Why We Need Philosophers

By Gottlieb, Anthony | The Spectator, January 13, 2001 | Go to article overview

Why We Need Philosophers


Gottlieb, Anthony, The Spectator


'THE point of philosophy,' Bertrand Russell mischievously wrote in 1935, 'is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.' He was no fool. He realised that, in order to make people listen to what he had to say about philosophy, it was necessary first to join them in ridiculing it. After all, as everybody knows, philosophers spend their days working out how many angels can dance on the inadequate supply of pins provided by the education department, and their nights trying to forget that they haven't got anywhere since the ancient Greeks. Some ices fixes are just too firmly wedged to budge. You have to play along with them. But does philosophy actually deserve its reputation for sophistical irrelevance?

This is a question worth asking on the death of a man hailed as the leading philosopher of the second half of the 20th century, especially when few have heard of him and much of his work apparently consisted of squiggles. W.V. Quine Van, to his friends - who died aged 92 on Christmas Day, was a Harvard don who set the agenda for postwar philosophy after the influence of Wittgenstein and the Oxford linguistic analysts had faded. The abstruse theorems of mathematical logic were his passion. If you subscribe to the view that contemporary philosophy has abandoned its former calling to answer the Great Questions of Life, then Quine and his immediate predecessors are good candidates for blame. And they are indeed receiving their share of it in the newspapers. Simon Jenkins (of whom more later) has been roused to distraction by the honours heaped on Quine and his kind.

Yet here is a funny thing. Who lamented 'the over-refined linguistic quibbling of some philosophers'? And who complained that 'mathematics has come to be the whole of philosophy for modem thinkers'? The first whinge is from Galen, a doctor who wrote in the 2nd century AD. The second is even older: it comes from Aristotle, who was attacking Plato. The fact is that such criticisms are as ancient as philosophy itself. They are the sort of thing that thinkers in every century have tended to say about philosophers of their own times. Philosophy is always liable to look trivial and misguided until it is old and seen through spectacles fogged by nostalgia for some golden age of intellectual greatness.

Still, misplaced nostalgia is hardly the worst of philosophy's problems. Partly because of its uniquely slippery definition - or rather lack of one - its public image has been systematically distorted by a trick of the historical light. As soon as any corner of it comes generally to be regarded as useful, it ceases to be called philosophy. Hence the illusory appearance that its practitioners never make any progress. Georg Cantor, a 19th-century German, is a simple case in point. His work on infinity was at first written off by his scientific colleagues as mere 'philosophy' because it seemed so bizarre, abstract and pointless. Now it is taught in schools under the name of set-theory. Economics, psychology and computer science went through similar travails: all were largely offshoots of philosophy. So, much earlier, was physics.

Time and again, intellectual history has been rewritten to confirm the prejudice that 'philosophers' muse aimlessly while 'scientists' and other sturdy folk get on with the real work. It was, for example, John Philoponus, a Byzantine philosopher of the 6th century, who first refuted Aristotle's theory of falling bodies - a crucial development in physics - by means of an experiment that is traditionally credited to Galileo, who lived more than 1,000 years later. Attributing it to Galileo is neater because he is not now thought of as a philosopher, whereas Philoponus is, and this is supposed to be a 'scientific' discovery rather than a 'philosophical' one.

The distinction would have made little sense to Galileo and the other pioneers of the so-called scientific revolution. …

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