Tuesday, 11 August 2015

two suspicions

Which statements, in what we read or hear, we take to require justification or elucidation before their espousal becomes something contemplatable to us depends on our temperament, their clarity, how outré or quotidian they may be, how closely they sail to the winds of something we all already recognise as fantastical. And when we are doing philosophy our interrogations that press for meaningfulness may - I will be claiming - take two forms. I was schooled in the first but, it now seems to me, only the second is intellectually respectable.

In the first I demand something that could properly be called a 'conceptual analysis'. The very idea of analysis carries with it a reductive notion of decomposability, in particular, it carries with it the idea of the legitimacy of pressing for necessary and sufficient conditions. The analysis demands that whatever is now blithely being talked about in certain terms ought with cognitive effort to be able to be further cashed out and captured in other terms. We are, I think, now largely well aware of the futility of the reductionism this mode of inquiry espouses when it turns its attention to, say, 'analysing' the use of ascriptions of so-called 'mental states' in largely non-mental terms: behaviourism and functionalism being the main culprits. But we rarely pause to question the general motivation of this form of suspicion - why it should be, in particular, that everything is urged - on putative otherwise pain of vacuity - to conform to the form of the physical particular. Or perhaps, more simply, why everything is urged to conform to the form of something else - everything that is except the physical particular. Here the motivation seems all too often churlish. Smug and settled in our competence at identifying physical particulars and negotiating questions of their function, we insecurely and narcissistically make irritable demands that other matters conform to their scheme, pressing this with a requirement for necessary and sufficient conditions where the conditions will be found in the domain of the physical. We make demands on the conceptual scheme rather than on ourselves; rather, that is, than ourselves attempting to make genuine accommodations that take the form of cultivating an additional and deeper sensibility to see and receive in a settled way what is autochthonous in artistry, sacredness, motivational depths, permutations of love, moral truth, sartorial prowess, mathematical insight, and political purpose.

In the second I acknowledge that I may just not be attuned to the sui generic character of that, which perplexes me, about which statements are being proffered. But I nevertheless carry with me a suspicion - not that what is being stated cannot be reduced to terms of my choosing, but that it involves a conflation or blunder of some particular sort. My suspicion here is positive - I do not take myself to enjoy intelligibility just whenever I might press for justification - why on earth, after all, should that demand of mine itself be taken to enjoy some universal decontextualised warrantable pass? But I have in mind some distinctive possibility of failing to make proper sense in the judgements that I'm presented with, and on this basis I press for a rebuttal of my charge of tacit hokum.  'Look', I say to the new-agey supernaturalist, 'you are carrying on about 'energies' and 'fields' and other woo-woo but all along you seem to be running together two quite distinct language-games - one to do with physics, the other to do with the psychological. Your slippage is simply a form of symbolic equation, a failure to keep apart the metaphorical and the literal, the symbolic and the real, the imaginary and the perceived.' Or, to the Platonist, 'Look old chap, it seems to me you've got in a muddle about numbers - you've started treating them like they are things located somewhere, things that can be encountered and known by us, and in the process you've lost your reflective grip on the sui generic form of the intelligibility of the mathematical.'

The second form of suspicion is more tempered, it takes the burden off the interrogated subject and puts it back on the philosopher, and it makes a much more congenial bedfellow to that other impulse in philosophy - the drive to awaken our diverse sensibilities, to get our multiple eyes in, to the whole ontological panoply of humanity, nature and the infinite. An impulse, a bedfellow, we may call 'wonder'.