Dichotomous Thinking in Western Philosophy and Political Economy (An Occasional Philosophical Note #2)

If there is any trait more characteristic of the mainstream of Western philosophical thought than the prevalence of dichotomieseither-ors, one might say — it would be difficult to identify what it might be. Another useful term for the phenomenon is bifurcations.

Dichotomies or bifurcations or either-ors, whatever we call them, introduce abstractions on opposite sides of divides and suggest vast separations between their referents. The problem is, the absolute separations of traits usually do not exist in the world — even the world of experience — and the abstractions therefore typically do not apply. They accomplish little except to mislead and confuse our thinking: despite Wittgenstein’s warning, they allow the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

Dichotomous thinking goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, whose thought provided the foundation for the main tendencies (the mainstream, I call it) in all that followed. Both distinguished between the essential and the accidental, and between form and substance. Epistemologically, these created the longstanding problem of knowing when a trait or property is truly essential to a thing and when it is merely accidental: that is, whether it must have the trait or property as a condition of being what it is, and not something else. But as our knowledge has grown and changed over time, with new discoveries abounding, what had seemed to be essential often turned out not to be, and we’ve had to continually revise our claims about what was essential. There seems no reason why this process could not continue indefinitely; viewing science historically, we see not a fixed body of knowledge but something that is constantly changing. From the standpoint of specific “natural kinds,” we can never, it seems, truly know that a given property is essential to them, because future discoveries might void any specific claims (think: Kripkean essentialism which wavers on this point).

However one looks at it, the essential-accidental dichotomy allows epistemological skepticism to enter through the back door — or, to avoid such, suggests a pragmatism in which “essentialist” claims are retained to the extent they solve the outstanding problems (they “work”). This dodges the, er, essential question.

What might occur, were we to eliminate not one or these or the other but the dichotomy itself?

Wittgenstein showed the way. We observe objects and classify them on the basis of family resemblances that may change depending on our purposes, which will determine our interactions with them. Our purposes will depend on the problems we are trying to solve. Inherent is this view is that we are problem-solvers, and how we construe problems will vary from person to person and from case to case for a single person. We do not need to speak the language of essence versus accident at all! (The problem in producing “clear” genus and difference definitions is not necessarily the definer’s “lack of clarity” but the fact that the precise nature of what is being defined can change somewhat from case to case.)

Western philosophy has given us myriad other dichotomies, some of which cloud our thinking just as much, even to this day — even for those who believe they’ve escaped from or transcended them or set them aside.

With Descartes, the chief dichotomy is between the corporeal and the incorporeal, between mental substance and physical substance, or in today’s parlance, between mind and matter (body): the “mental” and the “material.” This has arguably been the most influential of the modern dichotomies.

What are the “marks of the mental”? (as Rorty poses the query) has been the hallmark question of that entire branch of philosophy known as the philosophy of mind, an area in which some of the best and most interesting work in contemporary philosophy has occurred, it should be noted.

Or, a more down-to-Earth variant on the same theme: How is first-person consciousness possible in the “material universe” exhibited by modern science, especially including modern neuroscience?

The question behind the question: did Descartes erect an uncrossable barrier between his two substances? Subsequent philosophy latched on to either “material substance,” in those philosophers who became materialists of one sort or another, or to “mental substance,” in those philosophers who became idealists of one sort or another. Arguably, the growing cultural power of science, which purported to theorize effectively about a material universe that existed and had the properties it had independently of us as observers and experimenters, ensured that materialism would win the day.

Materialism really is just Cartesian dualism with one of its “substances” eliminated, with whatever rationalizations or tortured linguistic maneuvers we need to make it seem credible that the “mental” really is gone: dissolved, explained, or rendered kaput.

True, the lengthy debates over such matters as “marks of the mental” and more recently, the “hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers) have been grist for the dissertation-writer’s mill for quite a few years now … but what might occur if we eliminated the matter-mind dichotomy itself, rather than one “side” or the other?

How might we go about doing that? My suggestion is just to treat first-person consciousness as a starting datum instead of something to be “explained” in terms of that which is obviously not conscious. Phenomenology does this, with often very interesting results.

Another confused and unnecessary dichotomy: think of that mare’s nest, the “problem” of “free will versus determinism.” Here is a case of abstractions that sound meaningful but which invariably disintegrate whenever proper conceptual analysis is brought to bear on them. Without going into all the technicalities, “free will” has always sounded at first glance like a sensible notion, perhaps even a good starting datum or given — I direct many of my own actions in some meaningful sense, do I not? — but does the concept not imply the existence of sets of events, self-caused actions, that are outside the “causal structure of the universe”? But on the other hand, what is this “causal structure of the universe,” and how do I know about it or rationally justify my claims about it? What can it mean, on the other hand, to say of an action that it is externally “uncaused,” i.e., “caused” internally by my having willed it?

So what “caused” me to will action A instead of action B? Ultimately, when pursuing such lines of thought, eventually we should experience the sort of Wittgensteinian “mental cramp” that tells us we are not making sense.

The result, however, is that “free will” as some kind of metaphysical given makes no sense. Does that mean that some form of determinism is necessarily true? Or is it just as likely that determinism makes as little sense?

Determinism is the view that, in one sense or another (it takes more than one form, obviously), everything that occurs has an external cause, which sounds okay but invites an infinite regress unless we posit an uncaused, ontologically basic First Cause (as Aquinas understood, and Aristotle before him). Without getting into theological or other metaphysical implications, if we begin with the universal efficient causation of determinism we reach the result that there must be at least one entity that is uncaused. Thus universal determinism self-destructs.

There is, however, a problem closer to home. Still leaving aside the technicalities, to many philosophers rationally justifying anything using evidential rules supplied by logic has seemed to required ontological independence of the reasoning process from causal determinacy as a brain process, as the latter only yields “justification” as subsequent brain event, and not necessarily a reason, as the brain event could well result in an utterance that is false. Some of our brain processes, after all, misapply evidential rules, or rely on errors of fact, and what justifies normatively correct rules over the incorrect ones cannot itself be a set of brain events, as it would not have the supervening status it needs to do its work. (Alvin Plantinga is the most important philosopher to have realized this, in his 1990s writings on “proper function” lost by metaphysical naturalism in whatever form).

The upshot is that not just moral agency, as Kant held, but the normative rational justification of anything whatsoever, has seemed to presuppose “free will” in reaching these justifications. Determinism seems to render the concept of rational justification either meaningless or impossible, meaning that if stipulated as true, its truth is a transcendental noumenon, incapable of rational proof or knowledge. Of what use is it to discuss it further, in this case?

So what might happen were the dichotomy of “free will” and “determinism” jettisoned altogether?

Instead of saying, “I exercised my free will,” why not just say, “I took an action” or some down-to-Earth equivalent of the sort uttered thousands of times per day? Why not just note that as our self-knowledge accumulates, we are able to identify more and more of the “causes” of our actions, whether we call them reasons, rationalizations, motivations, or whatnot? Why not note that our choice of wording here depends on factors other than purely “rational” ones? Why not note, furthermore, that some of my actions seem to be relatively free, as when I make a list of possible courses of action given a particular situation, think through the consequences of each, and choose the course that seems to have the best outcomes given my limited knowledge? Other actions appear to be determined, at least in their general outlines. I have choices of what to eat, and when (within limits involving a spouse); I cannot choose indefinitely not to eat. There are determining factors traceable to biology. To cite an obvious example, I cannot choose to fly by flapping my arms, and no motivation or course of study in the mechanics of flight is going to change that. Somewhere in here is the gender politics mare’s nest, much of which is nothing more than a denial of human biology in favor of a different set of abstract categories called “social constructs” to delegitimize biology.

Whether it is helpful or useful to dichotomize between “free will” and “determinism” has bearing on the world of political economy, in which defenders / advocates of certain ideological views of society maintain an equivalent absolute dichotomy between the “voluntary” (or “chosen”) and the “coerced” (forced or not “chosen”). Again, at first glance, what we begin with seems to make perfect sense. Trade is “voluntary” if we engage in it of our own “free will,” satisfying needs or desires that are ours.

As just noted, though, I am not free not to eat, and so I must trade for food — implying that the general idea of trading for food is not ultimately “voluntary” despite my wide range of “choices” over the specifics of how I satisfy my hunger cravings. Biology alone places limits on the “voluntary.” Are there other, more interesting limits on the “voluntary”?

Under capitalism I am not free not to work; I must trade my labor or skills for money — implying that the general idea of trading for money is not “voluntary,” although again I may have (or seem to have) a wide range of “choices” over the specifics of how I satisfy my need for money to purchase food, the roof over my head, utilities, etc. Somehow, that is, economic necessities created within civilization place limits on the “voluntary.” Further limits are created not by the mere fact of having some money but by how much money I have. I always have a specific amount, that is.

In the not-too-distant past, Stefan Molyneux (author of this rather slipshod discussion of logic) and Peter Joseph (founder of the Zeitgeist movement which like all such movements has its strengths and weaknesses, and author of this book), debated whether civilization embodies structural coercion, we might call it: economic necessity requires that one be either an entrepreneur of some sort, an employee of some sort, or independently wealthy. (View their debate here.)

My view, for whatever it is worth, is that Joseph won that debate hands down. While I might not have agreed with him on every point, Joseph sounded like he was living in the real world. Molyneux sounded like he was living in a world of political-economic abstractions which apply only under ideal conditions. Becoming an entrepreneur means bending one’s will to the wills of one’s clients or customers, because by “free will” they can go elsewhere. Entrepreneurs are not “free” to do as they please unless they begin extremely rich. Becoming an employee means bending one’s will to the will of one’s boss, because the boss can engage in an act of “free will” and fire you. Employees — ordinary laborers — are considerably less free than entrepreneurs. (No, you can’t simply quit your job if you don’t like it, if you have bills to pay and kids to feed, and if there is no readily available alternative job you can step into or entrepreneurship opportunity without a learning curve likely to occupy several months if not years, including getting the word out.)

The liberal idea that rational individualism, if applied universally and exemplified in markets, will reconcile everyone’s legitimate interests, seems highly improbable in light of modern history alone. (Unless the free-marketer cheats with language and declares that an interest not so reconciled is thereby deemed illegitimate.)

As for a core component of that debate, to libertarians like Molyneux, “society” by definition cannot coerce, only individuals can coerce since only they can act (i.e., exercise “free will”). They will say, “the state can coerce,” although “the state” as an institution is just individuals legally vested with the authority to coerce.

But what, precisely, is “coercion”? Most would agree that if a gun is pointed at my hand and my money being demanded, I am being coerced: a fairly standard example.

The example is surprisingly flawed, for those who always engage hypotheticals and tally up the points they’ve supposedly scored. For I am still making a “choice” to reach into my back pocket for my wallet and remove my money and hand it to the thief, am I not? The contrary choice would be to call the thief’s bluff under the belief (which may be irrational and misguided under the circumstances but is a logically possible course of action) that he will not shoot me — or maybe that his gun isn’t loaded and he just has it to scare me into complying with him. So even here, a purist could argue that I’ve made a “choice,” i.e., engaged in an act of “free will,” i.e., was not truly “coerced.”

In other words, the question of when I exercise “free will” and when I am “coerced” inevitably dissolves into a morass of confusion if we truly explore it. Is it not clear what a convoluted tangle of concepts and rationalizations such dichotomies as “free will” versus “determinism,” and its political-economic equivalent, that between the “voluntary” and the “coerced,” has led to?

What happens if we eliminate the dichotomies and suggest that we are looking at continuities or continuums of various sorts — matters of degree and gradation that appear better able to describe the situations that truly arise in the world we inhabit?

My being able to act “freely” or “voluntarily” is then a matter of degree, conditional on various circumstances I can enumerate, and not an abstract entity which is either present or absent, absolutely. I am considerably less free when facing the thief than I am in the outdoor market and knowing that I need to buy food and trying to decide what to buy. There are entire ranges of other circumstances in which I am somewhat “free” and somewhat “coerced,” in any reasonable senses of these terms.

It is one thing to promote “free trade” in the abstract, declaring it to have raised the “general” level of prosperity by having given “consumers” what they want. It is quite another to note the organic reality, that those who are truly freest under existing “free trade” systems are the billionaires whose connections which include other billionaires elsewhere as well as those in governments they’ve bought and paid for. Those who have lost jobs as a direct result of the “free” decisions of the billionaires have been made less free. The “consumers” who can afford cheap Chinese imports are often those rendered less free, and pursuing the cheap imports not from “choice” but “necessity”; cheap Chinese imports are all they can afford. (I leave aside credit, originally introduced for large, once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime purchases but now used for everything, as credit spending for everything reconciles two things contemporary capitalism needs to reconcile: mass consumption and low wages).

My suggestion, throughout many of these notes past, and in those to come, is that we need a different sort of worldview than modernity, with materialism at its core. Modern materialism, in whatever form, is parasitic on a Cartesian philosophy, postulating a rational “ghost in the machine” within confronting the “machine” without. Philosophically, of course, that “ghost in the machine” has become less and less substantial, reduced to rational economic calculation.

Yet we approach the world as conscious agents with a variety of motivations in addition to the obvious economic ones. Thus the reduction of consciousness to rational calculation by economists seems as problematic as those efforts by philosophers to eliminate it altogether, to treat it (as Daniel Dennett does) as in some sense an illusion. I confess to a longstanding fascination with philosophies, from Berkeleyan subjective idealism down through phenomenology, that take consciousness as its primary datum instead of something to be “explained” in terms of something manifestly not conscious (“matter”), which typically means explaining it away. Refusing dualism beginning from this standpoint, which takes first-person consciousness as given, may mean it is “matter” that needs to be eliminated! This, of course, will astound or merely bewilder the materialists accustomed to dominating the philosophical conversation.

But in physical investigations of “matter,” what do we discover? As contemporary subatomic physics has penetrated deeper and deeper into the “nature” of the atom’s components, their components, etc., it has moved ever closer to states of affairs required exclusively by initial conditions and mathematics. Mathematics consists of relations of ideas, however complex and intricate. Relations of ideas are not autonomous entities, unless we try to postulate a kind of Platonist realm for them to exist in, and obviously we don’t get anywhere by doing that. The experimenter in contemporary physics, moreover, affects the outcome of the experiment as has been known since the days of the “Schrodinger’s cat paradox,” and so cannot be dichotomized as apart from it. In this way, again, a meaningful dichotomy between “consciousness” and “the material world” breaks down. Perhaps our effort should not be to eliminate “consciousness” from the equation but to eliminate “matter” as having meaningful ontological independence:

And this may be what some “lovers of wisdom” of an immaterialist bent have been trying to say all along.

Bringing back our discussion to its point of departure: if there is a single criticism to be made of the central strains of Western philosophy, it is that it long ago became lost in intellectual tangles caused by its insistence on dichotomous thinking as a general methodological rule. The world, however, is organic and networked, which is why our abstractions usually fail to grasp its richness and complexity. We are, moreover, part the world’s organic and networked nature, not entities standing above it, or outside of it, and reasoning about it abstractly. The materialists have that much right; they just draw the wrong conclusion from it.

I’ve only enumerated a small, select handful of dichotomies here, the ones that seem to me to have been the history of ideas’ worst villains. There are plenty of others, some of them a tad dusty and academic (e.g., between the “analytic” and the “synthetic,” a linguistic descendent of Plato’s “essential” and “accidental”). I’ll leave readers to think about what some of those other dichotomies might be, if some are worth keeping around in some form while others can be safely gotten rid of, and in each case, why.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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One Response to Dichotomous Thinking in Western Philosophy and Political Economy (An Occasional Philosophical Note #2)

  1. Pingback: Why Marx Now? Part 1 | Lost Generation Philosopher

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