Monday, October 22, 2018

Postures of Inquiry vs. Positions

There's an interesting ambiguity, at least as it is often used, that I've always find interesting in the English phrase 'questioning (something)': an ambiguity between asking questions of or about something and putting it into question. They are two different things; for instance, you can do the former without ever doubting what you are asking questions about, but the latter precisely means to put something in doubt. This is an ambiguity between a posture of inquiry -- in this case, asking questions -- and a position -- in this case, that whatever is talked about is questionable. People in casual conversation will often conflate the two, despite the fact that they are very different.

A more sophisticated version of this often occurs with philosophical skepticism. Many common arguments for skepticism quite clearly collapse the distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position. If you look at Pyrrhonism, for instance, as we find in the Ten Modes and the Five Modes, they are consistingly cases of a specific posture of inquiry -- finding balancing appearances or arguments -- and treating it as if it were in contrast to Dogmatism. But insofar as they are things you can do in investigation, they are all things a Dogmatist can do, without any suspension of judgment, while still being a Dogmatist. To be sure, they are all things that you can do suspending judgment, and it is entirely reasonable to argue that suspending judgment is more appropriate; but it has to be argued, not assumed, because the posture of inquiry in which we collect various kinds of equipollent appearances or arguments is not the position we take in suspending judgment because of them. A Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the appearance of a tower being round and a tower being square while believing it to be square in floorplan; he can look into exactly the same appearances as a Pyrrhonist without ceasing to be a Dogmatist about it. Nor does moving to arguments change anything. The Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the arguments 'The tower seems round [at a distance], so it is round' and the 'The tower seems square [up close], so it is square'. He can't accept them both simultaneously and in the same way in the same context, to be sure, but the Pyrrhonist doesn't accept either of the arguments at all. As a posture of inquiry, you can entertain both arguments regardless of whether you have a definite belief or are suspending judgment. But some of the plausibility of Pyrrhonism comes from a convenient failure to recognize that the Dogmatist can handle appearances and arguments in the way a Pyrrhonist does while not going on to the further step of suspending judgment.

Ironically, it is the Pyrrhonists who have come closest to recognizing this distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position, because they have at least since Sextus Empiricus used something like such a distinction as part of a defensive maneuver. (Arne Naess has perhaps some of the clearest discussion of this.) Thinking of themselves as 'skeptics' or 'zetetics' -- i.e., examiners or seekers -- is precisely taking up a posture of inquiry. Thus you can deny that you are just another Dogmatist by saying that you are really an Inquirer -- you'd be interested in finding the truth, if you could, but you are still in the process of looking for it, and have not, it seems to you, found it. But nothing about this in itself is inconsistent with Dogmatism; Dogmatists too may be Inquirers -- they can be interested in finding the truth, if they can, and can still be in the process of looking for it, but have, it seems to them, found part of it. The Skeptics are right that you can take this as a posture of inquiry rather than as a position; but qua posture of inquiry it is not inconsistent with any Dogmatist position at all. I mean, we can take a posture of inquiry, entirely from curiosity, about something we regard as a per impossibile hypothetical. Merely inquiring a certain way does not, itself and on its own, rule out any position whatsoever.

To be sure, Pyrrhonists, ever cautious, have tended to treat the suspension of judgment as coming on one when dealing with equipollence of arguments, etc., and so they can perfectly well say that there is no rigorous link, but only something that seems at times to be natural. But if they answered in this way, they seem only to be describing the history of their minds engaged in the error of conflating distinct things. And the Dogmatist in the face of this is free to accept all the arguments of the Skeptic as pertaining to inquiry, without making the assumption that this automatically requires accepting the result of suspending judgment.

There are other cases in which posture of inquiry is confused with position. What I've previously called the -ism mistake seems to be a particular version of the same confusion -- people thinking that the posture of inquiry of examining consequences is the position that is consequentialism, or people thinking that the posture of inquiry of trying to explain natural effects by natural causes is the position that is naturalism. As with the above, you could possibly get from one to the other by arguing with the help of additional assumptions, but you can't in fact directly get from one to the other, however much people may reason as if you could.

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