Monday, November 08, 2004

A Bit of Unexpected Shepherd

The Brett Philosophy Club at Trinity College here has asked me to deliver a paper; had I realized how busy I'd be at this time, I probably would have declined. Nonetheless, I'm very glad I did it; it was an enjoyable experience. I presented a paper on how Malebranche's attempt to eradicate what he considered to be philosophical idolatry (causal powers accounts of causation, as applied to creatures) led him to develop a subordinate theory based on causal law (because he held that only God could have real causal powers), briefly ending by pointing out that Hume was influenced by the final result. In other words, arguments Hume uses for epistemological ends (what can we know about causation) Malebranche had used for ethical ends (how can we avoid being pagan and immoral in what we attribute to bodies). It gave me a chance to adapt parts of chapter three of my thesis, and to do something in Hume, which is always nice. I realized four things, though:

1) I need to be more careful in question-and-answer situations. In answering a question about Hume's position, I brought up Lady Mary Shepherd's position as an example of how one might, while doing the same general thing Hume is doing, build a very different causal theory. From then on, most of the questions were about Shepherd; which I hadn't expected, and I spent the greater part of two hours arguing that Shepherd's critique of Hume was powerful and significant to a room largely filled with convinced Humeans. That is an exhausting endeavor. I should also have let the argument slide after a while; there's no point in trying to convince people who have never read Shepherd that a basic summary of her system shows that Hume hadn't thought of everything in his analysis. Just clear up obvious misunderstandings, and leave it at that. Alas, that's hard to do: irenic in temper, I am nonetheless utterly argumentative in my style of reasoning. And it is the latter that naturally comes up in these question-and-answer periods. So I need to take greater control of question-and-answer sessions, and keep them more on point. I can generally do this in a class; but then my ability to argue for two hours about Mary Shepherd is radically limited by the constraints of a classroom. Those constraints largely vanish outside that context. Lesson: Take greater control of the situation. It's probably also not a good idea to bring up philosophers people have never heard of in order to explain a point (although in my defense I needed some example of someone doing something generally like what Hume is doing who in particulars took a radically different path that did not involve claims deriving from Malebranche's occasionalism; and besides Shepherd there really isn't anyone).

2) I need to worry about my volume. For some reason I have very little natural ability to determine what the volume of my voice is when it is coming out of my mouth; I have to infer it from things like echoes and vibration in the chest and throat. If I know where my volume is, I can adjust it up or down; but it moves on its own. So, by slow increments, if I'm not paying specific attention to my volume, I'll end up shouting or speaking in a quiet voice like you might use in talking privately to someone right next to you. That makes it sound weird; it really isn't all that weird - but I do, if I'm not careful, end up speaking too loudly or too softly. (I'm afraid I accidentally came close to shouting someone down, not because I intended to, but simply because my objection came out much louder than I intended. Fortunately, they were into the argument enough that I don't think they were too startled.) Lesson: Pay more attention to volume.

3) On explaining Lady Mary Shepherd. From several discussions, I've learned that the two best reference points for explaining her causal views are Hume and Aristotle. So the next time I am explaining Shepherd's view to people who have never heard her, I need to do the following:

If discussing the critical aspect of her theory, explain how she is doing the same basic thing as Hume but arguing that he is doing it incorrectly.

If discussing the positive aspect of her theory, point out that it can be seen as a very generalized view of the Aristotelian causes, with such-and-such differences (it's a bit more mechanistic in structure, for instance).

Lesson: Hume and Aristotle are better ways of explaining Shepherd than Shepherd herself. And that's not really surprising; no one's ever read, and few have ever heard, of Shepherd, who has a very complicated theory of causation that had very little influence that's hard to boil down to a few intuitive bits (its strength is the way it all fits together, and the way it accords with the facts as a complete system). But Hume and Aristotle are easier to put in simple terms close to the way people usually think about these things, because both have had immense influence on that way of thinking.

4) On Malebranche, I'm a little worried that people (particular those of naturalistic or secular bent) might not find my conclusions very interesting - after all, they require us to say that if you look at an aspect of Malebranche's system without examining what theological doctrines it presupposes, you are distorting the system massively: Malebranche sees everything he is doing as Christian philosophy, and everything philosophical is intended to approximate, in one way or another, Catholic theological doctrines. (The fact that Malebranche's causal theory is primarily an ethical theory about our relationship with God, the point I talked about tonight, is an example of this.) But whenever I talk to people about this, they are always fascinated by it. Granted, they probably leave feeling that Malebranche was something of a loon; but it presents such a very different way of looking at the world that they find it endlessly fascinating. People (especially philosophically minded people) don't have problems with exploring even a radically different perspective. It's great exercise. Lesson: Don't worry about whether anyone will find something interesting; worry about whether they'll find it intelligible, because given that an interested audience is not hard to build.

I have a jillion things I have to do by Wednesday. But I'm just going to do a few of them tonight, then go home to bed.

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