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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Here is something about the relationship between David Lewis and Stanley Cavell. I can’t tie it all up nicely, and I’m not confident that I’ve found the right way of approaching the subject at all. But, for what it’s worth:

One thing they have in common is that many philosophers find it easy to dismiss one or both of them. I think they are both suspected of, as critics of Cavell often call it, “self-indulgence.” People feel: well, I could do that, too, if I gave in to temptation and allowed myself to talk or think so outrageously. Once the suspicion is voiced, however, it seems silly. Which one of us is capable of talking or thinking the way either of them do? What is to be resisted is rather the temptation to reach for an easy way of dismissing thinkers, our own contemporaries, of such terrifying power.

Beyond that, two points stand out immediately, one about rational disagreement and one about ordinary language. The two can’t really be separated, but I don’t know how to develop them together, either, so I’m going to start here with the first and hopefully get to the second in another post.

Both Lewis and Cavell are concerned to explain how a form of argument can be fully rational even though it doesn’t (even ideally, in the long run, etc.) embody any guarantee that the parties will eventually agree.

This doesn’t mean that they think agreement is wholly irrelevant as an aim in such cases. Cavell says that “without the hope of agreement, argument would be pointless” (Cavell, Claim of Reason, 254, my emphasis). Lewis, similarly, describes the general point of argument, or at least debate, as follows: “each of two debaters tries to get his opponent to grant him — to join him in presupposing — parts of his case, and to give away parts of the contrary case” (“Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Phil. Papers 1:239). But the argument has been worthwhile even if the hope is frustrated, and so the lack of definite procedures for reaching an agreement is no defect in the rationality of the method. (Both think there are such procedures in at least some other cases.)

The target form of argument is not the same: for Cavell, it is moral argument; for Lewis, philosophical argument — in general, one may gather, but the only examples he ever discusses in detail are “debates over ontic parsimony” (“Holes,” Phil. Papers 1:9). (Although “Holes” is co-authored with Stephanie Lewis, I assume that everything in it speaks for both authors.)

Cavell emphasizes that the failure of agreement in moral argument has been used to impugn its rationality, based in part on the premise that “the rationality of an argument depends upon its leading from premisses all parties accept, in steps all can follow, to an agreement upon a conclusion which all must accept” (CoR, loc. cit.). Lewis doesn’t emphasize the corresponding fact about ontic debates, but he might and he knows that he might. What Cavell quotes Stevenson as saying, namely that disagreements in science are “disagreements in belief,” whereas disagreements in ethics are “disagreements in attitude” (CoR 259, citing Stevenson, Foundations of Ethics, 7), was said first by Carnap, and, at first, only about ontology, rather than about ethics.

What does an argument accomplish when it doesn’t, and wouldn’t even when all was said and done, result in agreement? “Argle has said what we accomplish in philosophical argument: we measure the price” (Lewis, Introduction to Phil. Papers 1, p. x). That is either the same as, or very similar to, what Cavell says about the process of “questioning a claim to moral rightness” in the course of a moral argument.

assessing the claim is, as we might now say, to determine what your position is, and to challenge the position itself, to question whether the position you take is adequate to the claim you have entered.… The point of the assessment is not to determine whether it is adequate, … the point is to determine what position you are taking, that is to say, what position you are taking responsibility for — and whether it is one I can respect. (CoR, 268)

The last clause strikes a note which is not mostly heard in Lewis, namely the possibility that the argument will leave us no longer on speaking terms. I want to say more about this in my next post on this topic, on ordinary language (it has to do with the “tragic” outcome that we find we cannot speak for one another). But Lewis does consider the stakes in ontic debate to be that high, at least among academics (note that “academic” is normally a term of disparagement for Cavell, but not for Lewis). This is clear, for one thing, from the elaborate care which Argle and Bargle take, in “Holes,” to avoid such an outcome, and for another thing from the care which Lewis himself takes to remain in conversation with a wide array of competing philosophers (Armstrong, Plantinga, Van Inwagen, Lycan, Reutley, etc.), while at the same time tacitly excluding others. (After a single response, in Convention, to “Must We Mean What We Say?”, Cavell is among the excluded.) More explicitly: Lewis holds that the main or, at least, only fully sufficient reason that debate is allowed to continue in academic philosophy is the “tacit treaty” by which various schools of thought agree not to prefer one over the other in hiring. But the treaty clearly doesn’t extend to any school whatsoever: “Maybe,” Lewis suggests, “the treaty is limited to ‘respectable’ schools of thought, as opposed to ratbag notions” (“Academic appointments: Why ignore the advantage of being right?”, Papers in Ethics and Social Philosophy, 199 n. 7). Lewis says there that I don’t come to respect your position by coming to give some credence to it (he respects Graham Priest’s “hard-line paraconsistency” even though he considers it “certainly and necessarily false”). He doesn’t say exactly how I might come to respect it. But how else, if not by the methods of Argle and Bargle?

The difference between moral argument and ontic debate must be important, but it is difficult to assess just how. Cavell says a lot about the contrasts and similarities between ethics and epistemology, but he remains enough of a good logical positivist to hold that “To say a dispute is about a matter of fact is exactly to say that there are certain ways of settling it” (CoR, 259). Lewis disagrees:

If you say flatly that there is no god, and I say that there are countless gods but none of them are our worldmates, then it may be that neither of us is making any mistake of method. We may each be bringing our opinions to equilibrium in the most careful possible way, taking account of all the arguments, distinctions, and counterexamples. But one of us, at least, is making a mistake of fact. Which one is wrong depends on what there is. (Introduction to
Phil. Papers 1, p. xi)

The result is that, as far as I know, Cavell never discusses at all the type of argument which for Lewis (after Convention) is always paradigmatic of philosophy.

Lewis, on the other hand, does discuss moral argument, as well as other types of philosophical argument, including epistemological argument, semantic argument, and (obviously, from the above quotes) argument about the methodology of philosophy itself. But it is unclear whether or how these other types of argument are supposed to resemble ontic debate. In “Scorekeeping,” Lewis imagines a discussion which looks a lot like one of the sample moral arguments from The Claim of Reason. To put it in Cavell’s form:

A (a corrupt politician): You see, I must either destroy the evidence or else claim that I did it to stop Communism. What else can I do?

B (rudely): There is one other possibility — you can put the public interest first for once!

A: I can’t do that. (cf. “Scorekeeping,” 247)

Lewis says about this, first, that A’s initial statement may be true while his final one is mistaken, because B’s “rude” reply (the term “rude” is Lewis’s, repeated several times) shifts the boundary between relevant and ignored possibilities, “and the boundary, once shifted outward, stays shifted” (ibid.). He then goes on to compare this to the case of a “commonsensical epistemologist” who claims, truly, to have infallible knowledge that the cat is in the carton, but then must concede defeat when the skeptic replies, “You might be the victim of a deceiving demon.” Again, the skeptic succeeds in shifting a boundary which the commonsensical epistemologist cannot then move back. Then Lewis adds:

We get the impression that the sceptic, or the rude critic of the elected official, has the last word. Again this is because the rule of accommodation is not fully reversible. For some reason, I know not what, the boundary readily shifts outward if what is said requires it, but does not so readily shift inward if what is said requires that. Because of this asymmetry, we may think that what is true with respect to the outward-shifted boundary must be somehow more true than what is true with respect to the original boundary. I see no reason to respect this impression. Let us hope, by all means, that the advance toward truth is irreversible. That is no reason to think that just any change that resists reversal is an advance toward truth.

This sounds vaguely related to Cavell, especially in the concern about “reversibility.”1 It also sounds quite un-Cavellian, especially in its confidence that the skeptic has succeeded in establishing a context which justifies the objection.

It’s hard to know what more to say without understanding exactly what Lewis thinks has gone wrong, in both cases, such that we must (by the rules of ordinary language!) have the impression of a last word, but an impression which nevertheless is not respectable. Toward the truth about what do we hope to advance in such cases? Not toward the truth about what is strictly, absolutely possible: Lewis has an answer to that, and an answer according to which the politician and the commonsensical epistemologist are wrong (there is a possible world at which a counterpart of the politician puts the public good first, and a possible world at which a demon deceives a counterpart of the epistemologist into believing that the cat is in the carton, or rather into having a corresponding belief). Rather, toward the truth about what is morally or epistemically possible for us. And is it still true, in such cases, that, although neither of us makes a mistake of method, and although we continue then to disagree, “what there is” will make at least one of us wrong? But isn’t the question here precisely one of method: a question of which “arguments, distinctions, and counterexamples” need to be considered, and which can or should be ignored? And so won’t “what there is,” if it makes us wrong, eo ipso make us mistaken in method? Or, to put it the other way around: what is the standard by which Lewis calls the critic “rude” and the skeptic (p. 245) “a player of language games”? Suppose — as I believe most of us, including Lewis, would want to suppose — that the rude critic does force an advance towards truth, whereas the skeptic does not. By what standard is Lewis nevertheless implicating them in a common error (or worse)?

I think we would have to answer such questions before deciding whether the clear success of Lewis’s skeptic is inconsistent with the unclear failure of Cavell’s, and also whether Cavell’s worries over the difference between the epistemological case and the moral one could find any echo in Lewis.


1 Lewis does not touch, here, on another Cavellian theme, the stability of the conclusion. Elsewhere he makes equilibrium — apparently, stable equilibrium — the prime goal of philosophical thought: “If our official theories disagree with what we cannot help thinking outside the philosophy room, then no real equilibrium has been reached. Unless we are doubleplusgood doublethinkers, it will not last” (Introduction, x).


  1. Do you think it's fair to say that Cavell has an "... easy way of dismissing thinkers..."? Did you have OLP in mind?

    If the wedges (distinctions) put in place by Lewis' skeptics are more or less apparent, couldn't we just say that they are advancing truth in a more subtle and sophisticated way?

  2. I'm up before the kids, sipping coffee by the fireplace and thoroughly enjoying this post, thanks Abe!

  3. Thanks Teague.

    When I said "What is to be resisted is rather the temptation to reach for an easy way of dismissing thinkers," I was talking about the temptation for us, not for Lewis or Cavell. I'm not sure if that was clear.

    Having said that, however: yes, it is fair to say that both Cavell and Lewis have their own easy ways of dismissing thinkers (including each other), in addition to their difficult ways of not dismissing thinkers. At least, it can look distressingly easy (I'm not sure how easy it is from the inside). Do I disagree with them, then, about something? Probably.

  4. It seems to me the reasons people proffer for dismissing these two figures are wildly different. Lewis is accused of a certain sort of profligacy, whereas Cavell is over-modest, or sees philosophy as being engaged in an over-modest task. It's not even clear that it is philosophy to many people, but I don't think that is a problem with Lewis (in fact, with Lewis, it's too much of a problem. He's doing too much "philosophy," a.k.a. metaphysics). Cavell often writes in resistance to the idea that his conception (not claiming I have it nailed down) is any less deep or rich than others offered. It is a particularly heavy preoccupation of his, inherited from Wittgenstein, I guess, and also from the generally hostile attitude to so-called "Oxford philosophy" in the positivist U.S. Other than the fact that they often dismissed out of hand, the reasons why seem to me not similar at all.

  5. Ah, clear now. Surely both have easy and painstaking methods for dismissing thinkers. The reason why I asked was because there seems to be an attitude that, say, Ryle too easily dismantled mind-body, or Austin too easily dealt with sense datum. The idea being that we cannot deal with old and complicated philosophical problems by appealing to something as mundane and obvious as ordinary language, and that this method ought to be resisted. Cavell falls into that camp too. Not only am I a fan of this method, but I also do not think it is easy. I think Austin's method is much harder to replicate than.. well, just about any other method I can think of.
    Sorry, that's a bit off topic.

  6. David: I don't think people mostly reject Cavell for being too modest (which would be a strange thing to think about him!). As for Lewis: he is indeed sometimes criticized for his modesty (for example, in philosophy of mathematics). But he doesn't openly fight against the idea that his conception is not deep and rich; he's more of an ironist. I hope to discuss that in a future post when I talk about the absence of the tragic in Lewis (and that is why I was searching for that Plato quote).

  7. Teague: Actually, Cavell in effect criticizes Austin for being too easily dismissive of (what Cavell calls) "classical epistemology." I don't think it's right to put them in the same camp on this, despite Cavell's great respect for Austin.

    I do agree that when ordinary language philosophy is used (at all well) to deal with old and complicated philosophical problems, it is not easy; also, it doesn't appeal to anything obvious or mundane.

  8. Here's something Cavell says about modesty, and about old and complicated problems:

    Someone will think that I have been arrogantly neglectful of the genre of academic paper, modest in its aims, content with its minor addition to a subject matter greater than itself. About the comparative greatness of the subject over its subjects I have no doubt. But I would be more convinced of academic modesty had I not seen many who are daily surprised that, for example, Descartes or Pascal or Rousseau, or the spirit of religion or of romanticism, has survived the criticism fashioned in their essays on the subject a few years back. (CoR, 4-5)

  9. When I made the claim about Cavell and modesty, I was thinking mostly about his defense of "ordinary language philosophy" in the title essay of Must We Mean What We Say. I don't think it's strange to say the impression that concentrating on ordinary language as opposed to some special realm of the "philosophical" is modest, and would have been perceived that way (it certainly would not be a strange attitude to take towards OLP today). The kind of immodesty you are talking about has to do with flouting disciplinary standards or whatever, which is different than what I was pointing towards.
    As for Lewis, I don't know why he would need to defend against the contention that he isn't deep and rich. That isn't usually the attack made at all; rather, it is the "incredulous stare," or disbelief at the results of his endeavours. It's like once the strictures of anti-metaphysical positivism have been completely loosened, we return once again to wild ontologies, of which Lewis' is just (perhaps) the most notorious example.

  10. David: Yes, you're a lot more right about "Must We Mean What We Say?" than you would be about CoR, which is what I was mainly thinking about. Although CoR still practices something one might call ordinary language philosophy, I don't think anyone would call it modest in any way.

    Granted, however: I have retreated to some level of abstraction to find this similarity. The profligacy of Cavell and the profligacy of Lewis are (or at least: are perceived as being) in different dimensions. Nevertheless, the similarity is nontrivial. The charge of profligacy, self-indulgence, letting oneself go wild in a way which is somehow indecent, is common to the way people (large, overlapping groups of people) tend to dismiss each of them. I wouldn't say that only they are the targets of such a charge, but they do stand out strikingly in that respect, at least among our contemporaries.

    On your second paragraph:

    Lewis writes for an audience which doesn't miss any deepness or richness in him. I consider that an aspect of the irony I mentioned. To someone (e.g. a fan of Cavell, Hegel, Kierkegaard, etc., such as myself) who does keep wondering where the philosophical depth is, Lewis has almost (but not quite nothing!) explicitly to say. It's up to us to find it out.

    Finally: Lewis's ontology is actually very sparse; exactly as sparse as the ontology of the Aufbau, in fact, except that he is not a logicist about mathematics. That the basis consists of possibilia rather than of Fundamentalerlebnisse is irrelevant from that point of view. Carnap of the Aufbau would have rejected Lewis's basis, not because there was too much of it, but because of concerns about empiricism. I believe later Carnap (though he remained an empiricist) would have had
    no such problem.

    The real issue between Lewis and Carnap is not wildness of ontology, but rather whether ontology is ontology at all: that is, whether "external questions" are theoretical questions about what exists.

    The strictures Lewis *does* violate by expanding his ontology in a certain way are not Carnapian but Quinean. (And, indeed, Quine was offended by Carnap's later forays into modal logic.)