Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Who's On First?

At Siris, Brandon has a nice post responding to one of the claims by David Chalmers, Alva Noë, and Ralph Wedgewood, in the comments to this post by Jason Stanley (the one I mentioned in my post on the 6th Carnival). Here are the comments to which Brandon is replying:

Chalmer's wrote: "While there are still interesting connections to the rest of philosophy, one couldn't really say that philosophy of language is serving as "first philosophy" in the way it did for the philosophical community circa Russell, Quine, Kripke, and Davidson. But likewise, philosophy of mind hasn't taken over as "first philosophy" either. Probably that's a good thing, since philosophy is all the richer without a "first philosophy".

Noë then added, "There are no first philosophies."

To these, Brandon replied:
I think Aristotle is absolutely right that there are only two real candidates for first philosophy. If metaphysics is not first philosophy, physics (in the broad sense of all the inquiries into the physical world) is. If we can go beyond physics (in the broad sense) in any real way, metaphysics must be first philosophy. Making logic or philosophy of language first philosophy would be committing oneself to the claim that all knowledge is subordinate to language or logic, in the sense that the principles of logic or philosophy of language contain, in a robust sense, all other knowledge.
It is really quite bizarre to say that there is no first philosophy; for in fact everyone who says so actually does privilege either metaphysics or physics. (The closest I have ever seen to not doing so is the occasional attempt to make ethics first philosophy; but this, in fact, confuses ethics with its metaphysical or physical foundations. Whether its foundations are metaphysical or physical depends on which is first philosophy. Given that ethics is often made to grow directly out of whatever one regards as first philosophy, one rough-and-ready way to determine which a person holds, in fact, is to ask what they regard as the ultimate set of facts to which ethics, as a philosophical discipline, has to answer.)
On the first point, about whether the philosophy of language could be "first philosophy," I think that for some time (more than 50 years), that's really how it's been seen. For many on the analytic side of things in the 20th century, epistemology (or what later came to be called epistemology) replaced metaphysics as first philosophy, either after Descartes or after Kant, because knowledge became prior to metaphysics (the "prolegomena to any future metaphysics") in the order of inquiry. All metaphysics had to be based on an analysis of knowledge and truth (which was a property of knowledge, or a relationship between knowledge and things, with knowledge being priveleged, from our end, in that relationship). Philosophy of language then replaced epistemology, because all questions about knowledge became questions about language, reference, meaning, or truth (which is now a property of propositions or statements).

The interesting thing about this is that there's an obvious, and somewhat strange metaphysics underlying it all. When philosophy of language becomes "first philosophy," it requires some strange metaphysical property, called truth, which mediates between statements (or knowers) and things. Thus, as Brandon notes, there still is a first philosophy in one of the senses that Aristotle would have recognized, but its hidden, bundled up in the endless attempt to avoid any statements that sound like the old transcendental metaphysics by only saying things about language (or previously, the forms of experience).

This leads us to Brandon's second point, about the strangeness of claims that there is no "first philosophy" today. I've heard this claim a lot from analytic philosophers, and I've never really understood it either. I'm not quite sure what Chalmers means by it, though he seems to be saying that there's no one methodologically first area of philosophy (i.e., you don't have to go through the philosophy of language to get to philosophy of mind, or vice versa). While Brandon's right that there are obviously metaphysical foundations to both philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, I don't think either Chalmers or Noë is trying to say otherwise. They seem to be viewing "first philosophy" as a statement about the order of inquiry. This is what Brandon thinks as well, as he concludes his post with:
I suspect, of course, that what was really in mind wasn't 'first philosophy' but something like 'primary organon' (it makes no sense to say that philosophy has no primary organon, either, but if we substitute 'primary instrument' for 'first philosophy' some of the other statements make much more sense). Whatever was meant, it surely could be expressed in some better way than absconding with a phrase that is already perfectly serviceable for its own purposes.
This seems to be conformed by Wedgewood's comments. He wrote:
Unfortunately for me, given that I am primarily a metaethicist and epistemologist rather than a philosopher of language, I think that there is a good sense in which philosophy of language can claim to be the closest thing that there is to "first philosophy". At least I can't see any dialectically effective starting point for metaethics and epistemology other than an investigation of our ethical and epistemic discourse. In my view, philosophy of language is not first in order of explanation - far from it - but at least in metaethics and epistemology, it is methodologically first (it has the "first word", as Austen said, even if it certainly doesn't have the "last word"). This is because very often, the least controversial data that a philosopher can appeal to is that he or she is strongly inclined to accept certain utterances in certain circumstances.
In the end, what this looks like to me is interdisciplinary bickering. Jason Stanley claims, as I imagine many philosophers of language do, and I know many once did, that philosophy of language is or should be the starting point of philosophical inquiry, especially into questions of mind. This is followed by two philosophers of mind, Chalmers and Noë, saying, "No, we don't need you guys. We can make it on our own." Then there's a little back and forth, and we're back where we started. My own view on this little debate is that both sides are right, and wrong. The philosophy of language can certainly benefit from what we have learned about things like perception (as J. L. Austin made very clear, I think, in Sense and Sensibilia), concepts, the way we process language, and other things that are traditionally seen as part of the philosophy of mind, while the philosophy of mind can benefit from understanding the language with which we talk about issues of mind.