Soames and Moore

I just saw Michael Kremer’s review of Soames’ two-volume work on the history of analytic philosophy, noticing especially the strong role he assigns to G.E. Moore in showing how pre-philosophical thinking is relevant to philosophical theorizing (“the recognition that philosophical speculation must be grounded in pre-philosophical thought”). Kremer is distressed by the rather extensive lacunae in the story of the book, but doesn’t give an alternative story that is more inclusive. Soames’ story is teleological, culminating in Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, but it strikes me as myopic to see that as the story of analytic philosophy. The heart of the story involves Moore, but not simply through the Moorean methodology that requires the grounding of philosophical speculation in pre-philosophical thought. So here’s what I think is more the truth of the matter.

The problem that requires resolution within this tradition is the problem of econciling three separate, and not obviously consistent, threads: the rejection of idealism found in Moore and Russell, the power Fregean philosophy of logic and language, and the impressive empirical achievements of contemporary science. The rejection of idealism involves a commitment to common sense philosophy and leads quite naturally to ordinary language philosophy, but this strand conflicts with the kind of respect one develops upon seeing the empirical successes of contemporary science, which incline the tradition toward positivism and phenomenalism (which are both decidedly non-realist and not in keeping with the pronouncements of common sense). In addition, those primarily impressed by the empirical character of the achievements of contemporary science will find the Fregean reliance on mysterious metaphysical items such as senses troubling.

What takes center stage in this story is the fact of the impressiveness of science, and the result is that the story of resolving the tensions noted above focuses primarily on questions concerning the plausibility and natures of naturalism and physicalism. Kripke’s work is central to this story, but not uniquely so, and certainly it is not the telos that gives narrative purpose to the story. Instead, it is important because it opens up the possibility of doing serious metaphysics again, in the face of the empiricistic inclinations that are easily developed in acquiring familiarity with the phenomenal successes of empirical science. Rather than having to sneak metaphysical thought in the back door in the form of philosophy of language or semantics, Kripke’s work opens up the possibility that the empiricist framework cannot explain the things that it was designed to explain. In this way, Kripke’s work is not so much that of setting a research program for the future (though it did that as well), but of rendering respectable again the kinds of research interests found in the great figures in the history of philosophy: Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, etc. The result is another challenge, besides those in the Moorean tradition, to the idea that philosophy of science is philosophy enough–where the latter slogan is understood as a question about the plausibility of naturalistic – materialistic – physicalistic conceptions of reality. This question is played out in the realism/antirealism debates in metaphysics; in the central debates in the philosophy of mind; in the issues in the philosophy of language and logic concerning the theory of truth and the semantic devices needed for understanding simple first-order theories and various segments of natural language, the respectability of intensional logics, the commitment to possible worlds and the nature of such, and the singular importance of the issue of vagueness in recent thought (tied, as it is, to the defensibility of important versions of realism); as well as in the naturalism/normativity debates in epistemology and ethics.

To return to the Moorean influence here, and the nature of this blog, the story cannot be told properly with seeing the role of Moore in the new direction for epistemology provided by Chisholm through his particularist methodology and his generalization of C.I. Lewis’s views on memorial knowledge motivated by his rather devastating criticisms of Lewis’s phenomenalistic program. Chisholm’s beautiful (and underappreciated) piece “The Problem of Empiricism” is central to this story, and the more recent search for an acceptable naturalism in epistemology is a story of trying to break out of the Chisholmian circle of normativity in order to specify a naturalistic supervenience base as well as the desire to avoid the scatter problem inherent in the Chisholmian approach of settling for multiplying epistemic principles whenever a new one is called for by the particularist methodology.

There are still important elements left out in this story, but not nearly so much as is left out in Soames’ rendition. Compare what is included in the above story with the items singled out by Kremer as being left out of Soames’ story:

Soames nowhere discusses American philosophy prior to Quine. Pragmatism, Peirce, James, and Dewey are not mentioned. Neither is the Vienna Circle — logical positivism is represented by Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic and reduced to conventionalism about the a priori and verificationism about meaning. Shadowy figures called “the early positivists” appear occasionally, but the names “Schlick” and “Neurath” occur only in a footnote. Missing are the program of unified science, debates over scientific method and the structure of scientific theories, theories of confirmation and probability. Carnap’s philosophy is barely touched upon. Wilfrid Sellars, whose “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” was among the most influential works of the twentieth century, does not appear at all. Discussion of Sellars would have been very helpful in conjunction with Soames’s analysis of Ryle’s The Concept of Mind and Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. The rise of computational models of the mind, and functionalism, is nowhere in evidence. Kuhn is absent, as is the revolution in philosophy of science brought about by The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And on and on.

Nothing on this list needs to be left out of the above story, though some items will of course be emphasized more than others. I’m inclined to think the flaw that Kremer is noticing is the flaw of trying to account for a segment of the history of philosophy in terms of the history of the problems one finds most important and intriguing, but I await informed responses from others who spend much more time thinking about history than I…


Soames and Moore — 7 Comments

  1. I have not read Soames’ book yet, but it sounds like he tries to offer a philosophy-internal story, in which philosophical developments are cast only in response to other philosophical developments. So one thing that I think is absolutely spot-on about your narrative, Jon, is the way in which it shows that we can only understand philosophy’s development in terms that include its (ongoing) love/hate relationship with the sciences. The story of the philosophy of mind, for example, would need to assign a large role to philosophy’s relationship to the relevant sciences. And I suspect that probably some other philosophy-external influences could go some way for making sense of some of the remaining gaps; for example, I don’t see how we can fully situate Rawls in our history, except as emerging both from his interaction with fellow philosophers like Goodman and from the general post-war American political scene.

  2. The problem is not just Moore. Kremer notices extensive lacunae, and in spite of this writes:
    “These volumes are certain to become the standard history of analytic philosophy.”
    But, there is almost no discussion of Frege!
    How can one have “THE standard history of analytic philosophy” without Frege included.
    (Similarly, in “Beyond Rigidity” there is 150 pages on causal theory of reference of natural kind terms, with
    Putnam’s work relegated to a footnote).
    All this said, I find Somes’s books beautifully writen; a real treat for the reader.

  3. Thanks, Jon, for a plausible and interesting alternative narrative. My reaction to Kremer’s review (I haven’t read Soames) was: who thinks that (i) a reliance on common sense, and (ii) distinguishing analyticity/apriority/necessity is an achievement worth celebrating after 100 years of work? Not only did I think Soames left a lot of stuff out, but also I worried about a philosophical culture that thought what he did put in was particularly impressive. Your narrative, albeit sketchy, does much better.

    I’ve been working on my own thoughts on this matter. Here are some themes I think need to be put in a history of 20th c philosophy: (1) the decisive turn to naturalism is at the same time a decisive rejection of religion. In the 20th c, metaphysics ceased to take its cues from religious concerns. Which drives which is a complicated question. (2) The 20th c saw the end of attempts, beginning in the Enlightenment, to answer metaphysical questions by first addressing questions like ‘what can I know’ or (later) ‘what can we say’. Maybe Kripke helps make this possible. But another element is the prevalence of philosophies that drive questions about mind/language back to questions about practice: I have in mind the later Wittgenstein, Davidson, Sellars. (3) The (later) 20th c saw a revival of both Kant and Aristotle in ethics. Why this should be–what its intra- and extra-philosophical causes were–I can only speculate, but it’s surely no accident. Perhaps it has to do with political philosophies as well: utilitarianism is the natural ethic of collectivism; Rawls articulates the natural ethic of liberalism; MacIntyre (e.g.) articulates an ethic for something like communitarianism.

  4. Jonathan, on the Rawls issue, I’m inclined to see him as defending a kind of substantive antirealism in normative theory: not the “boo-hoorah” kind, but one that specifies truth conditions for normative discourse in terms that don’t require normative properties themselves in the story of what makes such claims true. In that way, I see him as part of the larger picture of trying to explain how the proper philosophical approach needs to accommodate itself to the supremacy of science in cognitive matters.

    Nenad, no question on that point–to leave out Frege is to miss one of the giants of the story.

    Heath, there’s a way to look at the story I sketched in terms of the Lockean picture of the philosopher as the underlaborer with respect to the scientist. In that way, the 20th century developments don’t appear out of nowhere, but can be traced to the earlier issues of the same sort, about what a proper conception of philosophical achievement might be. Part of this story involves the tension with religion, and I think it is interesting to view the linguistic turn touted by Rorty not so much as something completely novel and interesting in its own right, but rather as the expression of a hope that there is still some room for philosophical reflection in the face of acceding to scientistic tendencies to see cognitive achievement in discerning the nature of reality as falling always and only within the sciences (including, of course, mathematics).

  5. Heath, how can you see 20th century philosophy as anti-religious as you do. I don’t dispute the naturalism and the definite difference from say the early rationalists. Certainly religion isn’t dominant – primarily because socially religion isn’t dominant – especially in universities in general. But aren’t there fairly big religious influences still in Analytic philosophy? Take in epistemology movements such as reliabilism. I recognize that you were more focusing in on metaphysics. But are you eliminating the influence too much?

  6. Clark,

    My thought was this. If you look at early moderns– Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant–God is a big topic, in the background even when not in the foreground. Even in the 19th c, Hegel and the idealists are basically trying to interpret or substitute for God and religion, and Nietzsche, Marx, Feuerbach et al clearly have religion as a primary topic. The point is that everybody took sides and had issues.

    It seems to me that this changes over the course of the 20th c. In the first part, there is still some attention to religion in a negative way: I’m thinking of the pragmatist treatment of metaphysical notions, the verificationists, etc. But by the time you get to the 50s, influential philosophers are–this is my diagnosis–so comfortable in their naturalism that religion simply isn’t an issue. Later Wittgenstein, ordinary language, the philosophy of mind, Quine, Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, most of David Lewis, simply have nothing to say on the matter. Rorty is an exception (as in so many ways). This is a big historical shift–my main point.

    Now there is an undercurrent of resistance whose most notable mover is Plantinga. And it has prompted some very good work. But, e.g., the attack on foundationalism, and the move to externalism, was not brand new with religious philosophers; they applied and developed existing criticisms of epistemological paradigms to their own religious issues. New epistemological developments have not been *driven by* religious concerns. (I think that’s accurate; Jon?) I’m not saying this isn’t creative or important work; I’m saying it’s a very minor current in the overall scheme of influential philosophy.

  7. Two comments:

    About Rawls: While I think it is a mistake to attribute Rawls’s later views to his earlier self, the view after some time in the 1980s was not anti-metaphysical or anti-realist. Rather it was minimalist, in the sense that he thought for purposes of political philosophy we should strive to argue only from what reasonable people must agree on. Insofar as he thought one did not need to take a stand on metaphysical or metaethical issues to form reasonable conclusions about the use of coercion against those with whom we disagree, he confined himself to arguing from premises that did not rely on settling such issues. Whether he was right about that, I think that was the project. (And even in TOJ there is a strand which suggests that he always thought minimal premises were best for being less controversial.)

    2nd point: I’m not sure that Soames actually ignores science so much. In one way, Soames approach to semantics is based in taking science very seriously, in the sense that it employs theoretical notions (content and character, for example) that are more complex than folk notions of meaning by themselves suggest. This is very different from the approach of the ordinary language philosophers, as I (perhaps mis-)understand them.

    That’s just my two cents worth; I haven’t finished the two history books, but have enjoyed what I’ve read of them.

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