, , , ,

Michael Reidy and the recently returned Thill raise an important point in response to last week’s post, on the assessment of philosophy from analytic and “continental” perspectives. I argued that analytic philosophy judges philosophical on argument and continental philosophy on the depth of interpretation – interpretation “that could explain not merely what Kant [for example] said, but why he said it.”

Michael responded that the two were not likely to be so far apart in practice: “You can hardly develop a credible problematique without knowing some details.” Thill responded that this depth of interpretation necessarily “involves also an explanation of Kant’s argument for his views or claims!!!… What else could ‘why he said it’ mean or refer to?”

Thill’s question appears to be intended as rhetorical (especially given the laughs that precede and follow it in his comment). But it shouldn’t be. There is always much more to the reasons a philosopher says anything than the arguments that she makes for it. Certainly the arguments matter. They always do. But they are not the only thing that matters. Michael is right that depth of interpretation requires a serious attention to detail – but arguments are not the only details.

So what else could we be speaking of here, other than arguments? I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine what that could be. An argument consists of premises leading to a conclusion. But where do those premises come from? Sometimes from other arguments – but not always. We can follow a chain of reasoning back from one argument to another argument to another, but eventually it’s going to stop somewhere. There will be a premise that is simply asserted – or at least as often, and this is particularly important, a premise that is not even stated but merely assumed. And if one merely understands the structure of a thinker’s arguments but not the assumptions that underlie them, one will not have understood that thinker.

I should note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with an assumed premise, or one asserted without argument. Indeed, one has to do it at some point; one cannot say everything, or one would run out of space. It’s just that if one is going to assume or assert a premise successfully, it must be an assumption that is shared by one’s intended audience. That’s the point that is typically missed by overeager campus missionaries: you are not going to get anywhere by telling me that Jesus is God’s only son because the Bible says so, since I don’t accept your assumption that the Bible as an authority on that matter. If I did, your argument would be sound; but I don’t, so it isn’t.

Within analytic philosophy, when these shared assumptions are highlighted it is usually with the term intuition. I find that term highly inappropriate, because it suggests that these “intuitions” are something more than mere shared assumptions. But it’s not wrong to ground one’s arguments in those shared assumptions that get called “intuitions” – simply because, again, one has to start somewhere. On the “continental” side this point was one of Gadamer‘s key insights: new knowledge is always measured against the “prejudices” (Vorurteilen) we already have. (I find Gadamer’s “prejudices”, or Martha Nussbaum’s “prevalent ordinary beliefs” – a term derived with reference to Aristotle’s phainomena – all much more appropriate terms than “intuitions”. For the purposes of this discussion, I think it’s fine to call them “assumptions”.)

Now where all of this gets us into trouble is when we start dealing with thinkers who don’t share our assumptions (and we don’t share theirs). Such thinkers exist even within our own time and place (as with the overeager campus missionaries). But the greater the distance in time and space, the greater the disconnect of assumptions is likely to be – and the more crucial it is to consider not merely the explicit arguments but also the assumptions of the thinkers we hope to learn from.

Figuring all this out was crucial to my own dissertation work. Śāntideva, I noted there, believes that material goods are harmful and still urges one to give them to others for their benefit. If I’d merely considered his explicit arguments and nothing more, I would have had to have stopped there: Śāntideva is a fool who contradicts himself, and there’s an end on’t – and in that case, why bother studying him any further?

But I didn’t do that. Instead, I followed the method of looking for coherent authorship, as stated by Thomas Kuhn: I tried to ask myself how an intelligent person could have written such an apparent absurdity. And that required looking deeper into Śāntideva’s assumptions: the things he believes but doesn’t say. Key among these was the idea that gifts benefit the recipient through the gift encounter and not the gift object. I argue in the dissertation that if you look at the things Śāntideva does say, you can infer that Śāntideva believes this, and it makes sense out of his explicit arguments in a way that you can’t get from looking at the arguments alone. Such an approach, I think, is crucial to making sense of any philosopher outside of one’s own immediate cultural milieu. If all you’re going to consider is the arguments, you might as well not bother. And indeed, most analytic philosophers don’t bother much with thinkers from distant times and places, which, considering their method, is just as well.

But that is not to say analytic philosophy is worthless. Not at all! It just doesn’t prepare you very well for studying the history of philosophy (which is why that history tends to be relegated to the sidelines of analytic departments). What it does very well is attempt to get to truth within a given context, namely ours – to take the incoherent mess of “intuitions” or prejudices, with which we must always begin our philosophical reflection, and start to hammer them into something that actually makes sense. For that reason I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition. Like medieval Christian scholasticism, analytic thought provides an extraordinary level of detailed reflection within one given context, which is necessary if those within that context are going to seriously strive to reach a truth about their lives. But it also makes that thought look parochial from a foreign context; I strongly suspect that the majority of analytical reflection will look as bizarre to people 500 years from now as Christian scholasticism looks to us today. Those people of the future may well be able to benefit from the argumentative details of 20th-century analytic philosophy; but it will require someone with the interpretive approach of a continental philosopher to figure out just what it was the analytic philosophers were going on about.