Monday, 23 February 2015

Ask a Silly Question Part II: Nil Unum Ad Ignorantiam

Fortunately for all concerned, Skin-the-Cat has greater fortitude and more available thighs than previously supposed.  I am, as a result able to continue our last conversation almost as speedily as those milky white and powerful limbs can be scanned into a computer and posted.
     We were discussing, if you turn back to a previous thigh, some supposedly simple things; I had got as far as one.  This list is worth continuing, at least as far as two or three, possibly even four, not least because it is in such matters that the fundamental differences between personalism and other forms of philosophical speculation are to be found.

     To continue, therefore, upon the next thigh, with...

2) Knowledge
     This is an old philosophical saw, but I don’t know that it has ever been satisfactorily answered.  Correct me if I’m wrong; please do, it would be a great help. However, the standard Gettier-type formula which says knowledge is justified true belief has never seemed very satisfactory to me.  For one thing, it raises more questions than it answers, not least in terms of what is meant by the three supposedly explanatory constructs.
     Justification may not be entirely subjective but it will have a distinctively perspectival, because purposeful, dimension to it.  As hard boiled L. A. gumshoe and Elizabethan poet, Philip Marlow, once said, ‘evidence is all about how you look at things and who’s neck is in the noose.’   The same, more or less, goes for justification.  It all depends on what you’re trying to do to whom and who you’re trying to convince that it’s right to do it.

     The tattooist just asked me whether it makes any difference if it’s the old logical justification we’re about. It does not.
     Apart from anything else, logical justification will hardly cut the Coleman’s when it comes to the vast majority of things we claim to know, including the many that, as Polanyi reminds us, we only know tacitly.  We might also assert, with some justification (as it were), that all real knowledge is practical and so, ultimately, will out-run logical analysis.  However, and in less confrontational tones (the man has a needle poised over the groin of my friend), even if we exclude the tacit and the practical and seek only to justify logical constructions, we are not, I hope going to start pretending that logic is eternal and unchanging.  Logic, lest we forget, is a function of language; and language, its logics, and its justificatory procedures are activities undertaken by persons for specific purposes.
     But the look on Skin-the-Cat’s face entreats me not to get side-tracked.  As regards truth and belief, I shall limit myself to observing that it is not particularly clear what they mean either.  Is truth a matter of correspondence between propositions and states of affairs, as philosophers once insisted?   I shouldn’t think so.  Something a touch more constructive might be more useful; more capable, that is, of accommodating the role we play in seeking and finding.  At the very least.
     As for belief, someone once told me that belief is an attitude, quite possibly a propositional one, that we take towards some object external to us.  Well, that rather nicely misses the point.  If the belief we are talking about is religious (it was) then the object is actually a subject and it’s difficult to see how a Sovereign Will, as Farrer called it, expressed through creation and providence could be external to us.  More importantly, perhaps, talk of attitudes, propositional or otherwise, hardly captures the real meaning of the term ‘belief’.  Surely, it’s not enough to simply adopt an attitude towards the divine; don’t I have to do something?  Something like understanding and attempting to practise the tenets and creeds of the religion I claim to confess, for example.
     You will not, I imagine, be surprised by the general direction of my thinking on this subject.  An ‘activist’ or ‘interactionist’ epistemology – grounded, as ever, in Farrer, Feuerbach, Hampshire, et al. – seems like the right way to go.  Knowledge is acquired through active exploration; what’s more, Farrer observed, we can hardly be said to know something unless we can do something about it.   Knowledge arises from interference and issues in control.  This is why, many many years ago (before the world had heard of snow), Charles Conti described knowledge as an honorific. It is earned through our activities.

     All of which might lead one to wonder whether knowledge can be objective.  That, however, is a question that will have to wait, for Skin-the-Cat has turned out to be much less invincible than once supposed.  The poor fellow is sadly hors d’oeuvre; fainted dead away.  This may be a result of my insisting that the scribe spell ‘interactionist’ correctly or it may be due to some hitherto unknown weakness of constitution on the part of our hairy tabula.  The tattooist claims to have a cure.  Not holy water and the sign of the cross but a bottle of clear liquid with a curiously powerful smell of antifreeze coming off it.  We shall apply the cure orally and see what happens.  You may expect a report in due course.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Ask a Silly Question Part I: Ignorantia Quidem Philosophiam Loquax

It seems those modren technologies of telecommunication continue to evade both myself and the national telecoms provider.  I do not, as they say in Dee Local (not, I assure you, a made up name), have a bit of the internet on me.  Yet again, old Skin-the-Cat has come through; this time by posing as a stag party bound for old Königsberg.  From there, overland, by train and camel sledge (simultaneously) to Bishkek; and then on to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park in Outer-feckin’-Mongolia, where, I am told, they have no trouble whatsoever switching on a feckin’ broadband line.
     At least I’m getting a grip on the language.

     Once more, with a deep and calming inhalation of fresh country air; very fresh, very ripe.  Talking about the point and purpose of philosophy, as we were, set me thinking about some of the peculiarities of the discipline.  One particular peculiarity, considering philosophy is supposed to help us grow up, is that, unlike most subjects, the more one studies philosophy, the less one actually knows.  Of course, one of the great advantages of studying Philosophy is that one becomes painfully aware of how little everyone else knows too.
     At least we’re all in the same boat.

     I first realised this a few years ago, when I was learning to drive.  (I am a ‘late developer’; hence the youthful bloom of my complexion and idealistic sparkle in my eye).  I remember telling my driving instructor, Trevor, that by the time I was half way through my D.Phil. I knew almost nothing.  He was a bit surprised at this.  After all, he pointed out, the University of Sussex was charging me the better part of £4k a year for the privilege of expanding my ignorance.  Nevertheless, as long as I knew how to reverse around corners and not to run over pedestrians, he would be reasonably happy.  And at £15 per hour, such knowledge was unquestionably a bargain.
     Given this, it occurred to me that this re-beginning would be the perfect opportunity to go back to basics likewise.  I thought, that is, it might worth our while to briefly consider some of the simpler things in our philosophical lives, things which we – even, or especially, such as we – tend to think we understand quite clearly.  The question is, do we really?  The simple things I have in mind are often not very carefully considered by philosophy as done in the dominant rationalist-cum-realist mode; though they are written about extensively for sure.   More importantly, perhaps, it is in the basics – if that is what these are – that personalist thinkers begin to diverge most radically from that mode.

     What simple things are these, then? Let us see.

1) What do we actually mean when we talk about ‘experience’?
John Locke and David Hume were never, to my mind, entirely clear about what they meant, despite all that complicated business with the ideas and the impressions and so on.  So what is experience?  Does what happens in the classroom count?  I should say ‘yes’; but as what?  Certainly of personal interaction and the development of consciousness; of doing philosophy too, if the teacher is any good.  But what if the topic under discussion is not consciousness and its extensions?  (Though, in fact, whatever the ostensible topic, philosophy is always about consciousness and its extensions, just as it is, perhaps, always about God.)  What, for example, if a class concerns the ‘real’ world and our knowledge of it?   Does it count as experience then?
     That, I suppose, depends on what you believe reality is made of: rocks and trees and other things, as most philosophers seem to believe, or persons – people – and their interrelations.  One might suppose that there are, in fact, two kinds of experience: the kind philosophers talk about, which, curiously, seems to be almost purely theoretical, and the kind people have, which often seems to be something else entirely.
     Anyone who knows me will also know that my view is influenced by pragmatic thinkers: Farrer, Feuerbach, William James, and the like.  Thanks to a recent suggestion by Tom Buford, I might tentatively add Bordon Parker Bowne to the list.
     Consequently, to say what experience is not is quite straightforward.  Experience is not simply objective observation, as the expression is commonly understood, or passive perception.  By itself, perception is too thin to take the experiencing individual very far.  Perception provides access to appearances, nothing more; it carries no criteria by which fantasy may be distinguished from reality.  You would not, after all, believe what a politician said just because he or she said it; why would you do so with any other bit of ‘reality’?  Moreover, what something looks like, as Stuart Hampshire once noted, is never conclusive evidence for what that thing really is.  Never conclusive and, for anyone who has ever watched television or patronised the kinema, frequently not even very good. There are, as a matter of fact, relatively few bloodthirsty murders in the English countryside, for example.
     But now, perhaps, I am confusing ‘experience’ with the knowledge gained from experience; or at least epistemically valuable experience with experience of little epistemic use.   For to see something is surely to have an experience.
      It is, of course.
     The point, however, is not that perception or observation are not forms of experience, but rather, that they are neither passive nor objective in the usual sense.  Perceivers do not simply find themselves perceiving things, whatever things happens to be in front of them.  Locke’s flattened blank-slate psychology won’t do; experience is not inscribed upon the unresisting mind. At the very least, we must put ourselves in the position to perceive, arrange the circumstances of our observations, as every inquiring mind knows perfectly well.  The scientist – paradigm of experiencing agent – observes the experiments, the active interferences, that he or she undertakes.
     In short, what we do is the key; intentional action, or rather interaction, is the truer measure of experience and its objects.  Impact, conscious, physical impact, is epistemically enriching; actually informative and therefore the better and more genuine form of experience.  Impact is all; when dealing with politicians, this is doubly true.
     And then, speaking of scientists, there are the philosophical implications of Schrödinger’s Cat.

–– Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
–– Stupid yourself, said the cat, blinking up out of her avid shameclosing eyes. It’s the box with the photon emitter and and the poison gas pellet that worries me.

     As an approach to pet-care, it may leave a lot to be desired; another good reason for Schrödinger not following his first love in animal husbandry.  It does suggest, however, that observation may well change the thing observed.   So acts, as Charles Conti trenchantly puts it, become facts.

     I have hardly started my list of ‘simple things’, but for the sake of him who is to smuggle this missive out, tattooed across his inner thigh, I have promised to keep it short.   Under the shadow of the tattooist’s bigly-bored needle, he will, I suppose, endeavour to do likewise.

     For the moment, then, we shall leave the subject there. I would, as ever, be pleased indeed to have your views on what has gone before.  Should you care to communicate them, please feel free to do so.