Exploration

2005-03-28

I continue to gather my thoughts regarding what Hao Wang called "phenomenography" or "phenography" -- that is, philosophy as a map or picture of what we know (given that "phenomenography" is commonly used with a different meaning in educational theory and that I dislike the shortened form "phenography", I might even coin a new word for such an approach, e.g., "epistemography"). At a basic grammatical level, there are three aspects to Wang's conception: what we know (as opposed to how we know), what we know (as opposed to what gods could know, what humans knew in the past or might know in the future, etc.), and what we know (as opposed to what we believe, feel, etc.). One thing I like about Wang's approach is that it is intellectually honest: we attempt to do full justice to what we know, not to spin theories or craft ideologies.

I see a connection here to what is probably my favorite passage in the works of twentieth-century philosopher Robert Nozick. In the preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia (pp. xii-xiii), he writes as follows:

My emphasis upon the conclusions which diverge from what most readers believe may mislead one into thinking this book is some sort of political tract. It is not; it is a philosophical exploration of issues, many fascinating in their own right, which arise and interconnect when we consider individual rights and the state. The word "exploration" is appropriately chosen. One view about how to write a philosophy book holds that an author should think through all the details of the view he presents, and its problems, polishing and refining his view to present to the world a finished, complete, and elegant whole. This is not my view. At any rate, I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.

Indeed, the usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it's not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about.

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they'll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn't gets heaved far away so that it won't be noticed. (Of course, it's not all that crude. There's also the coaxing and cajoling. And the body English.) Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else bulges out too noticeably. Then, back in the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips, and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape.

No philosopher says: There's where I started, here's where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of the gaze.

The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers' purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?) From these deep (and frightening) questions, I hope not to be able to manage to avert my gaze in future work.

I am beginning to think that doing justice to what we know involves, in large measure, leaving things as and where they are. While fitting everything into a perimeter can result in a pretty picture, it is crucial to recognize that those boundaries are drawn just so for the sake of human convenience and understanding. Not that human convenience and understanding are unimportant -- after all, often we cannot in fact know something without the presence of a picture, model, or metaphor to give it human context. But we would do well to be able to separate the thing from the picture, the actual terrain from its representation on the map of our (current) knowledge. A hard task, but one worth pursuing, I think.


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