Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Philosophy's Perennial Problems

Western philosophy’s perennial problems – mind/body, free will/determinism, objective truth, ethics, etc. - are generally thought to be persisting problems because they capture an essential mystery or conundrum about existence. But here’s a different way of looking at them. The perennial problems of Western philosophy - its recurring problems – can be seen as repetition compulsions. That is, as a pathological repeating on a superficial level of some unresolved issue deeply buried in philosophy’s social-psychology. And if they should be seen as a pathology what is the issue that Western philosophy is trying to work out?

The Meyerhoffian Solution (A personal favorite) - One possibility is that the underlying pathology is a split between the psychology of the thinker and the thinker’s beliefs. Since the major philosophical problems have not been rationally resolved and can be criticized by those opposed to any view, believers in a solution to the problems cannot have their belief in their solution by the reasons of their arguments alone. Their belief in their view and their adoption of their side of the argument has to have some of its origin in their personal psychologies since their reasons do not hold sway. On the foundational level of our beliefs we can’t have our allegiance to the answer to a philosophical problem without our non-rational attachment to a particular way of looking at things. This is fundamental and unresolved, and mostly unrecognized split, in the contemporary rational inquirer, but I’m not sure that resolving the split would lead to a resolution of the philosophical problems. More likely we would know why a given person adopts their side of the philosophical argument.

The Frankfurt School Solution - That perspective would interpret the cause of the persisting dualities of Western philosophy as a result of the persistent socio-economic divisions of contemporary capitalist society. We are socially and economically divided and in conflict with each other through class and power inequalities. There is no inherent betterness in one person rather than another or more reason for one person to have the necessities of life rather than another yet we must live in a society that distributes the means of existence based on a skewed view of achievement rather than human need. This socio-economic condition creates existential, personal and interpersonal divisions and is reproduced on the cultural level in the persisting contradictions and conflicts that philosophers encounter.

The Neo-Wittgensteinian-by-Way-of-Rortyan Solution - A third explanation I take from Richard Rorty. Western philosophy’s enchantment with the assumption or concept that there is “a way in which things are” leads to arguments about what that “way in which things are” is. If we don’t assume there is a way in which things objectively are (or is not knowable) then everyone is presuming and using a representationalist vocabulary, assuming that our words are representations of the world, and an objectivist or realist assumption that cannot be redeemed. There is no way the world is in and of itself which some of us have a superior insight into. There is the way we hash out our differing views of the world and for the differing purposes we have for doing so. The philosophical assumption – here thought to be false or of little use – is that there exists an entity – the actually existing state of affairs – which is what one side of each argument is matching or getting right but which cannot be shown to exist. By ceasing to assume that we are trying to “get reality right” the attempt to solve the perennial problems of philosophy would not have to be repetitiously enacted and inevitably failed at.

The Mystical-Transcending solution – Here the practitioner of a mystical practice is understood to cultivate the ability to have a direct experience of the nature of reality, bypassing or transcending discursive thought in order to dissolve the boundary between self and other or subjective and objective. The perennial problems of philosophy are resolved in practice and in the transformed being of the practitioner. The duality of thinking is resolved through the non-duality of being.

The Nietzscean-Foucauldian-Rortyan Genealogical Solution – Demonstrate through a historical analysis that what are thought to be the perennial problems of philosophy are not perennial problems, but historically contingent problems. Contemporary problematizing tendentiously interprets past dilemmas as the same as present day dilemmas when they aren’t the same dilemmas. The words used and the social contexts in which they were used changes. Rorty cites works like Wallace Matson’s “Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient?” Foucault describes the practice of genealogy as distinguished from conventional history in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.”


Joshua Nash said...


Such fun ideas to kick around! I, too, find it quite useful to question the basics to route out those pesky assumptions, guesses, etc.

That being said, I'd like to offer something my very wise mother has asked me: "How would knowing that effect/affect you?" In essence, what would you benefit from that new knowing?

It seems to me that most philosophy (and psychology) works with the assumption that greater knowledge=greater peace, happiness, etc. However, I would argue that this assumption fails to recognize the often paralyzing quality that more knowledge has on an individual. Phobias, cognitive dissonance, knowledge without the requisite adjustment to self-doubt are all quick examples of how more knowledge can lead to more suffering.

I don't mean to champion an "ignorance is bliss" argument. Rather, I wish to thrown in the idea that what often gets passed around as knowledge in any "-ology" or "-osophy" is not much more than a soporific for our ever-questing and questioning egos.



Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Hi Joshua,

Yes, your wise mother is something of a pragmatist. What is the use of the questioning and answering? The approaches I list are attempts to relieve ourselves of the perennial philosophical questions, but could lead to their own lengthy discussions. Of course others would say that by asking those philosophical questions we are investigating reality, adding to knowledge, learning about the world.

If someone is plagues by these questions these alternatives to a direct answer could be liberating.