Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Adorno and Husserl

I'll be posting on this paper (entitled Husserl and the Problem of Idealism) Adorno wrote a long time ago. A friend came to me and we will meet to discuss it next week. I will post some results of that discussion here in a few days. Amazingly enough, it is in J Phil.

Intuitions and Ethics

I can't seem to hate conservative philosophers. If anything, they are my favorite type of conservatives, reflective and willing to engage in philosophical debate. In this post, Edward Feser takes issue with Dennett's intuition pumps and groups them together with moral intuition from ethics. It is the latter that concern me here. In this post, I show they are completely different from each other, and likewise do not represent the same methodology. He says,
But intuitions are also often appealed to in a positive fashion, as a way to support some claim or other in metaphysics or ethics. Hence we have John Rawls’s well-known appeal to what our “considered intuitions” about justice have to tell us. 

The two are entirely distinct since the intuition use, or appeals to intuition in ethics. His specific claim is what such a grouping cannot achieve objective understanding of morality. In his words,
As Alan Lacey notes in an entry on intuition in the Ted Honderich edited volume The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, “recently… the term ‘intuition’ has been used for pre-philosophical thoughts or feelings, e.g. on morality, which emerge in thought experiments and are then used philosophically.”
This is most regrettable. It gives the impression that ethics and metaphysics are ultimately subjective, which is – certainly from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view) – not at all the case.
Primarily, I feel that when I claim a normative judgment is intuitive, I mean -- like Ross -- there is a self-evident truth that a mature and experienced person can accept. There is some moral claim about the situation we face, and that's what is normatively at issue for us. For the Aristotelian-Thomist philosopher, it is then only that the intuitions are about what morally face us, and it should also be noted that intuition used in the Rossian way doesn't refer to incorrigible pieces of knowledge either. The fact that we are bearers of intuitions about a pre-philosophical experience doesn't immediately infer that they are unreliably subjective either. It's just part of the overall explanation of our moral epistemology as to how we come to know what is moral and immoral. For Ross, our intuitions are left open to critical reflection and can be modified since they are prima facie justified only. To me, this sounds like Ross can account for the openness of practical wisdom requiring experience and maturity that an A-T would find plausible. To further push this thought, Ross was also an Aristotle scholar and translator of Aristotle's works. This is why I do not think that Ross demands much theoretical precision and realized that openness about moral matters requires humility when dealing with ethical matters--all the while using the word intuition. 

Moreover, Rawls appeals to gaining reflective equilibrium between our accepted moral intuitions and the principles we use to justify our notions of justice is not wrong. It is not a flagrant irresponsible attitude to try and gain coherence between the principles we think morality is undergirded by and the beliefs we have. An A-T philosopher would always start with the respected opinions of his day, and then evaluate whether they are true or false. That's just an Aristotelian modus operandi. Moreover, Aristotle does not overthrow tradition in much the same way that the word intuition comes to be used in the early Oxbridge ethicists. For Sidgwick thought that moral theory should also explain our common-sense moral beliefs, which are part of our tradition. This belief is shared by Ross as well. 

What might be suspect is coherence as a way to decide moral matters. It can seem very self-serving, even after someone has read Rawls, and Rawls is without the openness that Ross shares with Aristotle's phronesis. However, that is a post for another time. If I were to summarize, I would say that the modern use of thought experiments and intuition come from early ordinary language philosophers who thought meaning independent of our confusion in much the same way Feser thinks natural law theory provides rational grounds to accept the truth of a claim on apart from us. It is irresponsible to group together Rawls as an ethicist and Dennett's use of intuition pumps simply because it is the same word without paying attention the actual historic usage of the word itself. Where better to start than Rossian intuitionism? 

Post on Depth Psychology

I think this post is as good as it gets when it comes to analysis and the claims abstracted from historical authors. It's an interesting read, though I do worry about the reading of Nietzsche that centers around the will-to-power and wonder if the author is being too loose with Schopenhauer.

Depth psychology has also been called false consciousness in Marx, and false consciousness as far as I am aware was never an explanation for action inasmuch as it is an explanation for why we might find some emancipatory alternative to current practices. For this reason, there is a normative angle to why these thoughts are offered. It is not simply about a shared method between these authors (but that thesis of commonality alone between Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Schopenhauer is part of the fun of this post at the same time). The author passes off depth psychology as a blanket program with much in common between a range of thinkers that only minimally share this feature. As such, I wonder if the danger of Strawman is lurking around the corner due to an attempt to ahistoricize these ideas from their historical moments. I would need more than the rantings of a Thomist (A. McIntyre) to substantiate these claims about these ideas.


Nature is a vast thing. For philosophers, the term "naturalism" has many versions. One might be a methodological naturalist believing that one ought to proceed under the assumption that science discovers natural laws while leaving alone ontological naturalism which states that only physical objects and their causal relations exist. A very strong naturalist might be adhere to both versions. In addition, one might consider any number of philosophical descriptive accounts as natural. I might defend a version of non-cognitivism in which I need the work of the emotions as does Alan Gibbard require remorse and guilt at the agential level. Other naturalists might be skeptical that such folk psychological terms really capture any understanding about how people are when they act morally. And the battle rages on philosophically.

Now, what is the point of going through the above motions (other than the really nice picture)? Well, I drop my hat and simply say that these questions have been on my mind lately. Moreover, this blog post goes nowhere but to document my confusions on the matter.

As some of you may know, I start with phenomenological description and proceed from there as a general rule of thumb. The rule is simple: philosophy must start with our lived-experience and whatever is given to us within experience provides a leading-clue as to what ontological level of explanations suffice for philosophy. In this way, I do not think that philosophy is simply preserving biases of unscientific understanding of the world. Instead, I think that philosophy ought to contribute to understanding our worldly experience. To many times in the past, philosophy has tried to pass off concepts that are justified apart from experience, which is namely a Kantian demand. Our concepts must arise from our lived-experience in much his inquiry started with the various points-of-view he thought were basic to human life: knowing, acting and judging. Apart from Kant, the moderns did not do this. Instead, they justified everything according to their basic belief in the epistemic position as primitively basic to human life. That's a little absurd, and shows how it is that modern philosophy with its focus to the epistemic position came to infect the development of analytic philosophy with the same basic belief (such a genealogical analysis should be forthcoming from me, but it is late. In truth, that's a book right there).

What makes naturalism interesting to me is how uncritically accepted as a position it is within mainstream philosophy, and where we are in ethics with respect to what is called moral psychology taking over metaethics. Let me speak to the first and then I will elucidate the climate of ethics in relation to psychology. An anecdote will help. I studied at an all analytic department, and found the same objection constantly wielded against Husserl---Husserl's transcendental idealism is an unattractive and unscientific position. Unscientific was code for "not natural enough". The question usually went: How is it that I could even read that "stuff"? Well, it comes from the fact that I want philosophy to say something more than trailing the coattails of the blind analytic adherence and reverence to the natural sciences. This can be gleaned from ethics.

Ethics is one of the few knowledges that preserves the first-person point of view; it preserves subjectivity to point to Kierkeegard. It talks about what tests we can use to guide our current deliberations, and conceptually describes what the good life might look like. It gives us a language to reflect on the issues of our own life, and the lives of others. Within ethics, naturalism is a dominant position for those describing things like practical rationality, moral epistemology and philosophy of action. All these areas inform the backdrop of what we might call moral psychology, which assumes naturalism implicitly and strikes me as just another reincarnation of the failed attempt to naturalize explanations about laws of logic as laws of psychology. Yet, instead of laws of logic up for grabs, it is the fundamental belief that we are simply objects in an overall chain of determined physical relations deciphered by the natural sciences. This gets us away from experience entirely. It is just another veiled attempt for the natural attitude to describe what should be described in terms of lived subjectivity. Of course, this is just a phenomenologist talking.

For these reasons, I may want to research a dissertation on the foundations of ethical naturalism, or at the very least write a historical genealogy tracing out the concept in its brief history. I bet I would find a less than judicious use of Ockham's razor throughout the history of philosophy, and more to the point if I paid attention to the history of naturalism itself, I would find that the efforts to naturalize normativity with respect to agency puts me at the very start of where the Oxbridge non-naturalists were just a century ago. We have come full-circle only to think that our science is better when, in truth, we forget that science is what Husserl calls "a life-praxis." Science only achieves its meaning for us since it is accomplished by beings with lived subjectivity. When we are so convinced that science can answer all questions philosophically, we privilege science over other forms of human experience and do not see the value in the artistic, literary and cultural productions around us. These, too, aid our understanding of the world--maybe more so than science ever could since they have no real way of corroborating with truth as the scientists want us to believe. Maybe that is true?! But, the point of listening to the arts and other humanities is to show something else--the humanities and the arts contribute to the understanding of the world for us in that they provoke from us meaning. Science can do that along with these very same things, but we must view them as one of the many tools we have to understand our world. We should not let our adherence to naturalism sway us differently.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Nussbaum on Banning the Burqa

Here is a good article about how one might reason about moral problems. Many times I am asked by my family and people outside philosophy what good reasoning about moral matters might look like. This is a review of common political arguments that don't really hold any water when put to a moment of critical reflection.

Nussbaum on banning the burqa. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Leiter Headache Again

Apparently, Leiter just can't tell the difference between good Heidegger scholarship and bad Heidegger scholarship. In either case, here he recommends a blog post about Heidegger's philosophy. Interestingly, it's rather stupid post about Heidegger from a political theorist and International Relations scholar, not even a philosopher.

In terms of epistemic authority, this is like going to a Chaucer scholar in an English department for an exposition of Churchland's eliminative materialism.

So the cookie crumbles.

The Powers (Alleged?) of Analysis

I have been asking myself lately what exactly is it that I do. First, I have had sustained conversations over the last year of my Ph.D. with several distinguished scholars in the field, and I feel there is no clear-cut way to do philosophy. In fact, doing philosophy feels more eclectic everyday as I navigate the space of historical scholarship and problem-solving. Never the twixt shall meet, it seems. Yet, I want them to meet, I want them to have a sustained conversation with each other since I feel that is the only way this dreaded "Divide" between Analytic and Continental camps can ever be achieved. However, to do so, requires a constant philosophical reflection on method. My adopted strategy is to study Husserl, the most penetrating "Continental" figure ever since he talks about concrete lived experience. That's what is attractive about him. He gives a conceptual architecture to talk about the concrete structures of our lived-experience. A recent reading of a colleagues paper had this to say coming from outside the tension between Analytic/Continental divide. He writes,
...they are analytic philosophers, trained to believe that it is perfectly alright for a philosopher to lift whatever he or she likes and happens to agree with from any historical context, and use it for whatever purposes strike their present fancies, or more fairly, whatever seems most relevant to the problems with which they are occupied, however narrow those problems may be.
I do not know if this is fair or not. Part of me thinks that if past philosophers are in any sense like me, then some degree of "lifting" out of the text is philosophically responsible. This is because if past philosophers internalize the same activity, that is, they try to make timeless arguments to solve problems that face them presently, then we can also appropriate their insights insofar as we are trying to identify the best aspects of past philosophers to solve our current problems. However, this can be done too quickly and may lend itself to bad scholarship. Yet, I do not think every insistence of doing the above amounts to bad philosophy since it is what we might call analysis.

It is conceptual analysis, and it is the tool of the early 20th century ordinary language philosophers. I love Moore and Ross in this regard because they analyzed concepts of the good and right. Sometimes, I feel, articulating the phenomenological richness of these words; they certainly had at the very least "phenomenological tendencies." Alas, however, it is historically erroneous to identify conceptual analysis with phenomenological describing. I am digressing. To do conceptual analysis is to analyze the ordinary meanings of our concepts as they are confused in our language and to give some reflective attention to their clarification. This allows us to see more richely what exactly is the problem and if so, we may have to provide a solution to a problem. I will not count how many solutions suffice for philosophical problems (even counting that it might be the dissolution of the problem that ought to be an answer-- a favorite Derridian strategy). In the end, to do analysis involves several assumptions:
1. The confusion in our language reflects the conceptual confusion we face presently.
2. Philosophical reflection can clarify the extent to which this is a problem and then theorize solutions of all types of this problem.
3. In order for 1 and 2 to be true, it also must be true that the confusion we presently face can be picked out by analyzing the concepts we use and that these concepts are fixed in their meaning since we continually encounter confusion over their meaning and usage.

So, what is the real question with analysis as it is with all philosophy? We must become reflective of those moments in philosophy where we, philosophers, become mindful about the limits of philosophizing. At this moment, I am pressed to ask why can't we do philosophy within the immanence of our own lives? If I am faced with a philosophical quandary and I approach something as a problem, I am not being historically irresponsible by seeing that others have faced the same dilemma as me. Instead, I reflect and think about it for a long while in relation to my own experience and life. I know that others have thought about, for instance, "what exactly are values?" Moreover, if there are values, what does the ontology of the world look like? I know that neither common-sense, faith or science can take the reins solely on this question. I often think about this question and consider it a reflective moment in my life to arrive at an answer that best fits the evidence and self-reflection I bring to bear exactly on this problem presently before me. In so doing, I think this question cannot be satisfactorily answered from all options I have heard from ethical naturalists like Gilbert Harman or David Copp. I adopt some strand of moral realism, and this has followed from the strategy that assumed implicitly in 1, 2 and 3 above.

Now, if we think all of philosophy is a problem presently before me, then there is the danger of excess. We will convince ourselves that we can lift anything out of a philosophical text regardless of historical context. That I am sure is right about the quoted passage above. However, it is another thing to say completely that an entire group of people will do so without being historically responsible. Being a philosopher is also to live out one's life and experience the world philosophically. Our experience is richly historical, but does unfold presently. This is part of the problem really. We cannot reinvent the wheel with every problem, but there may be permutations of a philosophical problem that come to a special light in our day. It shoudld be right that we can then use analysis to find out the limits of our problems, and we need to do this in order to honor the previous historical contexts that allow us to have philosophical conversations. Futhermore, some conversations are richly historical while others are more to our moment. I cannot be sure which moment passes before me when I philosophize, but I think it is suitable to both be mindful of the problems and how history has shaped our ability to face the problem before us. Perhaps, again, this is why there is a division between problem-solving qua Analytics and historical-textual analysis qua Continentals. It would seem the most sensible that a synthesis of these two tendencies to be a more sensible option in philosophy than the exclusion of one over the other.