Monday, November 22, 2010


One more thing. I ended a bit abruptly a month ago, yet I recently came across two links that encapsulate the blog's preoccupations so fittingly that I cannot resist tying this last speculative bow.

The Wittgenstein scholar Peter Hacker explains that philosophy, unlike science, does not add to our knowledge of reality; rather, it examines the conceptual schemas through which we consider reality. Formal science is extremely successful in the relatively narrow task of documenting external reality, and it brooks no competitors; but arguably everything we most care about exists outside of science's purview. I particularly liked his comment that science yields an aggregate of facts that can be transmitted from generation to generation as a kind of epistemological bolus, whereas philosophy--like the arts--must be perpetually recreated.

Hacker also assails the prevailing scientistic fetish for neuroscience, arguing that from the point of view of real human priorities, it is the unified human agent that counts, not his or her brain and its myriad parts. "My amygdala made me do it" is not so different from "My soul made me do it." The moral self must take ownership of its concepts and its actions, not hide from them by ascribing them to the brain. Neuroscience may increasingly give us the capability to tinker more viscerally with our own experience, but this is nothing but the means to an ever debatable end. Science is nothing but a method, and one which can never identify the life most worth living. The latter can only be arrived at biographically and culturally, through lived experience, dialogue, and contingency. Everything that is not a fact exists in the vast penumbra of narrative.

Andy Martin looks at the overlap of autism and philosophy, arguing that both phenomena (endeavors? conditions?) involve a basic inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to fathom seemingly transparent communications. He suggests a tension between a philosophy that seeks to eradicate or solve conceptual confusions and one that accepts their inevitability. The latter is what always drew me to philosophy and to literature, which to me constitute the infinite project of outlining and marveling at the fundamental riddles of (inter)subjective experience. Consciousness is interesting not despite, but precisely because, imperfect understanding cannot be avoided. A philosophy or a science that proposes to eliminate conundrums is oppressive and must be resisted; a refusal to fully understand or be understood is a kind of assertion of freedom.

However, philosophy should not be sheer mystification. Language is the most powerful tool ever devised, and as such it can never be totally under our control; to some degree it always has a life of its own. Its spontaneous complexity is luxuriant and life-giving, as I have said, but it is well-known that metaphors can become stifling vines threatening to choke off light and space. Philosophy is fundamentally a linguistic pruning operation, lopping off conceptual excresences that threaten our narrative well-being.

Philosophical, that is, moral and aesthetic truths can never be as unambiguous as scientific ones, but they achieve a certain pragmatic objectivity because, well, human beings are so constituted that we need certain standards that are not lightly or trivially modifiable. Where does psychology fit? Like medicine, psychology derives from science a sense of realistic empirical boundaries of what may be technically achieved, but its aims must arise through personal and cultural narrative philosophy.

And that really is all I have to say for now.