Monday, August 11, 2008

Some Notes on My Recent Philosophical Thinking

I hope to keep this brief, as I'm hungry.

Over the last two months or so, I've been spending much of my free time reading reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. After that, I got to Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. This got me thinking again about the role of philosophy in our larger discourse, and if it still has a meaningful role at all.

I also read Hernando De Soto's The Mystery of Capital. Though it's not a philosophy book, it got me going on an idea for a kind of rough model of philosophical discourse. What got me thinking about that was De Soto's indictment of lawyers and legislators in developing countries. De Soto's main prescription in the book is for political leaders to institutionalize the informal property system of migrants who have flooded the outskirts of most cities in the developing world. Only then, he argues, can the true potential of capital be unleashed to create greater wealth by formalizing property rights and creating a unified system.

Lawyers get in the way, says De Soto, because they insist on maintaining the institutionalized legal system, and trying to extinguish the extralegal systems. They try to impose an outmoded and dysfunctional system over a system that has emerged more organically to meet the real needs of people.

Rorty, channeling Wittgenstein, has a similar critique of philosophers. Rorty argues that philosophy since Decartes has been rooted in vocabulary with origins in notions that philosophers don't accept anymore. I haven't finished the book yet, but he seems to take the radical view that philosophers should abandon all attempts to construct a framework to judge other areas of knowledge (this has been, Rorty claims, the goal of epistemology).

My thought is this: the Rorty's philosophers are like De Soto's lawyers. Taking a cue from De Soto, and if Rorty is right- philosophers should keep this in mind:

We don't fully understand how other areas of knowledge and inquiry work. They don't always arrive at the conclusions we expect (could Newton have anticipated quantum theory?). Thus it's silly to think that we can determine, through philosophical reflection, what the bounds of knowledge are.

That said, constructive contributions from epistemology may still be possible. Just because we don't understand the whole system doesn't mean that we can't point out what seem like contradictions, or possible conclusions that may, thus far, have been overlooked, etc. Discourse, like law, is an emergent phenomenon, and by its nature contributions will happen in unexpected ways. Yet emergent phenomenon still have systematic features, and critiques of and inquiries into those features may bear fruit.

This is all pretty rough, I realize. But I'd rather get it out now and improve on it as I can.

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