Philosophy vs. science

Philosophy of Science, Logic and Mathematics in the 20th Century
April 18, 1997

The history of philosophy, the general editors of this Routledge series insist, is a twofold activity: on the one hand, it requires a "period eye", an understanding of "how the thinkers whom it studies viewed the problems which they sought to resolve", and, on the other, it is itself an "exercise in philosophy", a search for "the cogency as much as the development of an argument". In this mixed bag of a collection, the tension between these two aims and endeavours is abundantly illustrated. Some of the essays content themselves with a sober and scholarly historical overview of their subject, while others sacrifice historical scholarship in favour of an attempt to establish a philosophical thesis.

Most extreme of these latter is Joseph Agassi's decidedly eccentric contribution, "The philosophy of science today". One might expect an article of that title, published in a respectable series of historical volumes with some pretence to constitute a work of reference, to present an impartial survey of contemporary thinking about the nature of science.

Instead, we get an intemperate rant against "the public-relations spokespeople of science", who, under the guise of philosophy and in league with the "scientific establishment", apparently attempt to sell science in a way "much less tolerable than the commercials on television which sell soap and other cosmetics". Whoever these unnamed and pernicious people are, it is clear that Agassi does not think highly of them. What they produce is not philosophy, but "public-relations mulch", and "to see how unserious this mulch is one only needs to see the low level of the current debates in the leading literature". If Agassi had quoted from the literature he so despises, the reader might sympathise with him. As it is, we are directed time and time again to Agassi's own works (of the 45 footnotes, no fewer than 31 are instructions to read Agassi's articles and books), leaving the impression of being bullied into submission. This is a pity, because the view Agassi is concerned to defend - the idea that science is not a competitor of religion - is one that could command much sympathy. Instead, one's sympathies are aroused on behalf of the unidentified targets of Agassi's belligerent and egotistical assault.

Fortunately, that ill-judged and badly written polemic does not set the tone for the rest of the collection. A.D. Irvine's "Philosophy of logic" could not be more different in both style and content, providing as it does a scrupulous and fair-minded chronological survey of its subject, from the set theory of Cantor to the modal logic of Lewis and Langford. Irvine is especially good on Russell and is careful to distinguish the simple theory of types of Principles of Mathematics from the ramified theory in Principia Mathematica. He gives lucid explanations of both and carefully discusses their differing philosophical motivations. He also provides a superbly comprehensive bibliography, arranged by subject, from which an excellent undergraduate course on the subject could be constructed.

Similarly admirable is Michael Detlefson's "Philosophy of mathematics in the 20th century", which, unavoidably, covers much of the same ground as Irvine (Frege, Russell, Brouwer, Hilbert, etc), but which sets the scene more thoroughly with an extended discussion of Kant's philosophy of mathematics. It also updates the reader with accounts of, for example, the "ontologically relative" platonism of Quine and the extreme nominalism of Hartry Field.

The essays by Irvine and Detlefson exemplify the virtues of the "period eye" approach to the subject, as also do the contributions from Oswald Hanfling ("Logical positivism"), Rom Harre ("The philosophy of physics") and K.M.Sayre ("Cybernetics"), all of which have the merits and demerits of encyclopedia entries.

Slightly more idiosyncratic are the essays on Frege and Wittgenstein's Tractatus by, respectively, Rainer Born and James Bogen. The aim of Born's essay is principally to establish Frege as the founder of a new "metaphilosophy", an original perspective from which to approach traditional philosophical problems. These latter, Born argues, are those problems Frege inherited from Kant - problems of ascertaining the necessary conditions of knowledge. Frege's innovation was to approach these problems through an analysis of the "meaning of mathematical or of abstract knowledge in general" and to insist that "meaning" here is to be understood, not psychologistically, but objectively. In this way, Born argues, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations can be regarded as a continuation of an essentially Fregean approach to philosophy. Bogen's essay offers a careful and detailed examination of the theory of logic in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, focusing mainly on its ontology, and particularly on the notoriously difficult question of what Wittgenstein means by the word "object".

He concludes with a section on Wittgenstein's mysticism, emphasising the familiar point that the Tractatus exerted its greatest influence on those who were radically out of sympathy with the spirit in which it was written, and thus "what Wittgenstein's readers thought they learned was not what he hoped to teach".

The collection ends with a long essay by Stuart Shanker on "Descartes' legacy: the mechanist/vitalist debates", which has the ambitious aim of reversing the old way of thinking about the mind which leads to the mechanist and vitalist debate about "mental causation". Or rather, Shanker's aim is to demonstrate the adequacy of Wittgenstein's treatment of this topic "to establish the unique and non-causal character of mental concepts in order to clarify why it is so misleading to assume that (in Wittgenstein's words) 'psychology treats of processes in the psychical sphere, as does physics in the physical'". The thrust of Shanker's attack on "mental cause" will be familiar to readers of Ryle's Concept of Mind and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. What will not be so familiar is Shanker's fascinating historical survey of types of mechanism and vitalism that have been advanced from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and his sadly undeveloped attack on the currently fashionable view that concept formation is a species of theory construction and the related view that mental acts rest upon the possession of concepts. "A two-year-old can share and can even direct attention," writes Shanker. "But does a two-year-old jointly attending to something possess the concept of joint attention?"

Empirical research on mental events such as thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc - research which asks, for example, whether these phenomena are correlated with or caused by neural events - is, Shanker maintains, fundamentally confused. Indeed it shares precisely the confusion that lies at the heart of the old debates about vitalism (the postulation of an internal "vital" force that animates each living thing). "The persisting assumption has been that we start off with these mental events and then try to discover the cerebral mechanisms with which they are correlated or by which they are caused."

Shanker's way out of these difficulties will, I am afraid, convince only those already converted to a Wittgensteinian approach: forget questions of the causality of mental events and concentrate instead on questions of the grammar of mental ascriptions; look not for evidence, but for criteria; stop pretending that philosophical problems can have scientific solutions.

Ultimately, the question raised by Shanker's essay - appropriately, since it is the central question of 20th-century philosophy - is whether philosophy is, as Russell, Quine and others have insisted, continuous with empirical science, or whether, as Wittgenstein passionately believed, it is a different kind of inquiry altogether.

Despite the extravagance of including Agassi's essay, this volume is to be congratulated for making a worthwhile contribution to that important debate.

Ray Monk is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.

Philosophy of Science, Logic and Mathematics in the 20th Century

Editor - Stuart G. Shanker
ISBN - 0 415 05776 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00
Pages - 461

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