Monday, 24 August 2009

Williamson Interview

I came across this interview of Timothy Williamson by 3:AM Magazine (via Nothing of Consequence). Here are two questions from the interview, both of a meta-philosophical nature, that I found particularly interesting:

3:AM: In your last book you again insinuate yourself into contemporary philosophical thought and say that not only has it made errors but it has actually taken a disastrous wrong turn. You call this the ‘linguistic turn’, which develops into ‘the conceptual turn’. This is radicalism without a hat. Could you briefly outline the main argument that philosophy that thinks that its sole job is to analyse language/concepts is wrong and why this is such an important point?

TW: The linguistic turn and the conceptual turn took many different forms. All of them were, in one way or another, responses to a methodological challenge to philosophy that the development of modern experimental science has made more and more urgent: how can philosophers expect to learn about the world without getting up out of their armchairs to see what it’s actually like? The idea was that whatever philosophers have to do, they can do on the basis of their understanding of their native language, or perhaps of some ideal formal language, or their grasp of the corresponding concepts, both of which they already have in the armchair. In some sense philosophical questions are linguistic or conceptual questions, either because they are about our own language or thought, or because they are the kind of questions that can be answered from principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding the words or grasping the concepts. In reply, I argue that the attempts to rephrase philosophical questions as questions about words or concepts are unfaithful to what contemporary philosophers are actually interested in. For example, philosophers of time are interested in the underlying nature of time, not just the word ‘time’ or our concept of time. As for the principles that we implicitly accept simply in understanding words or grasping concepts, I argue that there aren’t any. A language is a forum for disagreement; contrary to what many philosophers have thought, it doesn’t impose an ideology. People who take wildly unorthodox views, even about logic, are not ‘breaking the rules of English’. Although the linguistic turn and the conceptual turn involve radical misconceptions of philosophy, in my view, I don’t regard them as avoidable accidents. Probably they were stages that philosophy had to go through; we can only determine their limitations if lots of able people are doing their utmost to defend them. But by now we can see their limitations. As an alternative, I show how we can answer the methodological challenge to armchair philosophy without taking the linguistic or conceptual turn. For example, thought experiments, which play a central role in contemporary philosophy, involve offline applications in the imagination of cognitive skills originally developed through online applications in perception. Those skills go well beyond the minimum required for understanding the words or grasping the concepts. Our ability to perform thought experiments is really just a by-product of our ability to answer non-philosophical questions of the form “What would happen if …?” Philosophy is much more like other forms of inquiry than philosophers have often pretended.

And the second question, which I'm sure will get a few people worked up:

3:AM: Many of my friends are Wittgensteinians, others phenomenologists. Should they stop?

TW: It would be unhealthy as well as boring for philosophy if everyone did it in the same way. We need a wide gene pool of ideas and methods. Nevertheless, some ideas and methods are better than others. When it comes to writing the history of twentieth century philosophy, the works of Wittgenstein, Husserl and Heidegger will presumably remain major texts, given their originality and vast influence. But from a historical point of view, it also seems clear that in recent decades the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions have not adequately renewed themselves. Although books continue to be published in both traditions, they are recycling old ideas rather than engaging with new ones. Part of the attraction of such a tradition for its adherents is that it constitutes an intellectual comfort zone in which they are given pseudo-justifications for not bothering to learn new ways of thinking. At their best, the Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions share the virtue of patient, accurate description of examples. In that respect the analytic tradition has learned from them, I hope permanently. But once the examples started giving results that didn’t suit them, Wittgensteinians retreated into their dogmatic theoretical preconceptions while pretending to do the opposite. As for phenomenology, if a phenomenological description of experience is one that mentions only facts the subject knows at the time, fine. But it shouldn’t be confused with a description of facts about appearances, since one often knows facts that go beyond them. You can know that you are seeing a computer screen, not just that you seem to be seeing a computer screen. I argue in Knowledge and its Limits that the privileging of appearances results from the fallacy of assuming that we must have a cognitive home.


Nathaniel Forde said...

Philosophers of the future may come to mimic Uatu the Watcher.
But I can't help but think Marvel comics questions in a better direction. "What if... the Punisher killed the marvel universe?" seems a most interesting sort of inquiry.

Incidently, I wasn't aware there was a Wittgenstein movement akin to phenomenology. He seems to generate fans more than followers.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite curious what would Williamson said if Mr. Marshall had asked him about the harsh criticism of P. M. S. Hacker. :)

By the way he is still saying his "old stuff" wich is challanged from many directions. That's quite boring.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, is this argument valid?

if realism is wrong about anything, it is wrong about vagueness (that premise was generally agreed); but realism is not wrong about vagueness; therefore it is not wrong about anything.

It's looks like a modus tollens, but there are two quantifiers hiding in the two occurences of "anything". If we interpret the first as universal and the second one as existential, that's correct but trivial, if we think that the second is universal that's clearly wrong. Now, what was Williamson's intetion?

Nathan Coppedge said...

My book, The Dimensional Philosopher's Toolkit, approaches Wittgenstein as a method that is essentially diagrammatic. If it is ultimately 'but one application' this is a symptom of the richness and variety of studies in meaning, not some failure of philosophical dogma. Sometimes dogmas have the biggest ideas.

Here is the link on Amazon for my book: