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The Revivification of the Soul

May 27, 2019

In the early 20th century the rise of positivistic thought and analytic philosophy tried to lay to rest what it called metaphysics and epistemology. In place of them we were to accept the ontology provided for us by science and focus on applying logical methods to clear up discrepancies between our own sentiments and the facts of objective reality as told to us by natural science. A therapeutic style of philosophy of removing us from us our illusions of meaning and purpose. The ultimate idea was that reality itself as subjectively experienced was one grand hallucination and the task of philosophy was to reduce these fallacious sentiments to dust, as a kind of catharsis.

As time went on this project hit some limitations and road blocks. For many such as the Russellian empiricists there was the problem of sense data. A concept that came under fire from many angles. Along with the notion of there being some clear cut principle for distinguishing scientific thinking from non-scientific thinking. Both the verification principle of Ayer and the later falsification principle of Karl Popper, failed to provide a definitive distinction. So we lost knowledge by acquaintance and with it the very basis for an empirical grounding to our claims.

The next attempts moved away from trying to justify the preeminence of scientific reasoning and rather just accepting it on trust or on pragmatic grounds. Here we see the likes of Quine and the later Wittgenstein. Both present what they see to be unresolvable sceptical problems of how we can have knowledge of things. Quine with his indeterminacy of translation thesis, and Wittgenstein with his private language argument. Now since, they argue, there is no epistemological way out of this situation, somewhat like Humean scepticism, we must simply accept the best knowledge offered to us and work with that as our pre-given background. Thus we see the holism in Quine and we see the conventionalism in Wittgenstein.

Alongside this there was another movement away from the attempt to justify ones ontology. This direction was taken by ordinary language philosophy. This school of thought developed primarily at Oxford University under figures such as J.L. Austin and some of its most successful students included P.F. Strawson and John Searle. Strawson insisted that we move away from what he called revisionary metaphysics, an error he sees even in the work of Bertrand Russell, despite all his pretensions to avoiding it, and move towards descriptive metaphysics. The latter, rather than trying to ground itself in an epistemology of its own, and change the world accordingly to fit it, like you could argue of Russells notion of logical constructions in his logical atomism, one looks for support in the common beliefs that many have already, and rather than question them, one merely describes and expounds on this metaphysical basis that we commonly take for granted. A kind of deconstruction of the text approach, though the idea is to keep that text alive and accept it as reality, not to transcend it in some way.

In this way ontological discussion was put into a permanent exile within the analytical movement. Whenever such questions arise they must be deconstructed into an ordinary language framework or into a framework supportive of the ontology of natural science. Or they must be reduced or made to dissolve away through a kind of therapeutic catharsis.

After some time in this manner we have got to the stage where much of philosophy lacks any awareness of the basic metaphysical and ontological underpinnings of its world view. And even within it we see this recurrent desire to revive the old substance of Aristotle in a new form. A large part of this philosophy has spent a lot of time talking about persons and agents in moral philosophy. Many have come to see that the person of the social domain is irreducible in some ways to being described externally in “thing language”. I showed two of these figures already in previous posts Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And we could add Bernard Williams and Roger Scruton to this list as two other notable figures. Bernard Williams talked of internal values and how moral language cannot be reduced to some external or procedural process of reasoning and adding up numbers on each side. For Charles Taylor the same idea was captured with his distinction between strongly valued goods and weakly valued goods. In Roger Scruton his Cognitive Dualism view in The Soul of the World, is there as a way to insist that certain things and meanings in the interpersonal and social domains simply cannot be reduced to the physical world of cold facts.

For Macintyre it was the suggestion to a return to the virtue ethics of Aristotle, and what I would like to say to continue this trend is we need to do a similar revival of Aristotle in our metaphysical understanding of the natural/physical world. His notion of substance was built to allow for our notion now of persons as interpersonal beings. Aristotle gave us certain primary beings as irreducible. Part of the motivation for this was precisely to avoid this externalisation of all beings in a hypostatised realm as we see with some of those who are too stuck in the natural science ontological model. It is avoided by his hierarchy of beings: some beings simply are, they are not predicable of other beings.

All these attempts to reduce people to physical brain activity is an attempt to make of what should be primary substantial beings, dependent second order entities who have their being in something else. Now if this being you wanted to reduce to had some content more than being an isolated atomic thing maybe there could be an interesting discussion. But when all that you have is such an externalised ontology, bereft of meaning, value and life, it should come as no surprise that people resist and those people come up with a concept such as that of persons and agents as irreducible.

There is still a strong countervailing trend to continue apace the reduction in one way or another. A strong desire to reduce us living beings either to functional cogs in a machine or to puppets or zombies with no internal life. The AI trumpeters fall into this category as do those who feel that prodding brain matter is going to solve ultimately all our social and mental problems.

But I think we can resist them now. We have the tools and the means, and we need to engage in this battle not just on the moral level but on the ontological and metaphysical levels also. Reality has much more layers than isolated atoms banging into each other in the cold arena of externalised space time. For all the value this view had in taking us away from the monistic idealisms of Bradley and Bergson to a more plural perspective. It is not the final say on empirical reality. We look upon a world not as detached observers but as contributors who determine and to some extent imbue that world with life. If we think the world is dead and lifeless we make it that way. But we can and should think differently.

The whole reason certain philosophical problems remain and are perennial, is not because they have been making mistakes in their solution. It is because they are touching upon the areas of human existence and being where there is a living and breathing discussion to be had. The idea is not necessarily to find the solution, but to appreciate the sheer depths of reality and engage with it.

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