What Philosophy Can Teach Us

There have been a few articles and discussions on the philosophy blagosphere and Twitter community recently concerning the justification of academia, and of philosophy more specifically. One of the common suggestions that crops up in this discussion whenever it occurs is the idea that philosophy, to put it crudely, helps people think better.

In my experience it is typically assumed that this improvement (whatever it amounts to) arises as a result of the training itself—through the constant exposure to criticism, practice analysing the structure and form of arguments, identifying hidden premises, assessing the validity of general forms of reasoning and so on that forms the bread-and-butter of undergraduate philosophy training—rather than a result of knowledge of the subject-matter itself.

In fact, it is often claimed that what is distinctive about philosophy is that it has no particular subject-matter, so the forms of reasoning and analysis learned by students—at least at an undergraduate level—will be applicable to any and all fields concerned with arguments and reasoning, from law to business to journalism.

I don’t want to touch on whether this is sufficient justification for the existence of philosophy, or whether esoteric academic research even needs to be justified, but I do agree that in some sense studying philosophy makes you a better thinker than you would be otherwise. What exactly this improvement consists in is, no doubt, complex, but I don’t necessarily think that one has to build up practical competence in philosophical argumentation before one can reap the benefits that philosophers offers.

An oft-bemoaned aspect of contemporary analytic philosophy is its excessive preoccupation with technical terms and subject-specific jargon. Whilst I think many of the criticisms of this pervasive feature of the discipline are spot-on, I also find (and I imagine I’m not alone in this as a philosopher) that when I think about non-philosophical topics I do so in a way aided by certain philosophical notions—I think about them through and with the aid of philosophical distinctions and terms. When I do, I find that I understand the issues, arguments, or language much more clearly than I would have without the aid of these notions.

This doesn’t (yet) amount to being able to assess arguments better or analyse positions in (say) a debate, so in this sense it doesn’t replace the practical competence mentioned above, but it provides a benefit in that, so to speak, the data are clearer than they would be without the aid of such notions, making such assessments easier.

I think that this illustrates another way that philosophy can enrich one’s thinking that doesn’t reduce to the practical know-how gained by taking philosophy courses and having to sharpen one’s critical reasoning skills (though I don’t deny that the two are intimately interrelated). In order to try and get a discussion started on this point, I’ll try to illustrate my point by providing some examples of distinctions and technical terms that I think aid clarity of thought.

Given my interests and background, most of the examples of distinctions and ideas that I often apply in non-philosophical contexts were typically linguistic or logical in nature, and their relationship to critical thinking should be clear. Suggestions of other examples (for example, there’s only one ethical/political distinction, but I imagine that those more familiar with these areas could provide more), criticisms (either of my examples or of this whole idea itself), and general discussion are encouraged.

  • Necessary and sufficient conditions.
  • Modus ponens, modus tollens, and the relationship between the two.
  • The distinction between soundness and validity.
  • Begging the question.
  • The difference between positive and negative liberty.
  • Equivocation.
  • Connotation and denotation.
  • Scope, and the de re/de dicto distinction.

I hope that the usefulness of most of these notions is self-evident, but if not I’d be happy to explain and justify my choices. However, as short and non-exhaustive as the list is, I’m not even sure about the worthiness of all of the examples. It’s not clear, for example, whether the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens adds anything to the reasoning skills that any competent user of language already  has (aside, that is, from an extra piece of jargon with which to talk about them).

For example, a common form of reasoning, whether explicit or implicit, goes as follows: if I do X then Y; I don’t want Y to happen; therefore, I shouldn’t/won’t do X. E.g. If I go on the roller-coaster then I’ll be sick; I don’t want to be sick; therefore I won’t go on the roller-coaster. Given that people already engage in this sort of reasoning, which is structurally similar to modus tollens (if not technically a case of it), the distinction itself may not add anything to the clarity of thought that most non-philosophers already have.

However, as I said, the examples are, as much as anything, a way to get a discussion started, and I’m interested in hearing what people think, so comment away!

How To Be A 21st-Century Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosopher

Over the last few posts, I’ve been discussing some philosophical influences of mine, mostly philosophers following in the tradition of Wittgenstein and/or Austin, focusing on the unusually cold reception they’ve received in mainstream contemporary analytic philosophy, and in the last post I tried to detail a few of the barriers I thought needed to be overcome by anyone aiming to successfully integrate these two philosophers into contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics. In this final post on the subject I want to explain how it is that I think that the contemporary philosophers I mentioned as influences have managed to do just that.

In the last post on this topic, I mentioned three common responses to this sort of philosophy—an assumption of outdatedness, segregation, and domestication—which lead to three corresponding challenges faced by philosophers aiming to engage with contemporary philosophy in a way faithful to Wittgenstein and/or Austin:

  1. Unearthing and challenging the reasons for the belief that the style of philosophising exemplified by Wittgenstein and Austin has been discredited or refuted in some way.
  2. Showing the relevance of the issues dealt with by these philosophers to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and/or metaphysics.
  3. Doing (1.) and (2.) in such a way that the meta-philosophical assumptions underpinning the views of these two philosophers are not domesticated in any way.

Whilst these are relatively superficial categories derived from the points touched on in the last post, nonetheless they seem like a good way to structure an exploration of what it means to be a Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosopher almost half a decade after the heyday of both Wittgenstein and Austin. As in the last few posts, I’m going to try to avoid actually doing any philosophy insofar as it’s possible, and instead I’ll try to simply précis the approaches taken by the philosophers mentioned, link to a few relevant papers, and flag any philosophically significant points for future exploration.

No Style Without Substance

The philosopher that most naturally springs to mind as an example of meeting the first of these challenges head-on is Avner Baz. In his book When Words Are Called For: A Defence of Ordinary Language Philosophy, Baz makes a case for the relevance of ordinary language philosophy (OLP) to contemporary analytic philosophy, arguing that its premature demise was philosophically unwarranted.

Avner Baz: Ordinary Language Philosopher extraordinaire.

As the name indicates, when confronted with a sentence that is the source of some philosophical perplexity, Baz’s ordinary language method explores the uses that these words might reasonably be put to in actual (non-philosophical) situations. Baz hopes to show that the apparent problems caused by philosophical claims disappear when the words are actually put to use for some purpose, rather than being left ‘idling’, as is often the case in philosophical discourse. (Whilst there’s obviously much more to OLP than this sentence indicates, this is one of those times I’m going to have to flag the issue and move on. If you’re interested, wait for a future post; or better still—read the book!)

Baz points out that the most common accusation against OLP’s method is that such appeals to ‘ordinary language’ confuse meaning and use, violating the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. Establishing that we wouldn’t typically use (e.g.) the word ‘real’ in the way that the metaphysician does is a purely pragmatic fact and not one that bears on the truth of their statements. The point can be put, slightly crudely, by saying that whether there are ordinary situations in which we would, as a matter of fact, make the sorts of statements that philosophers are apt to make (“Jones knows that he has two hands”; “numbers really exist”; “you ought to keep promises”) has no bearing on whether their statements are true. Thus, philosophers can pursue the latter question without worrying about the former, since they are only interested in the truth of their claims, not their propriety or impropriety.

Baz’s insight is to emphasise that OLP’s method rests on a denial that

our words by themselves—irrespective of how, if at all, we are using them on some particular occasion—may express thoughts and thereby carry commitments sufficient for generating and sustaining [genuine problems].

According to OLP, if we produce words without any definite purpose, relying on their meanings alone to ensure the determinacy of what is being said, we will not produce anything assessable in terms of truth or falsity at all (this way of phrasing the point is closer to Travis than Baz in the role it assigns to the meaning of words, but more on that some other time).

This is merely a gesture towards the sort of account that Baz puts forward, and one that I hope to elaborate on at a later date, but for the purposes of explaining how he deals with the first of the challenges above, it is enough. The crux of the matter is that one cannot assess the validity of the method of OLP without first assessing the validity of the view of meaning that underlies it. One cannot dismiss the ordinary language method on the grounds of confusing semantics with pragmatics because it is precisely this distinction that the ordinary language philosopher rejects.

Wittgensteinians are Philosophers, Too!

Arguably one of the biggest challenges is showing how the issues dealt with by Austin and Wittgenstein are relevant to the concerns of modern philosophy. Neither philosopher could have fully anticipated the developments that occurred in Anglo-American philosophy after their deaths, not least of all the explosive revival of metaphysics. As such, it is typically supposed that the problems dealt with by people working on or in the tradition of these philosophers will have little to no bearing on the concerns of contemporary analytic philosophery, as the discipline has simply moved on.

I chose this picture because it looks like Travis is really shocked by what I’ve written, and that’s amusing.

Though practically any of the philosophers previously mentioned could be cited in connection to this challenge, I’ll focus on Travis as perhaps the clearest illustration. For example, Travis’s collection of essays Occasion Sensitivity is split into two halves. The first explains what occasion sensitivity is and, importantly for present purposes, often explains its connection to Austin and Wittgenstein. The second draws out the consequences of this position for various debates in contemporary philosophy: propositional attitude ascriptions, vagueness, intuitionism, bivalence, identity, and knowledge, to name a few—often pitting Wittgenstein and Austin directly against (more or less) contemporary philosophers such as Williamson, Evans, and Dummett to make the point.

Perhaps more well-known are Travis’s forays into the philosophy of perception, which I think provide a particularly apt example to focus on, and one that’s close to my philosophical heart. It is typically assumed that the sort of issues with perception that concerned philosophers of the generation of Wittgenstein and Austin are now irrelevant and hence that to work on them is, to quote John McDowell, to indulge

a parochially British concern with an outmoded problem, that of overcoming an empiricistic veil-of-ideas scepticism.

[See footnote 40 of Tyler Burge’s “Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology” for the source of McDowell’s paraphrase, and the explicit link to Austin. Also see Travis’s wonderfully-named “Desperately Seeking Ψ” for a response.] Both McDowell and Travis have, in their own ways, tried to battle against this idea that the concerns of this sort of approach to the philosophy of perception are irrelevant to or superseded by contemporary concerns with representational theories of perception.

In what is probably his most widely-read paper—”The Silence of the Senses“—Travis shows how linguistic concerns of the sort Austin had about sense-data theories of perception apply almost without alteration to contemporary representationalist theories. In fact, in a footnote to the article, Travis even states

the points I will make here against the representationalist view differ little, if at all, from points Austin makes in Sense and Sensibilia… a remarkably rich work. Were Austin not so thoroughly ignored, perhaps I would not have written this.

By showing in this way, issue-by-issue, the relevance of Austin and Wittgenstein (or of an approach to philosophy heavily indebted to them) to contemporary philosophy, philosophers like Travis are slowly chipping away at the common misconception that the ideas of these philosophers can be safely ignored because they were working on outdated issues irrelevant to modern concerns.

Meta-Philosophy and Methodological Authenticity

The success in meeting the last of the challenges mentioned—refusing to compromise one’s meta-philosophical stance when trying to engage with mainstream contemporary philosophy—is hard to judge, and even harder to convey, since it is tackled differently by each of the philosophers, in a large part due to the fact that they each conceive of the meta-philosophical implications of the work of Austin and/or Wittgenstein differently.

However, I’ll briefly mention the approach taken by McDowell, since I think his approach shares a common core with almost all of the philosophers I mentioned. McDowell is fairly explicit about what he takes to be the meta-philosophical stance made compulsory by a commitment to staying faithful to Wittgenstein. He takes the appropriate methodology to be a ‘therapeutic’ approach to philosophical problems, and his meta-philosophical asides are steeped in such terminology.

The most obvious examples of this approach come from his treatment of scepticism. For example, from “The Disjunctive Conception of Experience as Material for a Transcendental Argument“:

the way to take scepticism seriously is not to try to disprove the sceptical scenarios. We take scepticism seriously by removing the [intellectual] prop [that gives the sceptic’s questions their seeming legitimacy], thereby entitling ourselves to join common sense in refusing to bother with the sceptical scenarios.

And another, this time from “Knowledge and the Internal“:

the thing to do is not to answer the sceptic’s challenges, but to diagnose their seeming urgency as deriving from a misguided interiorization of reason

And again, from “How Not to Read Philosophical Investigations” (this time specifically commenting on rule following, but, as with scepticism, the point generalises):

Wittgenstein is not trying to give an account of norm-governedness as such, for its own sake and independently of any specific difficulty about it… He uncovers a conception that can make… acting on an understanding seem mysterious, and he exposes it as a misconception. That dispels the appearance of mystery, and there is nothing further that philosophy needs to do in this connection… We need to administer what Wittgenstein calls “reminders”… not put forward philosophical theses. Theorizing… would be beside the point. Wittgenstein’s invocations of practice in this context serve not as openings into a theoretical pragmatism, but as reminders for this therapeutic purpose.

McDowell tries to follow in his own philosophy this broadly therapeutic meta-philosophical approach. Rather than setting about answering the questions that trouble philosophers directly, as if they were given legitimacy simply by virtue of being posed, McDowell instead tries to identify the specific reasons for which the problem seems pressing.

Once he has identified these reasons, he typically attempts to show a way of acknowledging their urgency without thereby engaging in full-scale philosophical theory-construction, often by presenting an alternative that assuages the concerns rather than accepting and trying to address them. This distinguishes McDowell from other philosophers such as, for example, Robert Brandom or Michael Dummett, who can reasonably be said to tackle the second challenge above of showing the relevance of Wittgenstein to contemporary philosophy, but who, in the process, do violence to the meta-philosophical assumptions that underlie the latter’s philosophy by engaging in substantial philosophical theorising.

The methodological kernel that is expressed by McDowell in the quotations above, and embodied in his approach to philosophy, is one that I think is shared by all of the contemporary philosophers I mentioned in the first post of this series, and is expressed succinctly by Wittgenstein himself (PI §127):

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

In one way or another, this dictum is adopted and applied by all the philosophers under discussion, including Austin and Wittgenstein themselves. In this sense, a Wittgensteinian style of ordinary language philosophy is essentially responsive. Rather than assuming that we know what ‘the’ issue with a certain concept is—as if philosophical questions dropped out of the sky fully-formed—these philosophers try to work out why a problem seems to have arisen in this particular context. Then, in their various ways, each tries to unearth and undermine the assumptions that seem to lend the problem its legitimacy.

How the assumptions that drive philosophical problems are undermined varies as much as (and in proportion to the extent to which) the personalities of the philosophers vary. Insofar as these philosophers can be described as practicing a form of ordinary language philosophy, the assumptions will be broadly linguistic and the undermining will appeal in some way to typically un-philosophical uses of language (which is one reason to suppose that McDowell satisfies the ‘Wittgensteinian’, but not the ‘ordinary language’ aspect of the appelation, since his approach is not typically focused on undermining the linguistic assumptions that give rise to philosophical problems).

By sticking to the dictum in some form or another, however, Cavell, Baz, Conant, McDowell, and Travis all show that there is a way of doing contemporary philosophy that stays faithful to Austin and/or Wittgenstein, making it possible to be a Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosopher even in the 21st century.

Dismissal and Domestication: Typical Responses to Wittgenstein and Austin

In the last two posts, I have been discussing some of my philosophical influences, focusing predominantly on their role within and distinction from the majority of philosophers working within the mainstream of contemporary analytic philosophy.

In the first of these posts, I outlined a (non-exhaustive) group of philosophers who were or are engaging in philosophy of a type that rejects many of the assumptions common to most of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. In the second, I tried to explain what I meant by saying that the views espoused by these philosophers have not been integrated into contemporary philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics, by focusing in particular on one philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In order to finish off this series of related posts, I want to try to explain how it is that many of the philosophers in the original list I mentioned are fighting against this rejection and (more or less) self-consciously aiming to bring a kind of neo-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy back into the fold of mainstream analytic philosophy. Or, more precisely, I want to explain how the more contemporary of the philosophers I mentioned—Charles Travis, James Conant, Avner Baz, John McDowell, and Stanley Cavell—are all working to bring to bear on contemporary philosophy lessons learnt from Wittgenstein or Austin (or, in some cases, both).

However, in order to appreciate precisely how these contemporary philosophers are overcoming the barriers to integration that have plagued Austin and Wittgenstein, it is obviously necessary to understand what these barriers are. As such, this post will be devoted to sketching a few of the ways in which these philosophers are excluded from contemporary debates in the four areas mentioned above.

The Assumption of Outdatedness

Undoubtedly the most common way that Wittgenstein or Austin are excluded from contemporary debates is simply by ignoring them altogether. It is usually assumed that they are examples of an outdated and outmoded style of philosophy and hence that their views are at best of historical significance. In When Words Are Called For, Avner Baz explains this assumption as follows:

Within the mainstream of analytic philosophy, it is now widely held that [ordinary language philosophy] has somehow been refuted or otherwise seriously discredited, and that it may therefore philosophically legitimately and safely be ignored.

Hence, the assumption that Wittgenstein and Austin are proponents of an obsolete style of philosophising is not simply arbitrary or malicious, but is taken, either explicitly or implicitly, to be philosophically well-grounded.

The philosophical reasons behind this assumption are multifaceted, and I wouldn’t even presume to be able to give a full and adequate account of them. However, I think there are a few key points that have emerged through the way that the philosophers I mentioned have tried to challenge this assumption of the philosophical irrelevance of Wittgenstein and Austin, but I’ll have to come back to this point in the next post.

If you don’t understand the connection between these two objects, ordinary language philosophy is probably not for you.

Segregation

Often, work on the philosophers in question is acknowledged, but their influence is restricted to areas of philosophy that don’t interact in any particularly significant way with mainstream philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics. In this way, work continues on these philosophers in proportion to their stature and renown without this work having any notable impact on the philosophical sub-disciplines that it most naturally relates to.

In the case of Wittgenstein, the difficulty of seeing how his views fit into mainstream philosophy, coupled with his historical prominence in the history of 20th century analytic philosophy, has led to a kind of cottage industry devoted to the interpretation and development of his work. “Working on Wittgenstein” is, in a crucial sense, typically not taken to be the same as working on the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, even if as a matter of fact those topics are exactly what is being discussed.

Austin with an *i*, not Austen with an *e*.

The case of Austin is more complicated, in part due to the fact that it’s much easier to separate the ‘results’ of Austin’s work on language from the philosophical aspirations he had for his work and the meta-philosophical assumptions that underpinned his writing. However, a similar effect can be observed concerning the assumption that what’s worthwhile in Austin’s work has been extracted and applied in the realm of ‘pragmatics’ (or perhaps linguistics more widely) and needn’t particularly concern philosophers working in the disciplines I mentioned above.

This reaction is distinct from the first not only for the degree of acknowledgement that it gives to these philosophers, but also for the emphasis on the content of the work rather than the style. The assumption of irrelevance here rests more on the belief that what these philosophers are studying has no bearing on contemporary debates in the areas mentioned, rather than the assumption Baz articulated in the previous section that the way these philosophers try to answer to questions has been discredited.

Domestication

The final reaction to these philosophers does recognise their direct relevance to contemporary philosophy, but in the attempt to integrate them and make them relevant to contemporary discussions domesticates the conclusions and methods of these philosophers in the process.

This sort of domestication is at the same time the best and worst way to treat these philosophers. On the one hand, it is usually a sincere and honest attempt to fit them into contemporary debates, arising out of a genuine desire to engage with this challenging alternate style of philosophising. On the other hand, the attempt itself typically succeeds in fitting these views into the debates in question only by, and in proportion to the degree to which, the views are tamed and their challenge neutered.

A prime example of an expression of this sort of worry comes from McDowell, who criticises Brandom for his apparent misunderstanding of the quietist aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy:

In Brandom’s reading, “quietism” is a pretext for not doing constructive work that Wittgenstein reveals as obligatory for others not constrained by his scruples. Though Brandom calls it “principled”, “quietism” so understood looks like an excuse for laziness. I think this is a paradigm of how not to read Wittgenstein.

McDowell’s qualm here is that Brandom’s attempt to integrate Wittgenstein into a long tradition of theorising about normativity—stemming back from Brandom, through Sellars and Frege, all the way to Hegel and Kant—results in the neutering of Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical quietism, which McDowell takes to be a central and principled aspect of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Thus the accusation is that Brandom manages to integrate Wittgenstein into this tradition of thought only by domesticating the latter’s meta-philosophical assumptions, turning them into mere ‘scruples’.

Quietism has had a long and dignified history in film as well as philosophy.

Furthermore, it  is commonly assumed that this sort of domestication is not merely an unfortunate byproduct of modernising Wittgenstein, but positively required if his philosophy is to be presented in a way amenable to a contemporary philosophical audience (for example, Kripke’s interpretative comments in the introduction to Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language seem to suggest that he shares this view).

Anyone who has read Wittgenstein cannot fail to be sympathetic to this sort of approach, given the obscurity with which Wittgenstein typically presents his points and the resistance one naturally faces trying to integrate his philosophy into contemporary debates (not least of all from defenders of Wittgenstein). However, what separates the philosophers I mentioned earlier is that they often (though by no means always) manage to show the relevance of Wittgenstein and Austin to contemporary philosophy without doing violence to the core meta-philosophical assumptions that underlie the two philosophers’ writings, either unintentionally or deliberately.

Summary

It is worth noting that all of the common reasons for the dismissal of Austin and Wittgenstein given above are philosophically grounded in one way or another. It is easy to slip into a sort of paranoiac mindset when defending a minority position and to interpret your opponents uncharitably as a result. I hope that by indicating the role that genuine philosophical disagreements play in underpinning these responses I have avoided this sort of attitude, even if I haven’t had the space to articulate the disagreements themselves.

Thus, part of the challenge that contemporary neo-Wittgensteinian and/or ‘ordinary language’ philosophers face, one that I hope to illustrate that they have met, is to successfully articulate and challenge the philosophical assumptions that underlie the chilly reception felt by Wittgenstein and Austin. This is simply to recognise that the lack of integration is not usually a result of ignorance or neglect, but is rather an expression of genuine disagreement.

Specifically, based on the divisions above, there are at least three distinct (though, in practice, no doubt, interdependent) challenges that philosophers hoping to integrate Wittgenstein and Austin face:

  1. Unearthing and challenging the reasons for the belief that the style of philosophising exemplified by Wittgenstein and Austin has been discredited or refuted in some way.
  2. Showing the relevance of the issues dealt with by these philosophers to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and/or metaphysics.
  3. Doing (1.) and (2.) in such a way that the meta-philosophical assumptions underpinning the views of these two philosophers are not domesticated in any way.

Whilst it’s obviously not possible to show in a blog post that the philosophers I mentioned have succeeded in doing the above, in the next post I hope to at least indicate how each of them have gone about tackling this daunting task. Until then!

Wittgenstein’s Impact on Contemporary Philosophy

In my last post I began to talk about some of my philosophical influences, and what I thought they had in common that distinguished them from other philosophers. Given that most posts on this blog about philosophy are going to explain what the views of these philosophers are and why I believe they have something important to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates, I’m going to focus in this post on characterising the distinctive sort of neglect that I think many of these philosophers have received in mainstream philosophy, focusing for now on Wittgenstein alone.

What inspired me to take this route is the following quotation from an article by Ray Monk (author of the engrossing Wittgenstein biography The Duty of Genius) regarding the influence of Wittgenstein on contemporary thought:

Ludwig Wittgenstein is regarded by many, including myself, as the greatest philosopher of this century… And yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s thought has made very little impression on the intellectual life of this century. As he himself realised, his style of thinking is at odds with the style that dominates our present era. His work is opposed, as he once put it, to “the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilisation in which all of us stand.” Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified.

In one way or another, this image of swimming against the tide applies to many philosophers that I mentioned in my last post. As Monk indicates with respect to Wittgenstein, fame has little to nothing to do with the actual impact that these philosophers have (or, more appropriately, haven’t) had on contemporary philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose principal contribution to philosophy was a magnificent tuft of hair.

I think it’s worth considering exactly what it means to say that a philosopher can gain significant renown and have as much influence as someone like Wittgenstein—a household name in 20th century philosophy if ever there was one—without making a significant impression on the discipline within which they work.

John Etchemendy opens his book The Concept of Logical Consequence with a description of Tarski’s impact on contemporary philosophy of logic that I think neatly encapsulates the kind of influence that typically comes hand-in-hand with renown within a discipline:

The highest compliment that can be paid to the author of a piece of conceptual analysis comes not when his suggested definition survives whatever criticism may be leveled against it, or when the analysis is acclaimed unassailable. The highest compliment comes when… the definition is treated as common knowledge. Tarski’s account of the concepts of logical truth and logical consequence has earned him this compliment.

Though Etchemendy here speaks particularly about conceptual analysis, there’s a point that can be made here about lesser degrees of compliment that philosophers often receive more generally. Philosophers that make a lasting impact on a discipline are not necessarily those who are deemed to have succeeded in putting forth a viewpoint deemed incontestable (in fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing in philosophy), but rather those whose contribution becomes an essential and indispensable feature of the debate or region of philosophy itself.

The nature of this contribution can take any number of forms other than conceptual analysis. It can sometimes take the form of contributing a conceptual distinction thereafter deemed essential to a (sub-)discipline, as with Frege’s distinction between sense and reference. It can often take the form of contributing a distinctive stance or viewpoint to a debate that then goes on to have a life of its own outside the writings of that author, as with Bentham’s promotion of utilitarianism. It can at other times take the form of shaping or forming the nature of a debate or region itself, as with Davidson’s program for a Tarskian semantics. It can sometimes instead take the form of an interpretation of the ideas of a key figure that becomes so commonplace that the line between the interpretation and the original position become blurred for all but the specialist in that area, as is arguably the case with Dummett’s Frege. And on rare occasions, it takes the form of seemingly rejuvenating and reconceptualising an entire (sub-)discipline itself, as could not unreasonably be said of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics.

The point is that the contributions these philosophers have made are, in one way or another, essential to the contemporary state of these sub-disciplines. What makes their contribution essential in this way is usually the fact that their ideas have been integrated or absorbed into the sub-discipline, in one of the above ways, or perhaps some other way, to such an extent that one cannot understand the current state of these areas of though without understanding their contribution to them first.

One way to understand Monk’s statement about Wittgenstein is that whilst he is undoubtedly well-known, he has manifestly not had this sort of influence on contemporary philosophy (at least the later Wittgenstein; for its influence on logical positivism and its introduction of truth tables into the philosophical tool-box alone, the Tracatus probably did have the impact discussed above). Whilst it’s very likely that you will have a chance to take a dedicated course on Wittgenstein at some point during an undergraduate degree in philosophy, it’s far less likely that Wittgenstein would be included on the syllabus for a standard introductory course on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, or epistemology, despite the fact that the later Wittgenstein had a lot to say on these topics.

Furthermore, whilst this is a fairly accurate representation of many UK universities, I get the impression that the likelihood of coming across Wittgenstein in a US course on these topics is even slimmer (comments from readers from across the pond would be appreciated on this point). The fact is that the way these disciplines have progressed, especially in the States, is such that they have not incorporated Wittgenstein’s ideas in the same way that the ideas of other philosophers have been. To put it bluntly, you simply don’t need to understand Wittgenstein to get on in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, whereas you’d have a hard time getting along in these areas without having a good grasp of, say, Kripke, Davidson, Gettier, and Lewis.

The fame that Wittgenstein has achieved is more comparable to that of a pre-Frege historical figure than it is to those philosophers considered an indispensable part of the canon of 20th-century analytic philosophy. Whilst it would be extremely odd to attain tenure in one of these fields without at least having a working knowledge of most members in a typical philosophical canon (think pub-conversation-level knowledge of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), it wouldn’t be odd to attain tenure without ever having mentioned them in your publications and your contributions to contemporary research, and I think the same is true of Wittgenstein. (I think this is also reflected in the fact that graduate courses that split their modules into ‘historical’ and ‘topical’—or ‘historical’, ‘theoretical’, and ‘practical’—typically place Wittgenstein in the ‘historical’ category.)

I think that the same holds, to varying extents, of all the philosophers that I mentioned last time, though it rings especially true of Austin, given his historical importance (speech act theory itself notwithstanding, which has achieved integration into linguistics and the philosophy of language). The fact is that the views these philosophers hold on topics in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics are still for the most part quite marginal, even when at first glance their stature would seem to indicate otherwise.

For someone sympathetic to the views expressed by these philosophers, this lack of integration into the mainstream of these sub-disciplines is disappointing. The reason seems to be that whilst these philosophers have something interesting to say, the meta-philosophical views that they hold stand at odds with those shared by the majority of mainstream analytic philosophers, which makes engagement with their position difficult.

Whilst the main source of the cold reception that these philosophers have had in more orthodox circles is undoubtedly philosophical, I think that there are interesting quasi-sociological reasons, too, and since these are relevant to my view of my own eventual position in the wonderful world of academic philosophy, in the next post (and, I think, the last on this topic) I’ll try to explain how it is that a philosopher with the stature of Wittgenstein or Austin (at least in his heyday) can end up having a relatively marginal contemporary role within the sub-disciplines they worked within.

Neo-Wittgensteinian Ordinary Language Philosophy

After a couple of months of grad school application hell, I’ve been wanting to get back to regular blogging, and under the influence of a couple of friends who are more productive than I am, I’ve decided to ease myself back into the blagosphere with a quasi-personal post or two about what I hope to achieve in philosophy and the place that I see for myself in the discipline that I love. In particular, I want to get to that point by first discussing a few philosophers that have influenced me greatly, and what I see as the reasons behind the somewhat chilly reception they’ve received in contemporary mainstream analytic philosophy.

Given that one of the reasons I’ve not posted for a while is that I have a tendency to write excessively long posts, I’m going to try to limit myself to shorter posts in order to encourage posting more frequently. As such, I want to begin today simply by explaining who it is that I’ve been most influenced by, and what I see as the commonalities and significance of their ideas.

Let’s begin with a few names, in no particular order: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Travis, James Conant, J.L. Austin, Avner Baz, John McDowell, Stanley Cavell.

Whilst these philosophers write on a number of disparate, seemingly unrelated topics—semantics, Kierkegaard, epistemology,  literature, aesthetics, psychology, Kant, and ancient philosophy, just to name a few—they all share one common characteristic: they all deviate, in one way or another, from the dominant methodological paradigm operative in much contemporary analytic philosophy.

Some caveats are already required before even this simple and vague statement can be said to be true. In particular, I don’t think there is an agreed-upon, universally-accepted ‘paradigm’ that governs mainstream philosophical practice. That being said, to borrow a Wittgensteinian term of art, there is enough of a family resemblance between most philosophers working within the mainstream for the contrast with these other philosophers to be meaningful.

Given that I don’t want to define this mainstream quasi-paradigm using any positive characteristics, and to indicate the wide range of approaches that fall within this broad category, it seems best to simply list, in a similar fashion, those philosophers I take to fall within this framework in some sense or another, and hope that some sense of their difference from the philosophers above will be evident to those familiar with contemporary philosophy: Saul Kripke, Tim Williamson, Tyler Burge, Donald Davidson, John Searle, David Lewis, Ned Block, Jerry Fodor, Ernest Sosa, Jaegwon Kim.

Whilst I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules to follow to distinguish the two groups, nor any points on which the members of each group would all agree, I do think there are at least points on which every member of the two groups would disagree with each other (I’m not sure if natural language quantification is up to the challenge of expressing what I just tried to say, but I trust you get the point!), specifically regarding their understanding of the nature of philosophical problems, and the means by which they go about to solve them.

In particular, all of the philosophers in the first list fall under a rubric we could, without too much violence (and with the notable exception of McDowell, who I’ll deal with elsewhere), call “ordinary language philosophy”. To be less vague, all the philosophers named share, in one sense or another, the conviction that any investigation of phenomena interesting to philosophers—art, perception, reality, meaning—must proceed first and foremost through a careful investigation of the meanings of the terms in question, paying particular attention to the use that we put these words to.

This outline requires much more detail than I’ve currently given it, but in the spirit of keeping these posts short, sharp, and to the point, I’m going to finish up here and leave this exposition to future posts. However, I’d like to close with a few quotations from some of the philosophers above that, for me, encapsulate what it is that distinguishes them from mainstream contemporary analytic philosophy, and indicates the reason why I think it’s crucial to
pay attention to these voices. Enjoy!

If I am right about the character of the philosophical anxieties I aim to deal with, there is no room for doubt that engaging  in “constructive philosophy”… is not the way to approach them. As I have put it, we need to exorcize the questions rather than set about answering them. Of course that takes hard work: if you like, constructive philosophy in another sense.

—John McDowell, Mind and World

“Ordinary language philosophy”… seeks to alleviate philosophical entanglements and obscurities by means of consideration of the ordinary and normal uses of philosophers’ words, and the worldly conditions that make those uses  possible and give them their specific significance.

—Avner Baz, When Worlds Are Called For

When philosophers use a word—”knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language which is its original home?— What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §116

Our most profound confusions of soul show themselves in—and can be revealed to us through an attention to—our confusions concerning what we mean (and, in particular, what we fail to mean) by our words.

—James Conant, “Elucidation and Nonsense in Frege and Early Wittgenstein”

Attention to the details of cases as they arise may not provide a quick path to an all-embracing system; but at least it promises genuine instead of spurious clarity.

—Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?”

[NB: For those wondering, I gave this post an incredibly pretentious title because: a) I like pretentious titles, b) it gives me an excuse to
encourage you to go read a brilliant piece of epistemology which also has the virtue of having a wonderfully pretentious title: Duncan Pritchard’s article “McDowellian Neo-Mooreanism“, c) I’m shamelessly trying to snag some Google search results for ordinary language philosophy and Wittgenstein.]

[[EDIT: for some reason, the formatting of this post went totally haywire, and I’ve only just realised this and managed to address it. Apologies if you read it whilst the formatting made it nearly unreadable!]]

Interminable Oscillations #2: The Interminable Oscillation

A while ago I wrote an introductory post for a planned series about McDowell’s philosophy of perception. Being a man of my digital word, I have not forgotten, and today I return to make good on that vague plan to probably write some stuff about experience.

At first I wasn’t sure where to begin. If I’m right in my understanding of him, and in the interpretation I’m going to propose in the posts to follow, then the different facets of McDowell’s account of experience are all intertwined and hence not so easily separated into blog-sized chunks. If I knew the first thing about hermeneutics, I might start talking about circles at this point.

Fortunately, I decided that the best solution would be to start with the namesake for this section of the blog: the ‘interminable oscillation’ that McDowell first introduced in his 1994 lecture series, now published under the title Mind and World. Partly this is just a catchy and convenient way to pick a relatively arbitrary starting point, but there is some reason to suppose that this is a philosophically sound place to begin.

For one, this tension lies at the heart of almost all of McDowell’s philosophy of perception in one form or another, and the kernel of almost every facet of his overall theory* can be found somewhere in Mind and World. As such, it seems a philosophically apt place to start in that it is a specific issue that sheds some light on the whole project itself. As such, I’ll try to indicate points of contact as I go along. Hopefully this first issue will provide a context within which to situate the topics to follow and, in turn, hopefully they will shed more light on this sketchy introduction. There’s that pesky circle again.

[*McDowell, or at least Mind and World McDowell, being a good Wittgensteinian, would deny that he had a ‘theory’ of anything at all—see the Introduction to the second edition of Mind and World, or wait out for a future blog post on the topic.]

One of the more understandable Google Image results for “Hermeneutic Circle”.

Anyway, about that oscillation.

McDowell’s oscillation is a peculiarly philosophical one, though purportedly one that we naturally find ourselves drawn into as soon as we begin to reflect on the relationship between thought and reality. In particular, this philosophical oscillation is set in motion as soon as we try to account for the possibility of empirical thought.

For those of you that do not live in the enchanted world of John McDowell, or the universe of analytic philosophy more generally, this idea perhaps needs some explanation. In this spirit, a crude bit of general background information:

McDowell is interested primarily in thoughts that are, loosely speaking, propositional (or, speaking dangerously loosely, linguistic). In common parlance, we usually include under the banner of ‘thought’ the whole harem of fleeting mental images, snippets of songs, memories and so on that form the stream of consciousness that is human mental life. However, McDowell is only interested in thoughts with conceptual content, thoughts that in some sense say something about how things are.

What is important about ‘thought’ in the sense that McDowell is interested in is that these sorts of thoughts are apt for truth or falsity. What I think—the content of my thought—is something that represents things as being a certain way and, hence, opens my thinking up to correctness or incorrectness in a way that literary daydreams about handjobs arguably aren’t. 

Joyce had written a witty rebuttal to my snide comment about Ulysses, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in the caption box.

These sorts of thoughts have fascinated philosophers for a long time; anything from a century to two millennia, depending on how shameless you want to be in foisting contemporary assumptions onto our venerable philosophical forefathers. McDowell sees himself as broadly applying lessons learnt from Kant about the relationship between the world and these sorts of thoughts, albeit within a more modern, linguistic, framework. More about that later.

Furthermore, McDowell is interested mostly in thoughts about the world and things in it—”moderate-sized specimens of dry goods“—thoughts whose content is empirical in the sense that they are about the objective, mind-independent world.

The two terms of the interminable oscillation are effectively two pitfalls that philosophers are apt to fall in to when considering how to account for thoughts with empirical content. Mind and World thus largely consists of McDowell trying to steer his philosophical ship between a philosophical Scylla and Charybdis.

The driving force behind the oscillation is the plausible idea that thoughts come to have empirical content only by being answerable to the world. If the world did not justify some thoughts more than others, make some thoughts true and others false, make some more probable and some less so—in short, if the the world bore no rational relations to thought—then these thoughts would not be empirical.

The first pitfall arises for philosophers that simultaneously hold two beliefs about how to explain how the world constrains thought in this way. The first is that the primary way that the world could come to bear on thought is by means of experience; thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experiences, understood broadly as impacts that the world makes on consciousness. McDowell calls this idea—the idea that thought is answerable to the world by being answerable to experiences—a ‘minimal empiricism’. The second belief is that experience plays this role even though experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness—mental occurrences that do not bear conceptual content in the way that thoughts in the above sense do.

This latter part of this view McDowell, principally following Sellars, calls the Myth of the Given. Exactly what the Myth is, and whether it is really a myth at all, could (and likely will) take up an entire post, but I’ll at least try to summarise it here first. The Myth is, in essence, the claim that there are rational relations between conceptual things (thoughts in this case) and non-conceptual things (experiences, on this understanding of them). In Sellarsian terms, the Myth is the claim that the space of justifications or reasons extends wider than the space of the conceptual. In neo-Kantian terms, the Myth is simply a variation of the problem concerning how to reconcile spontaneity and nature, freedom and causality.

McDowell argues that the Myth of the Given really is a myth, and cannot be reasonably defended. If, like McDowell, one finds the Myth unconvincing, one may, in attempting to avoid it, fall into the other term of the oscillation: coherentism.

Again, summarising briefly, McDowell believes that coherentists, in trying to avoid the Myth of the Given, overcompensate. They throw the philosophical baby out with the bath water. In common with the philosopher that holds to the Myth, coherentists accept that experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, but they also accept, like McDowell, that the Myth is a fallacy and should be rejected as such.

Here’s a graph of an oscillation, to prove that philosophy is a Real Science, too!

Given that the coherentist believes both that experiences are nonconceptual and that the nonconceptual cannot stand in rational relations with the conceptual, the coherentist rejects minimal empiricism. Since experiences are nonconceptual, it cannot be via experience that the world comes to bear rationally on thought. Precisely how the coherentist believes that the world does come to bear on thought, if not by experience, is, again, a tale best told another day.

However, that pretty much gets to the heart of the oscillation. This is the state of play:

The challenge is to explain empirical content in terms of the answerability of thought to reality; the rational constraint exerted on the mind by the world.

In the process of explaining this fact about thought, we come across an inconsistent triad of sorts:

  1. Experiences are purely nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, they bear no conceptual content.
  2. The conceptual does not stand in rational relations with (is not answerable to) the nonconceptual.
  3. Thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experience.

The philosopher of the Myth rejects (2.), embracing the Myth (presumably not as myth). Their challenge is to explain why the Myth of the Given is not obviously false in the way that McDowell takes it to be, to explain how a nonconceptual impact on consciousness could justify or give a reason for thinking anything at all.

The coherentist rejects (3.) and abandons minimal empiricism. Their challenge is to explain how they even meet the terms of the initial challenge in the first place; to explain how thought is rationally responsive to how things are in the world, if not by means of experience.

The interminable oscillation that McDowell speaks of is the constant shift back and forth between coherentism and the Myth, neither of which are acceptable by his lights. His solution should be obvious from the presentation of the problem given above: reject (1.) and argue for the claim that experiences actually are conceptual after all. In so doing, McDowell faces the problem of explaining how it is that experiences are still natural occurrences, interactions with and impacts from a truly mind independent world. His biggest threat, therefore, is idealism.

Hopefully this at least sets the stage for what’s to come, as shallow as the discussion is. As I said, this important issue contains the kernel of almost all aspects of McDowell’s philosophy, even to this present day. We have already seen areas of contact with Kant, Sellars, Wittgenstein and Davidson (coherentism), and the seeds are sown for discussions of epistemological externalism, idealism, Aristotle, Travis, fallibility and disjunctivism.

All of this is still to come, however. For now, we remain trapped in the oscillation with only a hint of how to escape. Stay tuned for more.

Thick Aesthetic Concepts in Extreme Metal

My last post got me thinking about why it’s so difficult to explain the appeal of extreme metal to people that don’t like the genre. Part of me was concerned that this task was not simply hard but perhaps not possible at all. I feel like the appropriate response to someone who asks what there is to like about extreme metal is the apocryphal reply that Satchmo gave  to someone who asked what jazz is: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”. After considering it further, I think there’s something philosophically interesting about the way that people in the scene communicate with each other about their passion that might explain why this problem feels so intractable.

In the mid-80s a philosopher called Bernard Williams emphasised the importance to moral discourse of what he called “thick” ethical concepts. To get a feel for thick ethical concepts, one can contrast them with thin concepts of both a moral and non-moral variety. For example, the concept of size is a thin descriptive concept. If I say that John is tall, I am not passing moral judgement about him or invoking any kind of normative values in describing him as such. However, if I say that something he did was (morally) wrong, this judgement most certainly is evaluative, and my description of it does involve the use of normative values (namely, rightness and wrongness).

Thick ethical concepts constitute an entanglement of descriptive and normative features, they combine a judgement of fact with a judgement of value. For example, if I say that John is cruel then I am passing moral judgement on him in a way that I am not if I simply say that he has a tendency to cause unnecessary harm to others (or, at least, if there is moral judgement in this latter example it is merely implicit and not part of the meaning of the words themselves). However, I am also claiming that he has certain traits or performs certain types of actions. For instance, if John never gave money to charity, that might be reason for thinking him immoral or unethical, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for thinking him cruel, all things being equal. In this sense, cruelty has a descriptive, non-normative element to it that is absent in thin ethical concepts like ‘wrong’ or ‘good’.

Cruelty at its worst.

The notion of thick concepts, however, needn’t be restricted to ethics and can be extended into other areas of discourse that include value judgements, most notably to aesthetics. For example, if I say that a dress is elegant, I am not simply describing its shape or flow, but also voicing my aesthetic approval of it. Conversely, to say that a painting is garish is not only to describe its colour scheme but to condemn it on the basis of this choice of colours. In this way, aesthetic concepts often combine descriptive and evaluative elements.

No less than in other areas of art, metal too contains a myriad of thick aesthetic concepts. If anything, metal probably contains far more than other areas, given that many typical thin aesthetic concepts like beauty just aren’t appropriate for trying to pass judgement on the genre. Whilst the topic of discussion last time was death metal, I think that black metal is probably the sub-genre whose vocabulary is most inundated with thick aesthetic terms.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe this music draws heavily on themes central or related to the genre, which is tied to anti-Christianity, Satanism, Norway, paganism and nihilism: words like “grim”, “necro”, “brutal”, “krieg”, “misanthropic” and so on… Like the term elegance, however, many of these words not only describe the style of the music but also evaluate it positively. For example, to say that a black metal track is necro is, in part, to describe it as having lo-fi production values or a raw feel. However, the term also implies approbation or a sense of approval regarding its sound.

There is a debate within the literature as to whether or not it is possible to separate the evaluative and the normative aspects of thick concepts. Some, like prescriptivist R.M. Hare, believe that one can siphon off the descriptive element of thick concepts entirely, in a way that involves no commitment to any particular evaluative standpoint. For example, if one wanted to describe an action as “brave” without committing oneself to approving of the action, one might simply claim that it was performed without fear in the face of great danger. Since fear and danger aren’t themselves evaluative concepts, one has stripped the original term of its normative content entirely, or so the story goes.

Others, most notably Bernard Williams himself, have claimed that it is not clear that this sort of separation is possible in all, or indeed any, cases. John McDowell explains that the reason why one cannot simply separate off the descriptive element is because any accurate synonym for a thick ethical concept will inevitably bring in other evaluative terms at some point. For example, bravery is clearly not simply doing something without fear in the face of great danger, for this encompasses many stupid actions, or actions performed without knowledge of the danger in question, neither of which are brave. A more accurate description would be an action performed courageously, but of course courage is too a thick ethical concept, so unless this concept can also be explained non-evaluatively then this description fails in its task, for it sneaks value judgements into the extended description itself.

The upshot, according to Hilary Putnam, is that:

to use them [thick concepts] with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that “brave” simply meant “not afraid to risk life and limb” would not be able to understand the all-important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere rashness or foolhardiness and genuine bravery.

To come back to the point with which we began, if this second viewpoint is correct (that it is not possible to separate the descriptive and evaluative elements with any precision) then it will prove to be extremely difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already share an aesthetic appreciation of metal what exactly there is to like about it. Since much of the vocabulary used to talk about the music is thick, any attempt to voice an appreciation of the music in terms accessible to someone who doesn’t already appreciate it will leave out some of the content available in a description using thick concepts.

For example, the album Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone is extremely necro. If I was to simply say this to someone who didn’t enjoy black metal, they wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if I was to explain to someone that I liked it because it had bad production values, this simply wouldn’t capture my reason for liking it at all. Bootlegs of Madonna gigs probably have bad production values, but I don’t like them as a result, and they’re certainly not necro. 

Madonna ist nicht Krieg.

However, I have hope that in the case of metal at least, the problem is not completely intractable. My reason for thinking this is that there are descriptions in purely thin non-evaluative terms that, whilst not fully capturing the content of the thick terms themselves, might help bridge the gap between those who appreciate the genre and those that don’t. For example, if I said to someone that I like Under a Funeral Moon because the low production values help create a dark atmosphere, whilst not synonymous with ‘necro’, this hopefully provides enough information for the person to “imaginatively identify” with my aesthetic “evaluative point of view”, even if they don’t share that point of view themselves.

So that’s it for this post. We’ve gone from ethics to aesthetics to the grim and frostbitten realms of black metal (another topic for a future post: the postmodern irony that pervades the language of black metal fandom). Hopefully you’ve learnt something about philosophy, or perhaps got some insight into metal, or even both! This sort of connection between hobbies and interests of mine and philosophy is likely going to be the topic of a number of posts to come in the future, as philosophy generally tends to pervade how I think about things and I hope it sheds some light on aspects of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.