The Surpassing Strangeness of (Believing in) Sense-Data

A confession (although my regular readers will likely be unsurprised):  For me, many of the most perplexing philosophical problems relate to philosophers themselves.  Here’s one thing I mean by that.  I find the arguments for sense-data unmoving–they are few in number and they radiate only a meager glory.  But I find the fact that philosophers have come to believe (in some at least professional sense of that term) that there are sense-data deeply fascinating.  How can that be?  It staggers credulity.  Surely no one, not Russell, not Moore, especially not Moore, really believes that there are sense-data?

When you look closely at supposed arguments for sense-data, you actually find little argumentation.  Conjuration is what you find instead.  Sense-data are made to appear (usually hands are waved, even while they are perhaps waived) via an open sesame–‘illusion’, ‘dream’, ‘error’, ‘double-vision”, ‘after-image’.

In his “Moore’s Theory of Sense-Data”, O. K. Bouwsma masterfully reveals how hard it is to succeed–or, how easy it is to fail–to get the conjuration right.  Moore takes himself to have supplied instructions that will allow the reader to “pick out” a sense-datum.  (Look at your hand and do as follows….)  Bouwsma tries repeatedly to follow Moore’s instructions, but never manages to pick out a sense-datum–he keeps slipping, seeing his hand and failing to see the sense-datum.  Bouwsma ends the essay by noting that he has not refuted Moore:  and that is surely right.  But we should also remember that a set of instructions is neither valid nor sound.  It is either helpful or not.  Bouwmsa has shown that Moore’s instructions are not helpful.  They didn’t help Moore.  Moore took himself to have picked out a sense-datum (he seems to have had one handy) and then asked himself how he had gone about it, assuming, we might say, that since he had succeeded (however he did, if he did), anyone following his instructions would succeed.  Moore as reverse-engineer.  How much help are Moore’s instructions for someone who does not (yet) believe in sense-data and is waiting for one to appear, waiting to succeed in picking one out, before believing in them?  (I’m from Missouri; show me!)

Philosophical Questions 1

I’ve been thinking lately about questions, philosophical questions.  It seems to me–although I admit to being unable to take this thought very far yet–that one useful way of gaining insight into a philosopher’s work is by working delicately to typify the relationship between the philosopher’s questions and her answers to them.  Perhaps, so stated, that seems obvious.  But what I mean is typifying the relationship as such (if that can be done), independent of the particular erototetic content or declarative content of the question and answer, respectively.  There are, I submit, a vast number of different typifying relationships to be discovered.  Part of the reason I began to think about this was re-reading a comment of mine on G. E. Moore:

Moore insists that we often ask a philosophical question without knowing quite what question our interrogatory words express.  But Moore does not ever seriously doubt that there is a philosophical question that the words express.  We can rightly say that Moore doubted the clarity of the questions that philosophers asked, and we can rightly say that he often doubted whether philosophers really believed the answers they gave to the questions; but we cannot rightly say that he doubted whether there were philosophical questions to be asked and answers to be given to them.  That Moore took this view of philosophical questions is shown by his deep unease with his own answers to them.  Moore, I think, believed his answers; but he also did not believe his answers.  (“I believe; help thou my unbelief.”)  His deep unease was the result of the mismatch between his understanding of the questions and the believability of his answers to them:  given his view of the questions, the very believability of his answers to them made the answers hard to believe.

Socrates’ questions and answers bear one sort of relationship to each other.   Augustine’s another.  Aquinas’ another.  Kant’s another–and so on.  Consider Heidegger, at least late:  he so absolutizes the question over the answer that it is no longer clear that there is, that there could be, even that there should be any answer to the question or even an attempt at an answer.  Such an attempt would violate the absoluteness of the question, allow us at least the hope of being able to end, at least for a moment, enduring the interrogative rack,  to stop bearing the question mark, to finish the forever-rising inflection–to scramble off the heath and into shelter, no longer exposed as mad Lear.  But Heidegger would have us stay.

(Ok, so I got a little carried away there.  Apologies.  But I plan to return–soberly–to this line of thought in coming days.)

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