Philosophical Questions 3

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.  –Rush Rhees

A most remarkable passage.  There’s much that I’d like to say about it, but I want for now to limit myself to its bearing on the issue of philosophical questions and answers.  Take Rhees to be pointing out just how hard it is to see how deep philosophical questions go, and so how hard it is to see how peculiar the answers to them must be.

Philosophical question threaten the very possibility of understanding altogether, but this means that the questions threaten their very possibility as questions, and threaten the very possibility of answers to them.  The questions challenge the reality of discourse, of understanding:  but how can a question, a mode of discourse, something that must be understood, challenge the reality of discourse or understanding?  Success would seem failure; but failure cannot be success, can it?  What sorts of questions are these?

More soon.

The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper)

Mention is rarely made of the fact that the teaching about God in the Summa Theologica begins with this sentence:  “We are not capable of knowing what God is, but we can know what he is not.”  I know of no textbook of Thomistic thought which contains the notion expressed by St. Thomas in his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, namely that there are three degrees in our knowledge of God:  the lowest, the knowledge of God as he is active in creation; the second, the recognition of God as mirrored in spiritual beings; the third and loftiest, the recognition of God as Unknown, tamquam ignotum.  Or consider this sentence from the Questiones Disputatae:  “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God:  to know that we do not know God.”

A Thought on Cavellian Generic Objects and Our Relationship to Philosophical Problems

I’ve been talking about our relationship to philosophical problems, and I want to say more about that idea.  The idea is made more clear by Cavell’s notion of a generic object–and in its turn makes Cavell’s notion clearer.  (I will not now say more about the use to which the notion (and its companion notion, specific object) is put by Cavell.   To see that use, look at pages 52ff. of The Claim of Reason.)

Consider Cavell’s crucial comment:

I will not by such titles be meaning to suggest that there are two kinds of objects in the world [generic and specific], but rather to summarize the spirit in which an object is under discussion, the kind of problem that has arisen about it, the problem in which it presents itself as the focus of investigation.”

Here (briefly) is what I take to be crucial:  whether the object under discussion is to be ‘classified’ as generic is a matter not settled by the object itself (by its marks or features), but rather by the way in which we are related to the object–but that means by the way in which we are related to the problem of which the object is the focus.  To ‘classify’ the object as generic is really to classify the spirit of our discussion, our relationship to the problem.  In the Kierkegaardian terminology I habitually use here, to ‘classify’ an object as a generic object is to highlight the how of our relationship to it, not the what of the object.  (The distinction between generic and specific objects is not metaphysical but metaphilosophical.)

Cavell’s phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of The Claim of Reason, are extensions of Wittgenstein’s own (less protracted) phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of Philosophical Investigations.  And the phenomenologies are devoted to revealing our relationship to philosophical problems.

Skepticism: Vain Thinking, 1

A fresh-ish start on a difficult topic.  Bear with me.

I take vanity to be the central concept of Montaigne’s writing:  it is the concept that joins his Christianity to his skepticism, in fact it is the concept that makes his skepticism Christian.  I suppose this claim might be a stumbling block for many, and for a variety of reasons.  The one I want to address now is this:  “You take the Essays (particularly the Third Book) as deeply colored by Ecclesiastes.  For you, the line, “Per omnia vanitas” is the running heading of the Essays.  But Ecclesiastes is, remember, a description of life “under the sun”–uncompromising, cold, objective, human–a description of a world without God.  So how can Montaigne’s Ecclesiastes-saturated essays be a form of Christian, again:  Christian, skepticism?”  But that is not how I understand Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes I understand as itself revelation:  What is shows us is human life as revealed by God.  What it shows us is not something we can lift ourselves out of by coming to faith in God, as if faith in God undid the vanity of human life.  It doesn’t. God is Mystery; faith is Mystery; and the relationship of both to the vanity of human life is Mystery. That does not mean that we know nothing about God, faith or the relationship of human life to each or both, but it does mean that we cannot make simple, formulaic comments about it.  (It is not safe to say, for instance, that the view of human life in Ecclesiastes is one that simply requires the supplementation of grace in order for it to undo its vanity.  There’s something right about that, sure; but it is not a matter of simple supplementation.)  Human life is vanity.  God and faith in God do not change that straightforwardly, although God and faith in God allow for hope and patience in the vanity of human life.

Montaigne’s skepticism is his way of reckoning with the vanity of human life–a vanity still present in human life even when it is lived in Christian categories, a vanity in fact most fully disclosed in such living.  This does not mean that human life is devoid of value or of values, but it does mean that those values are, in an important but difficult sense, contradictory.  Happiness is vanity; but we should gather such happiness as we can.  Work is vain; but we need to work.  Neither happiness nor work is fully satisfying, but neither is without value.  Their value is enigmatic, contradictory.  As such, the role of each in human life is not open to easy survey–and to think either is so open is to fail to reckon with the view of human life God reveals, to fail to remember life’s existential deficiency. (Note that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, the Church-Man, has had this revealed to him not in ecstatic vision but in the midst of his own life’s striving:  “I marked…”, “I found…” “I learned…”.  It is important that the book is written first-personally. But what is marked, found and learned is not something that the Church-Man takes himself to have come to know independently of God’s revelation of it to him. What is true under the sun is not anyway available to be known under the sun.)

For Montaigne, as for the Church-Man, knowledge is vain.  We should seek it, cannot, in one sense, help but seek it:  “There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge.”  But even when we have it, each of us must ask:  “What do I know?…I am an investigator without knowledge.”  –No matter what we do, we are all unprofitable servants.  –We know what we know, but knowing it does not eliminate our emptiness or neediness, as we expect it to do.  Nothing we can know can change what we are, make us new and different and better creatures.  More often than not, what we know turns out to be an encumbrance, a burden, a curse; knowing what we know makes us worse. (The Serpent’s lesson, taught in the Garden.)  At best, it tends to puff us up.  Puffiness is Montaigne’s aversion.

More soon.

Rogers Albritton on Skepticism: “Words and their meanings are as ‘external’ as trees.”

We break in on Albritton mid-argument (from Philosophical Issues 21):

…What we know (as some unfortunate men and women might not, though they’ve heard of both baboons and human beings) is that we are human beings, not baboons, a fact (if “fact” is the word for it) from which it does not follow that we can’t be baboons or must be human beings. No such modal remarks are in order, as far as I can see, in our present situation. And it seems equally out of order that the earth may or can’t be supported by a huge tortoise or a transparent column with holes in it for the moon and so forth. Out of order in our actual situation, that is, which I can’t help. I didn’t invent it. Nobody did. One can invent others. What one can’t invent is a position outside all such epistemic confines, in which the question “Is it possible or not?” nevertheless has its usual purchase and from which it is evidently possible after all that the earth is supported by a huge tortoise and we are baboons. That position, in which, as one imagines it, no question would have an answer already, and we would be free to think absolutely anything possible (what else could we think?) would on the contrary be one in which the question, whether it is possible or impossible that p, could not have its usual sense, and indeed no question could have its usual sense, since its sense would be in question too, so to speak. In the position from which one would see that anything’s possible, if one could see anything, one couldn’t see anything, or think anything either. The idea of this position in which nothing is settled yet is illusory, as far as I can see, and so is the idea, which might seem more promising, of the position in which nothing a posteriori is settled yet, or nothing a posteriori except that it looks as if there were physical objects about (and the like), which might seem still more promising. Words and their meanings are as ‘external’ as trees. If I have to think that perhaps there are no such words, then I have to think that perhaps my very own as it were words have no meanings either, and therefore I am not, as I would have thought, thinking. And that isn’t thinking…

Emerson on Montaigne 1

Here is one of the great passages in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne:

Let us have a robust manly life, let us know what we know for certain.  What we have, let it be solid, and seasonable, and our own.  A world in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.

This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic, this of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting, doubting even that he doubts, least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good.  These are no more his moods, than are those of religion and philosophy.  He is the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own foe; that conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other.  It is a position taken up for better defense, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained, and it is one of more opportunity and range; as, when we build a house, the rule is, to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.

The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility.  The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion  A theory of Saint John, and of nonresistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial.  We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first, and limber as the second.  We want a ship, in these billows we inhabit.  An angular dogmatic house would be rent to chips, and splinters, in this storm of many elements.  No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea.  The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwellinghouse is built.  Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature.  We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errours, houses founded on the sea.

The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players…

The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own, some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success:  that he has evinced the temper, stoutness, and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust.  For, the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness.  Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers.  Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having itself a positive quality, some stark and sufficient man…These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.

Emerson here complicates together a remarkable number of lines of thought.  It will take me more than one post to identify some and to follow them out.  The line of thought I want to identify and follow out now is the characterization of Montaigne’s skepticism Emerson offers.

What strikes me about what Emerson offers is its modulating from an epistemological, through a moral and finally to an existential register.  Montaigne’s life is skeptical, he lives skeptically.  But that is not to say of his life that it centers on doubt.  Like Kierkegaard’s Climacus, Emerson’s Montaigne mistrusts De Omnibus Dubitandum Est.  For a skeptic of Montaigne’s sort, any reconsideration on knowledge is not ultimately so much epistemological, an attempt to determine how much, and exactly what, we know, as  axiological, a reconsideration of the value and place of knowledge in our lives.  What we need, we might say, is shipshape knowledge, knowledge fit for our billowy life.  The point is not whether knowledge is possible, but what value knowledge can have in a properly solid and intelligible way of living.  The secrets of life do not yield themselves up to epistemological methods, not even the method of doubt, but instead to a life lived in wise limitation–where that limitation is experienced, either by the person living it or those living lives he touches, as a fullness, a kind of charm–as something to rally to.  It is not experienced as mere self-denial, as a disownment of robustness, good temper, stoutness.  Quite otherwise.  The wise limitations limn the soul of man, allowing it to be taken as the blueprint for a house always already launched on the sea, built and rebuilt afloat.  It is with the sea that we need to find sympathy and likeness.

We believe that above the surface of the water, in the sky, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success; we believe that below the surface of the water, in the depths, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success.  But a world in the hand–on the surface of the waters–is worth two in the bush, whether we figure the bush as sky or depths.  We want to live without having to adapt, despite the fact that adapting is what we do, natural to us.  But Montaigne will have us adapt, have us exercise our skills and strive for success.  Compared to the bush-worlds, the world Montaigne tells us we are in is a world in which we must be gamesters, must be game.  But we can play the odds, so to speak, and build neither too high nor too low.  We may not have security but we can defend ourselves.  Our seafaring lives can be both stark and sufficient.

The Transcendental Way with Solipsism

A favorite passage from my teacher, Lewis White Beck.  It is from his book, The Actor and The Spectator.

Only A. C. Ewing, I think, has indicated a possible transcendental argument against solipsism.  He said, “If solipsism is true, there are no solipsists, since I am not one.”  This short way with solipsism, almost a throwaway that Ewing consigned to a footnote, seems to me to be profoundly important.

The solipsist position has never been maintained if it is true, because if it is true I alone could have maintained it, and I have not done so…

I believe this argument, invented by Ewing, is likewise usable by others and not discountable when extended to others.  This argument will carry no weight, of course, with another person if he is a genuine solipsist who knows his business.  But, if there is such a person, I know that solipsism is false since that person is not I.

%d bloggers like this: