First Chapter Complete

First draft of the first chapter of my dissertation is now complete – one day before my deadline! The first six weeks have been taxing, mostly because my job has been laying great demands on my time. Nevertheless, I’m happy with my progress so far. The next chapter is undoubtedly going to be a lot more difficult – Habermas is not easy to read sometimes, and I need to make sure I do a great job at elucidating and analysing the one aspect of his thought. Still, he’s one of my favourite philosophers so I’m looking forward to the next six weeks. Wish me luck!



Rorty – Consequences of Pragmatism (reproduced)

Chubby sort of fellow

Consequences of Pragmatism

Source: Consequences of Pragmatism, published by the University of Minnesota Press, © 1982.
Introduction only reproduced here, under the “Fair Use” provisions;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden 1998.

——The Marxists Internet Archive regrets the passing of Richard Rorty on June 8 2007.——


1. Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists

The essays in this book are attempts to draw consequences from a pragmatist theory about truth. This theory says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about. For pragmatists, “truth” is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is common to “Bacon did not write Shakespeare,” “It rained yesterday,” “E = mc2” “Love is better than hate,” “The Allegory of Painting was Vermeer’s best work,” “2 plus 2 is 4,” and “There are nondenumerable infinities.” Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature. They doubt this for the same reason they doubt that there is much to be said about the common feature shared by such morally praiseworthy actions as Susan leaving her husband, America joining the war against the Nazis, America pulling out of Vietnam, Socrates not escaping from jail, Roger picking up litter from the trail, and the suicide of the Jews at Masada. They see certain acts as good ones to perform, under the circumstances, but doubt that there is anything general and useful to say about what makes them all good. The assertion of a given sentence – or the adoption of a disposition to assert the sentence, the conscious acquisition of a belief – is a justifiable, praiseworthy act in certain circumstances. But, a fortiori, it is not likely that there is something general and useful to be said about what makes All such actions good-about the common feature of all the sentences which one should acquire a disposition to assert.

Pragmatists think that the history of attempts to isolate the True or the Good, or to define the word “true” or “good,” supports their suspicion that there is no interesting work to be done in this area. It might, of course, have turned out otherwise. People have, oddly enough, found something interesting to say about the essence of Force and the definition of “number.” They might have found something interesting to say about the essence of Truth. But in fact they haven’t. The history of attempts to do so, and of criticisms of such attempts, is roughly coextensive with the history of that literary genre we call “philosophy” – a genre founded by Plato. So pragmatists see the Platonic tradition as having outlived its usefulness. This does not mean that they have a new, non-Platonic set of answers to Platonic questions to offer, but rather that they do not think we should ask those questions any more. When they suggest that we not ask questions about the nature of Truth and Goodness, they do not invoke a theory about the nature of reality or knowledge or man which says that “there is no such thing” as Truth or Goodness. Nor do they have a “relativistic” or “subjectivist” theory of Truth or Goodness. They would simply like to change the subject. They are in a position analogous to that of secularists who urge that research concerning the Nature, or the Will, of God does not get us anywhere. Such secularists are not saying that God does not exist, exactly; they feel unclear about what it would mean to affirm His existence, and thus about the point of denying it. Nor do they have some special, funny, heretical view about God. They just doubt that the vocabulary of theology is one we ought to be using. Similarly, pragmatists keep trying to find ways of making anti-philosophical points in non-philosophical language. For they face a dilemma if their language is too unphilosophical, too “literary,” they will be accused of changing the subject; if it is too philosophical it will embody Platonic assumptions which will make it impossible for the pragmatist to state the conclusion he wants to reach.

All this is complicated by the fact that “philosophy,” like “truth” and “goodness,” is ambiguous. Uncapitalised, “truth” and “goodness” name properties of sentences, or of actions and situations. Capitalised, they are the proper names of objects – goals or standards which can be loved with all one’s heart and soul and mind, objects of ultimate concern. Similarly, “Philosophy” can mean simply what Sellars calls “an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Pericles, for example, was using this sense of the term when he praised the Athenians for “philosophising without unmanliness” (philosophein aneu malakias). In this sense, Blake is as much a philosopher as Fichte, Henry Adams more of a philosopher than Frege. No one would be dubious about philosophy, taken in this sense. But the word can also denote something more specialised, and very dubious indeed. In this second sense, it can mean following Plato’s and Kant’s lead, asking questions about the nature of certain normative notions (e.g., “truth,” “rationality,” “goodness”) in the hope of better obeying such norms. The idea is to believe more truths or do more good or be more rational by knowing more about Truth or Goodness or Rationality. I shall capitalise the term “philosophy” when used in this second sense, in order to help make the point that Philosophy, Truth, Goodness, and Rationality are interlocked Platonic notions. Pragmatists are saying that the best hope for philosophy is not to practise Philosophy. They think it will not help to say something true to think about Truth, nor will it help to act well to think about Goodness, nor will it help to be rational to think about Rationality.

So far, however, my description of pragmatism has left an important distinction out of account. Within Philosophy, there has been a traditional difference of opinion about the Nature of Truth, a battle between (as Plato put it) the gods and the giants. On the one hand there have been Philosophers like Plato himself who were otherworldly, possessed of a larger hope. They urged that human beings were entitled to self-respect only because they had one foot beyond space and time. On the other hand – especially since Galileo showed how spatio-temporal events could be brought under the sort of elegant mathematical law which Plato suspected might hold only for another world – there have been philosophers (e.g., Hobbes, Marx) who insisted that space and time make up the only Reality there is, and that Truth is Correspondence to that Reality. In the nineteenth century, this opposition crystallised into one between “the transcendental philosophy” and “the empirical philosophy,” between the “Platonists” and the “positivists.” Such terms were, even then, hopelessly vague, but every intellectual knew roughly where he stood in relation to the two movements. To be on the transcendental side was to think that natural science was not the last word – that there was more Truth to be found. To be on the empirical side was to think that natural science – facts about how spatio-temporal things worked – was all the Truth there was. To side with Hegel or Green was to think that some normative sentences about rationality and goodness corresponded to something real, but invisible to natural science. To side with Comte or Mach was to think that such sentences either “reduced” to sentences about spatio-temporal events or were not subjects for serious reflection.

It is important to realise that the empirical philosophers – the positivists – were still doing Philosophy. The Platonic presupposition which unites the gods and the giants, Plato with Democritus, Kant with Mill, Husserl with Russell, is that what the vulgar call “truth” the assemblage of true statements – should be thought of as divided into a lower and an upper division, the division between (in Plato’s terms) mere opinion and genuine knowledge. It is the work of the Philosopher to establish an invidious distinction between such statements as “It rained yesterday” and “Men should try to be just in their dealings.” For Plato the former sort of statement was second-rate, merepistis or doxa. The latter, if perhaps not yet episteme, was at least a plausible candidate. For the positivist tradition which runs from Hobbes to Carnap, the former sentence was a paradigm of what Truth looked like, but the latter was either a prediction about the causal effects of certain events or an “expression of emotion.” What the transcendental philosophers saw as the spiritual, the empirical philosophers saw as the emotional. What the empirical philosophers saw as the achievements of natural science in discovering the nature of Reality, the transcendental philosophers saw as banausic, as true but irrelevant to Truth.

Pragmatism cuts across this transcendental/empirical distinction by questioning the common presupposition that there is an invidious distinction to be drawn between kinds of truths. For the pragmatist, true sentences are not true because they correspond to reality, and so there is no need to worry what sort of reality, if any, a given sentence corresponds to – no need to worry about what “makes” it true. (Just as there is no need to worry, once one has determined what one should do, whether there is something in Reality which makes that act the Right one to perform.) So the pragmatist sees no need to worry about whether Plato or Kant was right in thinking that something non-spatio-temporal made moral judgments true, nor about whether the absence of such a thing means that such judgments are is merely expressions of emotion” or “merely conventional” or “merely subjective. “

This insouciance brings down the scorn of both kinds of Philosophers upon the pragmatist. The Platonist sees the pragmatist as merely a fuzzy-minded sort of positivist. The positivist sees him as lending aid and comfort to Platonism by leveling down the distinction between Objective Truth – the sort of true sentence attained by “the scientific method” – and sentences which lack the precious “correspondence to reality” which only that method can induce. Both join in thinking the pragmatist is not really a philosopher, on the ground that he is not a Philosopher. The pragmatist tries to defend himself by saying that one can be a philosopher precisely by being anti-Philosophical, that the best way to make things hang together is to step back from the issues between Platonists and positivists, and thereby give up the presuppositions of Philosophy.

One difficulty the pragmatist has in making his position clear, therefore, is that he must struggle with the positivist for the position of radical anti-Platonist. He wants to attack Plato with different weapons from those of the positivist, but at first glance he looks like just another variety of positivist. He shares with the positivist the Baconian and Hobbesian notion that knowledge is power, a tool for coping with reality. But he carries this Baconian point through to its extreme, as the positivist does not. He drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says that modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just plain enables us to cope. His argument for the view is that several hundred years of effort have failed to make interesting sense of the notion of “correspondence” (either of thoughts to things or of words to things). The pragmatist takes the moral of this discouraging history to be that “true sentences work because they correspond to the way things are” is no more illuminating than “it is right because it fulfils the Moral Law.” Both remarks, in the pragmatist’s eyes, are empt y metaphysical compliments – harmless as rhetorical pats on the back to the successful inquirer or agent, but troublesome if taken seriously and “clarified” philosophically.

2. Pragmatism and Contemporary Philosophy

Among contemporary philosophers, pragmatism is usually regarded as an outdated philosophical movement – one which flourished in the early years of this century in a rather provincial atmosphere, and which has now been either refuted or aufgehoben. The great pragmatists – James and Dewey – are occasionally praised for their criticisms of Platonism (e.g., Dewey on traditional conceptions of education, James on metaphysical pseudo-problems). But their anti-Platonism is thought by analytic philosophers to have been insufficiently rigorous and by non-analytic philosophers to have been insufficiently radical. For the tradition which originates in logical positivism the pragmatists’ attacks on “transcendental,” quasi-Platonist philosophy need to be sharpened by more careful and detailed analysis of such notions as “meaning” and truth. For the anti-Philosophical tradition in contemporary French and German thought which takes its point of departure from Nietzsche’s criticism of both strands in nineteenth-century Philosophical thought – positivistic as well as transcendental – the American pragmatists are thinkers who never really broke out of positivism, and thus never really broke with Philosophy.

I do not think that either of these dismissive attitudes is justified. on the account of recent analytic philosophy which I offered in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the history of that movement has been marked by a gradual “pragmaticisation” of the original tenets of logical positivism. On the account of recent “Continental” philosophy which I hope to offer in a book on Heidegger which I am writing, James and Nietzsche make parallel criticisms of nineteenth-century thought. Further, James’s version is preferable, for it avoids the “metaphysical” elements in Nietzsche which Heidegger criticises, and, for that matter, the “metaphysical” elements in Heidegger which Derrida criticises. On my view, James and Dewey were not only waiting at the end of the dialectical road which analytic philosophy travelled, but are waiting at the end of the road which, for example, Foucault and Deleuze are currently travelling.

I think that analytic philosophy culminates in Quine, the later Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Davidson – which is to say that it transcends and cancels itself. These thinkers successfully, and rightly, blur the positivist distinctions between the semantic and the pragmatic, the analytic and the synthetic, the linguistic and the empirical, theory and observation. Davidson’s attack on the scheme/content distinction, in particular, summarises and synthesises Wittgenstein’s mockery of his own Tractatus, Quine’s criticisms of Carnap, and Sellars’s attack on the empiricist “Myth of the Given.” Davidson’s holism and coherentism shows how language looks once we get rid of the central presupposition of Philosophy: that true sentences divide into an upper and a lower division – the sentences which correspond to something and those which are “true” only by courtesy or convention.

This Davidsonian way of looking at language lets us avoid hypostatising Language in the way in which the Cartesian epistemological tradition, and particularly the idealist tradition which built upon Kant, hypostatised Thought. For it lets us see language not as a tertium quid between Subject and Object, nor as a medium in which we try to form pictures of reality, but as part of the behaviour of human beings. On this view, the activity of uttering sentences is one of the things people do in order to cope with their environment. The Deweyan notion of language as tool rather than picture is right as far as it goes. But we must be careful not to phrase this analogy so as to suggest that one can separate the tool, Language, from its users and inquire as to its “adequacy” to achieve our purposes. The latter suggestion presupposes that there is some way of breaking out of language in order to compare it with something else. But there is no way to think about either the world or our purposes except by using our language. One can use language to criticise and enlarge itself, as one can exercise one’s body to develop and strengthen and enlarge it, but one cannot see language-as-a-whole in relation to something else to which it applies, or for which it is a means to an end. The arts and the sciences, and philosophy as their self-reflection and integration, constitute such a process. of enlargement and strengthening. But Philosophy, the attempt to say “how language relates to the world” by saying what makes certain sentences true, or certain actions or attitudes good or rational, is, on this view, impossible.

It is the impossible attempt to step outside our skins – the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism – and compare ourselves with something absolute. This Platonic urge to escape from the finitude of one’s time and place, the “merely conventional” and contingent aspects of one’s life, is responsible for the original Platonic distinction between two kinds of true sentence. By attacking this latter distinction, the holistic “pragmaticising” strain in analytic philosophy has helped us see how the metaphysical urge – common to fuzzy Whiteheadians and razor-sharp “scientific realists” – works. It has helped us be sceptical about the idea that some particular science (say physics) or some particular literary genre (say Romantic poetry, or transcendental philosophy) gives us that species of true sentence which is not just a true sentence, but rather a piece of Truth itself. Such sentences may be very useful indeed, but there is not going to be a Philosophical explanation of this utility. That explanation, like the original justification of the assertion of the sentence, will be a parochial matter – a comparison of the sentence with alternative sentences formulated in the same or in other vocabularies. But such comparisons are the business of, for example, the physicist or the poet, or perhaps of the philosopher – not of the Philosopher, the outside expert on the utility, or function, or metaphysical status of Language or of Thought.

The Wittgenstein-Sellars-Quine-Davidson attack on distinctions between classes of sentences is the special contribution of analytic philosophy to the anti-Platonist insistence on the ubiquity of language. This insistence characterises both pragmatism and recent “Continental” philosophising. Here are some examples:

Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some other man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn around and say: You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought… … . the word or sign which man uses is the man himself Thus my language is the sum-total of myself; for the man is the thought. (Peirce)

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end to the reference from sign to sign. (Derrida)

… psychological nominalism, according to which all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities – indeed, all awareness even of particulars – is a linguistic affair. (Sellars)

It is only in language that one can mean something by something. (Wittgenstein)

Human experience is essentially linguistic. (Gadamer)

… man is in the process of perishing as the being of language continues to shine ever brighter upon our horizon. (Foucault)

Speaking about language turns language almost inevitably into an object … and then its reality vanishes. (Heidegger)

This chorus should not, however, lead us to think that something new and exciting has recently been discovered about Language – e.g., that it is more prevalent than had previously been thought. The authors cited are making only negative points. They are saying that attempts to get back behind language to something which “grounds” it, or which it “expresses,” or to which it might hope to be “adequate,” have not, worked. The ubiquity of language is a matter of language moving into the vacancies left by the failure of all the various candidates for the position of “natural starting-points” of thought, starting-points which are prior to and independent of the way some culture speaks or spoke. (Candidates for such starting-points include clear and distinct ideas, sense-data, categories of the pure understanding, structures of prelinguistic consciousness, and the like.) Peirce and Sellars and Wittgenstein are saying that the regress – of interpretation cannot be cut off by the sort of “intuition” which Cartesian epistemology took for granted. Gadamer and Derrida are saying that our culture has been dominated by the notion of a “transcendental signified” which, by cutting off this regress, would bring us out from contingency and convention and into the Truth. Foucault is saying that we are gradually losing our grip on the “metaphysical comfort” which that Philosophical tradition provided – its picture of Man as having a “double” (the soul, the Noumenal Self) who uses Reality’s own language rather than merely the vocabulary of a time and a place. Finally, Heidegger is cautioning that if we try to make Language into a new topic of Philosophical inquiry we shall simply recreate the hopeless old Philosophical puzzles which we used to raise about Being or Thought.

This last point amounts to saying that what Gustav Bergmann called “the linguistic turn” should not be seen as the logical positivists saw it – as enabling us to ask Kantian questions without having to trespass on the psychologists’ turf by talking, with Kant, about “experience” or “consciousness.” That was, indeed, the initial motive for the “turn,” but (thanks to the holism and pragmatism of the authors I have cited) analytic philosophy of language was able to transcend this Kantian motive and adopt a naturalistic, behaviouristic attitude toward language. This attitude has led it to the same outcome as the “Continental” reaction against the traditional Kantian problematic, the reaction found in Nietzsche and Heidegger. This convergence shows that the traditional association of analytic philosophy with tough-minded positivism and of “Continental” philosophy with tender-minded Platonism is completely misleading. The pragmaticisation of analytic philosophy gratified the logical positivists’ hopes, but not in the fashion which they had envisaged. it did not find a way for Philosophy to become “scientific,” but rather found a way of setting Philosophy to one side. This post-positivistic kind of analytic philosophy thus comes to resemble the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida tradition in beginning with criticism of Platonism and ending in criticism of Philosophy as such. Both traditions are now in a period of doubt about their own status. Both are living between a repudiated past and a dimly seen post-Philosophical future.

3. The Realist Reaction (I): Technical Realism

Before going on to speculate about what a post-Philosophical culture might look like, I should make clear that my description of the current Philosophical scene has been deliberately oversimplified. So far I have ignored the anti-pragmatist backlash. The picture I have been sketching shows how things looked about ten years ago – or, at least, how they looked to an optimistic pragmatist. In the subsequent decade there has been, on both sides of the Channel, a reaction in favour of “realism” – a term which has come to be synonymous with “anti-pragmatism.” This reaction has had three distinct motives: (1) the view that recent, technical developments in the philosophy of language have raised doubt about traditional pragmatist criticisms of the “correspondence theory of truth,” or, at least, have made it necessary for the pragmatist to answer some hard, technical questions before proceeding further; (2) the sense that the “depth,” the human significance, of the traditional textbook “problems of philosophy” has been underestimated, that pragmatists have lumped real problems together with pseudo-problems in a feckless orgy of “dissolution”; (3) the sense that something important would be lost if Philosophy as an autonomous discipline, as a Fach, were to fade from the cultural scene (in the way in which theology has faded).

This third motive – the fear of what would happen if there were merely philosophy, but no Philosophy – is not simply the defensive reaction of specialists threatened with unemployment. It is a conviction that a culture without Philosophy would be “irrationalist” – that a precious human capacity would lie unused, or a central human virtue no longer be exemplified. This motive is shared by many philosophy professors in France and Germany and by many analytic philosophers in Britain and America. The former would like something to do that is not merely the endless, repetitive, literary-historical “deconstruction” of the “Western metaphysics of presence” which was Heidegger’s legacy. The latter would like to recapture the spirit of the early logical positivists, the sense that philosophy is the accumulation of “results” by patient, rigorous, preferably cooperative work on precisely stated problems (the spirit characteristic of the younger, rather than of the older, Wittgenstein). So philosophy professors on the Continent are casting longing glances toward analytic philosophy – and particularly toward the “realist” analytic philosophers who take Philosophical problems seriously. Conversely, admirers of “Continental” philosophy (e.g., of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, Foucault) are more welcome in American and British departments of, e.g., comparative literature and political science, than in departments of philosophy. On both continents there is fear of Philosophy’s losing its traditional claim to “scientific” status and of its relegation to “the merely literary.”

I shall talk about this fear in some detail later, in connection with the prospects for a culture in which the science/literature distinction would no longer matter. But here I shall concentrate on the first and second motives I just listed. These are associated with two fairly distinct groups of people. The first motive is characteristic of philosophers of language such as Saul Kripke and Michael Dummett, the second with less specialised and more broadly ranging writers like Stanley Cavell and Thomas Nagel. I shall call those who turn Kripke’s views on reference to the purposes of a realistic epistemology (e.g., Hartry Field, Richard Boyd, and, sometimes, Hilary Putnam) “technical realists.” I shall call Cavell, Nagel (and others, such as Thompson Clarke and Barry Stroud). “intuitive realists.” The latter object that the pragmatists’ dissolutions of traditional problems are “verificationist”: that is, pragmatists think our inability to say what would count as confirming or disconfirming a given solution to a problem is a reason for setting the problem aside. To take this view is, Nagel tells us, to fail to recognise that “unsolvable problems are not for that reason unreal.” intuitive realists judge verificationism by its fruits, and argue that the pragmatist belief in the ubiquity of language leads to the inability to recognise that philosophical problems arise precisely where language is inadequate to the facts. “My realism about the subjective domain in all its forms,” Nagel says, “implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts.”

Technical realists, by contrast, judge pragmatism wrong not because it leads to superficial dismissals of deep problems, but because it is based on a false, “verificationist” philosophy of language. They dislike “verificationism” not because of its meta-philosophical fruits, but because they see it as a misunderstanding of the relation between language and the world. on their view, Quine and Wittgenstein wrongly followed Frege in thinking that meaning – something determined by the intentions of the user of a word – determines reference, what the word picks out in the world. On the basis of the “new theory of reference” originated by Saul Kripke, they say, we can now construct a better, non-Fregean picture of word-world relationships. Whereas Frege, like Kant, thought of our concepts as carving up an undifferentiated manifold in accordance with our interests (a view which leads fairly directly to Sellars’s “psychological nominalism” and a Goodman-like insouciance about ontology), Kripke sees the world as already divided not only into particulars, but into natural kinds of particulars and even into essential and accidental features of those particulars and kinds. The question “Is ‘X is f’ true?” is thus to be answered by discovering what – as a matter of physical fact, not of anybody’s intentions – ‘X’ refers to, and then discovering whether that particular or kind is f. only by such a “physicalistic” theory of reference, technical realists say, can the notion of “truth as correspondence to reality” be preserved. By contrast, the pragmatist answers this question by inquiring whether, all things (and especially our purposes in using the terms ‘X’ and ‘f’) considered, ‘X is f’ is a more useful belief to have than its contradictory, or than some belief expressed in different terms altogether. The pragmatist agrees that if one wants to preserve the notion of “correspondence with reality” then a physicalistic theory of reference is necessary – but he sees no point in preserving that notion. The pragmatist has no notion of truth which would enable him to make sense of the claim that if we achieved everything we ever hoped to achieve by making assertions we might still be making false assertions, failing to “correspond” to something. As Putnam says:

The trouble is that for a strong anti-realist [e.g., a pragmatist] truth makes no sense except as an intra-theoretic notion. The anti-realist can use truth intra-theoretically in the sense of a “redundancy theory” [i.e., a theory according to which “S is true” means exactly, only, what “S” means) but he does not have the notion of truth and reference available extra-theoretically. But extension [reference] is tied to the notion of truth. The extension of a term is just what the term is true of. Rather than try to retain the notion of truth via an awkward operationalism, the anti-realist should reject the notion of extension as he does the notion of truth (in any extra-theoretic sense). Like Dewey, he can fall back on a notion of ‘warranted assertibility’ instead of truth . . .

The question which technical realism raises, then, is: are there technical reasons, within the philosophy of language, for retaining or discarding this extra-theoretic notion? Are there non-intuitive ways of deciding whether, as the pragmatist thinks, the question of what ‘X’ refers to is a sociological matter, a question of how best to make sense of a community’s linguistic behaviour, or whether, as Hartry Field says,

one aspect of the sociological role of a term is the role that term has in the psychologies of different members of a linguistic community; another aspect, irreducible to the first [italics added), is what physical objects or physical property the term stands for.

It is not clear, however, what these technical, non-intuitive ways might be. For it is not clear what data the philosophy of language must explain. The most frequently cited datum is that science works, succeeds – enables us to cure diseases, blow up cities, and the like. How, realists ask, would this be possible if some scientific statements did not correspond to the way things are in themselves? How, pragmatists rejoin, does that count as an explanation? What further specification of the “correspondence” relation can be given which will enable this explanation to be better than “dormitive power” (Molière’s doctor’s explanation of why opium puts people to sleep)? What, so to speak, corresponds to the microstructure of opium in this case?

What is the microstructure of “corresponding”? The Tarskian apparatus of truth-conditions and satisfaction-relations does not fill the bill, because that apparatus is equally well adapted to physicalist “building-block” theories of reference like Field’s and to coherentist, holistic, pragmatical theories like Davidson’s. When realists like Field argue that Tarski’s account of truth is merely a place-holder, like Mendel’s account of “gene,” which requires physicalistic “reduction to non-semantical terms,” pragmatists reply (with Stephen Leeds) that “true” (like “good” and unlike “gene”) is not an explanatory notion. (Or that, if it is, the structure of the explanations in which it is used needs to be spelled out.)

The search for technical grounds on which to argue the pragmatist-realist issue is sometimes ended artificially by the realist assuming that the pragmatist not only (as Putnam says) follows Dewey in “falling back on a notion of ‘warranted assertibility’ instead of truth “ but uses the latter notion to analyse the meaning of “true.” Putnam is right that no such analysis will work. But the pragmatist, if he is wise, will not succumb to the temptation to fill the blank in

is true if and only if is assertible …

with “at the end of inquiry” or “by the standards of our culture” or with anything else. He will recognise the strength of Putnam’s naturalistic fallacy” argument: Just as nothing can fill the blank in

A is the best thing to do in circumstances C if and only if …

so, a fortiori, nothing will fill the blank in

Asserting S is the best thing to do in if and only if …

If the pragmatist is advised that he must not confuse the advisability of asserting S with the truth of S, he will respond. that the advice is question-begging. The question is precisely whether “the true” is more than what William James defined it as: “the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” On James’s view, “true” resembles “good” or “rational” in being a normative notion, a compliment paid to sentences that seem to be paying their way and that fit in with other sentences which are doing so. To think that Truth is “out there” is, on their view, on all fours with the Platonic view that The Good is “out there.” To think that we are “irrationalist” insofar as it does not “gratify our souls to know/That though we perish, truth is so” is like thinking that we are “irrationalist” just insofar as it does not gratify our moral sense to think that The Moral Law shines resplendent over the noumenal world, regardless of the vicissitudes of spatio-temporal lives. For the pragmatist, the notion of “truth” as something “objective “ is just a confusion between

(I) Most of the world is as it is whatever we think about it (that is, our beliefs have very limited causal efficacy)


(II) There is something out there in addition to the world called “the truth about the world” (what James sarcastically called “this tertium quid intermediate between the facts per se, on the one hand, and all knowledge of them, actual or potential, on the other”).

The pragmatist wholeheartedly assents to (I) – not as an article of metaphysical faith but simply as a belief that we have never had any reason to doubt – and cannot make sense of (II). When the realist tries to explain (II) with

(III) The truth about the world consists in a relation of “correspondence” between certain sentences (many of which, no doubt, have yet to be formulated) and the world itself the pragmatist can only fall back on saying, once again, that many centuries of attempts to explain what “correspondence” is have failed, especially when it comes to explaining how the final vocabulary of future physics will somehow be Nature’s Own – the one which, at long last, lets us formulate sentences which lock on to Nature’s own way of thinking of Herself.

For these reasons, the pragmatist does not think that, whatever else philosophy of language may do, it is going to come up with a definition of “true” which gets beyond James. He happily grants that it can do a lot of other things. For example, it can, following Tarski, show what it would be like to define a truth-predicate for a given language. The pragmatist can agree with Davidson that to define such a predicate – to develop a truth-theory for the sentences of English, e.g, – would be a good way, perhaps the only way, to exhibit a natural language as a learnable, recursive structure, and thus to give a systematic theory of meaning for the language. But he agrees with Davidson that such an exhibition is all that Tarski can give us, and all that can be milked out of Philosophical reflection on Truth.

Just as the pragmatist should not succumb to the temptation to capture the intuitive content of our notion of truth” (including whatever it is in that notion which makes realism tempting), so he should not succumb to the temptation held out by Michael Dummett to take sides on the issue of “bivalence.” Dummett (who has his own doubts about realism) has suggested that a lot of traditional issues in the area of the pragmatist-realist debate can be clarified by the technical apparatus of philosophy of language, along the following lines:

In a variety of different areas there arises a philosophical dispute of the same general character: the dispute for or against. realism concerning statements within a given type of subject-matter, or, better, statements of a certain general type. [Dummett elsewhere lists moral statements, mathematical statements, statements about the past, and modal statements as examples of such types.] Such a dispute consists in an opposition between two points of view concerning the kind of meaning possessed by statements of the kind in question, and hence about the application to them of the notions of truth and falsity. For the realist, we have assigned a meaning to these statements in such a way that we know, for each statement, what has to be the case for it to be true… . The condition for the truth of a statement is not, in general, a condition we are capable of recognising as obtaining whenever it obtains, or even one for which we have an effective procedure for determining whether it obtains or not. We have therefore succeeded in ascribing to our statements a meaning of such a kind that their truth or falsity is, in general, independent of whether we know, or have any means of knowing, what truth-value they have. …

Opposed to this realist account of statements in some given class is the anti-realist interpretation. According to this, the meanings of statements of the class in question are given to us, not in terms of the conditions under which these statements are true or false, conceived of as conditions which obtain or do not obtain independently of our knowledge or capacity for knowledge, but in terms of the conditions which we recognise as establishing the truth or falsity of statements of that class.

“Bivalence” is the property of being either true or false, so Dummett thinks of a “realistic” view about a certain area (say, moral values, or possible worlds) as asserting bivalence for statements about such things. His way of formulating the realist-vs.-anti-realist issue thus suggests that the pragmatist denies bivalence for all statements, the “extreme” realist asserts it for all statements, while the level-headed majority sensibly discriminate between the bivalent statements of, e.g., physics and the non-bivalent statements of, e.g., morals. “Bivalence” thus joins “ontological commitment” as a way of expressing old-fashioned metaphysical views in up-to-date semantical language. If the pragmatist is viewed as a quasi-idealist metaphysician who is ontologically committed only to ideas or sentences, and does not believe that there is anything “out there” which makes any sort of statement true, then he will fit neatly into Dummett’s scheme.

But, of course, this is not the pragmatist’s picture of himself. He does not think of himself as any kind of a metaphysician, because he does not understand the notion of “there being… out there” (except in the literal sense of ‘out there’ in which it means “at a position in space”). He does not find it helpful to explicate the Platonist’s conviction about The Good or The Numbers by saying that the Platonist believes that “There is truth-or-falsity about …regardless of the state of our knowledge or the availability of procedures for inquiry.” The “is” in this sentence seems to him just as obscure as the “is” in “Truth is so.” Confronted with the passage from Dummett cited above, the pragmatist wonders how one goes about telling one “kind of meaning” from another, and what it would be like to have “intuitions” about the bivalence or non-bivalence of kinds of statements. He is a pragmatist just because he doesn’t have such intuitions (or wants to get rid of whatever such intuitions he may have). When he asks himself, about a given statement S, whether he “knows what has to be the case for it to be true” or merely knows “the conditions which we recognise as establishing the truth or falsity of statements of that class,” he feels as helpless as when asked, “Are you really in love, or merely inflamed by passion?” He is inclined to suspect that it is not a very useful question, and that at any rate introspection is not the way to answer it. But in the case of bivalence it is not clear that there is another way. Dummett does not help us see what to count as a good argument for asserting bivalence of, e.g., moral or modal statements; he merely says that there are some people who do assert this and some who don’t, presumably having been born with different metaphysical temperaments. If one is born without metaphysical views – or if, having become pessimistic about the utility of Philosophy, one is self-consciously attempting to eschew such views – then one will feel that Dummett’s reconstruction of the traditional issues explicates the obscure with the equally obscure.

What I have said about Field and about Dummett is intended to cast doubt on the “technical realist’s” view that the pragmatist-realist issue should be fought out on some narrow, dearly demarcated ground within the philosophy of language. There is no such ground. This is not, to be sure, the fault of philosophy of language, but of the pragmatist. He refuses to take a stand – to provide an “analysis” of “S is true,” for example, or to either assert or deny bivalence. He refuses to make a move in any of the games in which he is invited to take part. The only point at which “referential semantics” or “bivalence” becomes of interest to him comes when somebody tries to treat these notions as explanatory, as not just expressing intuitions but as doing some work – explaining, for example, “why science is so successful.” At this point the pragmatist hauls out his bag of tried-and-true dialectical gambits.” He proceeds to argue that there is no pragmatic difference, no difference that makes a difference, between “it works because it’s true” and “it’s true because it works” any more than between “it’s pious because the gods love it” and “the gods love it because it’s pious.” Alternatively, he argues that there is no pragmatic difference between the nature of truth and the test of truth, and that the test of truth, of what statements to assert, is (except maybe for a few perceptual statements) not “comparison with reality.” All these gambits will be felt by the realist to be question-begging, since the realist intuits that some differences can be real withoutmaking a difference, that sometimes the ordo essendi is different from ordo cognoscendi, sometimes the nature of X is not our test for the presence of Xness. And so it goes.

What we should conclude, I think, is that technical realism collapses into intuitive realism – that the only debating point which the realist has is his conviction that the raising of the good old metaphysical problems (are there really universals? are there really causally efficacious physical objects, or did we just posit them?) served some good purpose, brought something to light, was important. What the pragmatist wants to debate is just this point. He does not want to discuss necessary and sufficient conditions for a sentence being true, but precisely whether the practice which hopes to find a Philosophical way of isolating the essence of Truth has, in fact, paid off. So the issue between him and the intuitive realist is a matter of what to make of the history of that practice – what to make of the history of Philosophy. The real issue is about the place of Philosophy in Western philosophy, the place within the intellectual history of the West of the particular series of texts which raise the “deep” Philosophical problems which the realist wants to preserve.

4. The Realist Reaction (II): Intuitive Realism

What really needs debate between the pragmatist and the intuitive realist is not whether we have intuitions to the effect that “truth is more than assertibility” or “there is more to pains than brain-states” or “there is a clash between modem physics and our sense of moral responsibility.” Of course we have such intuitions. How could we escape having them? We have been educated within an intellectual tradition built around such claims – just as we used to be educated within an intellectual tradition built around such claims as “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” “Man’s dignity consists in his link with a supernatural order,” and “One must not mock holy things.” But it begs the question between pragmatist and realist to say that we must find a philosophical view which “captures” such intuitions. The pragmatist is urging that we do our best to stop having such intuitions, that we develop a new intellectual tradition.

What strikes intuitive realists as offensive about this suggestion is that it seems as dishonest to suppress intuitions as it is to suppress experimental data. On their conception, philosophy (not merely Philosophy) requires one to do justice to everybody’s intuitions. just as social justice is what would be brought about by institutions whose existence could be justified to every citizen, so intellectual justice would be made possible by finding theses which everyone would, given sufficient time and dialectical ability, accept. This view of intellectual life presupposes either that, contrary to the prophets of the ubiquity of language cited above, language does not go all the way down, or that, contrary to the appearances, all vocabularies are commensurable. The first alternative amounts to saying that some intuitions, at least, are not a function of the way one has been brought up to talk, of the texts and people one has encountered. The second amounts to saying that the intuitions built into the vocabularies of Homeric warriors, Buddhist sages, Enlightenment scientists, and contemporary French literary critics, are not really as different as they seem – that there are common elements in each which Philosophy can isolate and use to formulate theses which it would be rational for all these people to accept, and problems which they all face.

The pragmatist, on the other hand, thinks that the quest for a universal human community will be self-defeating if it tries to preserve the elements of every intellectual tradition, all the “deep” intuitions everybody has ever had. it is not to be achieved by an attempt at commensuration, at a common vocabulary which isolates the common human essence of Achilles and the Buddha, Lavoisier and Derrida. Rather, it is to be reached, if at all, by acts, of making rather than of finding – by poetic rather than Philosophical achievement. The culture which will transcend, and thus unite, East and West, or the Earthlings and the Galactics, is not likely to be one which does equal justice to each, but one which looks back on both with the amused condescension typical of later generations looking back at their ancestors. So the pragmatist’s quarrel with the intuitive realist should be about the status of intuitions – about their right to be respected as opposed to how particular intuitions might be “synthesised” or explained away.” To treat his opponent properly, the pragmatist must begin by admitting that the realistic intuitions in question are as deep and compelling as the realist says they are. But he should then try to change the subject by asking, “And what should we do about such intuitions – extirpate them, or find a vocabulary which does justice to them?”

From the pragmatist point of view the claim that the issues which the nineteenth century enshrined in its textbooks as “the central problems of philosophy” are “deep” is simply the claim that you will not understand a certain period in the history of Europe unless you can get some idea of what it was like to be preoccupied by such questions. (Consider parallel claims about the “depth” of the problems about Patripassianism, Arianism, etc., discussed by certain Fathers of the Church.) The pragmatist is even willing to expand his range and say, with Heidegger, that you won’t understand the West unless you understand what it was like to be bothered by the kinds of issues which bothered Plato. Intuitive realists, rather than “stepping back” in the historicist manner of Heidegger and Dewey, or the quasi-anthropological manner of Foucault, devote themselves to safeguarding the tradition, to making us even more deeply Western. The way in which they do this is illustrated by Clarke’s and Cavell’s attempt to see “the legacy of scepticism” not as a question about whether we can be sure we’re not dreaming but as a question about what sort of being could ask itself such a question.” They use the existence of figures like Descartes as indications of something important about human beings, not just about the modem West.

The best illustration of this strategy is Nagel’s way of updating Kant by bringing a whole series of apparently disparate problems under the rubric “ Subjective-Objective, “ just as Kant brought a partially overlapping set of problems under the rubric “Conditioned-Unconditioned.” Nagel echoes Kant in saying:

It may be true that some philosophical problems have no solution. I suspect that this is true of the deepest and oldest of them. They show us the limits of our understanding. In that case such insight as we can achieve depends on maintaining a strong grasp of the problem instead of abandoning it, and coming to understand the failure of each new attempt at a solution, and of earlier attempts. (That is why we study the works of philosophers like Plato and Berkeley, whose views are accepted by no one.) Unsolvable problems are not for that reason unreal .

As an illustration of what Nagel has in mind, consider his example of the problem of “moral luck” – the fact that one can be morally praised or blamed only for what is under one’s control, yet practically nothing is. As Nagel says:

The area of genuine agency, and therefore of legitimate moral judgment, seems to shrink under this scrutiny to an extensionless point. Everything seems to result from the combined influence of factors, antecedent and posterior to action, that are not within the agent’s control.

Nagel thinks that a typically shallow, verificationist “solution” to this problem is available. We can get such a solution (Hume’s) by going into detail about what sorts of external factors we do and don’t count as diminishing the moral worth of an action:

This compatibilist account of our moral judgments would leave room for the ordinary conditions of responsibility – the absence of coercion, ignorance, or involuntary movement – as part of the determination of what someone has done – but it is understood not to exclude the influence of a great deal that he has not done.

But this relaxed, pragmatical, Humean attitude-the attitude which says that there is no deep truth about Freedom of the Will, and that people are morally responsible for whatever their peers tend to hold them morally responsible for – fails to explain why there has been thought to be a problem here:

The only thing wrong with this solution is its failure to explain how sceptical problems arise. For they arise not from the imposition of an arbitrary external requirement, but from the nature of moral judgment itself. Something in the ordinary idea of what someone does must explain how it can seem necessary to subtract from it anything that merely happens – even though the ultimate consequence of such subtraction is that nothing remains.

But this is not to say that we need a metaphysical account of the Nature of Freedom of the sort which Kant (at least in some passages) seems to give us. Rather,

… in a sense the problem has no solution, because something in the idea of agency is incompatible with actions being events or people being things.

Since there is, so to speak, nothing else for people to be but things, we are left with an intuition – one which shows us “the limits of our understanding,” and thus of our language.

Contrast, now, Nagel’s attitude toward “the nature of moral judgment” with iris Murdoch’s. The Kantian attempt to isolate an agent who is not a spatio-temporal thing is seen by Murdoch as an unfortunate and perverse turn which Western thought has taken. Within a certain post-Kantian tradition, she says:

immense care is taken to picture the will as isolated. it is isolated from belief, from reason, from feeling, and is yet the essential center of the self… .

This existentialist conception of the agent as isolated will goes along, Murdoch says, with “a very powerful image” of man which she finds “alien and implausible” – one which is “a happy and fruitful marriage of Kantian liberalism with Wittgensteinian logic solemnised by Freud.” On Murdoch’s view,

Existentialism, in both its Continental and its Anglo-Saxon versions, is an attempt to solve the problem without really facing it: to solve it by attributing to the individual an empty lonely freedom. … What it pictures is indeed the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of a sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of will.

Instead of reinforcing this picture (as Nagel and Sartre do), Murdoch wants to get behind Kantian notions of will, behind the Kantian formulation of an antithesis between determinism and responsibility, behind the Kantian distinction between the moral self and the empirical self. She wants to recapture the vocabulary of moral reflection which a sixteenth-century Christian believer inclined toward Platonism would have used: one in which “perfection” is a central element, in which assignment of moral responsibility is a rather incidental element, and in which the discovery of a self (one’s own or another’s) is the endless task of love.

In contrasting Nagel and Murdoch, I am not trying (misleadingly) to enlist Murdoch as a fellow-pragmatist, nor (falsely) to accuse Nagel of blindness to the variety of moral consciousness which Murdoch represents. Rather, I want to illustrate the difference between taking a standard philosophical problem (or cluster of interrelated problems such as free will, selfhood, agency, and responsibility) and asking, on the one hand, “What is its essence? To what ineffable depths, what limit of language, does it lead us? What does it show us about being human? ” and asking, on the other hand, “What sort of people would see these problems? What vocabulary, what image of man, would produce such problems? Why, insofar as we are gripped by these problems, do we see them as deep rather than as reductiones ad absurdum of a vocabulary? What does the persistence of such problems show us about being twentieth-century Europeans?” Nagel is certainly right, and splendidly lucid, about the way in which a set of ideas, illustrated best by Kant, shoves us toward the notion of something called “the subjective” – the personal point of view, what science doesn’t catch, what no “stepping back” could catch, what forms a limit to the understanding. But how do we know whether to say, “So much the worse for the solubility of philosophical problems, for the reach of language, for our ‘verificationist’ impulses,” or whether to say, “So much the worse for the Philosophical ideas which have led us to such an impasse”?

The same question arises about the other philosophical problems which Nagel brings under his “Subjective-Objective” rubric. The clash between “verificationist” and “realist” intuitions is perhaps best illustrated by Nagel’s celebrated paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel here appeals to our intuition that “there is something which it is like” to be a bat or a dog but nothing which it is like to be an atom or a brick, and says that this intuition is what contemporary Wittgensteinian, Rylean, anti-Cartesian philosophy of mind “fails to capture.” The culmination of the latter philosophical movement is the cavalier attitude toward “raw feels” – e.g., the sheer phenomenological qualitative ipseity of pain – suggested by Daniel Dennett:

I recommend giving up incorrigibility with regard to pain altogether, in fact giving up all “essential” features of pain, and letting pain states be whatever “natural kind” states the brain scientists find (if they ever do find any) that normally produce all the normal effects… . One of our intuitions about pain is that whether or not one is in pain is a brute fact, not a matter of decision to serve the convenience of the theorist. I recommend against trying to preserve that intuition, but if you disagree, whatever theory I produce, however predictive and elegant, will not be in your lights a theory of pain, but only a theory of what I illicitly choose to call pain. But if, as I have claimed, the intuitions we would have to honour were we to honour them all do not form a consistent set, there can be no true theory of pain, and so no computer or robot could instantiate the true theory of pain, which it would have to do to feel real pain… . The inability of a robot model to satisfy all our intuitive demands may be due not to any irredeemable mysteriousness about the phenomenon of pain, but to irredeemable incoherence in our ordinary concept of pain.

Nagel is one of those who disagrees with Dennett’s recommendation. His anti-verificationism comes out most strongly in the following passage:

… if things emerged from a spaceship which we could not be sure were machines or conscious beings, what we were wondering would have an answer even if the things were so different from anything we were familiar with that we could never discover it. It would depend on whether there was something it was like to be them, not on whether behavioural similarities warranted our saying so… .

I therefore seem to be drawn to a position more ‘realistic’ than Wittgenstein’s. This may be because I am drawn to positions more realistic than Wittgenstein’s about everything, not just the mental. I believe that the question about whether the things coming out of the spaceship are conscious must have an answer. Wittgenstein would presumably say that this assumption reflects a groundless confidence that a certain picture unambiguously determines its own application. That is the picture of something going on in their heads (or whatever they have in place of heads) that cannot be observed by dissection.

Whatever picture may use to represent the idea, it does seem to me that I know what it means to ask whether there is something it is like to be them, and that the answer to that question is what determines whether they are conscious – not the possibility of extending mental ascriptions on evidence analogous to the human case. Conscious mental states are real states of something, whether they are mine or those of an alien creature. Perhaps Wittgenstein’s view can accommodate this intuition, but I do not at the moment see how.

Wittgenstein certainly cannot accommodate this intuition. The question is whether he should be asked to: whether we should abandon the pragmatical “verificationist” intuition that “every difference must make a difference” (expressed by Wittgenstein in the remark “A wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism”) or instead abandon Nagel’s intuition about consciousness. We certainly have both intuitions. For Nagel, their compresence shows that the limit of Understanding has been reached, that an ultimate depth has been plumbed – just as the discovery of an antinomy indicated to Kant that something transcendental had been encountered. For Wittgenstein, it merely shows that the Cartesian tradition has sketched a compelling picture a picture which “held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

I said at the beginning of this section that there were two alternative ways in which the intuitive realist might respond to the pragmatist’s suggestion that some intuitions should be deliberately repressed. He might say either that language does not go all the way down – that there is a kind of awareness of facts which is not expressible in language and which no argument could render dubious – or, more mildly, that there is a core language which is common to all traditions and which needs to be isolated. In a confrontation with Murdoch one can imagine Nagel making the second claim – arguing that even the kind of moral discourse which Murdoch recommends must wind up with the same conception of “the isolated will” as Kantian moral discourse. But in a confrontation with Dennett’s attempt to weed out our intuitions Nagel must make the first claim. He has to o all the way, and deny that our knowledge is limited by the language we speak. He says as much in the following passage:

If anyone is inclined to deny that we can believe in the existence of facts like this whose exact nature we cannot possibly conceive, he should reflect that in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us… . we know they would be wrong to draw such a sceptical conclusion because we know what it is like to be us. And we know that while it includes an enormous amount of variation and complexity, and while we do not possess the vocabulary to describe it adequately, its subjective character is highly specific, and in some respects describable in terms that can be understood only by creatures like us [italics added].

Here we hit a bedrock meta-philosophical issue: can one ever appeal to nonlinguistic knowledge in philosophical argument? This is the question of whether a dialectical impasse is the mark of philosophical depth or of a bad language, one which needs to be replaced with one which will not lead to such impasses. That is just the issue about the status of intuitions, which I said above was the real issue between the pragmatist and the realist. The hunch that, e.g., reflection upon anything worthy of the name “moral judgment” will eventually lead us to the problems Nagel describes is a discussable question – one upon which the history of ethics can shed light. But the intuition that there is something ineffable which it is like to be us – something which one cannot learn about by believing true propositions but only by being like that – is not something on which anything could throw further light. The claim is either deep or empty.

The pragmatist sees it as empty – indeed, he sees many of Nagel’s discussions of “the subjective” as drawing a line around a vacant place in the middle of the web of words, and then claiming that there is something there rather than nothing. But this is not because he has independent arguments for a Philosophical theory to the effect that (in Sellars’s words) “All awareness is a linguistic affair,” or that “The meaning of a proposition is its method of verification.” Such slogans as these are not the result of Philosophical inquiry into Awareness or Meaning, but merely ways of cautioning the public against the Philosophical tradition. (As “No taxation without representation” was not a discovery about the nature of Taxation, but an expression of distrust in the British Parliament of the day.) There are no fast little arguments to show that there are no such things as intuitions – arguments which are themselves based on something stronger than intuitions. For the pragmatist, the only thing wrong with Nagel’s intuitions is that they are being used to legitimise a vocabulary (the Kantian vocabulary in morals, the Cartesian vocabulary in philosophy of mind) which the pragmatist thinks should be eradicated rather than reinforced. But his only argument for thinking that these intuitions and vocabularies should be eradicated is that the intellectual tradition to which they belong has not paid off, is more trouble than it is worth, has become an incubus. Nagel’s dogmatism of intuitions is no worse, or better, than the pragmatist’s inability to give non-circular arguments.

This upshot of the confrontation between the pragmatist and the intuitive realist about the status of intuitions can be described either as a conflict of intuitions about the importance of intuitions, or as a preference for one vocabulary over another. The realist will favour the first description, and the pragmatist, the second. it does not matter which description one uses, as long as it is clear that the issue is one about whether philosophy should try to find natural starting-points which are distinct from cultural traditions. This is, once again, the issue of whether philosophy should be – Philosophy. The intuitive realist thinks that there is such a thing as Philosophical truth because he thinks that, deep down beneath all the texts, there is something which is not just one more text but that to which various texts are trying to be “adequate.” The pragmatist does not think that there is anything like that. He does not even think that there is anything isolable as “the purposes which we construct vocabularies and cultures to fulfil” against which to test vocabularies and cultures. But he does think that in the process of playing vocabularies and cultures off against each other, we produce new and better ways of talking and acting – not better by reference to a previously known standard, but just better in the sense that they come to seem clearly better than their predecessors.

5. A Post-Philosophical Culture

I began by saying that the pragmatist refused to accept the Philosophical distinction between first-rate truth-by-correspondence-to reality and second-rate truth-as-what-it-is-good-to-believe. I said that this raised the question of whether a culture could get along without Philosophy, without the Platonic attempt to sift out the merely contingent and conventional truths from the Truths which were something more than that. The last two sections, in which I have been going over the latest round of “realist” objections to pragmatism, has brought us back to my initial distinction between philosophy and Philosophy. Pragmatism denies the possibility of getting beyond the Sellarsian notion of “seeing how things hang together” – which, for the bookish intellectual of recent times, means seeing how all the various vocabularies of all the various epochs and cultures hang together. “Intuition” is just the latest name for a device which will get us off the literary-historical-anthropological-political merry-go-round which such intellectuals ride, and onto something “progressive” and “scientific” – a device which will get us from philosophy to Philosophy.

I remarked earlier that a third motive for the recent anti-pragmatist backlash is simply the hope of getting off this merry-go-round. This hope is a correlate of the fear that if there is nothing quasi-scientific for philosophy as an academic discipline to do, if there is no properly professional Fach which distinguishes the philosophy professor from the historian or the literary critic, then something will have been lost which has been central to Western intellectual life. This fear is, to be sure, justified. If Philosophy disappears, something will have been lost which was central to Western intellectual life – just as something central was lost when religious intuitions were weeded out from among the intellectually respectable candidates for Philosophical articulation. But the Enlightenment thought, rightly, that what would succeed religion would be better. The pragmatist is betting that what succeeds the “scientific,” positivist culture which the Enlightenment produced will be better.

The question of whether the pragmatist is right to be so sanguine is the question of whether a culture is imaginable, or desirable, in which no one – or at least no intellectual-believes that we have, deep down inside us, a criterion for telling whether we are in touch with reality or not, when we are in the Truth. This would be a culture in which neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were thought of as more “rational,” or more “scientific” or “deeper” than one another. No particular portion of culture would be singled out as exemplifying (or signally failing to exemplify) the condition to which the rest aspired. There would be no sense that, beyond the current intra-disciplinary criteria, which, for example, good priests or good physicists obeyed, there were other, transdisciplinary, transcultural, ahistorical criteria, which they also obeyed.

There would still be hero-worship in such a culture, but it would not be worship of heroes as children of the gods, as marked off from the rest of mankind by closeness to the Immortal. It would simply be admiration of exceptional men and women who were very good at doing the quite diverse kinds of things they did. Such people would not be those who knew a Secret, who had won through to the Truth, but simply people who were good at being human.

A fortiori, such a culture would contain nobody called “the Philosopher” who could explain why and how certain areas of culture enjoyed a special relation to reality. Such a culture would, doubtless, contain specialists in seeing how things hung together. But these would be people Who had no special “problems” to solve, nor any special “method” to apply, abided by no particular disciplinary standards, had no collective self-image as a “profession.” They might resemble contemporary philosophy professors in being more interested in moral responsibility than in prosody, or more interested in the articulation of sentences than in that of the human body, but they might not. They would be all-purpose intellectuals who were ready to offer a view on pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else.

Such a hypothetical culture strikes both Platonists and positivists as “decadent.” The Platonists see it has having no ruling principle, no center, no structure. The positivists see it as having no respect for hard fact, for that area of culture-science-in which the quest for objective truth takes precedence over emotion and opinion. The Platonists would like to see a culture guided by something eternal. The positivists would like to see one guided by something temporal -the brute impact of the way the world is. But both want it to be guided, constrained, not left to its own devices. For both, decadence is a matter of unwillingness to submit oneself to something “out there”-to recognise that beyond the languages of men and women there is something to which these languages, and the men and women themselves, must try to be “adequate.” For both, therefore, Philosophy as the discipline which draws a line between such attempts at adequacy and everything else in culture, and so between first-rate and second-rate truth, is bound up with the struggle against decadence.

So the question of whether such a post-Philosophical culture is desirable can also be put as the question: can the ambiguity of language ever really be taken seriously? Can we see ourselves as never encountering reality except under a chosen description-as, in Nelson Goodman’s phrase, making worlds rather than finding them ? This question has nothing to do with “idealism”-with the suggestion that we can or should draw metaphysical comfort from the fact that reality is “spiritual in nature.” it is, rather, the question of whether we can give up what Stanley Cavell calls the impossibility that one among endless true descriptions of me tells who I am.” The hope that one of them will do just that is the impulse which, in our present culture, drives the youth to read their way through libraries, cranks to claim that they have found The Secret which makes all things plain, and sound scientists and scholars, toward the ends of their lives, to hope . that their work has “philosophical implications” and “universal human significance.” In a post-Philosophical culture, some other hope would drive us to read through the libraries, and to add new volumes to the ones we found. Presumably it would be the hope of offering our descendants a way of describing the ways of describing we had come across-a description of the descriptions which the race has come up with so far. if one takes “our time” to be “our view of previous times,” so that, in Hegelian fashion) each age of the world recapitulates all the earlier ones, then a post-Philosophical culture would agree with Hegel that philosophy is “its own time apprehended in thoughts.”

In a post-Philosophical culture it would be clear that that is all that philosophy can be. it cannot answer questions about the relation of the thought of our time-the descriptions it is using, the vocabularies it employs – to something which is not just some alternative vocabulary. So it is a study of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the various ways of talking which our race has invented. it looks, in short, much like what is sometimes called “culture criticism”-a term which has come to name the literary-historical-anthropological-political merry-go-round I spoke of earlier. The modern Western “culture critic” feels free to comment on anything at all. He is a prefiguration of the all-purpose intellectual of a post-Philosophical culture, the philosopher who has abandoned pretensions to Philosophy. He passes rapidly from Hemingway to Proust to Hitler to Marx to Foucault to Mary Douglas to the present situation in Southeast Asia to Ghandi to Sophocles. He is a name-dropper, who uses names such as these to refer to sets of descriptions, symbol-systems, ways of seeing. His specialty is seeing similarities and differences between great big pictures, between attempts to see how things hang together. He is the person who tells you how all the ways of making things hang together hang together. But, since he does not tell you about how allpossible ways of making things hang together must hang together-since he has no extra-historical Archimedean point of this sort-he is doomed to become outdated. Nobody is so passé as the intellectual czar of the previous generation – the man who redescribed all those old descriptions, which, thanks in part to his redescription of them, nobody now wants to hear anything about.

The life of such inhabitants of Snow’s “literary culture,” whose highest hope is to grasp their time in thought, appears to the Platonist and the positivist as a life not worth living-because it is a life which leaves nothing permanent behind. In contrast, the positivist and the Platonist hope to leave behind true propositions, propositions which have been shown true once and for all-inheritances for the human race unto all generations. The fear an d distrust inspired by “historicism”-the emphasis on the mortality of the vocabularies in which such supposedly immortal truths are expressed-is the reason why Hegel (and more recently Kuhn and Foucault) are bêtes noires for Philosophers, and especially for spokesmen for Snow’s scientific culture. “ (Hegel himself, to be sure, had his Philosophical moments, but the temporalisation of rationality which he suggested was the single most important step in arriving at the pragmatist’s distrust of Philosophy.)

The opposition between mortal vocabularies and immortal propositions is reflected in the opposition between the inconclusive comparison and contrast of vocabularies (with everybody trying to aufheben everybody else’s way of putting everything) characteristic of the literary culture, and rigorous argumentation-the procedure characteristic of mathematics, what Kuhn calls “normal” science, and the law (at least in the lower courts). Comparisons and contrasts between vocabularies issue, usually, in new, synthetic vocabularies. Rigorous argumentation issues in agreement in propositions. The really exasperating thing about literary intellectuals, from the point of view of those inclined to science or to Philosophy, is their inability to engage in such argumentation-to agree on what would count as resolving disputes, on the criteria to which all sides must appeal. In a post-Philosophical culture, this exasperation would not be felt. In such a culture, criteria would be seen as the pragmatist sees them-as temporary resting-places constructed for specific utilitarian ends. On the pragmatist account, a criterion (what follows from the axioms, what the needle points to, what the statute says) is a criterion because some particular social practice needs to block the road of inquiry, halt the regress of interpretations, in order to get something done.” So rigorous argumentation-the practice which is made-possible by agreement on criteria, on stopping-places -is no more generally desirable than blocking the road of inquiry is generally desirable.” It is something which it is convenient to have if you can get it. if the Purposes you are engaged in fulfilling can be specified pretty clearly in advance (e.g., finding out how an enzyme functions, preventing violence in the streets, proving theorems), then you can get it. If they are not (as in the search for a just society, the resolution of a moral dilemma, the choice of a symbol of ultimate concern, the quest for a “post-modernist” sensibility), then you probably cannot, and you should not try for it. if what you are interested in is philosophy, you certainly will not get it -for one of the things which the various vocabularies for describing things differ about is the purpose of describing things. The philosopher will not want to beg the question between these various descriptions in advance. The urge to make philosophy into Philosophy is to make it the search for some final vocabulary, which can somehow be known in advance to be the common core, the truth of, all the other vocabularies which might be advanced in its place. This is the urge which the pragmatist thinks should be repressed, and which a post-Philosophical culture would have succeeded in repressing.

The most powerful reason for thinking that no such culture is possible is that seeing all criteria as no more than temporary resting-places, constructed by a community to facilitate its inquiries, seems morally humiliating. Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form “There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.” This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre’s remark:

Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are.

This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together- the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.

A post-philosophical culture, then, would be one in which men and women felt themselves alone, merely finite, with no links to something Beyond. On the pragmatist’s account, position was only a halfway stage in the development of such a culture-the progress toward, as Sartre puts it, doing without God. For positivism preserved a god in its notion of Science (and in its notion of “scientific philosophy”), the notion of a portion of culture where we touched something not ourselves, where we found Truth naked, relative to no description. The culture of positivism thus produced endless swings of the pendulum between the view that “values are merely ‘relative’ (or ‘emotive,’ or ‘subjective’)” and the view that bringing the “scientific method” to bear on questions of political and moral choice was the solution to all our problems. Pragmatism, by contrast, does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature-or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries. Thus it sees ethics as neither more “relative” or “subjective” than scientific theory, nor as needing to be made “scientific.” Physics is a way of trying to cope with various bits of the universe; ethics is a matter of trying to cope with other bits. Mathematics helps physics do its job; literature and the arts help ethics do its. Some of these inquiries come up with propositions, some with narratives, some with paintings. The question of what propositions to assert, which pictures to look at, what narratives to listen to and comment on and retell, are all questions about what will help us get what we want (or about what we should want).

No. The question of whether the pragmatist view of truth-that it is t a profitable topic-is itself true is thus a question about whether a post-Philosophical culture is a good thing to try for. It is not a question about what the word “true” means, nor about the requirements of an adequate philosophy of language, nor about whether the world “exists independently of our minds,” nor about whether the intuitions of our culture are captured in the pragmatists’ slogans. There is no way in which the issue between the pragmatist and his opponent can be tightened up and resolved according to criteria agreed to by both sides. This is one of those issues which puts everything up for grabs at once -where there is no point in trying to find agreement about “the data” or about what would count as deciding the question. But the messiness of the issue is not a reason for setting it aside. The issue between religion and secularism was no less messy, but it was important that it got decided as it did.

If the account of the contemporary philosophical scene which I offer in these essays is correct, then the issue about the truth of pragmatism is the issue which all the most important cultural developments since Hegel have conspired to put before us. But, like its predecessor, it is not going to be resolved by any sudden new discovery of how things really are. It will be decided, if history allows us the leisure to decide such issues, only by a slow and painful choice between alternative self-images.

Beware the perils of postgrad research – article

You run into all sorts of challenges when you start a postgrad course – especially when it’s a research course.

When I was deciding whether to take on a research masters in geology at Trinity College Dublin, my main concerns were my level of interest in the subject, the availability of funding, and job prospects afterwards.

Once the decision was made, I thought I would slip comfortably into my new life as a postgrad. But I was unaware of how challenging the transition from undergraduate study to postgraduate research would be.

As an undergrad student, you attend classes, hand in coursework, sit exams and gain feedback throughout the academic year. But if you decide to take up a research-based postgraduate course rather than a taught one, you are faced with a dangerously blank-looking schedule.

While an undergraduate’s week is dictated by their class timetable, research students need to organise their own time and partition their workload, often with very little guidance.

The lack of structure means you can easily allow a serious backlog of work to build up. Having left the cocoon of the lecture hall, at first I felt quite lost.

With most research courses lasting two to four years, you can lull yourself into feeling you have all the time in the world. Sleeping in and putting things off can be very tempting.

Excellent time management and organisational skills are prerequisites for any research student. Based on personal experience, this is not the time to develop these skills: by now, you either you have them or you don’t.

“Create the structure you used to have as an undergraduate. Schedule time for writing and organise opportunities for feedback and socialising, for example through conferences,” says Dr Tamara O’Connor from the student counselling service at Trinity College Dublin.

A tip? Ask your supervisors for deadlines and small assignments early on in your course. Personally, I’ve been fortunate – my supervisors have been present and helped me stay focused. But if you feel you need a framework to help you pace your study, don’t be afraid to ask.

Without classes to attend, you inevitably meet fewer students. And the friends you hung out with during your undergraduate days are scattered around the globe.

It’s to your advantage to socialise with the other researchers you encounter. Cultivating these relationships will help you stay on track – seeing what your peers are accomplishing can be very motivating.

So besides making sure your course is right for you, these are some of the issues to consider when poring over postgraduate syllabuses and wondering if you’re really cut out to be a researcher.

As for me, after a few weeks of adjustment, I eventually settled into my day-to-day research into the carboniferous rocks of County Clare, Ireland, and really began to enjoy it. Suddenly my schedule was full again and I could breathe a sigh of relief.


I can really relate to this, particularly since I’m currently doing my MRes part-time whilst working 40+ hours a week! You can get a bit of angst (‘is he not replying because I’m a part-timer?’) as well as frustration (I handed in a formative essay over four months ago and still don’t have a clue how I did – though I certainly could have followed that up if I could only remember to at the right time!).

Having said that, I think that @tiorladam and @jeronimo97 have it quite right when they talk about students failing to prepare for that valuable time you do manage to snatch with you supervisor. I tend to find that writing down my question or problem first helps me formulate what I want to discuss in the meeting – at least so that I can speak cogently rather than in a mix of broken sentences and hand gestures!

I have one more year to go and, though I’m looking forward to finishing, I know that I will look back on these two years and consider myself very lucky to have been given the opportunity to take my studies completely beyond what I achieved at undergraduate level.

From the LRB – Rorty on Williams

To the Sunlit Uplands

Richard Rorty

  • Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy by Bernard Williams
    Princeton, 328 pp, £19.95, October 2002, ISBN 0 691 10276 7

‘Spinozist’ used to be what ‘Postmodernist’ is now, the worst thing one intellectual could call another. For reasons explained in Jonathan Israel’s fascinating The Radical Enlightenment,[*] there was, in 1680, a simple litmus test for intellectual and moral responsibility. You failed this test if you believed, as Spinoza did, that motion is intrinsic to matter, for that would imply that God didn’t have to give it a nudge. From there it is a short step to Spinoza’s conclusion that ‘God’s decrees and commandments, and consequently God’s Providence are, in truth, nothing but Nature’s order.’

In those days, if you defended the absurdly counter-intuitive claim that matter could move all by itself, it was clear you could hardly be expected to have any moral scruples or intellectual conscience. You were frivolously dissolving the social glue that held Christendom together. You represented the same sort of danger to moral and intellectual virtue as Arians had posed, in the days of St Augustine, by arguing that although Christ was certainly of a similar substance to the Father, he could hardly be the same substance.

Nietzsche said that ‘we simply lack any organ for knowledge, for “truth”: we “know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd.’ If you cite this sort of passage from Nietzsche (or similar ones in William James or John Dewey) in order to argue that what we call ‘the search for objective truth’ is not a matter of getting your beliefs to correspond better and better to the way things really are, but of attaining intersubjective agreement, or of attempting to cope better with the world round about us, you are likely to find yourself described as a danger to the health of society: philosophers sympathetic to this line of thought now find themselves called Postmodernists, and are viewed with the same hostility as Spinozists were three hundred years ago. If you agree with Dewey that the search for truth is just a particular species of the search for happiness, you will be accused of asserting something so counter-intuitive that only a lack of intellectual responsibility can account for your behaviour.

Most non-philosophers would regard the choice between correspondence-to-reality and pragmatist ways of describing the search for truth as a scholastic quibble of the kind that only a professor of philosophy could be foolish enough to get excited about. A few centuries back, the same sort of people were equally dismissive of controversies concerning the relation between matter and motion. But reading books like Israel’s helps us remember that those who grow passionate on one or the other side of arcane and seemingly pointless disputes are struggling with the question of what self-image it would be best for human beings to have. So it is with the dispute about truth that has been going on among the philosophy professors ever since the days of Nietzsche and James. That dispute boils down to the question of whether, in our pursuit of truth, we must answer only to our fellow human beings, or also to something non-human, such as the Way Things Really Are In Themselves.

Nietzsche thought the latter notion was a surrogate for God, and that we would be stronger, freer, better human beings if we could bring ourselves to dispense with all such surrogates: to stop wanting to have ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ on our side. Only then, he thought, will humankind ‘be delivered from revenge’. He hoped that his books would help ‘to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit’. Spinoza might have used the same words to describe his aim in writing the Theological-Political Treatise and the Ethics.

Contemporary philosophers who invoke Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Donald Davidson and Jürgen Habermas in order to strengthen their criticisms of the correspondence theory of truth typically share Nietzsche’s hope. They believe that the institutions and practices their critics see as threatened will in fact be strengthened by adopting pragmatist philosophical views. Analogously, Christians who hid their copies of Spinoza’s writings under their beds, and who were inspired by them to dream of a secularised culture and a politically liberal society, believed that the true message of Christ would be better understood once the distinction between God and Nature had been collapsed. The persecuted Arians thought of themselves as making a last brave stand against irrationalist mystery-mongerers (such as Augustine) and their rigid orthodoxies.

Bernard Williams’s term for those usually lumped together as Postmodernists – the targets of his polemic in Truth and Truthfulness – is ‘the deniers of truth’. Unfortunately, he leaves the requirements for membership in this group vague. He does not list any specific propositions you have to deny in order to join. Simply rejecting the correspondence theory of truth, as Davidson and Habermas do, is clearly not enough to get you in. For Williams himself accepts Nietzsche’s view that, as he puts it, ‘there is no standpoint from which our representations as a whole’ can be measured against the way the world is ‘in itself’.

He does, however, specify that the deniers include Bruno Latour, Sandra Harding and the present reviewer. He strongly suggests that Foucault, too, is one of them. He hesitates about including my colleague Hayden White, who is on most lists of Postmodernist bad guys: Williams treats White’s Metahistory with respectful caution. He does not mention Derrida by name, but would probably count him as a denier, for he brackets those who ‘saunter off with the smug nod that registers a deconstructive job neatly done’ together with those who confine themselves to ‘demure civic conversation in the style of Richard Rorty’s ironist’.

Most people who warn that Postmodernist relativisms are endangering all that we hold dear reject most of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Plato and Kant. Williams endorses most of them. There were few kind words for Plato in Shame and Necessity, Williams’s admirably iconoclastic study of ancient Greek ideas about moral virtue – a book filled with echoes of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. He has derided what he calls ‘the rationalistic theory of rationality’: the claim that rationality consists in obedience to eternal, ahistorical standards. His most widely read book, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, mocked Kantian approaches to moral philosophy.

Over the years, Williams has been citing Nietzsche with greater and greater sympathy and appreciation. In this new book he presents himself as someone concerned to defend Nietzsche against those who have misinterpreted and distorted his teachings. He thinks that Nietzsche was entirely right to reject philosophies, such as Plato’s, in which ‘the concept of truth is itself inflated into providing some metaphysical teleology of human existence.’ He has no more patience than Nietzsche did with Kant’s attempt to formulate ‘an exceptionless and simple rule, part of a Moral Law that governs us all equally without recourse to power’. There is, he says, ‘no such rule. Indeed, there is no Moral Law.’

Such remarks will convince many people that Williams has long since gone over to the dark side, and is hardly the right person to mount a defence of truth against the bad guys. Having conceded so much to the opposition, he has to work hard to secure a middle-of-the-road position – to avoid drifting either to the Platonist right or to the pragmatist left.

Nietzsche would not have wanted his admirers to be either demure or smug, but he wouldn’t have approved of them being political liberals either. Yet the most salient feature of Truth and Truthfulness is Williams’s passionate devotion to the political heritage of the Enlightenment. He admits that many of the deniers whom he targets share this devotion. But he thinks them inconsistent: they cannot be both effective defenders of liberalism and deniers of truth. He says that my own attempt to, as he puts it, ‘detach the spirit of liberal critique from the concept of truth’ is ‘a fundamental mistake’. He counts me among the ‘moderate deniers’ – by which he means, I think, that I share many more views with him than with Foucault. But he insists that we moderates ‘as much as the more radical deniers need to take seriously the idea that to the extent that we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose something, and may well lose everything.’

Williams argues that it is essential to the defence of liberalism to believe that the virtue he capitalises as ‘Sincerity’ has intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value. He defends this claim in the course of telling a ‘genealogical story’, one that attempts to ‘give a decent pedigree to truth and truthfulness’. We need such a story, he believes, since the notion of truth might be thought tainted by its associations with Platonism. So he undertakes to show that the value of truth can be ‘understood in a perspective quite different from the Platonic and Christian metaphysics’, and that the deniers have thrown out the baby of intrinsically valuable truth with the Platonist bathwater. He thinks that Nietzsche did not make this mistake, and cites the famous passage from The Gay Science in which Nietzsche seems directly to contradict what he says in the passage (from the same book) I quoted above: ‘it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we knowers of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, that Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine.’

To get his genealogy under way, Williams offers a familiar and uncontroversial account of why social co-operation requires trust between members of the community: why you cannot have such co-operation without widespread respect for the virtues he calls Sincerity and Accuracy. Language-learning requires trust that people will make roughly the same reports in the presence of the same objects. People not only have to avoid lying, but also have to be open and honest in their joint efforts to get and distribute accurate information. No widespread truthfulness and reciprocal helpfulness, no social institutions.

But it is not clear how this genealogical explanation of the fact that all human societies prize Sincerity and Accuracy supports Williams’s claim about intrinsic value. He makes it ‘a sufficient condition for something (for instance, trustworthiness) to have an intrinsic value that, first, it is necessary (or nearly necessary) for basic human purposes and needs that human beings should treat it as an intrinsic good, and, second, that they can coherently treat it as an intrinsic good.’ The utility of this definition obviously depends on there being a way of telling when people are treating something as an intrinsic good, and it is not clear what behavioural test Williams has in mind here. Is it that people find themselves stymied by the question, ‘Why do you think it a good?’ and can only reply: ‘Well, it just is’? But anybody asked that question about anything they regard as a very good thing (truth-telling, marital fidelity, doing what the Leader says, staying alive) will be able and willing to cite other goods that the particular good in question helps them to get. In the case of trustworthiness, they can be counted on to say something like: ‘Think what would happen if everybody lied! Society would break down!’ But maybe they are not giving their real reasons for thinking trustworthiness good? Maybe they are just being tricked into sounding utilitarian and pragmatic? Maybe they really think it is good in itself? Maybe. But what is the behavioural test for detecting people’s real reasons?

It seems unlikely that Williams can make either the notion of ‘intrinsic value’ or that of ‘real reason’ respectable without first of all taking a lot of Platonic-looking baggage on board. When he tries to exploit the intrinsic-instrumental distinction, he can no longer hope for Nietzsche’s approval. For Nietzsche treated that distinction as one more example of the bad Platonic-Aristotelian practice of distinguishing the really real from the merely human, the in-itself from the for-us.

Those dualisms are still deeply ingrained in common sense, which is why pragmatism is so counterintuitive. Williams wants to keep just enough of them to defeat the deniers, while still being able to side with Nietzsche against Plato. He also wants to retain the conviction, common among analytic philosophers who distrust pragmatism, that the quest for truth is not the same thing as the quest for justification. This amounts to the claim that inquiry has two distinct aims: on the one hand, acquiring beliefs that can be justified to the relevant audience (your fellow citizens, for example, or your fellow experts), and, on the other hand, acquiring true beliefs. From a pragmatist point of view, this looks like regression to the Platonist idea that we have responsibilities not only to our fellow humans, but to something non-human. But for Williams it is a way of reinforcing the point that truth has intrinsic value, that it is something to be pursued for its own sake.

Pragmatists try to coalesce the quest for truth and the quest for justification by trotting out what Williams labels ‘the indistinguishability argument’. They claim that the activity of reaching agreement with others about what to believe looks exactly like the activity of trying to acquire true beliefs, and that there is no point in postulating two distinct aims for a single enterprise. Williams says that the basic objection to this argument is that ‘a justified belief is one that is arrived at by a method, or supported by considerations, that favour it, not simply by making it more appealing or whatever, but in the specific sense of giving reason to think that it is true.’ Brainwashing often brings agreement, as do exchanges between scientists in meetings of the Royal Society, but only the latter counts as acquiring truth. So, Williams says, ‘the pragmatist owes us an answer’ to the question of how we tell methods for acquiring truth from other methods of producing consensus.

As he rightly suggests, the only answer the pragmatist can give to this question is that the procedures we use for justifying beliefs to one another are among the things that we try to justify to one another. We used to think that Scripture was a good way of settling astronomical questions, and pontifical pronouncements a good way of resolving moral dilemmas, but we argued ourselves out of both convictions. But suppose we now ask: were the arguments we offered for changing our approach to these matters good arguments, or were they just a form of brainwashing? At this point, pragmatists think, our spade is turned. For we have, as Williams himself says in the passage I quoted above, no way to compare our representations as a whole with the way things are in themselves.

Williams, however, seems to think that we philosophy professors have special knowledge and techniques that enable us, despite this inability, to show that the procedures we now think to be truth-acquiring actually are so. ‘The real problems about methods of inquiry, and which of them are truth acquiring . . . belong to the theory of knowledge and metaphysics.’ These disciplines, he assures us, provide answers to ‘the question, for a given class of propositions, of how the ways of finding out whether they are true are related to what it is for them to be true’.

Williams would seem to be claiming that these metaphysicians and epistemologists stand on neutral ground when deciding between various ways of reaching agreement. They can stand outside history, look with an impartial eye at the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, and then, by applying their own special, specifically philosophical, truth-acquiring methods, underwrite our belief that Europe’s chances of acquiring truth were increased by those events. They can do all this, presumably, without falling back into what Williams scorns as ‘the rationalistic theory of rationality’.

Williams seems to believe that analytic philosophers have scrubbed metaphysics and epistemology clean of Platonism, and are now in a position to explain what makes various classes of propositions true. If there really were such explanations, then our spade would not be turned where the pragmatists think it is. But of course we who are labelled ‘deniers of truth’ do not think there are. We think the sort of metaphysics and epistemology currently practised by analytic philosophers is just as fantastical and futile as Plato’s Theory of Forms and Locke’s notion of simple ideas.

As far as I can see, Williams’s criticism of ‘the indistinguishability argument’ stands or falls with the claim that analytic philosophers really can do the wonderful things he tells us they can – that they are not just hard-working public relations agents for contemporary institutions and practices, but independent experts whose endorsement of our present ways of justifying beliefs is based on a superior knowledge of what it is for various propositions to be true. Williams would have had a hard time convincing Nietzsche, Dewey or the later Wittgenstein that they had any such knowledge.

Williams says that he will not, in this book, take up any metaphysical or epistemological issues, but will stick to the question: ‘granted that there are methods of inquiry that are, for different kinds of properties, truth-acquiring, what are the qualities of the people who can be expected to use such methods reliably?’ The last four of the ten chapters that make up Truth and Truthfulness are intended to answer this question. In them, Williams puts aside the debate with the deniers, and instead offers a historical account of the development of the common sense, and the intellectual and moral virtues, of the educated classes of the modern West. He describes himself as turning from ‘a peculiar philosophical mode of fictional genealogy’ (the part of the book that tells us how social co-operation grew up hand in hand with trustworthiness) to ‘real genealogy – to cultural contingencies and to history’.

I had trouble seeing the continuity between the first half and the second half of Williams’s book; the connections between the more philosophical part and the more historical part are not perspicuous. But, whatever one may think of the arguments of the earlier chapters, few readers will fail to be struck by the verve, imaginativeness and subtlety of the later ones. The historical portion shows Williams at his best – not arguing with other philosophers, but rather, in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, helping us understand the changes in the human self-image that have produced our present institutions, intuitions and problems. (My preference for the second half of the book may, of course, be due to the fact that it is only in the first half that my own oxen are gored.)

The last four chapters do not form a continuous genealogical narrative. Rather, they are snapshots of certain episodes that have been important in determining what we in the modern West have in mind when we talk about truth and truthfulness. They begin with an absorbing, and very plausible, account of the difference between Herodotus and Thucydides. Williams argues that ‘Thucydides imposed a new conception of the past, by insisting that people should extend to the remoter past a practice they already had in relation to the immediate past, of treating what was said about it as, seriously, true or false,’ thereby making a crucial contribution to the Western insistence that we distinguish sharply between truth and fantasy – between what actually happened and what we should like to have happened.

Williams seems to me right in saying that a lot of what is distinctive, and best, about the modern West depends on remorselessly enforcing the distinction between truth-seeking and wish-fulfilment – though I don’t think he has succeeded in showing that the pragmatists blur this distinction. Pragmatists will heartily agree that some non-Western cultures are, in various areas and to a certain extent, still undesirably Herodotean. ‘Cultural relativism’ is largely an imaginary bugbear, but to the extent that it actually exists it undermines Thucydides’ achievement, and should be resisted. Even if we shall never succeed in seeing ourselves as metaphysicians and epistemologists have hoped to see us, we nevertheless have no reason to doubt that the West is best at acquiring truth. That Eurocentric claim of superiority cannot, pragmatists believe, be defended by non-circular arguments before a tribunal of ahistorical reason, but is none the worse for that.

The next chapter, ‘From Sincerity to Authenticity’, flashes forward 22 hundred years. Here Williams distinguishes two notions – Rousseau’s and Diderot’s – of ‘what it is to be a truthful person’. Rousseau thought that you could be authentic simply by laying yourself bare, but Diderot explained why it was not that easy. Williams thinks that Diderot did us a great service in helping to break down Plato’s simplistic reason-will-emotion distinction, and in showing us why we should be suspicious of the belief-desire model of human agency currently in fashion among philosophers. He shows why Diderot’s proto-Freudian account of the agent as ‘awash with many images, many excitements, merging fears and fantasies that dissolve into one another’ leaves us with the need to construct a self to be true to, rather than, as Rousseau thought, the need to make an already existent self transparent to itself.

This contrast is admirably drawn, and it prepares the ground for the next chapter, in which Williams contrasts Habermas’s and Foucault’s way of looking at the relation between truth and power. Habermas plays Rousseau to Foucault’s Diderot. He thinks that ‘undistorted communication’ can bring us to recognise the truth, and he sticks pretty closely to the old Platonic triad of faculties. Foucault, like Diderot, Nietzsche and Freud, has little use for the idea that reason can, by triumphing over emotion and will, clear away distortions and make our souls transparent to truth. He does not think, as Habermas does, that we can eliminate what Marxists used to call ‘false consciousness’ – the kind of consciousness produced by the machinations of power. For Foucault, truth will never be disentangled from power. The most we can do is to try to exert power ourselves, by reprogramming the social institutions that he called ‘mechanisms of truth’.

Williams shares Habermas’s hopes that the application of ‘critique’ to contemporary institutions and practices will promote the goals of the Enlightenment. But whereas Habermas offers a quasi-Kantian, universalist account of the search for truth and justice, Williams urges ‘an approach that is “contextualised” or “immanent” rather than in the Kantian style’. He concedes to Foucault that ‘the “force of reason” can hardly be separated altogether from the power of persuasion, and, as the ancient Greeks well knew, the power of persuasion, however benignly or rationally exercised, is still a species of power.’ Williams’s appreciation of this Nietzschean point makes him wary of the Habermasian idea of ‘the force of the better argument’, and leads him to conclude the chapter by saying ‘It is not foolish to believe that any social and political order which effectively uses power, and which sustains a culture that means something to the people who live in it, must involve opacity, mystification and large-scale deception.’

Not foolish, he continues, but not necessarily true. Williams’s splendid final chapter, ‘Making Sense’, discusses the role that truthful history, and narratives of the onward-to-the-sunlit-uplands sort, can play in continuing to demythologise the cultures of liberal societies. Here he offers a very judicious and sensible treatment of Hayden White’s much-criticised account of the role of rhetoric in historiography. He agrees with White that we have to be ‘especially careful of the idea’ that truthful history can ‘tell us what the past is “really” or “in itself”’, but goes on to explain why, even if it cannot do that, it can still do us a lot of good – why Thucydides did not live in vain. ‘Liberalism may have destroyed in some part its distinctive supporting stories about itself,’ including stories of the sort Habermas tells about reason’s ability to disclose universal validity. Nevertheless, it is important for us liberals to realise that ‘there is no conscious road back, that the Enlightenment is intellectually irreversible.’

As in the first part of the book, Williams has to work hard here to concede just enough to the opposition, but not too much. He needs carefully to distinguish between justified Nietzschean and Foucauldian suspicions about the supporting stories, and unjustified contempt for the Enlightenment’s political hopes. In making this distinction, he takes on the same complicated and delicate assignment previously attempted by Dewey, Weber and many others. He wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism – to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world.

The prospect of such a world would have appalled Kant, whose defence of the French Revolution was closely linked to his ‘rationalistic theory of rationality’. Kant is the philosopher to whom such contemporary liberals as Rawls and Habermas ask us to remain faithful. Williams, by contrast, turns his back on Kant. So did Dewey. The similarity between Dewey’s and Williams’s conceptions of the desirable self-image for heirs of the Enlightenment is, in fact, very great, so I am all the more puzzled by his hostility to pragmatism in the first half of his book. But that is just to repeat that I am unconvinced by his argument that the defence of political liberalism requires us to rehabilitate such Platonic/Kantian notions as ‘intrinsic value’. I still cannot see why the project of those whom Williams calls ‘the moderate deniers of truth’ is a ‘fundamental mistake’.

Whether it is or not, anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams’s new book. It is a major work by a man plausibly described, in Princeton’s advertisements, as ‘Britain’s greatest living philosopher’. That is not hyperbole. Since the death of Isaiah Berlin – with whose work Williams’s has many continuities – no philosophy professor in that part of the world has been more deeply, or more deservedly, admired by his peers.

Review of Lawrence Krauss – A Universe from Nothing

This is a review of Lawrence Krauss’s book ‘A Universe from Nothing’, the scientist in the previous post who argued against the philosopher Julian Baggini. Professor David Albert takes a far more opposing view to Krauss than Baggini does, so the argument is a little less one sided.

On the Origin of Everything

‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss

Illustration by Andy Martin

Lawrence M. Krauss, a well-known cosmologist and prolific popular-science writer, apparently means to announce to the world, in this new book, that the laws of quantum mechanics have in them the makings of a thoroughly scientific and adamantly secular explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Period. Case closed. End of story. I kid you not. Look at the subtitle. Look at how Richard Dawkins sums it up in his afterword: “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explainsomething, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

Never mind. Forget where the laws came from. Have a look instead at what they say. It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electro­magnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements ofelementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absenceof the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.

And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

David Albert is a professor of philosophy at Columbia and the author of “Quantum Mechanics and Experience.”

Philosophy Vs Science

I found this article on the Guardian website this morning and thought I’d publish it in full here for everyone to take a look at:

Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?

Philosopher Julian Baggini fears that, as we learn more and more about the universe, scientists are becoming increasingly determined to stamp their mark on other disciplines. Here, he challenges theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss over ‘mission creep’ among his peers.

philosophy science

Does philosophy or science have all the big answers?

Julian Baggini No one who has understood even a fraction of what science has told us about the universe can fail to be in awe of both the cosmos and of science. When physics is compared with the humanities and social sciences, it is easy for the scientists to feel smug and the rest of us to feel somewhat envious. Philosophers in particular can suffer from lab-coat envy. If only our achievements were so clear and indisputable! How wonderful it would be to be free from the duty of constantly justifying the value of your discipline.

However – and I’m sure you could see a “but” coming – I do wonder whether science hasn’t suffered from a little mission creep of late. Not content with having achieved so much, some scientists want to take over the domain of other disciplines.

I don’t feel proprietorial about the problems of philosophy. History has taught us that many philosophical issues can grow up, leave home and live elsewhere. Science was once natural philosophy and psychology sat alongside metaphysics. But there are some issues of human existence that just aren’t scientific. I cannot see how mere facts could ever settle the issue of what is morally right or wrong, for example.

Some of the things you have said and written suggest that you share some of science’s imperialist ambitions. So tell me, how far do you think science can and should offer answers to the questions that are still considered the domain of philosophy?

Lawrence Krauss Thanks for the kind words about science and your generous attitude. As for your “but” and your sense of my imperialist ambitions, I don’t see it as imperialism at all. It’s merely distinguishing between questions that are answerable and those that aren’t. To first approximation, all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science.

Getting to your question of morality, for example, science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent. If I don’t know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.

The chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home. This is particularly relevant in physics and cosmology. Vague philosophical debates about cause and effect, and something and nothing, for example – which I have had to deal with since my new book appeared – are very good examples of this. One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of “non-existence” is, but while that may be an interesting philosophical question, it is really quite impotent, I would argue. It doesn’t give any insight into how things actually might arise and evolve, which is really what interests me.

JB I’ve got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I agree that many traditional questions of metaphysics are now best approached by scientists and you do a brilliant job of arguing that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is one of them. But we are missing something if we say, as you do, that the “chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home”. I think you say this because you endorse a principle that the key distinction is between empirical questions that are answerable and non-empirical ones that aren’t.

My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions. We can think better about them and can even have more informed debates by learning new facts. What we conclude about animal ethics, for example, has changed as we have learned more about non-human cognition.

What is disparagingly called scientism insists that, if a question isn’t amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all. I would reply that it is an ineliminable feature of human life that we are confronted with many issues that are not scientifically tractable, but we can grapple with them, understand them as best we can and we can do this with some rigour and seriousness of mind.

It sounds to me as though you might not accept this and endorse the scientistic point of view. Is that right?

LK In fact, I’ve got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I do think philosophical discussions can inform decision-making in many important ways, by allowing reflections on facts, but that ultimately the only source of facts is via empirical exploration. And I agree with you that there are many features of human life for which decisions are required on issues that are not scientifically tractable. Human affairs and human beings are far too messy for reason alone, and even empirical evidence, to guide us at all stages. I have said I think Lewis Carroll was correct when suggesting, via Alice, the need to believe several impossible things before breakfast. We all do it every day in order to get out of bed – perhaps that we like our jobs, or our spouses, or ourselves for that matter.

Where I might disagree is the extent to which this remains time-invariant. What is not scientifically tractable today may be so tomorrow. We don’t know where the insights will come from, but that is what makes the voyage of discovery so interesting. And I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions.

Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is “wrong”, but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately “wrong”. In fact, I think you actually accede to this point about the impact of science when you argue that our research into non-human cognition has altered our view of ethics.

I admit I am pleased to have read that you agree that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question best addressed by scientists. But, in this regard, as I have argued that “why” questions are really “how” questions, would you also agree that all “why” questions have no meaning, as they presume “purpose” that may not exist?

JB It would certainly be foolish to rule out in advance the possibility that what now appears to be a non-factual question might one day be answered by science. But it’s also important to be properly sceptical about how far we anticipate science being able to go. If not, then we might be too quick to turn over important philosophical issues to scientists prematurely.

Your example of homosexuality is a case in point. I agree that the main reasons for thinking it is wrong are linked with outmoded ways of thought. But the way you put it, it is because science shows us that homosexual behaviour “is completely natural”, “has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts”, is “biologically based” and “not harmful” that we can conclude it is “not innately ‘wrong'”. But this mixes up ethical and scientific forms of justification. Homosexuality is morally acceptable, but not for scientific reasons. Right and wrong are not simply matters of evolutionary impacts and what is natural. There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right – efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this. It’s one thing to accept that one day these issues might be better addressed by scientists than philosophers, quite another to hand them over prematurely.

LK Once again, there are only subtle disagreements. We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony. However, I think that science can either modify or determine our moral convictions. The fact that infidelity, for example, is a fact of biology must, for any thinking person, modify any “absolute” condemnation of it. Moreover, that many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned and, therefore, the province of psychology. Others are more universal and are, therefore, hard-wired – a matter of neurobiology. A retreat to moral judgment too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will which I think is naive.

I want to change the subject. I admit I am pleased that you agree that “why is there something rather than nothing” is a question best addressed by scientists. But I claim more generally that the only meaningful “why” questions are really “how” questions. Do you agree?

Let me give an example to put things in context. Astronomer Johannes Kepler claimed in 1595 to answer an important “why” question: why are there six planets? The answer, he believed, lay in the five Platonic solids whose faces can be composed of regular polygons – triangles, squares, etc – and which could be circumscribed by spheres whose size would increase as the number of faces increased. If these spheres then separated the orbits of the planets, he conjectured, perhaps their relative distances from the sun and their number could be understood as revealing, in a deep sense, the mind of God.

“Why” was then meaningful because its answer revealed purpose to the universe. Now, we understand the question is meaningless. We not only know there are not six planets, but moreover that our solar system is not unique, nor necessarily typical. The important question then becomes: “How does our solar system have the number of planets distributed as it does?” The answer to this question might shed light on the likelihood of finding life elsewhere in the universe, for example. Not only has “why” become “how” but “why” no longer has any useful meaning, given that it presumes purpose for which there is no evidence.

JB I don’t know whether it’s a virtue or a vice, but in philosophy there is nothing “only” about subtle disagreements! But given we’ve got as close as we’re probably going to on ethics, let’s turn to the difference between “how” and “why” questions.

Again, I agree with a lot here. I am unpersuaded, for example, by the argument that there is never any conflict between religion and science because the latter deals with “how” questions and the former “why” ones. The two cannot be so easily disentangled. If a Christian argues that God explains why there was a big bang, then that inevitably says something about God’s role in how the universe came into being, too. But I would not go so far as to say that all “why” questions can only be properly understood as “how” ones. The clearest example here is of human action, for which adequate explanations can rarely do without “why” questions. We do things for reasons.

Some very hard-nosed philosophers and scientists describe this as a convenient fiction, an illusion. They claim the real explanation for human action lies at the level of “how”, specifically, how brains receive information, process it and then produce action.

But if we want to know why someone made a sacrifice for a person close to them, a purely neurological answer would not be a complete one. The full truth would require saying that there was a “why” at work, too: love. Love is indeed at root the product of the firings of neurons and release of hormones. How the biochemical and psychological points of view fit together is clearly puzzling, and, as your aside on free will suggests, our naive assumptions about human freedom are almost certainly false. But we have no reason to think that one day science will make it unnecessary for us to ask “why” questions about human action to which things such as love will be the answer. Or is that romantic tosh? Is there no reason why you’re bothering to have this conversation, that you are doing it simply because your brain works the way it does?

LK Well, I am certainly enjoying the conversation, which is apparently “why” I am doing it. However, I know that my enjoyment derives from hard-wired processes that make it enjoyable for humans to tangle linguistically and philosophically. I guess I would have to turn your question around and ask why (if you will excuse the “why” question!) you think that things such as love will never be reducible to the firing of neurons and biochemical reactions? For that not to be the case, there would have to be something beyond the purely “physical” that governs our consciousness. I guess I see nothing that suggests this is the case. Certainly, we already understand many aspects of sacrifice in terms of evolutionary biology. Sacrifice is, in many cases, good for survival of a group or kin. It makes evolutionary sense for some people, in this case to act altruistically, if propagation of genes is driving action in a basic sense. It is not a large leap of the imagination to expect that we will one day be able to break down those social actions, studied on a macro scale, to biological reactions at a micro scale.

In a purely practical sense, this may be computationally too difficult to do in the near future, and maybe it will always be so, but everything I know about the universe makes me timid to use the word always. What isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics is, in some sense, inevitable. So, right now, I cannot imagine that I could computationally determine the motion of all the particles in the room in which I am breathing air, so that I have to take average quantities and do statistics in order to compute physical behaviour. But, one day, who knows?

JB Who knows? Indeed. Which is why philosophy needs to accept it may one day be made redundant. But science also has to accept there may be limits to its reach.

I don’t think there is more stuff in the universe than the stuff of physical science. But I am sceptical that human behaviour could ever be explained by physics or biology alone. Although we are literally made of the same stuff as stars, that stuff has organised itself so complexly that things such as consciousness have emerged that cannot be fully understood only by examining the bedrock of bosons and fermions. At least, I think they can’t. I’m happy for physicists to have a go. But, until they succeed, I think they should refrain from making any claims that the only real questions are scientific questions and the rest is noise. If that were true, wouldn’t this conversation just be noise too?

LK We can end in essential agreement then. I suspect many people think many of my conversations are just noise, but, in any case, we won’t really know the answer to whether science can yield a complete picture of reality, good at all levels, unless we try. You and I agree fundamentally that physical reality is all there is, but we merely have different levels of optimism about how effectively and how completely we can understand it via the methods of science. I continue to be surprised by the progress that is possible by continuing to ask questions of nature and let her answer through experiment. Stars are easier to understand than people, I expect, but that is what makes the enterprise so exciting. The mysteries are what make life worth living and I would be sad if the day comes when we can no longer find answerable questions that have yet to be answered, and puzzles that can be solved. What surprises me is how we have become victims of our own success, at least in certain areas. When it comes to the universe as a whole, we may be frighteningly close to the limits of empirical inquiry as a guide to understanding. After that, we will have to rely on good ideas alone, and that is always much harder and less reliable.