Post with 3 notes
This post is an adaptation of a comment that I made on Heath Rezabek’s blog, in response to Heath’s comments about one of my blog posts. Since the topic is of some interest to me, I have here reformulated my comments to try to make them stand on their own.
Most philosophical writing today is technical, strewn with jargon, sometimes with arcane symbols, and at times impenetrable. There is a reason for this: it takes careful and patient reasoning to find one’s way to the truth, or to some near approximation of the truth. But once one has pursued one’s subtle philosophical inquiries as far as they can be taken, the philosopher who has not entirely lost touch with the big picture, or with the vital connection that perennial philosophical questions have to the daily life of ordinary folks, needs to look back over the ground traveled and be able to give some kind of account both of the journey and of the result of the journey, that is to say, the ground upon which one stands at present.
Some contemporary philosophers are dismissive of even the attempt to speak the language of the untutored who lack both the technical vocabulary and the concepts that the technical terms represent. Here is a quote from the Introduction to Richard Cartwright’s Philosophical Essays:
“Except for beginners who want to learn and who try to say what they really think, I do not like talking philosophy with nonphilosophers and avoid it whenever I can. In response to inquiries from fellow travelers on airplanes, I say I’m a mathematician. So far I’ve gotten away with it, for it appears that people who travel on airplanes never were any good at mathematics. I ease my conscience with the thought that, anyhow, nonphilosophers would expect a philosopher to be something I’m not.” (pp. xxi-xxii)
And in tribute to Richard Cartwright, Judith Jarvis Thompson wrote this in her Preface to On Being and Saying, a collection of essays dedicated to Cartwright:
Richard L. Cartwright is a philosopher’s philosopher. He gives no public lectures, he reviews no books for the popular press, and to the extent of my knowledge he has never declared himself on the crises of Modern Man or Modern Science. Like G.E. Moore he is provoked to philosophize not by the world but by what is said or written by other philosophers. It is to the problems that the world makes for other philosophers and to the problems philosophers make for each other that he has devoted his professional life. He has done so with a love of craftsmanship, with a hatred of the shoddy and shabby, the windy and woolly, and with a passion for the truth — a passion simply for getting things right — that are unmatched in current philosophy and that have perhaps been matched by no one since Moore himself, whose philosophical manner and attitude Cartwright’s so much remind one of.
Some contemporary philosophers take a certain pride in refusing to simplify technical matters, not unlike scientists who explicitly defend their right to do basic research with no immediate or obvious application. And, of course, there is such a thing as basic philosophical research, and it can be as distant from ordinary experience as basic scientific research.
I do not reject either this position or the attitude it represents, but it is not my view. I am sympathetic to those “literary” philosophers like Sartre and Camus who not only expressed themselves to the public, but did so in such a way as to be too compelling to ignore. Just as basic scientific research eventually finds an application in technology, so basic philosophical research eventually culminates in insight into, and understanding of, life. Philosophy is, in a sense, the technology of wisdom as much as the love of wisdom.
I have long considered it the true test of a philosopher’s mettle whether or not they can explain themselves in a handful of short, clear, concise, and intuitively accessible sentences. I distrust claims that this cannot be done as Thoreau distrusted enterprises that require new clothes.
Sometimes in my posts I mention that I have or haven’t yet arrived at a definitive formulation of a given problem or theory. I recently said this in my post on The Genealogy of the Technium, in which I remarked that I lacked a definitive formulation of the distinction between generalization and formalization, despite having worked on the problem for many years.
Firstly, why do I formulate this problem of philosophical formulations in terms of, “a given problem or a theory”? One cannot propose a definitive theory to solve a problem until that problem has first been stated definitively. Much of the philosophical struggle to understand the world takes the form of simply finding the right question to ask.
I guess what I have meant by this claim of having or not having definitive formulations, without yet having made myself fully explicit, is that I believe myself to have arrived at a definitive formulation, I believe myself to have thought the problem or theory through until I am satisfied with my grasp of the matter at issue, and it is only following that technical and theoretical work that I am then able to return to it in another frame of mind and re-state everything in intuitive and non-specifically-philosophical terms.
So, to put this in clear and simple terms, if I have a definitive formulation, that means if you stopped me on the street and asked me to explain myself while standing on one foot, I could do it. Lacking definitive formulations, the attempted explanation would go on a little too long to be comfortable (or safely balanced) on one foot.
But all of this is genuinely hard conceptual work, and that work usually means formulating a comprehensive theory. Generally speaking, you’ve got to strain and sweat over the tough stuff until you can make it look easy, if indeed you can ever make it look easy. And the final step of making it look easy can be just as difficult as the earlier steps that brought one to an insight that one now attempts to frame intuitively.
The initial tough part of the philosophical effort involves generalization and formalization in a fully theoretical context, and the way to do this (or, at least, one way to do this) is to create a formal system (i.e., construct an artificial language). That’s where the new vocabulary – linguistic and conceptual – comes in. So the coining of terms and the creation of concepts is a stage of theory that in most cases, I think, can be overcome in the long run. To employ Wittgenstein’s image, one can throw away the ladder after having climbed up on it.
Here is the quote from section 6.54 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.”
This is the second to the last section of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and of course the very last section is the famous line that has since be quoted as an aphorism taken out of its (theoretical) context:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
Wittgenstein looked to a mystic calm and quietude in the wake of philosophy, and said elsewhere (section 6.521) in the Tractatus:
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)
Plato had a different idea. For Plato, the philosopher who had ascended from the cave of shadows had an obligation to return to the cave in to order to tell those still chained below of the light of the good, and the Forms above that they have experienced only as dim and transient shadows.
To return to the cave of shadows, one must speak the language of those still trapped below. That means making the attempt to express the truths grasped in philosophical reflection in a language innocent of the process of reflection and the insights it has yielded. This means, essentially, redefining the terms of ordinary language, using them differently than is customary, perhaps verging on nonsense as one seeks to distill years of thought into a few pithy remarks.
Great literature often serves a similar function, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, on the author’s part, and in so doing creates a de facto technical terminology by re-defining familiar terms. But it can take an entire novel having its own way with language before you can get to the point of having your readers on your side and being able to speak to them in a language that both you and they understand.
In a conversation, one does not have the time to carefully stage meanings as the novelist can do at his leisure. One must appeal directly to familiar intuitions or the engagement with the other is a lost opportunity to convey the practical value of philosophical thought.
Philosophers often use thought experiments to refine and clarify their ideas, and thought experiments can be introduced without much technical terminology in a way that can be immediate appealing in ordinary conversation, and, if formulated carefully, can spur the other to think unfamiliar thoughts simply by asking a searching question or two.
But one cannot expect others to take away from a thought experiment that lesson that one derived oneself from the exercise. A probing question will elicit diverse responses from different individuals. The thought experiment becomes the ground of a distinction, not necessarily an illumination that equally enlightens all in the same way.
Language, perhaps, has a similar role: we use it to explore concepts as well as to express ourselves, but once we have constructed concepts and expressed them to others, we do not necessarily in virtue of that effort equally “enlighten” others all in the same way.
In fact, one of the great things about human intellectual effort is that everyone takes up whatever interests them and uses it in their own way, and from so simple a beginning, endless ideas most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Note added 27 October 2012: Since writing the above I have given a particular example of a definitive formulation in A Definitive Formulation of Temperament.