Vol. 45 No. 11 · 1 June 2023

Search by issue:

What’s the use?

Anyone who questions the current state of a well-established academic discipline is likely to be reprimanded for doing so. Empires have a tendency to strike back against rebels. So, I am grateful to Kieran Setiya for his forbearance in his review of my book What’s the Use of Philosophy? (LRB, 4 May). I appreciate his willingness to take account of places where my critique might be salutary, and not simply to concentrate on my errors. Even so, I think his balance sheet is too stingy.

My aim in writing the book was to urge philosophers to restore philosophy to its former important place in thought and culture. Once, I claim, works of serious philosophy influenced the thinking of many people in many walks of life. Setiya charges that this alleged golden age never existed, and asks pointedly when I suppose it to have occurred. I reply: throughout the long history of Western philosophy (and probably of non-Western philosophy as well). I offer a highly incomplete list. Socrates forfeited his life because he was too influential on young Athenians. Aristotle’s ideas dominated European thought for centuries. Augustine’s writings shaped the religious culture of the Middle Ages. Bacon, Descartes and Locke all contributed to the explosive growth of physical science in the 17th century. Like Hobbes before him, Locke also framed issues of the role and function of governments. Rousseau’s ideas had some effect on many late 18th-century citizens. Goethe saw Kant as illuminating the most difficult issues of the day and, through Coleridge, Kantian conceptions influenced moral reflections and educational arrangements in the Anglophone world. Bentham inspired early 19th-century progressives in Britain. Mill was read by politicians and economists, including French socialists and Italian nationalists; George Eliot engaged with his ideas; and, after his death, William Gladstone canonised him as the ‘saint of rationality’. The post-Kantian Idealist movement, from Fichte to Hegel, shaped German thought about science, the arts, history and politics – this was the tradition from which Karl Marx emerged. Before Dewey became the person to be consulted on the issues of the day, his role in the United States had been anticipated by Emerson and William James.

Despite the extraordinary proliferation of professional philosophers during the past sixty years, that long tradition of wide engagement and influence has declined. In the late 20th century it is best represented by John Rawls and Thomas Kuhn; today, by Martha Nussbaum. Philosophy has turned inward, generating scores of articles whose topics are ‘A’s defence of Y-ism against B’s version of the Z-objection’, filling the prominent journals that publish the work that confers professional status. Setiya and I disagree as to whether we should see this (as I do) as a falling-off.

Setiya’s defence of this style of philosophical activity alternates between two strategies. The bolder of the two is to take the position that all knowledge is to be valued. Setiya wants to remove roadblocks to inquiry. I’m sympathetic to that Peircean idea, but, since the totality of potential investigations outruns our collective human capacities, it seems worth reflecting from time to time on whether the inquiries we choose are worth pursuing: to raise that question isn’t philistine but philosophical. Responding to my musical comparison, Setiya appears happy at the prospect of a world in which the repertoire of classical music has been completely replaced by exercises designed to develop and tax pure technique. How would he feel about the biomedical community if it were to suspend its current research in favour of a fifty-year plan to focus exclusively on tabulating the number of steps taken each day by as many research subjects as possible in order to explore the relationship between that data and a host of social and psychological variables? We only have so much world and time, and some questions are more worthwhile than others.

The more straightforward strategy starts from Setiya’s observation that contemporary analytic philosophy has moved beyond conceptual analysis. That is entirely correct, as is his recognition that some philosophers have turned their attention to psychological issues (e.g. consciousness). But Setiya fails to respond to my challenge to specify where the substantive claims come from. If they proceed from serious engagement with relevant areas of inquiry (psychology, neuroscience), they are examples of a genre my book repeatedly endorses. If, on the other hand, they are generated from the armchair, and decorated with a fancy label (‘a priori fundamental principles’), he owes us an account of how pure philosophy justifies the exalted language. Why not settle instead for my more modest surrogate: ‘Here are some phenomena – try thinking about them this way’? Also, it needs to be shown that the focus on Y-ism and the Z-objection has generated the new perspective, which inquirers in the field would not have appreciated as swiftly without a philosophical contribution.

Like Setiya, I love philosophy, and want to reform it not to abolish it. Perhaps pointing to the imperfections of the beloved is wounding, and I should apologise again for my lack of tact; but philosophy would be healthier if it got out more. Setiya himself has contributed to the synthetic philosophy I see as our central mission. I hope he will join me as a ‘romantic’ (his term), come over to the dark side and help to restore the subject to its former glories.

Philip Kitcher
New York


Tom Stevenson writes that, according to Alasdair Roberts, ‘by 2050 almost 40 per cent of the world’s population will live in just four polities: India, China, the US and the EU’ (LRB, 4 May). Stevenson adds that by his own reckoning, this mark has been reached already. Let’s call this group of polities the S4. In fact, the S4’s share of the world population has been greater than 40 per cent since at least 1960 (when the World Bank’s figures begin), but it has been declining year-on-year since 1973 (when the UK, Denmark and Ireland acceded to the EU), except in the years when the EU was enlarged: 1981, 1986, 1995, 2004, 2007, 2013. A pairwise comparison of these years shows that the sole case in which an enlargement made up for the decline since the preceding one was 2004, when the EU admitted most of its Eastern European membership. Even that increase had been reversed by 2012.

What could increase the S4’s share of the world population? Not births: each of the S4 has a lower birthrate than the world average. Not territorial expansion either: the EU is running out of plausible future members, and the legacy of the one-child policy in China can’t be made good by swallowing Taiwan or Arunachal Pradesh. That leaves immigration. But the relatively liberal policies of the EU and US haven’t reversed the decline in their share of the world’s population, and in any case it’s unlikely that India and China will permit immigration on a similar scale.

J.P. Loo
Oriel College, Oxford

One Good Book

Sam Rose is a little condescending in his suggestion that Clive Bell’s output amounted to ‘just one good book’ (LRB, 4 May). I regularly assign the section of that book, Art (1914), titled ‘The Aesthetic Hypothesis’ to students starting on surveys of art history. What Rose describes as its ‘elegant simplicity and enthusiasm’ works wonders on those who may never have had a profound encounter with an original work of art. It makes them curious about what they may have been missing. When, as a student, I first read the insults Bell flung at High Renaissance art – plagued by genius worship, ‘the infallible sign of an uncreative age’ – I got quite a jolt, amplified by the tint of Pre-Raphaelite regard for the medieval lord and peasant who were ‘spiritual equals’.

Patricia Emison
Lee, New Hampshire

Feast of St Monday

Bill Lancaster mentions the ‘ash money’ paid to a friend of his, a junior doctor, in the 1980s (Letters, 18 May). My brother was a junior doctor then too and remembers ‘ash cash’. The fee at that time was £23.50 and wasn’t paid for signing the death certificate, as Lancaster writes, but the cremation form certifying that the body had no implants. Pacemakers were a particular worry, since they could blow up in the incinerator. My brother recalls that a friend of his once overlooked a pacemaker when signing a form, only for it to explode at Reading Crematorium, putting it out of action for a couple of weeks.

Charles Lucas
London W6

Ways of Listening

Daniel Cohen refers to the streaming service Bandcamp as ‘a kind of anti-Spotify’ (LRB, 4 May). While Bandcamp does allow labels to sell directly to users, and users have to pay to listen to some of the music on the platform, the company’s ownership structure does raise some questions. Epic Games, the company behind the game Fortnite, acquired Bandcamp in 2022 after its phenomenal growth during the lockdown period, and made the usual promise not to change anything. But Epic Games is 40 per cent owned by Tencent, the company that owns all the Chinese music streaming services and has a 9 per cent ownership swap with Spotify. Bandcamp’s independent status seems likely to be slowly but surely eroded.

Connah McCarron-Roberts
London E9

The Best He Could Do

Matthew Bevis notes that the best anagram Auden could make from T.S. Eliot’s name was ‘litotes’ (LRB, 2 March). He did, though, manage something rather better by way of a palindrome: ‘T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad; I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.’

Tony Sharpe
Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria

Voter ID

Craig Westwood of the Electoral Commission justifies the new rules on voter ID on the grounds that ‘our research has found that two-thirds of voters would feel more confident about the security of their vote if they were required to show ID’ (Letters, 18 May). I suppose if I had been asked the question, I might have said the same. But the effect of the new rules has been to disenfranchise thousands of people in the recent council elections – more than a thousand in Walsall and Bradford alone. In addition to those turned away, many will not have bothered trying to vote because they didn’t have the right ID. Young voters are disproportionately affected, which appears to have been the government’s intention. Voting is a habit, and first-time voters who were unable to take part in the council elections might not try again.

Shaun Spiers
Rochester, Kent

James Meek writes that Labour’s ID card scheme foundered partly as a result of libertarian Tory intransigence (LRB, 4 May). That’s true, but opposition extended well beyond that quarter. I took part in the No2ID campaign in the 2000s and several times found myself in alliance with Tory MPs and activists, people with whom I’d normally have little in common politically. What we did share, however, was opposition not so much to the ‘card’ itself as to the database behind it. Most European countries have ID cards, but they also have strong constitutional safeguards on who can access the information in the database and for what purposes. It’s much harder to trust the intentions of future governments in a state which has no written constitution, and in which, as we have seen with Boris Johnson et al, a determined cabal can override accepted conventions without sanction. Who would trust a future UK government not to allow official agencies to link up different datasets in order to build a complete data picture of individuals, and to do so without their consent, or to go on ‘fishing expeditions’ using, say, crimefighting as a justification?

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences