[hist-analytic] Engineering vs. Engaging Philosophy

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Thu Jan 6 08:02:13 EST 2011

A number of years ago, a Japanese linguist related to me a story about Chomsky giving a lecture in Japan. At one point, during question period, he remarked something like this: "Look, what we want to avoid here is becoming preoccupied with low level engineering." Now I may not have this quote exactly right, but what is definite was his caution against "low level engineering." Attending Chomsky's lectures in theoretical linguistics for a year or so, I noticed two things about him. First, he always sought deep solutions, solutions that would extend beyond the immediate data towards general principles; secondly, he's a man who want to get to the point right away. But there is a lesson in this business about low level engineering. 

One thing I've noticed about the trend in philosophy, particularly since Carnap, is the tendency to substitute "low level" engineering for "engaging" philosophy. Take C. D. Broad. A good philosopher. He did not engineer solutions; he probed and attempted to carry to certain conclusions threads of discussion that went back to Aristotle and Plato at a very fundamental level. Even in discussing his favorite subject, sense data, he was never dogmatic; nor did he display an engineering mentality: solve the immediate problem on given assumptions as to what is desired. Engineering involves preconceptions as to what the objective or thing to be desired is. 

Now I'm looking at two philosophers. Hilary Putnam in The Threefold Cord and KIim on Physicalism, or Something near enough. Here is one impression. Putnam offers an argument against sense data based on McDowell, using "the highest common factor" argument. (p. 129). He offers a clever argument based on some work by Rohit Parikh. The problem is that the sense data theory assumed has never been proposed as an argument for the *existence* of sense data. The "highest common factor argument" is, I think, full of holes. But the argument that issues from assuming this is a good argument is elegant. It occurs to me that here is a case of "low level engineering." What Putnam has done is engineer a theory that never existed, as stated, for the purpose (or so it seems) of giving a good home to this elegant argument. It should be the other way around: You engineer a solution, if anything; you do not engineer a problem and then offer a preconceived solution. This is my impression. In Kim's case he engineers his way, pretty much (not entirely) into what is sometimes called "dead end materialism." He works soley within a community of near physicalists. He fashions argument within the compass of certain assumptions; that is, he engineers a position (and he comes close to admitting it). This is the big difference between the old school and the new new school. As Russell quipped of certain Oxfordians, they are clever but only merely clever. 

I am composing a reply to Putnam and Kim. 

By the way, recently I received a copy of a new book by Alfred Mele, Effective Intentions. Once I'm over this hill I will examine it. It looks very good. 


STeve Bayne 
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