Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category

Quine and the attack on analyticity

quineWillard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher best known for his work on the logic of language and his criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He is commonly considered one of the most important thinkers in the school of analytic philosophy.

Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori.

Quine, in his work on language, would however come to doubt the validity of analytic statements (i.e. such as “All bachelors are unmarried men”). Quine argued that all attempts to ground analytic truths rely on circular logic. Quine further argues that philosophers like Kant do not sufficiently take into account analytic statements dependence on the contingency of language. In essence, Quine collapses the analytic into the synthetic, along with the in/famous distinction between the two.

It should be noted that Quine’s attack on analyticity is broadly an attack on rationalism and metaphysics itself. Given that most metaphysical systems involve the use of deductive arguments from analytical statements, it follows that if Quine is correct the consequences for metaphysical argument would be disastrous.

So what is Quine’s answer to this problem? Quine says that the best we can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised epistemology”.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

sartreJean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher and playwright. His philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1943) is widely regarded as the most important work in the school of 20th century existentialism.

While a prisoner of war in 1940-41, Sartre read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sartre was fascinated with Heidegger’s ontological investigation using Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Sartre was however skeptical of the Heideggerian imperative of Dasein. Sartre rather turned his own phenomenological inquiry inward, to describe what it is to be ontologically human.

Sartre begins with the Kantian idea of the “thing in itself”, that is the objects of human consciousness. According to Sartre, these objects have a real existence and are not mind dependent. However, following the phenomenological tradition consciousness is always intentional i.e. it is always “of something else” rather than “in itself”. Because of this, it is impossible to fully grasp the essence of consciousness – consciousness is being “for itself”.

Sartre’s existentialism arises out of the individuals desire to ground itself in being through the execution of tasks and jobs. This leads to Sartre’s views on ethics, which I will explore in the next post.


Ludwig Wittgenstein on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.

Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.

At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.

Alfred Whitehead: process philosophy and scientific materialism

Whitehead_PaintingAlfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English thinker best known in his early life for his work in the logic of mathematics, and in later life for his contribution to the metaphysical school of thought of process philosophy. Whitehead co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell the largely influential Principia Mathematica, one of the 20th centuries most important works in mathematical logic.

Whitehead’s philosophical works were, like most great thinkers, a response to a crisis. The early 20th century saw the full throes of Enlightenment optimism, in which the development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his generation had instead imported a type of Cartesianism that went unscrutinised. He called this “scientific materialism”.

There persists … [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

Whitehead’s primary criticism of viewing reality, in the mechanistic tradition, as discrete and independent pieces of matter was that under this schema knowledge of causation is impossible. Whitehead argues that two things that are separate from each other in space simply cannot bear a causal relationship between them. Whitehead says that knowledge of a cause will give full knowledge of all its effects, but this is impossible if pieces of matter are truly distinct from one another. In essence, Whitehead is arguing that efficient causality is unintelligible if scientific materialism is true.

While the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as substance, form and matter. Whitehead like Hegel envisions reality as a type of organism or process, which consists in its most primary form as interrelated events. For Whitehead, the universe just is a series of occasions that are causally affected by all other occasions and the idea that there could be objects existing separate and distinct in space and time is deeply mistaken.

Nietzsche: existentialism and value

2834017-ubermenschIn this previous post, I outlined Nietzsche’s epistemology of perspectivism. In summation, Nietzsche rejects an objective reality of the sort posited by rationalists such as Plato and Descartes, and contends that human knowledge cannot be independent of perspective.

Like most great thinkers, Nietzsche wrestled with the moral questions of how one should live one’s life. The context of Nietzsche’s writings is important: he was working at a time when the values of European Christianity were under intense scrutiny and the role of the Church in everyday life was being steadily dimished.

Thus Nietzsche presents his solution to the angst of a man living in a post-Christian nihilistic world: the ubermensch. Following from his rejection of objective truth, Nietzsche naturally sees the creation of a value as being more worthy than the value itself. An ubermensch is a type of superman that is aware of the absurdity of objective truth and understands that his most potent activity is the domination of the external world through the exertion of his will. Nietzsche calls his voluntaristic theory of human behavior the “will to power”.

Nietzsche shares existentialist similarities with Kierkegaard, who also thought truth was subjective and generated through relationship (though particularly with God contra Nietzsche).

The contrast with Plato is interesting. Plato was known for criticising artists that would represent the external world in differing perspectives. Plato considered this kind of knowledge a mere opinion (doxa) based upon a shadow that was cast by true reality, the Forms.

Friedrich Nietzsche and perspectivism

nietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher known for his body of work criticising religion, morality and contemporary culture as well as his ideas regarding the primacy of the will in human affairs. Like Kierkegaard, he was an aphorist whose work was rich in irony and metaphor. Nietzsche enjoyed only a brief career as a professional academic due to health problems that frustrated him for most of his life. At age fourty-four, he underwent a complete mental breakdown and lived his remaining years in the care of his sister.

Like most great thinkers, the interconnectedness of Nietzsche’s ideas can be crystallised through an analysis of his epistemology. Nietzsche begins by dismissing the ideas of rationalist thinkers such as Plato and Kant regarding an objective reality and our minds ability to known it. Nietzsche’s primary reason for rejecting the rationalist thesis is that there is no idea that is independent of interpretation and no interpretation that is independent from an interpreter. Furthermore, each interpreter is influenced by cultural norms, language and etc. Nietzsche’s epistemology of interpretation has come to be known as perspectivism.

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.

Perspectivism at first glance may appear to collapse into relativism – but for Nietzsche this was not the case. While perspectivism is relative in its refusal of  objectivism, according to Nietzsche there are some views that are simply false (such as the view that there is an objective reality). The consequences of Nietzsche’s skepticism caused him to reject a host of philosophical concepts such as substance, being, object-subject and etc. that were generally taken for granted by both modern empiricists and rationalists alike.

Kierkegaard: existentialism and meaning

sartre-quoteWhat I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.

– Soren Kierkegaard, Gilleleie (1 August 1835) Journals 1A

Two of the primary targets of Kierkegaard’s criticism were the Hegelian Idealists and the Danish Church. The thrust of Kierkegaard’s objection to the dogmas of these two groups was that they were teaching the objective certainty of moral and religious truths. Kierkegaard argued that these truths were based on a type of syllogistic logic that ultimately ended in unresolvable paradox and a dreadful sense of the meaninglessness of life.

Kierkegaard’s solution to this problem was to translocate truth from the object to the subject (see the quote above). Kierkegaard invented the concept of the “knight of faith” – a man who uses his own freedom to create himself through a leap of faith rather than attempt to find himself through a rational analysis of external objects. Kierkegaardian existentialism varies from nihilism in that meaning must be manufactured by the individual due to the epistemic limitations of human beings.

Kierkegaard is commonly called the father of modern existentialism; yet, if he is its father than Kant is certainly the grandparent. After all, it was Kant who changed the ethical landscape with his anthropology of autonomy and man as an end in himself.