The most moving – and most enjoyable – contribution of the evening came from the marvellous Dr Stephen Priest, simultaneously diffident and extremely powerful. I won’t try to summarise it because I’m sure I’d fail. I hope it will eventually make it on to the web. It reminded me of why I had once wanted to study philosophy, a desire which faded rapidly when I was exposed to English Linguistic Philosophy and various other strands of that discipline which made me wonder if I had wandered into a convention of crossword-compilers, when what I wanted was to seek the origins of the universe.
Many of you will know that in his failure to face William Lane Craig, Professor Dawkins was not alone. Several other members of Britain’s Atheist Premier League found themselves unable or unwilling (or both) to take him on.
The important thing about this is that what Craig does is simple. He uses philosophical logic, and a considerable knowledge of physics, to expose the shallowness of Dawkins’s arguments. I would imagine that an equally serious Atheist philosopher would be able to give him a run for his money, but Dawkins isn’t that. He would have been embarrassingly out of his depth.
It would be interesting to compile a list of those who were dissuaded, or almost dissuaded, from pursuing philosophy by their encounter with the Ordinary Language movement. Hector-Neri Castañeda once told me that the dominance of the latter in the '50s and '60s almost convinced him to drop philosophy as a profession abd go to law school. Not being a native English speaker, he could not hope to contribute to discussions in which the subtleties of ordinary English usage are put under the microsope. But then things changed in that wild decade of the '60s in which so many things changed, the epigoni of Wittgenstein went into eclipse, and systematic philosophy was back on track and attractive of the better heads.
The following quotations from Ernest Gellner's Words and Things are borrowed from Kieran Setiya's site.
Academic environments are generally characterised by the presence of people who claim to understand more than in fact they do. Linguistic Philosophy has produced a great revolution, generating people who claim not to understand what in fact they do. Some achieve great virtuosity at it. Any beginner in philosophy can manage not to understand, say, Hegel, but I have heard people who were so advanced that they knew how not to understand writers of such limpid clarity as Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayer.
It is not clear whether Moore should be called a philosopher or a pedant of such outstanding ability as to push pedantry and literal-mindedness to a point where it became a philosophy. [. . .] One might say that Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words. . . .
Absolutely brilliant! When I first read Moore and his remark to the effect that he would never have done philosophy if it hadn't been for the puzzling things he found in books by men like Bradley, I took that as almost the definition of an inauthentic philosopher: one who gets his problems, not from life, but from books. I should say, though, that over the years I have come to appreciate Moore as a master of analysis. But I can't shake the thought that there is something deeply perverse about finding the impetus to philosophizing in philosophical claims and theories rather than in the realities attendance to which gave rise to the claims and theories in the first place. Imagine a scientist or an historian or even a theologian who proceeded in that way.
In this passage Gellner explains the appeal of the later Wittgenstein:
The linguistic naturalism, the reduction of the basis of our thought to linguistic etiquette, ensures that there is no appeal whatever to Extraneous Authority for the manner in which we speak and think. Naturalism, this-worldliness, is thus pushed to its final limit. But at the very same time, and for that very reason (language and custom being their own masters, beholden and accountable to no Outside norm), the diversified content of language and custom is indiscriminately endorsed. Thus the transcendent, if and when required, slips back ambiguously, in virtue of being the object of natural practices, customs, modes of speech.
In an interview a while back Christopher Hitchens said, "We are all dying." The saying is not uncommon. A friend over Sunday breakfast invoked it. The irony of it is that the friend in question in younger days was decisively influenced by the Ordinary Language philosophers.
Taken literally, the sentence is false: only some of us are dying. What must the sentence be taken to mean to be true? This: the life process in each human being issues eventually in death. But then why don't people say what they mean rather than something literally false?
The short answer is that man is a metaphysical animal with an ineradicable urge to gain perspective so as to be able to reconnoitre the terrain of the human predicament. The gaining of perspective requires the stretching of ordinary language.
When we say 'We are all dying' we forsake the lowlands of ordinary language and ascend to a higher point of view, a philosophical point of view. It is like someone who says, 'All is impermanent.' That too is literally false. Some addresses are permanent and some are temporary. To maintain that all is impermanent one must ascend to a higher point of view relative to which what is permanent 'here below' is, from that point of view, impermanent. And so one can say, without talking nonsense, that even a permanent address is impermanent.
As for 'We are all dying,' it too, though literally false, is not nonsense. When I look at my life as a whole, I see that it is temporally bounded, and that it must issue in death. And so even the most robust among us are dying in the sense that we are launched on a trajectory the culmination of which is death.
I once played chess master Jude Acers a series of games at his sidewalk hangout in New Orlean's French Quarter. During one endame he pointed to one of his pawns and said, 'This pawn has already queened.' But it hadn't; it was still several moves away from the queening square. So why did Acers say something literally false? His meaning was that I could not stop the pawn, and so, in that sense, it had already queened. It's the same pattern as before. I am not dying, but since I will inevitably die, I am now dying. The pawn has not yet queened, but since it will inevitably queen, it has 'already' queened. What is not yet the case, but will be the case, is in a higher sense, the case.
Or consider this Platonizing remark a variant of which one can find in St. Augustine: 'What once existed, but does not now exist, and what does exist but will in future not exist, never existed.' Taken literally as a piece of ordinary English, this is nonsense. If something did exist, then ex vi terminorum it is false that it never existed; and likewise if the thing now exists.
But only a philosophistine (a 'philosopher' who is a philistine) such as Carnap or David Stove could fail to appreciate that the Augustinian saying is meaningful, despite the stretching of ordinary language. A theory of how this 'stretching' works is necessary if we are to have a full understanding of what we are doing when we do metaphysics.
There is no doubt that in metaphysics we violate ordinary usage. But unless one is a benighted philosophistine chained and held fast in some dark corner of Plato's Cave, one will not dismiss metaphysics for this reason, but strive to work out a theory of how the linguistic stretching works.
One source of its appeal is that it reinstates much of what was ruled out as cognitively meaningless by logical positivism but without rehabilitating the commitments of old-time metaphysics. Permit me to explain. (My ruminations are in part inspired by Ernest Gellner, to give credit where credit is due.)
Crudely put, as befits a crude philosophy, logical positivism is just Hume warmed over. The LPs take his famous two-pronged fork and sharpen the tines. Hume spoke of relations of ideas and matters of fact, and consigned to the flames anything thing that was not one or the other. In the Treatise of Human Nature, he spoke of "school metaphysics and divinity" as deserving of such rude treatment. Since Hume's day, old-time metaphysics and theology have had a forking hard time of it.
The LPs spoke of two disjoint classes of statements and maintained that every cognitively meaningful statement must be a member of the one or the other. The one class contains the truths of logic and mathematics and such analytic statements as 'Every cygnet is a swan' all interpreted as true by convention. The other class consists of statements empirically verifiable in principle. Any statement not in one of these two disjoint classes is adjudged by the LPs to be cognitive meaningless. Thus the aesthetic statement, 'The adagio movement of Beethoven's Ninth exceeds in beauty anything Bruckner wrote' is by their lights not false, but cognitively meaningless, though they generously grant it some purely subjective emotive meaning. And the same goes for the characteristic statements one finds in theology, metaphysics, and ethics. Such statements are not false, but meaningless, i.e., neither true nor false.
Imagine a debate between a Muslim and a Christian. Muslim: "God is one! There is no god but God (Allah)!" Christian: "God is triune (three-in-one)." For an LP, the debate is meaningless since theological assertion and counter-assertion are meaningless. The assertions are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable. Or consider a debate between two Christians. They are both Trinitarians: there is one God in three divine Persons. But the man from Rome maintains that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque) while the man from Constantinople maintains that the Holy Ghost proceeds directly from the Father. For an LP, this debate about the procession of Persons is cognitively meaningless. I chose these examples to show how attractive LP is. For many of you will be inclined to think of these debates as in some sense meaningless. "How could one know one way or the other?" Many of you will be inclined to want to tie meaningfulness to empirical verifiability. Nevertheless, Logical Positivism is untenable. But that is not my present point.
My present point concerns the appeal of OLP. The OL boys weren't out to resurrect metaphysics. They took on board the anti-metaphysical animus of the LPs. But their approach allowed the salvaging of ways of talking that the LPs had no interest in preserving. Religious language is a key example. So what I am contending is that one source of the appeal of OL philosophy was that it allowed religious talk and thus religion itself to be saved from the forking accusation of meaninglessness. But it did this without crediting old-time metaphysics. You can see why that would appeal to a lot of people. To explain this properly would take a lot of scribbling.
But the central idea is that religion is a form of life and a language game, a self-contained language game that needs no justification ab extra. Hence it needs no justification from metaphysics or philosophy generally. It is in order as it is -- to use a characteristically Wittgensteinian turn of phrase. By the same token, religion cannot be attacked from the side of philosophy. It is an island of meaning unto itself, and is insofar forth insulated from criticism. (L. insula, ae = island.) Nor can it come into conflict with science or be debunked by science. Within the religious language game there are valid and invalid moves, things it is correct and incorrect to say; but the langauge game itself is neither correct nor incorrect. It just is. Religion is a groundless system of belief, a system of belief that neither needs nor is capable of justification. Since I reject both LP and OLP, I am not endorsing this view of religion. I am merely explaining one of the reasons why people are attracted to OLP: it allows them to practice a religion while ignoring both the threat from traditional philosophy (which demands the justification of key religious tenets) and the the threat of positivism which makes positive science the ultimate arbiter of reality.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, ed. Rush Rhees, trs. Hargreaves and White, Chicago 1975, p. 83:
52. It's strange that in ordinary life we are not troubled by the feeling that the phenomenon is slipping away from us, the constant flux of appearance, but only when we philosophize. This indicates that what is in question here is an idea suggested by a misapplication of our language.
This indicates to me that Wittgenstein lacked a metaphysical sensibility. It is precisely in ordinary life, and prior to his occupation with technical metaphysics, that the metaphysician feels and is saddened by the transitoriness of things, the flux of phenomena, the passage of time. That feeling is part of what sets him on the path of technical metaphysics in the first place. It is the fundamental sense of the transience and unreality of this world that disposes him to take seriously metaphysical writings when he first encounters them. And it is the lack of this sense in G. E. Moore and in Wittgenstein which disposes them to be puzzled by the writings of metaphysicians like Bradley and McTaggart and to set out to debunk them either by defending common sense (as if the metaphysician were simply denying it) or by bringing us back to ordinary language used in ordinary ways.
Wittgenstein says that "only when we philosophize" are we troubled by the flux of phenomena. Not only is this plainly false, it suggests that there is something aberrant rather than natural about philosophizing, as if philosophy were a disease of cognition needing treatment rather than refutation. I simply deny this. If there is a cognitive defect, it is in those who fail to perceive the relative unreality of the transient.
Philosophy arises quite naturally in people of a reflective disposition who have a sense of the relative unreality, the ontological non-ultimacy, of the world of time and change. Philosophy is not a disease, but a response to the inherent questionableness of the world and our lives in it. In the Theaetetus, Plato speaks of wonder as the "feeling of the philosopher." This wonder is not mere puzzlement induced by linguistic confusion but a questioning elicited by the nature of things, a questioning that is a transcending of this world, a transcending that issues in attempts to put into language the essence of the world.
It is the possibility of this transcending that Wittgenstein questions. He questions it by questioning the meaningfulness of the sorts of extended uses of ordinary words that the metaphysician employs. The metaphysician takes a word like 'present' from ordinary usage and then says something extraordinary like, 'The present alone is real,' or 'Only the present experience has reality.' Wittgenstein objects to this with a sort of Contrast Argument:
We are tempted to say: only the experience of the present moment has reality. And then the first reply must be: As opposed to what? Does it imply that I didn't get up this morning? (For if so, it would be dubious.) But this is not what we mean. Does it mean that an event that I'm not remembering at this instant didn't occur? Not that either. (85)
Wittgenstein's point is that when one says that the present alone is real, one is using 'present' in an extended sense, one in which it no longer contrasts with 'past' and 'future.' He seems to think that the presentist metaphysician is saying something that conflicts with such obvious facts as that one got up in the morning. But here is where Wittgenstein's Contrast Argument becomes hard to credit. Wittgenstein's mistake is to think that when the presentist, saying that the present alone is real, implies that the past is unreal, he is implying that the past is nothing at all in a way that would render it false that we got up this morning. But of course the presentist does not deny the gross facts; what he does is reinterpret them. His point is something like this: the reality of the past is relative to, or derivative from, the (absolute) reality of the present.
Immersed as I am these days in a metaphilosophical project, I once again pull Lazerowitz's Philosophy and Illusion (Humanities Press, 1968) from the shelf. Morris Lazerowitz (1907-1987) may not be much read these days, but his ideas remain provocative and worth considering, despite the fact that they are now taken seriously by few, if any. But if he is right in his metaphilosophy, then I am wrong in mine, and so intellectual honesty requires that I look into this in some detail.
One source of the appeal of ordinary language philosophy (OLP) is that it reinstates much of what was ruled out as cognitively meaningless by logical positivism (LP) but without rehabilitating the commitments of old-time metaphysics. In particular, OLP allows the reinstating of religious language. This post explains, with blogic brevity, how this works and what is wrong and what right with the resulting philosophy of religion. Since OLP can be understood only against the backdrop of LP, I begin with a brief review of LP.
J. L. Austin, in a footnote to p. 49 of Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford, 1962), writes of ". . . the absurdity of Descartes' toying with the notion that the whole of our experience might be a dream." In the main text, there is a sort of argument for this alleged absurdity. The argument may be set forth as follows:
. . . the words 'I am here' have a meaning only in certain contexts, and not when I say them to someone who is sitting in front of me and sees me clearly, -- and not because they are superfluous, but because their meaning is not determined by the situation, yet stands in need of such determination.
Part of what LW is saying in this entry is that the meaning of an expression is determined by its use in a given context. In a slogan: meaning is use.
A while back I came across Ernest Gellner's Words and Things (unrevised ed., 1963). It is jam-packed with insights. Here is an example:
Linguistic Philosophy [O. L. philosophy] absolutely requires and presupposes [Logical] Positivism, for without it as a tacit premiss, there is nothing to exclude any metaphysical interpretation of the usages that are to be found, and allegedly "taken as they are," in the world. (p. 86)
Exactly right. For if the anti-metaphysics of logical positivism is not presupposed, how can the O.L. philosopher rule out as meaningless metaphysical ways of talking? People talk in all sorts of ways, not all of them mundane. People talk metaphysics for example. I do it all the time, and it certainly seems to me and some of my interlocutors that I am talking sense. For example, I say things like, 'Existence is a necessary condition of property-possession: nothing has properties unless it exists' and there are people who understand me.
Suppose out in the desert there is a little commune of Bradleyans. Their form of life involves playing a language game in which words like 'internal relation,' 'external relation,' 'Absolute,' 'appearance,' and others have well-defined functions. If meaning is use, these words have meaning because they have a use in this community. How can it be said that language has gone on holiday in a case like this? How distinguish holiday from workaday uses of language?
To make the distinction one has to just assume something like the positivistic stricture on metaphysics. On has to just assume that some language games are meaningless. But there is no basis for this distinction if one takes the uses of words as the source of their meaning.