30 August 2006

Essay and Ornithology

Happy Birthdays to John Locke and Charlie Parker, born August 29, 1632 and 1920. John Locke wasn't the most systematic of philosophers, neither was he the most insightful, the clearest, nor most influential. To my mind, however, he was the most reasonable. He rarely exaggerated a point, often qualified to the point of muddying the water, and regarded himself merely as a station on our collective philosophical way. Although this combination of traits makes him seem at times needlessly complex and at times unnecessarily simplistic, it was his strength. He was a levelheaded man, philosophizing.

In his own way, within the post-WWII world of jazz improvisers Charlie Parker was the same -- the most reasonable.

01 August 2006

Galileo, Descartes, and the Hedgehog Effect

 My sincerest apologies for milking the hedgehog and fox for yet another post, but these paragraphs were written shortly after the original hedgehog post.

It seems to me that many works in the history of early-modern philosophy suffer from the what I hereby dub ``the hedgehog effect''; that is, they treat historical actors as if those actors were systematic thinkers, although they really weren’t. Put poetically, they make foxes into hedgehogs.

Take, for example, the set of writings concerning Galileo’s scientific methodology that extends from (roughly) J. H. Randall to W. Wallace. According to this well-known camp within Galilean scholarship, Galileo’s scientific methodology was consciously (as a whole!) constructed to obey the strictures on proper demonstration laid out in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and certain scholastic commentaries thereof. Galilean science, this camp holds, was a type of Aristotelian science, and Galileo himself was a sort of systematic philosopher, a student of Aristotle!

I think this is an exaggeration. Certainly, Galileo coveted the title of “philosopher” (which happened to be the highest paid academic designation of his time), but he had absolutely nothing positive to say about Aristotelians, or any other species of philosopher.

It seems to me that Galileo consciously put his work in opposition to the system-building efforts of his contemporaries in the Universities. He was constructing a new kind of science that differed from Aristotelian science not only in content, but in the set of norms against which its success was judged. In particular (and in contrast to Aristotelian science), this science was not judged according to whether its findings could be incorporated into a grand architectonic of all human knowledge.

For this reason, it seems to me that viewing Galileo as an architectonic-building hedgehog (like Randall and Wallace do) misses the most important of Galileo’s intellectual characteristics: that he is an entirely different kind of thinker than the systematic Aristotelians around him.

But Galileo is an easy case, and I think most contemporary historians of philosophy would agree that he is not a system-builder (see, for example, the Afterward to Daniel Garber’s encyclopedic and essential Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics). I’d like to suggest, however, that the same tendency to overstate systematicity infects our analysis of other thinkers.

Take Descartes, for example. Clearly Descartes’ goal is to formulate a systematic philosophy. In some ways, he is even a poster-boy for all other hedgehogs! After all, he bases his philosophy on a few basic principles---which he believes he knows deeply and with certainty---and tries to deduce the remainder of human knowledge from them. However, the more I read him, the more I think Descartes was a sly fox. Under the banner of formulating a systematic philosophy, he cherry-picked arguments from a variety of sources, constantly shifted his position in response to criticism, and all the while maintained (and this is the particularly ‘sly’ part) `But that’s what I meant all along!'. (Just think of his evolving definition of motion, or the development of Cartesian philosophy after the Replies).

Are we over-systematizing Descartes? Certainly, since we know that his goal was to be systematic, it is charitable to read him in this way. But let’s not forget: having the goal of systematicity is far from actually practicing philosophy systematically.

In general, one of the standard strategies for a history of philosophy paper is to take two incompatible assertion of some past philosopher and show them to be compatible. This is done by revealing hidden assumptions, clarifying arguments, reevaluating the meaning of concepts based on the historical context, etc. But are we turning too many foxes into hedgehogs? What do you think?

Married Child (Slight Return)

After a long hiatus (consisting of 7 months of planning for a wedding, one day of getting married, a short honeymoon, and a quick escape from a war zone), I'm back. Although I soon have to finish a dissertation draft (and hopefully go out on the job market), I expect posting frequency to increase. If anyone is still listening, keep listening. Thank you, and have a pleasant afternoon.

02 January 2006

Hedgehogs and Historians

In "Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know?", Philip E. Tetlock presents empirical evidence that political pundits are overwhelmingly wrong in their predictions about future political events (book, interview).   What's more, he claims that the more knowledgeable an expert is in some particular field, the worse his/her predictions about that field. Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin's famous take on Archilochus' equally famous fragment ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing") to analyze the situation.

According to Berlin, thinkers can be classified as either "hedgehogs" or "foxes". The hedgehogs are those who "relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel" and the foxes are those who "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way". According to Tetlock, political pundits are generally hedgehogs, and so understand the political world through whatever more or less coherent system (liberalism, conservatism, etc.) they endorse. Consequently, they tend to over-emphasize evidence that supports their worldview and under-emphasize evidence that runs contrary to it. In essence, Tetlock argues that political pundits are bad predictors because the nature of punditry is such that it causes the pundit to be a bad judge of evidence. (Notice that this is an argument about how evidence is evaluated, not about the peculiar nature of prediction, the unknown future, etc.)

No doubt, this make for great cocktail party banter. But does it mean anything for historians of philosophy?

I think that it might. After all, aren't most of us hedgehogs? Our individual work usually revolves around a small set of philosophers, if not a small set of philosophical questions with which a small set of philosophers was concerned, and each of us usually has a “line” that s/he is trying to push. I, for one, can confess: my dissertation (on which I'm currently working) is built on a single idea, and the whole work is an attempt to articulate a more or less coherent system of historical facts and philosophical arguments that explicate this idea. Pretty hedgehogish, don't you think?

Now here's the troubling part. If Tetlock is right, then whether I am consciously aware of it or not, my supposed expertise is causing me to misjudge the historical evidence. Moreover, if I am not the only hedgehog, then maybe this problem is prevasive! Does the field of history of philosophy have any hope of achieving a relatively accurate historical understanding of the development of philosophy? It seems that empirical evidence is against us.

Perhaps we need to wait for studies that somehow average pundit opinion. Maybe the sum of us do better than each taken separately?…. Any takers for this project?

15 December 2005

An open letter

I feel a somewhat guilty/worrisome about starting a blog. There are plenty of informed (and uninformed) opinions already out there, who needs another? What can I possibly write that others have not expressed more eloquently? Am I contributing to the inevitable rise of such quaint, if modernized, saying like “you know… if you google two philosophers, you’ll get three blogs”? Should I stop before I start?

No. I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m not writing this blog as an advertising vehicle for whatever I believe might be true/false/interesting/curious about early modern philosophy, but as a bit of behavioral therapy. You see, writing is painful to me. I’ve never really digested the concept of “a draft”, and so I worry incessantly about individual words and formatting options, I imagine too many possible readers and their angry/dismissive reaction. I insist that I know my song well before I start singing. Surely, unless you are a genius wordsmith, this is a recipe for disaster (disaster = blank page).

So by way of therapy, I’m gonna write a blog and force myself to express half-baked ideas in a reasonable amount of time. Perhaps if I do this often enough, writing will become easier for me. That, if you were wondering, is the plan.

Oh, and thanks for reading, dear therapists.