Sunday, August 29, 2010

Were Wittgenstein's antics catching?

A friend sent me this link which features a picture of the philosopher Karl Popper clutching his head. The description of the head-clutching (plus) Wittgenstein in my post of last month ('The showmanship of Ludwig Wittgenstein') was taken from the book Wittgenstein's poker which is about the notorious debate between LW and Karl Popper at which LW was supposed to have threatened Popper with a poker. Ah, those were the days...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 'internal self' is a fiction. So what?

What might be the practical implications of the view of the self put forward in some of my recent posts, notably "Nietzsche on the 'self'"? Here are a few thoughts.

If one realizes that one has been treating as something real the internal 'self' or 'I' which is in fact a fiction, then one's view of who one is will change in subtle - but possibly significant - ways.

It may provide a way of dealing with death. The body dies, but arguably it is the 'internal self' we are more concerned with. And if it is only an illusion, what is there to mourn (apart from the loss of the body)?

There will be implications also for the moral sense, as the old idea of the freely willing agent - the traditional notion of the conscience - might be called into question. This is too large an issue to address here, but, briefly, my view is that we certainly have a sense of being able to choose from a large array of imagined possible actions - and in a sense we do freely choose. The problem that philosophers have addressed is to define precisely how free choice is to be understood so that it does not depend on an 'internal', immaterial self. I suspect, however, that, as the notion of the internal self is superseded in everyday thinking, the philosophical problem of human freedom will no longer seem to be a problem.

One other implication of the new view of the self is that the atomistic individualism which lies behind much political thinking comes to seem quite unrealistic and false. For there is no spiritual core to define the individual. Rather the individual is a product of society. Language is social and is a key element in an individual's identity; likewise other cultural elements and social relations of all kinds. A new-born baby only gradually becomes a human individual as it interacts with and internalizes elements of its social, cultural and linguistic environment.

It is a truism that we are social beings - but the Christian-Platonic notion of the soul and then its secular equivalent led Europeans for hundreds of years to underplay the social dimension. And current notions of political freedom, human rights and equality could be seen to derive from this discredited tradition.

Believing in a social self does not entail a collectivist social ideal, however, and certainly not an egalitarian one. Collectivism is not incompatible with the view that the 'internal self' does not exist, but then nor is the traditional conservative ideal of an organic society based on multiple institutions and complex hierarchical relationships.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Intelligent behavior

The mark of intelligence is active learning - changing behavior in response to circumstances and past successes and failures. In his remarkable and largely forgotten book The concept of mind (1949), Gilbert Ryle distinguishes between a passive approach of 'satisfying criteria' (or following rules blindly) and an active one of 'applying criteria' (which involves making choices about when to apply which criteria, that is, continually modifying the rules one lives by).

Ryle writes: "To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to apply them; to regulate one's actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person's performance is described as careful or skillful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right."

Ryle's work is difficult to categorize. It is not scientific psychology, but nor is it anti-scientific. It is concerned with the basic logic of psychological explanations. He called the area in which he worked 'philosophical psychology'.

As Jason Streitfeld points out, Ryle challenges "what he calls 'the dogma of the ghost in the machine,' the tradition of Cartesian dualism which says that minds and bodies are distinct entities, each with their own causal properties. Ryle says this is a category error. When we speak of minds, we are not speaking of states, entities, or events. The language we use to talk about minds employs a logic of dispositions, and not simply of occurrences. Rather than think of the mind as a particular place or thing, Ryle asks us to imagine it as a complex set of abilities, capacities, skills, and so on ...

... Ryle's argument is not that we do not have private thoughts, or that we do not imagine, think, or feel. He does not ignore the richness and potency of experience. Rather, he says that the marks of the mental are not intrinsically private. Sometimes they are public, such as when we speak or write, or otherwise perform publicly. Thoughts are only sometimes private, and then only by convention or circumstance. Furthermore, such private acts do not confer intelligence to outward, public acts. Ryle's insight is this:- Intelligent behavior is not the product of intelligence - it is intelligence itself."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nietzsche on the 'self'

Martin and Barresi (see my post 'The ghost in the machine') draw attention to Nietzsche's brilliance in seeing so clearly and so early (his final mental breakdown occurred in January 1889) the questionable nature of the self. (The quotes are from pages 194 and 195.)

'Nietzsche is famous for having proclaimed that the rise of Enlightenment secularism meant that "God is dead." He is virtually unknown for having uncovered, in his personal reflections, the perhaps deeper truth that the self is dead ...

"Everything that enters consciousness as 'unity'," he said, "is already tremendously complex." Rather than unity of consciousness, we have "only a semblance of Unity." To explain this semblance, rather than a single subject [or 'I'], we could do as well by postulating "a multiplicity of subjects [or 'I's], whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and consciousness in general." We do not have any reason to believe that there is a dominant subject overseeing this multiplicity. "The subject [or 'I'] is multiplicity." '

(This view, by the way, is in accord with my understanding of the best recent neuroscientific theories.)

'Nietzsche concluded,' write Martin and Barresi, 'that we have been victimized by our language, that is, by "our bad habit ... of taking a mnemonic, and abbreviative formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, e.g., to say of lightning "it flashes." Or the little word "I." To make a kind of perspective in seeing the cause of seeing: that was what happened in the invention of the "subject," the "I"!" '

In other words, Nietzsche is saying that we have bought into the fiction of thinking that if there is a flashing, then there is a 'something' - an 'it' - that flashes; and if there is seeing, there is a 'something' - an 'I' - that sees. But this 'thing' that does the flashing does not exist - lightning is an electrical phenomenon in the atmosphere; and likewise the thing that does the seeing is not an internal agent, the 'I', but the physical organism (comprising eyes and brain, etc.).

So the "I" - or self - is neither a single thing, nor an agent (it does not do anything). Is it a fiction?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Man on a mission

I was walking the other night along a riverside promenade in the middle of the city of Melbourne, Australia, where street artists, on hands and knees, draw large chalk or crayon versions of Renaissance masterpieces on the pavement. I saw ahead of me a group of drunken young men who were waylaying passers-by and forcing them to admire and contribute to the retirement plan of an embarrassed artist. So I walked a bit faster and studiously avoided eye contact.

As I slipped past I heard one of the men say to one of the others who was going after me: "Leave him. He's on a mission."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The ghost in the machine

I have been reading The rise and fall of the soul and self: an intellectual history of personal identity by Raymond Martin and John Barresi (Columbia UP, 2006). The basic theme is that just as the idea of the soul has disappeared from scientific explanations of behavior (and from most people's thinking) so the idea of the self (which replaced the soul) is now being questioned if not rejected.

Much of the book, especially the later chapters, focuses on scientific research but philosophical approaches are also covered extensively. One thing that strikes me is the extent to which 20th century psychology was unscientific insofar as many theories and  approaches clearly serve as vehicles for individual (value-laden) points of view rather than contributing to a gradual increase in understanding (as truly scientific work tends to do). I was impressed at how well the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition seemed to stand up when compared with certain branches of psychology, and with much continental philosophy.

The gulf between the Anglo-American and continental styles of philosophy is brought out in an anecdote featuring the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

'...Ryle attacked not only the Cartesian idea of a self distinct from the body - "the ghost in the machine" - but the very idea of an inner life. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he argued that all meaningful talk of mental episodes - "twitches, itches, and twangs," even a person's being angry - was not about anything private to a person's interior life but about bodily "dispositions to behave."

In  the 1950s and 1960s, in England, ordinary-language philosophy, whose hallmark was to deny the inner life, came into full bloom. Meanwhile, on the continent, phenomenology, whose focus was the examination of inner life, was gathering steam. There was little love lost between the proponents of the two approaches. At a conference, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a conciliatory gesture, remarked to Ryle, "But are we not doing the same thing?" Ryle responded, "I hope not!" ' (p.244)