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.