a philosophy blog


In this lecture, Luno patrols the border between induction and existentialism, finding a critique of analytic philosophy.

I trained formally as an analytic philosopher. Most of the philosophical literature I directly address in my writing is analytic. But my sympathies are nearly always with the existentialist and literary traditions in philosophy. My first entry into philosophy as a young man was through literature.

I don’t consider what I do as analytic philosophy—or existentialism, for that matter. If I must call myself something, I think it would be most accurate to say I am a philosophical writer or a literary moralist, but this is beside the point of what I am going to write about here. I use those labels to describe aspects of what I do because they are somewhat recognizable. What I want to explain here is something about the relationship between what is called analytic philosophy with its strong science bias and forms of philosophy that constrain their methods less, which would include much of what is called (mostly in English-speaking countries) Continental philosophy and which I take to compass existentialism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis (in some forms), Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, and the post- and neo- forms of these. With the exception of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I am not well versed in the Continental traditions after Kant. In this, I am not untypical among analytic philosophers.

Philosophy is massive, deep, and rich in species, even if we confine ourselves to just Western philosophy. I would study it in all its varieties if I could live long enough. The Varieties of Philosophical Experience (pace James) would be a nice book. The idea would be a first hand account of the experience of practicing them, not a survey of theories. Sort of like the opportunity Tiresias was given by the gods to live life as a man and then as a woman for a time. And then be able to “compare and contrast” with authority. (He was blinded for revealing secrets he wasn’t supposed to by one god and rewarded with insight and foresight by another for doing exactly that.)

As it is, I only know a fair amount about analytic philosophy. Perhaps because those topics closest to my heart are delicate, and being perhaps a little intellectually clumsy, I have felt that I could break nothing important by doing analytic philosophy. Its tools are both oddly blunt and refined at once. Too blunt to address the really important questions which pure analytic philosophy doesn’t even see, let alone try to answer. Sufficiently refined to get results, oddly irrelevant results most of the time. Once in a long while, though, maybe not. Analytic philosophers are at their best demolishing things. And the very best ones undermine even their own modest aspirations. In this they are the contemporary heirs of ancient skepticism.

I want to address here the chief virtues and limitations of the philosophy I know best. And I want to do it in the analytic style because I am most comfortable with it. That means I am going to move slowly and deliberately in parsing a simple problem and with as much clarity and precision as I can muster. (Or start out that way. You will notice, however, that the simplicity of the problem fades and the clarity, too. Or maybe my skills. Or will. At any rate, my writing will reel out of control.) I will start out with a very familiar problem to analytic philosophers and show how it leads to an impasse that can only be traversed if we open our minds to ways of thinking about the human world that assume there are other virtues than those so dear to analytic philosophers—others, that is, than clarity of terms and precision in argument. And I will argue the choice not to attempt to traverse the impasse is not an option with intellectual integrity. Those who shirk the responsibility are either lacking seriously as philosophers or as human beings.

The problem is the one David Hume is famous for noticing a few centuries ago: the problem of induction or the justification of the principle of the uniformity of nature. It is the assumption we must be making every night when we set our alarm clocks. We assume there will be a tomorrow to wake up to. That one day will follow the next with regularity and with a familiarity we can plan for. The assumption that leads us to dress for the weather, to buy groceries, to take precautions for what we have good reason to think might happen. Such as that there will be weather of some sort and that we will soon be hungry. About the only people who can begin to dispense with assuming the principle of the uniformity of nature are those on their death bed. Since they are about to leave nature, whether it is really uniform or not loses its urgency as a concern. They might be excused for dabbling in open-mindedness about it.

The principle is sometimes expressed as the view that one point in time and space is similar to any other point in space and time. Gravity, for example, works in the United States. I have never been to China but the principle makes me think it works there, too. If I drop a pen, I expect it will fall to the floor and not up to the ceiling. If I come up with a remedy that has been shown to cure a disease if the remedy is taken on Tuesday morning, I would expect that it would work on a Wednesday morning as well. Barring some bizarre information I am missing, I have no reason to think otherwise and the principle tells me that in the absence of such information I am perfectly sane to have this expectation.

Now logically, of course, it is conceivable there is, unknown to me, something about a Tuesday morning that is essential to the cure. After all, it is not out of the question that the time of day might matter to the cure, perhaps our metabolism is in a different state Tuesday morning than it is Tuesday afternoon. Morning versus afternoon might matter. But the days of the week, as far as I can tell, are not what they are for some biological reason. But again I wouldn’t swear to it. Still, if I am wrong in this assumption, the burden is elsewhere to explain why I am wrong. The principle allows me not to sweat the burden, to put it off and forge ahead.

The principle assures me that when I have seen something happen a thousand times in more or less the same way I am justified in assuming it will happen that way again. This is because things happen in space and time. And if the spaces and times where the thing has happened all those times in the past have all been similar to each other and I have no reason to think that another place and time is going to be any different why not expect the thing to happen again?

And if I do have reason to think another place and time is going to be different, then I have reason to think something different might happen. But where did I learn that lesson? From the principle of the uniformity of nature, of course. When conditions are different, things don’t always happen the same as when the conditions are the same. The principle allows the past to condition my thinking, streamline it, as it were, so that it slips though life with the least resistance. Letting the past guide you in judgments and decisions about the future is an aerodynamic principle of thought. We get results by taking it for granted.

Science has gotten great results by founding its method upon the principle of the uniformity of nature. If cures only worked on arbitrary days, if pens fell off tables every which way, if every other bite of our toast was poison, we would be in a sorry state. The world seems to encourage us in every way to believe it doesn’t play games with us. Following its hints is what we have come to call being rational. Science is about showing a little discipline in our hunches about things. To take hints from our memory of having seen this before. To discriminate among the repetitions we can remember and hearken only to those that show a certain pattern. A pattern is a little different from a repetition. A pattern correlates many things. Not just one event happening before another but a web of events happening together. The thing is, however, there is no rule about how ramified the pattern can be to warrant our attention. How complicated it can get before it looks like a mess. This is the art part of science. The fuzzy, slightly embarrassing, part.

But there is of course something even more deeply embarrassing at the heart of science that Hume put his finger on.

To make this clear, I will use a famous illustration from Bertrand Russell (the least existential of philosophers). Russell describes a chicken who has lived all its life in a barnyard, for which it can’t be blamed. I mean we all have to live all our lives somewhere. And the only experiences we can possibly have had to draw on are those we in fact did have (I don’t mean another possible us but the one we are). Every morning since before the chicken can remember the farmer had come out with a bag of feed. Every single morning without exception the chicken would see the farmer and know it was time to eat.

But one morning the farmer did not have a bag of feed. He carried an ax in his hand and these would be the chicken’s last moments on earth.

What were our poor chicken’s thoughts this morning? Let’s assume our farmer had always had only one chicken and that the chicken had never seen an ax before or what it might be used for. Perhaps, somewhere in its gut it sensed, without knowing, something was very wrong about this scene. You might be inclined to think chickens don’t think. But doom need not be an idea, it might be a feeling, perhaps even a sensation. And all these things are vulnerable to being conditioned by the principle of the uniformity of nature. In any case, compare the poor chicken’s with this case:

Just before 8:46 am on September 11, 2001 an insurance broker, call him Bill, was standing at a window behind his desk talking on the phone with a co-worker or spouse or friend. He worked on the 96th floor in a building that when it was built some thirty years before was one of a pair that were the tallest in the world. Tourists from all over the world (including me, as a matter of fact) had come over the years to take in the view from the top.

As he spoke on the phone, Bill noticed still far off in the distance on this beautiful September morning a low flying commercial airliner seemingly headed his way. He continued talking for a few seconds. Having worked in this building for many years it was not uncommon to see airliners a little more up close than we are used to at ground level, but this one was flying unusually low. It may have taken him a few seconds for it to dawn on him that something was more than a little odd. But only a few seconds—because the plane was closing in fast and looming larger by the second. It was not turning. At a certain point he stopped talking and put the phone down. The plane was headed straight for his face.

In the few more seconds before his body would be atomized along with everything and everyone near him, what might he have been thinking? Was thought even possible in those moments? Was he in a different position than the chicken? He had had countless phone conversations at about this time every morning for years from this desk, looking out of this window at this view, and nothing like this had ever happened.

For both the chicken and Bill the principle of the uniformity of nature failed. The lubrication it offers consciousness as it slips through its course dried up in an instant. It does that sometimes. Infrequently enough that we are permitted to relax into its surety during those long stretches of monotonous regularity.

But time and space, the objective scientist will tell us may still be uniform. We just lack perfect information and that is why it seems sometimes that it isn’t. This morning for Bill was one of a lack of information.

Since when do we—any of us any of the time—have anything approaching perfect information? Moreover, actually when we think we may be especially well-informed, that precisely is when the principle is most operative, most likely to have us in its grip, and that is when its failure would most impress us: This, that is happening, cannot be happening.

The principle never assumes we have perfect information. Just that we have what to us seems like a lot of it, all of it past. And from this we draw conclusions or accrue expectations about the future.

The principle is part of the furniture of human consciousness. A sturdy chair that almost never fails us. Hume thought this. It is not a feature of the world independent of our consciousness. How would we know if it were? The principle cannot be used to prove itself. All proofs of anything that has to do with the world outside our own thoughts themselves rely on the principle as foundation. Any attempt at proof of the principle is circular. We may as well lift ourselves into the air by our boot straps. I cannot say the principle is true because it has always been true. Because even if had always been true in the past, it is its application in the future, not the past, that worries us. It is there, among things that have not yet happened, that we wonder about its truth. Will time and space tomorrow allow similar things to happen as did yesterday—or even a few seconds from now as a few seconds ago? We cannot carry out experiments in the future. I mean carry them out now so we don’t have to wait until the future is past to see the results.

This is our predicament. Whatever the principle may tell us when all is going as planned or expected—or not going as planned or as expected but as we feared (since the principle teaches us fear, too)—whatever is in some sense true about uniformity in the things that condition events in general, is it perceived, can it be perceived by us at any given moment in time?

It will seem at times to human beings, as to chickens, going about their business that time and space are not uniform. There are anomalies to prepare for as best we can. To do so requires resources that the principle by itself cannot provide. Since the principle also under girds the methods of science, not to say much of rational thought as a whole, those fields of human inquiry require supplementation as well and are in no position to help us.

Analytic philosophy is impressed by the success of science, especially in the last two centuries, and has adopted certain of its features including clarity and precision in the statement of its goals and methods and the incremental approach in addressing difficult problems. With the increasing democratization of institutions, it has become professionalized and specialized. Philosophers now work in teams or packs. They scrutinize each others’ work ad nauseam. The shared understanding is that solid insights will survive the fray.

Analytic philosophy admires the discipline in science that has produced such tangible results.

A school of philosophy, such as the analytic, so intimate with science that it shares its fundamental assumptions about what can help us make our way productively through life, assumptions that manifestly fail us with a regular irregularity that perhaps goes unnoticed because apparently it is not conducive to our survival to be so observant, is going to be incomplete. Real anxiety about the principle’s reliability is considered pathological. The worry is supposed to be academic. And, except when it’s not, it is.

Because science is a good time method and analytic philosophy is its drinking buddy, life is good. It is most of the time. Most of the time is most of the time. Nothing like a tautology to assure us of something. Most of the time the principle works for us. So we build whole cultures of thought to occupy us during those long stretches. Whole cultures riding on principles such as the one that failed the chicken and Bill.

But philosophy is unlike science in this one respect. Philosophy doesn’t have a good excuse for closing its eyes to what may tip the apple cart. Science studies regularities. This is useful for survival. Curiosity about what can be done to prolong and ease survival in a material world must have been the initial impetus for the earliest scientific gestures. Philosophy, supposedly, is not so confined to utility and survival. It aspires to a view of the matter that is true—true, pure and simple, not because it suits us. As long as the exceptions are rare we, most of us most of the time, can cope with the background anxiety about the reliability of the rule as a practical matter. Philosophy, to the extent it seeks to be synoptic, to say something applicable to the whole of human experience, cannot be based solely on principles from a specialized area of human inquiry, no matter how productive it has been. Why? Because, among other things, the evidence of its productivity must be presented in the past tense. And any good scientist knows, his evidence is ever subject to revision. The object of science is a moving target. Philosophers are always trying to pin down something.

Principles and rules and laws to the extent they are of any use to us, even temporarily, must be clear and precise. If despite their clarity and precision they fail us just when they have succeeded in conditioning us to accept them, this may suggest that clarity and precision, the secret of the success of science, cannot be the only virtues philosophy must uphold. These virtues must share center stage with others that refer to the fact that we are not entirely rational creatures. Such creatures accept irregularity and regularity with the same ho-humness. As one philosopher put it, we may be the only creatures that can reason but that doesn’t mean we spend much time doing it. (There are normative insinuations of that claim: that we ought to be more rational than, in fact, we are. But normativity is manifestly not an object of science. The very impulse to look at anything scientifically may be normative but science can’t see normative objects to study: Why should I listen to science? Because you might live longer than if you don’t. Why should I live longer? Science must be mum in response. If it mutters, it does so unscientifically.)

Human beings often enough perceive that time and space are not uniform. Into those moments decisions are inserted. Questions raised. Values trotted out. Answers appear with only a diaphanous finish of rationality. The anomalies are perceived as miraculous when they are kind to us and as traumatic when they are not. As such their significance in the order of human experience is all out of proportion to their cosmic significance (if it even makes sense to speak of significance outside human experience). Such points in time and space, like black holes, distort the realities around them for better or worse. In the wake of falling in love or its dissolution, we do stupid and wonderful and horrible things. There is no uniformity in time and space when this person, this point in space and time, comes to fill or vacate our consciousness. In the aftermath of 9/11 Bill’s country reeled like a chicken with its head cut off into two idiotic wars.

What can analytic philosophy say about the fact that even perfectly rational, extremely well-educated, not easily duped as to their self-interest, even decent and otherwise respectable people—and more than a few of them—thought that going to war with somebody under the circumstances was a good idea? (And, by the way, most of those who oppose the idea of the wars, I fear, were giving no better indication that they understood why what they advocated was wise. Idiots, too, sometimes do the right thing. It’s just that the principle, yes, the one we are discussing, would suggest that this is an untenable situation: not knowing why you do things.)

(I am not a pacifist, mind you, in the sense of one who would assert that war cannot make sense, but I have a hard time finding an example of a historical war that was rationally justifiable. All wars are understandable; none, in fact, are justifiable. I would argue not even those very rare ones that are perceived as necessary for cultural survival. That is because material survival is not the end, above all else, of conscious beings. Of course, to the extent consciousness (when it is not being immediately helpful) is and should be a cultural ornament and the better part of our time here is and ought to be about living, breathing, eating, and reproducing like the other fauna on the planet for the span of time that nature has alloted us, I am wrong-headed and elitist. I know this and so my opinions on this score will be marginalized with impunity. The view here from the margins may nevertheless be useful to those of you closer to the middle of things. My perspective may reveal some shadows that the overlit circle of community may not see and might benefit from knowing about. At least, knowing them, when calamity befalls it, it might present a more intelligent profile than a deer in headlights.)

A good analytic philosopher never bites off more than he or she can chew. (So, I guess, I have crossed a line.) The problems addressed will be carefully circumscribed to accommodate the method. What cannot be said clearly cannot be said at all, to loosely paraphrase Wittgenstein… Not many understand that Wittgenstein meant by that as much lament as limiting principle. It was less a celebration of the fact that we can achieve clarity about some things than a monition that we cannot about the most important ones. They might still be indicated somehow, through art, through desperation, but perspicuity will of necessity go by the wayside.

By nibbling at the edges of the eternal and eternally large problems of philosophy proper, the analytic philosopher best assures him or herself of incremental success. Little incremental victories of clarification that somehow promise bigger ones in the offing. Science ostensibly works this way. But sometimes science delivers, sometimes. Does philosophy thus practiced, practiced exclusively analyticly, deliver?

My point is that every field of human inquiry has not only content and structure for philosophy to consider but its own methods and values to take into account. The methods have an organic integrity arising from the nature of their subject and ends. The oldest conception of philosophy has existence and nature as subject and has only human experience to work with. In its demand for elucidation it requires borrowing from every quarter of that experience. Other Western philosophical traditions have drawn on literature, art, religion, and history for their methods and values. These broader humanities seem chaotic and undisciplined to science-inspired analytic philosophers. There is pandemonium in the humanities outside science. Their methods are allusive and vague and ever subject to change. Their arguments sometimes irreverent in their respect for consistency or empiric grounding. Their conclusions contextual and subjective.

The fact is the principle of the uniformity of nature is the consummate rule of thumb for understanding the world that seems to be outside ourselves. That is both its strength and its limitation. God help us when our only rule of thumb fails. If we aren’t prepared for it to fail. Yet, oddly, history teaches us that it does fail. (I don’t think it surprising that Hume, that celebrated philosopher of science, was in fact no scientist but a historian!) When it fails as a matter of course at the edge of our fallible senses, in our heads it fails big time. What happens in nature is of no concern to nature since nature cannot give a damn. What happens in nature, outside ourselves, since it seems to impinge on us, we would like to know about but have somehow been disqualified. Whatever happens from a perspective sub species aeternitatis (where perhaps the principle stills holds placidly) it doesn’t fit in our heads. Because our heads are not exclusively scientific. They are muddles of superstition where significance runs riot.

We have never stopped being superstitious of the night since the days when we sat around a fire.

Even scientists are superstitious when they humbly announce the result of a new study that suggests that something causes something, always mincing their words so as not to get our hopes up inordinately but infusing them with just enough excitement to make us think that progress is being made and that we need to be patient and continue funding efforts, etc. (Strictly speaking, they rarely say “causes,” rather they reveal “correlations,” thinking we will note the difference. Was there ever a real difference? Hasn’t “correlation” always been tantamount to “cause”?) But they must know as they speak, if they know the history of their own subject, that every conclusion they reach has built in to it obsolescence.

(No doubt a lot behind the conflicting claims of science has to do with moneyed interests sponsoring research, but that is even more to my point. Compounding the problems with its method in the search for truth is that the scientist, too, wants to make a decent living. But whether the scientist lives well or not, what does that have to do with truth? This has implications for professional philosophy as well, of course, though where the scientist is easily ensnared in politics, the professional philosopher mires him or herself in insignificance. From the fact that neither can think with any discipline if hungry, cold, or sick, it does not follow that their results should be tempered by the need to avoid those things. The scale of material that the scientist must displace to carry out his research somewhat excuses his need. He just should not be trusted with interpreting it. But the philosopher has not this excuse. What he or she does, is doable with far fewer material resources. And there is no one else with the responsibility and wherewithal to interpret his results.)

In case you missed the announcement that a healthy child should drink eight glasses of milk a day (yes, it was a long time ago, but why should that matter? does time excuse lies? I still remember this one as a child), don’t worry. Later we were told that that much milk per day is far from healthy and can induce bone cancer. (I never cared much for milk, anyway.) If you think coffee or chocolate is bad for you, another study will come along to tout the health benefits of the anti-oxidants in chocolate or the stimulants in coffee. Coffee we are now told (and I stress the word “now”) can save us from Parkinson’s or type 2 diabetes. And today I read that new studies show even heavy drinkers of alcohol live longer than total abstainers. (But moderate ones do best, as Aristotle would have urged twenty centuries ago.) And so on…

Responsibly, we are also informed “more research is needed.” When is more research not going to be needed? And what could more research possibly reveal? There are only three logical possibilities: that, no, we were mistaken, that other things in coffee harm us in ways that outweigh its benefits; or, yes, moderate coffee drinking is good for you; or coffee drinking is a wash as far as health benefits are concerned: you may shorten your life by so much time but most coffee drinkers report a livelier time while alive. But any of these further developments would be fodder for further revision, corroboration (which heightens drama) or reversal: remember, “more research is needed.” Always.

Science is fond of informing us of trade offs. Just today I read that people with rheumatoid arthritis are somewhat immune from Alzheimer’s. It was noticed that people with gnarled knuckles keep their wits about them longer than those without. People vulnerable to sickle cell anemia are also protected against malaria. Sometime ago we were informed that while it is true that 94% of the time crime is done by males (to judge by incarceration numbers), men also outnumber women at the higher reaches of cultural and intellectual productivity. Men are more likely to be geniuses as well as morons than women. On balance, men must be good for something or they should have been bred out of existence by now. The case is simpler why women are around.

What am I supposed to do with trade offs?

Keep researching and we will discover a good thing associated with every bad thing and vice versa.

More research is needed…

We are rationally superstitious. Where we used to be just plain superstitious, I gather. Science encourages this. I guess discipline of one sort or other is progress. Although I thought that people have always had some reason or other for their beliefs. Rather, the problem has been: are the reasons good? Are they good now? When will we know that?

Hume also famously said reason was the slave of passion. I add that passion is the slave of survival, a certain sort of insistence against an intransigent background. That’s not necessarily supposed to be a good thing. It’s just an observation. That, for all the talk of freedom, there is a lot of slavery going on.

The thing science can never get a handle on—and which any philosophy too wedded to it must be wary of—is that the species that pays lip service to reason does so because of the value it sees in it. There is no other reason. How could there be?

The moment reason gets in the way of life it will be discarded. When expedient, life will co-opt reason to clean up its act for critical inspection as we might our house for visiting relatives. Consistency, like cleanliness, is a real virtue. It might even be better than godliness. But seeing how the gods have not been the best exemplars of the former (I don’t know about the latter), when the demands are too great, why should we be? We can always fall back on the excuse that we are human. And, when keeping up that appearance also comes to seem a burden, on the fact that we are sophisticated animals.

Animals can be studied by science. No messy culture and consciousness. However amazing and complex they may be, at least we don’t have to worry about their judgment of us. The flow of judgment is one way. This is why humans, as such, can never really be proper subjects of scientific study. The so-called “human sciences” must first reduce their subjects to objects to make headway.

When humans study themselves they do philosophy. (The so-called “social” or “psychological” sciences are inherently suspect as “sciences.” One of the clearest cases of this in intellectual history is Freud. This takes nothing away from his formidable imagination.) Reason—in a rawer form than any found in a principle such as the uniformity of nature so dear to science—and imagination and self-awareness are the only tools of philosophers.

The value we see in reason is utilitarian. For a smaller number of us, it may also have an intrinsic or aesthetic value. The universe is a more beautiful place for having some order about it. The thought is just wonderful to hold. But this rarified appreciation is scarce. Perhaps we have a moral obligation to make it less so. But not by seeing reason where it isn’t.

Ethics for these few is about moving about this wonderful world with grace. (”Wonderful” in the sense of “full of wonder.” “Grace” in the sense that we don’t stumble so often.) An appreciation for these end thoughts is what I think Wittgenstein must have meant by what he said on his death bed: that he had lived a wonderful life. I can’t imagine what else he might have meant. Little in the history of his time or personal biography would have suggested such words.

To return to my theme: analytic philosophy is crippled if it seeks to make its virtues of clarity of terms and precision of argument necessary and sufficient for philosophy. They are neither. And there aren’t any other virtues that are. Their favored virtues are on the same level as authenticity, self- and social consciousness, imagination, and humility. As tools for acquiring wisdom, that is, whatever that is.

Science has an excuse for blinkering itself. It is, after all, only after knowledge. Knowledge is extra strength, longer lasting belief. It is not wisdom. Philosophers do not have this excuse.

This said, I might, had I been trained in another philosophical tradition, be saying something as critical about those who think that all that matters is the warp and woof of history or human vagary and that any wisdom or sureties derived from these are going to be gratuitous and ephemeral and there is nothing to get clear about and that squinting too hard at the logic practiced by human beings is a waste of time…*

I would have to remind this group of thinkers that the attraction of heights is in the scaling. Any wisdom to be earned from the climb will, on pain of insignificance, be a fruit of some rigor and determination not found in the landscape viewable from those heights. Our environment, natural or otherwise, does not explain us. Nature got along fine before we came on the scene and will again after our molecules have been reabsorbed…

Godzilla vs. Socrates

But I live in a Rome of sorts and, as Godzilla used to say, when in Rome destroy Rome. Analytic philosophers are the Godzillas of philosophy. Cities require leveling to their foundations periodically. And Godzillas, the best ones, end by doing themselves in. Godzillas don’t build culture. Though they might be helpful in the process of decomposing a sick one so that a healthier, worthier, one may sprout. If this kind of philosophy has virtue, I think that is what it is. Here is an example of a “profound” analytic insight:

Speaking of induction and destruction and what history, both recent and ancient, teaches us—if we care to learn from it (we usually don’t)—and I hope you don’t think I am being too alarmist or gloomy to entertain such thoughts, but I predict that in my life time or in that of younger people alive today a major city will be devastated by a nuclear weapon (again). The chances are it will be a city in a country that has taken its significance in the order of things at the expense of others for granted. But we needn’t put too fine a point on it. No more reason is needed than the fact that it is possible, has happened before, and that we don’t have a history of learning anything from the past, and that we make no show of it now.

After the Holocaust, we still hear, “Never again.” If you say so.

I didn’t mean to suggest in all this that nature has no uniformity or that induction does not work. It works pretty well. The past is a reliable guide to the future. Unfortunately, sometimes.

By noticing patterns one can learn a lot from science. That there are patterns.

Progress is superstition. I picked that up from history. Not from philosophy.

From philosophy and literature I learn that “life is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.”†



To sum up, the positive contribution to understanding human nature made by analytic philosophy, even to merely the “nature” part, is incidental. Mostly we clean up after others and warn them about messes they might get into. We need to be wary of the fact that we, too, are tempted to overstep the limitations of our self-imposed rules.

This leaves room for others whose conception of the subject is not so stinted to teach us something. And we them.

What is that? That we teach and learn? It’s difficult to say with clarity and precision.

—Bianco Luno



* I am reminded of this from Robert Musil, a rare writer who knew something about science and mathematics as well as feeling and literature:

I recall a saying of Goethe’s that made an odd impression on me some years ago. It runs: one can only write about those things one does not know too much about. Few people will understand the profound happiness and sadness of this admission. It expresses a simple spiritual fact: the imagination works only in twilight. There is a kind of thinking that creates truth as clearly as a sewing machine, stitch by stitch. And there is a kind of thinking that makes us happy. It gets into you so impatiently that your knees shake; it piles up insights before you in flight and storm, believing in which will absorb the life of your soul for years to come, and—you will never know if they are true. Let’s be honest: you are suddenly transported up a mountain from which you can see your inner future with blissful breadth and certainty, like—let’s be honest, like a periodic madman, a manic-depressive in the early stages of mania. You don’t cry out or do anything foolish, but your thinking is unencumbered and gigantic as if with clouds, while the healthy mind fits thoughts together snugly like bricks and has the overriding need to test every single step again and again against the facts. The healthy way of thinking impoverishes you, solitary one, because it never allows you to get beyond the answers to a few questions, which your soul obviously cannot live on. It makes you unfruitful. But from time to time you must repeatedly force your intuitive way of thinking back to this healthy way of thinking, must test it against it, must submit to it, must not allow yourself to wander too far from it if you don’t want to fall into extravagance, which is the same as meaninglessness. Anyone who does not avoid precise knowledge with a secret shame and yet with a burning resolve does not understand Goethe’s confession.

Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, trans. by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 31-32.

† A line from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Beckett tweaked the opening line from Keat’s Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Posted by luno in philosophical method, war, Wittgenstein, Hume, General (Thursday September 2, 2010 at 10:06 am)

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