The Full Implications of Empiricism, Research Time, 08/04/2018

Follow the logic of a position through to its natural conclusion. This isn’t always done. Usually, when you’re talking to other philosophers, it never gets done because someone sidetracks the story with a question, interrupts, and swings things in a totally different direction.

Usually the direction of their own work. I’ve been there. I’ve done it before, unfortunately for my trying to avoid hypocrisy. But I don’t want to do it anymore.

What seems like ordinary beauty in art to us today, was a revolution
that enraged people with its provocative smashing of aesthetic rules
taught as universals. Could art be beautiful if it wasn't faithfully
realistic? We don't ask that question now.
Henri Matisse, Still Life With Lemons
So the other day, I wrote a few quick remarks about Gilles Deleuze’s critique of Hegel. Well, not Hegel per se. But the idea that was at the core of Hegel’s work, and which so profoundly influenced so many thinkers in the society where Deleuze lived – mid-20th century France.

The real is the rational. Reality has the same fundamental structure as human rationality. Begin by understanding the simple and arrive at the complex, until at last you’re able to comprehend all the complexity the world can possibly offer you.

There’s another aspect of this way of thinking as well – your attitude to universal knowledge. When I say universal knowledge, I mean questions, answers, and inquiries to questions like “What is beauty?”

Plato’s most famous dialogues are prime examples. I’ve met enough students and professors who see philosophy as a discipline to be about discovering the answers to the questions that Plato never could discover.

Let’s leave aside the most obvious critique of this idea – that aporia was the point of any inquiry into a universal question like “What is beauty?” and “What is justice?” Questions that aren’t supposed to have answers, that aren’t built to be answers, but to encourage thinking.

So that's aporia. You want to explore more of that, go read some Jacques Derrida. I’d recommend starting with a really short book he wrote called Aporias. Surprise surprise.

Deleuze explores a different aspect of these universal questions. Universal questions are fundamentally general – You search for a concept that holds across all cases. The problem with such a project is that it presumes the structure of human rationality as it is will extend legitimately over all of existence.

You want to buy Plato to wear on your chest?
If I can use some insider’s imagery to describe the attitude – you presume that a thinker doesn’t have to leave his armchair to figure out all the great truths of existence.

What does that presumption mean? That the powers of human rationality are already complete. And that’s a very presumptuous presumption.

Empiricism is a perspective of epistemic humility – we’re humble about the powers of human knowledge. Acknowledge that we’re contingent creatures whose power to think is pretty remarkable and kind of amazing, but that arose from conditions that resulted in some biases and blindnesses.

Humans aren’t perfect. Humans have a lot to learn about how our knowledge can develop, a lot of new powers that can help us live better in our world. What are those powers? I have a few ideas, and I’ve talked about them before. But you can only figure out what those powers are or can be if you investigate the world.

I’m going to go back to Plato for this illustration, because of the power Plato holds over philosophical thought for the Western tradition. I mean, Plato is the only person of whom the entire tradition has been described as a series of footnotes to his work. I love a lot of the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead, but I think his Oxbridge cultural conservatism was showing a little too much here.

A lot of Plato’s dialogues start with Socrates challenging the adequacy of everyday thinking about complex concepts – beauty, justice, piety, love, etc. Somebody frames their thinking in terms of asking, for example, what things are beautiful.

Socrates’ character is right to call these questions inadequate to the task. The question “What things are beautiful?” doesn’t explore why we think those things are beautiful in the first place. So you have to explore “What is beauty?” before you can figure out what things truly are beautiful. You have to understand the general categories before you can start building your taxonomy.

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most progressive
artists of the last century because of how he
purposely challenged the notion of what could
even count as art, let alone what counts as
beautiful. His work didn't even try to be beautiful,
and so ended up redefining whole new ways to
think about art and beauty.
This aspect of Plato’s influence has severely limited how empiricism could develop in the Western tradition, because it frames any investigation of the world as requiring complete general knowledge to get off the ground and guide itself.

But this critique doesn’t kill empiricism, as too many over the last 2500 years have thought. It forces empiricism to get serious. Let’s lay out how the model questions should go.

Uncritical Empiricism: “What things are beautiful?”
General Questions: “What is beauty?”
Contingent Empiricism: “What can this show me about beauty?”

The general question is how rationalism can inform empiricism. But having been so informed, an empiricism that follows this more nuanced logic to its endpoint will understand the contingency of its questions.

Ask what the world can show you about your concepts, your terms, your categories. A contingent approach to empiricism is how knowledge can progress. Our knowledge can become more complete, can approach completeness.

But total completeness isn’t an achievable goal – it’s an asymptote, an attractor. We improve by using progress toward completion as our guide, but understand that only God can ever be complete. We, in contrast, can be better.

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