Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Transcendental anthropology

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of transcendental anthropology. It is the label given by Jonathan Lear (pictured) in three linked papers in the 1980s to what he takes to be Wittgenstein’s aim in the Philosophical Investigations. Philosophy aims at a non-empirical insight. That is how we earn the right not to have to do experiments. And some such philosophy can plausibly claim to be ‘transcendental’.

A transcendental inquiry, according to Kant, was an a priori investigation into how concepts apply to objects. And an object (Objekt), for Kant, was anything of which a concept could be predicated in a judgement. If we substitute ‘non-empirical’ for ‘a priori’, then Wittgenstein’s investigation of rule-following can plausibly be considered a transcendental inquiry. [Lear 1986: 269]

At the same time, however, there is an anthropological strain in the Investigations.

A ‘language-game’ is not merely a language, but a ‘whole consisting of the language and the actions into which it is woven’. And ‘the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or a form of life’. This would suggest that the proper study of language requires that one take an anthropological stance: one views a language in the context of the customs, institutions, practices of a community. It is one of the ways in which a group of people interact with each other, with their environment, with themselves.
The anthropological stance would seem to encourage a naturalistic outlook: ‘What we are supplying’, says Wittgenstein at one point, ‘are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes.’
[Lear 1986: 268]

But, as Lear goes on to argue, it can seem that these two strands are in tension.

The anthropological stance would seem to pull one in the direction of an empirical explanation of how we go on. Succumbing to this pull, however, would violate the stricture that philosophy should have no such concern.
And it would threaten Wittgenstein’s repeated demand that philosophical reflection should leave our practices and customs intact…
Why should we not come to view the law of non-contradiction as merely one of the deeply held tribal beliefs of our tribe?
[Lear 1986: 270-1]

So far, so good. What I find frustrating is that in the final paper called simply ‘Transcendental anthropology’ Lear argues that, whilst they are not actually in tension (‘not at war… [but] of a piece’ is his dreadful pun), they are incomplete because philosophical reflection from an anthropological stance has consequences for the meanings of activities so studied. As reflective agents, such philosophical reflection cannot be kept from affecting meaning-laden practices. (Wittgenstein's account is incomplete because - according to Lear - he only discussed our unreflective blind acting.) The problem is that in giving an account of this, Lear’s language seems, to my mind at least, to go on holiday. He is forced to try to describe the kind of insight that is available whilst at the same time denying that the insight can be expressed in ordinary language with merely the darkest of hints as to how, eg., we can arrive at necessary claims about rules merely by inspecting our mental lives from within.

I have returned to these papers in an attempt to see what, if any, help it can give me in writing about the perspective implicit in McDowell’s Mind and World. Having struggled with them for nearly 20 years, I still hold out the hope that I will be able to hold them up to the light and see through them to what a self-conscious conception of philosophy might be. Today, though, they seem pretty dark.

Amid pessimism about that project, light relief comes from a generous review of the Oxford Textbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry in the British Journal of Psychiatry.