10 Oct

Fantastic philosophers

In a drowsy moment, I came across one of those weekend supplement articles in which the reporter is obviously trying hard to get off the beaten track – celebs, pop music, bread and circuses shows on TV – and talk about something which at least has some subject matter. It was all still rather golly-gosh, of course, as the supplements always are. This writer was clearly setting out to talk to us about philosophy, while avoiding taxing our brains. He certainly didn’t seem to be taxing his own much. Anyhow, the gist of the piece was to tell us that Bertrand Russell and Peter Strawson were the two “most fantastic” – golly-gosh, you see – British philosophers of the 20th century. I should have thought that being “fantastic” is not what an aspiring philosopher wants to be. Try “plausible.” There was not a word about the substance of Russell’s or Strawson’s work. Well then, let’s see…

Russell wrote a book in 1909 called The Problems of Philosophy and in it was a chapter on induction – that is, how do we know that the future will resemble the past? He said, “Although the sun has risen every day previously, we have no reason (my italics) to expect the sun to rise tomorrow.” Now how does that strike you as a piece of “fantastic” philosophising? You might think that such consistency on the part of the sun over millions of years – or even only over the long years of Bertie’s lifetime – would afford us at least a little reason for thinking that tomorrow morning the sun will give us a repeat performance. The fact is that the sun has never failed to rise, not once. I grant you this is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow. Russell wasn’t taking about proof, but reason. Surely, on the evidence, we can claim to have good reason to think the sun will rise tomorrow? If the sun’s record over all these millennia is no reason, then it is difficult to imagine what could possibly count as a reason, and the word “reason” itself becomes meaningless. There is a technical expression to describe Russell’s performance here: it is called ignoratio elenchi by high redefinition of reason. That simply means the old boy missed the point.

Russell spent ten years over his work Principia Mathematica trying to prove that maths is based on logic. He confesses he wore himself out in the process. No wonder: arguing the toss with the likes of Wittgenstein, Whitehead and G.E. Moore must have been a bit testing. Russell soon found that the task was more difficult even than trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time – because you’re bound to run up against the paradoxes: eg “The set of all sets that are not members of themselves – is it a member of itself or not?” Or, more domestically, “All Cretans are liars – and it was a Cretan who said so.”

So what did Bertie do next? He got tired. Then he declared that the problem cannot be resolved in the ordinary logical language. We need, he said, a meta-language. But he soon found that in the meta-language he ran into the same problem that he’d found in the ordinary language. So you need a meta-meta-language. And on you go into an infinite regress. Like the Robertson’s jam with the picture of the golliwog on the jar. And on that jar there is a picture of a golliwog holding a jar and on that jar….” So how to stop it? Russell said we need “a theory of types.” But he found the same problem with the types as he’d found with the language and the meta-languages. To avoid going barmy, you have to find a device. Russell said he’d found such a device and he called it an “axiom of reducibility.” In other words, there comes a point when you have to say, “OK, it’s time to chuck it.”

Russell did other things. He fell in and out of love with that great Garsington carthorse Lady Ottoline Morrell, seduced Eliot’s wife Vivien, preached “free love,” campaigned for unilateral nuclear disarmament and failed conspicuously to understand Immanuel Pussyfoot Kant (1724-1804).

Fantastic eh?

Strawson’s big book was Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). In this he solemnly addressed the question of how we tell the difference between lumps of inanimate matter and the people we see walking about. He concluded that we call inanimate matter “material” and that we call the people we see walking about “persons.” Naturally, being an academic philosopher, he invented a technical formula in which to express his astonishing discovery: he said material objects take “m-predicates” while persons take “p-predicates.” And that explains why you’ve never seen a dish of rice pudding trying to buy a first class rail ticket.


Who might we regard as the finest British philosopher of the 20th century? I suggest, by a country mile, R.G. Collingwood for his demonstration in An Essay on Metaphysics that science needs absolute presuppositions which are not themselves derived from observation. And for his notion – explained in The Idea of History – that historical study is not something which should rely on “authorities” but consists in asking appropriate questions. That history is not “the past.” For the past does not exist. History is thoughts about the past in the minds of historians in the present.

Better than fantastic, that’s, as the supplement’s showbiz columnist would say, “Reelly, reelly good.”