Friday, 21 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-3

Introduction (Contd.)

Where does the rest of the meaning come from to enrich human cognition? Needless to say, ever more sophisticated investigations on the nature of human language are under way to expand the scope of linguistic theory and to address the doubts just raised (Hinzen and Sheehan 2013). Yet, as argued in The Primacy of Grammar, it is not evident if any significant notion of theory applies beyond grammatical investigations. As far as genuinely scientific studies on language go, there is grammatical theory stuck at LF, and there is philately.
  Given the predominance of language in human cognitive architecture, the restriction just sketched seems to be the case for much cognitive investigation as well where language is intimately involved: in the study of concepts and reasoning for example. For the rest of the cognitive studies detached from language, the scene seems to be worse since there is no sign of ‘physics’ at all; it is mostly just fancy organization of behavioral data. Thus there is much room for wide-ranging skepticism about the scope of the cognitive sciences. The Homeric struggle seemed to extend far beyond language; it threatened to cover the architecture of human cognition itself. It seemed that not only that the botanist plays a crucial role in human inquiry, there are areas of deep human concern to which even the botanist does not have access. Yet humans tread those areas with impressive cognitive confidence as they lead their common lives.
    There seems to be three options in hand with respect to how we respond to the skeptic. First, one could keep digging at the vast phenomenon of human cognition with whatever scientific tool is in hand; this is what cognitive scientists and philosophers are doing in any case. Some of my own continuing work falls under this option, as noted; we may ask, for instance, if language and music share the same grammatical structure. Second, one could embrace wholesale skepticism about science, refuse to make any formal-theoretical move, and turn philosophical problems into ‘literary’ activities: call it post-structuralism. Third, one uses skepticism as a strategy to progressively expand the notion of human inquiry; in other words, by showing the limitations of one form of inquiry one draws attention to the significance of some other forms. In effect, we may view alternative forms of inquiry as reinforcing—rather than negating—each other: call it, if you like, reflective pluralism.
   I don’t think that the chapters that follow mark any definite choice between these broad options, for reasons—including moral and political ones—that emerge as we proceed. Basically, the inclination is to leave things as they are. However, it will not be implausible to detect a sympathy for the first and the third options, and an attempt to come to terms with their ‘incommensurability.’ There is also a tendency to ignore the second option largely because holding it along with the other two options precipitates flat inconsistency; hence, I have ignored the vast literature—Roland Barthes, Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and others—that propagates the second option. Moreover, the second option grants salience to just one form of inquiry, namely, the literary one; after spending a life in analytic philosophy and in admiration of physics, one develops a visceral discomfort with any proclamation that fails to uphold their value. But the association with the formal does not prevent me to shift to the literary mode whenever needed.
   In any case, I lack the enthusiasm to argue these choices here because I have very little interest in metatheory. I rather prefer Wittgenstein’s idea of simply describing the modes of human inquiry—‘forms of life,’ as he would say—as they shore up when we look for them within the vicinity of our own agency. In any case, notwithstanding the option one recommends, there is the need to furnish something of a perspective for the phenomenon that humans have reflective resources to lead cognitively meaningful lives. What are those resources? Is there an account of human cognitive agency as a whole?
     These chapters started emerging one after another as a variety of very specific questions about the form and limits of human inquiry began to form in mind. For example, at one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, literature, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?
     With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form, as noted. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience? These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists, philosophers of science, sociologists of knowledge, and critical theorists. In these chapters, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the skeptical inquiry turns on itself.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-2

Introduction (continued)

 From a skeptical point of view
So, what explains the diffused character of these chapters? I think the answer lies in the way in which my own intellectual interests unfolded. Having made a decision to shift, early in my career, from the beautiful abstractions of mathematical physics to the more existential concerns of philosophy, I settled down to a range of exciting new developments in analytic philosophy in the post-Wittgensteinian era. The work of fine philosophers like John Austin, Peter Strawson, Willard Quine, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, and other stalwarts of late 20th century analytic philosophy, promised a healthy mix of rigorous, often formal, inquiry with what Hilary Putnam called ‘the whole hurly-burly of human actions’ (cited in Nussbaum 2016). Philosophers such as Peter Strawson (1992) and others have often suggested that philosophy attempts to produce a systematic account of the general conceptual apparatus of which our daily practices display a tacit and unconscious mastery.
    But the subtle, abstract, and yet unifying framework of physics lingered in the mind. This led to a variety of dissatisfaction with analytic philosophy, especially in the study of language. We need to step back a little to see why. In the first half of the 20th century, great philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Ayer and others took what Richard Rorty (1967) called the linguistic turn. Tracing it to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Alberto Coffa (1991) called this mode of doing philosophy the semantic tradition. Within this broad tradition, each of the authors cited in the preceding paragraph—Austin, Quine, etc.—belonged primarily to the broad discipline of philosophy of language. The study of language thus formed a central part of the analytic effort. As with most students of analytic philosophy in those days, I was attracted to the study of language both for the intricate formal character of human language, and its ubiquitous role in human life.
    Linguistic philosophy promised a rigorous, scientific approach of its own on classical philosophical topics such as realism, knowledge, belief, even consciousness. For example, Willard Quine (1953) argued that for something to exist it has to be the value of a bound variable in a true theory; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) suggested that to understand consciousness is to understand the meaning of the first-person sentence I am in pain; Bertrand Russell (1919) held that beliefs such as <Ramanuj is wise> are propositional attitudes. I will have much more to say on these things in the chapters that follow.
    Since linguistic philosophy proposed to examine classical issues by viewing them as ‘semantic’ problems—that is, in terms of the structure and function of language—it is reasonable to expect that this philosophy will also furnish a formally satisfying account of language itself from which the solution to philosophical problems maybe rigorously derived. However, linguistic philosophy lacked a genuinely theoretical understanding of the immense richness of human language. This is what a mind initially trained in physics sorely missed. This philosophy did make formal proposals occasionally, such as Russell’s famous theory of descriptions (Russell 1905), to address philosophical problems. But the formal tools were borrowed from the discipline of symbolic logic which is not only a poor substitute for human language; its character is parasitic on human language.   
     In any case, even with the tools of formal logic, human language resisted any grand formal theory for addressing philosophical problems, as Peter Strawson (1950) pointed out in his stringent criticism of Russell’s theory of descriptions: ordinary language, Strawson declared, has no logic. ‘Ordinary language’ philosophers thus focused on detailed, taxonomic properties of language in the style of a botanist, as John Austin (1962) suggested, rather than that of a physicist. The study of language fostered what Strawson (1971) called a Homeric struggle between ‘formal-semantic’ and ‘communication-intention’ theorists of language. My impression is that the scene in analytic philosophy hasn’t improved since even if no one openly makes claims for either ‘ideal language’ or ‘ordinary language.’ At that stage, it was too early for me to admire the value of this uncertainty in philosophical inquiry.
  While analytic philosophy was going through this apparent absence of direction, interesting developments took place elsewhere. I expressed my disenchantment with the state of linguistic philosophy in my doctoral thesis, and turned to linguistics and cognitive science to see if there was a ‘physics’ of human language and mind. Two related developments promised what I was looking for: exciting proposals in theoretical linguistics by Noam Chomsky, and the formulation of a computational theory of mind by Alan Turing. Both strands of research, and much else besides, had become established academic pursuits by the time I completed my doctoral thesis. As I continued with my exploration of the new science of the mind, certain interesting ideas and results did appear on the table in due course which I put together in some papers and monographs culminating in the Primacy of Grammar (2010). That form of work continues elsewhere.

    However, throughout my engagement with the new science of the mind, I was beginning to realize that the ideas that interested me there covered very restricted and abstract domains of human cognition such that the intellectual salience of much of the rest of the new science could be questioned. For example, the formal resources of linguistic theory no doubt explained some intriguing facts about how sound is connected to what may be called the internal significance of a structure, called Logical Form (LF) in the technical literature. However, it is also clear that the theory does not have either the resources or the desire to explain what may ordinarily be viewed as the meaning of a sentence. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry_I


Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, is not merely a reflexive response to external stimuli, it is a reflective product of human inquiry, often structured in imagination. What are the forms of inquiry available to humans to lead a significant life? How are these forms related to each other? The twelve exploratory chapters of varying length collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a variety of directions.

Most of these directions emanate from classical philosophical investigations on human knowledge. Since the nature of human inquiry is the general theme, it is not surprising that the chapters cover a wide range of familiar philosophical topics: the nature of reality, scientific realism; concepts of truth, knowledge, belief, consciousness; character of mind, language, grammar, meaning; literature and philosophy; nature of music, religious discourse; knowledge and human destiny, and others. Although I have called them ‘Chapters’, it is not unreasonable to view the volume as a collection of essays. 

These pieces were written in a discontinuous fashion over a number of years for very different occasions and audiences, and at varying, often conflicting, reflective moments. Strictly speaking, their spatial assembly here does not really amount to a sustained fully articulated monograph; significant silences insulate the individual write-ups from each other. Given the range and complexity of the listed topics, I do not think there could be a single substantive monograph that covers them all. In any case, I am not concerned here either with history of philosophy or with philosophical anthropology, even though I end up doing these things on occasion to set the scene. My intention is not to report on the current state of these topics. They are discussed because they necessarily infiltrate the mind when you think about the idea of being human.

Yet, this is not just a compilation of assorted papers to mark the end of a career. If a metaphor is needed to cover the collation, one could say, in celebrated terms, that they form a ‘family’ as their resemblances ‘criss-cross and overlap’. I think it is better to view the pieces as forming a group of proximate islands in the same stretch of the sea; the image of an island seems appropriate because each chapter stands on its own without directly depending on the others. However, I have used the method of cross-reference frequently to aid the memory, sharpen a point, or to construct a bridge. I will try to describe the composite picture shortly.

Individually too, the pieces are more like free-flowing essays than formally structured papers meant for disciplinary journals. I am aware that centuries of the most extensive reflection and scholarship across many fields of inquiry have nourished each of the topics listed above. Especially in the last century almost all of these topics have attained formidable technical character. Apart from developing theoretical vocabulary of their own, philosophers have explored these issues with insights from mathematical logic, theoretical linguistics, computer science, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. As a result, it is now expected that these otherwise large and elusive issues are discussed in terms of the latest technical proposal; fair enough, that is how academic papers are written.

The pieces assembled here generally do not follow that trajectory. Although they do cover familiar philosophical topics like knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation, and the like, that are often discussed in professional platforms, these topics carry much value beyond the closely guarded canons of the academia. After all, as the legend goes, many of these topics started their career on ancient streets or under banyan trees; arguably, unlike other branches of inquiry, they retain the memory of those plebeian assemblies. These chapters attempt to convey a sense of relaxed conversation in a disarming voice to reach audiences outside professional meetings of philosophers. As a result they sometimes ignore, even disobey, the formal tone and attire of academic discourse.

However, these are not ‘popular’ pieces by any means. After a life in professional philosophy, often guided by inputs from the adjacent sciences, it is by now intellectually impossible to entirely avoid the formal tone and at least some of the demanding literature that informs it. In that slightly uncertain sense, these are reflective efforts that are seeking a zone of comfort somewhere between technical journals and literary supplements, but never aiming for a talk-show. As a result, in many cases, they start out with the usual preparations of the professional philosopher, but they seldom stay on course to the end; in a variety of ways, the discussion moves away from familiar abstract channels to more direct arenas of common life. It is not for me to judge whether the effort had been successful, but I hope they do convey some sense of honesty of purpose because, in most cases, the discourse was not deliberately designed.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

From the sceptical point of view

Announcing the printing of a new book titled


To be published by

Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, are not merely responses to external stimuli, they are reflective products of human inquiry. The twelve exploratory essays collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a largely sceptical point of view.

At one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?

With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form in recent decades. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience?

These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists and critical theorists. In these essays, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the sceptical inquiry turns on itself.

The twelve essays carve the route from the scientific mode to the literary and artistic modes through a survey of the forms of human inquiry. The book will engage the attention of philosophers, including philosophers of science, literary theorists, cultural studies, and history and sociology of human knowledge.

Endorsements

With remarkable range and depth, these tantalizing essays explore scientific and cultural forms of inquiry, leading concerns of Indian and western philosophy (and indigenous thought as well), the role of the cognitive agent in description and ascription – concepts that are examined in depth -- and other topics that have inspired reflection on the world and ourselves for ages.  At each point, there are instructive and challenging new perspectives and insights.  A notable achievement, and a welcome gift to the inquiring mind.
Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji's selection of essays in this book are reflections of a fine scholar made over a very worthy career of research and teaching in Philosophy and Linguistics in India for the last many decades. Their range is wide —science, philosophy, literature, linguistics, music, religion, and everyday experience—and they are at once rigorous and accessible. They reflect a deep commitment to scientific objectivity, even as they are wise in their understanding of the limits of science’s reach into the domain of what he calls ‘common life’. They will be a source of much pleasure and instruction and insight to the serious reader.
Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

A collection of essays on classical topics -- knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation – by a critical and innovative mind with an atypical intellectual profile. Mukherji is nourished by analytic philosophy and theoretical linguistics, but his interests go well beyond narrow academic concerns. His writings reflect the breadth of his aspirations and should appeal to the general public as well as to the experts.
Francois Recanati, Director, Institut Jean Nicod and Senior Fellow, CNRS, Paris.