torstai 26. huhtikuuta 2012

Philosophical pedantry – or, the nest of misunderstanding

Human communication is often wrought with difficulty, but in case of two philosophers from different schools the failure to understand is often quite fundamental – it is no wonder that philosophers have a hard time in explaining how communication can work, when they can't get it work for themselves. Often this lack of understanding is caused by nothing else, but different theoretical presuppositions, and in worst cases, merely by one using words in a different sense than the other. Usually a third person sees instantly where the crux of the miscommunication lies, but to the opponents this is like a blind spot – indeed, they are even unwilling to consider that the reason for argument might be just verbal and pedantically remain steadfast in their own way of speaking.

This philosophical pedantry is an important topic for a historian of philosophy, because the history of philosophy is full of bickering caused by verbal issues. Before the historian decides whether one philosophers was more correct than another in some question, he must determine whether the two were even discussing the same problematic. For instance, Kant and Hegel appear to have a different view on the relationship between thought and being. Yet, it might well be that both philosophers mean something different by thinking and being – and if one proved this, he would have defused one point of contention between the so-called Kantians and self-ascribed Hegelians.

The philosophical misunderstanding is more certain, when the words used are misleadingly familiar. Probably no one has any preconceptions as to what a conversational implicature is, but the more mundane concept of idealism has been defined in various manners – Plato was an idealist, because he spoke of ”ideas”, Leibniz was an idealist, because he thought everything perceives, Kant was an idealist, because on his opinion we do not experience things in themselves and Hegel was an idealist, because all philosophers are idealists, which in Hegelian parlance includes anyone who tries to explain everything from one principle (even a materialist).

Even the apparently non-philosophical terms contain hidden ambiguities. When a person familiar with modern analytic philosophy hears Hegel saying ”Truth is whole”, he instantly thinks that Hegel is suggesting an alternative to the traditional correspondence theory of truth – probably some coherentist theory. But a closer look reveals that when Hegel speaks of truth (Wahrheit) he is speaking of things like ”true friend”. ”Truth” means for Hegel something close to ”good”. So, the Hegelian phrase is not meant to describe what makes a belief or a statement true, but to note that wholes are in some sense better or more important than mere parts.

A common way of defending one's pedantry is to shout out loud ”this is not the way to use that concept!” Of course, to a person acquainted with the modern theories of truth Hegelian terminology appears strange. But this analytic philosopher ignores such religious claims as ”God is truth”, which do not say anything about our beliefs and statements. Indeed, it is often impossible to determine what is the right way to use a word – and then we get such non-sensical arguments as Leibniz and Clarke's discussion how to define the word ”sensorium”.

How then to avoid such pedantry? If you are faced with a pedant and want to avoid the nuisance altogether – just accept the terms he uses. You want to use this word instead of that, allright, anything goes for me. So you define idealism like this? OK, Hegel wasn't an idealist then.

If you yourself don't want to become a pedant, a good antidote is to introduce oneself to as many philosophers and philosophical schools as possible. One is definitely not enough and not even two: you might learn to translate phenomenological lingo to Hegelese and back, but you still may have a blind spot for medievals. Of course, it is not possible to familiarise oneself with all the possible philosophers, but at least you will learn to suspend your judgement, when a new philosophical figure comes up with some seemingly ridiculous statements.

How is one then to engage in a dialogue with an unfamiliar philosophical terminology? Defining one's concepts is a necessary first step, but not the complete solution, because all definitions stop at some ultimate point. After that, the best bet are concrete examples explicating how concepts are to be used – one might have difficulty explaining what truth means, but hearing someone using truth of sentences and another speaking of true friends would teach us much about the variety of ways to use the word.

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