Friday, November 18, 2016

Lifeworld of the (Analytic) Metaphysicians

Eric Schliesser -- ``Those who
like obnoxious in-jokes will be
happy to learn that I almost used
a picture of a balloon flying over
Ghent to accompany this caption.''
I really enjoyed this recent post by Eric Schliesser, and I am going to say a bit about why here.  The theme of my post is: I think it speaks really well for a philosopher or school of philosophy if one can discern an underlying emotional basis for their work; if one can see not just what it would take for their words to be true (and I guess whether or not what they say is true), but also what kind of person one would have to be to think it true, to feel towards the world as the philosophy would have you feel, to truly inhabit the lifeworld it constructs.

Sometimes it is clear what this would entail (the dark pessimism of Schopenhauer, the fearful opportunism of Lao Tzu, the meliorative optimism of Condorcet and les philosophes) but I often think people give up too quickly in seeking for this emotional basis. For instance, people rarely see this in analytic philosophers or schools of thought, and while this is quite right in some cases (e.g. some are not consistent, or speak in too pro-forma a style) in other cases I think people are just missing what is not obvious.

Tim Williamson, I have long felt and argued before, is a philosopher from whom one does get, I think, a real sense of an underlying emotional basis to their work. So I'll illustrate what I mean here with a broad impressionistic sweep over his work. Williamson's is a world over which we have less control than we may think, a world which in all sorts of subtle ways reveals itself to be beyond our grasp or ken, and which we can modify around the edges (in ways that may even be very important to us), but in some deep and fundamental sense we must learn to accept and conform ourselves too.

Even the aspects of Williamson that don' seem to comport with this readily turn out to. For instance, Williamson on some occasions argues that knowledge that it might be thought hard to get (knowledge of counter-factuals, say) is actually quite readily attainable, and stresses a link between knowledge and speech-action, in particular assertion. This seems suggestive of a somewhat different lifephilosophy, somewhat less fatalistic than perhaps the above sounded. But, even here I think the underlying unity of the picture of the lifeworld is revealed, because these initially incongruent elements of his thought can very easily be weaved in. What one sees here is this kind of sense of futility -- for the knowledge which is surprisingly easy to get (concerning counter-factuals) turns out to ground or underlie the discovery that a load of things you might have thought were contingent are actually necessarily as they are.

Timothy Williamson -- ``One might
 question the wisdom of some grad student
 treating my philosophy in exactly
the kind of vague, loose, impressionistic
way I frequently protest against. But, hey,
you do you. Who needs a job anyway?''
Whereas one can contrast that with what turns out not to be knowable. Where we can draw the line that demarcates what is tall or bald... or, perhaps, beautiful or good or just or responsible... or any of the many many things we encounter, and that can be deeply important to our sense of self and the way we organise society, but that are plausibly subject to vagueness where they appear in degrees. And we are trapped in other tragedies too: in a variety of ways through his work we learn that we may just be entirely wrong about things that are of the utmost importance to us and in who we trust as experts, and have no way of knowing it and have made no culpable error that we could ourselves detect, but be none the less wrong in the fullest sense. And that link to speech? Now it rebounds on us! For knowledge is what it takes for an assertion to be justifiably uttered -- but see what we can know, and what we cannot!

There's something kind of (but only kind of) Stoic, or Buddhistic, about Williamson's philosophy, and I'm always kind of puzzled that for all the attention his work gets, this particular aspect of his thought doesn't generate scarce any discussion. Anyway, I guess what the linked Schliesser piece does, I think, is draw this out, and acknowledge it, and place it against the current moment. That's not the only reason I really enjoyed the post (I recommend following the link concerning true and false philosophy) and I am not sure Williamson himself would recognise or welcome these reflections -- but such is what I thought when I read his metaphysics, his epistemology, his work on language, and perhaps most especially his recent book the Tetralogue.

For my part, I really value the ability to produce such an emotionally coherent philosophy in humanistic thinkers. One -- not the only, nor even the most important, but one -- valuable thing I think we can offer as humanists is placing facts, arguments, perspectives, into such a light as they provide a kind of unified perspective on the world, that they can shape and guide a coherent approach to life's many problems and joys. I don't think this need be the explicit subject matter of what is done, indeed I think it is often best done kind of obliquely as one focuses on more immediate or precisely formulated problems. Indeed, a lot of what I say here is shaped by my reading of Carnap, who I think also deliberately did this obliquely, and ends up painting a very different picture from Williamson. But some of my favourite thinkers are such precisely because they have the ability to conjure in me a window into their lifeworld. I think analytic philosophy has greater potential to contribute to this kind of humanistic project than even some of its own practitioners admit; and as I develop as a thinker I aspire to have such a vision emerge from my own work.

Eric Schliesser's post, I think, does a great job of not just pointing to Williamson's lifeworld but also exemplifying what it would be to live in it. One gets the sense that even in the face of personal and social catastrophe, even where others cannot be brought to see it, there is still a value to be found in discovering the world as it is and acclimatising to it, terrible tough it may be. The determination to gain that knowledge and comport oneself accordingly just is a good, and that value is invariant across the waxing and waning of fortune.


  1. Thanks for writing this! I think I sort of agree (though I'm not sure I fully get the paragraph about knowledge/necessitism is supposed to exemplify the sense of futility--I think I see the general point but I guess in some ways it seems like a stretch to me to give this reading, though I *want* to agree with you).

    On a separate note--can you say something about what you are talking about in the post and systematicity, being a systematic philosopher? They seem related but not the same.

    1. Thanks for the reply! I agree that there is a somewhat of a stretch between the necessitarianism -- in fact it was thinking about what I was writing there that prompted me to write the caption for Williamson. It's not so much the content of the view -- which I think can and should be distinguished from any systematic fatalism -- but more, well, I think exactly the kind of thing wherein one sees a general point but cannot quite pin it down; a kind of vague or hazily discerned connection, which perhaps should be analysed away on close reflection, but through its initial presence does really shape the emotional valance of a view. It could be idiosyncratic to me, I guess, but I suppose I personally have something like the following reaction to necessitism -- this sort of compounds my general sense that the world is beyond my control, not something I can through willful or purposeful activity alter. Of course, it can quite correctly be pointed out that: there's lots of room for deliberate action with the necessitarian universe, it really is not an explicit doctrine of fatalism. But I guess I do think there is a kind of shift in emotional valance or tone between contingentism and necessitism, and it is a shift towards a more resigned attitude towards the world (and one which compounds together with elements of his philosophy).

      As to the knowledge bit -- somebody raised in conversation the idea that it seemed a bit incongruent with the sort of pessimistic image I was painting of the Williamsonian worldview that we could get this surprising knowledge about counter-factauls so easily, and this allows us access to a whole realm of theorising that has been thought impossible; it's seems like a note of optimism in this system. When I was thinking about that I was then struck by the fact that even this ended up playing into the necessitism, which then has a very different valance for me.

      Good question about the relationship to systematicity! My guess is systematicity has the following advantage -- I take it that attempts to be systematic make it more likely that one's work will be coherent, in the sense of literally just not self-undermining or not-deliberately self-contradictory but also in the sense of applying roughly the same sort of perspective or premises or approach across many different domains. I would guess that this kind of coherency make it easier for one's work to paint a portrait of the world and our place in it with a clear emotional basis, since it aids the reader in seeing how such a vision of the lifeworld applies in different spheres thereby guiding one to concordant emotional responses at different times and during differing activities, and through repetition helps the reader see commonalities that can help them draw out key themes. (This latter relates o the fact that I think this is often better done somewhat obliquely: there's some advantage, I think, to a show-don't-tell approach here, as in other literary endeavours.) So I would guess that self-conscious attempts to systematicity make it more likely that one's work will exhibit this particular virtue of humanistic thinking. But this is just a guess! What do you think?