June 08, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation VIII

Yes, this is two days' worth of reading.

Augustine, The teacher

The Teacher is a dialogue between Augustine and his sixteen-year-old son, Adeodatus. The dialogue can be divided roughly evenly between two topics: a theory of semantics and epistemology.

The semantic result (8.24.140) is a Wittgensteinian thesis that the meaning of terms is not fixed purely by ostension, but instead is dependent on the context the sentence is uttered -- which I found rather surprising, as Wittgenstein develops his own, meaning is use, semantic theory by criticizing a passage from Augustine's Confessions. By the standards of contemporary analytic philosophy of language, Augustine's argument is quite entertaining: he creates a dilemma by, essentially, running roughshod over the use-mention distinction (see, eg, 5.16.200-6.17.5), and then derives a 'paradox' by appealing to it (8.22.25-8.24.140).

The epistemological result is nicely summed up with the slogan that 'nothing is learned through its signs' (10.33.115). Augustine illustrates by discussion a sarabarae, which is some kind of head scarf: while we can learn through signs that the sign 'sarabarae' means 'a kind of head scarf', we can only learn what these terms, in turn, refer to through other signs; and, eventually, we must have some sense perception of the things to which some basic terms refer in order for meaning to be fixed. (If this is an accurate gloss, it's unclear how it's related to the semantic point.) Similarly, we cannot know that a sarabarae exists unless we actually see it (cf 11.37.20-30).

Augustine then, somehow, concludes that we only recognize the truth of valid arguments by the grace of God, 'illuminating' the philosopher's reason so he can 'discern' the Truth of the arguments. This is, essentially, a Christianized version of Plato's doctrine of recollection.

Augustine, The city of God, book XIX

In my opinion, there is virtually no philosophical content in this reading. After recapitulating a survey of various theories of the Good done by a Neoplatonist called Varro, Augustine criticizes them all as inordinately concerned with material, temporal goods of the world (including the life of contemplation) rather than the eternal peace of Christian Heaven and God's divine authority. Augustine's (rather Gnostic) belief that the material world corrupts the pure soul comes through time and again, but is never really argued for.

Anselm (and Gaunilo), the ontological argument, from the Proslogion

Anselm's (in)famous ontological argument (though it was not known by this name until at least the early Modern period) is one of the most seminal texts in the history of Western philosophy. Entire books have been written over the argument and its successors, and whole theories of logic have been created to, more or less, deny the validity of the argument. Surprisingly, the argument in its original form is not much more than one medium-length paragraph. Unsurprisingly, the argument is incredibly complicated to state in a perspicacious fashion; rather than try my hand, I'm simply going to link to Stephen Dumont's fantastic summary (30-6), which also covers the objections from Gaunilo and Anselm's replies.

Abailard, selection from the Logica 'ingredientibus'

The title of the book is something like 'logic for beginners', though I could be misremembering. The selection covers Abailard's attack on realism -- in this case referring to realism about universals. Again, Stephen Dumont's notes (41-7, which includes a historical summary) do a better job of summarizing Abailard's incredibly complicated arguments than I'm going to attempt here. Dumont, however, leaves off what I find to be the most interesting aspect of Abailard's positive theory of universals: the 'qualities' realists ascribe to universals (their incorporeality, purity, 'bareness' and 'aloneness') are, according to Abailard, due to the epistemic status of universal terms, they way they refer, 'confusedly', to multiple individuals at once. Thus, 'human' refers to all those individuals who are human by representing what is common to all those individuals in a way that is not proper to them. On Abailard's sort of nominalism, then, the metaphysical debate simply disappears -- and disappearing metaphysics is my favourite magic trick.

Ghazali, selection from The incoherence of the philosophers

For a post-Humean sceptic like myself, Ghazali is a blast to read. While Ghazali is motivated in his criticisms of Avicenna and the other Aristotelean Islamic philosophers on religious grounds, the actual content of some of his criticisms is eerily reminiscent of the more familiar but later Hume (or, possibly not, as there may be a line of intellectual descent from Ghazali to Hume through a few of the Mediaevals). In particular, Ghazali gives a debilitating critique of the philosophers' account of causation as necessary connection between events, eg, the touching of fire to paper and the combustion of the latter: this connection cannot be perceived empirically, so we merely perceive the conjunction of the two events; and we do not know that God will uphold this connection in the future, but merely believe it based on habit. And 'habit' even shows up in translation.

The obvious difference between Hume and Ghazali is also worth noting. Hume is a thoroughgoing sceptical empiricist and anti-dogmatist, and his positive theory of causation begins and ends with habit; while Ghazali is, as mentioned above, motivated by his faith, and his account of causation is, ultimately, an occasionalist one: the connection between burning match and burning sheet is not necessary because God is the sole primary cause of the latter, and could freely choose for the sheet not to ignite.

Total pages read: 744

Interesting philosophical link: What good is philosophy?

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