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The Cognitivity Paradox
An Inquiry Concerning the Claims of Philosophy
By John Lange
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
I have read the following little book with great interest, having written it. It has seemed to me, and it will undoubtedly seem to you, that it lacks most of the characteristics one has a right to expect of a professional performance. For example, it is not very neat; its limpidity is dubious; and it is not overly decisive. On the other hand the author, whom I have questioned closely on these matters, is while somewhat penitent not as apologetic as the canons of philosophical decency would seem to require. He has informed me that part of what the book is concerned with is the very notion of professional performance, particularly from the point of view of what one must presuppose in order that there be standards of professional performance. And to be sure, trying to speak of professional performance in a professional way without buying a certain set of criteria concerning professional performance is difficult. Probably because it is logically impossible.
I did mention it to the author that, in my opinion, this little book is more emotional than a philosophical essay should be, but he responded that he was not sure of that, and that was another one of those things the book was about. It seems to me then that this little book is about many things. Perhaps seldom in the history of philosophy has so small a book attempted to do so much and accomplished so little.
On the other hand I, for one, am willing to let people say what they want to say in the way they want to say it, though I admit that the maxim is somewhat revolutionary. If they want to say it loudly, I may wince, but I will allow them to do so. If they wish to be noisy, why not? After all, we are not running a library. And sometimes, the author informs me, people who yell are trying to say something. Indeed, that is why they are yelling, to let people know they are trying to say something. The author is of the unusual opinion that philosophy, like music and art, has upon occasion a right to be angry — say, hopping mad. It has this right, he insists, if there is good reason for anger; given such reason, he claims, somewhat repetitiously it seems to me, one has a right to be angry. Further, he asserts that to disguise this anger may be judicious subterfuge, but it is also deceit. I asked him if he thought that physics and chemistry have a right to be angry, but my only answer was a bewildered stare, from which I gather that the author does not believe that philosophy is physics and chemistry. I did take the liberty of pointing out to him that the fellow who yells may have nothing to say, and may just be yelling. He responded whether or not that is the case may easily be determined by listening, and perhaps that is true.
At this point I think I shall allow the author to speak for himself, and dissociate myself from his entire project.CHAPTER 2
Of Compasses and Gauntlets
This essay is addressed to the problem of the nature of philosophy, its cognitivity or lack of it. Perhaps many philosophers are already straight on this matter, but for myself and those who aren't, and for those who think they are, and aren't, a certain amount of unpleasant cogitation is in order. The essay is motivated by a number of things, but primarily perhaps by the difficulty of explaining to myself and others continuing philosophical disagreement, a phenomenon in our time overcome only in part by journal policies and hiring practices.
Perhaps the classical case in the philosophical clinic of the chronic worrier was Immanuel Kant, who, annoyed by perennial disagreement, sought to examine the limits and powers of human reason in philosophy's greatest attempt to establish a basis on which its cognitivity or lack of it might be delineated. As we know the result of his murky and magnificent analysis was a philosophical volcano that spewed forth more disagreement in the next two hundred years than the twenty centuries of relatively prosaic tumult it superseded.
The positivists too were upset by the vicious twaddle of purely verbal conflict, the solemn rhapsodies of metaphysicians whose profundity increased in direct ratio to the grammatical complexity of their utterances. Accordingly they set out to delimit and clarify the philosophical endeavor, dividing the world between the scientists and themselves. One of their passionate objectives was apparently getting philosophy in hand, refining it into something capable of judicious, exact treatment, making it something that an honest person could take seriously — determining its subject matter in such a way that one could be right or wrong, and others could find out.
A similar motivation might well seem to underlie the pseudopodic movements of ordinary language analysis. There in the linguistic habits of a given speech community, by fortunate coincidence the philosopher's, was a subject matter which was, at least within limits, empirically ascertainable. One can be right or wrong in assertions about how the expression 'free' is used, for example. One might then suppose that classical controversies might be resolved by examining how individuals use the expression 'free'. Of course, as it is now generally recognized by members of the movement, and was recognized several years earlier by nonmembers of the movement, how individuals use the expression 'free' is primarily relevant to the problem of how they use the expression 'free' and not to the classical controversies and problems to which philosophers had addressed themselves. On the other hand, as the ordinary language philosopher might point out, if that sort of thing is not relevant to the controversies over freedom, what is? That I think is a good challenge. In short, I see the commendable objective of the ordinary language analyst as the search for a criterion against which the correctness or incorrectness of philosophical assertions can be measured. That he finds this incredibly enough in ordinary language, almost always loosely and inadequately correlated with the comparative precision of experience, developed by nonphilosophers over hundreds of generations to deal with nonphilosophical problems and subserve nonphilosophical purposes, is less to be deplored than the fact is to be celebrated that he has honestly sought to find such a criterion. Many philosophers, it seems, have not done even that much. The ordinary language analysts, at least largely in the past, have sought, as did the Kantians and positivists, to establish the cognitivity of philosophy.
If we look across the Atlantic, or Channel, as the case may be, we can also see people concerned about cognitivity, about resolving disagreement. There perhaps introspection or intuition or some such unnerving methodology or nonmethodology is supposed to supply the criterion, and there again the fact that cognitivity is sought is more to be commended than the fact deplored that it is being sought in perhaps unlikely places.
Do we as philosophers not have a right to be embarrassed when we glance up into the stands, and notice the rest of the intellectual community gazing down at us in puzzlement, if not derision? They see us as costumed gladiators (some in white coats, some in smoking jackets, etc.) each defending his square yard of bloody sand against all comers. Is it any wonder if they ask themselves, "Are they trying to state truths, or are they just trying to kill each other?" And sometimes do we not, in a bothersome, twinging moment, probably at a philosophy convention, ask ourselves the same question?CHAPTER 3
Purposes, Strategies, and Grumbles
Is philosophy cognitive? Can philosophy be cognitive? What sort of things are philosophical assertions? How do we go about finding if they are true or not? Are they the sort of thing that can be true or not? In general the question would seem to be, "What are we as philosophers up to?" This is in a sense to raise the old question which we expect in Philosophy — "What is philosophy?" — and to which we give, judiciously, no answer, or injudiciously, perhaps unworthily, one of the stock answers from the shelf for contents to be used in extinguishing student questions.
I am well aware that this question, or question-complex, is not popular. In the past several years it has been raised explicitly in extremely few journal articles, though several articles have responded to it more or less directly, in the process of attending to more important questions. Ask yourself if you can conceive of a dissertation committee approving such a topic. Ask yourself if a bright graduate student who knew the realities of the current philosophical market would dare to propose such a topic. The whole question seems to be one of those questions which endanger the digestion and are accordingly best left unasked.
But why should the question not be popular?
Perhaps this is significant?
Are we afraid to ask this question, like the child who is afraid to open a door, because he is not sure what lies beyond it? I can remember once being advised, by a very fine philosopher, to worry less about analysis and more about doing some, and that is not a bad recommendation. On the other hand I see no reason why, say, "What is a philosophical question?" or "What sort of thing is a philosophical assertion?" is not itself a legitimate subject for consideration, if not for analysis. Surely it is worth thinking about, in some old-fashioned, nontechnical sense of the expression.
I wish to approach the question of the cognitivity of philosophy via a consideration of questions, predominantly philosophical questions, since if the nature of such questions could be clarified, then it seems one would be in a better position to assess the answers to such questions, and to determine whether or not the utterances proposed as answers to such questions could properly be said to be cognitive.
Specifically the next section of this essay is an attempt to examine several conceptions of the nature of philosophical questions. Perhaps not many of us will find these construals of the nature of the philosophical question that interesting or plausible, but I think we have heard most of them, and I have been given some of them by presumably well-intentioned people with whom I may not agree but who are undoubtedly qualified to form an opinion on the matter. Naturally I encourage other philosophers who might be interested in what they are doing, as well as in just doing it, to lend their efforts to supply more judicious characterizations of such questions.
Finally one must observe that it is surely the pervasive, if not unanimous, conviction of the philosophical community that philosophical assertions are cognitive, that they can be true or false, and that philosophical disagreement is genuine disagreement. We have all read the journals, undoubtedly not as much as we ought but probably more than we have genuinely liked. We see what is written there, our own articles and those of other philosophers. Those gray pages fairly steam of the conviction of cognitivity. Can we believe that Quine does not really believe he is pounding Carnap on the head, and that Carnap does not really believe he has dealt Quine a resounding blow? We find the most incredible assertions uttered with the casualness of an industrial chemist reading off the recipe for petroleum jelly. We find reviewers commenting on Jones' new book as though the reviewer were the Logos in disguise, an intolerable presumption were it not for the fact that the reviewer is, presumably, the Logos in disguise. We demolish one another with innocent and urbane aplomb and then are genuinely surprised that the other fellow does not catch on to the fact that he has been demolished. Our assurance, our astonishment, etc., is surely evidence of a sort that we regard what we are doing as cognitive.
What is a philosophical question?CHAPTER 4
Consideration of Selected Construals of the Nature of Philosophical Questions
Construal I. Question Q is a philosophical question if and only if it is a member of that class of questions whose members are the most general, pervasive questions the human mind can raise.
This characterization is not altogether clear, but it is clear enough to see that it is incorrect. On the other hand the notion of generality frequently enters into the characterization of the philosophical question. Therefore it is worth pointing out that generality is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a philosophical question.
That generality is not a sufficient condition for a philosophical question may be seen by examining the following set of questions:
Is this swan white?
Are all swans white?
Are all birds white?
Are all organisms white?
(Are the questions becoming more philosophical?)
Is everything that occupies time and space white?
Is all being white?
It seems these questions become increasingly general without becoming increasingly philosophical. Accordingly generality, even extreme generality, is not a sufficient condition for a philosophical question. Whether or not "Is being qua being white?" is a philosophical question I leave to the wild surmise of the reader.
Similarly generality is not a necessary condition for a philosophical question, since many philosophical questions discussed in journals are rather specific. Many critics of contemporary philosophy, we might note, deplore what they regard as the minute dimension of many problems considered recently in the literature. It seems to be their feeling that if the topics became any more specific they would disappear altogether.
Construal 2. Q is a philosophical question if and only if there is no settled answer to Q.
Has one not heard that philosophical questions are to be distinguished by the fact that there are no settled answers to them — though perhaps their study may enlarge the mind, etc.? That this characterization, vague like the former, is not judicious may be understood from the following observations.
Suppose the alarm clock rings again and there is a new revolution, or counterrevolution, in philosophy. All philosophers agree on answer A to classical problem P. In other words problem P is settled by agreement — we vote on it. Or let us say that we all agree that answer A is correct, proposed by, say, Herbert Feigl. Is classical problem P then no longer a philosophical problem? What counts as having a settled answer? Having an answer that would satisfy the Logos? Or just us, or 85 percent of the philosophical community, or what? Also of course there are many questions that do not have settled answers which are probably not philosophical questions at all, e.g., whether or not I should have the points in the automobile adjusted next month. Construal 2 has the unwelcome consequence that all unresolved questions qualify as philosophical.
But when people talk this way, they surely mean something more than the fact that certain questions do not now have settled answers. Presumably they intend to suggest that certain questions — philosophical questions — cannot have settled answers, ever, ever.
Construal 3. Q is a philosophical question if and only if it is a question to which no settled answer can be given.
Construal 4. Q is a philosophical question if and only if it is a question on which men are doomed to disagree eternally.
These are romantic construals which those of us who are programmed for neatness are likely to find uninspiring.
If the third construal is correct, and no settled answers can be given to philosophical questions, we are faced with the historical paradox that philosophers on the whole have sought, often confidently, to give settled answers to these questions. In other words most philosophers do not believe Construal 3 is judicious, or presumably they do not understand what they are doing. Not many philosophers study philosophical questions because they enlarge the mind. Mind enlargement, if it occurs, is a by-product of philosophical inquiry, not its objective.
Excerpted from The Cognitivity Paradox by John Lange. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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