January 23, 2007


No Easy Answers (Simon Blackburn, 01.18.07, New Republic)

Bernard Williams was a moral philosopher, but his work covered much more than this term usually implies. His earliest papers included a good number on metaphysics, while an ongoing preoccupation with skepticism and philosophical method produced work on Wittgenstein and was crowned by a book on Descartes. A principal thesis of that book is revisited in one of the finest essays of his later years, and the one that is nearest to being a summary of his aims and methods, "Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline," reprinted in the collection bearing its title. Williams defends the ability of science to put us on the road toward an "absolute" conception of the world "which is to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of inquirers." This may sound bland enough, and such a view is probably implicitly held by most scientists; but for a long time the climate in philosophy, history, and the sociology of science has tended to emphasize constructivism over realism, and to celebrate the thickness of the spectacles, or paradigms, through which the scientist peers at nature. Williams, by contrast, commented dismissively on the "remarkable assumption that the sociology of knowledge is in a better position to deliver truths about science than science is to deliver truths about the world."

By opposing that picture, Williams raised controversy, although as the essay shows, he was particularly irritated by the travesty occasionally foisted on him that we could have a description of the world without deploying our own language or employing our own concepts. This was never the idea. What Williams believed was that science had a title to knowledge that did not depend on the history, culture, values, or interests of those engaged in it, and in this way it was distinguished from other inquiries, including philosophy itself.

Hard to get much funnier than a philosopher whose philosophy of science holds that science is uniquely not subject to philosophy. The key to the success of the Anglo-American model is that we accepted the futility of his argument four centuries ago. His argument is the circular one the French followed to their detriment.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2007 6:01 PM

Descartes came to his dictum (Cogito, ergo sum) by 'deciding' to relentlessly doubt everything. Faith was probably the first thing he threw out the window. I have not read his work(s), but I wonder what the final object or construct was (that he jettisoned).

It is probably more accurate for a current Frenchman (really, any rationalist) to say "praevaricari, ergo sum". Or, "vacillare, ergo sum".

Too bad the French didn't stick to Pascal.

Very good review that follows the link.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 23, 2007 10:26 PM