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Simon Blackburn

After a decade teaching philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Simon Blackburn recently returned to Britain, to a professorship at Cambridge University. Filiz Peach caught up with him in London to ask him about his ideas and his priorities.

Professor Blackburn, your philosophical interests cover a wide area including ethics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and so forth. My first question is which particular area do you find philosophically most interesting?

Well, in the course of my career I have found them successively the most interesting, I suppose. As you say, I started in philosophy of science and epistemology, and moved onto philosophy of language and then ethics. At those different times I have been obsessed by the particular things I had been doing. Just at the present time I have been fascinated by the philosophy of truth and that is what I am trying to work on just now.

Which philosophers have most influenced your own thinking in these areas?

I think David Hume stands head and shoulders above anyone else. I still think he’s the greatest philosopher Britain has produced and one of the great world philosophers. After that I would say Wittgenstein.

In your writings you often deal (as you mentioned yourself earlier) with an important philosophical concept, namely ‘truth’. What is your definition of ‘truth’? Many of our readers would be interested in hearing your opinion on whether there is such a thing as ‘absolute truth’?

Well, gosh, that’s a big one! On the definition of truth I suppose I am trying at present to decide between two positions: one is called minimalism which says that there is no such thing as a definition of truth. The only thing you can say about truth that if you give me a sentence like ‘there is a seagull there’ then I’ll tell you what makes it true, namely there being a seagull there. That is an absolutely trivial thing to say but it is the only thing to say according to the minimalist about truth, or nearly the only thing to say— there are bells and whistles but that is the core of the position. The other position I’m attracted to is I think more like that of Donald Davidson, which says that there are things to be said about truth but they have to be said alongside things you say about belief, about the mind, about nature, about virtually every other aspect of philosophy. So, truth can’t form a separate or distinctive topic on its own. So I’m undecided between those two positions; they are quite close but they are interestingly different. As for absolute truth, I’m not sure that the word ‘absolute’ adds much. I don’t believe there is a coherent concept of ‘relative truth’ although there are, of course, judgements some people make and other people don’t make. But whenever you make a judgement you are aspiring to say something that is true. True fullstop, I think, not true absolutely or true relatively. I am not sure that those qualifications help very much. But if I’m forced to choose I prefer to say true absolutely.

In the Oxford Companion to Philosophy Ted Honderich says that you defend ‘quasi-realism’. Do you agree with this comment? If so, what exactly is ‘quasi-realism’?

Yes, I do agree with that comment. Ted’s right about that. I introduced the term for a position which I became attracted to on ethics many, many years ago. My idea was that there was something right about Hume’s view that ethics is basically a matter of expressing attitudes and what Hume called ‘passions’. This came down to the 20th century in the guise of Freddie Ayer’s emotivism, which was also C.L. Stevenson’s position. But it was widely attacked as being unable to make sense of all kinds of aspects of moral thought. For example, there is the way in which we talk about moral truth, the way in which we think of ourselves as fallible, as potentially doing things which are morally wrong. ‘Realists’ about ethics often urge that as an objection to emotivism – it certainly doesn’t seem like we are just expressing our emotions in these cases. ‘Quasi-realism’ was my idea that we could give an account of those thoughts. We didn’t have to reject them as Freddie Ayer did. He was happy to be iconoclastic and say that we are simply mistake when we have those thoughts. I am more conciliatory. I thought we could accept them but give an emotivist or expressivist gloss on what was going on, which I think is much nearer to Hume’s position actually. Hume is not an iconoclast about morals: he is actually rather a conservative moral thinker. But he does think that ethically what happens as you moralise is you express your sentiments. And that’s the bit I agree with

Many people consider you to be a ‘pragmatist’. Is that how you see yourself?

In the philosophical sense, no I don’t think so. I’m certainly not a follower of William James, or Charles Sanders Peirce either although his position is difficult to identify. However I do have great sympathies with one strand of pragmatism, which is the view that our whole belief system, our whole system of concepts, is in some sense a Darwinian adaptation. So our thought-processes are devices for enabling us to survive in the world. Now if that makes one a pragmatist then I suppose I am a pragmatist but I think a better term would be a naturalist. I want a natural story of judgement and truth.

Your book, Being Good, has recently been published. I think it is a clearly written introduction to some fundamental ethical issues. What in particular motivated you to write about ‘Being Good’?

Well, two things: I’d just finished my bigger book on ethics or, if you like, more professional book, Ruling Passions, and I’d also just written Think and enjoyed writing that very much. It is an attempt to make more accessible to a wider public some of the major issues of philosophy. And I thought, well if I could do it for those major issues maybe I could do it for the issues in ethics which interested me, and that’s how Being Good came about.

What are your thoughts on contemporary metaphysics?

Slightly pessimistic, actually! I don’t think philosophy is currently in a golden age; maybe it never has been. I think there is a lot of insecurity and uncertainty about which direction metaphysics in particular needs to take.

Why do you think that is the case?

Consider for instance the philosophy of mind which has a central metaphysical (perhaps the central metaphysical) focus. I think thirty years ago there was a lot of optimism that some combination of functionalism, maybe some ideas from Wittgenstein, some ideas left over from behaviourism, some combination of those was really going to enable us to forge a new kind of understanding of the nature of the mind. I think partly under the influence of scientism, which creates an over-optimism about what science can tell us in that area, we’ve actually gone back to a much more primitive philosophy of mind. You get some books which are little better than Cartesian dualist tracts or you get people like Colin McGinn who is pessimistic about us ever understanding the mind any better than Descartes or dualists do. You get a philosophy that grinds to a halt on epiphenomenalism, or the inability to imagine a causal interaction between mind and body. I think that is regressive and sad and I think basically the subject is fairly close to ground to a halt.

What direction do you think philosophy will take in the 21st century?

Are you pessimistic about that as well? No, I’m not pessimistic about philosophy in general. I think I am just pessimistic about metaphysics and in particular about some bits of metaphysics. Other parts I think may have gone along much better; philosophy of modality, for example. I think interesting work has been done on time by people like Hugh Price and Hugh Mellor. So, I think there are places where metaphysics can progress. I suspect that what people are going to want from philosophy over the next certainly 30 years is much more in the social, political and moral sphere than in metaphysics. I think the events of September 11th will just accelerate that process.

Now let’s turn to something different. In a recent talk to Philosophy For All, you said that you believed there was no such thing as ‘global warming’. Well, that is a controversial remark. Could you briefly explain what convinced you that it is the case?

Yes, that was deliberately a provocative remark. I was using it actually to illustrate my view that people’s beliefs are very often swayed by their emotions. But in fact I think the scientific evidence is that the phenomenon is either very slight or doesn’t exist. There is no good measurement of global warming. There are bad measurements of it using land-based, widely-scattered, sporadic, rather primitive instruments called ‘Stevenson Boxes’, often sited near airports and in cities which do indeed show warming, but the globe is much bigger and the best measurements of the atmosphere’s temperature are given by satellites and by meteoro logical balloons. And if you go to the websites for those, they show more or less flat graphs.

Why do you think the vast majority of scientists does not actually share your view on this issue?

I don’t think it is true of the vast majority of scientists actually. I think what happened is that the environmentalist issues became very, very dominant and a number of bodies were set up. The most influential is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC). They produced a mountain of excellent science, including the measurements I’ve been relying upon, but then there are the public pronouncements. And the public pronouncements have always been much much more alarmist than the measurements actually suggest they should be.

But there is a general belief that there is ‘global warming’.

Yes, I shared that belief until six months ago. I then went to New Zealand, where a man called Denis Dutton directed me to some of the sceptical literature on this and to the websites I’ve been talking about, which have been produced by bodies like NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States. It is remarkable the disparity between the public perception and the newspaper media perception, and the science. But you see I think enough scientists actually have a motive for continuing that mismatch because that’s the way they stay in the limelight and get their funding and their computer time. I’m not saying that’s fraud, I’m just saying it is a mechanism which makes human beings form their beliefs.

Returning to philosophy, what future projects do you have?

Well, I’m trying to write the third of my trilogy of introductory books, and it will be the last one, which is going to be about ‘truth’ and about issues of ‘relativism’. I touched on those issues in both my other books but now I want to make them centre stage. And then I’ve got a general desire to do more in the field of moral and political philosophy. In particular I want to examine actual real-life ethical problems – first-order problems as ethicists call them. I’ve never been a moral philosopher of the kind that tells you whether or not you can have an abortion or whatever. I’ve always been a theorist, but as I get older I begin to think that philosophers can’t duck practical issues and political issues. I think we have to get our hands dirty even if it goes against the grain sometimes. So, it’s a project but whether much will happen from it I don’t want to promise.

Professor Blackburn, thank you very much indeed for this interview.

[Filiz Peach lives in London and is working on a PhD on Karl Jasper’s ideas about death.]

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