Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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If it moves, hit it with metaphysics!

So, metaphysics then, with an extra section on time for added confusion. Yesterday I read a chapter by Strawson on logic, epistemology, and ontology (with a focus on ontology) – I can’t say I gained much more than a tentative grasp of what was being said, I think more background knowledge than I possesses was assumed. I figure the best way to deal with my confusion is to hit it repeatedly with some metaphysics until comprehension dawns. Thus, my reward for doing teaching prep (topic this week is deontology) was to read Simon Blackburn on metaphysics.

The meaning of metaphysics is contended, but I understand it to be concerned with reality and existence – what are the general features of the world and how do we come to know and understand them? Some of the most interesting metaphysical questions are how we are to understand the nature of human beings and their relationships both with other beings, and with each other.

Metaphysical enquiry can help us resolve the tension between the ideas that on the the one hand we have free will, yet on the other we are governed by deterministic laws of nature (there’s still a way to go in answering that one for good). And, it can help us come to understand puzzles such as how the mind and the body relate to one another.

Obviously, it’s going to take more than a couple of readings to make me a metaphysician, but I’m going to keep plugging at it until I at least feel more than vaguely conversant in the subject. Next stop – one of the excellent podcasts from Philosophy Bites.



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Moore and Quine – everything but the ethics

Today I read Strawson’s chapter on Moore and Quine (around delivering a couple of tutorials on consequentialism for an introductory political theory unit). The chapter re-examined the question ‘what is philosophy?’ and a considered the relationship between ontology (theories of being), epistemology (theories of knowing), and logic (concerning truth and falsehood). One of the things Strawson is (was) very good at is flattering the reader without assuming too much about their level of knowledge – it makes you feel good about learning.

My interest in philosophy is firmly anchored in the category of ethics, but my reading today dealt with all of the major sorts of things philosophy is concerned with other than ethics, so it was a bit of challenge. Interesting nevertheless as questions about things, such as states of consciousness, or areas like epistemology and logic do tend to end up creeping into ethical discussions. To illustrate this, in animal ethics it is often argued that because animals can suffer, they are owed moral consideration. But this claim depends upon how suffering is defined, which is related mental states – bringing in theories of mind. Some theorists think suffering is only possible in beings that are self-conscious, some think suffering requires self-reflection, or language and so forth. And the question of why suffering should matter hinges on the nature of value – what is value, how does it arise, what makes things valuable etc.

Somehow, considering ethical questions always seems to lead me on a journey into meta-ethics (the distinction is as between ‘what would be the right thing to do’ compared with ‘what do we mean by the concept of rightness’ – the former is an ethical question, the latter a meta-ethical one), theories of mind, value theory or some other difficult area of philosophy. In fact, attempting to answer a philosophical question often feels like opening a series of Russian dolls. That’s probably why I love it so much.

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Reduction or Connection?

I should really be writing a book review right now, but I need a break. Who would have thought this project would turn into a new form of work avoidance? I need to get out more! Anyway, so far Strawson has provided the most enjoyable read, so I’m going back to read Chapter 2 of Analysis and Metaphysics today.

Strawson’s initial project in this chapter is to describe how we can construct complex and interesting concepts out of simple ideas or understand complex concepts by reducing them to their simplest elements and locating the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions of the correct application of the concept’.i

Now I happen to love this kind of philosophical investigation – whilst writing my PhD I often found myself stopping mid sentence to consider what I actually meant by the term I was using. In fact I spent several months during my first year just trying to build a better conception of the concept of cruelty and find necessary and sufficient conditions for it; it turned out to be pretty damned difficult. As a further aside – the paper that came out of that thinking it has produced some hilariously varied reviews from the deliberately offensive, to the extremely complimentary, gaining me a valuable insight into the peer review process. Sometimes I feel like a massive chunk of my philosophical practice is devoted to mastering language, which is awesome because understanding, communication, and expression are pretty dammed central to our shared existence and hugely enriching to boot.

Strawson goes beyond this fairly simple method to extend the project of conceptual analysis to include an exploration of the connections between items and systems. One reason to use this connective model is that reducing concepts to atomistic elements is often implausible because sometimes (or perhaps always) ideas simply cannot be understood in isolation (Strawson uses the example of trying to understand knowledge without reference to sense perception). Indeed, can any concept be reduced to components that do not themselves rely upon further concepts that themselves require analysis? Knowing that this is likely to occur when seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept can make analysis quite a daunting prospect – you never know where conceptual analysis will lead you (of course, this is also a little exciting so long as you’re not pressed for time).

There’s lots more to this chapter, but I can hear a child stirring in his bed upstairs, so I’m going to leave this post here.

iP. F. Strawson, Analysis and metaphysics: an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), 18.

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First Steps…

For my first reading I’ve selected the preface and Chapter 1 of Peter Strawson’s Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy. It seems appropriate to begin my journey by getting to know my own approach to philosophy a little better.

The stated aim of the book is to provide an introduction to analytic philosophy. In Chapter 1, ‘Analytical Philosophy: Two Analogies’, Strawson sets out, fittingly enough, to conceptualise analytical philosophy using two analogies.

The two analogies referred to are of the philosopher as ‘a kind of therapist’, and the philosopher as grammarian.

The philosopher as therapist (a conception he links with Wittgenstein) seeks to apply philosophical methods to cure confusion and replace muddled thinking with clarity.1

This second analogy proceeds from the observation that natural speakers of a language can quite capably master that language without being able to list and explain the formal rules of that language. This is the difference between implicit and explicit mastery. One can learn how to work within the rules without being able to say what they are. The philosopher as grammarian ‘labours to produce a systemic account of the general conceptual structure of which our daily practice shows us to have a tacit and unconscious mastery’.2

Later, Strawson illustrates how the same observations may also be made of users of specialist, technical forms of language. Thus, the ‘historian may produce brilliant historical explanations without being able to say, in general, what counts as a historical explanation…a mathematician may discover and prove new mathematical truths without being able to say what are the distinctive characteristics of mathematical truth or of mathematical proof’.3 These facts create the space for philosophical approaches to disciplines such as mathematics, history, and so forth.

Strawson’s writing is engaging – I enjoyed reading the chapter. Thanks to him, I’m left hopeful that my exercise in philosophical thrift and exploration will prove a more pleasure than chore.

  1. P. F. Strawson, Analysis and metaphysics: an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), 2–4.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid., 13.