Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire
15 October 95
Preparations for a trip to the States with a side-trip up to Northampton to fetch some furniture of Bee’s made me stop and think of you and Jehane and in that thinking, realize that though I bombarded you with a lot of stuff, I never dealt properly and adequately with your letter of last January and the tricky issues that it landed me with. That was bad of me and I’ll have to try to make up for the lapse.
The toughest part is to make out just what I mean by my rejection of theories and theorizing in philosophy and the sense that I want to give to the notion of a theory in making that rejection. The sense is in one way given by the grounds I originally gave for that rejection, namely, that if we regard theories as making claims about how things are and how they might not be (the ground of calling the theory ‘true’ or ‘false’) then it seems to me to be pretty plain that philosophy does not aim at revealing that kind of truth. It aims at the necessary, at what cannot be otherwise. The question is, what that amounts to. You feel committed to the notion of theories in this area because you say want to talk of ‘a theory of the meaning of kind terms’. Now I myself would like to give an account of kind terms and have made some gestures in that direction before now. The question that we both have to look at is: what is going on here? Anything that I might want to offer would fail that test above. It would not be trying to say how things were and how they might not be. I would not be offering a ‘fact’ about the universe, or even about language, for that matter, a fact, that is, that might have been otherwise but happens to be true.
The question of kind terms is particularly sensitive here because it is the point at which the ‘God’s-eye’ point of view gets its grip and we end with ways in which we have to look at the world, how it is all laid out for us, and so forth. Now I think you want avoid that sort of thing as much as I do. So what are we faced with? Well, we will want to give an account of kind terms that makes understandable how it is that we feel that we ‘come on’ such a set of terms and don’t make them up each of us for ourselves. Yet at the same time you and I don’t want to give an account of them that presents them as ‘standing outside’ of humanity as a whole in some transcendental realm like Platonic forms, or placed in each human by a beneficent God as part of our innate equipment, or forced upon each individual inexorably by an experience regarded as a causal process. You and I want to give none of those answers. But why not? Because they are false? I don’t think so. I don’t know what we would do to show that they are false. At least I don’t know what I would do.
On the other hand, I think that they are all senseless, that if one took them really seriously and followed them through to the bitter end, they would all turn out to be incoherent. I have tried at various times and in various ways to show that. And you, on your side, have shown alternative ways of looking at that externality we all feel, ways of understanding its source in the training that neophytes get, at the tests they must pass. It is at this point that Kuhn meets Wittgenstein: ‘Perhaps all that is given is forms of life.’ We are brought up into a form of life, a culture, we don’t meet and assess it. We haven’t the means to do that, to stand outside in that way. In being brought up into that way of life we are in the process of getting the means to do any assessing at all. Those kind words are among the basic tools of living we are being given, tools for living in this ‘form of life’. And of course we all know that different forms of life have different tools and different kind words.
The situation as I see it, is simply analogous at a deeper level to the situation of the trainee scientist being described in Structure. But the trainee scientist has at least some independent purchase on the world in which he has been brought up and in which he has lived. This has given him some means of assessment that lies outside the particular sub-form of life that he is entering. He isn’t learning everything as a babe at the breast. But there is no separate standpoint for the baby and the world will be constituted for it by what it is learning then.
There is lots and lots more to be said, but I want to stop and ask what has been going on here, because I want to return to the question of theories and theorizing. There is nothing in the above that I would want to describe as a theory of anything, nothing as I would regard as giving a truth where the alternatives gave falsehoods. I would say that this account made sense of things where the others, pushed hard enough, turn out to be nonsense.
There's a lot more to be said about that too, but I’ll leave it. A lot more to be said about other things in your letter, but I’ll leave that too for the moment.
I hope that you’re well and that your writing is going well. And the same for Jehane. I may ring when we’re in the States.
All the best,