Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Melville

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to some stocky, big-boned edition of Moby-Dick. I don't have it with me, so I can only hope pagination has become standardized. Not that anyone really cares and is checking up on me.


Moby-Dick, I

The way one opens a book is massively important, setting the stage and telling the reader what to expect. Those worth reading more than once, let alone down through the centuries, typically do not waste space nor write without design. We all know Moby-Dick’s opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” a short, though drawled summons to gather about its storyteller. However, that is not how Moby-Dick actually opens, not the first pieces of place-setting Melville gives us, just as Hawthorne did not open with Hester in shackles. The first is his dedication—not Mom or a son, but in fact Hawthorne. Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne, if only indicated through the dedication of this book to him, should suggest to us the kind of writing Melville goes in for: compacted symbolism, interplayed ideas through the medium of persons and story.

All great writers view their craft and the nature of words in distinctive kinds of ways, often as a kind of magic, so it is always wise to pay attention as it might give us a clue as to the kind of power the writer is wielding. I have yet to see to the bottom of it, but when Melville further prefaces his story with an Etymology and Extracts, it may be something to press into. The most intriguing line: “He [the pale Usher] loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

It seems needless to say that Moby-Dick is deep, but as I have a tendency to say large things, I have a tough time saying much until I have some sort of grasp on the subject, one which still eludes in the present case. But I will say something about Father Mapple’s sermon. Biblical allusions are always important because it contains the West’s central repository of shared reference and quickly allows one to say quite philosophical pronouncements. I particularly liked Mapple’s cable metaphor: “this book [Jonah] … is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” (47) This is a nice metaphor, particularly for those who use symbols (one that Peirce uses to describe knowledge). Just like the Bible, a philosophical allegorist’s story is layered, not all in a single chain, but fitted together and twisted, and finding those twists and how the cord all fits together tells us the cord's strength.

Moby-Dick, II

In its simplest terms, Moby-Dick is an allegory about Humanity’s relationship to nature. Ahab stands in for humankind, Moby-Dick for nature. In addition, the contrast of land and sea provide us this conceptual landscape, and heightens the idea of whaling as a conceptual vehicle. In Chapter 23, Melville briefly describes the safety of land as contrasted with the sea: “the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends….” (105) These we get because of humanity, unlike the “uncivilized seas.” (169) The landscape Melville sets is a civilized, peopled land that offers security, but a sea where “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” a “howling infinite.” (105) Melville says “all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.” (ibid.)

This is something like an echo of Emerson’s self-reliance and Whitman’s rough individualism. Great thinking, and so writing, seeks independence, the howling infinite (something of an image of the sublime we’d inherited from Kant). It doesn’t want the towns, though they offer security, and is indeed why we built them, just as Whitman says in the “Open Road.” What is interesting is that Melville points out that the safety of shore is, in fact, more dangerous for a ship in a storm. If we take sailing to be code for writing, we might say that the shore, the security of writing in an expected manner for an audience, is occasionally dangerous depending on the weather, the “climate of opinion” as Carl Becker called it. “Which way is the wind blowing?” a politician might ask, but the advice Melville is giving is that, in a storm, one might as well be audacious—“better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee” (ibid.).

What’s more, if Ahab is our great writer, then the great are those who seek the storm, that howling infinite. Ahab may have been a good whaler before, but it was because he chose to go up against Moby Dick and was scarred that he “did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.” (176) Great writers don’t fight for a reasonable object, they fight for immortality. It is impossible, but it is by insanely going toe to toe with the infinite that they gain the strength to go farther than had ever been achieved before.

Moby-Dick, II

There’s a sequence in the latter half of the book that occurs with one of the Pequod’s crew, Pip, that proves to hook up quite well with the humanity/nature dichotomy, particularly in relation to genius and madness. Pip is a black sailor who is usually left back at the ship when the whalers go on the chase. In Chapter 93, Pip is taken out and, what with one thing and another, cast out into the ocean and left for a time, as the rest go after the whales. Pip, left in the “awful lonesomeness” (383) of the empty sea, proceeds to go insane.

Civilization, people and all of its products, disappear for Pip and he is left with an “intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity.” (ibid.) Pip has only himself and nature. Melville says perceptively that “man’s insanity is heaven’s sense”—we receive from all mystic traditions from the world over a relatively stable body of description of what is experienced, often epitomized with “oneness with everything.” With no other people, and just himself, Pip draws in and concentrates on it as the last vestige of humanity.

This is the true test for a genius, to stare into the abyss and come back. The clichés are many, but Melville stands ahead. Pip is stated to be a smart fellow, and if we take him as a poet thrust into the thick, he is found wanting—like Ahab, he is marred, but Ahab is able to come back and double down, whereas Pip goes off the deep end. Melville tells us that “the sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.” What is curious here is that the sea is the “howling infinite,” and yet the sea drowns what Melville now calls an infinite soul. I think Whitman helps us here saying, “yes, our soul is infinite, that’s why I keep saying I’m one with God and everyone else.” For both, whatever our “self” is (though not Whitman’s me myself), it is produced by society, humanity, civilization and the towns and ports. Our soul, however, is as infinite and empty as the sea (which is why it is pointless to “ask the world to solve them” (397)). Facing the infinite sublime of nature, we face our own nothingness and, predictably, find nature’s nothingness somehow larger, awesomer, and more infinite, and thus our infinite drowns in nature’s. The great poet, however, is able to empty themselves and stand toe to toe with nature’s infinite.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Quine, Sellars, Empiricism, and the Linguistic Turn

Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" is thought of by most analytic philosophers as the watershed moment in the destruction of logical positivism. He may have been the first major post-linguistic turn philosopher to identify themself as a pragmatist (and here I'm not counting his Harvard colleague Morton White in the equation). Replaying the death agonies of logical positivism is a good way of seeing where the classical pragmatists tie in with the contemporary, analytic dialectic, and that paper is a must read in that sense.

What Quine wanted to do was purify empiricism, which in its post-linguistic turn phase is what logical positivism was supposed to be a form of. Analytic philosophers, ever since somebody thought it would be brilliant to turn to the study of the way we use words (whether mainline positivists like Rudolph Carnap and A.J. Ayer or Oxford/ordinary-language philosophers like P.F. Strawson and Gilbert Ryle), thought their job was to study "meaning," to find the meanings of words, display how meaning was created, etc. "Conceptual analysis" became what philosophers thought they did, what their special provenance was in relation to the other disciplines. It promoted the thought that, since science was the empirical discipline, science would tell us about the stuff of the world, but philosophy would explain to science what their words meant.

How empirical is that? is roughly the thought that motivated Quine. The very idea of "conceptual analysis" was of basically an a priori discipline, an activity where one didn't have to study anything in the world, but could just sit in your armchair and figure the stuff out--just like Descartes' problems of other minds and the external world. But wasn't the motivation behind logical positivism the destruction and avoidance of pointless metaphysical problems, weird things like whether there was anything going on outside your door ("leave your office" would have been G.E. Moore's reply), which are specifically produced by a kind of armchair speculation that required no input from the world?

Quine's first dogma was the analytic/synthetic distinction, something Kant had made up at the spur of the moment in the First Critique as a way of splitting the difference between the Rationalists and Empiricists (only so named because of Kant's work). Kant's distinction became the basis of the distinction between statements whose meaning and truth was derived only in virtue of their relationship to other statements ("analytic statements" such as "All bachelors are single") and statements whose meaning and truth one not only needed other statements, but also participation of the world to figure out ("rocks fall to the earth," the truth of which can only be determined by a synthesis of the meanings of each individual word and then looking out into the world). Science would do the "looking out into the world" bit, but they would need someone to help them with the other bit, the analytic statements you don't need experiments for. This, for someone like Quine, basically just looks like a Rationalist throw-back, a haven for the Cartesian speculation the sober-minded English Empiricists had wanted to throw cold water over.

By ditching the first dogma, we eliminate the basis for an armchair, a priori discipline like "conceptual analysis," thus putting us back on the path of a thorough-going empiricism. Quine, it is largely thought, didn't quite make it by himself, however. His second dogma, reductionism, was the pernicious reduction of knowledge statements to sensations, or "immediate experience." People impressed by James and Dewey, who still used such locutions, shouldn't be fooled by the term into thinking that Quine's dogma swings at what the classical pragmatists were talking about. James' radical empiricism was supposed to be as much a purification of the terms of empiricism as the post-positivist dialectic was. Quine, though, didn't in the end mean the end of that dogma was much as he should have. He erects in his work the idea of "observation sentences" as opposed other sentences, and the latter end up playing the same role as before. And then there's Quine's over-bearing scientism, his penchant for saying that everything can/should be reduced to physics, the only language that "limns the world."

Philosophers dissatisfied with Quine's tack at reductionism have increasingly turned to Wilfrid Sellars, a by-comparison neglected figure that I believe recently has been receiving a substantial reappreciation (primarily motivated by the rise of Robert Brandom and John McDowell). Sellars' seminal "Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind" was produced at just about the same time as Quine's "Two Dogmas," but received much less attention. Sellars' enemy in that paper is what he calls the Myth of the Given, the idea that there is a bald experience given to our minds that we simply add the hairplugs of language to. This was the attack Quine should have made on reductionism, but didn't.

Sellars, too though, didn't quite make it to a pure empiricism. He, too, liked to talk about science as the end all be all, and his way of making the point was a distinction between our manifest image of the world and the scientific image of the world. The manifest one was the fake one that, while not reducible to the scientific one, needed to be dealt with properly in the face of the true, scientific image--and philosophy could help with its "conceptual analysis."

Rorty liked to say that it was almost as if Sellars and Quine were only able to reject the one dogma of the other, and needed their respective second one to retain their self-image as analytic philosophers. Donald Davidson, Quine's greatest pupil, helped ditch the whole damn thing and finally set us on the path of a fully purified empiricism. He called the third, and hopefully last, dogma of empiricism the scheme/content distinction. This distinction underlaid the others and its motivation was to call into question the idea that language was a kind of scheme we laid on top of experienced content. This, too, was a Kantian relic, that between what he called "concepts" and "intuitions," such that one could say, "thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."

This is what Kant meant by the mind constituting the world--the world's there, sure enough, but its only presentation to us is by virtue of our mind's constitution of it in our own mind. But this raises the Cartesian spectare again, that we are trapped in our own minds, maybe knowing that there are other ones out there, but not knowing whether we are constituting the world in just the same way--if we are using different conceptual schemes, we might be living in different worlds. Please Obi-philosophy Kenobi--tell us what our conceptual schemes are and how they constitute. Davidson's ditching of the scheme/content distinction again destroys the basis for an armchair, speculative discipline and thrusts us all back into the same world, the one no one has ever really left.

The punchline to the story is that whereas Quine wanted to be both an empiricist and a pragmatist, Davidson isn't sure what's left of either once we pull the underpinnings out. Rorty and Hilary Putnam, the two most prominent post-linguistic turn self-identified pragmatists, themselves have wondered explicitly about what is left of empiricism once one ditches all the dogmas of positivism, though they think the core insights of James and Dewey untouched. (I have a brief talking up of Putnam on this score here.) Even more weird is Brandom calling his Sellarsian inferentialism a kind of rationalism--a much different sort than the 17th century Europeans, but the resurrection of the title bearing out how much damage Brandom thinks Locke's confusion of causation with justification caused philosophy.

The "confusion of causation with justification" is a direct allusion to Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In the chapter that opens the second part, the part that deals with representational epistemology, he titles one of the sections "Locke's Confusion of Explanation with Justification," which is roughly between knowledge of where something came from and knowledge that something is so and so. This leads to Davidson's distinction between reasons and causes, such that a reason (part of the web of justification) can be a cause (can change your mind, spur you into action, etc.), but a cause is not in itself a reason. You can be caused to think you see water, but the fact that you see water is not, by itself, a reason to think so--it is only within a network of other beliefs, the whole context of the situation, that a caused-belief can become a reason-to-believe. For instance, the fact that you are in a desert, dying of dehydration, and gored out of your mind on shrooms might give one pause before transferring the sight of water to having a good reason to think there's water over that horizon ahead.

I think it an open question as to whether retro-pragmatists like David Hildebrand are right about there being an important line to be drawn between classical pragmatists like James and Dewey and neopragmatists like Rorty and Putnam, one roughly centering around the "radical empiricism" of the former set, and supposed lack there-of in the latter. I still tend to think that there's simply an unimportant line between the classical tendency to talk about experience and the neo tendency to talk about language, with no further major philosophical implications.

The main thesis for this line of thought is that the role radical empiricism plays for James (with Dewey having an analogous section of his philosophy that could be so-named) is the same role "psychological nominalism" plays for Sellars (with a likewise analogous section in Rorty). We might call the slogan of radical empiricism "everything is experience," and the intuitive appeal of this slogan makes it easy to see why James and Dewey might wield it opposition to those who take, for instance, meanings to be analytic, and therefore non-experiential (for if they were, they'd be synthetic in the requisite sense). Psychological nominalism's slogan, however, is "all awareness is a linguistic affair," which on the surface seems counter-intuitive--am I really aware of that sunset I'm appreciating silently linguistically? I don't think psychological nominalism, however, quite means this kind of thing. It has to be understood in the context of various kinds of atomism, particularly the kinds that surfaced in early analytic philosophy.

My suggestion about the parallel qualities of radical empiricism and psychological nominalism is that both are kinds of holism, and that the only difference between the two is a difference in jargon, in the state of the philosophical dialogue that each arose out of and responded to. We might encapsulate the differences by saying that modern philosophy was birthed out of Greek when talk moved from being about "reality" to being about "experience." Rorty, Whitehead, and Dewey all advanced historical arguments about the lack of an internal "place" called the mind where reality played itself out for us (Whitehead called it the birth of the "subjectivist principle"). This created a divorce between reality and our experience-of-reality such that now we had to deal with problems about just when we were in touch with reality.

The atomistic response are various correspondentisms, philosophical theories about how this bit of experience rubs up against this bit reality, which it does in a one-to-one relation. Dewey and James advanced their ideas about experience in this milieu of experience-talk, and their basic suggestion was to collapse experience back into reality--experience is reality (witness James' "a world of pure experience" and Dewey's appreciation of Aristotle's pre-modern, anti-Platonism). Their's was a kind of holism, for it consisted in the idea that our experiences all relate to each other in a hanging web, and trying to pinpoint connections between this web and something else is pure folly. For the web, our experience of life, works in getting us through life, and it is only a kind of retrograde metaphysical dogmatism that keeps us trying for something more--we need to stop thinking there is something more.

Psychological nominalism, on the other hand, consists in the same move, except now the linguistic turn has made philosophers think that there is a divorce between language and experience. Early atomists like Russell and Carnap spent their time trying to elaborate theories that specified when this linguistic-bit here connected to that experience-chunk over there. Sellars attack on the Myth of the Given was on the idea that our linguistic concepts overlaid bald experiences. "All awareness is a linguistic affair" is simply the analogous collapse of language into experience that James and Dewey did for experience into reality.

What we basically have is a line that looks like this: language-about-experience-of-reality. The Greeks, having just become leisured, reflective individuals, talked about "reality," though they occasionally would stumble down a path where it sounds as if they recognize the modern fact that we each experience reality differently. They did understand this commonsensically, but they didn't charge it with any special philosophical significance. It was only after the march of thousands of more philosophers, trampling down the philosophical terrain, trying to get various theories to work, that Descartes, Locke, and the rest suddenly get the idea that, maybe we should charge the fact that different eyeballs see different ways with philosophically-charged metaphorical significance. And so they began promoting an expansion of what knowing is of from the object "reality" to tacking on "experience-of-reality."

This new philosophical situation took hold in part because of an equivocation in terminology--Descartes and Locke used the word "idea" to denote both (what we might now distinguish as) perceptions and conceptions. As modern philosophy moved passed Kant, who isolated explicitly the two (in intuitions and concepts respectively), and thousands of more philosophers (aided by expansions in population, education, and professionalization) trampled down this new terrain, philosophers began sniffing more and more around the idea that, hey, what really is the difference between a concept and word? Isn't it just a silly Platonism, with a universal Realm of Forms, that would make us think otherwise? (This is what makes sense out of the "nominalism" bit in Sellars' platform name--nominalism was the medieval counter to Plato's Realm of Forms idea.)

The linguistic turn was roughly the realization that when we talk about reality, we are talking about experience or reality, we are using words, language, and that when this or that philosopher, be they Platonist, Thomist, Cartesian, Kantian or Russellian, suggests taking up this or that philosophical position, they aren't changing the world like a bridge-builder does, they are suggesting a change in thought, which is to say, in our conceptions, which is to say, in the words we use to describe the world. And so analytic philosophers began promoting a further expansion of what knowing is of from the object "experience-of-reality" to tacking on "language-about-experience-of-reality."

One way to conceive of what the holists are up to is to see them as trying to get us back to a kind of pre-Platonic common sense position, before the whole obsession over knowing what knowing was even started. The only point in collapsing language-into-experience or experience-into-reality is if you'd also be just as willing to finish the collapse into the remainder, unconsidered term.

The classical pragmatists got the feeling that philosophy was taking us away from life, and they adumbrated radical empiricisms as a way of returning us to the scene of life. Retro-pragmatists see the linguistic turn as another philosophical circumlocution that just gets in the way life. Retro-pragmatists are attracted to the classicals' repeated insistence that their philosophical positions will reestablish life as first in the philosophical order of things.

My thought tends to run, "How could life not come first? Life is everything." As I understand Dewey, his notion of indirect experience was as reflective experience, but direct experience wasn't necessarily non-linguistic (I adumbrate this understanding here). Abstract, reflective thinking pulls us out of "direct experience," but this is just to say that it pulls us out of our typical habits with which we approach the world. The first principle that all three classical pragmatists held in equally tight fashion was Alexander Bain's, that thoughts are habits of action. People who live in their heads live in worlds constructed out of their imagination, an indirect world if you will. But people who write, read, or talk a lot aren't necessarily neglecting direct experience, in Dewey's sense. We can easily achieve equilibrium in our lives, between reading the newspaper, watching sunsets, loving our partners, and writing philosophical papers about the pointlessness of atomism.

I think at the heart of the difference between philosophers attracted to the classical pragmatists but repelled by Rorty is the thought that radical empiricism returns us to the scene of life, a counter to abstract philosophical sterilities. I can empathize with the formulation, to the idea of pragmatism "returning us to the scene of life," a formula I've grown fond of. However, what I think we should rather say in most cases, is that philosophy is abstract by nature--that's what it is--and returning to the scene of life is something that people need to figure out how to do, not necessarily philosophies, or other abstract activities. For instance, why would we necessarily want theoretical physics to do so? Philosophy is Dewey's indirect experience--returning to life is knowing, as Wittgenstein put it, when to put philosophy down.

And yet still, to say as many want to, particularly amateur philosophers, as I am, that we should return philosophy to the scene of life, I have continued sympathy with. But I also have a strong regard for the division of labor, and a suspicion that if we let a thousand flowers bloom, there's a good chance we might find one we like in a garden that we didn't plant. That's what I take amateur philosophy, in particular, to be--one of our major purposes is to steal other people's flowers and bring the ones we like, even if they were grown in a sterile hydroponic farm, back to the grubby garden we got going behind the house. We shouldn't rip on the hydroponic farmers too much--without them, we wouldn't have gotten that flower and, hey, at the end of the day, they go back to their houses, too. I sense this wisdom in Rorty's writings about the relative merits of professionalization in philosophy, and that that is the parallel to James and Dewey's talk about getting back to life. All three talked a lot about setting aside pointless philosophical puzzles. This is just to say that perhaps we've improved this particular flower as much as we can, so perhaps we should move on to some others.

Be that as it may, reading Quine or Sellars or Davidson can help one figure out what kind of empiricist one wants to be by helping see what the destruction of logical positivism pans out to mean. Empiricism began as a reaction to Descartes' attempt to laud science's place in culture. The rationalists thought the New Science was an expansion of Reason's will over us (it was) whereas the empiricists thought the New Science was inauguration of a new experimentalness (it was). They were both wrong in their rightness, and while there may yet be interesting disagreement about the rhetorical upshot of this or that old wine bottle ("Empiricism stands and falls with the idea of unconceptualized content, and to say otherwise is just confused." "Nominalism? Really? Should we really be going back to the Middle Ages?"), what needs to be kept at the forefront is the new wine that everybody is drinking.