In and out of the mind
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994
Colin McGinn’s review of Renewing Philosophy (LRB, 2 December 1993) is in content not a book review, but a polemic, and as such requires a response. It is a major misrepresentation that I attack all of analytic philosophy (let alone all of philosophy) as being ‘scientistic’, as McGinn suggests. McGinn asks a rhetorical question: ‘Does he believe that traditional ontology and epistemology are tarred with the scientistic brush? Is Frege’s work included? … 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?’ Compare that with what I actually wrote: ‘there are within analytic philosophy important figures who combat this scientism: one has only to mention Peter Strawson, or Saul Kripke, or John McDowell, or Michael Dummett.’ I do attack two tendencies in current analytic philosophy (that they are two tendencies and not one is something most readers of the book have had no trouble in understanding): scientism, on the one hand, and a tendency to fantastic ontological and metaphysical constructions, on the other. The example I give of the latter tendency is the view of the philosopher David Lewis that when we talk of ‘ways things could have been’ we are referring to real worlds, just like our own, except that in them the United States is still a British colony, or Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, or whatever. The other tendency I attack is scientism. There is no mystery about what I mean. What I attack is 1. the idea that some sciences are a sketch of a completed metaphysics, and the task of the philosopher is to comment on the findings of those sciences and to speculate about what they are likely to come up with in the future; coupled with 2. the failure to see that the ideas that are read into those sciences by these philosophers (e.g. the idea that the mind-world relation is explained by speaking of ‘nomic connection’) are so empty that we have no notion at all what they actually mean or of how they could be made clear.
A polemical point of McGinn’s which depends on a misrepresentation: in Renewing Philosophy I say that the use of ordinary causal statements presupposes a distinction between primary causes and background conditions which is context sensitive and interest relative. The reviewer’s description of this is: ‘whether A caused B [is] partly dependent on human interests,’ and hence ‘it is hard to see’ how I can ‘avoid the consequence’ that there wouldn’t be causes or effects in a world without people. But from the fact that the use of a notion presupposes certain interests it does not follow that we cannot use it to describe the world as it would have been if those interests had not existed. The picture of Hilary Putnam as an idealist metaphysician (who thinks all philosophy except his own is ‘scientism’) is simply a bogey-man.
Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994
Hilary Putnam’s letter (Letters, 24 February) begins by stating that my review of his Renewing Philosophy ‘is in content not a book review, but a polemic, and as such requires a response’. I am unclear what distinction he intends here: surely my piece was simply a (highly) critical book review. The question is whether my description of his views was correct and whether my criticisms were justified. I have seen no reason to waver on either point.
First, I neither said nor implied that Putnam regards ‘all of analytic philosophy’ as scientistic; I said that his view is that scientism is ‘rampant in current analytic philosophy’. Here is what Putnam says at the very start of his book: ‘Analytic philosophy has become increasingly dominated by the idea that science, and only science, describes the way the world is in itself, independently of perspective’; and there are many other passages to the same effect. So, contrary to his assertion, there is no misrepresentation of the kind he suggests, major or minor.
Second, Putnam tells us in his letter that he was opposing two tendencies in current philosophy, not one: ‘scientism, on the one hand, and a tendency to fantastic ontological and metaphysical constructions, on the other’. He suggests that I misrepresent him as claiming that much analytic metaphysics – for instance, David Lewis’s work on possible worlds – is scientistic in tendency. Of course I agree that these are quite distinct targets – that, indeed, was my point – but listen to this from Putnam’s discussion of the topic:
Some analytic philosophers, to be sure, are guilty of challenging the ways we think and talk without proposing any really workable better ways of thinking and talking; but most analytic philosophers nowadays consider themselves to be providing something like (or at least ‘continuous with’) a scientific explanation of the success of ordinary ways of thinking and talking. It is this analogy – the analogy of the work of philosophers like Jerry Fodor, or the proponents of ‘evolutionary intentionality’, or the metaphysicians of ‘possible worlds’ to the work of the scientist – that I find fundamentally frivolous … Most constructions in analytic metaphysics do not extend the range of scientific knowledge, not even speculatively. They merely attempt to rationalise the ways we think and talk in the light of a scientistic ideology [my italics].
That seems clearly to support my attribution, and I find it difficult to see how Putnam could accuse me of misinterpreting him on the point. My question then was how far Putnam is prepared to go with this diagnosis of contemporary analytic metaphysics (the book contains no answer to this obviously important question). Since the philosophers he cites as opposing scientism – Strawson, Kripke and others – have themselves engaged in systematic analytic metaphysics, it looks as if Putnam is committed to ruling out this aspect of their work. As I noted, it is hard to believe that Putnam could mean this; but his words seem to imply it. More important, the positive view of philosophy that he advocates – though it is not very clearly articulated – appears not to allow for the practice of traditional and current metaphysics. He says at the end of the book: ‘I have argued that the decision of a large part of analytic philosophy to become a form of metaphysics is a mistake.’ That sounds a lot like general opposition to current metaphysics to me. My question, then, still stands: by what criterion would Putnam rule out some forms of metaphysics while tolerating others (if indeed such selective tolerance is what he intends)? The only suggestion I can find in his text is that ‘the metaphysics of previous epochs had a vital connection to the culture of those epochs, which is why it was able to change the lives of men and women, and not always for the worse.’ I don’t care for the anti-theoretical tone of this remark, and I don’t see how (say) Kripke’s essentialist metaphysics would pass the test, or Strawson’s investigations of the role of space in establishing the subject-predicate distinction. I am only asking for clarity on the point: what kinds of current metaphysics does Putnam want to preserve, if any, and what to eradicate? If it is, after all, only David Lewis on possible worlds that Putnam takes to be guilty of the wrong kind of metaphysics, then his complaint that analytic metaphysics in general is misguided is hypberbolic.
Third, Putnam says I misrepresent his view of causation to make a ‘polemical point’: namely, that his thesis of the mind-dependence of causal relations implies that there cannot be causation without minds. Thus, I said, Putnam would have to hold that there could not be a world in which there are causal relations but no minds to apprehend them – which I think is implausible. I do not see that my point is answered by what Putnam says in his letter: ‘from the fact that the use of a notion presupposes certain interests it does not follow that we cannot use it to describe the world as it would have been if those interests had not existed’. Putting aside the trivial interpretation of this, that whether we choose to use a certain notion depends upon our interests, it seems to me that it does follow from what Putnam says that for a causal fact to obtain it is necessary that certain human interests should exist, since if p presupposes q the former can be true only if the latter is. That is, there can be causal relations in the physical universe only if these somehow incorporate human interests. Not being an idealist, I find this position unacceptable.
Finally, I never remotely implied that Putnam holds that ‘all philosophy except his own is “scientism”’: indeed his approval of Dewey and Wittgenstein (among others), which I reported, flatly contradicts such a claim. This ‘bogey-man’ certainly had no existence in my mind. My complaint, put simply, is that Putnam exaggerates.
Rutgers University, New Jersey