On Descriptive Philosophy, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn, Part I

Here’s part of an essay I’m working on lately. Nethworkological relationalism is ultimately a type of descriptive philosophy. And so, I wanted to see where this term descriptive philosophy could go.

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Apodictic versus Descriptive Philosophies

What follows is a brief thought experiment. It aims to address three trends in philosophy, and the way in which philosophy has worked to get around the mid-century foundations crisis which goes by many names, but usually deconstruction, the linguistic turn, etc.

Let us start off with that of which perhaps all philosophy is actually composed, namely, a potentially useful simplification. In a manner which is admittedly crude, let us distinguish, provisionally and in the mode of experiment, between two ways of doing philosophy.

Let us say that apodictic philosophies are those which propose that that we can say something about the world about which we can be certain. Those who put forth this type of philosophy believe that even if they aren’t certain about things, that some philosophy, or even some statements, can be believed with certainty. These philosophers often use terms like ‘proof’, ‘proven,’ and ‘truth,’ and when these notions are attacked, argue that there may be human error, or perhaps we haven’t gotten there yet, but that somewhere, somehow, notions like truth, certainty, proof, etc., are possible.

Those who believe in apodictic philosophy are different from those who believe in what we can call descriptive philosophies. Descriptive philosophers believe that there are many possible descriptions of the world, and some are better or worse than others, often depending upon notions like context, or use, but that there are no philosophies that are inherently correct or true. Those who say they have proven something are simply using a type of description of the world that makes use of terms such as ‘certainty’ or ‘truth,’ but these terms are less useful than those which are more flexible, specific to context, etc.

Each of these two major outlooks applies not only to academic philosophizing, but also practical philosophizing. They impact things like the way scientific inquiry frames itself, political campaigns sell themselves, and people use ethical or moral systems to justify actions or weigh various options possibilties for action.

Each of these philosophies are, in their own way, not fully honest. Apodictic philosophies are always plagued by infinite regresses. You can only prove something by means of premises, yet how do you prove the premises? If we base our philosophy on the data of our senses, on what can we base our assurance in the reliability of our senses? Each shift to a meta-perspective of this sort shows the incompleteness of that which had provided certainty or proof, the need for a constant expansion of the context. We can call this the objection of incompleteness.

Descriptive philosophy is haunted not by incompleteness, but incoherence. How is it possible for there to be no fully correct way of looking at the world, yet some which are more correct than others? No capital ‘T’ truths, but many little ‘t’ truths, some of which are better than others? A double-standard creeps in through the back door. In place of absolute standards of reference and binary categorizations (ie: proven or disproven), there are many little standards of reference, each of which is full of micro-distinctions (ie: more true or less true). We can call this the objection of incoherence.

The terms incoherence and incompleteness are drawn from Kurt Gödel, and his famous deconstruction, around the time of WWII, of David Hilbert and Bertrand Russel’s dream of an apodictic mathematics. Gödel used the formal language of mathematics to show that you can take two major approaches to the question of certainty. You can opt for incoherence or incompleteness, and the choice is yours.

For those who choose incompleteness, many choose to just limit themselves, and say things like ‘we haven’t gotten there yet’, or ‘that’s beyond the concerns of what we’re talking abouty right now’, or ‘let’s just look at what’s right in front of us’, or something like that. And when someone says, ‘yeah, but what about those other [fill in the blank here]’, they are told something like, ‘later’, or ‘you’re changing the subject’, or ‘that’s not the point.’

For those who opt for incoherence, they often say things like, ‘well, ok, it’s not perfect, but it works.’ When others object and say things like, ‘well yeah, but don’t you ever worry that this lack of precision will come back to haunt you,’ most who opt for incoherence say things like, ‘not too much, cause see, it works.’

Sly Apodictic versus Sly Descriptive Philosophies

There are, of course, more sly versions of both. Sly descriptive philosophy often says something like this: there’s no such thing as certainty, and that’s the thing we’re most certain of. As evidence for this relative certainty, the effects of modes of action based on apodictic philosophy are often cited. Apodictic philosophy leads to paranoia, foundational crises, deferred gratification for some unrealistic state that none have ever seen, etc. Apodicitic philosophy finds its predeccesor in monotheism. And since descriptive philosophy is inherently pluralist, it sees mono- anything as the criteria, in reverse, for justifying its philosophies.

So there is a form of apodicticity at the bottom of descriptive philosophies, namely, the certainty in the poorness of apodictic philosophies. This is the foundational incoherence at the foundation of descriptive philosophy. But from this flows, in reverse, a system of gradations. Philosophies that are apodictic are more wrong than others. But this is not the only standard of value, for each descriptive philosophy produces its own standard of value, which is the compliment, if in reverse, to that of apodicticity. There are many ways to be uncertain, just as there are many uncertain types of action. So, for example, in addition to being uncertain, do you want to be useful for world peace, or the production or art, or whatever other standard of value you choose? Such are the questions posed by sly descriptivism.

All of these standards of value, however, ultimately have the valuation of plurality in common to them. And as such, they are all variations on a theme, but variations nonetheless. And the surety which grounds them, ultimately, is that the value of plurality works better than that of certainty. Many values are better than one, plurality more than unity. Here we see the manner in which one of the predecessors of descriptivism is polytheism, or animism, or some other poly- oriented type of belief, in contrast to the mono- of apodicticism.

Sly apodictic philosophy, on the contrary, says that ultimately we can’t defeat the infinite regresses attendant to proof. But apodictic philosophy is justified by what it produces in the world. It’s useful. It produces a world of order, relative certainty, predictability, etc., despite the relative chaos of the rest of what exists. While the justification for these values (ie: order, stability, etc.) they are better than those espoused by descriptive philosophy, which is groundless relativism, which ultimately leads to chaos. Thus, sly apodictic philosophy is a descriptive philosophy, but a unique one, one which values one type of description over others, just as sly descriptive philosophy is a type of apodictic philosophy, but a pluralistic one, which values many types of description over others.

In this sense, we can say that sly apodictic philosophy is the truly descriptive one, if in reverse, just as sly descriptive philosophy is the truly apodictic one, if in reverse as well. And in many senses, all apodictic philosophy is sly, as is all descriptive, depending on how naïve a person or philosophy is, or how honest with themselves, and often each is simply a side of the other, for dishonesty works well, and naivete is hard to prove. Furthermore, people aren’t necessarily as consistent as philosophy papers in the ways they justify their practices, so most people engages in some combination, juxtaposition, or oscillation of strategies, and often only those who do things like write philosophy papers worry about the finer details of consistency. That said, most people tend to have one general strategy, and lean to one side or the other,  apodictic or descriptive, whether sly or otherwise at a given moment. That said, there is another option.


Let us examine a little closer what we have just done in the preceding paragraphs, in the manner in which our discussion of apodictic and descriptive philosophy has produced a distinction, only to unravel it in the process of looking more carefully at its finer points.

What we have just done, in the preceding paragraphs, is to produce a distinction, namely, between apodictic and descriptive philosophy, and then deconstruct it. That is, we showed how it doesn’t actually work when you get down to it, that under close examination, the terms in question cease to make sense. We reduced the terms to incoherence by carefully examining that upon which they depend to make sense, and then compared the ramifications of these. And by deconstructing the terms, showing their incoherence, we then demonstrated that they are missing something, are incomplete, in their attempt to describe the world, and therefore we also managed to deconstruct the very distinction between incoherence and incompleteness. So we deconstructed the original terms under consideration, and then deconstructed the deconstruction itself. We are left with nothing to stand upon, even that which pulled the rug out from under us.

At the risk of gross generalization, ultimately and arguably the stuff of philosophy, this is what the philosophical movement popularly known as deconstruction argues, namely, that ultimately, symbolic systems, or discourses, whether philosophical or practical, will deconstruct. Legal, political, religious, philosophical, mathematical, and scientific discourses, all of these can be deconstructed.

And beyond deconstruction, as a proper and named philosophical movement, most discourses in the 20th century had some form of movement analogous to deconstruction. Math had its Gödel, physics its Heisenberg, modernism its postmodernism, and philosophy its various linguistic turns and deconstructive movements.

Deconstruction is ultimately an odd hybrid of both sly apodicticity and sly descriptivism. For if everything can be deconstructed, then we have proven, in negatively, in a sense, that all symbolic systems are incoherent and hence incomplete. Because if all are incoherent, none can prove their superiority over others.

But deconstruction has more faith in its ability to deconstruct other philosophies than in any other description. So deconstruction is apodictic in relation to itself, and descriptive in relation to all other philosophies, which are equally bad for they are as yet undeconstructed. And though deconstruction also deconstructs itself, if has more faith in this deconstruction than anything else, such that while it can lean to the apodictic and incomplete side by deconstructing other philosophies, or lean descriptive and incoherent side by deconstructing itself, ultimately each is the complement of the other. And as such, deconstruction itself is the final nail in the coffin of the apodictic and desctiptive distinction, for it proves, in its very existence, that such a distinction makes no sense, for it is both incoherent in its premises, yet also incomplete, for it leaves out the need for deconstruction, the third position which haunts both as possibility.

And yet, in its own way, deconstruction is its own philosophy, a third position, which now joins apodicticity and descriptivism as our two primary types of philosophy. So let us make some room, and say now that there are three primary types of philosophy, namely, apodicticism, descriptivism, and deconstruction.

What then? . . . (more to come!)


~ by chris on March 26, 2011.

4 Responses to “On Descriptive Philosophy, Or Beyond the Linguistic Turn, Part I”

  1. Perhaps this is where the next jump is philology rather than philosophy. The idea is that as we watch the wavelets, we finally see the wave, and more to the point the tsunami. There’s a danger here, though, of forgetting lessons learned along the way. If we start to talk about managing the number of tangents we pursue to prevent arguing with too many loose ends, then we may get into the trap of saying that reality is merely the play of connections splitting and rejoining again. The discussion is useful but it cannot itself be the fundamental idea because then the whole thing starts again.

    Instead using certain statements about observations being incomplete or incoherent we can draw a box around philosophy. It’s not that the box limits reality but rather it forces us to examine philosophy’s evolution as habits rather than developments and this is where fundamental concepts and their direct derivatives emerge.

    Take those and plug them back into the discussion and apodictic and descriptive philosophERS will see the light. Maybe.

  2. O.K., but this really takes us more or less up to the linguistic turn. I’m curious to see where you go from here, and if you can pull off a different “third way.” I tend to be a sly-descriptivist-w/-an uneasy-conscience myself. I am guessing (do correct me) from some things you’ve written before (along the “who-gets-to-say” lines) that you have some descriptive-y leanings yrself. But I like very much your point — and I take your point too — that the descriptive approach harbors the vulnerability to being called incoherent (“more or less true,” indeed). This is why I have tended to think that philosophy aims not at a single formulable account at all, but at an experience of insight which is strictly speaking beyond words (as Plato insists), but which is generated by the movement between systems, as one oscillates from apodictic indispensables to descriptive variation and back, over and over.

    • oh yeah, I’m definitely a descriptivist, and the title should give that away. and later in the essay, I’ll call myself on that in a recursive manner that becomes part of what the essay’s saying. I do agree with you, that there’s something to be said about oscillation or blending between justificatory practices. I’m not sure that I’d say though that everything is beyond words, though, depends on what you mean by this. I think that we believe what we believe due to commitments which go beyond words perhaps, into the realm of affect, but which can always be described, if incompletely.

  3. […] Here’s Part II of this essay in progress. For Part I, see here.] […]

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