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Can Logic Be Institutionalized

Dunderbeck's sausage machine
by Don Palmgren Jr. 1998

Oh, Dunderbeck, Oh, Dunderbeck,
How could you be so mean?
There are so few puppies and kittens
Since you invented your sausage machine.

You pour them in and grind them up,
And sausage links come out,
And we have a good breakfast everyday,
But there are no more puppies and kittens about.

-- A bit of Childhood doggerel
Why do we have oceanography? Because there are oceans. Why do we have entomology? Because there are bugs. Why do we have botany? Because there are plants. Why do we have philosophy? How about: because of questions.

Our school system, with its focus on tests and grades programs us to look at questions as a half-finished answer, as a blank to be filled in. We go through primary and secondary school, first and foremost, for the following purpose: To learn the right thing to say. So when someone asks us, "When did the First World War begin?" we can answer, "August, 1914." And when someone asks us, "Who wrote Faust?" we can respond, "Goethe." And if we are asked, "Approximately how fast does a body fall on earth?" we know that the answer is, "9.8 meters per second per second." This is what learning is; this is what knowledge means. We live in a world of experts, and an expert is someone who can provide answers. In a school, this is made clear by the basic distinction between the students who are there to gain knowledge and the teachers who supposedly possess knowledge.

We, all of us that live in a common age, collectively project a correct picture of the world. This is akin to what Hegel called the "ethical substance" -- that is a list of statements which always meet with a resounding "Yes!" (Such as, "The United States declared its independence in 1776," and "H2O is the chemical formula for water.") Something is true if it is a part of the correct picture of the world. The picture is an atemporal abstraction, projected onto what we may call the literary plane of being (as in "It's in the literature."). The right thing to say is the active, practical counterpart of the purely theoretical correct picture. It involves not just answering questions, but also proper forms of behavior, what we say first and foremost with our actions -- our dress, our tone, our gestures and expressions. Children go to school to be civil-ized, to learn what it is one does and does not do. Society rests upon this constant, implicit flow of assurances. If you and I are caught in a fender-bender, I have a fairly good idea that you're going to show me your insurance card, and that you're not going to pull out a gun and start blasting away at me. When I order a burger at McDonald's I know that the girl behind the counter is going to take my order, then my money, return my change, and then produce some food. I know she is not about to hop up on the counter and initiate a strip tease. (Of course I can be wrong, but that's not the point. For me to be wrong, the cashier would have to, immoraly and unpredictably, break the moral pattern of social behavier. (And do note that the right thing to say is inherently moral/social, for, after all, saying and doing the wrong thing lands one in the principal's office, the unemployment line, jail, or the mad house.)

Given this as the basis, not just of our society, but of everything that might be identified as society, it becomes rather clear why people seize-up like an overheated aluminum engine when they run up against some abstract, arcane question like, "What really exists?" "What is Love?" "What is Justice?" "What is Good?" or "What is God?" We go casting about for the right thing to say -- searching the correct picture of the world, the sum of our school learning, for a prefabricated, caned answer. Generally we don't find one and resort to: "Well, everybody has their own idea of X and no one's is exactly the same as anyone else's."

Allow me to draw a distinction, to put real, open questions on the one hand and closed, school questions on the other (one might also talk in terms of "wild" vs. "tame" questions). A real question doesn't have an answer -- that's why something really is in question. It is not closed off with a terminating answer, but left open -- like a pointer saying, "Go this way." Biology, for example, is the response to the question, "What is life?" No one in their right mind expects an answer to that thing! The ongoing answer -- the response -- is the whole field of biology up to the present moment.

A question, if it is to be settled, is settled by a proof. We have in our minds the idea that proof basically means math-proof -- a private, internal transaction between my mind and some collection of abstract ideas -- numbers or propositions.

God possesses all perfections.
Necessary existence is a perfection.
Therefore God possesses the quality of necessary existence.
So, I have proved that God exists!

This definition of a proof is the result of growing up in a mathematically infused education system, but it misses the larger picture. First and foremost a proof is a method for settling an argument -- actually, it is the most morally/socially acceptable method for settling an argument. If you and I disagree on something there are a number of ways I can get you to agree with me. I can have Rocko and Knuckles beat you up. I can blackmail you. I can bribe you. I can charm you. But every society holds that there is some best way to settle the debate and that is for someone to offer a proof. (And, by the way, what counts as proof changes from one age to another. If two 18th century gentlemen disagreed then they may fight a dual; while if a commoner disagreed with a nobleman, the nobleman would be perfectly just in having his retainers beat the man severely.) Let us call these two pictures the internal transaction proof (where you sit in the corner and think to yourself) and the social, or communication proof. The former, pursues the "facts of the world"; the latter: what is moraly best. However, proof (as we can now see in our enhanced model) is a channel of communication, and thus a "fact" is really an idea that circulates freely (like money) along the appropreate medium. A fact that cannot circulate (like money that cannot circulate) has no value. In philosophy our medium is logic or (to say much the same) reason.

So why bring all this up? Well, for one thing, to point to two orders of thinking involved in the distinction between what Aristotle dubed First Philosophy (metaphysics) and Second Philosophy (which we may generaly interprit as "science.") Second Philosophy is the systematic construction and deconstrution of the correct picture of the world. It relies on the model of proof I'm calling the "internal transaction model." When we ask questions at this level we desire the "correct view on ___," -- that is, "How does it figure in the correct picture of the world?" But First Philosophy is the study of the picture itself -- what would count as a correct picture, what is the picture used for and by whom? Now clearly you'll get nowhere by asking how the correct picture figures in the correct picture or 'what is the correct view on the correct view?' Thus, in order for metaphysical inqury to be possible, we have to step beyond the internal transaction, mathematical, concept of proof and view the proving activity in its larger context: as a social (and indeed moral) activity.

Can logic, then, be institutionalized? Well the answer of course is, "Yes, it has been. That's what academia is." But the point of the question is not to answer it. (Answers are a bloody nuisance.) Instead let's look at the question itself. It becomes two questions: "What is logic?" (already addressed above) and, "What is an institution?"

Let's take up the second question, "What is an institution?" Many things are called "institutions." "Rock n' Roll has become an American Institution." "It's become an institution to wear a neck tie around here." Or, "The savage conflict between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland has become thoroughly institutionalized." It is at this point worth noting that language is basically metaphorical. We tend to assume that language is naturally prosaic, and only under special circumstances is it rendered poetic, but reflect on language in use and you will see that the converse is true, and the meaning of a word is, naturally, in its use. There are two general features of the things we refer to as "institutions." (1) They are not just a public habit, but a public habit with some public purpose, so you can always ask what that purpose might be (as in this paper we are exploring the purpose of reason). (2) The public's business is better done unobtrusively. Therefore institutions tend to be hidden... but generally hidden in plain sight! (And so to truly leave the church of reason takes a lot more than stepping beyond its physical walls.)

In a world oriented on mathematics and the physical sciences we take reason as an abstract and static structure (W.V.O. Quine defines philosophy as "the exploration of logical space."). But we might take a clue from Hegel and/or Aristotle, who saw reason as a living thing. Being in the modern, Newtonian sense fills time like a plaster in a mold -- sits in it passively. But a living thing is active; It is a rhythm, or a pattern, that goes on "living" in spite of what might interrupt it. ("Wallace and Baker were blown to shreds, but the 353rd regiment went on.") We want to think in terms of building blocks, when perhaps we should be thinking in terms of music. In a very real sense the institutionalization of people is a lot like the domestication of wild animals. In both, you are getting something to schedule its activities by your schedule -- to match your rhythm. This is how homo-sapiens (answering the pace of biological/ecological rythms) are turned into people -- social entities.

But let's return again to the idea of institutionalized philosophy -- academia. This phenomena is only about 200 years old. Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkley and Hume never taught school. Like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, they all had a private income and read and wrote books on the side. But Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel were all schoolteachers. After the death of Hegel in 1831 philosophy retreats into academia, and takes the place of theology as the epitome of a mere classroom abstraction, and it never really escapes. Philosophy as the fulcrum which the 18th century world revolved around, driving the American and French revolutions, is replaced by social science (which is the child of Hegel): psychology, social psychology, anthropology, Marxism, self-esteem and multiculturalism.

The institutionalization is new, but so is the philosophy (so to speak). Philosophy has been (in Miletus) a search for a cosmology other than mythology, (in Athens) a question of how to save the failing city-state, (in the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Skeptics) how to be happy in a world gone bad, (in the Middle Ages) Christian apologetics, and (in modern times) Science apologetics. Philosophy is a "discipline" (if you can even call it that) which lacks both form and content. So just what the blazes is philosophy then? Well, just looking at how the word is used, it indicates nothing more than a kind of intellectual restlessness. So how you get something as open and vague as "intellectual restlessness" into a disciplined, academic program is a very curious problem. (The solution to which is, in fact, already present even if not apparent, for the solution is the school system itself.)

If philosophy is nothing more than intellectual restlessness then the only sensible pay-off would be the possibility of being able to better deal with questions as such, and to make some use out of abstract, arcane questions which lack answers and abstract, arcane concepts which lack simple definitions. Here is the difference between philosophy and the other "school" disciplines. Historians explain why the Roman Empire fell; philosophers study questions and ask what would count as an explanation of the fall of the Roman Empire. Scientist, mathematicians and logicians prove; philosophers ask, "Just what is the activity of proving, anyway?"

A Church of Reason (or of Proof, or Explanation, Logic...) is a church of answer worship. To leave the church, you turn your back on the answer (or the open void that is the lack of-an-answer) and look at the questions themselves. When one encounters an arcane, abstract, "philosophical" question like, "What really exists?" or "What is Good?" I recommend that you put your back to the open, blank lack-of-answer, and try asking some question-questions.

What is that like asking?
How is the answer hidden? Why is it questionable and not screamingly obvious?
How does the question arise naturally (out on the street, in the real world)?
What would be the pay-off in the answering of that question?
How does the answer affect the flow of money / power in society?

School teaches us the right thing to say. It teaches us how to regurgitate what we (collectively) already know. But if any original thinking goes on in a classroom it is almost always in spite of the teacher and not because of him or her. The purpose of school is programming -- to keep you from learning. It is to process and package, like some great sausage machine.

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