Foulkstown Ballinure Thurles Co. Tipperary Eire
25 July 1994
How could I not respond immediately to such a gracious and enthusiastic reaction to my letter and paper!
Sorry you have had such a tough medical time and hope that’s pretty well behind you.
I’m not surprised that you don’t remember that lunch you gave me in Princeton, (graciously, again as we had only brushed glancingly by one another at that famous Bedford conference in 1960-whatever.) But I have it in my mind that at that lunch you told me that you had been to the same tiny school I went to, Solebury, but only for a year before transferring to Germantown Friends. (We used to play Germantown in Football and always got slaughtered - Well, we only had fifty boys in the whole school.) Am I dreaming all that?
Still keeping to the personal: Who am I? Not sure how to answer. Brief CV: after Solebury, I went to Bard at the time of Mary McCarthy (The Groves of Academe gives a distorted account of those times and my teacher.) It was a pretty interesting place, though. My introduction to philosophy was via Aristotle, and his conception of philosophy’s business, I am coming to see has kept me away from the disastrous ‘theorizing’ conception of philosophy that has held pretty much sway since Descartes. (I’m working on getting clear about that question of philosophy’s business in the process of trying to bring out in an introduction to what has always been there implicit in the scanty few pieces I have published and now want to collect. I certainly don’t think that my second paragraph gives a knock-down argument against Realism. -As you can imagine, I don’t believe in those - But it’s something to think about.
Anyway, after Bard came Harvard, which I thought too self-important, and anyway I was already well out of tune with the way philosophy was done there. (There was no Stanley Cavell in ‘49 -50). After Harvard, Oxford, which I liked a lot better. It was, after all, the Oxford of Ryle and Austin and Gwyl Owen and Anscombe and Geach were about, Waisman lecturing on Relativity Theory, and, above all, I discovered Wittgenstein through the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics in a struggle with the Cantorian transfinite and the so-called notion of ‘the actual infinite.’ However, Oxford (with some exceptions) was operating with something of the same conception of philosophy as theorizing and people talked about the ‘use theory ‘of meaning they claimed to get from Wittgenstein. And so, once again I found myself at a slight distance - particularly from the account of ‘rules for the use’ and from the account of what people are pleased to call ‘the private language argument’ that was accepted as canonical.
So, I was always a bit to the side of the way the stream was flowing without having any formulated critique of the assumptions and conceptions that pushed it that way. At the moment I’m working now on just that formulation and on identifying the assumptions and pressures, the agenda and aims that have established a certain, I think disastrous, conception of what it is to do philosophy - one that differs from the one that I got from Aristotle and Wittgenstein. And there, I want to say that I would agree entirely with your remark that it is a ‘political ploy,’ the giving a special status to Science (I always want to give it a capital letter when using it as a singular term for reasons to do with the mystifications that are going on when people talk about ‘Science’ instead of ‘the sciences’ - of that more in the piece I’ll send you, Deus sive Natura). What I want to make out is just what it was that made that move attractive and apparently necessary. There is a bit toward that aim in Deus but more in something I’m working on called ‘Philosophy &Madness, which lays in all on Descartes and his Method, and the whole search for ‘method’ and the whole historical situation which made the search seem so urgent. (Heavens! not another historical explanation coming in? What have such things got to do with philosophy!?!?)
Now, it may not come as a complete surprise that I want to dissent from the phrase you use to describe something you and I really both agree on, namely the ‘requirement’ that we abandon ‘the realist’s notion of truth’. I would want to say that the so-called ‘conceptions of truth’ from Tarski on are riddled with words and phrases to which no sense has been given, so that there is no real ‘realist conception of truth.’ There is only a tacit, clubby agreement to use that phrase as if it had meaning The notion of truth has itself to be demystified, prized loose from that old warhorse, the ‘correspondence theory’ (another theory!) which itself has to be shown to be an empty show. There is no ‘realist’- ‘anti-realist’ opposition. Both sides of this famous and clangorous opposition depend on assumptions that can’t be made good and notions that turn out to be empty. That’s the way I think we have to approach it. We can’t ‘abandon’ what isn’t there.
That’s a long tirade about a single word, but I think we have to be clear about the form of the question and of the investigation. There is a lot to be said for the old Tractatus injunction: ‘The correct method in philosophy would be this: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science - and then whenever someone wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.’ There are also some things to be said against it, but of that another time.
Yes, I think you are a Wittgenstinian - of the best kind, an instinctive one, one who has come to those things is his own way, through his own struggles. Not one who keeps the book in hand and the phrase in mind, or worse, one who guards the temple.
A propos your concern to bring out what is special and differentiates the sciences from other human practices: I think that one is not going to solve that within a sociological frame that deals with religion, art, science, sport, or whatever, simply as practices. I would prefer to use the word ‘enterprise’ or ‘project’ of the sciences, hoping that this would go some way toward helping us see the nature of the shaping constraints on the practice of the sciences as a product of the meeting of human aims and projects with the blank walls of possibility and impossibility that they come up against. That way, I hope we avoid both the notion of ‘reality’ of some pre-formed sort (what used to be called ‘Providence’) and that which terrifies those who reach for the word ‘relativism’, namely: the idea it is all in control of the old-boy network, or even humanity as a whole, as you might think the arts were.
Of course that involves turning Popper and the standard conception on its head and seeing the sciences as essentially and at bottom practical enterprises and the purely theoretical flights as aids and adjuncts to practical pursuits, as waiting in a kind of limbo (as imaginary numbers or non-commutative algebras) till practical applications should be found that give them sense.
Enough for now, though I will be more than pleased to carry on a discussion and to send you further stuff in which the above sketched notions are worked out - when they are. In the meantime here is the promised piece, Deus sive Natura, which develops some of them. I’d be interested in your observations - positive or negative.
To return to the personal for a second: I didn’t find place earlier to say that I spent my teaching life at the University of Southampton, though I was briefly at Leeds where I hung out with Alasdair MacIntyre and Jerry Ravetz, though I haven’t kept up with Jerry. In 1982, fed up with British universities, I took early retirement and tried my hand at being an American a bit, but found that didn’t really work and went back to London, re-married and we have now moved here to rural Tipperary, where the talk is about the weather, hay and the headage payments on cattle. My wife, Bee (Ring) is a writer of short stories.
I myself am trying to gather up the scanty work of a lifetime, survey it and articulate the conception of philosophy that has been implicit in it from the first, and to set that conception against the prevailing conception of philosophy as theorizing, as ‘contemplating the truth’ as Descartes has it, and to reduce the attractions of the latter by uncovering the historical situation philosophers were trying to make sense of and the historical pressures acting on them - to do for philosophy what you did for the sciences, that is to show them as historical human enterprises that take place in and react to a definite historical milieu, both their own history and a larger.
Greetings and thanks and hopes that we will have much useful to say to one another,