Excerpts from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997
It is striking how many famous philosophers had breakdowns in youth.
It took me three or four years to discover where my true academic interests lay [when he went to Oxford].
I spent my first three years at Oxford studying history against my declared wishes. I do not think this could happen nowadays. The whole idea of forcing a student to study as his main subject something he does not want to do is now, quite rightly, seen as absurd. In those days it was not all that uncommon.
Perhaps the most important single thing Oxford did for me intellectually was teach me that intellectual values exist independently of artistic values.
The greatest gift a formal education can bestow is to develop in us a conception of the world that is not merely an enlargement of our own views and attitudes and interests and assumptions; and in the nature of the case we are not able to do this without help from others who are free of our limitations. But from this, alas, it follows that the self-educated can never be more than half-educated, a regrettable but inescapable fact.
What is lastingly important can easily be unfashionable in its day.
It is possible to be provincial in time as well as in place; and the unfortunate truth is that all but a handful of people are narrowly provincial in time.
In ordinary life one knows that it is possible even with the best of intentions to utter words and yet say nothing...empty utterance is the order of the day throughout the mass media, including the so-called quality press. Given that speaking without saying anything is compatible with both high intelligence and good intentions, how are we to distinguish between statements that really do say something (true or false) and statements that say nothing at all?
Metaphysics was a dismissive and contemptuous term among logical positivists.
Because Russell had done more than any other individual to apply new techniques of logical analysis not only to traditional problems of philosophy but to utterances in ordinary language, he was revered as a sort of intellectual godfather by logical positivists everywhere, including Vienna.
Popper saw that although unrestrictedly general empirical statements are not verifiable they are falsifiable. Although no number of observations can prove the proposition ‘All swans are white,’ one observation of a black swan conclusively proves it to be false. This means that scientific laws, although not verifiable, are falsifiable, and that means they can be tested.
If a theory can explain anything that happens, no matter what, this must mean that all possible observations are consistent with its truth. But in that case no actual observations can ever be cited as evidence in its favour. So not only can it not be falsified, it cannot be corroborated either.
According to Popper, to count as scientific, a theory must be empirically testable, and since the only form of testing that is logically possible is falsification this means that only statements that are empirically falsifiable can have scientific status. Empirical falsifiability, he concluded, was the criterion of demarcation between science and non-science.
Newton’s laws had not been laws of Nature, they had been laws of Newton.
Popper held that all of us must inevitably hold metaphysical beliefs about the world, whether we like it or not, and he mischievously gave as a genuine example in his own case his belief in the existence of regularities in nature.
The logical positivists continued to regard him as an off-shoot of themselves in spite of the fact that in his already published work he had torn up and burnt their roots.
Linguistic philosophy adhered to the view that philosophy is conceptual analysis and nothing else.
When anyone refers to Popper as any sort of positivist it is a sure sign that the person in question has little serious acquaintance with his work.
Logical positivism was eventually brought down by its own internal contradictions. It was gradually superseded by what came to be known under two names, linguistic analysis and linguistic philosophy, the two terms being interchangeable.
Many individual philosophers, at Oxford and elsewhere, passed from logical positivism to linguistic analysis by a seemingly natural progression: first they adopted logical positivism, but as they became increasingly aware of the insoluble problems to which it gave rise they shifted to a more linguistic-analytic approach. However, although at the time they were acutely conscious of the differences between the two, what are more striking now are the similarities.
Linguistic analysts rejected the view that our knowledge of the world was exclusively the province of science, yet they retained the conception of philosophy for which that view had been the justification. In other words they rejected the reason for regarding philosophy as talk about talk but continued to practise it as if it were. In so far as they had to call on something else to fill the vast gaps left by science in the provenance of our first-order conception of the world the appeal was to common sense and its concomitant use of language.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in 1921 and made an international reputation both for itself and for Wittgenstein. But during the years of its greatest influence he came to the conclusion that it was fundamentally mistaken. So at the very time when philosophers in many countries were discovering it, and in some cases ardently becoming disciples of it, he himself was rejecting it and developing a new approach that was at odds with it.
The hegemony of logical positivism succumbed during the 1950s to that of linguistic analysis and in Oxford J. L. Austin was the dominating figure, with Gilbert Ryle resentfully playing second fiddle.
One of the fundamental beliefs of the linguistic analysts was that there can justifiably be no such thing as a philosophical system.
The notion of speech as behaviour, and the term ‘speech-act’, were given common currency in philosophy by Austin.
The central thesis of Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind is that dualism is an error because there is no such entity as a mind.
Oxford philosophers of all sorts seemed to take it for granted that we think in words. So it seemed to them self-evident that the most solidly based way of addressing a philosophical problem was first of all to get it clearly formulated in language and then to set about analysing the formulation. The result was that what they were addressing was never direct experience but always a linguistic formulation.
What for me had been existential problems thrust into my face by my perception of physical objects, problems that were sometimes so terrifying that I felt as if they were imperilling my sanity, were translated by Oxford philosophers into puzzles about the nature of observation statements, and then dealt with in that form.
‘What exactly do you mean by...’ became the commonest opening to a challenging question, and I don’t understand what you mean’ became accepted shorthand for ‘What you’ve just said can’t be made to stand up.’
Linguistic philosophers treated truth as a property of statements, and once you get a question or a position formulated clearly in language you can bring to bear on it the whole armoury of logic.
There was a cult of brilliance at Oxford, and individuals became famous by shining. For most of them philosophy was a means, with self-advancement as its end.
For many generations until quite recently most of the best schools in England took it for granted that their brightest boys would specialize in Latin and Greek. When those boys got to Oxford they found themselves following the course known as ‘Mods and Greats.’ The first and shorter part of it, Mods, consisted of Greek and Latin literature, but Greats consisted of a combination of Greek and Roman history with Greek and modern philosophy. Thus most of the cleverest boys from the so-called ‘great’ schools found themselves, if they went to Oxford, studying philosophy not because they had chosen it but because it came to them in the same package as the classical languages in which they were specialists. A. J. Ayer once remarked to me that it had never entered his head to choose to study philosophy, and that he would certainly not have done so had it not been presented to him as part of the Greats course.
In the course of my adult life I have encountered more serious interest in real philosophy outside the profession than in it.
If all I experience, and all I ever can experience, are mental states, what warrant do I have for believing that anything exists other than mental states?
Locke’s ideas constituted the first non-religious world view since Aristotle’s to sweep through the Christian West and find widespread acceptance. If he has come to be thought of as something of a plain commonsensical thinker, perhaps even a bit pedestrian, it is because what he had to say has become so familiar that it may be in danger of seeming obvious to us now; but the truth is that when he put it forward it was profoundly original, and not obvious at all.
One of the most extraordinary features of Berkeley’s philosophy is that it appears at first sight to be wholly counter to common sense and then reappears, on re-examination, to be in line with it.
In some ways Hume conflated Berkeley and Locke.
The arguments of the sceptic are, says Hume, valid. But only theoretically. Having conceded their validity as arguments he drives home the point that it is impossible for anyone actually to live as a sceptic.
One thing I learned from Hume was that my own problems went deeper than I realized. What Hume characteristically tells you when you go to him with a problem is: ‘It’s worse than you think.’ I took mine to him for help, and came away with them in a more intractable state than before. This represents a considerable deepening of my own understanding, and for that I shall always feel a sense of gratitude to him.
The combination of high intelligence and unenquiring acceptance results in shallowness of a particularly distinctive and familiar kind: clever shallowness—self-congratulatory, complacent, a combination of intelligent self-assurance with blinkeredness. And I have to concede that this was a prevailing characteristic of the so-called Oxford philosophers.
At Oxford the Tractatus had always been held up to us as the founding constitutional document of logical positivism. When I read it properly for the first time I found that its central thesis was roughly speaking the opposite of logical positivism’s.
Logical positivism held that everything important could, at least in principle, be said. And what could be said at all could be said clearly. The Tractatus, by direct contrast with nearly all this, maintained that almost everything that is most important cannot be stated at all but only, at the very best, indicated by our use of language. It may possibly be shown, but cannot be said. The Tractatus took a low view of science. All that propositional language is good for is to articulate empirical and analytic truths, this is to say matters of fact and logic. Outside those spheres it is more likely to mislead than to be useful, and therefore more likely to do harm than good.
Logical positivism holds—and this is its essence—that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.
Wittgenstein is unique, I think, in that he produced two different and incompatible philosophies in the course of his life, each of which influenced a whole generation.
In the transition from the early philosophy of Wittgenstein to the later the most valuable things of all have been lost: the direct acknowledgement of a world of non-linguistic reality; the perception that there is something mystical about the very existence of such a world; the realization that any significance life has is transcendental, as must be also all values, morals, and the import of art; and that it is for that reason inherently impossible to give a satisfactory account in language of these things, the very things that are of greatest significance to us. In the Tractatus they were masterfully seized and expressed. But, after that, Wittgenstein seems to have lost his sense of authenticity of both sides of reality—the world of fact and the domain of the transcendental—and come adrift in a Sargasso Sea of free-floating language. His only frame of reference now is a means of communication, treated almost as if it were everything there is, without any of the things it communicates about or between.
For several years, whenever Oxford philosophers asserted that the subject matter of philosophy was linguistic, my standard response was to say: ‘What about The Open Society and Its Enemies? That’s unquestionably philosophy. And its subject matter is unquestionably not linguistic.’ To do them justice, none of them ever denied that The Open Society was philosophy, and none of them ever asserted that its subject matter was linguistic. But none of them ever gave me an answer to my question that could pretend to be even semi-satisfactory. Their commonest response was to give me no answer at all but to frown with calculated ambiguity and pretend to look thoughtful while remaining silent—and then either change the subject or drift away.
Asked how many children he had, an elderly Yale professor replied, ‘I think about five.’
[this particular teaching method] helped remove the influence of prejudice and emotion from our judgments, and got us to understand how very different the same situation can look from the point of view of different countries involved in it, and therefore why some such countries behave so inconveniently from our point of view.
I believe it was Plato who said that good judgment consists equally in seeing the difference between things that are similar and the similarities between things that are different.
A debilitating aspect of Oxford as I had encountered it was that not only did it concentrate exclusively on analysis, it was positively antagonistic to synthesis. The whole tradition was militantly analytic, critical, to the exclusion of all else.
Unless you’ve got some background theoretical understanding, anything is as different from anything else as you like.
It was lonely being the only one in step. I had to take part in discussion on other people’s terms, because they were the only terms available, and discussion is important in philosophy; but I never found anyone willing to talk in my terms about the problems that worried me.
It is a mistake, I believe, for beginners to think they can get very far by themselves in the study of philosophy. An essential part of the process for beginners is that their sincerely held beliefs—and, much more important than that, their assumptions, which are sometimes unconscious—should be challenged by people who are as intelligent and well informed as themselves.
Kant believed that it was impossible, even in principle, for us to understand reality by the use of reason alone.
Kant believed that for us to have the experiences we do have, objects must exist as their causes which are in some sense metaphysical. Locke also believed this, flagrantly though it breaches the fundamental principle of empiricism (which is that nothing about the world can justifiably be postulated that is not checkable by experience.)
Kant supposed, as again did others, that scientific knowledge was uniquely certain, and that what gave it its unique certainty was that it consisted of a combination of two processes neither of which admitted of error. The first was direct observation, not just on one occasion by one person, but observations repeated systematically by that person and then checked systematically by others. The second was logical deduction from observation-statements which had been arrived at in this way.
Schopenhauer revered Locke and Hume (like Kant) and consciously tried to write German in the way Hume had written English. In some ways it is illuminating to think of Schopenhauer as if he were a philosopher of the British empiricist type who had taken Kant on board but perceived his mistakes, and then moved on accordingly, instead of retreating to Hume.
If we have better grounds for believing something to be true than for believing it not to be true, it is not irrational to invest a certain degree of faith in it. There is nothing unscientific about such an attitude because the question at issue, concerning as it does the untestable, is not a scientific question. It is not a matter of possible knowledge.
In a famous phrase, Kant said that he ruled out knowledge in order to make room for faith. And it has usually been claimed that Kant himself, who destroyed for ever our hope of knowing that God does exist or that we do have immortal souls, believed that God exists and that we have immortal souls.
All the things that are of the greatest importance to us are unknowable—above all whether after this life we shall be plunged into timeless oblivion or go on existing in some way that is unimaginable by us until it happens.
For a good many of the problems Kant uncovered, the solutions he put forward have not stood the test of time, but his uncovering of the problems remains the most illuminating thing a philosopher has ever done.
To me, television was a way of earning a full-time living in half the time, leaving myself free to devote the other half to work of my own choice, work that I felt powerfully motivated to do.
Doing what the others do is one of the most striking characteristics of academic life in general.
Until the nineteenth century, at least, the foundations of logic had remained pretty well in the state that Aristotle had left them in more than two thousand years before.
Logic in the newly understood sense inaugurated by Frege and Russell—the whole of mathematics has to be regarded as incorporated into logic—is now actively pursued in every major university in the world.
The expanded understanding of logic launched a development that has dominated philosophy in the English-speaking world for most of the twentieth century, namely the analysis of statements with the purpose of bringing to the surface their unobvious logical structure, or unobvious distinctions of meaning contained within them. In this sense Bertrand Russell is the founding father of modern analytic philosophy. But as against many of his successors, about him there are two points that need to be driven home. First, he never regarded analysis as an end in itself. Second, he could never make sense of a view of philosophy that saw it as consisting of analysis alone, and he could never see how any serious-minded person could take that view.
Russell understood clearly—what many people to this day fail to understand—that science of itself does not, and never can, establish a particular view of the ultimate nature of reality.
To many working scientists, science seems very obviously to suggest an ultimate explanation, namely a materialist one; but a materialist view of total reality is a metaphysical, not a scientific, theory.
Because mathematics and logic engrossed Russell until his late thirties it was not until the year in which he became forty that he published his first book of general philosophy. A short work called The Problems of Philosophy it is a model of popularization.
His next book, published in 1914 with the title Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy, remains for me his most fascinating single book of general philosophy.
In the latter part of his intellectual career he returned to philosophy and produced three outstanding books: An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940; Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948; and My Philosophical Development, 1959.
Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, published in 1946, is overrated. Its account of every important philosopher’s work is inadequate even given its limitations of space. The treatment throughout is superficial, not to say flip, and although this sort of thing can be highly enjoyable in ordinary conversation it is not acceptable when introducing beginners to the subject.
After most of a long lifetime spent dismissing Kantianism and trying to move philosophical enquiry forward from the point at which it had been left by Hume, Russell feels himself compelled in the end, against his will, to admit that Kant was right, though significantly he does not name Kant in the confession but only Kant’s most fundamental doctrine. He admits (his word) that attempts to acquire knowledge of the world are not possible at all unless we bring to them certain ‘causal principles’ or ‘postulates’ which are not a priori and yet cannot be derived from experience. It is only after we have done this that we can build up a system of the world exclusively and consistently on empirical principles.
Empiricism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate.
Just as in mathematical logic he had devoted several years of hard, independent and deeply original thinking to work that had already been done by Frege, so in general philosophy it took him the whole of a magnificent career to reach the conclusion that empiricism is fundamentally inadequate for a reason given by Kant. The bitterest irony of all is that the philosopher to whom Kant himself directly owed this insight was Hume.
In spite of all this there is both pleasure and profit to be got from reading Russell.
Russell is, so far, the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century.
A. J. Ayer hero-worshipped Russell, and consciously imitated not only his prose style but his lifestyle.
Popper denied that there is any such thing as inductive logic.
Popper provides us with an altogether new and deeper understanding of how it comes about that most of the materially successful societies in the world are liberal democracies.
It was a fundamental tenet of Popper’s philosophy that reality is unknowable, he agreed that there must be some sort of no-man’s land within which what we know ends and reality begins.
When all analysis has come to an end, our belief in rationality is an act of faith, and an act of faith that can be justified, if at all, only by our success in meeting criticisms and surviving tests. Popper does not believe in ultimate foundations, neither for morality, nor for rationality, nor for knowledge, and his philosophy asserts that they do not need to be postulated in any of these fields.
Most of Popper’s criticisms of linguistic philosophy, largely unpublished by him but given publicity in a somewhat brash form by his junior colleague Ernest Gellner, came in the end to be accepted by linguistic philosophers themselves.
Popper believed that the world presents us with innumerable problems of a genuinely philosophical nature, and that no problem of substance is to be solved by analysis.
Russell’s normal mode of utterance was to use some sort of literal description for purposes of comic irony, with the result that his almost every remark was informative and funny at the same time. I do not think I have ever listened to anyone with greater delight. He had an ability unique in my experience to express himself in perfectly balanced and economically formed sentences that were strikingly satisfying, so much so that if they had been written down and published they would have constituted elegant, tightly constructed and almost unrevisable prose.
My greatest reservation about Russell was that he dealt in concepts, in words, in thoughts, with a wholly inadequate understanding of what they meant in terms of non-linguistic reality. Confronted with any human problem he looked for the right way of thinking about it rather than the right way of feeling about it, and consequently he tended to see both the problem and its solution in terms of ideas rather than in terms of flesh-and-blood people and effects on them.
Russell had always, from the beginning, had a tendency to say and do idiotic things when it came to practical matters, and always for the same basic reason: he treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems. In fact I do not think he could tell the difference. Really, the explanation of how it came about that this man who was a genius in some ways could be so foolish in others was relatively simple. His whole genius was for solving theoretical problems, and—no doubt partly for that reason—he tended to see all problems as theoretical. When a problem really was theoretical he was masterly, but when it was not theoretical but a problem of private or public life he was a blunderer. And because he had so little practical intelligence he learnt almost nothing from the experience.
I was dismayed [as a Labour MP] to discover how small a role ideas and ideals played in politics—and, to the extent that they did play a role, what shabby ideas and ideals they were, for the most part.
When I returned from the first of my travels in Eastern Europe, in the early 1960s, and uttered such elementary truths as that the Communist regimes were cruel, repressive dictatorships; that they had no regard for human rights; that they showed undisguised contempt for the people they governed; that their normal methods had always included torture, the imprisonment of opponents, and judicial murder; that they were hated and feared by most of the people who lived under them; that they contained as an all-pervading feature inequalities of personal power wider than could be found in the West; that they did not even have the redeeming feature of being efficient, but were, on the contrary, inefficient to the point of near-shambles; and that they devoted colossal resources to trying to cover all this over by lies, including most of their official statistics—I found virtually no one willing to believe me. Most of my Labour Party friends thought I was passing through some sort of McCarthyite episode. Nor was it only left-of-centre people who reacted against the truth in this way. My conservative friends thought I was ‘exaggerating wildly’, ‘going too far’, ‘over the top’, and so on; and they kept responding to my remarks with sentences that began ‘Come, come.’
On the surface I seemed to have everything I could reasonably want—good health, energy, an adventurous life, rewarding friendships, exhilarating love affairs, success in my work, exciting travel, the sustained nourishment of music, theatre, reading—but in the middle of it all I was overwhelmed, almost literally so, by a sense of mortality. The realization hit me like a demolition crane that I was inevitably going to die. This feeling, when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful. As in a nightmare, I felt trapped and unable to escape from something that I was also unable to face. Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception. Nothing that I could ever do, now or at any other time, could make any difference to that, nor could it ever have done so at any moment of my life. Not only would being brave make no difference: gibbering cowardice would make no difference either. I found this fact un-comeable-to-terms-with. I felt—as I imagine a lot of the people who have confronted firing squads must have felt—engulfed by mind-numbing terror in the face of oblivion. For several years this was my normal mode of existence, a nightmare from which it was impossible to awake because I was awake already.
The meaninglessness of everything was a real possibility. Confronted with this fact, I felt what can only be described as existential terror, a horror of nothingness.
In this frame of mind I read or re-read the central masterpieces of the great philosophers—of whom, after all, there are only somewhere between a dozen and twenty—and read them as if my life depended on it. I also read those figures on the margins of philosophy whose subject often comes close to being ‘the meaning of life’ —such writers as St Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Tolstoy. I seized on and wolfed down whatever I hoped could help me. It was scarcely an intellectual activity at all but rather a practical, physical, almost animal one. Quite a lot of what I then read was metabolized into my system and has been part of me ever since. Any attempt to summarize it, or to guide someone else through it, or even to say what I got out of it, would be jejune and hopeless, like a music-lover’s attempt to particularize symphony by symphony what great music means to him.
Living daily with, shall we say, Hume, or Kant, I felt them to be closer to me than my friends, and I felt I knew them better, for I knew their insides, so to speak, their souls as revealed in their books. They have been among my lifelong companions, and I have personal feelings of gratitude to them for what they have meant to me, what they have done for me, the difference they have made to my life.
The basic drive behind real philosophy is curiosity about the world, not interest in the writings of philosophers. Each of us emerges from the pre-consciousness of babyhood and simply finds himself here, in it, in the world. That experience alone astonishes some people. What is all this—what is the world? And what are we?
Plato is the first philosopher whose works themselves we have, and we have reason to believe that we have them all. No philosophy before or since has had so great an influence, except arguably that of Aristotle.
The standard view among professional philosophers is that—of those whose writings we have—Plato, Aristotle and Kant are in a class above the rest; and it is hard to see how anyone steeped in the literature of philosophy could differ far from that judgment.
The works that Aristotle prepared for publication were praised throughout antiquity for their superlative beauty of style. Cicero described his writing as ‘a river of gold.’ Tragically, none of it survives. All we have of Aristotle is what was written up from his lecture notes, either by him or by his pupils who attended the lectures and passed their notes round. References in ancient literature to him and his published writings are so numerous that we have quite a lot of knowledge about what has been lost, and the calculation is that what we possess represents something like a fifth of his total output.
Many who have read Hegel regard his work as consisting of trivialities and nothings decked out in oracular language to make them appear imposing. Those who take this view include a number who are themselves gifted philosophically—for instance Schopenhauer, [William James,] Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper—so you might suppose that as a view it cannot be lightly dismissed. But there are others, also greatly gifted, who regard Hegel as a profound and original thinker—Karl Marx, Kierkegaard (militantly hostile to Hegel yet regarding him as the most important thinker of the age), Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.
I honestly believe that, since the Critique of Pure Reason is unlikely to be read and understood by anyone who is not a serious student of philosophy, it is worth studying philosophy in order to read that one book. As Schopenhauer said: ‘Kant’s teaching produces a fundamental change in every mind that has grasped it. This change is so great that it may be regarded as an intellectual rebirth. It alone is capable of really removing the inborn realism which arises from the original disposition of the intellect...In consequence of this, the mind undergoes a fundamental undeceiving, and thereafter looks at all things in another light.’
Most of what we take for granted is exceedingly difficult to validate, and much of it impossible.
No argument proves the truth of its conclusion. To say of an argument that it is valid is to say not that its conclusion is true but that its conclusion follows from its premises.
No argument can establish the truth of its premises, since if it tried to do so it would be circular; and therefore no argument can establish the truth of its conclusions.
Humanist existentialism was hopelessly at odds with Anglo-Saxon commitments to empiricism and linguistic analysis. In the philosophical circles in which I had been trained it had been dismissed by most people as pretentious nonsense unworthy of the attention of serious students of philosophy.
Heidegger is appallingly difficult to read, in the same class as Hegel for obscurity.
Until theories advocating mass murder were put into practice, readers in general seem not to have been greatly perturbed by them.
To preach morality is easy, but to provide a foundation for it is hard.
Many people find difficulty in following a philosophical argument, and also in grasping subtle logical distinctions.
The chance I had of talking with the Oxford philosophers personally while doing the radio series Conversations with Philosophers strengthened me in the conclusion I finally reached, that except for Popper’s their work constituted a bankrupt tradition.
In succession to Russell, Ayer was the serious philosopher best known to the general British public, but during the period following the Second World War his influence among professional philosophers at Oxford and Cambridge was outshone by Wittgenstein, Austin, Ryle, and, from the late 1950s onwards, Strawson.
During the 1940s there was a Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, called C. E. M. Joad who became a household name in Britain for his weekly performances in a BBC radio programme called Brains Trust. He was an engaging but essentially fraudulent character. His popular books on philosophy thick-skinnedly recycled Russell’s work without acknowledgement.
It may be difficult to credit that Ryle can have had insights of fundamental significance and then lost them again, but I believe that this is what occurred.
Wittgenstein and Popper, the two most significant philosophers since Russell to have lived and practised in Britain were neither of them British by birth or upbringing, but had both come from Vienna, where as young men they had haunted the fringes of the Vienna Circle, while themselves holding views that were incompatible with logical positivism.
To my mind the series Conversations with Philosophers had exposed the triviality of the analytic tradition and its lack of a future, and had pointed up some of the other directions in which non-illusory advances could be made. But this was not how it was generally received. Listeners were entranced by the skill and apparent ease with which people like Freddie Ayer and Bernard Williams navigated the difficulties of abstract thought: their stylishness in argument, and in criticizing the arguments of others, their ability to make subtle distinctions clearly, the economy with which they expressed themselves, their intellectual self-confidence. The more intelligent the listener was, the more likely he was to be impressed by these things, and to enjoy them. What the content of it all was slipped by them unheeded: they were content to regard it as above their heads, too clever for them, while they sat back and relished the pyrotechnics.
When, at the age of forty, I returned to Oxford to teach I bumped into friendly acquaintances whom I had known as undergraduates and who had stayed on to make their careers at the university. When I remarked to Freddie Ayer that meeting them reassured me about having spent the intervening years in the way I had rather than in the way they had he said one would have to be out of one’s mind to think anything else. This response astonished me, as he had been a full-time academic himself, except for war service. However, on getting to know some of my old friends better I discovered that underneath their apparent complacency lay a good deal of self-doubt.
Although my informal relationships with students were good I tired fairly soon of formal teaching. This was for a variety of reasons. First, you owe it to your pupils to teach them what they are going to be examined on, however ill-chosen you consider it to be. You do not choose the syllabus yourself. You may teach all sort of things outside the syllabus of course, but you must teach at least that, and anything else is an optional extra, both for your pupils and for you. Second, you need to keep abreast of the secondary literature in the subjects you teach, and that means the permanent immersion of a part of yourself in ephemeral trivia. Third, you cannot, with the best will in the world, avoid repetition. The tutorial system imposes it on you to an extreme degree.
More than any other single person Descartes established the quest for certainty at the centre of Western science and philosophy, where it remained for three hundred years.
I have been told by innumerable people over the years that they studied philosophy at Oxford without ever really understanding what it was about. They wondered silently why they were studying the writers they were writing essays on—why they were reading Locke, or Hume, when even their parents had never heard of them, and the tutor himself was carving up each philosopher’s arguments with an air of great intellectual superiority, showing his views to be untenable. Where was the value in any of it? However, they kept their mouths shut, because they assumed that everyone else understood what was going on. Hoping that the light of understanding would break in on them eventually, they just got on with doing what was expected of them; and some, having good minds, got first-class degrees, without ever understanding the point of what they were doing.
The highest marks tended to go to examinees who were good at doing what was expected of them and these tended to be unoriginal people. More independent-minded students did not usually behave like this; and the more imaginative they were, and the more distinctive their intellectual personalities, the less likely they were to behave in his way. What these tended to do was to pursue with unusual intensity those subjects that interested them while neglecting those that did not, often with little regard for examination results. The consequence was that first-class degrees went to students with the mentality and temperament of high-grade civil servants, while many of those who thought for themselves, and had flair and imagination, got seconds.
Someone in the English school pointed out that of the outstanding living authors who were educated at Oxford—W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Anthony Powell, William Golding—none had first, and half got thirds. The head of one of the colleges once said to me: ‘I understand why we’re teaching the students, but I don’t understand why we’re examining them.’
I discovered that the students ability to do philosophy was not directly related to intelligence. Some of the most intelligent ones were tone deaf to philosophy, and uncomfortably aware that they were not taking in what was going on, while others, less intelligent than they, were getting a tune out of it and enjoying themselves in the process. It taught me not to take for granted of any individual, however intelligent, that he would be able to see the point of a philosophical problem, and also not to get exasperated if, because of his inability to do so, he took philosophy to be rather pointless.
The Senior Common Room has much in common with London clubs. Everyone respects your privacy, no one bothers you, and if you wish, you can go for months on end without conversing with a soul, and nobody takes it amiss. But congenial company is always there: you can be sociable whenever you want, and for as long as you like, but you are equally free to be unsociable whenever you feel like it, and for as long as you want. Family life is not like this, nor is normal friendship, but it is something that a great many people feel a deep need for, as is shown by the fact that institutions providing it have existed through the history of civilization.
Although undergraduates past and present tend to assume that the university exists in order to teach them, this is untrue historically as well as actually. The university began as a community of scholars, each doing his own work; and only as a subsequent development did students go there to be taught by them.
Popper is a realist. He believes that reality is not mental, that the cosmos exists independently of human beings, and that it includes among its contents us, our minds, and our knowledge.
My re-evaluation of the tradition in which I had been trained, now published as Modern British Philosophy, had reconfirmed my conviction of its bankruptcy. American philosophy was more substantial than British, more rich and varied, but even the best American philosophers seemed limited to an analytic approach, and I knew that the problems to which they were addressing themselves could not be solved by that means alone. Such Continental philosophy as I knew seemed soft-centred and self-indulgent—in positive need, actually, of a bit of analytic self-discipline. It was notable for its rhapsodies about the Human Condition, understood in limitedly, not to say ridiculously, modish terms: contemporary politics, the current arts scene in Paris, and analytic psychology. Much of it was little more than rambles round Marx and Freud.
In a normal week I would go to something like five live performances, sometimes more; rarely less than four. It was like daily bread to me, nourishment that I came close to feeling that I could not live without.
In general my attitudes towards religious belief had tended previously to fall somewhere between the indifferent and the unsympathetic. My indifference was due chiefly to the fact that I had never seen any reason for taking religious assertions seriously: they had not of themselves commanded my attention, and I had never found myself confronting a problem to which any of them even looked as if it might be a solution.
I regarded religion as a cop-out; and certainly without thinking of myself as courageous I thought of religion as cowardly.
I knew that there had always been people of the highest intelligence who held religious beliefs, including some of the greatest artists, philosophers and scientists. And I knew that among these there were individuals who had come to religious belief from unbelief—for example St Augustine, for whom I felt both respect and empathy. Tolstoy had, as it were, worked his way through philosophy, and then, when he discovered that it was not to be looked to for answers to ultimate questions, turned away from it disillusioned towards some sort of religion. And I had an idea that Wittgenstein had done something similar, though in his case the process was more veiled, ambiguous, uncommitted. In both of these last two instances it was only because philosophy was found wanting that religion was even considered.
For the first time I felt willing to give serious consideration to religious doctrines in an open frame of mind.
During one episode of a series I devised for London Weekend Television called Argument, in which each programme consisted of an argument between me and one other person, I argued with the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, Cardinal Heenan, about whether or not the existence of God can be proved—to this day the official Catholic view is that it can.
My studies in the Christian faith quickly led me into medieval philosophy, of which I had read scarcely any after St Augustine (I am referring to the texts themselves—I had read the usual accounts in histories of philosophy) and I found its richness, wide-rangingness and ‘modernity’ a revelation. So much of it anticipated developments which I had supposed began later. In fact, I now realized, I had scarcely thought of medieval philosophers as philosophers at all, but rather as apologists and propagandists for the Christian religion. However, a great deal of medieval philosophy was not about religion at all, but about logic, conceptual analysis, psychology, mechanics, and a whole range of other topics. The chief reason for its present neglect is that so much of the science-oriented part of it, and also the technical logic, has been overtaken by subsequent developments; but a lot of it was first-rate thinking out of which those developments naturally grew. And some of the metaphysics I found deep in a way that may have been associated in the minds of its authors with their religious beliefs but was not, on analysis, logically dependent on those beliefs.
It is not the case that a belief is worthy of respect, or is even interesting, merely because it is widely held, though that it is widely held may give one food for thought.
Of the religions I studied, the one I found least worthy of intellectual respect was Judaism. I have no desire to offend any of my readers, but the truth is that while reading foundational Jewish texts I often found myself thinking: ‘How can anyone possibly believe this?’ When I put that question to Jewish friends they often said that no intelligent Jew did. To quote the precise words of one: ‘There’s not a single intelligent Jew in the country who believes the religion.’ What they do believe, they tell me, is that it is desirable that traditional observances should be kept by at least some Jews because it is these observances more than anything else that give the Jewish people its identity, and therefore its cohesion; but that the doctrinal content or implications of the observances are not expected to be taken with full intellectual seriousness by intelligent people.
When I read Schopenhauer’s words ‘the solution of the riddle of the world is only possible through the proper connection of outer with inner experience’ it was as if someone had switched a light on inside my head.
One may think, as I do, that it would be a simply incredible coincidence if what happens to be apprehensible by us happens also to coincide with the totality of what there is. To believe that it does goes against all common sense, all reason, and all the odds.
Schopenhauer despised Fichte and Schelling, but he hated Hegel and described him as ‘that clumsy and nauseating charlatan, that pernicious person, who completely disorganized and ruined the minds of a whole generation.’ On almost any square foot of ground in the landscape of his writings a geyser of wrath may suddenly erupt, spewing out imprecations against the same three men. ‘What was senseless and without meaning at once took refuge in obscure exposition and language. Fichte was the first to grasp and make use of this privilege; Schelling at best equalled him in this, and a host of hungry scribblers without intellect or honesty soon surpassed them both. But the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses, finally appeared in Hegel...’ Hegel, said Schopenhauer, was ‘a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan, who with unparalleled effrontery compiled a system of crazy nonsense that was trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers...’ I do not think anything in the whole history of philosophy compares with this invective by one now world-famous philosopher against another, especially when one considers that they were near-contemporaries and colleagues.
For Hegel, as for Schelling (but unlike Fichte) existence possesses a selfhood that develops and evolves in time, and there is nothing outside this process. Total reality, then, is the growth of a self-existent mental or spiritual entity towards self-recognition and self-knowledge. Bertrand Russell dubbed Hegel’s view of matter ‘jellied thought.’
Before Freud was even born, Schopenhauer expounded what is normally thought of as Freud’s theory of repression, a theory which Freud himself pronounced to be the cornerstone of psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Schopenhauer provided all the necessary connecting links in the argument: at length and in detail, and with memorable examples, he spelled out that the greater part of our own inner lives is unknown to us; that it is unknown to us because it is repressed; that it is repressed because to face up to it would cause us a degree of disturbance that we could not handle; that this is so because it does not fit in with the view of ourselves that we wish to maintain; that this incompatibility is caused by high levels of such things as sexual motivation, self-seeking, aggression, envy, fear and cruelty whose presence within us we do not wish to acknowledge, not even in the secrecy of our own thoughts; and so we deceive ourselves about what our own characters and motivations are, allowing only such interpretations of them to appear in our conscious minds as we can deal with.
Kant was a passionately committed believer in the Christian ethic. He took the view that the true foundations of this lay in reason and not in either faith or revelation, which were therefore, in fact, superfluous in one important sense, though he never says so.
Schopenhauer was explicitly atheistic, the first great philosopher of the West to be so. Others, such as Hobbes and Hume, may have been atheists in fact but could not have been explicit about it in their writings without incurring the wrath of the law.
It is notoriously impossible to prove that the external world exists.
Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ is not to be understood as connoting anything to do with consciousness or mind or self-awareness of any sort; it is nothing to do with aims, wishes or intentions, nothing necessarily to do with life, which is highly contingent and might easily never have come into existence. It connotes something that is prior not only to life but to matter, a blind, non-material, non-personal, non-living force. There is as much will in a pool of water or a rock or a dead star as there is in a human being or human action. The universe before there was any life was nothing but embodiment of will.
It was Plato’s belief that ultimate reality consists of eternal, unchanging abstract forms that have their being outside any consideration of space or time, and which manifest themselves in all the individual things that come into existence and pass away in this world of our sensory knowledge and experience.
Inadequate doctrines that illuminate are like crosses on maps that show where treasure lies hidden; they tell us where to start digging, in this case because they tell us where we have gone wrong about something important to us. But of course inadequate doctrines that illuminate can be that only for people who look at reality in the light of them: for people who look at them, and confine themselves to analysing them, there is only their inadequacy to be discovered, and no illumination to be gained.
It looks and feels as if the meaning and value of life have their roots in an order of being very different from this one, a realm to which we can never penetrate.
In order to be understood some things, which are not self-evident, call for good will, without which understanding is not achieved. Therefore intelligence is not in itself enough for understanding: one must want to understand, and try, and be willing to sustain the effort. If one starts out being distrustful, guarded, critical, one often actively prevents oneself from understanding. I am not advocating an uncritical approach, I am drawing a necessary distinction between two stages: a person needs first to have a good grasp of something before he can criticize it intelligently and effectively; understanding has got to come before criticism.
For the most part philosophy is about different possible ways of looking at things. An original philosopher is saying to us, in effect, ‘You will find you understand things better if you look at them this way.’ First should come all the processes of intellectual empathy, shared vision, imaginative insight, and ‘as-if’ looking outwards from that particular standpoint. Only then should we resort to analysis.
When I read any great work I am absorbed into that particular world, which I see through the author’s eyes, and react to with his sensibility.
You may learn a great deal from a philosophy that you consider disastrously mistaken—as I have from Marxism.
Russell despised common sense, perceiving it to be superficial and extensively point-missing, and seeing that most interesting truth is unobvious, much of it counter-intuitive.
Wittgenstein took the things that were of greatest importance to us to be unknowable—the nature of ethics and values, the meaning of life and death, the significance of the world as a whole. His attitude to such things was in some way mystical—the example that he himself offered of what constitutes the mystical is that the world exists at all. But he also believed that where no coherent answer can be formulated no coherent question can be asked, and therefore that what lies beyond any possibility of knowledge is also outside the range of philosophical enquiry. However, if the only meaningful questions that philosophy can ask are questions that can be answered, then philosophy is confined to the task of clarification within the sphere of the knowable; and this is indeed what the young Wittgenstein believed. He considered it, in principle, a completable task, and he believed himself to have carried it out ‘on all essential points’—but he conceded immediately ‘how little is achieved when these problems are solved.’
The logical positivists embraced the philosophy of the young Wittgenstein but were so oblivious of the mystical dimension of it that they did not realize it was there, and this made them unaware just how minimalist the philosophy was.
In the view of linguistic philosophers, philosophy was given its problems by the fact that we use language in ways that are at odds with its normally meaningful uses, thereby getting ourselves into a pickle: these conceptual tangles are philosophy’s problems, and the function of philosophical analysis is to unravel them. When they have been unravelled, there is, characteristically, no problem left.
During the hey day of analytic philosophy intellectually distinguished academics in other disciplines found themselves forced to the conclusion that what their colleagues in philosophy were doing was unworthy of intellectual respect. The reputation of the subject (and, I would say, the subject as professionally practised) reached its nadir. Unfortunately the reaction, when it came, did not go far enough. The desirable thing would have been for the analytic approach itself to be abandoned.
Linguistic philosophers proclaimed openly that there were no philosophical problems, only pseudo-problems, and that their own so-called solutions merely consisted in tracking down misunderstandings.
The core value of philosophical ideas lies in their explanatory power. Such explanatory theories are the chief content of intellectually serious philosophy, and are what we value most in the work of so-called great philosophers. Their absence is what most conspicuously distinguishes the work of analytic philosophers from that of their predecessors.
The assumptions underlying analytic philosophy are visibly approaching the end of their period of acceptance.
Before the shipwreck of world Communism brought with it a general disenchantment with Marxism a substantial amount of Continental philosophy was Marxist, or at least Marxisant.
Despite, or perhaps even helped by, its superficiality, Continental philosophy is making inroads into many university philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, and has taken some over. It has also had an impact on literature departments, and made inroads into departments of psychology, anthropology, sociology and other subjects. In some places a war is going on between counter-balanced factions of Continental and analytic thinkers. Very noticeably, many of the individuals to whom Continental philosophy appeals are among those to whom Marxism once appealed. Its factions often possess the same sort of gang mentality, and behave in the same unlovely ways—in dead jargon rather than living language, portentously rather than simply, obscurely rather than clearly—and to abandon rational argument for rhetoric. It actively trains them not to think, and to be bogus; and in doing these things it debauches their minds.
However, the way to counter the influence of Continental philosophy is not to back analytic philosophy against it. The irretrievable emptiness of analytic philosophy—its inability to formulate fundamental problems of any kind, or to formulate possible solutions for the fundamental problems of any kind—is the chief external factor that has allowed Continental philosophy to make its advances. The only effective counter is genuine philosophy. In matters of this kind I am a short-term pessimist yet a long-term optimist.
I do not think it will ever be possible to eliminate fashions in intellectual nonsense. They have existed for as long as human beings have existed because they meet so many strong human desires, including the desire for extravagant emotional self-indulgence. They give us all the answers—and this in turn gives us a sense of mastery of the problems that we see as confronting us, as well as a sense of superiority to the uninitiated. Real thinking is hard—not only labourious but more often than not unsuccessful, leaving us with a frustrating sense of our own inadequacy and our ignorance, not to mention exposing these to the raised eyebrows of others. It will always be easier to flee in the direction of what is safe, and safe because approved already. Our lack of self-confidence will always incline us to believe that if what we think is at odds with what a lot of intelligent people are saying then they are more likely to be right than we are. In practice it is not usually the case that the chief recommendation of abstract beliefs is their truth.
Scarcely a day has gone by since my childhood in which I have not thought about [the big questions of life]. In fact, the truth is I have lived my life in thrall to them. They seem to me obviously the most important and interesting questions there are, and in my heart of hearts I do not really understand why not everybody sees them as such. And yet at the end of it all I have no solutions. I am as baffled now by the larger metaphysical questions of my existence as I was when I was a child—indeed more so, because my understanding of the depths and difficulties of the questions themselves is now so much greater.
From the fact that Popper saw all knowledge as being both theoretic and permanently revisable it followed that we never have grounds for certainty, but he was able to argue successfully that no alternative theory of knowledge gave us adequate ground for certainty either. Certainty is simply not available to us. Descartes, by making the pursuit of certainty central to Western epistemology, sent it off on a fool’s errand for three centuries, in the course of which even Kant and Schopenhauer were misled. However, once you accept that certainty is not available you are accepting that we are perpetually unsure what reality is, and therefore that the nature of reality is permanently hidden from us. So Popper is a realist who believes that reality is not something we can ever directly ‘know,’ but that our knowledge may get asymptotically closer and closer to it over the course of time.
At the opposite end of the realist spectrum is logical positivism, one of whose most famous proponents, Otto Neurath, proclaimed the philosophical slogan ‘Everything is surface.’
Even within the empirical world, according to Popper, we know scarcely anything for certain: what kind of folly is it then to pursue knowledge outside it, where there is no ground for us to stand on? A phrase I heard from his lips as often as any other was ‘We don’t know anything.’ He looked on this realization, which he attributed historically to Socrates, as the most important philosophical insight there is, one which ought to inform all our philosophical activity.
There is not a single science that has not been radically revised or extensively added to within living memory; and every well-known philosophy has familiar shortcomings. If we really do absorb into our thinking the fact that only fragmentary knowledge and partial understanding are available to us we shall stop making the mistake of supposing that everything can be explained in terms of categories of understanding that happen currently to be available to us—and therefore that anything not thus explicable is in some sense supernatural. The idea that we have now come into possession of all the explanatory means required to make sense of everything is, on serious examination, so silly that I am at a loss to know how anyone can believe it, yet it is a widely held assumption, and held most confidently of all by people like philosophers and scientists.
The concept of the supernatural is a muddle, not because empirical reality is all there is but because total reality just is whatever it is: some of it apprehended by us, some of it not apprehended by us as yet but possibly becoming so in future, and some of it permanently inapprehensible by us. We can, if we like, call that part of it that is permanently inapprehensible by us ‘supernatural,’ but if that implies that there is something mystical about it, or religious, or magical, or occult. the implication has no evident foundation.
The everydayness of unapprehended reality would seem to be the chief point of the most vivid dream I ever had, a dream whose high voltage and unforgettable impact cannot be conveyed in words. I was talking to a Mr Average sort of fellow with a moustache, middle-aged, wearing a blue suit the colour of a children’s book illustration, and carrying a walking stick; and I knew that he had died only a matter of days before. I was surprised to see him, and at once realized that here was a chance to find out what happens to us when we die. So I said to him: ‘What happens?’ ‘We survive,’ he said: ‘[Pause] We survive as individuals. [Pause] We survive as souls. [Pause]’ ‘Is it marvellous?’ I asked. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that said: Okay, all right, nothing special. And that was the end of the dream... There just is an obvious logical sense in which what is permanently the case cannot be exceptional.
Not being religious myself, yet believing that most of reality is likely to be permanently unknowable to human beings, I see a compelling need for the demystification of the unknowable. It seems to me that most people tend either to believe that all reality is in principle knowable or to believe that there is a religious dimension to things. A third alternative—that we can know very little but have equally little ground for religious belief—receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies. Simple though it is, people have difficulty getting their minds round it. What I want very much to see are two mass migrations, one out of the shallows of rationalistic humanism to an appreciation of the mystery of things, the other out of religious faith to a true appreciation of our ignorance.
Foreknowledge is not the same as predeterminism (in the sense of determinism). If it is possible for a being, let us say a God, to know what is going to happen in the future there is no more of a problem about his knowing that at some particular time in the future I am going to decide, entirely of my own free will, to do a particular thing than there is about his knowing any other kind of future event. Future free decisions, future free choices, are neither more nor less future than other future events: if there can be knowledge of future events at all then no special problem is raised about knowledge of future choices.
I am not religious, and I regard the adoption of religious faith as incompatible with openness to truth. Nevertheless, the possibility that propositions of religious faith are true cannot be ruled out. And far from its being the case that they have been derived from religion, it is my belief that, historically, things have been the other way about, and that religious doctrines have been arrived at as a result of the possible truth of these propositions. It is because they could be true, and human beings have exceedingly powerful reasons for wanting to believe that they are—though the propositions themselves cannot be adequately supported by rational argument—that they have become articles of religious faith. The drive behind the motivation comes, very obviously, from fear of death.
Although we must admit all possibilities, and genuinely so, not all possibilities commend themselves to us equally. To some we are led by rational considerations and processes of reasoned argument. Others are purely arbitrary postulates. For instance, I could proclaim that we have souls which are liberated from our bodies when we die and are at once transformed into invisible, intangible and inaudible hippopotamuses that then take up residence in the departure lounges of the world’s airports, where crowds of living humans stream through them, perpetually unawares. This could be true, and no one can prove that it is not. Indeed, I could claim, less than half-jokingly, that it is no more unlikely than some actually held religious and superstitious beliefs. But there is not the slightest reason why anyone should waste a moment’s consideration on it. (And that is indeed how I feel about many religious beliefs.) But by contrast with this sort of thing there are possibilities that may lay claim to our attention, usually because serious rational arguments can be adduced in support of them. One is that there is no such object as a permanently existing human self or soul, or mind, and that for each of us the death of the body is the end of all conscious existence. This, I believe, could be true.
I have direct and unmediated knowledge of what I myself think, feel and see, but I do not and never can have unmediated knowledge of what anyone else thinks or feels or sees; therefore it would appear to be a requirement of proper method to confine my questioning, at least in the first instance, to what I directly know. With this thought in mind I have tried to make myself concentrate on my experience as being personally and uniquely mine, and to frame my questions about it in terms of ‘I’; but this feels strained and unnatural, something I am forcing myself to do; and as soon as I stop being self-conscious about it I relapse into ‘we’ again. It appears to be another of those apprehensions that I cannot account for and yet cannot shake off—that there is something that we all are, and that its sharedness is essential to what it is, and that my metaphysical questions are about it. I have tried to find justification for this conviction, but in vain, and yet I have it.
All my life I have been brimming over with an almost uncontainably powerful desire to live. I feel it as an ever-present drive, thirst, lust, of which I have been inescapably aware since childhood. This drive would have to be somehow broken before I could calmly accept my own demise, which until then will mean accepting the unacceptable. I should not, however, misrepresent myself—it is not only with my personal survival that I am concerned: I have also a greedy, sharp-edged curiosity about how things are, a clamant need to understand, that will not let me relax; and about this there is something impersonal and objective. I believe I would still have it if I were indestructible.
Throughout my life I have believed that I knew when I was doing wrong. The problem in those cases has not been knowing what was right but doing it. Because knowing what was right has not presented me with fundamental theoretical problems I have never taken much interest in theoretical justifications of ethics. Needless to say, I could no more have provided a theoretical justification of ethics than I could have provided a theoretical justification for my view that Beethoven’s music goes deeper than Mendelssohn’s; but in neither case did I feel any need to... Moral problems, terrible though they may be, are not, it seems to me, philosophical problems, they are practical ones. The supreme philosophical problem with regard to morals and ethics is that of providing a rational explanation for them; but that is not a moral problem, it is an intellectual one.
With our moral convictions, as with our belief in logic, or in the reality of the external world, few of us arrive at our actual conclusions by a rational process. It is not that we discover what the correct rules of inference are and then apply them, and come up with our conclusions. On the contrary, in logic and morals at least we derive our notion of what the correct rules of inference are from our convictions about what is the case. This means that we can no more prove that our moral convictions are valid than we can prove that the rules of logic are valid, just as we cannot prove that there is a reality external to ourselves.
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