Limits of Philosophy and Science
For me, the role of the philosopher is to take theories from many different areas of knowledge and develop a coherent understanding of the world. In the course of my work in a number of different areas I have come to realize that most of our key theories have fatal self-reflexive flaws: it is impossible to explain how a person within the world could come up with these theories about the world. We have many pragmatically useful and superficially convincing theories, but they ultimately cancel themselves out and leave us knowing very little about the ultimate nature of reality.
My overall approach is influenced by Derrida, except that I am interested in deconstructing abstract models of philosophical and scientific theories. An abstract model makes the metaphysics of a theoretical domain more apparent, and I use a self-reflexive analysis to expose the contradictions of theories within the domain. This process of model building also works as a kind of caricature, which enables us to see the monstrosity and absurdity of the theories that are being studied.
Local and Global Theories
A self-reflexive analysis only makes sense if a theory is sufficiently wide ranging to determine the nature of the person who is developing the theory. However, many theories are extremely local in scope and only apply to one small area or aspect of the world. For example, theories about prime numbers or the cell structure of plants have almost no impact on anything beyond their field. Since this type of theory does not apply to the person who is developing the theory, there is no need to take self-reflexivity into account.
The case is very different when we come up with theories like "perception depends on the brain" or "time is the fourth dimension of space". These theories are sufficiently wide ranging that they determine both the nature of the world and the nature of the person who is coming up with the theory about the world. With this type of theory self-reflexivity must be taken into account because there is a circle of interpretation in which a person interprets the world and this intepretation of the world includes the person who is developing the interpretation of the world. This hermeneutic circle is shown in Figure 1.
Stable and Collapsing Hermeneutic Circles
In an ideal world all of our theories would be self-reflexively consistent. Each theory about the world would explain how that theory about the world is possible, and all of our hermeneutic circles would be stable, as shown in Figure 2.
One example of a stable hermeneutic circle is Hegel's theory of history, which gives a historical account of how Hegel could write his theory of history at a particular point in history. A detailed discussion of Hegel's self-reflexive consistency can be found in Kojève's Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, and Hegel's stable hermeneutic circle is illustrated in Figure 3.
Most of our current theories are not self-reflexively consistent because they cannot explain how they could be developed by people from within the world. This leads to a collapsing hermeneutic circle, which is illustrated in Figure 4.
In What We Can Never Know I show in detail how our theories about the brain and time form collapsing hermeneutic circles.
Unstable Hermeneutic Circles
Some theories emerge from a stable hermeneutic circle, evolve into a collapsing hermeneutic circle and revert back into a stable hermeneutic circle. This cycle continues indefinitely in a process of continual undermining that I have called an unstable hermeneutic circle.
A simple example of an unstable hermeneutic circle is the assertion that everyone is correct - i.e., that the theories of everyone are to be believed. This theory starts off as a stable hermeneutic circle because it include itself amongst the theories that are correct. However, a person who believed this theory would soon come into contact with other people who made an exclusive claim to truth. For example, Jesus claims that the theory that everyone is correct is wrong because only he is the son of God and speaks the truth. The person's theory that everyone is correct commits her to believing Jesus, and yet Jesus is claiming that only he speaks the truth. As she listens to Jesus, her belief that everyone is correct forces her to believe him, and this undermines her theory that everyone is correct. However, she only started to believe Jesus because of her theory that everyone is correct, and not because of Jesus' own claim that he is the son of God. So once she starts believing Jesus she also starts to undermine her own grounds for believing Jesus. This leads her to stop believing Jesus, her theory that everyone is correct returns and the process begins again. This instability is illustrated in Figure 5.
Unstable hermeneutic circles typically result from theories that attribute truth to a multiplicity of conflicting theories. In What We Can Never Know I show how our theories about madness and knowledge form unstable hermeneutic circles. Some extracts from this book can be read here.