Sunday 24 February 2008

Being and saying

Last night I went to hear Hot Chip at the university. They sounded so much better than on cd. They seemed much livelier. But, perhaps more importantly, there’s something engaging about feeling one’s body resonate to the vibrations. One needs, I realise, to have viscera to experience the visceral. This prompted me to think about a couple of cross cutting philosophical themes.

The first is a consequence of the fact that, inspired by Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein, analytic philosophy has always centred on linguistic analysis. In John Collins’ pithy phrase: semantics exhausts ontology. Being is captured by saying.

By attending directly to language and thus only indirectly to things and, typically, by aiming to analyse one concept into others, such an approach encourages an emphasis on relations between things rather their supposed internal or intrinsic natures properties. (Rorty, for example, is explicit in rejecting intrinsic properties in favour of relations.)

Given this historical tendency there is a predictable reaction against it which emphasises just such intrinsic features. It lies at the heart, for example, of both Frank Jackson’s and Tom Nagel’s appeals to raw feels or qualia in the philosophy of mind. (The claim being that then dominant analyses might get the relations between supposed mental states right but failed to address the intrinsic feel of having a mental state and thus were not, after all, getting to the nature of minds.)

The other theme that struck me was the role of embodiment in philosophy. I’m tempted to think that there’s been a gradual retreat from a God’s eye view to something very much more mundane. Descartes’ attempt to capture subjectivity relies on simply adding in some extra stuff which seems to lack the explanatory resources to explain the connection between being a subject and having any kind of perspective. Cartesian minds are allocentric golems. The Tractarian Wittgenstein draws attention to the connection between being a subject and seeing the world from a perspective. But the subject so construed is merely a logical point of origin, a pictorial perspective. In the mid twentieth century, the fact that subjects are embodied and have a practical relation to the world comes to the fore. And more recently still we have had a growth of philosophy of the flesh. (Links to come.)

But, listening to the funky rhythms, I was struck by the difficulty of assessing the merits of claims to philosophical attention either of intrinsic qualities or the specifics of the flesh. In both cases the claim is that something important is missing from dry relational accounts. But this means that such claims cannot, themselves, be justified in relational terms but rather through a kind of inner pointing: “You’re missing this!” Sadly such brute appeals to the nature of being rather than through saying need not gain argumentative hold over philosophers – we Wittgensteinians, for example – who start from the perspective that semantics exhausts ontology. I guess you'd have to be there.