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.


Anonymous said...

Absolute understanding is a perfect prison of ignorance. No one really desires it. People live under the pretence of moving toward greater illumination, when in actuality they are just creating more shadows for others to illuminate.

Living is an interrogation of being. Philosophy is a way of interrogating life. There are only mute suspects.

Nice encore, by the way! Actually I had read those articles thinking, gee I bet Novalis wished he hadn’t stopped blogging...

On a related note, this blog’s preoccupations compels me to mention a book I’ve been reading by Iain McGilchrist ‘The Master and his Emissary’ - very neuro-philosophical.

Novalis said...

Shadows for others to illuminate indeed; thanks for one more comment. And thanks for the book recommendation...happy reading!

Adrian Bailey said...

Superb way to start my day. Thanks. The latest philononsense of a theory of everything human comes in Iain McCaskill's 'The Master and his Emissary'. The author, a psychiatrist and soi disant philosopher, has reduced the evils of the world to 'left brain' dominance. He spent 20 years writing the book but seems to have overlooked histories of power, culture, ideology and the unfathomable vicissitudes whence emerge whatever glimpses of human essence/existence may (indeed) be rediscovered each decade. Humanly 'made' history always returning to the making of the human does throw up some oddities, and hopefully something of Hacker's approach provides solace against the more fashionable currents.

Adrian Bailey said...

My apologies for confusing Iain McGilchrist with Iain McCaskill. The latter was an eccentric presenter of the weather forecast in the UK, much parodied by impersonators. I do intend to read Professor McGilchrist's book; my initial comment was based upon some essays he has written about it, and upon his own summary at his website:

"The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all."

Novalis said...

And so the blog ends, somehow fittingly, with a confusion of two Iains.