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.

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