Alasdair MacIntyre on the claims of philosophy

  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty
    Blackwell, 401 pp, £12.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 631 12961 8
  • The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy by Stanley Cavell
    Oxford, 511 pp, £12.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 19 502571 7
  • Philosophy As It Is edited by Ted Honderick and Myles Burnyeat
    Pelican, 540 pp, £2.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 14 022136 0

The concerns of academic philosophy are to some degree the concerns of everybody. At the same time, they often appear to plain pre-philosophical men and women – including those perhaps not so plain persons who are professors of English or History or Physics – as vaguely ludicrous. On the one hand, academic philosophy is centrally concerned with such all-pervasive concepts as those of truth, rationality and goodness: and who, whether in other academic disciplines or in the transactions of everyday life, can disown an implicit commitment, at the very least, to some view of what rational justification consists in, and of what constitutes sound evidence for a belief, and who, consequently, can avoid admitting to a certain vulnerability to the conclusions of professional philosophers on these matters? Yet, on the other hand, the level at which academic philosophers treat these questions often appears to outsiders – including some philosophers themselves in their off-duty moments – as disturbingly abstract and unrealistic. So that outsiders tend to oscillate between a reluctant admission of the philospher’s status as universal legislator and an irritated dismissal of philosophy as unworldly and irrelevant. Philosophers themselves all too often respond by alternating between an ingrown professionalism in which they conceal themselves behind thickets of technicality and an equally self-indulgent form of popularisation in which the proportion of rhetoric to argument is unduly high. It is, then, something of an event when a book appears in which the central task which laymen demand of the philosopher – that of providing a clear and forceful statement of what conclusions of general importance emerge from the tangled encounters of professional argument – is discharged without sacrificing the requirements of detailed and rigorous argument.

Such a book could not escape being controversial. For to accomplish its goals its author has to pass a verdict on issues and arguments which remain matters of high contention among philosophers. But when the controversial stances emerge from a fair, lucid and comprehensive review of the present state of the debate, the only legitimate form for complaint will be to write an as good or better book in rejoinder. It is going to be a long time before a better book of its kind appears than Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The elegance of its style, the easy and effective deployment of historical scholarship, and, above all, the ability to distinguish the central threads of recent debate from the side-issues and to follow through their implications in an original and exciting way, combine to charm the reader as well as to engage his or her argumentative powers. (Camus defines charm as that quality which produces the answer ‘Yes’ before any question has yet been asked.) Since I shall want in the end to quarrel with some of Rorty’s central contentions, my admiration for his book is tempered by my hope that readers will not too easily be seduced by it. What is it of which Rorty seeks to convince us?

Primarily, that since the 17th century, philosophy has been dominated by a master image, the image of the human mind as a great mirror in which the facts of nature are represented. The elaboration of this image in argumentative terms was chiefly the work of Descartes, and at the core of Descartes’s philosophy is the question: how can we be sure that what the mind represents as the facts of nature are indeed faithful representations? The main professional duty of the philosopher becomes the provision of answers to this question, and the evaluation of the answers provided by Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, and others from then on, furnishes philosophy with its central subject-matter. If the originally Cartesian question is correctly posed, the importance of philosophy for all other disciplines is obviously vindicated. For by the way we answer that question, claims to knowledge in every discipline will succeed or fail. But, on Rorty’s view, the question is not correctly posed. For the Cartesian view of ‘the’ mind on which everything else depends cannot withstand critical examination.

So influential has Descartes been that we are apt to suppose that his distinction between ‘the’ body and ‘the’ mind is somehow the natural and fundamental way to classify human activities and experiences. In fact, however, Descartes invented this particular dualism. The older dualisms of body and soul, whether in Biblical or Greek versions, are very different from the Cartesian. In particular, they do not set up, as the Cartesian dualism does, a general problem of how the contents of the mind can be related to the realities outside the mind. It is when and only when this particular problem becomes central to philosophy that power is conferred upon the image of the mind as man’s ‘glassy essence’ (in the words of Measure for Measure), where external reality supposedly is reflected in ideas which are taken to be representation of those realities.

Rorty’s battery of attacks upon Cartesian dualism is therefore followed naturally enough by a systematic criticism of the notion of representation and of justification inherited from the Cartesian setting. His most powerful instruments are Quine’s dissolution of the analytic-synthetic distinction, which does away with the notion of there being any specially privileged foundational statements which furnish us with evidently true first principles in terms of which to justify our beliefs, and Sellars’s unmasking of ‘the Myth of the Given’, which removes any grounds for believing in an uninterpreted, unconceptualised reality ‘out there’ to which the ideas ‘in’ the mind have to correspond.

The whole interest of Rorty’s use of arguments drawn from Quine and Sellars, and indeed from Davidson and Kuhn too, lies in the detail. His book cannot, therefore, be summarised by the reviewer for the reader: it has to be read. But it is important to notice that Rorty is not claiming that he has summed up the force and the outcome merely of the central arguments of recent American analytic philosophy. For he believes that precisely the same morals are to be drawn from the modern history of European philosophy. On Rorty’s interpretation of the history of philosophy in this century, it was Wittgenstein who effectively and finally put paid to the false claims and problems of epistemology. Wittgenstein was still preoccupied initially, in the Tractatus, with the problems of representation, but his later discovery of what was wrong with his own project enabled him to diagnose what were, on Rorty’s view, the errors in the whole post-Cartesian tradition. His fundamental achievement was, from this point of view, to see that our beliefs and assertions are not justified by meeting some standard of representation or correspondence with external reality which can be specified independently of context, but rather by meeting those standards which are embodied in our various social and cultural practices. To ask if what meets these standards is ‘really’ true or rational or good is to suppose that the mind has to make contact with some general metaphysical external reality specifiable independently of the contexts of particular practices.

What Wittgenstein achieved for himself and for English-speaking philosophers, Heidegger paralleled in the phenomenological tradition. Husserl remained trapped by the Cartesian image of the mind; Heidegger, using a very different idiom from Wittgenstein’s, liberated us from that image in more or less the same way. Moreover, although Wittgenstein had analytical powers that Heidegger lacked, Heidegger’s understanding of the history of philosophy and of the need to rewrite it surpassed Wittgenstein’s. The third member of Rorty’s liberating trinity is – surprisingly – John Dewey, for whom Rorty claims the honour of having understood the importance for the general culture of making essentially the same breach with the philosophical tradition as did Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

Philosophy, then, has already undergone its crucial transformation. The task Rorty has set himself is merely that of enabling us to recognise what has already happened. That philosophers have not yet recognised the fundamental transformation of their own subject is partly due to the fact that they have not yet grasped the full extent of the implications of the work of Quine, Sellars, Davidson and Kuhn – among those whom Rorty chides for not having recognised the true place in the history of philosophy of Quine and Sellars are Quine and Sellars – and partly due to a failure to see how much of contemporary discussion is an unnecessary and obfuscating re-enactment of familiar but unrecognised post-Cartesian themes. So, for example, Rorty argues that contemporary analytical discussions of naming and referring revive precisely the mistaken Cartesian project of somehow bridging a gap, a gap which Rorty claims was never there in the first place, between mind and language, on the one hand, and external reality, on the other.

Where are we now, alter Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Dewey? Rorty’s negative conclusions are straightforward: philosophy can no longer masquerade as having an ‘overriding claim to the attention’ of those working in other disciplines, for the philosopher can no longer present himself ‘as knowing something about knowing which nobody else knows so well’. His positive conclusions are less clear. Philosophy is to join or rejoin that continuous conversation which constitutes Western culture, a conversation in and through which philosophy can expect to be transformed in a variety of at present unpredictable ways. But in the course of that conversation, one is disposed to ask irritably, what, if Rorty is correct, will there be left for philosophy to say? Rorty’s would-be reassuring final conclusion – that the end of the period in which epistemology is understood as the core of philosophical inquiry does not necessarily mean the end of philosophy – seems to lack the confidence which informs his earlier rhetoric and argument. It is, in fact, the clear and radical conclusion which he disowns – that philosophy is now over and that what Rorty has written is its obituary notice – rather than the unclear and modest conclusion which he avows, which seems to follow from his earlier arguments.

Philosophers who do not wish relegation either to the salons of cultural conversation or to the lines of the unemployed will need to find an answer to Rorty, and I for one am anxious to stress how seriously we ought to take his challenge. Nonetheless, even my genuine admiration for one of the most interesting books in quite a number of years does not prevent my noticing one interesting feature of the cultural conversation of the West which Rorty invites us to rejoin. It is that if I am doomed to spending the rest of my life talking with literary critics and sociologists and historians and physicists, I am going to have to listen to a great deal of philosophy, much of it inept. And this will not only be because academic nonsense – structuralism and Althusserian fantasy and the wilder reaches of psychoanalysis – so often finds a home in some of these disciplines, but also because philosophical problems are not primarily generated from within academic philosophy at all. Indeed if, as Rorty does, we locate their origin and their nature so exclusively within philosophy, understood professionally and narrowly as it has for the most part been during the past two hundred and fifty years or so, we shall never understand the cultural power of these problems.

To someone anxious to make an adequate response to Rorty, Stanley Cavell’s new and long-awaited book The Claim of Reason, at first promises well. Cavell announces at the outset that part of the importance of Wittgenstein’s writing is that it ‘is not of a character that lends itself to professionalisation’: nonetheless, his own exegesis of Wittgenstein is all too likely to produce the opposite impression. This is partly a matter of unfortunate lapses of style. The result of what may be an attempt to pin down every last detail of the argument is that all too often one cannot see the wood for the twigs. But it is not only style that is at work in hindering the reader.

Cavell deploys Wittgensteinian resources in order to show us that such problems as that of the relationship of the mind to the external world, or of how we can know what other people are thinking and feeling, do not arise only or mainly from the mistakes of philosophers, as Rorty seems to hold, but from a series of doubts and perplexities that arise for us all. But where the post-Cartesian philosopher looked for evidence and forms of valid inference in order to solve such problems and allay such doubts (how can I pass from premises about my private experiences to conclusions about the public world of material objects, how can I pass from premises about the bodily appearance of others to conclusions about their inner mental states?), Cavell argues that we ought to identify certain kinds of response and relationship. My belief that someone else is in pain is not and could not be a conclusion from an inference: it is a response evoked by the other as part of his or her relationship to me. It is only in the context of human relationships that acknowledging the pains and griefs and hopes and expectations of others makes sense. And doubt and insensitivity are both types of failure of acknowledgement. Hence our knowledge of others – or our lack of it – depends on what the forms of our moral relationships are. And this is one instance of what is true generally: ‘that every surmise and each tested conviction depend upon the same structure or background of necessities and agreements that judgments of value explicitly do.’

In the third and fourth parts of the book, Cavell therefore turns to discussing the nature of morality, and of that kind of tragedy which consists in the failure of moral relationship. And here the book itself fails us in two different ways. Instead of a close and rigorous examination of the views which he wishes to deny, such as we are offered in his discussion of alternative and incompatible interpretations of Wittgenstein in his earlier chapters, Cavell now treats us to a series of rhetorical assertions. Allusion replaces argument; abbreviation replaces confrontation. Consider his treatment of C.L. Stevenson’s Ethics and Language. ‘I am aware,’ Cavell writes, ‘of an unfairness in my treatment of Stevenson’s views, and that lies in my not having attempted to give a picture of its whole structure.’ But this is scarcely enough of an apology for a critique in which it is asserted that Stevenson’s thesis implies a lack of the concept of morality altogether.’ For Cavell unfortunately nowhere tells us what he takes morality to be. He does indeed seem to presuppose that ‘we’ – unless, like Stevenson, ‘we’ have been misled by philosophy – all know what morality is, and all agree about it, and he quotes Kant to this effect. But this is to close a crucial debate before it has even opened.

This assertive air is carried over into the last part, which culminates in an interpretation of Othello as a play whose central theme is Othello’s impotence and its consequences. The play is then exhibited as an example of the kind of breakdown in moral relationships which Cavell had earlier identified as being at the heart of the problem of our knowledge of other minds. Cavell’s interpretation is a brief masterpiece of ingenuity: but both the brevity and the ingenuity are misplaced. The brevity leads Cavell to ignore the arguments in favour of alternative and incompatible interpretations of the play; the ingenuity is much too palpable and gives the reader a strong sense that Cavell has projected his own philosophical preoccupations onto the play. Consequently, the philosophy does not seem to arise from the doubts and perplexities expressed in the play but rather from Cavell’s professional concerns.

Thus Cavell’s book, for all its great interest and merit, may end by concealing from the reader the truth whose denial is presupposed by Rorty’s whole argument: that the central epistemological problems of philosophy do not arise primarily from within philosophy at all, but from the recurrence in every area of human thought and practice of rival interpretations, and rival types of interpretation, of events and actions. It is for this reason that every academic discipline is to some degree ineliminably philosophical. The literary critic, the historian and the physicist presuppose, even when they do not explicitly defend, solutions or partial solutions to the problems of representation and justification. Shakespeare and Proust, Macaulay and Charles Beard, Galileo and Bohr cannot be read and responded to adequately without epistemological inquiries and commitments. Moreover, the philosophical problems and solutions in each particular area have a bearing on those in other areas; often enough, indeed, they are the very same problems. Hence the need for a synoptic and systematic discipline concerned with the overall problems of justification and representation – problems which, as Rorty occasionally notices, pre-date the Cartesian turn and which can be stated without the obfuscations of Cartesian or post-Cartesian theories of the mind. The two philosophical traditions within which the resources for such synoptic and systematic activity are to be found are traditions which most, if not all, mainstream analytic philosophy has treated as marginal: that which looks back to Aristotle and that which looks back to Hegel.

Without this double sense of philosophical problems as rooted in a whole range of intellectual and everyday activities and as having a systematic and synoptic character, philosophy is all too apt to degenerate, or at least to appear to degenerate, into piecemeal applications of technique. The editors of Philosophy As It Is, an anthology of recent philosophical writing, have been so anxious to guard against certain other dangers that they have perhaps not entirely escaped this one. What they present us with is a first-rate series of recent philosophical performances by analytical philosophers in which the qualities of rigour and imagination, qualities which the editors rightly claim to be central to good work in philosophy, are evident. Each contribution – the uniformly distinguished contributors include John Rawls, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke, Ayer and Hampshire – is prefaced by a quite excellent editorial essay which makes available even to beginners work at the very frontiers of the discipline. But what this anthologising approach omits is also important. The editors make the bold claim that their book ‘comes about as close as a single book can ... to recording the achievement of ongoing philosophy in the English language at this time’. Yet it is enough to consider a very short list of philosophers whose writing is not represented here to make their claim seem a little absurd: Anscombe, Armstrong, Feyerabend, Hacking, Lehrer, and and most of all, perhaps, Dummett. Moreover, the anthologising technique has the effect of placing particular arguments in the foreground while concealing from view, or at least obscuring, the systematic contexts in which these arguments are at home and which bestow upon them a good deal of their point and purpose. So the systematic dimension of Davidson’s work or of Putnam’s or of Rawls’s receives at best minor attention in the editorial comments.