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