Κυριακή, 14 Δεκεμβρίου 2008

Philosophy and Monty Python

Themes in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy
as Reflected in the Work of Monty Python


Gary L. Hardcastle
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point
Stevens Point, WI
U.S.A.


Copyright © 1993, by Gary Hardcastle. This work may be reproduced in whole or in part only by permission of the author.

[The talk below was written in response to a request from the Philosophy Club at Virginia Tech, and has been delivered there three times in the last few years. Comments from Python fans, philosophers, interested bystanders, raving loonies, and any combination of the above are welcomed! Email me!

My aim in this talk is to present a comprehensive overview of each and every one of the main themes endured by analytic philosophy in the last sixty years or so, and to argue the bold historical claim that the whole lot is well represented-indeed, often best represented-in the work of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, collectively and henceforth referred to as "Monty Python." Since I have all of fifty minutes to make my case, I expect we'll have time for a song at the end. So let's get to it.

Analytic philosophy has spent the last seventy years engaged in two successive revolts. If you didn't know this, don't feel bad-philosophers engaged in revolt look pretty much exactly like philosophers not engaged in revolt. They go to the office, teach introduction to philosophy, make a few phone calls, have office hours, work on a rough draft, and head home. There's no storming of the parliament building, ripping up of city streets, or lobbing of Molotov cocktails for your revolting philosopher, or, I should say, the philosopher in revolt.

To see philosophical revolt you have to go to the philosophical journals, and indeed that's where you find the first revolt, the famous revolt against metaphysics. This occurred in the 1920s and 30s and was carried out by the logical positivists, who are now regarded in analytic circles as something like folk heroes. If you have been conditioned by college life to feel guilty if you have not yet written something down, then write down the names of the leading logical positivists: 'Moritz Schlick', 'Rudolph Carnap', 'Hans Hahn', 'Otto Neurath', 'Herbert Feigl', 'Philip Frank', and 'A. J. Ayer'.

The positivists' revolt against metaphysics was really successful. Really, really, successful. It was so successful that even now, when everyone agrees that (a) logical positivism is dead, and that (2) even if it isn't dead, its arguments against metaphysics, to use the technical phrase, suck pond water, upper level courses in metaphysics taught in universities throughout the analytic world-indeed, in this very university-typically begin with self- conscious multi-week probing reflections on whether or not it's really okay to now do metaphysics.

There's a wonderful irony behind this revolt against metaphysics. It's that the logical positivists, whose basic complaint against metaphysics was that it was all irretrievably confused and fuzzy, themselves had a notion of metaphysics that was, you guessed it, somewhat confused and fuzzy. The fuzziness was manifested in a couple of now-famous technical glitches in the positivist program. Whenever anyone came up with a means of sorting out the good philosophy from the metaphysical, some young upstart logic whiz always pointed out that the proposed means either ruled out some clearly good philosophy or ruled in some ghastly bit of metaphysics.

Even worse, nobody could ever find an acceptable way to defend the main sail on the positivist's ship, the verifiability criterion. The verifiability criterion said that the meaning of a meaningful statement was conveyed completely by the means by which it is verified. The criterion was enormously useful in accomplishing sort of an end-run around metaphysics; since metaphysical statements couldn't be verified, the criterion told you they were meaningless.

The positivists were pretty happy about all this until it sank in that the verifiability criterion itself couldn't be verified. Think about it-to verify the verifiability criterion, you'd have to sort out all the meaningful statements beforehand, and that you couldn't do without first assuming the verifiability criterion! So the verifiability criterion is not verifiable. If it's not verifiable, then, according to itself, it's meaningless. So the verifiability criterion might as well be a bit of metaphysics. In the possible world in which Homer Simpson is not only a real person but a logical positivist living in Vienna in the 1930s, Homer just said "Dhoe!"

Now, I'm sure you're wondering when I'm going to stop rambling on about logical positivism and show something from Monty Python. Hang on, I've got one more thing to say. It's now pretty clear that the positivists weren't revolting against metaphysics per se, but against philosophy itself. Really, they were quite upset that philosophy had not made much progress.

Other sciences had of course; consider, for example, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, metallurgy, geology, geography, archeology, agriculture, mathematics, genetics, political science, poultry science, economics, anthropology, horticulture, nutrition, medicine, psychology, sociology, forestry... well, you get the idea. It seemed like philosophy had even had a head start over all the other intellectual enterprises, but had somehow forgotten to keep in touch with the real world.

Instead it spiraled off into bizarro metaphysics, where you could say anything at all and get away with it because there was no way to determine the truth of what you said or indeed if you even really said anything at all in the first place. This is really the first, and the biggest theme, of contemporary analytic philosophy-the contempt for innumerable philosophers of yore, who managed to get nothing done while everyone else was off figuring out neat things like natural selection and the heliocentricity of the solar system. Now let's look at our first clip.

[Clip #1: International Football (From Live at the Hollywood Bowl)]

Notice a few things. First, not one of the players is a logical positivist. That's because all the logical positivists are in the stands (if they've come to the game at all), screaming something like "Kick the ball already, you silly nits!!" Okay, there is Wittgenstein, playing for Deutschland, but you can tell by the tweed that it's the later Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein who wrote Philosophical Investigations, and who was reviled by Russell, for example, for having abandoned good (i.e., analytic) philosophy. Notice also that it's not even a philosopher who starts the ball rolling, so to speak, but Archimedes, an engineer. You saw all the others wondering around-isn't it annoying? Well, the positivists were annoyed too, and that's why they revolted.

The positivists' version of the Molotov Cocktail, you'll recall, was the verifiability criterion. I have a good clip for that, too, but I have a thing or two to say first. Despite it's troubling aspects, the verifiability criterion became the cornerstone of verificationism, which is roughly the position that the only way to say something meaningful about the world is to say something that can, in principle, be determined to be either true or false in light of experience. Central to verificationism is the notion that for each statement about the world there is a definite set of experiences that by itself determines whether the statement in question is true or false.

This is sometimes called "semantic reductionism" at the level of statements, as in: any meaningful statement can be reduced to a set of experiences (more correctly, statements about experience, if you favor the brand of philosophy I call "annoying particularism").

If you're out to verify the statement 'The cat is on the mat', for example, then presumably you're in search of certain experiences-like seeing the cat on the mat. Having the experience guaranteed the truth of the statement, or at least that is what verificationism told you. A really important spear that fell the mastodon of positivism-more important, perhaps, than the embarrassing bit about the verifiability criterion not itself being verifiable-was the discovery that reductionism simply wasn't true. It couldn't be true! To determine the truth or falsity of a statement you not only need a set of special experiences, but you need to know the truth or falsity of a host of other different statements as well. That is, verifying that the cat is on the mat is not a matter of experience alone, but of accepting all sorts of other different statements, all the way from 'Light rays travel in straight lines' to 'I am not having another one of those darn flashbacks.'

Now, in response to this you might be inclined to say, as is my wife on occasion, something along the lines of "So what? Big deal." Well, hang on. We've just shown that if you admit that language gets its meaning by being hooked up with the world, so to speak, then you have to deny that, strictly speaking, sentences have meanings all by themselves. Instead, they have meanings only when they hang out with other sentences.

Willard van Orman Quine, a philosopher whom I admire so much that I am hoping to convince my wife to name our third child either Willard, van, or Orman (her choice), put it best in 1951. He said, "statements about the external world face the tribunal of experience not individually but only as a corporate body" (Quine 1951, p.41). Quine's remark is an expression of that view which opposes semantic reductionism, semantic holism.

The key idea of semantic holism is that meaning is had by the whole language, but not by any of its parts alone. Semantic holism has some absolutely marvelous consequences. One is that you can't really assert a meaningful statement without sort of implicitly asserting a bunch of other statements-indeed, perhaps the entire language- at the same time. Another is that it seems possible to hold any arbitrarily chosen statement as true no matter what empirical evidence is presented against it, and to do so rationally, by rejecting and accepting the right related statements.

So if you want to maintain that the cat is on the mat when everybody else denies it, you can do so by deciding that certain atmospheric phenomena are making it look like there's no cat, or that the cat on the mat is a special kind of transparent cat, and so on. And you can maintain these claims by making still further adjustments in other claims. This sounds like silliness, but the point is that it is just the kind of silliness that verificationism had hoped to do away with.

I know, it's been a long time since a clip. So let's have two. First, watch how Monty Python conveys this conflict between verificationism and semantic holism, by means of parrot.

[Clip #2: Dead Parrot (Monty Python's Flying Circus, Full Frontal Nudity)]

Mr. Praline, the man attempting to return the parrot, is our verificationist, as is evidenced by his attempt to verify the death of the parrot by reference to experience, such as seeing that it's dead, its falling to the ground when sent aloft, its being nailed to its perch, and so on. The shopkeeper is our philosophically more sophisticated holist. He knows that maintaining the truth of other statements, concerning for example the bird's strength and its affection for the fiords, will allow him to maintain that the parrot is alive. Notice who wins: the shopkeeper is never brought to accept that the parrot is dead. Indeed, the sketch could go on indefinitely without that ever happening.

Here's a rather more graphic depiction of holism.

[Clip #3: Arthur Meets the Black Knight (MPHG)]

Despite the successive loss of limb, it is the Black Knight who is our holist. That's because he maintains as true that he shall prevent the bridge from being crossed, and he knows how to maintain it come what may. If King Arthur ultimately triumphs over the Black Knight to cross the bridge, it is for contingent and empirical reasons, I would argue, and not for any weakness in the Knight's arguments. And you realize that I could even argue that Arthur didn't cross the bridge at all; now that's semantic holism.

I bet you've guessed by now what the second of the two revolts in contemporary analytic philosophy is. It's the revolt against logical positivism, of course! If you're starting to feel guilty again for not having written anything down, then write down the names 'Carl Hempel', 'Thomas Kuhn', 'Norwood Russell Hanson,' 'Nelson Goodman,' 'Hilary Putnam', and, of course, 'W.v. O. Quine'. These are just a few of the prominent post- positivists. There are lots more. Indeed, it's much easier to list all the living positivists, and barring a change in the philosophical winds it's going to get easier and easier with the passing of every year.

At any rate, unlike most revolts, the revolt against positivism was either sufficiently sensitive or sufficiently indiscriminate-it's hard to tell which- to retain the essentially correct aspects of what it was revolting against. Specifically, it retained positivism's love affair with language. Post- positivists, like the positivists, believed that understanding anything really important, like how we know, what there is, or what's right and wrong, meant first understanding our language, which after all is pretty much the best and only means by which we express what we know, what there is, and what's right and wrong.

Throw in semantic holism, and it should come as no surprise that the story of analytic philosophy since the downfall of logical positivism is essentially the story of successive, multi-pronged and somewhat uncoordinated attempts to sort out the consequences of the fact that the unit of meaning in a language is not the sentence but the language itself.

One consequence of semantic holism, believe it or not, comes in the form of a threat to the very foundation of society. Let me explain. Holism seems to warrant bad reasoning, for it allows one to rationally maintain any statement come what may. That's bad enough. But it took about a half second for analytic philosophers to realize that things were, potentially, much worse. You see, philosophers from way, way, back in the analytic tradition believed deeply that, one way or another, reason was the proper foundation for society; it was both the mechanism that runs society and the grease on which the mechanism turned.

Ever interested to be of use, philosophers have worked hard at coming up with a theory of argument to describe how reason ought to work in daily life. This is why you, as undergraduates at Virginia Tech, are subjected to classes like Philosophy 1504, Language and Logic; your philosophy department sincerely believes that this class will make you a better citizen. But, as some of you might have noticed in Philosophy 1504, the theory of argument asks that you grant certain crucial statements beforehand, without argument. Statements like, for example, that something can't both be true and false at the same time.

Well, if holism is true, then we can't count on our fellow citizens accepting such statements. Nor can we count on being able to convince them that they ought to accept such statements, if they don't! We shouldn't even call them crazy if they don't accept such statements, though we do it anyway! In short, if holism is true then the whole notion of argument, and of reason, is up for grabs. Would you like to see what that looks like?

[Clip #4: The Argument Clinic (Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Money Programme)]

Ah, you laugh, you laugh. But be aware, on some philosophical accounts, you've just witnessed a small piece of the end of civilization. Of course, not all the post-positivists were so imbued with the apocalyptic vision. Indeed, some were decidedly unimpressed by the news that rationality could not be the foundation of society, they having already decided that rationality was over-rated. After all, we'd been managing marginally well as a species so far without much of it, so there was no reason now to worry about everything falling apart. What grabbed these folk about semantic holism was that it suggested that it took only a very small difference in the linguistic behavior of two individuals to warrant the conclusion that they were speaking altogether different languages.

For example, if you and I mean very different things when we make the noise: "My brain hurts", and if this difference reverberates throughout the rest of our linguistic utterances, then maybe it makes sense to say that we are speaking different languages, despite the fact that each sounds like English and even despite the fact that we think we understand each other perfectly well.

Now, if you also suspect that a speaker's language plays a big role in determining the nature of the world in which the speaker lives, then you can put these two together and conclude that each of us has our own world, perhaps wildly different than our neighbors'. This line of reasoning has been tossed around in the philosophical literature quite a bit in the last thirty years; you could run off and read all about it in the library, or you could get the basic idea from Monty Python.

[Clip #5: Nudge Nudge (Monty Python's Flying Circus, How to recognise different types of trees...)]

Different worlds, indeed, and perhaps different languages too. They eventually do "connect," of course, though not quite in the manner desired by Norman, the man on our left.

I spoke about the project of founding society on reason, and about the blow that that project was dealt by semantic holism. Very recently, things have gotten even worse for that particular project. Imagine that holism could somehow be circumvented, so that we could all be assured that we shared the same language and the same world.

It now looks, in light of empirical evidence about human reasoning, like even these rosy conditions shouldn't make for optimism about rationality in society. What the empirical evidence has suggested-and, to be fair, this is the topic of heated debate-is that, from the point of view of logic, human reasoning is very bad indeed, and that there's little hope of improving it. We're wired up, psychologically speaking, to reason badly. How badly, exactly? About as badly as the individuals in the following clip.

[Clip #6: The Witch Trial (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)]

The folks who fail to see what's so funny about this, by the way, are exactly the folks who at one time or another have taught Introduction to Logic; they don't need psychologists or their empirical studies to tell them about the reasoning abilities of the average citizen. To the rest of the analytic world, however, it's been something of a shock, although, as I said, there's quite a bit of debate over the whole matter.

I know what some of you are thinking. It's something like, "Okay, I'm convinced. The best expositor of contemporary analytic philosophy is Monty Python. But let's not get carried away. There's a lot more to philosophy than analytic philosophy, and what do these Monty Python people have to say about all of that? Not much, I imagine!" Those of you saying this have in mind continental philosophy, named I believe after both Continental Airlines and the continental breakfast, in each case in honor of the failure to satisfy. I could go on at length in thorough refutation of this complaint, but as my area of specialty, not to mention my topic today, is analytic philosophy, I'll refute it with a single counterexample. Here it is.

[Clip #7: The Cheese Shop (MPFC, Salad Days)]

Now I hope you see that Mr. Mousebender's attempt to get a little cheese resembles various other life experiences, most obviously, perhaps, a typical attempt to register for classes at Virginia Tech. But I'd like to suggest something more grand. I'd like to suggest that the cheese shop is life itself, as described to us by existentialism. Mr. Mousebender is our existentialist hero, creating himself through choices of cheese in an uncooperative, nay, unfeeling world. Mr. Wensleydale, the keeper of the cheese shop, is the burden of life incarnate, who, in the fashion of Sisyphus' rock, unfailingly returns a negative answer only to be queried again by our hero. Did Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, those all-stars of Continental philosophy, ever put it any better, in any of their often abstruse and sometimes impenetrable scribblings? Say no more, say no more.

I know there are some folks out there who are still unconvinced of the philosophical stature of Monty Python. This is not because they worry that Monty Python has ignored continental philosophy, but because they think Monty Python is insensitive to THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, where every letter in that expression is capitalized. Philosophy is a conversation going back to Thales, they will say, and if you don't know what's been said then you're simply not doing philosophy, let alone good philosophy. This is a criticism levelled not infrequently at contemporary analytic philosophy, and though I agree with the sentiment, I do not agree that it works against Monty Python.

As before, I rest my response on a single counter-example, prefaced with a comment or two. Good history of philosophy doesn't just tell you what past philosophers said. It reveals connections between what they said, and connections between the philosophers themselves. And even better history discovers connections which are novel, surprising, and provocative. And the absolute best history of philosophy ties all this together and presents it in a manner so striking and harmonious that it just must be true. And since song is that thing which is striking and harmonious, the absolute most spectacularly best history of philosophy must be done in song.

With this in mind, I present Monty Python's Bruces' Philosophers Song. It speaks for itself, and so, out of respect for Monty Python, whose brilliant explications of the central themes of contemporary analytic philosophy have gone unnoticed until today, and out of respect for the glorious history of philosophy, let us rise and sing the Bruces' Philosophers Song with the members of Monty Python. You'll see the lyrics on the screen.

[Clip #8: Bruces' Philosophers Song (LHB); armed thugs force all to rise and sing.]

Thank you.

References

Quine, W.v. O. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," in From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1951).

There are a few exceptions-philosophers who have given up the linguistic orientation of logical positivism. Bas van Fraassen, Ian Hacking, and Richard Rorty come to mind.

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