Why One Ism Over Another? Philosophy’s Most Important Question, Research Time, 14/11/2013

Just a brief post today after my epic meditation on Albert Camus and colonialism. As a member of the Canadian Philosophical Association, I receive the journal Dialogue. Sometimes, I look through it, and don’t really find anything useful to my research. It isn’t a strict specialty journal, but I like it because every now and then, I’ll find a good surprise.

Good surprise today was finding an article by Jiri Benovsky in the issue of Dialogue that arrived today. I had come across some of his work when I was researching some analytic ontology for a small section of my ecophilosophy manuscript when it was strictly a dissertation. While the specific topics of analytic ontology aren’t of much interest to me, Benovsky’s 2008 paper on it was very interesting, because he was critiquing a major argument on the grounds that the two sides weren’t that different at all. 

He continues this idea in the Dialogue paper, “Primitiveness, Metaontology, and Explanatory Power.” I’ll skip over most of the technical elements because they’re very technical, and they would just get in the way of explaining the most interesting thing about the article. See, this new essay fits more into meta-philosophy, asking just what the difference between ontological theories that are in dispute amounts to. 

The example he chooses to illustrate this is a debate over how the properties of an object are constituted. Say a car and an apple are of the same red colour. Is the property of redness an instantiation of a universal redness? Or is the property of redness derived from the visual resemblance of the car and the apple in colour? Benovsky raises an interesting question: What if there really is no difference between these theories? What we seek is an explanation of how properties inhere in their objects. The only worldly phenomenon we experience is the inherence of properties in objects; instantiation and resemblance are ways to explain how properties inhere in objects. But neither instantiation or resemblance theory is able to defeat the other. Ingenious arguments in defense of both sides are always being developed. We have alternative explanations that are functionally equivalent: they explain why properties inhere in objects.

If we think functionally about the questions we need explained (What fulfills the function of inhering properties in objects?), then there is no need to choose between theories which postulate some entity or phenomenon outside of experience to explain our question. All we ask of the entities philosophers postulate to explain some phenomenon is simply that they explain what we want explained. If there are multiple explanations for the same phenomenon that cannot invalidate each other, then we may as well consider them all correct. Even if the theories are contraries, the impasse is inescapable.

I think this is actually a critical philosophical question. The discipline of philosophy spends so much time meditating on complex and profound questions, formulating and arguing over theories to explain and answer these questions. Benovsky has actually summoned the fortitude to say that these arguments may be undecidable.* This is a conclusion that is bound to anger a lot of philosophers, who devote the energies of their entire careers to working to prove one theory in a sub-discipline correct over opponents.

* At the end of his article, Benovsky mentions a forthcoming piece he has in The Journal of Value Inquiry where he offers aesthetic criteria for choosing one philosophical theory over another. The prospect intrigues me, and if I can’t find my way to a copy of the article from my place here, largely cut off from easy access to professional academic journals in my year without a formal position, I may just write him myself. 

I, however, love this idea! And I’ve already concluded that it’s the truth. Does my conviction that many philosophical debates are undecidable contests between functionally equivalent explanations constitute a philosophical theory that itself could be part of a debate among functional equivalents? Yes, and that might be true. But I don’t care, because I don’t think philosophy works best when it focusses on proving one theory correct and others wrong. I think criticism is an important, really essential, part of philosophical discourse. However, I don’t think philosophical criticism is about identifying true and false theories, but about crafting theories that better explain the problems you’re trying to explore. Solving the problems of the current generation of a discipline will only create more problems for the following generation. John Dewey said that, and it was meant to encourage optimism. A discipline of human knowledge that solves all its problems has nothing left to say: it’s dead.

I want philosophy to live as long as humanity, if not longer.

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