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Saturday, March 14, 2009


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Dr. Vallicella,

Are you a fan of Whitehead? If so, are there any secondary studies you might recommend?

Scylla: Reduce philosophy to the development of deductive formalisms with an eye to utility in non-deductive settings such as linguistics. That's philosophy as confined to applied deductive logic. Then philosophy becomes less major and largely derivative. Even statistics has something more to it than applied deductive formalisms from probability theory.

Charybdis: Turn philosophy into literature or lit crit - Rorty's "cure" for philosophical ambitions to a Godlike viewpoint. As if literary writers didn't already have enough problems, here come the philosophers. Statisticians have a less counterproductive cure for excessive ambition about inductive generalization, it's a little book called How to Lie with Statistics. Maybe an analogous book about philosophy would be helpful. Maybe call it How to Lakoff with Philosophy (just kidding, more or less).

If you're a Platonist, the last turns out to be a false dilemma. Remember his lecture on the good, which consisted in an exposition of geometry.

Sommers' scientific methodology is sound. It is always good to concentrate scientific research in areas where a solution seems possible - i.e. where preliminary work on the scope of the whole problem suggests certain sub-problems are more tractable than others.

Your objection is that the apparently tractable sub-problems are trivial and uninteresting. That may be true of the examples he chose, but is it generally true? Evidence that it is not, as follows:

1. There is very strong evidence of a correlation between 'metaphysical' problems and linguistic. To the extent that for any metaphysical problem it is possible to identify a corresponding linguistic problem.

2. Generally, linguistic problems are 'scientific' in that they are more easily defined, against which there is a specific procedure allowing us to test possible hypotheses or truth or falsity. For example, the famous 'problem of individuation' appears to be a very difficult and intractable metaphysical problem. Re-expressed as a linguistic problem, it begins to look more tractable.

3. We should therefore concentrate on a possible solution to metaphysical problems by re-expressing them as linguistic problems, and try to solve the latter.


I am not a fan of Whitehead, but if I were banished to the moon tomorrow and had to choose between taking *Process and Reality* and *The Logic of Natural Language,* I would take the former. As for a good secondary source on Whitehead, I am afraid I don't know of one.


Good philosophers manage to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis.

O writes, "Your objection is that the apparently tractable sub-problems are trivial and uninteresting." That's not my objection. My point is that the subproblems are no more tractable than the Big Problems; so what's the point of wasting your time on 'Every boy loves some girl' instead of addressing questions that really matter?

I agree that good philosophers manage to navigate between Scylla & Charybdis. In fact it's so obvious that good philosophers do that, that it makes me wonder what my real point was (and why I didn't just say it straight out). It's that it's silly, and while I think that Rorty gets kind of silly, I don't want to say that about Sommers (and indeed his choices made sense, and his "experiment" did have results, even if not the results that he hoped for). Still, still, something is wrong when an alternative like literature as philosophy's paradigm, versus applied deductive logic as philosophy's paradigm, manages to loom large for important philosophers. It's as if important statisticians were trying to decide whether statistics really should be painting or applied probability theory. Surreal. Now, philosophy is somewhat reflexive (more so than statistics), like in the old saw about the bicycle rider trying to think about riding while actually riding, so crackups, some disciplinal dysfunctionality, seem natural, coming with the territory. Still, philosophy's periodic identity crises seem a bit _too_ much. (Then again I guess they might seem normal when set alongside difficulties in other somewhat reflexive areas such as human & social studies.)

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