There has been a discussion of the late Burton Dreben taking place on Brian Leiter’s blog here. (Leiter posted the entry back around Christmas, but revived the discussion 3 days ago by moving it up to the top of his blog.) I had commented a few times in the discussion, but because I know so little about Dreben, I was mostly asking questions. It’s an interesting discussion, with some defenders of Dreben taking part.
Dreben is famous for branding large stretches of philosophy as “nonsense.” He published very little, but had many students, and was very influential.
So, what has this to do with epistemology? Well, the history of the 20th Century Nonsense Police, of course, goes way back toward the beginning of that century, and much of their critical attention was directed at epistemology (as well as at metaphysics). In fact, my own interest in the topic is largely explained by the fact that a good-sized chunk of my dissertation (written under the supervision of Rogers Albritton) dealt with mid-century claims made by Malcolm (inspired by Wittgenstein; especially Malcolm’s “Defending Common Sense,” and his “Moore and Wittgenstein on the Sense of ‘I Know'”) and Wittgenstein (inspired, in turn, by Malcolm; especially W’s On Certainty; see pp. 171-172 of Malcolm’s “Moore and Wittgenstein…” [page ref. to the appearance of the paper in Malcolm’s book Thought and Knowledge] for the impact of Malcolm’s “Defending Common Sense” on Wittgenstein’s thought) that various uses, especially philosophical uses of “I know…” are meaningless or nonsense. Also, one of my first-hand sources on Dreben — someone who himself was actually accused of speaking nonsense by Dreben, while speaking at Harvard — was, if I’m recalling correctly, giving an epistemology paper at the time (and a paper I thought quite well of).
In the end, I found the Malcolm/Wittgenstein case(s) for their charge of nonsense to be quite weak. But at least it was there to be looked at and critically assessed. The problem I have with Dreben, and more generally with late 20th Century Nonsense Police, is that it’s very hard to find out in any detail at all why they thought this or that was nonsense…
To be fair, as I admitted in the discussion at Leiter’s blog, “I believe I got all my ‘info’ on Dreben directly or indirectly from defenders of what Dreben declared ‘nonsense’,” so I have very biased sources. Thus, as I also admitted, it’s perhaps not at all surprising that they should report that Dreben really had nothing but the force of personality (but a considerable amount of that) to back up his charges when he was challenged.
But it seems that there is a fairly obvious way for defenders of Dreben to address the worry that Dreben seemed to have no good grounds for his charges: Produce the grounds!
“Well, he didn’t have any general recipe. He had no theory of nonsense. The reasons varied from case to case.”
Alright, then: Take a few particular cases of things most philosophers (at least nowadays) would think to be perfectly meaningful, and tell us, as best you can, what Dreben’s argument was for the charge that that piece of philosophy is in fact nonsense. (Explaining as well, if need be, exactly what the charge means.)
About 7 years ago, I wrote a review of Avrum Stoll’s Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty, in which Stroll, while showing great appreciation for Moore, ended up defending Wittgenstein’s position that Moore’s philosophical uses of “know(s)” were in fact nonsense. In connection with writing that review, I did make some considerable effort to find out if there were more recent written defenses of the Wittgenstein position that those who had sympathies for the position would recommend that I read to see the best example of such a case. My informants tended to have the attitude, “No, no, don’t take the Stroll to be representative of the best that can be said,” but they also weren’t able to point to something better that I could read — or at least they refused to recommend anything better.
It was all very suspicious: It had something of the flavor of a cult: If you really wanted to know why all this stuff may be nonsense, you had to have attached yourself as a disciple to someone like Dreben, and eventually you’d have been able to get a sense for his reasons and come to appreciate them. Particularly, it made me suspect that late 20th C nonsense police had learned this lesson from some of their predacessors from earlier in the century: If make your reasons very explicit, they’ll be attacked; so keep them shrouded — it will seem deep & mysterious, and it will be hard to attack. Well, maybe I have too suspicious a mind.
But if there were good reasons behind Dreben’s (and others) charges, why wouldn’t someone — some student or defender — write them up for us in some public place?
Well, maybe it’s out there, and I’ve just missed it. In this new age of blogs, I can go beyond my meagre e-mails-to-friends of several years ago and quite publically ask for reading recommendations. So, to defenders of Dreben: If Dreben had good grounds for his charges, where, if anywhere, can I go to read a good presentation of those reasons? (Again, it’s fine if this is just his reasons against particular pieces of philosophy, with no pretensions of being some kind of general theory of nonsense.)
If there are really good grounds, but they aren’t yet written up anywhere, getting them written up sounds like a really good project for someone to undertake.