Thursday, 22 August 2013

Scepticism, Animal Faith, and Fog


Is global scepticism or unrestricted methodic doubt actually rational if it forbids us doing what we do and saying what we say in our everyday lives? Is the purported bowing to reason and rationality and the elevation of knowledge to the incorrigible precisely the opposite of what draws us on to clarity. We accept the foggy and fuzzy under advisement hoping by judicious repair to achieve progress. To feel you are doomed to security only in the thin atmosphere of mathematics is the original Platonic error that continues to fascinate philosophers.

The Daddy of contemporary insecurity and the writer of its finest prose is Santayana. Scepticism and Animal Faith is a most comfortable bed and we barely feel the winding of its Procrustean windlass. In discussing the cognitive claims of memory he writes:

I have already accepted the belief in memory ; indeed, without accepting it I could not have taken the first step forward from the most speechless scepticism. But since such acceptance is an act of faith, and asserts transitive or realistic knowledge, I will pause to consider somewhat more explicitly what the cognitive claims of memory are, on which all human beliefs are reared.

As is often the case with Santayana we are brought up short at the sudden chilling of the warm prose bath by an insight put with much less suavity by Sidney Shoemaker in Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity.

Santayana:
A frame or foreground is accordingly indispensable to the projection which renders a present image a vision of some past fact : I must stand here to point there. Yet if my present station were explicitly perceived, if the whole immediate datum were focussed equally in thought, the picture would seem flat and the perspective merely painted upon it, as upon a cheap drop-curtain in a theatre. It would destroy the claim and, if you like, the illusion of memory to remember that I am remembering ; for then I should be considering myself only, and only the present, whereas in living remembrance I am self-forgetful, and live in the present thinking only of the past, and observe the past without supposing that I am living in it.

‘You cannot remember that you are remembering’. Similar points have been made by Thomas Reid and Elizabeth Anscombe cf. http://ombhurbhuva.blogspot.ie/2012/07/reid-and-anscombe-on-memory.html
I am at the stage in the reading of Animal Faith where he has admitted memory whilst still holding on to the reality of the flux of essences which are the creation of imagination. Are essences concepts or ideas? To which I answer 'pass’. Here I must call on Coleridge in Biographia Litteraria Chap.XII:

In the perusal of philosophical works I have been greatly benefited by a resolve, which, in the antithetic form and with the allowed quaintness of an adage or maxim, I have been accustomed to word thus: until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding. This golden rule of mine does, I own, resemble those of Pythagoras in its obscurity rather than in its depth. If however the reader will permit me to be my own Hierocles, I trust, that he will find its meaning fully explained by the following instances. I have now before me a treatise of a religious fanatic, full of dreams and supernatural experiences. I see clearly the writer's grounds, and their hollowness. I have a complete insight into the causes, which through the medium of his body has acted on his mind; and by application of received and ascertained laws I can satisfactorily explain to my own reason all the strange incidents, which the writer records of himself. And this I can do without suspecting him of any intentional falsehood. As when in broad day-light a man tracks the steps of a traveller, who had lost his way in a fog or by a treacherous moonshine, even so, and with the same tranquil sense of certainty, can I follow the traces of this bewildered visionary. I understand his ignorance.



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