The nature of philosophy: Scruton vs Williamson edition

#1
https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017...n-edition/

EXCERPT: [...] Let’s start, then, with Scruton’s take, which opens The Times’ debate. He begins by telling us that when he attended Cambridge in the 1960s, he was immediately disabused of the naive notion that studying philosophy would tell him something abut the meaning of life. Ethics was instead dominated by the likes of G.E. Moore, who spent endless time debating the exact meaning of “good,” “right,” and “ought.” As he puts it:

“Ethics came to rest in the study of dilemmas, like that of the man who must visit his aunt in hospital on the very same day as his child is competing in the long-jump at school. The manifest facts that modern people are living in a state of spiritual anxiety, that the world has become strange to us and frightening, that we lack and need a conception of our own existence — such facts were either un­noticed or dismissed as yet more leftovers from the mental disease called religion.”

I must say Scruton is right on target here. A significant portion (though, thankfully, not all) of academic philosophy has become irrelevant to pretty much anyone else outside of academic philosophy departments (the same, to be fair, holds for English literature, or the natural sciences, but that’s another story). The damage done by so-called analytic philosophy to ethics is indeed a perfect example. We don’t learn much, if anything, from increasingly convoluted versions of the trolley dilemma, as “fun” as those riddles can be for someone who thinks such things qualify as fun.

Scruton then rejects Locke’s contention that philosophy should be a “handmaiden to the sciences”:

“Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, music­ology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psycho­logy (or still worse, branches of applied neuro­science) are destined to fail.”

So Scruton sees a major task of contemporary philosophy to contrast scientism, the ideological attitude that declares (on no scientific grounds) that only scientific questions are worth being considered, and only the methods of science (often conveniently and arbitrarily expanded to encompass all ways of human reasoning) are valid sources of knowledge and understanding. Together with my friend and colleague Maarten Boudry I have put together a collection of essays — due on December 26 from Chicago Press — on the challenges posed by scientism, and readers of this blog know why I’m very sympathetic to Scruton’s perspective (not everyone contributed to our volume is, by the way — it’s a discussion, not a monologue).

He goes on to explain that the reason evolutionary psychology’s attempt to “reduce” the humanities fails is because science is in the business of (and is very good at) providing answers couched in a third-person perspective, focused on the causality of observable phenomena. But the world of the humanities is what Wilfred Sellars (remember him?) called “the space of reasons,” and reasons (or prescriptive statements) just don’t show up in an fMRI scan.

Let it be clear that Scruton is not anti-science. He explains that this failure of science is not the result of the existence of some other, magical, realm of existence. It is simply that science isn’t in the business of doing what the humanities do. It is one tool among many at our disposal to understand the world — not just the physical and biological world, but also the world of human relations and meaning. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I hasten to add that Scruton seems to be perfectly aware that human beings are also biological beings made of physical stuff. He is not claiming that there is no place for science in studying humans and their societies. He is just reiterating the famous, and very useful, distinction that Sellars himself made between the scientific and manifest images of the world.

Scruton ends his first round by bringing up David Hume and his idea that the human mind has a capacity to “spread itself upon objects.” While this capacity is, obviously, the result of biological evolution and it is made possible by our neural apparatus, biology and neuroscience tells us comparatively little of value about what happens when we engage in such Humean activity. as Scruton puts it:

“The case is no different from the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us in the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.”

Let’s now turn to Williamson’s initial response. He doesn’t start too well...

MORE: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017...n-edition/
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#2
(Nov 22, 2017 04:20 AM)C C Wrote: Let’s start, then, with Scruton’s take, which opens The Times’ debate. He begins by telling us that when he attended Cambridge in the 1960s, he was immediately disabused of the naive notion that studying philosophy would tell him something abut the meaning of life.

[snark]That's part of the problem right there. Scruton should have attended a good university here in the United States. Cambridge in the 1960's was still trying to work itself free from the baleful influence of Wittgenstein. [/snark]

Quote:Ethics was instead dominated by the likes of G.E. Moore, who spent endless time debating the exact meaning of “good,” “right,” and “ought.”

If ethics is going to throw around ethical judgements and labels like 'good' and 'evil' with abandon, it helps to have some idea what those terms mean and what we are saying about things when we use them. How are good and evil determined? Merely by intuition? By social consensus? Or what?

Addressing things at that level of abstraction might be off-putting for some people, but it's fundamental to what philosophy is. (At least as I conceive of it.) Those who disagree might be better off studying some brands of theology, Buddhist practice or even pop-psychology, which do address how to get your life in order more straightforwardly.

Quote:A significant portion (though, thankfully, not all) of academic philosophy has become irrelevant to pretty much anyone else outside of academic philosophy departments

I couldn't disagree more. I think that it's vitally important for everyone who uses ethical vocabulary and casts moral judgments to have at least some vague idea what the fuck they are doing.

That's of practical interest when cultures with contradictory and incompatible value-systems come into collision in our wonderful new "multicultural" world. Is there any way to resolve ethical conflicts short of battle-to-the-death? (That's the path things took on both sides when the extreme Islamic fundamentalism represented by Islamic State collided with secular Muslim society and the modern West.)

But the total eradication of everyone who disagrees with us isn't going to always be possible or desirable. There needs to be a better way of dealing with ethical disagreement. That's going to take philosophical work understanding what ethical judgments are and how they work.
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#3
(Nov 22, 2017 05:39 AM)Yazata Wrote: I couldn't disagree more. I think that it's vitally important for everyone who uses ethical vocabulary and casts moral judgments to have at least some vague idea what the fuck they are doing.

I agree. I can't really see how anyone tackles ethics in any rigorous manor (basically anything but intuition) without at least some general philosophical and logical knowledge.
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#4
(Nov 22, 2017 05:39 AM)Yazata Wrote: [snark]That's part of the problem right there. Scruton should have attended a good university here in the United States. Cambridge in the 1960's was still trying to work itself free from the baleful influence of Wittgenstein. [/snark]

If or when you have the time, will you tell me a little bit more about Wittgenstein?
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#5
My remarks about Cambridge and Wittgenstein were meant to be snarky and shouldn't be taken literally. Or not entirely literally.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein

Here's a more serious version of my opinion.

While Wittgenstein had some fascinating ideas and some important insights, I'm not sure that his influence on British (and American) philosophy was entirely good.

He became something of a cult-leader when he was at Cambridge, with the Cambridge philosophy department his cult. A lot of it was his charismatic personal style, which gave everyone else the impression of tremendous intelligence even if nobody was sure what he was saying. Everyone felt that Wittgenstein was doing ground-breaking work in philosophy and everyone wanted to be a part of it.

[aside]What is it about German (and Austrian in Wittgenstein's case) philosophers that nobody can ever be sure what they meant to say, so that entire interpretive industries grow up providing new takes on their work? (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Nietsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein) Is there something about coming from middle Europe that makes people dense (in both senses of the word)? (More snark).[/aside]

Wittgenstein often offered his seminars in his own apartment, by invitation only. So people at Cambridge were either on the bus (had an invitation) or weren't (didn't). That whole situation kind of stopped everyone else from pursuing their own philosophical ideas, as everyone maneuvered to please Wittgenstein in order to be participants in what they imagined was work of historic importance.

Wittgenstein died of cancer in the late 1940's, and his disciples spread out from Cambridge, particularly to rival Oxford where they installed what is termed 'Ordinary Language Philosophy' as 'Oxford philosophy' (the university's ruling philosophical orthodoxy).

It certainly has its value and its a useful way of doing philosophy. But carried to extremes, it's exceedingly dry and anal. That's the source of many of the perjorative stereotypes that 'analytical' philosophy labors under today. (As illustrated in many of the hostile remarks in many of CC's posts.)

I still remember ordinary language philosophy being hugely influential when I was a philosophy undergraduate in the 1970's, and Wittgenstein was still treated as kind of a demigod. No matter what philosophical problem one was considering, there was somebody out there trying to address it in Wittgensteinian terms with suggestions about how revolutionary that was.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinary_l...philosophy

It's interesting to observe how Wittgenstein's influence has receded since then. He's still greatly respected, but no longer considered the model for how all of English-language philosophy should be conducted.
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#6
Ah, perfect and very interesting.  I'll have to search for more material.

Thanks, Yazata!
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