Unpacking our metaphors
Last week, Assistant Professor Han Thomas Adriaenssen got the news that his latest book, Representation and Scepticism from Aquinas to Descartes, won the 2018 Journal of the History of Philosophy (JHP) book of the year award.
The prize – which comes with a nice 5,000 dollar cheque – is a really big deal. The JHP is the most prestigious journal for the history of philosophy worldwide and is the industry standard for excellence. ‘On Monday a colleague sent me congratulations. I thought, for what? I’d better check my email!’ Han Thomas laughs. ‘It was a nice surprise indeed.’
Han Thomas, who has won the philosophy teacher of the year award three times in a row, is a beloved character in the department. He isn’t one to brag, but others are more than willing to do that for him.
Dean Lodi Nauta (who also won the JHP book award in 2010) says: ‘He is extremely talented. He knows Italian, German, and English almost fluently. He is a very modest and likeable person, very kind, and would never say a bad word about anyone. He has won the teacher award in our faculty so many times that we later had to decide that winners can’t be nominated for consecutive years, so others would have a chance to win as well. I rate him one of the very best historians of philosophy, and one of the very best teachers.’
A quick poll of random students in the foyer yields similar praise: ‘He can make anything interesting!’ one student says. ‘He’s got such a positive vibe, it makes philosophy fun. Like, did you know Avicenna could be interesting?’
Five Questions for philosopher Han Thomas
Even the title of the book feels a little heady. How would you describe the book’s project to someone without a background in philosophy?
‘I would probably start with Descartes — that’s someone we all know. In 1641, he says: “Let’s get rid of everything we think we know; it’s all rubbish. Let’s start from scratch.” So he coins “I think therefore I am” and makes this big claim to novelty.
And that’s a good sell; he’s a compelling writer. But if you have any sense of the medieval tradition before him, you can see that many of his theories – especially about perception – use recycled concepts. With regard to perception and representation, Descartes is kind of like a used car salesman: he isn’t offering much that’s actually new. That’s what I try to draw out in my book.
And the debates that follow are just debates that had already happened in the Middle Ages, but sloppier.’
Okay. So you explore the philosophical problem of ‘perception and representation’ from Aquinas to Descartes; what exactly is the problem?
‘Right. So it goes like this: what is going on in your mind when you see something in your environment? Take this chair, for instance. When you see this chair, what’s happening in your mind?
One answer is that you form a kind of pictorial representation of the chair. You start drawing a mental image for yourself of the thing in front of you, and you label it: ‘chair’. Once you have that image, you can zoom in on whatever part of it you want – the colour, the function, whatever. That’s a general way to think about representation, which seems basically intuitive.
But then there is a worry: if this is how it works – if this is how we access the environment cognitively – then that means there is a sort of interface between us and reality. A veil of perceptions, if you will. So what we’re thinking about is not the chair itself, but our picture of the chair.
But that can’t be right! Right? Because I’m not interested in learning something about my mental image. I’m interested in learning something about the chair. I want to know about reality. And what guarantees are there that my picture is reliable in the first place? The answer is: none. There’s no reason to believe you can count on your picture of what the world is like. That’s a major problem.’
[For example, if you say: ‘Peter is bald’, you’re not actually talking about Peter. You’re talking about your image of Peter.]
You’re telling us that we aren’t engaging with the chair, but with our image of the chair. But either way I’m still sitting in the chair, as far as I can tell. So who cares? Why should this problem bother me?
‘There are ways the problem becomes concrete. When you have a disagreement with someone, you can really only have that disagreement if you are both talking about the same thing. Disagreements become unproductive – or worse, uninteresting – when you find out you’re not really talking about the same thing. But on the representation model of perception, you might never be able to talk about the same thing.
And that just seems wrong. Because we do think of ourselves as engaging in genuine disagreement about the same things. So we ought to have a theory of cognition that can do justice to how we think of ourselves, right?
You want to be able to speak about a domain that is accessible to you and to whoever you’re talking to. A chair is accessible to both of us, but my idea of a chair is accessible only to me.’
That seems so lonely. Does anyone in your book have a solution for this?
‘It is lonely! And no one has a viable solution. I don’t think it’s a problem that can be solved. We just have to live with the skeptical consequences. Even if we ditch representation, any remotely plausible explanation for how our brains work will have to acknowledge that we sometimes get it wrong.
In my book, the virtue of the philosophers isn’t that they present a solution to the problem, but that they trigger new ways of thinking about it.
Image talk is very metaphorical; it’s poetic. The mental image metaphor comes so naturally, too – it just seems right. But it puts you on the road to representation, and from there you run into major problems. Philosophers challenge that; they question the metaphors we live by and give us a way to escape them.’
That sounds like an important skill. So should every student do some philosophy?
‘Yes! Because even in the sciences, the language we use can be highly metaphorical. But metaphors don’t come for free; they come with all kinds of underlying assumptions. We typically don’t make our assumptions explicit, which is the advantage of a metaphor: you can pack everything into one nice, powerful image.
What philosophy does so nicely is unravel the package and show you clearly: maybe you don’t like this so much after all, however nice the image.
Once you have the intellectual habit of unpacking things, it doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about: cognition, perception, moral dilemmas, whatever. It all uses the same skills.’