Archive for August, 2007

Essentialism in Philosophy and Biology

UPDATE (6-8-09): I have a new, and better post up about philosophy, essentialism, and population thinking. Read this one if you must, but my most recent thoughts are here.

In the second paragraph of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume describes philosophy as a field in the throes of essentialism. I mean essentialism in a sense parallel to how it is used in philosophy of biology; Hume describes it as a search for “original principles” rather then a search for the absolute essence or form of a being, but I think he is describing something very similar in origin. Both ideas have the same platonic origin, and it makes sense that this origin would hold far more sway in philosophy than biology. After all, Plato wasn’t much of a biologist, but nobody can argue against his philosophical influence.

An answer to essentialism in philosophy can be found in many places prior to Hume, although I think Nietzsche was the first to write with the goal of an explicit and comprehensive refutation of essentialism. Although Nietzsche wrote very powerfully, essentialism in philosophy is still very much alive and well. It seems to me, then, that philosophy can learn from how biology rejected essentialism and have since been operating without it.

Perhaps this comparison would help calm those who would cry that, “if philosophy is not after original causes, then what is it after?” After all, biology has flourished since the debate over essentialism has largely closed. Biologists also don’t seem to see its demise as some sort of postmodern obfuscation. If anything, biology has operated with a more clear and transparent conceptual framework since essentialist thinking was thrown out.

Although I have only limited experience reading Heidegger, I think that he represents a transformation of essentialism in philosophy. His work stands in contrast to Nietzsche’s in that he addresses essentialism as a concept which has been ambiguous in the history of philosophy, one which he wants to make transparent. Rather than reject essentialism, Heidegger seeks to change it into something for analytic study.

In his “Introduction to Metaphysics” Heidegger famously outlines the question of why there is being at all, instead of nothing. To thoroughly investigate the question, he first dedicates himself to clarifying its meaning. In this way he is attempting something similar to Darwin’s work of clarifying the meaning of affinity in biology. Rather than leave ideas like “natural and essential” as ambiguous terms in the definition of affinity, or terms with definitions that included the supernatural, Darwin described members of a taxon as similar because of common descent (a more eloquent explanation of this can be found on pg. 209 of Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought). Darwin was pursuing an explanation of an essential question, and answered it in way owing nothing to the supernatural and capable of further investigation. Heidegger’s work reflects the pursuit of an essential question in a similar manner.

The debate over essentialist thought in philosophy is very different from the similar debate in biology, but I think one can learn from the other. Essentialism in philosophy is a more complex idea with many more possibilities for transformation or refutation than it was in biology, but I can’t help thinking that philosophy as a field would benefit from a closer examination of the concept in philosophy of biology.

And who knows? Maybe I’m the person to do it.

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August 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm 3 comments

Haack, Bayesian? pt. 2

By now I’ve finished the second chapter of Evidence and Inquiry, and I think gathered some material for a Foundherentist support of Bayesianism. One of Haack’s prime objections to Lewis’ formulation of foundationalism is that he demands certainty in order for a belief to be justified. Repeatedly, however, Haack declares that beliefs only need to be justified to “some degree”.

“A’s belief that p cannot be justified to any degree, non-relatively, unless, eventually, the chain ends with a belief or beliefs which is or are justified to some degree independently of further beliefs. But it is not required that the basic belief or beliefs eventually reached be completely justified independently of any further beliefs.” (Haack, 43)

This is the primary reason why foundherintism beats out foundationalism as a coherent epistimological system. While I haven’t yet investigated Haack’s other writings for the same Bayesian thread, this doesn’t seem like a bad line of inquiry to pursue. Also, Haack is so precise in her definition of terms (and so critical of others’ lack of precision, as in her somewhat sarcastic critique of Lewis use of terms on 38) that I doubt it’s a coincidence that she phrases her argument with “to some degree”.

August 7, 2007 at 12:03 am Leave a comment

Haack, Bayesian?

If anyone needed evidence that I try to make as many connections as possible between different readings, this blog would be a smoking gun. Todays philosophy mash-up comes from the beginning of the second chapter of Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology. As usual, I need to read more of the book, and more of Haack’s other writings, before I can fully flesh out my idea. At this point, however, it seems to me that Haack’s foundherentism may be very sympathetic to Bayesian theories of confirmation.

I wrote a paper this past semester on Clark Glymour’s take on Bayesianism, and was generally sympathetic to his criticism. It seems altogether too subjective a system for something which is supposed to establish whether or not evidence confirms an idea (or perhaps, is justified in believing an idea based on evidence). My views on Bayesianism will probably be fleshed out further on this blog at a later time. Like most of the things I post about.

While I don’t like Bayesian ideas, I do think that Foundherentism has something to it… it will be interesting to see if 1) the correlation between Foundherentism to Bayesianism has more to it and 2) if I look more or less favorably on Bayesian ideas following my reading of Haack.

August 6, 2007 at 5:34 pm Leave a comment

Pascal, Transcendentalist? pt.2

After reading more of the Pensees, I suppose my idea of Pascal as a would-be transcendentalist if it weren’t for dominant social factors of the sixteenth century is more of a stretch than is realistic. Or at least, that’s what I was thinking for most of the night. Then, I found another passage which hinted at a transcendentalist thought and I’m right back into thinking it a feasible project.

The first glimmerings of my idea that Pascal and Thoreau could be compared came about, as I mentioned before, because of the similarity in style between the Pensees and Thoreau’s journals. But the idea that Pascal might have been a transcendentalist came about in reading the early sections of the Pensees, when Pascal focuses on distraction and wretchedness. Pascal argues that, if man is so wretched that he must distract himself from the present, then he would be the worst kind of fool not to accept the divine.

It is that focus on the moment which first gave me the idea that Pascal might be a transcendentalist. Thoreau has a similar focus on the moment, and I think a similar attitude towards the things Pascal deems “distraction”. But where Pascal sees living in the moment as revealing how wretched man is, Thoreau sees it (in true, founding transcendentalist style) as the only way to link his subjective experience with a universal truth.

Why not claim that the time was right for one to think the way he did and not the other?

August 3, 2007 at 10:19 am Leave a comment

Results, Conclusions, and Underdetermination

I was reading Longino’s “The Fate of Knowledge” today, and I finally think that I have a good grasp on how to use the term “underdetermination”. It was being used in a comparison between sociologists and philosophers of science. The idea that many people in the SSK field have is that the conclusions scientists draw are underdetermined by the results, meaning that the results alone do not lead towards the conclusions drawn. This is a deceptively controversial statement, I guess, because it opens the door for the number of social factors which sociologists declare affect the conclusions of scientists. If there is any underdetermination at all, then other factors must enter into the equation which produces a conclusion.

This doesn’t seem like a very good term. The problem with “underdetermination” is that it introduces a normative element to its subject. If conclusions are underdetermined by results, it is implied that results should be the only factor involved in the drawing of a conclusion. That doesn’t seem right to me; the results of a given study need a context in order for any conclusion to be drawn. Otherwise, the average scientific paper could skip the “conclusion” or “discussion” or whatever and leave off at the “results” section. The idea behind the word “underdetermination” is sound, but I wish the word had a better frame.

August 2, 2007 at 1:24 am 2 comments

Pascal, Transcendentalist?

Pascal’s Pensees and Thoreau’s journals are easy things to compare. They have a similar style (the editor of The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, Odell Shephard, remarks in the introduction that Thoureau could be considered the American master of the Pensee), and they were both largely written by scientists/naturalists on philosophical topics.

I plan to do more work on this, but Pascal also seems to waver between transcendentalist thought and empirical thought in a way similar to Thoreau. Thoreau’s transcendentalism was more explicit because it wasn’t tied to religion, but the worldview of Thoreau’s time was increasingly acceptant of attitudes critical of religion. Pascal’s world was largely governed by the Catholic church, and his heavy involvement in religion may have made his views on transcendentalism more difficult to vocalize.

More on this later…

August 1, 2007 at 12:34 pm Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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