Sunday, 20 December 2009

Bryan Magee's Critique of Oxford

Bryan Magee (born 1930) is a British philosopher associated with the Oxford tradition, though not at all typical. In his earlier years he did not become a professional philosopher due to his discontent with the prevailing ideology. Instead he took the varied roles of a broadcaster, independent writer, and politician. Yet he did subsequently hold university appointments at both Oxford and London, and became a Professor. Himself favouring Kant and Schopenhauer, his strong critique of the Oxford tradition of philosophy is controversial, though perhaps obligatory to mention.

After graduating at Oxford, in the mid-1950s Magee gained a fellowship in philosophy at Yale University. He discovered how different the prevailing philosophical outlook was at Yale to the counterpart at Oxford. He clearly preferred the former, and the reasons are worth investigating here.

The outspoken autobiography of Magee asserts that the twentieth century Oxford philosophy was so fundamentally different to philosophy as undertaken by figures like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Leibniz, Locke and Kant, and even Hume. The two contrasting dispositions are “not only not the same activity but are not, at bottom, importantly related” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 87).

Professor Magee urges that “those who remained for ever within the confines of Oxford philosophy never set foot in the kingdom of real philosophy” (ibid.). That is a strong statement, and there are many others in the same book. E.g., “the general atmosphere among Yale philosophers contained something that was almost wholly lacking in the Oxford of that time, a living sense of philosophy’s continuity with its own past” (ibid., pp. 87-8). Yale philosophers even studied Einstein, who was an alien factor to the Oxford tradition in dispute.

The observation is made by the same writer that the Oxford philosophers placed a low value on past philosophy. “People whose job it was to teach philosophy would announce with obvious complacency, even pride, that they had never read some of the greatest philosophers” (ibid., p. 88).

Magee stresses that the year he spent at Yale enabled him to see Oxford philosophers more objectively, as being “provincial, superficial, self-admiring, and above all intellectually unserious” (ibid.). According to the same commentator, Karl Popper was the only instance at that time in Britain (amongst well known philosophers) of a more comprehensive approach, resembling the Yale outlook, and “as a direct consequence he suffered not only isolation but active discrimination” (ibid., p. 89).

The Oxford emphasis was on British philosophers, with foreigners almost completely excluded. “Most of the questions in the examination paper on the history of philosophy related to four philosophers only: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume” (ibid., p. 88). In fact, it was usual for those who obtained a first class degree in philosophy “not to have read a word of Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (which was a special option), Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, or any other philosopher who had practised outside the British Isles” (ibid.). This ethnocentric horizon stressed recent British exponents like Moore and Wittgenstein.

The Greeks had receded. As for the Muslim falasifa, they were effectively unknown, and certainly off the map. In this unventuresome climate of British conceptualism, the linguistic vogue “was little more than an intellectual exercise, like the invention of difficult crossword puzzles” (ibid., p. 85). Magee further writes of his earlier years that “my contemporaries were having fun, in which indeed I often joined and found pleasure, but what they were doing was seldom if ever of the slightest consequence” (ibid.).

The Oxford dissident was able to cite as a support the verdict of Bertrand Russell in the latter’s book entitled My Philosophical Development (1959). The Cambridge exponent there states that “the new philosophy seems to me to have abandoned, without necessity, that grave and important task which philosophy throughout the ages has hitherto pursued” (Magee, Confessions, pp. 85-6, citing Russell, p. 230).

One may conclude (without necessarily agreeing with all the Magee contentions) that British analytical philosophy has needed to become more universal in historical reference points, and ever more comprehensive in ideology, proposition, and theory. The methodology of “doing philosophy” appears to need a basic reappraisal, and this has been in process. The “crossword puzzles” are now seen by many as being in a different league to solving “philosophical problems,” a phrase that has varied in significance amongst interpreters.

Fortunately, since the 1950s, British analytical philosophy has become rather more complex and diverse, admitting new perspectives and forms of argument.

See also Magee, Popper (1974); idem, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (1983); id., The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1987); id., The Story of Philosophy (1998).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 20th 2009

ENTRY no. 6

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

J. L. Austin and the Oxford Tradition

Apart from Wittgenstein, the major proponent of linguistic philosophy was John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960). Shortly after the death of Wittgenstein, Austin became the leading philosopher at Oxford University during the 1950s. He believed that analysis of the use of language was the basic concern of philosophy. One of his innovative concepts was “speech act,” denoting the factor of speech as behaviour. The title of his book How to Do Things with Words (1962) is a very graphic indicator of his format. His Philosophical Papers (1961) is also relevant.

Austin gained a classical scholarship at Balliol College. His linguistic training as a classicist apparently influenced his later career, in which his aim was to investigate and index commonly employed grammatical constructions.
One of his better known emphases was the speech act that he called “performative utterances,” such as promising, congratulating, or apologising. These he viewed as serving a purpose that does not imply any direct representation of reality. Those utterances can therefore never be true or false, only relatively successful or unsuccessful. Indeed, most other utterances were also not regarded by Austin as being truth-evaluable.

How words are used, in ordinary speech, is surely a relevant subject of enquiry. Yet if that endeavour becomes totally dominant in philosophy, losses can offset the gains. There have been counter-views to the linguistic paradigm.

The truth or falsity of utterances becomes pressing in the contemporary world. Ordinary speech of the 1950s was superior to the demise of diction fifty years later, facilitated by decadent media. Four letter words and one letter words are now the extent of literacy in some sectors. Even the BBC can now do with reminding, e.g., that the vogues for slang and abuse in common language are eroding the best descriptive English. For instance, the word you now too frequently becomes u, and conceptual density has proportionately attenuated. The contemporary mindface is too often one of falsity and superficiality.

Austin acknowledged the influence of G. E. Moore’s commonsense philosophy rather than Wittgenstein. Yet the Oxford philosopher Alfred J. Ayer (1910-1989) described Austin’s blanket linguistic approach as arid. Ayer had early formed an enthusiasm for logical positivism, associated with the Vienna Circle, which he visited as a guest. His book Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) was influential in the spread of logical positivism, which was succeeded by linguistic philosophy. Ayer was also a follower of Bertrand Russell, who expressed aversion to linguistic analysis after himself initiating that trend. Ayer’s respect for the Cambridge tradition was commemorated in his Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (1971).

Sir Alfred Ayer was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford from 1959 to 1978. He is sometimes identified as a partisan of David Hume. See Ayer, Hume (Oxford University Press, 1980). Here Ayer closely follows basic arguments of Hume, and in such a manner as to indicate his sense of empathy. Despite his popularity with a public readership, Ayer lost to Wittgenstein and Austin in the influence upon his academic colleagues at Oxford and Cambridge. The reason for this has been stated in terms of: “Ayer had remained faithful to Russell, if anything excessively so, but never had any original ideas” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 380). Cf. Graham Macdonald, “Alfred Jules Ayer” (2005), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Another Oxford luminary was Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), author of the provocative work The Concept of Mind (1949). That thesis of the “ghost in the machine” argued strongly against Cartesian and related concepts of the independent nature of mind from the body; mental processes are here not at all distinct from bodily actions.

“It is not surprising that Gilbert Ryle’s ‘deliberate abusiveness’ towards ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’ should have been forecast by Ryle himself as being in line for the accusation of a behaviourist approach” (K.R.D. Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, Cambridge 1991, p. 129). One must here abbreviate the disputes for the sake of clarity in a blog format.

Transiting from Husserl and Heidegger, Professor Ryle became “the John the Baptist of linguistic analysis” (Magee, Confessions, p. 381). Professor Magee had the advantage of personal encounters with Ryle, and so his comments cannot easily be dismissed. Ryle came under the influence of Wittgenstein, a factor “which continued even after Ryle came actively to dislike Wittgenstein” (ibid., p. 382).

Furthermore, Ryle’s controversial book is described by the critical Oxonian in terms of “not only the central thesis but also what came to be the best known of the subsidiary theses come straight out of Schopenhauer, while all the time Ryle himself genuinely believed he was putting forward his own ideas” (ibid.). Ryle is here said to have understood this factor of derivation after publication, and after being informed accordingly. Cf. Julia Tanney, “Gilbert Ryle” (2009), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, seeking “to raise the possibility that his [Ryle’s] work has been widely misunderstood.”

Ryle was eclipsed by the prominence of Austin, whose works were published posthumously. Ryle is said to have resented Austin as a consequence (Magee, Confessions, p. 383). Events at Oxford were marked by another event of ideological friction; Ryle is reported to have blocked the appearance of Karl Popper in an Oxford role of professorship (ibid., p. 89). Sir Karl (who taught at London University) was apparently feared by some prestigious rival contemporaries for his critical talents, which did manifest in various books now famous. Popper had a much closer association with the sciences than some of his rivals. For a few comments, see my web entry On Karl Popper (2008).

Professor Bryan Magee is a dissenter from the Oxford tradition. He has expressed the controversial conclusion, and in relation to the period under discussion, that “except for Popper’s their work [that of British analytical philosophers after Russell and Moore] constituted a bankrupt tradition” (Magee, Confessions, p. 380). This is considered too strong a statement by some other academics.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 13th 2009

ENTRY no. 5

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R.D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

G. E. Moore and Commonsense

The noted Cambridge academic philosopher George Edward Moore (1873-1958) is strongly associated with the advocacy of "realist" commonsense. Together with his acquaintance Bertrand Russell, he became recognised as an originator of the analytical philosophy that took strong root in Britain. There was a difference in the outreach of those two entities, in that Russell became an international figure, whereas the influence of Moore was largely confined to Britain.

Both Moore and Russell started their academic career at Cambridge as neo-Hegelians. These inhabitants of Trinity College were inheritors of the nineteenth century overspill from German idealism, in the format found in British philosophy by the end of that century. Moore went to study at Trinity in 1892, adding philosophy to classics. There he met Russell and J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925), the latter a critical Hegelian and a lecturer at Trinity. Moore subsequently broke away from the influence of McTaggart (who eventually reaped a strong degree of oblivion for many years). This development prompted Russell’s similar revolt against the idealism of McTaggart. Yet unlike Russell, Moore nurtured a continuing aversion for empiricism, a trait which he acquired from the neo-Hegelians.

In his dissertation of 1898, Moore turned against Kantian idealism, confirming his new angle in realism. He became a Fellow of Trinity, and eventually a lecturer. His intellectual development is not straightforward, and has been subject to some generalisations. It was really only his friend Russell who identified fully with the empiricist tradition stemming from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. However, Moore did share in the “realist” reliance on sense data, which now became the operative mode of analysis, disdaining metaphysical elements, and even the rationalist version of analysis which stressed the use of reason above unreliable sensory experiences.

While Russell moved into the rather cerebral world of mathematical logic, Moore established an analytical approach to ethical problems in Principia Ethica (1903), which transpired to be his most famous work. He has been credited with a “Platonistic” view of good as an objective but indefinable property. In this work he argued that ethical disputes cannot be resolved by criteria of the natural or social sciences, and that ethical values should be acknowledged in their own right.

From 1925 to 1939, Moore was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge. By that time he had developed his “commonsense” realist position, first explicitly expressed in lectures of 1910-11, where he remarked that “what is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense.” (Moore, Some Main Problems of Philosophy, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953, p. 2.)

This attitude of preference for commonsense was consolidated in his subsequent paper A Defence of Commonsense (1925). He was not a systematic philosopher, and “Moore’s legacy is primarily a collection of arguments, puzzles and challenges.” That quote comes from Tom Baldwin, “George Edward Moore” (2004), Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Moore was a friend of Wittgenstein, though possessing a different temperament. They were not always in agreement. In other directions, Moore rejected the logical positivism that gained strong ground at Oxford in such entities as Alfred Ayer.

“Although Moore always denied that philosophy is just analysis, there is no denying that it [analysis] plays a central role in his philosophy” (Baldwin, art.cit.). See further P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of G. E. Moore (1942); T. Baldwin, G. E. Moore (London, 1990); Baldwin, ed., G.E. Moore: Selected Writings (London, 1993).

Moore felt that the commonsense boundaries of experience were sufficient to explain existence. He exercised a strong influence on the Oxford academic philosophers, firstly the logical positivist wave, and afterwards the linguistic analysts like J. L. Austin.

Accusations have been made that philosophy became “talk about talk,” a phrase associated with the analysis of concepts and speech. That disposition has frequently been critical of anything idealist or rationalist, or even scientific. Moore was content to analyse statements in ordinary language, without relying on science or any form of technical logic. This commonsense outlook was favoured by the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, who furthered the resistant attitude to logical positivism (and criteria of scientific standards dominating speech). The new trend viewed “philosophical problems” as confusions caused by the inappropriate use of language; the unravelling of the confusion via linguistic analysis was now believed by Austin and others to dissolve the problems.

The mergence of commonsense and linguistic analysis has been criticised in other directions as not being any path to deliverance from problems. The nature of commonsense analysis has come under attack for being a simplistic mode, not the ultimate recourse. For instance, “modern science has shown that behind our moment-to-moment experience of the everyday world teem truths and realities that commonsense is totally unaware of, that are frequently astounding and often counter-intuitive, and sometimes deeply difficult to grasp even when we know them to be true” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 52).

The attack on commonsense advocacy in British philosophy alighted upon Bertrand Russell’s denial of commonsense in his well known book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Russell here emphatically stated that “commonsense leaves us completely in the dark as to the true intrinsic nature of physical objects.”

Professor Bryan Magee adds in supplement: “The greatest tragedy of academic philosophy in the twentieth century in the English-speaking world is that it was developed as a profession largely by people to whom these things were not obvious, people who did not themselves have philosophical problems and who – perhaps for that reason – operated with a commonsense view of the world, and equated philosophical activity with conceptual analysis” (Magee, op. cit., p. 53).

A further observation is that the alternatives in philosophy seemed to be contradicted by religious elements, the absolute idealism of Hegel, and the oracular writings of Nietzsche (ibid.). Therefore everything else was eschewed as inferior or confusing.

The analysis of conceptual analysis thus leaves rather large areas of questioning in matters that should not be taken for granted. For instance, the Magee formulation prompts a query as to the identity of the people who do experience “philosophical problems.” Perhaps Magee is one of them, though that contingent may include more obscure persons possessing a valid angle on the resolution of problems.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 8th 2009

ENTRY no. 4

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Bertrand Russell

Easily one of the most influential modern (and academic) philosophers was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Some of the commentators say that he was the dominant figure in twentieth century philosophy. This being so, one is obliged to probe closely varied aspects of his career, insofar as the blog format permits.

Bertrand Russell was the grandson of Lord John Russell, being reared in a British aristocratic milieu, and eventually inheriting the status of an Earl. Yet he allied himself with the Labour Party, and was radical in his views. He studied mathematics at Cambridge, a subject which he adapted to philosophy. In 1898, he abandoned his neo-Hegelian idealism in favour of realism as the “new philosophy of logic.” He acknowledged the importance of science in this transition.

His early work Principles of Mathematics (1903) became famous for contending his subject in terms of a close relationship to logic. This has been described as logicism, meaning the view that mathematics is significantly reducible to formal logic. He arrived at his basic view of “mathematical logic” quite independently of the obscure Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), the German mathematician of Jena University who converged in this form of conceptualism (or logicism).

In collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, Russell subsequently produced Principia Mathematica (1910-13), which became celebrated in terms of a “new logic.” He was viewed by his admirers as a British version of Aristotle. Russell has been described as deducing mathematics from logic. “One of the effects has been not so much to subordinate mathematics to logic, which is what Frege and Russell wanted, but to subordinate logic to mathematics” (Alfred Ayer, “Frege, Russell and Modern Logic” in Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 308).

Bertrand Russell became a Professor of Philosophy. From 1910 to 1915 he was a lecturer at Cambridge University, during which period he was tutor to Wittgenstein, whom he regarded as a genius. He departed from mathematical logic and composed some books on general philosophy, including The Problems of Philosophy (1912). His Oxford follower Alfred Ayer referred to this work as “the best introduction to philosophy that there is” (ibid., p. 309). Russell here describes “various traditional philosophical problems from an empiricist standpoint” (ibid.). He was continuing the British empiricist tradition associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Russell is celebrated as having inspired the analytic philosophy favoured by universities, though he shares this honour with G. E. Moore.

Later, Russell veered away from philosophy, becoming engaged in political and educational activities having a flavour of radical socialism. He gained fervent admirers and strong critics. “The permissive society was implemented by Bertrand Russell, whose advocacy of free love is memorable for the misery created in his family” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 251). He married four times and became notorious as a womaniser. His book Marriage and Morals (1929) gained brickbats, though later on his literary output acquired the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Russell was eventually hero-worshipped by the younger generation of the 1960s, who uncritically assimilated his political and social views, including the unwise disposition for free love that created so many problems. Russell was not only a symbol of pacifism and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, but also more questionable deportment.

He wrote some further works on philosophy, including his famous History of Western Philosophy (1946). This book has received very differing assessments. It has been described by the publisher Routledge as “the best-selling philosophy book of the twentieth century and one of the most important philosophical works of all time” (Routledge edition, 2000). A conflicting commentary came from Professor Bryan Magee, who says that Russell’s History is “overrated,” and that “the treatment throughout is superficial, not to say flip” (Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 220).

Furthermore, “for all his [Russell’s] genius he radically fails to understand Kant, and consequently the whole tradition of philosophy that has grown out of Kant’s work; his entire chapter on Schopenhauer is consistent with his never having read that philosopher’s main work” (ibid., p. 221).

These are weighty criticisms indeed, and one is obliged to look closely at Magee’s personal description of Russell, whom he met towards the end of the latter’s long life, in 1960 to be precise.

Magee found that Russell was an elegantly courteous host, mentally alert at the age of 87, a fluent and humorous talker, and possessing a social record of impressive contacts the world over. For instance, Russell described how he had taught philosophy to the poet T.S. Eliot at Harvard. “He did not tell me what I subsequently discovered, that he [Russell] had had an affair with Eliot’s wife while the Eliots were living under his roof” (ibid., p. 264).

The subject gains due praise from Magee for his career achievements. However, significant contradictions for contemporary philosophy are emphasised. Magee mentions the anomaly that although Russell is regarded as the founder of modern analytic philosophy, “he never regarded analysis as an end in itself” (ibid., p. 216). It was Bertrand Russell who started language philosophy, but he did not regard this as the objective, unlike his successors. More pointedly, “to the end of his days, he believed that the purpose of philosophy was what it had always been thought to be, namely the understanding of the true nature of reality, including ourselves” (ibid., p. 217). In that respect, Russell was a polymath, not a specialist, and certainly not a linguist.

Even more pointedly, Bertrand Russell was one of the few who “understood clearly – what many people to this day fail to understand - that science of itself does not, and never can, establish a particular view of the ultimate nature of reality.” What science actually does is to “reduce everything it can deal with to a certain ground-floor level of explanation” (ibid., p. 218).

The Magee version of this perspective is memorable: “To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysics, not a scientific theory; there is no possibility whatsoever of scientifically proving, or disproving, it” (ibid.).

Magee finds the last philosophical book of Russell to be significant for reasons not always proclaimed. My Philosophical Development (1959) is described as a “substantial work aimed at the serious student of philosophy” (Magee, Confessions, p. 220). The deduction is made that Russell was here acknowledging how his empiricist quest had failed. In the last paragraph, Russell states that “empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate” (ibid., p. 222). Magee concludes that Russell had finally arrived at a view which Kant had made a starting point in his own critical philosophy generations before. Moreover, Magee urges that Russell had failed in pursuing logic and the philosophy of science, neither of these avenues having afforded a due explanation of known reality (ibid., p. 219).

Ultimately, Magee views Russell as being impractical, despite his genius in some directions. His “genius was for solving theoretical problems” (ibid., p. 268). “He treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems; in fact I do not think he could tell the difference” (ibid.). This made Russell a “blunderer” in private and public life. “He had so little practical intelligence” (ibid.).

The mathematical genius was thus at a disadvantage with the real life problems of philosophy, which is not merely an academic or theoretical pursuit. Russell knew the limitations of language analysis, and he apparently grasped in the end that his empiricist profile was a limitation. His flawed psyche (meaning his instinctual excesses) has been lamented by some commentators.

Cf. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (3 vols, London 1967-69). See also A. D. Irvine, ed., Bertrand Russell: Critical Assessments (4 vols, London, 1999).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 4th 2009

ENTRY no. 3

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.