All posts by A.J. Smith

In Defense of Naïveté

photo credit: Sebastian Furtado
photo credit: Sebastian Furtado

Somewhere in his Lectures on Religion, shanked between some bits on finitude and religion, that irascibly difficult Hegel says that philosophy is nothing more than the cultivation of consciousness. Whatever that form of phenomenological gardening is, it isn’t the acquisition of knowledge. That’s scholarship, a wholly different though often mutually confounded task. Of course, it goes without saying that we need scholarship and science, and all the disciplines and activities that tell us about these things, so that we aren’t dolts and hapless navigators in the world. But, in carrying out all these useful naïveté-banishing activities, we sometimes forget how important naïveté is to the functioning of everything that we do, even to the well-rounded functioning of our most complex thoughts.

By naïveté, I mean something rather specific: the pre- or un-thought component to all our thought, the sort of things that are at the beginning and the end of all we do and think and act. For example, back in the 1960s artificial intelligence research made some very sweeping and ambitious promises about its future progress, only to fall short, if still managing to do some interesting things with games (yay chess!). The reason, according to its famous philosopher critic Hubert Dreyfus, was not firstly anything to do with technological limitations. But rather that the background knowledge of what a mind was – the concept, that is, that they employed – was not itself correct. Like everyone embedded in Western thought, they had taken their model (implicitly) from Descartes, and so they didn’t account for all the tacit, context-sensitive things our minds do all the time, before we even start reflecting on things. In the semi-technical world of philosophy, Dreyfus would say that the artificial intelligence program did not account for intuition. That is understandable, of course. After all, as those weird German idealists knew best, it is rather hard to think the un-thought.

Take jaywalking in Montreal. To a newcomer in this world of pedestrian anarchy, we must stop, analyze the situation, explicitly represent the rules of traffic (and physics!) to ourselves, before we venture daringly across Sherbrooke, rue Sainte-Catherine, or even the strangely dangerous rue University. To a habituated Montrealer who has so absorbed the contextuality of the situation, however, they no longer need to explicitly represent all these things to themselves as rules, and they intuitively know when and how to cross without being dead. In this sense, naïveté is something that is almost won. So, this isn’t to say that artificial intelligence is impossible (not even Dreyfus would say that), or that being able to manipulate the rules symbolically isn’t valuable, it’s just that much of what we do presuppose a naïveté, if you like, to function well, if at all.

Husserl, that other writer of painful prose, says that for us, the earth does not move (as in, around the sun). Basically, in our day-to-day life, classical physics is our operating principle (thanks Aristotle!). The ground is solid. Things fall. We live in a world where we have to navigate, move our bodies, remember times, go poop, drink tea at Piccolos Café (du Parc shout-out!), feel pain, get hungry, comb our hair, etc. None of these things are of any theoretical importance, and get lost in our headlong quest to banish the naïve from out lives. Let us remember, however, that our naïve and primordial experience of the world is not without value. Indeed, ultimately, it is the only experience of the world we truly have. And Hegel is right. We should cultivate it.

—Adam Smith