miércoles, 21 de septiembre de 2011

Morris Lazerowitz on Philosophy and Propositions


Immersed as I am these days in a metaphilosophical project, I once again pull Lazerowitz's Philosophy and Illusion (Humanities Press, 1968) from the shelf. Morris Lazerowitz (1907-1987) may not be much read these days, but his ideas remain provocative and worth considering, despite the fact that they are now taken seriously by few, if any. But if he is right in his metaphilosophy, then I am wrong in mine, and so intellectual honesty requires that I look into this in some detail.

Lazerowitz's metaphilosophical position is a blend of Freud and the later Wittgenstein. Like Wittgenstein, he considers philosophical problems to arise via a "bewitchment of the understanding by language" as Wittgenstein famously says somewhere in the Philosophical Investigations. Thus, "all philosophical problems are the results of linguistic tangles and can be removed by our commanding 'a clear view of the use of our words'." (PI 107 quoting Phil. Inv. 47.) When we come to see how language actually works, we will understand that philosophical questions and debates arise from non-workaday uses of language, uses on which language 'goes on holiday' or, to change the metaphor, idles like an engine idling as opposed to causing forward motion by engagement with a drive train. The problems of philosophy are thus all of them pseudoproblems of purely linguistic origin. They have nothing to do with the world or reality, and philosophy itself not only fails to arrive at truth, it cannot by its very nature arrive at truth: it is a fundamentally bogus pseudo-discipline. "Philosophy, we may say, is the bewitchment of the mind by the art of hidden gerrymandering with terminology." (PI 110) Philosophers think of themselves as pursuing truth but in reality they are not truth-seekers but "the dupes of an intellectual activity in which they constantly engage but whose true nature has remained effectively veiled from their understanding." (PI 80)

Lazerowitz is much exercised by "the endlessness of philosophical disagreements, which after hundreds of years still hold no promise of final resolution, and the total absence of any established result, however minor." (PI 108-109) What explains protracted disagreement? It cannot be explained by saying that the subject matter of philosophy is so peculiarly difficult as to be impenetrable by such frail reeds as ourselves. His view is rather that the very enterprise of philosophy is bogus as predicated on linguistic confusion. Philosophical problems are not 'out there' to be solved if only we were smart enough to solve them; they are not genuine problems at all but pseudoproblems to be dissolved. Philosophers don't need to work harder or smarter; they need a therapy which will relieve them of their mental cramps and "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle."

But Lazerowitz gives these standard Wittgensteinian riffs a Freudian twist. The philosopher does more than misuse language so as to create (pseudo)problems for himself. "The philosopher does special kinds of things to language, without being aware of what he is doing, and at the same time he uses language to express forbidden thoughts which are hidden from him." (PI 80) Lazerowitz's idea is that when philosophers debate a topic such as the existence of propositions, the topic is devoid of descriptive content: "Philosophical statements do not have the descriptive use they appear to have." (PI 81). At the conscious level, there is no contact with reality, only terminological shifts and maneuvers. At the unconscious level, however, philosophical statements do have a descriptive content as pointing to unconscious fears and desires. "A philosopher who takes the stand that propositions are abstract entities is giving covert expression to a religious belief, a belief which his sophistication may not permit him to have consciously; and a philosopher who opposes this stand has decided to take the path of heresy." (PI 95)

Really? I don't deny that propositions and abstract entities generally could serve as surrogate religious objects for someone who has lost his faith in God. One can imagine a person who has a need to believe in something everlasting, something insulated from the flux and shove of the material world, who no longer believes in God but now believes in Platonica. But Lazerowitz is saying something much stronger, something that borders on the preposterous, namely, that ANY philosopher who argues for propositions is (i) advancing a thesis that has no objective meaning or truth-value but (ii) does have the unconscious meaning of expressing a belief that satisfies a religious need, while ANY philosopher who denies propositions is both saying something that has no truth-value and unconsciously rejecting religious belief.

There are two questions here. The first is whether or not the debate about propositions has any objective content, while the second is whether or not belief/disbelief in propositions expresses unconscious religious/heretical feelings.

First Question. Some philosophers affirm the existence of propositions while others deny their existence. Is there a genuine problem here? I say there is, Lazerowitz says there isn't. I concede to him that the gross facts are not in dispute. Everyone agrees that there are true and false sentences and statements. So if 'proposition' just means what 'true or false sentence or statement' means, then there cannot be any genuine problem about whether or not there are propositions. For if one were, on this understanding of 'proposition,' to deny the existence of propositions, then one would be denying what everyone knows to be true, and then we would have "the paradox of a disagreement going on with everyone knowing who is right and who is wrong." (PI 85) Now it is Lazerowitz's thesis that no matter how we construe 'proposition,' "no matter what we identify as the subject under debate among philosophers, the paradox is not avoided so long as we retain the idea that the dispute is one about fact and that the claim and counter-claim have truth-values." (PI 88)

As far as I can see, Lazerowitz gets nowhere near making a convincing, or even a plausible, case for this startling thesis.

What our man is saying is that no matter how 'proposition' is understood, there can be no genuine problem as to their existence or nonexistence. Suppose we identify a proposition as the literal meaning of an indicative sentence as distinct from such a sentence itself. (The distinction is inevitable given that the same literal meaning can be expressed by different sentences in the same or in different languages.) Lazerowitz maintains that the debate about the existence of propositions cannot be a debate about propositions in this sense. "For a philosopher who maintains that there are no propositions, equally with a philosopher who maintains that there are, knows perfectly well that there are indicative sentences which have literal meanings, and so knows that there are propositions." (PI86).

Well, that is right: one cannot sensibly dispute whether or not indicative sentences have literal meanings distinct from the sentences themselves. Of course they do. "Snow is white' has a literal meaning and so does 'Schnee ist weiss,' and the fact that the meaning is one while the sentences are two shows that the meaning is not identical to either sentence. So L. is led on to ask whether the dispute is whether or not these literal meanings are entities, or objects, which is connected with the question whether indicative sentences are names of them.

Now quite obviously this is what the debate, or part of it, is about. That there are literal meanings of sentences is a datum, a given, a starting-point, and as such not something to be debated. The philosophical debate concerns what exactly these literal meanings are. Platonically inclined philosophers such as Bolzano and Frege could be said to reify meanings: they make things of them. Thus propositions, as the senses of context-free declarative sentences, are so-called abstract objects (though they are not products of abstraction), causally inert timeless entities that exist whether or not any sentences exist and whether or not any minds exist. Nominalistically inclined philosophers such as Goodman and Quine oppose propositions so understood.

Strangely, though, Lazerowitz cannot see that this is the problem, or a large part of it, and that it is genuine, or at least not obviously a pseudoproblem. He thinks that no matter how 'proposition' is construed, the denier of propositions must deny something we all know to be true. But this is just false. Someone who denies that there are Fregean propositions is not denying something that we all know to be true the way he would be were he to deny that there are true sentences or statements or that indicative sentences have literal meanings. Instead of appreciating that the problem is genuine, Lazerowitz bring up a red herring: "For there is no process of examining a proposition to determine whether it is an entity or not an entity." (PI 87) That may be granted: one cannot inspect, visually or otherwise, the literal meaning of an indicative sentence to see whether it can exist on its own, etc. But so what? Who ever maintained that sentence meanings were subject to empirical examination? What L. seems not to appreciate is that Fregean propositions are theoretical posits ingredient in a philosophical explanation of sentence meaning.

Lazerowitz fights shy of the notion that there is a fact of the matter as to whether or not there are propositions even when propositions are identified as Frege-style abstract objects. This is a mistake. Of course, the fact there there are propositions so identified is not an empirical fact. But it is a fact nonethless, assuming it is a fact. Either there are Fregean propositions or there are not. The difficulty of answering the question definitively does not show that the problem is not genuine. L. seems to think that the only facts there are are empirical facts and so the statements that philosophers make when they affirm or reject Fregean propositions can only amount to terminological decisions and linguistic innovations.

In one sense of 'proposition' it is obvious that there are propositions. For it is obvious that there are truths and falsehoods. The philosophical problem arises when we ask: What are propositions? The question is best formulated as a question as to WHAT they are, not as to WHETHER they are. The answer to this question is not obvious. What is obvious, at least to me,is that this is a genuine question, and Lazerowitz has not shown that it is not.

Second Question. Our second question is whether or not belief/disbelief in propositions expresses unconscious religious/heretical feelings. Well, it might in some as I have already suggested. But to dispose of philosophical problems and questions by such rank psychologizing is a procedure beneath refutation. It is preposterous to think of the real content of the classical philosophical problems as located in the unconscious with the manifest or apparent content nothing but idle linguistic innovation. This is far from having been established: The view that there are such entities as Fregean propositions is nothing more than the idle and arbitrary terminological decision to look on the word 'proposition' as if it is the general name of a kind of object . (PI 95)

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