Sunday, August 22, 2010

Douthat has it wrong, Corvino has it right

I don't think much needs to be said. Corvino has significantly refuted Douthat's argument in a NY Times column here. What Corvino has done is, however, extend charitability to Douthat's argument to the point that he transforms Douthat's op-ed piece into an argument. It is rather the simple assertion of deluded human being and it is to Corvino's character that he is so charitable.

The assertion of a belief, whether Christian or postmodern (pick your favorite label or eponym), is not an argument. That's all Douthat has done. Consider this passage:

The point of this ideal [of heterosexual marriage] is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

The point I am making is this piece is mere assertion, and yet speaks to the stupidity of opinion pieces in popular media. Douthat offers no independent reason to convince us that the ideal of heterosexual marriage offers something distinctive. It is just the assertion that marriage ought to have this privileged status. This is what Corvino should have said about this op-ed piece.

Now, philosophers do this all the time -- they build up the background assumptions of an argument if they are not explicitly stated -- to the point that what they criticize is the best version conceivable. If that best version fails for some obviously flawed reasons, then we have a right to reject it and its lesser forms. As such, again, Corvino should be commended because I would not have the patience to be a philosopher with someone as moronic as Douthat.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Indirect Continental Bashing

Now, I've said that Derrida is obscure and never states what he means. However, a charitable reading of Derrida starts with this as a basic fact and then moves on from there. This is definitely not charitable:

I am personally very sympathetic to the analysis of Chomsky and others, for whom a certain variety of philosophical obscurantism results not just from sloppiness or from lack of intellectual rigor, but is indeed an intrinsic part of its proponents' strategy for protecting their racket. The usual line of criticism approaches the phenomenon of French obscurantism with the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy (a measure by which it is doomed in advance), when what is in fact needed is sociology. It has often struck me that much American 'continental' philosophy depends on a total ignorance of the social milieu of the Parisian professoriat, and on a consequent inability to detect that what looks like the difficult expression of difficult ideas in writing is in fact just rarefied sociolect. Now sociolect, whether among carnies or professors, helps a group to cohere, and this helps it to survive. For Parisian professors as for speakers of carnie cant, all the better if outsiders are unable to understand....

What are the reasons for not clearly stating what one means? Here, it is read as a strategy to protect jobs of a few French professors, not a critique of a Western bias in philosophy since Plato to privilege a metaphysics of presence (obviously culminating in the work of Husserl!) Doubtful, Leiter would even want to know what the previous sentence means, though that is as clear and direct as I know how to say it. By extension, these poorly informed analytics do not want to actually engage with Derrida's work anymore than when French intellectualism of the 1980s was at its heyday.

Let us be fair. In the same post, Leiter does call our attention to the fact that this is an "ad hominem." Then again, Leiter has posted an excerpt on his wall giving credulity to an uncharitable interpretation of Derrida and promoting a philosophical intolerance for plurality. By grouping philosophers together that have nothing in common, he promotes the idea that there is something called "Continental philosophy". That's fallacious in itself. Why would a celebrated philosopher permit ad hominem arguments to stand on  his own wall if in fact the operative definition of philosophy is the systematic exchange of arguments in a dialectic to find the truth. I suspect motivations are not entirely philosophical, even with the qualifier.

As I've said many times before, even I find the interpretation of metaphysics qua presence questionable, but just because we do not accept a philosopher from the past does not mean we should not at least listen charitably to what they say.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Essay on the Superfluousness of Philosophy: What is to be done!?

A friend sent this to me over facebook. I must say this is quite extraordinary if only for the snarky comments about postmodernism. Where to start? A return to transcendence no doubt, a return to things themselves without losing sight of the fact that there are such things as truth, experience and minds.

School Rant

This is, I've got to say, one of the worst schools with respect to their health care. It is a self-insured plan completely administered by the university. They own it, and they don't give a rat's ass if you are even married. let alone have kids. Also, if you have a pre-existing condition, you'll pay the fees, wait around for one year, and then they'll cover you. The implicit hope is clear: they hope that you will go away, leave university and be sick. Can you imagine? Students paying for a service they can't use!

The only reason I am bitching is that this would have never happened in Canada. I say that in part I regret ever leaving Canada. Sometimes, I think I should have built up my work history even more, and applied for permanent residency.

I'm part of the Grad Assistant Union bargaining team for our contracts, and we'll probably mobilize on October 7th with all other public universities in the United States. The day of action's purpose is to make clear the want for affordable public universities. As people keep losing their homes, more and more people cannot afford the basic necessity of a higher education. This is forcing families to borrow unprecedented amounts. Top tier schools are out of reach for deserving middle and lower income families. If public universities cannot keep up, then I don't know what we'll do as a nation.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ideas 1 Part 1

So, I have made my way through several chapters of Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, vol 1., and wanted to catalog my opening impression of the first 60 pages. Now, most of what I say here will not be about what I like since I like all of Husserl. What I like would simply be a regurgitation of agreement. That would be really redundant. Instead, I will focus on areas of confusion and what provoked my marginalia comments. With that said, I do have one striking question about the first chapter.

Nearing the end of the first chapter, Husserl introduces a range of logical concepts, yet he describe the purpose:
It has been our purpose to outline, on the basis of pure logic and as part of the fundamental structure of all possible cognition or cognitive objectivities proceeding from a pure logic, a schema in conformity with which individua must be determinable under synthetical principles a priori according to concepts and laws, or in conformity with which all empirical sciences are relevant to them and not merely on the pure logic common to all sciences (p. 32, section 17). 
I take it that whether grounded in pure logic or possible cognition or an ideal objectivity, Husserl wants to develop a schema, a type of conceptual representation that explains individual phenomena as determinable under synthetic principles a priori. In other words, the eidetic cognition that legitimates individual phenomena can be distilled to the point we can show eidetic cognition is the source for all possible knowledge of any individual phenomena. It can be shown to such an extent this eidetic cognition is a priori and comes to synthesize various elements of givenness from the phenomenon itself. In this way, it is not that these logical elements, or descriptions are common to all the sciences. Instead, these logical elements and descriptions serve as a legitimating force. So, here's the question: It feels like this was introduced in an impure way. Husserl does not bracket these elements, but instead simply insists upon these terms and logical elements. They seem to come out of nowhere, although they do have a stated purpose as I quote. So, the question that I first want to take on is if Husserl starts with these logical elements, terms and descriptions, then does the attempt at revealing their necessity feel a bit contrived apart from the phenomenology?

Now, it could be that this first chapter is simply a rehashing of the work Husserl did in Logical Investigations to establish the ideal objectivity of logical categories as independent from empirical naturalism. In this way, Ideas 1 is after a similar philosophical project, to defend the phenomenological attitude against any attempt to posit the general character of the natural attitude. So, I find that the contrivance of the logic chapter might not be that big of a deal, although it does feel a little too quick. I will post some other thoughts and questions I have tomorrow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Husserl, Finally...

As many of you may know, I think the unknown genius of the early 20th century is Husserl. He had the greatest contact with some of world's top intellectuals (Russell, Frege, Scheler, Gurswitch, Reinach) and had the generation of the world's greatest students and scholars influenced by his work in philosophy (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Derrida). Yet, these are reasons of taste, not substantial reasons for Husserl's greatness. I don't really think we can argue for greatness, other than to say how it is that history overshadows someone's thought. Analytics write Husserl off as an echo of Frege, which is probably Follesdal's fault mainly. Continental philosophers (even though there is really no such thing as I have said) write Husserl off either completely or slightly given their misguided commitment to Heidegger. As Paul Ricoeur has said and I repeat this often, the history of phenomenology is a history of "Husserlian heresies."

Either way, the "finally" part of the above title hints at I am finally taking a Husserl course, an independent study, but an independent study nonetheless on Husserl. I will make my way through Husserl's Ideas I, II and III. This semester will be accompanied by courses in Kant's first critique and Heidegger's Being and Time. As such, the direction this blog will move is to meditate on the meaning of Husserl's thought in those works, and whatever ruminations will result.

I'll also slow down in my posting, and I am thinking of inviting others to join in on the festivities with discussions on Ideas I, II and III.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Joshua Knobe on Knowledge without Belief

I have commented on this thread, thinking that the phenomenological distinction between pre-reflective intentionality and reflective intentionality has some purchase. We'll see if anyone responds.

An Example of Phenomenological Description

Several of my friends from an analytic background have wondered what a solid piece of phenomenological analysis looks like given that I constantly warn against thinking of phenomenology as introspection.

Here is a solid description of the affectivity of hope.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Feminism and Moral Standards

Before I get going in this post, first a definition to avoid confusion. This post is mostly a post about values. "Values" is a broad term used to encompass all the stated reasons why members of a certain culture will act the way they do. In this way, values encompass norms and intelligible opinions and attitudes cultural members will have internalized and attempt to justify for why it is the fact they will or have acted in a given way. Next, I use the term cultural relativism to explain the thesis that there are no culturally-transcendent values; instead values are relative to a cultural framework/domain. Framework and domain are used interchangeably.

Now, this post is not really meant for philosophical colleagues. Rehearsing the all too often rejection of cultural relativism as a sound approach to moral theorizing is not my sole purpose here--although admittedly, it is here. Instead, the purpose of this post is to reveal that these problems are embedded in the social scientists' mainstream approach in their discipline--this holds for all of social science.

On a brief office visit to a sociologist friend, I sat down and asked her plainly that if one adopts a feminist commitment, then certainly one has adopted prima facie a commitment to addressing the immoral practices and unjust circumstances that women find themselves in. She agreed to that. Next, I asked independent of feminism, what is the status of those values that feminism will call upon? She did not give up the much anticipated answer that there are moral frameworks, and indeed we can study them empirically. We can survey attitudes and the values people hold of, say, the morality of homosexual marriage or female genital mutilation, but in the end, these values are simply groundless. They have no backing independent of the cultures that engender them. In her words, "there are no absolutes" and this view is consistent with the postmodern skepticism that social scientists can have knowledge that is definitively culturally transcendent. To observe, say, the unequal distribution of salaries of women in a profession is wrong only insofar as the cultural framework has conventions that can spell out exactly why it is wrong. If another culture dominates women to the point that they are denied equal opportunity under the law and that culture has no feminist critics, then one cannot get any moral point of view going since to construe morality as deriving from culture is a non-starter. This can be explained with a much needed example.

Suppose two cultural frameworks, I will call the first C1 and the second C2.

C1 is the cultural domain in which women have no rights under the law, are considered property and prescribed a "proper" place as domestic workers and mothers only.

C2 is the cultural domain represented by women with advanced education, empowered with a range of opportunities, possess equal rights under the law, and are not considered property by anyone.

Both C1 and C2 express values, and empirically they disagree on the fundamental role women play in their society. Yet, in keeping with the cultural relativism adopted in social science, we cannot say that one culture is better than another since to invoke better appeals to concepts outside either C1 and C2. At the same time, this has another consequence. As a member of C1, I cannot be within that culture and disagree with that culture. Sure, I may disagree personally, but my disagreement has no status if I oppose my culture. Since values originate in culture, C1 can never be wrong. It is inerrant in that C1 is the source and justification of its own values. This is what I meant that cultural relativism is a non-starter.

Aside for not allowing moral reform and criticism from two very different cultures, cultural relativism is defended not on multicultural grounds, but on the motivation for the social scientist to understand as much as possible. Multiculturalism is just the result of trying to be value-neutral. Let me explain. Social scientists spend lots of time studying many different groups, and in their opting to make no judgments as to how those members of that group are, they regard their activity as value-neutral. If I am a political scientist attempting to understand how various groups vote, I will not impose my liberal politics on the question, but instead opt for an impartial value-neutral perspective that surveys all the different groups and their voting patters. This is an often repeated suggestion for what the social scientist is doing. Yet, to regard is to value. The attempt at being value-neutral is motivated by valuing value-neutrality. It is not a value-neutral position itself.

If the social scientist concedes that they value value-neutral perspectives, it could be they don't want to become the very thing they study. Social scientists often can give deeply troubling reasons for why some groups fare better in societies than others. Oftentimes, this comes from one group imposing its values on another, even quite dogmatically. They don't want to do the same thing since that might give rise to oppression in some way. This is an admirable quality, and so of all values, perhaps the only value a social scientist will recommend is multiculturalism. It fits with studying different groups as a scientist in the first place, and as such the endorsement of cultural relativism is the after thought multiculturalism. Yet, cultural relativism should be teased apart from multiculturalism. Here's why.

Multiculturalism is valued in terms of prudence of governments having a diverse population to rule. Multiculturalism therefore has more to do with tolerance than it does with cultural relativism. Remember, cultural relativism is a certain skepticism that we can have culturally-transcendent values. It is commonly associated with multiculturalism for this reason, but the reasons why we back multiculturalism are not that we can't have culturally-transcendent moral knowledge; instead, it is prudent and pragmatic way to govern.

Now, let's bring back the discussion of feminism. Feminists make moral claims that there are injustices against women. From the previous example, this might look like C2 making claims about C1. Cultural relativism will limit the moral claims members can make to either C1 or C2. Moral claims can only be internal to the cultural domains they come from. Again, there is no legitimacy for C2 members to make claims about C1 if this is so. However notice what motivated my friend's compliance with cultural relativism, it was a limitation of method and that method involves a constant explanation of people in terms of being members of a cultural domain. Social science does not seek to explain people as committing to a standpoint that transcends or acquires knowledge apart from culture. Culture is, in fact, an uber-explanatory force that removes us from viewing ourselves from the first-person standpoint, what I call moral agency. This type of explanation does not see people as beings  with desires, values and intentions that act freely on their own accord. For ethics itself looks to explain people in terms of the experience of individual freedom to respond to moral situations.

The next limitation of method in the social sciences is a conflation of two categories--the descriptive and the normative. When social scientists empirically observe differences in culture, say again C1 and C2,  the social scientist immediately infers that we should adopt cultural relativism. Yet, the empirical observation of their disagreement does not entail cultural relativism. The fact that C1 and C2 differ is only a description about the world, it does not remove the possibility that there is no fact of the matter that moral knowledge can be culturally-transcendent (and therefore objective). Moral knowledge instead looks to see how the world ought to be, not is. Disagreement is an observation of difference and no reason to think there is no truth, plain and simple. For example, in one culture people might have believed that the Earth is flat, and another culture might have thought the Earth is round. Given that there is disagreement between the two cultures (even if both cultures have no science or mathematics to really settle the issue), we cannot say that all knowledge is relative to culture.

So where does that leaves us? Feminism could be a proposed set of moral judgments about values we should see in our history, culture and social experiences that dominate women. In this way, it is an orientation that follows out of thinking that moral knowledge is culturally-transcendent in much the same way that basic truths of mathematics are true in all cultures at all times. Moreover, this does not mean that moral knowledge and the various theories we hold about morality are clearly known and dogmatic. On the contrary, moral knowledge is hard, difficult and there is much left unsettled. Given its hardness, it is better that we think that moral knowledge requires much effort and take to heart how easily it is for us to be wrong about things, even morality. This means that we should approach moral matters with a sense of humility, but on some things, we need not be as humble to think that genocide and systematic oppression of women are theoretically unsettled. They are just plain wrong, and any skepticism otherwise is untenable.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Phronesis and Openness

I have always found comfort in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Particularly, what Robert Louden has called anti-theory. However, I have never liked this expression since it questions Aristotle's general focus on ethics as a move to anti-theory. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ethics is capable of a very general level of precision. It is not about finding a single monistic principle by which to explain all of morality and the content of what we ought to do. Instead, practical wisdom, or what I will call throughout this post as phronesis is to be cultivated through our virtuous character. Central to this ethics is a process of responsive realization we have to difficult scenarios, and in denying that morality is codifiable -- that is by a principle or set of principles as in deontology or consequentialism -- practical wisdom stands in for determining what we ought to do. Virtue ethics is in my words a wisdom tradition and phronesis is at the heart of it all.

Phronesis is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is acquired through the reinforced habits of our ability to discern, see, judge and realistically implement the best course of action. It is incredibly open only insofar as there are many wise things to do in a given situation. The usual rendering of its ethical principle is the following: 

An action and/or character-trait is right if and only if it is exemplified in a phronimos. 

Phronimos are ideal moral agents in the community that are known for their excellence. They excel at doing the wise thing and knowing what one ought to do.  In truth, most difficult moral scenarios take time and a great deal of maturity to handle. Aristotle does not deny that there is intrinsically valuable life, a worthy life lived well. It's just that there are many ways to respond, and it is proper to respond well through the exercise of the virtues, including the intellectual virtues which are at the heart of knowing what we ought to do. Yet, it is anti-theoretical given the range of openness conducive to the exercise of a virtue trait and construes morality as something other than a principle or set of principles. Let me explain. 

Suppose a man is a former Marine and trapped in a hostage situation. The Marine is with his girlfriend and is one of several customers lying on the floor while the gunman is having a nervous breakdown at the chance of little or no escape. He has already shot one hostage. Now, when the negotiator is on the phone, the man reaches down to the Marine's girlfriend. The Marine as you has every right to think that he is dangerous in his intentions. Prevailing practical wisdom might require that we respond courageously to this incident, and acting courageously is understood as a v-rule. Conceding this point, however, we can interpret a whole range of morally appropriate manners:

1. Acting courageously might require that you get in the way of the gunman to grab your girlfriend
2. Acting courageously might require that you attack the gunman straight out. 
3. Acting courageously might require that you wait and do nothing while waiting for the police.
4. Acting courageously might require that you talk down the gunman. 

Now which of these three are the most morally appropriate? In many ways, the Marine can still do the courageous thing. Yet, it does not specify exactly what I ought to do precisely. Such a level of thinking permits us to respond contextually to a full range of possible outputs. This openness is then a strength and it takes phronesis to discern what we ought to accept. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feser's Bias Masked in Metaphysics

I have already given a very long response to this post over at Feser's blog. I will say, however, that I too defend a conception of virtue ethics. I am fond of the idea that besides thinking morality only applies to actions it primarily is about what type of people we ought to be. Unlike Feser, I don't go around and throw up very antiquated metaphysics even though I like Aristotle's formulation of virtue ethics. As contemporary philosophers, it is our job to identify those themes most pertinent to our theoretical need while also having an eye to the truth. We need to identify those parts of Aristotle that contribute in a positive manner to our need while at same time jettisoning a lot of it.

Feser wholeheartedly accepts Aristotelian teleology. For him, homosexuals don't share in the proper teleological essence of man. This is a sure way to loose any credibility amongst common everyday orthodoxy. In order to get this project off the ground, you need a very robust and metaphysical view that has been dead for a very long time. Feser has called on conservatives to not be cowards and adopt a "classical essentialist metaphysics".

The mistake lies in several areas. Among them is to think that teleology can only be a principle about nature. First, we might have a teleology as a proposed explanation that comes from our rationality, but is not constitutive of nature. This is a Kantian way to go. We might think that we can construct teleologies for evolutionary explanation since the limit of biology is largely a science of observation. This, however, is contingent upon systematizing our current observations. We might revise such explanations later. Both are more in line with a naturalist bent than thinking that nature is populated by essences conforming to nature's purpose. Even in a phenomenological sense, there are essences, but the principle of the phenomenological insight is to judge a thing's givenness solely without presupposition. This cannot be enacted by having a prior commitment to A-T essentialism. In this way, even phenomenology is more modest in its approach than Feser himself.

Secondly, a Thomist thinks they have reason to know God's law. A Thomist commits the Augustinian mistake--they think God is intelligible rather than siding with Plotinus who sees God as ineffable. If they saw the divine in more modest terms, they would not be so quick to see that God is on their side. For when anyone thinks they can know God's will, it inevitably follows that God will shore up your biases. That's what Feser has ultimately done.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Leiter's Excerpt on Political Media

We have had our disagreements, and some email correspondence about philosophical matters. It is interesting to see here that Leiter excerpts a good description of media bias here. Me likey-likey.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Past and Naturalism

As a philosopher, I often think that I have some good arguments. Moreover, I find myself revisiting elements of my own faith when pressed into the corner. I cannot say for certain whether or not a full-fledged naturalism is the best way to go. In my previous Anglophone analytic experience, it was the ONLY way to go. I've complained that numerous times that people in their presentations and after parties wanted more acceptance from their philosophical peers, resulting in a need to legitimize the conceptual bag of concepts they used. As such, they speculated on naturalizing their concepts over drinks, and then all was settled. There wasn't much need for any other philosophizing since anything else other than naturalism and full commitment to Ockham's razor was the only way to go. In fact, this implicit commitment to naturalism or some type of physicalism is now the guiding norm so much that I find myself in the same climate that Husserl found himself in tension with psychologism.

I am not against a naturalism program per se, but I find the orthodoxy achieved as something of an illusory confidence, as if some philosophers no longer want to argue for their premises. To do so, I think would show that naturalism is not as sturdy as originally thought.

Philosophical Explanations

Like all my blog posts, this should be taken as an undeveloped intuition pump to get my ideas out there.

Call a philosophical explanation any conceptual description of human experience. Usually such explanations are causal accounts, they might be something like explaining how practical reasoning works in terms of desire-satisfaction, or they might be even more naturalistic in invoking some compatibility or subsumption in a physical science. The Churchlands do this with neuroscience, explaining what a mind is via concepts like a neural network.

I take it that philosophical explanations might be minimal with respect to what is invoked in explaining human experience. For some fellow pragmatists, they are devoted to a certain feature of "experience" that mitigates outlandish conceptual claims with real world concrete experience. This usually means a skepticism concerning a priori claims like a transcendental apperception in Kant for instance, or anything metaphysically essential. In this way, pragmatic explanations are also philosophical explanations, in that the theory/philosophical explanation in question is derived from our first being practical-historical beings.

Philosophical explanations have at least two trajectories I have encountered in recent philosophizing. I would not commit myself to saying these are the only two trajectories. Instead, I would only say these are possible formulations of the higher-order distinction between transcendence and historicity; there could be other formulations of this problematic elsewhere.

Transcendence is the quality of a concept to represent something that is beyond the immediate facticity of our socio-historic world. Phenomenology is often used as a defense of transcendence. For instance, Husserl's Logical Investigations are a defense of ideal objectivities in logic that cannot be explained by thinking of logical laws as laws of psychological science. It is a defense of the irreducible elements of logic. One might interpret Heidegger's early description of the structures of Dasein as a transcendent (This is contentious however).

Now, historicity is the quality of a concept to represent something only within the boundaries of facticity and the historic ontotheology that determines the threshold of our ability to understand/interpret something.

Philosophical explanations can pick out transcendent concepts like consciousness, noema, intentionality and then see how these explanations explain a variety of human experiences, or they can be historical in which the concepts become a hermeneutic level that articulates present understanding. The historic explanations work to point out the limits of understanding and often are seen as generating fictional problems because of surpassing or being trapped within the historical limit.

In the historic explanation, our concepts become instances of our historical threshold. It explains past movements or texts as being samples of the historic time that determines what they could have said. Descartes and the moderns could not conceive of nature as nothing but the totality of space-time coordinates given that they were determined by historical formulations of geometry and how Being was understood (Husserl's formulation of this problem preserves living subjectivity) This historical explanation subsumes the living-subjectivity of those authors and construes them as determined to imagine what they wrote given the operative historic understanding of Being at the time. Such an explanation invites many problems, among which I have already hinted it. It sees human experience as an articulation of the historical dimension through which they interpret their world, and nothing more. These are not people with a living-subjectivity trying to solve the problems they face in their current life. Instead, this means that the historic explanation equivocates the term, "explanation" since it can mean both the hermeneutic limit of what people can understand, or also the hermeneutic limit that causes people to believe what they do. It therefore explains causally and establishes the limit of what can be understood.

Next, the historic explanation relatives philosophy to the framework operative at the time, what both is the limit and cause of past philosophers and the content of what they have said. In this way, there is no genuine knowledge possible, but only knowledge at a historical time. It is therefore impossible to think that human beings have been confused about one genuine problem throughout philosophy. There is no transcendence of the problem of how the mind relates to the body even though we have been thinking about it for nearly four centuries. Such a claim could hold no water.

Moreover, and what I find very counter-intuitive is that these explanations deny that theory can be done at all. There is no genuine knowledge about how we ought to act, and thus ethics looses any way to prescribe action given that we could just chalk up normative advice to the current societal framework. No transcendence in moral knowledge means that nothing really has any normative weight and no culture has better practices than any others. Nazis were just articulating their moral understanding of their own culture in as much as I believe in a free press to hold a democracy accountable. This not only seems counter-intuitive, but a little bizarre with similar effects in logic. No transcendence means that there is no way to tell better viewpoints from others. There are no norms to good reasoning, but only the self-asserted ramblings of whatever is the historic zeitgeist at the time says is true. In effect, the historic explanation gives up in actively searching for truth, and this is its greatest weakness since in circular fashion it, too, is only true in that the historic explanation itself is true at the time it is articulated. That really gives us good reason to think that it itself is true.

It should be said that what post-Kantian philosophers and Husserl mean by transcendence is not the same as with science. Philosophers of the logical positivist variety wanted a transcendence per se, but they wanted science to replace the transcendent concepts they thought were nonsensical. In this way, we are still looking to describe human experience. It is unwise to give up that fight.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Kevin Mulligan On the History of Continental Philosophy

Below is my short reaction to Mulligan's online article about Continental philosophy.

I am skeptical that there is anything like Continental philosophy other than a convenient shorthand for job applications. For the phrase has never had any purchase with me since I have had and never will have anything in common with post-structuralists or psychoanalysts who are both supposedly an illustration of Continental philosophy. There are so many people grouped into the phrase "Continental philosophy", I find it offensive that anyone would lump so many competing philosophical positions into a phrase. It's like grouping, Russell in with Putnam or Tarski with Davidson without so much as thinking whether or not they have anything in common. It's always been a political term, a term suggested by others that do not want to bother reading "that stuff over there." It is exclusionary to the point of absurdity--absurd since those rejecting it most often know nothing about it (In the department hallway at Simon Fraser, a visiting lecturer called all of Continental philosophy "crap" and when I asked him what he read, he smirked and said "Nothing.") One should demonstrate a passing knowledge of its content if one is going to dismiss it.

If there is nothing really like Continental philosophy, then I find it decisively wrong that Mulligan would look to a literature review of Dilthey's work from 1884 and suggest this is the moment something like Continental philosophy comes on the scene. As a starting point, Mulligan wants it to speak as an origin that seemingly overtakes all subsequent "Continental" thought. In so doing, it suggests implicitly that Continental philosophy cannot work with science since the review in question is about Dilthey's suggestion that history should take the focus of analysis rather than thinking that philosophy should work with the sciences in much the same way that history and tradition become the focus of Gadamer over thinking that philosophy should always coincide its efforts with the natural sciences (A great essay demarcating this distinction might be Truth in the Human Sciences by Gadamer). Not all of Continental thought is a pure anti-scientism, but simply a tolerant enlargement that philosophy can talk about things within human experience and not always consult the natural sciences to do so. In fact, "Continental" philosophy can work with science. Much of Merleau-Ponty's research is as a child psychologist in as much as Husserl talked to many mathematicians and famous physicists at Gottingen (A great article detailing these famous contacts is Patrick Heelan's Husserl's Philosophy of Science). Moreover, phenomenology in its contemporary form is called a post-phenomenology where whatever you may consider it, phenomenology is being actively appropriated by either phenomenologists or philosophers of mind as a way to articulate notions about proprioception, embodiment and cognitive science (Zahavi, Gallager to name a few).

More importantly, Mulligan cites in Footnote 2 that his entire essay starts as an "accumulation of prejudices" in the cliches presented at the very beginning which "seem to me to be one and all true". He writes,
Continental philosophy is often held to have the following distinctive features; it is inherently obscure and obscurantist, often closer to the genre of literature than to that of philosophy; it is devoid of arguments, distinctions, examples and analysis; it is a problemarm "Ask me what I'm working on, and I'll reply with the the name of a problem", the Analytic philosopher will proudly say, "ask the, and they'll reply with a proper name": (a variant on this: Continental Philosopher to an Analytical Philosopher: "I'm a Phenomenologist", "I'm an Analytical Philosopher, I think for myself"). It is also, he will ruefully add, terribly popular, but, he will happily continue, mainly in departments of literature and in some of the human sciences. He might also add that Continental Philosophy came to prominence in the English-speaking world because it seemed to address issues that analytic philosophy had conspicuously fialed to address: the nature of textual interpretation, aesthetic questions, as well as a variety of issues in social and political philosophy. The fact that this one-sidedness had all but disappeared by the 1970s does not, he will have to go on to say, seem to have impeded the career of Continental Philosophy. 
If Mulligan allows for the possibility that these could be nothing more than the accumulation of prejudices in the very beginning of the article, then why continue to write this piece? It would seem that the bias overtakes what he said of the Continental distinction at the end, it might be a "spurious fiction" and despite his own observation of it, he continued on with the very prejudice he felt may have constituted his first efforts. This is the very same prejudice motivating how ruefully ignorant many Analytic philosophers are. I should say this is what happens to philosophy when you are so convinced that the problems you work on are more important than the historic connection to philosophy that Analytics actively pretend is not there.

Anyway, you can decide for yourself.