Thursday, October 28, 2010

Normative shmormative

In the light of some recent discussions on this site (here and here), I thought it might be appropriate for me to make a short statement about my general attitude to science and philosophy. I am not as convinced as some of my interlocutors are about the coherence and value of philosophy as a discipline, but I know this is a personal thing, and I certainly don't presume to tell others what they should do or be interested in!

I tend to think historically, and I see a grand tradition of thinkers who were called philosophers, but many (most?) of the great names (e.g. Descartes, Leibniz) were also scientists and/or mathematicians. What is left of philosophy after all the sciences have been peeled off from it does not attract me - unless it can be reconnected in some way with the sciences. I am not unsympathetic to the Quinean view that philosophy of science is philosophy enough. But there are very different ways of seeing the philosophy of science.

As I have the view that philosophy is not an independent discipline, I tend to see any authority to set epistemic norms and make definite judgements on factual matters as residing within specific scientific traditions, and the role of philosophical thinking as essentially clarificatory; but also speculative in the sense that it may suggest new conjectures to be considered or new ways of conceptualizing or interpreting data.

From what I have said it may seem that my worldview is rather impoverished, but let me hasten to say that my view of the world embraces lots of non-scientific things (e.g. pleasure in language and literature). I see morality and manners as being of central importance, but I am reluctant to accept the need for experts in ethics and similar areas (except in limited pedagogical contexts).


  1. I'm with you. The older I get the more suspicious I am of reason uncorrected by experience. Reason alone is too liable to lead to error or abuse. History and science provide essential correctives to pure reason. To the extent philosophy deals in a priori abstractions, it is either irrelevantly true or wanting of external correction. On the other hand, some kinds of moral philosophy--Stoicism comes to mind--has the value of making its moral injunctions on more practical bases. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, shrugs his shoulders at the question whether the Cosmos happened by accident or was created by the gods. Either way, Man is a social animal.

  2. Mark, call me old-fashioned, but I'm of the Socratic-schmormative faith.

    You belong to the Cartesian-schmientific congregation.

    This suggests an update of the Monty Python soccer sketch.

    Socratics United: Moore, Wittgenstein, Austin, Hart, Rawls, MacIntyre ...

    Cartesian Athletics: Russell, Quine, Smart, Armstrong, Putnam, Kripke ...

    If I recall, the original match was won by Pythagoras passing to Socrates who scored the only goal.

  3. Alan, that's my other all-time favorite Monty Python...along with John Cleese teaching Graham Chapman how to conjugate the verb "to go" in Life of Brian.

  4. By the wonders of YouTube:

    It almost makes me wish I knew Latin!

  5. So the upshot of my devastating critique of philosophy is that I am assigned to a particular philosophical congregation or philosophical-football team fan base! (I met J.J.C. Smart a few times by the way and though he was past his prime I liked him: I remember he was the only one who came to my defence at one of those notorious Friday afternoon seminars.)

  6. In the religion of philosophy, lay members such as ourselves get to preach the sermon every so often!

    Also, it's a pretty damn good team to support. Others you can add: Carnap, Ayer, Dennett, Sellars, even maybe Ryle.

    Jack Smart was friendly when I met him too. I studied with his brother, Ninian, also a kind person.