28 August 2006

Safe Haven

This time of year my mind turns to arguments as to why a beginning student might wish to study ancient philosophy, or an advanced student might wish to specialize in it.

Comparative arguments are perhaps more persuasive than absolute. For instance, I was persuaded to concentrate in ancient philosophy, in part because of a comparison I had drawn with the degree of scholarship I had encountered in Hume studies. Do you regard it as valuable to become a good scholar? But the scholarly problems in ancient philosophy are more difficult, greater minds had been at work on them, a longer tradition needs to be mastered, and greater skills arerequired, than, it would seem, in any other discipline of philosophy, especially Hume studies.

Do you wish not simply to be clever but also to become learned? But how many philosophers could count as learned? And isn't the case that those to whom one might naturally apply that word (Burnyeat, Nehamas, MacIntyre--one might think of) have expertise in ancient, or medieval, philosophy?

Again, what sort of mind do you wish to develop and have? What do you want your intellectual personality and character to be like? Here there can be strange correlations between the sort of material one studies, that is, the kinds of argument one typically thinks about, and the intellectual characteristics one acquires for oneself--strange, because sometimes philosophers who might seem especially 'analytical' or 'hardheaded' seem to gather about them disciples who write in an opposite and completely unappealing way. Apparently, someone's mind may become more analytical, and clearer, by studying Plato than by studying, say, Quine.

This last point was decisive for me, too, when I began to focus on ancient philosophy--I noticed clarity in the followers of Aristotle, but obscurity in commentators on supposedly rigorous analytic philosophers--as I was reminded when I read a recent review of a book on Quine in NDPR, containing such paragraphs as the following:

There is a continuing strain of contention, running through the relevant literature, one not effectively avoided in the present book, between interpretation of Quine's thesis and evaluation of it. If we assume that the indeterminacy of translation (and meaning) simply is a matter of underdetermination by evidence (of our theory of what is meant), then this threatens to beg the question against Quine: nothing distinguishes the status of translation proposals from empirical theories or hypotheses; nothing affects translation beyond the "usual underde­ter­mination of theory by evidence;" there is nothing "additional." Still, stated as a conclusion of an argu­ment, this is one way to reject Quine's distinctive semantic theses. On the other hand, if it is emphasized that to understand Quine's thesis we must acknowledge that there is something "additional," an impor­tant difference between indeter­mi­nacy of meaning and underdetermination of theory by evidence, then this threatens to beg the question in Quine's favor, though it is also a way to state the conclusion of Quine's argu­ments.
... and ...
This reader senses that the quasi-positivistic owl of Quine's physical­istic-behavioristic reduction of meaning to stimulus meaning always flies at dusk -- after the semantic work of science has established new concepts and meanings along with new theories. Similarly, Quine's totalizing and holistic physicalistic system is found to sleep eternally, remaining, so far as we know, ever incomplete. Again, we may mystify instead of clarify the concept of meaning by exclusively seeking an integrative, physicalistic paraphrase, consis­tent with contemporary physics, of statements we seek to understand.
The first paragraph is attempting to put forward what, I think, is a good objection. But look at how it is written! What person trained in accurate thought (say, an average engineer or accountant) would find this sort of writing admirable?

The second paragraph shows that the reviewer, ultimately not sympathetic to Quine, has apparently been so drawn in by the mysticism of 'indeterminacy of translation', as to write with fantastical images and in near complete obscurity.

Would a mind trained on Leibniz or Scotus, or someone who was used to puzzling through the Categories or Philebus, naturally think in that way?