Contagious insights 1

April 15, 2010

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephen Mumford's "Dispositions to lawlessness" (8 April), the latest addition to THE's "My Eureka Moment" series. Not only does it provide an excellent example of philosophy's continuing relevance to modern discourse, but it also constitutes a sound example of the continuing impact of the humanities upon scientific thought and societal development.

Perhaps lessons can be drawn from it about "impact", "research excellence", frameworks, paradigms and the like: however, I would prefer to record my wee "eureka moment" after reading Mumford's essay. It illustrates the intellectual impact and social good of abstract humanistic thought and research into older frameworks of ideas and newer integrative, explanatory paradigms - in other words, a suggestive subtext of Mumford's skilful essay.

A "eureka moment" on holiday in Guernsey in August 1992 allowed Mumford to map a constructive way forward in the philosophy of mind, so that an old distinction between dispositional and categorical properties collapsed. He found that properties of things may best be regarded as all one sort - dispositional - and the philosophy of mind needed to get contemporary heads around a newer construction of an old problem.

In How to Do Things with Words (1962), J.L. Austin once reoriented thinking in the philosophy of language and linguistic pragmatics by collapsing the once-established distinction between "constative" and "performative" utterances into the sole provenance of the latter. The "illocutionary force" of "speech acts" was not to be deleteriously divided between categorical statements of fact and sentences that did or performed actions; all sentences were performative, illocutionary dispositions to action. My minor eureka moment this morning was seeing the connection between Austin's and Mumford's breakthroughs in two distinct areas of contemporary philosophical thought. Through questioning, examining and reconstructing received binarisms of thought, "explanations of how the world works" (Mumford) can be retooled and refined for humanists and scientists alike.

I'm working on Mumford's second "eureka moment" - in which "natural law" is recognised "as a metaphysically misleading metaphor" - and its possible links to the contextualism and "root-metaphor" method of the late Stephen Pepper, former head of philosophy and fine arts at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942). I'm content, though, with the impact of one Saturday morning's reading for now.

Brian Caraher, Chair of English literature, Queen's University Belfast.

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