Friday, October 26, 2012

Ordinary language philosophy and the democracy of the dead

There's something democratic (at least in flavour) about ordinary language philosophy, and tradition is what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead. Both come to mind when I read J.E.H. Smith saying this:
I am more convinced than ever that what some guy who happens to be alive right now, and employed by a university to tell us what he happens to think about, e.g., whether there is a hard problem of consciousness or not, can be of next to no interest for our understanding of the philosophical question in question. The truth is I don't think it's very grown-up, intellectually, to set about actually trying to answer questions like these, at least in the way we are used to seeing philosophers try to answer them. In this respect, I am sympathetic to the approach of experimental philosophy, even if I have not yet been able to convince any experimental philosophers that I'm on their side. Like them, I think the more sophisticated and fruitful approach to questions like, e.g., whether the mind is distinct from the body, is not try to answer them directly, but to somehow take a survey of the range of possible positions human beings take up on the question. Now, the experimental philosophers today think it is enough to survey their contemporaries, by methods borrowed mostly from psychology. I'm starting to think that what we need to do is, so to speak, to survey the past, using methods adapted from archeology, historical linguistics, and evolutionary biology, and recently applied with impressive results in unlikely fields such as comparative literature.
Can I blame my cold for not being able to think about this (or much of anything else)? Anyway, if you have thoughts on what Smith says, feel free to tell me what to make of it.



    '...I do not see that the faults of explicit discipleship are more dangerous than the faults which come from subjection to modes of thought and sensibility whose origins are unseen or unremembered and which therefore create a different blindness inaccessible in other ways to cure. Between control by the living and control by the dead there is nothing to choose.'

  2. Thanks! I really can't think very well, but that does really seem like the right answer.

    There is something nicely ego-less about Smith's idea, but also maybe something irresponsible, or despairing in a blameworthy way. We are condemned to be free, and cannot just say to any question: "Here are all the answers."

  3. i don't think i agree with that.

    his project actually sounds a lot like one of my super-projects. in the formulation there he might be focused a little too much on the doxological, but i don't think he's excluding anything. i think that rather than 'here are all the answers', the project could be thought of as more like, 'here's a picture of what philosophers have been up to'. positions and answers are one proxy for that. the gambit is partly that drawing the picture on a different scale would permit observations about significant structures that are normally neglected or unappreciated.

    my concern would be that a number of the most significant structures are not well-represented in the texts themselves, or are accessible via close reading but not 'distant reading', statistical analysis, etc. i'm thinking of 'structures' like political power, state of 'confessionalization', biographical and day-to-day patterns in philosophers' lives. some of those sorts of things have been studied occasionally, but i don't know how to get access to them text-analytically as smith is envisioning.

    that doubt might be underestimating the fruitfulness of moretti-style investigation, though.

  4. and i do think that as a discipline/profession we're pretty tragically/frustratingly prone to compel others into 'being philosophical' or 'being responsible' in places where there seem to be genuine advantages to be had from a great deal more patience and circumspection about what we're up to.

  5. What he seems to be excluding is taking a position of one's own. Maybe I have misunderstood. And not taking a position sounds in some ways attractive: maybe the various positions that have been staked out are all wrong (the problem is a pseudo-problem, or each answer is part of the truth and only all of them together express the whole truth) or maybe the responsible thing to do is to think more about it rather than feeling obliged to pick a position. But there seems to be something disengaged about gathering and mapping answers without, well, engaging with problems oneself. I don't think that everyone ought to have a thesis to defend (certainly not on every philosophical issue, and maybe on none). But don't you sort of have to own something, if only the problem? And if a problem is real for you, how could you be satisfied with a survey? Or is that like asking how sketches of landscapes could ever be philosophy? Probably I have misunderstood.

    Can you say more about what you mean by structures? That would help me, I think. (Sorry if this is incoherent. A large cat has decided to intervene while I'm trying to type and think.)

  6. well, the project is historical. so i was thinking of whatever relevant socio-political structures, patterns in ways of living, mores, literary genres, mentalities, etc. etc. one finds when one looks more broadly at that history than just at the (canonically-selected) texts it contains. this might have leaned more in the direction of matters 'extrinsic to philosophy' than smith intended, who knows.

    all i read was something about not -yet- taking a position in the ways positions are usually now taken, answers to questions usually now given. i think that as a research project, how exactly it was envisioned to issue in answers to problems, or ways to answer them, has been left unspecified.

    but i have a hard time hearing this 'owning problems' and feeling problems to be 'real for you' as anything other than an impulse toward treating problems trans-historically or a-historically. i know there's a wittgensteinian tradition of indexing the reality of a problem to the person of the philosopher, but if so then why can't there also be a way of the philosopher taking an interest in the history of the problem or the problem-space or the phenomenon with which formulations of the problem have generally been concerned, and then seeking to understand that better before settling on a way of seeing a problem there, or addressing one?

    what do you imagine might go missing if someone is not 'engaged'? is it like studying math problems without ever trying to solve them, or like studying ethical problems without ever responding ethically to them? or...?

  7. Thanks.

    Not yet taking a position sounds fine to me, as does the project of studying the history of a problem and responses to it. And I don't know whether this is quite right, but I think what I see as being wrong with a completely disengaged approach is that it would be like studying ethical problems without ever responding ethically to them. Or rather, since my response to what Smith says is ambivalent, I think the fear that the project he describes might be like this is what makes me slightly uneasy about it. Maybe I need to read him more charitably, or just see the project carried out.

  8. I have three problems with the text by J. E. H. Smith:
    (1) I’m not sure what problem he is referring to by the question ”whether the mind is distinct from the body”.
    (2) As for taking “a survey of the range of possible positions human beings take up on the question”, I could possibly imagine that being done, say, through comparative literature or perhaps even historical linguistics, neglecting, for the moment, questions such as how the word “mind” would translate over different languages and epochs (after all, the word doesn’t even have any satisfactory translation into present-day Swedish or Finnish). But how are we to read “possible positions” on the issue into non-verbal evidence such as that uncovered by archeologists, not to mention that of evolutionary biology?
    (3) Leaving all else aside, if I try to think of some philosophical problem that bewilders me, I can’t see how I could be helped by being told about “possible positions” taken up by people living in various cultures and periods of history. After all, I’m not looking for information but for clarity: I want to get my own mind around the issue. After being told about somebody else’s opinion, I’d be left with the question how I am to understand what he or she is saying.
    (This is not meant to deny that reading about mythical ideas about the creation of human beings, about humankind’s relation to nature, animals and the gods that are held in different cultures can be deeply enlightening – I simply don’t see how that would help me get clear about the philosophical issues that bewilder me.)

  9. Thanks, Lars. The expression "possible positions" is odd because the range of possible positions seems to be determined by logic, not history. So I assume that he really means "positions that people have held or imagined," or something like that. And there does seem to be value in this. For one thing, I think that the search for truth or knowledge is a good thing, and that finding out what the Aztecs, say, thought about the mind, or the relation between mind and body, would be valuable (even if it had no special value for philosophers). More relevantly, it seems that it might have value for philosophers. If we have to think how to translate some term, or wonder whether 'mind' is the right word for it, for instance, then this might help us get clear about what we mean by 'mind'. Never mind the Aztecs, knowing how Swedes and Finns talk about things that English-speakers would talk about using the word 'mind' would be interesting, and possibly enlightening. (Are there no Cartesians in Sweden and Finland? Could learning Swedish help one see that we don't have to think of the mind as a thing?) Studying the natural history of concepts (and there will surely be some marginal cases regarding what is or is not the same concept) and the various uses of concepts made by different peoples sounds like a potentially useful preliminary to philosophy. But it does seem preliminary. (It also seems potentially endless, and not usefully focused.) If I want to know whether I really have free will or whether I should eat meat, knowing that these people thought this and those people thought that isn't likely to help. It might help--I might realize along the way that I have assumed a false dichotomy, say, or understood 'free will' in a misleadingly metaphysical way--but it might not. Isn't the question in the end: What should I say about this? And knowing what others say, or have said, doesn't answer that question for me, even if it sometimes helps.

  10. Dear Duncan,

    I’ll begin by saying something first about the connection you draw between Chesterton and ordinary language, and then the connection you draw between both of these and the Smith quotation.

    The obvious dis-analogy between Chesterton and ordinary language philosophy is that Chesterton is especially concerned with a contrast between present and past, whereas ordinary language philosophy emphasises the distinction between technical, philosophical uses of words and ‘ordinary’ or ‘lay’ uses. Chesterton enfranchises the dead, ordinary language philosophy enfranchises the laity. Still, the difference may not be very important. ‘Ordinary language philosophy’ is a term that covers several distinct modes of philosophising. At its best, it is far from – indeed I think it is anti-thetical to – the idea of consulting day-by-day empirical use: consulting dictionaries, conducting surveys etc. That sort of approach has at least two serious faults. First it already insinuates a distance between the philosopher and the language he or she studies. Language use is treated as a quasi-scientific datum observed and quantified (for purposes of theory construction) but bearing no essential connection to the philosophers own use of language, their finding, so to speak, their own individual voice and understanding (someone else can conduct the study for them and simply provide the data). Second, and relatedly, that approach inevitably shears away much of the human context in which language is used, and the result is benighted (and sometimes close to comic) parodies of language and meaning. It assumes a view of language as a code (like morse or something) only contingently related to the conditions of human life under which it is used. The philosophers who are genuinely alive to the subtlety, nuance and richness of language are so because they are alive to this human context, and try to relate their philosophical reflection to a personal appreciation of that context. They need not go under the name ‘ordinary language philosopher’. In a sense, the uses of language they are most interested in are often not ‘ordinary’ at all. As Cora Diamond has said, they study language ‘at the stretch’. Hence their interest in poetry and literature, at uses of language sensitive to its human possibilities. Chesterton certainly had this kind of sensibility, and it informed and motivated his concern for the past (if you love everything human, you can’t be insular). In this sense he was an ordinary language philosopher, in that his democratic instinct would have instinctively opposed treating the words of anyone – living or dead – as mere scientific specimens, an essentially specialised and anti-democratic attitude. The voices of others, past or present, were for him always living voices in the sense of being ones he could take seriously (between which he discriminated, and not merely described and classified), ones he could engage in a conversation with, or could have if they were still biologically alive. I would give a year of my life, at least, to see what he would have written about experimental philosophy. It’s essentially misguided, whether applied to the past or not.

  11. Thanks very much, Andrew. This is much better said than I could have put it, but I agree with it all (except perhaps the part about giving a year of my life).