Scepticism, Humor and the Archipelago of Knowledge

  • Miguel Orellana Benado
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


For the domain of practice which albeit vaguely may, nevertheless, usefully be called analytic philosophy, few twentieth century experiences can rival in significance the failure of logical empiricism, the intellectual heir to nineteenth century Positivism.2 Positivism held that natural science, a perfect marriage of observation and theory, constituted the ultimate source of all true knowledge, as well as the grounds of its own legitimacy and unity. Logical empiricism was perhaps the last (most rigorous and heroic) attempt to achieve the ancient hope of demonstrating that the capacity to know is the essence of human nature. From this it would follow that such a capacity constitutes the basic explanatory dimension of a unified view of human nature and its world.3 In other words, that the capacity to know lies at the center of human nature.4


Human Nature Natural Kind Sense Experience Logical Empiricism Global Account 
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  1. 2.
    My use of this term here could be questioned. Why was the term not defined? But the purpose of this discussion is not to elucidate the correct analysis of “domain of practice.” Rather vaguely, some domains of practice have been called “forms of life” or “life-forms”; but things which are not domains of practice have also be referred to with this phrase; some domains of practice have been also called “communities” or “socieites” or “traditions” or “schools of thought.” (A few more illustrations of how I use this term are given below.) By “analytic philosophy” I mean the domain of practice which is deeply indebted to the substantial contributions of Gottlob Frege, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, its founding fathers. To this tradition also belongs the Vienna Circle, the Oxford ordinary language philosophy, and their incrustations in the pragmatist school, which is chiefly located in (the United States of) America. Earlier, in the history of this tradition, it was plausible to hold that it shared a common core of topics: language, logic, mathematics, physics and truth. More recently it would be hard to attempt to ellucidate its extension in terms of topics. Minimally, one would have to claim that the practitioners in this domain share only a style or, perhaps, a sensibility. But this is a question we need not enter here. For metaphilosophy of analytic philosophy, vide Hao Wang, Beyond Analytic Philosophy. Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Rudolph Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Auguts Comte, System de philosophie positive. Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    From a pictorial point of view, the notion is perhaps best illustrated by the Christian conception of a universe with God at its center. Here the ultimate principle of all explanation or Law-giver is a Creator of things with purposes and of the (only and one) natural law that governs both how they do behave (what we would call, “laws of science”) and how they ought to behave (what we might call, “laws of humanity”). In the logical empiricist-or Positivist-doctrine the ultimate principle of explanation is a science which has been unified through a logical reduction of key notions, theories, laws of nature to experience, mathematics and logic. Mark Sainsbury, Russell. Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic and, also his The Central Questions of Philosophy. Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    By saying that a research project in philosophy failed I do not imply that following it necessarily was a waste of time and effort. We must learn from our failures.Google Scholar
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    Paul Feyerabend, Against Method. Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    What exactly falls within the province of the philosophy of science is a problem analagous to the older dispute about what exactly falls within science (Popper’s Demarcation Problem). To be sure there are various conceptions of what counts as philosophy of science. Narrowly construed, the philosophy of science is the examination of internal problems concerning theories, laws, probabilities, truth and reality; the tasks of logical reduction or logical reconstruction, perhaps questions related to human understanding. Construed widely, on the other hand, the subject streches to sociological questions about power, social evaluation of technologies, the philosophy of technology and even, the analysis of the concept of development (both at the individual and at the social levels). For the narrow construal, vide W. H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science and for the wider, vide José Sanmartín, Los nuevos redentores. Google Scholar
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    Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Google Scholar
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    For the ethical consequences of such naturalism vide Peter Singer on the morality of our relations to animals.Google Scholar
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    In other words, we have learned that from an explanatory point of view, we cannot keep the assumption that a single ultimate explanatory principle is enough to do justice to the account of human nature and its world. Diverse systems can be built, according to the practices that prevail in the different domains. The views of human nature and its world which they give rise to (perhaps not all of them, but at least some) cannot be dismissed as ridiculous within the domain of practice constituted by the analytic tradition. Human nature does contain a sense of humor and its world does contain funny-ha-ha objects. Therefore, it is not clear ahead of inquiry what is ridiculous or comic or funny-la-la within the philosophical domain of practice. I have discussed some of these issues in my D. Phil thesis, A Philosophy of Humor (University of Oxford, 1985).Google Scholar
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    Perhaps for certain other explanatory purposes, it might prove useful to treat each discipline as a collection of domains of practice with say, a family resemblance. For the concept of “family resemblance,” vide, Ludwig Wittgestein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    For a decisive argument against the inteligibility of a complete incommensurability between what he calls “conceptual schemes”, vide donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” But Davidson’s line is not decisive against partial incommensurability of “conceptual schemes.” And, arguably, rational grounds for someone in, say, Chemistry to consider the field of his practice as possessed of mutually irreducible differences with the rest of natural science.Google Scholar
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    On the other hand, the possibility is also open that different domains of practice might interact. Consequently, there must be avenues in which the knowledge which results from such a constant interaction be stored. And, jumping ahead into section III, here the temptation is to consider the comic mode of presentation as something upon which the concept of repressed knowledge might be developed. For a discussion of the repressed theory of the unconscious, vide my “La teoria reprimide del inconciente,” Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofia (1987).Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    The concept of logos is intimately linked with the possibility of understanding the universe. It is because there is logos or order in the universe, and because human nature can duplicate it, that the universe can be intelligible. Notice that this intuition does not demand that there be just one dimension of order. But coupling the Greek logos with the idea that there must be just one dimension of order or one ultimate principle of explanation is the specifically Western combination. What is the justification of Jewish monotheism is a fascinating question. But here I will only say that there must be connections worth exploring between the idea of a single God and the idea of a Chosen People; for the latter is a first step in the articulation of the intuition that human individuals are all equal (in this case, equally chosen). I have benefited from discussing this idea with Sergio Martinez, vide Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. Google Scholar
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    Unless anlaytic philosophy can appeal to such motivation (vide section II for th distinction between the motivation and the argumentative strategy)the construction of a global (if not unified) view of human nature and its world, to practice it becomes a purely technical exercise, in the pejorative sense, disconnected from reality. Clearly we can no longer hold with honesty to an outdated Scientific Conception of Philosophy according to which it counts, almost as a definitionthat philosophy is an activity continuous with science. Moore had it right to start with. Philosophy is a human activity. Something that, to be sure, Wittgenstein was also aware in his therapeutic metapor. But, still, science cannot be unified. And, therefore, the proponent of a Scientific Conception is open to a straightforward but devastating question. With which science is philosophy supposed to be continuous? Of course there is a sense in which we can still hold on to the phrase “philosophy is continuous with science.” But we might as well hold, perhaps with a firmer hand that philosophy is continuous with science.“ But we might as well hold, perhaps with all activities through which human nature seeks to know itself and to know the world in which it lives. Therefore, the future of (at least, the analytic metaphilosophy of) analytic philosophy depends on the development of what might be called the Argumentative Conception of Philosophy. This would be a framework (built in the strictest analytic style) that recongizes as a motivation of philosophy to gain an improved grasp on a global (if not unifed) view of human nature and its world. And yet, the Argumentative Conception of Philosophy is still the metaphilosophical elucidation of a purely formal concept of philosophy. The task is to interpret a model in which the philosophical activity proceeds by constructing a global view of human nature and its world based on the rational exploration of the argumentative field along two lines: 1) identifying the main poles of intuitions about a specific philosophical problem, or theme or question and 2) constructing argumentative strategies which reveal the conceptual connections between them. For some details on the ACP, vide my “Reports of the Chief Examiner in Philosophy” for May 90, Nov. 90, May 91 and Nov. 91 in Chief Examiners Reports,International Baccalaureat Organization, Examination Office, Cardiff.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    There is a distinction between saying that a specific philosophical program failed and saying that embarking on it was a waste of time and effort. As my remarks about logical empiricism illustrate, while I claim that it failed, I certainly do not hold that it was a waste of time and effort. One cannonical form of philosophical argument is to pretend that many have failed to solve a specific problem which one has succeeded in solving. Whether an interpretation of the history of philosophy which is useful for philosophical purposes also makes good sense as history of philosophy ideas is another matter altogether. An example is Kant’s intepretation of what his Locke and his Leibniz were trying to do. One question is whether Kant’s Locke is Locke’s Locke and Kant’s Leibniz is Leibniz’s Leibniz. Another question is whether, by pretending that Locke and Leibniz failed to solve Kant’s problem (by using “the cannonical form of philosophical argument”), Kant succeeds in presenting a philosophically valuable position. It could be argued that the standard contrast between empiricism and rationalism, for the purposes of the history of philosophy, is not as tight as undergraduates are led to believe. (For a convincing case study of Leibniz and Hume, vide Hidé Ishiguro, “Constant Conjunction vs Pre-established Harmony.”) But it would not follow that assimilating the contrast in that way might not be useful for certain argumentative purposes,say, in order to understand Kant or, at least, someone’s Kant.Google Scholar
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    The motivation behind a philosophical position and its argumentative itinerary could be put in the following terms: the former is shown by the latter. For the contrast between saying something and showing it vide Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophische Untersuchungen.Google Scholar
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    Although Ethics can be thought of as the theory of the moral action, it is equally legitimate to conceive it in terms of the account of human nature. For, surely, the diversity of ways in which a moral human life can be lived must somehow appear in the elucidation of what is or is not what one ought to do in a given context. Brad Hooker told me that this is a Kantian perspective.Google Scholar
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    René Descarte, Metaphysical Meditations.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Both Locke’s and Carnap’s argumentative strategies would be part of what I would call the empiricist argumentative itinerary.Google Scholar
  21. 22. For the notion of human individuals as members of a natural kind, vide David Wiggins, Sameness and Substance. Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism. Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    This point could also have been made in terms of Wittgenstein’s “bedrock” metaphor by distinguishing between beliefs and bedrock beliefs; vide Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty. Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    It could be said that an insufficient level of generality reveals that we are too close to the object while an excessive level of generality revels that we are too close to the subject. What, after all, is the ideal relation between subject and object in an Argumentative Conception of Philosophy? Answer: it is something like the Ideal Relationship. This is to say, an arrangement in which both partners remain through all the motions, at the right distance, neither too close, not too far away from each other. (I owe this observation to M. M. Bick.)Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    This is not only the case with the philosopy of humor. The medical account of human nature may or may not make something out of the distinction drawn in ordinary language (in English but not in Spanish) between fingers and toes.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    For a discussion which makes this mistake, vide Mary Collins Swabey Comic Laughter.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    For a discussion which makes that mistake, vide John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously.Google Scholar
  28. 29.
    In other words, the argumentative itinerary of the PP model begins with a realist outlook (say, the assumption that there are comic objects which may or may not seem comic to a perceiver but really are comic). But it ends on an altogether different plane, an idealist account of the human activities (and their purposes, nature and taxonomy). The idealist account explains why such objects exist; what function their exchange in human intercourse has; and how humor connects with human nature and its world. Within an Argumentative Conception of Philosophy such a dialectical pirouette is perfectly acceptable. For within the argumentative perspective, realism and idealism are argumentatively connected poles of intuitions which may or may not belong to the same plane. At any rate, whether they are or not is a good question to be asked. The philosophically relevant questions no longer remain whether, say, Peter is a realist or an idealist. (After all, nobody has ever been either of these. At least not in the sense in which one could ask whether Peter is or is not bald.) Rather, the hard but irresistible philosophical questions become matters of style: For what purposes? To what extent? Under what circumstances? At what stage in course of the argumentative strategy?… and, with what vigour is one option preferred over the other?… and why. Google Scholar
  29. 30.
    Vide my “La teoría reprimida del inconciente,” Revista Latinoamericana de Filosfía (Marzo 1987).Google Scholar
  30. 31.
    Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea.Google Scholar
  31. 32.
    David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth.Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self.Google Scholar
  33. 34.
    Perhaps the point can be put as follows: all human beings share in the same (human) nature but they all have different identities.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    Miguel de Unamuno, El sentimento tragico de la vida.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    An individual’s identity is more specific than the intersection of the domains of practice to which the individual belongs. Two individuals could, in principle, belong to the same domains. But neither the concept of a domains of practice, nor the notion of a form of life, should be interpreted in a purely spatial sense; we are not talking about a group of people who lived long ago and far away.Google Scholar
  36. 37.
    I take it that this is the point of Locke’s remark about his being the task of “underlaborer” of scientists such as the physician Sydenham, the optic Huygens and the physicist Newton, vide John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Google Scholar
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    I mean this in the sense of the Absolute Conception of Reality vide Bernard Williams Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry.Google Scholar
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    David Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth. Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • Miguel Orellana Benado

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