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.