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The Spirit of the Age

by Rick Lewis

Philosophy Now has been going for about three years now, but this is the first time that it has been sold widely in shops like John Menzies. So if you’ve just bought this magazine for the first time, hello! All kinds of interesting, exciting, dangerous, stupid or even brilliant ideas bubble around quietly in philosophy departments and seminar rooms. We try to bring a few of them to the wider audience we feel they deserve!

One feature of the philosophy scene today is that there are two quit e separate philosophical traditions vying for the hearts and minds of the world’s thinkers. The one which is more prevalent on the Continent is marked by a continuing interest in the big questions of the meaning of life and our place in the world. The other, known as analytical philosophy, dominates in Britain and the U.S. and is famed for its detailed dissection of language and concepts. Over the last year this magazine has been trying to encourage some communication between these two schools of thought by explaining the main ideas of each. This effort comes to a head in this issue with the concluding part of Dan Hutto’s history of analytical philosophy, which brings that story up to date, and with John Mann’s introduction to recent Continental philosophy, which gives at least a flavour of what’s been going on in Europe recently.

A Church of England clergyman was recently sacked for writing a book saying that he no longer believed in an objective, external God and arguing for a Christianity based instead on the idea that God is an aspect of each of us. We touch on this controversy with a review of that book and with an article claiming that religion would still make sense even if there was no external God.

Given this summary of what three different (occasionally overlapping) groups of thinkers are worrying about now, it’s worth looking for common concerns. We live in a very interconnected, media-orientated civilisation. How much has each of these discussions been affected by the others, and by the wider culture around it? Is there a ‘spirit of the age’ which infects all the philosophers and theologians, regardless of the labels they stick on themselves?

A few decades ago, Anglo-American analytical philosophy was dominated by a group of thinkers known as the logical positivists. Their central belief was that all propositions ultimately derived their meaning from our experience of the world. Suppose you say “the Prime Minister was standing on a soap-box” and I say “What do you mean?” You elaborate and I say “I still don’t understand, sorry, what’s a soap-box?” In the end you can just point at a soap-box, say “Look! Soap-box!” and now I should understand the word. I’ve been shown its meaning. The meaning is (as analytic philosophers would say) grounded in experience. However, Dan Hutto describes how this view has been undermined by the great American logician, Willard Van Ormand Quine, so that now the search is on for some other source to give our language meaning. Why does it matter? Because we cannot tell whether a sentence is true unless we know exactly what it means, and the search for truth is supposed to be what philosophy is all about.

According to John Mann, Claude Lévi-Strauss in France was worrying about just the same thing thirty years ago. His philosophy, structuralism, is an attempt to solve the same problem by saying that sentences get their meaning in terms of other sentences – language is a self-supporting structure, so if you want to know the meaning of ‘soap-box’ then what you need to do is look it up in a dictionary. By way of structuralism, Continental philosophy has become just as obsessed with the nature of language as its Anglo-American counterpart. And later Continental philosophers (post-structuralists, deconstructionists) have continued with the same concerns.

If both the main philosophical traditions in the West are concerned with how to find a basis for the meaning of the things we say (and worrying that there may not be such a basis) then it is interesting to find some theologians and other religious people wrestling with a parallel problem. If they cannot believe in an objective, external God, is their religion still meaningful? On what is it based? In other words, is there any purpose in their continuing to go to church services and sing hymns and pray, or should they just stay home and watch the rugby?

Presumably most church-goers still do believe in a God in the old fashioned way, and not all analytical philosophers, perhaps, are convinced by Quine’s arguments. However, if there is a spirit of this age then it must involve this search for meaning. Meaning may be more shifting and uncertain than we used to think.

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