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A Technical Philosopher

SIR: I am surprised at Hilary Putnam’s negative review of Gareth Evans’s The Varieties of Reference (LRB, 19 May). This book I take to be original, profound and extremely well-argued. Putnam complains that it is overly technical and of interest only to professional philosophers: but I am in complete agreement with the philosopher who, twenty years ago, replied to similar complaints in the following way:

If any further evidence were needed of the healthy state of philosophy today, it would be provided by the hordes of intellectuals who complain that philosophy is overly ‘technical’ … For such complaints have always occurred precisely when philosophy was significant and vital! … The sad fact is that good philosophy is and always has been hard, and that it is easier to learn the names of a few philosophers than it is to read their books. Those who find philosophy overly ‘technical’ today would no more have found the time or the inclination to follow Socrates’s long chains of argument, or to read one of the Critiques, in an earlier day.

The philosopher who wrote these beautiful lines is Hilary Putnam (Philosophical Papers, Vol. II, pp. 132-133).

François Recanati
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

SIR: May I comment on Hilary Putnam’s review of The Varieties of Reference by Gareth Evans? Putnam gives the impression that the book is a failure, deserving attention only in one chapter, and even there only in spite of its theoretical ambitions. I think most readers will find this judgment perverse.

Putnam accuses the book of ‘relentless technicality’. It is certainly difficult, but Putnam himself offers a roughly adequate exposition of one of its main lines of thought, and so undermines his own suggestion that its drift is inaccessible to a general audience. No one disputes that Russell’s Theory of Descriptions is a prominent feature in the landscape of reflection about reference, and it is not idiosyncratic on Evans’s part to presuppose acquaintance with Russell’s logic in discussing Russell’s issues; nor is it out of the way to take Kripke’s work as one point of departure for a contemporary approach to naming, or to have Davidson bulk large in the background when considering a broadly realist conception of meaning. None of this is particularly abstruse, and Putnam’s phrase ‘as esoteric as quantum mechanics’ is an absurd exaggeration.

In fact, the main focus of Putnam’s complaint seems not to be the logical formulae and presupposed background, but rather his allegation that Evans’s use of Frege and Russell wrenches ‘particular technical problems’ out of their place in the ‘systems’ of those thinkers. Putnam’s picture has each philosopher constructing a ‘metaphysical system’, within which alone his theses and concerns make sense. Carried to extremes, this would have the consequence that if we fall short of completely accepting an earlier philosopher’s ‘system’, he can have nothing to say to us: but I doubt that Putnam believes that. The sane view seems to be that whether a piecemeal use of an earlier philosopher involves a continuation of his worthwhile concerns, or a brutal extraction of technicalities from their context, depends on the answer to a question on which there is typically room for dispute: what was the philosopher really on to? As for Frege, Evans indeed ignores his idea that natural language is, strictly speaking, beyond the reach of semantic theory: here he is broadly in line with Dummett’s account of what Frege can offer to present-day philosophy of language – an account that is no doubt open to question, but adherence to which hardly indicates an intellectually disreputable conception of philosophy in general. As for Russell, Putnam baldly asserts that Russell’s ‘propositions’ (since they had ‘extra-mental’ objects as ‘constituents’) were not ‘thoughts’: this does not refute Evans’s interpretation of Russell, but betrays a failure to see its point. Russell’s ‘propositions’ were, after all, meant to be the objects of propositional attitudes (e.g. belief), and Russell himself supposed that in his talk of ‘propositions’ he was addressing concerns that Frege had addressed in his talk of ‘thoughts’. Putnam simply assumes that Russell’s ‘constituent’ idea – which Evans does not ignore, but rather interprets – rules out a construal of ‘propositions’ as ‘thoughts’: this is to embrace, quite without argument, a conception of thought and its relation to objects that it is perhaps Evans’s main purpose to dislodge. (A genuinely suitable case, one might suggest, for ‘therapy’.)

Adherents of one central tradition in post-Cartesian philosophy have been gripped by the idea that the ‘contents’ of the mind must be determinately the way they are, independently of any facts about how the mind’s owner is related to ‘extramental’ reality. On Evans’s account, Russell’s conception of singular ‘propositions’ contains the seeds of the destruction of that idea, although Russell’s own adherence to the tradition prevented their proper germination in his work. Putnam claims that Russell’s reasons for the conception were ‘very different’ from Evans’s, but this is open to question. Russell’s sense-data – the only particulars, apart from the self, that can strictly be ‘constituents’ of Russellian ‘propositions’ – were not unambiguously intra-mental. And it is arguable that he was led to his conception of singular ‘propositions’ by a distaste for the way in which the Cartesian tradition typically disconnects the mind from its world: although the tradition reasserted itself in his inability to link the mind, in the direct way he wanted, with anything further out into the world (so to speak) than sense-data.

Putnam asks why Evans’s ‘capacity-reductionism’ is any better than ‘sense-data-reductionism’. Five paragraphs back, however, he seems clear that it is not a matter of reduction at all. The point he credits to Wittgenstein and Quine might be put by saying that there is no room for theorising about how thought and language relate to objects except from within thought and language; and this is fully congenial to Evans’s position. It is quite another thing to suggest that there is no room for theorising about the subject at all. That smacks of an anti-intellectual defeatism, and would anyway be hard to sustain in the face of a proper appreciation of the exemplary theorising that Evans offers. (Putnam has faint praise for some of this, in his remarks about Evans’s sixth chapter. Why no mention of the brilliant reflections on the self, in the companion seventh? But in any case it is inconceivable that Putnam can have properly appreciated Evans’s ‘phenomenological’ insights into perceptually-based demonstrative thinking, when he totally withholds approval from their theoretical context.) As for ‘sense-data-reductionism’, the superiority of Evans’s position lies (obviously enough for it to be unsurprising that he does not discuss the matter) in its exemplifying the possibility of theorising (from within thought, by all means) about how thoughts relate to reality, without imposing the Cartesian tradition’s characteristic disconnection between minds and the ordinary objects of the world.

Putnam finds Evans’s theoretical construction unconvincing. (Hardly surprisingly, since he evidently does not understand its point. The single reason he offers, parenthetically, for his judgment is in fact an ignoratio elenchi: it applies Evans’s treatment of perceptual demonstrative thinking to an example of what Evans calls ‘memory demonstratives’.) Putnam’s main concern, in any case, is not to confute the theory, but to air a dark methodological suspicion. Apart from Evans’s idea that philosophers can bequeath us their problems without convincing us of their ‘systems’, which I have already discussed, Putnam’s suspicion turns on the notion of a conceptual truth. But it is an astonishing distortion to suggest that that notion has any grand methodological significance in Evans’s work. Insofar as the work can be classified by method, the right thing to say about it is that it belongs to the analytical tradition. (This is not to be equated with having a vested interest in the concept of analyticity.) It seems quite absurd to suggest that Evans’s book, more than any other work in that tradition, is informed by some sinister quasi-scientistic conception of philosophy. Of course the analytical approach is not sacrosanct: but it will be a sad day for our philosophical culture if a book’s analytical character becomes a ground for branding it a failure. And it is worth mentioning the convergences, perceptively discussed by Charles Taylor in the Times Literary Supplement, between Evans’s response to the Cartesian tradition and those of philosophers from a different school, notably Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. It is regrettable that Putnam should have let a general and largely irrelevant methodological preoccupation blind him to the specific and substantial merits of Evans’s book.

John McDowell
University College, Oxford

Hello Michael Neve

SIR: It is sadly obvious that a member of your editorial board is suffering from paranoia. When he asks, ‘Is Michael Neve paranoid?’ (LRB, 2 June) he indulges in the self-exculpatory rhetoric characteristic of the Ishmael figure.

Again, there is, typically, no logical connection between the bold-faced question and the ensuing article which one would normally presume designed to answer it. Instead, we find a desperate obsession to vilify the entire science of those who have modestly attempted to identify his condition over the past century. And, as in the classic case of Schreber (who in the days of Roentgen and Becquerel felt sustained by the ‘rays’ of the sun), Michael Neve resorts to the familiar safe houses of contemporary pseudo-science. His shield against the scientists of mental phenomena (who, with Baconian patience, merely observe and label persistent regularities and similitudes) is the current fashion of the Schools – a ‘deconstruction’ of their ‘discourse’. In a word, Michael Neve, we are to conclude, is not paranoid because Sigmund Freud’s monumental project was homo-erotically motivated. This is the twice-boiled cabbage of Alfred Adler, Thomas Szasz, et al.

Neve gives us 109 inches of symphonic erudition and three of inconsequential coda, in which, having indicted Freudianism on the charge of sexual etiology, he professes to find one half of the human race (women) guiltless of paranoia, while men and men only produce that ‘twisted landscape’ of paranoid discourse that sullies the pure and chivalric ideal of love untainted by sex. To those of us who have devoted a lifetime to the study of paranoiacs in their daily habits the resistance is all too familiar.

The great Dr Ian D. Suttie of the Tavistock Clinic (a pioneering opponent of Freudian therapy) reported the ‘Luciferian struggle’ of a female patient he treated shortly before his death:

Naturally from this conscious, intellectual scrutiny nothing emerged which satisfied her. Whatever the ‘radiation’ of love on my part, her own ‘detector’ was hopelessly out of order, and, as I have said, conscious attention is unable to read the complex signs of emotion, of liking and interest. They have to ‘resonate’ by organic sympathy in the subject in order to ‘get across’ at all and her emotions were absolutely blocked by hate. As I have said above, unless love-response is aroused in ourselves the love of others cannot be felt. Only the objective fact of my being ill moved her at all (whereupon she became definitely parental), and she was careful to explain that it was not that she cared in the slightest for me, but that my death would leave her absolutely without anyone to talk to.

The Origins of Love and Hate, 1935

This is an exemplary description of paranoia from a stout adversary of the sexual origin of the neurosis. The idea that love can be dissociated from sex has intrigued men from Plato to Pitirim Sorokin. Suttie wished it so. Neve devoutly wishes it so. But, even if true, the disconnection in no way dissolves the concept of ‘paranoia’.

Irrespective of the supposed politics of taxonomy we are perpetually condemned to name things. Of course ‘paranoia’ is a clumsy label. So is ‘umbrella’ – nevertheless, I use it because I keep seeing those rolled-up swatches of black cloth. I am considered to have gained knowledge when I connect ‘umbrella’ with ‘rain’. Michael Neve has inadvertently shown that ‘paranoia’ exists whether or not it is connected with ‘sex’.

Peter Dockwrey
London NW3


SIR: In his review of Philosophical Essays on Freud (LRB, 2 June) Frank Cioffi reacted at length to some points made rather incidentally in the course of my introduction, and then went on to treat of Freud and others. Cioffi objected to two specific remarks of mine which he quoted in part. First, that many people find the psychoanalytic contemplation of organs by which we pass things in and out of our bodies – the nipple, mouth, anus, penis and vagina – either fascinating or repulsive or both. And secondly, that understanding a theory requires knowing how to use it, and that by comparison with our natural capacity to understand one another psychologically in common-sense terms, a capacity to interpret in psychoanalytic terms is relatively rare.

Apparently not seeing that fascination can work two ways, Cioffi takes the first point as shabby apologetic. Also, he dislikes my speaking of these organs as ‘biologically significant’, and my saying that they can be used in exchange. These descriptions are, however, clearly true, even in the sort of example Cioffi later quotes, of members of a family eating one another’s excrement. Further, however much Cioffi protests, it is surely clear that many people do find such things fascinating or repulsive. (Cioffi’s own polemic, in which he asks whether I am equipped for delights denied others, speaks of Clark Glymour’s ‘infantile toilet difficulties’, and so on, suggests that he at least quite likes going on about them.) So as regards what I actually wrote, Cioffi has no genuine criticism to offer.

Again, it is clear that a capacity to interpret in psychoanalytic as opposed to common-sense terms is relatively rare. This is because psychoanalytic interpretation does not come to us naturally, but requires understanding of a theory, which in turn requires intelligent study. It is only a little less clear that genuinely understanding a theory – or indeed, the meaning of a word – requires knowing something about how to use it. Cioffi apparently objects to these plain truths because they suggest to him that some people understand psychoanalytic theory better than he does. This thought evidently annoys Cioffi, and calls forth some of his keenest invective (see, for example, his references to ‘little Hopkins and little Wollheim’ as those ‘who “know how” to use psychoanalytic theory’, and to the ‘charmed circle’ of which he is not a member). Still, such differences cannot in general be doubted. And Cioffi’s understanding of psychoanalytic theory is open to serious question.

This is shown, for example, by his rhetorical question as to whether either Wollheim or I has ever ‘asked himself what the phrase “wish-fulfilling representations” can mean when applied to depression or anxiety, the two most common neurotic symptoms’. This indicates that Cioffi is not aware of the following elementary psychoanalytic idea: that if someone has hostile wishes towards another whom he loves, and consequently forms wish-fulfilling representations in which that loved person is harmed or damaged, he may feel anxiety or depression as a result. Cioffi’s blankness on this point is particularly striking, since it was explained fairly clearly in my introduction and is illustrated repeatedly in the case which Cioffi pretends to summarise. Thus the Rat Man’s obsessive thoughts about his beloved father’s torture, which Freud tried to explain as representing the fulfilment of hostile unconscious wishes which had arisen in the past, were causes of his depression and anxiety.

The Rat Man himself, indeed, made this tolerably clear. He remembered thinking in childhood that he would like to see little girls naked, but that his father’s death might result; and a more explicitly hostile thought had come to him on the occasion of his first intercourse: ‘This is a glorious feeling! One might do anything for this – murder one’s father, for instance.’ Moreover, and directly to the point, he said explicitly and repeatedly that his thoughts about his father’s death made him depressed, guilty, and so forth. Freud supplied the interpretations in terms of Oedipal rivalry and wish-fulfilling representations: but the connection of these with depression and anxiety is explicit and obvious here, as in the case of his obsession with his father’s torture. All this and more, however, is lost on Cioffi.

Failure of understanding again seems evident in Cioffi’s remarkable claim that Freud had no need to look to the past to explain the Rat Man’s obsession with the torture, since the torture itself was ‘described to him the day before’. Here, astonishingly, Cioffi apparently fails to see that what requires explanation, and what Freud is seeking to explain, is not how the Rat Man first got the idea of torture, but rather why the idea of that torture being applied to those he loved became a disabling obsession with him. If Cioffi really thinks as he writes, he must be among the very few – a charmed circle – to have failed to see this.

Cioffi’s treatment of the case of the Rat Man illustrates another feature of his approach. Cioffi is dealing with theories based upon the interpretation of, and supported by their coherence with, a detailed and extensive surrounding context of behaviour, thought and feeling. These surroundings, of course, are not all recorded, nor could they be. But even where they are, Cioffi omits reference to them where by doing so he is likely to make Freud’s judgments look foolish. Then he claims that Freudian judgments cannot be supported by reference to contextual interpretation. Thus as Professor Peter Alexander wrote, when considering other cases in which Cioffi has complained that Freud’s judgments could not be supported by reference to the surrounding context, we find that Cioffi ‘has removed the surroundings’. (Cosin, Freeman and Freeman, in the book Cioffi was reviewing, also remark on this.) It is not easy to see how this is to be explained, as it suggests that Cioffi both understands and does not understand the importance of clinical detail. Like Freud’s censor, it seems, he understands only what to leave out.

Cioffi has written a number of articles and reviews like this one, most of them repeating the same assertions about Freud. Such claims as he has made in an academic context have been subjected to searching and disabling criticism. B.A. Farrell, no partisan of Freud, has observed that analysts would regard Cioffi’s as work as that ‘of a man who does not understand what they are doing’. The effect of Cioffi’s anti-Freudian campaign is not, I think, what he intends. His repetitive and apparently uncomprehending polemics seem a sort of lived Freudian slip, in which his own animus involuntarily demonstrates the power of Freud’s ideas – at least to obsess and enthral – more vividly than the work of any academic advocate. For reading Cioffi on Freud, especially with some knowledge of Freud, one’s attention turns to Cioffi rather than Freud. One begins to ask: how far is he willing to go to try to discredit Freud? And why? I do not know the answer to these questions, but on the evidence it does not seem to lie in the badness of Freud’s contribution to thought. Perhaps the most straightforward and scholarly treatment of Cioffi’s representation of Freud is that by V.J. Jupp in the journal Philosophy for 1977.

James Hopkins
King’s College, London

Leavis and Norris

SIR: I am sorry to have misremembered the title of Leavis’s essay on Othello. Henceforth I shall emulate Mr Dodsworth (Letters, 16 June) and keep the Master’s works always ready to hand, lest further heresies blacken my name. Meanwhile I fail to see how the substance of my argument is affected by such a trivial lapse. Mr Dodsworth will hardly need directing to the numerous essays where Leavis develops his views on the relation between thought, language and sincerity. Those views dictated not only the rigorous exclusiveness of Leavis’s ‘tradition’, but also the solemn contortions of judgment by which erstwhile outsiders (or marginals like Dickens) were latterly granted admittance. On Eliot and Lawrence – since Mr Dodsworth mentions them – one sees this procedure raised to the level of high comedy. Leavis repudiates his own early apprenticeship to Eliot, finding him now too cerebral or French-intellectual. Lawrence becomes the saving voice of intuitive wisdom and health. This need to identify, to line up with an ‘authentic’ (imaginary) subject-position, is at the root of Leavis’s expressive-realist assumptions. As for Peacock, his lack of high seriousness was no doubt made up for by his uses in the critical campaign against Shelley, whose failings – as Leavis describes them – are construed in terms of that same notional expressive-realist ideal. Neither is T.F. Powys such an unlikely candidate if one sees how his fictions offer a kind of whimsical fantasy-equivalent to Leavis’s long-lost ‘organic community’.

I did what I could in my review to clear up the common misapprehension that ‘theory’ is to be conceived as some kind of self-supporting discourse sublimely unconcerned with mere ‘literary’ texts. It is Mr Dodsworth, Leavisian principles intact, who thinks to catch me out in descending to ‘particular examples’ (e.g. Tristram Shandy) while arguing the case for theory. This loaded opposition – particular versus, abstract – is precisely what is contested in current post-structuralist readings of the Great Tradition. Tristram Shandy is not just a precocious ‘example’ but a full-scale deconstructive staging of that encounter. Whatever the merits of Peacock and Powys, Sterne could only figure to Leavis’s way of thinking as a ‘nasty trifler’, best disposed of in a footnote.

Christopher Norris

Conversations with Rorty

SIR: I have to report that, in spite of Richard Rorty’s valiant efforts, Descartes’s malicious demon is alive and well and living in Bedford Square. In my review of Consequences of Pragmatism (LRB, 16 June), I quoted Rorty’s claims that the realist confuses two views, and wrote that I doubted ‘whether the most rampant realist would assent to such palpable nonsense as 2’. Somehow ‘2’ got changed to ‘1’, unnoticed by me in proof, with the result that the text as it stands convicts me of talking nonsense even if most philosophers do not.

Paul Seabright
All Souls College, Oxford