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Classic Text #6

Presupposition and Polarity

An important use of philosophy is to recognize, examine, and challenge our common presuppositions. A presupposition is a belief, value, or practice that is taken for granted and without question. Consider the parts of the word: pre (comming before) and supposition (a belief or accepted claim). The presupposition is prior to our other beliefs. That is what makes presuppositions so interesting to philosophers: when we have identified a strong presupposition, we have found a basis of other active beliefs, values, and practices. Some philosophers hold that a culture can be identified by the presuppositions that the people in it hold. The Worf-Sapir hypothesis (look under "W" at this site this links to), for instance, holds that the language that we use determines what and how we think. We gain our sense of identity and our most basic understanding of the world via a language (or languages) that were given to us. Benjamin Whorf examined examples of differences in the presuppositions in the languages of different cultures. The Hopi people of the North American Southwest, for instance, seem to have no concept of time seen as a dimension in their language. Our presuppositions about time, space, causality, and identity are basic to our belief systems. Changes in those basics may result in huge differences in belief, value, and practice.

Whether language is a determinant of thought is not the crucial issue here. The Whorf-Sapir hypothesis continues to generate much discussion and no conclusion has been reached (except to acknowledge that a strict language thought determinisim is an oversimplification). The significant poin there is the idea that there are presuppositions that underlie the rest of our belief systems. More striking is the possibility that we can recognize and understand our own presuppositions. If that is possible, then we may be able to identify the causes of errors and distortions in our own conceptions of the world. That would be an amazing step towards personal freedom and knowledge.

The difficulty many people have with this possibilitity is seeing beyond the obvious. Our presuppositions work because they fit all of the evidence and all of our experience perfectly (some will argue that our presuppositions determine our experiences). It is diffiicult, even uncomfortable, to get at what lies underneath our own thinking - partly because we have to use our own patterns of thinking to get there. This leads some philosophers to regard the attempt to see behind the veil of our own pressupositions as futile. We have reached our limits as thinkers. But, even if there are limits to how far we can delve into our own thinking, it is surely the case that most of us can go deeper than we are at present.

As an example of the philosophical attempt to recognize, examine, and challenge our presuppositions, we shall read an essay by Richard Taylor titled "Polarity." In this essay, Taylor claims to have identified a key form of thinking that makes up a major class of presupposition in western thought.
Pay attention to how he identifies this idea.
How does he explain it to the readers?
Is the idea of polarity clear to you?
Can you give and explain examples of your own?
Note the ideas that he sees coming as a result of the polarity presumption.
He says that polarity gives rise to certain "problems." What are these problems and in what ways are they problems?

Most interesting: does polarity play a role in your own thinking? Give examples and follow them up with a level of detail and depth similar to how Taylor proceeds.

Here is a link to the text that you can print.


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