In what sense?

"In what sense" has got to be one of the most basic philosophical questions.  It aims, at the very least, to get clear about what we're talking about.  Because, as it turns out, words and concepts and such have different senses.  Justice, for instance, seems to mean different things.  And it would be important to avoid obvious equivocations.  So, for instance, if I am talking about a normative notion of justice, and you come back at me with empirical observations about the criminal justice system, I will be confused.  This seems to be a really straightforward point.  But alas.  Here's Stanley Fish, The New York Times' idea of an intellectual:

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.

The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Holy Crap.  The "valorization" of property has an empirical component ("your property is valorized at less than it was valorized at before") and a normative component ("your property ought to be valorized at more than it was before") and a conceptual component (your property is valorizable), among other components.  The question for the literary studies people is whether some person x wrote some poem y.  This is an empirically verifiable fact–just ask Foucault's estate.  The question for Foucault, I take it, is whether such knowledge will tell us anything about anything (well, in particular, about the "meaning" of the poem.  They're different questions which Stanley Fish has hopelessly confused.

And he has confused these two different sorts of claim in order further to confuse the difference between the methods of faith and the methods of science.  They're not, to reorient the analogy where it should (!) be, talking about the same thing.  And to make this all a tomayto-tomahto question of evidence just ignores one pretty basic philosophical question.

6 thoughts on “In what sense?”

  1. I applaud your philosophico-hermeneutical skill in making any sense out of Fish’s analogy at all. I was just perplexed.

    It’s like a hollow man, but it doesn’t get knocked down, but rather rolled into a spurious analogy.

  2. jcasey, in what sense are you using “methods of faith” ?
    IMO, there hasn’t been a word more misused in the last century than “faith”. We have to thank Kierkegaard for that.

  3. I thought ‘faith’ usually means ‘knowledge without justification’. Typically, ‘justification’ means ‘evidence of the proper sort’, and ‘proper sort’ is based on norms of inquiry and inference. So, ‘taking something on faith’ is believing something to be the case without proper evidence, and thus, without following the norms of inquiry and inference.

    I don’t think ‘faith’ as I have described here is possible. There is not, I think, an in principle difference between supposed religious beliefs and supposed scientific beliefs. Faith-based inquiry just takes authority and intuition to be acceptable pieces of evidence, where science does not.

  4. Jem, you nailed it. No doubt, this is the new definition of faith.
    This also explains also why some people find religious beliefs in general and faith in particular to be so ludicrous. There is nothing virtuous or admirable about believing (in) anything  with no justification. It is just dumb.
    I think, however, that this modern definition of faith is, at best, a hasty generalization. Sure, there are people that hold this kind of faith, this leap of faith, this jump into darkness. But, I think that historically if you look at some of the serious religious thinkers, they all hold a different understanding of what faith really means. Why would, for example, Maimonides, Aquinas and Augustine try to give a justification for their faith, if faith is by definition irrational?

    Here are some quotes from one of my favorite theologian, Carl Henry:

    “The Hindu, the Christian and the logical positivist have similar sense experiences (not identical, to be sure, because every individual’s perceptions differ); the essential difference between them occurs not in what they see, hear, smell or taste, but in what they think about reality. The positivist thinks that sense data alone can relate us to the real world; the Hindu thinks that sense data are illusory and lead away from the real world; the Christian thinks that the phenomenal world is a real creation that witnesses to its Creator”
    “The mind of man is not veiled divinity. Transcendent divine revelation, not human reasoning, is the source of truth; publicly shared reason is a divinely gifted instrument for recognizing truth ”
    “Because theological and ethical statements cannot be verified by empirical methods does not mean, as the positivists erroneously and arbitrarily conclude, that they are beyond verification. Such a judgment stems purely from the metaphysical theory that only empirical experience supplies evidence about reality”
    I think that especially #3 summarizes the important assumption one makes when argues that faith is believing in something/someone without proper evidence.

  5. Right, BN. The (IMO) interesting debates are centered around what are the legitimate norms of inquiry and how and why we come to develop these norms. As far as it goes, the old JTB account of knowledge is no longer taken seriously by epistemologists, at least not in an unrefined form: ‘truth’ is obviously a slippery notion, ‘justification’ needs justification, and ‘belief’ itself is weakly understood. Justification especially is the crucial notion. If one allows intuition (or ‘inner sense’ or what have you) to profer legitimate reasons for belief, then faith-based knowledge cannot properly be said to be based on improper evidence. However, (1) I don’t think intuition is a legitimate source of evidence (for most things). Nor (2) do I think authority per se is a legitimate source of evidence either.

    Some reasons for (1) are:

    Intuitions are in principle unverifiable through empirical investigations
    As such, they are unfalsifiable
    falsifiability is an important norm governing appropriate conclusions reached through inquiry

    Some reasons against (1):

    We make all sorts claims about the world based on intuitions. For example, “I love her” can be uttered with absolute certainty, but is (arguably) not something verifiable through empirical investigation.
    The necessity of a priori relations are grasped through a faculty of intuition, so intuitions are sometimes legitimate pieces of evidence.

    Some reasons for (2):

    Evidence based on authority is only legitmate insofar as the authority is reliable and relevant. Authority, in itself, is never sufficient to provide evidence.
    Legitimate use of authority is, nonetheless, not based on authority, but based on evidence about the reliability of the authority, which itself is based on both one’s own experiential knowledge of the authority’s reliability and on the rational trust one has in the socially recognized institutions that confer legitimacy to the authority.

    Some reasons against (2):

    I can’t think of any.

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