Philosophy and the Two Cultures
In a recent edition of the LRB, Rorty reviewed Scott Soames' two-volume history of analytic philosophy. The books are absolutely packed with arguments; Soames is a kind of anti-Gellner: meticulous, discriminating, unhistorical.
The review is positive, I think, and it is initially hard to fathom the antagonism in Soames' response. He objects to Rorty's desire for "grand synthesis", praising the specialization of contemporary analytic philosophy. What is puzzling is that philosophy remains relatively un-specialized: it is still possible for the very great to have an educated view about the whole range of philosophical questions. There was only one David Lewis, it is true, but there are others who are like him in this respect. And even those of us well-advised to aim at smaller goals should be able to say how their minutiae relate to the big questions. Philosophical specialists typically can describe these relations, even if their publications do not always spell them out.
In the background, I suspect, is a picture of Rorty as anti-philosophical, and as willfully obscure, specialization being understood as the price of clarity. Neither charge has much to do with the content of the review. Both are pursued at greater length – though Rorty is not named – in a paper that resonates with Soames' remarks: Timothy Williamson's "Must Do Better". It, too, is an argument in favour of small questions, of philosophical specialization, and especially of patient, rigorous intellectual care: we must spell out the criteria by which to judge reflection, the "forms of philosophical discipline".
In one way, this self-described "sermon" is impossible to dispute. Of course, yes, let's work hard, really try to the find the truth and not be lazy. Why, then, do I find myself resisting its appeal? Not because I have much sympathy with the quietists, those "opponents of systematic philosophical theorizing". (This could be misleading: apart from Rorty, I'm not sure who these people are.) And only in part because of the tone – which is, as Williamson notes, "like the headmaster of a minor public school at speech day, telling everyone to pull their socks up after a particularly bad term". What I mainly resist is the demand for explicit methods in philosophy, at least as something universal.
This is a tricky point. In trying to make it, one can seem to advocate "work that is not properly disciplined by anything." That is not what I mean to do. And I think we should be self-conscious about the fraught epistemology of philosophical thought. But I am wary of the moments in "Must Do Better" that sound like expressions of faith in philosophy as science, and of the rousing final remarks:
This is not the end of philosophy. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
That philosophy will become science, that there are rules for the direction of the mind – this has been the illusion of every sage in every age. It has produced work of genius. (Williamson quotes Grice with approval: "By and large the greatest philosophers have been the greatest, and most self-conscious, methodologists; indeed, I am tempted to regard this fact as primarily accounting for their greatness as philosophers.") But any method tends to exclude. There is a tension between Williamson's standards and a kind of openness we definitely need.
I am tempted by a tenuous comparison. In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Snow argued for the replacement of "traditional culture" by science, in the service of a practical goal: the alleviation of poverty. One wants to say in response to this: yes to the goal, and to the details; but no to the idea of science as culture, and no to the expulsion of the vague, blundering, creative, method-less humanities. Snow's main error of fact was to claim that "the writers" did not respond to the Industrial Revolution. He seems not to have noticed the political impact of Coleridge, Carlyle, Mill, Dickens, Ruskin. Or rather, he says that they "shuddered [and] produced fancies, which were not much in effect more than screams of horror." But whether they had policies to propose (as some did) or not, they were necessary.
You can see where the analogy is going (and why it is limited). My fear is that the tension between novelty or imagination and transparent methodology is one that we cannot eliminate. If philosophy were in its endgame, it might be right to insist that every move be played by set rules. But if the idea of an endgame makes sense, which I doubt, I am sure it is not here yet. We will need new ideas, unexpected ones, ones that seem obscure and difficult and hard to make precise. Philosophy, no more than culture, is ready to be scientific. So, while some should formulate explicit methods, and do the work that Williamson describes, I do not see that everyone must. The value of diversity is greater than the benefits to come from universal rigour. Let a thousand flowers bloom.