The Nature and Future of Philosophy

June 3, 2010

It would be a fine thing to know the nature and the future of philosophy, and Sir Michael Dummett, one of the few British philosophers to regularly appear in encyclopaedias of the discipline of philosophy, might seem well placed to help us find them.

That is, if one did not know that Dummett's professional interests centre on the mathematician Friedrich Gottlob Frege, and a theory in philosophy of language known as "anti-realism". Unfortunately, on reading this book, one is reminded of the oft-quoted reflection of another grand Oxonian, Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote of feeling like a boy playing on the seashore, and only admiring a smoother pebble or a prettier shell "whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me". For Dummett too sees not the ocean, but only a shiny pebble or two: in particular, his perennial concerns of Frege and anti-realism. In this philosophical universe, there are but two stars - Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frege - around which plod obediently the planets Dummett and Donald Davidson.

The book, in fact, seems to be retreading some of his earlier works with more appropriate names, such as Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973). It reads like a collection of disconnected essays of which only the first two, and the last, justify the ambitious cover title. These are headed respectively: "Philosophy as an academic subject", "What is a philosophical question" and "The future of philosophy". The first starts the book off with two errors of fact. It states that "practically every university in the world deems it ... necessary to have a philosophy department", whereas a quick survey of institutions could have alerted Dummett to the reality. The second claim that "philosophy books will never become best-sellers" is belied by the plain fact that there are plenty of bestsellers in that category, albeit few dealing with Frege and anti-realism. Perhaps Dummett meant "books dealing with Frege and anti-realism will never become bestsellers" and here I agree with him, and would even offer to include this effort as another example.

Differences over matters of fact are to be forgiven, as one of the book's contributions to the debate over the nature of philosophy is that it should be - in no way - an experimental subject. It should rather be "a slow, laborious process of clarifying our concepts".

Dummett offers two essays on science, and two on religion, which deal with the issue of whether or not the Vatican was right to ban contraceptives. Indeed, Dummett criticises other philosophers for becoming "worshippers" of science, "plus catholique que le Pape", while conversely rushing away from "subjectivism" towards mathematical models of reality. Or as the book puts it in one of its bolder assertions: "The price of denying that God exists is to relinquish the idea that there is such a thing as how reality is in itself."

But the rest of the volume is Frege and anti-realism. "The influence of Gottlob Frege", "Frege's analysis of sentences" and "Frege's theory of meaning" are the jewels in the crown, and hence provide Dummett's assessment of "the future of philosophy".

Given this, there are explanations of the "quantifier-variable notation", which may be useful to students who are just beginning to study logic - to warn them to change subject, I mean. Dummett advances the problem of "multiple generality", as seen in sentences such as: "Every dog is owned by someone." In a mere five, swift, very logical steps he provides Frege's solution that: "For every x, if x is a dog, then for some y, y owns x."

"Only in the context of a sentence do words mean anything," adds Dummett a little later, by now firmly leaving the book's nominal subject matter behind. Or perhaps I misunderstood the meaning of the title. Because, alas, "natural languages" often fall short of what is really required of them to convey meaning. Dummett offers a solution to this, by taking meaning out of the minds of hoi polloi and giving it to the logicians.

The Nature and Future of Philosophy

By Michael Dummett. Columbia University Press. 160pp, £48.00 and £13.95. ISBN 9780231150521 and 0538. Published 1 April 2010

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