Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Hermeneutic Alternative (by guest blogger Bryan Van Norden)

Philosophy begins in wonder. -- Aristotle

Aristotle was wrong. Philosophy begins when a community of people encounter a problem that outstrips their current methods for problem-solving. For example, in ancient Greece, the Sophists seemingly could argue persuasively for either side in a court case or public policy debate. Or in Eastern Zhou-dynasty China, the traditional Way of organizing society was no longer promoting prosperity and preserving social order. Plato addressed the former problem, and Confucius the latter. (Forgive me for greatly oversimplifying the views of these two subtle and multifaceted philosophers.)

Faced with a philosophy-inducing problem, members of the community continue to share (and hold true) most of their background beliefs. If they did not, they would be unable to communicate about the problem. But whatever the problem is, it will call into question some of their beliefs. (For example, "rational argumentation can arrive at objective truth" or "the Way of the ancients is relevant to contemporary society.") On the basis of their shared beliefs, the members of the community formulate solutions to the problem. (For example, "mathematics provides a paradigm for how rational argumentation can succeed" or "if we ethically cultivate individuals and put them into positions of authority, society can be returned to the ancient Way.")

Any solution must satisfy two criteria. (1) It must answer all plausible, substantive objections that are raised against it by other members of the community (including alternative solutions); and (2) it must fit our interactions with the world. In other words, philosophy always involves two types of dialogue partners: other people and the world. (Obiter dicta, I think Richard Rorty tended to forget or underemphasize the role of the latter dialogue partner.) To continue my earlier examples, Plato had to answer the objection that most people are not convinced by the type of argumentation he recommends (and he replied with the "Myth of the Cave") and Confucius had to answer the objection that brute force was the only plausible method for enforcing social order (and he replied with the concept of sagely "Virtue").

What is the payoff of this "hermeneutic account" of philosophy?

Contrast Descartes, who began with subjective "ideas," and then tried to make the jump from them to the world. The problem is that if you start with subjective ideas, and assume that there is a world independent of those ideas, you will be led to skepticism. Or if you start with subjective ideas, and abandon the notion of some unattainable world beyond them, you will be led to relativism. (I think the influence of the Cartesian picture is part of the reason undergraduates assume that relativism or skepticism is self-evident.) But Descartes' epistemological starting point is arbitrary and unwarranted. We begin as creatures in the world, communicating with other creatures in the world with whom we share many common beliefs about the world. Now, through a subtle process of abstraction we can temporarily adopt a Cartesian standpoint, but we do not start out there, and we are not obligated to go there.

The methodological implication of the hermeneutic approach is that, in order for our position to be justified, we need to (1) know the major objections that have been raised against our "solution," and (2) know the major alternative solutions to the problem we face, so that we can (3) answer the objections, and (4) explain why our solution is superior to the alternatives. Again, a contrast with Descartes is instructive, because his Meditations invites us to think of philosophy as an individual process conducted in isolation from previous beliefs. But, as I noted in an earlier post, one cannot even understand Descartes himself without seeing him as a participant in an ongoing dialogue. So the individualist methodology is self-undermining.

17 comments:

Bill Haines said...

Hi Bryan,

Thanks, that’s a nice piece. I agree. Here are some worries about details and justification.

You say a philosophical solution has to (2) fit the world and (1) answer all good objections raised by other people. But one might suppose that prima facie, the relevant part of (1) is “answer all good objections.” The part of the story you told that explicitly supports the “raised by other people” part is your depiction of philosophy as several people addressing a shared problem. So what we want is an account of why philosophy must be several people addressing a shared problem, prior to standard (1).

(Where you discuss “starting with subjective ideas” (a phrase I don’t fully understand), you’re directly defending standard (2) rather than (1), I think.)

You suggest an argument about what actually starts people philosophizing: philosophy is an attempt to solve urgent shared problems (and a solution presumably won’t work if the group doesn’t adopt it). But the presocratics don’t seem to be addressing shared practical problems. And I suppose many individuals go into philosophy for non-practical reasons, though one could argue that only social need can produce funding.

One might argue from the premise that philosophy that is worth doing is addressing urgent shared problems. But is the premise true?

Another argument you suggest is that we lack good paradigms of successful philosophical inquiry in total isolation from others, because mathematics isn’t philosophy and Descartes didn’t work in total isolation. But maybe total isolation isn’t the interesting question.

Aristotle argued for the “raised by other people” bit on the basis of standard (2), that views must be tested agains the world. For he held that testing our views against the reports of the many and the wise, hence having institutions in which proposals must be justified to the many and the wise, is essential to testing views against the world. This line of thought seems to lie behind your final paragraph. So maybe we agree that Aristotle was right.

But there’s another part of the philosophical enterprise that remains to be addressed. Beyond canvassing for solutions and testing them, there is also the creative activity of thinking up philosophical solutions, or indeed philosophical problems. I wonder what mix of “thinking” and “study” is most conducive to creativity. Maybe it depends on the individual and the problem. (Maybe what’s ideal is to be engaged in frequent oral discussion.)

Another worry about the “rasied by other people” part of test (1) takes seriously the idea that philosophy is an essentially collective enterprise. Much of the testing of my views against the ideas of others may be done by others. Of course that suggests I should do some testing of the views of others.

Bill Haines said...

Maybe some philosophical work is the elaboration of paradigms and some is the war of paradigms, and to be done well the former needs some insulation from the latter: a room of its own, so to speak.

Maybe some of philosophy is the development of sub-languages, and some of what makes a language right is that it gets developed, so that there is a value in developing a paradigm independently of whether it is better than the other paradigms.

Philosophy is confusing; it is a struggle among rival basic conceptual schemes. To get ones’ bearings and develop one’s philosophical brain one may need a certain amount of shielding from the din. If that’s true, one would expect it to be harder for advanced philosophers to see than for beginners to see.

I state this all in maybes because I don’t know what to think about it.

manyulim said...

Bryan, I don't see how the wonder that Aristotle speaks of is inconsistent with any of the other sources of philosophical reflection that you raise. And if there is anyone who loves to catalog and respond to the views of his predecessors and contemporaries, it is Aristotle.

I'm not really as confident as you are that the same can be said for Confucius. We'd have to read quite a lot into the sayings that have been attributed to him, for one thing, to think that he was actually responding in any way resembling an attempt to "answer all plausible, substantive objections that are raised against it by other members of the community." Mozi, Xunzi and Mencius seem to be better examples than Confucius. What does that say about Confucius qua philosopher? I'm not sure.

Likewise, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) doesn't clearly follow the "hermeneutic approach" model on its face, though I suppose one could read it that way.

By the way, more questioning than asserting: I think Descartes is getting the short end of something here (does anybody else?). He's very emphatic about understanding his method as a reaction to the scholastic way of engaging in philosophy. So in that sense, isn't he responding to the important "other" in the philosophical community, including some of his contemporaries as well has those in the era we like to call the Middle Ages? Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

"It must answer all plausible, substantive objections."

All? Seems like a high hurdle.

Bill Haines said...

Bryan, I’m not sure what you mean by saying that philosophical work should be “based on shared beliefs.” Any belief shared by Descartes’ community would also be held by Descartes, so in testing his theories against his own beliefs he’d be testing them against all the shared beliefs.

I think that on my first reading I was taking your claim in a very weak sense, in which it seemed familiar and incontrovertible: that (a) beliefs shared at time t by those discussing a problem are *among* the defeasibly legitimate tests at time t of the ideas or solutions being discussed, and (b) other people’s views as such have some authority over me. Your two numbered lists suggest some such weak reading. (For example, you say that we should test our theories against the best objections from others, not just the best objections from all others; and you distinguish testing against others’ views from testing against the world, which you also recommend.)

But the phrase “hermeneutic alternative” suggests that you want to present a controversial idea based on a metaphor of philosophy as figuring out what we already think - - hence figuring out the closest internally consistent approximation of the implications of what we already think. I’m not sure how you would explicate that literally and controversially.

Maybe the gist is this: that we ought to give the opinions of others more weight than we do now, because (a) their interests are at stake (if the topic matters), (b) our ideas are useless unless taken up, and (c) three heads are better than one.

If that’s the idea, then I can’t agree because I just don’t have an opinion. It’s a quantitative comparison between what people are doing now and what people would be doing if they changed their emphases from some good ones to other good ones (less time with the pencil and more with the books, etc.). I feel I just don’t have the data!

Bill Haines said...

I wrote, “Any belief shared by Descartes’ community would also be held by Descartes, so in testing his theories against his own beliefs he’d be testing them against all the shared beliefs.” And that might miss this point: the Cartesian model involves inquiry on the basis of pretending I don’t have most of the beliefs I do have.

One could reject that model without bringing in other people.

Bryan, if your piece is challenging what you see as a widespread mistake, I wonder whether the mistake consists mainly of pretending that one lacks beliefs one has, or not attending to the beliefs of others.

Pretending one lacks beliefs one has can amount to sorting one’s existing beliefs (shared or otherwise) into the relatively warranted and relatively unwarranted, and that seems an important part of any method. But presumably Descartes did too much initial sorting of that kind, and his going too far involved not giving enough authority to the views of others.

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

You've raised many intriguing points. I'll address the ones that particularly strike me, but let me know if I've ignored any that you think were more central to your argument than I recognized.

So what we want is an account of why philosophy must be several people addressing a shared problem, prior to standard (1).

Because philosophy is conducted in language, and language is public. What our words mean and the criteria for correct and successful argumentation are similarly public.

But the presocratics don’t seem to be addressing shared practical problems.

It's hard to know what is motivating Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, because we have so little textual evidence to go on. But it is not really disputable that the Pythagoreans and Heraclitus had practical, political motivations. On the former, see for example Charles Kahn, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans.

Another argument you suggest is that we lack good paradigms of successful philosophical inquiry in total isolation from others, because mathematics isn’t philosophy and Descartes didn’t work in total isolation.

Mathematics certainly can be philosophy, but it is certainly NOT practiced in total isolation. Mathematicians depend upon the work of previous mathematicians. (That's why they go to graduate school.)

Beyond canvassing for solutions and testing them, there is also the creative activity of thinking up philosophical solutions, or indeed philosophical problems.

Absolutely! Those are very important activities. But I am at a loss for examaples in which they have occurred without a background of previous solutions and hypotheses.

Much of the testing of my views against the ideas of others may be done by others.

It certainly may. And then when people say, "But I don't see how your view is superior to previously existing view V*" you will go and read up on V* carefully in order to reply. Right?

Maybe some philosophical work is the elaboration of paradigms and some is the war of paradigms, and to be done well the former needs some insulation from the latter

But doesn't the elaboration of paradigms have to be responsive to something? Maybe that something is the world, or maybe it is other paradigms, but won't it just be a consoling fantasy if it doesn't "bump up against" something else?

Here's another way of perhaps seeing what is at issue. Aristotle and Confucius stress finding the mean between extremes. One extreme is being overly dedicated to understanding and explicating previous views. The other extreme is being overly insulated from the views of others. What I find in my classrooms and in what I read and discuss with colleagues is a much greater tendency toward the latter vice. So I find it more important to worry about that vice than the former.

Bryan said...

Dear Manyul,

I'm not really as confident as you are that the same can be said for Confucius. We'd have to read quite a lot into the sayings that have been attributed to him, for one thing, to think that he was actually responding in any way resembling an attempt to "answer all plausible, substantive objections that are raised against it by other members of the community."

This is an excellent illustration of why understanding historical context is so important. Confucius certainly WAS responding to the alternatives views of his era. Confucius was defending what he conceived to be the Way of the ancient sage kings. What were some of the alternative views? One was the view that culture was irrelevant to anything important (Analects 12.8), because only brute force (Analects 12.19) and military power (Analects 15.1) could achieve social order. Confucius responds to this challenge with the notion of rule by Virtue and ritual (Analects 2.3). In addition, he responds to the challenge that there is no point in trying to reform a society as chaotic as the one he is in (Analects 18.6). (Yuri Pines's Foundations of Confucian Thought discusses some other ways in which Confucius is replying to the problematic he had inherited.)

Likewise, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) doesn't clearly follow the "hermeneutic approach" model on its face, though I suppose one could read it that way.

How do you read Daodejing 38 (the beginning of Book 2 in the traditional text) other than as a reply to the Confucians?

Bryan said...

Dear Anonymous,

"It must answer all plausible, substantive objections."

All? Seems like a high hurdle.


That's why I used "weasel words" like "plausible" and "substantive." And that is why there is no algorithm for successful rational argumentation. There is always room for dispute over what counts as a plausible alternative.

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

[1] Any belief shared by Descartes’ community would also be held by Descartes, so [2] in testing his theories against his own beliefs he’d be testing them against all the shared beliefs. (numbers mine)

(2) does not follow logically from (1). Here is the logical form of the claims:

(1) "The beliefs held by all members of the community are a subset of the beliefs held by Descartes." (True.)

(2) "The beliefs held by Descartes are a subset of the beliefs held by the community."

(1) does not imply (2) unless Descartes holds ONLY beliefs also held by members of his community.

Here's an intuitive way of putting it. Suppose I believe B and you believe not-B. In order to persuade you of B, I should appeal to beliefs b1, b2, b3... that you and I share. In contrast, if I try to convince you of B on the basis of B*, which I believe and you do not, how will that persuade you? You already disagree with B*, so how can I use it to convince you of B?

Bryan said...

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your comments. They are helping me to see better what I need to clarify and where I may be mistaken.

Maybe the gist is this: that we ought to give the opinions of others more weight than we do now, because (a) their interests are at stake (if the topic matters), (b) our ideas are useless unless taken up, and (c) three heads are better than one.

That's not what I'm trying to say.

If it helps to phrase it this way, my point is more Wittgensteinian. Language is public and so standards of rationality are public. To say "J gives a justification for believing that P" is more than to just say "J inclines me to believe that P." The former makes a claim about standards that are intersubjective.

Why?

Because we learn to use words like "reason," "justification," "argument," "implication," etc. in a social context. (Humans will not develop language at all unless exposed to other humans, even if it is just one other child in the case of "twin languages.") Consequently, the standards for successful use of these terms have to be social.

This does not mean that all issues of rationality and justification are settled in advance. Far from it! But it does mean that sense can be given to notions like rationality only in a social (i.e., dialogical) context.

Bill Haines said...

Hi Bryan, thanks for your replies!

My main question—the question of my longest comment and the follow-up to it—could be rephrased this way: How is your “hermeneutic alternative” hermeneutic or an alternative? What in it is controversial? I think I’m not yet quite getting the vision. You seem to say at the end of your first reply that it’s this: your impression is that people aren’t reading enough. Is that it? Maybe I’m just making things too complicated.

Your third reply says more. I’ll try to address it in another comment, but that will take much thought (even without reading) and may have to wait a few days.

I’ll grant that some presocratics were interested in politics, among other things. But I thought my companion objection—about how philosophy for each of us doesn’t necessarily begin from shared practical problems—was the more important objection, since I didn’t think your main argument was really based on antiquity.

I wrote, “Much of the testing of my views against the ideas of others may be done by others.” You answered, “It certainly may. And then when people say, "But I don't see how your view is superior to previously existing view V*" you will go and read up on V* carefully in order to reply. Right?”

I would give it a look, especially if they say it before I die! Sometimes a quick look is enough. But the point I wanted to bring out was that a conception of philosophy as essentially collective (in a strong sense) may be in some tension with the idea that each person is responsible for being on top of the whole of the debate pertaining to her own topic or even her own work. The idea that science is collective allows people to focus narrowly, duplicate each other’s work in ignorance, and focus on developing a paradigm while leaving the other paradigms to fight for their own place in the sun.

I think your replies regarding on mathematics, on creativity, on elaborating paradigms, are arguing against working in total isolation. I wrote earlier, “maybe total isolation isn’t the interesting question.” I don’t know that anyone has defended it.

In your reply to my argument about Descartes’ beliefs I think your paraphrase of my (2) isn’t prima facie accurate. My argument is not good enough to serve more than its limited rhetorical purpose of raising a question, but I don’t think it has the particular problem you lay out. The source of misunderstanding, I think, is that I’m talking only about “testing against” a set of beliefs (i.e. rejecting anything that conflicts with them), rather than “developing the implications” of a set of beliefs. That’s not fair because you had, I think, the latter more in mind. Of course, both “testing against” and “developing the implications of” are radical oversimplifications of anything you could have meant.

My argument was this:
(1) All Cs are Ds.
So (2) If you test against all Ds, you’ve tested against all Cs.
That’s at least formally valid.

manyulim said...

Bryan, I should be clearer about my doubts concerning Confucius. You say, "This is an excellent illustration of why understanding historical context is so important. Confucius certainly WAS responding to the alternatives views of his era. Confucius was defending what he conceived to be the Way of the ancient sage kings." You're quite right at this level of generality. There are really two things I have doubts about concerning Confucius more specifically, that I don't have in nearly the same degree, concerning, say, Plato and Aristotle.

First, I have doubts that Confucius engaged in real debate beyond proposing an alternative to the other ideas that were around in his day. That seems to be a function both of the rhetorical reticence he is depicted as adhering to and because the avenues to practical effectiveness in changing governance didn't seem to lie in having a good counter-argument against other philosophical views.

Second, I have a general doubt that Confucius himself held all the views that he is depicted as expressing because there are enough doubts about authorship and unity of the Analects to make it difficult to judge at this point in scholarship.

So for those two reasons, even if Confucius was "responding" to alternatives in his day, that isn't tantamount to "answering all plausible and substantive objections" to his views. That really seems to place an ill-fitting template of philosophical inquiry onto Confucius. So, either Confucius doesn't fit and isn't a good example of philosophy in the "hermeneutic" mold, or the template is too narrow.

Maybe that makes my concerns clearer and takes us back to questions about your proposed model for good philosophical work.

manyulim said...

A similar issue applies to the Tao Te Ching as to the Analects. Responding to Confucians seems evident, answering objections does not. Again, my question here is about whether your hermeneutic alternative as a depiction of philosophy is broad enough to include the texts that I'm sure you regard as philosophical. Or am I construing "answering objections" too narrowly? That phrase certainly brings up a certain kind of image in my mind of analytic philosophical style, which includes Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and many other ancients and medievals, as well as modern "analytic" (vs. "continental") philosophers.

Let me throw Nietzsche in here just as an interesting example. Some of the most interesting Nietzsche work is not really interested in answering objections but in geneologies of the ideas and ways of thinking to which he is responding. His critique of slave-morality is what I'm thinking of. The sorts of objections to "higher" morality that he explicitly considers are not so much answered as further analyzed as the kinds of objections one would expect, given the geneology of slave-morality. This is responding to something, but not exactly by way of answering it. So, I wonder if you might say more (or less?) in your hermeneutic alternative account to make it more obvious that Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and Nietzsche are indeed problem-solving *in a philosophical way*.

Bill Haines said...

Hi Bryan, I’m sorry I made you wait. I’ve been busy on a paper for next weekend’s Festkonferenz for Chad Hansen, arguing that the Confucians were equipped to suppose that moral intuition can be rational cognition.

You wrote, “To say ‘J gives a justification for believing that P’ is more than to just say ‘J inclines me to believe that P.’”

Yes.

“The former makes a claim about standards that are intersubjective. Why? Because we learn to use words like ‘reason,’ ‘justification,’ ‘argument,’ ‘implication,’ etc. in a social context. … Consequently, the standards for successful use of these terms have to be social. This does not mean that all issues of rationality and justification are settled in advance. Far from it! But it does mean that sense can be given to notions like rationality only in a social (i.e., dialogical) context.”

But the latter uses words too.

I’m not sure what conclusion you’re arguing for. Is your last statement above the conclusion? Or maybe the middle statement is the conclusion, and the last is a step on the way. In the following argument,

1. ‘Rationality’ is a word.
2. Words make sense only in a social context.
3. The word ‘rationality’ makes sense only in a social context.
4. Rationality makes sense only in a social context.

3 doesn’t prima facie imply 4.
I’m not sure 3 implies 4a:

4a. The notion of rationality makes sense only in a social context.

because I’m not sure what 4a means.

I’m also not sure what you mean by ‘intersubjective'. Maybe you mean that no thinking is rational unless it involves a division of cogitative labor. But I don’t see a prima facie argument for that here. I think whether thinking without actually exchanging words can be rational depends on the topic and the circumstances; but presumably so do you.

Robinson Crusoe learned ‘papaya’ in society, and used it in a social context until he didn’t. I think he could still use ‘papaya’ well in his thinking when alone. If he thought to wonder whether he was using the word correctly, he couldn’t check that until he got off the island, but his thoughts about papayas weren’t thoughts about that kind of linguistic question.

I think dogs can have reasons for what they do. My cat comes to get me at my desk in the basement to take me upstairs so that he can watch me make the stuffed cat peek around a corner. I know that he wants this, because he goes to his special watching place.

The word ‘four’ is a word. But I can learn it. I can carry that learning away and use it all by myself for years. (I wouldn’t be in total isolation, since I’d have a history. But that’s way off point, I think.)

The word ‘elm’ is a word. I have an average mastery of it. I can’t tell an elm from a beech. Hence my ability to use the word without help is very limited. If so, how is it like that?

As you suggest, to a very large extent the standards of reason are (a) controversial and (b) indeterminate. The two points together might be some small evidence that agreement helps make a standard rational (as distinct from helping make the word ‘rational’ apply to it).

The opinions of the many and the wise have some authority. That is, the fact that an opinion is held is some reason for others to hold it. The same can be said for opinions about what tests are good tests of rationality, or reasonable tests of truth. So much is uncontroversial, I think. The linguistic argument seems to me not very relevant to this point.

At this point I’m not disagreeing with you: rather I’m in the very easy position of just asking you what you mean on something very difficult!

Bill Haines said...

Bryan, I messed up my elm paragraph. It should have ended something like this: Is 'rationality' like that? If so, how is it like that?

Very demanding, me.

Bill Haines said...

Bryan, I think I was wrong to say that it’s uncontroversial that the opinions of the many and the wise have some authority on what tests are good tests of rationality, or reasonable tests of truth! I got carried away. In fact, philosophers think the darnedest things. I wonder if that controversial claim about authority is your main point.

When I think of reason or rationality I think of kinds of good thinking, or procedures for deciding or finding things out. When people talk in the abstract about objects they call “reasons,” I get dizzy and start thinking of raisins. If pressed, I’d define “reasons” as things capable of moving us by way of good thinking. So I think a dog can have a reason for expecting a walk. She heard me say “Gofer?,” and that triggers in her the expectation of a walk.