Wednesday, June 18, 2014

truth and falsehood or consequences for philosophy

I’m reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, a text not often discussed in Hegel literature, perhaps because it’s obscure, even for Hegel, and contains gross errors regarding scientifically explained phenomena—including mistakes about the science of Hegel’s day. Now, I adore Hegel for some perverse reason, and his errors are embarrassing.

That’s only a minor problem compared to Hegel’s racist and sexist comments, and those occur in texts that are taken seriously not just by Hegel scholars. For instance, his account of women in marriage as the material moment through which the ethical relation becomes manifest takes up a significant if small part of the Phenomenology of Spirit (the most-read book by Hegel in the English speaking philosophy world). Sexism and racism appear in the Philosophy of Right as well (probably second most-read).

I recently had a brief chat at a conference about this basic problem in the canon of philosophical writing. The woman I was talking to summed things up well by saying that if she stopped reading any philosopher who wrote something outrageous about women or that was racist, she’d have to give up reading philosophy just about altogether.

Since almost no one but academic philosophers reads books from the tradition of philosophy, this may seem like a picayune problem. People don’t seem to quit reading novels by racist authors, or stop looking at paintings by sexist painters. If there is a difference, it could be that unlike literature or art, philosophy is supposed to reveal the truth. Since we have rejected the notion that the truth could be racist or sexist, racism or sexism in philosophical writing could seem to undermine its status as philosophy altogether.

I don’t know if I believe that, in part, ironically enough, because of the influence of Hegel on my thinking about philosophy. Hegel’s concept of the truth as “the whole,” which would include “moments” of would-be truths that turn out to be false—indeed, which at times Hegel writes includes the false. If racism and sexism are false, they nevertheless are moments in the development of truth, in the same way that an immediate sensation of something, while not taking in the “whole” of it and thus false, must still be part of knowing that something. Put another way: philosophical texts that involve racism and sexism are necessary for the articulation of philosophical truth because we (philosophers, people) have been and are racist and sexist. That means that racism and sexism must be uttered, but not left simply posited. The positions of racism and sexism must be posited in order to be thought through, in the “labor of the negative” (Hegel’s so-called dialectic), to recover and bring forward what is true in racism and sexism. And that could turn out to be that the opposite of racism and sexism is the truth of racism and sexism.

That’s not to defend Hegel’s racism and sexism, because, at least as I read him, he posits racist and sexist ideas and leaves them standing. To refer to his own language, Hegel commits falsehood whenever he fails to undermine these positions. In as much as the truth and the revelation of the truth would require that negation, Hegel’s books do not tell the truth.

All that is preface to the question of the day, which is what the relationship is between philosophy and truth. Is that a strange question? Anyway, I have two ideas in mind.

First is whether philosophy or philosophers should tell the truth. I think that by reputation, philosophy and philosophers are very much concerned with truth, even dedicated to it. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates seems to prefer the truth to everything, even life itself. (Everything except for hot guys, that is. In the dialogues, Socrates unfailingly prefers hot guys to the truth.) All the same, Socrates lies, a lot. Plus, if philosophy and philosophers should follow Socrates’ lead in the practice of recognizing our own ignorance, philosophy  and philosophers should be reluctant, even reticent, to posit anything as true. (Hegel was hip to this, and as much as said that every position is untrue, just because no position can propose or state the whole that is the truth.)

Second is whether philosophy or philosophers should be held to a standard of truth or truth-telling. Here I mean something like whether philosophy or philosophers that cannot tell the truth should be ejected from the canon. For instance, if a philosopher’s work was based on patently false premises and obviously faulty reasoning, should that disqualify that philosopher from the traditional canon? By analogy with sciences like physics or biology, in which theories are not taught that have been demonstrated to be false, should philosophical works also be excluded? If not, then should those works not be presented as falsehoods, in the manner in which one might tell a biology class about Lamarck’s surmise about evolution? Perhaps no one should read Hegel, given his works’ repetition of bad (or evil, depending on your point of view) ideas. Or perhaps, like a joke in the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus series, we could read it, provided we understand that he was wrong. In that case, what does the tradition of philosophical texts amount to? I hate to think that it is nothing but a special form of literature, having as its differentia specifica that these are texts that pretend to the truth—or are just very badly plotted novels.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

pain and language

What I’m reading about pain keeps coming back to the inexpressibility of pain. This is not to say we lack words to describe pain, but that none of them can, that there is always a remainder, a (somewhat) unsharable, incommunicable something that is only subjectively undergone. I don’t know whether I agree with that as such, but taking it up for now, why should this only be true for experiences of pain? Why is it particularly problematic for experiences of pain?

Of course, pain is often urgent and problematic, and that brings about situations in which the expression of pain is at issue. For instance, when the ER nurse asks you to rate your chest pain on a 1 to 10 scale, this obviously crude device produces data for medical interpretation—reporting 10 will be taken to indicate heart attack and the need for certain types of intervention, but a 3 or 4 is ambiguous. The reason why they don’t ask for more description is that it would be still more ambiguous and would require time, attention, empathy, communication, interpretation, and understanding that cannot be afforded.

But why wouldn’t the same basic problem exist for feelings of pleasure? Imagine being asked at some appropriate moment (or inappropriate, depending on how you feel about it) to rate your pleasure from 1 to 10. Anyway, we like more florid language evoking pleasure, and take our time with it, because we can usually afford to, and because we like it. Nonetheless, the remainder remains, I would say, and there is no language sufficient to express to you just how I undergo pleasure. (It’s peach season!)

David Biro suggests that we express pain by way of metaphor because there is no other, more direct, literal language for it. That is, the linguistic expression of pain is catachresis: terms are used that are somehow out of context, or fit together in ways that aren’t “right.” (The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers as an example: “blind mouths.”) Merleau-Ponty says, “A language which only sought to reproduce things themselves would exhaust its power to teach in factual statements. On the contrary, a language which gives our perspectives on things and cuts out relief in them opens up a discussion which does not end with the language and itself invites further investigation.” (“Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” 77)

What makes pain unique (if pain is unique) is not its confounding of language. All experience confounds language.

"Whatever," says an exasperated and quite dead Wittgenstein, because the problem of how language expresses experience is not a problem, since language doesn't do that in the first place. The linguistic expression of pain, like the number scale, expresses pain because we take it to express pain. How do we know it works? Because it makes people do things like give patients nitroglycerin, or give philosophers peaches. And as the punchline to the joke goes...

Monday, June 09, 2014

the my-body problem

Most often, I believe, the conceptualization of one’s body as “my body” is objectifying and extrinsic. There are ethical, economic, political contexts in which “my body” and the mineness of a body make a great deal of difference, and these concepts inform how we interpret embodiment on an ongoing, everyday basis. We don’t often refer to “my body” outside of very particular, often evaluative contexts: “my body” is “athletic” or “sore” or “breaking down” or whatever. We don’t say “my body got up at 7:30 this morning,” although, no doubt, if I did, so did my body.

The notion of a body as “mine” is perplexing to me in part because of the way these typical ways of talking objectify and externalize body, as though my body were a possession. I don’t experience a possessive ownership relation to my body, under typical circumstances. Only rarely is it helpful to clarify which item in a pile of things is my body, in contradistinction to other things or other bodies. (In those kinds of circumstances, identifying which item is my body is sometimes not chiefly on my mind.)

If I consider the phenomenology of how my being embodied presents itself, I’m at a loss to identify something like “mine-ness.” Typically we move, we sit, we sip tea, we listen to Desprez motets, or whatever else we do, not by way of taking hold of something like a “my body” and moving “it.” Thus the holism of a lot of phenomenological accounts: I am my body, rather than have it. Even in this language, there’s that “my body” that I can’t account for from my own phenomenological assay.

What I find is what I shall call for the time being “tensile coalescing (the) all surrounding, to here.” This is unwieldy, I know.

I sat down at my keyboard, in the midst of puzzling about the “my body” problem, and did a little phenomenology of what turned up when I tried deliberately to set aside any notion that I knew what it might mean to say “my body”—or even “body.” (I think that’s a clue: it’s damned hard to set aside the ordinary posit of “my” without also setting aside “body” as well.) Some surprising stuff showed up.

What showed up was distant and nearby locales of encounter with surroundings. I was sitting in poor posture with the heel of one foot resting on the top of the other. Eventually that hurt, but the feeling of pain was located far away, though not so far as to be outside somewhere. The Desprez motets and the hum of the HVAC fan struck and surrounded. The floor vibrated throughout me. Suddenly the teeming of surrounding became vividly apparent, in a moment of allowing much more of the surrounding to go unfiltered. That teemingness prompts the word all.

There was a centrality to all this, but not a mere point: an ongoing bringing together of these surroundings (read that as a present participle as well as a gerund), hence “coalescing.” When I sat up I noticed better the way this coalescing presented itself as having a sort of tension built into it. This is not “tension” in the way we use it to name unpleasant stress, but tension in the sense of having potential energy to it (which I know I’m using improperly in the technical sense; it’s evocative). What showed up was both kinetic coalescing and potential for moving.

This had a focal point, but not in the sense of something fixed, pregiven, preordained. It was a point toward which the coalescing was happening: to here. Here just means that point—an asymptote, really (again in a nontechnical sense).

So: a tensile coalescing (the) all surrounding, to here.

(BTW, I think I'm gonna keep the name "the my-body problem" for this little venture, as a joke on the old saw, the mind-body problem.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

error types

I don't know why Type I errors and Type II errors are called that. (Type I is incorrectly denying a null hypothesis that is true; Type II is incorrectly affirming a false null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is the opposite of what you believe is true. They are also called false positive and false negative. In either case, these errors involve believing something despite the evidence.) There have been various proposals for a Type III error -- for instance, cooking the evidence by setting up a trial that leads to a preordained conclusion, or misrepresenting the problem.

I can't keep them straight. I never have. "Type I" doesn't mean anything to me. Herewith, then, I propose an alternative error typology.

Dickhead Error. A Dickhead Error occurs when one continues to affirm a hypothesis that has been demonstrated to be false, often with increasing loudness. (The loudness can be vocal, but can also be expressed through revving a truck or SUV engine.)

Shithead Error. A Shithead Error occurs when one ignores all evidence contrary to a particular hypothesis, or contrary to any hypothesis whatsoever.

Asshole Error. An Asshole Error occurs when one formulates a hypothesis that serves to re-affirm the incorrigible certainty of one's perceptions, attitudes, orientations, goals, and even mood.

Fuckhead Error. A Fuckhead Error occurs when one ignores all perceptions, attitudes, orientations, goals, and even mood that are not one's own. (Fuckhead Error is often expressed loudly either vocally or through revving a truck or SUV engine.)

Making Shit Up Error. A Making Shit Up Error occurs when one invents, imagines, or indulges in fantasy of evidence. (Making Shit Up Error is often coincident with Shithead Error or Asshole Error.)

Wile E. Coyote Error. A Wile E. Coyote Error occurs when one formulates a hypothesis beyond one's capacity to test without causing oneself injury.

Oh, Right Error. An Oh, Right Error occurs when the probative evidence for or against a hypothesis is ignored until pointed out. (Often repeated ad nauseam.)

This error typology could have wide application, beyond scientific fields. For instance, during political debates, it's likely to come across instances of Dickhead, Shithead, Asshole, Making Shit Up, and even Fuckhead Error. Some political ideologies are composed of nothing else. I believe the typology could be handy in organizational governance meetings as well. How often have you observed your boss making an Asshole Error? With the proper terminology, you can clearly indicate the kind of error your boss has made, when you are in a job interview, answering a question about why you were fired.

The Wile E. Coyote type error is particularly useful for describing faulty reasoning by cats and skiers. Oh, Right Error, though ubiquitous, is still good to ascribe, in hopes that the faulty reasoning does not devolve into Shithead Error.

I'd like to see some publications adopting my improved error typology in the next few months, so get on it.