Monday, September 12, 2005

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.


Blogger Gillian Russell said...

Hi Kieran, Just in the interests of completeness: Scott Soames was disappointed that LRB edited his reply to Rorty so severely, but the complete text is here.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous GF-A said...

When discussing what philosophy is with a mathematician friend of mine, we provisionally agreed on the following rough characterization: Philosophy is the study of ill-posed questions. I've heard other people say similar things; I won't name names.

This characterization has stuck with me since, and some days I think it is bang on. And I think it can be used to explain the popularity/ascendency of specialized or 'small' philosophy of the Scott Soames et al. variety: perhaps the various specializations in philosophy are an attempt to convert philosophy's completely ill-posed questions into (slightly) better-posed questions. If we reached genuinely well-posed questions, we would be doing mathematics and science, not philosophy.)

I'm not sure exactly how to spell out the link between specialization and well-posedness, but here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Specialization often narrows the range of phenomena to be explained, so that a theory need not directly account for many widely diverse explananda. So in philosophy, we may not be able to provide a universally satisfying answer to "What is the relation between language, mind, and world?", but if we only ask about anaphora, or only about proper names, then our theory has a better chance of being adequate to the target explananda.

2. Specialization often involves taking additional assumptions on board that are not prima facie philosophically innocuous. For example, a fair amount of work in the philosophy of physics is of the form: Assume the theory of general relativity and/ or quantum mechanics are true; use these theories to infer metaphysical and/or epistemological conclusions. The point for present purposes is this: the space of allowable/ possible answers to various philosophical questions about space, time, causality etc. is vastly reduced by assuming the truth of a current physical theory -- thus generating a less-ill-posed question than we would face without such assumptions.

And I have a guess as to why you (like many philosophers, myself included) feel, at some level, averse to accepting 'small philosophy' lock, stock and barrel. Louis Pasteur said (roughly) "A well-posed question is half-answered." This quote, I think, is intended to praise the well-posed question -- but philosophers might not want the questions they ask to be already half-answered. They want to consider and face the entire question, and not a half-answered substitute for the original whole.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous erhan said...

Realism: Philosophy is (and has always been) a matter of philosophers.

Elitism: Philosophy should be a matter of philosophers.

I take myself to be a realist and do not see any reason to be bothered by how non-philosophers see philosophy. Why should philosophers take the "image" of philosophy so seriously? Does it really matter? I do not think so.

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another review of Soames, this one by Michael Kremer.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't quite know how to say this, knowing how highly he is held in regard, but I find the use of David Lewis as the example of a philosopher who has done useful, unified work across philosophy extremely puzzling. I know that this is a tangential point, but it's been worrying me ever since i read the original post.

Lewis's work in metaphysics and logic is, of course, amazing. However, his papers on ethics don't seem (to me at least) to be related to his other work in particularly interesting ways. (I know, I know, "Hume" is the link, but I'm just uncertain that Lewis' metaphysical account of the world is necessary for any of his more "ethics" papers.) My particular gripe with Lewis's "ethics" work, though, is that his papers seem to engage in philosophical debates about ethics, rather than with ethics, and that they never seem to engage very frutifully with other disciplines, apart from the strange world of "game theory" (I suspect that the same problem - an interest in what philosophers have said about causality, rather than an interest in causality as the concept is used in the sciences, for example - may also be apparent in his metaphysics, but maybe that's less problematic). Indeed, the only "ethics" paper by Lewis I can think of that doesn't seem to start with a philosophical problem, but with a real world example is his paper on academic hiring; a topic that hardly seems very important to anyone outside academia and one that certainly doesn't require much in the way of metaphysics. I'm happy to admit that there may be other applied papers that start from an undiscussed problem I'm forgetting. However, this isn't just a "where's the application worry?" I know, of course, that Lewis also has papers on meta-ethics, but, again, I don't really think that they provide us with evidence for the importance of philosophical "breadth".

Although I certainly wouldn't say that they are technically as brilliant as Lewis, I would suggest that Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel and even Philip Pettit (and, less obviously, many neo-Kantians) may be better examples of philosophers who draw interesting links between different areas of philosophy, and with other non-philosphical disciplines in ways that really do show that specialisation may not be so special. Indeed, if we drop the condition of relating to the world and other disciplines as a desideratum of good philosophy and just focus on technical insights drawing together work over a range of different "philosophical topics", I would have thought that Parfit was a far better example than Lewis of a philosopher who manages to show how lots of work on lots of different philosophical topics can relate to create a unified philosophical system. (It seems to me that Parfit genuinely has a system, from first principles to particular claims which all stands or falls as a whole.)

I know that saying anything considered even mildly critical of Lewis is considered very bad from. I have nothing but admiration for his work, and from everything I have ever heard or read he was obviously a very kind and gracious person. I'm also more than happy to be shown that I'm wrong about Lewis and that he is a better choice than Parfit (on the technical system building side) or Nagel (on the real world plus full philosophical system side) as evidence against the charms of systematisation.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the responses. I've been meaning to return to this topic (in a less oblique way than I did here).

I don't think it's bad form to be critical of Lewis. I certainly didn't pick him because I am sympathetic to many of his views, simply as an example of a philosopher who had views about an enormous range of questions, from metaphysics to ethics. (In ethics, I was thinking of the papers on desire-as-belief and of "Dispositional theories of value".)

It would over-state the point (in choosing Lewis) to suggest that his work is 'evidence for the importance of philosophical "breadth"'. It was intended as evidence of the possibility. In that role, Davidson or Nozick might have done as well; or the authors you mention. But I needed someone who would meet with Soames' approval, and in particular, someone with expertise in more-or-less technical parts of the philosophy of language. The point was that it need not come at the expense of breadth.

1:17 PM  

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