18 March 2006

History: What's At Stake?

A reader writes:

Your defense of the history of philosophy reminded me of this essay by Bernard Williams.

He shares your view about the narrowness of the virtues of analytic philosophy and the conception of philosophy as humanistic (i.e. “What I have to say, since it is itself a piece of philosophy, is an example of what I take philosophy to be, part of a more general attempt to make the best sense of our life, and so of our intellectual activities, in the situation in which we find ourselves.”) But this last clause, "in the situation in which we find ourselves," indicates--I think--his departure from your view about the continuity between contemporary and historical philosophers.

It seems that Williams holds that who "we" are is both historically determined and susceptible, at a given time, to wider (and inclusive) or more narrow (and exclusive) scope. I take it that you're operating at a higher altitude than Williams, and so the "we" is much more historically continuous and less likely to be exclusive.

Well, I'd better not go on too long here since I'm not sure I'm marking clearly enough what I think the difference between you and Williams is (perhaps only his Nietzschean perspectivalism?). I wonder what you make of Williams' defense of the study of the history of philosophy.
A difference between my view and Williams' also comes out in his phrase, "make the best sense of our lives, and so of our intellectual activities". A careful reading of his essay reveals, I believe, that Hilary Putnam is in the end correct in his charge that Williams "views physics as giving us the ultimate metaphysical truth". Williams tries to side-step this, by demurring from any affirmation of 'ultimate' truth: but change this to, simply, "views physics as giving us truth", and the charge ends up being correct.

For Williams, philosophy does not tell us how the world is; it simply tells us 'how we make sense of the world'. It is about our grasp of and interpretation of the world, not the world itself. Thus, it ends up being a high-level sociology of thought. I don't find in Williams essay any sense that philosophy is an intellectual adventure, that it involves a commitment to truth that may lead one to 'convert' and accept something one hadn't even anticipated believing in beforehand. The attitude Williams expresses is quite unlike the attitude that was shown, say, by Russell when he took that bicycle ride and came back convinced that the Ontological Argument was sound; or by Plato, who came to think that what we ordinarily take to be reality is, rather, the least real, like shadows on the wall of a cave.

In Williams, one sees a commitment to an intellectual life that cannot give an account of itself. It is, I believe, incapable of explaining to a younger generation why anyone should take seriously what Williams, when he was a young man, was taught to take seriously. Williams I think confesses as much, when he brings in Nietzsche near the end of the essay:

I accept that analytic philosophy owes many of its successes to the principle that small and good is better than broad and bad. I accept that this involves a division of labour. I accept that you want to get on with it. I also admit something else, that it is typically senior philosophers who, like senior scientists, tend to muse in these expansive ways about the nature of their subject. As Nietzsche says in a marvellous passage about the philosopher and age:

It quite often happens that the old man is subject to the delusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, and from this experience he passes judgments on the work and course of his life, as if he had only now become clear-sighted; and yet the inspiration behind this feeling of well-being and these confident judgements is not wisdom, but weariness.

I don't think Williams succeeds in explaining why Nietzsche's judgment doesn't apply to himself. The essay seems to me, alas, the expression of someone weary of life and weary of philosophy.


Anonymous said...

I'm highly sympathetic to your understanding of Williams, particularly in his attitude to philosophy as an attempt to discover truth. I'm curious, though, about the implications of your statement that for Williams, philosophy is about how we interpret the world rather than about how the world is. You refer to Putnam, whose current views on truth could without great injustice be described in very similar terms; i.e., truth is something 'internal' to our epistemic practices and not an attainment of a vision of reality as it is in itself. That view is, of course, similar in many respects to the latter Wittgenstein and also to Gadamer, both of whom can be said to have considered philosophy as an attempt to make sense of the world as we encounter it. All of them seek to make sense of that world in different ways, but at least with Putnam and Gadamer (I am never so sure of anything with Wiggenstein) there is a noticeable lack of the kind of attitude that you observe in Williams, the sense that he does not really think that philosophy is about discovery, but perhaps instead about self-justification by means of clarification. Putnam and Gadamer are both 'anti-realists' of a sort, and yet their thought does seem directed towards genuine discovery -- however many qualifications need to be placed on the discovery. Williams, on the other hand, is really only an anti-realist about a limited range of things -- ta anthropina, really -- but remains a realist in the sense that he believes, as you mentioned, that physics gives us a true account of the world more or less as it is independently of the distortions of our human perspective (in that he was not so willing to follow Nietzsche). Oddly enough, Williams seems not to think of philosophy (at least when he is thinking about ethics and politics) as a search, while 'anti-realists' like Putnam and Gadamer can, precisely because he is a 'scientific realist' and they are not.

My question for you, then, is whether you find that description a more or less accurate one, and what, if anything, its implications might be. If I am right, then the attitude towards truth and philosophy that Williams exhibits is not necessarily tied to the view that philosophy is about making sense of ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves, but rather, to his commitment to the idea that we need to make sense of ourselves in a world that ultimately just is the world that physics describes -- a world which is notoriously inhospitable to the search for 'truth' about the traditional questions of ethics and politics.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

I understand internal realism as a metaphysical doctrine which, if correct, would give an account of any truth--philosophical truth (if there is such) as well as a scientific truth. If (say) Aquinas' treatise on angelology is true, then internal realism, if correct, would give an account of this. So, as you suggest, internal realism does not itself imply that we philosophers have to limit ourselves to ta anthropina.

But Williams' 'making sense of ourselves' does, I think, carry along with it that sort of restriction. This seems to me simply the form that the doctrine of philosophy as 'conceptual analysis' takes, after Quine and Wittgenstein. Conceptual analysis becomes sociological rather than introspective.

I don't know what the explanation is of the privileged position that Williams allows to physics (although he's hardly alone in this). Perhaps you do?