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.

Nauseated

It is Sarte’s birthday.  I find myself conflicted.

Coming of age philosophically in a department supersaturated by the methods and work of Chisholm and Gettier was difficult for me.  My sympathies were wider than that, and, even worse,  I had serious reservations about the Propose-a-Definition-Cast-about-for-a-Counterexample style of philosophizing I was being taught.  In those days, the president of Rochester was a philosopher, Dennis O’Brien.  O’Brien had written a dissertation on Wittgenstein (under Richard McKeon, believe it or not), taught at Princeton (where he wrote a book, Hegel on Reason in History), and served as president of Bucknell before coming to Rochester.  (Those familiar with the secondary literature on Wittgenstein may know O’Brien’s fine paper, “The Unity of Wittgenstein’s Thought”, one of the earliest papers challenging the Two Wittgensteins orthodoxy, and containing the exactly appropriate continuation of the famous Wittgensteinian advice, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use”–“And don’t ask for the use, either!”)  At Rochester, O’Brien discomfitted the faculty by teaching courses on Sartre.  The TA assignment for those courses was disrelished by graduate students:  after all, the courses were on Sartre, Sartre!—and they required a lot of preparation because O’Brien’s presidential duties could any week call him away leaving the grad student with a 3-hour lecture to give on some portion of Being and Nothingness.  Predictably, given the view in the department that I would read anything (not exactly a compliment), I got tabbed for the assignment. It was a lot of work, but I learnt a lot about Sartre and a lot about teaching from O’Brien.  I am in his debt.

But, Sartre.  Well, I never know what to say about him.  There’s so much I admire and so much I don’t.  Undoubtedly, the man could write–and there are many moments of profound phenomenological insight in his work.  Still, there is something wrong with it.  Marcel, I believe, has helpful things to say about that.  In an aside in “Testimony and Existentialism”, Marcel quotes Sartre’s B & N discussion of gifts and giving, which opens with “Gift is a primitive form of destruction…Generosity is, above all, a destructive function”.  Marcel responds:

I doubt if there exists a passage in Sartre’s work which is more revealing of his inability to grasp the genuine reality of what is meant by we or of what governs this reality, that is precisely the capacity to open ourselves to others.

I admit that seems right to me.  I have sometimes teased students in my classes by commenting that many forms of existentialism can be produced via a formula:  Choose one of the seven deadly sins.  Imagine someone held fast in the grip of the vice.  Now, treat that person as the norm of human existence, and the phenomenology of the vice as the phenomenology of existence per se.  Of course, I am teasing when I say this, but like most professorial humor it has a point, it is meant to shed some light.  In Henry Fairlie’s book, The Seven Deadly Sins Today, each chapter on a deadly sin is prefaced by a drawing by Vint Lawrence.  Here’s the drawing of envy.

Isn’t this a drawing of the Sartrean human?  Sideways keyhole spying, fingernail gnawing, distendly squatting, beingful of nothingness?

Of course, I could be wrong.

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