This is the fourth in a series of posts on philosophy. See links to my first, second and third posts below. –John Horgan
Last year my philosophy salon pondered “Cognitive Homelessness” by Timothy Williamson. It’s a strange essay, crammed with what struck me as willfully obscure terms and assertions. It features an arcane argument, based on the so-called Sorites paradox, that you cannot know whether you are hot or not.
Or as Williamson puts it: “Feeling hot does not imply being in a position to know that one is hot.” Williamson concludes that we are “cognitively homeless,” by which he means that “nothing of interest is inherently accessible” to our knowledge.
Whoa. I wasn’t sure what Williamson’s aim was. A parody of philosophy? A demonstration that so-called rational analysis is futile, because if you’re sufficiently clever you can defend any crazy conclusion?
The more I thought about the paper, the more I liked it. I began to see—or think I saw—the world through Williamson’s eyes. The view fascinated me, in part because it’s odd. The paper also seemed ironic in the literary sense, seething with possible meanings. Then, an epiphany: Philosophy is poetry with little rhyme and lots of reason.
My salon mates didn't exactly embrace my reaction to Cognitive Homelessness. “Nigel” assured me that Williamson was definitely not being ironic in Cognitive Homelessness. Williamson was expressing himself as rigorously as he could, and he would be appalled to hear his paper likened to poetry. (But how could Nigel know that?)
Philosophers, like it or not, have much in common with poets. Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams (honored in the new films A Quiet Passion and Paterson) don’t impart truth, empirical or ethical. They don’t say, This is how things are, or ought to be. They say, This is how things might be. Poets yank you from your self so you can peer out of someone else’s eyes, like the characters in Being John Malkovich. [See Postscript.] And poets draw attention to their medium, asking, Aren’t words weird?
Philosophy does these things too, even when it doesn’t intend to. (My college lit-crit professor taught that authorial intentions don’t matter.) Plato relied on imagination as much as logic—and on metaphors, characters and dialogue--to advance his arguments, and his meanings can be murky. I like teaching the parable of the cave to freshmen not because it’s clear but because it isn’t. And Plato denounced poets’ rhetorical trickery. Talk about irony!
“Poetry” is a synecdoche for literature, music, film--all the arts. If philosophy is an art, we don’t have to fret over its lack of progress, because progress isn’t the point. Is Elena Ferrante superior to Jane Austen? Bob Dylan to Walt Whitman? Charlie Kaufman to Kurosawa? Debating these questions can be fun, but the answer doesn’t matter. What matters is whether an artist’s work jolts us out of our perceptual doldrums—our cognitive homes!--and helps us see life anew.
Good philosophy does that. I can still remember the exalted vertigo aroused in me as I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the first time. I was standing on the lonely mountaintop with crazy Zara-Nietzsche, gazing down at the clueless herd in the flatlands below. Just what a lonely teenage acidhead needs.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus gives me a similar frisson whenever I crack it, as I do when I’m in a certain mood. Do I get Wittgenstein? Of course not, but what Feynman said of quantum mechanics applies to Wittgenstein: if you say you understand him, you don’t. Confronting his oracular utterances, I feel like Amy Adams in Arrival. I’m awed by my encounter with an alien intelligence, in which, if I look hard enough, I might dimly discern myself.
Conversely, some of my favorite literary works have philosophical themes. In mordant metaphysical fables like “The Zahir” and “Funes the Memorious,” Borges warns that there is such a thing as too much knowledge. Absolute truth, far from saving us, might suck us into a black hole from which we never return.
Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, about humans’ discovery of a sentient planet, dives as deeply into the mind-body problem as Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” Cyberiad, a collection of post-Singularity fairy tales that Lem wrote in the 1960s, is packed with sharp, witty insights into the implications of artificial intelligence. Lem should be required reading for philosophers of mind.
Rebecca Goldstein, like Lem, trained as a philosopher before turning to fiction. Her novels The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God subject ideas to severe stress tests by embedding them in intellectuals buffeted by ambition, love, fear. Goldstein describes her novels as “philosophical fiction.” Call it “phi-fi.” [See Post-postscript.]
I know no better riff on free will than a passage in Melville’s phi-fi masterpiece Moby Dick. Helping Queequeg weave a mat, Ishmael serves as the shuttle, feeding the yarn to Queequeg, who pushes a wooden sword through the warp of threads. Watching his friend, Ishmael muses:
Queequeg's impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be… must be chance--aye, chance, free will, and necessity--no wise incompatible--all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course--its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.
Okay, you get the point. The boundaries between philosophy and art are blurry. If I were Timothy Williamson, I might employ the Sorites paradox to prove that we can never know with certainty whether a given text is philosophy or art. But I don’t want to push the philosophy-poetry analogy too far, because it poses problems.
First, imagine, as an absurdly implausible thought experiment, that philosophers, inspired by my poetry-philosophy analogy, all start churning out arty philosophy, or phi-fi. One shudders to think of the resulting flood of hogwash, which would fail as either philosophy or art.
Second, many philosophers will find the analogy insulting. Gary Gutting, in a New York Times essay, describes the work of Derrida and other modern French philosophers as “a kind of abstract poetry.” That’s not a compliment. Gutting thinks those philosophers are “unnecessarily” (as opposed to necessarily) obscure. For Gutting, clarity of expression is a virtue. [See Post-post-postscript.]
Equating philosophy and art, in the end, doesn’t do justice to either, and it emphasizes style at the expense of substance. Good art needn’t be philosophical, nor good philosophy artful. David Chalmers won’t be offended when I say that “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, which inspired this series, isn’t poetic. It’s doggedly straightforward, and that's one reason I like it.
What I appreciate most about Chalmers is his overall philosophical outlook. He maintains faith in the possibility of knowledge even as he acknowledges his field’s history of futility. That tension between optimism and skepticism animates his work--just as it animates “Cognitive Homelessness.” Williamson believes in reason, his own if no one else’s, and yet reason leads him to doubt our capacity for self-knowledge. [See Post-post-post-postscript.]
Time to tip my cards. What good is philosophy in a scientific age? Its chief value, I propose, is protecting us from our yearning for certainty, for the truth about what we are and should be. Philosophy, at its best, reminds us how little we know in spite of all we've learned. [See Post-post-post-post-postscript.]
Skepticism can be excessive, and insidious. A tobacco executive hoping to obfuscate the link between smoking and cancer once said, “Doubt is our product.” Doubt is philosophy’s product, too, except in a good way. And that’s the theme I’ll explore in my next and final post of this series.
Postscript: Being John Malkovich was written by Charlie Kaufman, whose films are funny-creepy inquiries into the nature of mind. In Malkovich, a puppeteer discovers a space-time portal that dumps him inside the head of John Malkovich, so the puppeteer sees what Malkovich sees. In the climactic scene, Malkovich himself enters the portal. When he looks out of his own eyes, everyone else has his face and is chattering, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” Kaufman’s animated film Anomalisa features a depressed protagonist who sees and hears others—including his wife--as puppets with identical male faces and voices. He falls in love, sort of, with Lisa, because she has her own voice and face. These films dramatize depersonalization and solipsism so powerfully—so viscerally--that I fear for Kaufman’s sanity.
Post-postscript: A few years ago, I tried writing a phi-fi book that I tentatively titled Science & Subjectivity. It’s a novel about a science writer who teaches at an engineering school in Hoboken and is obsessed with the mind-body problem. I’ve posted a few excerpts on this blog, including this: “What a Science Writer Thinks about Catching a Ferry to Manhattan.”
Post-post-postscript: Rhetorical difficulty can serve a purpose in scholarly as well as poetic works. Listening to Judith Butler lecture at a Freud symposium in 1998, at first I thought, What the hell is she talking about? After I realized she was challenging the validity of our bedrock identities--male, female, lover, parent, child--I could see how bound I was by my own self-conceptions. Parsing her tangled sentences helped me parse myself. Obscurity can help us see, and clarity can be a kind of blindness. Of course, most gibberish is just gibberish.
Post-post-post-postscript: Williamson might be less doubtful about his own calling than I inferred from “Cognitive Homelessness.” In a new paper, he asserts that philosophy achieves progress by building “better and better formal models of significant phenomena. It shares that form of progress with the natural and social sciences.” He cautions that “selecting and interpreting models is an art—in science as well as in philosophy.” [Italics in the original.] I plan to cite this sentence to "Nigel," who said Williamson would loathe my comparison of his work to poetry.
Post-post-post-post-postscript. Brian Leiter and other philosophers have been reacting to “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” at Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog. (I found the reference to Williamson’s paper on models there.) The comments on my series are fascinating, and surprisingly respectful, so much so that I feel bad for comparing philosophers to Mad Max in a previous post. I nonetheless must swat a comment by Aaron Preston. He argues that science converges on answers more than philosophy does because scientists are more “credulous” and have lower standards of evidence. Science needs critics, but philosophers shouldn’t belittle science simply to make themselves feel bigger.
Further Philosophical Reading: