Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Part 2: The Allure of the Abstract

“It's all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.”
—French proverb

My last two posts have focused on the tendency for philosophers to explain mental life by means of abstract theoretical analysis (which can also be described as reasoning from the particular to the general... and sticking with the general for quite a long time). The next question I'd like to address is, Why? Exactly what is the appeal of that type of explanation?

This is a big question. Developing a thoroughly satisfying answer would require a good deal of historical analysis, and many more words than I plan to use here. Moreover, I’m not the best person to give an answer, since I don’t find that type of thinking appealing. (I believe that early exposure to Wittgenstein served as a sort of inoculation.) Still, I do have some speculations that I'll share here. Anyone who has additional ideas, please chime in with comments!

Certainly there are powerful, compelling reasons why philosophers talk about the mind the way they do. I think it will be instructive to step back and consider what those reasons are, where they come from, and what assumptions might come along with them.

So here goes.
Again, the question is:
Exactly what is the appeal of abstract, theoretical (i.e., philosophical) discussion for explaining our mental lives?

I'll start off with a relatively trivial (though not irrelevant) answer:

1. Everybody's doing it.
Since nearly all the dialogue in the field is couched in these sort of abstract terms, newcomers need to learn to talk that way in order to participate. To practice philosophy of mind, you have to speak philosopher. One could argue that if you're not speaking in this way, you're not doing philosophy at all. (In which case, shame on you — leave the academy at once.)

This type of discussion is self-perpetuating: the nature of the discussion constrains the type of questions that get asked, and vice versa. When you're speaking about theoretical constructs, you think up questions like "How can something inside your head be about something in the outside world?" or "What does it mean to have a concept?" In turn, these sorts of questions invite particular types of answers — answers couched in philosophical language.

More substantive answers might include:
2. It seems to be getting at something deeper, giving a better or clearer view of what's happening in our mental lives. Wittenstein spoke to this in his Philosophical Investigations:

“[Questions as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought] see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement, but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.” (Section 92)

When doing philosophy, it often sounds like we're unearthing something profound and imporant that lies underneath the reality we can easily observe. An analogy in medicine might be a CT scan or MRI; just as those tools give us a clearer view into the causes of a person's symptoms, philosophy seems to give us tools to look beneath the surface and discover the root causes of our behavior and experience.

3. It appears obvious that there must be shared, underlying factors driving particular behaviors and experiences. How else can we explain how a person can do things like use the same word (say, dog) in so many different ways, in so many different contexts? It seems as though that individual must have some general something (concept, representation, mental entity, etc.) that then gets applied in specific situations. Similarly, we need to be able to explain how different people, with quite divergent life histories, can come to act and respond in the same sorts of ways. If you can use and respond to the word dog in all the same ways as I do, it seems as though we must share the same concept, representation, or whatever. Otherwise we couldn't possibly understand each other. (Or so it seems.)

4. The particular details of unique, everyday circumstances just get in the way.
If the goal is to dig deeper to pinpoint common factors that stay the same across different situations and different people, the last thing we want to focus on are idiosyncratic features of particular events. It's natural to want to factor those out, to see what's left. To take another medical example, say you want to figure out what factors contribute to developing bipolar disorder. You don't want to do a case history of one individual, charting everything that happened over his or her lifespan. Instead, you want to look at as many different cases as you can, to find the common underlying causes — maybe particular genes, or neurotransmitter levels, or other types of risk factors. Why focus on the unique peculiarities of Mary Smith's life history, much less the specific experiences preceding her last manic episode? Just give us aggregate data on serotonin. Why focus on the the specific interactions I'm having with the slobbering animal at my feet? We want to understand the eternal concept DOG.

More thoughts, anyone?


  1. The medical examples are interesting, as they seem to point to the way in which medicine (insofar as it conceives of itself as a science) reasons from the particular to the general. Is the implication here that philosophy should *not* operate along these "scientific" lines--that the ideas of "looking deeper" or "common causes" are misleading analogies that we draw from science?

  2. I think there are at least two different ways to understand that connection:
    1 - I do think the idea of "looking deeper" is often a misleading analogy when applied to philosophy, whether it comes from science or other sources.
    2 - Even in medical contexts where it may seem obvious that the "looking deeper"/"common causes" approach is warranted, this type of method can be problematic. When we're talking about Mary Smith herself, we may lose critical data if we overlook the idiosyncratic details (the unique peculiarities of her life history, the specific experiences preceding her last manic episode, etc.) and instead try to understand the "real cause" of her problems applying lessons learned from aggregate data.

  3. Perhaps the problem (and I'm no expert) is defining goals for the philosophy of mind. If the goal descriptive i.e. to describe how we come to have particular thoughts or thoughts in general, then mustn't we assume that there are "mechanisms" which operate to "generate" these thoughts? Whether the mechanisms are internal or external will depend on the philosopher and his philosophy and that is a different issue - one I'm sure you'll address.

    If there are no mechanisms, a position which I think you do not maintain, then what will philosophy of mind discussions be about? The whole point of explanation, I think, is to dilineate a plausible sequence of causes for a particular occurence. The assumption of course is that there is an explanation and thus a mechanism. Are we to abandon the possibility of explanation in the philosophy of mind?