Thursday, 6 December 2018

Different Attitudes about Meaningfulness in Philosophy, and Their Consequences

What makes a question or a statement meaningful as opposed to nonsensical? This is a hard question, and perhaps not a very fruitful one in philosophy since the falling out of favour of verificationism. But what if we instead ask: what difference does it make whether we think something makes sense?

I have sometimes been struck by a certain kind of self-conscious, almost defiant claim of meaningfulness that can be found in work by philosophers writing after the resurgence of metaphysics in the second half of the twentieth century. You may have noticed it yourself. Often in the course of making a point, a philosopher will say something like 'Well, the question is certainly meaningful...' or 'Whether or not it is true, there can be little doubt that this is a coherent position'. 

This liberal attitude to the question of whether something even makes sense contrasts starkly, and is often expressed in reaction to, the wary attitude of other philosophers, especially earlier in the twentieth century.

Often, the liberal attitude is supported with the idea that the wary attitude depended on a discredited view - verificationism - about what it takes to be meaningful.

Both attitudes, especially when taken stridently or dogmatically, can seem stupid. The denier of meaning can seem like a shirker. Or like someone who doesn't want to play a game and justifies it by acting superior.  The denier can seem crude - like they have this stupid hammer that they wield instead of taking the trouble to understand something (or at least admitting that they can't or won't). 

But the affirmer of meaning can also seem stupid and crude. As though they are blind, perhaps even wilfully blind, to subtle problems and difficulties. In the context of doing philosophy, this may seem like especially bad form, in that such problems and difficulties are just the thing that a philosopher should presumably try to be alive to.

It is quite clear that both tendencies have their pitfalls, and that both can be justified in particular cases. But the question of which attitude is right overall, or in a particular area, or in a particular vexed case even, seems peculiarly intractable, in something like the way moral and aesthetic issues can be intractable.  

I have become interested in thinking about this from the point of view of the consequences of the different attitudes, focusing on output rather than input. That is, rather than inquiring into when it is right to deem something meaningful, let us try to think about what might ensue given an attitude to the meaningfulness question. And that may then shed light back on the input question. 

A liberal attitude to the meaningfulness question can be refreshing, in that ideas and views get engaged with and clarified, in a way that they don't seem to if you're being skeptical about meaning. For example, someone who is very suspicious about the meaningfulness of the questions and views in what is nowadays called temporal ontology, e.g. whether the past and the things in it exist, is not, at least while being suspicious, likely to note certain (apparent) logical relationships between these views and others. For instance, the relationship to the question of whether true statements (perhaps of a certain kind) are all made true by some existing thing. Noticing these things seems to require that we, at least for a time, don't stand back and worry about meaningfulness, but come forward and handle these ideas - i.e. that we treat them as meaningful, and do the things that we do when we try to find out whether things are true or false.

But a warier attitude to meaningfulness can also be refreshing, leading us to take (in Wittgenstein's phrase) a wider look around. Fresh considerations may arise in this way, where from inside the meaning-granting perspective they would not. For example, someone suspicious about the way questions in temporal ontology are debated in philosophy seminars and publications may find themselves wondering what is really going on here, what is really animating all this discussion. They may think suspicious thoughts about the emotional associations of some of these ideas playing more of a role than the broadly scientific, "theory choice" mode of discussion of analytic metaphysics would suggest. And such thoughts may be fruitful. 

Understanding this better may help us avoid stupidities on both sides, making us more nimble and sophisticated. We don't have to pick a posture and stay in it forever. Even if a question or a view is ultimately dubious as regards meaningfulness - or needs to be transformed based on a better understanding of what is really at stake - taking the liberal attitude and working with the question or view for a stretch, i.e. treating it as meaningful enough, may yield insights which survive the transformation, or can be transferred to other places. And we may be more prepared to let this go on if we realise that it doesn't preclude us from taking the other viewpoint, i.e. getting suspicious and sniffing around more widely. And the same going the other way. One thing is that, even if the question is ultimately just really hard and not at all meaningless or in need of transformation, we may not know that, and so encouraging some suspicious minds to have a sniff around may be good. Another thing is that it may lead to a more subtle kind of improvement, where we may not radically reformulate our questions and views, but fold in new criteria and considerations that come from a wider look around.

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