Saturday, April 22, 2006

Begging the Question, Moral Intuition(s), and Answering the Nazi, Part I

I mentioned to Sam in a comment that I was saving for posterity some of my old posts at the MD by reposting them (with some minor revisions) here. I consider one of my state of the art posts, one of the posts that shows where my thinking currently is abut Pirsig, to be this one, "Begging the Question." What's funny is that I can never find it in the archives when I look for it because I wrote it two and a half years ago. I'm like, "There's no way it could be from 2003." But there it is.

The difficulty with this series of posts is that my opinion hasn't changed much and I think it says something important. I've tried on several occasions to prepare to write it up as an essay, which still needs to be done, but every time I can't quite figure out how to frame it, what background is necessary. I can never quite figure out which direction to go. So it sits. But now I'll repost it with minor revisions, hopefully that will help me think about what to do with it. And of course more peer review always helps.


One of the things that is commonly misunderstood about Rorty and pragmatism is that people think that it is irrationalist. That what we find in Rorty, particularly in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, is a complete disregard for argumentation and that pragmatism in general leads to fuzzy thinking. I think this is a slight misunderstanding, or at least misleading. I think it is from a keen understanding of logic that leads Rorty to some of his conclusions about the limits of logical argumentation (or as some alarmists may put it, the limits of reason). In three parts, I hope to string together the related subjects of argumentation and morals in light of Pirsig and Rorty. Pirsig argues that his "Metaphysics of Quality" gives us a firm foundation for our moral thinking, something that stems the tide of "moral paralysis" and gives us something with which to beat the heads of our moral enemies. I would like to test the parameters of this foundation to see what exactly is being used to beat our enemies, what exactly Pirsig's philosophy gives us that he thinks is lacking from, for instance, James' pragmatism. I will first begin by exploring an important, if not the most important, argumentative fallacy--the act of begging the question.

Begging the Question
Petitio principii, begging the question, as an informal fallacy means "the procedure of taking for granted, in a statement or argument, precisely what is in dispute" (according to Anthony Flew's fine dictionary of philosophy) or "arriving at a conclusion from statements that themselves are questionable and have to be proved but are assumed true" (according to Peter Angeles' equally fine philosophical dictionary). The technical, formal meaning of "begging the question" is "assuming the conclusion or part of the conclusion in the premises of an argument". (Angeles) This leads to circular reasoning. Circular reasoning and question begging go hand in hand. You can't argue with "All bachelors are single" because the definition of bachelor is singlehood.

In Rorty's hands, begging the question takes on a new form. John Stuart Mill said that, "if logic did not contain real inferences, all deductive reasoning would be petitio principii, a begging of the question." (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) However, this contains an element of Kantianism. Mill contrasts between verbal inferences and real inferences and this matches up to the distinction Kant drew between analytic judgements and synthetic judgements. After Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", however, it has been increasingly hard for philosophers to hold this distinction. This pans out to mean that Mill was inadvertantly right, all deductive reasoning does beg the question.

To help see what I mean by this, I'm going to give a short lesson in formal logic. This is what a logical proof looks like in formal mode:

~P, Q->P, RvQ - R

Formal logic is like algebra, except with stand-ins for propositions, rather than numbers. Each capital letter stands for a proposition, and each combination of capital letters with other symbols stand for propositions. What that line of symbols means is that you assume (i.e. they are your premises) "~P" (i.e. "not P"), "Q->P" (i.e. "if Q, then P"), and "RvQ" (i.e. "R or Q"). The "-" means that stuff on the left are your assumptions and stuff on the right is what you are trying to prove, i.e. your conclusion.

Okay, here's how the proof looks:

1. ~P ------- A (meaning Assumption)
2. Q->P ---- A
3. RvQ ----- A
4. ~Q ------ MT 1,2
("Modus Tollens" on lines 1 and 2. Why? Because if you assume "if Q, then P" and you find out "not P", that means it couldn't possibly be "Q" because if it were "Q" then it would have to be "P". And you already have "not P". That would make a contradiction.)

5. R ------- vE 3,4
("'Or' elimination" on lines 3 and 4. Why? Because "R or Q" means you must have either "R" or "Q". Since you've found out "not Q", it couldn't possibly be "Q" (that would be a contradiction) so it must be "R".)

A simple five step proof.

In Rortyan terms, the capital letters ("P", "Q", and "R") and every combination of those letters in our proof ("~P", "Q->P", "RvQ", "~Q", and "R") is our vocabulary. Our final vocabulary corresponds to our assumptions. The final vocabulary of our five-step proof was lines 1-3. We didn't ask if those assumptions were true, we assumed them and then performed logical machinations to see what our assumptions would yield us (we got both lines 4 and 5).

When Rorty talks about the shifts between vocabularies as falling outside the bounds of argumentation, he's saying that there is no argumentative way to shift the truth-value of your assumptions, because to argue is to be inside of a logical proof, so to speak. If you find that you can argue about some particular assumption, that means that there is a bigger logical proof with other assumptions working in the background, that "~P" is really the conclusion of another logical proof. Rorty's point about vocabularies is the Millian point that all argumentative reasoning is circular, that if you try and argue about an assumption, you will be led back to another proof with assumptions, and if you argued about those assumptions, you will be led further back to another proof, ad infinitum. And what will more than likely occur is that, at some point, you will start to find some of the conclusions of your first few proofs as assumptions in your later proofs. That's circular.

Given a vocabulary, given a set of assumptions (e.g. lines 1-3) you will always reach your conclusions (lines 4-5), i.e. the conclusion is implied in the set of assumptions. That means that if you don't assume the same propositions, you will not get the same conclusions. If you assume "~P", ala our 5-step proof, and I assume "P", that means I will not get "R", given the rest of the assumptions. It means I'm working in a different logic proof, a different vocabulary. And because we can't argue over the truth-value of our assumptions, because it would be hopelessly circular, we are both begging the question over each other.

This explains, for instance, the title of Rorty's first book of essays, Consequences of Pragmatism. Rorty isn't simply recapitulating Dewey, or James, or Quine, or Sellars, or Davidson. He's working out the logical consequences of the vocabulary that these men have suggested that we start using, rather than this other vocabulary called "Platonic metaphysics". In Rorty's suggestion that there is no way to logically move from one vocabulary to another, he is playing out the consequences of Quine's inadvertant rendering of Mill. And in working out these consequences, he has pointed out along the way when these same people fall short of endorsing these consequences. That, in a nut shell, is what I use Rorty to do with Pirsig. Given certain assumptions in Pirsig, I find that he's a pragmatist. But Pirsig also has these other conclusions that don't seem to jive with pragmatism. So I try and tease out all of his assumptions, his entire vocabulary, and see whether they mesh, or whether we don't, in the end, end up with a series of short 5-step logical proofs and find that in Proof 8 he assumes "P" and in Proof 16 he assumes "~P".

When we look at philosophy in general, I think we will find that logical argumentation of the kind I laid out rarely, if ever, occurs between philosophers. My five-step problem is a useful heuristic, but probably only that. We typically only find logical argumentation in a book written by one philosopher. What occurs between philosophers is a long series of circumventions. One philosopher constructs an argument, another philosopher criticizes it as bearing out the wrong conclusions, and the first philosopher either capitulates (because he shares the same assumptions as the second philosopher and he did make an error of some kind) or he shifts the terms of debate from the criticizing philosopher's terms back into his own and refines his terms. Take, for instance, arguments about "post-modernism". Philosopher A says, "Post-modernism is great because it eschews metanarratives." Philosopher B says, "Post-modernism sucks because it leads to nihilism." PhA says, "No, pomo doesn't lead to nihilism because, even though it eschews metanarratives, it doesn't say that narratives do not exist." PhB says, "Yeah, but without a metanarrative, how could a narrative mean anything?" PhA says, "A narrative means something the same way a metanarrative means something. If you hold your proposition to be true, why wouldn't the metanarrative be meaningless unless there was a meta-metanarrative?" PhB says, "Because a metanarrative means the buck stops here." PhA says, "Well, that's what a narrative means. The pomo point is that our narratives aren't ahistorical like a metanarrative is supposed to be." And on and on it goes.

My point is that circumvention really isn't all that rare, that it is in fact a commonplace of communication. It only becomes important to point out when two people's vocabularies differ to such a great extent that they can't agree on anything of concern. This is the point when "begging the question" becomes an important phrase. This is the point where philosophy meets metaphilosophy. When doing philosophy, the vocabulary being used is somewhat agreed upon. Engagements are more or less in argumentative form in which the back and forth between philosophers takes the form of refinement, or small circumventions. When doing metaphilosophy, the vocabulary we should be using to do philosophy is up for grabs. Engagements more or less do not look like engagements at all, and the back and forth is in the form of explication. The circumventions are so large it becomes convenient to speak of "begging the question" and the only thing to do is describe what your position is and why you think it better. In ZMM, Pirsig is doing metaphilosophy when he suggests that we drop the SOM vocabulary and instead create a Quality vocabulary. The MoQ is his attempt at setting out what that vocabulary would look like.

What should be recognized is that in ZMM, Pirsig does not argue conclusively that we should drop SOM. He argues periodically (like his brief taking on of each of the horns of the Subject/Object Dilemma), but he typically drops these arguments because he finds the terms in which he argues are unsuitable because they are their's, they are SOM's terms. What drives Pirsig is the apparent SOM conclusion that we should "do what is 'reasonable' even when it isn't any good." (ZMM, 368) Pirsig's key attempts at persuasion are rhetorical: he recontextualizes in an attempt to make the old picture appear inadequate and he redescribes in an attempt to paint an alternative picture that looks better than the old one.

Pirsig's major attempt at recontextualization in ZMM is his sections on Greek philosophy at the end of the book. Pirsig's first move is to set a new context for Plato's Dialogues. Are they transcripts of what Socrates and his interlocuters actually said? "When it is known that Plato put his own words in Socrates' mouth (Aristotle says this) there should be no reason to doubt that he could have put his own words into other mouths too." (380) Pirsig's second step is to reconstitute the Sophists' reputations by pointing out that they were ambassadors. This sets up his narrative where he goes through the Homeric myths, to the pre-Socratics via Thales, Anaximenes, etc. to Parmenides and Zeno, and then to the Sophists which sets up what Socrates and Plato were up to: a historical synthesis of his predecessors. Pirsig is not arguing here that Plato is wrong, he is not dialectically engaging Plato. He is showing us that Plato's achievement in philosophy was contingent on his predecessors. Pirsig is thereby suggesting that the problems of Plato's achievement are contingent, that they can be changed by changing the problematic, changing our philosophy, changing our vocabulary.

Pirsig's alternative comes in the form of redescribing things in terms of his new vocabulary and asking us to compare the old with the new. He does this when he substitutes "Quality" in place of "Dao" in the Daodejing, (256-7) when he restructures our metaphysical hierarchy (252-3), and when he performs his Copernican inversion by suggesting that Quality sits behind subjects and objects and not the other way around. (250)

His inversion is of particular interest to us here given his description of his options in the Subject/Object Dilemma. He says that he has "three classical logical refutations" and several "illogical, 'rhetorical' ones". (232) However, his third logical refutation is to "go between the horns and deny that subjectivity and objectivity are the only choices." This isn't, however, "logical" given our analysis of how logical arguments work. Going between the horns is the same as saying, "Sorry, my friendly Bozeman English faculty cohorts. You are begging the question." Pirsig is saying that he doesn't accept the Subject/Object Dilemma as a dilemma. This isn't a refutation. He didn't argue with them. He refused to answer the question because he didn't accept their terms. He shifted the debate.

On this count, his answer is rhetorical and akin to the third rhetorical option he uses, "refuse to enter the arena". However, I think there is a difference between what Pirsig calls his third classical answer and his third rhetorical answer. The difference is that the classical answer, the inversion, still sufficiently plays by enough of the rules of philosophy to count as a small circumvention, a refinement. The stark refusal to enter the arena, to take the "easy escape of mysticism" (which I would argue is not the only way to refuse entrance), would count as a large circumvention, a significant begging of the question, a call for explication. The consequence of the difference I am drawing is that Pirsig is still playing by enough of Plato's rules to count as doing philosophy in Whitehead's sense of being footnotes to Plato. He has not sufficiently disputed Plato's project to count as doing metaphilosophy. This means he could be still playing with the vocabulary of the SOM.

That Pirsig doesn't completely circumvent Plato's project doesn't mean that he is playing SOM's rules. What remains to be seen is if Pirsig's refinement of Plato's project dodges sufficiently what Pirsig takes to be the dangers of SOM. To see this, I would like to show how Pirsig attempts in some way to conflate argumentation and morality, how Pirsig tries to envision moral problems as arguable, as answerable to reason, how Pirsig wants to answer the Nazi and not simply convert him.

To Part II

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