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Sunday, September 20, 2009

First, Second, Third Person Philosophy

First, Second, Third Person Philosophy
[now pp. 9-14 in Das Wagnis, ein Mensch zu sein: Geschichte - Natur - Religion]
During the US presidential campaign in 2008, a character was popular as "Joe the Plumber". He was to be the epitome of the working class that was coveted by the candidates. These elections being history now, it remains remarkable that American national economy was personified in this plumber from Ohio. Even if we leave aside the mechanisms of media democracy, it is strange that a single person was taken to represent the intentions of the candidates and/or of the electorate. Most likely those who 'used' Joe the Plumber were unwilling to discuss economic issues in theoretical, abstract terms, which prescind from individual people. One might think that an abstract idea was illustrated with the help of an individual. But the parties involved conveyed the image that personifying economy was the limit of their theoretical thinking. The proverbial plumber relieved politicians and commentators from conceptualizing. At least, they did not trust the audience to grasp the political problems conceptually, that is, objectively.
The same can be observed in philosophical debates. Frequently philosophers present their arguments by calling persons into action: the dualist, the monist, the Platonic, and others. It has the appearance of a Platonic dialogue that allows the opponents to voice their opinions. If that were the case it would be truly philosophical, because Plato had personified philosophical problems in Socrates and his interlocutors. Historic or fictional persons served to illustrate philosophical problems. In Plato, this was not just a literary ploy; he positively maintained that some philosophical problems can only be treated in the process of thinking as depicted in speaking, that is, those problems cannot be addressed in the form of propositions. Socrates is what you get when you philosophize, if you are Plato. Since no reader of this sentence is Plato, it easily translates into: Plato's philosophy created the character of Socrates. The difference between both statements is that the first seems to include the reader,[1] whereas the second is merely factual. The you-mode appeals to the reader who – depending on the context – may take it as an encouragement, critique, or any other psychological involvement that oversteps the limits of factual exchange. Oftentimes such overtones divert from the facts.
Modern scholarly parlance enjoys tying entire packages of arguments with one name: "Rawls says", "With Habermas", "As Thomas Nagel said". In those cases the argument is not abbreviated but labeled with a name without taking pains to actually think the argument. The reader, too, is not expected to recapitulate the argument. It is an extreme case of an argument from authority, for when referring to an authority it is rhetorically presupposed that the audience has familiarity with it or at least would be able, any time, to reproduce the doctrine of the authority. Therefore the question arises whether reference to philosophical plumbers allows returning to an objective treatment of the same problem. Does reference to some "monist" or "compatibilist" really invite to rethink the pattern of their thought without personifying? Probably not. For the sake of experiment, let us translate the third person into the second, and then into the first person: "The Dualist is my opponent; i.e., you, my opponent, hold this or that belief, which I am about to refute. Hence follows that I, first person, argue thus …" Here is an example from Imre Lakatos, speaking about the high frequency of simultaneous discoveries in sciences:
For this problem vulgar-Marxists have an easy solution: discovery is made by many people at the same time, once a social need for it arises. Now what constitutes a 'discovery', and especially a major discovery, depends on one's methodology. For the inductivist, the most important discoveries are factual, and, indeed, such discoveries are frequently made simultaneously. For the falsificationist a major discovery consists in the discovery of a theory rather than a fact. Once a theory is discovered (or rather invented), it becomes public property; and nothing is more obvious than that several people will test it simultaneously and make, simultaneously, (minor) factual discoveries.[2]
The objective problem of factually overlapping activities is addressed using labels. In each case, not the argument, only the result is presented. A scholarly book presupposes some familiarity with the theories in question. Nevertheless, no effort is made to explain how and why the various "–ists" came to their conclusions, although this is a book on methodology of science and within it a section on history. Since the argumentative framework of each proposition is reduced to a historic tab, the book should be shelved as scientific fiction. Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis could stand next to it, because Lakatos also advocates research programs. The only difference is that in the quoted passage he applies the program pattern retrospectively to the history of science. The key problem in this example is the fact that there is an asymmetry between premises and conclusion: The premise is personified, the conclusion factual. The personified premise ("-ists say") abbreviates the objective and theoretical reasoning to the extent that it is not recognizable and, therefore, the conclusion can only be judged on the basis of the reader's and the author's framework.
The third person rhetoric turns out to be a first person argument. Invoking a party, school, or any –ism reveals itself as directing the view to the speaker. This is where the philosopher's and the politician's strategies converge: both are mainly interested in themselves. Unless you are Plato, and unless you truly believe that thoughts are the only reality and cannot be reported otherwise than by ascribing them to an individual person, to argue with reference to people, rather than ideas, concepts, problems, things, or anything else objective, is nothing but egocentric conceit. Egotism is not necessarily a philosophical flaw, depending on the philosopher. But the contrast between thinking of persons and thinking about objective issues is worth exploring, especially if some arguments go simply wrong due to the misled style of thinking.
Incidentally, there are historic reasons for this fashion of personalizing a message. Humanist thinkers of the Renaissance drew the conclusion from the Scholastic style of philosophical and theological inquiry that no reality can have an impact on the human person that has not been personally processed in thought. Consequently, they also refrained from presenting insight in a systematic way and preferred writing poems, letters, invectives, etc. Later thinkers, well trained in Scholastic debates, adopted this turn of perspective and aimed at reassuring the audience that every single idea they were purporting had been thoroughly thought through. Ever since Giordano Bruno a philosopher would claim his own personality as first and ultimate witness for the truth of his teaching. With René Descartes the "I think" became a touchstone of philosophical quality. However, Bruno and Descartes, and certainty Kant and Hegel, not to speak of phenomenologists and existentialists, they all aimed at absolute trans-individual reality. (With the exception of the nihilist rejection of reality beyond human existence, as in Nietzsche.) They wrapped their insights in the first-person rhetoric, because to claim an objective reality was (in the wake of nominalism and voluntarism) suspect of begging the question. Therefore they would eclipse from their arguments that world, which they were to enquire. Subjectivity, the power of the personal mind, was the only accessible source of knowledge. Of course, they all had to presuppose the structural identity of everyone's mind and thus the communicability of first-person ideas. At this point it is inevitable to refer to persons and schools, because the object of this paragraph is the history of the structure of the first-person argument. To sum up, modern philosophy's battle cry is: Truth is what I think!
Again, if the process of reasoning is the topic of a thought it can be convenient to depict it with the help of a person. Objectified presentation can even go wrong if the question is, for instance, whether love is a person or a thing, and if the outcome is that it consists in the transition (as Plato taught). The thrust of the argument, here, is that reification is misleading, and therefore the argument itself should rather not be objectifying. First-person arguments occur frequently in psychological epistemology: problems of cognition, specifically those of sense perception, offer themselves to expressions in the first person. At the same time, there is no need to move over to a second person. Yet it might be useful to refer to third persons. In empirical psychology and pedagogy people are observed or act as test persons for the sake of exemplifying a theory. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many philosophical treatises, which either do not really illustrate any theory with the help of real or fictional people or conceal stratagems under the veil of personalized arguments.
An interesting example is Daniel C. Dennett's usage of persons. In his Consciousness explained he promises to "explain the various phenomena that compose what we call consciousness" and then continues: "it is very hard to imagine how your mind could be your brain … In order to imagine this, you really have to know quite a lot of what science has discovered about how brains work, but much more important, you have to learn new ways of thinking."[3] Of course the rhetoric is that of college teaching, suitable for an introduction. But Dennett also addresses directly the question of personal perspective. Since Descartes had used the first-person perspective that had fostered the notion of consciousness, experimental psychology preferred third-person perspective, in which "only facts garnered 'from the outside' count as data" (70). So, if the author is aware of the tricks of personalized presentation, why does he use the second person in describing the problem of understanding mind and brain? According to Dennett there is no consciousness. Mind is nothing but brain. Science is the objective authority ("quite a lot") concerning the workings of mind and brain. In spite of this reductionism, in the quotation there is imagination, there is learning, there is creativity, and – surprise! – there is thinking. How is such a performative contradiction possible? If "just rhetoric!" is the answer, then the author has put off at least one reader. Playful promises make the objectivity of the science dubitable. Obviously, the second-person appeal undoes the strong factual claim of a reductionist psychology. Perhaps, we should leave it at that.
A second example from philosophy of mind comes from John R. Searle. In his book Intentionality Searle confesses to despise "all this distinguished past", for, as he states bluntly, that his "only hope of resolving the worries which led me into this study … lay in the relentless pursuit of my own investigation."[4] First question: What makes John Searle believe that any reader cares about his worries? Why should readers be distracted from their own worries by worrying with and about Searle? After all, even to his contemporaries Searle was "distinguished past" once his book was out. This is a double attack of the philosopher: first he discards history; then he waves his own white flag for fear of being overlooked. On the other hand, second question: If philosophy is done by persons who successfully worry, why are those of the past to be discarded? Because they don't listen? But why not listen to them? Searle's worries are the heritage of European philosophy and should be treated according to its standards. The argumentative figure of 'the philosopher as the sole guarantor of his philosophy', as described above, is patent. In this sense the 20th century thinker is just mimicking Descartes on his retreat in Ulm. But is he also justified to do so? That is: does his argument gain by neglecting the past, given that this neglect has its history? Searle's rhetorical gesture is that of captatio benevolentiae. Such an opening is always risky, because it can go wrong, and as a rhetorical figure there is no second chance to repair it. So, the question is this: why does a philosopher have to covet the sympathy of the anonymous audience? To cover up the weakness of the argument? Or a hidden agenda? Again, the gesture is suspicious. But, perhaps the audience is not at all anonymous but a well defined group of colleagues and students. The implicit reader is to be an accomplice? All this has nothing to do with philosophy, it can happen in any corporation, business, association, etc. First-person philosophy can push beyond the fringes of philosophy.
Here I need to take up the cudgels on behalf of history. When dealing with philosophy of mind or with any other problem within the realm of anthropology, the philosopher is part of history and history is part of the problem. The very idea of relating to the world, which is at the core of intentionality and, generally, of philosophy of mind, this thought has evolved over a long way. The way 21st century thinkers worry about it started somewhere and sometime in the evolution of humanity and had significant leaps and detours and fallbacks and turns. Descartes is one of them. So far, present day philosophy of mind is just one station on a way. Each philosopher pushes it further, some try shortcuts, some explore dead end streets. But the question of mind, thinking about thinking, is genuinely human. Radical denial of the anthropological essence of thinking about thinking defeats itself; it is a performative contradiction as any skepticism. Everything human has a history (as far as anyone can look back). To think about the human mind, therefore, requires thinking about what others have thought. Right or wrong: what others have thought is thinking. If, as Descartes and Searle pretend, the past is distinguished as being superfluous, how was it possible that the past thinkers did not think as "I" (Descartes, Searle) think? What, if at all, did they think? Concepts like mind, consciousness, awareness, pain, reality, relation, organism, etc. have a meaning that cannot be makeshift wisdom. Such a thing does not exist. For philosophers, third-person psychology is thinking the past.
Philosophical plumbing hopes to encapsulate a problem in a person: I, we, you, he, they. Philosophical history liberates, at least, from the pressure to flirt with the audience or to expose one's own flaws (for no philosopher is right who does not take conceptual risks). Matters of science, as much as they belong to science, are definitely exempt of personal components (pace Michael Polanyi). Even if the philosopher is the only object truly known, the object remains objective, and true propositions cannot be thought of as true only in personal perspective. To say otherwise would make the personal perspective an objective truth. Therefore, to defend, for instance, the identity of mind and brain as a solipsistic insight or as a party game; to summarize in a falsifiable proposition the allegedly idiosyncratic take on science of some people; to rally for economic plans on the back of some chap from Ohio; all this is misleading. Philosophy starts with careful reading and goes a long way with it.

[1] A peculiarity of the English language facilitates the transition from factual statements to second-person allocutions: the generic "you". For instance in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, IV 2: "Every true man's apparel fits your thief: if it be too little for your thief, your true man thinks it big enough … "
[2] Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, 115.
[3] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Boston: Little, Brown, 1991, 16.
[4] John R. Searle, Intentionality. An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. ix.