:: Article


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 Leiter that 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 Leiter reminds 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’ve engaged 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 Verrier in 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 Hawking get 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/continental divide! Brian is right that, 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 Treatise is 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, Hegel and 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’s Third 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 (Sartre being 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 reflections on 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 book on 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’s writings 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 Gómez from 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 Scruton and Malcolm Budd represent 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.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Pages: 1 2

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 16th, 2012.