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)

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