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!)

Wittgenstein, Bouwsma and Our Relationship to Philosophical Problems

O. K. Bouwsma once declaimed that “…Wittgenstein’s interest was not in any particular problem, but in the bothered individual, particularly the hot and bothered.” He was rhetorizing about PI.

I believe Bouwsma is on to something quite important here, even though he seems to me to miss a better way of putting his point. It is not that Wittgenstein is not interested in any particular philosophical problem in PI–he is, in fact, interested in many–but rather that he keeps steadily before himself the puzzled (“hot and bothered”) person (now his interlocutor, now his reader, now both, now both in different ways), the particular problem, and the relationship of the person to the problem. Wittgenstein’s specific focus, the spotlight of his attention, shifts across this structure in complicated, sometimes dizzying ways, but more often than not, he spotlights the relationship between the person and the problem. Wittgenstein over and over again tries to make that relationship the available to the person, often doing so (in part) by making his own relationship to the problem available to the person–i.e., by making himself exemplary (in one sense of the term). (H/T to j.) As I understand Wittgenstein, he believes that the person believes that the particular problem is just there, palpitating problematically in its isolation, and that his or her relationship to the problem has nothing whatever to do with its being problematic. But the person’s belief is confused. I do not have time now to go into detail, so let me try to explain briefly by means of two quotations, both from Remarks on Color:

In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem.
We must always be prepared to learn something new. (I, 15)

In philosophy we must always ask: “How must we look at this problem in order for it to become solvable?” (II, 11)

Each of these is a response to the relationship between the person and the problem. The first is a reminder that we are all-too-often guilty of a philosophical knowingness, of a carried-with-us conviction that we are certain at least of the roots of the problem, that we understand its logical aetiology. We are prepared to learn something new, but not at the root level: that would mean that we have misunderstood the problem completely, or fancied a problem where there is none. The second is a reminder that we tend to occupy one fixed position in front of a philosophical problem, as if there were a chair bolted to floor and as if we had to sit in that chair in order to see the problem for what it is. We will not unfix our position, bound from the chair, and take a look around, hunting specifically for an angle of vision on the problem that allows us to undo it, like an apparently complicated knot that simply falls out of the string when we pull on the right end. –We can comment on one thing that unites these remarks by using a term of Kenneth Burke’s, occupational psychosis. An occcupational psychosis is a kind of blindness created by the aquisition of certain skills, the shadow, as it were, of our occupational accomplishments. (By ‘psychosis’ Burke does not anything strictly psychiatric; instead, “it applies simply to a pronounced character [Burke’s emphasis] of the mind.”) We approach philosophical problems as philosophers, where that means that we approach the problems occupationally: we believe we know what the problems are and we believe we know how to see them–knowing these things is what makes us philosophers. We are not prepared to learn that we do not know what a philosophical problem is, that we are at the root confused. We are not prepared to abandon our familiar angle of vision on the problem. To abandon these would be to approach the problem non-occupationally, to approach the problem with empty hands. That is hard, really quite hard, to do. Our occupation is our preoccupation. How could philosophy become unskilled labor and still know itself as philosophy? (Forgive me for that.)

How often the conjuring trick that illudes us is one we play on ourselves, one that we play on ourselves when we pride ourselves on our skill at avoiding illusion.

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