Sunday, May 15, 2011

Prejudice and fun

Not the fun of prejudice, but two separate notes about recent posts at New APPs.

In this post, I was struck by the quotation from Hume (it's from Book I, part III, section XIII of the Treatise, according to a quick Google search):
to use another of Hume’s examples, common prejudices such as an “Irishman cannot have wit, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity.” 
If wit means intelligence then these exact prejudices are still around (or were when I was growing up) almost three hundred years later. (I assume that having solidity is the opposite of being a cheese-eating surrender monkey.) Which all ties in with the idea here that "we still seem to be up to our necks in the slavery heritage." That kind of heritage dies hard. 

And now for some good news: fun. Or funsterism. Here is a defense of philosophers who boldly go against common sense. It's weird (not exactly unusual, but disorienting) to see things from that point of view. In comments there, dmf writes that "If memory serves Rorty reads Davidson, after Kuhn, on "living" metaphors as non-sensical creations (perhaps provoked by encounters with the unassimilated)that evoke paradigm shifts and then are slowly incorporated into everyday use and slowly “die”."  I don't know whether Rorty would have liked calling such things nonsensical (maybe that's just the word that Davidson uses, I don't know), but otherwise this idea sounds fine to me. It's hardly the same thing as philosophers claiming that possible worlds are real, though, or that nothing is a part of anything. Or so it seems to me. If only because this kind of metaphysics is not likely to appeal to the people who turn nonsense into dead metaphors.

That post links to this one, which says that philosophers create concepts. Of course this is true (qualia, anyone?), but it's hard to think of any good concepts that philosophers have created, or ones that have caught on with non-philosophers. Newton and Einstein have been influential in fruitful ways, but have any philosophers? I suppose they have, but the names that come to mind are either hundreds of years old or else in the continental tradition. If contemporary analytic philosophers think that what they are doing is being creative in the way that, say, Einstein was, then I suspect they are mistaken. But even as I type I'm becoming more and more aware of how ignorant I am about the subject.  

Finally, speaking of lumping things together, here's a new blog to check out: Lump and Split, by J. Jeffers.


  1. Damnit, comment got eaten. This version will probably be shorter.

    "I don't know whether Rorty would have liked calling such things nonsensical (maybe that's just the word that Davidson uses, I don't know), but otherwise this idea sounds fine to me."

    He wouldn't have, and Davidson didn't. The problem with doing so is that the question of sense/nonsense is orthogonal to the issue of metaphoric functioning. A true sentence such as "Obama puts his pants on one leg at a time" or a false one such as "Love is a battlefield" can function as metaphors, and so can sentences like "Metaphor is the dreamwork of language" where I don't know what to say about its truth or sensicality (does it presuppose that language can sleep? is "of language" an objective or subjective genitive?). And then some nonsense sentences ("Books are rhomboid fluorine") and some sensical sentences ("There are black dogs") would be hard-pressed to do any work as metaphors.

    Davidson says that metaphors function in the way that pictures do, and that "a picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture." A picture can lead its viewer to think of certain things alongside one another, or in connection or contrast with one another, which he would not have otherwise done. But the way it does so cannot be reconstructed as by supplying things which can serve as premises in a valid inference to the conclusion which is the thoughts inspired in the viewer, or anything along those lines -- pictures are not the sort of thing that can have the sort of content a sentence has (that is "the wrong currency"). Not all of our thoughts are arrived at rationally (in the way codifiable in valid inferences), and this is a good thing: creativity is a lovely and useful part of our lives.

    Incidentally, the only relevant Davidson/Rorty pieces here are "What Metaphors Mean" and "Davidson and Hesse on Metaphor", so this is an easy place to remove a feeling of ignorance of a subject, should the spirit move you to do so. (Davidson says in the "In Conversation" discussion on Youtube that he really liked Rorty's Hesse article as an exposition/defense of DD's view.)

  2. Forgot a bit I meant to write (I'll blame it on my comment getting eaten):

    "It's hardly the same thing as philosophers claiming that possible worlds are real, though, or that nothing is a part of anything. Or so it seems to me."

    I'm actually not sure that this isn't a profitable way to think about those guys: they're providing new ways of talking, ways which are initially (at least somewhat) metaphorical, but which can sediment into just being one more optional vocabulary we can take up at leisure. I don't think that this is how *they* think of what they're doing (though I'm less sure of David Lewis than of Sider or van Inwagen), but then the Idealists, Realists, and Solipsists of PI 402 don't think that they're working in the way LW says they are, either. But it seems to me that the shoe fits: Lewis wants to make it no longer seem pressing to answer questions like "What are modal claims about?" by talking in terms of "real non-actual worlds", and a lot of opposition to "modal realism" attacks this shift of vocabulary as if they were attacking something they already were talking about, but which (before David Lewis) everyone knew was false ("There is only one world!"). What looks like (can look like) disagreements in metaphysics are actually disagreements about metaphysical vocabularies: there's only a show of there being some theses which one side accepts and the other rejects, since there's no agreement in how any such thesis is to be understood (even where, among the supposed theses, are theses which look like "...and we understand by this claim that...." or "...which is meant in the sense of...").

    I think this is quite contrary to the spirit of the "New Apps" post you linked, but I'm not sure it isn't closer to what Deleuze & Guatarri actually saw as the value of their work: they were providing new vocabularies we could take up (or not), not trying to make us better "understand" "common sense" in the way that "conceptual analysis" or Hume's psychological speculations were meant to. Guatarri said that what he really wanted to do was "say stupid shit. Barf out the fucking-around-o-maniacal schizo flow", and it seems to me that any value in such a project would be very different from anything Hume could see as the value of *his* project, let alone Sider or van Inwagen. "Creating concepts" in the D-G sense is saying "God is a lobster", not "God is an entity possessing maximal greatness".

    (This is an extension of my short post on Andy Clark's extended mind thing from a while back.)

  3. Thanks, Daniel. I'll have to read those papers.

    My doubts about Rorty liking the word 'nonsensical' in this (or just about any other) context stem partly from my sense that he preferred to talk about what was useful or not rather than what made sense and what did not. And my sense (or prejudice, to be more accurate) about the innovations of people like Sider is that they will not be useful. (Although maybe Lewis's could be, in the way that you suggest.) Partly for this reason and partly because, as you say, this almost certainly is not how the people concerned think of what they are doing, my suspicion is that it is what I would call nonsense. But, of course, I have no business writing off the work of Sider, van Inwagen, or anyone else, as nonsense without studying it carefully. I'm really just exploring my own prejudices here.

    That said, if "God is a lobster" is nonsense, then it's of a very different kind. Someone who says things like that is clearly up to something different from mainstream analytic metaphysics. Which is all just to say that what you say sounds quite right to me (without wishing to imply that I already knew about Deleuze, Guatarri, or their project).