Displacements of, Not Solutions to, Philosophical Problems: A Quick Primer

A close, critical reader is worth his weight in gold. I am reminded of this whenever I share a bit of writing with someone who proceeds to clear up confusions deftly and rapidly, and sometimes, represents my position better than I had managed.

In part of a rough piece of writing tucked away somewhere, I quote Quine as saying,

Am I the same person I was in my youth? Or in my mother’s womb? These are not questions about the concept of identity. These are questions about the concept of person or the word ‘person’, which like most words goes vague in contexts where it has not been needed. When need does arise in hitherto unneeded contexts, we adopt a convention, or receive a disguised one from the Supreme Court.  (W.V. O. Quine, From Stimulus to Science, Harvard University Press, page 139, 1998.)

And then go on to say myself:

Here Quine suggests philosophical disputes can be resolved in pragmatic-legal fashion….Skepticism about Quine’s thesis suggests legal solutions to philosophical problems are mere conveniences rife with ad-hocism: philosophical questions need philosophical answers, not legal fiats. But this picture of the relationship between philosophy and law, and indeed, of philosophy itself, appears severely impoverished. A philosophical solution to a philosophical puzzle is not a deliverance delivered from on high; it is offered by human beings situated in very particular social, political and economic contexts. The fabric for those contexts is, very often, spun out of legal arrangements.

It seems then law’s practices and language feed back into philosophical arguments and help explicate, round out, and entrench many of their concepts. Indeed, theories of the expressive impact of law suggest legal decision making contributes to a solution of philosophical problems; these decisions are not ad-hoc, at least not any more than any other kind of philosophical solution is. They proceed by argument, they provide reasons, and they have empirical impact, which influences future philosophical speculation…Philosophical disputes are not settled by philosophers alone; what people and social institutions bring about help make up philosophers’ minds about the correct solution to a philosophical problem.

This little passage didn’t seem quite right to me (especially my language of ‘solutions to philosophical problems’) and my friend Chandra Kumar, in an email, captured the problem quite nicely:

Seems to me the moral of Quine’s remarks is the Wittgensteinian one that philosophical problems get dissolved, not solved, when you contextualize words and therefore concepts into social practices. We come to see that what looked like a real metaphysical puzzle was really based on an ahistorical blindness rooted in misunderstanding the way our language was/is actually working….[What you are talking about is] displacements of those problems. Aren’t you actually just changing the subject (justifiably so)?  When you show how developments in legal thinking and practice have implications for how we think about…‘personhood’…you [are providing] an historical account of how we have come to think of responsibility and personhood….[W]hat you’re doing is making a point against those who think these conceptions are rooted in something metaphysical:  you’re showing how they’re actually rooted in evolving cultural and legal systems/practices, and get their meaning and ‘bite’ from these practices.

Chandra is right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s