Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Peregrination


This started out as a comment on Amod Lele's post at Love of All Wisdom about common sense, but soon dovetailed with a lot of thinking I've been doing about the place of counter-intuitive results in philosophy in the wake of my back-&-forth with Pete Wolfendale. I certainly concur with Amod that philosophy has every right to go counter to common sense, and indeed that we probably ought to expect it to do so, but that at the same time, it must account for our intuitions -- and this in some nonreductive way (i.e., no saying merely, Oh, you believe that because you're a sensualist, or a puritan, or a capitalist sell-out, or etc). I think this goes very deep; on some level, a philosophical account must still have recourse to our intuitions, because even to assert "Everything you know is wrong" is to appeal to some notion (which pre-exists this assertion) of rightness and wrongness.

This is, pace what Amod says about Wittgenstein and the film The Matrix, what snags every brain-in-a-vat scenario. Amod writes that The Matrix:
gives a clear and graphic illustration of what it would mean to doubt our everyday experience, to show that the world could be completely other than we imagine. It’s not necessarily plausible; but what seemed hugely implausible or even impossible to past generations (the earth revolving around the sun, the adaptation of living species without the help of an intelligent designer) has turned out, as far as we now know, to be true.
Amod offers this as a refutation of Wittgenstein's claim that there are some things the doubting of which is nonsensical. I'm not absolutely certain I am following Amod's thought here, and so also not quite sure of the extent of my disagreement with him. He's right that the film gives a (far-fetched but barely imaginable) picture of how I could be mistaken about some things, even things that seem indubitable; but if Wittgenstein is arguing that total doubt is incoherent, then The Matrix does not touch him. Indeed, The Matrix tries to substitute one solid account of reality (a post-apocalyptic world in which humans are wired up inside pods as biochemical batteries for intelligent machines and kept in a constant collective dream) for another (it's the 21st century and humans live on a crowded and polluted but still pre-apocalyptic planet). But (and please don't assume I think this is a particularly profound objection), if it were possible for me to be wrong about me sitting here with my laptop, why should I believe I have a "brain" inside my "skull" that would be susceptible to computer-generated illusions? Sure, I could be deceived by an evil genie; but if that's the case, I sure as hell can't assume that it's deceiving me by affecting something called my "brain," because the reasons I have for thinking I have a brain are exactly like those I have for thinking I am sitting and writing. To every assertion that I am just a brain hooked up to a computer, I can ask, But why should I be a brain? What's a computer?

This post, though, is not primarily about skepticism, but about the peregrination of philosophy away from, and back to, our intuitions.

As I mentioned last post, Wittgenstein urged: Don't think; Look! This isn't an anti-intellectual slogan, but a reminder that thinking starts somewhere. And, as he also remarked, it stops somewhere too. "Here my spade is turned," (Philosophical Investigations 217) he famously said; and "Explanations come to an end somewhere" (P.I. 1). It's this beginning and end that I am interested in, since of course philosophy famously goes on and on, and the quest for clarification and insight does not stop; yet in some sense it returns us to our starting-place.

This is, interestingly, also the case with Kant. Kant's system, Nietzsche claimed, was a joke -- literally:
Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret joke of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for scholars and not for the people. (Gay Science 193)
Schopenhauer implies that the joke is on Kant -- he says (this is in On the Basis of Morality) Kant is like a seducer at a masked ball who works his charms on a woman all night only to discover that she's his wife). Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are having fun at Kant's expense, but in fact this is what philosophy always does; we need not agree that it finds "bad reasons for what we believe on instinct" (--Bradley), but it always in some way suspends our presuppositions in order to return us to them; a kind of "second naïveté," as Ricoeur puts it (see The Symbolism of Evil, pp 350-353).

As Merleau-Ponty put it:
Philosophy believed it could overcome the contradiction of perceptual faith by suspending it in order to disclose the motives that support it. (The Visible and the Invisible, p 50.)
Merleau-Ponty's objection to this suspension can be directed against the Husserlian epoche, against Kantian critique, against Cartesian methodical doubt; but in fact this procedure applies as much to Merleau-Ponty as to any of his targets, for his own rather recondite notes on human experience bear about as much resemblance to life in media res as a Henry James novel. Yet to say this is no reproach to Merleau-Ponty (or James). Philosophy always "suspends" our common sense (what Plato calls doxa), but it ultimately returns, not us to it, but it to us.

There is in this shuttling an approximation of what Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie, "estrangement:" reflection makes strange our familiar experience, and it familiarizes (without cheapening) the strange. The continual meditations of philosophy upon difference and identity, same and other; the weird distancing of oneself from oneself one finds from Socrates to Augustine to Derrida; the play between the esotericism of a Strauss and Wittgenstein's insistence that "nothing is hidden"--all of these are variations on the continual endeavor of the mind to wrest obviousness from perplexity in a way that will do justice to both. Amod rightly notes that the possibility of error is a genuine puzzle for Sankara, for instance; and it is no less one to Plato; and yet, what is more common than error?

In a recent conversation with Tim Morton I cited St. Donovan: "First, there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is." How is it that nirvana is said to be the same as samsara? How is it that we can hope, as T.S. Eliot wrote, to
not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
--? This homecoming is vulnerable to critique as nostalgia, doubtless: the old Freudian smile at longing to crawl back into the oceanic state in utero. But I see no reason to view this Freudian interpretation of "return" (or, mutatis mutandis, Derrida's head-shaking over "craving for origin") as the "type" of all returning. (Amod did remark that my comments on "common sense" risk a kind of romanticism, which I think is fair enough -- though I don't believe I cave in to the danger.) Even in the Odyssey, its almost perfect exemplar, this old, old motif is already salted with something more than homecoming:
you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food...A wayfarer will meet you and say it must be a winnowing fan that you have got upon your shoulder.
Every moment of our lives returns us to the perfectly familiar, utterly strange world; it is part of the effort of philosophy to awaken us to the strangeness of this ordinary world in a way that is not just a trivial, forgettable, prepackaged brief unsettling but a lasting shift. And what in this world is more familiar or more uncanny than our own consciousness? Or even closer, "closer to me than my pulse" as the Muslim prayer has it (literally: "closer than my jugular"), that Reality Who is most nearest and farthest away of all -- so Other that all words are inadequate; so intimate that none are required.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks, Skholiast. I don't think it's fair to say that all philosophy returns to common sense (or to "intuitions" etc.) This is part of what Thill has been complaining about (and as you've no doubt observed, it's been his comments that have provoked my most recent set of posts, in one way or another). Some philosophies do this, for sure - I would say Aristotle, Hegel, Confucius all come back in the end mostly to popular belief with a more sophisticated underpinning. But not all do this. Especially, philosophies with an ascent orientation of whatever sort leave us in a very different place from where we started - that's the point. Augustine, the Pali suttas or the Jaina sutras all urge us to leave behind our normal worldly desires, to the extent that we can do so, for a better transcendent reality beyond. It's true that they do "save the appearances" in a descriptive sense, but normatively we are somewhere very different. (And for Śaṅkara or Nāgārjuna, even descriptively, the appearances are saved only through a theory of error.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'll use Plato for my example; a more "ascending" philosopher you will not find, yet even for Plato, the philosopher must return to the cave. You are right that there is a difference in the way the intuited or commonsense worldly desires are evaluated -- "normatively we are somewhere very different," as you put it -- but this difference has a bearing upon our starting place, as startling as the reversal of figure and ground. For Augustine as for the Christian fathers generally, in fact, we come ultimately not to the denial of the flesh but to the resurrection of the body; and for at least certain forms of Buddhism we come to the mysterious but just-thus identity of Samsara and Nirvana.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Skholiast, Amod,
    The possibility of error as a great problem for Shankara? No, more of an opportunity.
    To get a sense of this one needs to look at what is called the 'adhyasa bhasya' or preamble on superimposition, the first few pages of the Brahma Sutra Bhasya. In broad outline the central paradigm case of error is taking a thing to be that which it is not. This has two aspects to it. Along the horizontal there is ordinary perceptual error, the famous coiled rope seen as a snake and on the vertical axis there is the structural, metaphysical error which can be rationally discerned but does not thereby become annihilated.

    It is the first sort of error which has been most commented on historically and which has given rise to fantastic claims about cosmic illusion. It is a complex issue and impossible to go into within the scope of a post but the conclusion of the sober and philosophically informed is that perceptual experience is taken at its face value. Now it may be cancelled/denied/sublated by a further experience but that is not to say that we only hold to its truth provisionally if by provisionally we mean a metaphysically sceptical adherence. Nothing very alarming there I think.

    Now the second sort of error, the metaphysical or structural, represented by the boys that see the sky as bowl shaped or like a wok. Even when they come to rationally know that this is not the case they will continue to experience it as such, much as we do sunrise and sunset and a stick bent in water. The realisation of absolute unity does not eliminate the experience of otherness. Because experience and the sort of experience we can have is the result of being an individual human being then the realisation that this is a horizontal truth stays at that level. Sankara's realisation stayed with Sankara, his individual 'vertical' error was sublated.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Om~

    I excised a portion of my comment above concerning Sankara because I don't feel competent, so I am grateful for this eloquent summation. But as I look again at the Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, I'm quite struck that the "identification with Brahman" that he commends, and as means towards which he suggests all kinds of intermediate steps (refusal of gifts, renouncing of pleasures, abandonment of worldly desires, etc) -- which are themselves in some sense only possible because there are gifts, pleasures, desires, etc -- can only happen as a sort of grace, if it isn't to be a trmendous subterfuge by the very ego he's combating. The claim that this subterfuge is all it is is an old (not to say hackneyed) one, and I don't mean to dwell upon it; I only say that it's a risk, and so if we grant that there is, after all, something else and more to Sankara, then in a sense we have to say you are right: the everyday world of the senses is in a way left completely alone; it is the meaning of this world that is changed. But of course this is everything.

    I do think that for Parmenides we have a similar situation, and certainly for Plato. I grant that we don't have a great deal to go on with Parmenides, but it is surely quite striking that, as I have mentioned before, chunks of his poem are apparently about specific instances of astronomy, anatomy, and raising animals, among other things. I'm not just saying that the philosopher remarks upon "practical" matters, but that for the mind informed by participation, every practical matter is in continuity with the metaphysical. Now participation is not yet philosophy; it is itself prone to every critique skepticism can muster. Philosophy is (to my mind) the re-institution of the intuitions of participation via the very mechanism of critique.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Skholiast, good point - but I think there are some traditions that break even this. The Mahāyāna bodhisattva stays in the world to help others; but the Theravāda arhat does not. He realizes the end of his own suffering and leaves it at that. The same is true even more strongly, I think, for the Jaina and Yoga traditions of kaivalya ("aloneness"), where the ultimate goal is to rest, watching, in empty space, detached from all suffering and all worldly affairs. It seems that it is indeed possible to create a philosophy of radical rupture with the everyday which does not then return to the everyday, and even to sustain it across the generations. (Granted, such philosophies were never very popular, for obvious reasons - popular Jainism often has little to do with kaivalya - but I don't think that interferes with the main point here.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Skholiast:
    Thanks.
    Vivekacudamani though often attributed to Sankara is seriously disputed by scholars. A good text to start with which is regarded as authentic by all is 'Upadesa Sahasri' (A Thousand Teachings). It is particularly strong on epistemology. Pub.by Advaita Asrama. It is the one non-commentarial work which he wrote and it may be taken to represent his own particular style. He places a very strong emphasis on the knowledge on waking that we have been in a state of deep sleep. Only Thomas Reid amongst westerners drew any conclusions from that fact which is interesting seeing as how Thill puts them on opposite sides of the common sense divide.

    In the central texts Sankara stressed that only knowledge banishes ignorance, karma never can. This is quite against the grain of ritualism and the very goal directed practices of the Brahmin class as mediators.

    On a programme about James's 'Varieties' on BBC Radio 4's In our Time (worth a listen) I heard that it was the only book of philosophy on Wittgensteins book shelves. So his doubt was not after Descartes' method but his own. Extreme scepticism is contrary to common sense in that it tends to have a paralysing effect. It is to put it mildly non-adaptive. Zen Saying: If you walk, walk; if you sit, sit; above all don't wobble.

    ReplyDelete
  7. At Om~~ I am late responding to this but wanted to acknowledge yr points. Yes, I am aware that a great deal of Sankara's work gets a 'pseudo-' attached by some of those killjoy scholars, and I don't doubt they have their reasons; I wondered when I was reading the Crest-jewel if this was one of those cases but my little cheap p.b. edition's apparatus is scant. I will have to read more closely into your suggestions but as re. this comment -- "Sankara stressed that only knowledge banishes ignorance, karma never can. This is quite against the grain of ritualism" -- I am already inclined to agree-by-disagreeing. Doubtless there is absolutely no magical efficacy of any ritual act whatsoever. But this is precisely why I maintain that all spiritual technique "works in part by not working." To know, too, is in a way an act. One cultivates a disposition. The rite turns inside-out and one sees how dispensable it is -- but one (almost) never sees this without the rite.

    Thanks too for pointing this out re. Thos. Reid. I seem to recall C.S. Lewis (?) remarking somewhere that we know sleeping from being awake, not vice-versa.

    Re. L.W. and the books on his shelf, he seems aside from gritty "hard-boiled" American mysteries to have read James, Kierkegaard, and of course Frege. Best book on him I have ever read, hands-down, is Ray Monk's biography of him.

    ReplyDelete