Friday, April 28, 2006

the working skeleton of all our thought

Here is Searle on science v. art and social sciences, and you can see immediately why this kind of thing makes Midgley crazy. He's talking about how tough it is to explain minds in a physical universe, and this comes under "Psychological and Social Explanation":
One of the most disappointing features of the intellectual history of the last hundred years was the failure of the social sciences to achieve the rich explanatory power characteristic of the physical and biological sciences. In sociology, or even economics, we do not have the kind of established knowledge structures that we have in physics and chemistry. Why not? Why have the methods of the natural sciences not had the kind of payoff in the study of human behavior and human social relations that they have had in the physical sciences?

I say "science v. art" because there's no mention of art as richly, powerfully explanatory of human behavior and society. Nor do I see any mention of art (of any kind) or artists in the index. Searle might recognize this use of art in his other writings; I don't know. But I'll point out that the last hundred years saw the rise of a new kind of novel, the psychological drama, which is centered in the protagonist's minutely rendered consciousness and has crowded out nearly every other kind of story (to the exhaustion and irritation of many). The yield of modern archetypes includes Rabbit Angstrom, Stephen Daedalus, Yossarian, Holden Caulfield, among many others. A fictional archetype is a human model, widely recognized as true.

While novels aren't explanatory in the sense that you can nab a random passenger off the subway and use Holden Caulfield to explain how she'll behave, they do show, psychologically, how these types come to be in a mess, what the mess means, how they try to get out, and what that means. Psychologically, socially, philosophically, -ally. While allowing other, unwritten meanings.

Anyway. I think Midgley's cane-thumping reply to Searle's question would be that we already have impressive knowledge structures in nonphysical science, usually derided as folk wisdom. Here she is on that:
Consciousness is not something rare and exotic found only in experimental subjects or in scientific observers. Nor does it only show us a few special phenomena such as colours and dreams and hallucinations. It is not primarily an observation-station. It is the crowded scene of our daily lives. And the main dramas going on in it do not concern just observation or perception but quite complex, dynamic currents of feeling and efforts to act. If we mean to do justice to this complexity, we have to take seriously the rich, well-organised language which we use about it every day. That language does not just express an amateur 'folk-psychology'. It is the indispensable working skeleton of all our thought -- including, of course, our thought about science.

-p. 85, Science and Poetry

I think she'd also point out that in the last hundred years the social sciences have been deformed by the political power of modern physical sciences, with social scientists trying to do away with any smell of subjectivity. Often grotesquely.

One more shock in this Searle book, so far:
The underlying impulse of functionalism was to answer the question, Why do we attribute mental states [like pain, or the conviction that Denver is the capital of Colorado] to people at all? And the answer was, we say they have such things as beliefs and desires because we want to explain their behavior.

Which is not, to my mind, a usual answer in art. There are questions about behavior in art, yes, but there are also questions of experience. What it feels like to be human, what it might be like for someone else (and through that, ourselves), or for ourselves in another life. I don't know whether Searle is being fair here to functionalists. If he is, I'd say it's a good reason for artists to go have lunch with philosophers.

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