Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Philosophical Method: Dialectic vs Demonstration, or, Matlock vs Sherlock

Dan asked a great question on the previous post:
…can you to define what you mean by "philosophical method"? Also, what is the difference between the "philosophical method" and the "scientific method"?
Of course, Dan is correct.  There is no way to answer my question from the previous post without first addressing his questions.  In this post I will attempt to answer his first question.

I think “philosophical method” might be defined differently depending on when and where it is asked.  I will try, to the best of my ability, to explain what it might have meant to R. Yehuda Halevi. The simplest answer is that it is a method whereby one attempts to reach the truth.  That said, I think it is important to distinguish between two types of philosophical method: dialectic and demonstration.

Let’s start with dialectical method.  Let us say that a philosopher wishes to understand what love is.  He or she might start with some examples and arrive at a definition.  This definition will be tested with more examples until a satisfactory definition that seems to account for all the cases he or she can come up with is reached.  This work of definition (called induction) is actually carried on before the “dialectic” begins.  Once a proposition emerges the dialectical work—a process of question and answer whereby propositions are tested (think Matlock--ignore these parentheses if Matlock means nothing to you)—can begin.  A proposition is asserted and difficulties are raised and resolutions are offered until it is either affirmed or rejected.   
For example, let us say that based on all the examples I can think of, love should be defined as the desire to possess something.  At this point the dialectic may begin.  My opponent (real or imagined) might counter that one who is truly in love with another person would be willing to die for that individual which would clearly not result in the possession of that object.  I might find a way to counter that argument with a refinement of my original definition or I might be forced to completely abandon my definition entirely.  I might even realize that my opponent and I are talking about two different kinds of love.
This method is clearly limited.  After all, who knows what new, more clever argument might be thought of, or what new case might come to light that might throw into question what was previously thought settled. 

There is, however, another philosophical method which offers more certainty: demonstration.  It starts with propositions that are considered unassailable and moves forward by building arguments, step-by-step, from these original premises toward some conclusion (think Sherlock--I would be very surprised if that name means nothing to you). 
For example, everyone would agree that man is mortal.  Everyone would also agree that Socrates was a man.  Therefore, we can say with certainty that Socrates is mortal.
Or: All that is perfect does not change; G-d is perfect; G-d does not change.
The problem with demonstration (which works deductively) is that the conclusion can only be as strong as the premises.  Language has a funny way of playing tricks on the mind.  The vaguer one’s terms the more likely one’s conclusions might not be as certain as one thought.
For example, everyone would agree that that which is good is beloved.  Socrates was good.  Therefore, we can say with certainty that Socrates was beloved.
At first, this line of reasoning sounds solid.  However, one need not read very far into Plato’s Apology to realize that not everyone loved Socrates.  Now, is the fault in how I am defining beloved?  Is it in my definition of good?  Or, is it in my assertion that that which is good is beloved.  What we can say with certainty is that this conclusion is flawed in some way because it contradicts the facts.


I would like to suggest that Rabbi Yehuda Halevi had more problems with demonstration than he did with dialectic.  (My apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)

12 comments:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

May I add another name to the mix of Sherlock and Matlock... Euclid?

Euclid's geometry sheds another sense altogether on demonstration than do the examples to be found in the dialogues of Plato. These demonstrations have also had somewhat more stability and durabilty than the dialogues.

In this vein, it is important to note that Plato himself was also a great mathematician.

Yehuda said...

Sorry, you can't add Euclid...it doesn't rhyme with the other names. But seriously in my next post I was going to talk about mathematics as the bridge to modern scientific method. Plato's idealism seems a precursor of "modern" quantitative science. Euclid is mathematical not philosophical. Philosophy runs into trouble when it thinks it can achieve the same level of certitude and precision as mathematics. Forgive me a quote from the beginning of Aristotle's Ethics:
"it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

I was just talking about the logical act demonstration. The quote also suggests that to understand the excellent point that Aristotle makes about selecting the proper logical form, does require a sensitivity to demonstration most properly speaking, ie in geometry.

Yaakov said...

Even as certain a subject as mathematics is only as certain as its premises. Which in the case of Euclid raises the issue of the 5th postulate.

Yehuda said...

This will hopefully lead us to an understanding of RYH's problem with philosophism. It basically comes down to an over reliance on premises deemed unassailable yet in fact limited by the inherent ambiguity in human language and ultimately the cognitive gesture itself. For RYH revelation is necessary to deal with the flaws inherent in rational processes. Through a faithful tradition we are given the guidance we need to attain true knowledge. If I remember correctly, Malbim seems to make a similar point in his introduction to the Brit HaBechira--this is how he defines aiduyot.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

I wonder if there may not be an ambiguity in the notion of "problem with philosophism" which differentiates RYH and Rambam that also is being brought out here.

Though Rambam also thought there was a fundamental problem with philosophism, he seems to have a distinct sense of what this problem with philosophism actually is.

Am I right in thinking that this distinguishing aspect of Rambam sense of the problem with philosophism manifests in his advice to gain a familiarity with the distinctly rigorous experience of geometric definitions which changes the very notion of what "demonstration" is?

Also in that Rambam's differing sense of the problem with philosophism also manifests in the decidedly demonstrative nature of Talmud Torah Rambam fosters through the Mishne Torah?

Yehuda said...

I've been thinking a lot about the difference between RYH and Rambam. Could you expand upon what you are saying? In which text does Rambam give this advice?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

A few places, for example in the intro of MN to R Yosef:


וכאשר הסדרת לפני מה שכבר למדת 8 ממדעי התכונה, ומה שכבר ידעת מן המדעים מדברים ההכרחיים להיות מצע לפניהם 9, הוספתי בך אהבה לטוב תבונתך ומהירות תפישתך, וראיתי כי תשוקתך ללמודים גדולה מאוד, והנחתיך להכשיר את עצמך בהם ביודעי את תכליתך. וכאשר הסדרת לפני מה שכבר למדת 8 ממלאכת ההגיון, נקשרה תקוותי בך, וראיתיך ראוי לגלות לך סודות ספרי הנבואה, עד שתדע מהם מה שראוי שידעוהו השלמים.

Avrohom said...

Does the problems with the dialectic method express itself in the Talmud as well? In other words, the concept of a "better question" would assumedly be a problem that is inherent in the dialectic style of the Talmud. If so, what are the implications of that in terms of absolute truth?

Avrohom said...

I hope you continue with your Kuzari posts. I printed it out and enjoyed reading it on Shabbos.

Yehuda said...

Avrohom,
I do think that the Talmud does express this understanding of the limits of dialectic. The most famous teaching relating to this issue is the תנורו של עכנאי (Bava Metzia 59b). The conclusion of the gemara would go something like: "The absolute truth is only in Heaven--all we have is our best judgement."

I do hope to continue the Kuzari posts--time permitting. I am so glad to hear that you are benefiting from them.