Being that can be understood is language

Richard Rorty on H.-G. Gadamer

In a book called Reason in the Age of Modern Science, Hans-Georg Gadamer asked the question: Can ‘philosophy’ refer to anything nowadays except the theory of science? His own answer to this question is affirmative. It may seem that the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition in philosophy – the tradition that goes back to Frege and Russell and whose most prominent living representatives are Quine, Davidson, Dummett and Putnam – must return a negative answer. For that tradition is often thought of as a sort of public relations agency for the natural sciences.

Those who think of analytic philosophy in this way often describe Gadamer’s own work as a sort of apologia for the humanities. On this view of the matter, each of what C.P. Snow called ‘the two cultures’ has its own philosophical claque. Those who accept Snow’s picture of the intellectual scene think of the quarrel over science v. religion that divided the intellectuals of the 19th century as having evolved into the contemporary quarrel between the kinds of people whom we Californians call the ‘techies’ and the ‘fuzzies’.

This crude and over-simplified picture of the tensions within contemporary philosophy is not altogether wrong. But a more detailed account of the history of philosophy in the 20th century would distinguish between a first, scientistic, phase of analytic philosophy and a second, anti-scientistic, phase. Between 1900 and 1960 most admirers of Frege would have agreed with Quine’s dictum that ‘philosophy of science is philosophy enough.’ But a change came over analytic philosophy around the time that philosophers began reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations side by side with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Since then, more and more analytic philosophers have come to agree with Putnam that ‘part of the problem with present-day philosophy is a scientism inherited from the 19th century.’

Putnam urges us to give up the idea that natural science has a distinctive ‘method’, one which makes physics a better paradigm of rationality than, for example, historiography or jurisprudence. He is joined in this appeal by philosophers of physics like Arthur Fine, who asks us to abandon the assumption that natural science ‘is special, and that scientific thinking is unlike any other’. Putnam and Fine both ridicule the idea that the discourse of physics is somehow more in touch with reality than any other portion of culture. Post-Wittgensteinian Anglophone philosophy of language, of the sort found in Putnam, Davidson and Brandom, has collaborated with post-Kuhnian Anglophone philosophy of science, of the sort found in Latour, Hacking and Fine. The result of this collaboration has been a blurring of the lines between the sciences and the humanities, and an attempt to make Snow’s techie-fuzzie controversy seem as quaint as the 19th-century debate over the age of the earth.

This is not to say that scientism is dead. There are many distinguished analytic philosophers, particularly admirers of Kripke like David Lewis and Frank Jackson, who are unabashed physicalist metaphysicians. They think of themselves as continuing the struggle against mystificatory nonsense that Thomas Huxley waged against Bishop Wilberforce, Russell against Bergson, and Carnap against Heidegger. These philosophers still award a special ontological status (‘fundamental reality’) to the elementary particles discovered by the physicists. They believe that natural science gives us essences and necessities which are, as they put it, de re rather than de dicto. They think that Wittgensteinian philosophers of language are dangerously irrationalist in saying that all distinctions between essences and accidents, or between necessities and contingencies, are artefacts that change as our choice of description changes. They think that Kuhnian philosophers of science are equally misguided in refusing to grant natural science any metaphysical or epistemological privileges.

This quarrel over whether natural science is special presently dominates analytic philosophy. I want to suggest that a much-quoted and much-debated sentence from Gadamer might serve as a slogan for those philosophers of language and science who follow Putnam and Fine rather than Kripke and Lewis. The sentence is: ‘Being that can be understood is language’ (‘Sein, das verstanden werden kann, ist Sprache’). That claim encapsulates, I shall argue, both what was true in nominalism and what was true in idealism.

Let me define ‘nominalism’ as the claim that all essences are nominal and all necessities de dicto. This amounts to saying that no description of an object is more true to the nature of that object than any other. Nominalists think that Plato’s metaphor of cutting nature at the joints should be abandoned once and for all. Proponents of nominalism are often described as ‘linguistic idealists’ by the materialist metaphysicans. For the latter believe that Dalton and Mendeleev did indeed cut nature at the joints. From this Kripkean perspective, Wittgensteinians are so infatuated with words that they have lost touch with the real world, the world modern science has opened up to us. Philosophers of this sort accept the account of the history of philosophy that Gadamer summed up when he wrote that ‘the rapid downfall of the Hegelian empire of the Absolute Spirit brought us to the end of metaphysics, and thereby to the promotion of the empirical sciences to the topmost position in the kingdom of the thinking mind.’

Nominalism, however, is a protest against any sort of metaphysics. To be sure, it was misleadingly associated with materialism by Hobbes and other early modern philosophers, and is still so associated by Quine. But these thinkers are inconsistent in holding that words denoting the smallest bits of matter cut nature at the joints in a way that other words did not. A consistent nominalist will insist that the predictive and explanatory success of a corpuscularian vocabulary has no bearing on its ontological status, and that the very idea of ‘ontological status’ should be dropped.

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