Sunday, October 15, 2006

The philosophical spirit and aporia

This is an extension to my other posts regarding belief, and I’d like here to address quickly the impossibility of the ‘philosophical spirit’. The ‘philosophical spirit’ is something one is said to have when impartially considering a proposed theory or fact, such that the philosopher’s own belief is suspended while the problems is worked through. This is impossible because the nature of belief is dogmatic, which is to say (as I have remarked before) that we think things are true absolutely. Belief cannot be suspended – to suspend belief is to no longer believe. When we genuinely (and I want to stress ‘genuinely’) ask whether something is true or false we have already gotten past our previous attitude about the matter; our former beliefs are thrown out.

Is impartiality possible? We might well ask: How far can we go in genuinely asking a question? It seems to me that we cannot expect to erase our beliefs about a matter completely, and our interest in a problem is a matter of degree, where the depth of philosophical inquiry - our ability to include as much reality as possible in breaking the problem open – is a process of excavating and endangering as many beliefs as we can. It is worth noting at this point that while philosophy pulls down our reality, it nonetheless always erects a new one. I’m sure that the reader will agree that any problems one may be holding in question (genuinely) come to be differently supported or rejected through this process, and so there is always real transformation occurring.

This transformation is also strikingly suggested by the act of questioning itself, where the belief is thrown out – for why does this questioning come about? On the one hand, questions seem to happen because our beliefs are rejected due to new beliefs (new conclusions). This cannot be questioning per se, since the outcome of the enquiry is a foregone conclusion – it will simply be a matter of refining the expression of these new beliefs – but it will either be a process of logically identifying other beliefs involved (which can only be found through this kind of self-conscious exercise), or attempting to understand what is involved in the refuting belief and why it worked the way it did. On the other hand, the refuting belief can be too vague, and could be considered to be all sorts of theories and ideas – this probably happens when the original belief isn’t very strong (for who throws away a strong belief for no concrete reasons?) – and the questioning is genuine because of the manifest confusion involved. Sticking my neck out slightly, I’d say that reading and understanding the philosophers, literature, the arts etc. allows for the former notion of questioning to occur smoothly, in preparation for the second – aporia.

The relationship between aporia and the so-called 'philosophical spirit' is, I suspect, that the latter is precisely the pretense of the former. The 'philosophical spirit' is held as the ideal only because we don't understand that the nature of belief makes it impossible.

3 Comments:

Blogger News is Good said...

I can currently understand the concept of 'philosophical spirit' in two ways, in relation to the philosophy of science and the importance of a priori beliefs in generating theories and interpreting empirical data, and in relation to Socratic Irony.
Both of these come to mind due to my recent reading matter - first of all a book on the disastrous attempts to verify the hereditarian theory of IQ, which was based entirely on assumptions that were supported with circular arguments. This is from Gould's The Mismeasure of Man. And I am also re-reading Socratic dialogues in bed, because I can.
Socrates feigned, as part of his method, the philosophical spirit. However, my interpretation (and perhaps this is down to Plato's dramatic renditions of Socrates' actions), is that this was clever acting. Socrates, in fact, had very rigorous and dogmatic beliefs regarding the existence and importance of universal definitions, and especially about the good life. This comes across wonderfully in the Apology of Socrates. It is commonly regarded that he feigned ignorance in order to reach a state of uncompromised aporia, which is where the interlocuted Athenian would usually run off.
When it comes to scientists, they must hold a priori beliefs. Open your mind too far and something will fall out - and without a hypothesis to test there will be nothing to base empirical research on. And we can rarely be sure a hypothesis is conclusively falsified, so scientists must cling, on occasion, to the unfashionable and unloved ideas. They might be right. It might be a matter of the right test. And, as Gould's book shows, this clinging can be easily covered up by just assuming it is right, until half a century later people start cottoning on more and more.

So, cling we do. I am not convinced that it would be even in the slightest bit possible to find out anything when belief is truly suspended. I have the buzzing fear that, without a belief to start from, nothing can be discovered. Such absolute emptiness will not find a substance to fill it. Descartes relied on cogito ergo sum, and also his faith in a Christian God, after all.

I am not sure I can comment usefully on the last two paragraphs, I fear I need clarification into their meaning. However, I think you might also want to know that "Once teachers try the Socratic, or direct method of teaching, they will never return to anything that cannot produce the 'magic.'" Socrates would be proud, and / or doing fossilised acrobatics.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marva_Collins

9:05 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

Can I please also direct your esteemed attention to:

http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/Thomas_Taylor/thomas_taylor.html

9:06 PM  
Blogger Atum said...

"Socrates feigned, as part of his method, the philosophical spirit"

Socrates is fantastically interesting! Let's discuss him.

"Socrates, in fact, had very rigorous and dogmatic beliefs regarding the existence and importance of universal definitions, and especially about the good life."

It would be nigh impossible to ascribe the theory of the forms to Socrates, and pretty problematic to ascribe it to Plato either when it comes down to it. Socrates' beliefs about the good life is important though, as while aporia featured front and centre, it was nonetheless part of the meaningful whole of what we might call Socratic Behaviour. This is in my view what makes aporia important, and greater than the modern philosophical spirit (the disinterestedness of analysis), and this is the dichotomy I wanted to draw in my post - though I may not have succeeded.

"So, cling we do. I am not convinced that it would be even in the slightest bit possible to find out anything when belief is truly suspended. I have the buzzing fear that, without a belief to start from, nothing can be discovered. Such absolute emptiness will not find a substance to fill it. Descartes relied on cogito ergo sum, and also his faith in a Christian God, after all."

Aside from your slandering of Descartes, you're right. Nothing would happen without dogmatic, utterly unquestioned beliefs running the show. I think what aporia does is make it as difficult as possible to identify how this is working - what beliefs are online and chugging away. We excavate our beliefs and make them problematic (i.e. no longer beliefs), and go down as far as our power permits. The resulting transformation can stretch from the minor to the incredible; we become different forms of life, and reality is irrevocably, alchemically changed.

What survives this process are those beliefs which drive us down deeper amongst our beliefs. Put another way, the only thing that cannot be questioned is questioning (as to question questioning is to assume it). I put it to you that these beliefs are what underlie Socratic Behaviour, and inform the Platonic dialogues - especially the Apology and the Phaedo, which I am currently reading as the expression of these beliefs, and which as such rocketh my world.

11:47 AM  

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