What Sort of Inquiry is Philosophy?

I’ve been busy but I’m preparing a new string of posts now. This one was inspired by a memory of Peter Winch which sent me off into some metaphilosophical reflection.

I’ll start by confessing that there are some philosophical problems which I not only feel to be genuine, but which I even defend solutions to, at least in casual conversation.

One of these is the problem of weakness of will. I have long felt that the Greeks were basically right that there is no such thing; that it is a matter of logic, our concepts, grammar, whatever you want to call it, that if a person acts, and if that person knew what action he or she was performing, then that person wanted to perform that action. The torturer with a gun to her head wants to torture her victim, even if it’s true of her that she wouldn’t do it if the gun was not to her head; the drunk who takes a drink wants to take a drink, even if he has stayed clean for a year beforehand, initially went into the bar by mistake, and immediately afterwards is overcome with remorse and tears and flees. Nor are nobler causes any excuse: a person who kills to defend his family or his nation is still a killer. (See I Chronicles 22:7-8 and II Samuel 23:15-17.)

I suppose one reason I’m inclined to push here when I’m not inclined to push at so many other philosophical junctions is that I think it’s morally important to look at things this way. If you don’t own your own evil you can’t repent for it.

Also, if someone wants to mark the difference between the reluctant torturer and the enthusiastic one, there are resources available. We can formulate the problem as a contradiction, like so:

1. If a person performs an action and is aware of the action she performs, then she wants to perform that action.

2. People sometimes perform actions they do not want to perform.

Here I can say something like: OK, fine, ‘want’ is ambiguous here. In the total sense of want, the desire that drives your actual actions, (1) is true and (2) is false; on the other hand, it is possible in the broader sense to have dispositions that you don’t act on, wants that for whatever reason were not decisive with respect to your other wants in the actual concrete circumstances you inhabited, but which might have been the guiding desires of your actions in other circumstances. So in this sense it’s possible to do something you don’t want to do, allowing (2) to be true, even while (1) is still also true, since we can have conflicting dispositions towards the same action, both of which can even be felt and taken into account as we deliberate and act. (Wants in sense 1 are total, so you must either want to do what you do or not want to do what you do; wants in sense 2 are partial, so you may both want and not want to do something.)

So in this way we grant “a measure of truth” to each opinion, as Hume or Kant might have had it. But it’s really a half-measure, since at the end of the day you did still want to hurt your neighbor, and we know that, because you did it.

I am aware that there is plenty more to be said about all the points made above, but I’ll stop there, since the purpose of this post is not even incidentally to defend my opinion on the subject of weakness of will.

Rather I want to recall a time that I defended this view to Peter Winch. There was a good group that used to go late Sunday morning to Peter’s house in Champaign, Illinois and read through various writings of Wittgenstein’s together. (Just before I started participating I believe they had been looking at Simone Weil for a while, but in the years I spent in the reading group it was always Wittgenstein.) Peter would serve us coffee and tea and we’d all chat as people arrived. I don’t remember exactly how it came up – perhaps someone said that someone else did something they didn’t want to, and I sneered – like more than a few twentysomething philosophers of my generation, perhaps of many generations, I had a lot of sneering yet to get out of my system.

Anyway, Peter quizzed me on what I had said – mostly just to get me to clarify – and I ventured views somewhat like those I just expressed. His response was – of course – not to offer a different theory of weakness of will that would break things down differently; but it was also not to point out different instances of acting quasi-akratically in different circumstances and to suggest, in the style to which we Wittgenstein enthusiasts have become accustomed, that weakness of will is not just one thing, and that there are different ways of thinking about so-called weakness of will in different situations, etc.

Rather, what he said was: “You’re a hard man.”

I got a little defensive, tried to back up my position with reasons and so forth, and he smiled a bit and shook me off. “That’s a very hard way of looking at things.”

At that point I got quiet and self-reflective and the conversation moved on to other people and issues. A few minutes later we were all reading Wittgenstein together. I don’t think the subject ever came up between us again.

And in one sense I don’t think it really needed to, because I had made my point and he had made his. We understood each other.

Let’s grant, for the moment, that many of the perennial problems of philosophy have the form of contradictions – apparent or real – and that one of the things we do when we take a position on them is to resolve that contradiction, either by denying a premise, identifying an ambiguity, or showing that the contradiction is an artificial construction involving a certain sort of poetic distortion of – perhaps, multiple ambiguities in – the linguistic, social, and physical realities from which it seems to, but actually does not, arise.

When we consider philosophy as a theoretical activity, a common assumption that seems to go along with that is that when we approach these problems there must be just one correct, or at least best, most rationally warranted way of solving them. And we sometimes hector students or mock colleagues who take the ‘wrong’ approach, or who opt to simply deny one or the other premises rather than getting into the details of the most interesting solutions in the literature, or the simpler ones we presented in class.

On the other hand – people faced these problems before we were born and they will still be facing them after we are gone. Are there true solutions to them? Perhaps – but I want to say that even if there are, that’s not always the most important thing – especially given the limitations of our knowledge. It’s sometimes more important to face the problem and decide where you come down on it then it is to get the right answer – let alone the ‘right’ one.

I sometimes characterize my teaching activity as one of showing students the connections between ideas. One importance of those connections is theoretical. I sometimes tell my students in introductory classes that they can believe anything they want, but that certain beliefs have consequences, and that you need to have a story if you want to accept beliefs that are in apparent conflict. So for example with the Problem of Evil, it doesn’t have much force for you if you’re an atheist – unless perhaps it’s your reason for being an atheist – but if you do believe in God, you need to have some sort of story about how His goodness is compatible with, well, all this. The Problem of Evil as I see it is fundamentally a fair question to ask the believer – mirrored by the doubt believers sometimes feel in times of trial – and one important use of the Problem, as I see it, is just to present the believer with the puzzle, so that he can feel its force and decide what he wants to say in response; the issue not being so much where ‘we’ ‘should’ come down on this issue, but to see for yourself where you do come down on it.

These are the logical or discursive consequences of beliefs – the things we need to affirm or deny on the basis of other things we’ve already affirmed or denied  But there are other kinds of consequence too – certain beliefs are interwoven with how we treat people, how we interpret their actions and feelings, and so on. And that’s what Peter’s remark highlighted – not the rational consequences of the position I was holding, its flawed premises or its questionable consequences – but the feelings, attitudes, interpretations, and ways of looking at things it implicated me in.

He was right: it is a hard way of looking at things. And being in certain respects a hard man is one price I pay for embracing the view that there’s no such thing as weakness of will.

The broader problem which led me to start thinking about this, which the next post will deal with too, is that of the value of philosophy. “Traditional philosophy” comes in for rather rough treatment at Wittgenstein’s hands – the problems of philosophy as characterized in the way this post does tend to be dissolved, rather than solved – their foundations are cut away from them and they are revealed as false constructs.

But here there is another sort of issue arising, namely, the way in which our responses to traditional problems of philosophy reveal things about our own thought processes and character – what kind of people we are – and, whatever kind of people we are, challenge us to go deeper into why we think the things we do and what makes us hold the attitudes we hold.

When I consider the problems of philosophy from this point of view the appeal to theory, to the best going views on a particular subject, doesn’t have much allure – why would it be important to believe the things that the professors who currently dominate the discourse on this problem believe? There are other defensible views even now, and fashion will shift again soon enough. But on the other hand I can imagine a different kind of impatience with certain applications of ‘Wittgensteinian’ methods here – “why are you trying to weasel out of taking a position?” – the issue now not being that you have to come up with the right answer or even a plausible theory yourself, although that may be part of your way of working things out, but that you really ought to face up to the question as a matter of your own moral health.

That’s all I’ve got for today. Back to ruminating. Thanks for reading.