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Liberation PhilosophyHilary Putnam
Vol. 8 No. 5 · 20 March 1986

Liberation Philosophy

Hilary Putnam

3400 words
Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy 
edited by Richard Rorty, J.B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner.
Cambridge, 403 pp., £27.50, November 1984, 0 521 25352 7
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This volume is advertised as ‘confronting the current debate between philosophy and its history’. What it turns out to contain is a series of lectures with the general title ‘Philosophy in History’ which were delivered at Johns Hopkins University during 1982-3, aided by a subvention from the enlightened Exxon Education Foundation. All the papers are of interest, some of major interest; the prospective reader should, however, be warned that this is not a book but a series of lectures, and that the level of sophistication required of the reader varies greatly from lecture to lecture.

If it is impossible to read this through as one normally ‘reads a book’, it is even more impossible to review it as such. A reviewer who tried to do that would end up writing 16 separate reviews. Rather than attempt the impossible (or at least the impossibly boring), I shall focus on two of the lectures which do have the merit (remarkably rare in this book, given the topic of the series) of speaking to the same issues, and I shall make reference to the other lectures only as they bear on those issues. Both of these lectures are thoughtful and powerful statements, and the points of view they express clash head-on. The lectures were given by Charles Taylor (‘Philosophy and its History’ and by Richard Rorty (‘The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres’). They disagree not just over the ‘relation of philosophy to its history’ but in their conception of the kind of society we live in and of the kind of society we should aim for: they are, thus, deeply ‘political’ statements, albeit at a very abstract level. But the important clash is not on the surface (although Taylor does explicitly criticise some of Rorty’s epistemological positions), and is somewhat hidden by the extremely abstract nature of the prose, especially of Taylor’s prose.

Taylor has a tendency to use expressions like ‘the epistemological model’ which are not familiar in the English-speaking philosophical world, and expressions which are familiar mainly from the writings of radical critics of capitalism (‘atomistic assumptions ... which form the basis for much contemporary political and moral theory’). An explanation of this thought must start with an unpacking of these expressions. But first, let me ‘place’ Taylor to this extent: he is the leading authority on the philosophy of Hegel in the English-speaking world, and he has long been active in social democratic politics in his native province of Quebec. Both these facts are relevant.

Hegelians (and Taylor clearly thinks that Hegel has things to teach us) discern a certain pattern in what Hegel taught us to call ‘bourgeois society’. For Hegelians (and, following Hegel, for Marxists as well) there is a deep pattern unifying many apparently unconnected aspects of the modern capitalist world – a pattern both of thinking and of doing. To the non-Hegelian, non-Marxist, non-neo-Hegelian or neo-Marxist eye, there is nothing much connecting, say, Descartes’s philosophy with the economic theories later advanced by Adam Smith, and certainly nothing connecting either of these to the thrillers of James Bond. But to Hegelians – and the suggestion remains as fascinating as it is controversial – these have everything in common. Thus Descartes’s starting-point in his philosophising was to ‘doubt everything’. To a Hegelian eye, this is an expression of individualism. Here the individual has, as it were, separated himself from the society, from history, from his teachers, from the sages, even from the Bible itself, in a way unheard of in Europe from the fall of Rome to the Diet of Worms. (Of course, Luther’s defiance of the Church will be seen by the Hegelian as an expression of the same individualism.) Adam Smith’s insistence that if each entrepreneur simply pursues the main chance, then the result will be better for the whole society than if each one consciously tries to promote social welfare (moral: you are actually helping mankind when you conscientiously pursue profit!) is seen as an expression of the same individualism. And the same relentless individualism is at the heart of the appeal of Agent 007.

The idea is, perhaps, more familiar today in its Marxist than in its Hegelian version. Thinking in terms of economic forces rather than in terms of the Zeitgeist, Marxists hold that capitalism teaches us to think of ourselves as if we were all ‘entrepreneurs’. The emphasis on ‘self-realisation’, ‘finding out what you really want and going for it’ and so on, is typically coupled with a sublime faith that if each person ‘realises his true goals’ then all will be for the best with society – and this is nothing but Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theory generalised to a picture of all of life. I don’t know if Taylor thinks that the argument between Hegelians and Marxists as to which is the cause and which is the effect, as between the economic system and the Zeitgeist, is worth bothering with: but it does seem that he believes that some suitably qualified version of this account describes the deep pattern of development of our institutions and beliefs under what he refers to as ‘advanced capitalism’. The assumptions that tend to be made when this picture of all of life becomes the ruling one, assumptions about the importance of ‘thinking for oneself’, assumptions about the inviolability of individual ‘values’ (formerly ‘conscience’), assumptions about the supreme value of ‘pursuing your own goals’, are, I would suppose, what Taylor refers to as ‘atomistic assumptions ... which form the basis for much contemporary political and moral theory’.

Let me say that, if I am sceptical of Hegelian explanations, I am also attracted to them. There is something, certainly, to the idea that we have generalised Adam Smith’s picture of economic life to all of life, whatever the cause of this pattern may be; and the insight that the artist or the philosopher who thinks he is not pursuing bourgeois goals because he is not crassly pursuing money may still be acting like an entrepreneur is a disturbing one.

I find it harder to say what Taylor means by ‘the epistemological model’, but I must try to say what he means, because this is the key notion in his discussion. For Aristotle and for the Medievals, human knowledge began with sense experience – to this extent, Aristotle and the Medievals were ‘empiricists’. Sense experience produced images and/or perceptions in us: phantasmata, as they were called in Aristotle’s Greek. From these we were supposed to derive concepts which refer to the things we perceive: e.g. tables. If this much is in agreement with modern thought – that is to say, with post-Baconian thought – the rest of the story is not. In modern thought, the representation cannot be directly compared with the ‘external’ object: hence scepticism is the typical epistemological problem in modern philosophy. In Greek thought and in Scholastic thought the concept or mental representation (Aquinas called it the mentalum verbum or ‘mental word’) is intimately connected with the Form of the external object.

This Form is directly available to me via an ‘intellectual intuition’. Thus my concepts can constantly be corrected against the very Forms of the things they refer to; scepticism, although a position familiar to the ancients, is looked down on as something downright absurd, a form of intellectual perversity. I believe that it is primarily the modern idea that our concepts, our ‘representations’, are different from and not directly comparable with the objects and properties ‘out there’ that Taylor refers to as ‘the epistemological model’.

Granted that European culture does make atomistic assumptions about politics and morality, and granted that European culture does take the epistemological model for granted, what is the connection between these two facts? This morning, I tried the following experiment in one of my classes. I explained the epistemological model, and the predicament that is built into that model – the predicament that we accept the duality of concepts and ‘external world’ while denying the possibility of anything that could be called a direct comparison of the two. And I asked the class: ‘If this is the predicament we are in, what justifies us in supposing that our theories and judgments are true?’ A student raised his hand and gave me precisely the answer I expected: ‘Well, it seems to work for scientists.’ Once we accept the epistemological model, it seems natural to retreat (as empiricists did) to the idea that the only ‘truth’ we can safely claim for our theories and judgments is that they enable us to manipulate nature, or, at least, to predict the ‘sensations’ that we will have under various contingencies. This response to the epistemological model is the root of Positivism, if it is not Positivism itself, and it supports the identification of rationality with means-ends rationality. Technical scientific rationality is, from this viewpoint, the only rationality worthy of the name. But Positivism and Empiricism are not the only responses possible to this predicament. After pointing out to the class that claims that something is justified because it ‘works’ can lead to new controversies, controversies over whether or not something does ‘work’, I asked: ‘When we say our system of knowledge works, by whose standards is it that it “works”?’ And this time the student who answered responded, ‘by our standards’ – just the response that forms the heart of what Rorty calls ‘Pragmatism’. I do not claim that Positivism and Relativism are the only or the favourite responses of philosophers to the epistemological problem: what I claim, and not just from the one experiment, is that these are the two responses that make sense to the contemporary man on their street. And both these responses support the idea that values are ‘subjective’ and the idea that the only rationality worthy of the name is technical rationality – the ideas that form the heart of conventional economic and political models in our time.

The story I have just told is sketched very abstractly by Taylor in order to make a certain point. Many philosophers have attacked the epistemological model, and in more than one way. The whole distinction between conceptual scheme and transcendent reality has been attacked ever since Kant – in our time, it has been denounced by Quine, by Davidson, by Goodman, and by many others. The assumption that ‘we only directly observe sense data’ was vigorously attacked by John Austin, and before him (and in different ways) by William James and by Husserl. The very question, ‘How does thought hook on to the world?’ was undermined by Wittgenstein. Yet, by and large, these attacks on the epistemological model – and without question they represent much of the best philosophy done in the last hundred years – have had zero effect on European culture, or on the thinking of scientists and laymen about these very issues. It is as if mere argument and discussion, however brilliant, were powerless to shake the hold of this model. Taylor believes that the reasons for this are basically two: first, the model itself insists that no other conception of knowledge is really intelligible. Thus a particular conception of what epistemology is about has become coercive because we cannot manage to see that conception as theory, as hypothesis, as something subject to challenge at all. Second, the model is, as just indicated, interwoven with our practices in a myriad ways. The mutual support between the model and the practices is so great that mere argument cannot shake the system.

Is Taylor then arguing for revolution? Not at all! The somewhat surprising upshot of his discussion is that what the combined brilliance of William James, of Edmund Husserl, of Ludwig Wittgenstein, could not do can be done by a kind of psychoanalysis of the culture, an act of reliving the coming-to-be of the predicament. As Taylor’s essay puts it,

freeing oneself from the model cannot be done by showing an alternative. What we need to do is get over the presumption of the unique conceivability of the embedded picture. But to do this we need to take a new stance towards our practices. Instead of just living in them and taking their implicit construal of things as the way things are, we have to understand how they have come to be, how they came to embed a certain view of things. In other words, in order to undo the forgetting, we have to articulate for ourselves how it happened, to become aware of the way a picture slid from the status of discovery to that of inarticulate assumption, a fact too obvious to mention. But that means a genetic account; and one which retrieves the formulations through which the embedding [of the epistemological model] in practice took place. Freeing ourselves from the presumption of uniqueness requires uncovering the origins. That is why philosophy is inescapably historical.

Taylor’s desire to free us from the epistemological model is fundamentally politically-motivated. He is not a dogmatic socialist, but he does believe that pursuit of individual ‘values’ and communal welfare do not always neatly mesh in the way the Invisible Hand argument suggests, and that we need to learn to feel responsibility to a community and to weigh its needs against our own in a less individualistic fashion. We need to recover the sense that our ‘identities’ are not inexplicable miracles, but in large part shaped by the communities to which we belong (here his thought connects with that of Quentin Skinner, whose lecture in this series tries to recover some of the insights in the tradition of Roman civic republicanism and its late Renaisance revivals). We need, so to speak, to be liberated from our own compulsive individualism. Philosophy, in Taylor’s conception, is to be a practical, not just a theoretical activity. Philosophy is an activity of liberation.

Rorty begins with a different question: what is the right conception of ‘historiography’? The four ‘genres of historiography’ distinguished by Richard Rorty are: 1. history (of philosophy) as rational reconstruction. According to Rorty, this is, to a certain extent, arbitrary (‘There will be as many rational reconstructions which purport to find significant truths, or pregnant and important falsehoods, in the work of a great dead philosopher, as there are importantly different contexts in which his works can be placed’). 2. ‘History of the human spirit’ – Rorty uses the Hegelian term Geistesgeschichte for this. What this amounts to, according to Rorty, is the construction of a canon, a list of the names of great dead philosophers who form a kind of immortal freemasonry. 3. Standard, problem-oriented ‘history of philosophy’ – Rorty calls this ‘doxography’. 4. Intellectual history – the tracing of lines of significant intellectual filiation and the explanation of past ways of thinking without attention to whether the past thinkers and styles of thinking do or do not fit our contemporary conceptions of what philosophy is ‘timelessly’ about.

Rorty denounces ‘doxography’ as a genre, and he has good reason and plenty of company. Many of the essays in this book join him in deploring the falsification that results when we attempt to see past philosophers as addressing a textbook list of ‘philosophical problems’. Bruce Kuklick’s essay on the formation of the standard canon of ‘great philosophers’ in the United States, ‘Seven thinkers and how they grew – Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant’, is an excellent companion-piece to Rorty’s strictures against doxography, as are the fine historical studies by Burnyeat (scepticism), Sluga (Frege) and Hylton (early analytic philosophy and the revolt against idealism) in Part Two of this volume. Lorenz Krüger’s ‘Why do we study the history of philosophy’ also takes up arms against doxography, although Krüger’s piece is marred by an inability to give up a version of the observational/theoretical dichotomy which is years out of date. (Many of the other authors also smuggle in a plea for their favourite philosophical panacea in what is supposed to be a volume demonstrating the need for new ways of thinking in philosophy. Ian Hacking, for example, in his article ‘Five Parables’, ‘recants’ his own former view that philosophy consists of problems and their solutions, only to sketch a solution to every philosophical problem one has ever heard of!)

Although he rejects doxography, Rorty is surprisingly tolerant of the other three genres. Why he would be interested in ‘the nitty gritty of intellectual history’ is perhaps obvious, given his distaste for the falsifications of doxography: but why does he not object to the falsifications of rational reconstruction or the even more obvious ones of Geistesgeschichte? The answer is that Rorty sees both rational reconstruction and (especially) Geistesgeschichte as essential to our contemporary philosophical activities. Rational reconstruction is just part of on-going philosophical activity. That many rational reconstructions are possible is no problem for Rorty. ‘The Fregean, the Kripkean, the Popperian, the Whiteheadian and the Heideggerian will each re-educate Plato in a different way before starting to argue with him,’ Rorty charmingly remarks. But why do we need to canonise dead philosophers at all? ‘I do not think we can get along without canons,’ Rorty replies:

This is because we cannot get along without heroes. We need mountain peaks to look up towards ... We also need the idea that there is such a thing as ‘philosophy’ in the honorific sense – the idea that there are, had we but the wit to pose them, certain questions which everybody should always have been asking. We cannot give up this idea without giving up the notion that the intellectuals of the previous epochs of European history form a community, a community of which it is good to be a member. If we are to persist in this image of ourselves, then we have to have both imaginary conversations with the dead and the conviction that we have seen further than they. That means that we need Geistesgeschichte, self-justificatory conversation.

It is at this point that one realises that Rorty’s conception of philosophy is as political as Taylor’s – and diametrically opposed to it. I do not mean to hurl the facile accusation of ‘conservatism’ at Rorty. Indeed, Rorty is as ‘wet’ a liberal as they come. I suspect that in any given election or on any given issue he and Charles Taylor might vote much the same way. But their fundamental social outlooks differ, even if their political behaviour does not. For Rorty is fundamentally content with our social institutions: institutions which represent, above all, in the closing words of his essay, ‘that sense of community which only impassioned conversation makes possible’ – that is, which represents community based on the celebration of diversity – while Taylor, as we saw, feels that we are ‘atomistic individuals’ who have all but lost any meaningful sense of community.

What is a philosopher (or a citizen) who has become distrustful of such large visions to say to these two thinkers? To Taylor, I myself want to say that I don’t hear enough in his writing of the failures of universalistic communitarianism. It is not that I want him to prove that he is a good social democrat by please saying something anti-Communist. But Taylor is operating at the level of global political conceptions in the closing decades of the 20th century. Why is it, after what we have been through in this century, that political thinkers still resist admitting that both capitalism (‘atomistic individualism’) and socialism have failed us badly? Taylor does say a few words about possible sources for new models in Liberation Theology, in the various traditions of civic republicanism, but this is not enough. Taylor is still trapped in the ‘right versus left’ image of the choices available to European man, and to many of us that image itself has become suspect.

Rorty, on the other hand, is in the strange position of being a pragmatist who sees conversation as an end in itself. If all one wants is conversation, he is right – our culture has produced a lot of ‘impassioned conversation’. But it has produced impassioned conversation because ‘Europeans’ (Rorty always includes America and Japan in his generous conception of ‘Europe’) saw conversation and world-transformation as intimately linked. If Rorty is not conservative, he does, at times, seem ever so slightly decadent.

These two lectures are powerful and unhackneyed statements. If the book that contains them lacks a certain unity, the presence of reflections at this level of seriousness and power more than makes up for the defect.

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