Lebenskünstler

This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Preface – Chapter 2)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/20/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

In 1907 William James spoke of the “seriously inquiring amateur in philosophy” who turns to philosophy professors but finds them wanting. The problem is not with the serious amateur, James explained, but the professors. Philosophy should do more than exercise our “powers of intellectual abstraction.” It should also “make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives.”

*Embodied social action* is at least as important to philosophical inquiry and understanding, James and Wittgenstein each insist, as *abstract thought or contemplation.*

At one point James put it this way: “The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting on an order that he comes upon and simply finds existing. The knower is an *actor*, and coefficient of the truth which he helps to create. Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for *human action – action* which to a great extent transforms the world – help make the truth.” Nearly seventy years later Wittgenstein wrote, ” Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to and end; – but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true; i.e. it is not a kind of *seeing* on our part; it is our *acting*, which lies at the bottom of the language game.” …[James and Wittgenstein share a]*pragmatic temperament* – one that speaks to the whole person, embodied social agent as well as intellect.

For too long academic philosophers have ignored the questions of serious, intelligent, well-educated men and women from all walks of life who do not have time for concentrated study in philosophy.

…Peirce criticized radical skepticism and the idea that we acquire knowledge of the world as individuals rather than as members of communities.

…A pragmatic temperament, however, acknowledges that *genuine* philosophical questions are not a matter of intellect alone. They are raised by the whole person and involve both the street…and the classroom. Action without thought, to adapt a phrase from Kant, is *blind*; thought without action is *empty*. If our minds cannot simultaneously occupy the worlds of the street and the classroom when we’re doing philosophy, they must at least enact a dialogue between them. Philosophical questions worth asking must be responsive to the demands of both, as must our answers of them.

…we who raise genuine questions about knowledge, reality, mind, will, and ethics are not, first and foremost, isolated, disembodied Cartesian observers *of* the world, but rather embodied social agents *in* it.

Pragmatic considerations are inseparable from certain social *practices* – and practices are themselves constituted by patterns of (embodied) human action…correct language use…presupposes membership in a community of embodied, language-using agents.

One reason “so few human beings truly care for philosophy,” William James observed, is its “monstrous abridgment of things, which like all abridgments is got by the absolute loss and casting out of real matter.” The “real matter” to which James refers includes the wide variety of rich and concrete realities that comprise our daily lives. Abstract ethical theories, for example, cannot capture the various complexities of everyday moral decision making. “The entire man [or woman], who feels needs by turns,” James points out, “will take nothing as an equivalent for life but the fullness of living itself.”

…Successful navigation in life, as on the sea, requires knowing when and how to tack between viewpoints. Those who remain utterly blind to a more objective or detached picture of their betrothed or lovers are ill-advised to make long-standing personal commitments to them;

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”…

To cultivate a garden is not to accept everything that happens as for the best. Weeds, disease, and drought are part of nature, but to a gardener these things are things to be reduced or eliminated. What Candide *does* in cultivating his garden (where cultivating a garden is a metaphor for doing our best to improve the conditions of our earthly lives) is in some respects a more powerful and eloquent “refutation” of Pangloss’s doctrine than anything he could at this point *say*. Deeds, not words, are the most fitting response. Pangloss’s abstract generalizations are simply beside the point; they don’t matter, do any work, or make any “connexion to this actual world of finite human lives.” For Candide it is no longer worth trying to refute Pangloss on his own terms; he has better things to *do*.

After a point, it seems to me, our response to radical skeptics ought to resemble Candide’s response to Pangloss. Even if we cannot refute them to *their* satisfaction, the fact that their doctrine makes “no positive connexion to this actual world of finite human lives” may be sufficient to relegate it to the margins of contemporary philosophy (though *not* to the margins of the *history* of philosophy, where it remains of the greatest importance). As embodied social agents we have a number of more interesting and important philosophical questions to address than those posed by the radical skeptic. Like Candide, then, let’s not worry too much about matters that make no difference to the way we (must) lead our lives. There are more fertile fields that need cultivating. And we’ll never get to them unless we can turn our backs on radical skepticism.

Wittgenstein devised “language game” to emphasize the connection between saying, doing, and rule-following…Language is “woven” into (we might better say “interwoven with”) the nonlinguistic actions of language users rather than superimposed on them…thinking and saying are not only inseparable from doing, but they are also kinds of doing. “Words.” as Wittgenstein puts it, “are also deeds.”

The moral of the story then, is that we do not have to identify the essence or specify necessary and sufficient conditions for words…[that notion] is based on a mistaken preconception about language – one that fails to take account of how language is actually used by embodied social agents like ourselves.

…Meaning cannot, therefore, generally be abstracted from the social practices or rule-governed patterns of behavior into which the use of words is woven…

To reject the possibility of a “master theory” of truth – one that provides a method for systematically distinguishing any and all true beliefs from those that are false – does not, however, mean we cannot distinguish truth from falsity…there is no super-duper method, prior to and independent of, these linguistic activities, that will allow one to magisterially pronounce on the truth of various claims made within them. It is the different language games themselves – their more or less complex and interrelated rules, practices, conventions, purposes, standards of judgment, and so on – that provide the ground rules or criteria we use in determining truth or falsity within them.

…The main point, for present purposes, is that (1) questions of truth and falsity cannot be separated from our language games (or vocabularies); (2) our language games (or vocabularies) cannot be separated from our actions; (3) our actions cannot be separated from our various aims and interests; and (4) these aims and interests are those of embodied social agents.

…Language use in not something in addition to (or superimposed on) most distinctly human activities, including complex thought; rather it is constitutive of them. Meaning is not a product of private ostensive definition or linguistic essences; rather it is a function of the way words are used fro certain purposes in certain language games. And truth is not determined by *directly* comparing what we say about the world with what the world is like itself; rather it is a property of either (a) individual beliefs or sentences that together with certain events or states of the world satisfy the rules internal to a particular (useful or justifiable) language game or vocabulary or (b) entire language games that, given their purposes and their comparative advantages over competing language games, are more useful or justifiable than any practical alternative.

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