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Is Philosophy Really Necessary?

new world. Tradition and faith were two of the most
powerful bulwarks of the old regine. and the philosophical attackes constituted an immediate historical
action. Today. however. it is not a matter of eliminating a creed. for in the totalitarian states. where the
noisiest appeal is made to heroism and a lofty Weltanschauung, neither faith nor WeltanschaQung rule. but
Qnly dull indifference and the apathy of the individual
~owards destiny and to what comes from above.

Today

Qur task is rather to ensure that. in the future. the
capacity for theory and for action which derives from
theory will never again disappear. even in some coming
period of peace when the daily routine may tend to
allow the whole problem to be forgotten once more. Our
task is continually to struggle. lest mankind becomes
completely disheartened by the frightful happenings of
the present. lest man’s belief in a worthy. peaceful and
happy direction of society perishes from the earth.

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As almost any philosopher assigned the task of
teaching the history of his subject is ready to admit
it is pointless simply to present the student with a ‘

chronological sequence of doctrines. with what &
succession of celebrities taught of “held”. Pointless
because there is nothing the student can do with such
doctrines in isolation except burden his memory and
bore his examiners. We must. we frequently say.

correlate them with the problems they were designed
to solve. Suppose. however. that the problems in
question are those of determining whether we may not
be dre~ing all the time. or whether we can have any
knowledge ofa world other than ourselves. Does it
not still remain to be shown that we are doing more
that teaching him an esoteric game. which has no
obvious connection with the major concerns of humanity. and the value of which as intellectual exercise
could arguably be realised equally well. and with a
greater practical bonus. by a course in mathematics?

Clearly, the best way to meet the implied critic~
ism here would be to demonstrate that the problems a~
solutions together have an important function in the
general economy of human thought and activity in the
period of history under discussion – or. better still
in any period. And doubtless we should be willing

to accept the challenge of mastering the requisite
history outside our own speciality. It remains.

however, an open question to what extent we can
demonstrate this of, say, the time-honoured texts
prescribed for courses on ”modern philosophy”,
Cartesian and post-Cartesian. We may be forced to
admit that a substantial part of their content was
superfluous to, or parasitic on, the development of
scientific research; and that while there undoubtedly
is something of the first importance for that ‘

development which can properly be called philosophy,
our primary sources for its study lie elsewhere.

But, if so, then so much the worse for our standard
texts.

Consider one or two ways in which we might. in
teaching our modern philosophy course, try to avoid
crea~ing an impression of misused ingenuity or fantasy.

We m1ght, for example, portray Descartes and his
successors as deeply preoccupied with a problem of
authority, i.e. of what is to count as sufficient
grounds for accepting any statement as true. We
could suggest obvious enough reasons why this problem
should have had a particular urgency in seventeenthcentury Europe (the conflicting claims of rival
religious institutions, the accelerating development
of natural science, the appeal of quasi-mathematical
systems … ). And we can go on to make the quite
general point that the acceptance, in any historical
context, of any body of statements as true presuppose~
some solution to our problem of authority, even though
it may be adopted without any notable intellectual
crisis.

Or we might take up Professor Mundle’s suggestion
that one worthwhile task of philosophy. which he would 14
apparently like us to resume, has traditionally been

that of exploring. and mapping, alternative categorical systems. “The exploration of ways of relating
categories to each other. of alternative categorical
systeas. has in the past been one of the main pursuits
of aetaphysics •.• ” – the purpose of any such system
being that ” •.• it should apply to, fit and aake
sense of non-linguistic facts, what is currently
known or believed about the world and ourselves”. (1)
Both these suggestions aay be inte~esting enough
in themselves but, ~en if they serve to throw sOlle
light on what Descartes and his successors were
actually doing, they scarcely suffice to vindicate its
importance. To begin with, as the passage just quoted
.~esexplicit. we are presenting philosophy as an
activity which starts only when the serious business
of research, of finding out about the world and our
relations with it, has already yielded results in the
form of ready-for.llated statements and> established
facts. Given these, the philosopher then agonises,
r~ther self-consciously it would seem, over which of
the statements, he can conscientiously “accept”, or
elaborates alternative systems designed to “apply”, in
sOlle sense not very clearly specified, to facts
already discovered by sa.eone else. And aeanwhile,
prestaably, the develo~ent of natural science. and
its interactions with the general life of the ca..uni ty in which it developes, contime unaffectEd which still leaves philosophy very JlUch in the
position of an intellectual luxury, as activity
dependent, as it were, on first-order enquiry, without
contributing anything essential to it.

Characteristically, philosophies in this sense
are exposed to the paradoxes of relativiSll. We aight
for example, list ~ range of answers, actually adopted
Or aerely possible, to the problem of authority.

Suppose, then, sameone asks naievely: How are we to
tel~ wh~ch one is right? We can only offer in reply,
or 1n 11eu of reply, a thoroughgoing relativistic
thesis – very briefly, sOllething like the following:

To make a case for or against any proposed solution
(e.g. on the grounds that its adoption would expose
~s to the risk of self-contradiction or subjectivism)
1S to accept as’true whatever statements we propose to
use as evidence in support of our case. But we don’t
accept these at random; in accepting them we have in
effect already adopted, and are using, one ‘solution.

It follows that all enquirers (ourselves included. of
course) must adopt at least one solution without any
evidence whatsoever – though presumably we could trace
causes of such adoptions, educational background etc.

It follows also that if different enquirers or schools
of enquiry adopt different solutioBS. they might
assign truth-values among a given range of statements
in ~ays different from each other but all equally
correct.

Nonetheless, relativism requires an answer.

1be argument just outlined is not obviously fallacious,
nor is its application in the history of philosophy
tnvariably unconvincing, even if some of its consequences are disturbingly paradoxical. (The historian
pf philosophy could sometimes be forgiven for taking
up something like the stance of an existentialist
hero. surveying, from the vantage-point of disillusion,
the earnest endeavours of those less conscious of
their own arbitrariness, and from there demonstrating,
pot the importance of their activity, but the self1

A CRITIQUE OF LINGUISTIC PHILOSOPHY. Oxford 1970.

p.26Sf.

meet specific needs, and its functioning cannot be
fully appreciated in isolation from these.

importance of the agents.) To get away from relativism, h’e have, I think, to realise how its plausibility
depends on abstraction – in the case of the field ‘ve
have been considering, it depends on treating factfinding, result-stating and truth-evaluation as
logically independent activities, any of which could
be pursued without regard to the equipment and
techniques of the others.

Now, in an important sense – arguably the most
important sense – of the term “philosophy”, such sets
of equipment, taken together with the techniques for
using them and the values their use is intended to
realise, are the philosophies underlying, or presupposed by, our attempts to know our world and our
relations with it. Obviously, there is no need to
demonstrate the importance of a philosophy in this
sense; far from being an intellectual luxury, it is
an essential precondition of the construction of any
system of knowledge, and radically affects the whole
character of the construction. In this sense, indeed,
every enquirer as such necessarily has a philosophy;
his choice is not between having and not having a
philosophy, but between having and not having an
explicit philosophy. It is presumably when an
enquirer sets himself the task of explication that a
“philosopher” (of this field of interest) comes into
being.

But when we think of them in concrete terms, of
what is actually involved in conducting some piece Qf
research and formulating and assessing our results,
the essential interrelatedness of these various
stages becomes demonstrable. The most promising line
of approach here, I would suggest, is to treat all
these’tasks as, essentially, exercises in the use of
a single range of equipment. I.e., at its simplest,
fact-finding is the process of discovering that a
specific field, or subject-matter, instantiates, or
fails to instantiate, a given concept; stating our
results that of recording, or publishing, by some
convention-sanctioned means, that this field instantiates … etc; checking the truth of the statement
that of determining whether or not “things are as the
statement states” (2), i.e. whether or not this field
instantiates … etc, as the statement indicates.

Obviously a vast amount of elaboration is required here
to make the thesis at all adequate to the complexity
of the whole business of acquiring and preserving
knowledge. The point to be noted here is the way in
which equipment, and techniques for using it, carry
over (even if they require supplementation) from one
activity to the other. For all of them we require, at
the least, some system of concepts, some techniques
for identifying our fields of interest, some techniques
for determining what is to count as instantiation of
a given concept by a given field ….

What we have already said should serve to suggest
some of ht major tasks of such a philosopher – e.g.

the analysis of the minimum conditions (equipment,
techniques, c~pacities of the enquirer, properties of
the field of enquiry … ) for construction of any
system of propositional knowledge, the conditions for
such construction in particular fields (e.g. the
natural sciences or history), the various ways in
which such conditions have heen satisfied in given
historical situations, the relations between our
equipment for enquiry and the needs it was designed
to meet, the processes hy which we· acquire it, the
extent to which it determines our results, the recurrent temptations of relativism and suhjectivism, and
ways of overcoming them …. There arc, obviously,
affinities and overlaps here with the content of
several traditional hranches of phi losop!::’ – epistemology, the philosophies of science and hi~tory, even
those of language and education. And no doubt many of
our standard “philosophical” texts contain much that
throws light on them. But it is also true that many
of them are·marred by ahstraction, hy a deliherate
narrowing of field of interest, hy failing to consider
the equipment and techniques of enquiry into their
historical and social contexts, to an extent that
makes it necessary to go a long way heyond them in our
quest for adequate answers.

If so, then it follows that we cannot, as
Professor Mundle appears to suggest, have a range of
facts which are neutral between systems of concepts
and which could preserve their identity through a
shift from one system to another. It is a precondition of our establishing any facts whatsoever
that we already have a system of concepts (including
some with categorical status in Professor Bundle’s
sense – roughly, those which are topic-versatile
though not topic-neutral). And we have no way of
identifying what facts we claim to have established
without reference to the specific concepts used in
their discovery. It follows also that there is no
question of applying alternative “criteria of truth”
to a range of statements which preserve their identity
thoughout. The way in which we identify a given
statement (what we take it to be saying about what
field) determines our way of checking its truth-value;
to check it differently would be to identify it
differently. And hence in each case a vital premise
of the relativist case is rejected.

Of course, the sets of equipment available to
different thinkers or schools of thought vary enormously,
and are permanently open-ended. But in so far as A and
B use different equipment, they do not contradict each
other, or assign different truth-values to the same
statement. They simply fail to make contact. And
unless they can enrich their equipment by mutual
borrowings, they necessarily continue to establish
different facts, to make and assess different
statements.

Just what equipment is available in any given
community at any given time is determined, primarily
at least, by the needs and interests of the community
in its previous history. It is, again, a potentially
misleading obstruction to consider, say, a system of
c9ncepts as if it were something just given, or found,
ready-made. In practice, it is built up, together
with the rest of the equipment we have mentioned to
2

J L Mackie’s phrase, see ‘Simple Truth’,
Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.XX, p.238.

15

Such a quest, we should note finally, has a claim
to be an integral part of enquiry (in the sense of
any process, simple or sophisticated, of acquiring and
preserving knowledge) rather than something superfluous to, or parasitic on it. What it amounts to, in
effect, is the development of a self-consciousness
about our function as enquirers, ahout the methods,
origins and effects of our work. And, apart from other
obvious benefits, such self-consciousness is a
precondition of change, just because it is a precondition of seeing the limits of what wc are doing,
and the possible alternatives or supplementations.

There is, arguahly, a kind of reciprocal process here.

Limits make themselves felt, perhaps through some kind
of crisis or impasse in the conduct of first-order
research, and so provide the stimulus to philosophise.

Consider, for example, the way in which the difficulty
of interpreting such things as the Michelson-Morley
result in terms of the concepts of classical physics
led Einstein and others to go back and ask what were,
in our sense, philosophical questions about the
concepts, of “space”, “time”, “simultaneity” etc.

The outcome was an alternative, more sophisticated
conceptual system which could, and did, form part of
the equipment of further research. Usually, of course,
the effects are less spectacular. But the general
thesis suggested remains worthy of consideration, i.e.

that, in relation to enquiry, as to other spheres of
interest, the function of philosophising within what
we called at the outset the general economy of human
thought and activity, is to clarify present limitations
and hence the possibilities for future advance.

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