Thinking we know what we don’t know
I read something very interesting in an interview with Timothy Williamson the other day.
Not long ago I had a revealing discussion with a professor of ancient Greek literature, who was convinced that, by contrast with the tradition of Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, contemporary analytic philosophy had nothing useful to offer the study of poetry ― a common view in departments of literature. He claimed that it could not handle phenomena such as meaning more than one says. I discovered that he didn’t know of the analytic philosopher Paul Grice’s analysis of just such phenomena, which has had a huge impact on linguistics as well as philosophy. The point is that he had never even looked at Grice’s book (Studies in the Way of Words); he wasn’t reacting negatively to its content or manner of presentation. That’s not untypical. Outside philosophy departments, many people are taught that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping, so they don’t feel the incentive to do the hard work that is needed to master the ideas and see how they can be applied to literary texts and other material.
The professor of ancient Greek literature thought he knew something that he in fact didn’t know. Outside philosophy departments, many people are taught that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping, so they think they know that, so they never bother to look into it – and the teaching that analytic philosophy is sterile logic-chopping goes right on being the conventional wisdom. So often that is how conventional wisdom becomes conventional wisdom: just by people saying stuff and other people taking it as true and no further inquiry taking place. I’m sure I ‘know’ lots of things in that way. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to become aware of them and shed or correct them – but I’m not so optimistic that I think I’ve spotted all of them.
It would be a good idea to have an academy for tracking down items of conventional wisdom for further examination and inquiry and investigation. Sir Thomas Browne compiled a Pseudodoxia Epidemica, and Flaubert had Bouvard and Pécuchet compile a Dictionnaire des idées reçues, and there is of course the indispensable Skeptic’s Dictionary now – but I think there’s still need for a conventional wisdom branch.