Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 5

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 5

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 5

Central Works of Philosophy - Vol. 5


'Central Works of Philosophy' ia a five-volume set of essays on the core texts of the Western philosophical tradition. From Plato's 'Republic' to the present day, the volumes range over 2500 years of philosophical writing covering the best, most representative, and most influential work of some of our greatest philosophers.


It would be a distortion to attribute to philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century any overall unity of philosophical outlook, and I shall, therefore, not try to impose one. Moreover, the closeness to the present of the works in this period makes it even more difficult than usual to discern a prevailing direction in recent philosophy or identify what value posterity will assign to any particular part of it. If one true observation about late-twentieth-century philosophy may be made, it is perhaps only the trite one of its diversity.

To say, however, that there is no discernible overall unity of philosophical outlook – such as realism, or naturalism, or transcendental idealism – in the period under consideration is not to say there were not at different times within it relative concentrations of interest on particular areas in the subject of philosophy, or that there was not for a limited time the stepping to the fore of certain philosophical methods and approaches.

It might be thought that a unity could be granted negatively to at least some of the philosophers considered here through their common rejection of logical positivism, a philosophical movement that had its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. But this would be a mistake and far too simple. Partly this is because logical positivism is not the pure unfaceted singular doctrine some suppose it to be. Logical positivism sought, as a generality, on the negative side, to eliminate great swaths of traditional philosophy; rather than attempt to “solve” so-called philosophical “problems”, it “dissolved” them by casting them into an outer darkness of literal nonsense where no “solutions” are required.

Propositions are either analytic/a priori and trivial (at best the concern of logic and mathematics), or synthetic/a posteriori and empirical (and thus the concern of science), leaving no sort of genuine propositions in which to express putative truly philosophical “problems” or “solutions” (such propositions would have to be both a priori and not trivially analytic); rather, all that is left is literal nonsense. Logical positivism on the positive side sought to establish that the empirical methods of science delineate the boundaries of legitimate cognitive enquiry about the world. These negative and positive aspects are connected, for a good number of the proffered propositions expressing putative philosophical problems, if not nonsense, turn out when properly analysed to be propositions expressing logical or empirical problems in disguise, their corresponding solutions being matters of logic or science. This connection must be noticed in order to understand one important aspect of the influence of logical positivism on later philosophers. Several pillars of logical positivism certainly came under attack by the philosophers in this volume. W. V. Quine undermines the analytic/ synthetic distinction and the corresponding a priori/a posteriori distinction on which some of the logical positivist arguments depend; but his differences with the leading logical positivist Rudolf Carnap, for example, even on this matter are less substantial than they appear to be. On a less superficial level there are similarities between Quine’s naturalism and logical positivism owing to the common influence of pragmatism. Saul Kripke certainly argued, contrary to the logical positivist view, that the a priori and a posteriori and the necessary and contingent need not be, respectively, coextensive; but his views may nevertheless be seen as emerging from a critical engagement with insights found in logical positivism. Others questioned the view that moral assertions are non-cognitive emotive affirmations of feelings. Nevertheless many philosophers, following logical positivism’s greatest period of influence, took as much from the position as they rejected. Partly this is simply a matter of a perpetuation of logico-linguistic methods and tools of philosophical logic to determine the nature and limits of philosophy, although in essence these predate logical positivism and refer back to the seminal work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Most notably however the belief in science as the ultimate route to knowledge, under the banner of a universal naturalism that rejects the existence of any special autonomous class of philosophical truths, surfaces as strongly in Quine and others as it does in logical positivism, albeit the grounds for it are different. Many philosophers, while critical of some fundamental doctrines of logical positivism, continue to maintain the essential continuity of philosophy and science rather than their discontinuity. Other views, in some ways more traditional ones, that persist in identifying an autonomous class of philosophical problems inaccessible to science are, in a sense, and unlike logical positivism, fundamentally antagonistic to . . .

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