Saturday, August 18, 2007

The partiality of truth and philosophical methodology.

Hegel's idea of dialectics is no longer fashionable: we no longer think of different philosophical theories or viewpoints as rational stages in a progress which leads unavoidably to the absolutely true theory of everything.

However, I tend to agree with Hegel, and disagree with current analytical philosophy on a fundamental idea. Let me explain. Whenever I consider a philosophical theory or position it seems to me to be partly right and partly wrong. But philosophical theories do not seem to be wrong in the same way in which theories in the natural science are. Philosophical theories seem to be wrong in that they are partial and one sided: they contain some truth, but only the partial truth.

Consider for example moral theories. The most popular candidates for truth nowadays, namely Kantianism, Constractualism and Utilitarianism, all seem to capture and adequately reflect some features of our moral experience. But they seem to go wrong when they try to reduce those aspects of our moral experience which do not fit in their schemes to those ones for which they account.

My personal sensation is that in philosophy we should always strive to achieve a better and more plausible synthesis of those competing lines of research that we receive from the tradition. I cannot see how we can hope to improve our philosophical understanding of the world unless our attitude towards different theories is that of understanding the (partial) truth they express. As a matter of fact, nobody has ever managed to refuse any big philosophical system or theory, and as Korsgaard insightfully writes ‘[u]sually the “standard objections” that one school of thought raises against another are question-begging in deep and disguised ways’ (Creating the Kingdom of Ends, p. xiii). Real progress seem to derive from our striving to understand what aspect of the human condition a particular philosophy captures and gives expression to; and if different philosophical theories capture and express different aspects of the human condition, there is no reason why real philosophical progress should not obtain from the attempt to achieve a better synthesis, one that is faithful to the complexity of human experience. This idea of philosophical progress and understanding is distinctively "Hegelian", in that it assumes that the philosophical theories which our tradition deliver to us are at best some form of partial truth, and that it is our duty, as philosopher, to try to overcome their limitations. It is also Hegelian in that it thinks that the truth of previous theories ought to be preserved within a broader philosophical outlook, rather than rejected.

If this is true in general, it suggests that we should assume that progress in philosophy and science cannot be achieved by sticking to the same methodological and epistemological principles. Scientific progress seems to take place when a somewhat fallibilist attitudes is adopted by researcher. The scientific marketplace sees often competing explanations for the same phenomena; and the success of one often determines the fall of the other. Moreover competing explanations are in most cases contradictory, and they cannot live well together. (An apparent contradiction is the co-existence of general relativity and quantum mechanics. But physicists are currently unsatisfied with this.) Last but not least, when we deal with naturalistic scientific explanations it is very difficult to see how we could preserve the truth of two competing theories by uniting them into one. Of course there are huge exceptions to this in the history of science, viz. the capacity of general relativity to explain the results of Newton's mechanics in its own terms. But these are events that happen rarely in the history of science: within periods of "normal" science what we find are competing explanations of the same phenomenon, which all share certain assumptions, and do not attempt to incorporate the results of competing theories in the same way in which Newton's laws could be obtained from general relativity when applied to a special context.

On the contrary, the most widespread attitude in analytic philosophy is to assume that the right way to develop philosophical understanding is to mimic the idea of the cultural marketplace as formed by various competitors for truth over a certain subject. I do not doubt that what every scholar searches is a deeper understanding of the philosophical issues that interest her, and that the theories of adversaries are carefully studied and understood. However, the way to enter the debate is that of finding a hero to defend or an adversary to attack. One normally works over some details of a theory with the hope to refuse the objection raised by the adversaries. This kind of work is useful because it leads to a greater understanding of a theory and of its possibilities; but if I am right, our real goal cannot be that of proving a certain theory wrong or a certain tradition right. Philosophical understanding works in a different way.

1 comment:

unenlightened said...

Yes indeed! If people have found it worthwhile to expound and defend a philosophical position, the chances are that there is something in it, and if you can't see the sense, or the attraction at least, you probably haven't understood it. I'm looking forward to your synthesis of the ethical theories. :-)