So it’s only now that I’m getting the chance to blog about the Congress meetings in Montreal, which went extremely well for everyone involved named Adam Riggio, as well as my companions from McMaster. Instead of attempting to yoke everything into one overarching narrative, I’ll just concentrate on some intriguing reflections and hope some linking thread establishes itself. Rather like a Robert Altman movie, I suppose.
If my professional association with my friend Dustin continues throughout our careers, we may become known as some kind of feuding odd couple. He insults the French philosophers who are central to my work, burns me constantly in public with some of the fastest put-downs I’ve experienced since eighth grade. I came late to his presentation at the conference, because I was in the afternoon session of an all-day symposium on Friedrich Nietzsche. They’re discussing pluralism about knowledge, and I make a brief comment to the effect that maybe that isn’t actualy a bad thing. His response is to say that if I might want to make a useful contribution, I could listen to the whole presentation. Dustin inadvertently made the entire room think that he hated me.
Of course, during the course of the conference, we were drinking together almost every night. Near closing time on the back patio of the Saint Elizabeth pub, I even convinced him to read Gilles Deleuze’s book on Leibniz, because it was the best summary of the aesthetics of monadology ever written. I don’t expect anyone to understand that sentence. Even I don’t, very much. And the pizza on the way back to the hotel was delicious, completely worth the $2.50/slice.
However, there is a not-so-positive element of my engagement with analytic philosophy that came up at the conference. I was enlisted to give a ten minute commentary on a paper about the colour constancy problem in perception. The paper was written quite well, with a technique that I personally find rather bothersome, but that comes up with increasing frequency in analytic philosophy of mind and knowledge: the intuition pump. The writer describes a scenario, then based on one’s intuitions about how the scenario actually functions, the writer derives various philosophical consequences. One usualy counters such a claim by modifying the scenario, or describing a new scenario, which leads to different intuitions with contrary or incompatible philosophical consequences than the first scenario.
Anyway, the paper was constructing several intuition pumps about what kind of philosophical consequences we should draw about the nature of perception and the content of experience from a particular problem in perception: that when we look at an object, we think of it as having a proper colour, even if the lighting conditions make, for example, a white object appear red. I don’t think I was quite the right person to respond to this, because I don’t actually think this is a real problem. Or at least, it’s not the kind of problem that encourages productive philosophy.
You see, that was the thrust of my commentary. The colour constancy problem is only a problem if you presuppose that every object has some property that is its proper colour, and that lighting conditions either distort to some degree or present this proper colour faithfully. And I said that if we think about colour as a relational property, a property of a field of interactions between an object, the light bouncing off the object, and a perceptual apparatus, then the whole idea of an object having one proper colour regardless of how one’s vision centres or eyes work, regardless of the nature of the ambient light – that notion just doesn’t come into play. And any philosophical problems about perception that depend on this notion just aren’t articulated, because it doesn’t make sense to do so. My commentary made the problem go away by questioning the truth of the premises that made the problem come to be in the first place.
And he had no idea what to do. I felt pretty awkward, to be honest. I had seen one of his presentations at last year’s national conference in Ottawa, and he seemed to be on top of his game when it came to philosophy of mind. He was certainly far superior to me in his knowledge of the literature and the debates. I’ve let the specifics slide as I’ve moved to work in environmental ethics.
But I thought that this sort of thing was still done in philosophy of mind. After all, it’s not a big leap to assume that they’ve read Wittgenstein. He invented most of the problems that philosophy of mind still talks about (and in my opinion, he got rid of those problems just as quickly, and the rest are still catching up). Wittgenstein invented the method of solving a problem by attacking the premises that made the problem exist in the first place. I didn’t think it would be a big deal for me to hit at the premises of the paper’s problem. But apparently, the lessons of the greats are already being forgotten.
Perhaps it’s just easier to pile one intuition pump on top of another. That way, you can get a back-and-forth argument going in the journals, and you don’t have to work that hard to produce an original idea. You can just come up with a slightly different way to interpret a scenario, or draw different intuitions from the same scenario, and you have a publishable article. It’s so much more work to declare a problem to be not worth working on, and try to make your own from scratch.
I don’t want to be that cynical, but it seems to be the most hopeful way for me to read that situation among philosophers. Because the worse idea for me is that all the self-identified analytic philosophers really believe that building intuition pumps for increasingly narrow and esoteric scenarios and problems constitutes real progress in philosophy. For me, real progress in philosophy would be doing the genuinely difficult work of questioning the presuppositions of the current dogma, coming up with new ways to understand the world instead of just following the same old patterns of your predecessors.
What I like about conferences is that I get to meet people from around the country and the continent who are kindred spirits about philosophy, people who think of philosophy as a creative act, and take this more radical activity of questioning presuppositions and turning over old dogmas as philosophy at its best. I met a couple of people in Montreal this year who were like that. But none of them were at this presentation, except me. And I felt it.