Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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.

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