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by Rick Lewis
Like the sea, philosophy is always changing yet always stays the same. Naturally, Philosophy Now strives to reflect this, so as to live up to the ‘Now’ in the magazine’s title. One way in which philosophy is constant is that thinkers have nearly always drawn inspiration from the great philosophers of earlier generations. Another is that they usually criticise those earlier thinkers as a way of articulating their own, newer (and presumably better) views. There have been countless books, learned articles and so on down the years in which the author has contrasted his own views with those of often unnamed ‘traditional philosophers’. My old philosophy tutor, John Heawood, used to wonder who all these ‘traditional philosophers’ were who were always cropping up. One student suggested that maybe they were “a wild tribe who live in the hills.”
This issue contains several articles about attacks on ‘traditional philosophy’, but our authors (fearless, open, direct, would we give you less?) boldly name the traditional philosophers who are under attack.
Innes Crellin attacks traditional English moral philosophy for being coldly analytical, inappropriately imitating science rather than engaging with the passions and problems of real people. He contrasts it unfavourably with the ideas of the continental philosophers he admires. The philosophers of the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition would probably reply that they are just as passionate as the Continentals about ethical problems and about the need for us to find ways of living well. They would say that their pains-taking examination of the way we talk about ethics isn’t an end in itself but a way (the only way) of getting enough clarity of thought to answer the really important questions.
We also have an article and book review describing two famous attacks on traditional views of science, by the revolutionary Thomas Kuhn and the anarchic Paul Feyerabend.
What motivated ‘traditional philosophers of science’ (there, now I’m at it too!) were questions like “What gives science its special trustworthiness?” They wanted to find out how science should be done in order to be reliable; how new theories should be tested, for instance. Kuhn wasn’t tackling the same question. He wasn’t looking so much at how science should be done as at how science actually, historically, progresses. His work is really sociology of science. But as an exscientist myself, I’d be more interested in answers to immediately practical questions, such as: How do we generate new ideas (as opposed to testing the hypotheses we already have)? When should we abandon old theories in favour of new ones?
Einstein once wrote “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” But ‘refinement’ is the operative word here. Unadorned everyday thinking makes it seem like a good idea to take part in the National Lottery, but deeper reflection shows us that the chances of winning anything substantial are extremely remote. Gordon Giles links questions of rationality to questions of ethics when he savages the National Lottery (p.5).
Looking back at past issues of Philosophy Now, one curiosity is the number of contributions on the morality of eating people. We’ve already published four articles and numerous letters on the subject. This isn’t what you might call a mainstream area of applied ethics, either. The authors’ excuse seems to be that they are making various points about vegetarianism and about our obligations to other people, but I’m not convinced. I think there is just something about cannibalism which exerts an unhealthy grip on the minds of our readers and contributors. However, I’ve decided to pander to your depraved tastes by publishing yet another article on this theme.
The world has lost far too many original thinkers in the last couple of years. Andrew Hussey tells the story of Guy-Ernest Debord, who shot himself at the end of 1994. The news page notes the demise of five other eminent philosophers. The mortality rate among top-notch French philos in particular has been quite appalling recently. I still get the impression, though, that on average philosophers do live remarkably long lives. In this century Bertrand Russell lived to be 98 and Karl Popper reached 94. Emmanuel Levinas has just died at 89. Willard Van Orman Quine is a highly active youngster at 87, as is Sir Isaiah Berlin (86). A firm of actuaries should look into this; perhaps philosophers could pay less for life insurance.