Other people have a special place in our lives. Many of our favourite activities – from sports to serious conversations – essentially involve others, and numerous things that we can do by ourselves – watch a good movie, taste wine, visit museums – are just more fun if we can share the experience with someone. At the same time, other people are also the ones from whom we try to hide if we have done something dumb, embarrassing or morally wrong. And others can bore, annoy, threaten and harm us in a multitude of different ways. As we all know too well, life with others is not always pure bliss; indeed, as a character in Sartre's play No Exit (Sartre 1945b, 1955) puts it, other people can be “hell”. An emphasis on the more negative aspects of human social life is evident in most of what Sartre writes about our relations with others in Being and Nothingness, including his famous analysis of the fundamental encounter with the other in the shape of what Sartre terms “the look”.
The present chapter offers a presentation and defence of Sartre's analysis of the look. Since Sartre develops his account against the back-drop of what he views as the shortcomings of the analyses of the social encounter offered by his phenomenological predecessors, we need to have a basic grasp of what those analyses contain.
Recently, Stephen Hawking boldly declared that philosophy is dead. ‘Philosophy’, he explains, ‘has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. As a result, he claims, philosophical discussion has become outdated and irrelevant. If Hawking is right, philosophy belongs to a past we have finally put behind us; it has no future.
Of course, despite itself, Hawking’s claim voices a philosophical view, one based on a number of contentious and unacknowledged assumptions about the nature of philosophy. It appears to be a ‘residue’ view of philosophy which conceives of philosophy as a cognitive enterprise and an earlier, unsystematic and failed attempt to explain the natural world, in competition with physics and the special sciences. On this view, as explained in Chapter 2, incrementally (over the years and bit by bit), philosophy has found its subject matter become the business of natural science until it has been left with the ‘gaps’; that is, those questions, such as ‘Why does the universe exist?’, to which natural science has found difficulty offering an answer. But now, or so Hawking thinks, even this sort of inquiry is susceptible to scientific treatment, leaving philosophy outmoded and its purpose usurped.
At the end of his Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell inquires ‘what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied’. Surprisingly few philosophers ask these questions, though philosophers frequently find themselves being asked them. In this chapter we suggest possible answers and debate their various merits. For once again these are philosophical questions and, like all philosophical questions, they are open to debate, not least because what it is for some activity to have value and thus to be worthwhile is a quintessentially philosophical question. Obviously it is beyond the scope of this book to provide an answer to that big question. Anyway, to do so would unduly restrict the interest of any account of philosophy’s value based upon it, since such an account would then be acceptable only to those who shared the answer given to the big question, which, one can confidently predict, most philosophers would not. In this chapter, then, we try to clarify what we are looking for when we seek a value for philosophy, and we float various conceptions of it, noting their relation to general accounts of value where appropriate.
Yet, since the answers we give to Russell’s questions will also depend upon the account we give of the nature of philosophy it may seem as if we need to once more rehearse the possibilities and draw out the supposed value the subject has on each of them. If, for example we take philosophy to be a contribution to science then it will have the value that scientific knowledge has for those who possess it and of the utility of that knowledge for others. Alternatively, however, we might first ask what sort of value the subject could possess and allow our answers to influence our view about its nature. That is to say, we decide what we want from philosophy and let that shape our conception of it.
In the previous two chapters, we have been concerned with the descriptive and prescriptive variants of what we have called the ‘What’ question. But the question of what philosophy is or ought to be is, of course, not independent of the question of how it is (to be) done – whether you think philosophy is part of natural science may be relevant to the sorts of methods you think philosophers ought to employ. In this chapter, our focus shifts to the methodological ‘How’ question. As before, our main focus will be on the prescriptive version of this question. Our question, then, is not how philosophers actually go about justifying their claims, but how they ought to justify them.
There is more than one way to approach the How question. One way is to examine the various patterns of argument characteristically endorsed and employed by philosophers. Although this is doubtless an important task, we shall not attempt it here. Instead of inquiring into the characteristic argument patterns of philosophers, we examine the sorts of considerations that usually function as data in such arguments. A helpful notion in this context is Timothy Williamson’s idea of an academic discipline being disciplined by something. As Williamson explains, ‘To be “disciplined” by X is not simply to pay lip-service to X; it is to make a systematic conscious effort to conform to the deliverances of X.’ What, then, should discipline philosophy? The answer seems to be: all sorts of things! As Williamson writes, philosophy must be disciplined by ‘semantics, … syntax, logic, common sense, imaginary examples, the findings of other disciplines (mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, history …) or the aesthetic evaluation of theories (elegance, simplicity)’.
What sort of results can we expect from the activity of discussion and criticism that typifies philosophy? Philosophy, as we have seen in previous chapters, cannot easily be thought of as the same sort of cumulative discipline as mathematics and the developed sciences. It has not laid down, as yet at least, a body of statements whose truth is widely accepted and upon which other truths can be built. This should lead us to wonder about the status of philosophical claims. On the face of it they look like statements to be assessed for their truth or falsity, to be believed or disbelieved on the basis of the arguments for and against them. But appearances can be deceptive, and perhaps even this natural assumption should be questioned.
Not all statements that look like truth claims need to be interpreted as such. For example, the emotive theory of ethics asserts that moral judgements are not literally true or false because they do not state moral facts but function instead to express and elicit emotions of moral approval or disapproval. A speaker at philosophy conference was once heard to declare that, although few theses in the subject had been firmly established, one that had been was, indeed, the emotive theory of ethics. Since this was, after all, a philosophy conference, the speaker’s claim was immediately challenged by members of the audience, some denying the truth of the emotive theory outright, others denying that it was firmly established. No one at the time denied that the emotive theory itself was the sort of thing that could be literally true or false, a fact or not a fact, in the way that this theory denies that moral judgements are, and denies that they are because it can allow no room for moral facts in a world constituted by physical facts.
‘What do you do?’; people sometimes ask me. ‘I am a philosopher.’ If I am lucky, the conversation ends there, but often it continues: ‘Well, I suppose we are all of us philosophers in our different ways; I mean we all have our own ideas about the purpose of life. Now what I think …’ Or else: ‘A philosopher: I envy you in these difficult times. To be able to take things calmly, to rise above the petty vexations that trouble us ordinary men.’ Or again: ‘That must be fascinating: really to understand people, to be able to reach their souls. I am sure you could give me some good advice.’ Or, worst of all: ‘What is philosophy?’
Most students and practitioners of philosophy, we suspect, have felt something of the unease Ayer expresses in this quote. Sometimes we would prefer no one asks what we do. And if we cannot avoid that, then at least we would like the topic dropped after the confession, ‘I am a philosopher’. But often, to our discomfort, it continues in one of the ways mentioned by Ayer.
Of the possible continuations of the conversation Ayer imagines, one is, perhaps, less frequent nowadays, whereas the other three are very common. It isn’t clear that many people today associate philosophy with the ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. Indeed, this conception of philosophers and philosophy has long been lampooned, from Shakespeare’s ‘For there was never yet philosopher. That could endure the toothache patiently’ to Oscar Wilde’s ‘Philosophy teaches us to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of others’. Nevertheless, the broader idea that philosophy can help us to deal with life’s problems is still current.
Introduction: a question of standards
Whatever philosophy is or ought to be, it is the sort of subject in which there are standards in terms of which good and bad examples can be distinguished. There may be disagreement over exactly what these standards are, but no practitioner of philosophy believes that anything goes, that any philosophical opinion is as good as any other. Even a Polish logician who declared, ‘In philosophy notoriously there are no standards’ meant only that his own particularly demanding standards were not commonly followed. But other philosophers were as likely to reject his standards as to fail to comply with them. In this situation agreement on what is good and bad philosophy often exists only among a particular group of philosophers working together in the same way.
A striking illustration of this concerns the controversy over the French post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida. In 1992 Derrida’s name was put forward for the award of an honorary degree from Cambridge University. Very unusually a number of Cambridge academics objected to the award so that a vote had to be held. In the event the proposal was carried and Derrida was awarded the degree. Meanwhile, however, a letter appeared in The Times, signed by Barry Smith and eighteen other philosophers, objecting to the honour on the grounds that ‘M. Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour’. The letter accuses Derrida of employing ‘a written style that defies comprehension’. ‘Where coherent assertions are being made at all’, the letter continues, ‘these are either false or trivial’, Derrida’s reputation being based on ‘little more than semi-intelligible attacks on the values of reason, truth and scholarship’.
Describing the state of philosophy in the late 1980s, Michael Dummett remarked:
It is obvious that philosophers will never reach agreement. It is a pity, however, if they can no longer talk to one another or understand one another. It is difficult to achieve such understanding, because if you think people are on the wrong track, you may have no great desire to talk with them or to take the trouble to criticise their views. But we have reached a point at which it’s as if we’re working in different subjects.
Dummett is referring to the split between so-called analytic and continental philosophy, a split he argues has widened continuously throughout the past century to the point at which ‘It’s no use now shouting across the gulf’. This in spite of the fact that the founders of the two traditions – according to Dummett: Frege and Husserl – were ‘remarkably close in orientation, despite some divergence of interests’. Consequently, Dummett can compare the development of analytical and continental philosophy with ‘the Rhine and the Danube, which rise quite close to one another and for a time pursue roughly parallel courses, only to diverge in utterly different directions and flow into different seas’.
Philosophy seems to have had a somewhat disappointing career. It was once hailed as the ‘queen of the sciences’, but more recently it has been demoted to their ‘under-labourer’, if not pronounced irrelevant or ‘dead’ altogether. Yet philosophy soldiers on, if not entirely unscathed, then at most with minor cuts and bruises. The number of professional practitioners of philosophy has never been higher, and students continue to enrol in philosophy programmes. Despite its loss of prestige, then, philosophy apparently continues to appeal to human beings. But what is this thing called philosophy?
Tempting as it may be to start formulating one’s reply straightaway, it is worth pausing to consider what, precisely, the question is we are supposed to answer. As G. E. Moore once wrote:
[I]n Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer.
As we shall see, Moore’s implicit suggestion that most philosophical disagreements would go away if only philosophers would get clear on the question they want to answer before setting about answering it is probably too optimistic. Yet at least the effort to clarify what the question is might enable us to see which philosophers genuinely agree or disagree in their answers to that question and which philosophers simply debate a different question altogether. The question ‘What is philosophy?’ is very much a case in point.
This book is an introduction to metaphilosophy – the branch of philosophy that asks what philosophy is, how it should be done and why we should do it. As far as we know, it is the first such introduction in English; at least we are fairly certain it is the only one currently in print. As a consequence, we wrote this book feeling that we had entered completely uncharted territory, and while the idea of writing the first introduction to the field of metaphilosophy was an exciting one, the task was also daunting and extremely difficult. But if this book can generate more interest in metaphilosophy, and perhaps induce others to write rival introductions, pointing out the mistakes and limitations in our approach, we will consider our mission accomplished.
We have tried to make each chapter as accessible and student-friendly as possible, though no doubt in many cases we have failed in this endeavour. But then, as P. F. Strawson remarked: ‘There is no shallow end to the philosophical pool’ (1992: vii). This goes for metaphilosophy as much as for the rest of philosophy.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.