Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

There is much in his course that I admire, and I appreciate his summaries, and various insights. But still I have fundamental disagreements.

These disagreement are based on the fact that I have my own independent outlook which acts as a base for evaluating the views of others, including the history of political thinking of others, and views of Shapiro himself.

To begin with, I am wary of ambiguous and vague abstractions and hasty generalizations as, for example, giving a historical period names, i.e., periodizations, placing thinkers into Schools and Movements. Shapiro classifies his course into three idiosyncratic parts: Enlightenment, Anti-Enlightenment, and Democratic Theory. By doing this, he is answering his fundamental question as to the moral foundation of politics with the following general answers: (1)[Enlightenment] the moral foundations of politics are x, y, or . . . z. (2)[Anti-Enlightenment] there are no moral foundations of politics, and (3) [Democratic Theory] the best form of current politics is some form of democracy.

Furthermore, His whole course seems to be based on an idiosyncratic concept of the Enlightenment, which he says is based on two claims. The first is that science can provide foundations for morality and politics. The second is an endeavor for freedom. But the nature of this freedom is left unspecified.

Concerning the first claim. If science seeks the truth, and truth concerns what is; while morality concerns what ought to be the case and what I ought to do, and David Hume, who lived during the Enlightenment, observed that “is does not imply ought,” [as Shapiro himself point out] then at least one Enlightenment thinker did not subscribe to the claim that science can provide moral foundations for politics.

As to Shapiro’s second characteristic of the Enlightenment — as a search for freedom — suffers from ellipsis. More precisely it should be formulated as freedom from … and freedom to do …

And Shapiro could have done better in his description of the Enlightenment by citing Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which the whole endeavor of the Enlightenment is expressed as: critically assessing all opinions; with a call to the government for freedom for everyone to publicly express their opinions.

My blog “Escaping from bullshit,” exemplifies this Enlightenment project.

From this perspective, the Enlightenment project started in ancient Greece through the systematic use of the principle of non-contradiction. This is the principle that two contradictory claims cannot be true simultaneously. This principle was used in the Middle Ages to systematize theology. However, the period up to the 17th century was loaded with all sorts of mythologies which could not be assessed simply on the basis of non-contradiction.

But with the scientific discoveries in the 17th centuries, an additional principle was established for determining superstitions (mythologies). This extended rationality from just relying on non-contradiction to an appeal to empirical scientific claims as providing better explanations.

The other serious problem was the existence of censorship — both religious and secular. Religion persecuted heretics (which still persists in Muslim countries); while the Monarchs favored the myth of a divine right of kings, and suppressed any political criticism — again, a problem which persists even today.

However, during the 18th century one unsolved problem remained which gave succor to theology — the existence of a complex, law-regulated cosmos, especially the existence of life forms, culminating in human beings. This mystery of life and lawful complexity left room for God, for free will, and room for an immortal soul. Thus, if one was free from contradictory beliefs and from the fact that science was limited, one could be justified in being at least a Deist.

This problem of the existence of life forms was solved by the theory of evolution, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which ushered in an Age of Secularism or Materialism.

The achievement and progress of the Enlightenment is scholarly expressed by Andrew Dickson White’s book: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896-7)

Propaganda and Rationality

Susan Stebbing in Chapter 7 of Thinking to Some Purpose (1939) made two important distinctions. The first was to disambiguate the concept of propaganda in the neutral sense of propagating information, of making it widely available; from the disparaging sense of propagating false information (what nowadays is sometimes referred to as “fake” news).

The other distinction which she wished to stress was between what she stipulated as “conviction” and “persuasion.” She stipulated that conviction was to be the result of reasonable arguments, whereas persuasion was the result by all other means.

In view of the fact — which Stebbing admitted — that “conviction” and “persuasion” are often used synonymously, it would be clearer to simply prefix the adjective “rational” to these terms. We way then speak of rational persuasion (or conviction), irrational persuasion (or conviction), and non-rational persuasion (or conviction).

Why have these distinctions? The idea of non-rational is to apply to the cognitive life of animals (and we are animals, after all), which includes instinct, association, and conditioning. These cognitive modes are operative as passions — including beliefs, which in humans are shaped linguistically. And there must be some kind of Weltanshauung which people acquire while being raised and living in some linguistic culture. Call it a pre-reflective ideology, if you like. It has also been called an “inherited conglomerate.” In my dissertation on Wilfrid Sellars, I called it an Alpha World, as distinct from a transformed or successor Beta World.

I am reminded here of George Santayana’s idea of “animal faith” and the idea that we must start in “medias res.” I am also reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s point in “Science and the Modern World,” that each age has a set of presuppositions.

Now, the culture in which you find yourself may be riddled with pseudo-scientific myths, slogans, epigrams, and proverbs — which are false. And the task is to free — at least — yourself from this Platonic cave of bullshit. At the same time there are various bullshitters keeping you in (cognitive) chains.

Bullshitters — intentionally or non-intentionally — use non-rational means to persuade (convince). And — worse — through cognitive dissonance you may even be persuaded to accept that which is irrational. It is irrational to accept a contradiction.

Escape from the cave is through rationalism. I agree with Karl Popper’s description of rationalism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Chapter 24:

Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’; if used in this way, rationalism extols intelligence above observation and experiment, and might therefore be better described as ‘intellectualism’. But when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions. This explanation, of course, is not very satisfactory, since all terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘passion’ are vague; we do not possess ‘reason’ or ‘passions’ in the sense in which we possess certain physical organs, for example, brains or a heart, or in the sense in which we possess certain ‘faculties’, for example, the power of speaking, or of gnashing our teeth. In order therefore to be a little more precise, it may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour. We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’. It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach — perhaps by arbitration — a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps label it, the ‘attitude of reasonableness’, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument, we can in time attain something like objectivity.

It is of some interest to analyse this resemblance between this attitude of reasonableness and that of science more fully. In the last chapter, I tried to explain the social aspect of scientific method with the help of the fiction of a scientific Robinson Crusoe. An exactly analogous consideration can show the social character of reasonableness, as opposed to intellectual gifts, or cleverness. Reason, like language, can be said to be a product of social life. A Robinson Crusoe (marooned in early childhood) might be clever enough to master many difficult situations; but he would invent neither language nor the art of argumentation. Admittedly, we often argue with ourselves; but we are accustomed to do so only because we have learned to argue with others, and because we have learned in this way that the argument counts, rather than the person arguing. (This last consideration cannot, of course, tip the scales when we argue with ourselves.) Thus we can say that we owe our reason, like our language, to intercourse with other men.

An addition to Karl Popper’s critique of psychologism

I am going to comment on Chapter 14 of Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies,” titled “The Autonomy of Sociology.”

The main purpose of this chapter is to criticize the position called “psychologism.” This position is attributed to John Stuart Mill, which claims that human actions and institutions can be explained by a psychology of human nature. Popper’s position is that they cannot; that social phenomena are sui generis, i.e., autonomous. I will not rehearse his arguments, with which I agree, but introduce my own.

Consider the case of feral children, who are by assumption normal, except for lacking a human language. Watch the following video below about such children:

The video asks whether feral children are “human.” In one sense, of course, biologically, feral children are human beings. The question is really whether they are “persons,” or “human” in the way we are. By my criterion, a person is anything with which one can make agreements. And agreements are possible only with a language. So, the origin of society as we have it, is possible only with language. Subtract language from a person, and you get a feral human being.

One interest in studying feral children is to understand under what conditions learning a language is possible. And the hypothesis is that there is a critical period of early life when learning a language is possible — something like the phenomenon of imprinting. And when that window of opportunity is passed, learning a language does not occur.

The mystery is how languages originate. And the only clear fact is that language is a social phenomenon. Other than the behavior of a feral child, all other actions of human beings are imbued with language and human institutions. Thus, if Descartes were more reflective, he would have realized that his skepticism was possible only in language; specifically, the statement “I think therefore I am” is in language. He could have concluded “I think therefore I am using a language.”

Popper concludes — and I agree — that what passes for psychology [of a language using human] is imbued with sociology.

“. . . every assertion made is to be sufficiently clear and precise to be capable of being definitely disproved if false.” Curt Ducasse

“. . . condition of any progress in philosophical discussions, which is, that every assertion made be definite enough to be definitely refuted if erroneous, rather than vague enough to leave a loophole if attacked.” Curt Ducasse, Causation and the Types of Necessity, 1924, 1969

“It tends to be the fate of lucid writers that their mistakes, being obvious, are impressive; while the contents of their insights, being rendered obvious by clarity of exposition, appear trivial.” Curt Ducasse

Can one escape from bullshit?

It was while I was teaching introductory courses in logic and philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, that I got the idea that the core of philosophy has always been escaping from bullshit. Of course, philosophers almost never used the word “bullshit” — though they used something like its cognates: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, invalid, fallacious, moonshine, etc.

Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .

Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.

But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.

What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.

Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.

And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.

So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?

Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?

Puzzles vs Problems in Philosophy: Karl Popper and the poker of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Below is an excerpt from section 26. “England: At the London School of Economics and Political Science,” in Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1985. This book is a reprint of the “Autobiography of Karl Popper,” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1974.

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Early in the academic year 1946-47 I received an invitation from the Secretary of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge to read a paper about some "philosophical puzzle". It was of course clear that this was Wittgenstein’s formulation, and that behind it was Wittgenstein’s philosophical thesis that there are no genuine problems in philosophy, only linguistic puzzles. Since this thesis was among my pet aversions, I decided to speak on "Are there Philosophical Problems?". I began my paper (read on October 26, 1946, in R. B. Braithwaite’s room in King’s College) by expressing my surprise at being invited by the Secretary to read a paper "stating some philosophical puzzle"; and I pointed out that, by implicitly denying that philosophical problems exist, whoever wrote the invitation took sides, perhaps unwittingly, in an issue created by a genuine philosophical problem.

I need hardly say that this was meant merely as a challenging and somewhat lighthearted introduction to my topic. But at this very point, Wittgenstein jumped up and said loudly and, it seemed to me, angrily: "The Secretary did exactly as he was told to do. He acted on my own instruction." I did not take any notice of this and went on; but as it turned out, at least some of Wittgenstein’s admirers in the audience did take notice of it, and as a consequence took my remark, meant as a joke, for a serious complaint against the Secretary. And so did the poor Secretary himself, as emerges from the minutes, in which he reports the incident, adding a footnote: "This is the Club’s form of invitation." [The minutes of the meeting are not quite reliable. For example the title of my paper is given on the printed list of meetings as “Methods in Philosophy” instead of “Are there Philosophical Problems?”, which was the title ultimately chosen by me. Furthermore, the Secretary thought I was complaining that this invitation was a brief paper, to introduce a discussion — which in fact suited me very well. He completely missed my point (puzzle versus problem).]

However, I went on to say that if I thought that there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher. Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems. At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction? These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical. I then referred to the problem whether potential or perhaps even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. (This dismissal got into the minutes.) I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules. At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!" I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

I really was very sorry. I admit that I went to Cambridge hoping to provoke Wittgenstein into defending the view that there are no genuine philosophical problems, and to fight him on this issue. But I had never intended to make him angry; and it was a surprise to find him unable to see a joke. I realized only later that he probably did indeed feel that I was joking, and that it was this that offended him. But though I had wanted to treat my problem lightheartedly, I was in earnest — perhaps more so than was Wittgenstein himself, since, after all, he did not believe in genuine philosophical problems.

After Wittgenstein left us we had a very pleasant discussion, in which Bertrand Russell was one of the main speakers. And Braithwaite afterwards paid me a compliment (perhaps a doubtful compliment) by saying that I was the only man who had managed to interrupt Wittgenstein in the way in which Wittgenstein interrupted everyone else.

Next day in the train to London there were, in my compartment, two students sitting opposite each other, a boy reading a book and a girl reading a leftish journal. Suddenly she asked: "Who is this man Karl Popper?" He replied: "Never heard of him." Such is fame. (As I later found out, the journal contained an attack on The Open Society.)

The meeting of the Moral Sciences Club became almost immediately the subject of wild stories. In a surprisingly short time I received a letter from New Zealand asking whether it was true that Wittgenstein and I had come to blows, both armed with pokers. Nearer home the stories were less exaggerated, but not much.

The incident was, in part, attributable to my custom, whenever I am invited to speak in some place, of trying to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge. It is the only way in which speech can be better than print This is why I chose my topic as I did. Besides, this controversy with Wittgenstein touched on fundamentals.

I claim that there are philosophical problems; and even that I have solved some. Yet, as I have written elsewhere "nothing seems less wanted than a simple solution to an age-old philosophical problem".[See Conjectures and Refutations [1963], p. 55.] The view of many philosophers and, especially, it seems, of Wittgensteinians, is that if a problem is soluble, it cannot have been philosophical. There are of course other ways of getting over the scandal of a solved problem. One can say that all this is old hat; or that it leaves the real problem untouched. And, after all, surely, this solution must be all wrong, must it not? (I am ready to admit that quite often an attitude like this is more valuable than one of excessive agreement.)

One of the things which in those days I found difficult to understand was the tendency of English philosophers to flirt with nonrealistic epistemologies: phenomenalism, positivism, Berkeleyan or Humean, or Machian idealism ("neutral monism"), sensationalism, pragmatism — these playthings of philosophers were in those days still more popular than realism. After a cruel war lasting for six years this attitude was surprising, and I admit that I felt that it was a bit "out of date" (to use a historicist phrase). Thus, being invited in 1946-47 to read a paper in Oxford, I read one under the title "A Refutation of Phenomenalism, Positivism, Idealism, and Subjectivism". In the discussion, the defence of the views which I had attacked was so feeble that it made little impression. However, the fruits of this victory (if any) were gathered by the philosophers of ordinary language, since language philosophy soon came to support common sense. Indeed, its attempts to adhere to common sense and realism are in my opinion by far the best aspect of ordinary-language philosophy. But common sense, though often right (and especially in its realism), is not always right And things get really interesting just when it is wrong. These are precisely the occasions which show that we are badly in need of enlightenment They are also the occasions on which the usages of ordinary language cannot help us. To put it in another way, ordinary language, and with it the philosophy of ordinary language, is conservative. But in matters of the intellect (as opposed, perhaps, to art, or to politics) nothing is less creative and more commonplace than conservatism.

All this seems to me very well formulated by Gilbert Ryle: "The rationality of man consists not in his being unquestioning in matters of principle but in never being unquestioning; not in cleaving to reputed axioms, but in taking nothing for granted."" [See p. 167 of Ryle’s review of Open Society in Mind, 56 (1947), 167-72.]

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Commentary: By Popper’s own exhortation never to argue about the meaning of words, this seems to be a case of arguing about the uses of the words “puzzle,” “problem,” and “philosophy.” Wittgenstein too seems to be taking a position inconsistent with his idea that some words are ambiguous, vague, and some have a logic of “family resemblances.”

The central question is what to include under the label “philosophy.”

As it turns out the word “philosophy” — as many other words — is both ambiguous, vague, and has “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein is known for claiming that philosophical problems are due to linguistic confusions. Examples of such confusions are the various paradoxes, which can be treated by a distinction of use and mention of words, and the distinction between a language and a meta-language — as pointed out early by Bertrand Russell. Other sorts of linguistic confusions are category mistakes, made much of by Gilbert Ryle. Wittgenstein added to this tool box, the idea that language has many uses. And I suppose it would be a category mistake to confuse these many uses.

Popper saw philosophy as including other concerns (problems) — which he mentions, and which Wittgenstein readily pigeonholes as logical, mathematical or ethical. As a first take on the situation, the word “puzzle” has the connotation of not being urgent or serious; whereas the word “problem” has the connotation of being something requiring at least some urgency and seriousness.

But, really, is there a clear distinction?

This reminds me of the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The Sphinx posed a riddle (a kind of puzzle). If Oedipus could not solve it, he would be killed by the Sphinx. And if he did solve it, the Sphinx would commit suicide. If the mark of a problem is its seriousness, then Oedipus had a problem of solving a puzzle (the riddle).

But perhaps Popper meant by a problem the finding of a peculiar type of explanation — perhaps a “scientific” explanation. In that case, Popper would be saying something to the effect that science and philosophy have no clear demarcation; while Wittgenstein was looking for such a demarcation. In his earlier book, Tractatus, he said metaphorically that philosophy if either above or below science.

In any case, judging by his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper saw philosophy as also concerned with a normative undertaking for a better society.

My own perspective on philosophy has changed from a minimalist perspective of avoiding contradictions such as found in paradoxes and category mistakes, especially within and between religions. This is a form of a priori criticism, which does not seek the truth, but which avoids error. I have also used a broader critique which assumes the reliability of science as a benchmark for what is plausible, and which then criticizes views as incompatible with science. And in the spirit of Popper, I include a further critique of institutions which centers on giving people the opportunity (freedom) to agree or disagree. In other words, I too seek an “open society.”

Also, people are ignorant, stupid, irresponsible, malicious, and manipulative — prone to bullshitting with all sorts of unsavory speeches and actions. I think the phrase “escaping from bullshit” encapsulates this broader concern and critique.

Is an employer a capitalist?

We — including me — often use the word “capitalist” as a synonym for “employer,” “entrepreneur,” or “businessman.” But on reflection, this is a mistake; or, at best, a problem of ambiguity. Capitalism is a kind of theory, and a “capitalist” should be the name of a person who subscribes to this theory.

To illustrate the linguistic problem here, consider the case of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s doppelganger. Both were arch anti-capitalists. But Engels was the son of an owner of textile factories in Salford, England and in Barmen, Prussia. He was, thus, an employer. And if one uses the word “capitalist” as a synonym for “employer,” than we get the paradoxical result that the arch anti-capitalist was a capitalist!

This apparent paradox is due to the ambiguous use of the term “capitalist.” If we were writing a dictionary, we would have to introduce two meanings for the word: Capitalist-1, an employer; Capitalist-2, someone who subscribes to the politico-economic theory of capitalism.

With that distinction, we could then get rid of the paradox by saying that Engels, the capitalist-1, was an anti-capitalist-2.