Friday, September 03, 2004

Frondizi on the Philosophical Attitude

I have been re-reading Risieri Fondizi's What is Value?: An Introduction to Axiology, tr. S. Lipp (Open Court, 1963). It has stood up well since its English debut over forty years ago. (En passant, be it noted that anyone who thinks that the latest work is the best is singularly benighted. For any serious philosopher, love of the true always trumps fascination with the new. To read contemporary ephemera while ignoring works of time-tested merit is foolish.) What follows is a noteworthy metaphilosophical observation of Frondizi's:

The philosophical attitude is basically problematic. He who is not capable of grasping the sense of problems and who prefers to seize upon the first solution that presents itself, and which offers him illusory stability, runs the risk of being submerged, together with his so-called solution, in a sea of difficulties. (p. 26)

'Problematic' can mean dubious. But what Frondizi intends is best rendered by 'problem-oriented.' A philosopher is someone who is sensitive to puzzles, problems, and mysteries. I had the privilege of spending the summer of 1981 at Brown University in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar directed by Roderick Chisholm. One of the unforgettable things he said was that one is not philosophizing until one has a puzzle. That's exactly right. But of course it's an old thought. In the Theaetetus, St. 155, Plato tells us that philosophy begins in wonder or perplexity (thaumaxein), this being the characteristic feeling of the philosopher. Aristotle echoes the idea at Metaphysics 982b10.

Wilfrid Sellars likens the philosopher's touch to that of King Midas. Whatever the king touched, turned into gold; whatever the philosopher touches turns into a puzzle. The trouble with this comparison is that it suggests that philosophers create their difficulties. Not so: they discover them. The problems are in a certain sense 'out there' independent of our linguistic and conceptual operations. Pace Wittgenstein, they are not engendered by a "bewtchment of our understanding by language" (eine Verhexung unseres Verstandes durtch die Sprache). Pace Rorty, they do not arise as artifacts of arbitrarily adopted ways of talking.

The problem of universals, for example, is a perennial problem. It may not interest you, or seem important, but it is there whether you like it or not, and it has repercussions for problems you probably will find important. We attribute properties to things, and sometimes the things to which we attribute the properties actually have them. But what are properties? Are they mental in nature, or perhaps lingusitic? Or are properties independent of language and mind? If the latter, are they universals (repeatable entities) or particulars (unrepeatable entities such as sets or tropes)? If properties are universals, can they exist uninstantiated, or can they only exist when instantiated?

These are some of the questions that arise when we think about what is somewhat misleadingly called the problem of universals. 'The problem of properties' is perhaps a better moniker.

The onus probandi is on anyone who claims that this problem (or cluster of problems) is not genuine.