Culture versus modern analytic philosophy

6 Mar

I have been bringing together another edited collection, this time on philosophy, sociology and technology – in particular cloud technologies and their impact on the internet (prior collections have looked at the Future Home, at  SMS, and Wireless Connectivity, amongst other things: I have previously mentioned my most recent, on the Connected Home). The philosophy arguments have been drawing my attention not because I think that the latest arguments in philosophy are appealing; I don’t think they are: but they are current and people are espousing them: their oddness dismays me and I feel as if I ought to say something. ’Hey, that can’t be right,‘ I want to shout.

Let me be boring on this: the reason why I don’t find the appealing is because these philosophical arguments seem to distract attention from the enormously rich tools of culture we have in such a way as to diminish those tools, almost to discredit them. A current concern in philosophy, for example, has to do with how you explain, through experimental evidence, how people understand each other (Bratman’s work comes to mind as an example of this (1992) – though I think it mostly derives from Donald Davidson’s essay ‘Action, Reasons, and Causes’ of 1963). The starting premise of these enquiries is oftentimes the idea of free will, how this is to be accounted for, and how this in turn leads to questions about how the acting agent understands (and thus acts upon) other’s intentions; thus to collaboration, etc, the theme of Bratman.

Leaving aside the details about that, what I am suggesting is that the premise of freewill turns into enquiries about a sort of  solipsism (though this word isn’t used in the narratives in question -I am inclined to think that using that word or alluding to it would be too literary for current ‘empirical philosophers’).

Let me put it another way: some philosophers commence their thinking with the idea that people do not share a world on common; people are all essentially isolated (if not physically) – certainly without the gift of understanding the motives or purpose or aspirations of others. People are Cartesian entities, if you will, that exist without an intimate sense of others (and needless to say without a common God who can bring them together – there isn’t much religion in the mis-en-scène of contemporary philosophy).

Thus one will see already that the new breed of philosophers don’t look at what people do and experience in the real world – since having a sense of what others are about is the cornerstone of how we arrange our affairs even if we often do a bad job of it. Instead what lots of philosophers do is a kind of weird science: they put people in laboratories – Bratman is exemplar here – and set them tasks that they have to do together – playing a game, solving a puzzle – and then the philosopher’s watch what happens. The philosophers claim that through the evidence they garner thus they can discover how people come to understand each other.

So far it sounds sensible, if a bit odd: why put people in a peculiar setting to understand their normal affairs?

But now, hear this: the really curious thing is this (not merely the fact that philosophers think you can understand people by putting them in labs): it is that the philosophers transcribe what the subjects say to each other (in the experiments) and then ‘analyse’ those words. How bizarre: the philosophers are pretending that they cannot listen to what is being said by their subjects (i.e. as these poor compliant individuals who are getting on with the tasks they have been given and talk about it as they do); they cannot listen to them in an ordinary way but rather they, the philosophers, can only ‘understand’ what these ‘subjects achieve’ through a form of scientific magic, the mechanism of transcription and ‘analysis’. It is as if philosophers make other people, not themselves, other than human and somehow like Martian’s issuing forth grunts and animal calls that need to be ‘interpreted’. The philosopher’s art is to figure out how these sounds (words to you and me) point towards how people, these Alien- like animals, come to understand each other and ‘collaborate’. It seems to me that these philosophers think they are doing something like a cognitive science allied with an analytic philosophy but really they are corrupting understanding, the understanding that is constitutive of the world.

In my mind, these views draw attention away from the possibility that people already have tools that let them (us, you , me, all of us) understand each other. These tools have taken centuries to work out and cultivate. They are not the things one finds in laboratories or experiments.

The kinds of tools I am thinking of are big things and little things. As regards the latter: the kinds of things I am thinking of are, for example, little things like books, novels, poems, all of which are, in my mind, cultural devices that have been devised as ways to let people tell their stories, the tales as it were of their unique voyage, which they then tell (give?, share?) to others. These tales are, of course, both real and imagined.

Novels, poems, books of all sorts, are written around a different premise to the one that philosophers like Bratman start with. They are begun with the understanding that everyone lives in a world shared and known in common. It is also assumed that each person voyages in different places and in different ways and their nature (for want of a word, though this is powerful) colours the experience of this differently. Some philosophers agree with this view, this starting point: Cora Diamond is a case in point in her ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ (2008).

Be that as it may, let me say more about nature. By that I am thinking of such things as character, personality, education, the stuff that makes us what we are: people. We all know that different people have different reasons for articulating their experiences; we know too that people have different abilities; some have eloquence and artfulness, and some insights that are unusual, even unique.

Amongst the reasons we read books, then, is to hear the tale of how it might have been for us but for circumstances, but also to read the insights of those who see more clearly things that we ourselves experience but can’t articulate as well (and sometimes don’t even see).

Books, poems and such like aren’t then a solution to solipsism or the skeptics dilemma (viz ‘are there others in the world?’); they are then devices to let people explore a world in common. The charm in such things is provided through discovering (learning, reading) that other’s voyages are more interesting, other’s views are more articulate, theirs deeper than one’s own. Otherness here is not a philosophical problem; it’s a poetic one: one that is interesting for the way it is articulated.

I read some literary theorist who put these views forward some weeks ago: he claimed it was Emerson’s view, but I don’t know enough about literary theory to be sure. But anyway  I wholeheartedly agree: I think this view is the correct one. Views articulated by philosophers who think we need to discover what others are about –  and who think they can discover how people ‘do this’  through looking at this experimentally- undermine the credit we should give tools like the novel and thereby also distract attention away from those tools to other modes of practice – ones that offer little on this subject – like experimental ones.

It is for these sorts of reasons that I read current philosophers and despair. I also get a bit annoyed since it seems to me that Wittgenstein more or less argued for a sensitivity to such cultural tools in his own later work, but that seems mostly forgotten in the corridors of philosophy now: Donaldson’s myopia is the rage; Bratman’s research simply the output of a distraction.

So there you go!

Bratman, M. (1992) Shared Cooperative Activity, The Philosophical Review, 101(2) pp 327-341.

Davidson, D. (1963) Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ in Davidson, Action & Events, OUP, 1980: 3-20

Diamond, C. (2008) ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ in Cavell, S. et al, (Eds) Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia University Press, New York


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