Thursday, 18 September 2008

how to be a duff analytical philosopher


I've been turning over again in my mind the Wittgensteinian analogy of neurosis and philosophical disorder. This was prompted by my reading of the psychological literature on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and the curious use of the words 'reality' and 'real' that appear therein. And what this reminded me of was the curiously blithe and unconscious use of certain terms in (low-grade) analytical philosophy, and the way that such a use tacitly and illicitly sustains a debate, an interest and a focus. Let me explain.

How to be a duff analytic philosopher in 2 easy stages

So first of all it's worth reminding ourselves where we want to end up. What we want is to be able to develop a complex theory of a fairly everyday phenomenon, which it would not occur to the unitiated to even be required, and which will turn or draw not on empirical data, but on the distinctions that we can (take ourselves to) draw and track within our own minds. We want to be able to claim legitimate academic and expert status by showing the reader that we have turned up puzzles and complexities that might not have been apparent at first, complexities for which we then clearly need to solve, and which we can claim to be 'working on at the moment'. (It helps to say 'working on', since 'playing with' or 'risking being suckered by' might not quite do the job of quelling the anxieties arising within regarding the validity of our own enterprise.)

1. Take it for granted that the use of some particular term is completely unproblematic. We are to just acquiesce in this term, take it that we understand it, and take it that it can be deployed in whatever context we like without any particular interrogation. A term like 'reality' or 'real' will do. We take it for granted that we know what it is - or rather, we first take it for granted that there is some determinate thing which is thus known - for something to be 'real'. Other terms work quite well too: 'substance' is a nice one; 'entity' is another; 'mental state' does us quite nicely, and its cousin 'mental process' does the trick too. But even better is if we use a word which is just somewhat technical, but which has not been defined in terms of necessary and/or sufficient conditions. So we might use a word like 'representation' or 'intentional' (in the sense of 'intentionality'). (NB please don't let my sarcastic tone lead to the impression that I think there is, in many contexts, anything wrong with using undefined terms, or with generally taking it for granted that we know how to use our words.)

2. Next we just ask questions about whether or not the term in question obtains in some instance, or whether some instance is indeed an instance of what the term denotes. In the CFS literature, to go back to my original psychological inspiration, we are to take it for granted that we know what it is for something to be 'real' tout court, and then we can ask whether or not CFS, for example, 'is real'. Or we ask a complex series of questions which, taking for granted our grasp of the allegedly univocal meaning of the term in question, seem to take us forward to the fascinatingly rich and mind-bogglingly complex issues we can say 'we are doing work on'.

The fascinating detail and career-sanctioning complexities of 2 are accordingly purchased at the expense of the tacit, repressed, over-simplifications of 1. Take it for granted that there is - duh, obviously - some univocal meaning of 'real', try to forestall thought about this through allegiance to a micro-research-community of fellow neurotics all with the same conceptual blindspot, and then pursue the job of saying what is and is not 'real' in the universe. What we might instead call the 'kinds of reality' enjoyed by different kinds of phenomena are all typically conflated and collapsed into that kind which is enjoyed by whatever is going to function as our unconscious prototype (these days we can take it for granted that the kind of reality enjoyed by physical entities will play that part for us). As with CFS, the thought that there might be questions as to whether some condition is a real hysterical disorder or not, a real psychological disorder or not, a real neurological disorder or not, does not get asked. We are just asked 'is it real', where an assumption is made that we know what we are asking that when we ask it, in the abstract as it were. And then, with that simple assumption in place - with at best that self-confident knowingness that "of course we know what a 'representational state' is" - now we take ourselves to just have the task of figuring out 'how representational states are connected with reality' (or some other such exciting-sounding enterprise).

I notice that I have written this post in a somewhat sarcastic tone. At this stage, then, I ought to own what I recently said to a philosopher who claimed my Wittgensteinian critique of neurotic philosophy only applied to 'second-rate philosophers': 'But surely there's a second rate philosopher inside all of us'.