Thursday, 11 August 2011

The History of Philosophy as Philosophy: (8). Philosophical Pay-Offs



In section 1 I alluded to various philosophical pay-offs from ‘historical’ history of philosophy. Taking philosophy of mind as my object, I will sketch examples of two sorts of pay-off: understanding landmark positions and questioning embedded assumptions or platitudes. The examples involve early modern and nineteenthcentury texts, which are often used to set ‘standard’ problems or positions in contemporary philosophy. In such cases, historically sensitive readings are directly relevant to contemporary work.

In recent philosophy of mind, terms such as ‘intentionality’, ‘introspection’, and ‘naturalism’ are frequently employed. Often, such terms are introduced and defined with a glance back at a historical figure. Thus, in discussing introspection and self-knowledge, it is common to speak of a ‘Cartesian model’ of the mind, and to invoke the ‘introspective psychology’ of Wilhelm Wundt. This Cartesian model maintains that the contents of the mind are ‘transparently’ and ‘incorrigibly’ known. Transparency means that there can be nothing in the mind that is hidden or unavailable to direct inspection and cognitive apprehension. Incorrigibility means that we cannot make mistakes about what is present in our own mind. The defeat of these two theses is often linked with rejecting a notion of phenomenal content as something more than the bare representation of physical objects or bodily states. Allegedly, these epistemological theses were the main support for the notion that there is an ‘inner’ domain of phenomenal content. Here, Wundtian introspection may be invoked as a last gasp of the Cartesian model.

The historical attributions to Descartes and Wundt are at best caricatures, at worst grossly in error. Quotations can indeed be produced from Descartes’s works that seem to affirm both positions. But in fact Descartes admitted—or insisted—that people can be mistaken about the content of their own minds: e.g. about whether they are having a clear and distinct perception. He also allowed that activities may occur in the mind that are so rapid or so dim as to go unnoticed. Similarly, Wundt did not suppose that, when introspecting a sensory state, a subject is aware of some inner state that is unrelated to the perception of an external object. Rather, he saw such introspection as a special attitude taken toward the perception of an external object. If someone who is looking at an object is asked to report its colour or match its colour to a set of standard colours, Wundt took these acts to yield introspective reports of current experience. At the same time, he acknowledged that the perception of colour involves a special sensory quality that depends on the perceiving subject. Physical objects are presented by means of subjectively conditioned sensory experiences. The introspective attitude focuses on the subjective character of sensation, rather than seeking to abstract from it, as in physical observation.

This is not the place to develop these interpretations of Descartes and Wundt in detail, and I certainly do not mean to imply that there are no problems with the positions they take. But if the alleged positions of these figures are used in contemporary philosophy of mind as objects to be criticized, or as examples of positions that have been surpassed, then a difficulty arises if they did not hold the positions attributed to them. Of course, one may be able to find someone else who held the position targeted. But if Descartes or Wundt held positions that are less implausible than the ones being shot down, then today’s philosophers would be in danger of choosing the weaker opponent—an ineffective procedure at best. By offering an easily refuted caricature, a contemporary philosopher claims a comparative advantage. But the refutation of a straw position leaves open the possibility that the ‘advantage’ is spurious. This outcome can derail the study of live alternatives, by enshrining the common ‘knowledge’ that a particular position has been decisively set aside.

A similar situation arises with the term ‘intentionality’, frequently invoked in contemporary philosophy of mind but rarely discussed in systematic fashion. The term is introduced, often with a reference to Brentano, and is said to denote a relation of ‘aboutness’ or ‘representation’, or a ‘directedness’ of the mind to its object. In recent ‘intentionalist’ theories of sensory qualities, intentionalism is alleged to do away with qualia or intrinsic features of phenomenal states. Brentano held no such doctrine, and found no incompatibility between his notion of the intentional and the distinction, commonly held in the nineteenth century, between primary and secondary qualities. Here, historical work might well enrich contemporary discussions of intentionality, and augment the surprisingly small amount of direct discussion of the notion, even by those who label themselves ‘intentionalists’.

Finally, in contemporary discussion, ‘naturalism’ about the mental is frequently assumed to imply physicalism or materialism, so that offering a naturalistic account of the intentional is considered as tantamount to reducing that notion to non-intentional terms (usually, to physical or material terms). Are mentalistic notions such as (unreduced) intentionality non-natural? They have not always been regarded as such. Many early modern authors, even dualists, saw mind as a part of nature, as did major nineteenth-century physiologist-philosophers. Some twentieth-century philosophers, including John Dewey and Ernest Nagel, have distinguished naturalism about the mental from materialism. Again, this is not the place to argue for such a distinction, but historical investigation of the notion of the natural as it has been applied (or not) to the mental (and to the mind–brain relation) could help to sort out these matters philosophically.

Most philosophers grant that past philosophical texts demand philosophical skills from their interpreters. Many would allow that there is plenty of work to be done in interpreting past philosophy and comprehending its history. However, across the twentieth century, philosophers disputed whether historically oriented interpretations have their own philosophical value. I would urge that such interpretations are essential to the health of ongoing philosophy. Philosophy without history may not be completely blind, but it is likely to be extremely near-sighted, bumbling about as it attempts to orient itself in its own evolving problem space. It is not required, for philosophy to get its bearings, that every philosopher become a historian. But all of us may need to draw from the work of our historically oriented colleagues. Which makes it all the more desirable for historians of philosophy to take pains to render the interest and the results of their work readily accessible to other philosophers.

Source : Sorell, Tom and G. A. J. Rogers.(2005), Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

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