Sunday, August 14, 2005

Wishful Thinking

Philosophy has never recovered from the damage done to its image around the middle of the last century: it came to seem dull, insipid and mechanical, a pedantic exploration of how language works. One of the great polemics against "linguistic" or "ordinary language" philosophy is back in print, in a handsome Routledge edition: Ernest Gellner's Words and Things.

Reading it now, you can see why it was explosive, with its combination of wit and flagrant disavowal of interpretive charity. Gellner is happy to attribute bad motives, bad ideas and sheer confusions to the philosophers he dislikes, and he is often very funny in doing so.
Academic environments are generally characterised by the presence of people who claim to understand more than in fact they do. Linguistic Philosophy has produced a great revolution, generating people who claim not to understand what in fact they do. Some achieve great virtuosity at it. Any beginner in philosophy can manage not to understand, say, Hegel, but I have heard people who were so advanced that they knew how not to understand writers of such limpid clarity as Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayer.
It is not clear whether Moore should be called a philosopher or a pedant of such outstanding ability as to push pedantry and literal-mindedness to a point where it became a philosophy. [...] One might say that Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words...
There are many more passages like this; although it is quite repetitive, I recommend reading the whole book.

It is a shame, however, about the preface to the new edition by Ian Jarvie, which is a missed opportunity. What Gellner mainly objects to in the "ordinary language" approach is its attack on philosophical doctrines as meaningless, its argument that philosophical problems always arise from linguistic confusion, and its consequent resistance to constructive theory: philosophy is therapy. Jarvie insists that "Linguistic Philosophy continues to be the tacit backbone of 'analytic philosophy', uncritically unacknowledged." This is simply false. Most of the strategies and arguments that Gellner rejects are dormant nowadays. Constructive theory is rife. The only general continuity lies in paying attention to language, but Gellner is rightly tolerant of that: it is a problem for him only when it becomes exclusive. A good essay could have been written, in the spirit of the book itself, about the recent history of philosophy, and the complicated place of Austin and Wittgenstein within it.

In any case, the value of Words and Things is not mainly in the light it casts on contemporary practice, or in its critical arguments – for Gellner, "exposition and refutation are one", and subtle distinctions are not worth bothering about – but in its sociological attitude to philosophical thought. This is easy to caricature. It can be reminiscent of an article once published in the The Sun, about a psychiatrist who diagnosed Wittgenstein as schizophrenic, observing that his work is "superficially profound, but on examination, meaningless." In Gellner, it occasionally amounts to pseudo-science: "[a] rough law holds for the history of philosophy, namely: P = 1/p, where P is Platonism and p psychologism." It has to be legitimate, however, to ask about the motives of philosophers. Some of the best insights in Gellner's book are of this kind, as when he explains the appeal of the later Wittgenstein:
The linguistic naturalism, the reduction of the basis of our thought to linguistic etiquette, ensures that there is no appeal whatever to Extraneous Authority for the manner in which we speak and think. Naturalism, this-worldliness, is thus pushed to its final limit. But at the very same time, and for that very reason (language and custom being their own masters, beholden and accountable to no Outside norm), the diversified content of language and custom is indiscriminately endorsed. Thus the transcendent, if and when required, slips back ambiguously, in virtue of being the object of natural practices, customs, modes of speech.

Apart from its sarcasm, this seems to me an apt account of the attractions of anti-foundationalism, in one of its forms. It is akin to the "naturalism of second nature" in John McDowell's Mind and World: we hope to integrate irreducible normativity into the natural world by giving a naturalistic account of how we come to think about irreducible norms. You can see why someone would want this to work.

I don't mean to be disparaging. In fact, I find it striking that my own philosophical views, with one or two exceptions – atheism, for instance – are ones that I want to be true. Does that apply to other philosophers? How often do we argue against our heart's desire? And would it undermine philosophy to learn that it is, like metaphysics in Bradley's definition, "the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct"?


Blogger Pat said...

This might be cheating...

But I don't want determinism to be true, but I think it is.

However, I think I want compatbilism to be true and I, can we call it a draw?

7:10 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Maybe I'm just showing my Davidsonian roots, but in general I find Gellner's "flagrant disavowal of interpretive charity" to, well, make hash of his argument, however witty. He's just not getting it at all, and it gets annoying. I guess it's always less funny when the polemic is directed (apparently) in one's own general direction. I haven't read the whole book though, and it was a while ago when I read what I did. Your remarks on the preface seem right.

As for the motivation for a "naturalism of second nature," I don't think we need to take it as expressing a yearning for naturalism in particular. The target is the dualism of reason and nature (i.e., as McDowell says, nature construed as the realm of law, set over against the space of reasons), which is held by naturalists and supernaturalists alike. The problem was that whenever we speak of normativity in nature (that is, of the world as exerting normative constraints on our beliefs and actions), the naturalists pitch a fit (while supernaturalists as well take this to require a "transcendent" (ie non-natural) realm, but claim victory instead of seeing a threat). The point of "second nature" -- to both sides -- is that naturalism can survive even after surrendering the dualism. Maybe "supernaturalism" can too, but that's another story. If a modified naturalism seems more congenial than a (hypothetical) modified supernaturalism, then so be it; but again, the target is the dualism. Speaking for myself, I have no particular desire for supernaturalism to fail where naturalism can succeed. (In any case one need hardly worry; naturalists look like they're in no hurry to clean up their act.)

In general (perhaps I'm being obtuse) I don't understand. Realism and idealism (and other such paired opposites) strike me not as intelligible possibilities which I hope are false - they look like confusion. How could I hope that confusion is true or false? Of course I don't like giving stuff up, but I only ever do so in the hopes of trading up, so to speak, whoever the vendor happens to be. On the other hand I readily grant that it can be legitimate to examine philosophers' motives. I am certainly motivated to eliminate appeals to Extraneous Authority (but it's the capital letters that bug me more than the threat to naturalism). If some interpreter wants to consider my personal psychology, I have no objection - as long as they actually deal with the words on the page.

By the way I liked your comments re: Holbo on Michaels and Martian writing, etc. at the Valve. I don't see why we have to choose between all intention and no intention.

8:57 PM  

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