Weather Map Copies

Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes turned the philosophical world upside down (or rightside up) when he said that we needed some ground of certainty for our knowledge claims. As it stood, thinkers could proffer all sorts of rival and extravagant assertions , citing this or that authority, running down this trail or that as far as their premises, concepts, and intellectual finagling could take them. For instance, Descartes’ contemporary, Baruch Spinoza, cranked pantheism (all is God) out of the notion of “substance.” How then might we adjudicate among theories and evaluate the thought castles of competing kingdoms?

His answer was to institute a sort of zero-based budgeting, whereby everything would be on the table for review. His approach was to doubt everything he could—the existence of God, the reliability of his senses and intuitions—until he hit rock bottom, which he famously said was the reality of some thinking going on. It didn’t have to be correct thinking; just any old sort of thinking would do, for, at least, it showed that a thinker was at work. (Cogito ergo sum.)

Once he’d nailed that down as a certainty, he proceeded to work his way up—to a necessarily infinite cause (God) for his thoughts of the infinite, and then on to the reliability of his “clear and distinct ideas,” since a good God wouldn’t create and sustain a systematically deceptive world. Philosophers have not been as impressed with his climb out as with his climb down; the quest for bedrock certainty was just the thing. And historians have said the Cartesian moment marked the transition from third-person to first-person philosophy, from commentaries to essays.

Catholic Philosopher Benjamin Wiker (whose forerunners, the medieval philosophers, were much taken with third-person commentaries on such authorities as the Bible and Aristotle) was not impressed, and he grouped Descartes with Machiavelli as one of the enablers for the terrible things to come from the pens of Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Kinsey, and even Hitler. (His rogues gallery can be found in Ten Books that Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help.) Far more impressed were British philosophers (and fellow believers with Descartes), John Locke and George Berkeley, who argued that the foundation for sensible talk was sense experience.

This approach, “empiricism,” went off the Christian rails (indeed, the theistic rails) when David Hume “mounted to the cabin” (yes, a reference to Casey Jones). He sowed doubts about not only God and his goodness (vs. Descartes); not only about the difference between primary and secondary qualities, such as, respectively, motion and color (vs. Locke); not only about transubstantiation (cf. Berkeley); but also about causality and the human soul. And, at this point, the skeptical Scot Hume woke the German science-enthusiast, Immanuel Kant, from his “dogmatic slumbers,” and Kant constructed a system whereby mechanisms of the mind rigged things so that the Enlightenment could proceed with its confidence in human savvy, while preserving less-certain but still-edifying talk of God and the afterlife. (See the “Strip Map” article on Kant and his successors.)

Undaunted, the empiricists maintained that you had to give epistemic priority to the deliverances of the senses. After all, “This is red” is less susceptible to disconfirmation than “This is Saddam Hussein” (for he had body doubles); which, in turn, is less certain than “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” (which may have been sent to Syria); which is even less certain than “Iraq will flourish under democracy” (which depends upon a lot of variables, many of which are in play in an artificially-constructed nation beset with long-standing strife involving Sunni, Shia, Chaldean, Yazidi, Baathist, and Kurdish factions, with some overlap).

The ideal is to build some sort of knowledge edifice on relative certainties, going from solid particulars to summary generalities, from “This hurts” and “This feels good” to “We should put cancer warnings on cigarette packages” and “We need a national park system.” Of course, you don’t have to be methodical in building up from brute sensations. You can make theoretical leaps to “Gender fluidity is salubrious” or “Bleeding the patient will reduce fever.” But whatever big guesses you might make, you still have to submit them to sensory checks and balances. Fly as high as you will, but you still have to come back to the ground of experiential testing.

Doubling-down on certainty, they moved from talking about red things to talking about red “sense data,” and then to adverbial constructs, as in “being appeared to redly,” which brings us to our newspapers, seen above. An Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein came to England, where he worked with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, first as a foundationalist (with a firm structure of foundational meanings and propositions, matching up nicely with the world), and then as an “ordinary language” philosopher. (Thus we talk of the early and late Wittgenstein, with a move from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Philosophical Investigations.) In this post-transition mode, he took aim at the foundational status of “redness” and such, arguing that these personal experiences were beyond confirmation. How, for instance, can I be sure I’m using the word ‘red’ consistently? Maybe I called the same color “orange” yesterday. And it does not good to answer, “No, I recall I that used the word to refer to the same experience.” It’s like buying a second copy of the same paper to see if what the first copy said was true. (Or, in this instance, to see if the weather map is correct: “No way it’s 75 degrees in Boston in January! Clerk, here’s a dollar. Give me another copy of today’s Tribune. I have to be sure.”)

Wittgenstein argued that there was no way to sort this out. Since I couldn’t be sure of my self-checks, then there was no valid usage-rule enforcement, and so, in effect, no rules. But you can’t have a ruleless language, in this case a ruleless “private language,” so the personal-experience-foundation was bogus. His answer was to wax sociological rather than personal when it came to valid speech. He started talking about “language games” and “family resemblances” in the way we can extend the meaning of terms. (See the discussion of ‘art’ as an “open concept” in the Branscusi article.) It was a much looser enterprise, not so much a matter of certainties as conventionalities. So, “Take that, empirical foundationalism!”

(For what it’s worth, I devoted part of my dissertation to defending empiricism from the “private language argument.” I argued that metaphor, a respectable part of language, was not rule governed, so Wittgenstein’s ground for disallowing private language was unreasonable. Be that as it may, there is, still abroad, the conviction that there has to be a way to get at the bottom of theoretical disputes, and if the bottom is utterly independent of what we can experience, whether in this world or the world to come, then, again, it is “non-sense.” We may not have knock-down certainty, and we may not build out theories brick by brick from the sensory ground up, but what you say has to be answerable to what we can conceivably experience.) As for God, the sensus divinitatis, delightful intimations of glory in the resplendent heavens, and gratifying impulses and insights stemming from regeneration—all can set us on the right track in our thinking, but the track needs to lead us to a “face to face” encounter to be fulfilled. Experience early; experience late (what Ian Ramsey calls “eschatological verification”). All part of the empiricist’s program.