Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beginning Philosophy

Daniel Dennett begins his book Sweet Dreams by asking for the literal truth of consciousness as opposed to the metaphorical image of it as words and images subjectively experienced in the mind. This distinction between literal and metaphorical is not made thematic, instead taken-for-granted. It’s assumed that literal corresponds to material and so the brain while metaphorical refers to our subjective experience of our minds. But the question of the literal and the metaphorical or figurative is quite vexed with some arguing that the literal is a historically contingent category and doesn’t describe a natural kind or the real stuff of the world. That means that in some past eras what we think of as literal they thought of as metaphorical or figurative. For example, in a Christian culture God was literally real. A mechanically functioning Newtonian clockwork universe can be seen as metaphorical in relation to the literal truth of an organically interconnected, God-created world. Others argue that language itself is essentially metaphorical or figurative since it’s an analogy to a reality we don’t know in and of itself. From this perspective, Dennett’s designation of scientific naturalism and materiality as literal is dependent on the metaphorical properties of language.

From another perspective Thomas Nagel argues that Dennett has lost the data of our subjective experience of consciousness. The palpably real subjective experience isn’t figurative or metaphorical, it can be seen as realer than anything else. So Dennett hasn’t explained the data but explained it away. What’s central to know for Nagel, subjective experience, becomes in Dennett’s work an epiphenomenon. The reality of our subjective experience, so different from the third-person perspective of the natural science's examination of the brain, has been lost.

Yet if we want to understand the vivid self-evident reality of our subjective experience then the tradition of phenomenology recommends and practices a detailed examination of it using our capacity to witness it. From this approach we get the tradition originating with Husserl, and running through, among others, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre.

That phenomenological tradition and Dennett’s ahistorical scientific examination can be subject to a historically informed critique from a Marxian-inspired, Frankfurt School analysis which understands the very objects and subjects of inquiry and the methods used to understand them as socially and historically created entities which encrypt within them the conflicts and fissures of the historical era of their arising.

And yet, from another well-argued, but lesser known perspective, all of the above are seen as a problematic outgrowth of and different variations upon the dominant rationalistic inquiry of the modern era seen as the “barbarism of reason” and a result of the wrong course taken by Descartes. Donald Phillip Verene reconstitutes instead the ancient Roman and Renaissance Humanist tradition originating in Roman thought and revived in Renaissance Italy and Vico which places the human ability of conceptualization in our mythic origins and the imagination essential to figuring those myths.

If philosophy’s traditional role is to answer our questions about first things or fundamentals, how, with this diversity of conflicting views, does one even start? On what basis does one choose to do one’s philosophy when there are such fundamentally opposed approaches? To initiate the very practice of one begs the questions of the others. How could philosophy answer this question?

How do the philosophers who enact these traditions initiate their inquiries when the more fundamental question of why proceed in that way goes unanswered? Why are their traditions more convincing to them than the others whose questions they beg? What aspects of them cause them to have the alliance to their approach that they do?

As soon as one starts to do one’s philosophy, all these larger questions of how to even do philosophy have been answered without thinking.