Sunday, 4 June 2017

can't bear very much (more talk of) reality

The enigmatic and subtle Oskari Kuusela came to talk to the Jowett Society this week. His theme: how to explain that peculiar feature of philosophical statements which is their intention of exceptionlness generality. Philosophical pronouncements typically tend to an explanation of what things are in their essence, what they necessarily are. But what is the status of these statements? What is it that makes for this necessity? (The cleverest part of Oskari's talk was its very raising of this question. He thereby already pricked philosophical pretension using nothing beyond its own form of enquiry, inviting metaphysics to answer for itself and to us in a way in which it is not accustomed to do but which, if it is really fearless, it can hardly just shirk. ... I remember Galen Strawson once arguing that individual consciousness has a 'pfff' factor which is its unique intrinsic unexplainability. I asked why he was prepared to allow this sui generis unanalysability to consciousness but not, as Wittgenstein and Heidegger did, to, say, the multiform manifestations of motor intentionality, language, our relational lives, etc. What principle, I asked, could we appeal to to decide which of these philosophies was the right one? The question did not go down well - it's the one you're not supposed to ask. Oskari was, precisely, asking, in the largest possible way, the question you're not supposed to ask the metaphysician.)

One answer to Oskari's question has it that what we have to understand is that they are not empirical statements about what happens to be the case, but metaphysical statements about the non-contingent nature of reality. But as he pointed out, this really just restates the problem by giving it a name. Or perhaps we aim to delineate the essential structure of reality a la Plato (forms), Aristotle (form), Kant (transcendental structures), Husserl (pure essences), Russell (logical forms), Heidegger' (existentialia). Well, ok, but how do we know that these exist? Sure, they in their turn seem to explain these necessities allegedly to be found in the superstructure of reality or in the substructure of intelligible thought. But it is not enough to give content to a notion that it seem to explain something, for something can itself be an explanation if we already have some idea of what that something is. Otherwise one might as well, say, substitute a mere variable. As with the notion that here we meet with 'metaphysical' pronouncements, here in truth we are doing nothing more than naming the phenomenon that still wants explaining. 'That sounds like an explanation, sure', the thought goes, 'but now show me why it is not simply a set of words aping an empirical generalisation with an alleged non-empirical property the justification for which is yet unforthcoming'.

Oskari took us through the early Wittgenstein's failed attempt to explicate what a philosopher might be saying in saying that reality itself enjoys exceptionalness generality, to arrive at the later Wittgenstein's turnaround. In short this later view has it that statements of exceptionlness generality do not so much articulate a special and mysterious property of reality or of the cognising mind as express an unmysterious property of a mode of representation. (The same can be said of Wittgenstein on logical necessity quite generally. Logically necessary propositions are not true in virtue of correctly articulating the structure of reality or in virtue of correctly describing he structure of our thought or language. Instead they are a form of language. They are not, for example, true in virtue of 'how we go on' in language, for they are one of the ways we go on.) Whether we are talking of conceptual models, or grammatical rules, or simple language games, the necessity invoked is internal to the discourse. 'If you want to count as a good person, you must try to maximise human happiness.' That is what the utilitarian might say, as if it were a statement concerning the nature of morality, a statement intended to enjoy an exceptionlness generality in virtue of tracking an essential feature of morality per se. What Oskari offered was that, given the fact that utilitarian ethics appears to only capture some of our understanding of what it means to be ethical, leaving aside matters of intention for example, and so simply cannot achieve the kind of descriptive universality or descriptive exceptionalness generality it proposes, we do better to think of the utilitarian proposition as what he called a 'model'. In the model to be good is to aim at maximal happiness for all. The model's necessity does not derive from it accurately depicting a mysterious necessity encountered in the structure of moral reality (whatever that is). It derives from the fact that the model is providing a rule for the use of 'moral'. The exceptionless generality of the utilitarian claim thereby resolves into the unproblematic exceptionlessness belonging to principles.

Some confusion arrived in the questions concerning what being a 'model' amounts to, confusion later helpfully sorted out by Sebastian Grรจve. For it is natural to ask, of a model, whether it is accurate or not: does it correctly model the nature of (e.g. moral) reality? Is it true? And, if so, in virtue of what is it true? And when we ask that, we are right back with our old question which we were trying so hard to avoid! But the problem here arises from the use of the word 'model' rather than the more perspicuous phrase 'simple object of comparison'. Once we stick with the latter we also get clear what the point of deploying models in philosophy is: that we propose an artificially simple rule for the use of 'moral' and then gain clarity about the nature of our actual moral thought by comparing and contrasting the ways in which moral discourse and moral practice does and does not tally with such a prototype. In short, the point of the model isn't to 'fit reality', whatever that would mean (I come to this below). It's rather to provide a simple notion about which we feel utterly clear to use as a comparator - one we can hold up next to our actual practice about which we have become unclear, so that we can at least say 'Well, in these ways our actual practice, in all its depth and complexity, does, and in these ways does not, accord with our model. And in these ways it accords and contrasts with this other model as well'.

What interests me this morning is this very idea of 'fitting reality'. When we ask whether a model correctly corresponds to reality we are, I believe, subliming our concept of 'real'. I would like here to say something of what I mean by that.

If we think that the task of the model is here to try to correctly represent reality, or the nature of the cognising mind, then we will naturally wonder if it represents it correctly or incorrectly.  But this misses the way in which the model here is not itself a simple representation but a simple rule of representation; it misses the way in which the exceptionless generality it enjoys is not a feature of something it represents but rather an internal feature of a rule as such. 

One may as well ask whether our concepts - our moral concepts, for example - themselves conform to the nature of morality itself. Or whether our colour concepts correspond to anything real in some place we call 'the world'. Or whether there 'really are' animals or atoms 'out there', wherever that is. Talk like this and we'll soon also start talking about whether we're cutting something called 'nature' at its joints. And so on. And if we start to take such ways of talking seriously, and yet feel uncomfortable with the gulf that such a vantage point seems to open up between our basic understanding of things and how things really are, then we may be tempted by some form of idealism. 'No', we might say,  trying to stop the rot but mindless of the ensuing narcissism, 'that there are colours, animals, atoms, goodness, love, forgiveness, in the world is a function not of the world itself but rather of how we represent matters. Perhaps it's even a matter of how we can but represent matters.' Thus the debate descends into portentousness. The words 'reality', 'world', 'out there', 'nature' have taken on a life of their own beyond their natural conditions of application. 

Thus we normally take 'nature' to be the domain of plants, animals, fungi etc. But now we are pretending to seriously ask whether something called 'nature' really does contain plants, animals, fungi, etc., or whether this is just a 'projection' on our part into nature. What is lost here is any sense of what is meant by the 'nature' which is not to be already understood in terms of plants and fungi etc. Or similarly with the word 'real': we know perfectly well what it is for banknotes, smiles, Manet paintings, guns, gold, etc to be real rather than fake or pretend or forged or imitation or replicas. 'But no', the metaphysical realist says, 'I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about whether we are right in thinking that there really are even real guns or real smiles or real Monet paintings or real gold in reality itself'. But the problem is that we just don't know what is now meant by this word 'reality'. We have, as Wittgenstein put it, here sublimed the logic of our language - i.e. taken a term ('real') outside of its embedding context of application, and now try and apply it in a void over and above these contexts, inviting us to pretend to ourselves that we know what we are doing when we ask whether those contexts themselves enjoy 'instantiation'. In this way concepts are endlessly treated as if they were judgements.

I want to stress again that, as it seems to me, the problem is not at all best addressed by trying to stop the remove from us of the world/reality/nature by bringing it closer to home, by giving it a 'human face'. Such an idealist/conceptualist response still takes too seriously the underlying problematic and ignores the way in which an object of comparison, a rule, a norm, is itself no kind of description of anything. The only way I can see to get the metaphysical projects of Idealism and Realism going is to start by subliming the logic of the 'real', by ignoring the way the term gets its content in its sundry contexts of application, and then to imagine that it can lord it over such contexts. 

In his responses to questions Oskari aligned himself with realism - with the Wittgenstein who would say 'not empiricism but yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing'. But we need to be clear how far this is from that metaphysical realism ('Realism') which would take it as coherent to ask whether our concepts actually find instantiation 'in reality'.  (The questioner suggested that realism involves a reality that transcends the models - that is something to which they and our concepts must answer.) What Wittgenstein is encouraging is rather thought that is realistic - that pays attention to what it really does mean to talk of, say, goodness or love or natural life. And nothing in that project supposes that it makes sense to ask whether either our concepts or our models of the phenomena correspond to something called reality or not. Again, this is not because, a la idealist, reality is mysteriously infused with our concepts. We don't here have to do with an occult penetration of nature by our mental or linguistic life. Instead we have to do with the difference between representations and simple (like grammatical objects of comparison) or complex (like the rich multiplicity of our moral life) normative structures. Oskari's 'models' do not correspond to reality as opposed to our concepts. When we use them as simple objects of comparison, for the purpose of becoming clearer about how our actual concepts work - noting the similarities and differences - it makes no difference whether we say, as I just did, that what we meet with here are 'concepts', or instead with phenomena.