“When my younger self complained angrily in the margins with scrawls of ‘where is this going?’, he missed the sights and insights that the journey itself provided.”
A kind of philosophical innocence is the subject of the following guest post by Bradford Skow, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Skow works mainly in metaphysics, philosophy of science, and aesthetics, and has a blog/newsletter, Mostly Aesthetics, on Substack, which I highly recommend.
This is the fourth in a series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.[Posts in the summer guest series will remain pinned to the top of the page for the week in which they’re published.]
Some Remarks on Form in Philosophy
by Bradford Skow
Herbert Morris read an essay titled “Lost Innocence” at the 1975 Oberlin Philosophy Colloquium. In it, he attempted an analysis of Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, when Eve was tempted and they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge they acquired was not, obviously, perceptual knowledge, nor did they draw some new conclusion from their evidence. It is closer to say, Morris thought, that they acquired “a different way of feeling about what had been before them all along”: “[w]hereas one had earlier felt at ease, felt a kind of natural joy, one now is cursed with an absence of joy, perhaps more, with feeling anxious and bad.” But this itself is just a first approximation, and Morris steers us toward, and then away from, several more accounts of lost innocence, until, after a pause at his preferred one, he closes with a meditation on the nature of evil, and on the morally wise people who have “not been crushed by what they have confronted, but have emerged, in ways mysterious to behold, victorious, capable, despite and because of knowledge, of affirming rather than denying life.” Life-affirmation is not an ending that the essay’s opening paragraphs point you toward. Morris announces only that the essay was stimulated by reflection on the story of Adam and Eve, and he acknowledges early on the “serpentine nature” of his reasoning.
Every age has its favored philosophical templates. Readers of this venue are doubtless familiar, either as writers, or as readers or referees, with one in common use today:
I will argue that P.
Lo, notice that I am now arguing that P.
Reminder that Modus Ponens is valid!
In conclusion, I have argued that P.
On top of all this meta-signposting, not to be neglected is the obligatory here is the plan for this paper, placed at the end of the Introduction, and skipped over by every reader. The basic unit of philosophy is taken to be the argument with numbered premises and labeled conclusion, as the proof is the basic unit of mathematics. Of course books and papers in mathematics also have definitions and explanatory insertions, nor do works of philosophy consist only of arguments—not even Spinoza’s Ethics—but everything is built around them.
At sea between college and graduate school, I pursued a self-directed course of philosophical study, and focus on the argument was the straw keeping me afloat. When chance scudded me into Peter Unger’s paper “The Problem of the Many,” therefore, it seemed scandalous. “Although,” he wrote, “I think arguments are important in philosophy, my arguments here will be only the more assertive way for me to introduce the new problem, not the only way.” What an idea, that a philosophical goal could be achieved by other means.
I am just old enough to have had passed down to me, like myths of a lost age, other templates that were once more common. After his death, various collections of Wittgenstein’s notes and lectures were published, under titles like Remarks on Suchity-Such. A tradition began in which the basic unit of philosophy was—at least in presentation—the remark, sequences of which were presented in numbered paragraphs. On the surface this practice was more collegial and less aggressive, gentlemen (remember this was decades ago) lounging in tweed coats and exchanging thoughts between puffs of their pipes, but of course in reality a seemingly-anodyne “I would like to make a few remarks” was usually a preface to something devastating, or anyway intended to be so.
Because philosophy is so old, and because the ideas of the earliest philosophers are still alive today, it can seem that finding new philosophical positions, or new arguments for existing ones, requires a gold-medal performance, while those practicing other, newer disciplines languorously pick low-hanging fruit on their lunch breaks. I sometimes joke that, because of this, a career-making philosophical achievement can now consist in something as small as drawing a distinction. Or even in erasing one: I was once present when a famous philosopher complained, to the students in his graduate seminar, that one of his undergraduates could not grasp the distinction between numerical and qualitative identity, and I complained back that that student might just be a philosophical genius, seeing clearly that the alleged distinction Mr. Famous was trying to draw was not real. When Amos Tversky was a student, he chose psychology over philosophy in part because there were far fewer giants over whose shoulders one needed to see. However their eventual publications compare to Tversky’s Nobel-worthy life’s-work, I tell philosophy graduate students, they should take heart in the fact that he was a coward who could not muster the courage they have displayed.
Premise, premise, conclusion is the Freytag’s triangle of philosophy, and its de-throning in literary criticism may inspire. Jane Alison, in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode, explores a bunch of alternatives to the exposition, climax, resolution form, including the titular ones, which also makes good philosophical models. If Morris’s essay is a controlled and steady navigation by an experienced hand through a carefully surveyed territory, Arthur Danto is a great meanderer. In just the first few pages of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace he riffs on Euripidean and anti-Euripidean art, the imitation theory, and Sartre, and when my younger self complained angrily in the margins with scrawls of “where is this going?”, he missed the sights and insights that the journey itself provided.
The point is not, or not just, to have more fun, or to unleash unruly intellectual impulses that academic disciplines try to discipline. Form can be expressive in ways that matter aesthetically and even philosophically. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus sometimes achieves an austere oracular beauty that the philosophy-as-lab-report genre cannot equal and to which it cannot aspire. It is also, to some, offputtingly arrogant. To their temperament the Philosophical Investigations may be more congenial. “Bear in mind,” Kripke observed in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language,
that Philosophical Investigations is not a systematic philosophical work where conclusions, once definitively established, need not be reargued. Rather, the Investigations is written as a perpetual dialectic, where persisting worries, expressed by the voice of an imaginary interlocutor, are never definitively silenced… the same ground is covered repeatedly, from the point of view of various special cases and from different angles, with the hope that the entire process will help the reader see the problems rightly.
If for Herbert Morris the loss of moral innocence was “like the loss of peace of mind accounted for by acquiring anxiety,” the form of the Investigations—as it struck Kripke anyway, as it presented itself to him—is expressive of a loss of philosophical innocence, and the—possibly appropriate—gnawing philosophical anxiety and uncertainty that some of us cannot shake, but may hope not to be crushed by.