Reputation

Colin McGinn

  • The Secret Connection: Causation, Realism and David Hume by Galen Strawson
    Oxford, 291 pp, £32.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 19 824853 9
  • J.L. Austin by G.J. Warnock
    Routledge, 165 pp, £30.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 415 02962 7

Philosophical reputations come and go – they surge and gutter – according largely to the prevailing intellectual climate, and are only tenuously tied to the actual merits of the views put forward by the reputand in question. To have a reputation is to have something perishable and fleeting, an imposition from without, no sooner bestowed than withdrawn.

Take the case of David Hume. In the dark days of logical (sic) positivism Hume’s reputation ran high as the philosopher who first did away with causal necessity; he was thought to have shown that causation consists in nothing, objectively, but constant conjunction: things happen in regular sequences but nothing makes them happen that way. In reality, the cement of the universe consists in nothing over and above the dependable concatenation of separable events. But when positivism quietly expired, and natural necessity regained its lost respectability, Hume’s standing correspondingly dipped. The neglected Locke began to seem like the philosopher with the better eye for metaphysical truth, while Hume started to look guilty of trying to deduce metaphysical conclusions from epistemological premises: ‘if no ideas then no reality’.

Now here comes Galen Strawson to argue that Hume has been grievously misrepresented all along: for the real David Hume never denied the objective reality of causal necessity. He firmly believed in it. And so Hume’s reputation is set to rise high again. He did not, after all, commit the mistake of letting the ideational contents of our minds determine what the world might really contain – though he did indeed think there was a problem about our achieving an adequate grasp of the nature of objective necessary causal relations. Hume, then, is a sceptical realist about causal necessity, contrary to the widely-received idealist interpretation; and sceptical realism is a view much favoured in this post-positivist era. The positivists were right in their high estimate of Hume, but for exactly the wrong reasons.

J.L. Austin was a philosopher with a legendary reputation. Although he published little, he is revered, especially in Oxford, for his critical acumen, withering good sense, originality, and talent for hitting the nail on the head. He was made White’s Professor in Oxford at the tender age of 40. His intellectual powers are said to have struck terror into the hearts of his contemporaries, to the point of deterring some of them from daring to put pen to paper, or mouth to thought. Indeed, it might fairly be said that Austin’s reputation depends largely upon his reputation: one tends to hear more about his philosophical reputation than about his philosophical ideas. It therefore comes as a bit of a shock to read Geoffrey Warnock’s study. The impression here conveyed is that Austin was almost pathologically incapable of getting anything right. Time and again Warnock has to correct obvious mistakes, apologise for unclarities, expose ground-floor misconceptions. It is all very puzzling. Even as Warnock attempts to celebrate his subject we see the man’s reputation sink wanly over the horizon. He may have initiated some fruitful lines of enquiry, later developed by others, but he himself seems to have been unable to pursue these lines with any surefootedness or perspicacity. You begin to understand why he wrote so little. Funny things, reputations. Steer clear of them if you can.

Attend now to a typical causal sequence – say, Mike Tyson’s fist colliding with his opponent’s jaw and the opponent dropping to the canvas. The blow, we say, caused the fall. Now we can distinguish three views about what this causal connection involves. One claims that there is no kind of necessity relating the events to each other: all that occurs in reality is that one event is succeeded by another. A second view insists that a species of necessity underlies the savagery of the nexus: the opponent had to fall, given that his jaw was subject to the force unleashed on it (and the circumstantial conditions were as they were). However, this second view concedes, we cannot know or perceive the nature of this binding necessity: we can assert that it exists but we can have no proper conception of what it ultimately involves. A third view agrees that causal relations carry objective necessitation, but this view is more sanguine about our capacity to understand such necessitation: science can tell us what the nexus depends on, if it is not already clear to common sense. These three views of causation and our access to it may be labelled anti-realist, sceptical realist and naive realist, respectively.

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