Saturday, December 31, 2011

Humpty Dumpty

Hilary Putnam, in Renewing Philosophy, discusses the final arrival of esteemed analytical philosopher Nelson Goodman at a sort of radical relativism: "But if we choose to speak of worlds, where do these worlds come from? Goodman's answer is unequivocal: they are made by us. They are not made ex nihilo, but out of previous worlds... Springing full-blown within contemporary analytic philosophy, a form of idealism as extreme as Hegel's or Fichte's!" -- Renewing Philosophy, p. 111

Never mind that Putnam is almost certainly misreading Hegel and Fichte; his point is important nonetheless. I would not wish to suggest for a moment that Berkeley is the last word in metaphysics, or that he did not go too far in his reaction to Descartes and Locke. (Thinkers like Bosanquet and Whitehead seem to do better at staking out a middle ground here.) But he was surely correct in arguing that it was the posit of an unsensed pure matter, without color, texture, warmth, tone, feel, or character -- what Whitehead called, in denying its possibility, a "vacuous actuality" -- that pointed the way down the road to skepticism.

Once we accept the Cartesian radical divide between mind and matter, Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the wall and cracked in two, and all of the Anglosphere's analytical philosophers cannot put him back together again. What we ultimately get from efforts to patch the rift is either the absurdity of eliminative materialism, which is a theory suggesting that theories don't exist, or skepticism of the kind exhibited by Rorty and Goodman, although many philosophers who have accepted the Cartesian divide desperately attempt to hang on and avoid sliding into either abyss.

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"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb