Friday, April 08, 2011

Dennett on "chmess" [pdf]
Philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core, and this fact cuts two ways. On the one hand, it excuses philosophers from spending tedious hours in the lab or the field, and from learning data-gathering techniques, statistical methods, geography, history, foreign languages....., empirical science, so they have plenty of time for honing their philosophical skills. On the other hand, as is often noted, you can make philosophy out of just about anything, and this is not always a blessing. The point of this little essay is to alert graduate students entering the field to a way in which the very freedom and abstractness of philosophy can be a weakness.

Consider, as a paradigm of a priori truths, the truths of chess. It is an empirical fact that people play chess, and there are mountains of other empirical facts about chess, about how people have been playing it for centuries, often use handsomely carved pieces on inlaid boards, and so forth. No knowledge of these empirical facts plays an indispensable role in the activity of working out the a priori truths of chess, which also exist in abundance. All you need to know are the rules of the game.

...Some philosophical research projects-or problematics, to speak with the more literary types-are rather like working out the truths of chess. A set of mutually agreed upon rules are presupposed-and seldom discussed-and the implications of those rules are worked out, articulated, debated, refined. So far, so good. But some philosophical research projects are more like working out the truths of chmess. Chmess is just like chess except that the king can move two squares in any direction, not one. I just invented it-though no doubt others have explored it in depth to see if it is worth playing. Probably it isn't.

...One good test to make sure you're not just exploring the higher order truths of chmess is to see if people aside from philosophers actually play the game.
Can anybody outside of academic philosophy be made to care whether you're right about whether Jones's counterexample works against Smith's principle? Another good test is to try to teach the stuff to uninitiated undergraduates. If they don't "get it," you really should consider the hypothesis that you're following a self-supporting community of experts into an artifactual trap.

...Of course some people are quite content to find a congenial group of smart people with whom to share "the fun of discovery, the pleasures of cooperation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement." as John Austin once put it, without worrying about whether the joint task is worth doing. And if enough people do it, it eventually becomes a phenomenon in its own right, worth studying. As Burton Dreben used to say to the graduate students at Harvard, "Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship." Some garbage is more important than other garbage, however, and it's hard to decide which of it is worthy of scholarship.
The following is adapted from my comment elsewhere

"Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship."
The original quote, courtesy of Anthony Grafton
Scholem's absolute rigor and integrity--as well as his dedication to the study of magic--inspired Saul Lieberman, an authority on the Talmud, to offer the greatest backhanded tribute in the history of scholarly irony when introducing him at the Jewish Theological Seminary: "You know that I believe that mysticism is nonsense, total and complete nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship. And the man who is about to speak knows more about the history of nonsense than anyone has ever known."
According to Dennett the only difference between chess and chmess is that chess has a history. Chmess is to chess as a cult is to a religion; old whores, like old buildings gain respectability, which explains the failure of Esperanto to win out over French: a lack of richness or depth of reference, or more simply "depth"
"Impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness, often thinly disguised by histrionic advocacy of depth."
Timothy Williamson
"Philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core."

"...Some philosophical research projects-or problematics, to speak with the more literary types-are rather like working out the truths of chess."
If Dennett agrees with the equivalence of philosophy to garbage and of the history to scholarship, how can he defend garbage at the expense of scholarship? Philosophy he says, "excuses philosophers from ...learning data-gathering techniques, statistical methods, geography, history, foreign languages...., empirical science." The study of history is empiricism. Philosophy at its best is like mathematics, chess, literary theory, and Catholic theology. Given the doctrines of the Church, how many angels can fit on the head of a pin? At its worst it's the formal analysis of things no one will care about in the future. Back again to Alex Rosenberg, Quine, and Descartes. History defeats them and Dennett as well.
Baseball is nonsense but the history of baseball is scholarship. Literature is nonsense. Art is nonsense. Law is nonsense. Philosophy is nonsense. Culture is nonsense. We're back to the structure and function of formalized social interaction, to the aporias of preference and the historical study of preference. Scholarship is nonsense as well but a study of the past makes for a more intelligent politics in the present.

I'd never read that piece before yesterday, though I'd heard of it of course. It's an amazing bit of work.
update: and I ignored the digs at Austin.

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