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None-of-the-above-ism

I’ve never quite understood the urge some philosophers have to announce that they are partisans of this or that ism, or to devote major chunks of their output to arguing on behalf of an ism. Arguing about an ism I understand, but to act the lawyer and build a case for your client ism—that mystifies me. Especially when it’s accompanied by strong feeling. People get worked up about externalism or counterpart theory, as if it were a matter of great practical importance for them.
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Even on the few matters concerning which I can claim some expertise my position is usually “yes, but…”. Was Descartes a dualist? Yes, if you agree that the modal conclusions reached in Med. 6 or in Principles 1 are dualist. In fact Descartes, despite the great difference between his natural philosophy and that of the Schools, takes a position that people now have trouble making sense of: soul and body are such that it is possible “by the absolute power of God” for each to exist without the other; on the other hand, in a human being they are components of a single substance. In late Aristotelianism, that is true of prime matter and substantial form generally. They are really distinct and yet also compose an ens per se (the contrast is with ens per accidens, which is either the union of substance and accident or else the yet looser union of the parts of a heap, e.g. a machine). For Descartes, that combination obtains only in the case of human beings. Material things are entes per accidens (because in Cartesian physics there are no substantial forms).
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Our conceptions of substance are different enough now that to say without further ado that according to Descartes mind and body are two substances is misleading. We are more like Hobbes: substance and body are one and the same, and so a mind which is not a body is a contradiction, it is matter without matter. That, I think, is the basic difficulty we have, not merely in accepting, but even in understanding, Descartes’ position; interaction is rather a red herring.
Or again, consider abstract objects, abstracta. I can see why people reject them. Indeed the issues are parallel to those concerning the mind: interaction and “matter without matter”. I understand how this table can be square; but take away the table, and leave just the squareness, and I’m no longer sure what I’m dealing with. On the other hand, some abstracta seem to be real enough, if you believe what mathematicians have to say about the experience of dealing with the objects of mathematics. “Real” here means something like “having a nature that does not depend on the manner of their being conceived”, although that would require some explanation in the case of the Peano curve, say, which cannot be realized in any materal thing, and is thus accessible only through being conceived. Yet the mathematician finds herself constrained or determined in her thinking about the abstract object, which suggests that it is not just a creature of her thought. Johnson, kicking a stone, refuted Berkeley (or thought he had); perhaps bumping up against objects in thought is likewise a mark of reality. And yet (again) that bumping, if it occurs, doesn’t establish the truth of any mathematical claim; for that you need proof, which is supposed to be independent of intuition. But proofs, too, are abstract objects…
The position I am sidling toward is an academic skepticism, a diluted and very much a secondary condition of thought, which leaves the underlying motives of or influences on my prior habits of belief mostly untouched. I don’t know what that says about philosophy, or my relation to it; in fact, that is just another of those questions about which I tend to skepticism. I understand that there is an advantage to decisiveness: the dogmatism (in Kant’s sense) of a Searle or Churchland lends force to their work—they write with conviction, which is itself convincing—and gives critics a clear target. But mostly I find myself with Montaigne and Diderot, captivated more by the flux of thought than by its occasional moments of fixity.

LinkJanuary 13, 2006 in Philosophy of Philosophy