Category: Phenomenology

I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)

Nacht_der_Philosophie2016

This year I will appear on stage on occasion of “The Night of Philosophy” 2016 (“Die Nacht der Philosophie”,  in Vienna’s “zur rezeption”, Sperlgasse 6, 1020 Vienna, at  19:00 o’clock.

The title of my performance is “I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)”  (“Ich denke (nicht meine Gedanken), also bin ich (nicht)”).

This title is, of course, a  critique of Descartes’ famous saying “I  think, therefore I am”. Let me say some words about Descartes: I have never taken Descartes’ philosophy seriously, because its outcome seems  to aim at only one goal: to confirm the dominating beliefs of his epoque. Thus from “I think, therefore I  am.” follows the idea of God, because it is an clear idea which, because of its clarity, also has to exist in reality. And God, vice versa, guarantees the reality of the outer world (that is: outside of the thinking subject). From the first moment on, when I came into contact with Descartes’  philosophy, I had the impression of assisting at a foul sleight of hand, and I  was never able to take it seriously. On the other hand, I was surprised when I found out that Analytic philosophers take it very seriously, so seriously indeed that they have invented the “brain in the vat”-mind experiment. (But that only shows that I am not too concerned with proofing the reality of the outer world.)

Only recently, however, it came to my mind that also the basic idea of Descartes (which I had taken for granted), is flawed: I just need to compare “I think, therefore I am” with my own experience to understand that it  is not true. E.g. after some hard days of work I do need  at least one full day (if not more)  to come to myself again. It is just not true that I am able to beware the conscience of the fact that I am thinking this when I am thinking thoughts that are not  mine and do not evolve from my own motivation.

Anyway, the topic of my “evening” during the “Night of Philosophy” will not just be that Descartes is wrong, but the truth lies in the opposite direction. I will argue that the conscience of your existence is not just something that cannot be lost whatever you think, but that you have to work hard and permanently on your thinking in order to regain it sometimes. Writing a diary regularly is a good means for that end to start with. It also helps if you have a friend with whom you can discuss your ideas in order to develop them further, and who will not stop you after the first words you utter.

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

By the way, how did I arrive at my criticism of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” A necessary prerequisite for that idea was a series of 6 texts which I wrote for my book “Twisting With the Mind” (“Twisten mit dem Verstand”), tredition, Hamburg 2015, titled: “How will it be when we will have forgotten entirely what ideas are?”

In this series of texts I have tried to describe phenomenologically the following experience:  When you try to discuss your ideas with other persons, it happens nowadays quite often – and even more in the case when your discussion partners have an earned an academic degree – that your  interlocutors just cut your words by saying something disappointing like: “That’s not true.”  The feeling you will have then is that they did not even bother to try  to understand the problem you are working on. Instead of that they pulled your statements out into a public world, where of scientific or political assertions and qualified them as  “not true in this world”.

This phenomenon I labelled as “oblivion of the concept of the “idea””  for, basically, an idea is “your idea” and to understand an idea  that you utter means to understand you, to understand the problem how you see it, and to understand the solution the way you have worked it out. My conclusion in those series of texts therefore was that studies at the university (and not only those in the subject of philosophy) make us forget the concept of what an idea is by forcing us to understand ourselves as living in an objective/scientific/logical world where something like personal ideas does not even exist. In this world all our ideas have to lose their attribute of being our ideas if they want to be considered as valid arguments by ours. In other  words, in acadamy and in science we are trained to cultivate a way of thinking which is not our thinking or where thinking is not an activity of ours.

The consequence of this training are conflicts and crashes in interpersonal communication because academics are not longer able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other person and lack empathy.

Nacht_der_Philosophie2016-Programm

Another prerequisite for my ability to understand that Descartes’ Claim “I think, therefore I am.”  was a story I once read in a book by José Ortega y Gasset. Gasset related that he was in the zoo observing the monkeys. Those monkeys moved around quickly with all attention directed towards their surroundings in a way, that Ortega fatigued by just watching their constant tension. He concluded that the capacity of thinking must be something that allows you to look into yourself, to be at home in yourself, without beeing forced to watch your environment all the time.

I do not know anything about  monkeys (and I suppose that Ortega did not either), but this thought is really inspiring. Its consequences are that thinking does not mean to be focused on something (because the monkeys are  focused all the time) thinking it through logically, but that in reality it is completely the other way round. The capacity of thinking means that you are able to refrain from focusing on some problem and look into yourself instead. It means that you are able to daydream, to think wishful thoughts, to listen and wait for the new thoughts that are coming to your mind – in one word, the capacity of thinking means that your are able to think what you want to think and not what your  environment forces upon you to think (because this is just what happened to the monkeys in the zoo).

Now compare this to how we learn in school what thinking is: The teacher places a problem in front of us that has nothing to do with us and orders us to think in order to resolve it. In this situation it is the problem of the “good student” that he or she is docile and accepts that order together with the concept of thinking that accompanies it. By doing that, the good student  “makes the monkey”, that is he or she is passively focused on the theoretical problem without any capacity to gain mental distance from it and to find his/her own point of view. The bad student preserves his/her own thinking by thinking: “Just leave me alone with that crap!”

The same thing happens with philosophy: In the subject of Philosophy the students taught ideas of famous philosophers which are alien and unrelated to them instead of presenting those philosophers to them as examples of human beings who have thought by themselves. The opposition against and indignation of many people at philosophy is all too undertandable:  It  is a sign of mental health when you defend yourself against the social requirement of studying things you are not interested in and thinking about thoughts that  do not have anything in common with you just because they are important in the History of Philosophy.

In science it is unavoidable to think thoughts that are not yours; let the differencia specifica between science and philosophy be that philosophizing means thinking your thoughts, or finding out which thoughts among all of them are your thoughts. Otherwise  it will not only be impossible for the human individual to think indepently, it also will not really exist – because if you always only think the thoughts of others, you are not.

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The Gettier Problem and Patient Knowledge

As I have now studied the Gettier problem for some time (3 years) and will not continue to go on with it, let me resume my experiences in three short statements.

  1. I did not make the experience that analytic philosophers (at least here in Austria) liked to discuss the Gettier problem with me. This may be due to the fact that the Gettier problem has been discussed within Analytic philosophy for already more than 50 years, and they are fed up with it. It may also have to do something with the fact that the Gettier problem is not exactly a glory for Analytic Philosophy, but rather the opposite. Anyway, it did not seem to me that analytic philosophers were pleased that somebody with a different philosophical orientation showed interest in one of their theoretical problems.
  2. Being an analytic philosopher seems to be very much a question of intuitions; and if one does not share their basic intuitions it is not possible to join their group. For example, I do not share their intuition that in Gettier problems the truth condition is fulfilled. (The truth condition is fulfilled only if the analysis of Gettier cases is narrowed down to the literal meaning of propositions, but not if the intended meaning of the persons who utter those sentences is taken into account.) However, there was no way for me to discuss that issue with analytic philosophers, they just were not interested in it. This phenomenon may be problematical, for if it is necessary to share the intuitions of analytic philosophers in order to enter a career in academia, then becoming a philosopher is not so much a question of rationality but of joining a group of quasi-religious believers (the group sharing analytic intuitions).
  3. The analytic philosophers I have discussed the Gettier problem with did not accept any other method of analysis of it than their own. Their own method consists in inserting the propositions generated by the specific Gettier case into the equation of the so called Standard Analysis of Knowledge. As I, with my background in Phenomenology, came up with my phenomenological method I did not encounter any understanding of its relevance for the Gettier problem from the side of analytic philosophers.

 

In my paper „What we can learn from the Gettier problem about knowledge. And what follows from that concerning the possibility of patient knowledge” I have tried to show that the emphasis on the aspect of truth within the concept of knowledge leads to a decrease of self-confidence in weaker epistemic subjects and, consequentially, has a disempowering effect on them.

Hofbauer Kaelin Ankersmit Feigl Is the Patient a Human Being 2015

[„Was wir aus dem Gettier-Problem über den Begriff des Wissens lernen können. Und was daraus für die Möglichkeit von PatientInnenwissen folgt“, in: Helmut Hofbauer, Lukas Kaelin, Hendrik Jan Ankersmit, Walter Feigl: Ist der Patient ein Mensch? LIT Verlag, Münster 2015, p. 131-165.]

The argumentation is divided into two parts: in the first part the situation of the individual subject of knowledge is considered, in the second part the social dimension is added.

The Standard Analysis of Knowledge and the Gettier problem sketch the problem of knowledge on the level of an individual subject of knowledge knowing one specific proposition (one sentence). On this level I focus on the fact that all Gettier cases omit the question who supplies us with the information about the truth. We are, for example, told that a person sees a sheep in a field and forms the belief that there is a sheep in the field (the proposition in question), but that this sheep is in reality a dog that looks like a sheep. However, behind a little hill in the same field there actually is a real sheep that makes the proposition “There is a sheep in the field.” true.

In such a case I, as a phenomenological philosopher, would now be interested in knowing the person who brings the news about the real sheep behind the hill, and I would like to ask her under which circumstances she saw it and if she made sure that it really was a sheep. However, analytic philosophers do not have any problem with the concept of a truth that is not noticed and communicated by anybody. This is why in Gettier cases the truth is just told by the auctorial storyteller, and we have to accept that there is a real sheep behind the hill although this information somehow pops out from nowhere.

In my paper I have used this “magic” in the Gettier problem (that we do not know the source from which the knowledge about the truth is provided from) in order to question another central intuition of analytic philosophers, namely the intuition that in order to call something “knowledge” the content of what we know has to be true. In my opinion (and following my intuition), if we say that we “know” something we just want to say that we are quite sure about it, but not that we are 100% sure about it. Because otherwise we could not err.

Remark: This stands in blatant contrast to what analytic philosophers believe: “Everyone agrees that knowledge entails true belief, in the sense that if one knows a proposition, p, then one believes p and p is true. (Of course, one might think that one knew a certain proposition which turned out to be false, but in such a case one would thereby discover that one did not really know it after all).” (Duncan Pritchard: “Knowledge”, online: http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/people/full-academic/documents/KnowledgeCIPFINAL.pdf)

Confusing knowledge with absolute knowledge and with the fact that we also know for sure that we know a specific proposition is hubris. In my paper I have visualized this hubris by a God’s eye that is suspended above the hill and able to see the real sheep hiding behind the hill. By believing in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge, that is, in the claim that knowledge is (a) believing a proposition which is (b) true and (c) being justified in believing that proposition, we are kind of playing to be God for the truth condition in my opinion is too strong for knowledge.

Therefore, there is something wrong already in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge, namely the truth condition, and the Gettier problem just shows this mistake by construing a fold into reality which in this case is represented by the hill that separates the spectator from the sheep. In the original Gettier cases this “reality fold” is built by the unpredictability of the future and by great geographic distance.

It can thus be deduced that persons who have the intuition that something they know is really true (because otherwise they would not know it) are people who are very sure of themselves. They are know-alls, people suffering from the mania of always being right. The phenomenological method actually shows that by indicating to the fact that in Gettier cases it would be necessary for them to use God’s eye in order to conceive the truth.

Gettier case-sheep in the field example philohof

In the second part of my paper I have added the social dimension to this basic situation. The argumentation goes as follows: We, human beings, are not gods, but we are experts and lay-persons, stronger epistemic beings (healthy persons, grown-ups, professors) and weaker epistemic beings (ill persons, children, students), and an expert looks like a god in comparison to a lay-person.

The truth condition of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge therefore is a good criterion for knowledge if the goal is the defence of the established social order. The expert, as a person who is busy all day long in her narrow field of specialization, will always be able to prove to the lay-person that the lay-person does not know anything about a specific topic because she does not know as much about it as the expert.

However, if the goal is to empower the weaker epistemic subject, as is case e.g. in patient knowledge, the truth condition is too ambitious: From the expert point of view the ideas of a lay-person and, even more, of a chronically ill person suffering from pain and shortness of breath, must inevitably appear to be irresponsible.

Therefore, in order to make something like patient knowledge possible – that is: to establish knowledge of weaker epistemic subjects – knowledge would have to be defined differently than in the Standard Analysis of Knowledge. The truth condition which is only useful for the search of mistakes committed by weaker epistemic subjects in order to make them ashamed of themselves would have to be substituted by one or more other condition(s). Possible candidates are: whether additional knowledge about their illness enables patients to change their behaviour, whether it adds up to their already existing knowledge, whether it empowers them to get along alone for longer periods without panicking and rushing for expert’s advice, whether it improves their self-confidence, and so on.

In summary, the intuition shared by analytic philosophers (and they claim that this intuition represents common sense) that something we know has to be true in order for us to know it, is only true for over-self-confident people, for know-alls and dogmatics. Patient knowledge construed after the model of this intuition will result in permanent control of patients by doctors via technical devices like cell phones. The reason for that is that is appears irresponsible to let somebody alone who knows less than you do (that is: who is not right all the time, at least according to your own standard).

The situation would be different if we ventured to define knowledge as the ability of a person to get along by herself – and only in then something like patient knowledge would be possible. However, in this case we would have to renounce from our tendency of judging this person every time she commits an error. For the knowledge of an autonomous person is not judged by the truth condition of the Standard Analysis of Knowledge but by her ability to get along by herself.

Impressions from the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium 2014 in Kirchberg/Austria

The 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium took place from 10 – 16 August 2014 in Kirchberg/Wechsel, Austria.
The general topic of the Symposium was “Analytical and Continental Philosophy: Methods and Perspectives”.
To my surprise, many phenomenologists were present. I had the impression that they come “out of their holes” as soon as the topic of a conference somewhat allows for their participation. Phenomenology still seems to exert a strong attraction on many philosophers.
In some talks a reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy was proposed. I thought that the role of the “peace dove” surely provokes the impression in the audience that the speaker possesses a mild, wise and experienced character. The desire to create this impression may be present especially in philosophers who are already professors and are situated (firmly) in the philosophy departments of their universities. These philosophers do not need to achieve anything anymore, therefore they can present themselves exhibiting a generous attitude.

Wittgenstein_Symposium2014-1

A preferred way to perform the reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy consisted in claiming that, in reality, there is just “good” and “bad philosophy”. Good philosophy is characterized by linguistic “clarity”, whereas bad philosophy is “cloudy” and incomprehensible. This differentiation between good and bad philosophy seemed to echo the difference between scientific and unscientific philosophy, where the former one is, of course, the good one whereas the latter one is to be detested.
During this year’s Wittgenstein Symposium there were more hints than usually pointing to the fact that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s adscription to the analytic tradition of philosophy is not so clear that it can be taken for granted. The later Wittgenstein might be conceived as a phenomenologist for studying the use of words in everyday situations. But also the younger Wittgenstein already delimited the project of Analytic Philosophy in the ‘Tractactus’ by claiming that we have to be silent about that about what we are not able to speak.

Wittgenstein_Symposium2014-2

To resume this idea about Wittgenstein: It seems that there was a sceptic attitude in Ludwig Wittgenstein which caused him to maintain a modest opinion concerning the possibilities and limits of philosophical inquiry. This modesty contrasted with the epistemic optimism of the project of Analytic Philosophy; and it was also this sceptic attitude or epistemic modesty that induced Wittgenstein to undertake studies of everyday life whose purpose does not consist in adding new findings to scientific knowledge.
The idea here is that, in last resort, it was Wittgenstein’s sceptic attitude towards knowledge that made him to be kind of a phenomenologist whereas the optimism of the analytic philosophers to solve all epistemic problems was what inclined them towards science. In the ‘Tractatus’ Wittgenstein explicitly declared philosophy to be an “activity” and not to be “a science”.
All these impressions and thoughts about the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium are, of course, my personal ones, and not the official outcome of the symposium.

My talk on the Gettier problem at the 37th Wittgenstein Symposium 2014

As I am not so confident about the possibility of reconciliation between Analytic and Continental Philosophy, in my talk “Is the Getter Problem Caused by the Epistemic Passions of Analytical Philosophers?” I proposed an additional differentiation, namely that between academic or scientific philosophy versus unscientific or practical philosophy.
For my purpose I defined unscientific philosophy as that kind of philosophy that tries to answer questions of human beings whereas scientific philosophy is busy with projects like establishing the “foundation of epistemology” and the like which represent the questions of fields of enquiry or those of academic subjects, but not those of human beings. In short, science considers itself to be a very important project, so important that the questions of real human beings usually seem to be lacking the dignity to be answered by science.
This may look like a “polemic” definition of science. Actually, it is not meant to be polemic. It is rather my everyday experience when reading scientific and academic texts. It represents a scientific mindset which, in my opinion, cannot be reconciled with that one of a practical or phenomenological philosopher. I think those two kinds of philosophers are even unable to understand each other. This is because they embrace differing concepts of philosophy, and they are searching for different things in philosophy. Therefore, when talking to each other, they are usually talking past each other.
The Gettier problem served me as an example for a typical scientific or academic problem. In my talk I especially worked out the loss of personhood in the setup of the Gettier problem. I said that it is no coincidence that in the Edmund Gettier’s first counterexample against the so called Standard Analysis of Knowledge the subject of knowledge is presented to us as somebody who needs to get a job but inspite of that concentrates on the number of coins in the pockets of his competitor in the job interview.
From an objective point of view a job is not more important than the number of coins in somebody else’s pockets. They are both just facts in the world possessing truth values that can be ticked ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘true’ or ‘untrue’.
The loss of knowledge as personal knowledge is prepared by defining knowledge as propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge means that there is a concept of knowledge that claims that a person is able to know a proposition, that is: a sentence, alone and that she is able to know any proposition.

Wittgenstein_Symposium2014-3

Propositional knowledge separates of the knowledge of a specific proposition from the rest of the knowledge a person possesses, it separates the knowledge of that proposition from what the person needs to know and from her interests, and it separates that piece of knowledge from its significance for the subject of knowledge and from its social significance.
By cutting knowledge into pieces the subject of knowledge as a person is also cut into pieces. But analytic philosophers are not aware of that fact. They continue to think that it is still a person, in Gettier’s counterexample a person called Smith, who knows that his competitor Jones has ten coins in his pocket. They continue to perceive the subject of knowledge as being a person while they have reduced knowledge to being a piece of information that can be saved on a computer hard disk.
It is a real concern of me to explain why science provides us with a lot of (true, and therefore valuable) knowledge about reality but not with any orientation in the world, and I consider that what I showed in my talk at the 37th International Wittgenstein Symposium to be an important philosophical finding; a finding that can possibly answer the intriguing and seemingly paradox question: Why is it that exactly the epistemic project that was invented and is undertaken in order to provide us with knowledge – science – does not provide us with knowledge insofar as we are persons or individuals?
The answer is that this is so because the epistemic subject in science is neither a person nor a human individual. The epistemic subject of science is an abstraction; that means that it was reduced by a process of theoretical abstraction. It was reduced to a being that has no special interest in anything, and, therefore, considers all possible objects of knowledge to be of the same relevance.
In this context it is also interesting that in the second Gettier counterexample, the logical inference Smith draws neither helps him to find out where his friend Brown is, nor to make sure that his other friend Jones owns a ford. It can be shown that in Gettier examples the subjects of knowledge do not gain anything when they gain knowledge.
Furthermore, in the same context it is also interesting that in Gettier examples like Gettier’s own counterexamples or Chisholm’s “Sheep-in-the-field”-example, the proposition that allegedly is the justified true belief of the subject of knowledge is understood literally whereas it is quite clear from the description of the situation that the literal meaning of theses propositions is not what the person meant to say. Utilizing Gettier examples, it can also be shown that analytic philosophers do not care about what people have in mind when they say something. Hence, how could they possibly care about people learning anything – any content learned by a person is also only something that she has in mind.
Actually, the hypothesis of my talk was even stronger: Gettier examples show persons who do not know anymore what they need to know. For them everything is of the same interest. They have lost the contact to themselves. They are alienated. Smith has forgotten that he needs a job; he is distracted; his attention is caught by something completely unimportant, by the coins in the pocket of the other job applicant. This is why some forms of philosophizing (the Gettier problem is one of them) are to be considered not only as being theoretical in the sense that they are not offering a promise of utility to anybody in a direct form; they are rather actively distracting us from what we need to know.
In other words, the Gettier problem belongs to an actively disorientating form of philosophizing. I concluded my talk by saying that the Gettier problem makes us silly.
If we reflect about how such a paradoxical thing is possible we have to think about the role of social institutions in the process of knowledge creation. When a scientist is considered as being an alienated person for whom everything is of the same interest, it is clear that a person like this needs an appropriate social background in order to survive economically. The employment at a University makes it possible for the scientist or the scientific philosopher to stop focus on what he or she needs to know and focus instead on any problem brought forward in her academic subject. As the peers, the big names that field of research, are the only important persons of reference for a scientist, the scientist does not need to produce any knowledge that is of concrete use for any human individual.
That is to say that the scientific way of thinking has its complement in a specific social way of life: Institutions like universities create people who have no problems in their lives and who, after some time, even forget what it means for a person to have a problem. As it is this kind of people who are solving our problems, it seems to be quite understandable why it is often the case that we cannot learn anything from science and academic philosophy. Scientists are people who are living in a bubble that separates them from everyday reality.

Wittgenstein_Symposium2014-4

Although in the audience there were some people who understood my concerns, there was, of course, no undivided consent to my ideas. The problem here had to do with a further specific inclination of analytic philosophers which is to discuss and solve a problem such as is was posed. I had left this ‘convention of discussion’ of analytic philosophers by not trying to solve the Gettier problem but questioning it instead. The question arising here – which, on the other hand might by typical for Continental Philosophy – is whether we are still discussing the Gettier problem if I talk about what the Gettier problem is for me or what I can see in the Gettier problem?
More generally expressed, this problem consists in the question whether I, as the other person, or whether I, as a philosopher belonging to a different philosophical tradition, am entitled to collaborate in the definition of the philosophical problem we are discussing, especially in the case that this problem is taken from the history of Analytic philosophy?
This problem of how the Gettier problem can or cannot be defined in a discussion between analytic and continental philosophers induced analytic philosophers in the audience to discuss my objections to the Gettier problem as objections to this problem within the analytic tradition of enquiring it. By doing that I am quite sure that they, themselves, lost and that they distracted others from the point that I had made about the Gettier problem and personhood.
Instead of that at the end of the discussion following my talk we were evaluating the problem that if one philosopher had made a definition that claimed a necessity for all relevant cases (e.g. for all cases of knowledge) then for a second philosopher it suffices to show just one possible case against that claim in order to invalidate it, and that, for doing this, it is not necessary to take a close look at such counterexamples and study them intensively.

What Phenomenology is

You look at things trying to see something.

If you can`t see anything distinctive there are three possibilities

a) there isn`t anything to be noticed;

b) you looked at it with too little creativity and imagination

c) when looking at it you didn’t have the right object of comparison (cognitive frame) in your mind.

It is possible that a) is the case, but b) and c) are more likely.

So turn your back to the problem, look at other things in the meantime, go to bed, SLEEP LONG (only persons who are not tired are creative). Then come back and have another try.

I still have to add this: Be prepared if you do phenomenological research that others will call it “unscientific”! They will ask, “What was your hypothesis?” But when one is looking at things, one generally does not have any hypothesis. (It would confine your activity of looking, it would prematurely focus your eyes on specific aspects.

Connected with this reproach of the phenomenological method being unscientific is a more general problem: that of the status of observation in science. New developments in science are gradually edging observation out of science. This is achieved by discretiting some forms of observation, for instance the observation of an individual object.

The advantages of observing only statistically relevant groups together with control groups in social sciences are undeniable. Nevertheless it has to be emphasized that observation is basically the observation of an individiual object by an individual human being.

Thus observation is still necessary in science, but not the observation of an individual human being in an uncontrolled random situation. For many people this may not seem to be a problem for observation, but in fact it is: the human being that is aware of the fact that observation in science only counts if it is performed in groups (of researchers) an on groups of objects (which have to be prepared and arranged previously) will stop to look attentively for himself/herself. Collective observation is the end of observation. (I would like to know what Empiricists say about that.)