Friday, 20 November 2009

when the puzzle falls apart and can't be recovered

There's a curious state, phenomenologically speaking, to be had when philosophising. I believe it to be best characterised by Wittgenstein's idea of being 'held captive by a picture' and then being set free from this captivity. And the curious thing is that one can then hardly understand what it was one didn't understand before. Hard to understand what the problem was, how one was confused; even to remember the whole problem. It has just dissolved.

I don't believe this state is unique to the resolution of philosophical puzzlement. It also seems to be shared by the resolution of psychotic delusion, the bursting of the bubble of transference, being relinquished from the grips of an unconscious phantasy, and moving from dream to waking consciousness. We know we've just been dreaming, but often struggle to say what about; perhaps sometimes, through the day, we have a vague sense of still living in its penumbra.

Right now I'm caught in a puzzle about the nature of historical explanation. I've not been reading up on it, so this isn't a scholarly post. I thought I'd rather try to note my puzzlement now, since I have an inkling that it may be on the verge of dissolution and I want to use this as an exercise in trying to 'hold onto the madness'.

I'm thinking about the nature of historical explanation (I know nothing about history itself). I want to know, or so it seems to me, what the causes of an event are - e.g. the causes of the first world war.

And then I wonder to what extent I will be satisfied instead by a purely hermeneutic answer. One which specifies the intentions of the agents. One which sheds light on the meaning of the actions. Which recharacterises the actions so as to make them humanly intelligible. Which deploys 'interpretation' as its methodology.

And so I'm tempted to contrast interpretative or meaningful explication with 'efficient' causal explanation. But I wonder now what about the actual causes of the war. The thought goes: ok, so we have what inspired the military leaders, what understandings were reached by whom and when. But is this all? Can't we ask about the causes as well as the meanings? What it was that 'brought it all about'?

Well, it occurs to me now that here I may be in the heart of the kind of puzzlement that wants for dissolution rather than solution. (But can I avoid losing a sense of my puzzlement? That is my goal.) And when I first wrote this post I went on quickly, at this point, to just urge a distinction between reasons and causes, and to suggest that the felt need to articulate a causal as well as a rational story was otiose, since what was really requested by the question as to the causes of the first world war would be best and completely aptly met by a justificatory explication. (I've also had another strange experience: I thought I should go and read up on the issue, and pulled von Wright's book on Explanation and Understanding off the shelf - and found he uses the same example of the beginning of the first world war. Perhaps it is a common philosophical example that I'd forgotten I'd previously encountered?) And I think I then just lost a sense of my own puzzlement.

Donald Davidson and Bill Child both insist, regarding psychological explanation, for example, that it's fine to be told what sense we can make of someone's actions, but we also want to know specifically what made the actions happen when they did. And let me admit (now following von Wright) that we can of course talk of the circumstances, geological and political and economic circumstances which obtained at a particular time and only given which would certain motivations for action gain traction. But to go and tidy it all up in this way now seems to me to risk losing a sense of my original puzzlement. (Like providing a sensible answer (which would in fact be an answer to a sensible but banal question) to a silly (but nevertheless deep) question - I risk just being shut up, rather than being understood, by myself.)

Somewhere around here is where we must 'condense a cloud of philosophy into a drop of grammar'. And here's the thought: It sounds strange if we say 'nothing brought about an action' but this is because it looks too much like a spooky empirical, rather than a grammatical or conceptual, proposition. It looks spooky because it looks now like we're admitting uncaused events into our ontology. But conceiving of actions as events is part of what is at stake here too. We (well, we secularists) don't find it weird to talk about unintended events happening. Let's try not to get similarly freaked out by talk of uncaused actions.

Understanding just what it means to say that ''actions are uncaused' is a grammatical rather than an empirical statement' helps resolve some of the tension here. If I'm right, it's like saying 'colours are weightless', 'emotions are without length or breadth', 'integers are priceless', etc. It doesn't mean that there are these mysterious goings on (they aren't 'goings on'!); it means that no meaning has been given within the English language to talk of 'causing actions'. Perhaps we could provide such a use, and extend our language game in new and interesting and useful (but not 'truer'!) ways. That's another issue though. For now the trick is to know when we've just been un/reflectively assuming that it works in ways which are as yet simply foreign to it.

Last gasp. I find my internal interlocutor now proclaiming: Yes, but Richard, we do need some way of understanding how the world of intentions and actions relates to the world of events and causes. I acknowledge the temptation to ask this, but I suspect that the question once again comes from a mind in thrall to the very conflations which generated the sense of puzzlement which has now left me when I was finding myself wanting to ask about not just the motives but also the causes of actions. Unpicking this is however the task for another day.