May/June 2012

A Job For Philosophy

Written by Daniel D. Hutto

D r. Shenkman writes a letter saying “Please Philosophers, tell me how we can survive in such a hostile environment as our universe”. He asks philosophers to tell him ‘what we are’ and ‘how we should behave towards others’. He describes what he has seen of philosophy so far as the “behaviour of a headless chicken” referring I suspect to the fragmented and specialised nature of the subject as it is practised today. It might be just to accuse modern analytic philosophy, unlike philosophy in other periods of history, of having lost sight of a common goal and lost touch which its original questions. Nor would it be far off the mark to say it has become mesmerized by technicalities and perhaps blinded by science. Some will argue, in its defence, that specialization is the price for rigour and careful analysis. They will say the small steps that are being taken and the level of consensus concerning some issues in Anglo-American philosophy have been well worth this price. In saying this a comparison is usually drawn with the allegedly sloppy thinking of German and French philosophy, which although it keeps the general aim of philosophy in sight, fails to convince because it produces no rigorous arguments. Or so it is said.

But this finger pointing is of no help to our friend. He is not interested in cross-channel squabbles. When Dr. Shenkman quotes the Concise Oxford Dictionary he is trying to remind philosophers that they have a task to perform – one which they seem to have lost sight of. Perhaps this analogy will help.

Imagine philosophers as burglars trying to break into the house of knowledge. Concede also that this is not an easy job. We can picture them scuttling about trying to find the best way in. A few of these burglars settle on the idea of breaking the lock on the back door, but discover after a time that there are insuperable problems in getting in by this method. Nevertheless, these stout-hearted professionals are not going to be beaten by a simple lock. They have a noble task to accomplish. More and more sophisticated methods are employed and yet none can break the lock. Debates ensue until someone comes along with a more promising lock-breaking proposal. Naturally, the more sceptical burglars just mock at the futility of the whole business while the others wait with baited breathe only to be further disappointed.

It is at this point that an onlooker (Dr. Shenkman) asks “What are you doing?” – The strained response of the typical burglar, after having invested so much time and effort, is “We’re trying to get this lock open”.

But what our burglar has forgotten, is why he is trying to get the lock open. His answer betrays him, the goal has shifted. When he began he wanted to get into the house, now all he can think about is opening the lock on the back door.

There are obvious and telling parallels to draw with the quest to understand human nature in modern analytic philosophy. When Dr. Shenkman asks “..tell us what we are” he is reminding us of the nature of our philosophical task. He is asking us not to be too long diverted in playing with our precious new tools.

For it is a consequence of such play that led J.L.H. Thomas to observe of the 1991 Joint Session that “The range of topics discussed was rather narrower than before, their precise nature and importance was less immediately apparent, and it was often difficult to see the wood for the trees.” (Phil Now, no.3, p.34)

This evident lack of concern with the important issues in analytic philosophy, thinks Mike Fuller, grants New Age thinking some legitimacy due to “…a possibly justified feeling that it [New Age philosophy] has more to do with ‘real philosophy’ and ‘things that really matter’ than its more academically respectable rivals” (Phil Now, no.3 p.40)

These reactions do not cheer me. Where has modern philosophy gone wrong? I think, quite perceptively, Dr. Shenkman puts his finger on it by suggesting that the ultimately real, even for most philosophers, is defined in modern times by what science tells us about the basic stuff of the universe and how it behaves. Shenkman writes:

Our knowledge of ultimate reality consists of ;

* Einstein’s theory of relativity
* The Quantum theory
* Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
* The Chaos Theory
* The Big Bang and continuous creation theories

No wonder Dr. Shenkman’s patients are lost. Philosophy is left to the task of cleaning up the messy bits like language, human nature, aesthetics, ethics and so on – but it must do so in a scientifically convincing way.

I tried to do my part in issue no.2 of Philosophy Now by showing that our ordinary view of ourselves was not threatened by science. I now think I conceded far too much to the scientific realist. I would like to press home some reasons for adopting the pragmatic, as opposed to the realist, conception of the nature of modern science in such a way that might help Dr. Shenkman.

I believe the source of the problem faced by Dr. Shenkman, the difficulty of finding a place for humanity in our world, can be traced back to the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. That is where the foundation was laid for the view that a science of the impersonal, the inanimate, defines all there really is and also tells us why what there is behaves as it does.

In modern dress this thought underlies a very influential metaphysical doctrine which is much at work both in lay and professional thinking about human nature. The doctrine is called physicalism – and one of its central articles of faith is expressed by the Principle of Autonomy (hereafter referred to as Prince Auto).

(Physicalism is a philosophical position holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things.)

Who is this Prince Auto who has ruled modern thinking of late? He is a slippery character who appears in many different guises in Anglo- American philosophical literature. His central decree is that when engaging in serious psychology we should be concerned only with the efficient or proximate causes of behaviour. Put another way, it is Prince Auto’s view that in the ultimate sense, man, like all else, must be explicable in terms of mechanical laws. Although we have moved on from deterministic laws with advancements in modern physics I am certain the Renaissance view of science underpins Dr. Shenkman’s thought that the universe is a ‘hostile’, and perhaps inhuman, environment.

Let me quickly sketch the line of descent of our illustrious monarch. Prince Auto succeeded to the explanatory throne during the seventeenth century when he replaced the aging monarch Prince Telos (the Principle of Teleology). Prince Telos’ decree was that in understanding the behaviour of things we should look for the purpose or end of the behaviour. This method was applied to what we now distinguish as animate and inanimate entities, alike. For example, a stone falling to the ground was explained by its love of the Earth. The universe of the scholastics was, for this reason, much more lively and meaningful.

And, not surprisingly, it was these scholastics who became the principle opponents of Renaissance science due to the conflict between the teleological and mechanical accounts of physics and cosmology. The first damaging blow to Prince Telos came in 1543 when the Copernican cosmological theory was first published, even though it took Kepler to make it influential. And when the scholastics lost the duel with Galileo in the debate over the nature of falling bodies a general disgrace was brought on the teleological conception of the world.

Prince Telos fell to the might of Prince Auto who insisted that the basic stuff of the universe acted without purpose. Historically, this much is well established. But, you may ask, what has this snippet in the history of science to do with our view of human nature? It has everything to do with that issue.

We must realise that “…a new type of man was born out of the Renaissance: harder, sharper, more incisively rational and sceptical, devoted no longer to God and society, but to knowledge and discovery” (Becker, BA, p.5). Enlightenment man set a standard of inquiry which would take us wherever reason and science led – in an important sense nothing is sacred to such thinkers.

I wish to make one further, and highly relevant point about the rise of mechanical science. This point concerns the appointed father of modern analytic philosophy; Descartes.

Although Descartes is a prominent figure in the history of philosophy we must not forget his standing in the history of modern science. Most of us are familiar with Descartes’ cogito (‘I think, therefore I am’) but it is crucial to an understanding of today’s problems that we do not forget that while Descartes was laying down the foundations for talk of mental phenomena he was also contributing to the development of classical physics.

That is why, for Descartes and most thinkers of the seventeenth century, all matter was to be treated alike and all explanations of change and motion had to be described in purely mathematical terms. Descartes, under the sway of Prince Auto and thought of animals and all biological entities including human bodies, as wholly mechanical in nature. For him, what separated humans beings from the machines was to be found in their thinking essences.

Modern physicalists are not very different from Descartes in this regard. They differ only, but crucially, in having abandoned the thesis that there are separated entities, or substances, called minds. If there are such things as mental events they must be physical in nature. It is only in casting off its ectoplasm that the mental can maintain any reality rights – and it is doubtful that our understanding of ourselves as rational, thinking agents is compatible with a mechanical view of human beings. So, whereas Descartes made some room for humanity, the descendants of Enlightenment man threaten to squeeze us out altogether.

One must ask, is it any wonder that a philosophical tradition which names Descartes as its father and whose family members include such figures as Ayer, Russell, Frege and more recently Chomsky, Fodor, Stich and Churchland has little comfort to offer those who want to ask real philosophical questions about who we are and how we should live?

It is, I believe appropriate, that the most extreme form of physicalism (as advocated by Churchland) has taken the stance that there is no room for persons in the pristine scientific universe. This startling, and counter-intuitive, result might worry Dr. Shenkman’s patients. But it is, I think, good news.

Rather than criticise Paul Churchland we should praise him for having explored the outer limits of analytic philosophy. His work is the culmination of the Enlightenment dream. He draws the harsh conclusions ‘conservative’ philosophers refuse to draw. He is the burglar who opened the door by burning down the house. And this is good because it may help us to realise, at least, that in following Prince Auto’s metaphysical orchestrations we may have been heading in the wrong direction. I agree with Churchland that an understanding of human nature in everyday terms (what he calls the person theory of humans) is incompatible with a view that the ultimate physics (whatever it turn out to be) describes The Real. If this is right it simply means we must not treat science as defining ‘ultimate reality’. We had better not adhere to scientific realism exclusively.

But is defending our view of ourselves as persons just mere sentimentality? I do not think so. As Putnam says, “what the universe of physics leaves out is the very thing that makes the universe possible for us…the intentional, valuational, referential work of ‘synthesis’” (Putnam, RHF, p. 141). Put more simply and less eloquently, without human thinking there would be no physics. And without the language of physics there is no sense in holding that the entities it describes exist (as we define them). That is not to say the universe itself is wholly dependent upon us – it is only to say that for there to be science there needs to be human beings and human language.

Someone will object: surely the world would be there with or without us. But this prompts the response ‘Which world?’. Is there any sense in talking about the ‘the world’ without recourse to a language or a scheme in which to define it?

A timely reminder from Nietzsche may help us to see that the entities, even of physics, are dependent in part on our ability to conceive them. “Only as creators. This has given me the greatest trouble and still does: to realize that what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are…But let us not forget this either; it is enough to create new names and new estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new things” (Nietzsche, GS, sec.58).

But doesn’t this mean we are prisoners of some form of cultural relativism or linguistic idealism? What I have said makes it sound as if I believe that what we think determines what there is – in a sense this may be right. For example, someone says “There is a chair” (for a scientific example replace ‘chair’ with ‘electron’) – what makes this statement true? Is it not an appeal to our conventions about what we call chairs? As Quine made clear – ‘that there is a chair present,’ would not be true in a culture which defined chairs differently or had no conception of chairs at all.

What does the truth of the statement depend on, then? For one thing it depends on a certain agreement on how we use our language. But is that all? Surely it isn’t just that. It must also depend on the way the world is. There has to be something that allows us to agree or disagree about the presence of the chair. What is important to the truth or falsity of the statement is both the way in which we use our language and the way the world is – but neither element can be separated from the other. What makes something true or false, there or not there, and this includes scientific discoveries, is how things stand from our human (not an impersonal) perspective.

This is what Putnam was driving at in saying “Of course, our concepts are culturally relative; but it does not follow that the truth or falsity of what we say using those concepts is simply ‘determined’ by the culture.” (Putnam, RHF, p.98).

In freeing ourselves from a naive, realist view of science we will depose the tyrannical despot who has ruined our philosophical crops for the past three centuries. We must dethrone Prince Auto. And in his place I would urge that we do not put another monarch. It is time for a more democratic philosophical society – one which recognises autonomous contexts of inquiry. We might join with Putnam in saying “…I want to defend the view that there are whole domains of fact with respect to which presentday science tells us nothing at all…” (Putnam, RHF, p.143).

We might even speak of human contexts of inquiry to remind ourselves that even the sciences depend on human culture and society. Our scientific and philosophical foundations are cultural – not physical. Human society is our inescapable starting point. This may help to give us a ‘sense of direction’ and remind us that we are human beings after all.

To maintain our view of humanity we are forced to surrender the metaphysics of modern science (or tomorrow’s physics) as exclusively determining the constituents and nature of ultimate reality. Having said that, we need not react against science or deny it a prominent place in our thinking. It simply cannot lead or restrict philosophical inquiry. Relative to a particular context of inquiry we can expect physics, the biological sciences, or even cognitive science to play important and useful roles. But they cannot succeed in giving us an untainted, objective account of how things really stand and they cannot solve questions about how we should live or, in an important sense, tell us what we are.

There are some analytic philosophers who will view this suggestion, that we cannot reduce man’s nature to something more basic, with suspicion on the grounds that it is an a priori stance and they claim the jury is still out. I now believe however that Churchland’s conclusion will be the unavoidable consequence of such a quest – and I think that his conclusion is impossible for the reasons given. Others may fear my stance will lead us toward woolly and wild thinking. I think such fears are unwarranted.

Gadamer, who supports such a view in his essay “Man and Language”, far from sending us into a woolly world of pseudo-philosophy, suggests that we make use of an Aristotelian insight to help us to understand human nature. “… language is the real medium of human being…the realm of common understanding of ever-replenished common agreement – a realm as indispensable to human life as the air we breathe. As Aristotle said, man is truly the being who has language.” (Gadamer, 1976, p.68) Aristotle’s thought is that our essence is located in our linguistic, and thereby social, nature.

Davidson, who certainly cannot be accused of woolly thinking, also tells us “A community of minds is the basis of knowledge; it provides the measure of all things. It makes no sense to question the measure of that standard, or to seek a more ultimate one.” (Davidson, 1991, p. 164)

I, for one, still think there is a promise of a fruitful alliance between the rigour of analytic philosophy and the vision of some continental thinkers, particularly given some of the recent turns in analytic philosophy of mind, language and science. Such an alliance also holds out the further promise of a more orderly, yet purposeful, approach to important philosophical questions. I believe that only our own prejudices and insecurities will stand in the way of such a union.

To conclude, if we are linguistic beings and not simply biological machines – moreover if our identity as human beings is linked with our social and cultural nature – we may still wonder how does this help us answer the questions ‘How should I live?’ and ‘How should I treat others?’. These are perhaps the most difficult of all questions. But if we drop the view that we are simply survival mechanisms and see ourselves as essentially social then perhaps we can take heart from the work of some philosophers of antiquity who shared that vision of humanity.

For instance, we might look to Cicero (Roman philosopher,106 BC—43 BC). For in his work one finds a very readable, pragmatic and practical guide to the ethical. There are few more influential or useful guides which give ‘advice on lifestyles’. But to find Cicero’s words credible we must share with him the thought that to be human is to be both reasonable and social. As he says “…bonding consists of reason and speech, which reconcile men to one another, through teaching, learning, communicating, debating and making judgements and unite them in a kind of natural fellowship. It is this that most distinguishes us from the nature of other animals.” (Cicero, OD, sec. 49).

If we come to see ourselves in this light, as humans not just machines or worse, we need not be tempted by New Age thinking, we need not abandon our science, and most importantly we, as philosophers, can get back to our proper work. We need not be scolded by our Roman friend for having bestowed “excessive devotion and effort on matters that are both abstruse and difficult, and unnecessary” (Cicero, OD, sec. 18).

© D.D.Hutto 1992


Professor Daniel D. Hutto, BA,
MPhil, DPhil
Prof. of Philosophical Psychology
School of Humanities
University of Hertfordshire

References :

Ernest Becker, Beyond Alienation (Braziller,1967)
Cicero, On Duties (C.U.P. edition, 1991)
Donald Davidson, Three Varieties of Knowledge in A.J.Ayer: Memorial Essays. (ed. P. Griffiths) (C.U.P.)
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (California University Press, 1976)
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. (Vintage, 1974)
Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face. (Harvard University Press, 1990)