Thursday, May 22, 2003
Jeepers, John: the thinking man's Thos. Friedman?
At a minimum, I'd best write something about philosophy now. Okay, here goes.
The three key names for me in political philosophy are Burke, Madison and Hegel. Burke because he figured out how to marry Whig optimism with Tory traditionalism, and provided us with all the most important rational arguments for presumptive conservatism as well as a general idea of how to tell when that cliff of presumption has been successfully scaled by the advocates of change. Madison because he gave us the best thought about how to organize a large, liberal polity in human history, and gave us a clue of how the liberty of the ancients might, ever so slightly, be insinuated into a political system founded on the liberty of the moderns (through sacralization of the Constitution - see American Compact by Gary Rosen for an excellent treatment of the argument). Hegel because he understood history as having the structure of a political argument, which I think is fundamentally correct and an important insight, and incidentally because he saw reconciling the liberty of the ancients with the liberty of the moderns as the great political project of late modernity, which I believe it still is. I've described my political philosophy before as National Liberal, though I don't expect the term to take off because "national" is kind of a radical-right term (not that it ought to be, but it is).
Epistemologically, I'm a moderate Pragmatist. I like William James more than anyone who expects to be taken seriously ought to do. I basically do believe that the way you test whether propositions have truth value is whether they enable you to *do* something, and, relatedly, that knowing what something is means knowing how to sort it from other things rather than being able to define its essence in some perfect language. Being a Pragmatist means being an anti-Platonist, but it goes beyond that, and really radical Pragmatists go off the deep end and start asserting that everything is a "social construct" which is, of course, literal nonsense. I'm not terribly well-read in Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Mathematics questions. I don't know why a general Pragmatist orientation isn't enough to simply make these problems go away, but I have enough respect for people who delve deeply into these problems to suspect that they are not meaningless. I will note as an aside, however, that Thomas Kuhn was *not* writing philosophy, but rather sociology, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Which was, by the way, a pretty good book, and largely mis-appropriated by radicals; Kuhn certainly didn't think that scientific knowledge *itself* is a social construct, or anything loopy like that.
I've got some idea of what some of the problems are in Philosophy of Mind, but in that area I prefer the guys who are close to the cog-sci practical end of things. I like Jerry Fodor a lot, and I agree with him in being a nativist (believing that we have inherent knowledge that enables us to categorize and hence make sense of our sensory input) rather than an empiricist (believing that we are born a "blank slate" and learn how to make sense of the world in response to stimuli), but I also agree with him in being skeptical of the explanatory power of the "massive modularity" thesis in explaining consciousness. I'm inclined to treat consciousness as a "singularity" - all the explanations I've read from cog-sci people like Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker come to a point where there is a bit of slight of hand and then suddenly consciousness appears to be explained away as an illusion, a line of argument which I also find to be literal nonsense (illusions are observed phenomena, and this line of argument is an argument that there is no observer; whence, then, the illusion?).
I take a relatively postmodern approach to religious questions: I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that religion makes readily falsifiable truth claims (e.g.: Jesus died, experienced bodily resurrection, and ascended to heaven, all attended by signs and portents like global darkness) and more comfortable treating all these claims as mere hermeneutical rules - i.e. we are to act as if such and such were literally true. I recognize that this is a potentially dangerous road to take in that it may undermine religious belief, and that it is certainly a *belated* approach. But it also works for me (and, being an epistemological Pragmatist, I suppose that makes it True). And it does seem to me that, since the advent of modernity, the alternative to a postmodern approach is either a fundamentalist one or a secular-fundamentalist one, both of which are more dangerous, I think, than the postmodern approach. But I'm not terribly confident about this particular point. Apart from that, I have a lot of sympathy for Franz Rosenzweig's approach to Judaism specifically. He's kind of the Jewish religious equivalent of Burke: the guy who figured out how to marry traditionalism to the modern emphasis on individualism.
Does that cover most of the ground? It'll have to do for now.