Friday, August 11, 2006

Open Society condensed Chapter 11 Essentialism

“The problem of definitions and of the ‘meaning of terms’ does not directly bear upon historicism. But it has been an inexhaustible source of confusion”.

The second section of Chapter 11 is a detailed critique of the obsession with the definition of terms and the explication of concepts that Popper labeled essentialism.

Like timid seducers, essentialists are rarely found inside the bedroom when there is serious work to be done on social and political problems.

People who habitually address social issues with an imaginative and critical attitude to alternative policies and their likely outcomes will not benefit much from the following critique of verbalism and conceptual analysis. However they may have friends or relations who have picked up bad habits, perhaps at university, and they may need professional help.

It may be recalled that The OSE grew out of a modest-sized section on essentialism in another book The Poverty of Historicism.

The development of thought since Aristotle could, I think, be summed up by saying that every discipline, as long as it used the Aristotelian method of definition, has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren scholasticism, and that the degree to which the various sciences have been able to make any progress depended on the degree to which they have been able to get rid of this essentialist method. (This is why so much of our ‘social science’ still belongs to the Middle Ages.) The discussion of this method will have to be a little abstract, owing to the fact that the problem has been so thoroughly muddled by Plato and Aristotle, whose influence has given rise to such deep-rooted prejudices that the prospect of dispelling them does not seem very bright. In spite of all that, it is perhaps not without interest to analyse the source of so much confusion and verbiage.
In a nutshell, essentialism claims that true belief (knowledge) results from either (a) an intuitive grasp of the essence of things, or (b) clarification or explication of the concept of the (various) things.

Like Plato, Aristotle believed that we obtain all knowledge ultimately by an intuitive grasp of the essences of things. ‘We can know a thing only by knowing its essence’, Aristotle writes, and ‘to know a thing is to know its essence’. A ‘basic premise’ is, according to him, nothing but a statement describing the essence of a thing. But such a statement is just what he calls a definition. Thus all ‘basic premises of proofs’ are definitions.

What does a definition look like? An example of a definition would be: ‘A puppy is a young dog.’ The subject of such a definition-sentence, the term ‘puppy’, is called the term to be defined (or defined term); the words ‘young dog’ are called the defining formula. As a rule, the defining formula is longer and more complicated than the defined term, and sometimes very much so. Aristotle considers the term to be defined as a name of the essence of a thing, and the defining formula as the description of that essence. And he insists that the defining formula must give an exhaustive description of the essence or the essential properties of the thing in question; thus a statement like ‘A puppy has four legs’, although true, is not a satisfactory definition, since it does not exhaust what may be calico the essence of puppiness, but holds true of a horse also; and similarly the statement ‘A puppy is brown’, although it may be true of some, is not true of all puppies; and it describes what is not an essential but merely an accidental property of the defined term.

But the most difficult question is how we can get hold of definitions or basic premises, and make sure that they are correct—that we have not erred, not grasped the wrong essence. Although Aristotle is not very clear on this point, there can be little doubt that, in the main, he again follows Plato. Plato taught that we can grasp the Ideas with the help of some kind of unerring intellectual intuition; that is to say, we visualize or look at them with our ‘mental eye’, a process which he conceived as analogous to seeing, but dependent purely upon our intellect, and excluding any element that depends upon our senses. Aristotle’s view is less radical and less inspired than Plato’s, but in the end it amounts to the same. For although he teaches that we arrive at the definition only after we have made many observations, he admits that sense-experience does not in itself grasp the universal essence, and that it cannot, therefore, fully determine a definition. Eventually he simply postulates that we possess an intellectual intuition, a mental or intellectual faculty which enables us unerringly to grasp the essences of things, and to know them. And he further assumes that if we know an essence intuitively, we must be capable of describing it and therefore of defining it.
Summing up this brief analysis, we can give, I believe, a fair description of the Aristotelian ideal of perfect and complete knowledge if we say that he saw the ultimate aim of all inquiry in the compilation of an encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences, that is to say, their names together with their defining formulae; and that he considered the progress of knowledge as consisting in the gradual accumulation of such an encyclopaedia, in expanding it as well as in filling up the gaps in it and, of course, in the syllogistic derivation from it of ‘the whole body of facts’ which constitute demonstrative knowledge.
In order not to prolong this digression unduly, I shall criticize two only of the essentialist doctrines; two doctrines which are of significance because some influential modern schools are still based upon them. One is the esoteric doctrine of intellectual intuition, and the other the very popular doctrine that ‘we must define our terms’, if we wish to be precise.

Aristotle held with Plato that we possess a faculty, intellectual intuition, by which we can visualize essences and find out which definition is the correct one, and many modern essentialists have repeated this doctrine. Other philosophers, following Kant, maintain that we do not possess anything of the sort. My opinion is that we can readily admit that we possess something which may be described as ‘intellectual intuition’; or more precisely, that certain of our intellectual experiences may be thus described. Everybody who ‘understands’ an idea, or a point of view, or an arithmetical method, for instance, multiplication, in the sense that he has ‘got the feel of it’, might be said to understand that thing intuitively; and there are countless intellectual experiences of that kind. But I would insist, on the other hand, that these experiences, important as they may be for our scientific endeavours, can never serve to establish the truth of any idea or theory, however strongly somebody may feel, intuitively, that it must be true, or that it is ‘self-evident’.

In science, we take care that the statements we make should never depend upon the meaning of our terms. Even where the terms are defined, we never try to derive any information from the definition, or to base any argument upon it. This is why our terms make so little trouble. We do not overburden them. We try to attach to them as little weight as possible. We do not take their ‘meaning’ too seriously. We are always conscious that our terms are a little vague (since we have learned to use them only in practical applications) and we reach precision not by reducing their penumbra of vagueness, but rather by keeping well within it, by carefully phrasing our sentences in such a way that the possible shades of meaning of our terms do not matter. This is how we avoid quarrelling about words.

The view that the precision of science and of scientific language depends upon the precision of its terms is certainly very plausible, but it is none the less, I believe, a mere prejudice. The precision of a language depends, rather, just upon the fact that it takes care not to burden its terms with the task of being precise. A term like ‘sand-dune’ or ‘wind’ is certainly very vague. (How many inches high must a little sand-hill be in order to be called ‘sand-dune’? How quickly must the air move in order to be called ‘wind’?) However, for many of the geologist’s purposes, these terms are quite sufficiently precise; and for other purposes, when a higher degree of differentiation is needed, he can always say ‘dunes between 4 and 30 feet high’ or ‘wind of a velocity of between 20 and 40 miles an hour’. And the position in the more exact sciences is analogous. In physical measurements, for instance, we always take care to consider the range within which there may be an error; and precision does not consist in trying to reduce this range to nothing, or in pretending that there is no such range, but rather in its explicit recognition.

Even where a term has made trouble, as for instance the term ‘simultaneity’ in physics, it was not because its meaning was unprecise or ambiguous, but rather because of some intuitive theory which induced us to burden the term with too much meaning, or with too ‘precise’ a meaning, rather than with too little. What Einstein found in his analysis of simultaneity was that, when speaking of simultaneous events, physicists made a false assumption which would have been unchallengeable were there signals of infinite velocity. The fault was not that they did not mean anything, or that their meaning was ambiguous, or the term not precise enough; what Einstein found was, rather, that the elimination of a theoretical assumption, unnoticed so far because of its intuitive self-evidence, was able to remove a difficulty which had arisen in science. Accordingly, he was not really concerned with a question of the meaning of a term, but rather with the truth of a theory. It is very unlikely that it would have led to much if someone had started, apart from a definite physical problem, to improve the concept of simultaneity by analysing its ‘essential meaning’, or even by analysing what physicists ‘really mean’ when they speak of simultaneity.

I think we can learn from this example that we should not attempt to cross our bridges before we come to them. And I also think that the preoccupation with questions concerning the meaning of terms, such as their vagueness or their ambiguity, can certainly not be justified by an appeal to Einstein’s example. Such a preoccupation rests, rather, on the assumption that much depends upon the meaning of our terms, and that we operate with this meaning; and therefore it must lead to verbalism and scholasticism. From this point of view, we may criticize a doctrine like that of Wittgenstein51, who holds that while science investigates matters of fact, it is the business of philosophy to clarify the meaning of terms, thereby purging our language, and eliminating linguistic puzzles. It is characteristic of the views of this school that they do not lead to any chain of argument that could be rationally criticized; the school therefore addresses its subtle analyses52 exclusively to the small esoteric circle of the initiated. This seems to suggest that any preoccupation with meaning tends to lead to that result which is so typical of Aristotelianism: scholasticism and mysticism.

Let us consider briefly how these two typical results of Aristotelianism have arisen. Aristotle insisted that demonstration or proof, and definition, are the two fundamental methods of obtaining knowledge. Considering the doctrine of proof first it cannot be denied that it has led to countless attempts to prove more than can be proved; medieval philosophy is full of this scholasticism and the same tendency can be observed, on the Continent, down to Kant. It was Kant’s criticism of all attempts to prove the existence of God which led to the romantic reaction of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. The new tendency is to discard proofs, and with them, any kind of rational argument. With the romantics, a new kind of dogmatism becomes fashionable, in philosophy as well as in the social sciences. It confronts us with its dictum. And we can take it or leave it. This romantic period of an oracular philosophy, called by Schopenhauer the ‘age of dishonesty’, is described by him as follows53: ‘The character of honesty, that spirit of undertaking an inquiry together with the reader, which permeates the works of all previous philosophers, disappears here completely. Every page witnesses that these so-called philosophers do not attempt to teach, but to bewitch the reader.’

A similar result was produced by Aristotle’s doctrine of definition. First it led to a good deal of hairsplitting. But later, philosophers began to feel that one cannot argue about definitions. In this way, essentialism not only encouraged verbalism, but it also led to the disillusionment with argument, that is, with reason. Scholasticism and mysticism and despair in reason, these are the unavoidable results of the essentialism of Plato and Aristotle. And Plato’s open revolt against freedom becomes, with Aristotle, a secret revolt against reason.

As we know from Aristotle himself, essentialism and the theory of definition met with strong opposition when they were first proposed, especially from Socrates’ old companion Antisthenes, whose criticism seems to have been most sensible. But this opposition was unfortunately defeated. The consequences of this defeat for the intellectual development of mankind can hardly be overrated. Some of them will be discussed in the next chapter. With this I conclude my digression, the criticism of the Platonic-Aristotelian theory of definition.


Post a Comment

<< Home