The Codex Quaerentis
A Pragmatic Analysis of Philosophy from the Meaning of Words to the Meaning of Life.
In these essays I would like to take you on a guided journey through the entire world of philosophy.
I will both be presenting a novel system of philosophy that I hope will be of interest to the professional discourse, and also recapping enough of that discourse thus far that I hope even novices will be able to understand it. As such, this may proceed a little slowly for the professionals, and things will eventually get pretty technical for the novices. But for patient readers of either sort, I hope to provide something of value.
Our journey will start with an analysis of what the practice of philosophy is even about, and why it matters in everything we do. Next I will give a pragmatic argument that a particular extremely moderate general approach to philosophy is required to correctly do what philosophy is setting out to do. That is the core of this project, and you can stop there if you're satisfied.
But afterward, we will explore in further detail the ways that many other common philosophical positions end up going against that general approach in some way or another. In broad strokes, those other positions are the extremes of fideism and thus objectivism, as well as the extremes of subjectivism and thus skepticism. But attacking those extremes will itself consist of defending more moderate forms of skepticism and thus subjectivism, as well as more moderate forms of objectivism and thus fideism.
Lastly, for the majority of these essays we will explore the many implications of that general philosophy on specific topics within the field. The core principles of it have immediate implications about what kinds of things are real, what kinds of things are moral, the ways to attain knowledge, and the ways to attain justice. Those positions then raise immediate questions about the nature of the mind and the will, and the legitimacy of educational and governmental institutions. All of that requires a framework of linguistic meaning to make any sense of, along with logic and mathematics and rhetoric and the arts, each a different facet of communication. And with all of that in place, we finally have the background to tackle the most practical questions of enlightenment, empowerment, and leading a meaningful life.
If you're bothered that I would even dare attempt such an ambitious project, feel free to stop reading now. But if you're curious to see how I succeed or fail at it, please continue. If you're feeling impatient, you may wish to skip to the Overview at the end of this introduction, as most of the rest of it discusses the motivation, aspiration, and history of this work itself. Or maybe even skip to the Summary at the end of the entire work before cycling back around to here. If you did that already and still feel impatient, maybe start with the Philosophy of Commensurablism, where I first argue for the general approach to philosophy the implications of which the rest of these essays will be exploring. But you may miss some of the broader significance of this work if you skip the rest of this introduction and the subsequent Metaphilosophy of Analytic Pragmatism.
What is interesting about philosophy in general and about this philosophy in particular?
Long before I even knew what philosophy was, I was looking for something fundamental, for which I didn't even have a name. I had always had very broad intellectual interests, and was always searching for ever more and more fundamental principles underlying all of those interests. So I increasingly focused my natural science interests toward physics, which seemed to underlie all of the natural sciences; and I likewise focused my social science interests toward something in the direction of economics or political science, looking for something underlying that cluster of interests as well.
Digging deeper in each of those directions, I eventually realized that all of those diverse interests boiled down to what I now recognize as roughly metaphysics and ethics: investigating the big questions of what is real or true (and how it did come to be), and what is moral or good (and why it should come to be), respectively. When I discovered professional philosophy and realized that those two things were, broadly speaking, what the field was all about, I thought that that field was the place where I would find what I was looking for, and that that was the name for it: the right philosophy.
I didn't find it.
But in time I found most of the parts of it. They just needed to be shaped and polished a bit, assembled together in the right way, and a few gaps filled in.
While studying, I "tried on" the many different philosophies I learned of, but never found one that felt like "the right fit" – an existing, notable "-ism" that I could endorse without reservation. I found that often opposite sides of a philosophical disagreement each made strong points and weak points, and that their strong points were not necessarily in conflict, even as they defeated the other side's weak points. Yet I was disappointed that nobody seemed to espouse a position that combined all the strong without any of the weak.
I found also that views on one topic depended heavily on views on another topic, but those dependencies were often not accounted for. Likewise, I found that solutions to problems in one area often had parallel solutions to problems in another area, appealing to the same principles but in different domains, which were again often not accounted for.
So I began this work, documenting my own views on the various topics within philosophy, the combinations of strong points made by everyone on every side of every topic, the missing pieces still unaccounted for after that, and the symmetries and interrelations between them, tracing both all of my own views and all of those I found problematic back to small sets of very general principles.
This book is meant to be the thing I came to philosophy looking for, but never found. I hope it will be of use to people who are looking for the same thing I was, whether they don't yet know the first thing about philosophy, or they have already studied it more extensively than I have.
Where is this philosophy aiming to fit into the greater philosophical discourse?
When I was younger and had more grandiose aspirations for this project, I once aimed to position my philosophy as the kind of epoch-defining synthesis of opposing sides of great philosophical divides that has repeatedly punctuated the history of western philosophy:
- After the first recognized western philosopher, Thales, in the period that we now call Presocratic philosophy, there were two broad schools of thought. One was the Ionians, following mostly after Thales' student Anaximander, who focused largely on reasoning about the natural world. The other was the Italiotes, following mostly after Anaximander's student Pythagoras, who placed heavy emphasis on mathematics.
- That period ended with the work of Socrates, who was mainly of Ionian intellectual heritage through the influences of Anaxagoras, but incorporated many elements of Italiote thought as well through the influence of Parmenides. Yet immediately after him, in what we call the Classical era of philosophy, there were again two broad schools of thought. The Academic school followed after Socrates' student Plato, and in many ways echoed the more abstract, idealistic leanings of the Italiotes. Meanwhile the Peripatetics followed after Plato's student Aristotle, and similarly echoed the more practical, material leanings of the Ionians.
- The field was again united much later, in what we call the Medieval period of philosophy, under the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, whose intellectual heritage was mainly Platonist via the influence of earlier Christian philosophers such as Augustine of Hippo, but also incorporated many elements of Aristotelian philosophy via the influence of the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd. Out of that unified Scholasticism, the field was again divided, at the start of what we call the Modern period of philosophy. One side of that division came to be called the Rationalists, following largely after philosophers like Rene Descartes, who in many ways echoed the abstract leanings of the Platonists. The other side were called the Empiricists, following largely after philosophers like John Locke, who in many ways echoed the practical leanings of the Aristotelians.
- Then Immanuel Kant once again briefly reunited philosophy, influenced by Rationalists like Gottfried Leibniz and Empiricists like David Hume alike, creating a synthesis of the two schools of thought. But following Kant, in what I like to call the Postkantian period (as historians disagree about where or whether the Modern period ended), philosophy was again divided. On the one hand, what was called the Continental school, following philosophers such as Georg Hegel, echoed the practical leanings of the Empiricists. On the other hand, the Analytic school, following philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, echoed the abstract leanings of the Rationalists.
I'm painting a very rough historical picture here of the relations between these different periods' main schools of thought, and I don't want to seem as if I am claiming too much continuity between them. I am merely illustrating that each historical period of division seems to always have one side emphasizing mathematical, ideal, or linguistic abstractions, and another emphasizing the experiential, embodied, practical life. I suspect that the tension between these poles may be an inherent part of philosophical practice due to its relation to other more abstract and more practical subjects, which I will explain soon in my essay on metaphilosophy.
When I once dared to dream bigger than I probably should have, I dreamt that maybe some day I would be "the new Kant", in that I aim to once again reconcile the linguistic abstraction of the contemporary Analytic school (as well as their precision, detail, and professionalism) with the practical and experiential emphasis of the contemporary Continental school (as well as their breadth, holism, and personal applicability). But I don't pretend anymore that that is likely to ever happen.
Instead, I am only presenting my views as food for thought for whoever should happen to read these essays. I don't even intend to argue in a properly persuasive way that you the reader ought to change your mind in this way or that. Instead, I intend merely to state what it is that I think, and the reasons why I think it, and leave it to you to consider the merits of those thoughts and my reasons for them, and what if any impact that ought to have on your own view of the world. I am merely presenting my worldview here for you to try on for size, and see if you find it fits.
Why should you trust me not to just trash your views even though we probably disagree?
My views have evolved dramatically over the course of my life. No matter where in the wide range of possibilities from naive faith to abject nihilism you might find your own views, I have probably held similar views myself at one point, and consequently have sympathy for why you hold your views now, even though I probably no longer agree with them, since I have long since disagreed with most of the possible worldviews I have encountered in my life.
I was raised in a religious family, and so in my early childhood held unexamined and innocuous-seeming religious views. I never had a reactionary moment in my life where I strongly rebelled against those. Instead, I slowly grew out of them as I aged and learned more about the world. I was in fact surprised in my adolescence to realize that adults sincerely held those views, and didn't merely teach them as metaphorical stories for children.
The new views that I grew into amid my adolescence were themselves, in retrospect, mere secularizations of views structurally similar to the religious ones I had grown out of: faith placed in learned academics to be the authorities on knowledge and reality, and in responsible politicians to be the authorities on justice and morality; merely replacing faith in some divine authority, which might well not even exist, with faith in the correct human authorities, whoever they should turn out to be. As I approached adulthood, however, my views grew increasingly skeptical.
Focusing on how to determine who the correct human leaders were to guide us to knowledge and justice, the right emphasis increasingly seemed to be on methodological rigor, not institutional authority. The correct academics to trust to lead us to knowledge were whoever were dedicated to the correct scientific method; and the correct politicians to trust to lead us to justice were whoever were dedicated to the correct system of rights and duties. With such methodologies identified, it seemed not to matter who employed them, as anyone using them would have as much claim to authority as anyone else using them, effectively undermining all claims to special authority on either knowledge or justice.
But that in turn raised the question of how to identify the correct methods that would lead us all to knowledge and justice, if only we could get people to follow them; and whether there actually were or even could be such methods at all. I had definite opinions on what the correct methods were, but skeptical infinite regressions that I learned more about as I studied philosophy continued to undermine the very possibility of ever grounding any opinion on anything, leading me eventually far away from my earliest faith in divine authority, far from any trust in human authority or even in individual human ability to pursue knowledge or justice ourselves, into a nigh-nihilistic depression where it seemed any claim about anything must be denounced as just as equally baseless as any other.
That philosophical depression coincided with a period of actual clinical depression about my own life circumstances, around the same time I finished my philosophy degree. The way that I eventually found my way out of that real life depression turned out to also be the key to salvaging my philosophical views from abject nihilism, eventually building my way back up to views somewhere around the middle of that wide range I had crossed between early childhood and the end of my philosophical education.
What is this all about?
It may be hopeless, but I'm trying anyway.
Trying to live a meaningful life, by empowering and enlightening myself and others. Trying to bolster the right institutions of governance and education, that will best promote justice and knowledge, helping bring our wills and our minds into alignment with what is moral and what is real. Trying to understand what it even means for something to be moral or for something to be real, by understanding the language we use to discuss any of this, and all that that entails about logic and rhetoric, mathematics and the arts.
Maybe that endeavor is hopeless. Maybe life is meaningless, all social institutions are incorrigibly corrupt, justice and knowledge are impossible, the mind and will powerless to grasp what is real or what is moral, if anything is at all, if it even makes any sense to try to talk about such things. Maybe that's all hopeless.
But just in case it's not, we stand a better chance of succeeding at that endeavor, should success be at all possible, if we act on the assumption that it's not hopeless, and we try anyway.
That is the core principle at the heart of my philosophy, upon which I will elaborate in the following essays: to always try, and thereby act as if success is always possible, though never guaranteed.
The general worldview I am going to lay out is one that seems to me a naively uncontroversial, common-sense kind of view, i.e. the kind of view that I expect people who have given no thought at all to philosophical questions to find trivial and obvious. Nevertheless, since most people have been at least superficially exposed to some philosophy, through cultural osmosis if nothing else, I expect most readers, of most points of view, to largely disagree with the consequent details of that "common-sense" philosophy, at least until I explain why they are entailed by it. For as Bertrand Russell wrote, "The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."
Many various other philosophical schools of thought deviate from that common-sense view in different ways, and their adherents usually think that they have surpassed that naive common sense and attained a deeper understanding. But as Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, is reported to have said: "Before one studies philosophy, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of philosophy, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters."
That means that the general view of the world that one ends up with after truly mastering philosophy is one that is not radically different from the naive pre-philosophical view that people start out with; but on the way from that naive beginning to the masterful end, one's whole worldview gets turned upside down and inside out as one questions everything. The only thing the master has in the end that the beginner does not is an understanding of why those "obvious" answers are as they are, and why all the craziness they explored along the way was wrong. In this sense, philosophy done badly, or only partially, is like an infectious disease; while philosophy done well, or more completely, is like a vaccination against that disease.
So in these essays I aim to shore up and refine the common-sense view into a more rigorous form that can better withstand the temptation of such deviation, and to show the common error underlying all of those different deviations from this common-sense view.
Put most succinctly, that common error is a conflation together of several similar concepts, that then entails a false dichotomy: that either there must be some unquestionable answers, or else we will be left with some unanswerable questions – or worse yet, that endorsing neither of those entails endorsing both of them. I will argue that accepting any of those options constitutes a failure to even try to genuinely answer the questions at hand, and that all of the deviations from the view I defend stem ultimately from falling to at least one side or the other of that false dichotomy, on some topic or another.
In contrast, my philosophy is the view that we must always try to answer our questions, and must therefore always proceed on the assumption that there are no unanswerable questions, and no unquestionable answers; that every meaningful question can in principle be answered, and any meaningful answer proposed must be open to question.
Very loosely speaking, that means that there are correct answers to be had for all meaningful questions, both about reality and about morality, and that we can in principle differentiate those correct answers from the incorrect ones; and that those correct answers are not correct simply because someone decreed them so, but rather, they are independent of anyone's particular opinions, and grounded instead in our common experience, or else are utterly meaningless. In other words, the only questions that can't be answered, and the only answers that can't be questioned, are meaningless ones.
Put another way, that means that what is true and what is good are beyond the decree of any of us, yet within reach of each of us; and that we can in principle always eventually tell whether someone's opinion is right or wrong, but we can never immediately assume any opinion to be such, and must give each the benefit of the doubt until proof is found one way or the other.
That general philosophical view is the underlying reason I will give for all of my more specific philosophical views: everything that follows does so as necessary to conform to that broad general philosophy, rejecting any views that require either just taking someone's word on some question or else giving up all hope of ever answering such a question, settling on whatever views remain in the wake of that rejection.
Most of the individual pieces of my philosophy are not by themselves wholly new to the world, and when they are not I will try to mention those who have held similar views for further reference on those lines of thought. But I have often independently reinvented these positions prior to learning that others already wrote extensively on similar thoughts, so my versions of these positions are often slightly different than the usual ones learned from a study of the history of philosophy.
But it is not so much those small differences in the individual pieces, but the overall structure of my philosophical worldview, the way that all of these different positions on different topics fit together to mutually support each other, that I think is the greatest novelty of my philosophical thought. In the core essay of this series I will survey the symmetric implications of a few general principles on a handful of core philosophical topics, but then I will proceed to systemically examine their implications in more detail on a wider variety of topics, in the process further illustrating the structural relationships between those topics.
- Perhaps the most important aspect of this structure is the "lateral" symmetry: how my examination of existence, the mind, knowledge, and education, largely retracing and bolstering the more or less standard views of the modern physical sciences, is then mirrored by a symmetric examination of value, the will, justice, and governance, laying the groundwork for an analogous kind of ethical sciences.
- Then there is the "long-axis" symmetry from abstract topics to practical topics: from language, mathematics, and the arts, through the core of more central philosophical topics just mentioned above, to enlightenment, empowerment, and action.
- There is also the "short-axis" symmetry within those core topics, from objects to methods, and from subjects to institutions: from the topics concerning what it is for something or someone to be real or moral, to the topics concerning who and how to go about attaining knowledge or justice.
- And lastly, there is a fourth axis of symmetry that is from the experiential or behavioral aspects to the functional or formal aspects of all of those things: from concrete to abstract kinds of existence; from predicative to attributive kinds of value; from synthetic to analytic kinds of knowledge; from distributive to procedural kinds of justice; and so forth.
I expect that most laypeople will be most interested in the more practical topics at the bottom of the long axis: meaning of life stuff, enlightenment and empowerment, issues of state and religion, and consciousness and freedom. But because the abstract topics are logically prior, in these essays I will proceed generally from abstract to practical down the long axis. I will also proceed generally from descriptive to prescriptive on the lateral axis; then objects and subjects to methods and institutions on the short axis; and finally, within each essay, from the experiential or behavioral to the functional or formal on the fourth axis.
For those readers who have some philosophical education already, here is a preview of some of how that fleshes out into positions on particular philosophical questions:
I defend a kind of physicalist ontology, and a roughly utilitarian axiology – both akin to the respective views of John Stuart Mill, and both defended as applications of the same two more general principles. But I then pair that nigh-utilitarianism with a liberal deontology, analogous to the critical epistemology that I likewise pair with my ontology – both akin to the respective views of Immanuel Kant, and both in turn defended as applications of another two more general principles.
Those four core principles together comprise a general approach to philosophy that is both somewhere between the common religious type of transcendent, dogmatist view, and its common antithesis of a cynical, relativist view; and also somewhere between a self-identified "Postmodernist" view, and the "Modernist" antithesis that that defines for itself. Those core principles are all argued for via something like a secular adaptation of Pascal's Wager, and all together they give rise to something roughly resembling a Hegelian spiral-shaped progress, in both the descriptive and prescriptive domains.
In addition to my physicalism about concrete objects, I defend a mathematicism about abstract objects, in a way that is continuous and compatible with that physicalist ontology. Similarly, in addition to my roughly utilitarian account of predicative value, I defend what I call an aestheticism about attributive value that is likewise continuous and compatible with that utilitarian axiology.
And though the primary focus of my epistemology is synthetic knowledge, I give also a thorough, continuous, and compatible account of analytic knowledge, focusing primarily on a posteriori knowledge of both types. Likewise, though the primary focus of my deontology is distributive justice, I give also a thorough, continuous, and compatible account of procedural justice, focusing primarily on imperfect duties of both types.
In light of all that, I defend a philosophy of mind that is functionalist about the "easy" (but most important) problem of access consciousness, yet panpsychist about the "hard" (but relatively trivial) problem of phenomenal consciousness. Parallel to that, I defend a philosophy of will that posits a compatibilist kind of psychological freedom as the most important, yet also grants a sort of pan-libertarianism when it comes to the relatively trivial, metaphysical, incompatibilist kind of freedom.
Echoing that weak emergence of those important senses of mind and will from trivial features omnipresent in everything, I also defend an anarcho-socialist philosophy of governance, and an analogous philosophy of education that I call freethinking proselytism. In both of those, a relatively trivial kind of authority, omnipresent in all people, weakly emerges into social institutions of education and governance, without justifying either religions or states, and thus remaining compatible with the epistemological and deontological methodologies laid out earlier.
Underlying all of that is a philosophy of language based in speech-act theory, giving more or less a verificationist account of descriptive meaning; but, although accepting the non-descriptive impetus of moral non-cognitivism that usually accompanies that, nevertheless giving an ultimately cognitivist account of prescriptive meaning as well. Following that, and hinging on the notion of direction of fit that enables it, I give parallel accounts of, on one hand, the structure and content of speech-acts in logic, the relationship thereof to mathematics, and a segue into ontology; and, on the other hand, the packaging and delivery of speech-acts in rhetoric, the relationship thereof to the arts, and a segue into axiology.
Likewise segueing from my accounts of education and governance, I then address in parallel the practical subjects of the enlightenment and empowerment that each of them depends upon, respectively. And all of this together builds up to ground an account of meaning in life, rather than in language, that touches on emotive concepts of meaningfulness like those from mysticism and theological non-cognitivism, yet is thoroughly pragmatist in the end, rejecting excesses of both optimism and pessimism along similar lines to Absurdism.
Begin with the first essay, The Metaphilosophy of Analytic Pragmatism.