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Tallis in Wonderland

The ‘P’ Word

Raymond Tallis asks, does it matter if philosophy does not make progress?

“decisive arguments in philosophy are rare… decisive arguments for positive views are even rarer, and decisive arguments for positive answers to the big questions are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.”
David Chalmers, 2015

That the arts do not progress in the way that the sciences progress does not seem to worry us. We don’t wring our hands because the latest Nobel-prize-winning poet or dramatist cannot hold a candle to Shakespeare. A contemporary scientist who had not moved beyond Galileo, on the other hand, would be an object of ridicule. But what of philosophy? Does it progress, and if it doesn’t, should we dismiss it as a cognitive relic – an ox cart in the age of the jet plane?

Philosophy versus Science

David Chalmers, best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, addresses this question in an illuminating recent article, ‘Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?’ in Philosophy, 90 (1), Jan 2015.

One marker of progress, he argues, would be convergence to a consensus on answers to the Big Questions. By this criterion, things don’t look good. Take Chalmers’ own area of interest: the philosophy of mind. According to a survey he quotes, physicalists, who nowadays tend to believe that consciousness is identical to brain activity, and non-physicalists (such as dualists) are still slugging it out, centuries after Hobbes and Descartes set those hares running. What is more, even if there had been consensus, this wouldn’t mean convergence to the truth. At present physicalism commands a majority opinion, but, as both Chalmers and I believe, it is probably wrong.

It’s no use philosophers fighting back by pointing out that science, too, is in a state of permanent quarrel with itself, and consensus is only temporary. The history of science is a history of discarded theories. There is, however, a crucial extra element. Each epoch in science hands down solid results to its successors, giving them something to build on. In the history of physics from Archimedes to Galileo to Newton to Einstein, important truths survive successive revolutions in thought. Einstein did not disprove the idea of the measurement of the volume of irregular objects by displacement of water that prompted Archimedes to leap out of his apocryphal bath. In short, there is cumulative gain in the power of science to explain and predict phenomena, which is translated into ever more potent technology. There is no such apparent cumulative gain in philosophical explanations.

The contrast with mathematics is even more striking. As Chalmers points out, of the twenty-three mathematical problems that David Hilbert proposed in 1900, there is universal consensus on the solution to ten of them, and partial consensus on another seven. None of the problems in Bertrand Russell’s 1912 The Problems of Philosophy has come close to this level of consensus.

There are of course areas in the sciences where progress seems to have stalled; for example, the reconciliation of quantum theory and relativity, explaining the origin of life, and making sense of the relationship between brain activity and consciousness. These, however, are at the cutting edge, behind which there is a massive body of solved problems and robust knowledge. And, as Peter van Inwagen (quoted by Chalmers) points out “The cutting edge of philosophy is… pretty much the whole of it.”

Clarifying Philosophy

What conclusion shall we draw from the contrast between science – “the art of the soluble” as Peter Medawar called it – and philosophy, whose clear-up rate of problems is such that, if it were a police force, it would be taken into special measures? Shall we deem that Plato, Descartes, Kant, Frege, and Russell have taken us no further on the road to truth? Or shall we conclude that solving problems – or even exposing them as pseudo-problems and dissolving them in true Wittgensteinian fashion – is not the ultimate or the primary aim of philosophy?

Chalmers argues that seeing philosophy as a search for answers to problems is “overly scientistic.” (After all, once they are open to empirical investigation there is a tendency for problems to migrate to science.) Perhaps, he suggests, it is a quest for something else: “understanding, clarity, enlightenment.” This would certainly correspond to the goal of philosophy described by Peter Strawson in Skepticism and Naturalism – Some Varieties (1985), of getting “a clear view of our concepts and their place in our lives” and establishing “the connections between the major structural features or elements of our conceptual scheme.” This is more ambitious and interesting than philosophy as pre-scientific problem-solving, or even as primitive science carried out from an armchair. And it captures something central to the traditional philosophical enterprise: stepping back from, and reflecting upon, our ways of speaking and thinking about the world.

But it is still not the whole story. Philosophical inquiry also questions, at the most fundamental level, our customary ways of explaining and understanding what we take to be real. This includes challenging the natural sciences when they encroach upon the traditional preoccupations of the humanities, such as metaphysics, and especially understanding our own nature. Philosophy offers an external view of the character and scope of scientific understanding. It may also contribute to the project of seeing how the different sciences relate to one another, and (more importantly) examine the vexed relationship between the scientific account of the world and the way we experience it in everyday life – “the manifest image” of the world, as Wilfrid Sellars called it.

Pinch Yourself

Reflections, both descriptive and critical, on the ‘conceptual schemes’ through which we experience the world and indeed view ourselves, are clearly not to be reduced to problem-solving narrowly construed. So why do problems figure so largely in the history of philosophy? Or why does the history of philosophy seem sometimes to look like a series of doomed attempts to solve problems that were first raised thousands of years ago? What is the point of seemingly insoluble problems?

Quite simply, they are a means of pinching ourselves awake.

Consider the hoary conundrum of our knowledge of the external world. Philosophers have been concerned that, since all such knowledge is mediated through our bodies, more specifically our senses, we cannot acquire an uncontaminated view of what is ‘out there’, beyond our senses, beyond ourselves: we cannot even be sure that there is anything out there. Kant described it as a scandal that philosophy had not solved this problem. Martin Heidegger argued that, on the contrary, it was a scandal that proofs of an external world were still being sought. This seeming stalemate, however, is not futile. Thinking about what is out there in the most general sense (and about what ‘out there’ might actually mean) highlights some of our most fundamental assumptions about ourselves, our bodies, and the world – Strawson’s ‘conceptual schema’ – to which we might otherwise be asleep. And such waking up is not merely the answer to a question, the passage from a premise to a solution, but the beginning of more questions.

Philosophy is, of course, a house with many rooms, and it is misleading to think that there will be a single point to or purpose of ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, formal logic, political philosophy, aesthetics, and meta-ethics. Even so, there are characteristics common perhaps to all its many preoccupations, disciplines, and sub-disciplines, although they are sometimes lost sight of in a thicket of technicalities and footnotes on footnotes. Most important is the aspiration to see matters from the most general viewpoint, least cluttered with unnoticed presuppositions, and – the other side of this – seeking the most fundamental aspects of those matters. These in turn are expressions of a deeper ambition – to look at the world as if from the outside, with unpeeled gaze, to wake out of ordinary (that is to say half-asleep) wakefulness.

There will be some overlap with the aim of literature and other arts to acknowledge and celebrate the rich fabric of our lives; but the ache of the philosopher to uncover problems and mysteries strangely hidden in what is merely obvious in the practical business of our lives, and hence to ‘untake’ the taken-for-granted, is a special ache. So the question ‘What is the of point of philosophy when it cannot solve its Big Questions?’ becomes ‘What’s the point of being awake?’ To which the answer is that, if anything is an end in itself – is valuable purely for its own sake – this surely is.

It is also important to appreciate that problems may be fruitfully transformed even when they are not solved, and that in the process of transformation all sorts of insights may be gained. The human understanding of universals has been radically altered – enriched and deepened – by the 2,500-year long discussion that Plato set in motion. Each century has its own dialects of thought and takes up the philosophical quest at a different place, even when it is often expressed in addressing a seemingly unchanging curriculum of brain-teasers. Each era brings its own mode of awareness to the traditional ‘eternal’ problems, and may turn them into a mirror of its preoccupations and anxieties.

Join The Conversation

If – as must be the case – complete self-understanding eludes every age, then the fault lies not with philosophy but with our finitude, for which nothing – philosophy, art, or science – offers any cure. Philosophy may sometimes feel like “the imminence of a revelation that never comes” (Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the aesthetic experience). This tension is indirectly reflected in the life of the individual philosopher as well as in the shared history of philosophy. Henri Bergson’s observation in his address to the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy in 1911, is apposite: “a philosopher worthy of the name has never said more than a single thing: and even then it is something he has tried to say, rather than actually said.” Pursuing that single thing is rather like Gustav Mahler’s wonderful hunt for “that tune” in the course of nine and a half symphonies. Besides, the endeavour to make things clearer for one’s self, to connect ‘this over here’ with ‘that over there’, and to open dormer windows on our parochial consciousness, surely qualifies as something intrinsically valuable.

If there are grounds for despair, they are not to be found in the intractability of many philosophical problems. Rather they lie in the knowledge that we enter and leave the philosophical conversation at arbitrary points separated by small stretches of time; that our dance with the insoluble that makes the mystery of our existence more visible is so brief. For me, philosophy began in 1963 (“between the trial of Lady Chatterley and the Beatles’ first L.P.”) and will end in a few years’ time, or tomorrow.

We are fated to enter and leave the deepest and most illuminating conversation humankind has with itself in mid-sentence. For this reason, philosophy’s closeness to its beginning – its lack of progress – is connected with its surpassing value.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2016

Raymond Tallis’s latest book is The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic). His website is raymondtallis.com.

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