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The flank move: Was Re: Suspension of Judgement in Practice

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  • Jan E Garrett
    Since the Stoic system, as classically understood, is a system of science, i.e., knowledge or episteme, and cognitive impressions are necessary but not
    Message 1 of 4 , Feb 1, 2004
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      Since the Stoic system, as classically understood, is a system of "science," i.e., knowledge or episteme, and cognitive impressions are necessary but not sufficient for science, dropping the possibility of cognitive impressions would have entailed the abandonment of the possibility of science as the Stoics conceived it and therefore a confession that their system was, as Descartes later called the Scholastic philosophy he was familiar withy, "a castle built upon sand." Some flank move!
       
      On Fri, 30 Jan 2004 01:58:38 -0800 "Steve & Oxsana Marquis" <marquis@...> writes:
      I am not convinced that the cognitive impression is even necessary for the
      rest of the Stoic system to function properly.  It would have been quite a
      move for the classical Stoics to accept the Skeptic challenge and adopt
      suspension of judgment in total.  That would have practically eliminated the
      distinction between the Skeptics and Stoics; and, since the later had the
      more comprehensive system, I wonder if the former would have survived much
      after.  Now that's a flank move.
    • Steve & Oxsana Marquis
      Jan writes: ____________ Since the Stoic system, as classically understood, is a system of science, i.e., knowledge or episteme, and cognitive impressions
      Message 2 of 4 , Feb 2, 2004
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        Jan writes:

        ____________

         

        Since the Stoic system, as classically understood, is a system of "science," i.e., knowledge or episteme, and cognitive impressions are necessary but not sufficient for science, dropping the possibility of cognitive impressions would have entailed the abandonment of the possibility of science as the Stoics conceived it

        ____________

         

        Scientific knowledge for the ancients was certain knowledge.  This is a different use of the word science than we’re used to.  Modern science is revisionary and interative and doesn’t make this claim.  Modern science does, in fact, suspend judgment in exactly the way I’ve been suggesting.  Progress towards knowledge is not possible unless one admits deficiency in knowledge to start with.

         

        OK, it’s clear the classic Stoics did not want to give up their claim on the possibility of certain knowledge.  But what is it necessary for exactly?  I asked for an explanation of ‘right’ reason some time ago and I don’t recall cognitive impression being anywhere in the answer.  I don’t remember reading about cognitive impressions as necessary in Larry Becker’s ‘A New Stoicism’.  It is quite common for modern scholars to claim teleology as superficial for virtue ethics.  If this is based on a conflict with our 21rst century paradigm then for consistency’s sake maybe cognitive impression needs careful scrutiny also.

         

        Cognitive impressions seem intuitively obvious given the simple examples we’ve been using in our posts.  But a slight increase in complexity in concept shows right away that a claim to certainty based on sense perception is problematic.  Can we not imagine two eyewitnesses both believing that what they saw was true (ie, they believe they’ve had cognitive impressions) and yet disagreeing?  This is as common as air.  Have we ever played the game of telling a story to many people in sequence just to see the distortion present when the final version is presented to the originator?  Have we ever witnessed a sudden increase in the population of a certain object, such as a car we’re interested in buying?  Did we have a Toyota baby boom?  Hardly.  Our attention shifted.  So, did we have our cognitive impressions before the attention shift or after?  It is a fact that we are mistaken about our perceptions all the time.

         

        I am currently reading AA Long’s essay ‘Language and Thought in Stoicism’ in ‘Problems in Stoicism’ (1971 Athlone Press).  Stoic reality is populated with 3-dimensional particular bodies.  The reality of an ‘existent’ is validated by its ability to act or be acted upon.  So far typical Stoic physics.  Further, if we have an exactly corresponding image in our head of any particular body then that is a cognitive impression.  With this system there can be a perfect and complete match between image and object.

         

        But, the Stoics are starting with objects of sense perception.  They are starting with concepts generated by past experience to populate their reality with, and then claiming the correct conception of this object to be cognitive.  There seems to be a bit of circularity going on here.  What a Stoic object consists of, seems to me, is only those qualities that can be perceived by our senses in the first place, and the conceptualized labeled qualities on top of that.  So, of course, if we stack the deck this way, cognitive impressions are certainly possible.

         

        We know this is not the case.  We know that any particular has other qualities that cannot be perceived directly by our senses.  Radioactivity, for example.  There are sounds we cannot hear and parts of the electromagnetic spectrum we cannot see.  Even the label ‘particular’ is a convenience, for we divide reality up based on what our senses perceive as the boundaries between individual things.  We can say this is pragmatically true, for it enables us to function surely, but to claim this is certainly true is something else again.  We event the labels.  Reality doesn’t do that.  We not only select what to pay attention to and then filter that through previous concepts, but base the entire process on just a sample set of data to begin with.  How can this be cognitive?

         

        Steve

      • Jan E Garrett
        Steve, If you want to argue that Stoic epistemology (or rather what the orthodox Stoics would have called a major part of logic ) does not appear to do
        Message 3 of 4 , Feb 2, 2004
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          Steve,
           
          If you want to argue that Stoic epistemology (or rather what the orthodox Stoics would have called a major part of "logic") does not appear to do justice to what is now generally considered scientific knowledge (especially with respect to the sorts of things studied by physics, biology, chemistry, etc.) I am inclined to agree with you. But then, if we are inclined to go along with natural science as it is constituted today, we can maintain neither the Stoic "logic" nor the Stoic "physics." That would require us to leave aside two thirds of the tripartite classical Stoic system. But this would not be a case of the Stoic *system* overcoming skepticism by a flanking move.
           
          My own inclination is to defend Stoic ethics in terms of its general "fruits" for a satisfactory life, a pragmatist epistemological criterion, rather than arguing, for instance, that its principles are known as a result of cognitive impressions.
           
          (Actually, a part of me would *like* to see if we could rehabilitate the notion of cognitive impressions to assist with an understanding of how we can be so "sure" Stoic ethics is the best path, and I sense that if I understood the thought process behind Descartes' cogito deeply enough I might be able to extract something from that for the epistemology of Stoic ethics, but I am not ready to try this yet. The reason I think it might work is that (1) Descartes is historically and culturally closer to *us* than Zeno or Chrysippus, (2) the cogito is his primary example of a clear and distinct idea, a category similar to the Stoics' cognitive impressions, and (3) what is going on with the cogito itself is open to multiple interpretations, one of which may be useful for us, changing what has to be changed.) 
           
          On another point you make: I don't recall who answered your question about right reason, but I am fairly sure that the classical Stoics would have made cognitive impressions a necessary condition for having right reason. If right reason is equivalent to phronesis, and only the sage has phronesis, and the sage does not assent to what he does not know (I seem to recall these things from our sources on the Stoic view), I don't see how you could have right reason without cognitive impressions. On the other hand, if we relax what is required for right reason (prudence, phronesis) from Stoic sagedom to Aristotelian practical reasonableness (also called phronesis), then perhaps we can get by without cognitive impressions. Virtuous moral choice is, then, more a matter of good approximations made by the right sort of persons, virtuous persons in the more or less Aristotelian sense, with the help of precepts that are valid "for the most part."
           
          Jan
           
        • Steve & Oxsana Marquis
          Jan, thanks indeed for your post. It clears up several loose ends. I was in error to presume that the cognitive impression was trivial to classical Stoicism.
          Message 4 of 4 , Feb 4, 2004
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            Jan, thanks indeed for your post.  It clears up several loose ends.

             

            I was in error to presume that the cognitive impression was trivial to classical Stoicism.  That it is the grounding for right reason makes perfect sense.  This does not lesson my skepticism about a happy union between conceptual certainty and experience.  That it is a weak point is evidenced by your Descartes project.  I wish you well with that and would be interested in the results.

             

            It is unusual for me to be arguing on the side of modernity against some aspect of the classical system.  From hindsight it is naïve to assume conflicts like this will not occur from time to time.  It might be easy (at least easier) to isolate classical Stoicism as a scholarly study.  But for those of us attempting to follow it as a way of life clashes with the paradigm we grew up with are inevitable, even if consciously we prefer the old way to the modern way.

              

            Jan has outlined a possible interim solution.  If we relegate cognitive impressions to the Sage as part of the Stoic normative ideal model we buy some space to work the issue.  This works for me.

             

            Since practical reasoning for us students then becomes, at best, ‘all things considered’, we are left with suspension of judgment as the prudent course.  This simply means making the best selection of indifferents without complete information, without certain knowledge.  It does not mean withholding judgment completely.  Maybe this has been a misunderstanding.  Admitting that we could be wrong is an incentive to get the facts straight as best we can.  This promotes attention and carefulness.  Admitting that we will never have complete information puts the brakes on limitless research and the putting off of difficult choices.  This is a great example of moderation, and has a certain air of practicalness that appeals.

             

            The Sage, by definition, would not have ego issues to work through. The problem with the possibility of cognitive impressions for the rest of us is the ego’s propensity to want to be right.  This stems, I believe, from our survival instinct, for to be right means making the right choices (and therefore surviving).  The ego will misuse the idea of cognitive impression as one way to justify its opinions and ignore reality.  Thus a realm of ‘illusion’ is built.  This seems to me to be so basic to human psychology that it is no wonder many of the Wisdom Traditions have specific practices aimed at reducing the effect of this very thing.

             

            The danger of misuse and the actuality of the cognitive impression are two different matters of course.  Prudence, for me anyway, recommends proceeding as if the cognitive impression is not possible for one making progress.

             

            Steve

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