Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Death of Rationalism

By Thomas Scarborough
We shall inhabit, for a moment, the world of the German philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen.  In 1973, Kamlah and Lorenzen co-authored the 'Logische Propädeutic' – an obscure title, with a dull brown cover, and ragged text hammered out on an electric typewriter. Yet it soon became a best-seller.

At its heart lies the concept of the predicator, which Kamlah and Lorenzen thought (in their definition of it) to be the key to a disciplined scientific and philosophical language. A predicator, to borrow a term from Gottlob Frege, 'saturates' the object. For example, in the sentence 'This is a Persian cat,' 'Persian cat' is the predicator. The technical definition: 'We assert a predicator of an object when we state something about the object.' A predicator, too, properly belongs only to a very limited range of predicators. For instance, one can point to a Cheshire cat and say, 'This is an animal,' although one cannot point to a Cheshire cat and say, 'This is a bicycle.' Predicators which are legitimately available for our use occur in chains, webs, or networks. For example:

    Cheshire cat → cat → animal → living thing
    Mountain bike → bicycle → vehicle → non-living thing

Note that, even at the end of such predicator chains, we may not arrive at anything common. To put this another way, a Cheshire cat and a mountain bike will rarely turn up in the same conversation. Therefore, the words which we speak fit comfortably into certain predicator chains, webs, or networks (we shall simply call them 'networks' here). Whether we speak about chemistry, ecclesiology, or philosophy, or anything else under the sun, our words fit comfortably into the subject under discussion. Yet even at the same time, most predicators will fail to fit into our conversation at any given time. For instance, while we are permitted to say, 'The maid carries the pail,' we cannot say, 'The maid carries the moon,' or anything of that sort.

In fact, our language is tightly constrained – so tightly constrained that when we put pen to paper, in whichever direction we cast our thoughts, we tend to be able only to construct networks of predicators which are agreeble to our starting point. Kamlah and Lorenzen observe, 'Predicators always stand in such a tightly woven nexus that any one tends to appear with others.' And briefly, they suggest a 'thought-provoking example': philosophy from Augustine to Leibniz was 'determined' by philosophers' understanding of predicators.

A philosophy has ambitions to think in every direction. Yet as it does so, it follows predicator rules (which resemble set theory), and is tightly bound by these rules. Thus Kamlah and Lorenzen note that we are 'thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics'. Therefore, as philosophers sat down in the past to write their philosophies, words were attracted to words – much as magnets snap to magnets – and so predicator networks produced philosophies. One merely needs to posit a starting point – the will to power, for instance – and snap-snap-snap, one has a philosophy. In short, philosophies self-assemble.

It happens through the very nature of words and their attractional forces. We all have experience of the same. Drop an origin into the middle of a pool of thought – or a starting point, a kernel, whatever one may call it – and a system grows. We sit down with a group of people in a hotel lobby. Our talk revolves around the tasteful furnishings and elegant décor. Then I drop a comment that I am doing fascinating research into elephants. From this, a string of conversation results which occupies the whole group for some time – until a concierge interrupts us with a message. I wonder then at my powers of influence. Yet it lies in the very nature of language, which click-click-clicks together in keeping with predicator rules.

Therefore, while philosophising may represent a more systematic pursuit than any casual combinations of words, philosophers have represented little more than the inclinations of the philosophers and their culture. All were bound by centuries of 'unacknowledged metaphysics' – namely, predicator rules. In fact, the same must apply to religion, politics, ethics. Predicator networks, even with the passage of time, remain largely intact. Is there an American in the house? The massacres of the Red Indians are in you, and you were in them. Is there a German? Adolf Hitler inhabits your mind, and you inhabited his. Is there a South African? Apartheid is in your heart, and you were in apartheid's heart.

Of course, we need not think so narrowly. There have been many Americans, Germans, and South Africans, as there have been people of many nations and cultures. A changed environment, too, means changed behaviour for the same hapless creatures. Even predicator networks will change. In this, Kamlah and Lorenzen set their hope. If we take a close look at the system and structure of our language over generations, indeed we may discern faint traces of change, if we focus hard enough.

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