Monday, October 30, 2006

Making History

"History of philosophy" is the name of an intellectual discipline and of its object. I am interested in both, but this post is about the former. Searching for ways to avoid ambiguity, I thought of using "historiography" – except that this term, too, stands for a discipline and its object: for the writing of history, and the study of such writing. Henceforth, I'll use "history" to mean the discipline whose object is the past.

What is the relationship between philosophy and its history? Or, as a recent book demands: why should analytic philosophers care about the history of philosophy? Why shouldn't they simply ignore it, as – allegedly – they tend to do?

In laying the groundwork for an answer to these questions – to which I'll return next time – several authors make a distinction between two modes in which the history of philosophy can be pursued. In what Daniel Garber nicely calls "antiquarian" history, the dead are invited to speak in their own tongue, as they did to their contemporaries. In "collegial" history, they are compelled to speak about questions that occupy us. In an earlier paper, "Does History Have a Future?", Garber gives the example of Jonathan Bennett, who insists, at he beginning of his book on Spinoza, that he is concerned "not with Spinoza's mental biography but with getting his help in discovering philosophical truth."

What puzzles me here is why Garber is willing to speak of both projects as "historical". He does not object to collegial history; he merely contrasts it with something else. On the face of it, though, Bennett's claim is barely coherent. If you want Spinoza's help in discovering the truth, his "mental biography" is something you cannot avoid. And if all you mean is that you are reading the Ethics for inspiration, not doing history at all, why labour under any constraint of fidelity to the text? Why aim for something that makes sense of most of what Spinoza wrote – but not all of it, and not in context? Why not simply present the arguments that interest you, and mention, as a matter of your own "mental biography", that they popped into your head while reading a certain book?

A different distinction is made by Richard Rorty in "The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres". He contrasts "historical" with "rational" reconstruction, but sees no conflict between them: "We should do both of these things, but do them separately." Historical reconstruction is marked by obedience to a constraint devised by Quentin Skinner:

no agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done.

According to Rorty:

If we want an account of Aristotle's or Locke's behaviour which obeys this constraint […] we shall have to confine ourselves to one which, at its ideal limit, tells us what they might have said in response to all the criticisms or questions which would have been aimed at them by their contemporaries.

The difficulty is that, on this reading, Skinner turns out to be a behaviourist: we can do history only by putting words in people's mouths – not thoughts in their heads. This is nominally apt, but a substantive travesty: Skinner's essay is a plea for intention in the history of ideas; and he repeatedly insists that we cannot make the past intelligible without applying to it our "own familiar criteria of classification and discrimination." His point is not to compare two legitimate activities, but to engage in a polemic against anachronism that will destroy the pretensions of "collegial history" and "rational reconstruction" once and for all.

The residual question is what to make of his proposed constraint on interpretation. It certainly does not prohibit the ascription of propositional attitudes, but, for Skinner,

it does exclude the possibility that an acceptable account of an agent's behavior could ever survive the demonstration that it was itself dependent on the use of criteria of description and classification not available to the agent himself.

For reasons I will try to explain in the following post, this seems to me too strong a condition to place even on the most rigorously antiquarian history of thought.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Buzzing Confusion

Another book with a misleading title: Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human.

Despite the author's ambitious promise, and despite the inclusion of some elegant experiments on infants – the well-known preference studies that demonstrate a sense of "object permanence" in three-month-olds, and a lovely task in which children are introduced to the word "whisk" in connection with a picture, and go on to apply it immediately to whisks themselves, not to further images – many of the chapters give only cursory attention to child development. In a treatment of artifact concepts, three pages deal with their early acquisition; and the theory of morality is ninety per cent evolution, ten per cent sprog.

The most striking and dramatic doctrine of the book is about infant development. According to Bloom, we are "Descartes' babies" in that we are "natural-born dualists": more or less from birth "we see the world as containing bodies and souls". Among the "basic notions" that are absent only in "psychopaths […and] severely autistic children" are the recognition that "your body will change radically as you age, but you will remain the same person" and that "when you die, your soul may live on".

This is certainly impressive, if it is true: Cartesian dualism comes to us automatically, as part of the package in which we understand our own persistence through time. But it is terribly misleading as an account of what Bloom's evidence supports. His principal observation is that infants deploy quite different strategies of explanation for the activities of intelligent creatures than they do for physical goings-on. The most one could conclude from this is that we are Davidson's babies, that we make an innate distinction between the natural and human sciences – not that we accept a dualism of substance. And in fact, this weaker view is echoed in some of Bloom's more cautious formulations, according to which we have "two ways of looking at the world: in terms of bodies and in terms of souls."

Bloom cites only one experiment on behalf of ontological rather then explanatory dualism in infants, which is due to Henry Wellman:

For instance, one tale [told to young children in the experiment] was about a boy who had a cookie and another boy who was thinking about a cookie. Even three-year-olds understand the difference between a real cookie, which can be seen and touched by another person, and an imagined cookie, which cannot be.

Read as an argument for Bloom's conclusion, this passage makes an elementary mistake: it confuses the object of a mental act, which may not be a material thing because it may be something that doesn't exist, with the mental goings-on themselves.

It is possible that Bloom has simply failed to report on a wealth of evidence for his Cartesian hypothesis. But even if it is out there, that would not make the title of this book more apt: it does not argue that we are Descartes' babies; and its theory of human nature does not mainly derive from the science of the child.

Monday, October 16, 2006

From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein

Intrigued? So was I. But the title of Anthony Quinton's book turns out to be a trick. Quinton has essays on these titans of the twentieth century, but the essays are quite distinct.

My disappointment was more severe because it is so easy to find connections between them. They share, among other things, a formidable attention to language, association with a notorious Club – the Drones and the Moral Sciences, respectively – and a fondness for double-barreled names: Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Not to mention P.G.'s mid-career conversion from the logical atomism of Psmith in the City to the mature linguistic pluralism of Right Ho, Jeeves!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Seven Types of Ambiguity

The first blow falls, with energetic vulgarity, on page 9:
Critics, as 'barking dogs,' […] are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.
Thus the scheduled opponents – the advocates of Atmosphere and Pure Sound – are floored in the first round of Empson's book, published when he was twenty-four and spoiling for a fight. We spend the rest of it waiting for more formidable opposition, which never arrives.

If the project is in part to reassure us of the value of poetry – by giving reasons for beauty – it depends on the answer to a question that Empson does not address. Why does ambiguity matter? Backed into the ropes, Empson flutters away, taking his reassurance with him. Ambiguity is everywhere:
I remember a very fine [headline] that went 'ITALIAN ASSASSIN BOMB PLOT DISASTER'. […] Bomb and plot, you notice, can be either nouns or verbs, and would take kindly to being adjectives, not that they are anything so definite here. […] The extended use of the adjective [Italian] acts as sort of syncopation, which gives energy and excitement to the rhythm, rather like the effect of putting two caesuras into a line; but of course, the main rhythm conveys: 'This is a particularly exciting sort of disaster, the assassin-bomb-plot type they have in Italy,' and there is a single chief stress on bomb.
The roots of beauty may not be violated by the critic's scratching, but it is hard to distinguish them from the roots of a weed.

When a counter-punch is imminent, Empson anticipates, and his face disappears behind his fists.
I have continually employed a method of analysis which jumps the gap between two ways of thinking; which produces a possible set of alternative meanings with some ingenuity, and then says it is grasped in the pre-consciousness of the reader by a native effort of mind. This must seem very dubious; but then the facts about the apprehension of poetry are in any case very extraordinary.
It's a pity that his guard is so close, because the implicit objection is important: the idea that there are reasons for beauty can be as tempting and as puzzling as the idea of reasons for love. How do these reasons operate in the "properly-qualified mind" when it takes no notice of what they are, and when its pleasures are not within its own control? How far can they constitute a rational response?

If Empson does not "treat poetry as a branch of applied psychology" because "the act of knowing [a poem] is itself an act of sympathizing" and therefore not an act of science, and if his book "make[s] poetry more beautiful, without [our] ever having to remember the novelties, or endeavour to apply them", what kind of reasons does it provide?

There is no need to apologize for all those "niggling pages": the outcome of the match is not in doubt. But after seven rounds, the sceptic is left standing. Empson wins on points.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Rationality of Despair

Philosophers rarely reflect upon the plight of the fan. Committed to a team in ways that are largely involuntary, one is compelled to ride its fortunes as a wave, cresting occasionally – one hopes – but often dashed on the rocks of failure and defeat. As I write these words, the Pittsburgh Pirates' record stands at 67-95, and their season is at an end.

These thoughts were prompted by an engaging essay that appeared quite recently – in fact, two years ago, now – in the Journal of Philosophy: "The Irrationality of Unhappiness and the Paradox of Despair".

Its central argument is disarmingly simple. Almost everyone agrees that some of what we take to matter in itself is irrelevant to our own happiness. We must distinguish an idle wish, whose frustration does not harm me at all, from the good things to which I am committed in such a way as to be made happy by their realization and unhappy by the absence of it. I'd love to be a major league pitcher, but it would be wrong to mourn the fact that I am not.

Sarah Buss provides a simple criterion: something is an object of commitment, and therefore relevant to one's happiness, only if one adopts it as an end; and a condition of being an end is being taken as a practicable object of pursuit.

This is what generates the "paradox of despair". For if despair is unhappiness about the impossibility of achieving some good, the good must be an object of commitment – or else irrelevant to one's happiness – and so it must be something one thinks one could achieve. At the very least, one must hope for its attainment, and in hoping believe that it is possible. It follows that despair is epistemically irrational: it depends on having contradictory beliefs.

The "irrationality of unhappiness" turns on the further claim that all unhappiness is despair. For how could one be unhappy about the frustration of an end one thinks one could achieve? Maybe you are unhappy that it hasn't been achieved yet, or that you aren't getting there faster. But are those things possible? If not, your unhappiness is despair. If so, and if this is really an end that you adopt, why not simply achieve it, or get there faster? After all, you've admitted that you can. Perhaps you will reply that, although it would be possible to achieve the end more rapidly, doing so would conflict with other ends. But then the object of your unhappiness ought to be the fact that it is impossible to achieve the conflicting ends together, all at once. And again, your unhappiness is despair.

It follows that unhappiness is not only unfortunate but irrational – though it is crucial to stress that the irrationality is epistemic, and that one might have compelling practical reason to be unhappy, even if one must thereby live in contradiction.

There is something moving about these arguments, I find, even if they do not work: they represent in a pure form the philosophical aspiration to overcome the difficulties of being alive by the sheer exercise of theoretical intellect – an aspiration also found in some arguments that it is irrational for us to be immoral.

Against the second argument: it is a fact of life that we fail to pursue some ends that we take to be both possible and essential to our happiness. This may be practically irrational – a form of akrasia – but it makes room for unhappiness without despair.

Against the first argument: it is a fact of life that many of us are made unhappy by the dismal record of our favourite teams, even though we do not adopt their improvement as an end, and may regard it as impossible. I do nothing, and would sacrifice little, to make the Pirates win; nor can I see how to achieve that goal. When I buy tickets, it is not in order that the money should improve the team – though I'd rather it do that than line the pockets of the avaricious and incompetent upper management – it's in order to watch them play, which I would just as soon do for free. Still, I regard myself as a typical fan: it depresses me to think about my team's pathetic performance.

It may be irrational to commit oneself to something that is, in this way, out of one's control – an indictment that would apply to millions – but it does not involve an incoherence of belief. The feelings of the hopeless fan are an all-too-common illustration of the epistemic rationality of despair.