Friday, 20 July 2018

Simon Blackburn on Philosophy

On Formalising Philosophy

Simon Blackburn comments on the formalising tendencies which began the tradition of analytic philosophy. He traces it back to Frege. This means, among other things, that the frequent arguments against “traditional metaphysics” certainly didn’t begin with the logical positivists. It began with Frege and no doubt existed even before that (as with Francisco Suárez and his repudiation of Aristotle). As Blackburn explains it:

Many philosophers thought that they were on the verge of replacing ‘old-fashioned woolly metaphysics' with a rigorous, formalised philosophy that had as its core a logically perfect language, shorn of the vagaries or ordinary discourse. Once we had translated philosophical problems from ordinary language into this purified language of logic, the solutions to philosophical issues would follow as surely as night follows day. That optimism only lasted until roughly the Second World War.”

It's strange, then, that the “ordinary language philosophers” thought more or less the same thing as the philosophical formalists. Only this time the solution to “woolly metaphysics” was going back to ordinary language. That is, not only away from what the metaphysicians has said (or the way they put it), but also away from the formalisers (as epitomised by Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein). The ordinary language philosophers wanted to translate arcane metaphysics into ordinary language and in so doing sort out its problems or show them up to be of the metaphysicians’ own making (i.e., “pseudo problems”).

On the Mind-Language-World Triangle

Blackburn offers three approaches which philosophers since Hume have seen as been of primary importance to the whole of philosophy:

You might say the first thing to do s to understand ourselves, as Hume does, for example; you might say the first thing you’ve got to do then is understand our language, and so do the philosophy of language; or you might think, no, what you’ve got to do is settle the nature of the world, the things that surround us and after that our own nature and the nature of language will fall out. That in a sense is the scientific approach – the rest is stamp collecting.”

So why not all these approaches at the same time? Or why not work with all three and see how they interact with each other (even if only at the peripheries)? Why the obsessive need to create a hierarchy (or pyramidical system) with one discipline at the bottom and all the rest on top of it?

It's also interesting that previous notions of First Philosophy aren't included in Blackburn’s list. Thus ontology was First Philosophy for Aristotle and others. Epistemology was First Philosophy for Descartes. Psychology (or “human nature”) was First Philosophy for Hume. The philosophy of language (in its logical guise) was First Philosophy for Frege. The scientific nature (or description) of the world was First Philosophy for the logical positivists and arguably for Quine and others. And from the 1960s onward, the philosophy of mind has more or less become First Philosophy for many philosophers - superseding or simply incorporating the philosophy of language.

One may conclude from all this that we should completely suspect the very idea of a First Philosophy and simply accept the interconnections between the philosophical disciplines. And it's one step on from this rejection of First Philosophy to take an “interdisciplinary approach” to philosophy and incorporate linguistics, computer science, cognitive science and other disciplines into its purview. This in itself can be seen as an acknowledgement of “philosophical holism” in whatever form it may take.

In summary, then, we have a “triangle” which includes psychology (or ourselves), the philosophy of language and the world itself. We needn't take any of these as being primary or fundamental.

On Philosophical Prose

Simon Blackburn has little time for those philosophers who glory in the complexity of their disciple or just in their own philosophical writings. He says that he thinks philosophy's “difficulties we compounded by a certain pride in its difficulty”. It's ironic, then, that some of the great philosophers were also good writers. Blackburn cites Russell, Ryle and Austin. I would also cite Plato, Hume, Quine, Putnam, Searle and particularly various American analytic philosophers - as opposed to English ones. (It's often the case that as the English philosophers are to American philosophers, so Continental philosophers are to English philosophers.)

Bad writing, technicality and sheer pretentiousness, however, shouldn't imply that all work on the minutia of philosophy should be shunned or limited. Of course not. Some papers are bound to be complex. Not necessarily because of the subject’s difficulty; but just because the issues and problems will be technical in nature and therefore have a high number of unknown technical terms. Indeed some technical terms will be needed and others may well be gratuitous – it depends on the philosopher concerned.

Blackburn makes some other interesting points about philosophical prose – at least in its bad guise. He quotes John Searle stating: “If you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.”

So all the times I thought critically of myself for not understanding a particular philosopher’s prose, perhaps all along he didn’t understand his own prose; or, more importantly, he didn't understand the philosophical ideas he was trying – badly – to express. I assumed my own cognitive limitations or the damned complexity of the subject. However, perhaps all along it was just a case of the philosopher concerned being a bloody poor writer – regardless of the complexity of his ideas. Either that or he might well have been just plain pretentious! Certainly philosophers like this don’t follow the Quintilian dictum (as quoted by Blackburn): “Do not write so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.”

Of course, literally speaking, if one writes “so that you cannot be misunderstood”, then one must also be writing “so that you can be understood” – the two approaches go together. However, Bernard Williams (also quoted by Blackburn) offered the obvious riposte to this “impossible ideal”:

Williams snapped at that and said it was 'an impossible ideal. You can always be misunderstood', and of course he’s right. But I think the point of Quintilian’s remark isn’t 'write so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding’ but to remember that it’s difficult and that it’s your job to make it as easy as you can.”

It's interesting to note here that Williams’ impossible-ideal argument can also be used in favour of the idea that there will always be someone in one’s own culture - no matter how rational - who'll misinterpret at least something you write or say. Indeed perhaps everyone who reads or listens to you will misinterpret you in some small or large way. The idea of a perfect communication of a complete and perfect meaning to a perfect interpreter seems to be a ridiculous ideal. It seems to be almost – or even literally – impossible and for so many reasons. So you'll always be “misunderstood” by someone in some way. Indeed each person will misunderstand you in some way - whether that way is large or small. All we have left, as writers or philosophers, is to realise that “it’s [our] job to make it as easy as [we] can”. We can't be expected to do more than this. We can't guarantee the perfect communication of our ideas or the perfect understanding of our ideas by other people (as anyone who uses social media already knows). And even if we allow this slack, perhaps, in the end, it simply doesn't matter that much because communication doesn't require either determinate meanings or determinate interpretations. We seem to manage quite well in most situations without perfect languages and other philosophical ideals. It's only certain philosophers who get hot under the collar about the possibility (or actuality) of the problems of meaning or translation. You can't (to use Derrida's term) “mathematicise” meaning or interpretation/understanding. We now know, after all, that formalised or artificial languages have many severe limitations and we can even say that natural languages are far more expressive and pragmatically efficacious than even the sum of their alternatives.

On the Importance of Philosophy

Blackburn comments on the importance of philosophy and places it within the wider context of Western culture as a whole. He says:

The high ground has got to be just that it’s one of the world’s great literatures. If you’re ignorant of Aristotle, Hume and Wittgenstein it’s like being ignorant of Shakespeare, Jane Austen or George Eliot and this ought to be regarded as shameful in the same way as ignorance of great literature would be.”

Not many would think of any philosopher’s work being great literature even if it's philosophically great. However, it's often difficult to disentangle the two - especially in the case of a philosopher like Plato. This is also the case if one accepts Jacques Derrida’s idea that there's no difference in kind between philosophy and literature: only a difference in degree. (I suppose this will partly depend on the philosopher we're talking about.)

For example, this would be easy to argue in the case of Plato (again). However, could we really see the work of Rudolf Carnap in the same way? We can also say that just as Shakespeare, Austin and Eliot have shaped the world, so too have Blackburn's philosophical examples – namely, Aristotle, Hume and Wittgenstein. I would add many other philosophers to the list of philosophers who've shaped Western culture: Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, J.S. Mill and so on. However, I’m not sure if I would regard it as “shameful” if people hadn't read the philosophers on Blackburn’s list. I've never read much Montaigne or Plotinus and I've never read certain other well-known philosophers. (I suspect that Blackburn hasn't either.) However, if one hasn't ready any of these, then perhaps that is shameful and indeed quite remarkable.

Apart from (some) philosophy being “great literature”, Blackburn cites “pragmatic grounds” as to why philosophy is of vital importance – and has always been of vital importance. He writes:

A much more interesting, pragmatic ground is that I really do think that unless people have some tools for reflecting on the language they use they’re apt to be behaving unselfconsciously, and unreflective behaviour is often behaviour that’s at the mercy of forces which we don’t understand. So I think that realising the state of your language is a very important device for realising he state of your culture at this time in history, and in politics.”

This isn't just a strong suggestion to study language in the philosophy-of-language sense: it's also a suggestion to study and critically analyse the words and concepts we use every day to see how they shape what it is we think; as well as the way they shape how we actually experience the world.

For a start, people will soon come to realise how our words and concepts not only reflect world and culture; but also determine or shape them. When we realise that, we can't help but reflect on the words and concepts we use and how we apply them. If we don’t do this, as Blackburn puts it, we'll be “at the mercy of forces which we don’t understand”.


*) All the quotes in this piece are taken from the book, What Philosophers Think. In this book Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom interview various philosophers and scientists.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Book Reviews (1): David Chalmers' *The Conscious Mind*

The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory is an old book by David Chalmers. It dates back to 1996. It was his first book; though he'd published papers before this dating back to 1989/90.

I decided not to tackle any of Chalmers' arguments in this review simply because the book is so dense with arguments. It just wouldn't make sense singling out anything specific. And even if I did, I would have probably turned this review into something else entirely.

Broadly speaking, Chalmers still holds most of the positions he articulated in this book. However, perhaps today he's more committed to some form of panpsychism than he was in 1996.

The Conscious Mind (as stated) is dense with argumentation. And partly because of that, Chalmers' book fluctuates from reading like a paper in a technical philosophical journal to being a “popular philosophy” book. However, to be honest, though Chalmers' writing is very clear, he rarely pulls off stuff that could be sensibly classed as “popular philosophy” - even though this book it said to be meant for a general educated audience. Having said that, in the introduction Chalmers does say that his “notional audience at all times has been [his] undergraduate self of ten years ago”. That's not to say that there are no simple parts (or even simple chapters) in this book – there are. However, on the whole, it's far more technical than most books on philosophical subjects.

For example, the section 'Supervenience and Explanation' (which itself includes five chapters) is highly technical. Indeed one section seems like a convoluted detour into modal logic, possible worlds theory and semantics. I suppose that Chalmers would see all this as being a technical grounding for what comes later. However, in some of these chapters there's still hardly a single mention of consciousness. This is especially true of the long and highly-technical chapter called 'A posteriori necessity' which is ten pages long and doesn't contain a single mention of consciousness or the mind. The following twenty-four pages hardly mention consciousness either.

The most interesting chapters in the book (at least from a 2018 perspective) are 'Naturalist Dualism' and 'Consciousness and Information: Some Speculation' (which deals with panpsychism). That's primarily because this naturalistic dualism is peculiar to Chalmers himself and panpsychism has a lot of contemporary relevance. Many of the other chapters, on the other hand, have been done to death in analytic philosophy; specifically the stuff on qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the nature of reduction, etc. However, since this book was written in 1996, perhaps these subjects hadn't really been done to death at that precise time.

The last chapter, 'The Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics', seems rather odd to me. It's a strange add-on at the end of the book. It's very difficult to see how the interpretation of quantum mechanics fits into the rest of the work. Here again consciousness is hardly mentioned. When it is mentioned, it's in relation to how consciousness has been featured in the scientific tradition of quantum mechanics. Thus there's stuff about observation and measurement. Consciousness also features more heavily when Chalmers covers Hugh Everett's interpretation of quantum mechanics in which “superposition is extended all the way to the mind”. The idea of superposed minds is also tackled - and it's very strange!

I suppose that one reason that Chalmers writes twenty-five pages on the interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the quantum mechanics-consciousness connection was becoming very fashionable in the 1990s. However, it seems that Chalmers believed that citations of quantum mechanics - when it came to consciousness - didn't solve what he calls the Hard Problem. And neither was he too sympathetic with the idea of “superposed minds” within the strict context of Everett's supposed “many-worlds” interpretation (which Chalmers believes is a misreading of the physicist's theory).

The chapter 'Consciousness and Information: Some Speculations' is - obviously! - the most speculative. Especially the section on panpsychism. Indeed Chalmers happily admits that. He even says that “[t]he ideas in this chapter” are “most likely to be entirely wrong”. Whether or not Chalmers believe that now – some 22 years later – is hard to say. He's certainly added much to his position on panpsychism; as well to his position on “information theory”.

Perhaps the chapters 'Supervenience and Explanation' and 'The Irreducibility of Consciousness' are the most important in The Conscious Mind. As stated earlier, there are also some highly technical (as well as somewhat tangential) sections in these chapters too. (Having said that, the chapter on qualia is also detailed and technical.) It's in these chapters that Chalmers articulates his most central point about consciousness: that it's not reducible to the physical. It's also here that he also states that “experience is a datum in its own right” and is therefore something that needs to be treated that way.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Philosophy Now - "What are the moral limits to free speech?"

"What are the moral limits to free speech?

“Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words.” - Philosophy Now (April/May 2018)


Dear Editor,

It's odd really. Many people claim to be strongly in favour of free speech. Yet, as soon as you scratch the surface, you'll quickly find that almost all the people you talk to quickly realise (or acknowledge) that there must be at least some limits to free speech.

But there's a problem here.

People cite very different reasons as to why there should be limits to free speech. They also cite different examples of the kind of speech they believe should be limited (or made illegal). Having said that, it's also true that there are some well-known limits to free speech which almost everyone agrees upon. (Such as “shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded cinema” or encouraging paedophilia in public spaces.) Nevertheless, other proposed limits to free speech often tend to simply reflect people's extremely specific political biases. And because of that, it can be said that free speech would be drastically curtailed if all our political biases were acted upon by the state or by the legal system.

So perhaps any limits which are placed on free speech should be given a moral – i.e., not a political – justification. (Of course this is hinted at in the opening question.) Yet some people may now say that morality and politics are firmly intertwined when it comes to free speech! However, surely the two can be separated if the proposed limits on free speech are given abstract moral (as well as philosophical) justifications. In that way, even people who strongly disagree when it comes to politics could (at least in theory) accept such limits if they were given such moral justifications.

Despite all that, almost every moral justification of a limit to free speech will have its exceptions and opponents. It's also the case that extreme or perverse limitations on free speech could be morally justified. (Such as the argument that allowing people to debate race or violence will inevitably encourage racism or violence.) Self-referentially speaking, even limiting (or banning) the public discussion of the question “What are the moral limits to free speech?” could be morally justified.

Surely this must mean that no single moral justification of the limits of free speech will ever receive universal approval or acceptance. Nonetheless, a complete consensus may not be required in the first place. After all, no philosophical, moral or political justification or position will ever please everyone. And that, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Paul Austin Murphy.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy: Argument, Clarity, Obscurity

Many analytic philosophers stress the point that analytic philosophy isn't about the sharing of views or positions: it's about the sharing of philosophical tools and a basic commitment to clarity. All this is regardless of what position a particular analytic philosopher may advance.

In his book, What is Analytic Philosophy?, Hans-Johan Glock elaborates on this position in the following:

Philosophy is not about sharing doctrines, but about a rational and civilised debate even about one's own cherished assumptions.”

It can be seen that Glock doesn't use the words “analytic philosophy” at the beginning of the passage above. However, he does conclude by saying the following:

Such a debate remains easier among analytic philosophers than between analytic and continental philosophers.”

Of course it's also the case that many analytic philosophers do actually “share doctrines”. However, it's just that the sharing of philosophical tools and practices is deemed to be more important than sharing doctrines. It also follows from the sharing of philosophical tools and a commitment to clarity that there can be “rational and civilised debates even about one's cherished assumptions”. That is, the sharing of philosophical tools and a commitment to clarity enables (or allows) rational and civilised debate.

Of course certain questions arise here:

i) Do analytic philosophers really share many - or indeed any - philosophical tools?
ii) Is there genuine civilised debate between all analytic philosophers at all times?

Many philosophers have of course questioned this assumption that analytic philosophers share tools. Others may question the deepness or genuineness of the “civilised debate” too. This basically means that there will be exceptions to i) and ii) above and no one should expect otherwise. However, on the whole, it's easy to see that most analytic philosophers do indeed share many tools and practices.

As for civilised debate.

This runs parallel to an account of science as a whole which can be distinguished from any accounts of individual scientists. That is, individual scientists can be very unrepresentative individuals: they can falsify experimental data, stick dogmatically to their theories, be paid by big business, let their politics influence their science, etc. Nonetheless, unrepresentative scientists certainly aren't the norm in science. (All this will partly depend partly on which science we're talking about, which period of scientific history, the country in which scientists work, etc.)

The same kinds of distinction can be made between individual analytic philosophers and analytic philosophy itself. There may indeed be unrepresentative analytic philosophers. It may even be the case that poor standards (however that's defined) are sometimes displayed within books or even papers. However, as with science, none of this is really true of analytic philosophy as a whole.

Analysis & Argumentation

In broad terms, it can be said that Philosopher X is an analytic philosopher simply because he uses the tools of analytic philosophy and indulges in philosophical analysis. Of course we'd need to specify exactly what the tools of analytic philosophy are and what, precisely, philosophical analysis is. Indeed these issues have caused a lot of dispute – especially in the last couple of decades (though arguably before that too).

Ironically enough, analytic philosophers have also provided analyses of the words “philosophical analysis” and subsequently asked some questions about the term.

For example, Professor Barry Dainton and Professor Howard Robinson have this to say about philosophical analysis within the tradition of analytic philosophy:

... there are many different conceptions of analysis to be found within the analytic tradition. For some 'analysis' means an investigations into concepts. For those impressed by Russell's theory of descriptions, analysis is a matter of revealing the true but concealed logical form underlying ordinary language statements. For others it is a matter of carefully studying the way expressions are actually used in ordinary language, with a view to dissolving rather than solving philosophical problems.”

These are very different accounts of philosophical analysis. However, surely we can count them all as still being philosophical analysis. Though this raises the questions as to what types or examples of philosophy bypass analysis altogether; and, indeed, how that is even possible.

One thing that analytic philosophers do share is a commitment to argumentation. That is, the “investigation into concepts” mentioned above will also usually involve argumentation of some kind. The same is true of Bertrand Russell's approach and the stress on the expressions of ordinary language. All these approaches will include argumentation and be defended with argumentation.

Argumentation, then, is opposed to simply making statements or offering “occult pronouncements”. That is, when someone engages in argumentation, that simply means that he's defending or justifying what it is he has said.

In much continental philosophy, on the other hand, there are many statements which don't appear to be the result of prior argument. That is, they aren't conclusions of claims or premises which themselves contain arguments, data, or empirical evidence. At its worst, such philosophy makes philosophical pronouncements that aren't argumentatively defended or justified.

Of course here I've simply shifted the debate from an account of the words “philosophical analysis” to references to “argument”, “justification” and the like. So it can now be said that analysis either is argumentation or that it includes argumentation.


The idea that analytic philosophy isn't a matter of doctrines  is again stressed by the European Society for Analytic Philosophy. It writes:

Analytic philosophy is characterised above all by the goal of clarity, the insistence on explicit explanation in philosophy, and the demand that any view expressed be exposed to the rigours of critical evaluation and discussion by peers.”

It can be said that the notions “clarity” and “explicit explanation” may simply be relative to analytic philosophers and what they take these words to mean. In other words, analytic philosophy may only be clear to analytic philosophers and the explicit explanations found in analytic philosophy may only work that way according to analytic philosophers. This may mean that those on the outside (including well-educated people) may not appreciate or recognise the clarity or take the explanations to be explanations. Of course this is a sceptical view of both analytic philosophy and the passage above. Nonetheless, even if clarity and these explicit explanations are relative only to analytic philosophers, it's surely still the case that most analytic philosophers have the “goals” of clarity and explanation in mind. And that takes analytic philosophers one step beyond many continental philosophers; who, it can be argued, often revel in obscurity and pseudo-profundity.

The final passage in the above also seems to explicitly and strongly tie all analytic philosophy to a university setting in that it stresses the “critical evaluation and discussion by peers”. Presumably these peers will be fellow academics. This also highlights the fact that analytic philosophy is more closely tied to university philosophy departments than continental philosophy. Of course there have also been many continental philosophers who've been professors or academics. However, when it comes to analytic philosophy, virtually every well-known (or not so well-known) analytic philosopher has made his name at some university or other. Indeed analytic philosophy outside of a university setting seems to be like a fish out of water.

Analytic philosophers rationalise this extreme university-centric bias by stressing the technicalities and specialisms of the subject. They may say that most physicists and biologists, for example, are also tied to - and reliant upon - universities. Yet even in the case of physicists and biologists there have been far more people who've done good work outside universities (including the many great “amateur scientists” from the 17th century onward) than analytic philosophers. Of course once a philosopher has established himself in a university (or in a handful of universities), then he's free to move beyond academia. However, even this is very rare within analytic philosophy. It seems, then, that contemporary analytic philosophy really is a university phenomenon and that partly explains the European Society for Analytic Philosophy's reference to the “critical evaluation of peers”.


To repeat: Hans-Johan Glock referred to “rigour, clarity, scholarship and intellectual honesty” in the passage above.

Of course these virtues aren't the sole domain of analytic philosophy. After all, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes, to take only three examples, predate analytic philosophy. There were also 20th century continental philosophers who were rigorous. However, many continental philosophers have indeed been obscure and unclear. But this simply begs the question as to what analytic philosophers mean by the words “unclear” and “obscure”.

So let's go into a little more detail as to what the word “clarity” may mean within a philosophical context. Let's quote the American philosopher Gary Gutting here. He writes:

My concern, however, is about the obscurity that arises because authors do not make a sufficient effort to connect their novel concepts to more familiar (even if technical) concepts that would all an informed and conscientious reader to make an assessment of their claims. The result is writing that is hermetic in the sense that it cuts itself off from the very issues of common concern that it is trying to address.”

First things first. It will be said that this is a gross generalisation. Is this passage meant to be about all continental philosophy? After all, I doubt that Gary Gutting had Frege, Husserl, Carnap, Wittgenstein and others in mind when he wrote the above. Indeed I doubt that what he says can be applied to (much of) Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other continental philosophers. And that's because Gutting actually had Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.

In the passage above there's also a hint (rather than an explicit statement) that such uncertainty and obscurity is quite deliberate. That is, such philosophers

do not make a sufficient effort to connect novel concepts to more familiar concepts”.

This means that the writing Gutting has in mind is intentionally “hermetic”. In other words, there can be philosophical writing styles which are unclear or even obscure - yet not deliberately so. This could apply to a philosopher like Kant or perhaps to certain works by Husserl. For example, I doubt that Kant went out of his way to be unclear or obscure. Yet Kant is indeed often unclear (depending on translations) because of his writing style, his academic audience and the complexity of the issues he was addressing. Nonetheless, his writing is rarely rhetorical or oracular; as much continental philosophy is.

So why the deliberate obscurity or unclarity? John Searle comments on this in a seminar he once gave in which he referred to Michel Foucault; whom he classed as a “good friend”. This is Searle's account of the conversation:

Searle: “Why the hell do you write so badly?”

Foucault: “Look. If I wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn't take me seriously. They'd think that I was childlike. Naive.”

Searle went on to say:

You've got to be 10% incomprehensible otherwise people won't think it's deep. They won't think you're a profound philosopher.”

Many commentators have also accused these philosophers of hiding mundane or trite ideas under pretentious prose. Others have even said that “nothing is hidden” because effectively there's nothing to hide. Or, as Hugh Mellor (at Cambridge University) said about Jacques Derrida: this stuff is “bullshit”. Mellor also wrote:

That is much latter work which seems to be willfully obscure. If you spell out these later doctrines plainly, it becomes clear that most of them, if not false, are just trivial.”

Mellor then added that Derrida "goes in for mystery-mongering about trivial truisms”. Having said that, before those words Mellor had also said that “some of Derrida's early work was interesting and serious”. However, “this isn't the work he has become famous for”.

Of course a lot of analytic philosophy is also “trivial”. It's also the case that some analytic philosophers hide that triviality under prose which is “willfully obscure”. Then again, such analytic philosophy won't be trivial or willfully obscure in the same way in which Derrida's later work is. That is, it won't be poetic, vague and oracular. Instead, analytic triviality is hidden within forests of jargon, schema, symbolic letters, footnotes, references, “backward Es” (to quote Hilary Putnam), words like ceteris paribus and the like. In other words, basic analytic academic prose will be used to hide the trivialities. In Derrida's case it's a different kind of obscurity; though, in the continental tradition, it can be equally academic.

Mellor also said that some of Derrida's “doctrines” are “simply false”. Well, Mellor most certainly must believe exactly the same thing about many doctrines offered up by analytic philosophers. However, I suppose that he must also believe that even though they are false, they aren't also “trivial”. And my bet is that he certainly won't see them as being examples of what he calls “mystery-mongering”.


Despite Gary Gutting saying that Derrida and others deal in “obscurity” and don't make the effort to communicate to those outside their own particular philosophical cults, he nonetheless does understand one of Derrida's positions: namely, that “every concept deconstructs itself”.

Now whether or not this is true (or whether or not it can be true), this position on self-deconstructing concepts may partly explain Derrida's obscurity or unclarity. After all, if all concepts do indeed deconstruct themselves, then isn't that fact (sous rature!) going to be reflected in Derrida's prose itself? Or, to be more accurate, if Derrida believed that concepts deconstruct themselves, then he might have wanted to display that reality within his philosophical prose. Indeed isn't that precisely what Derrida did attempt to do? In other words, since Derrida (at least at one point in his career) emphasised what he called philosophical and/or linguistic “play” (i.e., “the play of the sign”), then it seems that Derrida himself might have embraced obscurity or at least arcane play.

Gutting also says that French philosophers believes that “contradictions can never be avoided”. Here again, if some French philosophers really do believe this, then surely they're going to display (or reflect) that truth in their philosophical prose. And won't that very acknowledgement and highlighting of philosophy's (or language's) inherent contradictions inevitably lead to an unclear or even obscure prose style?

On the other hand, one can indeed have Mellor's “trivial truisms” which are expressed in a prose which is bizarre and strange. This suggests, then, that obscurity and unclarity are sometimes chosen, rather than forced upon a philosopher by either the world/nature or by inherent philosophical contradictions.

Then again, it can be argued that even if a philosopher stresses and acknowledges such inescapable contradictions, it's still possible to do so in a prose which isn't obscure. Think here of Graham Priest, for example, who upholds a dialethic position on logic and philosophy in which what he calls “contradictories” and “inconsistencies” are acknowledged and even embraced. Nonetheless, all this is carried out in a prose which is both clear and unpretentious. Having said that, a distinction can be made here between embracing and acknowledging contradictories and actually displaying them in one's prose. In addition, physicists who concentrate on quantum mechanics can also express their physics in a prose which is clear and unpretentious. In this case - and perhaps in Priest's too - it is the world/nature itself which is bizarre and strange, not the prose which describes that world.


It's not a surprise that the “debate” between analytic philosophers and other analytic philosophers is “easier” than the debate “between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers” (as mentioned in the Glock passage above). After all, debate between biologists and physicists is harder than between physicists and physicists. Then again, you'd expect - prima facie - that a debate between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers would be easier than between biologists and physicists because, after all, we're talking about philosophers debating with other philosophers here (even if from different traditions). Having said that, both biologists and physicists are scientists – so the same can be said about them.

At it's most extreme, if analytic philosophers and continental philosophers use different tools and technical terms, do philosophy in a different way, and don't even discuss the same issues, then it's not a surprise that there's a lack of debate between the two traditions.

As it is, however, things aren't always this bad. Apart from the fact that some philosophers on the continent have also been analytic philosophers, even when they aren't, some of the issues both traditions have discussed have indeed been the the same. However, it's still the case that the same issues have been - and still are - discussed in very different ways.



There are of course many other areas of this subject which might have been discussed. For example, the following quote has enough material in it for an entire piece. (Incidentally, this passage is a reaction to the words of John Searle mentioned above.) So I'll simply quote it as concluding food for thought. :

“I agree that the sort of literature in question has awful prose and it could be clearer. However, I've become weary of the way much of the analytic tradition fetishizes 'clarity'. This is how they subject themselves to criticism of their own: the focus on thinking about aspects of the world that are the most intelligible. But the most intelligible isn't necessarily the most important. There's something extremely artificial about avoiding ambiguity at all costs, as language itself is ambiguous. If in considering the world in its most meaningful depths we find obstacles within the language to express it, must we give up the world? A little ambiguity is inevitable, perhaps even desirable.

“If continental philosophy sins in obscurantism, analytic philosophy sins in superficiality." - Federico Amadeo

Friday, 8 June 2018

My Letter to Philosophy Now - 'Heidegger's Ways of Being'

Dear Editor,

In the Philosophy Now piece, 'Heidegger's Ways of Being', Andrew Royle claims that Martin Heidegger offered us a “direct refutation of Rene Descartes' solitary introspection”. Is that really the case?

Descartes “global scepticism” was an epistemological exercise. It had little - or nothing - to do with ontology. It was about how Descartes – or about how we - could know, and then philosophically demonstrate, that (to use Andrew Royle's own words) “the world and other people actually exist”. It wasn't even that Descartes didn't believe that the world and other people existed. Descartes' enterprise was about his knowledge of other people's existence. Indeed Descartes' initial scepticism is also what's called “methodological scepticism” (or “methodological doubt”). That is, it was supposed to be sure route to knowledge. It was a philosophical method which was designed to show us that knowledge of the world and other people is possible.

As for the Heideggerian grammar of the word 'I'.

Say, for argument's sake, that the use of the word 'I' also (as Royle puts it) “necessarily refers to... 'you' or an 'other'”. How did Descartes know that all the people he'd experienced weren't also the simulations of an “evil demon”? Thus such simulations (or mental distortions) might have also grounded Descartes' use of the word 'I'.

To put that another way. If the Matrix and “brain-in-a-vat” (Hilary Putnam) scenarios are possible, then it's equally possible that the simulations we have of other people may ground our use of the word 'I'. Indeed one can even say that a Heideggerian notion of “social Being” (or Dasein) can exist alongside Cartesian scepticism – indeed even if the Matrix and brain-in-a-vat scenarios are possible. (Putnam, of course, argues that his own scenario isn't possible – and for loosely Heideggerian reasons!)

As for solipsism. To quote Arthur Royle himself:

“Although Heidegger's argument works to abate Descartes' solipsism... Whilst the 'I' (or 'ego') was indubitably alone for Descartes...”

In everyday-life terms, Descartes would have left his doubts well behind after he'd solved (or thought he'd solved) the “sceptical problem”. (Just as Hume forgot his own scepticism when playing billiards.)

This means that Descartes most certainly wasn't a solipsist. (Though it can of course be said that he was a “methodological solipsist” for the duration of the Cogito.)

A genuine solipsist is someone who does indeed have an ontological position on what Royle calls the “I” or “ego”. What's more, a solipsist feels the reality of his solipsism throughout his life. (Or at least he does so for as long as he's a solipsist or thinks about his philosophical predicament.) Descartes, on the other hand, took a journey from his radical scepticism to a sure knowledge (or so he believed) of the world and other people. Now that's very far from being solipsism.

Not only that: solipsism has ontological and ethical implications. However, that isn't really the case when it comes to Descartes' scepticism. Having said that, it's indeed the case that certain political and sociological theorists have interpreted Descartes' scepticism as a 17th-century philosophical expression of “bourgeois individualism”. Yet even if that were true, Descartes never made this explicit. With Heidegger and solipsists, on the other hand, their ontological and ethical positions are indeed made explicit.

Paul Austin Murphy.