The claim made by Cook and Levi is that Empiricism, and philosophical ideas in general, is a body of arguments, their claims, and ideas, based on a mistake, the mistake of misunderstanding the meanings of words that we would otherwise discover, if looked at carefully enough, in the details of examples of ordinary discourse.
I will here explain a little more about what Cook and Levi believe is the solution to philosophical problems. Their solution is to expose it’s originating mistakes in our thinking, and thereby give good reason for us to ignore or repudiate philosophy’s arguments, claims, and ideas.
I here mean to suggest an alternative explanation for the genesis of philosophical ideas, one that disagrees with what Cook and Levi have argued. The argument that I want to make involves the use of an ancient example, the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot.
Here’s a great illustration of the scene,
…and a short description of what Alexander did to the knot with his sword,
Many individuals came to Gordium to try to undo the knot, but they all failed. Then, according to tradition, the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great visited the city in 333 B . C . After searching unsuccessfully for the hidden ends of the Gordian knot, Alexander became impatient. In an unexpected move, he took out his sword and cut through the knot. Alexander then went on to conquer Asia, thus fulfilling the oracle's prophecy. Alexander's solution to the problem led to the saying, "cutting the Gordian knot," which means solving a complicated problem through bold action.
…and video, which always spruces up the argumentation,
Well, what does Cook say about what should be done about philosophy? In his Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language, he goes through his long discussion of the up-sides and down-sides of his philosophical predecessors in analytic philosophy, coming to this,
Escaping the Universal Dismisser
How, then, does this sort of philosophizing (i.e., the kind that Cook argues for…) escape the Universal Dismisser? If it appeals to examples of what people commonly say, is it not just as guilty as Standard Ordinary Language Philosophy of begging the question – the question, that is, of whether the conceptual scheme of ordinary language is a flawless map of the ontological terrain?
The important point to bear in mind here is that the philosophical method espoused by Malcolm claims to be able to refute philosophers’ conclusions without first considering their arguments. Those conclusions can be rejected out of hand, according to Malcolm, because they “violate” ordinary language. What makes this question begging is that the philosophical arguments Malcolm says we needn’t consider include those that seem to demonstrate that ordinary language is not only a conceptual scheme but also one that is philosophically deficient. That view of language gains its plausibility from various pieces of philosophical reasoning, and once such reasoning has become a central fixture of philosophy, it can’t be simply ignored. But Malcolm does just that, and that is why his method is question begging and an easy target for the Universal Dismisser.
Is there, then, some other way for ordinary language philosophers to proceed? To see what alternatives there might be, we need to notice that those who brandish the Universal Dismisser make two assumptions. One assumption is that our language is a conceptual scheme, that it is a map – possibly a very poor map – of the ontological terrain. The second assumption is that we can’t philosophize without taking sides in metaphysical issues. Could these assumptions be challenged?
The second assumption can be easily disputed: Our philosophizing does not always originate in some ontological issue. Sometimes we simply get into a muddle about the use of some word or phrase. In such cases the very thing we need is what the Universal Dismisser dismisses: we need to be reminded of how the relevant words or phrases are actually used. There is nothing else that would remove our problem, and nothing more is needed. So a philosopher who practices ordinary language philosophy in cases of this sort cannot be charged with begging the question. He or she is, in fact, doing the only thing that’s appropriate.
But what about the other cases, those that seem to get us embroiled in ontological questions? To see whether ordinary language philosophy has a role to play in such cases, we must investigate the assumption that our language is a conceptual scheme. In doing this, as I’ve said, we must be careful to avoid begging questions. Since we clearly can’t proceed by making a direct attack – in Malcolm’s fashion – on the conclusions of philosophical arguments, we will have to get behind those conclusions somehow. But how is one to do this?
It is not difficult to depict an idealized version of this. It will involve retracing one’s steps through a labyrinth of philosophical argumentation, through long chains of argument, arguments built on other arguments. This is often how it is in philosophy: the views currently in favor are the descendants of earlier views whose implications are only now being worked out, and those, in turn, are the descendants of still earlier views, and so on. Finding one’s way in all of this is not easy, but it’s clear how one must begin: by practicing the art of backtracking – an art, incidentally, in which Ramsey’s maxim is an invaluable aid. If one is unrelenting in this and finds the beginning of each story, where new philosophical ideas are hatched, one will have found the point at which it will beg no questions to ask oneself: “Do these ideas arise simply from a failure to appreciate how these words are used?”
How does one find these incipient moments in philosophy? How will we know that we have done enough backtracking? I doubt that there is an answer to that question if we think of slogging our way through the history of philosophy. While we can – and no doubt should – pay some attention to the thinkers of yesterday and yesteryear, there will come a point at which we are on our own, at which we can say, “I got this philosophical idea by thinking that…” This is the sort of moment we are looking for. If we now attempt to explain that idea to ourselves and discover, while paying attention to the actual use of the relevant word, that all our attempts fizzle, it can’t be said that our admission of failure is the result of our begging some question…
John Cook, Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language, pages 154-155.
I disagree with Cook. I have some doubts that he has correctly identified the right way that philosophy has gone wrong. I want to begin to explain what my objections are by an analogy.
Suppose there is a murder in Chicago. The police investigate the suspects and, because of certain evidence, arrest “Bugsy Spittoon” for the crime. The arresting detective is Officer John Cook. As a diligent member of the Press, I too have investigated the evidence available about the crime and I have come up with a more complicated story. My sources give me a different understanding of the crime.
Officer Cook gathered evidence that Bugsy met the victim outside his apartment, got into an argument, and then shot him, causing the victim to die. This was all understandable to Officer Cook because he already had the impression that Bugsy Spittoon was something of a violent loner, and capable to taking someone down without thinking about it much.
My sources told me that Bugsy had enemies. He was a sometime boyfriend of “Candy Splitz,” a tall buxom redhead who hangs out at the Poor Alibi, a dancehall down on the south side. Story had it that “Big Nose” Harrigan was tired of Bugsy having time with Candy, and so Big Nose had someone take out the victim, who was having other issues with Harrigan, and made it look like it was all the work of Bugsy Spittoon.
So, no, Bugsy was innocent of the crime which Officer Cook has accused him of. Bugsy was only the innocent patsy.
Getting back to John Cook, he claims that bad philosophical ideas get started by assuming that: “…our language is a conceptual scheme, that it is a map – possibly a very poor map – of the ontological terrain.” I want to agree with Cook that a crime has been committed. The crime involves the generation of bad philosophical ideas. I believe that Cook has accused the wrong guy. His evidence has lead him to the patsy, someone set up to take the fall. The real guilty parties are elsewhere and include other hoodlums entirely.
Actually, Cook isn’t entirely wrong about the idea that his opponents assuming language is a conceptual scheme. He isn’t entirely wrong because the problem is that people do think language is a conceptual scheme. Cook has documented this fact elsewhere. I have no problem with his claim that the nest of problems he’s after does involve people making that assumption. The problem that I have with Cook has to do with his policy to question every philosophical idea and backtrack all these ideas to their origins. A lot of the time Cook criticizes others for not being aggressive enough at this backtracking. My complaint about Cook is, ironically enough, that he is still not as aggressive in practice as he preaches in principle.
How should Cook dig any deeper than the idea that language is a conceptual scheme? What could be an underlying assumption to that assumption? Here’s my two-bits: If we look at the theory of logical argument, we will find that the terms of those arguments are found in the world. There’s a correspondence between the p’s and the q’s in arguments like:
if p, then q.
P, therefore q.
and things in the world. For example, suppose we know about the world that if both Socrates is a man, and All men are mortal are true, then we know that Socrates is mortal is true. Once we have determined that, as a matter of fact, both Socrates is a man and All men are mortal are true, then we know that Socrates is mortal. The idea that language is thought of as a conceptual scheme in the context of pieces of reasoning that argue both that logical arguments in order to have meaning correspond with things in the world and that language at bottom involves logical arguments should not be ignored. It is reasonable to explain what is meant by a conceptual scheme being a map of the ontological world in terms of the theory of logical argumentation.
Therefore, it is reasonable to suspect that the theory of logic, and its sister idea rhetoric, is an underlying assumption of the notion that language is a conceptual scheme.
As a result of my investigation of the crime, as the crack reporter for the local paper, Officer Cook accuses the idea that language is a conceptual scheme of committing the crime of murdering truth and creating bad philosophical ideas. But, Officer Cook is wrong. He’s only arrested a patsy. The real criminal is someone that he least suspects. The real criminal mastermind is the idea that argument is a matter of logical argument and rhetorical strategies. The notion that language is a conceptual scheme is only a dupe who only does what he’s told.
The problem with Cook is not just that he has identified the patsy instead of the real criminal behind the deed. But he has also recommended the wrong kind of approach to exposing and getting rid of the criminals involved. Cook tells us that we should track down the criminals to their lair. Get the guy where he lives. But, he then stops short of pursuing the argument to its end, to where one would find the mastermind, not just his goons and patsies. He tells us to look at the details of examples of ordinary discourse in order to find out what words really mean, as though if we just looked at the evidence laid on the ground at the crime scene, we’d be able to determine the guilty party. He does not, in doing that, allow for the possibility and likelihood that the evidence pointing to the idea that language is a conceptual scheme was planted. It’s a ruse.
Let me get back to Alexander and his sword.
The idea that language is a conceptual scheme depends on the argument that language is at bottom a matter of logical arguments and rhetorical strategies. The underlying argument that we need to evaluate, then, is this one about how to deal with controversies. The assumption is that one of if not the main task of language is to resolve controversies. And so, language as a matter of logic and rhetoric is to controversies as Alexander’s sword was to the Gordian Knot. I think this is a reasonable comparison which is supported by the anecdotal factoid that Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher.
The rejection of philosophical arguments like empiricism, its claims, and attendant ideas, does not, therefore, involve the methods of empiricism, it’s appeal to objective standards, for example, in the mistaking the meanings of words determined by the details of examples of ordinary discourse. This method reminds us too much of what a verification method was supposed to do for us. If it’s not verified by the real meanings of words found in our examples, then cast it into the flames.
Instead, our evaluation of what I take to be a more rock bottom assumption involves showing that Alexander did not solve the problem of the Gordian Knot. He did not care about where the ropes were tied or how. He just chopped the thing to pieces. In fact, he cheated.
The claim that logic and rhetoric resolve conflicts, or that Alexander’s sword undoes knots, are similar falsities.
We need not go after the patsy and try to discover the clues scattered about in the examples of discourse that have been planted there by the real criminal masterminds of the crime. Instead, we need to expose the fact that swords do not undo knots, they hack through them. We need to expose the fact that logic and rhetoric cannot resolve controversies. They hack right through them, thereby making things worse.
Going after the patsies will not expose and eradicate the mastermind, or in Cook’s terms, help us escape the Universal Dismisser.