Saturday, March 16, 2013

Philosophy from Puzzlement

PHIL 222: Analytic Philosophy will be taught in the Fall 2013 term on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30–3:52 PM. It will be focused on the theme of paradoxes. For those curious about the course thinking of taking it, here's a little background intended to help you decide whether the course would be of interest.

What is Analytic Philosophy? There are different ways of glossing it, but I think of Analytic Philosophy as a methodological tradition in philosophy. While some historical philosophical movements are united by the specific conclusions they reach on certain questions, Analytic Philosophy began with the general thought that the best way to answer philosophical problems involves a careful attention to language — that the main role of philosophy should be to analyze our concepts, putting some of the newly devised logical methods to work clarifying classic philosophical problems. The movement diversified as it grew up, but retained a certain "analytical spirit" that prized careful argumentation and clear writing. It is arguably the dominant (non-historical) approach to philosophy in the Anglo-English world. If you've taken Metaphysics, Theory of Knowledge, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Mind, or Philosophy of Science, chances are good that you've already been exposed to Analytic Philosophy.

Can a picture be a paradox?
What's a paradox? This is itself an interesting philosophical question, but to a close enough approximation, a paradox is a puzzle — perhaps a puzzle that has a solution, perhaps not. It turns out that a lot of philosophical theories are motivated by paradoxes. Zeno's most famous paradox, for example, takes the following form: to go from point A to point B, one has to go halfway between those points first (call that point C). Then one must go halfway between C and B, and then halfway between those points, and so on. But since there are infinitely many "halfways", between any two points and we cannot do infinitely many things in a finite stretch of time, motion is impossible.

Of course, we know that motion is possible, so something must have gone haywire in the above argument. But what? The trouble is that all of the premises look pretty plausible and the reasoning seems above reproach (i.e., the argument seems sound). Notice that figuring out what to say about this paradox will likely have consequences for our views of space, time, motion, infinity, and so on. That is, grappling with the paradox is one way of coming to a better understanding of these things.

Zeno's paradox is ancient. Interest in it spans thousands of years. The same is true of many of the paradoxes that we'll survey in the course. Paradoxes are unsolved problems. That's one of the things that makes contemplating them so exciting: we can not only learn something about the history of philosophy by studying them, we can hold out some hope of adding to it.

So what's with the ': Paradoxes' suffix? 
"Analytic philosophy accreted into existence as pearls accrete from irritating grains of sand. This makes analytic philosophy dependent on a supply of irritants. Artificial pearls can be cultivated by slipping paradoxes into otherwise contented oysters."  
Roy Sorensen, interview in 3AM Magazine
One way of learning about the history of Analytic Philosophy proceeds like any other history of philosophy course: we read, in order, the most significant contributions to the field and try to understand its discursive unity — what the main topics and positions were, how certain contributions influenced others, what the conversation was like, and so on. The next incarnation of PHIL 222 is will take a more thematic approach, examining the history of Analytic Philosophy by examining how philosophers have responded to paradoxes.

In the coming weeks, I'll be adding more to this course blog (including a syllabus by summer). Subscribe to the RSS feed if you wish to stay abreast of the developments. In the meanwhile, you might check out the book we'll be using, Sainsbury's Paradoxes. As far as nitty-gritty registration info goes, here's the Bucknell Course Guide. The official pre-requisite is PHIL 100, though having some logic would also be good (I'd consider it an alternative pre-requisite). But a willingness to have your brain twisted into an MC Escher-esque pretzel is a must. Free free to send me an email or come talk to me if you're unsure about taking the course. See you next term!