In and out of the mind

Colin McGinn

  • Renewing Philosophy by Hilary Putnam
    Harvard, 234 pp, £19.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 674 76093 X

In a neglected passage in The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell unapologetically writes:

A priori knowledge is not all of the logical kind we have been hitherto considering. Perhaps the most important example of non-logical a priori knowledge is knowledge as to ethical value ... We judge, for example, that happiness is more desirable than misery, knowledge than ignorance, goodwill than hatred, and so on. Such judgments must, in part at least, be immediate and a priori. Like our previous a priori judgments, they may be elicited by experience ... But it is fairly obvious that they cannot be proved by experience ... Knowledge as to what is intrinsically of value is a priori in the same sense in which logic is a priori.

Thus, for Russell, ethical knowledge enjoys the privileges and securities that the rationalists discerned in our knowledge of logic and mathematics: immediacy, certainty, necessity. It is a paradigm of what true knowledge should be like, and contrasts sharply, in Russell’s epistemology, with the empirical knowledge we seek in science. There Russell finds only uncertainty, indirectness, questionable inference. We know the world of science merely ‘by description’, as a projection from what we are immediately ‘acquainted with’, and we must rely on indirect, subjective ‘signs’ if we are to venture any objective knowledge at all. The nature of the objects described by science is inherently conjectural; even the space that contains them is beyond our faculties of direct awareness. Most disturbing of all, the basic principle of scientific inference – namely, induction – is incapable of empirical support, and subject to radical (and rational) scepticism. According to Russell’s conception of human knowledge, then, ethics ranks a good deal higher than science on the scale of epistemic virtue; it occupies a place our faculties can reach. To compare ethical knowledge unfavourably with scientific knowledge would be absurd. Science is by no means the standard against which all other claims to knowledge are to be judged.

Nor is this position merely eccentric or even obsolete: essentially the same structure emerges from the conception of human knowledge powerfully advocated by Noam Chomsky. Think of the human mind as a modular congeries of special-purpose facilities – organs for knowing – which are biologically based and innately specified. Then science, for Chomsky, is simply the result of a happy convergence between objective truth about the world and the particular epistemic organs we happen to possess. There is no sense in which these faculties were designed with scientific knowledge as their goal – in contrast with (say) our knowledge of language. Science is possible for us only because it is a remote by-product of some independently selected faculty; and it will encounter obstacles of principle where fact and faculty fail to match. We are not natural scientists, but rely on a kind of biological luck. This is why science is so hard to acquire and admits so much variation between individuals – in marked contrast to language.

Moreover, according to Chomsky, it is plausible to see our ethical faculty as analogous to our language faculty: we acquire ethical knowledge with very little explicit instruction, without great intellectual labour, and the end-result is remarkably uniform given the variety of ethical input we receive. The environment serves merely to trigger and specialise an innate schematism. Thus the ethical systems of different cultures or epochs are plausibly seen as analogous to the different languages people speak – an underlying universal structure gets differentiated into specific cultural products. So, while science must depend on faculties whose biological purpose is not itself science – or anything very close to science – ethics seems far more deeply embedded in our original mental design. Perhaps the innate system of commonsense psychology, installed to negotiate our social relations, contains the resources for generating the basic principles of ethics. But there is surely no prospect that knowledge of quantum physics or evolutionary theory will be found to stem thus directly from anything with a well-defined biological function. On the Chomskyan model, both science and ethics are natural products of contingent human psychology, constrained by its specific constitutive principles; but ethics looks to have the securer basis in our cognitive architecture. There is an element of luck to our possession of scientific knowledge that is absent in the case of our ethical knowledge.

I have rehearsed the epistemological views of Russell and Chomsky in order to make the point that the ideology of scientism will have little attraction once such views are taken to heart. Science is no doubt an impressive intellectual structure, both theoretically and practically, but to single it out as uniquely virtuous from an epistemological point of view is unreflective and uncritical. There are other areas of human knowledge where our cognitive successes are no less impressive, though different in kind. Knowledge of language is as rich and remarkable as even the most recondite scientific knowledge, despite the fact that almost everyone can acquire it. We fail to notice this precisely because we are designed to develop the complexities of language without conscious effort. To suppose that linguistic knowledge, or ethical knowledge, is inferior to science simply because it proceeds by different principles, and from a distinct mental faculty, would be absurd; just as it would be absurd to brand knowledge of logic and mathematics as epistemically inferior to empirical knowledge simply because it is a priori. Idolatry of scientific knowledge stems from a defective and biased epistemology: indeed, science itself, particularly biology and cognitive psychology, already suggests that scientific knowledge is just one kind of cognitive system among others. Scientism isn’t even scientific.

Hilary Putnam’s book is offered as a polemic against scientism, particularly in philosophy and ethics, but he does not work from the sort of general perspective present in Russell and Chomsky – and which I would support. Instead, he engages in piecemeal discussions of some contemporary philosophers he takes to be guilty of the scientistic sin. He believes that scientism is rampant in current analytical philosophy, informing and deforming it, and that it must be rooted out and replaced with a new style of philosophising, which will have the effect of restoring philosophy to its proper place in ‘the culture’. Renewing Philosophy surveys a large number of topics and thinkers in a brief space, ranging all the way from Turing machines to democracy – with reference, relativism, materialism, deconstruction, religion and the ‘absolute conception’ in between. It reads as a series of glancing blows struck at people and positions Putnam now deplores, including his own earlier, insensitive scientistic self. Where once he was a metaphysical realist and machine functionalist, now he repudiates the idea of a ‘ready-made world’ and disavows the computer model of mind. Notorious for his capacity to change his mind, he has come to see the whole analytic style of philosophy as mistaken. He tells us that during his earlier materialistic phase he kept his professional work and his religious feelings in separate mental compartments, but that he now wishes to bring them harmoniously together. Hence the need to ‘renew philosophy’ – to find a way of philosophising that does not reduce people to scientific specimens. The present book, based on his 1991 Gifford Lectures, and redolent of its declamatory origins, is unsatisfactory in a number of ways, not all having to do with the exiguity and unpersuasiveness of many of the arguments. Mainly, it remains quite unclear what Putnam is against and what he is for. Instead of careful formulation and qualification, we are treated far too often to a display of rhetoric and attitude, interspersed with pretty orthodox analytic philosophy. The desire for intellectual redemption has produced a work of uncertain focus and empty exhortation.

The notion of scientism, never very clearly defined, is understood so broadly by Putnam that it appears to include any metaphysics of a systematic kind. In places the charge of scientism becomes interchangeable with the charge that analytic philosophy has become ‘a form of metaphysics’. Putnam never quite says that all metaphysics of the kind characteristic of recent analytic philosophy is objectionably scientistic, but he implies as much – and gives no criterion to distinguish the good kind from the bad. This is surely a misuse of the term ‘scientism’, but more important it excludes almost all of philosophical thought from Plato to the present. Can Putnam really mean this? Does he believe that traditional ontology and epistemology are tarred with the scientistic brush? Is Frege’s work included? What about Russell’s? Or Strawson’s, or Davidson’s or Kripke’s or Dummett’s? What of Leibniz and Spinoza and Kant and Hume and Plato and Aristotle? Is all this to be condemned as science fetishism? I rather fear he does mean this, at least in the sense that his words imply it. His positive recommendations, such as they are, leave no room for the activities of such thinkers. The problem is that Putnam vastly overstates his case, aided and abetted by an ill-defined use of polemical terms. We are told, repeatedly, that philosophy must be neither ‘metaphysical’ nor ‘sceptical’, but it is hard to take this literally, especially when Putnam’s basis for saying it – the supposed errors of a handful of contemporary philosophers – fall so far short of the conclusion. Does he think there can be such a thing as non-scientistic metaphysics, and who (if anyone) does he think practises it? Let me offer Thomas Nagel as an example of the category in question: in what way is his work in metaphysics scientistic?

Putnam’s constructive proposals for what good philosophy might be like are similarly underdescribed and jejune. Wittgenstein is cited as setting a good example, but there is no decent account of what this goodness is supposed to consist in. All we get are sentimental allusions to his ‘relentless honesty’ and his ‘very real compassion’ and his ‘effort to understand forms of life he himself did not share’. The work of Wittgenstein’s that is discussed is mainly that on the nature of religious belief – which comes to us only from notes taken at some lectures he gave in 1938. This is all the more curious because Wittgenstein did have an explicit metaphilosophy in which philosophy is distinguished from science; and he had definite views about what the philosopher can legitimately do – produce ‘perspicuous representations’ of our ordinary concepts for therapeutic purposes. Putnam never aligns himself with either the negative or positive parts of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophical position, but he does not dissociate himself from them either. It would have been nice for the genuflection to have been accompanied by some statement about the rightness or wrongness of Wittgenstein’s conception of the philosopher’s task. As it is, Putnam has next to nothing substantive to say about how philosophy should proceed once scientism (in his dubiously broad sense) has been uprooted. All we are told is that Wittgenstein (along with John Dewey) illustrates the way ‘philosophical reflection which is completely honest can unsettle our prejudices and our pet convictions and our blind spots without flashy claims to deconstruct truth itself or the world itself’. Surely he is a lot more interesting and singular than that. The reason Putnam has been reduced to this kind of vapid gesturing is that he has scattered his fire far too broadly: too much has been excluded as either scientistically ‘metaphysical’ or wantonly ‘sceptical’. This is not a renewal of philosophy but its death-knell. Not that an attempt to terminate philosophy would necessarily be misguided: what is objectionable is to advertise it as a rebirth.

It is with some relief that one turns from the vague and portentous general themes of Renewing Philosophy to the more detailed discussion of particular theses by identifiable individuals. Here Putnam deploys the kind of analytic ingenuity that has made him so prominent, and which he now apparently would like to repudiate as merely playing the game of the philosophers he officially scorns. (He wishes he were Søren Kierkegaard but is condemned to be Hilary Putnam.) In the first chapter, on the prospects for artificial intelligence, he makes some fairly familiar, but telling, points about the obstacles in the way of simulating human reasoning, criticising his own earlier advocacy of Turing-machine functionalism. The central difficulty is that nobody has any idea how to formalise human intelligence when it is operating abductively (i.e. constructing theory), because nobody understands the nature of this capacity when we exercise it. Functionalism is a theory with little to recommend it by way of intrinsic plausibility. But it does not follow that every theory of the mind must share this defect.

The next two chapters criticise teleological and causal accounts of intentionality, where the good old analytic topics of referential indeterminacy and the nature of causation and counterfactuals come in for the usual analytic philosopher’s treatment. Some worthwhile points are made here, and they are sure to be pursued in the analytic journals. Can the teleological theory justify assigning meat as the referent of a dog’s food-directed thought instead of some wider concept such as edible stuff of such and such meatlike appearance? Is Fodor right to claim that the counterfactuals ‘if cats didn’t cause “cat”-tokenings, then cat-pictures wouldn’t’ and ‘if cat-pictures didn’t cause “cat”-tokenings, then cats wouldn’t’ have different truth-values? These questions are pursued with Putnam’s customary analytic brio, thereby reinforcing rather than undermining the interest of the kind of philosophy he has set himself against. It this is scientism, then at least it is interesting scientism.

Where matters turn murky is in Putnam’s repeated claim that the notions of law, causation and counterfactuality are intrinsically mind-dependent. His point appears to be that when assessing the truth-value of such statements we (commonly? invariably?) take into account the interests and intentions of the speaker, so that what we think of as the objective world is really tainted with mental and normative notions. Now it is vital here to distinguish two different claims, which Putnam is never pedantic enough to do: first, that there is a pragmatic component to what fixes the proposition expressed by statements of these kinds; second, that the truth conditions of the proposition so expressed themselves incorporate reference to states of mind possessed by the speaker. The second claim clearly does not follow from the first, as the example of tensed discourse readily shows. Putnam apparently wishes to make a claim of the second kind, so that the corresponding facts involve mental elements. Thus whether A caused B becomes partly dependent on human interests, as do counterfactual-supporting laws.

This thesis raises an obvious question, which Putnam does not get around to addressing; were there laws and causal relations and counterfactual dependencies before human minds came into existence? The naive answer would appear to be yes, but this is inconsistent with Putnam’s avowed mentalism about the nomic structure of the external world. And, given that these notions are inextricably involved in the individuation of ordinary physical objects, it is hard to see how he can avoid the consequence that there were no atoms or stars or mountains before there were people. If not, what was there? Once idealism has begun, there is no stopping it. ‘To try to divide the world into a part that is independent of us and a part that is contributed by us is an old temptation.’ he remarks at one point, ‘but giving in to it leads to disaster every time.’ I don’t know what disasters he has in mind, but I would find it pretty catastrophic if it turned out, on philosophical grounds alone, that the material universe did not predate human existence.

Putnam’s diagnosis of lurking scientism is perhaps plausible in his discussion of Bernard Williams on ethics and science. Certainly Williams is keen to find a telling epistemological difference between the two, to the detriment of ethics; and he locates it in the way we explain convergence of opinion in each case. I think, with Putnam, that Williams greatly overplays the differences here – the Chomskyan perspective is a useful corrective. But Putnam’s own position on the nature and availability of Williams’s ‘absolute conception’ seems uncompelling. First, he himself displays an unfortunate scientistic streak when discussing the objectivity of colour, citing what he takes scientists to say as undermining the kind of subjectivist position often advocated by philosophers. He seems not to recognise that there is quite a large gap between scientific theories about colour and the correct philosophical interpretation of these theories: here, as elsewhere, you cannot simply read the philosophy off the science. Odd, too, is his unpuzzled acceptance of mind-independence with respect to secondary qualities, when he is so ready to find mentality where we might least expect it. Colours and tastes and smells are out there, he thinks, but physical causation and law are (partly) in here!

On the other hand, his denial that we can transcend our subjective peculiarities to develop a conception of the world available to beings with a different sensory perspective on it is never made convincing – indeed, I am not sure that the issue is ever properly formulated. Surely he would have to agree that physical theories identical to ours could be arrived at by intelligent beings who sensed the world differently from us; though of course their grasp of these theories would be conditioned by the structure of their intelligence. Realism does not require the myth of mind-free thought.

The final chapter of the book, in which Dewey’s work is set beside Wittgenstein’s as a paragon of how philosophy should be done, can best be described as a well-meaning ramble through James, Sartre, Durkheim, Peirce and Kierkergaard. The main substantive point appears to be that some beliefs and decisions involve faith as opposed to reason, so that you don’t have to justify them. This is not the bright future of philosophical thought I want to be around to see. Is philosophy in a state of crisis? Yes, of course. It always has been. That is its nature – and we each have our theories as to why this is so. Does philosophy need renewal? Yes, assuredly, but that also is its natural condition.