspiracy” of a few fanatics could control much larger groups who did not consciously think of themselves as committing a betrayal. (Suppose, for example, just half a dozen blackmailed/suborned men held the highest offices in a nation; they could then appoint fools and delusionally partisan rationalizers into lower positions, who could then achieve high levels of damage without the ever becoming aware that they were doing so. The same effect can be achieved through clever use of prodigious amounts of cash.)

It seems to me, however, that when we think through in detail how this proposed scenario of Brin’s would go, we’ll see that it is subject to the same problems I raised in my article. Those problems were essentially three: First, that while conspiracies of a small-scale nature do sometimes occur, the nature of modern bureaucracies makes it practically impossible for would-be conspirators secretly and effectively to engineer anything on the scale of a 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenario. Second, while liberal democratic societies are capable of great evil, the adversarial nature of their institutions and the diverse ends and belief systems of the people staffing these institutions make it practically impossible for would-be conspirators to organize enough relevant personnel to do evil of the specific sort involved in 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenarios. Third, the scale of deception posited in conspiracy scenarios of this scale is so all-encompassing that it effectively undermines the very evidential base that conspiracy theorists themselves must rely on to support their theories.

It does not seem to me that anything Brin says really deals with the third point. Whether or not a few conspirators work through unwitting stooges, in the standard 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination conspiracy scenario, they would have to manipulate the relevant sources of information to such an extent that all such information, including the information the conspiracy theorist himself must rely on, becomes suspect. This epistemological problem cannot be solved by positing only a few conspirators, because the problem derives, not from the number of alleged conspirators involved, but rather from the nearly unlimited powers of deception they are purported to have. (This is why I compared such conspiracy theories to the sorts of scenarios familiar from philosophical skepticism – Descartes’ “evil genius” scenario, Matrix-style “brain in a vat” scenarios, and so forth – which are so extreme that they threaten to undermine even the evidence that led to the skeptical doubts in the first place.)

Brin’s suggestion also doesn’t seem to address my first point, regarding bureaucracy. Even if it is only a few conspirators who know what is going on, they would still have to rely on a vast number of bureaucrats to do exactly what the conspirators want done, at exactly the right times, with none of them knowing or guessing at (even after the fact) the overall end their actions are intended to further – and all in (say) the short time frame between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11, and working through the usual bureaucratic incompetence and red tape. Here too, the problem isn’t really (or at least is not solely) the number of people involved in the conspiracy. It is rather the nature of the institutions they would have to work through, institutions the opposite of conducive to carrying out an operation of the scale imagined.

At best Brin’s proposed scenario might seem to counter my second point, about the adversarial nature of liberal democratic societies. The idea here would seem to be that if most of the people involved don’t even know what end they are serving, their disagreement with that end or fear of being caught promoting it would drop out as irrelevant. But we need to ask: How exactly would the small inner circle posited by Brin manipulate their stooges? For example, would they say to the relevant FBI personnel, “We know that these middle eastern guys seeking flight instruction might seem suspicious, but don’t worry – we’ve checked them out and they are harmless.” This might convince some of the relevant FBI personnel before the conspiracy is carried out. But all of them, and even after 9/11? And could the handful of conspirators also effectively manipulate all the right people in the FAA, American Airlines, United Airlines, the Air Force, the NYPD, the FDNY, the media, etc., with none of them figuring out what had been going on even after 9/11 occurred? Not likely, to say the least. And the idea of their successfully pulling off an act of deceptive manipulation of this scale only underlines the third problem I raised, viz. that the more omnipotent a conspiracy theorist makes his hypothetical conspirators, the more he destroys the possibility of having any real knowledge of the everyday social world at all – including knowledge of purported conspiracies themselves.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

‘Too Christian’ for academia?

Here is a piece I wrote for National Review Online about the political correctness controversy brewing over Wiley-Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization.

UPDATE: The Catholic News Agency interviews George Kurian, the encyclopedia's editor. The Telegraph comments on the story. First Things sums it up: "This encyclopedia is too on topic"!

UPDATE 2: The Guardian and The Times have picked up the story.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Newspeak of the moderns

In 1642, the Senate of the University of Utrecht issued a condemnation of the new Cartesian philosophy, which was intended by Descartes to replace the Aristotelianism of the Scholastics. Among the charges made against the new philosophy was that:

it turns away the young from this sound and traditional philosophy, and prevents them reaching the heights of erudition; for once they have begun to rely on the new philosophy and its supposed solutions, they are unable to understand the technical terms which are commonly used in the books of the traditional authors and in the lectures and debates of their professors. (Quoted in John Cottingham, Descartes, p. 4)

Whatever one thinks of Descartes (who was a very great genius, albeit a catastrophically mistaken one, in my view) this charge is spot on, and it applies to the moderns in general. Their re-definitions of various key philosophical terms, along with their sometimes ridiculous caricatures of the Aristotelian and Scholastic ideas they were attacking, have (however inadvertently) made it nearly impossible for modern readers correctly to grasp the arguments of medieval writers. This is no less true of educated people, and indeed even of professional philosophers (unless they have some expertise in ancient or medieval philosophy), than it is of students and general readers. Whether it is your average New Atheist hack or your average local philosophy professor teaching Aquinas’s Five Ways or natural law theory in a Philosophy 101 class, you can be certain in the first case, and nearly certain in the second, that he does not even understand the ideas he is presenting and criticizing. Key philosophical terms like “cause,” “nature,” “essence,” “substance,” “property,” “form,” “matter,” “necessary,” “contingent,” “good,” etc. simply have very different meanings in the works of Scholastic writers than they do to contemporary ears. Since they do not grasp these meanings, modern readers systematically misinterpret the Scholastic arguments in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and ethics that make use of them.

The categories within which modern philosophers have tended to think have thus shrunk their intellectual horizons rather than expanded them, effectively closing off the possibility of considering all the alternative ways at looking at questions of metaphysics, philosophy of science, religion, and morality. This is only exacerbated by the modern tendency to ridicule the allegedly pedantic distinctions made by Scholastic writers, distinctions which when properly understood can be seen to mark genuine and important features of reality. Modern philosophy thus functions (again, however inadvertently) the way Newspeak does in Orwell’s 1984: It makes certain thoughts effectively unthinkable, by massively shrinking our vocabulary and redefining the words that remain. This is why so many modern readers can no longer even understand why anyone should think it remotely plausible that something’s being contrary to nature entails that it is bad, or why anyone should think that it is metaphysically impossible for causation to exist at all without a divine First Cause. What the Scholastics meant by “natural,” “cause,” and the like in the first place is something of which these readers have no awareness. And being ignorant even of their ignorance, they have no means of remedying it.

This is why so much of The Last Superstition is devoted to general metaphysics and conceptual stage-setting – to making clear what classical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas really said and to clearing away the vast piles of intellectual rubbish that lay in the path of understanding (as John Locke might put it). Nothing less will do if the traditional arguments for theism, the immortality of the soul, and natural law are even to get a fair hearing. Obviously this just makes things that much more difficult for the defender of classical theism and traditional morality. He is like a visitor from the present trying to explain himself to a denizen of Big Brother’s world.

Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Moliere, Locke, and the other moderns who ridiculed crude caricatures of substantial forms, final causes, and the like before banishing them from the philosophical lexicon altogether, afford a parallel of sorts to Orwell’s Syme, who, working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary, chillingly assures us: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” And every time you hear one of their intellectual descendants, like Daniel Dennett, dismiss “the niceties of scholastic logic” or “ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of ‘cause’” (Breaking the Spell, p. 242), think of Ingsoc, Minitrue, and “Ignorance is Strength.” For Mr. Bright, “scholastic logic” is so Oldspeak.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Aristotle and Frege on thought

For reasons explained in a couple of earlier posts (here and here) the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition regards the intellect as a distinct faculty from the senses and the imagination. The objects of the intellect are concepts, which are abstract and universal, while the senses and imagination can only ever grasp what is (at least relatively) concrete and particular. Hence your sensation or mental image of a triangle is always of a particular kind of triangle – small, isosceles, and red, for example – while the concept of a triangle grasped by your intellect applies to all triangles, whether they are small or large, isosceles, scalene, or equilateral, red, green, or black. Sensations and mental images are also subjective or private, directly knowable only to the person having them, while concepts are public and objective, equally accessible in principle to anyone. Your mental image of a triangle might be very different from mine, but when we grasp the concept of a triangle, it is one and the very same thing each of us grasps, which is why we can communicate about triangles in the first place.

Nevertheless, the A-T tradition also holds that thought is always associated with “phantasms” (very roughly, mental images). This is one reason it is easy to mistake the objects of the intellect for the objects of the imagination (as empiricists like Hume do). When you think about triangles (an operation performed by the intellect), it is natural to form a mental image of a triangle at the same time (an operation of the imagination). Even a blind person who has never seen a triangle presumably forms a mental image of the way the distinctive shape of a triangle feels, or at least of the way the word “triangle” sounds. (The formation of tactile, auditory, olfactory and gustatory images, and not just visual ones, is included in the operations of the imagination.) This is unavoidable given that (unlike angels, which are pure intellects) we are tied to the senses for all our information about the world, and arrive at general concepts only by abstraction from the data of sense as mediated by imagination. And it is one of the ways in which (as I have noted before here) there is a much tighter connection between intellect and matter on an A-T view than on a Cartesian view, even though both views regard intellect as immaterial. For A-T regards sensation and imagination as totally dependent on matter.

It seems to me that the way A-T understands the relationship between intellect and imagination might usefully be compared to Gottlob Frege’s conception of thought, as put forward in his classic essay “The Thought” (though Frege himself was no proponent of A-T). By a “thought,” Frege means what contemporary logicians call a proposition, and he distinguishes thoughts from sentences. To use a stock example, the English sentence “Snow is white” and the German sentence “Schnee ist weiss” both express one and the same thought or proposition, namely the thought or proposition that snow is white. That users of different languages can assert the same proposition using different sentences is one mark of the difference between sentences and propositions. Another mark often cited by philosophers and logicians is that a proposition remains either true or false, and thus in some sense exists, regardless of whether any sentence we might use to express it exists. The proposition that snow is white was true long before English, German, or any other natural language ever came into existence, and thus before any sentence in any of these languages ever came into existence. Furthermore, like the concepts whose abstract and immaterial character is emphasized by A-T, propositions are abstract and immaterial. The proposition that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March would remain true even if the entire world of concrete material objects went out of existence. Were it to go out of existence, the proposition that there are no concrete material objects would in that case be true. And so forth.

So, propositions or thoughts (in Frege’s sense of the word) are, again, abstract, immaterial and distinct from any sentence. Nevertheless, when we entertain any proposition or thought, we always at the same time entertain a sentence. As Frege famously put it: “The thought, in itself immaterial, clothes itself in the material garment of a sentence and thereby becomes comprehensible to us. We say a sentence expresses a thought.” We never “see” propositions “naked,” as it were; they never leave the house except in sentential garb. What we grasp when we grasp the thought that snow is white is not identical with the English sentence “Snow is white,” but what we grasp is nevertheless grasped through that English sentence (if we’re speakers of English, that is – German speakers grasp it instead through the sentence “Schnee ist weiss”). This, I suggest, parallels the way in which our grasp of general concepts is on the A-T view always associated with the having of phantasms, even though concepts are not identical with phantasms.

From an A-T point of view, the reason for this is, again, that we are embodied creatures dependent on material sense organs for all our knowledge. Though we are capable of moving beyond knowledge of material particulars via intellection (which is an immaterial activity), we nevertheless require phantasms (which are material) as an aid to this activity. A dog can never grasp strict universals: Rover might have a mental image of dog food, but he does not have the concept dog food, which is (unlike any possible image, which can at most apply to several instances but not all) completely general, applying to any possible instance. We can grasp universals. But (being embodied, like the dog) we tend to entertain the mental image too in the course of doing so. Similarly, while both the dog and we can hear the sentence “Snow is white” and form a mental image after the fact of how the sentence sounds or looks, only we can associate the sentence with the proposition that snow is white, which is (to simplify things a bit) essentially just what it is for us to understand language and for the dog not to understand it. But (being embodied, like the dog) we tend to form the image of the sentence in the course of entertaining the proposition it expresses.

Just as the correlation between concepts and mental images led classical empiricists mistakenly to identify them, so too does the correlation between intellectual activity and neural activity lead materialists mistakenly to identify them. But both identifications involve a category mistake, in particular a confusion of what is inherently abstract and universal with what is inherently concrete and particular.

In his book In Defense of the Soul, Ric Machuga suggests that from the A-T point of view, the relationship between body and soul is like that between words and the meaning they convey. This requires qualification, but it is a useful analogy. The difference between “bat” as applied to a stick used in baseball and “bat” as applied to a certain flying mammal has nothing at all to do with any material difference between the two word tokens. Symbols identical in their material characteristics can convey different meanings. Furthermore, the same meaning can be conveyed by symbols having very different material characteristics, as with “bachelor” and “unmarried man.” Similarly (and as I have emphasized in earlier posts) physiological processes identical in their material characteristics can be associated with different mental contents, while the same mental content can be associated with physiological processes that are different in their material characteristics.

Properly understanding the relationship between the mental and material characteristics requires, neither the postulation of an immaterial substance (as Cartesian dualists assume) nor the positing of non-physical properties inhering in a physical substance (as property dualists hold), but rather a recognition of each of Aristotle’s four causes: formal and final as well as efficient and material (the first two of which Cartesian dualists and property dualists, no less than materialists, mistakenly tend to deny). Mental content is the formal-cum-final causal aspect of a single substance and/or action of which the relevant bodily and neural processes (including sensations and mental imagery) are the efficient-cum-material causal aspect. (This is an issue I have addressed at greater length here, and in The Last Superstition.) It is only when the A-T four-causal explanatory framework is abandoned that the correlation between intellectual activity on the one hand and mental imagery and neural activity on the other comes to seem mysterious, and tempts us with false Cartesian or materialist solutions.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Quine as a conservative

For newer readers and others who might be interested, I will occasionally be reprinting some old posts from the now defunct Conservative Philosopher and Right Reason group blogs. Here is a piece that originally appeared in two parts on The Conservative Philosopher, on January 31, 2005 and February 9, 2005 respectively. (I have edited slightly to remove some now irrelevant references reflecting the time they were first posted. Not that anyone would notice.)

Part I:

W.V. Quine was unquestionably one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Almost the entirety of his body of work was in areas of philosophy far removed from ethics and politics: logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, epistemology and metaphysics. But he also happened to be politically conservative, and very occasionally he would express his conservatism in print. Two examples are the entries on “Freedom” and “Tolerance” in his book Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. They are, like nearly everything Quine wrote, elegant in style and well worth reading.

Quine’s conservatism raises interesting questions about the relationship between a philosopher’s metaphysical commitments and his ethical and political commitments. It would be hard to deny that the sort of commonsense metaphysics associated with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had a bearing on the conservative character of their moral and political views, or that the radicalism of Marx’s social theory was at least in part a consequence of his brand of materialism. Yet while Quine’s metaphysical position was among the most radically revisionist of any that philosophers have produced – physicalist, behaviorist, eliminativist – his political views were, again, conservative.

It is hard to think offhand of too many parallels in the history of philosophy. It is true, of course, that Hume’s far from commonsense epistemology and metaphysics also went hand in hand with a kind of conservatism, but then again Hume was also inclined to emphasize how irrelevant the results of abstruse philosophical speculation were to ordinary life, and inclined also halfway to give back to common sense with his right hand, via an appeal to the primacy of “custom and habit,” what his left hand had taken away via philosophical criticism. Quine, committed as he was to scientism, seemed less inclined then Hume to think that common sense would remain more or less intact regardless of the findings of scientists and philosophers.

There is a very widespread belief these days that ethics can be done more or less without paying attention to metaphysics. I think this is completely mistaken, and that most of the philosophers who hold this belief, being almost always metaphysical naturalists of one stripe or another and rarely having their naturalism challenged, have lost sight of how deeply they are themselves committed to what is really just one metaphysical position among others, and of how deeply it has in fact permeated their moral theorizing.

I also think that it is no accident that naturalistic philosophers tend toward unconservative positions in ethics and politics. Naturalists have a tendency to suppose that the methods of the natural sciences are the right models to apply to the study of the human world. Since the history of natural science has often been a history of proving common sense wrong where matters far removed from everyday human life are concerned, the expectation understandably forms that common sense is likely to be wrong where the human world is concerned as well. This is an attitude Michael Levin has called the “skim milk” fallacy – the fallacy of assuming that “things are never what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream” – and there are good Burkean and Hayekian reasons for thinking that it is indeed a fallacy. It is, Burkeans and Hayekians would argue, unlikely that deep errors about human nature would persist within common sense, given how crucial a right understanding of the human world is to the success of everyday human intercourse, and even to survival.

(I should qualify these remarks by saying that it is the scientistic brand of naturalism, which is the kind predominant in contemporary philosophy, that I claim has the implications I am speaking of here. The sort of naturalism associated with Wittgenstein, concerned as it is, in its way, to defend common sense, is very different, and for obvious reasons more conducive to a conservative position in ethics and politics.)

Whether or not I am right about all this, Quine would seem at least on the surface to be a counterexample to the claims I just made. But I think that in fact he is not, if only because his philosophical and political views seem to have had absolutely nothing to do with one another, even on a subconscious level. As far as I can tell, Quine’s philosophical and political thinking were conducted in two different and hermetically sealed off compartments of his mind. Even with Hume, one can detect a clear connection between his metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and his politics on the other: the centrality of custom and habit in the former finds a parallel in the conservatism of the latter. There seems to be no similar systematic connection in Quine’s thinking.

Far more than other contemporary naturalists, Quine apparently never so much as entertained the possibility that conservative political views might sit uneasily with such a radical metaphysical position. Most naturalistic philosophers end up at least subtly re-conceiving the world of everyday human life along naturalistic metaphysical lines, and this influences they way they think about ethics, whether they realize it or not. Naturalism tells them we’re just clever animals, or “machines made of meat,” or whatever, and at some level the ethical theory reflects that. The average human being doesn’t think this way, of course, and indeed the average naturalistic philosopher doesn’t think this way either in day-to-day life. It is simply too inhuman a way to think about human beings to be possible to sustain for very long. Like the Humean skeptic, the naturalistic philosopher, once he exits his study, leaves the revisionist metaphysics behind and deals with other human beings as creatures having souls (whether you interpret “soul” in the traditional metaphysical sense or in a more figurative Wittgensteinian sense). Unfortunately, though, most naturalistic philosophers seem to write on ethics and politics while they’re still in the study. Quine did not. His conservatism was apparently not an intellectual one, but a matter of ingrained temperament. (That definitely does not mean it was an irrational one, as every conservative understands.)

That’s my armchair speculation anyway, for what it is worth. In any event, whatever one thinks of Quine’s metaphysical position – and for my part, I cannot think of a metaphysical position I am less sympathetic with – it is surely as powerfully developed and articulated as any in the history of philosophy, and deserving of close study. Some philosophers regard it as a brilliant drawing out of the surprising truths implicit in the physicalistic premises Quine starts with; others (like John Searle, and me) regard it as a reductio ad absurdum of those premises. Either way, Quine cannot be ignored.

Part II:

Here are some relevant quotes from Quine’s writings, which should give a sense of his political views.

From Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary:

“Freedom from the trammels of an age outworn can mean quandaries at every turn, for want of a rule, a precedent, a role model, even a vivid self-image” (p. 68)

“Freedom to remodel society, gained by revolution, can be a delicate affair. Society up to that point, if stable at all, was stable in consequence of the gradual combining and canceling of forces and counter-forces, some planned and some not. The new and untested plan shares all the fallibility of the planner, this young newcomer in a complex world. Maybe the new order bids fair to overprivilege a hitherto underprivileged group; maybe it will presently prove to underprivilege all. It is delicate, and delicacy is seldom the revolutionary’s forte. The constraint imposed by social tradition is the gyroscope that helps to keep the ship of state on an even keel.” (p. 69)

“Democratic regard for civil rights and due process affords a shelter for subversive efforts of enemy agents and for seditious activities of native sympathizers. An enemy despot can send his fifth column through democracy's open gates while keeping his own gates secured. Some restraints on democratic tolerance are thus vital to the survival of democracy. Excessive restraints, on the other hand, would be an abdication of democracy. Such, then, is the delicate balance of tolerance.” (pp. 206-7)

“Moral censorship down the years had monitored an ill-defined limit of legitimacy that was regularly pressed, tested, and moderately violated by the literary, artistic, and popular forces for prurience. Burlesque skits had made merry with sexual themes by double entendre and thinly veiled allusion that brought down the house. Press the bounds, however narrowly drawn, and titillation was assured. Withdrawing the bounds did away with the titillation. So far, perhaps, so good; but this was the least of the effects. Pornography burgeoned, ready with ever more extravagant lures lest custom stale. Also apart from such excesses the public prints, films, and broadcasts relaxed their restraints to a marked degree. General standards of taste in speech and behavior could then be counted on to evolve or dissolve apace, dictated as they are by the public prints, films, and broadcasts. It was a bewilderingly abrupt relaxation of the restraints of centuries, and no small achievement on the part of vocal students, liberal English teachers, and a few docile jurists. There were deeper social forces, also, that have yet to be understood. One conspicuous factor, superficial still, was the widespread spirit of rebellion induced by the Vietnam war, when sympathy with the enemy was open and defiant. Insofar, tolerance of the sort that we first considered played a role: tolerance of subversion.” (pp. 207-8)

From “Paradoxes of Plenty” in Theories and Things:

“It was in the increased admittance and financial support of students that the new prodigality [of the post-war university] came its most resounding cropper. Marginal students came on in force, many of them with an eye on the draft, and they soon were as bored with college as they had been with school. In their confusion and restlessness they were easy marks for demagogues, who soon contrived a modest but viable terror. A rather sketchy terror sufficed, in the event, to bring universities to their knees.” (p. 197)

From The Time of My Life: An Autobiography:

“[At the time of the student demonstrations at Harvard] feeling ran high in the faculty between a radical caucus at one edge, which backed the vocal students, and a conservative caucus at the other edge, in which Oscar Handlin played a leading role and I an ineffectual one. Attendance at faculty meetings exceeded all bounds; we had to move them from the faculty room in University Hall to the Loeb Theater. In previous years I had seldom attended, but now duty called. At one of these crowded faculty meetings, two shabby black undergraduates demanded to be admitted and heard. Henry Rosovsky had done a conscientious job of devising a program of Black Studies that might accommodate the new racism without serious abdication of scholarly standards; but the two black youths demanded more radical provisions, on pain, they hinted, of fire and destruction. The serried ranks of faculty, flecked with eminent scholars and Nobel laureates, were cowed – a bare majority of them – by the two frail, bumbling figures and voted as directed. What price scholarly standards, what price self-respect?” (pp. 352-3)

“At Syracuse in May 1981 I received an honorary degree, my twelfth, along with Alexander Haig, who gave the address. Radicals dressed in bloodied nuns’ garb protested our alleged aggression in Salvador and tried to silence him, but he coped admirably and I liked his thoughts on public policy.” (p. 452)