Thursday, March 15, 2007

Was Baudrillard a Charlatan?

When the Guardian ran a recent article on the death of Jean Baudrillard, a mass of comments followed in its wake. Some were full of absurd adoration, others were equally absurd in their dismissals. I would like to respond to my favorite comment; it is my favorite not because I think a single word of it is right, but because I am impressed by how wrong someone can be. Here are some highlights:

He was an intellectual charlatan. The basic idea that everything is a simulacrum was robustly refuted by the Anglo Saxon tradition in philosophy. It is either dishonest, or if seriously meant, false.
Baudrillard, along with Barthes, Derrida, Foucault etc, illustrates the key weakness of the French intellectual left: their refusal to acknowledge human reality…
All this has its roots in a view that we cannot know what we plainly do know - and could not get through ordinary life without knowing. In the view that what is real is in fact illusory, that what is valuable is of no importance. It is a short step from the view that nothing can be said that is not about the person saying it, to the view that nothing that is done to people or populations has any meaning other than as an expression of feeling by those doing it, and about which nothing meaningful can be said since it too will just be an expression of an equally valid but different feeling…
Any focus on human life as it is lived and felt in the real world that for Baudrillard was a simulacrum would get you out of this immoral and dishonest approach to life on the planet.
The antidote to this idiotic nonsense is GE Moore. You say you believe time is unreal. Are you really saying I cannot say whether I shaved before I ate breakfast? You say you believe the external world is unreal. Do you really mean I am not looking at a chair right now? You say you believe there is no such thing as right and wrong. Do you really mean....?

There are so many ironic turns here, that it is hard to decide where to begin. The commentator mistakenly seems to place Baudrillard in the category of philosophical skepticism of the Cartesian variety, and thinks that this has been “robustly refuted” by Anglo-Saxon philosophy (at least, I think he is suggesting that skepticism has been refuted, since that was a concern of Moore, and as far as I know no analytic philosopher has dealt with the notion of reality as a simulacrum). But what could it mean to say that skepticism has been refuted? Skepticism is not the view that there is nothing real or that there is no external world; skepticism merely doubts the existence of an external world. The only way to refute doubt is to prove that the object of that doubt really exists; but since any such proof is likely to be furnished by the real world, there is no reason not to doubt the proof. Moore’s argument, in fact, was to hold up his hands, point out that they exist, and use this as proof that the external world exists. I have always been impressed by Moore’s argument, though largely just because I’m generally impressed by arguments that completely miss the point, and Moore’s is the best illustration I’ve seen of this in the history. What skepticism requires is not a counter-proof, but a response to the doubt itself, a way of showing the origin of the doubt and drawing the consequence that the doubt is unwarranted. To the best of my knowledge, the best approach along these lines is taken by Heidegger in Being and Time.

Next, the commentator accuses Baudrillard, along with much of the Continental tradition, of taking a view of morality that grounds it exclusively on feeling. But I am not aware of any continental philosopher holding that view. The idea that morality is nothing but the expression of a speaker’s emotions was, in fact, never taken seriously as a philosophical doctrine until A. J. Ayer. The special irony, of course, is that for logical positivists the view that morality is just an expression of emotion arises directly out of the view that only the physical world is real; that it is, in fact, the only reality. But Baudrillard never rejects morality; rather, he gives us an analysis of a world in which such things don’t matter, or in which “nothing that is done to people or populations has any meaning” other than as a media spectacle. Perhaps that is too extreme a characterization of our world, and Baudrillard is unquestionably guilty of hyperbole. But if our world is dangerously close to being a world in which all moral considerations, all the horrors of war, are concealed by Hollywood-esque montages on the news, then the best way of affirming the importance of morality may well be to diagnose the social malady that threatens to conceal this importance. This is what Baudrillard tried to do. Perhaps he was not always right, perhaps he was too provocative for his own good, and perhaps he lacked the philosophical depth needed to tackle these problems. But how many Anglo-Saxon philosophers have really made that effort?

But it is also a mistake to see Baudrillard as a philosopher. He is by training a sociologist. And he is something else: a philosophically informed public intellectual, that is, a species so rare in the Anglo-American world that we have trouble recognizing them when we see them. This isn’t to say that nobody tries: plenty of philosophers have political blogs (such as this one), but these tend to vacillate between academic philosophy and political commentary on a level not far removed from that of many other political blogs. Baudrillard tried to do something else: he tried to diagnose the social framework that we inhabit, within which our political and moral decisions take place.

But let us briefly turn to Baurdillard’s most provocative thesis: that reality has been replaced by the simulacrum. First off, again, this is clearly not a version of skepticism: Baudrillard it not doubting reality; rather, he is pointing out that we now experience reality through a media veil; for us, reality is simulated. This idea is both catchy and seemingly insane; when I first read Simulations as an undergrad, I would go outside and stand in the snow, feeling the snowflakes melt on my cheeks, feeling cold wind blowing through me—this, I told myself, was no simulation, it was reality at its strongest. But take something like love. Love, we might think, is the epitome of real human feeling. But in what sense is the obsession with love, my obsession, our cultural obsession, genuine? Where do we pick up the idea that love is the most important human feeling, that without it no life can be complete? From movies, maybe, and from the lyrics to every other song that’s come out in the past 50 years. Benjamin worried that mechanical reproduction would destroy the aura of the work of art; instead, it has perhaps made the works more precious, given them a greater aura. It seems to have done so for emotions. It is not only art works that can be mechanically reproduced; human emotions are just as easy to put on a screen and transmit. In other words, the argument that reality is “real,” and not a simulacrum is a tricky one—which of our feelings, of our perceptions, of our habitual ways of thinking are really “real”? In a way, the point is almost meaningless—of course human feelings, perceptions and thoughts are shaped by their environment; that has always been true, and it has not made these things “less real.” But what if the forces that shape us now are concerned only with more excitement, with sensationalism, with providing an entertaining spectacle? Does that make a difference? Does that somehow corrupt reality, turn it into something else? That was the question that concerned Baudrillard.

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Would Husserl Believe in Qualia?

Recently I’ve been trying to work out what Husserl might have thought about qualia. Since I work on Husserl, and since I'm congenitally put off by the notion of qualia, I’ve been trying hard to convince myself that Husserl would also have rejected the idea. I’m now pretty sure that this is right. Here’s one part of my overall case.

There are three reasons why people--both specialists and nonspecialists in Husserl--assume that Husserl was (or would have been) a believer in qualia: his commitments to 1) the irreducibility of consciousness; 2) the immanence of intentional states; and 3) the presence of nonrepresentational content--usually referred to by Husserl as ‘hyletic data’--in experience. I limit my remarks to the third reason because it is the most likely to be of interest to nonHusserlians.

Most defenders of qualia define a quale as a nonrepresentational feature intrinsic to experience and accessible to introspection. Husserl’s (early) notion of hyle seems to fall under this category. From the beginning Husserl rejected the notion that sensations (either of the Humean, or of the Moorean/Russellian sort) were primary objects of intentional consciousness. This was an essential consequence of Brentano’s discovery of intentionality: the objects of our experience go beyond those experiences themselves. (Phenomenologists refer to this as the ‘transcendence’ of intentional consciousness; it is one reason why no analysis of the actual contents or parts of a mental state, either in terms of phenomenal content--eg red patches, high tones, rough feels--or physical states--eg neural states--will ever get at the contents conscious states are conscious of--a special method is needed for that, namely phenomenology). Hence, sensations might be essential means by which I am aware of perceptual objects, but they are not themselves the objects of which I am aware. Still, in Husserl’s early theory (primarily in Logical Investigations), raw sense-data are interpreted through intentional, objectivating acts as presenting perceptual objects. This picture is broadly Kantian. When we analyze any given experience, we find that there is an intuitional, or sensory component, and then a conceptual framework which, when applied to that sensory content, ‘animates’ that content into the representation of an object. Hence, such sensory content is not by itself representational. Yet when we reflect upon our experiences the presence of such nonrepresentational content is evident. Thus, there seem to be for Husserl nonrepresentational features intrinsic to every experience and evident to introspection. Husserl calls this stuff hyle, but it seems very much like what is now referred to as qualia.

Now, qualia theories of all sorts are committed to the following proposition: there can be a change in the sensory or phenomenal features of an experience without there being any change in the representational content of that experience. For instance, as I stare at a tomato, the particular red hue of the tomato might alter some, and though this alteration is a change in my experience, I am still seeing the same tomato, Thus, despite changes in the sensory components of my experience the representational content of that experience has not changed. I suspect that when fully fleshed out, even Husserl’s earlier theory would not support this claim. That is to say, even given Husserl’s concept of hyle, I suspect that changes in hyletic data would for Husserl always signal corresponding changes, however trite, in the representational content of that experience. But this exegetical claim is not one I am interested in defending here, and that is because Husserl ends up rejecting this picture altogether and for good reason.

In Husserl’s later theories he replaces the concept of hyletic data with the concept of affective unities. Affective unities are so called because they are passive unities, aspects of an experience not constituted by ‘spontaneous’ acts. (This distinction may seem troublesome to some, but really, it is more or less just how McDowell and Sellars understand the difference between perception and judgment). Husserl began to make this switch around the time that he began to concentrate seriously on the phenomenology of time consciousness. Obviously I am not willing to go over that entire development here, though suffice it to note that an upshot of that analysis is the rejection of even the notional coherence of a discrete, isolatable, self-contained ‘now’ point; all temporal consciousness (and hence, all perceptual consciousness) essentially involves a dynamic field of retentions and protentions by means of which consciousness of the present is constituted. But if there is no discrete now, there is also no discrete sense-datum (because there is no discreteness period). Second, he argues that these affective unities are kinaesthetically (or ‘enactively’) realized. A battery of stimuli to the sense organs does not constitute perceptual experience. Perceiving the environment rather is knowing how to navigate within the environment in response to changes in that environment, and knowing what changes to expect. ‘Knowing’ in this case is obviously a sort of know-how, and can still be considered ‘passive’ only in the sense that no conscious judgments need be involved.

Back to Qualia: If the notion of affective unities in perception is coherent and correct, they make appeals to brute sense-qualities of experience (the blueness of the ocean, the sting of a needle prick) pretty incoherent. There simply is no brute, raw sense data (and hence, nothing that it is like to have such sense experiences). The kinaesthetic theory of perception, on the other hand, manages to get what one wants from a qualia theory without the qualia. Despite their mysticism, qualia theories do get right that there is an important difference between the appearing of an object and the object that appears. They then try to explain this difference by distinguishing between the representational content of an experience (the object that appears) and its phenomenal qualities (the appearing of the object). But consider this same distsinction from within the kinaesthetic framework: modes of presentation (the appearing of an object) are a function of one’s relation to the object. A coffee can appears rectangular from a direct horizontal angle, then appears circular as I raise my gaze to over top of it. As I move, I am only conscious of the same coffee can, and I do not suppose that it mysteriously morphs from rectangular to circular. This is because (to borrow a notion from Alva Noë) my experiences do not only represent objects, but they also represent my relations to objects, where I am--bodily--in respect to the object in the environment. These relations, let me iterate, are real; they really exist, and my experience really presents them. Thus, being presentational, even the features of an experience which are not part of its representational factual content are still representational. And this obviously contradicts the fundamental proposition of qualia theory: for while a change in my relative position towards an object would change the sensory content of that experience without changing the representational content, it will most certainly (by definition) affect the presentational content of my relation to that object. Thus, the kinaesthetic theory does not have any room for a change in sensory content not amounting to a change in representational content. Thus, it would be wrong to interpret the appearing of the object as opposed to the object which appears as describing qualia.

I realize of course that I have hardly made any arguments in defense of these views. But that was not my point. My point rather was only to make the case that Husserl, especially in his later works, develops a notion of experience which has no place for qualia. IF Husserl does indeed develop in the direction I claim, and IF indeed the theory in this direction both gets rid of qualia while managing to explain the single meager thing qualia theory gets right, then I have made my case. That's all.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Naturalist Free Will?

I have been wondering about the goals, advantages, and limits of naturalism. Although for the most part philosophers seem to have dropped crude physical reductionism, naturalism in one form or another continues to occupy a dominant place. I suppose that the major appeal of naturalism is that by sticking to it, one avoids looking like a lunatic; after all, what could be more obvious than that the sciences give us hard truths? These may, of course, be revisable, but it seems ridiculous to suggest that we can ignore empirical evidence and come up with “facts” about reality from the comfort of an armchair (to be honest, I find couches much more comfortable, but those seem to have been reserved by psychoanalysts or, at least, their patients; philosophers in similar predicaments are supposed to use fly-bottles, and let me tell you, those are just not soft enough).

On the other hand, however, naturalism can threaten to reduce philosophy to bad science—that is, if philosophers start to focus primarily on formulating all philosophical theses in ways that open them to possible empirical verification, then strictly speaking there is no more philosophy; there is only a set of hypotheses which, presumably, science will one day be able to check out in order to resolve the problem once and for all. I am not saying that this shouldn’t be one of the things it may be worthwhile for philosophers to pursue, but any thoroughgoing naturalism seems to me to run into the standard Kantian problem: If science alone is the arbiter of truth, then what arbitrates the claim that science is the arbiter of truth? There are different ways of answering this question, but for obvious conceptual reasons, science simply cannot be self-legitimating. Thus, to take science as the ultimate—and sole—arbiter of truth is really to miss something about the facts as we know them, specifically that science is a human enterprise, linked to human projects and modes of reasoning that at some level cannot themselves be open to complete scientific analysis without begging the question.

If rejecting naturalism seems a bit ridiculous, accepting it in certain philosophical contexts can have far stranger consequences. Let’s take as an example the way philosophers commonly deal with free will, which strikes me as a non-naturalistic concept par excellence. One strong trend has been to do everything conceivable to avoid reaching that most horrible and utterly unscientific conclusion of noumenal causation, proposed by Kant. Even those who, like Davidson, want to say that not all meaningful discourse is reducible to physical description, still want to avoid a stance that veers too far from naturalism of some sort. Davidson’s anomalous monism is designed only to suggest how we might meaningfully talk about psychological causality without reducing it to physical causality. This is an important and interesting approach in its own right, but I am not convinced that it helps if one wants to develop a theory of libertarian freedom. Kant, after all, believed that psychological causality, even if it is not reducible to physical causality, still belongs to the domain of determinism because psychological states are phenomena; they are empirical entities, and are subject to the same law-like behavior as all other empirical entities (for Kant, this is the condition stipulated by the Second Analogy).

Of course it is possible that Kant was wrong in his insistence that all phenomena are subject to causal law, and that is in fact the position most commonly taken by incompatibilists: if we have libertarian freedom, then determinism must be false as van Inwagen argued. To accommodate naturalism, then, libertarians have gone to great lengths to devise a concept of agency that fits into a view of the rest of the world as we know it through science. For example, there is the theory of agent causation, i.e., that agents somehow are the causes of their own action. Or there is the attempt to argue that decisions are completely uncaused by prior events, and this is accompanied by a desperate appeal to quantum indeterminacy, which will hopefully somehow match up to our deliberative processes. Perhaps the most desperate, while also the most brilliant and innovative attempt is to hold on to some version of strong determinism but insist that it allows for
backward causation—all physical events are caused by previous physical events, but our choices are capable of affecting the entire causal chain, future and past.

This desperation brings out what I think is one of the great advantages of naturalism in philosophy: by trying to squeeze themselves into a bottle, philosophers are forced to come up with increasingly ingenious approaches. But is it wise to be limited to this bottle in the first place? Are these attempts to explain free will really so much more reasonable than the proposal of noumenal causation? Why can’t we postulate a second discourse, irreducible to scientific discourse and yet still meaningful by other criteria? To be sure, it is probably wise to avoid claims that clearly oppose scientific data, and that very loose criterion of naturalism seems perfectly sound. But a properly formulated non-naturalist discourse would be a sort of discourse that could not, in principle, conflict with scientific conclusions. The attempt to formulate such a discourse was the point of Kant’s transcendental idealism, and it was carried over into the various projects of phenomenology. Why, then, should we dismiss the notion of a discourse that was, in a sense, tailor made to account both for free will and for the possibility of scientific cognition?

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ill Communication

My friends and I used to play a game. The goal was to come up with the most ridiculous dissertation title. For instance: Carnap and Hintikka: Solitude in the Face of the Other; Derrida and Kripke: What’s the Differance? Not funny per se, I admit, but philosophy-geek amusing. My favorites always involved the pairing of Heidegger and Quine. Par example: Bound Variables and Finitude: Enframing Quine. It might start something like this:

‘Let’s consider the question of being. Here’s what Heidegger has to say about the subject: "Something like 'being' discloses itself in the understanding of being that belongs to existing Da-sein as a way in which it understands. The preliminary disclosure of being, although it is unconceptual, makes it possible for Da-sein as existing being-in-the-world to be related to beings, to those it encounters in the world as well as to itself in existing" (Being and Time, p 398, Stambaugh Translation). Here's what Quine--not so many years later--has to say: "To be is…purely and simply, to be…the value of a bound variable" (From a Logical Point of View, W. V. Quine, p13). Both of these statements are, I venture, rather clear on the terms each has set. This may be a bit hard for the analytic-leaning to accept on Heidegger’s part, but honestly, this is one of the clearer statements he makes on the topic.

Now, imagine Heidegger responding to Quine: “You just don’t get it. You talk only about beings, about rocks and flies and pimples, while you completely miss the question of being itself. If you don’t understand that distinction, I would direct you to the opening sections of my own Being and Time. There you will discover that the question of being is the fundamental question, that it comes before any question about beings can be asked, and therefore that the only arena in which one can even begin to investigate the notion of being is through fundamental ontology. Have you noticed that in all your talk about ontological commitment, you never once ask about the being of the being to which you are commited? And how can you talk about a world without first discussing the worldliness of the world? And are you actually so ignorant of the fact that your very way of thinking about being is an inheritance from a Western tradition rooted in Greek thought that you have not ever asked about this tradition itself? You’ve been entwurfed and enframed and technized so profoundly, and you’re so deep in inauthenticity, that you can’t tell which way’s up! Where’s your conscience, Mann?

Now consider Quine’s counter-reply: “What one earth are you talking about? Quite literally, you make no sense. It is not prudeness, ontological or otherwise, that advises my use of the tools of quantification to solve this little problem of being. If you weren’t such a boor, you’d have realized long ago that quantification precisely is the ‘worldliness’ of the world, only it doesn’t sound nearly so f@#king pretentious. Plus, when we restrict existence (or Being or Be-ing or Seyn or whatever the hell you want to call it) to the definitions in quantification, perennial problems like the ones you traffic in are nicely and neatly resolved. In your ‘Contributions’ (which yes, I’ve read with keen interest, and disdain) you seem proud of your concept of das Nicht. Of course, you prance around the issue for a good 500 ponderous and insufferable pages, getting nowhere (which I’m sure you’ll say is exactly where das Nicht is found), whereas I would direct your attention to my short and sweet little paper, ‘On What there Is,’ where I clear up the entire issue in just 18 pages. Of course, if you’d spent more time studying logic and less trying to cull trite nonsense out of the mystic ramblings of hairy, pudgy-eyed shamans dead since two millennia, maybe you’d have realized this already. So, feel free to write book after book if you like about das Nicht nichting and being withdrawing and free-throws and four-folds, but seriously, you’d produce more profoundity growing Spargel in your garden. ”

Is there a point to any of this? Well, comparing Quine and Heidegger is something of a joke, but I still think that there is common if contested ground where the two unwittingly meet. For instance, a discussion about whether Heidegger’s ‘worldliness’ really could be understood as the logical framework of language is not nonsense, and could be interesting. Heideggarians might have more of a stake in this discussion, but it is nonetheless a discussion in which Quineans could engage, if so obliged. I can also envision a discussion with the onus reversed: Quine is after all a bit blasé about whether other sorts of conditions might have to be met, besides linguistic competence and behavior, in order to get radical translation off the ground. Davidson criticizes Quine on this score, arguing that some awareness of an objective world, in addition to behavior and utterances, is a necessary third condition needed to make the notion of radical translation complete. Davidson says very little about what this awareness of an objective world might amount to, but perhaps it is, like Heidegger argues vis-à-vis the notion of ‘worldliness’, much more variegated, complicated, and yes, wooly, than either Davidson or Quine consider. Anyway, maybe both of these lines of discussion would fizzle under further scrutiny, but even so, the idea is not intrinsically laughable.

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Why This Blog?

Recent discussions over at the Leiter blog have focused on issues of pluralism, and the question of whether there are really methodologies and approaches to philosophy that both differ from the standard, mainstream analytic ones and are worth taking seriously. Discussion there tends to be a bit one sided, but one issue that comes up over and over is the question of whether we can really define methodologies. Those who want to claim that analytic departments are frequently already pluralist departments, without the need for any continental input, tend to argue along the following lines: we cannot clearly define what the analytic style or approach to philosophy is. Therefore, it makes no sense to speak of styles opposed to the analytic one, since it makes no sense to speak of not-x unless we have some identifiable x. There is also difficulty in defining the supposedly different styles, and Leiter has claimed that of the legitimate candidates for these, phenomenology is somehow moribund, while Foucauldian and Critical Theory approaches have very few competent practitioners. While all of these claims are questionable, the implication is that the only viable approach to philosophy is that taken by mainstream analytics. Furthermore, this is not a definable style, but just the best way of doing philosophy: it emphasizes clarity and argument, and what could be better than that!

But there are different approaches, though it is crucial to point out that difference does not imply opposition: while one cannot work simultaneously in two styles, one can both address the works of one style within another, and attempt to blend the styles into a new approach. The fact that both the analytic approach and the other approaches are hard to define doesn’t mean that these approaches don’t differ. The best way into the question is not to try to clearly define these approaches, but simply to read the output of their practitioners. A Heidegger or a Gadamer simply does not write like a Quine or a Davidson, and though they may sometimes address similar questions, the approaches to those questions can differ in important ways. If one wants a definition of Heidegger’s approach laid out clearly in the terminology and style of the analytic approach, one is looking for something incoherent, which is why Leiter’s suggestion that continental philosophers should have to justify their methods before there is any reason to take them seriously is a merely rhetorical device. The conclusion to draw is not that since we cannot define any continental styles, this must mean that there are none; it is that understanding those styles requires an engagement with them.

While views on this issue differ, our experience is that analytic and continental philosophers are not, overall, either opposed or hostile to each other’s approaches. More frequently, there is simply a lack of knowledge about methodologies and approaches that are not one’s own. This is understandable. Someone who works on Heidegger can easily get away with not reading van Inwagen, just as someone whose primary interests lie in utilitarianism will probably need to read Moore, but will not suffer professionally for lack of knowledge of Levinas. But this doesn’t mean that a familiarity with both sides will not make for more interesting styles and approaches, and limiting oneself to a single methodology simply out of an ungrounded belief that the others are incoherent places unnecessary limits on philosophical thought. This is the issue we hope to address here.

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