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Peli Grietzer knows a lot more than I did when I was twenty. But when we chat, and the topic of Donald Davidson comes up, Peli doesn’t think very much of him; I have to try to convey just how totally convincing Davidson’s work could seem even a few years ago. For those for whom familiarity with the lexemes “Donald Davidson” is new or fairly recent, a little sociological stage-setting: during the period from roughly 1970 to 1990, Donald Davidson was the most influential figure in analytic philosophy (in both Britain and the United States). Although his work ranged widely, three theories of his accounted for most of his popularity: his adaptation of Tarski’s truth-definition for logic to the purposes of natural language semantics, his theory of actions as particular events, and his “anomalous monism” in the philosophy of mind.

Davidsonian semantics adapts the recursive definition of truth for logical statements Tarski developed: recursive, in that the truth of sentences is explained in terms of the truth of subsentences, which in turn are explained in terms of the truth of their subsentences, and so on until we reach non-logical primitives (which are covered through biconditionals of the form “s is true if and only if p”, p being an equivalent term for s in the metalanguage). Tarski explained truth in terms of a concept of satisfaction: a mathematical structure satisfies a sentence if its structure can serve as a sort of representation of the structure of the sentence. However, with natural language, the concept of truth is less problematic than the concept of meaning: it’s not easy for us to stipulate structures that “satisfy” natural language sentences. Davidson decided to turn the direction of explanation around, and recursively explain meaning in terms of truth: having done this, he had the beginnings of a semantics for natural language.

“Davidsonian” semantic programs of one sort or another were wildly popular for many years. The same is true of approaches to the philosophy of action inspired by his work, which was in turn deeply influenced by the work of Elizabeth Anscombe. One of Anscombe’s major theses was that our access to actions is “under a description”: the same action can appear desirable and undesirable, with varying consequences for practical rationality, without making the action a matter of internal “representation”. Davidson attempted to formally justify this thought by constructing a logic for action sentences which unified descriptions of actions under events which were real in a Quinean sense, i.e. fully quantified over. The other major strand of Davidson’s thinking about action, somewhat counter to Anscombe and other philosophers of action influenced by Wittgenstein, was to try to show that reasons for an action, rather than being more or less ineffectual “hermeneutic” guides to understanding its import, were actually causally efficacious in the committing of the act.

Finally, Davidson upended the orthodoxy in philosophy of mind which held that the scientifically respectable materialist answer to the relationship between the mind and the brain was to posit identities between mental states and states of the central nervous system. Although he did not let go of the thought that the mental is deeply dependent on the physical state of the human organism, and there is no distinguishing mental states without understanding that physical states must also differ (“supervenience”), he attempted to release the philosophy of mind from the compulsion to think that “real” results concerning mental states could only come in the form of lawlike psychophysical regularities. His “anomalous monism”, which in this fashion denied the type identity of mental and physical states while asserting their token identity, was an instant success and influenced the nature of debates in the philosophy of mind for many years.

So, if Davidson was such a big hit, why don’t people talk about him much today? I think there are two major things to consider. Firstly, Davidson was in many respects a loyal follower of his teacher Quine, looking askance at modal logic: but modally-based arguments have won the day, and so Davidson’s “parsimonious” positions aren’t as appealing anymore. That’s a fairly obvious observation, but there is a less obvious reason why Davidson isn’t as popular anymore: he was very “modernist” in his approach to thinking about rationality. Davidson considered his theory of rationality and choice, based upon the Bayesianism of Frank Ramsey, to unify the various threads of his philosophy; but this aspect of his thought never won very many converts. I call it “modernist” because Davidson, in his writing and teaching, linked his thinking to modernist figures in culture and the arts: he attempted to bring something from Freud and Joyce into the analytic equation.

The contemporary climate in analytic philosophy is by comparison “postmodernist” in looking to ancient philosophy and scientific results for a substantive theory of what it is to be rational, bypassing more “procedural” approaches as unacceptably “thin” and tinged with skepticism — but although Davidson does not yet figure as the proprietor of such a method in the contemporary literature, I suspect that this aspect of Davidson’s thought will receive more treatment when he is firmly established as a “historical” figure, in comparison to those aspects of his thought which were immediately taken up. So I think reading Donald Davidson today should quite substantially be an exercise in philosophico-cultural appreciation of the motivations of the 20th century; and I think that viewed in this way, his arguments will continue to instruct and inform.

I’ve been reading Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, after having quickly read the Philosophical Fragments to which it is a postscript; so far I like him lots better than Nietzsche, although I guess there is not much to choose between them in the Anti-Enlightenment Reactionary department. But as regards Kierkegaard’s famous literary masterfulness, an observation leapt off of the page at me: Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship is in places equivalent to the widely-decried practice of “sockpuppetry”, leaving pseudonymous comments on blogs which agree with something you’ve written under your own name — this having been practiced by several journalists and the CEO of Whole Foods, and generally being viewed as a nadir of delusional self-promotion.

Now, simply writing works under the names “Johannes Climacus” and his other pseudonyms wouldn’t earn Kierkegaard this distinction: but works written under one pseudonym comment on writings under the other pseudonym, his “legitimate” dissertation, etc. There are mitigating factors: at the end of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard announces that he is the “real” author of the Climacus books: presumably not exactly a shocker for his few initial readers, since he was prominently featured as “editor” on those volumes. But it is still awfully close to our contemporary geek pathology: and this is perhaps unsurprising to those not fond of Kierkegaard, but it still shows that in writing (although not, as far as I am concerned, in life) a “situational ethics” is what is appropriate. Something that “principled” people with ulterior motives — like the brave warriors of academic integrity who ousted Ward Churchill for “doing fifty-five in a fifty-four” — might not want to fully acknowledge.

Last Monday I bought a paperback copy of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event: so far, I am gratified that someone else has done the kind of Continental philosophy/formal logic mash-up I was trying my hand at (with poor results) a few years ago, although I am more than a little suspicious that Badiou’s ontology can’t really have important and useful political implications. But I’m not here today to talk about anything as important as whether or not Badiou really gets things right: no, I’m going to talk about something less substantive which occurred to me while admiring my new possession yesterday.

The Continuum paperback of Being and Event has BADIOU in huge letters on 3/4ths of the spine, followed by the title: and, looking at this, it occurred to me that one might make a distinction between philosophy books that feature the author’s name first and those that have the title above the name. I quickly went through my collection of philosophy books (excluding foreign-language titles, since the print on the spine often runs from bottom to top) and looked at what went where: and, from the looks of it, there is a definite pattern — one perhaps more important to the devotee of “quality” philosophy than the (quasi-) geographical location of the author.

Name first:

  • Foucault
  • Marx
  • Zizek
  • Badiou
  • Heidegger (Cambridge)
  • Russell
  • Davidson
  • Kant
  • Whitehead
  • Harry Frankfurt
  • Nietzsche
  • Adorno
  • Derrida

Title first:

  • Gramsci
  • Althusser
  • Rawls
  • Frege
  • Strawson
  • Heidegger (Indiana)
  • Quine
  • Kripke
  • Timothy Williamson

Presumably the publisher’s reasoning goes like this: if people are looking for a “name” philosopher, the title is of secondary importance — whereas if one is looking for a monograph on a certain topic, the author makes less of a difference. So if “seriousness” is your game, perhaps you should check to see whether the name comes below the title: it seems about as reasonable as the other criteria that have been proposed.

“Analytic Marxism” is usually disappointing to me on two counts. Firstly, analytic Marxists don’t generally seem to have taken the advice about changing the world to heart — instead, they write books imagining questions being put to them like If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? It’s a good question, since all observers are agreed that there are lots of ways to come in contact with the contemporary economy without coming away healthy, wealthy and wise — and shouldn’t the perils be so much more for someone espousing any variety of Marxism? But I more peculiarly also feel let down by the “analytic” ambitions of the genre. A lot of works in this vein think that standards of logical stringency and careful linguistic explication of terms will do the trick to be analytic, but this is really the analytic philosophy of forty years ago; granted, the main texts of analytic Marxism were written not so long after that, but history, intellectual and political, has continued apace without there being an effort to keep pace.

So, sometimes I wonder what an assessment of Marx using contemporary analytic tools would look like; and here is a very small part of what I imagine such an approach might amount to. In contemporary metaphysics of modality, there is a position called “actualism”; this is not related to the “Actualism” of the fascist Giovanni Gentile, but does share some features with an “actualist fallacy” Roy Bhaksar decries in Marx. Modal actualism is the belief that only the actual is real; possible things and states of affairs (in the area of time, the past and the future) can only be constructed out of actual ones (the present). On an actualist view it makes no sense to say that mythical beings like unicorns are “possible” though not real, because we have ruled them out of our picture of what actually exists: whatever does exist in our world is by definition not a unicorn.

As a general explanation of what it means for something to be possible, actualism has its defenders. But I think that it is especially applicable as a principle for interpreting several of Marx’s key theses about the social world and its functioning. Marx certainly did not have the tools of contemporary metaphysics available to him, but he was well-acquainted with the philosophy of Aristotle and other ancient thinkers who employed modal reasoning; and although some may suggest that modality plays no important role in the philosophy of Hegel, Marx’s “chief influence”, I think this fails to allow for Marx’s own innovations as a thinker. (I have gradually come to the view that Hegel’s influence on Marx was primarily “cultural”, Hegel having provided a matrix in Germany within which social critique could take place, rather than primarily “theoretical”).

“Ordinary” economic thinking, including the marginalism that is supposed to have superseded Marx, relies on a model of agents choosing between possible alternatives in action — in some Bayesian models, choosing from what they subjectively perceive to be possible alternatives. And in mainstream political philosophy, we are encouraged to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of certain possible forms of social organization from behind a “veil of ignorance”. Now, compare Marx. Marx denies that individual preference ranging over possible alternatives is the root of economic activity: rather, the entire structure of capitalism determines the individual’s real options, sometimes at variance with their ideological construal of the matter. Furthermore, the proletariat — who are less prone to being confused about the real situation — “have no ideals to realize” as a political force, because they simply represent the inherent potentials of modern industrial production.

It seems to me that these are actualist positions. In fact, I think that the issue of economism can be partially resolved by so viewing them. Perhaps economics as Marx practices it — full of detail about every element of social functioning, certainly a far cry from the airless game theory and econometrics of contemporary orthodoxy — is really something like a science of the actual, and historical materialism’s dependence on it is equivalent to the principle that only the actual affects the actual; that there are no “irruptions” from religious ideals or utopian visions into history which cannot be explained as concrete this-worldly realities (the reality that theory becomes when it grips the masses, etc.) If viewed in this way, the difference between Marxist precept and the idealist systems that preceded it becomes especially sharp, and the complaints that widget production could hardly be the determining factor in an era’s aesthetic values appear less convincing.