October 29, 2013

Redeemable and irredeemable nonsense

 I shall try to do good on my promise to explain why I think there is a form of nonsense – what might be called irredeemable nonsense – to which we are particularly prone in doing philosophy. This has to do with the kind of communicative predicament in which we frequently place ourselves when we attempt to formulate philosophical theses.
                      First, for contrast, let’s consider what I should like to call a case of redeemable nonsense. The following line has been attributed to the formidable baseball player Yogi Berra, famous for his talent for apparent malapropisms and logical slips. One of the things he is reported to have said, commenting on a famous restaurant, is 

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The remark, on the face of it, is self-contradictory. But it doesn’t seem hard to unpack the sense of what he was saying. Berra may have meant something like, “Nobody who is in the know goes to that restaurant any more”, or, “I and most people I know have started to avoid that restaurant because it is so crowded these days”, or the like. Whether he deliberately chose a paradoxical mode of expression or just happened to hit on a somewhat confusing formulation I don’t know.
                      Of course I’m just surmising what he meant. If we had been present at the uttering, this might have shaped our encounter with his words: at first we might have thought the remark weird or funny, then through widening our perspective we might have got what he was saying.

On the other hand, consider the remark “We can’t know the future”. (This is sometimes rendered in the form “We can’t predict the future”, which is a rather awkward formulation since it is only with regard to future happenings that we speak of prediction.)
For one thing, there is a perfectly normal use for sayings like this, or related ones such as “We never know what may happen / how things will turn out”, etc. A couple are relating their plans for a long and complex journey, and then they add, “Of course, one can never tell how things will work out, we may have to improvise”, “We’ll simply have to hope that neither of us gets sick”, etc. Of course such remarks are not meant to inform the listener of something she wasn’t aware of (nor are they intended as conceptual clarification). The words function as an admonition, as the expression of an attitude towards contingencies. A religious person might say, “We’ll just have to place things in God’s hands”. (A healthy person wouldn’t say things like these when going to the supermarket, unless she had reason to fear something like a terrorist attack or an earthquake.)
                      Sometimes we may say things like these in retrospect, as when some unfortunate (or fortunate) turn of events that we had never (or never really) taken into consideration gives our lives a radical twist, maybe changing the whole frame in which we regard our lives. We may then be struck by our inability to anticipate the twists and turns of fate. Of course, in other cases we may find that things run exactly as we expect them to (and then someone might even complain that life is boring).
                      So far so good. But there is a temptation to turn these kinds of expression into epistemological observations, to argue that the future is unknowable in principle. David Hume, of course, is a famous representative of this idea. One way of expressing this would be to say that the form of words “NN knows / knew that ...” has no genuine application when followed by a clause in the future tense. (Probably an exception would be made for sentences like “I know that Easter Sunday next year will fall on 20 April – trust me, I just checked it in a calendar”. But the claim would apply to what are held to be contingent events, including solar eclipses and suchlike.)
                      Perhaps it is thought that this principle somehow grounds our attitude to the contingencies of life. But that would just be whimsical.
                      In fact we very often use the word “know” in violation of this principle. Joe tells me, “I know there will be a test next Wednesday – Professor Morowski said so himself”, or Jim says , “Molly knows that the sunflowers will freeze if there’s a frost tonight”, or  Sarah says, “You know what will happen if you place Uncle Herbert next to Aunt Agatha – they’ll get into a frightful row!”
                      The philosophical temptation is to say that such a use of “know” is strictly speaking erroneous. Whence the temptation? This may be one source of it: if after the event I ask Joe whether there had been a test, then unless he had evidence that there had actually been one, he would probably say he didn’t know. But how can his relation to the test being held on Wednesday change from one of knowledge to one of uncertainty? It is tempting to conclude that it wasn’t a genuine case of knowledge to begin with. And similarly for the other cases.
                      There is, then, a clash here between how people actually speak and the way they ought to speak according to the philosopher. Suppose in a particular case we get into a disagreement on whether somebody actually knows what will happen. I may tell Sarah, “You don’t know that they’ll get into a row – give them some credit”, or Joe, “Professor Morawski keeps changing his plans, so you can’t really go by his words”. The question is, what bearing is the philosopher’s observation meant to have on these conversations? Should he say,
(1) You’re all confused - there’s no distinction between knowing and not knowing the future so there’s nothing to argue about.
Or perhaps,
(2) It’s all right to speak about knowledge they way you do for everyday purposes, as long as you realize that it’s not really knowledge?
In the first case, the philosopher is telling us to change our practices. He might want us to conclude that there’s no point in scrutinizing the evidence for future happenings, we won’t know what will happen anyway. Or he tells us never to regard anything as settled when it comes to the future: don’t assume the train will depart at five, that the chair won’t break when you sit on it, that this apple tree will not yield pears next year, etc. But that is hardly what he wants to be doing; nor has he provided any grounds for such a change of practice.
If the second case, he would himself be admitting that his principle had no bearing on the discussion.
The philosopher’s principle, then, is a conversational dead end. He has simply registered an impulse to utter a remark about knowledge and the future. There is no way of going on with his remark (other than to repeat his words).
The situation is the opposite of that concerning Yogi Berra’s comment. Here, we believe at first something important has been said, but when we try to widen the perspective we are left empty-handed. The philosopher’s nonsense is beyond redemption.

1 comment:

  1. "There is no way of going on with his remark (other than to repeat his words)." The image of a gear which spins but has gotten disengaged from the rest of the machinery.

    In the case of skepticism about the future there's some tendency to say, well, what harm does it really do in the end. (Apathy? Even for the susceptible I think that only lasts a few weeks, usually. Sometimes it might help people leave off trying to answer questions they can't answer, but on the other hand sometimes it might help people not face up to questions they ought to consider.)

    On the other hand: "really, when you think about it, there's nothing beyond human pleasure and pain which corresponds to the words 'good' and 'evil'..." Here the moral skepticism (nonsense?) comes with a picture that can do quite a lot of harm, although I suppose in some contexts it might do some good as well. But anyway these pictures are a part of philosophy (especially moral philosophy, but sometimes epistemology as well) that might need a different sort of treatment. Wittgenstein's discussions of Freud seem a good starting place.

    My favorite saying attributed to Yogi Berra is: "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is."

    - Sean