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Philosophers Come to the Surface

by J.L.H. Thomas

Once a year in mid-July the city of Durham abandons its habitual reserve and becomes the scene of the Durham Miners’ Gala. This year the gala coincided with another meeting of labourers who spend most of their lives out of sight doing a difficult and not always properly appreciated job, the annual conference, or ‘Joint Session’, of the philosophers of Britain. This conference, which dates back to 1918, is organised jointly, hence the name, by the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association at one of the universities in turn, and for many years the format has remained fundamentally unchanged. On the Friday evening a professor of philosophy from the host university delivers an address on a philosophical subject of his own choosing; then on the Saturday and Sunday six or seven symposia, on various topics, are held, at each of which two speakers present papers. The address and all the papers are published in advance in a volume of proceedings, and half of each two-hour session is given over to open discussion under a chairman. The Joint Session is the only regular general philosophical conference in Britain, and it provides an opportunity not only for the professionals to meet and exchange ideas, but also for the philosophically-minded outsider to discover what philosophers are currently thinking about and to observe them in oral discussion.

‘Ineffability’ might not at first sight appear a very promising subject for a philosophical lecture, but Professor David Cooper of Durham in his inaugural address nevertheless had some interesting things to say on and around it. He took as his starting-point a remark of Wittgenstein’s which had long puzzled him but with which he was evidently in general sympathy:

“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.”

Professor Cooper then sought reasons for the alleged mysteriousness or ineffability of the background referred to by Wittgenstein, drawing into his enquiry ideas from a variety of other thinkers, both Eastern and Western, in particular from Heidegger, his interpretation of whom was however subsequently contested. Professor Cooper’s conclusions could perhaps be summarised in three points: first, that the background or foundation of our language and other significant activity is itself without foundation; second, that this lack of foundation is revealed in some essentially ineffable experience; third, that this experience is something not merely to be acknowledged, but also in some sense ‘lived’.

In the ensuing discussion, the chairman and outgoing president, Professor John Skorupski of St Andrews, first proposed a distinction between an ‘ontic wonder’ at the sheer existence of the world, and an ‘epistemic vertigo’ at the baselessness of what exists: Professor Cooper was, he suggested, concerned rather with the latter; it was, however, a mistake to argue from the historical changes in our forms of thought to their arbitrariness. Professor Neil Cooper of Dundee welcomed Professor David Cooper’s lecture as providing philosophers with a programme for the systematic study of different kinds of ineffability; Dr Champlin of Hull and Mr Benn of St Andrews made a start by reminding us of other passages in Wittgenstein concerning ineffability, in particular that of colour: it will be interesting to see how philosophers progress with this programme in future. Mr Hughes of Durham wondered how ineffable the experience in question was when so much could be said about it. In reply to another intervention, Professor Cooper admitted that it was an interesting question how far the living of the experience he described was compatible with the position of an academic philosopher.

The first symposium on the Saturday morning on ‘Teleology and Mental States’ presented in modern terms the old debate for and against materialism, now usually called ‘physicalism’ by philosophers. The debate was opened by an opponent of physicalism, Mr William Charlton of Edinburgh, whose lucid, witty and provocative introduction to his paper was the most impressive individual performance of the entire weekend. His own theory of the mind, presented with a distracting superfluity of examples, was cast in linguistic terms: we attribute a mental state such as belief or desire to someone when we explain his behaviour by means of a clause introduced by a ‘teleological conjunction’; thus we say that Othello killed Desdemona because he believed, or ‘for the reason’, that she loved Cassio, an explanation which, argued Mr Charlton, cannot be a causal one, as physicalists require.

The other symposiast, Professor David Papineau of London, agreed that teleological considerations were necessary to any adequate theory of the mind, because it was not possible otherwise to explain how the same mental state could correspond to different physical states in different individuals, nor how mental states could represent the world, or possess ‘aboutness’. His agreement with Mr Charlton was more apparent than real, however, for he wished to explain teleology materialistically in terms of evolution and individual learning. On the whole, Professor Papineau’s approach seemed to find greater favour with the audience, despite its postulation of such unverified entities as states of the brain and evolutionary processes. The use of false beliefs in the explanation of behaviour, as in Othello’s case, was found by Dr Jane Heal of Cambridge among others to present a problem for Mr Charlton’s account; Professor Papineau claimed to be able to give an evolutionary explanation of the utility of false beliefs in, say, promoting courage in battle. Dr Lockwood of Oxford argued that the imagined possibility of the chance creation of a human being showed evolutionary considerations to be irrelevant. Mr Chappell of Edinburgh suggested that the two views of the mind might not be irreconcilable, a possibility which Mr Charlton for one seemed willing to admit.

Perhaps the most interesting paper of the entire conference was that presented on the Saturday evening by Professor Nancy Cartwright of Stanford on ‘Fables and Models’. Professor Cartwright sought an understanding of the nature of scientific theories, such as Newton’s law of gravitation, intermediate between the traditional realist account that the laws of physics describe the world, and the instrumentalist account, popular in the twentieth century, that laws are simply useful devices for making predictions and constructing machines, and say nothing about how things really are: her novel proposal was that physical theories do indeed describe the world, but not the whole of it; rather, they relate only to those isolated systems or models in which the laws are verified as they stand without correction for external influences. The added merit was claimed for her account that the formulation of new laws did not require the postulation of new theoretical entities; but her attempt to elucidate the relation between a law and its model by means of an analogy with the relation between a moral and the fable which illustrates it, though intriguing, was less persuasive.

Much of the subsequent discussion centred on the difference between the concrete description of a physical system in terms of the masses comprising it and an abstract description in terms of the forces between them. In his paper the co-symposiast, Dr Robin Le Poidevin of Leeds, had himself favoured a position close to, if not identical with, instrumentalism, but at the meeting he seemed inclined to think that force and mass were equally theoretical in character and interdefinable. Professor J.W.N.Watkins proposed a thought-experiment in which God was imagined to have created one mass at a time, so suggesting that the description of the masses was independent of that of the forces.

In entitling their symposium on the Sunday morning ‘Mixing Values’ Professor Joseph Raz and Dr James Griffin, both of Oxford, had sacrificed precision to concision, for ‘Comparing Mixed-Value Goods’ would have been a more accurate title. The problem of comparability, which has come to the fore in recent philosophical discussion, in its simplest form is the following. Suppose that I have to compare the value of two goods, A and B; suppose furthermore that the value of each good is constituted by what it contains of the same two component values, X and Y, and suppose that A contains more X than B does, and that B contains more Y than A does: how do I determine which of A and B has the greater overall value? The traditional solution is to reduce the two component values to some common denominator, or ‘super-value’, and then to add up the total amount of this in each good; this solution was, however, rejected by both symposiasts, who held to the essential irreducibility of different values. Of the two, Professor Raz seemed more optimistic that an alternative solution could be found: his own proposal appealed to the notion of a standard mix of constituent values determined by the social conception of the good in question; unfortunately, although Professor Raz had much that was judicious to say, he spoke so quietly that many in the audience could not hear him. Dr Griffith’s solution turned on the notion of a ‘basic judgement’ of the relative value of two goods, a judgement which could not be justified in terms of any other decision.

Professor R.M. Hare opened the discussion with a speech – his own word – arguing that belief in standards of value inherent in objects led inevitably (if somewhat surprisingly) to moral relativism. The Czech émigré philosopher, Dr Tomín, took the opportunity to draw attention to the state of philosophy in Prague. More relevantly, Professor Sprigge of Edinburgh criticised the symposiasts’ choice of unimportant examples of mixed-value goods, such as novels and knives, and proposed a distinction between more significant individual and social choices. Mrs Brenda Almond of Hull suggested that the latter might guide the former: I myself might not be able to compare the value of reading a book and going for a swim, say, but a community could more readily allocate resources between a library and a swimming pool.

The two concluding symposia on the Sunday gave the impression at times of private conversations carried on in public: familiarity was presupposed with previous discussion, technicalities abounded, and one contributor in his paper even quoted at length a letter from a friend! Matters were not mended by those symposiasts who harangued the assembled company with much gesticulation, slang, and use of visual aids in a manner more suited to the transatlantic classroom than to a Joint Session. Professor Richard Jeffrey of Princeton and Mrs Dorothy Edgington of London, the Secretary of the Aristotelian Society, addressed a problem which has troubled philosophers since the Stoics, namely how to give an acceptable account of conditional or ‘if-then’ statements. How do I decide whether the statement ‘If A then B’ is as a whole true or false, that is, determine its truthvalue? If A is true and B false, then the conditional seems plainly false: but what if A is false, or if the truth-values of A and B are unknown? The symposiasts apparently favoured an answer in terms of the conditional probability of B given A, and so of truth-values intermediate between true and false: the approach appeared promising, but many difficulties remained unresolved, despite valiant efforts on the part of Mrs Edgington to clarify the issues.

The final symposium returned to the topic of the first, namely the mind: more precisely, it was concerned with the relationship between the common-sense understanding of the mind, or ‘folk-psychology’, and a more theoretical understanding in terms of cognitive science, and in particular with the possibility of eliminating the former in favour of the latter. The ideas of Professor Stephen Stich of Rutgers were in too much of a state of flux for him to reach a settled view of the matter. Dr Andy Clark of Sussex asked some clear questions, including what we do when we ascribe a concept to someone, and held out the possibility of reversing the eliminativist programme by means of a ‘radical ascent’, as he called it, from a basic cognitivist description of the mind to ever higher levels of theoretical description until folk-psychology is finally reinstated.

Two other meetings were held concurrently with the morning symposia already reviewed, both of which seemed rather out of place at a Joint Session. On the Saturday, in place of a symposium, Professor John Etchemendy of Stanford gave a lecture on ‘Heterogeneous Reasoning’: since his text was not published in advance, it was impossible for someone who did not attend to form an independent opinion of the lecture, but it reportedly concerned new methods of argument involving diagrams and computers.

The symposium on Sunday on ‘Non-Locality in Quantum Mechanics’ would have been more at home in a specialist conference on the philosophy of science. Despite the declared aim of the symposiasts, Professor Michael Redhead of Cambridge and Dr Harvey Brown of Oxford, to survey the issues in a relatively non-technical fashion, their papers presupposed a great deal of specialist knowledge, which put them out of reach of the vast majority of those at the Joint Session, and appeared to reach no summarisable conclusions.

A recent innovation at the Joint Session has been the inclusion of a meeting at which graduate students are given the opportunity to read short papers, not included in the printed proceedings, on subjects of their own choosing, followed by yet briefer discussion. It must have been a daunting occasion on the Saturday afternoon for the four young philosophers, two men and two women, from the universities of Liverpool, London and Oxford, to face a professional audience of over one hundred, but they all proved fully equal to it. Although their papers inevitably suffered from the imposed brevity, on the whole they were clearer and reached more definite, if less original conclusions than some of those presented elsewhere at the conference.

The Joint Session last came to the North- East in 1963, when King’s College, Newcastle, where it took place, was still part of the University of Durham and still possessed a department of philosophy; a comparison of the two occasions gives a good idea of the changes in philosophy in this country over the last thirty years. Rather more came to the Session this time (nearly two hundred as against one hundred and fifty), the proportion of visitors from abroad was also higher (about one tenth of all participants and nearly one third of the speakers as against one fifteenth and none respectively), whilst leading British philosophers were perhaps somewhat less in evidence. The range of topics discussed was rather narrower than before, their precise nature and importance was less immediately apparent, and it was often difficult to see the wood for the trees. The papers presented had become longer and much more technical and scholarly in character, yet less trouble appeared to have been expended upon them; by and large, the symposiasts seemed more concerned to present their most recent researches than to contribute to a debate, and at times they gave the impression of speaking past, rather than to each other. In discussion long words like ‘phenomenology’, ‘ontology’ and various ‘isms’ were used with a freedom which would have horrified philosophers thirty years ago, whilst sustained exchanges were fewer and discouraged by the chairmen, who were more concerned that everyone should have a chance to speak than that individual issues should be resolved. Altogether it was perhaps a rather duller occasion this year: let us hope, then, that when the Joint Session returns to these parts in another generation’s time, British philosophy will have recovered some of its former clarity, frugality, intensity, self-confidence and academic standing.

© J.L.H.Thomas 1991

Mr. J.L.H.Thomas is a freelance philosopher living in Northumberland.

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