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Friday, May 14, 2010 

You wanna know why I'm not in grad school right now?

Caveat: I'm in a foul mood today, having pulled something in my back and being quite restricted in my mobility and in an a fair amount of pain.

But I think even if I were having a great day, this article would bug the shit out of me. Sometimes when people ask me about philosophy, to explain what I studied I have to get into the difference between continental and analytic philosophy, which most people aren't aware of (I know I wasn't when I got to university). And when I'd say I tended to gravitate to the continental side, people would ask why. This kind of language is probably a good snappy answer:

"The soul has been a dead end in philosophy ever since the positivists unmasked its empty referential center. Scientific philosophy has shown us that there's no there there."

Leaving aside the extremely fucking aggravating fact that claiming that the soul is a dead end in "philosophy" is a bit like the Left Behind douchebags claiming their source is the "Bible" (they certainly think it's true, but it's very misleading at best), the very idea of "scientific philosophy" ought to set any self-respecting philosopher's teeth to grinding (much the same way I would expect scientists to get upset if I suggested that they start doing "philosophical science"). I like interdisciplinary stuff, I think it's tremendously important, but I also think that all disciplines involved should retain what makes them important and valuable. To engage in what Asma calls "scientific philosophy" is to give up on the project of philosophy.

I'm not a big proponent of the soul or anything; honestly, part of the reason the article irks me so much is that it's clear that Asma extends this kind of thinking to, well, just about anything that can't be measured. Somehow he manages to reconcile this:

"But more important, [expressions about the soul] are not really propositions about the world."

With this:

"'This song has soul' means: This music restores us, this music has integrity, there's something authentic and natural in its style, this music contains strong emotion, the repetition is hypnotic or ecstatic, there are elements of the African-American experience in this music and these lyrics, this song draws on gospel and R&B genres, this song is so funky you can smell it, and so on."

I am aware that "propositions about the world" is being used in a technical sense, but if the latter statements are not as real and true and meaningful, if they do not refer to things that exist in as real a fashion as the referents of Asma's example of "the cat is on the mat," then the world is a sad and impoverished place.

Honestly, I don't even really have a problem with what this kind of philosophy does. What I have a problem with is the people who assume that philosophy of language or epistemology somehow does away with metaphysics, which makes about as much sense as claiming that religion precludes science (or vice versa). Showing that something like the soul (which, again, I'm not that interested in defending; like Asma and Spinoza, I certainly don't think that anything approaching personality or memory lives on after death) does not exist in a scientifically relevent way is interesting and useful, but it is not the end of the conversation, and I feel sorry for people who think it is.

Bonus round: what's worse about the following quotation, Asma's lukewarm, "everyone has something right!" stance, or his condescension?

"Many atheists, like Richard Dawkins, will criticize soul believers as dimwits. And that is not my position. Everybody makes category mistakes, and everybody confuses subjective yearning and hope with objective matters of fact. Even the phrase 'He is a dimwit' is just an expressive claim masquerading as a descriptive claim."

This is the most interesting thing I've heard all week. Month. We need to chat soon. What's your preferred chat method?

Arrrgh I hate being slow responding to comments. Hopefully you're watching this space... I prefer either gmail chat or phone (I've got free long distance). Drop me a line and we'll figure something out.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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