Liberation Philosophy

Hilary Putnam

This volume is advertised as ‘confronting the current debate between philosophy and its history’. What it turns out to contain is a series of lectures with the general title ‘Philosophy in History’ which were delivered at Johns Hopkins University during 1982-3, aided by a subvention from the enlightened Exxon Education Foundation. All the papers are of interest, some of major interest; the prospective reader should, however, be warned that this is not a book but a series of lectures, and that the level of sophistication required of the reader varies greatly from lecture to lecture.

If it is impossible to read this through as one normally ‘reads a book’, it is even more impossible to review it as such. A reviewer who tried to do that would end up writing 16 separate reviews. Rather than attempt the impossible (or at least the impossibly boring), I shall focus on two of the lectures which do have the merit (remarkably rare in this book, given the topic of the series) of speaking to the same issues, and I shall make reference to the other lectures only as they bear on those issues. Both of these lectures are thoughtful and powerful statements, and the points of view they express clash head-on. The lectures were given by Charles Taylor (‘Philosophy and its History’ and by Richard Rorty (‘The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres’). They disagree not just over the ‘relation of philosophy to its history’ but in their conception of the kind of society we live in and of the kind of society we should aim for: they are, thus, deeply ‘political’ statements, albeit at a very abstract level. But the important clash is not on the surface (although Taylor does explicitly criticise some of Rorty’s epistemological positions), and is somewhat hidden by the extremely abstract nature of the prose, especially of Taylor’s prose.

Taylor has a tendency to use expressions like ‘the epistemological model’ which are not familiar in the English-speaking philosophical world, and expressions which are familiar mainly from the writings of radical critics of capitalism (‘atomistic assumptions ... which form the basis for much contemporary political and moral theory’). An explanation of this thought must start with an unpacking of these expressions. But first, let me ‘place’ Taylor to this extent: he is the leading authority on the philosophy of Hegel in the English-speaking world, and he has long been active in social democratic politics in his native province of Quebec. Both these facts are relevant.

Hegelians (and Taylor clearly thinks that Hegel has things to teach us) discern a certain pattern in what Hegel taught us to call ‘bourgeois society’. For Hegelians (and, following Hegel, for Marxists as well) there is a deep pattern unifying many apparently unconnected aspects of the modern capitalist world – a pattern both of thinking and of doing. To the non-Hegelian, non-Marxist, non-neo-Hegelian or neo-Marxist eye, there is nothing much connecting, say, Descartes’s philosophy with the economic theories later advanced by Adam Smith, and certainly nothing connecting either of these to the thrillers of James Bond. But to Hegelians – and the suggestion remains as fascinating as it is controversial – these have everything in common. Thus Descartes’s starting-point in his philosophising was to ‘doubt everything’. To a Hegelian eye, this is an expression of individualism. Here the individual has, as it were, separated himself from the society, from history, from his teachers, from the sages, even from the Bible itself, in a way unheard of in Europe from the fall of Rome to the Diet of Worms. (Of course, Luther’s defiance of the Church will be seen by the Hegelian as an expression of the same individualism.) Adam Smith’s insistence that if each entrepreneur simply pursues the main chance, then the result will be better for the whole society than if each one consciously tries to promote social welfare (moral: you are actually helping mankind when you conscientiously pursue profit!) is seen as an expression of the same individualism. And the same relentless individualism is at the heart of the appeal of Agent 007.

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