Sunday, 15 August 2010

the value of quietism

Wittgenstein's grave; identity of cat: unknownThe approach to which I seem to be drawn, in philosophical psychopathology, is typically a Wittgensteinian one, and as such tends towards quietism. Which is to say, it tends towards a non-theory-providing, mere-undoing-of-mistakes, content-less, activity at the end of which, one might want to say, one is 'no further forward' than when one started. But what, then, is or could be the value of that? How are we then better off than the (pictured) cat, lying inert on Wittgenstein's grave?

Well: to render latent nonsense patent, however merely destructive, is at least a means to stop us wasting time pursuing (pseudo-) explanatory agendas which, previously unbeknownst to us, have started off on the wrong foot. On this understanding of quietism, philosophy prepares the ground for genuine empirical enquiry in psychology, once the houses of cards of only
misbegotten psychological theory have been cleared away. And that may surely be of value. Minimally, it is better to lie on one's back than to break it in pointless labour. If philosophy cannot itself engender theory then, well, at least we will be spared the embarrassment of kidding ourselves that we are up to something of cognitive import when we are not.

That however all sounds a bit depressingly paltry to me. In place of this vision which only has philosophical deconstruction and theory-building on its menu, I want to suggest a richer diet which would include something called 'phenomenology'. In particular, it would include a dialectic of phenomenological and quietistic understanding.

By 'phenomenology' I mean simply the rich description and expression of the diverse facts and experiences and their place in our world. Philosophy can help in this project of unconcealment by showing negatively how phenomena may be covered over both by being assimilated to other phenomena and through being recruited merely to bogus explanatory projects. (For one thing is sure - as I once noted in an introductory article on theory of mind research in autism: those theorists who eschew the unedifying edifice of the 'theory of mind' and inferentialist projects regarding others' minds are precisely those able to pay best attention to the diverse reaches and characters of our mindedness.) Phenomenology by contrast is the articulation (either expressive or descriptive) of these facts in all their unconcealed sui generis glory. By moving back and forth what we gain is the world in all its richness - where 'the world' includes, importantly, one another.

Adorno and Horkheimer
Does this richer description of the world - in particular of those corners of it which have become obscured to us because we have recruited the light of our understanding into a focal spotlight, shone elsewhere, to enact mere fantasies of penetration - constitute real advance or progress? The attraction of the enlightenment idea of a mass of scientific knowledge and understanding moving forward is that it enables us to think of our contribution as adding up to something solid which will outlast us and our generation. Once the knowledge and the explanations are generated, then they are 'there forever'. Quietism might seem to have a more modest goal, and will always be parasitic upon the presence, within contemporary understanding, of misguided metaphysics and its pseudo-explanatory epistemological products.

Yet this also sells quietism short. For over time we gain clearer understanding of the diverse (but often related) ways in which we contrive to misunderstand ourselves and our worlds. This is understanding that can, at least for a while, be 'banked'. And in any case, the belief that the explanation of the world is to be preferred to the capacity to encounter it fully is itself a parochial value of the enlightenment. Perhaps our emancipation from that set of goals as the only viable set of intellectual goals could start right here, with questioning such values (and defences - against the fear of death, for example) as lie hidden within it.