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Sunday Cavell: some things are false, nothing is true (2)

Continued from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University Press)

“(..) while the presence of symptoms (concomitants) of X can make it almost certain that X is present, the presence of a criterion of X necessarily makes it almost certain that X is present. The sense that “certainty” must be hedged, that the knowledge of reality provided, contingently or necessarily, can only be “almost” certain, is forced under the pressure of the question: But isn’t it possible that, given all the symptoms and criteria you like, the man may not in fact, then and there, be feeling pain? To which the answer seems, irresistibly, to be: Yes.” (p.39)

The brute fact of uncertainty may well be the perennial elephant in the philosophy room. I think Cavell can be read as nibbling away simultaneously at the thinking that establishes certainties and its skeptical counterpart of the certainty of our humanity as an anomaly. His sympathy for the skeptical position clearly aligns with the feeling that philosophy that deals in certainties is profoundly false and profoundly dangerous (specifically because this certainty is like sugar – or nicotine, or worse – for us human beings who cope so well with uncertainty that no computer even comes close but who, at the same time, need hooks and handles and, sometimes, a little peace of mind). Somehow the right position is somewhere in the middle – neither duck nor rabbit – but that truth, in a word, simply scares us.

As natural as it comes to us to deal with uncertainty in everyday life, as widespread is our hatred for theoretically dealing with probability, uncertainty and indeterminacy – with the scare word ‘statistics’. It was just when Hume started the empirical tradition that Bayes as well as some French mathematicians started to explore probability in a theoretical way. No amount of mathematical sophistication should fool us into forgetting how very recent this exploration is. A couple of centuries really is nothing in digesting break-through ideas to a point where we, as a culture, can integrate them in our form of life (Weltanschauung). I’m going to read this part of Cavell as interpreting Wittgenstein as coping with the brute fact of uncertainty so alien to philosophy as a clean, dehumanized, deductive framework.

“That something is a criterion of X is now – to appeal to an old thought – necessary because analytic, and therefore empirically empty. So what knowledge does it provide?” (p.42)

This quote and the former capture something essential of our concept of uncertainty: that it is not just ‘blind’ induction based on (big) data. There is a structure to uncertainty and it is that structure which has been the focus of attention of recent theorists. This structure is what the ‘new Frege’ will uncover (or, already has uncovered: maybe he is called Henry E. Kyburg Jr. or maybe Judea Pearl – or, maybe at this very moment, is uncovering in her own Begriffsschrift). Somehow, what ordinary language captures is that structure of causes and correlations. The former (causes, criteria) make it necessarily probable that an effect takes place whilst the latter (correlations) just make it probable because both are effects from an as yet still hidden cause (which, if found, would make both necessarily probable).

This is probably what Wittgenstein gets at in his specific use of the word grammar, that, in our shared language, we encode probabilistic regularities which are the true extent of our knowledge. Everything can be phrased as caused by indefinite, indeterminate descriptions which (see Davidson) do not confer certainty but do express what we believe as certainly conferring a level of support of a specific thing; that the analysis is never complete is what Cavell stresses as the basic force of the skeptical thesis.

“What the thesis now means is something like: Our relation to the world as a whole, or to others in general, is not one of knowing, where knowing construes itself as being certain.” (p. 45)

There’s no coincidence that this reads very much like O. Neurath’s parable of the boat, so central to Quine’s ideas and therefore to the discovery – within the analytical tradition – of the limits of analysis. We construct theories, grammars, in which we assess the inherent plausibility of explanations but these are never finished and always have an on the fly feel to them. If there is a point where analytic and continental (synthetic?) traditions have their Dover and Calais, this is where it is. In Cavell it is where the other (the others in general) do naturally take center stage (together with history, forms of life, horizons, …)

“It is a perspective from which skepticism and (what Kant calls) dogmatism are made in one another’s image, leaving nothing for choice.” (p. 46)

The common sense key in this consists in ‘leaving nothing for choice’. It’s specifically and characteristically (and pre-scientifically) human to try to eliminate choice; at least to limit choices. One has to understand the limits of knowledge in uncertainty together with what is knowledge’s basic motivating force: the quest for (maximizing) certainty. There may not be a neat distinction between the synthetic and analytic, there sure is a dynamic between the two (and dynamic is the important word here). After all even in Neurath’s parable it’s beyond any doubt that we want to keep the boat afloat!

“That is just a complaint he (Austin) has against traditional philosophy, that it works with paltry, arbitrary examples which stultify investigations from the outset.” (p. 52)

I can’t argue this here but there’s a way in which the philosophical (but also scientific and religious) tendency to focus on artificial examples (on anomalies, on revelations) is related to this basic drive for certainties. The truth is that in the ordinary we know that certainty is not to be had so we wind up looking for it in the extra-ordinary.

“What, more than this common ability to recognize the relevance of questions – an ability no profounder, nor less profound, than the ability to make assertions – can an ordinary language philosopher be going on when he says, about the specific object, “No reason to ask”? Nothing more. His evidence must be evidence that any mature speaker of a language can provide or recognize as significant. That is the strength of his methods, the source of their convincingness; but also their weakness, his helplessness to prove their relevance as philosophical criticisms.” (p.57)

Which kind of makes me appreciate Grice’s reference to A- and B-list philosophers as the appreciation that – failing to provide final answers – makes ordinary language philosophy seen by ordinary people as somehow missing the point of philosophy. And if we take such ordinary reactions as significant (at least relevant) we have to grant some logic to all these reactions: philosophy just has to do more than point out limits of knowledge, it needs also to make sense for us  in what we ordinarily do. It is not just science.

“But if how I make sure is dictated by what I want to know, which in turn is determined by what special reason there is for raising the question, the making sure (and hence being sure, and for that matter being certain) is not done once and for all, not by human kind.” (p. 59)

This is what is to sink in in our ordinary evolving common sense knowledge: that it really is certain that knowledge will never be complete but that at the same time it is certain that we are always building the boat (& hopefully in such a way that we always stay afloat which is by no means certain when some politicians drug us on their certainties up to the point of humanity overdosing). Cavell tries to lift technical B-insights to an A-status where they mean something to “all of us”. The way he does may be labeled as post-perfectionism (the term post-modernism doesn’t quite do as all of this is quite modern) where we not just are but realize that we are (and that that is who we are) continuously constructing – together – a new consensus. This is a position with inherent respect for history as well as the other’s opinions. It is a position of dialogue and discourse as what inherently is (can be proven to be) the good and therefor naturally ties to political philosophy of, for instance, Habermas.

“This brings out the point of the demonstrative in Wittgenstein’s formula: ” … part of the grammar … that this is what we call …”. What the demonstrative introduces is a criterion, but not an Austinian feature? Wittgensteinian or (as I will begin calling them) grammatical criteria are not marks or features which require special training or a specialized environment to have mastered, whereas Austinian (non-grammatical) criteria do.” (p.72)

The idea of demonstrating implies the presence of others (of other minds). There are two demonstratives in the quote of Wittgenstein, by the way, the this which implies physical pointing and the that just before it which implies mental (linguistic?) pointing. The other key element in this quote is the non-specialized environment which has a democratic feel to it – one of learning rather than being taught – and this is a necessary feeling because in grammar things are not and cannot be stipulated whereas in science there need to be such stipulations (inventions, hypotheses, theories) and there are de facto specializations. Still, good science is not going further and further away from common understanding, any good science is science that strives to become understood popularly (and in this sense a science that is perfect should be, but isn’t, yet, an old-fashioned and totally, utterly undemocratic notion).

“The demonstrative registers that we are to recollect those very general facts of nature or culture which we all, all who can talk and act together, do (must) in fact be using as criteria; facts we only need to recollect, for we cannot fail to know them in the sense of having never acquired them. If someone does not have them, that is not because his studies have been neglected, but because he is for some reason incapable of (or has been given up on as a candidate for) maturing into, or initiation into, full membership of the culture.” (p. 73)

The misery of perfectionism has always been and still is that not everybody fits in the boat and therefore ‘can be given up on’; that there is an avant-guard which needs to leave all of the rear-guard behind. Some things are false and this is a central one of them. It is simply false that we can make progress by giving up on the inclusiveness of the ‘we’ in terms of a full encompassing idea of humanity (or more, both in Kantian and in sci-fi terms). What is dragging us down is this notion that we are in a hurry to make some of us see the light, the real (and provable) thing is that we need the light to be seen by all of us. So if you hear or see someone saying that what he’s doing is beyond understanding of the general public, it is very possible he’s onto something but it is at the same time certain that his world view is suspect.

I’m tired now  but I have time for this:

“That’s not the way to the Metropolitan Museum; it’s only one of many routes you can, in various contexts, take to get there”. (p. 76)

This is something we all understand, in learning to get somewhere there are many things which are relevant: where you start, where you want to go, how you want to go there and, even, why you have decided to go there. Still, once we contemplate a technical problem (or a problem as purely technical) we abandon this understanding and sacrifice intelligibility in order to get where we want in our way (and this is the way we teach others to get there). We think we go faster this way but that’s just a feeling, if we persist in this way we’ll come to a stand-still soon.

Follow-up posted here.


March 6, 2016 - Posted by | boredom, Tuesday Quought | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Follow-up posted here. […]

    Pingback by Sunday Cavell: criteria are ours (1) « The Weblog | March 6, 2016

  2. Dear JoB: may I ask please, who are you and to whom are you speaking? I do not believe I have seen you address the reading group which drew me to this page, nor they you. Just wondering. Peace AK

    Comment by adkriefall | March 6, 2016

  3. PS are you learning or promoting something new via your comments on Cavell? By now, in the wake of postmodern Nietzschean orgies of difference and compulsive deconstruction, the relatively mild-mannered Wittgenstein elaborations in Claim of Reason do not feel like shattering or fresh critiques of Truth or Reason. I did not follow any of your own added jabs at certainty neuroses in modern culture–about whom do you speak? All of this amid the surreal spectacle of Trump’s unmaking of the GOP via the most extreme indifference to facts and values makes it sound like you are generalizing about a different world

    Comment by adkriefall | March 6, 2016

  4. AK, you may most certainly ask. This blog existed for a long time before you came to visit it because of the reading group which I think Josh set up. It lasted a long time as well before I joined as a regular contributor. By now the other regular contributors are gone, unfortunately. I continue to use the place to put my stuff which you may dislike. I feel no urge to relate any of this to Trump, there is more than enough of him all over the internet, way more than enough. If I am in a different world, so be it, I guess. And peace to you too.

    Comment by JoB | March 6, 2016

  5. […] from here (quotes taken from “The Claim of Reason”, Stanley Cavell, reprinted 1999, Oxford University […]

    Pingback by Sunday Cavell: Skepticism of science (3) « The Weblog | March 28, 2016

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