“Philosophical investigation must engage with a significant part of our forms of thought and reasoning, with a large fragment of our conceptual scheme. Otherwise it is of little value to its author, and probably of little value to its readers.”
Those are the words of Peter Hacker (P.M.S. Hacker), Emeritus Fellow and former Tutorial Fellow in philosophy at St John’s College, Oxford, interviewed below. Professor Hacker’s work ranges from exegeses of Wittgenstein, to critiques of science, to theories of human nature, and he has interests in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophical anthropology.
He is interviewed by Aleks Hammo. Mr. Hammo is an aspiring philosopher and podcaster based in Melbourne, Australia. He hosts the “Aleks Listens” podcast, where he interviews philosophers and public figures about their lives and their work, and also explores questions of politics, identity, race, and mental health.
In this interview, conducted last month, Hammo asks Hacker about his journey through philosophy, the changing nature of the discipline, funding cuts to the humanities, and the limitations of science. Professor Hacker also provides some life and career advice for aspiring philosophers.
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In what way did your upbringing inform your philosophical interests, if at all?
I was lucky enough, at the age of fourteen, to stumble across Plato’s Republic, Joad’s Introduction to Philosophy, and Russell’s History of Philosophy in my older sister’s bookcase. I read them with fascination and was hooked for life. Together with my friend Joseph Raz, we established a philosophy reading group at school (in Haifa, Israel, where I lived from 1950-1960). So, with half a dozen friends we struggled with Plato and Aristotle, Berkeley and Spinoza. Our ignorance and blindness were partly compensated for by our curiosity and enthusiasm.
How did your relationship to philosophy change over the course of your career, and has it changed again since retirement?
I came to study philosophy as part of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) school at Oxford (1960). I had no clear idea what exactly philosophy was. I was fascinated by philosophical questions, but fumbled around with the subject, learning a great deal, but with little if any understanding of what I was doing. This bewilderment continued throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, and indeed the early years of my life as a Fellow of St John’s College. It was only when I began to study Wittgenstein’s later philosophical works in 1968 that light began to dawn. I wrote my first book Insight and Illusion: Wittgenstein on philosophy and the metaphysics of experience (1972). It was successful, but as I gradually came to realise, riddled with serious misunderstandings. These were rectified in the second edition: Insight and Illusion: themes in the philosophy of Wittgenstein (1986; 3rd edition Anthem Press, 2021) in which I rewrote half the book. So it was only after more than ten years of struggle that I learnt from Wittgenstein what philosophy is, what the nature of a philosophical problem is, how to tackle philosophical questions, and what can be hoped for from philosophy. This gave quietus to all my doubts about what I was doing and about the value of philosophy.
This large battery of Wittgensteinian insights has informed all my work since then. My conception of philosophy was further deepened by Anthony Kenny and Bede Rundle with whom I enjoyed numerous discussions and from whose books I learnt more than I can say. I was also greatly influenced by G.H. von Wright (the greatest of Wittgenstein’s pupils), Norman Malcolm (another of Wittgenstein’s outstanding pupils), Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, Peter Strawson, and Alan White. To be able to learn from such fine thinkers and to be privileged to stand on their shoulders and to try to further the common endeavor has been wonderful.
Six years before my retirement I was enticed into the conceptual and philosophical problems of cognitive neuroscience by a great Australian neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett. We wrote two large books together, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience ( first edition 2003, second enlarged edition 2022) as well as numerous papers in neuroscientific journals. It has been a remarkable, fruitful, invaluable experience. Among other things, it broadened my conception of philosophy and of what philosophy can contribute to extra-philosophical subjects. Wittgenstein was inclined to think that philosophical problems arise ‘when language is idling’ and that its primary concern was to solve, resolve or dissolve philosophical problems. Scrutiny of the writings of past and present cognitive neuroscientists, guided by Max Bennett, showed me vividly that conceptual confusion and philosophical misconceptions can be, and are, rife in a science. I came to see that cognitive neuroscience is riddled with conceptual error and misunderstanding, and that these mistakes and misunderstandings are anything but trivial. They contribute to the design of futile experiments, to the misinterpretation of the results of experiments, to asking unintelligible questions and trying futilely to answer them, and, in neurology, to prescribing misguided treatments.
I am convinced that human thought in general is riddled with conceptual confusions, for example in moral and political reflection. I am similarly certain that many of the sciences are too, for example, the science of economics the prescriptions of which so often rule our lives seems to me to be calling out for philosophical critique. So too is the science of psychology.
A further way in which my views on philosophy have changed since my retirement has been a consequence of my main retirement project since 2006, the writing of a tetralogy on human nature (completed in 2021). The subjects dealt with in these four volumes range from such abstract notions of substance, causation, agency and explanation to good and evil, the meaning of life and the place of death in life. This made me realise with greater depth than before that philosophical investigation must engage with a significant part of our forms of thought and reasoning, with a large fragment of our conceptual scheme. Otherwise it is of little value to its author, and probably of little value to its readers. Minute work is indispensable to be sure, but only with an eye on its place in the larger network. The ultimate goal is always to obtain an overview of a larger whole.
How do you motivate yourself to read and write philosophy?
I am lucky enough not to need motivating. The great problems of philosophy fascinate me, and I think largely by writing (and talking). Although in my younger days I kept an eye on current journal publications, I now rarely read journals, but concentrate on the great masters of the past. Philosophy is not a science, and the latest journal articles are not expressions of the most advanced thought. One is not going to find anyone writing in the current journals who is remotely as deep and thoughtful as Plato and Aristotle or Kant and Wittgenstein. Of course, great thinkers made mistakes, but their mistakes are great mistakes and they are usually clearly articulated. It is from such mistakes that one can learn. As Paul Valèry remarked: ‘A mistake is a light, a great mistake – a sun’.
Does philosophy have an objective? And is the objective of philosophy today different from the objective of philosophy in the past?
The word ‘philosophy’ has meant many different things throughout the ages. After all, what we today call ‘physics’ was once part of philosophy, namely so called natural philosophy. It began to separate from philosophy only in the seventeenth century. Psychology broke away from philosophy only in the nineteenth century. It is only in the late twentieth century that formal logic began to separate from philosophy.
It is striking that when subjects spin off from philosophy and become independent sciences, they always leave a philosophical subject behind. The independence of physics spawned the philosophy of physics, the autonomy of psychology left both philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology behind, and logic leaves the philosophy of logic in its wake.
The objective of philosophy is the solution, resolution, or dissolution of the problems of philosophy. It is Janus-faced. Negatively, its task is to expose and dissolve conceptual confusion and incoherence, both in the form of questions (e.g. Where does the brain think? What is the self?) and in the form of statements (e.g. ‘Mental images are representations’, ‘Human beings are just repositories for selfish genes’). Positively or constructively, its task is to provide an overview of a conceptual domain, to bring into view the complex relationships between a problematic or pivotal concept and the associated concepts within the conceptual network to which it belongs: to map out the logical geography of concepts that are the source of conceptual puzzlement. In the domains of morality, political thought and law the task of philosophy is again clarification of concepts, but further, the scrutiny of values, their relationships and justifications.
All over the world conservative governments are cutting funding to the humanities and allocating funding to the sciences. What is behind this move?
I can think of few more alarming developments in government educational policies. What lies behind such moves is obviously the desire to save money. That is superficial. A deeper consideration is the conviction that society exists for the sake of its economy, rather than the economy for the sake of society. We now talk of the economy as if it were a living agent with a welfare of its own, for we speak of things being good for the economy or bad for the economy. This is coupled with the view that all institutions are businesses or industries and to be judged by what are thought to be the criteria for judging the success of an industry. So the health services are industries (and patients are clients); theatre and opera are part of the entertainment industry (and the audience are customers); and universities are educational businesses – to be run by bureaucrats for the sake of turning out trained personnel to feed business, industry (properly speaking) and the bureaucracy.
This is dire. Universities are the repository of our culture. Their greatest role is to teach the most able of our youth their cultural heritage – the best that was discovered and created in the past, and to foster ideals of truth and pursuit of knowledge and understanding. (That is why there can be no political correctness at good universities.)
The study of the humanities, when properly taught, not only transmits our cultural heritage, it also teaches the next generation to think for themselves, to argue coherently, to engage in civilized debate, to learn critical habits of thought, not so much to answer questions, but to question questions. It is above all students of the humanities that become social critics, and every healthy society needs social critics.
Can science answer many of the questions philosophy asks?
No, science cannot answer any philosophical questions. The sciences are (very roughly) intellectual disciplines that pursue the discovery of empirical truths and, where possible, laws of nature in their several domains, and the construction of empirical theories that explain them.
The questions of philosophy are not empirical questions, but conceptual and axiological ones. Scientific truths are to be attained by the employment of our conceptual network, the conceptual scheme articulated in our language (including, of course, the technical language of a given science). But one should not confuse the catch with the net. Knots in the net need to be disentangled, but to disentangle a knot is not to catch a fish. Moreover, no number of fish can repair a net.
How has the discipline of philosophy changed during your lifetime?
It has become much more specialized, and with the specialization has come lack of depth. It has become ever more in awe of the achievements of science, and ever more desirous to emulate the sciences in whatever ways possible. But the proper task of philosophy is to be the conceptual critic of scientists, not to sing the Hallelujah chorus to them.
The style of writing has deteriorated – just pick up a copy of Mind from the 1950s and compare it with the latest issue of Mind. Spatterings of the predicate calculus all over the page are deemed necessary in order to appear precise and scientific, whereas all they usually do is to make their author look ridiculous: ‘There is an x, such that x is a human being …’ is not more precise than ‘Someone’!
Contemporary philosophy is, for the most part, propounded by -ists and made up of -isms. A philosopher has to be a card-carrying member of some party or other: a realist or anti-realist, an internalist or externalist, a reductionist or an emergentist. It is theory ridden, and its proponents must advance one -ism or another. But we are given very little idea of what would confirm or disconfirm a theory. It frequently invokes metaphysics without giving any clear idea of what is meant by metaphysics. It invokes possible worlds without reflecting seriously on what a possible world might be and what exactly it means to assert that there are any.
It labours under the illusion that philosophy is akin to science in being progressive, so that the articles in the last decade of journals incorporate the philosophical knowledge of the ages. Hence the point from which to start is from a survey of everything written on a chosen topic in the journals of the last decade or two. All this does is perpetuate the follies, prejudices and bigotry of the current generation.
I am very sorry to say that philosophy at present is in a state of grievous decline.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career in philosophy?
Pursue such a career only if you are fascinated by the problems of philosophy, if you feel that clarifying and answering philosophical problems is worth spending your life on, if you find teaching the young fulfilling, and if you can face the prospect of working for forty years in relative solitude. Bear in mind that the profession is intensely competitive, that your survival will depend on writing publishable papers, whether you have anything to say or not. Bear in mind that you will be in the hands of a professional bureaucracy whose goals are not academic and whose concern is not to help you but to drive you.
Apart from studying, what is it important for aspiring philosophers to spend their time on?
It is important to be well read, to have read a wide range of what used to be thought of as the canon of western culture. It is also important to read widely in history, not only for its own sake, but also to understand the socio-historical context in which the great works of philosophy were written. One cannot understand much of ancient philosophers without knowing a reasonable amount of ancient history. One cannot understand early modern philosophy without familiarity with post-renaissance European history and history of science.
Apart from such educational qualifications, spend your time learning not to answer questions, but to question questions.
What do you wish you knew about academic philosophy before starting your career?
Perhaps that academic life is just as uncivilized as non-academic life, that the temptations of self-deception and intellectual dishonesty are at least as great as in other professions.
Job prospects in academic philosophy are dire. What advice would you have for the philosopher who fears the financial precariousness of academia?
Don’t become an academic.
Many people, including myself, find it difficult to stomach the culture of smartness, argumentation, and hyperrationality present in philosophy departments. In what way has philosophy impacted your wellbeing, if at all?
Philosophy has given me a deep sense of fulfilment. It has given me the understanding I craved and answered the questions that perturbed and disturbed me. I have tried to communicate this to others, in teaching and in writing, and that too has often been gratifying.