September 20th, 2007

Places, Players.  It's Showtime!

Philosophical method

Many years ago, in the pages of Minneapa (if you don't know, never mind) my friend Marty Helgesen made the remark (backed up with an interesting argument) that most people, whatever their philosophical stance, in their day-to-day lives are Thomists.  Now, Marty is a self-avowed Catholic apologist, so quite naturally I rarely agree with him, and I didn't this time.  But like a great deal of what Marty says, it stayed with me, bouncing around in my head, as it were.  And, after (God!  Twenty-five years?) here are some thoughts on the subject.

In our day to day lives, whatever our philosophy, most of us function like mechanical materialists.  That is, even the most devout theist will not, when he wishes to make a note, expect God to intervene and hand him the pencil.  Even a dialectician, like me, expects the pencil to remain a pencil, at least long enough to write with it.  We most often function as if everything was a simple, mechanical relationship of material objects; I want to go inside, so I open the door, then I can walk through the doorway.

Yet, in some matters, we are all aware of certain dialectical laws.  If a friend says, "Please hand me that coffee cup," we most likely will do so.  The same if he asks for a paper-weight.  Or even a reasonably-sized television set. But if he says, "Please hand me that washing machine," we might be inclined to laugh, because we are aware that quantity has transformed into quality--a washing machine is too big and heavy to pick up, and the lack of correspondence between objective and subjective is funny.  The old saying, "The straw that broke the camel's back" is a recognition of this dialectical law.

In our day to day lives, whatever our philosophy, most of us function like Aristotelians.  We place things into categories, and we treat those categories as inflexible.  We see a policeman, and we react to him depending on how our experience and culture or subculture has taught us to react to policemen.  We hear about a movie described as a comedy, and it goes into that category and we look at the actors and the director and the writer to determine if we think it'll be funny (another category).

Yet, in other ways, we are dialecticians.  When rush-hour traffic causes an accident, we might not think: The category "cause" of traffic delay has produced the category "effect" of accident which in turn has become the cause of traffic delay.  But we respond as if we did: cause has become effect, and we take an alternate route, maybe even a particularly devious alternate route, because we know that the effect of many people taking the obvious alternate route is transformed into a cause that will result in the further effect of the other route being likely to be blocked up as well.  Categories turn into one another, and on some level, we recognize that.  When heated, a substance that we have placed in the category "water" turns partly or entirely into the category "steam."  When this substance is brought to Minnesota, it promptly turns into the category "ice."

In our day to day lives, whatever our philosophy, most of us formal logic.  A=A.  Indeed, commodity production is based on this.  If the store has six cartons of half-and-half with the same expiration date on them at the same price, I don't care which I grab.  A=A.

Yet, in other ways, we are dialectians.  A staring salery of $6.50/hour is perfectly reasonable for 4 hours/week after school.  Later, when trying to survive independently, neither the hourly rate nor the number of hours are fine at all.  Although we may not express it that way to ourselves, we are aware of it: $6.50/hour has turned into its opposite--from plenty it has turned into insufficient.  Many who have had bad experiences with drugs or alchohol will tell you the same thing: what started out pleasant and harmless has, through time, become unpleasant and harmful; it has turned into its opposite.

Nevertheless, for most purposes, we can get by using what is called "common sense" -- a combination of formal logic, Aristoelian categories, and mechanical materialism.  It is when dealing with complexities--especially the complexities of human society--that method becomes vital.  it is important to keep in mind that quantity transforms into quality (and the reverse), that things turn into their opposites, that categories are not fixed, that everything is perpetually in motion, and that the laws of that motion can be understood, and thus made to serve us.  Attempting to apply the simple laws of "common sense" that get us to the grocery store and back, to the complex processes of life, is probably the single greatest cause of confusion in understanding the workings of society.  When you and another agree on the facts and come to different conclusions, chances are good that least one of you is using "common sense" in a situation where it isn't adequate.