Susan Krantz Gabriel


            Recently I’ve been reading a bit of ancient Hindu and early Buddhist thought.  One of the logical devices they used is the “tetralemma,” which has 4 problematic alternatives, just as a dilemma has 2.  For instance, one might ask the question whether the soul lives on after death, and the perplexing answers could be as follows: i) is the soul immortal? –No; ii) is the soul mortal? –No; iii) is the soul both immortal and mortal? –No; and iv) is the soul neither immortal nor mortal? –No.[1]

 

What is the value of such a ploy, other than to test our patience?

 

Let’s raise another sort of question, in the spirit of a recent philosophy blog:

Is agreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Is disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Are both agreement and disagreement signs of rationality?  –No.

Is neither agreement nor disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

 

This tetralemma could encourage us to realize that disagreement doesn’t fit the case when we ask for a sign of rationality.  What does fit the case is rather the ability to entertain a proposition. Agreement or disagreement with a proposition (or with another person) requires not only entertaining the proposition in question but also an act of the will, affirming or denying it.  But affirming or denying can just as easily result from non-rational impulses, such as the impulse to annoy someone, or not to.  Yet there are times when it is rational either to agree or to disagree with a given proposition, and irrational not to.  In a similar way, we might argue against Kant’s universal agreement criterion of objectivity, at least given that the above replies to our four questions are correct.

 

Let’s take an easier, Buddhist example of a torch that burns all night:

Does the same flame exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame then not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame both exist and not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame neither exist nor not exist all night?  –No.

 

This tetralemma is intended to teach us that a flame is not the sort of thing that can be properly referred to as “the same.”  One flame rather leads to the next in a causal series of momentary flames, serially exhausting their infinitesimally different fuels.  This is the real truth of the matter; if we nevertheless say, “the flame burned all night,” what we are expressing is rather a conventional truth.

In Buddhism, the image of the flame is used to teach us something about the self or the soul.  But that is another story for another day.



[1] See for instance the Majjhima Nikaya, ed. V Trenckner (London: Pali Text Society,1948-1960), I 483-88, as quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), p.71.

“It’s not lymphoma, it’s leprosy!”  Ack!!!!  Yes, I admit I was watching re-runs of House the other night.  It seems the other televisual options included a ruined baseball stadium filled with Godzilla eggs, a WWII movie about carnage on the German front, and a variety of news shows featuring politicians and pundits running around with their hair on fire, not to mention winter storm warnings and a meteor exploding over Russia.  As Mel Brooks said, “High anxiety, you win!”

What is it that people find so attractive about the raised emotional pitch, especially in fiction?  (As if we didn’t have enough of that in daily life.)  I’m not going to say this is a recent phenomenon, or an American one.  Check out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or better yet, Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the ancient Egyptian story about what happened to Osiris.  (Look it up.)  We humans enjoy being shocked and horrified.  But why?

If Plato is right, it might simply be a common and understandable mistake.  “Whenever anyone’s soul feels a keen pleasure or pain,” says Socrates in the Phaedo, “it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the plainest and truest reality, which it is not.” (83c)  Really?  If things that cause a profound emotional surge aren’t the most real, what is?

The Buddhist scholar and retreat master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we deal with our emotional storms the same way we face violent weather; go home, close the doors and windows, be still.  Reality is to be found in the quiet of our hearts when we are calm, not in the tempest.

Elijah found that God was not in the heavy winds or in the earthquake or in the raging fire, but rather in a still, small voice.  He had to be very quiet to hear it.  And once he listened, he was refreshed and fortified. (I Kings, 19:11-13)  He did not withdraw from the chaotic world permanently, but he did need to take a break.

We, too, need a break, but events and entertainment conspire to keep us riled up.  Even when we go on vacation, there is so much to do and to experience that we return home exhausted as often as not.  And when we “relax” with our portable electronic devices, well, de Tocqueville would not be surprised.  We need a real break.

But we also need to do something different.  We need to be still yet alert.  And this is a work quite unlike what we are used to, as well as a relaxation that can’t be found on TV or the internet or in collision sports.  There are no fireworks in this practice of being still.  But there is a deeper reality, a plainer and truer reality than what we can encounter by any other means.  Be still, yet alert, without trying to control the outcome.  Then sometimes, High Anxiety, you lose.

As is well known, Plato’s Theaetetus defines knowledge as, roughly, justified true belief.  It is also well known that Descartes sought a certain and irrefutable foundation for knowledge and found it in the fact that whatever else he doubted he knew for sure that he existed.  Both of these thinkers would hold that knowledge must be true—or else it’s not really knowledge.

On the other hand, it is common to say that scientific knowledge is always changing, and that what passed for knowledge in ancient times—or even last week!—was mistaken.  It is also common to use expressions, such as “true for me,” or “true for you,” as well as, “that’s what I got out of it,” in the sense that what you got out of it could be quite different and yet we’d both know what the book (or movie, etc.,) was about.

An easy way to solve this conflict of intuitions is to hold (1) that real knowledge is always true, but (2) sometimes in the past (or in the present) we have thought (or think) that we knew (or know) something when we actually didn’t (or don’t), i.e., that apparent knowledge can be false.  In fact, I like this solution, but at the same time, something about it bothers me.  It’s facile.  It overlooks a serious difficulty.

Consider my set of beliefs at any given time.  Experience has taught me that the set taken as a whole most likely contains false beliefs, but it’s impossible for me to hold that any single member of the set is false—after all, it’s a belief.  So I believe with regard to the set that it contains false beliefs, but there is no single belief in the set such that I believe it is false.  Belief is not knowledge, of course.  But unless the set of propositions I claim to know is extremely small (confined, say, to simple arithmetical statements and Descartes’ cogito), the same difficulty that affects my set of beliefs also affects my set of knowledge claims.  In other words, I know with regard to the set that, if past experience is any guide at all, it contains false propositions; but there is no single knowledge claim within the set that I know, or even could now know, to be false.

The upshot seems to be that I am constrained to believe, with regard to the things that I know, that at least some of them are possibly false.  Nor will it help to say that when “S knows that P,” then it is always true that “S knows that S knows that P.”  This may be true, but the higher order claim is subject to the same difficulty as is the simple and direct claim.  I can know something, and know that I know it, and yet be mistaken.  But there’s no way of knowing!

At least, there’s no way of knowing until I find out.  Hmm . . . .  Maybe I should withhold judgment and never claim to know anything until I’m absolutely sure?  But how is that different from resolving never to claim to know anything until I actually know it?  Which restores the conundrum:  I can’t know anything without believing that I know it, and believing that I know it blinds me to the possibility that it might be false, since real knowledge has to be true.  Again, I know the set has false members, and yet I know each member of the set to be true.

Or should I bite the bullet and hold that it does make sense to claim quite openly that many of the things I really know are in fact possibly false?  This solution to our difficulty is called fallibilism, i.e., the view that our knowledge claims are in many cases fallible.  It doesn’t exclude the possibility of genuine insight into self-evident propositions; what it excludes is rather the infallibilism that results from holding that knowledge is by definition true.  I can truthfully say that I know the principle of non-contradiction, but I can also truthfully say that I know smoking and junk food are bad for us.  In Sleeper, Woody Allen imagined a world where science had shown that tobacco and hot fudge are the keys to longevity, but it would be absurd for me to claim that I don’t know otherwise—even though science may one day prove him right!

On Refusing
Somewhere in their first couple of years, human children develop the capacity to
say, “No,” hence the “Terrible Twos.” I think of it as being an early manifestation of rational
nature, because it is evidence that mutually exclusive options are understood. Although a
screaming two-year-old may be thought unreasonable, or even irrational, it would be incorrect to
label the child non-rational, or pre-rational, or sub-rational, since he or she is well aware of what
contradicts desire.
Refusing to do something is not only a human capacity, of course. Dogs and cats refuse
to do things all the time. When my dog doesn’t want to go outside, she refuses to walk to the
door, and at 90 lbs. she is pretty much an immovable object. My late cat—rest in peace—never
once came running when called, though he lived to be 18. I personally have no horse stories, but
I’m sure they exist, and so for many other species. What humans do that’s interesting, however,
is they specifically say, “No,” and this means they refuse not only to do something but also to
believe something. Refusal to believe may or may not affect action; thus it is not reducible to
action or inaction, rather it varies independently. Refusal to believe means, in other words,
rejecting a proposition. Here are several propositions that humans routinely reject: “This would
be good for you;” “You should do this because it would be good for you;” “You should do this
because it’s expected of you;” “This is too dangerous;” “You should not do this because it’s too
dangerous;” “You should always obey the law;” “The rules are there for a good reason;” and so
forth. Again, action or inaction may be consistent with the rejection of propositions like these,
but not necessarily. If I am right the mere rejection of a proposition, refusing to believe, is a
characteristically human trait and evidence of rational nature.
Consider the main character in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” He simply
repeats, “I would prefer not to,” thereby firmly insisting on his own integrity as an agent.
What brought me to reflect on this was the death last July of British jazz singer Amy
Winehouse. Her song, “Rehab,” is about refusing. “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said
no, no, no. . . I won’t go, go, go.” It’s quite a lyrical number, beautifully performed by Ms.
Winehouse with her gorgeous alto voice, and the musicians in the YouTube music video version
are simply charming. The contrast with her sad life and early demise is a shock. Of course,
Winehouse should have gone to rehab. In fact, apparently she did go, more than once. Initially,
her family said that her death had been caused not by a drug overdose but by unsupervised,
cold-turkey sobriety; the toxicology report released recently, however, indicated the presence of
alcohol. She died at 27; as always, the death of the young is heartbreaking. And yet in watching
her sing that song, even knowing what became of her, I can’t help seeing something positive and
quintessentially human. We can point to weakness, illness, stubbornness, failure, even sin—but
that doesn’t capture it. There’s still the dignity of the human being who can say, “No.” There is
still the God-given capacity of refusing, evidence of rationality and indispensable condition of
free will. This is what makes us, in the words of Psalm 8, “a little lower than the angels.” And
the sorrow we feel when a person makes bad choices, and consequently dies much too young,
is intelligible precisely as the appreciation of a human being’s sublime value which, despite our
efforts sometimes, cannot be erased.

Somewhere in their first couple of years, human children develop the capacity to say, “No,” hence the “Terrible Twos.”  I think of it as being an early manifestation of rational nature, because it is evidence that mutually exclusive options are understood.  Although a screaming two-year-old may be thought unreasonable, or even irrational, it would be incorrect to label the child non-rational, or pre-rational, or sub-rational, since he or she is well aware of what contradicts desire.

Refusing to do something is not only a human capacity, of course.  Dogs and cats refuse to do things all the time.  When my dog doesn’t want to go outside, she refuses to walk to the door, and at 90 lbs. she is pretty much an immovable object.  My late cat—rest in peace—never once came running when called, though he lived to be 18.  I personally have no horse stories, but I’m sure they exist, and so for many other species.  What humans do that’s interesting, however, is they specifically say, “No,” and this means they refuse not only to do something but also to believe something.  Refusal to believe may or may not affect action; thus it is not reducible to action or inaction, rather it varies independently.  Refusal to believe means, in other words, rejecting a proposition.  Here are several propositions that humans routinely reject:  “This would be good for you;”  “You should do this because it would be good for you;”  “You should do this because it’s expected of you;”  “This is too dangerous;”  “You should not do this because it’s too dangerous;”  “You should always obey the law;”  “The rules are there for a good reason;” and so forth.  Again, action or inaction may be consistent with the rejection of propositions like these, but not necessarily.  If I am right the mere rejection of a proposition, refusing to believe, is a characteristically human trait and evidence of rational nature.

Consider the main character in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”  He simply repeats, “I would prefer not to,” thereby firmly insisting on his own integrity as an agent.

What brought me to reflect on this was the death last July of British jazz singer Amy Winehouse.  Her song, “Rehab,” is about refusing.  “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no. . . I won’t go, go, go.”  It’s quite a lyrical number, beautifully performed by Ms. Winehouse with her gorgeous alto voice, and the musicians in the YouTube music video version are simply charming.  The contrast with her sad life and early demise is a shock.  Of course, Winehouse should have gone to rehab.  In fact, apparently she did go, more than once.  Initially, her family said that her death had been caused not by a drug overdose but by unsupervised, cold-turkey sobriety; the toxicology report released recently, however, indicated the presence of alcohol.  She died at 27; as always, the death of the young is heartbreaking.  And yet in watching her sing that song, even knowing what became of her, I can’t help seeing something positive and quintessentially human.  We can point to weakness, illness, stubbornness, failure, even sin—but that doesn’t capture it.  There’s still the dignity of the human being who can say, “No.”  There is still the God-given capacity of refusing, evidence of rationality and indispensable condition of free will.  This is what makes us, in the words of Psalm 8, “a little lower than the angels.”  And the sorrow we feel when a person makes bad choices, and consequently dies much too young, is intelligible precisely as the appreciation of a human being’s sublime value which, despite our efforts sometimes, cannot be erased.

“There have been about 106 billion human lives in this unlikely universe, of which about 7 billion are going on now, about 5.8 percent.  Of these, 80% live in abject poverty, with an even larger proportion of those who lived in the past, leading even more miserable lives, subject to the worst kinds of pains, fears, and misfortunes.”  –Professor David Banach, Philosophy Blog, “Do You Feel Lucky?” 17 January 10

A classic problem in the history of philosophy in the Christian West has been the problem of evil, which arises because the existence of evil that we and others experience is seen to be incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God.  There would be no philosophical problem of evil, that is to say, if the existence of a perfect creator God had not been accepted.  In any exposition of this problem, therefore, the existence of such a God must be taken as a given.  The non-existence of such a God could be proposed as a solution to the problem of evil, as a conclusion of the discussion, but this cannot be a starting point for posing the problem.  By the same token, the existence of evil in the world, based on our experience of it, must be taken as a given in posing the problem, otherwise the problem itself disappears.  The evil we experience, of course, is something we think should not exist, but again, to show somehow that it does not really exist is not to pose the problem but rather to attempt to solve it.  In order to acknowledge the existence of experienced evil, and to know that it should not exist, however, we must employ some concept of the good that we have experienced in this world, the good, presumably, that we think there should be more of.  So it is essential in discussing the problem of evil that we acknowledge the existence of experienced good, and not just the alleged transcendent goodness of God, or God’s omnibenevolence.

In posing the problem of evil we naturally make use of these three concepts:  the concept of experienced evil; the concept of an infinitely perfect God; and the concept of experienced good.  One can “solve” the problem of evil by denying the existence of such a God (as is done in atheism and in theories of God’s imperfection), or by denying the existence of evil (as is done by privation theories of evil).  But it seems to be an odd fact about the logic of this problem that nothing is gained towards its solution by denying the existence of experienced good, as distinct from God’s omnibenevolence.  Even if we deny God’s goodness in order to solve the problem, that is, we are left with the goods of our experience which we cannot deny, and which actually become hard to acknowledge if we adopt some of the standard solutions to the problem of evil.

Suppose I wonder why people get sick and die in pain if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.  It surely seems incompatible with God’s alleged perfection that God’s children be allowed to suffer and perish this way.  To solve the difficulty, several options are open to me.  1) I may simply conclude that God either does not exist, or somehow cannot prevent, or does not know about, or does not care about this situation.  2) I may make the greater effort and try to explain how sickness, suffering and death are not irredeemably evil, either because they are privations of the good for which God is not culpable, or because they are indispensable to greater goods in the end (in the afterlife, say), or because they are outweighed by the goods of this life.  Most philosophical solutions to the problem of evil fall under one or the other of these two headings.  We rarely, if ever, see anything like this third option:  3) the good that we experience in life is unreal or illusory, like a fleeting privation of evil, and so the incompatibility between God’s transcendent perfection and the experience of evil disappears.  This would be like saying that sickness, suffering, and death are simply what human existence consists in, and so God’s perfection escapes unscathed.  God created us to suffer, and that’s an end of the matter.  There was nothing good about this life in the first place.  I cannot think of a single philosopher who has seriously proposed this as a solution to the problem of evil, though something like this view can be found in certain Sicilian writers of fiction.

It is common when claiming that the evil in this world outweighs (or defeats) the good, to hold that the good is insignificant by comparison with the evil.  Yet it is not clear to me that this is actually true.  As the 19th century philosopher, Franz Brentano, pointed out, the evils we are familiar with are in fact ontologically dependent on something good.  For instance, there would be no death without life, but life is good.  There would be no pain without some type of consciousness, but consciousness is good.  There would be no ignorance or error without some kind of thought, but thought is good.  There would be no love or hate without some kind of fairly complicated mental life, which itself is a good thing.  And so on.  Brentano held that some goods are “indefeasible,” that is, no evil can outweigh or defeat them, and he included on this list life, consciousness, thought, knowledge, and what he called correct love and hate (allowing for the fact that we should hate evil and love the good).  We do not need to follow Brentano all the way to his conclusion, however, in order to see some reason for hesitation concerning the claim that the good in this world is insignificant by comparison with the evil.  In other words, although Brentano was interested in producing a complete theodicy, a full solution to the traditional problem of evil, it is not necessary that we consider the problem solved.  What is necessary, though, in my opinion, is that we acknowledge that there is a sense in which “the problem of good” can become just as intractable as the problem of evil.

The problem of good arises when we accept certain kinds of solutions to the problem of evil.  For instance, when we say there is no creator God and affirm that our existence in this world is purely accidental or the result of blind forces, then to be consistent we have to hold also that those things we value—life, consciousness, knowledge, love—are valuable only sometimes or only to us but not inherently or intrinsically so.  Perhaps knowledge promotes our survival or our pleasure, for instance, which is a good to us, but which cannot be considered good in itself or intrinsically valuable in any objective sense.  This is not what we mean, though, when we say that those who live, are conscious, know, or love are good in themselves.  We do not mean merely that they are good as means, or that they have value as a merely human invention, like underwear; we mean that they are good as such or as ends, i.e., intrinsically good.  But it seems incompatible with the concept of an intrinsic good that its goodness be merely instrumental or subjective, just good for us, since intrinsic goods are inherently such that their very existence is objectively and correctly to be preferred to their non-existence regardless of our viewpoint.

On the other hand, if we say that evil is merely a privation of the good, and God is responsible only for the good, while this “solves” the problem of evil, it leaves us with a fresh version of the problem of good, namely, the arbitrariness of holding that experienced evil is not a positive reality.  Why not hold that experienced good is not a positive reality, since both evil and good are equally real parts of our lived experience?  Yet not only do we find it difficult to hold that evil is unreal, we also find it difficult to hold that good is unreal, not only because we are far too attached to it for that (both when faced with its absence and when graced by its presence), but more importantly because the reality of evil and injustice depends on the good being objectively real.  For example, if I decry the pain and suffering of untold numbers of humans and other animals, I implicitly acknowledge their underlying goodness as intrinsically valuable beings who ought to exist (at least at some time) and ought not to suffer (at least not for no good reason).  In Brentano’s terms, I correctly hate their suffering precisely because their existence is correctly to be preferred to their non-existence in an absolute sense, which is to say, because they are intrinsically good.  Or to take another kind of example, if I love and value a person—a parent, spouse, child, or friend—part of this experience is gratitude for the person’s very existence; but such gratitude involves awareness of the existence of an undeniable, intrinsic good—this person—whom, in Brentano’s terms, I correctly love.  Either way, the problem of good appears to be just as difficult as the problem of evil, when it arises as a consequence of trying to solve the problem of evil.  In sum, it appears that I can hold, for instance, either that human life has objective, intrinsic value or that human life is valuable only to humans (and possibly to their predators), but not both.

There may be no adequate philosophical solution to the problem of evil.  It may be that the problem of evil remains intractable on the traditional theistic view, but at the same time the problem of good remains intractable on what has become the standard atheistic view.  In any event, it pays to recognize the inconsistency in our intuitions about these matters, regardless which side we lean towards:  as theists, we are prone to discount the evil in the world and focus mainly on the good, but as atheists we are prone to the reverse—discounting the good.

Years ago, somebody asked me whether it makes a difference philosophically if you begin with objective starting points (as Aristotle does) or subjective ones (as Descartes does).  At the time my answer was that you could go either way; the big questions can be answered from either perspective, and the answers will be similar, although admittedly the details will differ.  For instance, the individual man or ox is a given for Aristotle, while for Descartes it is arrived at only by an inference the ultimate first premise of which would be “I think, therefore I am.”  Subjective starting points may give you a more complicated account in many (not all) cases, I thought, but there was no reason to think the account inadequate.

However, it seems to me now that there is a clear priority of one set of starting points over the other.  Let me illustrate with an argument from Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy (PPh) in which he shows that the coherence theory of truth presupposes the correspondence theory.  His question is how truth should be defined, whether as the correspondence between a belief and the facts, or as coherence among beliefs held.  And he structures his answer around two main points.  The first is that there may easily be more than one set of coherent beliefs about a given scientific or philosophical question, that is, there may be more than one hypothesis that is entirely coherent considered in itself.  So coherence alone would not pick out the true hypothesis.  The second point, and the more important one, is that coherence as a concept presupposes the truth of the principle of contradiction.  The principle of contradiction, in turn, though it is what Russell calls a “Law of Thought” (PPh, chap. VII) must be understood to be, “about things and not merely about thoughts.” (PPh, chap. VIII)  Thus the law of contradiction, being about things, if true presupposes a correspondence theory of truth.  But if the principle of contradiction were false, then there could be no coherence of beliefs, i.e., no difference between coherence and incoherence.  Therefore the concept of coherence presupposes the law of contradiction, but the law of contradiction presupposes the correspondence theory of truth.  Therefore the concept of coherence presupposes the correspondence theory of truth.  Coherence, Russell concludes, may be a test of truth, but cannot provide the definition of truth.  (PPh, chap. XII)

By analogy, I think it fair to say that a philosophy based on subjective starting points presupposes a philosophy based on objective starting points.  To that extent, the objectively-based philosophy is prior to, more easily known than, and logically required by the subjectively-based philosophy.

Here’s my argument:  philosophies based on subjective starting points, such as Descartes’ cogito and the phenomenological method (in which the external world is “bracketed”) choose subjective starting points as foundations of knowledge.  These foundations, in turn, are thought to be certain or evident in themselves and to impart reliability to beliefs that are based on the foundational beliefs.  Typically this means that sensory knowledge of the external world, so called, cannot be foundational because of its susceptibility to error.  Rather, sensory knowledge of the external world has to be derivative, or based on the subjective foundations.  (Thus Russell tells that we have knowledge “by description” of the real table; only the appearances of the table—our sense-data—are known to us “by acquaintance.”)  However, if there were no reliable sensory knowledge of external things (the individual man or ox), then there could be no knowledge that errors can infect our sense-perception-based beliefs about the external world.  In other words, knowledge of the errors that can infect our sense-perception-based beliefs about the external world presupposes reliable sensory knowledge of external things.  Otherwise one could never know that one had made a mistake (about the individual man or ox).  But the philosophical program beginning with subjective starting points, such as Descartes’ cogito, presupposes knowledge of the errors that can infect our sense-perception-based beliefs about the external world.  Therefore the philosophical program beginning with subjective starting points presupposes reliable sensory knowledge of external things.  And therefore the objectively-based philosophy is prior to, more easily known than, and logically required by the subjectively-based philosophy.

In less abstract terms, this means that the philosophies of Descartes, Kant, Brentano, the phenomenologists, etc., and even Bertrand Russell in his reliance on sense-data (despite his defense of the correspondence theory of truth) are all logically dependent upon philosophies like those of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Reid.  One can philosophize successfully in the subjective mode, no doubt, as Pope John Paul II has claimed with reference to phenomenology, which he considered complementary to, and a needed completion of, traditional or perennial philosophy. (Woytyla, “The Degrees of Being from the Point of View of the Phenomenology of  Action, Analecta Husserliana, Vol. XI, 125-130.)  But in doing so one must acknowledge a debt to those whose procedure is more empirical, that is to say, more direct.

The ultimate reason for this is that the human mind is by nature oriented to the knowledge of physical things, that is to say, it knows physical things first and most easily and knows its own activity (as in “I think, therefore I am”) not first and most easily but rather later and with greater difficulty.  As Aquinas puts it, the human intellect, “. . .is not its own act of understanding [as God is], nor is its own essence the first object of its act of understanding [as in the case of angels], for this object is [rather] the nature of a material thing.  And therefore that which is first known by the human intellect is an object of this kind, and that which is known secondarily is the act by which that object is known; and through the act the intellect itself is known, whose perfection is the act itself of understanding.  For this reason did the Philosopher [Aristotle] assert that objects are known before acts, and acts before powers.” (ST, I, q.87, a.4)

The philosophical world in the West, since the beginning of the 20th Century, is thought to be—and maybe is—quite divided.  Setting aside the differences (and similarities) between philosophy in the West and philosophy elsewhere (in India, China, Japan, Africa, and perhaps among indigenous peoples worldwide, not to mention Marxists), sharp differences are noticed today just within the tradition that traces itself back through modern and medieval European philosophy to ancient Greece.

If you were to check graduate school philosophy departments around the U.S., you would find that in many cases they characterize themselves as either Analytic or Continental, either exclusively or in emphasis.  Certainly individual philosophers often so characterize themselves.  If you were to ask what this means, you might get a surprising and mysterious answer in terms of literature.  That is to say, Analytic philosophers read and respond to a certain set of books and articles, while Continental philosophers read and respond to a different set, and there is very little overlap, if any.  Why?  Is this an ideological difference?  A methodological one?  A historical schism?  A difference in subjects addressed?

As a matter of fact, when you try to pin down the difference, it turns out to be pretty difficult to do so clearly.  Partly, this is because it would take quite a lot of research to specify the ideological and methodological commitments of philosophers working today, or to trace their philosophical histories and influences, or even to catalog the subjects they address.  I suspect that if you did this research, you would find a complicated picture, with many intersections across the Analytic/Continental divide, and little in the way of a clear picture of the divide itself.  But I can’t prove that without writing a book about it; a daunting project.  Another reason why the difference is difficult to pin down is that the perception of it is based largely on geography:  Analytic philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in an Anglophone tradition, found in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada; Continental philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in a largely Francophone tradition, found in the countries of Continental Europe—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.—North Africa, and Canada.  But the definitions break down as soon as you set them up.  It’s not hard to find “Continental” philosophers in the United States working in English, nor is it hard to find “Analytic” philosophers in Europe working in German.

However, geography is not now and has never been the defining criterion of distinct schools of philosophy.  In ancient times, when philosophy sprang up, as tradition has it, in Ionia (modern Turkey), just about as soon as Thales developed his theory that water is the arche of the kosmos, other philosophers—Anaximander and Anaximenes—developed competing theories.  They all lived in Ionia, and they’re called “the Ionians,” or “the Milesians,” but they differed philosophically as radically as water does metaphysically from the infinite or from density.  Later on, Plato and Aristotle differed on many points, including methodology; both count as Greek philosophers, though.

There is also a logical difficulty with the expressions ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ as they are used today to designate schools of philosophy.  The terms are not comparable (except geographically—a fruitless interpretation).  ‘Analytic’ is a term referring to method; Analytic philosophers get their name from their method of analyzing ordinary language, among other things they do.  Continental philosophers analyze ordinary language, too, among other things, but their name, ‘Continental,’ does not designate a method.  Rather it designates a lineage.  Of course, Analytic philosophers have essentially the same lineage.  So the terms, ‘Analytic,’ and ‘Continental,’ differentiate schools of philosophy neither on the basis of method nor on the basis of lineage.

Yet, philosophers will tell you that they can tell the difference between Analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers, moreover that they agree with the one and disagree with the other, and even that they dislike and have no interest in the one and feel very passionately enthusiastic about the other.  What is going on?  As a matter of historical fact, for instance, Franz Brentano (1838-1917) taught Edmund Husserl (a key “Continental” philosopher), but also attracted the attention of G.E. Moore (a key “Analytic” philosopher).  Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, was deeply influenced by Brentano’s habilitation thesis, On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle.  Moore’s colleague, Bertrand Russell, went to great lengths to answer the ontological claims of Brentano’s student, Alexius Meinong.  Does this simply represent the initial stages of a great rift?  No.  Several decades after Brentano’s death, Jacques Derrida (a Francophone Algerian Jew, designated “Continental”) was deeply influenced by J.L. Austin (an Englishman, designated “Analytic”).  Both therefore have a clear debt as well to a slightly earlier philosopher, Russell’s and Moore’s student Ludwig Wittgenstein (an Austrian, designated “Analytic”).  Analytic and Continental philosophers also share a common debt to Hegel and to Kant, as well as to the whole prior history of philosophy going back to the Greeks.  And their current interests are similar:  sense perception; subjectivity; the cultural effects of modern science; ethics; aesthetics.

The Polish logicians (if Poland isn’t Continental, what is?) exercised influence especially over the Analytic philosophers, but their education was Eastern European, and traceable to the school of Brentano.  However, Analytic philosophers typically complain that Continental philosophers are “literary” rather than “philosophical” or “logical,” while Continental philosophers complain that Analytic philosophers do not speak to people where they live, that they do not address the “meaning of life” issues philosophy ought to be concerned with.  And so it goes.  How do I even know who’s who?  We’re brought back to an answer in terms of literature.  Almost every philosopher who publishes today betrays him- or herself by the sources he or she cites, and those sources are categorized by the nearly arbitrary Analytic/Continental distinction.  My father once promised me a dollar for every reference to Jesus Christ that I could find in a Unitarian hymnal.  I promise you the same for every reference to a recent Analytic philosopher that you can find in a Continental book or article, or vice versa, and I expect to lose about as much money as Dad did!  But all of us, whatever our initial sympathies, should become at least reasonably well-versed in the philosophies from the “other side.”  Even Wittgenstein’s family resemblances obtain among philosophers in general, and not just among Analytic or Continental philosophers in juxtaposition.

Susan Gabriel
Department of Philosophy
Saint Anselm College

Colloquium Feb. 24, 2009

Thomas Reid’s Theory of Personal Identity:

Closer to DesCartes or Aquinas?

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In his Essay on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Thomas Reid (1710-1796) gives this advice: “Let us accustom ourselves to try every opinion by the touchstone of fact and experience. What can fairly be deduced from the facts duly observed or sufficiently attested, is genuine and pure; it is the voice of God, and no fiction of human imagination.” It is hard to recall a stronger endorsement of empiricism than this in the whole history of philosophy—to identify the facts duly observed, and what is inferred from them, with the voice of God. Has Reid gone too far? Or should philosophers follow him?

Reid’s assumption, when he recommends that we test every opinion “by the touchstone of fact and experience,” is that we can in fact acquire reliable experience of the world. He clearly thinks that by starting with due observation and sufficient attention to the testimony of others we can reach philosophical knowledge that is “genuine and pure.” This is something that has been doubted from time to time in the history of philosophy ever since the days of the ancient Sophists. The doubt involves a suspicion that what we consider to be facts, the purported foundation of philosophical and scientific knowledge, may in fact be relative to the observer and hence not objective or real facts at all. In Hellenistic times, Pyrrhonian Skeptics believed that one should suspend belief in all cases, because it is impossible to know whether a proposition or its contradictory is true. In essence, they reasoned as follows: because people disagree, therefore nobody knows anything. Obviously though, if the Sophists and Skeptics are right, Reid is wrong.

Another way of disagreeing with Reid would be to say that we actually do have genuine and pure knowledge, but it does not come from experience. This is a view opposite to that of the Sophists and Skeptics in the sense that rather than trading on doubt it trades on the desire for absolute certainty. Philosophers who put reason and logic before experience are inclined to hold that whatever reason discerns as being deduced from fundamental principles must be true, because it is deductively certain, like mathematics. Thus, by relying on deductive logic, Berkeley proved that there is no such thing as matter,[1] and British Idealists held, for instance, that “the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress.”[2] The fact that these conclusions fly in the face of common sense is thought not to count against them, because they are shown strictly to follow, not from facts, but from indubitable principles. The rationalist program requires precisely that we subordinate our ordinary understanding of things to the results of logical inquiry. It is as though we were to say, these are my theories, so much the worse for the facts! Again, if Berkeley, the British Idealists, and various other rationalists are right, then Reid is wrong.

What should we think? It is perhaps helpful to remember that philosophy in the West began with the Greek confidence that the world we live in is intelligible. The kosmos, an ordered whole, and physis, nature, are accessible to nous, intelligence, and to logos, reasoned speech, physei, by nature. Thus philosophia, the love of wisdom, is not an unrequited love or doomed enterprise in our tradition. On the contrary, it is Plato’s “upward path,”[3] the path we choose when we reject abject skepticism, extreme rationalism, and other paths that deny the natural capacity of the embodied human mind to understand. As human beings, rational animals, our mode of understanding is empirical, that is to say, we learn by the use of sense perception and emotion together with intelligence. Admittedly, this involves our subjectivity, and perhaps even prejudice. However, in Gadamer’s striking phrase, “there are legitimate prejudices,”[4] namely those authoritative pre-judgments that actually aid understanding. I think this is close to what Reid meant when he recommended that we rely on the touchstone of fact and experience. He regards it as a justifiably confident reliance, like the loving trust a child places in its parents and teachers. Not that experience (and parents and teachers) can never be wrong, but rather that when we fairly consider “the facts duly observed or sufficiently attested” as well as what follows from them, we become able to judge of those experiences (and parents and teachers) and to discern when their deliverances are right and when they need to be taken with a grain of salt or even rejected altogether. This is the philosophical attitude par excellence, and Reid is not out on a limb with it at all. Rather, if we want to be philosophers, too, we should follow him and heed the voice of Truth as it speaks to us in well-considered experience. For, “through the infinity of the universe, the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.”[5] To depart from this faith is to embark on a different path altogether.


[1] See Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Berkeley is normally classed among empiricists, but his reliance on logic at the expense of common sense surely places him among extreme rationalists.

[2] F.H. Bradley, as quoted in A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic, Chapter 1, “The Elimination of Metaphysics.”

[3] Republic, Book X, last few lines.

[4] Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Part II, Section II, Chapter 1 (B), “Prejudices as Conditions of Understanding.”

[5] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter XV, “The Value of Philosophy.”

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.


-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

http://www.amazon.com/Inquiry-Concerning-Human-Understanding/dp/002353110X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103665&sr=1-3


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.



-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

http://www.amazon.com/Euclids-Elements-T-L-Heath-Translation/dp/1888009195/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103502&sr=8-1

Albert Camus- The Stranger

http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Camus/dp/0679720200/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222102515&sr=1-2



-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

http://www.amazon.com/Augustine-Confessions-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0192833723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104161&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Englishconfessions.html


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

http://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Penguin-Classics-Marcus-Aurelius/dp/0140449337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104796&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html

Slavoj Zizek

Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books

http://www.amazon.com/Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books/dp/0312427182/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222283299&sr=1-1


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-monologium.html

Proslogium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html



-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

http://www.amazon.com/Problems-Philosophy-Bertrand-Russell/dp/160597899X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104969&sr=8-3

Online edition

http://books.google.com/books?id=33jP5wdnt7YC&dq=the+problems+of+philosophy&pg=PP1&ots=iYnhLWaJnI&sig=IsMx9A1hbcpsZWLGZFZ40Ihs56Y&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA3,M1


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

http://www.amazon.com/Oedipus-Rex-Literary-Touchstone-Sophocles/dp/1580495931/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105258&sr=8-1



-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Wordsworth-Classics/dp/1840224533/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105435&sr=1-3

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

http://www.amazon.com/Josef-Pieper-Anthology/dp/0898702267/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222282616&sr=8-2


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

http://www.amazon.com/Belief-Unbelief-Self-Knowledge-Michael-Novak/dp/1560007419


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

http://www.amazon.com/Gorgias-Penguin-Classics-Plato/dp/0140449043/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222106429&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/gorgias.html

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

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