Saturday, December 27, 2008

Obsolescence

Not having to attend class, nor having to study for finals (or feel guilty wasting time instead of studying for finals), is a great relief. It's also extremely dangerous and has thrown me into a melancholic fit. I've been doing the kind of reading peculiarly interesting to me and to few others; i.e., reading about German idealism. The subject matter is genuinely fascinating. Contrariwise, United States securities regulation is not fascinating and it's impossible to make it so. The conflict among studying exactly what I want now, remembering bitterly what I spent the last few months on, and brooding on what will soon occupy my time again has produced a black reaction. Thankfully, I am mere months from completing my legal education, at which point, inshallah (just kidding!), I will be gainfully employed doing trivial, quasi-legal things for moderate amounts of money. I don't think I could take many more years of intense study of such dull things, now that I've rekindled my interest in non-dull (the opposite of dull, actually) things.

Anyway, to the books. I've been slowly reading Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism, alternating to keep things fresh. Kant et seq. form a sort of barrier beyond which popular, common-sense philosophy has never progressed. That is, the kind of unconscious philosophical views people today hold without examining them are ideas which were developed during the early Modern period and the Enlightenment. People are sure that the soul is immaterial, that it has ideas, and that sense-impressions are just unreliable, imperfect reflections of infallible ideas. People are also so confident that scientific knowledge is real and true that attempting to explain why that is so would strike them as absurd.

These and other views constitute the way things are. That the worldview thus disclosed is actually rather a recent invention, and that it was subject to dispute even in its own day, are not even considered by the 21st-century layman's philosophical system. These views are, as I said, the way things are, and calling them a system rather than the system is ridiculous.

To a person who knows the history of philosophy, it's a curious state of affairs. The Enlightenment was fruitful for the development of science, but it turned out to be overambitious, and it seems like a strange stopping-point. Cartesian dualism is even stranger - how can a person imagine that a ghost-in-the-machine mishmash of spiritualism and naturalism is the Correct Way of Thinking? But people who don't study these things much and consider the great questions only superficially seem to have come to rest with peculiar philosophical ideas. Certainly, one could find worse dogma than Descartes. Still, why did popular philosophy stop where it did?

Perhaps Kant and Hegel are to blame. When the language of philosophy got so abstruse as to be unreadable even by its devoted students, perhaps people stopped bothering with it. One can imagine the exasperation: "If you can't make it comprehensible, then it must be sheer obscurantism." Thus the natural idea that serious philosophy stopped sometime in the eighteenth century, and that anything after that is just substanceless mental masturbation. I can understand this feeling - Hegel is annoying. I'm not going to bat for his prose style. But there is something to the German idealists, and Enlightenment epistemology is simply obsolete after their criticism. It's impossible to go back. Cartesian dualism simply can't be patched up, and holding to it as an article of faith looks like pigheaded denial.

I'm often struck by how naive the common view can be. Imagine struggling to reconcile free will and natural mechanism without even being aware of the Third Antinomy! Imagine trying to make subjective representations correspond to objective reality in ignorance of the Copernican Revolution in epistemology! Yet many people seem to be in just this state. It's useless for a mind capable of thinking philosophically to spend its time trying to resolve Hume (Kant did it; perhaps not satisfactorily, but if he left problems, they were no longer Humean problems), or giving up and declaring that Hume disproved causation (which is awfully unfortunate for those of us who think science might, you know, exist). We're beyond these problems. To be sure, the problems disclosed in the centuries between Hobbes and Hume were problems not entirely resolved and issues which resonate in philosophical problems today, but as formulated in their historical context, they are mere archaeological objects. People may wonder how to reconcile induction and the supposed universality of scientific laws to this day, but they cannot approach the problem exactly as Hume did. To do so is to ignore the refinement of the problem performed by centuries of intense speculation. It is as foolish to try to deal with philosophy in eighteenth-century terms as to try to contemplate string theory via Newtonian mechanics.

The history of philosophy is appealing. It is, however, a history of incomplete ideas. If any idea were complete among the great mass of them, it would dominate. None has. Every philosophical position has had problems. Some have had problems intractable by their nature, because the very question for which an idea is an answer has been revealed to be problematic.

There is also appeal in old knowledge, because many find contemporary philosophy to be seriously mistaken. They think that older views are, on balance, closer to the truth than new developments. But surely the older views, by being susceptible to innovative criticism, were flawed. That they may have been less flawed than what followed does not mean they ought to be embraced. Instead, refinements or corrections should be sought. In reality, what we often get is blind nostalgia.

I'll tie this to what I've read very briefly. What Kant and his successors did to philosophy was revolutionary. However, German idealism was not a universally acceptable interpretation of reality. The challenge is to respond to philosophy as shaped by German idealism, not to deny its relevance or even existence. Subjectivity is important. The subtle alteration of the objects of knowledge wrought by the knowing process itself is important. Philosophy cannot rest in either scientism or mysticism. What we need is a mature synthesis, not a dualism but an integrated monism.

Get cracking on that, guys.

2 Comments:

At 10:47 PM, December 27, 2008 , Blogger Nick said...

working on it give me a couple minutes...

 
At 12:15 AM, December 28, 2008 , Blogger Underground Dude said...

Have you heard of Hans Vaihinger? I stumbled on his name reading a philosophical essay by Borges, but never found any of his works. I had an intuition of Als Ob even before reading about it. I suppose it fits here, as a bridge between epistemological anarchy and the cold hermeticism of established sciences and schools of thought.

 

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