The Weblog

Home for the heteronomous

Sunday Cavell: Skepticism of science (3)

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

“What experience? Well, of course, an experience or sense that one may know nothing about the real world. But what kind of an experience is that? How or when does it emerge?” (p. 140).

I wrote in the margin: ‘Nothing: so close to everything.’ There’s a sense in which the sign of the times is that we know everything. What kind of an experience is that? Being certain, so certain that no room is left for doubt, means that there’s no room left for others – at least not if these others are unlike you. This experience used to be reserved for faith but now it’s more and more associated with science. If we don’t know, it’s just because we didn’t try to know. It sounds a lot like: ‘If we don’t believe, it’s just because we didn’t try to believe.’ In the two cases skepticism is reserved for others and the prize is certainty for themselves. It is a neat and comfortably conservative split. The more nuance you put (the higher cultural or moral construct in a Carnapian sense), the easier it is dismissed. Nobody doubts objects anymore because they are established by science. If there is such a thing as minds they are of the type that can be read of by a suitably complex imaging device.

I’m as scientific as the next guy (probably a lot more scientific, in fact) but I won’t have it. Shit ain’t simple, mathematics is. It’s not because something is hard to understand that it is complex Neither vice versa: it is not because something is everyday common sense that it is simple to get to the bottom of.

Meet philosophy.

“A soldier being instructed in guard duty is asked: ‘Suppose that while you’re on duty in the middle of a desert you see a battleship approaching your post. What would you do?’ The soldier repliers: ‘I’d take my torpedo and sink it’. The instructor is, we are to imagine, perplexed: ‘Where would you get the torpedo?’ & he is answered: ‘The same place you got the battleship.'” (p. 151).

Science is used like that: take the battleship and the desert for granted and then make the next move. The Socratic teacher knows the Socratic answer and the above joke, if it works, works precisely because of a skepticism that is not allowed in the situation. It resonates in many because this ‘scientific’ position Socrates created is at the rock bottom human level unfair. This sense of unfairness really is an issue for science because science was created to deal with the unfairness of not being able to state and reason your own point of view.

“(..) for the traditionalist feels the ordinary language philosopher so desperately to have betrayed the martyrs of science as to compile natural histories from the comfort of his armchair.

One can understand, and sometimes forgive, the anger in this exchange. But such an exchange does not seem to reveal the nature of the real conflicts of these positions. The issue between them is, so far as it concerns the appeals to what is ordinarily said, is not whether one of them is ‘scientific’ and the other not, but concerns the nature of the sort of appeal to ordinary language which is relevant to philosophizing.” (p. 153).

I’m tired and quite possibly not making a lot of sense, least of all to those skeptical of the type of skepticism I’m employing. Still, there is a sense in which traditionalism of all ages – including our modern creation of Enlightenment conservatism – is angry at the ordinary and its power of creation of language, of science. ‘Why can’t they sit still for a while?’ is an outcry commonplace teachers are commonly associated with. It just can’t be the case that the uninitiated can claim the power of initiating something new. Yet they do. And it does annoy the hell out of anybody thinking the truth is constructed and not being constructed, or deconstructed or whatever the hell these post-modernists say.

“I understand ordinary language philosophy not as an effort to reinstate vulgar old beliefs, or common sense, to a pre-scientific position of eminence, but to reclaim the human self from its denial and neglect by modern philosophy.” (p. 154)

Because what we have lost is the humanism which the Enlightenment tried to defend and which, for some, has become the very essence of woolly continental talk of others and the importance (I dare say the primacy) of living (and – for as long as it still lasts on the path we’re on now – breathing) together. It is as if Bergson’s élan vital  is constantly being kept in check by a Nietzschean will to power which can’t be anything else than the will to keep things same old same old. Science in this sense is becoming more and more a new religion and less and less a result of critical thought by and for the people (ten specialists thinking critically together do not the people make!).

“But why should a method which ordinarily yields unworried conviction turn out to yield, in the philosopher’s hands, a conclusion whose conviction will not detach from the context of investigation itself?” (p. 165).

I have been consciously turning skepticism of the ordinary into skepticism of science, and therefore as a tool against specialist knowledge. I think – but do not specifically care – that this is in line with what Cavell is trying to get at in taking skepticism seriously. Science is the new ordinary. It is taken to explain without the need to account for anything outside of science. This is a point of view not uncommon among scientists but certainly progressively more common with non-scientists. That is a good thing as long as it can be criticized and – hence – allows to be improved upon. But (you’ll need to continue my little inversion):

“And this is, or it ought to be, a problem for a philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language in a way it is not a problem for a philosopher who is willing to simply to say that ordinary language is vague and imprecise and that it is hardly  to be wondered that we can’t be clear as to our meaning until we put our assertions into logical form or a scientific vocabulary.” (p. 166).

So this is the problem for a philosopher of logical form: if anything would be settled by the better precision and unambiguity of marshaled languages (and believe you me: it will take a lot of marshals to enforce such a language), why doesn’t anything essential ever seem to get settled by this ‘scientific’ approach. The scare quotes around scientific are there since scientific is normally not scary, it needs the abuse of quotes to be understood that way.

Donald Davidson amongst so many other philosophers who really got us to advance in the understanding of the logic and precision underlying language realized this problem (for a quick read, see this). He did not dismiss it just because he could not solve it. There lies the value of skepticism. I will largely skip Cavell’s excursion on Wittgenstein, who obviously is the most paradigmatic example of furthering the understanding of logic and precision in language and at the same time showing the limitations of this understanding, but I’ll give you this:

“One might think of poetry as the second inheritance of language. Or, if learning a first language is thought of as the child’s acquiring of it, then poetry can be thought of as the adult’s acquiring of it, as coming into possession of his or her own language, full citizenship.” (p. 189).

I sincerely believe this is why Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar does double duty. It is in the grammar of ‘grammar’ to be both precise and creative.

Follow-up posted here.


March 28, 2016 - Posted by | boredom, Tuesday Quought | , , , , , , , , ,

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: