Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Shestov on the Sidebar?

I am considering Lev Shestov for inclusion on my Neglected Philosophers list. Not just any philosophical Tom, Dick or Mary gets on this list. Shestov appears to be (relatively) neglected, but that is merely a necessary condition for inclusion. To be worthy of the list, a candidate must also be a philosopher of merit. Now there are indications that Shestov is a bloody irrationalist, a species of varmint that I don't cotton to. But I haven't come to my final decision yet. Herewith, a couple of preliminary indications of his irrationalism and/or sloppiness and/or incompetence.

Discussing the idea of progress in Penultimate Words, p. 165, Shestov writes:

Try to convince an educated person of the contrary: you are sure to be worsted. But, de omnibus dubitandum, which means in other words, that doubt is called upon to fulfill its mission above all in those cases where a conviction is particularly strong and unshakable. Therefore one must admit, whether he will or no, that progress so-called -- the development of mankind in time -- is a fiction.

Shestov is here confusing doubting a proposition p with affirming the negation of p. These are clearly different. When I doubt a proposition, I withold my intellectual assent from it; I hold the proposition at mental arm's length, so to speak. I affirm neither it nor its negation. That Shestov could allow such a confused paragraph to stand reflects poorly on him.

Two pages later, Shestov recommends the following definition of 'philosophy.' "...philosophy is the teaching of truths which are binding on none." (p. 167)

Shestov neglects to ask how there could be truths that are not binding on anyone. The very notion borders on the incoherent. A true belief (judgment, proposition, assertion . . .) is one that puts the believer (judger, etc.) in contact with reality, with what is. It was not for nothing that the scholastics held that ens et verum convertuntur, that being and true are convertible (equivalent) notions. The truth is therefore that to which we must conform if we want to be in touch with reality. So how could truth not be binding?

Now if Shestov had written 'opinions' or 'beliefs' instead of 'truth,' then there would have been no problem. Thus it is reasonable to surmise that he is conflating the truth with what is believed. But this is a bad mistake and suggests an intolerable level of intellectual slovenliness in our man.

But I will continue reading. He is fascinating, and, if nothing else, he inspires an interest analogous to the interest inspired in the pathologist by diseased tissue.

Quotations from Lev Shestov, All Things are Possible and Penultimate Words and Other Essays (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977).