Thought Notes 7/20/2014

Some of these come from things I’ve tweeted – I wanted to format them and consolidate them a bit more here.

It seems like a lot Christians think that explaining, or harmonizing, Scripture is almost like doing an injustice to Scripture. Folks like that seem to be the ones who always insist that Scripture is ‘messy’, so to try and harmonize it is to go against what Scripture is. I guess if you accept that definition of ‘messy’ and everything that goes with it, that’s a reasonable position to take. But what exactly does ‘messy’ mean, and does it entail necessarily that Scripture can’t be explained or harmonized? I blogged on this before in the context of theology and spirituality, but the same points apply. For me, I guess, the idea that Scripture is fundamentally ‘not supposed to be’ harmonized/explained/systematized is just odd. I do think that a general resistance to systematization is the underlying issue. Systematic theology has a place, obviously – but those who are opposed to the ‘finality’ of some systematics no doubt disagree.

Imagination is an important thing when thinking about philosophy, but it all too often is merely invoked instead of examined. Not there seems to be anything even remotely resembling a consensus on what the imagination is. James K.A. Smith has interesting ideas on it (he draws mostly from Merleau-Ponty, at least in the book I’ve read), but they seem to just be a rehash of the Aristotelian active intellect. I do think that he’s correct to move discussions of the imagination away from thinking of it like a ‘making things up’ ability – ‘use your imagination’, for example, and more towards a faculty of formal causality, albeit one oriented in an ’emotional’ and ‘affective way’. But, like I said, that seems to be the active intellect, with a slight tune-up.

I’ve begun to realize that a big problem in philosophy of mind stems from what I’ll call the ‘philosophical anthropology’ that is more or less the received wisdom. The general idea is that humans are primarily cognitive, knowing creatures, who are distinguished primarily by the rationality – and that’s it (yes, I’m aware that this isn’t a universal picture). Everyone knows, however, that there is far more to being human than merely being cognitive. Actually, as James K.A. Smith notes, the cognitive aspects of how we know and acquire knowledge really seem to be the last and possibly the most minor aspect of our existence – and recent cognitive science really seems to back that claim up. So much of our ‘knowing’ (for lack of a better term) is done on the tacit level (Polyani) that it almost seems like most philosophy of mind doesn’t really know what a human is. Think of how many arguments hinge on something like ‘knowledge’ in the abstract – when ‘knowledge’ in the abstract seems to really be something that doesn’t exist.


11 thoughts on “Thought Notes 7/20/2014

  1. SamL July 21, 2014 / 4:19 am

    I appreciate this might seem like a snake’s question given that I’m fairly invested in its target, but could you elaborate on that last paragraph a bit?

    I don’t think there’s a single argument in contemporary philosophy of mind which hinges on taking humans as primarily anything — finding the essence of humanity is just not its subject area. Most arguments concern how the implications of metaphysical theories conflict with intuitions about particular aspects of what we call ‘mind’.



    • whitefrozen July 21, 2014 / 11:48 am

      They don’t hinge on that, true enough. But my point isn’t so much about what makes the various arguments true or false so much as about the concept of the person that said arguments/metaphysics operate with – in this case, a concept that seems largely defined by the person as a knowing subject.


      • SamL July 22, 2014 / 5:17 am

        Any given philosopher of mind will likely have views on personhood, for sure, and they no doubt diverge massively. But I don’t see how these views in any sense set the agenda for philosophy of mind. It is true that cognitive and phenomenal aspects are considered central, but this is because they are particularly hard to square with other things, and would be the case regardless of how constitutive of humanity they were considered.



        • whitefrozen July 22, 2014 / 8:04 am

          I don’t think that’s really true, though. I can point you to a lot of other philosophical traditions that make very different assumptions of humanity and don’t have, see or give as much significance to the things you mention. The things you cite, cognitive and phenomenal aspects being hard to square with other things, is a problem a lot of traditions don’t have because they don’t make the same assumptions, simplicity or explicitly, that contemporary western philosophy of mind makes about both humanity and how humanity thinks/acts/knows. These assumptions definitely do set the agenda.


          • SamL July 22, 2014 / 8:25 am

            But the thing they’re hard to square with is not a view of human personhood but a view of reality. What has set the agenda is physicalistic metaphysics. Sure there are other cultures which don’t see the conflict, but this is because they have different views of reality, not because they have different views of personhood (and of course it’s not that don’t see conflicts, they just see them elsewhere). The point is that the questions in philosophy of mind haven’t been thrown into relief because of unspoken views of selfhood, but because of explicit and principled commitments in metaphysics.



            • whitefrozen July 22, 2014 / 7:16 pm

              I’m not saying that a certain view of personhood is what they’re hard to square with. I’m saying that a certain view of personhood is responsible for the meta-agenda (for lack of a better term). Cognitive and phenomenal ‘things’ (again, lack of a better term) being hard to square with a view of reality stems from certain assumptions made by early modern philosophy(ers), and I think that view can be amply defended on historical grounds. Squaring X with Y isn’t a problem that will be solved by adopting a certain view of personhood – what I’m saying is that (misguided) assumptions made about personhood, knowledge, cognition, knowing, acquiring knowledge, what we know, qualities, etc,led to the view that X needs to be squared with X, which lead to all the big ‘problems’ of modern philosophy and philosophy of mind. Make sense at all or am I just rambling?


              • SamL July 23, 2014 / 8:42 am

                The views of certain early moderns have definitely played a huge part in the historical process that has led to the development of the space of problems as considered by contemporary Western philosophers, both analytic and continental. But so have heavy critiques of these views. One of the primary drives in analytic philosophy has been to formulate problems in ways that decouple them from large systems of interlocking positions. Of course this can never be total, but it does mean that in many cases problems stand more or less on their own. In the case of philosophy of mind, many of the issues involving knowledge (knowledge arguments, etc) are indifferent to whatever ‘knowing’ is, hence why people with differing views on knowledge can participate in them together.

                I don’t know if this is specifically what you’re referring to, but in people like Locke and Hume we find a strange use of the word ‘idea’ which forms the basis of a picture of knowing as something like passive mirroring. Questions then arise about how we can ever know if the mirror reflects accurately, etc – the Cartesian sceptical problems all fall out. There are echoes of this metaphor in lots of the early analytic philosophy of language (which saw finding a theory of meaning as equivalent to finding a theory of representation, i.e. a theory of mirroring) But this has been heavily challenged, and from nowhere more than within analytic philosophy itself (Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, for example, is an epic deconstruction of the metaphor of the passive mirror in favour of a concept of knowledge as constrained creativity).

                Issues in the philosophy of mind, while they have arisen out of this dialectic, are largely independent of it (if only for the reason that they’ve been formulated explicitly to make them so). It may be that inherited confusions lurk – discussing this is a big part of what people in the philosophy of mind do. But ultimately, there’s nothing easier than saying that a large number of very intelligent people are confused. It’s like saying ‘it depends’ without saying what ‘it’ depends on, and without some analysis of what the confusion actually is, it is equally as empty.



                • whitefrozen July 23, 2014 / 6:45 pm

                  Your example of Rorty rather proves what I’m trying to get at. Solutions to pseudo-problems (those of Locke, Hume, for example) are pseudo-solutions – but the problems I have go back a bit farther and deeper. The critiques you mention are just as much of the problem as the views they are critiques of. The assumptions that lead to the views that are being critiqued are granted by the critiques – hence why they are seen as problems to be solved or dissolved or what have you.

                  Regarding knowledge, again, what you’re saying is part of the problem. Problems and issues about knowledge can’t be indifferent to whatever knowledge is.

                  Regarding the state of philosophy of mind and metaphysics in general, its perfectly fine to say that large numbers of intelligent people are confused – and I have given some analysis of what I take to be the confusions. I’d go so far as to say that the majority of modern metaphysics is a waste of time, actually. I personally think analytic philosophy will be seen in the future as being as bankrupt as early German idealism was/is.


                  • SamL July 24, 2014 / 3:42 am

                    Say an idea has helped to define a problem space. If it then turns out to be wrong that doesn’t in any way imply that all the problems it spawned are pseudo-problems. In the case of the British empiricists they spawn the subject of epistemology, and representational accounts of thought and language turned out to be hugely fruitful. It’s a contentious subject, but I think ultimately they fail. This does nothing to undermine the value of working them through. And it’s hardly like the passive mirror / constrained creativity thing is new in modern philosophy. It goes back to the Theaetetus and Socrates’ images of the mind as wax tablet and/or aviary.

                    ‘Problems and issues about knowledge can’t be indifferent to whatever knowledge is.’ Obviously — but problems in the philosophy of mind are not problems about knowledge, they are problems about the mind. Some problems of mind will concern things like belief, but the question here is not about how beliefs can be true or justified, but how they are possible at all, and even if they exist at all, and if so in what sense. It is a question about intentionality, not about knowledge.

                    In other instances ‘knowledge’ is used in questions of what is entailed by certain things. If we knew every physical fact then what else must we know? If you don’t think this is an appropriate use of the word knowledge — that, say, knowledge is really not about ‘facts’ at all — then it makes absolutely no difference, because the whole question can be rephrased in terms of logical entailment. Philosophers of mind don’t need to care about your pet philosophy of knowledge any more than mathematicians need to care about my pet philosophy of mathematics.

                    ‘Regarding the state of philosophy of mind and metaphysics in general, its perfectly fine to say that large numbers of intelligent people are confused – and I have given some analysis of what I take to be the confusions. I’d go so far as to say that the majority of modern metaphysics is a waste of time, actually. I personally think analytic philosophy will be seen in the future as being as bankrupt as early German idealism was/is.’

                    Proclamations come cheap, don’t they? And do you really feel like you’ve offered some analysis?



                    • whitefrozen July 24, 2014 / 8:16 am

                      I had a comment typed out but it got erased, so you get my quick rewrite.

                      ‘They are problems about the mind.’ (I was going to say something about knowledge but I forgot what it was).

                      I suppose what I’m getting at is that I think the place of prominence given to the mind is part of the mistake, more so in modern philosophy (not that the older traditions are exempt). That’s why I made the remarks about a certain view of personhood. Holding X or Y view of personhood in any given issue won’t change too much – but there seems to be a certain view of personhood engrained in our thinking that I don’t take to be terribly helpful and which has led to all these various problems of the mind by putting the mind in a more prominent than it deserves place, some of which, as you noted, have had fruitful results (some not so much). However, having said all that, I still stand by my claim that what’s set the agenda for mind-studies is an implicit view of personhood and the mind that continues to undergird the whole program.

                      But again, you’re correct to note that even misguided problems can generate fruitful responses. Some interesting things have come about as the result of mistakes, even if I don’t give them a sympathetic reading.

                      Regarding whether or not I’ve offered some analysis, yes, I have. That’s what this conversation has been. Sure, its not me going in and noting where each and every problem or hole or solution is in the whole field, but that’s not really where I see the problem.


    • whitefrozen July 21, 2014 / 11:48 am

      More can be said but I’m at lunch, so that’s All you get.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s