'Philosophy is not a lexicon’: Metaphor as Methodological Doubt in Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty
Andrew Kirkpatrick (Deakin University)

March 26, 2019, 4:00pm - 5:30pm
Department of Philosophy, PHI research group, Deakin University

C2.05 Burwood Campus. Ic1.108 Waurn Ponds. *VMP 522 39354
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood 3125
Australia

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In Metaphors We Live By (1980) Lakoff and Johnson revealed the central role that metaphors play in our conceptual grasping of the world, arguing that metaphors are just ‘as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.’ However, because it is the function of metaphor to always be wrong about the world, a consequence of this reliance on metaphor means ‘rejecting the possibility’ ever arriving at ‘any objective or absolute truth.’ While an important work in its own right, these insights regarding metaphor—along with their metaphysical implications—had already been expressed some fifty years earlier in the works of Alfred North Whitehead who—in his approach to language—claims that ‘in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than … true.’ While controversial, this must be understood in the context of Whitehead’s own philosophical development and in light of a distinction he makes between ‘critical’ and ‘speculative’ schools of philosophy. While the latter embraces the fertile ambiguity of metaphor, the former rejects it as an ‘enemy of truth.’ In doing so, the critical school commits what Whitehead terms ‘the fallacy of the perfect dictionary.’ Whitehead should know. As co-author (with Bertrand Russell) of Principia Mathematica—an attempted ‘perfect dictionary’—Whitehead himself must be understood as a reformed philosopher of the critical school. While the critical school’s pursuit of certainty is driven by sceptical doubt—perhaps most famously associated with Descartes, but inclusive of the empiricist tradition—the speculative school must be understood to be driven by a different kind of doubt. This is the speculative doubt of imprecise metaphors, which facilitate the ‘imaginative leaps’ that are required for all philosophical thought. This approach to philosophy finds support in Merleau-Ponty who—echoing Whiteheadian themes—asserts that ‘philosophy is not a lexicon.’ Indeed, despite inheriting a residual Cartesianism via the phenomenological tradition, Merleau-Ponty instead works with Le Doute de Cézanne—‘Cézanne’s Doubt.’ This is a doubt that finds expression in his phenomenological methodology and the insights gained through his analysis of WWI veteran Schneider. Through this analysis, Merleau-Ponty is able to reveal the central role that imaginative error plays in our everyday, embodied experience. From this we can understand that metaphors do not simply function to describe the world as it is, but rather play an active role in adding to its depth. Ultimately, this results in a normative claim: a speculative philosophy which affords metaphorical depth to the world is superior to a critical philosophy that renders it flat and literal.  If, as Whitehead argues, philosophy is in the business of creating the future, then a central place must be given to speculative philosophy. Given Whitehead’s claim that genuine philosophy has more in common with poetry and literature than deductive logic, rather than simply rely on literal accounts of Whitehead’s doctrine, we should also do as he instructs and consider literary approaches. Examples entertained in this paper include Jorge Luis Borge’s short story ‘On Exactitude in Science,’ and George Orwell’s 1984—both of which express important aspects of Whitehead’s doctrine while revealing some disturbing tendencies in the critical school.

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Leslie Allan
La Trobe University

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