Monday, October 18, 2010

Can philosophy be more than a mere formality?

Since I didn't nail it last time out, I think I should say a bit more about what has been going on with regard to some of the considerations I discussed then. For various reasons, I concluded that it was time for me to seriously reconsider just which aspects of the analytic tradition can and should be set aside by pragmatists. This eventually led me to review the relationship between the more formal side of analytic work and pragmatist approaches to philosophy. I take this to be the hard case - though it's one that tends to be ignored.

Pragmatists do not rule out the possibility that such work can be valuable (recall that even James held that theoretical concerns can figure in the assessment of cash value/practical upshot). Indeed, there is a case for claiming that thinkers such as Carnap and Quine developed a pragmatist conception of logic and, more broadly, of the methodology of the "deductive sciences" (to use Tarski's still happy, but long-discarded phrase). However, most pragmatist writing tends to avoid formal technicalities, often for general Wittgensteinian reasons, reasons that cast doubt on whether, say, logical analysis can cast much light on the complexities of language in actual use - because such complexities cannot be catered for by appealing to underlying 'form', and so forth.

I am exploring the assumption here that this kind of analysis is, in the end, overly simplistic (yes, despite its own complexities, logic can appear from the outside to offer little more than an easy way out of philosophical problems, and at the price of never properly engaging with them - and, notice "pragmatism" can be substitued for "logic" to get something of a fix on how it is also often viewed). Has the 'over simplistic' assumption been too rigidly adhered to?

Since there is only a pragmatic line to be drawn between 'formal' and 'informal', perhaps pragmatism might gain something from shifting that line back in the direction of formalism? Perhaps it's time to pay heed to Carnap's pragmatic-sounding suggestion: "[Semantics] is rather to be regarded as a tool, as one among the logical instruments needed for the task of getting and systematizing knowledge. As a hammer helps a man do better and more efficiently what he did before with his unaided hand, so a logical tool helps a man do better and more efficiently what he did before with his unaided brain." (Formalization of Logic, viii). Of course, there are pragmatist question marks against the task specification here, but such, at any rate, is my present working hypothesis.

The second volume of Soames' book has arrived, and the whole project now looks even more of a dog's dinner - with further surprising ommissions and a strangely shallow reading of some of Wittgenstein's most compelling work on both language and mind. But, more about that next time perhaps.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life in limbo

I certainly have some catching up to do. Here are a few of the reasons for not posting regularly. First, I am extremely busy with a number of writing/publication ventures. These include: The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism (should go to press very soon), The Handbook of Financial Ethics, A Companion to Rorty, Truth in Practice: An Introduction to Pragmatism, and a multi-volume history of pragmatism. I am also writing a paper on Rorty and James for Pragmatism Today as well as making sure that a paper on Rorty, cultural politics and ontology that has been accepted for Contemporary Pragmatism conforms with the journal's stylistic conventions. In January I am giving a paper at a conference in Uganda the title of which is 'Pragmatism and Hope for South Africa'.

Second, to my surprise, I find myself taking a miserly writer's attitude towards this blog: I rather selfishly seem to want to keep any apparently good thoughts for publication. Since I also don't want to put out inferior stuff, this leaves me in a bit of a bind. I guess I will just have to get over that. Recognising what is going on is surely the first step.

Third, as well as tackling the sort of questions that, as I have mentioned before, I carry around with me all the time, I have been pretty stretched for the reasons I will now quickly describe.

I didn't get to APA (see previous post) - so things might appear to have gotten worse on that front. I am reading old and new analytic stuff in reams and some of the standard terms, those troublesome and time-consuming terms that I had become happily used to doing without (e.g. the dreaded "concept" - not to mention "metaphysics" which seems to invoked here there and everywhere recently by the cheapest strokes of a pen), have almost regained their original aura of temptation.

But thankfully, only "almost".

I started retracing my steps, looking at some of the more formal work that attracted me earlier on in my philosophical journey. Carnap's Aufbau, Meaning and Necessity, and Philosophy and Logical Syntax were well worth another in depth look. For, in my handy history of philosophy at least, "no Carnap" pretty much = "no Quine" pretty much = "no Davidson". I was very pleased to find that Rudi no longer occupies the desert he seemed to have long been consigned to (partly out of sheer neglect and partly because of the false belief that Quine's famous criticisms of him were fatal), and that some decent secondary literature has been accumulating of late (the Cambridge Companion to Carnap is a pretty good place to kick off). This led me back to Frege, but also to Tarski. And, I have just picked up a copy of Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics. It's the second edition that John Corcoran has done a lot of good work on. For some reason, I haven't seen this before, and I am quite (the English "quite", of course, which means "very") excited by it. One of the things I always liked about Tarski previously was the great care he took to distinguish between formal and natural languages. I don't think this distinction is any more than a pragmatic one, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Re-reading Tarski's groundbreaking papers also fits in nicely with my return to Davidson's work via the original texts, of course, but with some felicitous guidance from Le Pore and Ludwig's two exemplary expository volumes (OUP). I am also belatedly checking out Bjorn Ramberg's book on Davidson's philosophy of language - I have been impressed by his work on Rorty so I anticipate some returns on this even though it's rather old.

In addition gone back to Dewey's work on logic (by also covering Russell's criticisms and Tom Burke's defence - see Dewey's New Logic), and this mainly to find out whether there are any useful insights and whether useful connections can be made with more conventional approaches.

In tandem with these reading/research projects, I am reassessing the history of analytic philosophy, checking other versions against the one that Rorty did the dirty on. Scott Soames' Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century looked like a natural launching pad. I am still waiting for the second volume to arrive so I will reserve judgement - but at first sight, things look problematic. By focusing on Anglo-American thinkers and leaving Frege, Carnap, Tarski and others out of the picture, the historical value of the project is greatly diminished. I also have grave reservations about the motivation expressed in the introduction (both for the book(s) and analytic philosophy itself) - but more on that when I have seen Volume II. From what I have been reading, I anticipate a devaluation of Wittgenstein and an inflated estimation of Kripke's contribution. I hope I'm wrong. Finally, I am trying to get a better grip on Brandom's work again, and on all fronts.

I am listening to Beethoven's late string quartets (op.130 right now) while I am writing this. Bliss! Will I ever come back to my pragmatist senses? No doubt soon enough. But sometimes, philosophical limbo is the sanest place to be.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Analytic wolves in pragmatist clothing

I am conflicted. I have been reading a good deal of interesting material on pragmatism that is either written by analytic philosophers or couched in analytic terms (or both). Much of this is pleasantly surprising in the sense that the usual bad attitude is absent. However, a further pleasure caused my conflict: should I be enjoying this stuff? Should I not instead be suspicious of attempts to graft analytic discourse onto pragmatism? Do I really want analytic theorising to make an impact within the pragmatist camp - even when it is qualified all over the place by 'minimalist', 'deflationary', 'quietist', and the like? After all, such theorising is often just too easy. Think, for example, of how little effort is required to forge a 'new' distinction. For all their virtues, and despite their inclination to throw around anchoring terms like "reality" and "truth", analytic theorists are generally answerable only to attenuated versions of history and the latest theoretical fads.

I will return to this topic. Meanwhile, perhaps I will have to attend some more APA (Analytic Philosophers Anomymous) meetings to help me get over this.

Apologies for the lack of postings - I have been incredibly busy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Power with Purpose: Obama and Pragmatism

Obama's pragmatism has provoked a good deal of criticism. Much of it rehearses old philosophical prejudices or conflates "pragmatism" in the philosophical sense with "pragmatism" in the everyday political sense - the sense that equates it with opportunistic and unprincipled political realism.

If you want some background within which to situate Obama's approach, you might like to take a look at my new book: The New Pragmatism (Acumen (UK) & McGill-Queen's University Press (US)). It tries to explain in clear and accessible terms how pragmatism offers just the kind of social hope that Obama constantly invokes. And, for a quick take on what pragmatism can offer in politics without encouraging a wishy-washy approach, one that lacks deep convictions, see pp.116-118.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Things I am thinking about

As is my custom, I am not going to follow up immediately on the promise made in the previous post. I need to brood for a bit longer on the ethical upshot of what I said. Instead, I want to give some air to just a few of the questions that have been bugging me.

Some philosophers only think about one thing. I am not one of those (and, to be honest, I am pretty sceptical as to whether such parsimonious thinkers exist). I carry a whole bunch of questions that puzzle me, and I worry away at them and shuffle them around as they fall in and out of contention in response to the exigencies and surprises of daily life. Amongst other things, I have recently been thinking about some specific questions of value and also, more generally, about risk. Two questions about value, in particular, have vexed me: (1) Can assets be objectively valued for business/investment purposes? and (2) Do assumptions that attribute certain kinds of positive value to nature have to depend on dubious metaphysics? Of course, some philosophers, closer to the (probably) imaginery ones alluded to at the start of this paragraph, would deal with these questions by ascending to a more abstract one: a question that embraces the whole theme of 'value' (eg. "What is value?"). But, as I said, I am not like that.

The assets puzzle started off because, for reasons I do not want to go into now, I had been prompted to think about how a business can best be valued. Market capitalisation is the usual starting point for listed companies and the price that might be fetched in a sale caters for the private ones. But, to go along with those answers, we have to swallow a lot of finance theory that is riddled with unrealistic assumptions.

For a time I was stuck in what I took to be the paradoxical conclusion that businesses should never be bought or sold. Let's say the value of company C is equivalent to the sum of future cash flows adjusted to present value (leave fixed assets out, assuming they only have value as cash generation enablers and also ignore 'good will). Suppose the value, as calculated, is high enough for it to be reasonable for someone to buy C (the cash yield situation looks good)? Then why sell? (i.e. why sell something valuable enough to buy?) So, to cut to the chase: either a company is always going to be too valuable to sell or not valuable enough to buy. Of course, all sorts of other factors come into play - but some just add to the paradox (e.g. hidden value - well the seller can exploit that so "why sell?" is still an issue under such conditions). Other considerations do involve circumstances in which a sale makes sense: the owner wants to retire, has lost interest in the business, the buyer has strategic opportunities not open to the seller, and so on. But, as soon as we bring in 'circumstances', as soon as reality enters the picture (as, of course, it should), we are way beyond the realms of finance theory (which deals in idealised fantasies). I am thrashing around in such thoughts because I am sceptical about the financial calculations used to assess the value of assets in the widest sense (including options, etc.) - calculations that appear to assume a quasi-platonic notion of 'real value' has a useful role here. Confusion about this notion infects modern finance thinking and has been one of the causes of the current crisis.

I am also thinking through some questions about nature and value partly in response to dogmatic environmentalism - you know, the kind of environmentalism that encourages hate speech against humans as a species, as if the world would be a better place, a paradise even, without us. So I am asking, for instance, what conception of value is at work here and, more generally, what is at the bottom of our love of nature and our tendency to wax sentimental about it? There is so much fog generated by the politicalisation of debates over such questions, that to address them will require a separate posting some other time. Meanwhile, I continue to ponder what it is about nature, if anything. that justifies us attributing great value to it if we do not also attribute some divineor otherwise benificent purpose to its workings. Why, for instance, are we not, instead, appalled by nature's abundant and apparently all-embracing cruelty? My children have been watching the fabulous Planet Earth series on DVD and find the cruelty hard to take: a fungus that takes out the central nervous system of ants and ends up growing out of their heads while they are still alive, lions taking down baby elephants, and so on. Why are we inclined to care so much about something that evidently doesn't care a fig about us (or anything else)? Or, more importantly, should we be so inclined?

And 'Risk'? Next time. Perhaps.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Financial Crisis, Yet Again

When I talked previously about the current financial crisis, I was very concerned about the lack of insightful and informative analysis of its causes and consequences. Since then, the situation has improved, with commentators such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Shiller, in particular, making some very useful contributions (though the crisis deniers tend not to listen to them: regarding any reformist suggestions as 'socialist'). Nevertheless, the overall situation still concerns me greatly. And here, very quickly, are some of the reasons why (I will expand on these on another occasion).

Clearly, those most responsible for creating the crisis have failed to seize the opportunity to radically rethink their approach to business and finance in order to help build an international financial system that avoids such problems in the future (if you think about it, the government bailouts, though necessary, provide a strong disincentive to do this). Most seem to have reverted to type by resolutely defending the dogmas that encouraged grossly irresponsible risk-taking.

Unfortunately, their critics follow suit by voicing simplistic anti-business views that fail to engage with those dogmas in a realistic or fruitful manner. This negative stance yields little by way of practical recommendations for improving financial behaviour and institutions.

For some of the lead actors, such as Goldman Sachs, it seems to be "thanks for the leg-up, but now it's back to business as usual". In a letter to the Financial Times, the CEO candidly admitted "complexity overwhelmed us" - presumably, with huge (perhaps record) profits, the company has solved that problem. No doubt its fear of losing the competitive advantage prevents it from sharing the secret to the greater good (just to be be clear: I am being ironic - they have no 'solution', but have adroitly found ways of cashing in on the crisis, and in the finance world, 'cashing in' is, by definition, socially beneficial).

Here, the entrenched thinking of those in the first category above is the most worrying. One fears that their views lack any rational foundation - if only because no evidence is allowed to refute them. The finance theory (e.g. the efficient market hypothesis, and so on) that sparked the creation of fancy financial gift-wrappings for risk and guided the behaviour of powerful financial institutions was subjected to a giant experiment. Powerful lobbying ensured that perceived regulatory obstacles were removed or forestalled, oversight bodies were conveniently complicit, and ethical interference of any kind was at a minimum. Under these hugely favourable conditions, with large amounts of capital swishing around, the finance community should have been poised to work some magic to the economic benefit of all. But, the end result was a gigantic screw up. And, apart from some token apologies, the main actors have shown no real remorse, and many have scrambled to invoke ad hoc conjectures that blame 'less than ideal' conditions for the crisis - as if the experiment would have worked if only the government hadn't .... or whatever. Recall, there are Marxists who discount the fall of the Soviet Empire and insist that the communist experiment has yet to be carried out.

At this point, those in the 'critics' category mentioned earlier might interject: "Yes, but this is because you have a naive conception of business motivation. When you said that the finance theory-based beliefs behind the crisis were not held on a rational basis, you were ignoring the individualistic bias that infects the thinking of the finance community. The beliefs may have failed in the social arena, and they may have harmed others, but most of the individuals concerned emerged, not just unscathed, but much richer. For them, the experiment did work, and that shows that their views were held on a rational basis. For what could be more rational than making lots of money, especially when wealth creation is automatically good for everyone and not just the immediate beneficiary? By the looks of the profits now being made, the finance community is setting things up for another economic flare-up." More on the ethical implications of all this next time.