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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Can Computer Debates Advance the Philosophical Project?


Descartes and Heidegger fight it out

Justin Wienberg explores the potential of computers to do philosophy. His article was prompted by an article in Nature about the work of Noam Slonim (IBM), Yonatan Bilu (KI Institute), and Ranit Aharonov (IBM) to develop Project Debater, an autonomous computer system, that can argue with and debate humans as well the progress made with the language and communication skills of artifical intelligence, as demonstrated by GPT-3.

Weinberg writes:

As I tell my students, philosophy isn’t debate (the former is oriented towards understanding, the latter towards winning). But some of the work that goes into debate is similar to the work that goes into philosophy. What’s provocative about Project Debater, GPT-3, and related developments to me is that it suggests the near-term possibility of computing technology and language models semi-autonomously mapping out, in natural language, the assumptions and implications of arguments and their component parts.

One way to understand the body of knowledge philosophy generates is as a map of the unknown, or set of maps. Philosophical questions are points on the maps. So are premises, assumptions, principles, and theories. The “roads” on the maps are the arguments, implications, and inferences between these points, covering the ground of necessity and possiblity.

Individual philosophical works that pose questions, develop arguments, justify premises, and explore the implications of positions make small maps of small bits of the vast terrain of the unknown, and often provide “directions” to others about how to navigate it."


Justin wonders "What should we be doing now in regard to the development of such technology, or in regard to other prospects for the integration of computing into philosophy?"

Read the full article here.

Related reading: “Computational Philosophy” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Does Philosophy Have Value?; Ontology and the Philosophical Project

Monday, March 15, 2021

Foucault's Order of Things


Alice C. Linsley

In Another Look at Michel Foucault, I explored Foucault's thought in contrast to the thought of Loren Eiseley. In that article, I expressed my preferences for Eiseley's anthropological outlook. My bias is due to my empirical inclination and to the fact that I am an anthropologist. Eiseley's reflections in The Immense Journey (1959) and The Invisible Pyramid (1970) are grounded in physical discovery and in material culture. Foucault's psychological outlook is less grounded in real time and physical discovery. More anthropological data would have strengthened Foucault's work.

In this critique of Foucault's work I begin by pointing to the positive aspects. He is to be applauded for attempting an interdisciplinary approach at a time when the academic disciplines were more rigidly departmentalized.

His development of "discontinuity of thought" is an excellent way to speak of change, and in the Foreword to the English edition of The Order of Things (1966), he acknowleges that changes do not "occur at the same level, proceed at the same pace, or obey the same laws." 

In that Foreword, Foucault alludes to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and he explains that he wants to avoid attribution of knowledge to individuals, or to collective efforts, or even to single discoveries. He hopes to explore knowledge as a discourse above time. The effect of this is to erase the accomplishments of individuals who deserve to be remembered.

By limiting his exploration of knowledge to five recent centuries, Foucault ignores antecedants that bring the larger picture into focus. His framing of Western European civilization makes it easier for him to denounce it. To know only Foucault's world is to be stricken by anxiety and rage. Indeed, he is one of the angry nihilists of the 20th century whose thought contributes to cancellation of tradition, public institutions, collective memory, even Mankind.

In his more romantic, almost Nietzschean, passages Foucault is effective in effacing history. He is heir to Leo Strauss's closet nihilism and he elaborates on Nietzsche's nihilism.

Jeffery Jacob Wade contends here that "Strauss and his hidden nihilism is a direct result of his pessimistic view of the masses; whereas Nietzsche's Übermensch nihilism is brought about by his outlook on the prospect for development beyond humanity and Foucault's pure nihilism is drawn out from his notion of power/knowledge."

In his personal life Michel Foucault claimed to be happy, but that does not come across in his writings. He seems an angry man who struggled against established powers, against the traditional family, and against the Church (Madness and Civilization, p. 22). In this same book, Foucault attempted to portray Jesus as a sanctifier of insanity, demon possession, and prostitution.

There is no evidence in his work that Foucault appreciated humanity. He rode the "God is Dead" wave with enthusiasm as it promoted his "death of man" and anti-humanist persuasion. He described humanism as "the heaviest heritage that has come down to us from the nineteenth century" and he added, "it's high time we got rid of it." (Horizon, Autumn 1969, p. 36).

At times we hear echoes of Jacques Derrida in Foucault's work, but without Derrida's playfulness. Foucault did not see humanity as Homo ludens. His writings are full of drama and the tone is that of a man who takes himself very seriously and who wants his readers to do so as well. He comes closest to playfulness when he speaks of discourse as the modern episteme. There is enthusiasm in his efforts at deconstruction, as when one seeks to solve a puzzle or decipher a riddle. By the end of the project, however, we find many pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Foucault's precise attacks on the establishment, the Church, and traditional values limit his scope of exploration. There is no universality, except perhaps in the common experience of anger and disillusionment. His antihumanism produces a distorted view of Humanity. He maintains that Man is a modern invention, "a sort of image correlative with God" and as God has died, so will the humanist image of Mankind.

Foucault's generalizations are not difficult to disprove. In The Order of Things, he claims that all weatlh is coinable (p. 175), yet for thousands of years and to this day, cattle have been the source of wealth in many societies.

He says the "episteme" of sixteenth century Europe was based on "resemblance" such as the doctrine of signatures, and that this was discredited in the seventeenth century. He provides no explanation for how one episteme comes to be replaced by another. Had he looked at the bigger picture, he would have known that resemblances between plants and parts of the body are fundamental to the craft of Amazonian shamans, and their knowledge of plants has contributed to modern pharmacology.

Overall, Michel Foucault's work is interesting, though not timeless. It sets forth an attitude toward the world that some embrace today. It appeals to minds that resist tradition and are weary with history. Time itself will test the durability of his intellectual constructs.