This and That on Books
- I got today from the philosophy of physics section of the university library two books which I had been intending to read for a long time: Quantum Mechanics and Experience, by David Albert, and The Philosophy of Physics, by Roberto Torretti. I don't promise book reviews anymore (see below) but they may come anyway if I feel disposed to writing them. I have started Albert's already, and it has the best nontechnical presentation I've ever read of quantum "weirdness" except for Feynman's unforgettable description of the two-slit experiment.
- Last week I borrowed from the samesaid library Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. I was prompted to read it by this discussion Brandon at Siris made of Nagel's The Last Word, in which he mentions my previous review. Brandon spelled out a justification for Nagel's defense of a Platonic faculty of Reason by reference to the philosophy of Malebranche, where emphasis is given to the capacity of the mind to grasp infinities, and this reminded me of what I knew of Kripke's book (and he acknowledged the relation in the comments to the post). So I got Kripke for reading instead of Malebranche, beacuse I find it quite easier to understand a twentieth-century analytic philosopher than a seventeenth century rationalistic one!
I had to return the book to the library already as it was only for one week loan (unlike the two others I got today and indeed most of the books, which can be borrowed for the whole academic year; this is something that never ceases to amaze me used as I am to the zeal with which Argentinian academic libraries keep the books from being borrowed for more than a week at the very most). I made some notes from the section in with Kripke tries to refute a "dispositionalist" account of meaning, and probably will blog these arguments and attempt to respond to them sometime in the following days. Kripke's argument is powerful and unsettling for any theory of mind and meaning. I think a naturalistic theory can answer it, but (for what it's worth) I admit that the answer may have to be counter-intuitive in some respects, so I'm no longer as complacent with the picture of Platonism as a wild "inflating" of commonplace things easily accounted for naturalistically as I was while writing the Nagel review.
- I have read most of J.R.R. Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, which were of course edited and published by his son Christopher Tolkien after his death. They are half-written stories, or in some cases many different incompatible versions of the same story, that cover either aspects of Middle Earth not covered in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, or cover things narrated in them but with much more detail (as the tale of Túrin). As a Tolkien fan I am finding it both a thrilling and a saddening experience. Thrilling because of the possibility to read such things as why exactly Gandalf chose Bilbo as helper to the Dwarves in The Hobbit, or how exactly did the Nazgûl find the Shire to go searching there for the Ring (who would have guessed it was Grima Wormtongue who gave them the tip?). Saddening because of its demystifying effect: Tolkien's books give such a powerful impression of Middle Earth having a sort of autonomous, self-existing and completely coherent reality that it is a bit of a shock to read three or four different accounts of the story of Celeborn and Galadriel, all extracted from Tolkien's notebooks, without any clue as to which was the "correct" or "preferred" one (or if there was one at all). One yearns for an answer to "But which is the REAL story?", and one's realistic self knows all too well that this answer does not exist, despite all our experience with TLOTR and TS leading us irresistibly to believe that all such questions "must" have an answer.
- I don't think I will ever summon the energy to write the full-scale reviews of Ryle's The Concept of Mind or of Webster's Why Freud was Wrong which I rashly promised, so I will take this chance to make some comments on both books.
I can say little original about Ryle's book, which is one of the classics of twentieth-century philosophy. Those who know nothing about it are invited to read this charming presentation by Dennett. Ryle tries, as everyone knows, to refute Cartesian Dualism, the theory that mind and body are two distinct entities, a view he immortally derided as "The Ghost in the Machine". He is most successful in the first part of the book, when he demolishes the old-faishoned kind of psychology whic talks of "intelligence", "reason", "desire", etc. as specific mental processes that occur in the inmaterial realm of the mental. Ryle argues convincingly (and I think he convinced in fact most philosophers) that such terms must be interpreted in a broadly behaviouristic way (e.g. to act "intelligently" is not to act guided by a particular kind of mental processes, but to be disposed to act in the way we characterize as "intelligent" under a variety of circumstances). Less convincing is the way Ryle disposes of "sensations" or "sense data" as seeing a colour or feeling a pain, which traditionally are concieved as mental events that cannot be accessed from the outside. In this point his argument reduces to an "ordinary language" move that we don't talk of "seeing sensations" but of "seeing things" and "having sensations". Against the powerful set of intuitions that takes us to belief in senations as entities, this argument has little force, and effectively we see that in contemporary philosophy debates on "qualia" go on and on without much regard for the Rylean position. (Even Dennett, who is a follower of Ryle in many regards, does not use his same arguments when trying to quine qualia).
Webster's book presents a strong case against the pretense of psychoanalysis to be a scientific theory of the human mind. I regret that I knew little about psychoanalytic theory, besides what has filtered into common cultural knowledge, before reading the book, so I can't see both sides of the argument. (I have read two or three books by Erich Fromm, but as a psychoanalyst he is very unconventional and unrepresentative). Webster is very convincing in portraying young Freud, with the evidence of his letters and writings, as being eager to make a big discovery and proposing once and again bold theories unsupported by evidence (on the causes of hysteria, especially) which he believed almost fanatically until the weight of evidence was too strong against them; then he hit upon the theory of repressed infantile sexuality as one that could not be disproved by evidence (any absence of evidence could be explained away by repression). He succeded in convincing of its truth first a small group of disciples or "apostoles" (Webster shows how strikingly similar to a religion was the early psychoanalytic movement, with the dissidences of Adler, Jung and other being treated as "heresies" and leading to excommunication) and then a cultural milieu which was ready for this kind of theory. Webster perhaps exaggerates his denial of any truth in some psychoanalytic theories (for example I found difficult to accept his pronouncement that there is no evidence at all for any memories of traumas to be repressed, though I have no evidence in favour expect that I can't understand how it could have become something that "everybody knows" to happen if it didn't). But all in all, he convinced me that there was less of scientific substance in psychoanalysis than I had assumed before. Alas, his proposals at the end of the book for a "true science of Man" to replace psychoanalysis are too vague, even as philosophy, to be of much value.