July 18, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation XVIII

Moore, `The refutation of idealism'

GE Moore is the third and final early Analytic philosopher on the reading list.
His fierce attacks on post-Hegelian and neo-Kantian approaches to metaphysics (in the `Refutation') and ethics (in Principia ethica) were highly influential, and are a significant factor in accounting for the disdain with which those philosophers have been regarded in English-speaking countries since the Analytic/Continental split.

Moore's target in the `Refutation' is the Idealist (Berkelean or Hegelean) thesis that esse [existence] is percipi [to be perceived], at least for material things and physical qualities (tables, apples, red and blue, and so on). (Note: I don't speak Latin; that translation is based on Moore's explanation of the terms.) To this end, he presents two arguments. The first is not a direct attack on the thesis -- and Moore bends over backwards to point this out -- but instead goes after the logic of one particular (and, he thinks, almost universally given, by Idealists) argument for the thesis. The second is Moore's own account of perception, and amounts to an argument for direct realism; this section is rather more obscure than the former, but we'll try dealing with that when we get there.

The argument Moore attacks in his first argument is presented by him most cogently as an appeal to `organic wholes'. It seems to run, in a paradigm case, as follows:

Consider the experience of seeing some yellow (say, looking at a notepad or a banana). While we might abstract the yellow from this particular experience, it would be a mistake to abstract yellow from experience entirely; for, even if yellow were some objective quality of the object in question, that yellow stands in a particular relationship to the subjective yellow in one's mind, and the two together form a certain organic whole that is, in fact, yellow. That is, yellow per se has an inextricably subjective quality, and hence the esse of yellow is percipi, its existence as a perception in some mind.

Moore's response is that this talk of `organic wholes' is simply nonsense, and a transparent ploy -- like a Hegelian denial of the law of contradiction -- for the Idealist to deliberately equivocate between two distinct definitions of yellow (as a property of objects and as a subjective sense-datum) while recognizing that the distinction is valid.

For the second argument, Moore lays out an account of perception -- in particular, sensation -- that he seems to believe is fairly modest and commonsensical, something Idealists are bound to accept; this account is then shown to be at odds with the esse is percipi distinction. On Moore's account, an act of perception has at least two identifiable components: the `object', `that in which one [sensation] differs from another', and `consciousness', `that which all have in common -- that which makes them sensations or mental facts' (446). Thus, for example, in the sensation of blue, there is the object, `blueness', and consciousness, whatever it is that is not particular to blue, but makes blue into a sensation; while, in the sensation yellow, there will be `yellowness' and that same consciousness. These terms are to be left deliberately vague -- Moore doesn't want to prejudice the theory by pinning down precisely what `the object' and `consciousness' are supposed to be.

But what Moore emphatically denies is that this is the matter/form model of cognition of the Mediaeval reading of De anima. Neither blue (the sensation) nor blueness (the sense-datum) is some sort of structure imposed on the mental substance of consciousness. Like Husserl, Moore believes that this model is radically inadequate as an account of intentionality: the mental substance arranged bluewise has no more intentionality directed towards the blue object than the chunk of marble arranged Mercurywise has intentionality directed towards Mercury; yet intentionality is what grounds the designation of `mental' at all. Thus, Moore concludes, that mysterious `consciousness' is actually identical to intentionality.

Recall Aristotle's analogy of the relationship between matter and form as predication: Socrates composition of flesh and bone arranged humanwise `is' predication of the form, is human, of the matter, Socrates' flesh and bone. On my reading, we can do something similar with Moore's account of sensation: the sensation blue is represented as the propositional phrase `directed at blueness' (eg, `my mind is directed at blueness'), and this can be decomposed into the object (the particular sense-datum), blueness, and consciousness or intentionality, directed at; similarly, yellow will be analysed as `directed at yellowness'.

With this account in place, Moore's next step is to point out that every perception always already involves something that is different from the subject having the perception and is separable from the particular experience qua experience, viz, the sense-datum (yellowness, blueness, and so on). (Note that `sense-datum' is a piece of terminology Moore develops later in his career, but I believe it is what he's trying to talk about here.) But then the sense-datum cannot be subjective `in itself', ie, its esse is not percipi. While this does seem to radically contradict our received understanding of `sense-data' (which are not unlike Lockean simple ideas), this is the best reading I can come up with for the following paragraph:

my analysis of sensation has been designed to show \ldots that whenever I have a mere sensation or idea, the fact is that I am then aware of something which is equally and in the same sense not an inseparable aspect of my experience .... `blue' is as much an object, and as little a mere content, of my experience, when I experience it, as the most exalted and independent real thing of which I am ever aware. There is, therefore, no question of how we are to `get outside the circle of our own ideas and sensations'. Merely to have a sensation is already to be outside that circle. It is to know something which is as truly and really not a part of my experience, as anything which I can ever know. (451, emphasis in original)

From this, Moore then somehow argues for direct realism: `I am as directly aware of the existence of material things in space as of my own sensations' (453).

To me, Moore's second argument cries out for comparisons, with Kant's argument in the Refutation of idealism in the first Critique, with Husserl's criticism of the `box-within-a-box' model of consciousness in the fifth of the Logical investigations, and with Heidegger's notion of Dasein, not to mention the sort of `direct realism' held by the latter two. I would, however, not be surprised in the least to learn that virtually no work has been done in this area: the fading but still pervasive biases of the Analytic/Continental split mean few tenured philosophers consider both Moore and Husserl worthwhile.

Husserl, Philosophical investigations, investigation V

In the early twentieth century, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl developed a radical philosophical methodology called `phenomenology' that, especially thanks to Heidegger, is today as fundamental to Continental philosophy as formal logic is to Analytic philosophy. Philosophical investigations is Husserl's first treatise on phenomenology, and is probably his most well-known work. The Investigations cover vast amounts of philosophical territory; our reading focusses on the fifth investigation, which is concerned with intentionality, the structure of the consciousness act, and the relation between subject and object.

Husserl's style is -- like most other native German-speaking philosophers -- dense, highly technical, and incredibly obscure on the first pass. Since this is my own first encounter with Husserl (in primary text; I've read a bit about his philosophy of mathematics and its relationship to Frege's work), the reader is advised to take a look at the entry on Husserl in the Routledge encyclopedia, especially the first two sections.

In the fifth investigation, Husserl's primary project is to elaborate (and criticism) Bretano's characterization of intentionality as `consciousness of something' or `direction upon an object': in a familiar picture, a thought is a mental representation (often, an `image') of some thing out in the world. This is the `box-within-a-box' model: the mind contains the object, which in turn contains its unknowable primary qualities (to borrow from Locke). Like Moore, Husserl argues that this is a thoroughly inadequate characterization of intentionality, though Husserl offers many more (and more sophisticated) inadequacies. Most importantly, Husserl argues that this model causes us to make two disastrous conflations. First, the intentional act or experience is regarded as a thing (the outer box) distinct and separable from its object (the inner box); and, second, the object of the experience is conflated and identified with the externally existing (or possibly not, in the case of, eg, hallucination) referent (the inner box `is' the object, containing its unknowable physical properties).

Husserl's solution to the second problem is to `bracket' the referent of an intentional act: intentionality is not the quality of a thought's being directed at an object, but the quality of a thought's being directed as if at an object. This is Husserl's famous epoché. In a Kantian vein, then, we can characterize Husserl's project as a synthetic, a priori investigation into the necessary conditions for our minds to be intentional.

Regarding the first problem, Husserl argues that the bracketed intentional object is literally constituted as a `concretion" of intentional acts: hence, the intentional object is identified with the intentional acts, not some proper (and hence separable) content of them. While this strikes me as well within the bounds of Kant"s sort of idealism, Husserl characterizes it as a radical direct realism, on the grounds that we have a direct acquaintance with objects qua objects of our knowledge. As with Moore, this begs for a comparison to Kant"s refutation of idealism; but now I would be surprised to find out that such a comparison has not been undertaken. It is also clearly the basis for Heidegger"s analysis of Dasein, the mode of human existence by which we are always already thrown into and involved with (ie, care about) the world that surrounds us: while Husserl does not arrive at the conclusion that our concerns are primarily practical, and only secondarily theoretical, we do see here the claim that objects, not their epistemological sense-data constituents, are primary for our experience. More perspicuously: when I see the banana, my experience is of the banana per se, not its simple ideas, nor even a bundle of its simple ideas (and thus, it seems, Moore parts ways with Moore and Russell).

Interesting philosophical link: A review of Paul Guyer's new collection of essays on Kant

I've finished the reading list. (At least, everything I'm going to read.) The total comes to about 2500 pages in about 6 weeks.
*happy dance*

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