Wednesday 1 May 2013

Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (2013)

Centenary Special 1913-2012

From Volume 101 No. 1 Spring 2013

Philosophy in the Twentieth Century

How the Wider World Impinged

By Richard Norman

It is now forty years since the first issue of the journal RadicalPhilosophy was published in January 1972. It contained a statement of intent which began:

'Contemporary British philosophy is at a dead end.  Its academic practitioners have all but abandoned the attempt to understand the world, let alone to change it.  They have made philosophy into a narrow and specialised academic subject of little relevance or interest to anyone outside the small circle of Professional Philosophers…'

A year earlier I had joined with two colleagues at the University of Kent and with others  in Sussex, Oxford, London and elsewhere, to form the Radical Philosophy Group.  There were three strands in the radical philosophy movement, which were
sometimes in tension with one another:

1. An emphasis on the need for the practice of philosophy to break out of the confines of academic institutions.

2. An alliance between political radicalism and a more engaged form of philosophical activity.

3. A willingness to draw on the resources of alternative philosophical traditions.  In the founding statement we said: 'There are other traditions which may inform our work (e.g. phenomenology and existentialism, Hegelian thought and Marxism).'

I'll return to the first strand shortly, but before doing so, I'll make some comments on the other two.  About the relation between philosophical and political radicalism there was always a certain ambiguity.  Radical philosophy did not explicitly define itself in relation to any specific political position, but in practice the people involved were on the political left, and there was a temptation to take left-wing politics for granted and to talk only to others who shared the same political commitment.

Mary Warnock, an Oxford philosopher who (ironically) would later be known primarily for applying philosophy to practical issues in bioethics, attacked radical philosophy for wanting to replace traditional philosophy with political action.  In an article published in New Society in 1972 she wrote:

'The present critics of traditional philosophy, the radicals, wish above all to ensure that philosophy shall have practical effects… This seems to mean that there is no part of philosophy that is non-political.  The point of the philosopher's work is to change the world – and to change it he must change the consciousness of the working classes.'

She attributed to us the view that philosophy must be left-wing and Marxist and 'must start from the working classes', and she saw this as turning philosophy into an irrational activity and abandoning the commitment to rational argument.  Her description of the radical philosophy project was a caricature, but perhaps one which we were in danger of inviting by addressing ourselves largely to people on the left and taking left-wing political commitment as a given.  Warnock concluded:

'It is not that I wish philosophy necessarily to be uncommitted.  But commitment should come, if at all, by way of arguments.  And it has always been the pride of philosophy to try to follow the argument, as Plato said, wherever it leads.  To have it laid down in advance, in the book of rules, that there is one and only one correct way to go, seems to me to be contrary to what ought to be the free and sceptical spirit of the subject.'

The need to defend political commitment with rational argument was not something that radical philosophy ever denied.  Of course political positions have to be supported with rational arguments which do not already take a particular commitment for granted.  In practice, however, the supporters of radical philosophy did not do enough of that kind of work in political philosophy.  The early 1970s did see a revival of normative political philosophy, setting out views about the nature of a good and just society, but it came from a different direction.  It was initiated especially by John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, published in 1972, which gave rise to a wealth of philosophical work defending other substantive political positions.  Philosophers who defended more radical positions, for example the political philosopher G A ('Jerry') Cohen, who was loosely associated with radical philosophy in its early days, saw it as more important to publish in mainstream journals where they were not preaching to the converted, and to engage with the arguments of philosophers such as Rawls and Robert Nozick.  With hindsight I think that they were right.

The third of the three strands in radical philosophy – an openness to other philosophical traditions – was not a commitment to any particular tradition or style.  There was a lot of interest in Marxist ideas in the early issues of Radical Philosophy, but this was not an exclusive preoccupation.  Since then, the range of traditions which are drawn on in philosophical work in this country has become much broader.  This has included a renewed interest in Marxism (including what came to be called 'analytical Marxism') and in the philosophy of Hegel, who was a focus of interest in some of the early issues of the journal.  I think it fair to say, however, that these developments have happened independently of radical philosophy, although the group was one symptom of the larger change.

The journal Radical Philosophy itself came to be increasingly dominated by a particular style of philosophy, heavily influenced by post-structuralist discourse theory and by post-modernism.  As it veered in this direction, I myself increasingly lost touch with it.  That style of philosophy can be just as narrowly academic and esoteric as the style of analytical philosophy which we had started off by criticising.  It exhibits the same tendency to be inward-looking, to employ a language intelligible only to the initiated, to focus on texts, often obscure and arcane, and to derive its content from what other academics have written rather than from what exercises people in their non-philosophical lives.

This brings me back to the first of the three strands in radical philosophy, and the one which I consider the most important – the attempt to take philosophy out of the academy into the wider world.  The crucial contrast here is between, on the one hand, philosophy which takes its problems from outside the academic profession, from the questions and dilemmas which exercise people in their everyday lives and their thinking about their lives, and on the other hand philosophy which takes its problems from other philosophers, which interests itself only in philosophical texts and articles in academic journals, and which addresses itself only to other academic philosophers.

This strand in radical philosophy was, again, part of a wider movement.  It was broadly in line with the emergence of what came to be called 'applied philosophy'.  The US-based journal Philosophy and Public Affairs started publication in 1971 and was followed a decade or so later, in Britain, by the founding of the Society for Applied Philosophy and the first issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy.  The early 1970s had also seen the pioneering work of people like Jonathan Glover and Peter Singer who, rather than confining themselves to questions such as 'What do we mean by the word 'ought'?', began addressing questions such as 'Ought we to legalise voluntary euthanasia?' or 'Ought we to stop killing animals for food?'or 'How much of our money ought we to give to famine relief?'.

That broad development, exemplified both by the radical philosophy movement and by the applied philosophy movement, was, I believe, welcome and necessary.  It was a successful opening up of philosophy to the wider world and a revival of its true vocation.  Sadly, over the past twenty years there has been a falling back.  British philosophy has again retreated into a confined academic world.  Much of the blame lies with the national monitoring of philosophical research and publications through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now renamed the Research Excellence Framework.  This has pushed academic philosophers back into writing primarily for professional fellow-academics.  It has encouraged work written in an esoteric vocabulary which excludes outsiders, bolstered with references to other academic publications, and addressing questions raised not by people's lives but by other academic philosophers responding in their turn to their academic predecessors.  It has encouraged publication for its own sake, rather than writing motivated by having something to say and a desire to communicate it to the wider world.

I believe that these have been retrograde developments.  We badly need a revival of what was best in radical philosophy, and what was best in applied philosophy.  I want to make a bold and sweeping claim: that all good philosophy is 'radical' in the sense of addressing fundamental human concerns – dealing not just with trivia and academic puzzles but with questions which go to the heart of people's struggles to understand their lives and the world around them.  In that sense, too, all good philosophy is 'applied' philosophy.  This has been true of all the great philosophers of the western tradition. 

Plato, the founder of the first academy, was not an academic philosopher.  His philosophical thought was motivated by his experience of the excesses of Athenian democracy, the even worse excesses of the oligarchic revolutions, and the act of the restored democrats who put Socrates to death.  The questions which exercised Plato were: How can we educate political rulers to rule justly?  What kind of knowledge do they need?  And, speaking today in Malmesbury, it is appropriate for me to point out that Thomas Hobbes's most famous philosophical work was driven by the political convulsions of the seventeenth century, and by the question of whether it is ever right to depose the sovereign.  This led him to explore the grounds and limits of political authority, just as it led Locke to do so later in the century.  Hobbes's philosophy was also a response to the rise of the new science, exploring its implications for our understanding of the universe, and whether it can be reconciled with traditional religious belief.  Those same questions were at the heart of the philosophical preoccupations of Descartes and Spinoza, Locke and Berkeley and Hume.

As these historical examples illustrate, by 'applied philosophy' I do not mean only applied ethics.  I include also philosophy which addresses the great metaphysical questions which everyone asks, such as:  Is there a god?  Does our conscious experience end with our physical death?  What makes life meaningful?  Is this all there is?  With that qualification, then, why do I say that all good philosophy is radical philosophy, and is applied philosophy?  Shouldn't it be a matter for choice what kind of philosophy its practitioners choose to engage in?  I shall now offer a brief defence of my claim.

I take it to be agreed that philosophy is not an empirical science.  It is primarily a conceptual discipline, using a priori reasoning which does not rely on the evidence of experience.  (I shall qualify this point in a moment, but let it stand for now.)  Assessment of a philosophical theory therefore has to put a lot of weight on the test of internal coherence, logical consistency.  However, any candidate theory can be made internally consistent if we are prepared to jettison enough of our beliefs and intuitions which don't fit.  Someone could defend even an outlandish theory such as solipsism if he or she were prepared to abandon enough of ordinary ways of speaking.  If all competing theories, then, can be made internally consistent, how do we decide on the best theory?  My answer is that a good philosophical theory has to be not only consistent but also as comprehensive as possible.  The best theory is the one which makes the best sense of as much of our shared experience as possible.

That is the qualification I want to add to my previous statement that philosophy is a conceptual rather than an empirical discipline.  It is not an experimental science, but its starting point is the facts of experience, both our everyday personal experience and the best currently available results of the specialist sciences.  The task of philosophy is not to add new empirical data, but to bring together all those products of experience, to look for ways of thinking about and understanding them as a whole, and to articulate an overall conceptual framework which provides the best fit with them.  It is the fact that the philosophical conclusions must be answerable to our experience as a whole that ensures that good philosophical theories are rooted in reality rather than being free-floating products of pure thought.

That is a rather abstract argument for why good philosophy has to be 'applied' philosophy in the sense of addressing itself to our pre-philosophical experience and concerns.  Here is a concrete example to illustrate that claim.  One of the liveliest philosophical debates of recent years has been the renewed controversy about religious belief and atheism.  Though the issues have been essentially philosophical ones, the debate has for the most part been conducted not by philosophers but by scientists and theologians.  Consider one prominent element in the debate, the so-called 'fine-tuning argument' – a refurbished version of the argument from design for the existence of a deity. 

According to this argument, scientific explanations for the existence of human beings and other living things, the origin of the earth, and the ultimate origins of the physical universe in the so-called 'Big Bang' 13.7 billion years ago, all depend upon basic facts about the physical universe, the fundamental scientific laws and the basic physical constants such as the force of gravitational attraction, the speed of light in a vacuum, and Planck's constant.  If the values of these physical constants had been even slightly different, the Big Bang would not have led to the emergence of life and of human beings, and perhaps not to an ordered universe at all.  The universe, it is said, is 'fine-tuned for life'.

What the argument then says is that this cannot be a matter of mere chance.  The fact that the mathematical values of the basic constants are just right for producing life, including human life, must have been intended.  The only plausible explanation for it is a purposive explanation, a personal explanation.  The fundamental features of the universe are as they are because they were established by an intelligent personal being for the purpose of eventually creating human life.

The response of atheist critics of the argument (such as Richard Dawkins) is that any acceptable explanation of the values of the basic physical constants would itself have to be a scientific explanation.  Perhaps the basic constants will turn out to be all interconnected at a deeper level.  Or perhaps the best explanation may be some kind of 'multiverse' theory – our universe is one of many actual or possible universes, and ours just happens to be the one that is fine-tuned for life.

It seems clear to me that the disagreement between the defenders of the fine-tuning argument and its critics is not itself a scientific one.  It is a philosophical disagreement.  For the critics the explanation has to be a scientific explanation, because that's the only kind of explanation there can be.  For the defenders of the argument, the ultimate explanation cannot possibly be one more scientific explanation.  So the disagreement is about what counts as a good explanation, and about the relation between scientific explanations and purposive explanations.

More fundamentally it is a conflict between two metaphysical perspectives, naturalism and anti-naturalism.  Defenders of the fine-tuning argument must be committed to the claim that a creator possessing intelligence and knowledge and will existed independently of and prior to the existence of the natural universe, without any physical embodiment or spatio-temporal location. 

Naturalists will say that this is philosophically untenable.  It is impossible that there could be a disembodied consciousness with no physical basis.  We can, they would say, make no sense of talk of the content of consciousness detached from any kind of sensory apparatus as a source of external data.  And we can make no sense of any talk of agency other than that of embodied beings acting on a physical world.  They will then have to acknowledge that naturalism in turn has its problems.  In particular, in the context of the present debate, naturalists of a scientific bent will want to give an evolutionary account of the origins of human consciousness, and it is not clear what they can say about how things like beliefs and intentions as we consciously experience them could emerge from a purely physical evolutionary process.

These are familiar philosophical disputes.  There is a range of philosophical theories offering competing accounts of the relation between the physical and the mental.  These theories all persist because – picking up my earlier point about philosophical method – any one of them can be made logically consistent, provided that its defenders are prepared to make the necessary linguistic adjustments and to acknowledge unfilled gaps.  For example, any dualist will have to say at some point that we cannot give any further account of how physical and mental events interact – they just do.  And any materialist will have to say at some point that we cannot give any further account of how certain kinds of physical processes can be at the same time conscious mental experiences – they just are.

My point is, then, that we cannot resolve the conflicts between these competing theories, and between naturalism and anti-naturalism more generally, simply by the piecemeal examination of individual concepts.  The best theory will have to meet not only the test of coherence but also that of comprehensiveness.   It will be the one which can best account for our experience as a whole.  And that is why philosophers have to engage with the questions and beliefs and experiences which occupy people in 'the God debate'.  Can we live by science alone?  Are there other kinds of knowledge and understanding, distinct from science, which we can draw on and which we need?  If so, what are they?  How can we best account for what people think of as 'spiritual' needs, and 'spiritual' or 'religious' experiences.  Any satisfactory philosophical theory about the nature of reality will have implications for the possibility of personal survival after death, and will therefore have to consider how best to account for the kinds of experiences which people have regarded as encounters with the dead or as evidence of resurrection or reincarnation.  I think myself that naturalistic answers can be given to these questions, but the questions are necessary and answers are needed.

And my point is too, that serious philosophical debate, such as the debate about naturalism and anti-naturalism, has to tackle these questions, and they are not just philosophical questions.  They are questions which exercise any thinking person, and about which many people have strong and deeply held beliefs.  They are the sorts of question which academic philosophers are inclined to dismiss as exhibiting a na├»ve misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy.  How should we live?  What is the purpose of life?  Why are we here?  What's it all about?  Good philosophy cannot ignore these concerns, which are fundamental to people's lives.  It is in this sense that all good philosophy is 'radical' philosophy, and all good philosophy is 'applied' philosophy.  The attempt in the 1970s and 1980s to drag philosophy out of the academy badly needs to be renewed.

Contact details: Dr Richard Norman, School of European Culture and Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
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