Monday, January 08, 2018

The Principles of Charity and Humane Sensibility in Philosophy

The following from the “Overture” to Raymond Tallis’s The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (St. Martin’s Press, 1999; first edition, 1991) strikes me as an insufficiently recognized example of one dimension of the “principle of charity” in philosophy. As such, it is a more “globalized” conception of the principle, which is usually in reference to a “localized” application entailing the “maximization” of coherence, rationality, or truth of the specific arguments of one’s interlocutors (and of course the ‘global’ and ‘local’ dimensions are complementary), particularly if they are ambiguous, vague, or open to interpretation; thus one formulates the “best” or most generous construal of the argument” of one’s interlocutor before criticizing it or assessing its plausibility, soundness, or persuasiveness:

“In the pages that follow, several books are subjected to repeated criticism. They include The Computer and the Mind by P.N. Johnson-Laird, Mindwaves edited by Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield, and Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness. They have been singled out for their merits, not their deficiencies: they seem to me to provide the clearest, the most lucid, the most comprehensive and the most honest accounts of the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and cognitive neurobiology presently available.* I have found them immensely helpful and am grateful to their progenitors. My enormous debt to these books is in no wise diminished by my disagreement with pretty well everything of theoretical substance that is contained in them.”

Tallis (in the Preface to the 1999 edition of The Explicit Animal), an intellectual polymath, also exemplifies what we might term the principle of humane sensibility in philosophical discussion and debate when he praises the prominent philosophers and psychologists bewitched by neurophilosophy for being exemplary prose stylists well-versed in the rhetorical arts of exposition and persuasion, despite the conclusion that their “ingenious” arguments contain “daft ideas” rife with “deceptions and self-deceptions:”

“Materialist, computational, Darwinian [used here primarily in reference to the field of ‘evolutionary psychology’] accounts of mind seem to attract the most gifted and witty expositors resourceful in their use of metaphor and are extremely skilled at assuming the appropriate linguistic register to communicate their ideas in a user-friendly and non-patronising manner [this is quite rare in the halls of professional philosophy, although increased acknowledgment of this from both inside and outside the profession, as well as an apparent uptick in the literary styles and modes of exposition in philosophy, may indicate welcome changes are afoot]. It is always a pleasure to read Daniel Dennett; and, even when his in the throes of conceptual confusion concealed by the most cunning use of transferred epithets, the impression is always one of lucidity. And the same is true of Pinker, the Churchlands [Patricia and Paul] and many other expositors of what has (to expropriate the term used by Gilbert Ryle of Cartesian dualism) become The Official Doctrine.

* This was written in 1991, hence the books cited were published prior to that (in 1987 and 1988).


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