Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rational Relativism

In contrast to Paul Boghossian’s book refuting relativism (mentioned in my previous post), is Steven Hales’ new book, Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy, defending a form of relativism. Hales is well-schooled in analytic philosophy and logic and will avoid the relativism which asserts the self-refuting proposition that “everything is relative”, and will instead defend the proposition “everything true is relatively true”. Haven’t seen yet how he’ll make that statement non-self-refuting, but I know from previous books of his that he’s aware of the problem and has an answer.

So far, there is a very interesting discussion about rational intuition. This is the necessity of philosophers to say there are certain bedrock propositions which we know to be true intuitively. Hales says philosophy can’t do without them, but it’s not clear how they are justified. How do we decide which of conflicting intuitions are right?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Construction of Knowledge

Paul Boghossian’s recent book Fear of Knowledge is a critique of constructivism and relativism and a defense of a classical conception of knowledge. In opposition to the idea of the constructed fact he writes “many facts about the world are independent of us…the fact…that dinosaurs once roamed the earth is not dependent on us but is, rather, just a natural fact that obtains without any help from us.” (p.20)

Without human minds, humans’ creation of meaning, the creation of techniques of inquiry like science, concepts, categorizations like “dinosaurs” and ancient history there would not be “dinosaurs.” Without these things there wouldn’t be ideas like “mind-independent world.”

First, create language. Then separate and conceptualize mind, world, objects, etc. Then conceive of mind-dependent and mind-independent things. Then forget all this has happened and imagine that you are transparently perceiving and representing the way the world simply is apart from any human looking at it with their particular perceptive constructions. Then say “it’s simply there, objectively.”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Hidden World

Here’s an example of the illusion of the neutral perspective, where presentation is a misrepresentation. A world masquerading as what is.

I was reading the historian of ideas Martin Jay’s new book Songs of Experience where he describes differing modern theorists’ conceptions of experience. We get Jay’s clear, informed, fair-minded descriptions of other writers’ formulations of modern experience and the self. There are chapters on Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Barthes and others. The world evoked implicitly by this style of presentation is one of clarity, neutrality, a this-is-the-gist-of-what-the-theorist-says tone. While it gives the impression of being a transparent window onto the theorist’s world it actually assumes the existence of a world that is different from the one the theorist being presented creates.

You don’t enter the world of the theorist by reading a description of his work. You don’t experience the world they evoke. By reading secondary sources you remain in the world of secondary descriptions and implicitly assume that world’s posture. Like the articles in The New Yorker magazine. The non-fiction pieces have a distinctive style: clarity, neutral, inquisitiveness, good judgment; our eyes in a strange land. The specialists they write about are domesticated for public consumption. The secondary source is a world of detachment as opposed to the primary texts world of immersion. It gives the experience of a broad understanding of diverse worlds, but it is removed. It’s an uncommitted way of life, which one commits to. The magazine is highbrow recreation. It can’t be too demanding or people wouldn’t want to read it for pleasure during their leisure time. It feels reasonable, objective, moderate, balanced, fair-minded, decorous, not over zealous. Is it worse than the primary source?

It uses what is currently considered literal language instead of the metaphorical or figurative. But according to Rorty and Hayden White among others, these distinctions are historically contingent. Today’s metaphors can become tomorrow’s literality. Heidegger and others are vying to create our new literality. Freud already has. Their original insights have to become what’s obvious, taken-for-granted, what most don’t reflectively know, but everyone enacts.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Emotion, Belief and Philosophy

My brilliant wife, who’s not an intellectual and so knows more than me, said something interesting. She said, “I feel like I’ve won the lottery in being with you for the rest of my life. Winning that lottery is better than winning a million dollars, isn’t it?” I paused. I wasn’t so sure, but not because she isn’t great to be with, but because I couldn’t feel that in my heart. So I imagined feeling it, and was taken aback when I a ball of loving feeling rose up in my chest. Yet, just as quickly it was suppressed. I had the strong sense that if it had come out I would have felt, at least for that moment, that yes, a lifelong, loving relationship was better than a million dollars. For me, a million dollars means a life of freedom from coerced toil and all the time I want to read, think and write; a dream come true. The power of love felt like it would have changed what I valued. A relationship would mean more to me than my free time.

The choice between a significant relationship and all the money I’d need, raised the issue of what I valued in life. They were significantly different positions (although, of course, one could have both). It’s a common story in America, the person who neglects relationships for success. The adherence to one of these two views on what is of value in life and the different belief systems they represent would be based on the release (or not) of a feeling in my heart. My worldview would change based on a shift in feeling.

That’s not say that this would have been a lasting change. But it suggests the power of emotion to alter the course of a life by altering what one believes is valuable in life and valuable to strive for. Feeling and belief about what is important are the ingredients in our philosophies of life. It suggests an emotive basis for our basic orientation to life.