Interview with Peter Hacker


“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.

*  *  *  *  *

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.

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Name Redacted
3 months ago

I took/attended PMS Hacker’s Wittgenstein lectures at Oxford. He used to smoke while he was teaching back in the day.Report

Paul Wilson
3 months ago

Why label Aleks Hammo “an aspiring philosopher”? Is an academic affiliation required to be an unqualified “philosopher”?Report

Hilary Kornblith
3 months ago

There’s a great deal in here which is deserving of comment, but this remark jumped out at me: “Universities are the repositories of our culture. Their greatest role is to teach the most able of our youth their cultural heritage…”. My own conception of the role of universities is quite different. If we think of a university education as directed primarily at “the most able of our youth,” then we have not only missed something important about higher education, but we have missed something important about human society and the what is of value in all human lives.Report

Chris
3 months ago

My favorite combo is this:
“I now rarely read journals, but concentrate on the great masters of the past.” and then later, he writes:
“I am very sorry to say that philosophy at present is in a state of grievous decline.”

It is very hard to resist thinking that this is yet another philosopher who thinks “because people don’t do philosophy in the way I do, or aren’t interested in what I am, they’re not doing good work.”Report

Graham Clay
Reply to  Chris
3 months ago

It does seem that Hacker appears to have a view on which doing philosophy in Hacker’s way–broadly speaking–is necessary to do good work. Many of us are like this, though, at least to some degree, some extreme pluralists aside.

I’m more worried about your first point regarding the combo… Tough to justify a version of the second (quoted) view with the first (quoted) view in hand.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Graham Clay
3 months ago

One can get a feel for the current state of philosophy by attending talks, watching interviews, conversing with philosophers, etc. That seems like a fairly easy defense of the combo (since the first claim is about what Hacker likes to *read*). Also: I doubt that Hacker is alone (esp. among his generation) in thinking that academic philosophy is in decline. Probably it would be more constructive to engage with these doubts rather than write them off unreflectively. Is philosophy doing well today? Seems like a fair question. Not at all surprising or unreasonable for a thorough-going Wittgensteinian to answer, “No.” (Compare a previous DN post, “Analytic Philosophy’s ‘The Triple Failure of Confidence'”.)Report

Chris
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

You’re right – maybe he regularly attends talks in all areas of philosophy, or he’s read carefully in a representative sampling of leading journals, or something. As Wittgenstein says “look and see”.
Color me skeptical, though.
Of course academic philosophy might be in decline, but I didn’t see much of an argument to engage with (unlike the previous DN post you mention, which has argument). I guess his main argument is that people are narrower and more specialized now. Is that true? I don’t know. (And if it is true, is that as bad as Hacker thinks? I don’t know that either).Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Chris
3 months ago

I see a variety of brief arguments above that deserve greater consideration. (If you feel dissatisfied with their brevity, I think Hacker has written pretty extensively on each of these ideas… but they also hardly seem unique to Hacker).

(1) Philosophy today is hyper-specialized.
(2) Philosophy today is objectionably scientistic.
(3) Philosophy today engages in technical gymnastics for its own sake and doesn’t clarify anything in the process.
(4) It has become obsessed with theories and -isms without proper attention to how such theories or -isms are confirmed or disconfirmed. (My guess is that once such criteria are specified, the oppositions turn out to be largely verbal or uninteresting.)
(5) It operates as if philosophy makes progress like science, and thus can rely on previously established claims or assumptions. (This is especially problematic given (4) and is obviously related to concern (2).)

But, yeah, it’s an interview…Report

Chris
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

All of these may be true. I just thought it was funny because one would think that reading contemporary work would be a good way to find out of these were true!
Sure, it is just an interview. But it would be nice to see a bit more epistemic modesty like lamenting “so much is published now it is impossible to keep up with – so I don’t really know if there’s a lot of good stuff out there” or “I’m just not interested in most of what I read in the recent journals” or something like that. Instead we get a very strong claim about “the present state of philosophy is in grievous decline” But he doesn’t even read the recent stuff! LOL!Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
Reply to  Chris
3 months ago

I agree. I thought that part of the interview was pretty obnoxious for just that reason. I guess I’d rather be a scholastic tinkerer than someone following a guru whom they take to have definitively shown that what everyone else is doing is worthless.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
3 months ago

Different strokes, I guess. But since scholastic tinkering is more or less the norm, there’s nothing special about taking pot-shots against the “guru” (itself an accusation of one’s doing something worthless or illegitimate or not “really” philosophical, etc.). Don’t worry: no one is going to make you stop tinkering!Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

My take on this is that pretty much every branch of philosophy is filled with really hard questions, including metaphilosophy. And because these questions are so hard, even if you have worked on them for a long time, you are not warranted in being extremely confident that you have the correct answers to them. Again, this includes questions in metaphilosophy. Because you are not warranted in being extremely confident that you have correct answers to metaphilosophical questions, some degree of openness to different ways of pursuing philosophical inquiry is appropriate. In other words, you should treat your views about methodology with humility and care just as you should your other philosophical views. Part of treating your views about methodology with humility and care is to not blithely dismiss what by your own admission you have not read. 

How confident am I in this? Fairly, but not dogmatically, as is (by my lights) appropriate. So maybe by my own lights I shouldn’t have made the “guru remark”, even though I personally find the devotion to Wittgenstein no less tiring than devotion to Kant, or to Heidegger, or whomever has the current master narrative about why most of what philosophers do is bankrupt.

That said, questions about philosophical methodology are really important and answers to them shouldn’t be dismissed just because we don’t like what they imply about the creditability of the work we do. That’s not being appropriately humble either.  Maybe late Wittgenstein was right; I’m not sure he wasn’t. Same for Kant, and for Heidegger.  

But I just don’t get why people can’t just say, “I have my views on what we should be doing. But these views were arrived at by philosophical reflection, and it is not obvious that my views about what we should be doing are correct. So I’ll continue to work in the manner that my metaphilosophical views permit but I won’t be a jerk about it.”  Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
3 months ago

You seem very confident in your view that folks shouldn’t be confident about their views. On the other hand: when one is defending a minority position, confidence helps get the message across. (Can you imagine someone telling Malcolm X, “Hey man, this stuff is really controversial! Could you just try to be less confident/dogmatic? Thanks.”) I think when folks react negatively to Wittgenstein (and his sympathizers) on grounds of (seemingly good-natured, democratic) pluralism, they just reveal that, at the end of the day, they are not really pluralists.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Chris
3 months ago

Of course on the specific topic on which Wittgenstein said “look and see,” i.e. games, he hadn’t done any looking whatever.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

That’s clearly false (PI 66).Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

That’s exactly where he didn’t do any looking. How much time do you think he spent trying to find out if there’s something common to all games? A half second? A quarter second? Not even that much? His supposed differences, e.g. between card games and board games, are utterly superficial.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

I guess you’re still after the “essence” of games (seems perverse by this stage of the PI)… Which differences are “superficial” and which are “important/essential”? An answer here would amount to making a decision (i.e., a decision to make a new game with words).Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

Bernard Suits looked a lot harder. And found a good answer.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
3 months ago

“Suppose someone said, ‘*All* tools serve to modify something. So, a hammer modifies the position of a nail, a saw the shape of a board, and so on.’ – And what is modified by a rule, a glue-pot and nails? – “Our knowledge of a things length, the temperature of the glue, and the solidity of the box.” – Would anything be gained by this assimilation of expressions? – ” (PI 14) Likewise, for the “unnecessary obstacle” definition of games: what are the “unnecessary obstacles” of ring-a-ring-a-roses, or patty-cake, or one friend’s saying a word and the other saying what immediately comes to mind, or running a race on the beach, or coming up with as many things as two friends like about one another, … But, above all, why does such an assimilation seem so meaningful and important? (Anyway, I appreciate the note on Bernard Suits – I’ll check out his book.)Report

Chris
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

Try reading the Suits, you might be surprised!Report

Greg Janzen
Greg Janzen
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
3 months ago

Suits has been refuted (in my judgement anyway). See, e.g., Ellis (2011) and Johnson & Hudecki (2019).Report

NL Engelhawbecker
NL Engelhawbecker
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

I don’t expect this post to change anyone’s mind here. But since I thought Hurka’s riff on Wittgenstein was so tangential *and* wrong, it deserves correction. Anyone who actually “looks [at] and sees” Wittgenstein’s text will clearly see him say one remark earlier: “I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all” (§65, emphasis added). This is very explicitly the theme of the following sections, including that on games (§66). (As we would now put it, he’s arguing that the justification for using (some) words/concepts can be particularist.)

I think he put in enough effort to make that (his actual) point, to which (1) Suit’s definition is no real counterexample, and (2) Hurka’s “half second, quarter second” quip is no more than baseless disrespect. Obviously, it takes longer than that to write the words! And Wittgenstein does rule out a good selection of the likeliest single-answer counterexamples (that we call x a game if and because it’s entertaining / competitive / an exercise of skill against luck). I don’t know what Hurka had in mind by saying Wittgenstein’s “supposed differences, e.g. between card games and board games, are utterly superficial,” since Wittgenstein never actually lays *those* out. (This might cast a cloud of irony over Hurka mocking the “look and see” line, but I don’t doubt he’s actually read the work. I only mean there’s a lesson here about not casting stones.)

— Obviously, none of this is to defend Hacker (yet). His remark about possible worlds is undoubtedly preposterous, if he was referring to the whole field of analytic philosophy. (There are some contemporary philosophers who invoke possible worlds without themselves obviously caring about their metaphysical status. (Count me!) And it’s not so implausible to charitably read Hacker as meaning merely that.) But I also think Hacker exaggerated how little he reads current philosophy. I’ve seen him cite relatively recent stuff—but for all I know, not enough to justify the claims he’s making. This makes him unlike Wittgenstein in execution, then, but not necessarily in method (which might save him from at least that accusation of hypocrisy).

Anyway, nothing is more discouraging to a young student than to see two great writers (Hacker & Hurka) descend to the petty ad hominems on this page. I wish we’d stick to constructive feedback.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  NL Engelhawbecker
3 months ago

Nice points. The petty ad hominems against Wittgenstein (or folks like Hacker who are sympathetic) are not surprising, of course, since he makes traditional analytic folks feel vulnerable. 🙂 And then they stand together and maintain the boring status quo with bad arguments… Oh, whoops, did I just make an ad hominem? Sorry, young students!Report

MrNN
MrNN
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

Davil’s A, as a fellow knowledgeable Wittgensteinian who is familiar with Hacker, any interest in exchanging email addresses privately? I am always interested in connecting with others who are sympathetic to their work.Report

MrNN
MrNN
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

That’s not the argument, the argument is that speakers do not use an analytic defintion of game and yet they know what games are.

Even if we were to ‘discover’ the analytic defintion of game, it would be a ‘decision’ of speakers to adopt it.Report

Chris
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

Oh, I’m with Tom Hurka here – I was using “look and see” in an jokey way, since Hacker hasn’t followed that advice when it comes to looking to see if the current philosophical work is really in decline. But I agree that Suits analysis in the Grasshopper is way better than anything Wittgenstein says on games.Report

Graham Clay
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

Yeah, I guess I just think that journals and books are the primary and most refined outputs of “philosophy at present.”

And I’m not waving the doubts off unreflectively–I’m just reflecting on what Chris juxtaposed and agreeing that there’s a tension here.Report

Vincent Blair
3 months ago

“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.”

How true, contemporary metaphysics since David Lewis never investigates the nature of possible worlds.Report

David Hyder
Reply to  Vincent Blair
3 months ago

The weirdest thing about this is that the Tractatus is a possible-worlds semantics. It differs essentially from Kripke‘s only with regard to the number of names per object. Given its massive influence on analytic philosophy, it would be no exaggeration to say that a large part of analytic philosophy since then has been an ongoing serious reflection on what a possible world might be. By this I do not mean that every participant was necessarily aware of this, but the semantics is encoded in the truth-tables that we teach our undergraduates.
Perhaps truth-tables are scientistic, but to be quite honest, I simply don’t think that an excessive faith in science is the major problem of our age.Report

MIgsa
MIgsa
Reply to  David Hyder
3 months ago

Where did you get this from? “Possible worlds” are named precisely zero times in the Tractatus. Hacker knows the Tractatus far better than most.Report

Ronald Gripweister
Ronald Gripweister
Reply to  David Hyder
3 months ago

I find the idea of reading the Tractatus as an exercise in possible world semantics completely mind boggling. Has any serious scholar suggested this?Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Ronald Gripweister
3 months ago

With Prof. Hyder I find it quite intuitive to interpret truth tables as representing (partial) possible worlds. Don’t we usually present them as a model theory that corresponds to the proof theory of logic in classes?

A search on philpapers yields a Copeland paper on this. I don’t know if Sanford Shieh puts this in terms of *possible worlds* in his forthcoming book, but he has a reading of the Tractatus that emphasizes modality.

I mean if the world is what is the case, isn’t the possibility of other facts obtaining just possible worlds?Report

Evan
3 months ago

Much of the “possible worlds” thought experiments in philosophy have been used to convey whether something is or can be necessary in all possible worlds and contrast that thing with something contingent. But the underlying assumption about these “possible worlds” thought experiments is that the laws of physics or chemistry are the same in each one.

In other words, I suppose the “possible worlds” thought experiments are useful as epistemological tools for those who have a hard time understanding the nature of necessity and contingency or figuring out what is necessary and what is not. This is just one aspect of the “possible worlds” idea in philosophy.Report

MrNN
MrNN
Reply to  Evan
3 months ago

From my understanding, Amie Thomasson’s latest book Norms and Necessity is an attempt to deal with modality in way which makes no reference to possible worlds, and at least provides a possible explanation as to why possible worlds were introduced in the first place as a philosophical tool/theory.

Her work is also indebted to, as far as I understand it, Wittgenstein and in some respects to Hacker’s work in this area.Report

Last edited 3 months ago by MrNN
Evan
Reply to  MrNN
3 months ago

Thanks for the reference. Personally, I understood necessity and contingency prior to being introduced to “possible worlds”. It wasn’t until I took a Philosphy of Mind class that I was first introduce to “possible worlds.”

Prior to that I’ve read The Tipping Point which explains how one small cause can bring about large scale trends or effects, e.g., butterfly effect. I guess my understanding of how fragile the causal nexus can be led me to understand the nature of necessity and contingency better.

But then again, the phrase “it could have been otherwise” still operates within the “possible worlds” paradigm.Report

Boris Johnson
3 months ago

I shuddered and then I wept… I am grateful and speechless!Report

Last edited 3 months ago by Boris Johnson
Louis F. Cooper
3 months ago

Re his advice to read widely “in what used to be thought of” as the Western canon and to read widely in history, how many successful academic philosophers have done this? I’m not a philosopher and don’t know, but my guess would be, give the pressures of getting a job and then (if applicable) tenure etc., probably not all that many, maybe with the exception of those who had a particular kind of secondary or college education.

His point about reading history to understand the context in which the great works of philosophy were created is, on the whole, well taken (cf. the so-called Cambridge School approach to the history of political thought). Exactly how much history one has to know to appreciate any particular philosophical work is probably debatable, though, and also probably varies depending on the work in question.Report

Caleb
3 months ago

“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.”

This comment, like the whole interview, is extremely obnoxious. The man’s idol is Wittgenstein, the worst writer in the analytic tradition! Philosophy writing is clearer, and more concise than ever, but, of course, he wouldn’t know because, as he admits, he makes no effort to read contemporary philosophy!Report

david
3 months ago

I think there is some truth to what Hacker saying, but only some. There is certainly too much of the “Jones’ reply to Smith’s reply to Jones” sort of stuff in many analytic journals and it is indeed boring and inconsequential. It is present because people need jobs and tenure, and so they publish not when they actually have something to say, but because these sorts of pieces are relatively easy to churn out and are ‘safe’. On the other hand, there are many creative and exciting research programs represented out there in the journals today as well. If he had looked a bit harder, he might have found them.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  david
3 months ago

Are the journals full of those articles though? Maybe they were 15-20 years ago, but I’m not sure that’s true any more. The acceptance rates have gotten so low that journals now routinely reject articles that are perfectly competent but just not that interesting.

If your aim is to get something published somewhere, no matter the venue, then these are indeed safe. But if your aim is to get published somewhere good, I don’t know that this kind of stuff will cut through.

The same for getting jobs. Maybe if you have 10 boring narrow papers like this you’ll survive the initial cull at departments that (mistakenly in my view) use quantity of publications as an initial screen. But you’ll get cut out soon after that.Report

Theaetetus
3 months ago

Since there’s a common objection in this thread about how Hacker should have done more careful looking (in cutting edge journals) to find the really really good stuff in contemporary philosophy, it might help if folks would actually provide some examples? (lol, the irony…) That way we might compare examples with the concerns he raises about the discipline’s decline. I do suspect we’d find some good ones that don’t fall prey, but it seems more constructive to consider examples. (If it’s too risky/embarrassing to name names, more general literatures would be good, “the literature on the epistemology of inference” <– though probably that wouldn’t survive.)Report

david
3 months ago

To Theaetetus: What constitutes innovative work may be subjective, but in my view some recent examples might be: recent work in epistemic vices and virtues, different forms of bias, applied ontology (including economic ontology, e.g, “what exactly is money, the ontological status of credit, debt, etc. “?) recent work on dreams and mind-wandering in the the philosophy of mind, issues re well-being and happiness, x-phi, work on neuro-philosophy and philosophical cognitive science. YMMV……Report

Theaetetus
Reply to  david
3 months ago

I’m not sure Hacker’s concerns were about lack of clever innovation…Report

MrNN
MrNN
3 months ago

Regarding Hacker’s comments about possible worlds

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.

Hacker’s views about modality are presented, in a form more agreeable with the way philosophy is currently practiced by analytic philosophers, by Amie Thomasson.

The gist of the argument is that philosophers take statements of rules for the use of expressions (“the king moves one square at a time”) expressed in the ‘material mode’ as descriptions of the world. If we think of analytic statements as descriptions, then we must wonder about what they are descriptions of. Possible worlds is one such answer but carries with it significant baggage (how do we know the truth of such statements, etc). Wittgenstein and Thomasson both argue that they are not descriptions of anything, they’re statements of rules that can misleadingly be taken as super-empirical statements about what must/cannot be.

For anyone interested in a fairly Wittgensteinian and deflationary account of metaphysics (and philosophy generally, since her arguments bare on almost all analytic philosophy), I recommend her recent book Norms and Necessity.

As for the concern that Hacker presents his views in this interview dogmatically and obnoxiously. I generally find philosophers surprisingly uncritical of their project(s) and methodology. There are some facts about philosophy only those outside of philosophy seem to take seriously, its lack (or at the very least, highly specific form of) progress, lack of established truths, no predictive ability, high degree of divergence of views about what is correct and which methods are correct/best, and its relative lack of specific domain. All of these concerns ought to be addressed by whatever method of philosophizing a person decides to engage in, if they are to hope to make any good sense in what they think and claim, and I think Hacker’s views do exactly this.Report

MrNN
MrNN
Reply to  MrNN
3 months ago

“analytic statements” above should read “metaphysical statements”.Report

Animal Symbolicum
3 months ago

Without too much ill fit, I could probably be counted among those who think there is a dominant and style- or tradition-spanning tendency to treat philosophical writing as being conducted in the material mode, when in fact it is not. To put it too bluntly: philosophy makes better sense as being more about representations (rules, concepts, expressions, what-have-you) than about things represented.

Yes, I’ve gleaned this metaphilosophical view from reading Wittgenstein (among many others, from the whole tradition, too numerous to name here). But the lesson I take from Wittgenstein, which Hacker does not appear to take, is not to stop doing whatever kind of philosophy one finds interesting (or to convince others to stop), but to do one’s philosophy with a renewed and hopefully better understanding of what one is doing.

For example, Wittgenstein, in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, got after Russell and his attempt to formalize mathematics not because Wittgenstein found the attempt bankrupt or uninteresting or unhelpful. It was rather because Wittgenstein thought (and attempted to show) that Russell misunderstood the significance of the latter’s own project. From Wittgenstein’s point of view, there was a philosophically (and not a mathematically) consequential sense in which Russell did not know what he was up to: Russell was missing the real significance of his work.

This is an illustration of the more general tack. The idea is not to keep us from doing our thing. The idea is to keep us from misunderstanding what we’re doing when we’re doing our thing. I’m afraid Hacker goes too far in his pronouncements.Report

Devil's A
Devil's A
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
3 months ago

“Say what you please, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing how things are. (And when you see that, there will be some things you won’t say.)” (PI 79)Report

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Devil's A
3 months ago

Nice. Yes.Report

Pierre Dutilleux
3 months ago

A lot of the commentators seem to think that Hacker’s dissmissal of contemporary analytic philosophy is just because he is arrogant or something. The Wittgensteinian philosophical stance precludes the idea of genuine philosophical problems or philosophical progress, so of course he would think journals are silly. Most philosophical work, in his view, will be bad no matter what because of certain root misunderstandings. The fact that Wittgenstein is held in such high-esteem but that analytic philosophy continues as usual is a really strange contradiction.

Anyways, I wished the interviewer asked him about some substantive issues. I want to hear how someone like Hacker would “dissolve” the debates about artifical intelligence in regards to what would constitute an AI posessing the faculty of understanding or language-use, especially because Hacker has written in the past that Wittgenstein sought to demonstrate that consciousness is not, in fact, mysterious.Report