Dick Moran Keeps it Real

There’s much to profit from in Moran’s recent interview at 3am magazine.  The section on Experimental Philosophy is a tour de force.

As to ‘experimental philosophy, I can’t claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitioners are beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their “intuitions” about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can’t really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, “‘Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?”, for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can’t know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It’s not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophy evolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical background to the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.

Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide “comments” on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional in such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It’s worth trying anyway.

Keeping Your Distance: More on Merleau-Ponty (Philosophical Questions 6)

Just as we do not speak for the sake of speaking but speak to someone of something or of someone, and in this initiative of speaking an aiming at the world and at the others is involved upon which is suspended all that which we say; so also the lexical signification and even the pure significations which are deliberately reconstructed, such as those of geometry, aim at a universe of brute being and of coexistence, toward which we were already thrown when we spoke and thought, and which, for its part, by principle does not admit the procedure of objectifying or reflective approximation, since it is at a distance, by way of horizon, latent or dissimulated.  It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the “object” of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary beings, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them, as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being—to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its astonishment.  It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no. (The Visible and the Invisible)

In one of the essays in Signs, MMP says this about seeing:  “Seeing is that strange way of rendering ourselves present while keeping our distance…”  In his lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”, he talks of philosophy as the Utopia of possession at a distance.  And he goes on from the long passage I have quoted above to talk of philosophy as a way of encountering what is far-off as far-off.  Has any philosopher ever made vision more definitive of philosophy than MMP?  When MMP thinks about philosophical questions and answers, he thinks in terms of seeing and of what is seen.  Distance is central:  “To possess ourselves we must begin by abandoning ourselves; to see the world we must first withdraw from it.”  But the distance must be a tethered distance:  it is a distance from something that is a way of rendering ourselves present to it, even while we remain distanced:   “A being which is in principle at a distance, in regard to which distance is a bond but with which there can be no question of coincidence.”  Given this, and given his conception of philosophy as interrogative, it is perhaps unsurprising that MMP comes to understand seeing itself as interrogative.  But if seeing is asking, how is the asking answered?  By having its astonishment confirmed.  And that means…what?  It means, I take it, that interrogative seeing reveals things as they thing and unthing, glidingly form and unform themselves, but in a way that is beneath, before, any yes or no, anything that would seem like a standard answer to a standard question.  (Interrogative seeing chips the sediment of traditon and habit and knowingness off things, the sediment that works like sand in the gears of things, keeping them frozen or relatively frozen, unable or nearly unable to glide.)  But since what I interrogatively see is of this sort, I can get it no nearer to me, and I cannot treat it as itself an answer to any traditional philosophical question.  I witness the instructive spontaneity of and in things, but that spontaneity neither confirms nor disconfirms standard philosophical questions, although it can, I take it, render those standard questions null or reveal them as sedimented and sedimenting.  Or, to put the matter differently, when we ask the standard questions, but not in the standard way, when the questions themselves become open-natured orientings upon Being, then the questions, while still not answered, create a free space; and, in that free space, there is

the disclosure of a Being that is not posited because it has no need to be, because it is silently behind all our affirmations, negations, and even behind all formulated questions, not that it is a matter of forgetting them in its silence, not that it is a matter of imprisoning it in our chatter, but because philosophy is the reconversion of silence and speech into one another…

Indeed, so understood, philosophy would seem impossible–it would be the rendering commensurate, first one way and then another, of two incommensurates; yes, it would seem impossible; except that the re-commensuration, the reconversion, happens on MMP’s pages, in a hard-won language that speaks silences and silences speech.

More anon.

Philosophical Questions 5: The Approach to What is Far-Off as Far-Off

Since I am on a Merleau-Ponty spree…

Just as we do not speak for the sake of speaking but speak to someone of something or of someone, and in this initiative of speaking an aiming at the world and at the others is involved upon which is suspended all that which we say; so also the lexical signification and even the pure significations which are deliberately reconstructed, such as those of geometry, aim at a universe of brute being and of coexistence, toward which we were already thrown when we spoke and thought, and which, for its part, by principle does not admit the procedure of objectifying or reflective approximation, since it is at a distance, by way of horizon, latent or dissimulated.  It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the “object” of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary beings, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them, as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being—to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its astonishment.  It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no.

Our discussion…announces to us another paradox of philosophy, which distinguishes it from every problem of cognition and forbids us to speak in philosophy of a solution:  as an approach to what is far-off as far-off, it is also a question put to what does not speak.  It asks of our experience of the world what the world is before it is a thing one speaks of and which is taken for granted, before it has been reduced to a set of manageable, disposable significations; it directs this question to our mute life, it addresses itself to that compound of the world and of ourselves that precedes reflection, because the examination of the significations themselves would give us the world reduced to our idealizations and our syntax.  But in addition, what it finds in thus returning to the sources, it says.  It is itself a human construction, and the effort, in the best of cases, will take its place among the artefacts and products of culture, as an instance of them.  If this paradox is not an impossibility, and if philosophy can speak, it is because language is not only the depository of fixed and acquired significations, because its cumulative power itself results from a power of anticipation or prepossession, because one speaks not only of what one knows, so as to set out a display of it—but also because one does not know, in order to know it—and because language in forming itself expresses, at least laterally, an ontogenesis of which it is a part.  But from this it follows that the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon Being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin.  Hence it is a question whether philosophy as reconquest of brute or wild being can be accompanied by the resources of elegant language, or whether it would not be necessary for philosophy to use language in a way that takes from it its power of immediate or direct signification in order to equal it with what it wishes all the same to say.  (The Visible and the Invisible, 101-2)

For the purposes of my fitful reflections on Philosophical Questions, I really needed only the first paragraph above.  But the second paragraph is so deliciously rich I could not resist adding it—and, I note, the second is also part of Merleau-Ponty’s response to the apparent plight of philosophy he describes in a passage I quoted earlier this week (The “Work” of the Philosopher).  Quoting that passage, as I did, without continuation, creates a somewhat misleading impression:  but it is true that Merleau-Ponty takes the ability of philosophy to speak as a problem (perhaps the problem), and his reason for so doing is well described in that earlier quotation.  The other fascinating feature of the second paragraph is its intended self-application to Merleau-Ponty’s language,  its way of shedding light on the prolonged enigma of Merleau-Ponty’s prose. I will comment on this passage soon, as well as returning to finish up with comments on an earlier passage from Rush Rhees.

One other quick thought:  Merleau-Ponty’s contrast between two uses of language in the second paragraph, one “elegant” the other “charged with philosophy”, relates quite closely to F. R. Leavis contrast between the Augustan and the “exploratory-creative” use of language.  It is too bad Leavis so underestimated the interest of philosophers in the problems that most mattered to him.  Understandable, but too bad.

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.

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.)

Philosophical Investigations 309: My Redacted Version

What is your aim in teaching philosophy?  –To increase devotion to philosophical questions, to increase promptitude, fervor, inwardness and agility in responding to them.

‘Responding’–so you want to help the students find answers?  –No, I want them to learn how to interrogate philosophical questions.  The questions must answer for themselves–or not.

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