Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Philosophical Tropes

It is always instructive when doing philosophy to try to discover which the phrases are one most often uses without thought, and then to try one's hardest to question them. These phrases trip off the tongue so readily it is almost impossible not to assume their complete innocence. But...just start to question them and their apparent innocence can slip away faster than we might ever imagine...

The phrase I've found myself using recently has been 'What makes it the case that...?' The idea is that, for example, if I have been imagining going to France, then something must make it the case that what I imagined was going to France. How innocent does this sound? It's pretty much a staple of analytical philosophy. But just pause to consider what it seems to presuppose.

The first thing we note is that answers which merely reiterate the obvious: that I am imagining going to France, seem ridiculous. But the only other way of answering the question, other than tautologously, is by providing an answer which buys one into the following:

  • That what makes it the case that some fact obtains is the obtaining of some other fact.
  • That the meaning of meaningful terms ought to be specifiable through providing necessary conditions for the obtaining of what these terms reference.

And in all honesty I can't imagine wanting to sign up to these. Why on earth should I take it as uncontroversial that my understanding of the obtaining of one fact consists in my appreciation of some other fact? Why on earth should I suppose that meaning decomposes, analytically, in this way? For technical terms introduced into the language by definition, sure; but surely not for all the language which evolved piecemeal in the diverse socio-cultural and predominantly praxical contexts in which we try and cope with the myriad different kinds of phenomena we everyday encounter and construct.

In this respect it is instructive to compare and contrast a Ryleian or Wittgensteinian understanding of the relation between mind and behaviour, and that provided by a logical behaviourist. The contrast is interesting, I believe, not because of the content of the analysis, not because of the metaphysics, but rather because of the different metaphilosophical assumptions that the analyses illluminate.

So the behaviourist takes it that what makes it the case that Henry wants an apple is that Henry is disposed in certain situations to procure and eat an apple. There is the one set of facts: desires for apples, and another set: actions on apples. The former is to be explicated in terms of the latter. What I think is interesting here is not the connection with behaviour per se, but rather the reductionism. We spell out facts about the former with reference to facts about the latter.

The Ryleian is also interested in the non-contingent relations between desires and apple-grabbing behaviour. But when Ryle writes there is (I believe) no attempt to spell out 'what makes it the case that' Henry wants an apple. It might well be specified that, if we are in good faith to continue to consider ourselves rational beings, we must accept that, if someone wants an apple then they will ceteris paribus go and get one. That is, it will be incumbent on anyone wishing to doubt Henry's desire, despite his apple-grabbing behaviour, to provide us with the kinds of contextually specific, most-probably unspecifiable-in-advance or in-general, defeating conditions of the ascription before such a douubt could be couselled as rational. But the preservation here of this very idea of being held 'innocent until proven guilty' (i.e. we need to provide what will be counted as valid defeating conditions, in these particular and possibly unformulable instances) shows how far we are here from a reductive analysis.

For Ryle and Wittgenstein, there is then no 'what makes it possible that...?', no form of question which like this seems to tacitly suggest that were it not for something else which we (somehow, miraculously) can just see is perfectly possible, we should be required to baulk at the very idea of the obtaining of the fact for which an analysis is being sought. They will tell us what further facts (about behaviour) we can rationally expect - what facts determine what couts as a 'rational expectation' here - given the one (about mind) which is being considered, but will not tell us what the further facts are which 'make it the case that' the former obtains.

'What makes it the case that...?' must therefore join what for me is an ever-increasing rubbish bin of philosophical tropes which smuggle in quite optional and questionable metaphysical assumptions - tropes such as 'How is it possible that?', and I suspect the very idea of 'conditions of possibility'. After all, doesn't this idea too seem to encourage the notion that facts must wait on other (albeit grander) facts? (Conditions of impossibility, sure, but specifiable conditions of possibility?) But this must wait for another day.