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 medias 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--? 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:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
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.