Tim Craneinterviewed by Richard Marshall.
Tim Crane asks whether knowing whether knowing what wine tastes like eludes physics and whether not being a materialist means he has to be an immaterialist. He thinks people misread Descartes. He doesn't think what is thought about implies a difference in thought content and that externalism relies on this and so is faulty. He thinks that the world is divided into natural real unities and that naturalism is a methodological not a metaphysical position. He finds Wittgensteinians can be dogmatic, rehabilitates the myth of the given and discards qualia. He's a fan but but not a follower of Fodor, has tolerant views about religion, thinks Stephen Hawking is wrong about philosophy and that the analytic/continental divide is not straightforward. He finds Husserl's intentionalism an escape route from Frege-Russell and doesn't think Meinong insane. This makes him a most bodacious groove.
3:AM:Why did you become a philosopher? Were you philosophical as a child or was it something that you grew into? Or was there something that happened?
Tim Crane:I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, I think that must have had a lot to do with it. Catholicism is the most philosophical branch of Christianity, it seems to me. One philosophically fascinating aspect of Catholicism is the very strange conception of reality it presents (the incarnation, the eucharist, judgement day etc.). Another is that its thinking aims at precision: the traditional ‘catechism’ (a kind of training manual for catholics) gives you relatively precise answers to questions like ‘who made you?’, ‘what is grace?’ and so on. I remember finding that all rather satisfying and fascinating. When I was being confirmed (this is when you renew the vows as a semi-adult that were taken on your behalf when you were baptised as an infant) I remember we had some kind of question-and-answer session with the local Bishop. I asked the Bishop, ‘do you believe in Adam and Eve?’. I was really proud of this question. I think I was 9 or 10. The Bishop probably found this a bit annoying, and avoided the question by saying that even if the biblical story was not ‘literally true’, there still must have been a first man and a first woman. I wasn’t familiar enough with the question of chickens and eggsto pick holes in this, but my father thought I had him on the run.
My parents were rather liberal Catholics and we went to a liberal church, Blackfriars in Oxford. This is where I first saw the great philosopher Michael Dummett, who was a regular at this church. Blackfriars was full of philosophers, actually, and when I was a teenager I attended some brilliant evening lectures on God and philosophy by Brian Davies(now a professor of philosophyat Fordham University). I found this utterly fascinating: there was this sense of all these strange ideas described in a complex vocabulary – somehow, I thought, if I grasped this whole business, it might unlock the mystery of things. Or maybe I just didn’t like the idea that there were all these complex ideas and words I didn’t understand, and I wanted them explained to me.
I decided to study English literature at university, but soon switched to philosophy. I had a pedantic cast of mind, and getting clear about those strange ideas (substance, mode, attribute) and complex texts really appealed to me. I was not good at the kind of eloquent rhapsody which the best English literature students could do so well, and I preferred the dry, simple, pedantic style of analytic philosophy. My first year essay on Keats’s ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ would have confirmed all of his views about ‘cold philosophy’. It was terrible. By this time I had abandoned Catholicism, but even during my short militant atheist period I maintained an interest in western religious art and music. Now I’m not a militant atheist, just an atheist. In fact, in a largely atheist country like the UK I think it’s a bit silly to be a militant atheist.
3:AM:You are a top philosopher of mind. You think thinking about and tasting wine is a great way to start to get at the philosophical problem that the mind raises. You say that if we think a little about our knowledge of the taste of wines we come up against knowledge that eludes physics and the best science we have. Can you say something about the uses of wine tasting for philosophy and why this should make physicists less confident that they can produce a theory of everything?
TC:I think what I said must have been a little tongue-in-cheek; or maybe an exaggeration. It’s one of the failings of philosophers to exaggerate (it all began with the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales: ‘everything is water’). But I do think that if you are trying to think empirically about the relationship between conscious experience and the underlying physical reality, wine provides an excellent practical example. Winemakers manipulate the chemicals they are dealing with in a way that is very sensitive to the kinds of effects it will have on the subjective experience of tasters – this is not an accident. The subject of taste and smell (which are of course intimately related) is fascinating subject in itself on which there is currently some important interdisciplinary work being done. (I’d like to mention here the work done by Barry C. Smithand his colleagues at the Centre for the Study of the Senses at London’s Institute of Philosophy. The study of taste and smell is an aspect of the study of consciousness, and one on which I think we can get a concrete empirical grip.
Of course, the psychological and physiological nature of taste is one thing; the knowledge of how things taste is another. A taster’s knowledge of what it is like to taste wine may well depend on knowledge of the underlying physical reality, or it may not; it may simply depend on the knowledge they get from experience. They know that some wines taste like this, and others taste like that. Does this show that some knowledge eludes physics? I say that the knowledge of what it is like to taste wine (or to taste anything else, for that matter) eludes physics only in the sense that it is not knowledge that you could gain from reading the physics books. The question of whether physics can provide a theory of everything is a different one. Even if we ignore the ‘non-theoretical’ knowledge which we acquire through experience (such as the knowledge of what something tastes like) and concentrate on theoretical knowledge, there is no good reason to think that physics can literally give the theory of everything. Here I want to be really pedantic. Although everything may be subject to physical law, not everything can be explained or described in physical terms. Physics has literally nothing to say about society, morality and the mind, for example – but of course these are parts of ‘everything’. Of course, when physicists say ‘theory of everything’, they don’t really mean it; they mean a theory that unifies the fundamental forces. The only reason for being pedantic here is because sometimes unsuspecting non-physicists take them as meaning a theory of everything.
3:AMThere are philosophers like Michael Tyewho defend a materialist theory of the mind but you find all arguments for the position unattractive. Why can’t minds be material stuff?
TC:There’s that great Irish joke: a man is lost in the countryside, stops a passer-by: ‘how do I get to Dublin?’. The passer-by says ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. Rather than starting by talking in the abstract about materialism, dualism, ‘material stuff’ and things like that, I would rather start from somewhere else. Suppose we are interested in the mind or mental phenomena (consciousness, thought, emotion etc.). What sorts of things have minds, what sorts of things are the subjects of mental phenomena? The obvious answer is the person or the organism. The organism has certain mental capacities: perception, memory, imagination, decision-making and so on. Psychology as a science studies these capacities empirically; philosophy can have something to say about them at a more abstract level. Is there any reason to identify these capacities, or the possession of these capacities, with ‘material stuff’? What possesses these capacities is an organism, and an organism is a physical being in the sense that it has physical properties. And it is a plain truth that the basis of mental capacities is the brain.
But we have no reason to identify these capacities with material stuff – and nor should we identify them with ‘immaterial’ stuff! We should not identify them with ‘stuff’ at all. Stuff is not the issue. Capacities are capacities of the organism; capacities are not ‘stuff’ even if they are had by things that are made of ‘stuff’. In short: I don’t think it is helpful it is to think in terms of stuff and minds being ‘made of’ stuff. (Even Descartes, the leading dualist, did not think that minds were made of stuff: since minds do not have parts, they are not made of anything.) There is of course a famous argument to the effect that if mental states or capacities have physical effects, and the physical world is causally closed, then mental states themselves must be physical. David Papineauhas developed this argument in more detail than anyone else I know. I have written quite a bit about this, a lot of it stimulated by David’s work, but my short response is that I can’t see why any plausible reading of the principle that the physical world is causally closed should rule out mental causation of physical effects. (A longer response can be found in chapter 2 of my book, Elements of Mind.) So if I was going to sum up my approach to this whole issue, I would say this: the question is often formulated in a very bad way – for example, by posing the question in terms of stuff. It’s better to start with the things we do know: for example, that there are people and other thinking creatures, who have mental capacities. Our next step should be to say something about these capacities.
3:AM:You don’t think externalism, of the sort that say Honderichand P.F. Strawson defend, can explain consciousness either do you?
TC:A lot of the debate about externalism strikes me as somewhat confused. Of course, what we think about is often external to us. Who would deny that? Descartes– often claimed as the original ‘internalist’ – did not deny this. So what is the issue? Contemporary externalists say that not just what we think about, but also the ‘contents’ of our thoughts – what we think, what distinguishes one thought from another – is externally ‘individuated’. What they mean is that (for example) when we think that water is all around us, this thought is essentially related to water itself, and so cannot be had in a world lacking water. I don’t think we need to commit ourselves to this strong claim about ‘individuation’ of thoughts. The assumption they rely on is that a difference in what is thought about implies a difference in thought (content). Without this assumption, there is no argument. But the assumption is not plausible, for the reasons I explain in chapter 4 of Elements of Mind.
Since I don’t believe in externalism, I don’t think it can explain consciousness! So I do think it’s important to distinguish between intentionalism about consciousness and externalism about consciousness. Intentionalism says that consciousness is a form of intentionality – the representation of things to the mind. Externalism says that these things have to exist in order for them to be represented, or presented. These are different views.
3:AM:When you argue that because we won’t find any simple correlates between consciousness and neural activity what we need to do is rearrange our current knowledge so we get a good idea of what consciousness is, you’re saying we’re confused not ignorant. Doesn’t a lot of the stuff coming out of x-phi and, say, the work of Schwitzgebeland Carruthers, show that we are systematically in the dark about our conscious states and so we’re more ignorant than you suppose?
TC:What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons; but I don’t think that Eric Schwitzgebel and Peter Carruthers have said anything which persuades me that such a job is impossible.
3:AM:Pat Churchlandmight say that you are being too pessimistic about getting the research programme sorted out so that we can get at a science of the taste of chicken soup, Chateau Latour and even wet slate. When Dave Chalmers suggests his zombie world, he’s just predicting that we can’t, she says. But aren’t you saying that there’s a necessary reason why science is going to hit a roadblock?
TC:It’s not a roadblock: it’s just an inevitable consequence of the difference between the knowledge you get by experiencing something and the knowledge you get when theorising about it. So I think you can have a science of the taste of chicken soup, or the taste of Chateau Latour. My point is only that knowing this science alone will not tell you what chicken soup or Chateau Latour tastes like. I make this point in my paper 'Subjective Knowledge’.
3:AM:That top guys like yourself and Dave Chalmersdiscuss dualismwill surprise a lot of people who have been beaten over the head for years by Dan Dennettand others saying that the Cartesian theatre view of the mind, of a disembodied homunculi, is a daft idea explaining nothing and requiring an infinite regress. But you have some careful thoughts about the idea of dualism, and even souls, which doesn’t buy substance dualism or immortal souls but does enable us to have a notion of persons as irreducible individuals, don’t you?
TC:Thanks for the leading question! Yes. As I said before I want to start, not with the exclusive and exhaustive opposition between Cartesian dualism and materialism, but with what we know about actual subjects of experience: people and other animals. I do think there is a place for something like a notion of substance, but I prefer the Aristotelian version of this notion to the Cartesian one. That is, I think that philosophy (and science) needs the idea that the world divides into natural real unities, and people and animals are among those unities. People might be substances in this sense (rather in the way that P.F. Strawson argued in Individuals). I don’t claim any great originality for this line of thought; my inspirations here are David Wigginsand my former teacher E.J. Lowe, as well as Aristotle and Leibniz.
Daniel Dennetthas attacked the idea of the Cartesian Theatre (‘a place in the brain where it all comes together’). I think he’s right that this is a mistake, but I think it’s a bit of a straw man. I believe that there is such a thing as the subject’s point of view, or the point of view of a subject of experience. This is part of reality and the subject-matter for psychological investigation. To believe in this (e.g. to believe that there is such a thing as the visual field) does not imply a belief in the Cartesian Theatre, as defined above.
3:AM:You want to resist reductionist tendencies that say that psychological reality can be reduced to the science of the mind or to physical features of the brain. You say that you are resisting scientism and not science, but why isn’t your position implying that scientific knowledge of minds eludes science as well as scientism? Can you say something about this?
TC:I like to think of myself as a naturalist – insofar as that term is at all clear. Although a lot of my work on the mindhas been rather abstract and philosophical, I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and I don’t think there are any principled distinctions between the kind of knowledge we get from science and the knowledge we get from philosophy. (I do think that philosophy and science are very different intellectual enterprises, but that does not mean that when we get knowledge from philosophy it is a different kind of knowledge.) If you are a naturalist about some subject-matter X, you should be open to all sources of knowledge about X. But I think of naturalism as an epistemically cautious enterprise. So naturalists should be open to reductionism where it seems to be available, but they should not commit to it as a metaphysical principle. As I see it, naturalism is a methodological rather than a metaphysical view. It’s because I am a naturalist, actually, that I am sceptical about physicalism. This might sound paradoxical, but what I mean is this: physicalism as it is formulated today is a very strong claim, it’s a claim about metaphysical necessity. In the now standard version which comes from David Lewis, it says that any minimal physical duplicate of the actual world is a duplicate in every respect.
On broadly naturalistic grounds, I don’t think we are in a position to know that this view (as opposed to some kind of weaker view, like emergence) is true. The evidence we have points only to causal correlations and to lawlike dependence between the mental and the physical; it is silent on the metaphysically necessary determination of the first by the second. Or so I say. As I said before, there are no a prioriobstacles to the scientific knowledge of the mind, but the scientific knowledge of the mind is not all the knowledge of the mind that there is. This is not an objection to science, it is just a distinction between different kinds of knowledge.
3:AM:You deny P.M.S. Hacker’sclaim that certain ‘grammatical’ remarks by Wittgenstein solve the problem of intentionality. There’s been a huge amount of recent work on intentionality – and philosophers following the Wittgensteinian lead such as Anscombe, McDowell. You find some of this stuff ‘provocative and suggestive’ but in the end unsatisfactory. What do you say are the main problems with this type of approach to issues of intentionality?
TC:I find a lot of what Wittgenstein says very interesting and stimulating, but I don’t think he had worked out the answers to a lot of the questions he posed (even to his own satisfaction, I am sure). But I am stimulated by what he says, and I have been inspired by many of his insights. One of the many things I have learned from him is the importance of paying attention to the diversity of phenomena, and of learning how we can be content with this diversity, without trying to fit everything into one mould or pattern. Another thing I think I have learned from Wittgenstein is the importance of not making things up: philosophers should not invent problems, and they should also be conscious of the risk of inventing pointless ‘technical’ machinery which do not offer real explanations, but often just re-state the known facts in a more complex way.
I have not learned so much from the followers of Wittgenstein, with a few exceptions (e.g. the writings of G.E.M. Anscombe, or John McDowell). I find a lot of what the followers say dogmatic and ideological: fitting things into a simple model in a way that strikes me as rather un-Wittgensteinian in spirit. Wittgensteinians often rely on uncritical appeals to notions like ‘grammar’ when it is not at all clear what this means (sometimes ‘grammatical’ truths are just necessary truths, sometimes conceptual truths, sometimes something else; but whatever they are, they are not grammatical truths). They sometimes go on as if Wittgenstein has demonstrated that philosophical problems rest on some simple errors or linguistic/conceptual confusions. I think very few philosophical problems are like this, and the Wittgensteinians have failed to make anything like a plausible case that they are. Given the complexity of the issues surrounding intentionality, it is very unlikely that some simple confusion is at the heart of all the difficulties here. Wittgensteinians often lack a historical sense too. They speculate about the origins or sources of philosophical problems without apparently acknowledging the fact that the problems we have derive from particular texts in particular intellectual and cultural traditions.
Problems come and go over time, and to understand why is a difficult historical task. If one wanted to find the origin of a problem, historical research and close attention to texts is what is needed, not unconstrained speculation about the ‘pictures’ that philosophers must be in the grip of. Again, I find this unappealingly ideological. (Think of all the rubbish that has been written about ‘Cartesian’ views of the mind and how they are responsible for all today’s errors in the philosophy of mind.) I have a general moral: great philosophers may be great, but that is not a reason to follow them. Don’t be a follower. Work it out for yourself.
3:AM:The approach of some of the philosophers involved in this approach to intentionality, in particular McDowell, takes Wilfred Sellar’s attack on the myth of the given as a key to making progress. You take issue with his understanding of what the ‘myth’ is don’t you, siding with Charles Travis’understanding of it, and then argue that in perception we need a phenomenological non-mythical given. Is that right? Is this in a way saying that something like qualia are necessary givens?
TC:I think we can rehabilitate the idea of the given, but I have no use for the notion of qualia. I think what is given to us – in visual experience, say – are the ordinary things around us. You are absolutely right that I side with Travis against McDowell on this question. However, I depart from him in thinking of consciousness and experience in terms of the idea of representation or intentionality.
3:AM:If Wittgenstein and his followers is someone you are reluctant to follow, is Jerry Fodorand his idea of a mental architecture including a 'Language of Thought', more to your liking? Do Fodor’s views mesh with your own approaches to the mind?
TC:I started out as something of a follower of Fodor– my first book, The Mechanical Mindwas a defence of many Fodorian ideas. I’m still a fan, Fodoris great; but I’m not a follower (don’t be a follower). The 'Language of Thought' hypothesis is very speculative, and although there are some interesting general arguments in its favour, I can’t see that it is the future paradigm for cognitive science. Of course, computational models are still central to the study of the mind. But I now find myself less sympathetic to Fodor’s ‘industrial strength’ realism about computational psychology, and more sympathetic to views that take seriously the idea that computational models are just that: models.
Robert Cummins’s 1980s book, Meaning and Mental Representationgot a lot of things right, I feel. And recently I’ve belatedly realised how many insights there are in Daniel Dennett’s work, something I rather neglected when I wrote The Mechanical Mind. The other part of the 1980s project which I now find uninteresting is the attempt to give a ‘theory of content’ by stating conditions in non-intentional terms for something to represent something else. Well, I say ‘uninteresting’, but I guess I mean ‘a failure’. A real naturalistic approach, I would claim, should take the reality of mental representation as a natural fact. A lot can be said about this fact, but there is no need to say it all in terms of necessary and/or sufficient conditions which are stated in non-intentional terms. The idea that naturalism might require that all the truths should be stated in a particular kind of vocabulary now strikes me as a very peculiar one. I suspect it derives from Quine, like many of the peculiar ideas in contemporary analytic philosophy.
One thing I like about Fodor’s recent work is his attack on what he calls ‘pragmatism’: the idea that mental representation is not a basic fact about us but should be explained in terms of ideas like practice, inference or abilities. Fodor’s arguments against pragmatismare very interesting and although I don’t find all of them convincing I do think that the underlying thought – that representation is fundamental and prior to inference, practice etc. – is dead right.
3:AM:You have some interesting arguments about attitudes to contemporary religion. You think they should be tolerated so long as they stay inside the law, even if the ideas are not respectable. And you think the religious world view is based on the idea of the world being a mystery, whilst the scientific worldview rejects this. You think for these reasons humanists and naturalists kind of misfire, is that right?
TC:Yes – I think a lot of the participants in the recent debate talk past each other. In particular, a lot of humanists treat religion as if it were simply a kind of rival cosmological hypothesis, and that this is all it is. My view is that to the extent that religions are cosmological hypotheses, this is not the only important thing about them, and we (atheists) will never get a proper understanding of what religion is if we focus too much on the cosmology. I’m hoping to write something more substantial on this sometime soon. One odd thing about the current debate is that the participants don’t seem to care that they entirely fail to communicate with the other side. They therefore have no account of why the religious (or the atheists) believe what they do, except that they are stupid or deluded. I think philosophers should try and make sense of their disputes with their opponents as far as possible without treating them as idiots. This applies to the religious participants in the debate as much as to the atheists.
There is a widespread tendency among academically minded people to think that those with whom they disagree are stupid or irrational, and not just mistaken. Many people like to think that their moral or political enemies are not just wicked or wrong – as if that were not enough – but stupid or idiotic too. We tend to find this attitude too in the contemporary religion debate. It might console those on each side of the debate to think of their opponents in these terms, but if we want to make real progress in understanding what is going on here, this approach cannot help.
3:AM:Do you agree with Brian Leiterthat tolerating religious beliefs is okay but shouldn’t be given special privileges, or does the mystery world view give religions an edge over other claims of conscience-based toleration?
TC:I’ve read some of Brian’s writings on this and I find them congenial. But he’s writing first, from the point of view of the law, and how the law should treat religion; and second, from the USA, where things are very different from the way they are in Europe. I’m no expert on the legal question – though of course this is very important – but in the question of what intellectual and practical attitude individual atheists should have to the phenomenon of religion. And I am talking specifically about the society which I know best: the UK and some places in the rest of Europe, which with a few notable exceptions, are largely secular and atheist places. In the UK there is no serious fanatical Christian extremist movement which threatens (e.g.) free scientific research, or challenges the law on abortion, etc. Secular liberal culture is not really under threat in Britain. So there is something slightly ridiculous about those militant atheists who go on as if having bishops in the House of Lords were the same kind of thing as fanatical Christians in the US attacking abortion clinics. We just aren’t in the same situation, and those of us in Britain should respond to the issues in our society as they actually are. Obviously I am exaggerating here; the place of religion in contemporary British society is a complex thing, and I am not an expert on all its complexities. But I do know enough to know that the USA and Britain are very different in this respect, and so an atheist’s practical attitude should be different accordingly. (And before humanists start jumping up and down on me, I should say that of course it is bizarre to have bishops in the House of Lords, the second chamber of a largely atheist country. However, on purely empirical grounds I would be more confident of the judgement of most bishops than that of many elected politicians, so I don’t think there is a practical problem here which we need to rush to change.)
I think we atheists should tolerate the religious not because their views are just as valid as ours, but because experience has shown that we are unlikely to convert them, and so we have to find some way to live in peace with them, even if we find their views false or otherwise objectionable. (Brian Leiterreminds us of Bernard Williams’s point that we can only tolerate those things we disapprove of.) Would it be better if religions were to disappear? I have no idea. Since I do not have any confidence in the association of truth with virtue, I am not sure if the world would be a better place if people believed more true things.
But what is undeniable is that we cannot understand our own culture unless we recognise that it was formed, for good or bad, as a Christian culture. It’s an illusion that we could somehow recover a human essence which is independent of the way it was created by culture. And the way western European culture was created was as a Christian culture, whether we like this or not. So to understand our own culture we must take into account its Christian roots, which may well be deeper than many atheists would like to acknowledge. Should religions be given special privileges? In the abstract, the answer to this question must be yes. If an atheist society (and I am assuming that the UK, at least, is an atheist society) is going to tolerate religions, then it is hard to imagine how this toleration would not result in special privileges. Orthodox Jews may not work on Saturdays or Friday evenings, Muslims and Jews may kill animals for food in a certain way, many religions will have the privilege to educate their children in their own way, and so on.
Some of these things will be more controversial than others, and the question of ‘where to draw the line’ is a difficult one which in my view has no general answer. But there are clearly some things on either side of the line. Tolerating headscarves (fine with me) is not anything like the same as tolerating female circumcision (barbaric and unacceptable anywhere). This is obvious. The alternative, it seems to me, is a kind of rationalist intolerance which involves (for example) banning Muslim headscarves and other religious forms of attire. I think this is totally the wrong way to go. And it is unlikely that it would ever lead to what liberals must want: that is, a more peaceful society which encourages prosperity, contentment and what JS Mill called ‘experiments in living’. It seems to me that there is enormous value in the tradition we have, which emphasises tolerance and freedom of belief and practice. I think we disrupt this tradition at our peril. I do not claim to have any developed or sophisticated views in political philosophy, but I think that one of the lessons of the last few hundred years of history is that the greatest threat to human prosperity and well-being is fanaticism and intolerance, even in the name of apparently laudable goals.
I’m going off the point a bit now. But I guess that these remarks put me with Edmund Burke rather than Thomas Paine. I will now be branded a ‘conservative’; and I don’t mind that so long as it is not associated with what is called the ‘conservative party’ in the UK – little of what they say these days is of much interest to those who want to think seriously about politics.
3:AM:You’veengaged with the mystery of non-existence. That there are truths about non-existent things seems to conflict with the idea that the universe or real world doesn’t contain more than what exists is the problem isn’t it? This is kind of the kind of material philosophers are expected to be thinking about. You approach it in much the same way as you approach problems of the mind – you say its not so much ignorance as muddle that causes us the problem. So what is the best way of understanding the problem non-existence poses?
TC:I could give a short answer to this, or a long one. Here’s the short answer, which in effect you have already stated very clearly. There seem to be truths about things that don’t exist (e.g. it’s a truth about the planet Vulcan that it was postulated by Urbain Le Verrierin 1859). But in general, truth depends on how things are in reality, and reality consists of nothing more than what exists. So how can there be any truths about the non-existent after all? The long answer is contained in my forthcoming book, The Objects of Thought!
3:AM:When famous physicists like Hawkingget snarky, misquote Wittgenstein disparagingly and conclude that contemporary philosophers, having lost touch with their traditional research projects, are pointless, you fire back that on the contrary, contemporary philosophers are very much concerned with key areas that have always been their prime concern, such as appearance and reality. So why should physicists (indeed anyone serious) heed philosophers?
TC:The text of mine that you are referring to is my unpublished lecture, ‘Appearance and Reality’, in which I take issue with Stephen Hawking’s remark that contemporary philosophy is a ‘come-down’ from the great tradition of Aristotle and Kant. I am not saying that anything in contemporary philosophy is as important as the work of these philosophers, but I disagree with the implication of Hawking’s claim that the concerns of contemporary philosophers are of a different kind. So that was a specific point about a specific thing Hawking said, not so much a point about physics and philosophy in general. To the general question – should physicists take notice of philosophy? – I have two answers. The first is no, if they are not interested in the philosophical questions. No-one is obliged to be interested in philosophy. But the second is yes, if they are going to engage in philosophical discussions. Philosophy is an intellectual discipline like many others, it has its own history and central texts, and its own norms and standards.
It seems to me that standards of argument and rigour in today’s philosophy are very high, and I think that many physicists (and other scientists) who enter these debates don’t seem to be aware of this. If they expect the philosophers to take them seriously, or to make any serious contribution to these debates, they should try and get themselves a bit of an education in the subject. The same applies, of course, to philosophers who are interested in physics. But my experience is that it is less common for philosophers to pronounce about physics from a position of complete ignorance of physics, than it is for physicists to pronounce about philosophy from a comparable position. Any serious philosopher these days who wants to talk about time and space, say, has to know what the theory of relativity says. No-one would listen to them otherwise. This is not to say that they will answer the philosophical questions by ‘asking the physicists’. Philosophers of time, for example, may be equally knowledgeable about physics but disagree about the philosophical implications (just think of the different views on time expressed by Tim Maudlin, Hugh Mellor and Huw Price, for example).
In my experience, physicists (and scientists in general) are often a little impatient when they encounter philosophical discussions. In a way, you can’t blame them – they want to get something settled, and the philosophers keep creating complexities. But this reflects a very important distinction in intellectual temperament between science and philosophy. Science will always raise philosophical questions (is any scientific theory or model correct? How do we know? Are unobserved things real? etc.) and it seems to me of great importance that these questions are not just left to scientists, but that there are thinkers who make it their business to think as clearly and slowly about these questions as it is possible to. Great scientists do not always make the best philosophers.
3:AM:You have interesting things to say about how best to understand the Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. You say that the usual way of discussing its concerns in terms of a peculiar relationship between logic and science that precludes its own history is dubious. You argue that it is best understood in terms of being a historically constructed body of texts. Can you explain your view here and say where that leaves the analytic/continental divide which many philosophers, such as Brian Leiter, think is bogus.
TC:I think my view is the only one which makes sense of the analytic/continentaldivide! Brian is rightthat, as a philosophical distinction, it cannot be sustained: there is no doctrine or method or theme which is common to all analytic philosophers, and none that is common to all continentals. I think Simon Glendinning made a really good point when he said that continentals and analytics construct the other side as their ‘other’ and then demonise it. You often find analytic philosophers saying that analytic philosophy is clear and full of arguments, whereas continental philosophy is woolly, unclear and literary. Which continental philosopher would accept this description? Likewise, continental philosophers sometimes say that analytic philosophy is dry, boring and irrelevant to anything of real human significance. Can any analytic philosopher accept that as a description of their discipline?
But I don’t agree with those who say there is no distinction, or that it is based on nothing. The real distinction, it seems to me, can only be understood historically, in terms of how certain intellectual (and in some cases, academic) traditions have developed. Whether or not you are an analytic philosopher is a matter of which questions you take as central, and how you distinguish among the central areas of the subject – metaphysics, epistemology; practical vs theoretical philosophy; philosophy of mind and so on. These are not ‘natural kinds’ but are created by traditions; and traditions consist of canonical texts and the readings of these texts.
Which questions you take to be central depends on which texts you take to be canonical. For example, Hume’s Treatiseis a canonical text of analytic philosophy, and so the question of the analysis of causation is a central question of analytic philosophy. Traditions are constructed out of texts and the questions that they pose or answer. But it also depends on how you read those texts. There are analytic and continental readings of Nietzsche, Hegeland Heidegger, for example. This is partly a matter of how (say) Nietzsche’s writings have inspired those who came after him – as it may be, Deleuze, or Bernard Williams – to raise their own questions.
But it is also other things too – like which texts of a certain author are thought to be more important or central. Kant’sThird Critique, for example, seems to be a much more central text for continental philosophers than for analytic philosophers. I should emphasise that this view of traditions as being constructed out of texts and readings of texts is not supposed to imply that the questions thus generated are of no value or that philosophy is ‘only’ a social construction. Of course philosophy is a social construction! This does not mean its questions are not real.
While I’m at it, perhaps I should say something about continental philosophy as it looks from the outside, and on one very obvious contrast with analytic philosophy. A lot of what counts as ‘continental’ philosophy today is essentially post-war French philosophy, with some acknowledgement of Nietzsche and Heidegger as its originators. Post-war French philosophy has been dominated by three themes, as Alain Badiou points out in his recent book, The Adventure of French Philosophy: one is political engagement, by which he (in effect) means Marxism and the introspective reflection by French intellectuals on the events in Paris of 1968; the other is psychoanalysis, which is normally approached via the impenetrable ramblings of Lacan; and the third is literature, with which many 20th century French philosophers have been involved (Sartrebeing the obvious example; but Badiou himself is a novelist too).
Badiou is surely right that these are the main themes of post-War French philosophy. No self-respecting continental philosophy department would lack experts in Marxism and psychoanalysis. But for those of us who do not start our reflectionson politics with Marx, and see little significance in the events of Paris in 1968; for those who do not start our reflections on the mind with Freud (let alone Lacan) – we may feel that this particular ‘adventure of French philosophy’ is a rather provincial affair.
The narrowness of focus is underlined by another thing Badiou says in his book: that he belongs to one of three great ‘moments’ in philosophy. The first is the ancient Greek period, the second is the period between Kant and Hegel, and the third is post-War French philosophy. Others will no doubt pick other ‘moments’; but I wonder how many of us would identify our own current period as one of the ‘great moments’ of philosophy? Is Badiou’s claim a manifestation of his self-importance or just a narrowness of vision about what philosophy involves? What is undeniable is that post-War French philosophy has captured the public intellectual imagination in some circles. For many educated people, French philosophers are still the paradigm philosophers: they smoke proper cigarettes, they have complex private lives, participate in agonised discussions and pontificate about politics. And French philosophy is the paradigm of philosophy: convoluted, learned, self-conscious, passionate and precious; incomprehensible but in some way deep. Isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to be?
An striking illustration of this was a review of Badiou’s book by Shahidha Bari in a recent issue of the Times Higher Education. Bari gave a very clear description of Badiou’s account of French philosophy, but as my friend Mark Kalderon pointed out, she describes this a number of times as an account of ‘contemporary philosophy’. It is as if in some circles, French philosophy is unthinkingly identified with contemporary philosophy. It’s interesting to speculate about why this is so, though a proper explanation would have to come from someone with a much better knowledge of recent cultural and intellectual history than I have. It may have something to do with the English feeling that ‘intellectuals’ are not really for them (there is a brilliant account of this kind of thing in Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds). But it also must have something to do with the tendency of a lot of analytic philosophy to be introverted, annoyingly and pointlessly precise, nit-picking and trivial. I think this is a consequence of analytic philosophy’s impressive success in becoming the dominant tradition in the English-speaking countries (as well as in some parts of continental Europe now). When a discipline is as successful as this, its members only have to talk to those who already endorse their assumptions. Orthodox economics is in a similar kind of situation, it seems to me. This can make it difficult for analytic philosophers to explain to other intelligent people not just the importance of what they do, but what it even is. Analytic philosophers are trained to have an ‘area’ and to make progress by focusing narrowly on very precise questions. And it’s true, this can result in progress, and the results can be impressive. But often when you asks a philosopher what they work on, they respond ‘in the literature a lot of philosophers have said X, and I think X is wrong’. This is fine when talking to philosophers, but it does nothing to help those outside the subject to know what it is that we do.
I wouldn’t say that continental philosophers are much better in this respect, but at least they can offer the answer ‘I work on Deleuze, Heidegger etc.’. Scholars and scientists in other fields can at least guess at what this might involve: sitting in rooms reading long, difficult books. But ‘I work on the concept of truth’ tends to lead to blank stares. So analytic philosophy is not very good at describing itself to the rest of the intellectual community. I think this is a shame because analytic philosophy is an impressive thing, and its achievements should be more widely recognised. But how can this be done? The difficulty, of course, is that if you want to make progress in philosophy, you have to be precise. You have to consider what others have said and respond to them reasonably. You have to move slowly and avoid bullshit. And then the risk is that you end up being boring. This is why I have said (in a paper called ‘Philosophy, Logic, Science, History’) that the strength of analytic philosophy is also its weakness.
3:AM:Looking back over the development of your thinking, where have the biggest advances been and have you changed your mind on much as you’ve progressed? And if someone was to ask you why you are still fascinated by these areas of thought and haven't got bored, what would you say?
TC: I’m still hoping that the biggest advances are still to come. But I guess I can identify a few points at which I feel I made some progress, and moved on to another stage. One was when I was writing my entry on intentionality for the 1998 Routledge Encylopedia. I found myself drawn to the idea that intentionality is the defining feature of the mental, and discovered Brentano and Husserl. At the time I had a lot of discussions with my brilliant UCL colleague Mike Martin, and one day he said to me ‘it sounds like you want to defend intentionalism’. I found intentionalism a very liberating way to think about the philosophy of mind, and I haven’t really looked back. At around the same time I read Peter Hylton’s bookon Russell and idealism, and that made a big impact on me too, in terms of how one might think philosophically and historically about one’s own assumptions. Many of Ian Hacking’swritings also made me see how you could be ‘historicist’ about philosophical questions while still attempting to answer them in their own terms.
About ten years later, around the time I moved to Cambridge, I found myself dissatisfied with the way intentionalism and intentionality were being discussed in the philosophy of mind. The idea of intentionality was being conceived as if Russellian and Fregean views of intentional content were the only alternatives. And the debates seemed to be getting a little scholastic, and divorced from the phenomena which gave rise to them. Some years before, when writing my REP article, I had read Husserl, but I had not really seen his significance for what I was doing. I returned to Husserl’s early views and found so much to agree with, buried in his turgid prose. I realised that if intentionalism about consciousness was going to make any sense, we needed to escape from the Frege-Russell paradigm as the only option for understanding the ‘content’ of mental states. For reasons that are too boring to explain here, I call the alternative view ‘psychologism’. (My forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Aspects of Psychologism, explains why.) Another of Husserl’s wheels which I found myself re-inventing was his conception of non-existent objects. For years I had struggled with the problem of the representation of the non-existent, as part of the essence of the problem of intentionality. One of the assumptions which held me down was the idea – deriving from Quine – that somehow the idea of a ‘non-existent object’ was ultimately unintelligible. To believe that there were non-existent objects is to return to the unintelligible views of Meinong, whose almost oriental-sounding name suggested some mysterious realm of one hand clapping and similar nonsense. Then I eventually read Meinong and found that the real situation was rather different. Meinong was not insane, although he was (I think) mistaken. Husserl got it right: not all objects of thought (things we think about) exists, but that does not mean we cannot say anything about them. But to say something about them does not imply that they have some other sort of being, falling short of reality or existence. They have no being at all. The discussion of this in the 'Fifth Logical Investigation' is one of the clearest things that has been written on this matter, and formed the basis for the view I defend in my next book, The Objects of Thought.
I could go on and on but I’ll mention one more thing. This was when I discovered, much later than I should have done, the philosophical significance of research in ethology and comparative psychology. Our relationships with animals pose some of the most interesting and profound philosophical questions. I was familiar with some of the more famous scientific discoveries, but it was only when I was invited to join an EU research project with some psychologists and ethologists (led by the excellent Juan Carlos Gómezfrom St. Andrews) that I discovered how fascinating the current research on animal cognition really is. I’d like to write a book some day about our knowledge of the minds of animals. But first I have to learn a lot more.
As for why I haven’t got bored and moved on, I’m a bit surprised about that myself. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed that I’m still working on the topic of my PhD thesis – intentionality, basically – which I finished before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Obviously – well, obviously – my views have developed a lot since then, but I still find the very idea of thought’s relation to its objects deeply fascinating. But some areas of the subject do lose their charm. I wouldn’t like to be saying things about externalism or nonconceptual content in twenty years’ time. And I hope I never have to say anything about the ‘rule-following considerations’....
3:AM:When not reading philosophy, are there novels or films that have been helpful to you forming or clarifying your ideas in these domains?
TC:I used to read a lot of novels, but now I don’t read many. Now most of my non-philosophical and non-psychological reading is historical. I think my reading in history does inform my philosophy, since history is all about the deep contingency of things, and about how the concrete details of how events come about are always more complicated than you might suspect. A great historian once said: ‘what you have to remember is that five years in the 16th century is exactly as long as five years now’. I sometimes say this to my students when they are tempted to generalise about whole epochs. And yet, as philosophers, we have to generalise if we are going to get anywhere. This is the problem we face. I would have liked to have been the kind of very cultivated, humanistic philosopher who can draw interesting philosophical conclusions from their vast knowledge of literature and culture. But a long time ago I faced up to the fact that this wasn’t what I was very good at. You can’t force these things, you should try and find your own voice.
How can one’s tastes in art affect one’s philosophical views? An interesting example is music. Music is one of my big interests – I once had a rather fanciful ambition to be a singer – and of course music is philosophically fascinating. What it is for music to express emotion strikes me as one of the most difficult questions – it’s hard to say what it precisely means, although it plainly does mean something. But whenever I have tried to say something about this, it has come out as either banal or pretentious or both. Among contemporary philosophers, Roger Scrutonand Malcolm Buddrepresent two (very different) examples of how to write illuminatingly and non-pretentiously about music. Some time ago I read Adorno, but I couldn’t get much out of him. Probably I should try again. My tastes in cinema, in so far as I have them at all, are very mainstream and lowbrow, and barely worth mentioning.
3:AM:And finally, for the sassy smart crowd here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would enlighten them further on these issues (other than your own of course which we’ll be dashing away to read after absorbing what you’ve said here)?
TC:I’ve selected some books that I find very interesting, rather than books with which I agree. Often the truth can seem a bit boring, or maybe it’s just because one thinks that one has put it so much better oneself…
Ian Hacking, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?(1975). A fascinating and readable account of the move from the ‘heyday of ideas’ to the ‘heyday of meanings’ in philosophy: philosophically detailed and historically sensitive. Hacking is one of those few philosophers whose books really are page-turners.
John McDowell Meaning, Knowledge and Reality(1998). McDowell is one of the most original philosophers of our age. I could have picked Mind and World(1994) but I think the essays in this collection are more flawless.
C.D. Broad, The Mind and its Place in Nature(1925). I think Broad is quite an under-rated philosopher. He has a very wide range in the subject and he writes so well. This 1925 book feels as if it could have been written a few years ago (is that a good thing, I wonder?). Lots of material here for today’s metaphysics of mind.
Daniel Dennett, Brainstorms(1978). I’ve recently re-read these brilliant early essays by Dennett. I was amazed how much I had forgotten, and how many of Dennett’s insights are still topical today. And like Hacking, a great writer.
René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy(1641). The original and best! Don’t believe what people say about it (particularly all that stuff about the ‘Cartesian’ view of the mind and the centrality of epistemology etc.). Just read it – I recommend the new translation by my colleague Michael Moriarty.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.