Appiah on the “Actual Practice of Philosophy”
In the new Oxford Review of Books, Daniel Kodsi, an apparently remarkably well-read Oxford undergraduate, conducts a wide-ranging three-part interview (I, II, III) with Kwame Anthony Appiah (NYU). Here’s an excerpt from Part II:
DK: I suppose there are two questions about two ways philosophy seems to be going: one of which seems to be positive and one of which doesn’t. The first is that, as you’ve said before, it’s becoming more polyphonic. There are more voices and there’s more reliance on non-a priori stuff, and there’s race and gender, and that’s good. But there’s also a question about whether it’s becoming more professionalized or scientistic in a way that isn’t amenable to the kind of systematic theorising that many philosophers, many great philosophers, used to do.
KAA: The fields where you might think there’s the greatest risk of that are things like cognitive science and so on, where you might think that all people are doing is the more theoretical end of the development of theories about the five levels of visual perception and all that sort of thing, but the kind of people who are drawn, in philosophy, now, to that kind of thing, tend to be systematic in a different way from scientific theorising, I think, often drawing analogies between questions in a wider range of fields than much contemporary science does and so on. So, what’s gone, I suppose, is the thought that philosophy is about making one big picture that explains how all the pictures fit together, that it’s the queen of the sciences and that it’s its job to, in metaphysics, lay out what’s there for the scientist to study. I think a sensible view in ontology now would be that you can’t say what’s there unless you know the physics, and you’re not going to figure out what’s there absent grappling with the best physics of our time.
DK: Unger has a book in which he calls a great deal of philosophy ‘concretely empty’. And I’m not exactly sure what he means by that, except that it seems to mean all philosophers should be more like Tim Maudlin…
KAA: I think that what Tim is doing is a very important continuation of the historic project of philosophy and that if your questions are questions about being qua being, you should probably talk to him because you need to know the things he knows and push the questions he’s pushing in order to get to it. I agree with that, but that’s about one part of our picture. Yes, I think you need to be in touch with concreteness, but I don’t think the concreteness is all in physics. Concreteness is in biochemistry, it’s in psychology, and it’s in political life. It’s in the social life of us as creatures. So I think the picture … I agree that it’s not a good idea to think of philosophy as an a priori activity, but that, for God’s sake, is something that Quine said! It’s hardly a new thought. It’s a thought that was articulated by one of the first or second generation. Quine was shaped by the Vienna Circle. So it’s not a new thought, and, as I argued in the book about the experimental turn in ethics, if you look back at the history of ethics, there’s a very short period when Hare and such people were what ethics was, but already before Hare’s great book, Elizabeth Anscombe had written ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’.
DK: A paper very characteristic of her style.
KAA: Yes, and it’s characteristic in many ways. It’s full of terrible arguments and good arguments. It’s very insightful but also dotty. It’s a weird mix. I mean, she was a great philosopher; she was a terrible person, but she was a great philosopher. But, like all philosophers, she had characteristic weaknesses. So I think one of the interesting things about analytic philosophy when it was self-conscious is that it had an account of what it was doing that it didn’t believe and didn’t really practice. Again, the analytic-synthetic distinction is one of … Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction occurs more or less as analytic philosophy is self-consciously taking off, so already the idea that you could be exploring truth in virtue of meaning, which was one of the main… I think that paper [‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’], it’s very hard to say what the argument is in the paper, but nevertheless, we should recognize that it was a very important paper, if you were telling a history of analytic philosophy, and it already questions the idea that you could be doing anything interesting if you thought that all you were doing was working out the consequences of meaning. I entered philosophy at a time when that was the story. Working out the consequences of what we already know was the story, and it was nice because you didn’t have to study anything outside your own mind. You could just sit alone in your study and work stuff out – and one way human beings make progress is by sitting alone in studies and working stuff out, I’m not against that – but the idea that we’re going to make deep progress in anything without input from the messy world of actual things, I think, is a mistake. But in a way what Peter Unger’s arguing against is not something that anybody was ever really doing. It’s something that some people said they were doing, but the actual practice of philosophy was never closed off to the sciences or to everyday life, and some of the leading figures, including in the analytic tradition were very empirically minded.
The interview series begins here.
Thanks for posting this. A trivial point – Appiah is at NYU – he’s not been at Princeton for several years now. I don’t suppose it matters, but if affiliation is to be noted, I guess it should be right.Report
Whoops. Thanks, Matt. Corrected now.Report
“I mean, [Anscombe] was a great philosopher; she was a terrible person, but she was a great philosopher.”
I’m not a philosopher (I’m in psych) so I didn’t know about Anscombe being terrible. Google didn’t help much. Is there a story here?Report
I suspect his criticism pertains to her “outdated” anti-feminist positions on sexual ethics and abortion (incl. her protesting outside of abortion clinics).Report
That is a reason to disagree with her, not to say that she is a “terrible person,” which is quite an extreme characterization.
I hope you are wrong. That would make my opinion of KAA sink even lower than this interview has done.Report
I see. Thanks, Robert C. Still love “Modern Moral Philosophy” and “Mr. Truman’s Degree” though!Report
I find it unlikely that Professor Appiah is referring to Anscombe’s views on sexual ethics. Anscombe had a reputation for being rude a bit of a bully, but I’m in no position to know whether this reputation is warranted. At any rate, I take it that Appiah and Anscombe would have overlapped in Cambridge,Report
That reputation probably had nothing to do with the male-dominated Oxbridge scene. I’m sure it’s entirely her fault that others perceived her as bossy and arrogant.Report
I agree Alexa. Thus “I’m in no position to know whether this reputation is warranted”.Report
Yes, they did. From the interview: ‘When I was an undergraduate, the first paper I ever gave at the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge … and Elizabeth Anscombe, who was in the chair, began the discussion by saying to this undergraduate, ‘We speak to each other across a very great gulf’. And that kind of thing … I mean, Elizabeth was particularly bad at it, particularly inhumane… Williams – Bernard defended me there, that evening, because he was so annoyed with Elizabeth for doing that.’Report
Appiah surely doesn’t need me to speak for him, but I can see how, if you were a gay man, you might well find that a person like Anscombe, who had views on sexual morality about the same as, say, John Finnis or Robbie George, and thought that those beliefs should be legally enforced on others, could be pretty unpleasant. I k now that if I met someone who thought that the sexual practices that I find integral to my life, and my ability to live in an intimate relationship with someone I love, should be illegal, even though these practices harmed no one, I’d find that a pretty awful thing, and a stain on the person’s character.Report
So anyone who is an orthodox Catholic and promotes orthodox Catholic values is a “terrible person”?
Given that Anscombe would find your values abhorrent, do you think it would be just as apt for her to say that you are a terrible person?
Seems to me that this move is a bad, dangerous one that we are seeing more and more in politics, to everyone’s detriment.Report
“So anyone who is an orthodox Catholic and promotes orthodox Catholic values is a “terrible person”?”
What makes the person a bad one, as opposed to a mistaken or misguided one, is wanting to make one’s values on things like sexual morality the law. From her writing and political activity, it seems fairly clear that Anscombe wanted to do that. Wanting to use the force of law to make others follow your sexual morals, even when no one is harmed by doing otherwise, is awful – it makes you a bad person. I’m happy to stick to that point.Report
“even when no one is harmed by doing otherwise,”
This flirts with begging the question. Anscombe and indeed any orthodox Catholic would argue that acting contrary to the precepts of Catholic sexuality morality does harm people, in a variety of direct and indirect ways. The idea of moral precepts as arbitrary deontological rules is one of things Anscombe is criticizing in Modern Moral Philosophy as an aberrant historical development
Even if you hold that “acting contrary to the precepts of Catholic sexuality morality does harm people, in a variety of direct and indirect ways.” is in fact false (and lets not get into that debate here) the claim that G.E.M. Anscombe believed it to be true seems pretty uncontroversial based on her writings and personal life.
So Anscombe (and indeed probably most people violating your rule) would probably agree that imposing their values by force of law even when violating those values harm’s no one is wrong but not see it as applicable to their own actions.Report
So given that you want to do the same, with respect to your values, which Anscombe abhors, it would be appropriate for her to say that you are a terrible person?Report
The thread is too far embedded to reply direction to Daniel Kaufman, but he said:
So given that you want to do the same, with respect to your values, which Anscombe abhors, it would be appropriate for her to say that you are a terrible person?
But of course, just as, “you may not use the law to enforce your musical tastes” =/= “I am therefore using the law to enforce my musical tastes”, “traditional Catholics may not use the law to enforce their views on sexual morality” =/= “I am using the law to enforce my principles of sexual morality”. This is really elementary stuff.
For EDT – thankfully, at least officially, the Catholic church has reconciled itself to liberal democracy, and accepted that it doesn’t get to impose controversial moral principles on people as a theocracy would. Not all Catholics accept that, but they ought to.Report
Good to know KAA thinks Anscombe was a “terrible person.” I don’t.
Also good to know he thinks “Modern Moral Philosophy” is “dotty.” I don’t. Indeed, I think it’s one of a handful of the most important pieces written on ethics since the Second World War.
I also find it surprising that KAA finds it “very hard to say what the argument is” in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” I don’t think it is, at all. Indeed, I routinely teach the paper to undergraduates and they seem to understand what the argument is just fine.
I had a higher opinion of KAA before reading this interview. Pretty off-putting.Report
While I am totally unable to weigh in meaningfully on the merits of either article, as concerns Anscombe, there doesn’t seem any inconsistency in thinking something very important, and even insightful, while still believing some of its arguments are no good. And KAA is hardly the only one to say something to that effect about ‘Two Dogmas’; for instance, Fodor once said “despite their extensive influence, there isn’t any robust consensus as to what, exactly, the persuasive arguments in ‘Two Dogmas’ are, or we’re supposed to be.” On my own (impoverished) reading its force seemed to lie mostly in the vividness of the conception sketched in the last section, rather than any arguments.Report
I actually found the last section the least satisfying. The strongest argument, I thought, was the one regarding substitution into intensional contexts and the inherent circularity of it.Report
As a graduate student, I walked around the philosophy departments at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh and asked available faculty what the *thesis* of “Two Dogmas” is. I spoke to at least seven or eight different people, and I never got the same answer twice.
From “I teach X to undergraduates” and “undergraduates seem to understand X,” it does not follow that “X has a clear argumentative structure.” For instance, replace “X” with any work by Kant.Report
‘We speak to each other from across a very great gulf.’
It is a very interesting remark. I understand KAA to have taken it like this:
(1) ‘I am a great and famous professor and you are a lowly undergraduate, and I am much more intelligent, knowledgeable etc. than you, so don’t mess with me.’
That is certainly an unconscionable thing to say to anyone, let alone an undergraduate. I have no brief to defend Anscombe as a person, but — for what it is worth — I have a small item of evidence to place on the other side of the scales. A friend of mine encountered her early in his academic career, and can testify that — when, due to his youthful good looks, she mistook him for a graduate student — she treated him gently and kindly.
Anscombe’s personal character however is not my main concern. It is with these words ‘we speak to each other from across a great gulf’. Now KAA was there (and the object of the remark) and I was not, so I defer to him. But I want to point out that the words considered in themselves can bear other meanings, and here is one, not without philosophical interest:
(2) ‘The difference between us — in our moral and philosophical sensibilities, in our whole view of the world, of what we take to be telling and significant in life and what we don’t, and so on — is a profound one.’
Something like this kind of remark seems to me to be true of many moral and philosophical disagreements. It is not merely the platitudinous observation that some problems are very difficult. It goes to the question of what certain sorts of disagreements are like, of what resources can be brought to thinking profitably about them. For example, that with some kinds of disagreements it is not enough simply to get the empirical facts right and do some clear, logical thinking — that if science progresses far enough, and philosophers do enough analysis, we will know what to think about abortion, or war, or the trolley problem, or whatever. I think that, say, Anscombe’s disagreement with Bernard Williams and Michael Tanner over her paper on ‘Contraception and Chastity’ was a disagreement that had this kind of depth to it, and I think she realised that. Indeed a sense of the depth of philosophical disagreements (of what makes them philosophical and not merely technical) is often present in her work, not least ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’.
Recognizing and frankly acknowledging the depth of a disagreement can often be a condition of serious discussion of it, of making headway in understanding it. I like to think that she made the remark KAA reports in that spirit. But I have of course to concede that he was there and I was not, so this can only be a hope.
A charitable reading, but the paper, it should be noted, was about ‘drawing analogies between the role of metaphors in science and somethings that Iris Murdoch had said about oral examples’. Williams being frustrated by the remark also tells against your latter sense. But anyway I don’t think she meant it in either of those senses, exactly. I assumed it was a comic remark to the effect of ‘Well that’s a rather stupid thing to conclude’.Report
Well, I was just offering a possibility. I have no idea if it is right.
But for what it is worth, it seems to me to fit Anscombe’s general approach to philosophy. And it certainly is not precluded by the topic of the paper, in so far as we can divine that from the fairly vague description of it (the sort of gulf I am imagining she might have had in mind is certainly not confined to ethical issues). But really (my final expression of hope not withstanding — I have no desire to think ill of anyone) I was putting the interpretation forward for its philosophical interest, not for any reason of biographical accuracy.Report
The “great gulf” remark is an allusion to the Bible, isn’t it? It’s about the unbridgeable gulf between those in paradise and those in Hades. Luke 16:26:
“And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they who would pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from there.”
The context is Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man ignores the beggar Lazarus outside his door, goes to Hades after death, and while suffering there sees Lazarus seated next to Abraham. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to him with his finger dipped in water, because he’s suffering in the fire. Abraham refuses the request, and then adds (in the verse above) the stuff about the “great gulf” fixed between those in paradise and those in Hades.
If I’m right about that allusion–and it seems a stretch to think it’s a coincidence–it seems considerably worse to me than simply “I am a great and famous professor and you are a lowly undergraduate.” It’s a committed traditional Catholic, speaking to a gay man, alluding to the unrelieved sufferings of Hell, by putting into her own mouth the words of Abraham directed to one of the damned who was begging for mercy.Report
Think more in terms of laws for movement-motion-forces…like positive negative neutral—the disposition of a of mind—attitude….Report