But is it science?
Tim Crane, Philosophy Editor, TLS
Philosophy aims to outline the most general nature of things – and if you understand “things” in the most general possible sense too, then philosophy itself is one of the “things” that philosophy attempts to outline. This inevitably means that philosophers will tend to disagree about the nature of philosophy as they disagree about time, mind, meaning, value and so on. This should not be a matter for regret – despite how some of the more megalomaniac philosophers like to see things – but rather falls out from the nature of philosophical inquiry itself. For suppose – as would actually be impossible – that philosophers came to agree on a method to solve all their problems. Then inevitably someone else would come along and question whether this was the best method for the problems in hand – and we would have to start all over again. If there is a discipline that investigates the conceptual frameworks which we use, then the various possible frameworks of that discipline itself should also fall under its scope.
The TLS philosophy shelves have recently been weighed down with new books on the nature and proper practice of philosophy. And the TLS Online has had some punchy contributions on this subject from David Papineau and Carlos Fraenkel. So we thought it might be time to have a debate on this subject in the Philosophy issue of the paper. Two of the UK’s leading philosophers, Roger Scruton and Timothy Williamson, agreed to participate. What emerges are two very different views of the terrain.
Scruton’s vision, in the spirit of Hegel and Husserl, is of something which aims to recover meaning in the world by articulating the conditions of our own subjectivity, our experience of the world. Our subjectivity is not just another “object” in the world, alongside all other objects; it is something more like a condition or a limit of the world itself, it is what makes it possible for us to have a world at all. It is as subjects that we experience beauty, grace, purity, the sacred. Therefore, Scruton argues, it cannot be investigated through the objectifying lens of natural science.
Timothy Williamson agrees with Scruton that philosophy is not a natural science, and that its job should not just restricted to commentary on what the natural sciences produce (this was the view of the American philosopher W. V. Quine: “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”). But the agreement pretty much ends there. Williamson sees philosophy as a fact-discovering enterprise, or a science in its own right. He argues that history, too, may be a science – in the sense that its aim is the discovery and explanation of facts – and he argues that this is inconsistent with Scruton’s vision of the humanities. Williamson argues that linguistic theories about the meanings of indexical pronouns (“I”, “you” etc.) can shed light on the phenomenon of points of view that Scruton takes to be so fundamental.
One thing that is striking about the disagreement between these two philosophers is not just their positive claims, but also their differing styles. Scruton starts with a large claim, and draws on complex phenomena – our experience of art, music and social life – to illuminate it. Williamson, by contrast, approaches questions by breaking them down into tractable chunks, on the grounds that “it is reasonable to start with easier cases and analyse them more deeply before building up to harder cases later”. In this he epitomizes the approach of what is generally known as analytic philosophy, whose typical style is to analyse problems into distinct sub-problems. In this sense, then, Scruton’s approach works by “synthesis” rather than “analysis”. As the debate unfolds, we encounter two very different and not wholly compatible views of the discipline of philosophy.
The Work of the Philosopher
When I read philosophy in Cambridge in the 1960s, the subject was called “moral sciences”. The prevailing view was that the term “philosophy” had a pretentious and Continental air, and would mislead students into believing that they would learn about the meaning of life. The word “moral” was taken seriously, nevertheless. But ethics, as we studied it, was shaped by G. E. Moore and his followers, who questioned endlessly the meaning of “good”, “right” and “ought”, while confining their examples to such trivia of everyday life as would neutralize all desire for an answer. Ethics came to rest in the study of dilemmas, like that of the man who must visit his aunt in hospital on the very same day as his child is competing in the long-jump at school. The manifest facts that modern people are living in a state of spiritual anxiety, that the world has become strange to us and frightening, that we lack and need a conception of our own existence – such facts were either unnoticed or dismissed as yet more leftovers from the mental disease called religion.
This detachment from the questions of the moment is not altogether a bad thing, and in any case has deep historical roots. John Locke saw philosophy as “handmaiden to the sciences”. At the time there was much to be said for that idea: the scientific revolution was in its infancy and the fields of scientific inquiry were uncertainly defined. The task identified by Locke endures today. In areas like the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language our discipline continues to contribute to scientific advance, and absorbs from the associated sciences a distinct intellectual polish. However, there is another and in my view more important task for the philosopher, which is to distinguish genuine science from mere scientism. Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, musicology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psychology (or still worse, branches of applied neuroscience) are destined to fail. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world from the order of nature, and the concepts through which we understand appearances from those used in explaining them. It is for this reason that I believe aesthetics to be central to philosophy, being the branch of philosophy that deals directly with our most studied attempts to create and discern what is truly meaningful.
When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like “here”, “now” and “I”; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view. The subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part of the empirical world. It lies on the edge of things, like a horizon, and could never be grasped “from the other side”, the side of subjectivity itself. If I look for it in the world of objects I shall never find it. But without my nature as a subject nothing for me is real. If I am to care for my world, then I must first care for this thing, without which I have no world – the perspective from which my world is seen. That is the message of art, or at least of the art that matters. And that is why philosophy is fundamental to humane education. Philosophy shows what self-consciousness is, and explores the many ways in which the point of view of the subject shapes and is shaped by the human world. German-speakers are right to refer to the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften: for Geist, self-consciousness, is what they are all about.
The human world – what Edmund Husserl called the Lebenswelt and Wilfred Sellars the “space of reasons” – is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from the scientific description of nature. Such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy, elegance and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them.
Given this, a hard-nosed empiricist will say that those qualities on which our human relations, our religious sentiments and our aesthetic experience all depend, are not part of the natural order. We “read them into” the world: they are part of how the world appears to us, but not part of how it truly is. They stem, as Hume put it, from the mind’s capacity to “spread itself upon objects”. But they have no objective basis, and our belief in them can be explained by theories that do not suppose them to be features of the underlying reality. The case is no different from the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us in the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.
This response is imbued with the metaphors that it seeks to discard. It tells us that there is an “underlying” reality, that the mind “spreads itself” on things, that we “read” things into the world, and so on. It is through and through saturated with the image of a world that we know “objectively” through science, but colour “subjectively” by projecting features of our point of view. But it contains no independent argument for thinking that the “scientific image” (as Sellars dubbed it) is an image of all that matters. The greatest task of philosophy in our time, it seems to me, is to uncover the rest of what matters, and to show why it matters far more.
Science and Points of View
Roger Scruton wants philosophy to protect the humanities from overweening science. The humanities aim to understand human subjects, who have points of view; Scruton announces that “the subject is in principle unobservable to science” because “it is not part of the empirical world”.
History is one of the humanities if anything is. Historians study human subjects, whose points of view they try to understand. Consequently, on Scruton’s view, the subject matter of history is not part of the empirical world. This may come as news to historians.
To be fair to Scruton, we might try interpreting his phrase “the empirical world” very narrowly. Then he should not count mathematics as a science, for it studies numbers, sets and the like, which are not part of the empirical world, narrowly understood, to which he confines science. But mathematics is a science if anything is, and the other sciences rely on it. Indeed, Scruton himself concedes that the philosophy of mathematics contributes to scientific advance. Before proclaiming limits to science, perhaps one should get clearer on what it is.
Mathematics, though a science, is not a natural science like physics, chemistry and biology. It supports its results by deductive proofs rather than experiments, but is at least as rigorous, systematic and reliable a search for knowledge. On this broader conception, many parts of the humanities have a good claim to be scientific. If you want to understand the causes of the English Civil War, what better methodology is available than using the sorts of evidence historians use, and assessing its bearings in the ways they do? Since most of the relevant evidence is documentary, that requires very different specific methods from those of the natural sciences, but there is nothing unscientific about adapting one’s methods to the nature of the problem and the available evidence. It would not be more scientific to ignore the points of view of Charles I, John Hampden, and their contemporaries, and rely instead on speculative evolutionary psychology and anatomical analyses of skeletons from the 1640s; it would just be stupid.
Scruton concedes that the philosophy of language “continues to contribute to scientific advance”. This suggests that linguistics is, as well as a humanity, a science too, which it surely is, not only because phonologists experiment in acoustic laboratories. Philosophers of language have paid close attention to subjects’ points of view. For instance, Paul Grice’s work on tacit principles underlying conversation has been seminal for linguistics; he analysed subtle interactions between speakers’ and hearers’ points of view. Part of his scientific contribution was to show how to take account of these points of view. Again, even if Scruton is right that perspectival words like “here”, “now” and “I” do not belong in the language of scientific theorizing, the rigorous scientific investigation of their meaning was led by philosophers such as Hans Reichenbach and David Kaplan. They showed how to theorize points of view in semantics. Scruton’s schematic opposition between science and points of view does no justice to the complexity and interrelatedness of actual inquiry.
There are many other examples of the scientific study of points of view. The psychology of perception concerns points of view in both the most literal spatial sense and the cognitive sense of the limited information available to the subject from vision or another modality. Mathematical decision theory starts from the agent’s preferences and beliefs. Naturally, such representations do not capture the full richness of an individual human’s subjectivity, as it might be depicted in a novel, but that is because it is reasonable to start with easier cases and analyse them more deeply before building up to harder cases later. Points of view are not off-limits to scientific understanding.
The equivocation between “science” as natural science and “science” as rigorous inquiry is often exploited for purposes which both Scruton and I would deplore. “We must take a scientific approach to this problem” may sound plausible when interpreted broadly, but is then used to justify applying the specific methods of natural science to problems where they are unhelpful. There is nothing scientific about making unsupported reductionist assumptions into dogmas. Natural science does not tell us that every genuine question is a question in natural science; only bad philosophy does. Defending the humanities requires making those distinctions. What does not help the humanities is to contrast them falsely with science, and thereby obscure the ways in which they provide genuine knowledge.
The Work of the Philosopher (2)
Tim Williamson takes me to task for implying that “points of view” are not part of the objective world, and not objects of empirical inquiry. But he understands that phrase in a way that I did not intend. Of course, if you mean by a “point of view” the store of a person’s attitudes and beliefs, then points of view are essential data to the students of history, sociology and political science. What I had in mind, however, was the standpoint from which self-conscious beings address the world, what Hegel called the Fürsichsein, and Jean-Paul Sartre the pour-soi.
Self-conscious beings relate to each other and to their shared world (their Lebenswelt) in a way that depends critically on their existence as subjects. In addressing you, I make myself available to you in the words that call you to account to me. This would not be possible without the first-person awareness that comes to me with the use of I. But that use would in turn not be possible without the dialogue through which we fit together in communities of mutual interest. And from this dialogue emerge the concepts and conceptions that confer meaning on our world, and which provide the true subject matter of the humanities.
I have the greatest respect for the work of Reichenbach and Kaplan on the semantics of indexicals. But how do their studies of self-reference help us to understand the features of self-consciousness that prove so puzzling to philosophers and so natural to the rest of us? How do they contribute to an understanding of shame, guilt, desire, love and hatred, of looking, kissing and blushing, of singing a serenade or painting a portrait? What is certain is that philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer have not needed a theory of indexicals in order to describe the unique position of the self-conscious subject. And what they write offers foundations to humane education of a kind that could never be offered by the natural sciences of the human condition.
The “I to You” encounter is central to our understanding of the human world. This fact was noticed, under a different terminology, by Wilhelm Dilthey, who distinguished scientific explanation from the “understanding” (Verstehen) that seeks for meanings. True, Dilthey did not give a pellucid theory of Verstehen, or show exactly how it differs from the reasoning exhibited by the natural sciences. But he suggested a role for philosophy that later thinkers, including Husserl, Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas and Max Scheler have, in their various ways, tried to adopt: philosophy as the seamstress of the Lebenswelt, rather than the handmaiden of the sciences.
Of course, the humanities, as currently practised, often contain first steps towards causal explanations and scientific theories. Nevertheless, I wish to reflect a little on Williamson’s assertion that “history is one of the humanities if anything is”. For history is more than one thing, and exemplifies the very danger that philosophy should diagnose and warn against: the danger of “scientism”. It is true that historians collect facts, including facts about the opinions and emotions of people. But they also try to understand societies, civilizations and epochs “from within”, in terms of the spirit that prevails in them, the “what it was like”, and the sense of value and meaning that held a community together. In other words they set out to understand past communities in the way we set out to understand present persons. Such is the history presented in Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), and in my view historians of art and civilization who have followed Burckhardt’s example – Heinrich Wölfflin, Rudolf Wittkower, yes and Friedrich Nietzsche too – have established their kind of history at the centre of our modern self-understanding.
Moreover it is precisely their kind of history that has suffered most from the incursions of pseudo-science. Marx’s “science”, which purports to identify the “laws of motion” of history, sees Geist as an epiphenomenon, the by-product of economic processes, and describes those processes in terms that wipe away the face of human communities, so as to show “the skull beneath the skin”. History, in the Marxist view, is not a matter of individual decisions, communal understanding, morality, religion, law and the day-to-day relations of accountability whereby people come to understand each other as subjects. It is not what it appears to itself to be, since there is a hidden reality that explains how it appears. The underlying reality of modern communities is class war, the division of people into bourgeoisie and proletariat, the relation of “wage slavery”.
Pseudo-science of that kind has a potent charm; it offers to provide an objective explanation of what we are, while dismissing what we think we are. It offers to liberate us from the bonds of moral accountability, by exposing them as ideological illusions. It is, in my view, no accident that politicians inspired by the Marxist theory of history have had so little compunction in treating human beings as objects, to be disposed of as the “forces of production” require.
And this takes me back to my original point, which is that philosophy has a role to play in protecting the human world from the growing assaults of pseudo-science. There are concepts that play an organizing role in our experience but which belong to no scientific theory, because they divide the world into the wrong kinds of kind – concepts like those of ornament, melody, duty, freedom, purity, which divide up the world in a way that no natural science could countenance. Consider the concept of melody. Science tells us a lot about the properties of pitched sounds; but it tells us nothing about melodies. A melody is not an acoustical but a musical object. And musical objects belong to the purely intentional realm: they are sounds heard under a musical description. That means, sounds as we self-conscious beings hear them, under concepts that have no place in the science of sounds. No sound could rise from the depths as the E-flat major arpeggio rises from the depths at the start of Das Rheingold.
The concept of the person, I believe, is in this respect like the concept of a melody. It features in our way of perceiving and relating to each other; but it does not “carry over” into the science of what we are. This does not mean that there are no persons, but only that a scientific theory of persons will classify them with other things – for example, with apes or mammals – and will not be a scientific theory of every kind of person. In other words the kind to which we fundamentally belong is defined through a concept that does not feature in the science of our nature.
Science and Points of View (2)
As first presented by Roger Scruton, the humanities concern subjects with “a distinctive point of view”, a “perspective” from which they see the world. If the visual metaphor is taken seriously, it implies that different subjects see the world from different points of view. Scruton now insists that by “point of view” he meant nothing so vulgar as that. Rather, what he had in mind “was the standpoint from which self-conscious beings address the world”: one standpoint for many self-conscious beings. In Scruton’s sense, apparently, we all have the same point of view. It is not obvious that such an indiscriminate one-size-fits-all conception will be of much use to the humanities.
In elaborating his view, Scruton gave the first-personal pronoun “I” as an example of the sort of indexical word out of place in a scientific theory. In response, I noted that those who have contributed most to analysing the semantics of “I” are philosophers of language such as Reichenbach and Kaplan, working in a scientific spirit. While acknowledging their achievements, Scruton suggests that they do not help us understand the puzzling features of self-consciousness: “What is certain is that philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer have not needed a theory of indexicals in order to describe the unique position of the self-conscious subject”.
Although a good semantic account of “I” is not sufficient for understanding the nature of self-consciousness, it may still be necessary. To take one of Scruton’s examples, brilliantly suggestive though Hegel’s discussion of the first person in The Phenomenology of Spirit is, it is plausible that it involves a confusion between what Kaplan distinguished as character and content, as Alberto Voltolini has argued forcefully. Roughly, the character of “I” is the general rule that, as used in a given context with its standard meaning in English, “I” refers to its user in that context. That rule is constant across contexts. By contrast, the content of “I” varies across contexts; as used in a given context, it is the referent of “I” in that context, the very person who uses it. You and I use the word “I” with the same character but different contents. The distinction may seem elementary once made, yet numerous discussions go wrong because they neglect it. In particular, abstract talk of “the I” tends to muddle just that point.
One might think that the semantics of “I” just has to do with language, while the nature of self-consciousness is a non-linguistic question. But our understanding of self-consciousness depends on our understanding of “I”. Imagine that in a palace of confusion I am looking at myself in a mirror, but mistakenly think that I am looking at someone else through a window. There is a sword dangling above my head, which I see only in the mirror. I think: “He is standing under a sword”. I do not think: “I am standing under a sword”. Although I am aware of someone who is in fact me standing under a sword, it is not self-consciousness in a full sense, because in that awareness I am not aware of myself as “I” but only as “he”. The best available way to put one’s finger on what is missing is to say: the “I” way of thinking. Yet what is most distinctive in the use of “I” is its reliance on Kaplan’s character of “I”, the rule of reference that applies across all speakers of English. This may help make sense of Scruton’s obscure remark that the use of “I” would “not be possible without the dialogue through which we fit together in communities of mutual interest”.
None of this implies that once we have a good theoretical analysis of the meaning of “I”, nothing more is needed to understand the nature of self-consciousness. But if we lack such an analysis, our arguments about self-consciousness are liable to go wrong from the start, and we shall never understand its nature. The place to look for such an analysis is in semantics as a branch of linguistics and the philosophy of language, of a broadly scientific kind.
In calling those disciplines sciences, I do not mean that they are natural sciences. As I have already made clear, not all science is natural science. A disappointing feature of Scruton’s response is that he continues to ignore the distinction, using the terms “science” and “natural science” as if they were equivalent.
One consequence of Scruton’s narrow understanding of “science” is that when he comes to discuss whether history is a science, he merely attacks the fatuous view that history is a natural science like physics and chemistry. He engages only with anonymous straw men. Mainly, he fulminates against the sort of pseudo-scientific vulgar Marxist history produced by Communist Party hacks in the Stalinist period, but provides no evidence that reputable contemporary historians are similarly benighted. When he names historians who write in the spirit of which he approves, their average date of birth is 1857. He shows no interest in what contemporary historians are actually doing. That is a shaky basis on which to tell them what they ought to be doing.
The Work of the Philosopher (3)
My aim has been to remind philosophers that their subject, whether or not “handmaiden to the sciences”, ought to be handmaiden also to the humanities, which are in constant danger of losing sight of the distinctive nature of inter-personal understanding and succumbing to fashionable forms of scientism. History is part of the humanities of course, but my point was not to tell historians what they ought to do, only to suggest that history, too, can be vulnerable to scientistic misunderstanding, and this can have significant effects on the humanities. For this reason, I disagree with Williamson’s suggestion that it is only vulgar Marxists of the Stalin era who wish to dismiss inter-personal understanding as mere “ideology”, to be explained, and explained away, by the underlying “class struggle”. Perhaps the most influential work of historical analysis in recent times has been Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses, the thesis of which is that the concepts and classifications through which we understand our social condition are parts of the episteme of the ruling class, to be understood as instruments of “bourgeois” domination, due to be replaced as the underlying historical forces reshape the human world. The habit of setting aside what is merely “subjective” in favour of the “objective” history of class conflict is there in Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill and many more, and among Marxist historians only E. P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, stopped to remind his readers that history emerges from the self-conception of rational subjects, who may be influenced by the “material” forces of production, but cannot be reduced to them. For that observation Thompson has never been forgiven.
Science and Points of View (3)
Philosophy is no one’s handmaiden. Like every other intellectual discipline, it has its own questions: about the nature and structure of necessity, morality, knowledge . . . . Its theories concern all possible instances of their subject matter, not just those that happen to have evolved in our species or on our planet. It has its own ways of answering its questions, for example by imaginative thought experiments and by mathematically rigorous formal models. Despite underlying similarities, it cannot be reduced to other disciplines – mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, linguistics, history – though it can learn from them all and at times has also contributed to them.
When non-philosophers make philosophical mistakes, philosophers can lecture them on it. But how much credibility has a philosopher telling physicists (or historians) that they are doing physics (or history) the wrong way? Methodologies are judged by their fruits, not by transcendental deduction. If philosophy establishes that “history emerges from the self-conception of rational subjects”, it is only in a broad sense compatible with many different historiographical methodologies, inspired by different theoretical perspectives, some from the Left, some from the Right, some from neither. Quite how rational the self-conceiving subjects of history are, recent events make one wonder.
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