Ninety-four pages & then some
Roger Teichmann interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Roger Teichmann is a philosopher who has written four books so far, Abstract Entities, The Concept of Time, The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe and last year’s Nature, Reason, and the Good Life. He edited a collection of essays Logic, Cause and Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe. He hasn’t burned his armchair as Josh Knobe would like him to but composes modern tonal classical music, which is a groovy thing for a philosopher with an armchair to do.
3:AM: You are a philosopher and a composer, an unusual combo. When and how did these interests come about? Were you a brooding tuneful chap as a lad?
Roger Teichmann: My mother was a professional philosopher, so as a boy I heard philosophical talk going on, and got hooked listening. With music you could say it was similar, in that there was often a record playing, or the radio. When I was about eleven I took up the piano, and subsequently the violin and viola; the impulse to compose was pretty immediate. But brooding? I hope not…
3:AM: You are an expert in the philosophy of G.E.M. Anscombe. Although now recognised as a giant of philosophy by philosophers I think she’s less well known outside of those circles, yet she was iconoclastic, a friend and translator of Wittgenstein, a woman and a Catholic who famously thought President Truman was a kind of war criminal. Could you tell our readers a few biographical details so we get orientated.
RT: Anscombe was born in 1919, and in the late ’30s went to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she studied Classics (or ‘Greats’). In her teens she had alarmed her parents by converting to Roman Caholicism, an early manifestation of her independent-mindedness. When at Oxford she met another Catholic convert, Peter Geach, and they married soon after graduating, and went on to have seven children. Geach also became a professional philosopher of note. In 1970, Anscombe was offered a professorship at Cambridge, and she and her family lived there from that time. She died in 2001. Anscombe and Geach were so suited to each other that their friend Philippa Foot once remarked that it might almost be taken as a sign of divine providence that they had met! (Foot herself was an atheist.)
3:AM: You write in your book The Philosophy Of Elizabeth Anscombe that “part of the difficulty in reading Anscombe is in finding your bearings, and this has to do with her eschewal of System.” Before discussing your take on what she argues, can you say something about why you think she didn’t systematise her thinking as you’d expect a philosopher to do. Is this something she picked up from Wittgenstein? Is it something you sympathise with or do you think it makes things unnecessarily hard?
RT: Yes, I’m sure it was through her contact with Wittgenstein that Anscombe came to see the pitfalls of over-systematic thinking, and on the other hand the real potential in philosophical methods which aim to elucidate rather than to reduce. Like Wittgenstein, she had both intellectual honesty and philosophical stamina, and these are necessary when it comes to resisting the charms of system-building, since those charms have a lot to do with having an easier time of it. Getting an accurate overview of a complex and tangled set of problems is always more difficult than constructing a system and airbrushing out the inconsistencies and counterexamples.
3:AM: I’m interested in what you say about her criticism of C.S. Lewis‘ argument for miracles that claimed that naturalism was self-refuting. She argued against Lewis’ position whilst at the same time thinking that there was something important Lewis was getting at. Was she religious herself at this time? How do naturalism, religious faith and her philosophical position fit together?
RT: Yes, she was indeed religious at this time (see above), and I think respected Lewis quite highly. The occasion on which she set forth her criticisms of his arguments about naturalism, at a meeting of the Socratic Society in 1948 in the presence of Lewis, has become something of a legend, with some of Lewis’ followers taking the line that he was devastated by this ‘defeat’ at Anscombe’s hands – not how Anscombe herself remembered it. Anscombe wasn’t defending the position Lewis dubbed naturalism, she was merely arguing that he hadn’t succeeded in nailing it; and insofar as ‘naturalism’ signifies a (probably simple-minded) reductive enterprise she’d have no sympathy with it, on philosophical grounds. But I don’t think Anscombe felt there to be any conflict between natural science as such and religious truth. Indeed, she thought a proper scientific approach to certain matters was essential for us to be able to arrive at a sensible position, for example when thinking about the ethics of abortion.
3:AM Her important book is Intention. It has been described as the most important book on the philosophy of action since Aristotle! It’s a book that is growing in stature and philosophers are currently beginning to understand it better. It used to be thought that the position she argued for was the same as
RT: There’s an enormous amount in those ninety-four pages. But if one were to pick out just one thing, it would be natural to mention Anscombe’s account of intentional actions as ones to which a certain form of the question ‘Why?’ (e.g. ‘Why did you do that?’) has application. The account is characteristically non-reductive: it doesn’t try to give necessary and sufficient conditions for ‘X is an intentional action’. It also connects action with linguistic practice; for Anscombe, as for Wittgenstein, language and life are interwoven. It also shows Anscombe’s Aristotelian bent, since the sense of ‘Why?’ in which she’s interested is such that answers to ‘Why?’ questions give what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than efficient causes. (Aristotle also appears elsewhere in Intention, in particular when Anscombe discusses practical reasoning.) Finally, in foregrounding the reasons a person has for his or her actions, which can be good or bad reasons, and which can often lead to the further question, ‘But why do you want that?’, the account points to the connection between the topic of intention and that of (moral) responsibility – something of considerable importance for Anscombe. But there’s a lot more to the book than these brief remarks suggest!
3:AM: So how does this differ from Donald Davidson’s position? Jennifer Hornsby argues that Anscombe argues that action can be described in different ways and that raises the question: what is the entity being described? The action, obviously! But the action understood as an event caused by an event and causing other events, says Davidson. Causation is nomological for Davidson and that is the only thing he needs to add to his idea of an action as an event to develop his theory. But Anscombe doesn’t agree? Is this right? Can you say something about this business of the divergence between Anscombe and Davidson?
RT: Davidson picked up one particular idea from Anscombe, the idea that an action can be intentional under one description, but not under some other description, and he put this idea to work in his own account of intentional action. But the account is really utterly different from Anscombe’s, and I can only think it was this single point of similarity, plus Davidson’s approving reference to Anscombe, plus people’s not really understanding (or even knowing) what Anscombe had said, that led to the notion that the two philosophers were peddling the same basic line. The collection you just mentioned, Essays on Anscombe’s Intention, is very useful in dispelling the myth of Anscombe-Davidson. Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two accounts is, as you say, that Davidson’s is a causal account (roughly, an action is intentional if it was caused, ‘in the right way’, by a belief plus a desire, these being states of the agent) – whereas Anscombe’s is very far from being that. But there are other differences, some of them quite fundamental.
3:AM: Davidson’s interpretation of action gained immediate traction in a way that Anscombe’s didn’t. Why do you think this was? Is it because she was a woman? Is it because it is less amenable to a scientific orientated sensibility? Is it a question of style?
RT: All three, up to a point. There was also the association between Anscombe and Wittgenstein: in the ’60s, a backlash against Wittgenstein’s influence started up, gathering momentum over the next couple of decades, and I think that although she was obviously very much her own philosopher, Anscombe was assumed by many to be ‘merely’ a linguistic philosopher – even a so-called ordinary language philosopher. That in particular is ironic given her own pretty negative attitude to the echt ordinary language philosophers of the ’60s.
3:AM: Anscombe was a philosopher where ethics was a central concern to her and you point out that she wrote numerous papers on such matters. Is there a link between her analyses of intention and the centrality of ‘why’ questions – reason demanding – and her approach to ethics? Is her moral philosophy something that you find attractive? Can you say something about this?
RT: In the late 1950s, Anscombe’s colleague Philippa Foot went on leave for a term, and asked if Anscombe would take over some of her ethics teaching for that term. Anscombe prepared for this by reading various texts of modern (as opposed to ancient or mediaeval) moral philosophy, and she found much of it very unsympathetic, both in philosophical argumentation and in ethical recommendation. The result was her paper, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, which both throws down several gauntlets and points us in the direction of enquiries that were at the time fairly novel. One of these was indeed the enquiry into reasons for action which she herself was involved in, Intention being written at around this time. Another was the enquiry into such notions as virtue and vice, human flourishing, etc. etc., notions which had been central to Aristotle’s moral philosophy. Anscombe’s paper was rightly credited with having helped start up the renewed interest in Aristotelian ethics, an interest which produced what is now often called ‘virtue ethics’. Her moral philosophy is enormously important, and this by the way is something which can be admitted as readily by an atheist philosopher as by a Roman Catholic one.
3:AM: One thing that strikes a reader of Anscombe, and you note it in your book, is not only is the work formidably smart, but her examples can be odd, even macabre. I’m thinking of the poisoning of a house’s water supply, the stabbing murder examples and so on. Was this just that she was odd, or was she deliberately trying to shake up the stuffiness of philosophical discussion?
RT: The examples can be macabre or odd, but they can also be very everyday (someone going shopping or doing yoga, a bird alighting on a branch, and so on). They can also be a bit surreal – for example, the person who collects all the green books in the house in order to spread them on the roof, or the person who goes up to another and says ‘I promise to stand on my head’. The surreal ones remind me to some extent of Wittgenstein, and in both cases the surrealism typically results from putting some twist on an everyday phenomenon in a way that shows up a rather deep conceptual truth. Wittgenstein once remarked that you could write a philosophy book that consisted entirely of jokes. That said, I also think Anscombe liked to produce mild (or not so mild) shocks, something that funny or macabre examples can do.
3:AM: One thing that I think is important is her religious faith, which seems to frame her ethical system. Does this make much of her thinking irrelevant to modern sensibilities without such faith or is that sort of idea “the complacency that any established ideology produces in some of its adherents”, as you say? It seems though that the three areas of interest to Anscombe, the fact/value distinction, consequentialism and a legalistic conception of morality make more sense if you don’t have a realist understanding of morality. Anscombe had God backing up her moral system so the need for more contractual anti-realist models based on a naturalism is less pressing. What do you think about these issues both in Anscombe but in your own thinking?
RT: I don’t think I’d call either contractualism or ethical naturalism ‘anti-realist’. At any rate, these theories take moral judgements (or many of them) to be objectively true or false, don’t they? And the differences between contractualism and naturalism look to me about as large as those between either of them and Anscombe’s position, a position which in many ways is a naturalist one (like Aristotle’s). Of course, her substantive moral beliefs show her Catholicism, especially on such topics as abortion, euthanasia, sex, etc. – but these topics, and hence any serious views concerning them, are far from being irrelevant to us moderns! The question is whether Anscombe’s views here are worth taking seriously, and I think only a very prejudiced person could say that they weren’t. This isn’t to say that I toe the Anscombean line on all these substantive issues – I would disagree with her on various things, such as homosexuality or contraception. But it’s not as if the ethical issues surrounding contraception, say, are just simple; and there’s a danger in our society, as in any society, of thinking that if something is generally accepted then it can’t be in any way problematic. That’s one reason why Anscombe is so useful: she is a particularly articulate critic of many modern nostrums, and so acts in the manner of a gadfly, as Socrates recommended.
3:AM: Your latest book, Nature, Reason and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings, picks up on this discussion to some extent. You make some important arguments in this book. One is that philosophy is not a part of science. You say it’s obvious, “so obvious that you might wonder how scientism in philosophy could ever have become a prevalent view, and the answer will surely have to be largely sociological.” This is fighting talk! Can you say more about this?
RT: I think one very important difference between philosophy and natural science, one that I discuss in my book, is the following: that the practical requirements of handing on and sharing information and theory lead in the sciences to a practice of learning from authorities (people or texts). This means, among other things, taking those authorities’ words for what you learn, until or unless you bump into something that seems to undermine their truth. There is nothing like this in philosophy – you’re not meant to take your teacher’s word for whether the mind is distinct from the body, or whether the future is unreal. And that’s because the aims of philosophy are quite different from those of natural science. Science aims, roughly, at amassing a shared pool of knowledge, while the purpose of philosophy is a person’s individual understanding. (Needless to say, neither aim is in itself ‘better’ than the other.) This is not the only difference between science and philosophy, but I think it’s an important one, and one that hasn’t received much attention. The differences have been obscured by myths coming from both sides: philosophers of the last few decades want to think of what they’re doing as ‘continuous with science’ mainly on account of the kudos enjoyed by science (one of the ‘sociological’ reasons I mention in my book) – while what I just alleged about scientific modes of learning conflicts with a prevalent self-image among scientists, according to which (a) the strength of scientific knowledge resides in its being testable, and hence (b) the justification for a scientist’s believing what she does believe isn’t to do with trusting authority, but to do with empirical testing – as if the scientist had in fact established for herself the truth of all her scientific beliefs. (a) may be true; (b) certainly isn’t.
3:AM: Now some philosophers of a scientistic bent will be surprised to be told that their position is merely due to sociological pressures. Alex Rosenberg, for example, argues that his philosophical naturalism follows from what science tells us about the world. What do you say to these guys? You are pretty pugnacious in the book. This is an important issue, isn’t it?
RT: It is an important issue. For one thing, if philosophers have misconceptions as to what philosophy is, they’re likely to produce poor philosophy. Now I wouldn’t want to say that scientific facts can never be relevant to a philosophical problem, or anything like that; the dispute here rather concerns the distinctive aims and methods of philosophy on the one hand and of science on the other. But there is also the fact that scientism or science-worship is a cultural phenomenon, an element of the Zeitgeist, and in certain ways a dangerous one; so it is depressing to see philosophers succumbing to it.
3:AM: How much do your interests in music and composing help contribute to your philosophical thinking? Do you think there’s a connection at some level between your creativity and your arguments against making philosophy a science? We’re always interested in music at 3:AM, so could you say what you like to listen to, and what your own music’s like!
RT: My philosophical and musical personas are in fact pretty distinct, though I do have a philosophical interest in various questions about music. As to my tastes in music, they’re predominantly of a ‘classical’ bent, though ‘classical music’ isn’t really a genre at all, comprising as it does about five centuries of music from a host of different countries. I guess you’d call my own music ‘modern tonal classical’, or something like that.
3AM: The world’s in a mess at the moment. A lot of people are having a hard time. There’s a general feeling in the air that things are unfair to an unacceptable degree. Do you think that philosophy has got a role in helping us consider this?
RT: I hope so, yes. Of course, there hasn’t been an era of human history when you couldn’t say that the world was a bit of a mess and lots of people had a hard time. And philosophy has always offered a kind of solace and a route to something ‘higher’, for anyone to try. I’m with Plato on that. Whether professional philosophers can do much as a group to alleviate the problems of the world, I don’t know. I doubt if putting philosophers on advisory panels has a huge effect in that direction, if only because there are bad philosophers as well as good ones, and philosophers who shine as Committee Men or Apparatchiks may not be good ones…
3:AM: And finally, if you were to recommend your top five books for the smart readers at 3:AM, what would they be?
RT: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Conrad’s Nostromo, Shirer’s Berlin Diary, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 24th, 2012.