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.

No comments:

Post a Comment