Debate on Prehistory

This is a bit of a tangent from the usual topics here, but recently I’ve been dwelling on the distinctions between knowledge, well-founded belief, and not-so-well-founded belief, and I’m taking that as the point of departure. It should be no insult to science (and I certainly mean none) to suggest that empirical science aims only at what I’ve been calling well-founded belief, though received views are commonly taken for simple knowledge. The difference is that well-founded beliefs can still potentially be invalidated by new arguments or information, whereas real knowledge ought to be unconditionally valid.

I’ve been fascinated with prehistory since childhood, and in recent decades especially with the emergence of rich human cultures. Much has changed in this field during my lifetime, as relatively well-founded beliefs were replaced by better-founded ones. For example, it is now generally accepted that modern birds are surviving members of the theropod group of the dinosaur family that included raptors and T. rex, and that the extinction of the (other) dinosaurs was caused by a massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico ca. 65 million years ago.

Similarly, it is now widely accepted that biologically modern humans emerged in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago, rather than in Europe only 40,000 years ago. Humans crossed the open sea from Southeast Asia to Australia over 50,000 years ago. If the previously known cave paintings from the late-glacial Magdalenian culture in southwest Europe were not already amazing enough testaments to the human spirit, the Chauvet cave (subject of the wonderful documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog) was discovered in 1994 to have equally magnificent paintings that turned out to be twice as old (from around 36,000 BP). Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has multi-ton megaliths dating from 9500 BCE, a little before the earliest evidence of agriculture in that region.

Agriculture is now believed to have independently originated in at least 11 different parts of the Old and New Worlds. Wikipedia now mentions small-scale cultivation of edible grasses by the Sea of Galilee from 21,000 BCE. Sickles apparently used for intensive harvesting of wild grains have been found in the Nile valley from at least 18,000 BCE. The Middle Eastern Natufian culture (ca. 15,000-11,500 BP) was previously thought to have had the world’s oldest agriculture, and still boasts the earliest evidence of baked bread (14,400 BP). Some Natufian portable art bears a striking stylistic resemblance to similar artifacts from Magdalenian Europe at roughly the same time. Numerous archaeologists and anthropologists have suggested that agriculture may have had a very long prehistory, beginning with deliberate efforts to promote the growth of particular wild plants that humans valued.

Currently, there is a big ongoing controversy over the cause of dramatic climate changes that occurred around 12,850 BP, at the beginning of the 1200-year period known as the Younger Dryas. The most recent ice age had begun to recede by around 20,000 BP, and the world had been getting gradually warmer. But then, suddenly, in perhaps only a single year’s time, temperatures fell by an astonishing 9 to 14 degrees centigrade. Then, in somewhere between a few years and a few decades, temperatures apparently rose again by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Several massive glacial lakes seem to have suddenly been emptied into the ocean, cooling it down, and there is evidence of gargantuan flooding. On a larger time scale of several thousand years including the Younger Dryas, worldwide sea levels are generally accepted to have risen around 400 feet. Many submerged archaeological sites have already been found, but this could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Due to human-induced climate change, we are currently facing a sea level rise of around 50 feet from melting of the remaining ice caps, which is expected to be catastrophic. Four hundred feet dwarfs that. Today the great majority of the world’s population lives in or near coastal areas, and this may well have been true during the ice age too. Around the time of the Younger Dryas, there is evidence of intensive fishing by cultures like the Jomon of Japan — who also produced pottery older than any known from the Middle East — and the Magdalenians in Europe (not to mention many fresh-water fishing villages spread across what is now the Sahara desert).

By this time, humans would have been biologically modern for over 200,000 years, and had been at least occasionally producing magnificent art for at least 20,000 years. Stone and bone tools with amazing elegance and sophistication had been in use equally long. All hunter-gatherer cultures known to modern anthropology have complex culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But somehow, we still have the prejudice that hunter-gatherers and “cave people” must have been extremely primitive.

The controversy I mentioned concerns evidence that like the dinosaur extinction, the Younger Dryas was caused by a cataclysm from space. Since 2007 the “Younger Dryas impact theory” has been hotly debated, but it now appears to be gaining ground. I have no particular stake in what really caused the Younger Dryas; I’m really more interested in its effects on humans. But the controversy potentially provides an interesting case study in how highly intelligent, educated people can effectively confuse apparently well-founded belief with “knowledge” that would supposedly be beyond doubt.

It also happens to be the case that Plato in the Critias gives a date for the sinking of the mythical Atlantis at around the time of the Younger Dryas. I don’t assume there is any accuracy in the details of the story — the island with the circular city and so forth — but I think archaeology already provides the basis for an extremely well-founded belief that late-glacial stone age cultures had already reached very high levels of sophistication, and that much more evidence may be hidden at as yet undiscovered underwater sites. This doesn’t mean people back then were flying around in spaceships or anything, or had magical powers, or even that they produced metal. Our standards for what represents “advanced” culture are highly distorted by our own obsessions with technology and money.

Incidentally, Plato in the Laws also casually suggests that animal and plant species come into being and pass away, as well as something like the succession of human material culture from stone to soft metals to iron. The Critias story is attributed to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest during his travels there, but no source is given for the apparently accurate speculations about prehistory in the Laws.

All the modern fringe speculation around the Atlantis myth — and around “historical” readings of mythology in general — has given this stuff a bad name. We ought to suspend belief in things for which the evidence is shaky. But a suspension of belief need not — and should not — necessarily imply active disbelief. Our active disbeliefs ought to be well-founded up to the same standard as our active beliefs, and ought not to fall to the level of prejudice.

Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Husserl on Evidence: Introduction

Returning to Husserl’s lectures on passive synthesis, we have reached the subdivision on what he calls evidence. Naturally, this will be a phenomenological kind of evidence, different from that with which scientists or lawyers are concerned. This is closely bound up with what he calls “intuition”. He begins with a nice summary of the ground covered so far. After that, I’ll add some general background on this new topic of intuition and evidence.

“By undertaking a systematic study of perceptions we came across the moment of belief, of passive doxa, and attended to the modalizations of belief. Naturally, what was demonstrated here is mirrored mutatis mutandis in each mode of intuition and accordingly in remembering, which in itself is characterized as a re-perceiving, as it were. We then contrasted with these doxic events occurring in the passive sphere, the functions of higher judicative activities that are founded in them” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 106).

“While carrying out our analysis of perception we had to point out its synthetic character as something fundamental. Perception is a process of streaming from phase to phase; in its own way each one of the phases is a perception, but these phases are continuously harmonized in the unity of a synthesis, in the unity of a consciousness of one and the same perceptual object that is constituted here originally. In each phase we have primordial impression, retention, and protention, and unity arises in this progression by the protention of each phase being fulfilled through the primordial impression of the phase that is continuously contiguous to it” (p. 107).

“We also speak of fulfillment in other respects within the sphere of mere presentations to which we restrict ourselves now, within mere receptivity…. We expect something to happen — now the very thing occurs, confirming the expectation…. We can also say that we are making an initial study of the nature of evidence…. [This] concerns a synthesis of a presentation that is not self-giving with a presentation that is self-giving” (pp. 107-108).

“Meanwhile, every external perception harbors its inner and outer horizons, regardless the extent to which perception has the character of self-giving; this is to say, it is a consciousness that simultaneously points beyond its own content. In its fullness it simultaneously points into an emptiness that would only now convey a new perception. The self-givenness of a spatial thing is the self-givenness of a perspectival appearing object that is given as the same in the fulfilling synthesis of appearances intertwining and devolving upon one another…. Thus, where there is no horizon, where there are no empty intentions, there is likewise no [synthesis of] fulfillment” (p. 108).

This last point about horizons and pointing beyond is important, because it suggest that the implications of what he misleadingly calls “empty” intentions (in contrast to the “fulfilling” intuitions associated with external perception) may really be as essential to verification as the intuitions that seem to be emphasized at first glance.

“It is of fundamental importance to distinguish between the different possible syntheses pertaining here to intuitions and empty presentations, and to characterize them in more detail” (p. 109).

I’d like to provisionally situate Husserlian intuition in the context of a few other notions of intuition. To begin with, I would say that in common usage, “intuition” is a knack for hitting upon things that happen to be true, by means of unexplainable leaps. This is a real thing that happens sometimes.

“Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning”, as Wikipedia puts it. Here I would substitute “true belief” for “knowledge”. I follow Aristotle in reserving the term “knowledge” for an understanding of the why of things. Merely that something is so by itself, without any reason, could not be knowledge, but at best a true belief. For me, no freestanding categorical judgment “A is B” by itself could count as knowledge. I even think the well-foundedness in what I call well-founded belief has to do with an understanding of the why, though it may depend on assumptions. A true belief that is not well-founded really just happens to be true in the sense of correspondence with something external.

Husserl on the other hand aims to ground knowledge in a phenomenologically disciplined intuition that helps explain something else. Husserlian intuition is supposed to be concerned with clear and present witnessing evidence, and does not so far seem to involve anything like a leap. In a later post we’ll explore what this looks like.

He seems to give present intuition a privileged epistemic role in the verification of knowledge that I think Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur, among others, would dispute. But once again, his detailed development is keeping me interested, and the complementary emphasis on “empty” intentions is a mitigating factor.

Kant and Hegel considered leaps of so-called intellectual intuition — i.e., intuition that purports to discover truths beyond any possible experience — to be a huge source of bad philosophy, and therefore wanted to ban intellectual intuition altogether. It is possible that the evidentiary use that Husserl makes of intuition is completely distinct from this, but at this point I am unsure. Unlike Kant, Husserl does not seem to limit intuition to our preliminary apprehension of the sensible manifold, but gives it a larger epistemic role. Also unlike Kant, he speaks of perceptual objects as given in intuition, rather than only the raw manifold.

Husserl’s contemporary Henri Bergson also claimed that intuition could be the basis of a disciplined method, but I have not dwelt enough on Bergson to compare Bergsonian intuition at this point.

The epistemic role of Husserlian intuition has a few points in common with the evidentiary role that a certain kind of disciplined mathematical “intuition” plays in so-called intuitionistic or constructive mathematics. Husserl did work in the philosophy of mathematics, and several early contributors to intuitionistic mathematics had a considerable interest in Husserl. Intuitionistic mathematics was originally broadly inspired by Kant’s views on the intuitive (as opposed to real or conceptual) character of space and time, but in the later 20th century its scope was unexpectedly discovered to exactly coincide with the scope of what is computable, as independently defined in computability theory by Church and Turing. Inspired by this conjunction, the intuitionistic type theory of Per Martin-Löf formalizes intuitionistic mathematics in a computable form. Intuitionistic type theory is distinguished by having no axioms (therefore depending on no assumed truths), and by its requirement of witnessing evidence in exactly specifiable forms for all valid assertions. This notion of witnessing evidence seems far removed from the relative indeterminacy of Kantian intuition — to the point where I’ve ironically called it to myself “intuitionism without intuition” — but it may still have some relation to Husserlian intuitive evidence.

Husserl makes a fundamental distinction between intuition as a kind of direct relation to currently present external perception, and the “presentification” of contents that are not currently present, but are anticipated or remembered. I am apprehensive about the emphasis on presence here, but reserving judgment for now.

Presentification and some aspects of Husserlian intuition together seem to have much in common with Aristotelian “imagination”, which I have suggested would be the main basis of consciousness from an Aristotelian point of view. Closer examination will be required to see what the differences are.

Aristotelian imagination at root seems to involve an experiencing of potentially sensible contents that need not depend on current sensation. It is said to ground memory, dreams, waking fantasy, and other visualization or analogous operations based on the other senses, but also and importantly the synthesizing functions of the so-called “common sense” and “inner sense”, which Aristotle mentions only sketchily. Aristotelian imagination may include sensible traces of things that go beyond sensation, like language or people’s characters.

By comparison, at this point I’m not sure whether Husserl would include dreams or fantasy under presentification. He might go further than Aristotle in including things that go beyond sensation — like mathematical objects — under presentification or intuition.

Husserl on Perception

“External perception is a constant pretension to accomplish something that, by its very nature, it is not in a position to accomplish. Thus, it harbors an essential contradiction, as it were. My meaning will soon become clear to you once you intuitively grasp how the objective sense exhibits itself as a unity in the unending manifolds of possible appearances; and seen upon closer inspection, how the continual synthesis, as a unity of coinciding, allows the same sense to appear, and how a consciousness of ever new possibilities of appearance constantly persists over against the factual, limited courses of appearance, transcending them.”

“Let us begin by noting that the aspect, the perspectival adumbration through which every spatial object invariably appears, only manifests the spatial object from one side. No matter how completely we may perceive a thing, it is never given in perception with the characteristics that qualify it and make it up as a sensible thing from all sides at once. We cannot avoid speaking of such and such sides of the object that are actually perceived. Every aspect, every continuity of single adumbrations, regardless how far this continuity may extend, offers us only sides. And to our mind this is not just a statement of fact: it is inconceivable that external perception would exhaust the sensible-material content of its perceived object; it is inconceivable that a perceptual object could be given in the entirety of its sensibly intuitive features, literally, from all sides at once in a self-contained perception” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 39-40).

Adumbration is something like foreshadowing.

While many of his contemporaries were caught up in the logical empiricist enthusiasm for literal “sense data” as the supposedly rock-solid foundation for knowledge, Husserl was taking an extremely original approach to a more classical view of the inherent limiting and “transcending” features of sense perception, explicitly bringing out implicit characteristics of any possible seeing of physical objects that seem clear as soon as we bring them into focus and reflect on them.

We need not take something like Plato’s refusal to treat sensation as a source of knowledge as a case of repugnance toward physicality. With Husserl’s help we can “see” a more specific grounding of Plato’s view in reasons inherent to the subject matter. Husserl’s exceptionally clear examples in the realm of visual perception also provide a kind of model for understanding something like Hegel’s frequent complaints against “one-sided” points of view.

“When we view the table, we view it from some particular side…. Yet the table has still other sides” (p. 40). “It is clear that a non-intuitive pointing beyond or indicating is what characterizes the side actually seen as a mere side” (p. 41). “In every moment of perceiving, the perceived is what it is in its mode of appearance [as] a system of referential implications…. And it calls out to us, as it were, in these referential implications: ‘There is still more to see here, turn me so you can see all my sides, let your gaze run through me, draw closer to me, divide me up; keep on looking at me over again and again…'” (ibid).

“These indications are at the same time tendencies that push us toward the appearances not given…. They are pointers into an emptiness since the non-actualized appearances are neither consciously intended nor presentified. In other words, everything that genuinely appears is an appearing thing only by virtue of being intertwined and permeated with an intentional empty horizon, that is, by virtue of being surrounded by a halo of emptiness with respect to appearance. It is an emptiness that is not a nothingness, but an emptiness to be filled-out; it is a determinable indeterminacy” (p. 42).

“In spite of its emptiness, the sense of this halo of consciousness is a prefiguring that prescribes a rule for the transition to new actualizing appearances…. This holds time and again for every perceptual phase of the streaming process of perceiving…. There is a constant process of anticipation, of preunderstanding” (pp. 42-43).

“[A]s soon as a new side becomes visible, a side that has just been visible disappears from sight….But what has become non-visible is not cognitively lost for us…. Having already once seen the back side of an unfamiliar object and, turning back to perceive the front side, the empty premonition of the back side now has a determinate prefiguring that it did not have previously” (pp. 45-46).

“The fact that a re-perception, a renewed perception of the same thing, is possible for transcendence characterizes the fundamental trait of transcendent perception, alone through which an abiding world is there for us, a reality that can be pregiven for us and can be freely at our disposal” (p. 47).

Here “transcendence” just refers to the various characteristics of the incomplete perception of spatial objects he is pointing out.

“[W]e see that every perception [implicitly] invokes an entire perceptual system; every appearance that arises in it implies an entire system of appearances” (p. 48). “What is already given to consciousness in a primordial-impressional manner points to new modes of appearance through its halo which, when occurring, emerge as partly confirming, partly determining more closely…. Advancing along this line, the empty intentions are transformed respectively into expectations” (p. 49).

Perception gives us the very opposite of isolated sense data. Every perception is connected to other perceptions.

“If we ask, finally, what gives unity within every temporal point of the momentary appearance… we will also come across reciprocal intentions that are fulfilled simultaneously and reciprocally” (p. 50).

Substance in the elementary sense of something persisting through change emerges from networks of mutually reinforcing cross-references.

“We can never think the given object without empty horizons in any phase of perception and, what amounts to the same thing, without apperceptive adumbration. With adumbration there is simultaneously a pointing beyond what is exhibiting itself in a genuine sense. Genuine exhibition is itself, again, not a pure and simple possession on the model of immanence with its esse = percipi [to be = to be perceived]; instead, it is a partially fulfilled intention that contains unfulfilled indications that point beyond” (p. 56).

“[I]n the process of perceiving, the sense itself is continually cultivated so in steady transformation, constantly leaving open the possibility of new transformations” (p. 57).

Everything we perceive reaches beyond itself, raising new questions.

“We always have the external object in the flesh (we see it, grasp, seize it), and yet it is always at an infinite distance mentally. What we do grasp of it pretends to be its essence; and it is it too, but it remains so only in an incomplete approximation, an approximation that grasps something of it, but in doing so also constantly grasps into emptiness that cries out for fulfillment” (pp. 58-59).

I suggested above that what Husserl illustrates so clearly about visual perception can serve as a model for other things. In particular, I think both facts and beliefs share the perspectival character of visual perception of spatial objects, because they revolve around analogous issues of correspondence with something external.

The very best and most complete facts about anything at best resemble a collection of still views of a tree from different angles, like the sides of the table in Husserl’s example. The virtue of facts is that they are supposed to be individually self-contained, and individually verifiable by correspondence to states of affairs. Even leaving aside all questions of interpretation that tend to unravel this putative self-containedness, by virtue of their isolation all individual facts still remain “one-sided” or perspectival, like individual still views of the tree.

Even the most complete collection or sequence of still views fails to capture the simultaneous many-sided unity-in-diversity of the concrete tree. The real concrete unity of the tree is not factual but teleological and “transcendental”, forever out of reach of a merely factual approach.

If this is true of the best possible facts, I would say it must also be true of the best possible beliefs, because both revolve around a kind of correspondence to states of affairs. The difference is that beliefs are just assertions of correspondence between what we say and what “is”. But to qualify as a fact, an assertion must also be verifiable by correspondence.

But verification by correspondence can only apply to what appears, not to what “is”, so facts only apply to what appears about states of affairs. Facts in effect just are verifiable appearances. They are an instance of what Plato called “true opinion”. They are objects of justified true belief, and potentially of a kind of subjective “certainty”.

Beliefs on the other hand usually reach beyond appearances toward what is, so although they assert a kind of correspondence, they cannot in general be verified by correspondence. Their well-foundedness in the general case has to do with a goodness of reasons. Well-foundedness by reasons falls short of certainty in one way, but it reaches deeper. It is potentially less subject to perturbation, because it does not directly depend on appearances or correspondence.

I think knowledge is something stronger than well-founded belief. Unlike facts and beliefs, I want to say that knowledge in the proper sense has nothing to do with correspondence to something outside itself. Also, well-founded beliefs may depend on assumptions that could eventually be refuted, but “knowledge” in the sense I want to give it does not depend on any assumptions either.

Contrary to common usage, then, I want to say that facts are not knowledge, and even certainty about appearances is not knowledge.

Judgments of correspondence — including beliefs and facts and certainties about appearance — seem to me to be inherently perspectival in the way that Husserl talks about. On the other hand, that rare thing called knowledge, in the way I am using the term, would be immune to perspectival limitations, because it does not depend on correspondence at all. (See also Husserl on Passive Synthesis; Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True; Berkeley on Perception; Platonic Truth; Everyday Belief; A Criterion for Knowledge?; McDowell on the Space of Reasons; The Non-Primacy of Perception.)

Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?

There is an empiricist commonplace that identifies “knowledge” with “justified true belief”. This makes knowledge an especially good kind of belief. I regard that as a flat-out category mistake.

I want to suggest that knowledge is not a kind of belief or opinion at all. As usual, I don’t claim to “know” what I “suggest” with some force as interesting or worthy of consideration, so in particular I do not claim to know that knowledge is not belief or opinion. (I am also not trying to say exactly what knowledge is, only to delimit it somewhat.)

What I am doing is recommending a different use of the word “knowledge”, that at minimum distinguishes it from belief or opinion. This is based on the belief or opinion that the belief or opinion that “knowledge is not belief or opinion” is a well-founded belief or opinion.

I read Plato as very sharply distinguishing “knowledge” properly so-called (epistémé) from any kind of doxa (opinion or belief). This would rule out the identification of knowledge with justified true belief.

It is not uncommon, however, to see claims that Plato himself identified knowledge with justified true belief. I will offer a different interpretation of the main relevant passage here. I apologize for using the old Jowett translation, which is easily accessible online.

“Then when the jurors are rightly persuaded of something one could not actually know except by being present — when they judge it, that is, on hearsay, and yet with a true opinion, they judge it without knowledge; even though, if their decision is sound, their persuasion is correct” (Plato, Theaetetus 201).

Ignoring the particular criterion of knowledge mentioned in the example, the essential is that on reflection, we should all be able to agree that there are cases in which we would say that someone has a true opinion without knowledge. So far, this is agnostic to whether or not knowledge is justified true opinion. It just establishes that true opinion in itself is not knowledge.

“When therefore anyone conceives a true opinion of anything without a reasoned statement, his mind is free from error about it, but does not know it; for the man who cannot give and accept a reasoned statement about anything, has not knowledge of it: but when he adds to his true opinion a reasoned statement, he has in addition all that is required to constitute knowledge” (202).

Here it is very important to distinguish between statements about knowledge and statements about someone who has it. What is argued in the above quotation is that the person who has a true opinion and a reasoned statement has what she needs for knowledge.

I would agree that a person who has knowledge can reasonably be said also to believe what she knows. But it does not follow from this that knowledge itself is any kind of belief, or in particular that knowledge is just true belief accompanied by a reasoned statement. Nothing in the argument excludes the possibility that knowledge itself — as distinct from the person who has both knowledge and belief — is tied only to the reasoned statement, and is in itself independent of the person’s belief.

I think this is already sufficient to disprove the claim that this section of the Theaetetus expresses the view that knowledge is reducible to justified true belief.

If knowledge were tied only to the reasoned statement, it would still be true that the person who also had a true belief would have what she needed for knowledge. Again, I don’t mean to say that “reasoned statement” is sufficient by itself to define knowledge, even though I think it gives an important hint. It is worth noting, however, that Plato’s mention of a reasoned statement is more specific than the simple mention of justification.

Also, “truth” is said in more than one way. The kind of truth that could reasonably be said of a belief or opinion is only a correspondence to facts. The kind of truth of principal interest to Plato was very different from this.

I also think there is a broad category of acquaintance that is extremely important to humans, but is different from knowledge. The kind of experience I find interesting is mainly not ephemeral immediate experience, but the more substantial thing that we mean when we say someone is “experienced”. (See also Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Consciousness, Personhood; A Criterion for Knowledge?; Everyday Belief; Belief is Different from Faith.)

History of Ethics: Plato

Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.

What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.

Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.

Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.

For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.

Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.

Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences ranges of counterfactual robustness…. So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher. One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Demonstrative “Science”?

The “historiographical” notes on the history of philosophy I offer here from time to time are a sort of compromise. For much of my life, I’ve been very concerned with the fine grain of such history, and with casting a broad net encompassing many historical figures. Here, I made a strategic decision to focus instead on a mere handful of philosophers I consider most important.

Discussion of actualization in Hegel led to actualization in Aristotle, which led me to indulge my fascination with the Aristotelian commentary tradition. To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the historic readings discussed in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin commentaries, my own view of Aristotle is quite different on a number of key points, having more in common with some modern readings. Nonetheless, I am enormously impressed by the levels of sophistication shown by very many writers in this tradition.

I just mentioned al-Farabi again. As previously noted, al-Farabi (10th century CE) played a great historic role in the formulation of Arabic (and consequently, Hebrew and Latin) views of Aristotle. The Syrian Christians who did the majority of the translating of Aristotle to Arabic from Syriac had access to most of Aristotle’s works, but publicly only taught from the logical treatises. It was al-Farabi who initiated public teaching of the full range of Aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic world. He flourished during the so-called Islamic golden age, a time of tremendous interest in ancient learning not only by aristocrats but by many literate skilled crafts people. The political climate of the Islamic world at the time was much more embracing of secular learning than it came to be between the 13th and 19th centuries CE.

One unfortunate aspect of al-Farabi’s reading was a very strong privileging of a notion of demonstrative “science” over Aristotle’s own predominant use of dialectic in philosophical development. This was based on a reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics as propounding a model of “science” as a deductive enterprise expected to result in certain knowledge, which is still dominant today, but which I (following a number of modern interpreters) think involves a misreading of the basic aims of Aristotelian demonstration.

The idea that Aristotle was fundamentally concerned to develop “sciences” yielding certain knowledge gave a more dogmatic cast to his whole work, which has been a contributing factor in common negative stereotypes of Aristotle. Many modern commentators who still accept this reading of Posterior Analytics have been puzzled by the huge gap between this and Aristotle’s actual practice throughout his works, which in fact is mainly dialectical. I think a careful reading of the Topics (on dialectic) and Posterior Analytics (on demonstration) with consultation of the Greek text on the originals of some key phrases yields a view that is far more consistent with Aristotle’s actual practice.

Demonstration is a pedagogical way of showing very clear reasons for certain kinds of conclusions. It works by assuming some premises are true, whereas dialectic makes no such assumption. Thus the only necessity that results from demonstration is the “hypothetical” one that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true. But the more important point in regard to the classic syllogistic form is that the common “middle term” that allows the major and minor premises to be both formally and materially composed together illuminates why we ought to consider it appropriate to assume the conclusion is true if we believe the premises are true.

Dialectic, as I have said, is cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about meanings in the absence of initial certainty. This is how Aristotle mainly approaches things. Dialectic implicitly relies on the same logical form of syllogistic argument explicitly used in demonstration, but Aristotle distinguishes dialectic and demonstration by whether premises are treated as hypotheses to be evaluated, or as hypothetically assumed “truths” to be interpreted.

It is also important to note that in the Latin scholastic tradition, the dogmatic trend resulting from wide acceptance of claims about demonstrative science was significantly mitigated by a strong counter-trend of evenhandedly analyzing arguments pro and con, which effectively revived a form of dialectic. (See also Foundations?; Fortunes of Aristotle; Scholastic Dialectic.)