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.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Kuzari: Philosophism

This past summer I began leading a class on the Kuzari at Sephardic Bikur Holim, Seattle.  It was such a joy studying this beautiful work with such an amazing group of people.  On the Shabbat of Parashat Noach the class went on hiatus and will resume, God willing, March 15th.  We read and discussed the first 67 sub-sections of the first (of 5) sections of the Kuzari.

Here’s a link to the text: in Hebrew and in English.

Over the next few months I will try and post as regularly as possible.  I will keep the posts short and to the point.  My goal is to create a forum for discussion.  In the first few posts I will simply review what we have already learned.  I will try and end each post with a question (or questions) that I hope will get the discussion started.

And so, let us start at the beginning.

The Kuzari begins with a dream.  The King of the Khazars (the Kuzari) had a dream in which an angel informed him that his intention was good but his deeds were not desirous to God.  The Kuzari feels driven to fulfill the demand placed on him by his dream.  First he seeks the council of a philosopher.  However, he is not terribly pleased with what he hears.  

The world, as construed by the philosophers, cannot countenance a God with desires.  To have desire is to be lacking and God, the most perfect being of all, can have no lack.  To make matters worse there is no way that God could care about the Kuzari and his particular predicament.  God, being perfect, is not subject to change.  The Kuzari is one particular individual who is constantly undergoing changes and transformations.  If God were to know the Kuzari His knowledge would change and, hence, He himself would be changing. 

The Kuzari is not satisfied with the philosopher for one simple reason—his idealistic world view contradicts his actual experience.  As much as the philosopher might not be able to construe God as having desires or knowledge of particulars and fit such a God into his logical system, the Kuzari knows what he experienced: he had the dream.

Though the path of the philosopher is rejected there is a tremendous amount to be gained from Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s presentation.  The philosopher helps us understand the intellectual milieu of the Kuzari.  Just as we, as modern Jews, might struggle against scientism (the view that everything can be known through the scientific method and only that which can be known through the scientific method exists) Yehuda HaLevi had to struggle against (let me coin a term): philosophism (the belief that everything can be known through the philosophical method and only that which can be understood through the philosophical method exists).

Question for discussion: in what ways might philosophy be valuable?  In what ways might philosophy be dangerous?