Category: Philosophy of Science

Twisting With Your Mind

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

Helmut Hofbauer: Twisten mit dem Verstand. tredition, Hamburg 2015.

24,9€

You can order  the book here or also at Amazon.

When talking about philosophy with non-academics I have always the problem that I have made certain experiences during my philosophy studies at the University of Vienna which are unknown to them.

One essential experience of this kind is that the minds of university students are transformed during their studies in a manner so that afterwards they are not able any more to communicate ideas or respond accordingly to ideas of another person in a conversation.

This is the topic of 6 texts in my new book Twisten mit dem Verstand [Twisting with one’s own mind] that carry the title “Wie wird es sein, wenn es unverständlich geworden ist, was eine Idee ist?” [How will it be when it has become incomprehensible what an idea is?]

The central idea of this series of texts is: An idea is an idea of a human being. When a person tries to communicate an idea to another person, what she is doing is to explain to the other person an attempt of a solution of a problem or of a question she concerned with.

However, when this person turns with her idea towards a graduate of a university, what will happen? The university graduate has undergone scientific education. This means that for her ideas of people do not exist anymore (because they would be “subjective”), she only knows an objective reality.

So she will most probably respond to the first person something like: “Of what you have said this and this and this is wrong.” By doing that she will absolutely frustrate the first person for what those person wanted in the first place was to find some understanding for her concern and for the relevance this very problem or question had for her life.

The thought on which the title of this series of texts is based is: The term “idea” is used improperly in academic or scientific discourse; anyway, as we use it differently in everyday language, the use of “idea” in academic discourse is still profiting parasitically from its meaning in everyday language. And this meaning of “idea” in everyday language could be lost someday soon (because university students are trained so rigorously to forget it that this attitude becomes their second nature), and what happens then is that this word altogether loses its meaning for us.

To make things clear: in my understanding, “idea” in everyday language means “someone’s idea”, and in academic discourse it means “some kind of statement that can be true or false”.

As philosophy tries to solve the problems of human beings, it is especially difficult to discuss a problem philosophically with a university graduate because for the university graduate problems and ideas are something that can stand alone, they do not need any subject that holds them.

This is also valid for university graduates of philosophy. That’s the reason why I recommend everybody who is interested in philosophical questions not to study philosophy at the university: As long as you do not study philosophy you can try to solve your philosophical problems, but after your philosophy studies at the university you will be deprived of your problems. They will be objective problems that are of no special concern to you.

Saying that a problem is “my problem” is a form of appropriating one’s own thinking. The common denominator of all texts of this book is autonomy of thinking. To convince us that my problems and your ideas are not my problems and your ideas but objective entities that exist in some kind of “platonic heaven” of today’s scientific community is a method of dispossing us of our own thinking.

Another method is long years of drill. Why does a pope or the American president practically never step down from their offices? The answer is: because they have invested long years of work and a great part of their lives in getting into their offices. Now in one text I have taken Ludwig Wittgenstein as a negative example for this hypothesis: While nowadays a young academic philosopher has to spend long years of formatting the footnotes of his articles in order to submit them to scientific journals, Wittgenstein actually did not publish any academic work during his lifetime. He was the son of a rich father, he had been primary teacher in Lower Austria and the architect of his sister’s house before he became university professor in Cambridge. So he was free as a bird, and this is why it was no surprise that in Cambridge he produced a philosophy his doctor father Bertrand Russell did not like.

When talking about famous professors we usually tend to think in terms of genius and intelligence. By doing this we underrate the significance of drill. Normally a person does not become professor because she is intelligent but because she is intelligent and has endured the drill. It is important that a case like that one of Wittgenstein from the institutional point of view was a mistake – and was something that nowadays will not occur anymore.

The book contains two texts on Tomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What I find interesting in Kuhn’s theory of science is that he described science as a social enterprise. However, if society enters into science society’s chaos and unreasonableness will also enter into science. And because it cannot be true what should not be true, philosophers have found ways of interpreting Kuhn’s theory as if it was not a social theory of science.

Before I knew that I had thought that I could use Kuhn’s theory in order to support my ideas on science. But since I know it I also know that every rational argumentation on the topic of science as a social institution will remain unheard because philosopher refuse to listen to it – the same as they refuse to listen to Kuhn.

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The frame of my book is constituted by two texts on personal knowledge. One is on José Ortega y Gasset’s book El tema de nuestro tiempo [The topic of our time] and the other on his pupil’s, Julián Marías’, book Razón de la filosofía [Reason of philosophy]. The topic of Ortega’s era, and this is almost one hundred years ago (1923), was that he thought it was time to conceive thinking and knowing as activities of living beings. This is what he also called “life philosophy” (filosofía de la vida). It means that in philosophy we should not look for objective truths but for truths relevant to persons thinking them.

After all, when I remember my time as a philosophy student at the university and how I asked my professor what she thought about my seminary paper and “There is a mistake in the footnote on page 23.” – was the only answer I got, this is exactly what I am concerned about: My teacher then did not understand what was relevant for me (or if she had understood it her scientific attitude did not allow her to admit it to me), and that is why the conversation about my paper turned into a discussion about the footnote on page 23.

In science, in the end no fact is more important than any other fact. So it was science to remind me of the footnote on page 23. However, I had wanted to talk about my seminary paper in order to learn something about it; I did not learn anything from the remark on the footnote on page 23 – it just served to drill me.

These two texts on the two Spanish philosophers allude to the fact that in order to come closer to autonomy in thinking, we would have to re-appropriate our own thinking, we would have to make thinking our thinking again. And this would start by conceiving a thought or an idea not just as a sentence that can be objectively true or false but as a concern of relevance for the life of the subject thinking it. Despite the fact that Ortega’s approach is basically quite straight and common sense, science and scienticism (the exaggerated belief in the power of science) are so strong nowadays that Ortega’s topic of his era sounds to us like the most esoteric thing imaginable.

In other words, I think that if someday in the future we want to achieve autonomy of thought, we would have to go right down to the bottom, to the ultimate cause of the problem: and this cause is that today – in the shade of science and its concept of objective truth – it is forbidden that I consider my ideas to be my ideas.

That the ban of personal thinking does not lead to objective truth but rather to the beliefs of different tribes and groups of people is the topic of another text in this book, a text on isms. Also in today’s philosophy isms are abundant: internalism, externalism, reliabilism, coherentism, contexualism, indexicalism and so forth. They force you to join a group before you have even made up your own mind.

The title of the book stems from a song by the Austrian songwriter Heli Deinboek. In this song he describes the zombies we call “normal people”. These are persons who work and consume as society expects them to and are desperate about the senselessness of their lives. I have always thought that it is necessary to twist a lot with one’s own mind in order to meet this situation. That is: to move one’s own mind, to think a lot, to philosophize.

It should be clear by now that by “philosophizing” I do not mean thinking Plato’s thoughts or those of Descartes or those of Donald Davidson, but thinking my own thoughts. By thinking my own thoughts I am moving myself, maybe in the form of a dance.

The subtitle of the book is: “Philosophizing with the goal of surviving mentally”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Evidence Is Not Evident

As I have already stated at the beginning, I am writing this blog because of my difficulties with English language.

One of the words in English that makes it especially difficult for me to express myself in this language is “evidence”.

“Evidenz” in German means “obviousness”, “appearance”. It is close to Latin roots “videre” which means “to see”.

“Evidence” in English means a different thing, namely “proof” or “testimony”, but – and this is the confusing aspect of the word – the adjective “evident” means “obvious” just as the German adjective “evident”.

Now there is something, as you might know, that is called “evidence-based medicine”.

The lowest level of evidence according to evidence-based medicine is: “Expert opinion without explicit critical appraisal, or based on physiology, bench research or “first principles””

The highest level of evidence is: “SR [Systematic Review] (with homogeneity*) of RCTs [Randomized Controlled Studies]”

If you take a closer look at these definitions, “evidence” in the sense of “obviousness” can only take place on the lowest level of “evidence” according to evidence-based medicine. For this is the only level where experts, that means: people, directly look at things.

On the highest levels of “evidence” according to evidence-based medicine systematic reviews of the publications of others are performed, and their data have to be believed. There are also mathematical, statistical proofs involved. All the proofs and the data are located between you and the original phenomenon, so that the phenomenon is no longer visible.

It seems clear to me that evidence-based medicine is about scientific proof, and not about “evidence” in the sense of “obviousness”. But tell me, as a not native English speaker, how would you call it, if you wanted to talk about “obviousness”.

As I have mentioned, in German the word “Evidenz” basically does not mean “proof” or “testimony”. Even though evidence-based medicine was translated into “evidenzbasierte Medizin”. The reason might be the low self-esteem of German speakers. However, in scientific circles they start already to use the German “Evidenz” in the sense of “proof”, of which I absolutely do not approve for I think there is a good reason for the fact that “Evidenz” should not mean “proof”.

The reason is that the more proofs are put between you and a thing the less evident it becomes. It becomes – empirically, scientifically – better proven, but it becomes less evident. The thing itself becomes opaque behind all the evidence.

Evidence therefore does not make things evident. For “evident” (also in English?) means “self-evident” which equals to “not needing a proof”.

But there is certain suspicion that I have regarding the situation in English: Is the reason for the meanings of “evidence” and “evident” in English language maybe to be found in a certain belief – based on a strong empiristic conviction – that evidence actually helps to make beliefs/assertions more evident?

Well, the idea would be that evidence is somehing that “supports” assertions, and if the support is so strong that nobody can rationally doubt it anymore, then the assertion is held to be “evident” in the sense of “obvious” for everybody. Is this the case?

Well, if it was so, it would be a false conviction. For evidence in the sense of proof puts itself between the person seeing an object and the object seen by her. In consequence, the person will look at the evidence (the proofs) and not at the object. If she is a normal persons, it is very likely that she will not understand the (sophisticated scientific) proofs. In the end she will have to believe what experts tell her. And to believe that she would understand the case, if she was trained to be an expert herself.

The moral of the story: A mountain of evidence leads to belief, for evidence does not make things evident. Evidence leads to scientifically better proven results, but it does not make things obvious and understandable.

The Fascinating Thing about Ludwig Wittgenstein

…is that he never worked scientifically.

Ludwig Wittgenstein never had to press his thoughts into a form that was not his in order to submit it to a scientific journal and get it through peer review.

He never never had to bow to formal conditions like 3000 or 6000 words, references (+formal requirements for the references), the adoption of a certain style of writing, and a text structure like background-methods-results-discussion.

If Wittgenstein had to do that – what every scientist nowadays has to do in order to become a scientist at all – maybe he would have failed. The stories about his choleric character make it seem likely that he would have failed.

Well, Michel de Montaigne did not work scientifically either, and even though he became a famous philosopher.

True, but Michel de Montaigne did not pretend to do scientific philosophy. He wrote ‘essays’. ‘Essay’ means: “I give my text the form I want to!”

I really wonder what would have become of Wittgenstein’s writings, if he had been forced to work scientifically.