Saturday, July 30, 2016

274. Is pragmatism conventional?  

It has been claimed (e.g by Richard Rorty) that pragmatism is conventional: ‘treating conventionally accepted norms as foundations’[i]. I am a pragmatist and yet I disagree, up to a point. If pragmatism were conventional, it would be inherently conservative, and I propose that pragmatism can support novelty.

What is conventional? I propose that it can be rendered as operating within an established language game. Certain terms, meanings and ‘rules of the game’ are taken for granted. In science, it could, I proposed in the preceding item in this blog, be rendered as preserving the ‘core’ of a ‘ research programme’, in the terms presented by Imre Lakatos: fundamental theoretical and methodological principles that are not susceptible to falsification. Empirical anomalies are to be dealt with by means of alterations in a ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary assumptions.

In my view, as I argued before (in item 264 in this blog), something is to be accepted as ‘warranted’ when it ‘works’, logically, empirically and practically. I propose that this does not necessarily require fit in some existing language game, and hence can escape conventionalism in that sense. I grant that it does presuppose some agreement on criteria concerning logic, empirical testing, and practical success across language games. There is no rock bottom for truth beyond any and all perspectives, but we may not stand empty handed in trying to step out of a language game, or a research programme, into a wider, more generic one. I am not claiming that this is always possible, and that there is some ultimate, authoritative language game that can decide universal legitimacy.

There is overlap of at least some terms, principles, assumptions, perspectives, between language games, even if they are in different languages (English and French, say). If terms are shared, they are not likely to have identical meaning, since meanings depend on relations between terms in the game, but, I propose, they are likely to have some family resemblance if they are used across games.

To be specific, let me expand a bit on a project for a radical transformation of economic science, which I mentioned in the preceding item in this blog. That is based on radically different perspectives on human conduct, ethics, scientific conduct, and the notion of uncertainty. Many economists reject this out of hand. However, I do employ some established concepts from economics, (such as ‘transaction costs’), though twisting and extending them a bit, and I refer to phenomena that economists might acknowledge (though they look differently on their relevance for theory). My ambition is to show that alternative theory explains certain facts better if only one accepts them as relevant. That ambition may fail, but it is not necessarily hopeless.

Can a pragmatist offer rigourous arguments? Richard Rorty said he/she cannot because rigour requires unshakeable foundations, which the pragmatist does not accept. Again I disagree. He confused rigour with certainty. One can have rigorous arguments on uncertain foundations. Take mathematics. It is rigorous on the basis of uncertain, merely assumed axioms. The grounds for rigour may shift, but they are still there for some time or in some area. Euclidean geometry was supplemented by other geometries. It applies on a plane but not on a sphere.

I agree (with Rorty) that rigorous argument requires a shared language game, terms with shared meanings, shared assumptions, shared grammar or method (rules of the game), and shared explanatory goals.

Compare this with Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a ‘ paradigm shift’ involved in breaking the rules of a game, stepping out of the game, resulting in ‘ incommensurablity’, an impossibility of rigorous argumentation between games.

But, as I suggested, one may still have the benefit of a wider, roomier, more general game. A different ball game is still a ball game. Parts of argumentation may show a family resemblance between language games. I do think that discussion between language games involves differences of meaning and intention, and therefore is always imperfect tinkering, and often does fail. Moving between games is more like literary narrative than like rigorous scientific discourse. That may be rejected as unscientific, and then debate is indeed hopeless.

What games are there in philosophy? I take this question also from Richard Rorty. One game is to take philosophy as ‘transcendental’, reflecting on the conditions under which some theory or practice (concerning truth, reality, or morality) is possible. But what are the conditions for such conditions to be possible? It yields an infinite regress of conditions for conditions. The underlying intuition is that there are, must be, independent, fixed principles to build on. 

Another game, going against that intuition, is that of anti-essentialism, anti-foundationalism, as in pragmatism. Think of philosophers Peirce, Dewey, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Quine, Derrida, and Rorty.

Are these two games incommensurable, with no recourse to sensible debate? One may think of the supposed rift between analytic and continental philosophy. However, they still have things in common, such as the themes of knowledge and morality, even if they differ fundamentally in their views on them. Disagreeing on fundamentals, they may still compare implications for science, politics, economics, literature, …. They may even agree that in some cases the other side seems to be making sense. And indeed, some bridging between analytic and continental philosophy does seem to be taking place.        

[i] E.g. by Richard Rorty, in an essay on Derrida, in Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge U. Press, 1991, p. 119

Friday, July 22, 2016

273. Philosophy, science, and literature

Science, or ‘normal science’, as Thomas Kuhn called it, takes certain primitive terms and basic premises for granted, often not even consciously, as the rock bottom to build theories on and conduct experiments. That is what makes it ‘hard’.

We might see it as the playing of a Wittgensteinian language game.

In his ‘theory of scientific research programmes’, Imre Lakatos proposed that a scientific theory consists of a fixed ‘core’ of basic notions and principles, with a ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary assumptions that may be adapted to protect the core from falsification, accommodating misfits, thus ‘saving appearances’.

When contrary evidence becomes ‘excessive’ (Kuhn), and repair with auxiliary assumptions becomes too forced and contrived, there arises pressure for a more fundamental change of view, called a ‘paradigm switch’ by Kuhn, consisting of a breakdown and replacement of the core.

Here, I want to re-connect this with the ‘hermeneutic circle’, discussed in several earlier items in this blog (see e.g. item 252). Along the ‘paradigmatic axis’ words and concepts (‘paradigms’) are taken for granted, are inserted in sentences/propositions, in specific contexts of action, along the ‘syntagmatic axis’. Let me call that ‘the way down’. There, abstractions are enriched, infused, nourished to life from practical life. And then, in application, in the practical business of life, one sooner or later encounters misfits or novel opportunities, where concepts seem forced, and this occasions tentative  shifts or replacements of them, along the paradigmatic axis. Using words shifts their meaning. Let me call that ‘the way up’.

That is the business, in particular, of literature, in storytelling, where life is shown to be richer than theory. Conduct that according to norms of normality are irrational or immoral are swallowed in a ‘suspension of disbelief’.  Literature burrows into individual experience that bursts the seams of abstraction. The most telling case of meaning shifts is that of poetry.

Then, the difference between science and literature is that between applying paradigms in application, in normal science, and using experience to shift notions and meanings, in literature. Philosophy used to be seen as belonging to the first category: using concepts to clarify experience. 20th century philosophy rejected that and made philosophy more literary, narrative, going from experience, from action in the world, to shifts of concepts. No longer only the way down but also the way up.

Science is in crisis when it also needs to take the way up, to craft a paradigm shift. Established abstractions are unhinged. Then it becomes more like literature. Fundamental discovery is the poetry of science. It remains narrative until innovators have put novel abstractions in place, and normal scientists can again throng along the way down.

These days I am confronted with this as follows. I am participating in a large project to transform economic theory and teaching. The financial crises have woken up some economists to the inadequacies of their science. In a recent meeting, new principles were proposed. They were discarded by other economists as ‘mere story telling’, in betrayal of the established rigour and clarity of their science. There, in defending and maintaining its analytical strength science becomes a force of conservatism.

Elsewhere in this blog, I proposed a ‘cycle of invention’, with an alternation between fitting experience into existing theory, along the ‘way down’, in ‘assimilation’. In several stages this can lead to a break into new theory, along the ‘way up’, in ‘accommodation’, and I indicated the connection with the hermeneutic circle. The cycle of invention is one guise, or form, of the hermeneutic circle.

In earlier work I used the term ‘discovery’, but that literally means the removal of a cover from something that exists, lies there, ‘behind experience’, waiting to be dis-covered. The term ‘invention’ is better, with its connotation of ‘creating by thought’.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

272 How do you find your selves?

In the present series on foundations and language games, this item is an intermezzo on the self.

Richard Rorty defined the person, the self, as an ‘internally coherent cluster of beliefs and desires’[i]. The question remains of course, what ‘coherent’ means.

This definition allows for multiple selves, each with a form of coherence. I proposed earlier (in item 134 of this blog), that there is not only one single, fixed self, but multiple selves, constructed by internalizing experience by adapting neural structures, possibly in a variety of ways.

Against David Hume’s denial of any coherent, stable identity I claimed that there is more or less stable coherence due to the condition that mental and endocrinal processes occur and arise together in a single body that survives or not as a whole, and functioning for survival requires some coherence. Images that produce fear trigger hormones that serve action, which feeds back in forming mental images.

According the Freudian psycho-analysis there are different ways to assimilate one’s past, yielding several, often conflicting, selves, some of which may be suppressed and hidden in the subconscious.

Psycho-analysis may help to tease the spooks of hidden personality out of the dark. Does one need this? Or can one do it by oneself? But one put them in there, in the dark, to begin with.

Might the ability to do this teasing out of hidden selves be nursed with reading literature? Earlier (in items 92, 120) I proposed that literature can help to develop the ability of ‘moral simulation’, imagining what consequences one’s actions might have, which sustains the feeble free will (92), and in that sense may make people better (120). In good literature, one also witnesses how the hide and seek of selves happens to other people, or how the author teases hem out. Or would one have to write a novel oneself, where one can project one’s hidden selves as the novel’s characters? Is writing used for therapy?

What self or selves does one want? Usually, morality is associated with obligations to others, but there is also a morality concerning the self, a duty to preserve oneself, perhaps to realize one’s potential, not to let the precious gift of it go to waste. Or that, at least, is what I think, my credo of life.

Rorty offered a choice. Does one want to go for a pure, single, self, freed from the encumbrances of life in the world, seeking one’s ‘true self’, illusory as it may be? Or does one opt for what Rorty called ‘enlargement of the self’, in developing novel selves from the richness of experience, harvesting it rather than retreating from it?

Note the Nietzschean, Dionysian streak of this. 

The first choice is akin to the Platonic urge to purify ideas from the rich hubbub of experienced reality, to contemplate ‘underlying fundamental reality’.

The second choice is akin to latter day philosophy that does not seek pure, distinct, fixed ideas behind appearance, or any pure, essential self. As I put it in this blog, it is ‘imperfection on the move’, including development of the self.   

[i] Richard Rorty, Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge U. Press, 1991, p. 147.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

271 Dumping the deep

In addition to the unravelling of rationality, discussed in the preceding item in this blog, there are problems even in the effort to be rational, with knowledge becoming more shallow, with less depth, in a dumping of the deep.

There is a widening gap between an increasingly complex and fast changing world, requiring a greater depth of insight to cope with it, intellectually, psychologically, and politically, and the decreasing depth of actual knowledge and learning.

There is less time and less capacity for depth of knowledge. One has to deal with a fast and vast surge of information. Slogans replace expositions. Slow, focused, printed knowledge is replaced by faster, wide range, pictorial, iconic digital information.

In the economy there is a prerogative of the fast and the short term, in finance and investment, knowledge and learning, organization and work. This crowds out deep investments, in knowledge, products and production, and this holds back economic growth.

Politics is focused on votes in the next election. This crowds out orientation to structural change, reflection on novel ideology, changes in the undertow of politics, pressures building up, which then break out unawares, as in Brexit.  

What deeper, slower knowledge there still is, is often disregarded by policy makers. Absorbing and implementing the deep knowledge offered by scholars and scientists requires a horizon that goes beyond that of policy and the incumbency of politicians and managers. By the time the ideas bear fruit the manager or politician has moved on.

This demotivates the providers of deep knowledge, and tempts them to throw in the towel. There is a demand for quick application of knowledge, discouraging more fundamental, long term research. Newcomers at universities see this and are motivated to dodge the deep and go for the quick and shallow. Scientists also have to reduce their findings to catching sketches.

Or I am being too pessimistic? Is this the muttering of a grumbling old man? If what I say concerns individual deep, specialized knowledge, could this be compensated by patterns of complementary knowledge in groups? Can individual wisdom be replaced by wisdom of the crowds? Bees in a hive rather than in a single bonnet? But if individual knowledge is shallow, how can pooling provide depth? Scientists increasingly work in teams, with a ream of authors crowning a publication. But there, individual depth of knowledge is pooled, in division of labour, to cover complex issues.

Many things are still individual. Choosing a job, an education, a profession, a home, insurance, health care, and forms of saving and investment. And take voting: one can deliberate with others, but in the booth one has to make up one’s individual mind about a whole political programme. And in a drive for more democracy there is pressure for more voting, in referenda, even on complicated things like exiting from the EU or not. In the existing system of representative democracy the voter votes for a party with a programme, delegating expertise. In referenda that is bypassed, and the shallow wins.    

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

270 Rationality unravelling

In this blog, I have been criticising the dreams of reason from the Enlightenment. But present culture appears to go around the bend to replace rationality with intellectual rubbish. We cannot go back to the Enlightenment, but a renaissance of reasonableness is needed. In the preceding item of this blog I argued that philosophical and scientific claims of firm, fixed, indubitable foundations are themselves unfounded. But more modest claims of knowledge as the best we can do at any moment, in ‘imperfection on the move’, are still warranted.

While reason was overrated, emotions and play have been neglected in traditional education. There was too little art, expression and personal development: features that were included in the ideal of ‘Bildung’ proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. But now knowledge, analytical skill and depth of understanding appear to be crowded out by feelings, emotions and a craving for excitement and hype.

Opinions are given equal standing as arguments, hunches are presented as facts, invective replaces debate. Public debate becomes uninformed, not only from a dominance of emotion and excitement, but also for lack of capacity to absorb requisite information and insight.

This was evident, in particular, in the recent upheaval of Brexit. Voters were lured by partial truths, at best, and with outright lies. They were diverted with appeals to sentiments of resentment, nostalgia, nationalism and xenophobia.

This is a political, economic, and intellectual disaster.

On Twitter, invective, unsubstantiated accusations, bogus facts, contradictions, and lies are presented on equal footing with facts and logic. Informed arguments are made suspicious as fabulation by ‘the elite’ to protect their privileges. This sets the gate wide open to political opportunists and narcissists to grab power. 

The tragedy is that beneath all this lie justified complaints and grudges concerning lack of democracy and lesser involvement of the lower educated, less prosperous citizens in prosperity and policy.

In a recent article in a Dutch quality newspaper (NRC Handelsblad) the question was put: how to respond to the sloshing waves of twitter garbage in the approach of the upcoming parliamentary election, in 2017. Continuation with informed and well-reasoned argument is discouraged as having an adverse effect, deepening sentiments against the elite, as it did in Brexit.

In the article, the recommendation was given to counter in the same fashion, going along with the tide, with ridicule, accusations and invective against the populists. But this will yield a vicious circle of unravelling rationality and reasonableness. Going along with the barking on twitter (see item 219) will turn politics into a dogfight.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

269 Foundations?

This item is abstract and probably superfluous. It discusses what may be called philosophical shadow boxing.

There has been a tenacious urge in philosophy, since Plato, to claim access to ‘reality’ behind ‘appearances’, in the form of primal, autonomous, distinct, fixed, universal, context-independent items of cognition (ideas, categories, sense data, perceptions), that we can ‘see’, self-evident to the prepared mind, which provide certain, objective foundations for knowledge. Knowledge secure on foundational rocks.

The knowing ‘subject’ stood loose from ‘objects’ in the world, and was supposed to view them objectively from outside that world. Some truths are fundamental, lying there to be contemplated. With Kant, the pretension of knowing the world ‘as it is’ was dropped, but the separate subject remained, viewing the world according to fixed, universal categories (of time, space and causality).

In 20th century philosophy these forms of ‘foundationalism’ have been challenged and rejected. The knowing subject is no longer seen as separate, autonomous, given, but as constituted by acting in the world. Concepts and meanings arise and develop in relation to each other, in discourse and action. There are no independent foundational elements.

The philosopher Quine said that meanings form a ‘seamless web’ of connections. As Wittgenstein said that they constitute a ‘language game’. De Saussure said that ‘a word means what other words do not’. So, we always discuss things in terms of other things, in relation to them or in contrast with hem, in some context of action in the world. For any critical discussion some things are taken for granted, now this, then that. What first is seen as a basis is later subjected to scrutiny. As Neurath said: language is a boat that we repair while staying afloat in it.

As a result, meanings are always metaphorical, with one thing being seen in terms of another, never literal, corresponding to some given rock bottom of reality. Words with supposedly literal meanings are just hardened metaphors.

In this blog I have gone along with these views. Yet, in discussing language and meaning I maintain notions of ‘reference’ or ‘denotation’, and in science and practical conduct ‘showing things’. How can that be? Is this consistent? Or is it double speak?

To define ‘cat’ we point to the animal. In supporting claims or arguments we point to ‘facts’. As I argued earlier (in item 264 in his blog), we support arguments by showing that they ‘work’, logically, empirically and practically. To do away with this would be to do away with science, debate, and rationality in general. Life would not be viable if it made no sense to say ‘this is a cat, and it is mine’.

The point now is this. Our referring and showing evidence are intentional, not actual. What we show is pragmatic and context-dependent, and does not, or should not, carry the claim of objective, indubitable knowledge. We may find out that the cat is not mine but yours, and just looks very much like mine, and that makes sense because it makes sense to assign identity to the animal. 

All acts, including speech acts, are based on assumptions that we cannot, at that moment, question and that are tacitly taken for granted. We are mostly not even aware of underlying assumptions. They yield a basis but not an indubitable foundation of claims. We intend to refer and show, but it is up for grabs in discourse and novel experience. We need opposition from others, and novel experience, to show up our assumptions and question them.

As I have been arguing in this blog, knowledge and judgement yield ‘imperfection on the move’. ‘I am right’ should not mean ‘I have access to objective truth’, but ‘I have good arguments: they work’. What we show is not underlying essences but practices.