:: Article

Whisperer of doubt

Simon Blackburn interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Simon Blackburn is a groovy humanist philosopher who sticks it to the Pope and thinks respect can’t be taken for granted. He has written many books so that people are clear that the citadel of conservativism is prey to the whispers of doubt. So he’s a tough-minded whisperer out to topple injustices and remind people that we’re all in the grip of some ideas from somewhere and someone for some reason somehow. So we’d better make sure we’re ok with it all. He doesn’t dumb-down but brings people up to philosophy, which makes him a jive jewell radical.

3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher? In Think you say that philosophy has connotations of impracticality, unworldliness and weirdness and seem to think that this is bad (they seem pretty attractive connotations to me!). You substitute the name ‘philosophy’ with ‘conceptual engineering’ in that book – so what are the new preferable connotations of this term?

Simon Blackburn: Curiously, I became a philosopher by accident. I had read natural sciences before going up to Cambridge, but knew I wanted to shift to the humanities. I told the admissions tutor, a very fierce seeming man to me, that I wanted to read English Literature. He barked that I wouldn’t like it – sloppy subject – so moral sciences was the thing for me. I simply said “what’s that?” and he said they would send me a reading list. Moral sciences was Cambridge’s name for philosophy. And I loved it. As for conceptual engineering, well, as I explain we look at the structures of thought, and sometimes tinker with them, so that seemed an appropriate analogy.

3:AM: You wrote Truth which looked mainly at philosophical theories of deflationism, doesn’t it? It’s a really interesting theory with some big consequences if true but I guess most people wont know about it. So what makes deflationism so interesting?

SB: Deflationism is a perfect example of a philosophical problem getting solved (contrary to many jibes that we ask questions but give no answers). Pontius Pilate asked “what is truth” and the answer is that there is no abstract question of this sort. The truth predicate or operator (“it is true that…”) does not introduce a meaty topic about which we ought to be puzzled. It is better described as a device for generalization. But to explain everything that this means would take too long, so I suggest readers look at my book!

3:AM: Roy Sorensen wrote in 2001 that he was all set for deflationism to find general acceptance but it never happened. So what did happen?

SB: Well, there are always philosophers who cling on to old views. There were technical problems to solve, but more importantly people feared, wrongly, that deflationists couldn’t account for the ‘normativity’ of truth, i.e. that our sayings and beliefs ought to be true, and couldn’t account for the explanatory value of truth, e.g. that our electronic devices work because quantum theory is true, or near enough true. These are important thoughts, and it is important that deflationism can do them justice. And it can.

3:AM: In your later book Truth: A Guide you situate the discussion in terms of two warring halves of each of us: the conservative half thundering against the po-mo, anything goes, multi-culturalism, relativist position – and another side, one of anxiety that such conservativism is just bluster, an attempt to hold on to ones opinions and suppress challenges . You summarise it brilliantly: ‘The citadel of conservativism is prey to the whispers of doubt.’ You think the stakes in this war between our two conflicting sides is enormous. What are the stakes then?

SB: In a nutshell, authority. Relativism is seen as corrosive of proper care, respect for evidence, respect for method, or (e.g. when the Pope thunders about it) respect for tradition or dogma. Anyone who is convinced that they know the truth will find other peoples’ raised eyebrows or dismissive shrugs threatening, or even demeaning. Particular when I was writing “postmodernism” was seen as a kind of licence to believe anything you like. Fortunately, that tide has turned, I believe.

3:AM: William James thought it was the relativist who was tough minded, braver than the tender minded absolutist who is secure in her convictions. Was he right? You put Plato, Descartes, Moore, Iris Murdoch and Thomas Nagel on the side of the absolutists. You put Gorgias, Protagoras, Hobbes, Darwin, Nietzsche, William James, Foucault and Rorty on the side of the relativists. You put Wittgenstein in neither (and both). Can you say something about these traditions, why Wittgenstein falls outside the two traditions and where you place yourself?

SB: I think James was right, that the relativist is tough-minded, just as the sceptic is – but that doesn’t mean that either relativism or scepticism is right, across the board. Sources of authority need testing, and some stand up better than others. I think that just as there is no abstract or general problem of truth, so there is no space for an abstract or general “ism”, such as relativism tries to be. But there are many areas where particular claims to authority need questioning. Wittgenstein was a deflationist about truth, but very interested in the nature of specific kinds of judgment, such as mathematical, epistemic, moral and mental judgments.

3:AM: In Ruling Passions you argue for a naturalist theory of ethics, in a tradition including Aristotle, Hume, Adam Smith against Kantian, Platonist, Leibnizian and Cartesian theories. So what is your theory and why is it better than the alternatives? Does it link or develop the quasi-realist position you develop in your earlier book discussing realism vs anti-realism?

SB: My view, which I landed with the rather inept name of “quasi-realism” is intended as a kind of contemporary version of Hume or Smith. It shares with them the primacy of what they called passion or sentiment. But it seeks to do justice to the appearance of there being a fact about what is right or wrong, good or bad. The only real change between Ruling Passions and my earlier papers on this topic is that in the later book I was much more comfortable with deflationism. So the spotlight turns from moral truth or moral facts to the nature of moral judgment, which means focusing on the sentiments that actually drive such judgment. The important thing is that seeing ethics in terms of sentiments or emotions doesn’t downgrade it, as the rationalists or intuitionsts thought, and still do think. On the contrary, it explains, as they cannot, why ethics is so important!

3:AM: What do you say to someone who agrees that there are no facts of the sort required for moral agency in Kant but who concludes that all morality is just false. And what of the naturalistic facts that show that there is no possibility of the kind of agency required for choice also? Isn’t there a slippery slope with a bad bottom that threatens when morals become not morally good reasons for actions but just good reasons?

SB: I am not sure I fully understand the problem here. If ‘moral agency’ means acting on principle, then the phenomenon is real enough: I act on the principle that I ought to wear a seatbelt whenever I get into a car. And although people can pose as believing that ‘morality is just false’, their sentiments and behaviors will give them away. They will be indignant, and rightly so, if out of the blue you deliberately stamp on their toe, or bang their child’s head against the wall. They think you’re out of line, ie. that you did something wrong. The absence of a moral metaphysics is one of the advantages of the Hume-Smith tradition, but it is not an invitation to suppose that anything goes.

3:AM: A different challenge for philosophical theories about ethics is of the kind mounted by Patricia Churchland, for example, who says that some of the most important relevant facts for ethics are scientific facts about our brains, that these are ignored by philosophical ethical theorists, and this is a serious fault. Do you think she’s right? If you were to write your Ethics: A Very Short Introduction again, would you include more on neuroscience than, say, Plato?

SB: I admire Pat’s book, and I agree that knowing more about ourselves, including our brains, is always desirable. But as Pat knows, brain events need interpretation, and it is human behaviour which gives the interpretation. Biology, and to some extent neuroscience have chequered histories of theorists jumping to conclusions about what we are like or what we must be like, in the face of the psychological facts that we are not as they claim. Plato gives many brilliant sketches, for instance of what is wrong with the man of honour, or the oligarch or tyrant, or even the democrat, and did not need neuroscience to correct him. It is no more surprising than, say, knowing that Roger Federer is a great tennis player without drilling into his skull.

3:AM: Your book Lust is a sort of revisionist account of this ‘sin’. Is what you are doing much of the time an attempt to get people to think again and challenge received wisdoms? Is it a part of your philosophy of philosophy to be provocative? Would it be disappointing, almost a sign of failure, if people just shrugged at philosophy?

SB: I don’t really set out to provoke, but to persuade or convince. But yes, you’re right that philosophy has to find a fine line between repeating what everyone already knows, which is boring, and saying things that are exciting, but outright false. The difficulty of doing this has struck many philosophers. I think it preoccupied Wittgenstein, for example.

3:AM: Practical Tortoise Raising is a great essay about whether logic can make the will move. It starts with the 1895 Lewis Carroll article ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’ which vividly sets up the problem. Can you say something about this and why explaining the way will, fact and reason interact is crucial for many issues you’re interested in?

SB: Lewis Carroll took a very simple, and obviously valid inference, and in the person of the tortoise asked how it worked. The tortoise argues that the rule or principle according to which the inference is valid should be added as a further premise. But when that is done, you just have another argument, which is valid according to a more complex principle, and that in turn needs adding, and so on forever. I adapt this to the case of acting on a reason, making it look as though there is always another premise needed to get from a judgment to an exercise of the will, but then a similar regress threatens. And eventually my tortoise only acts because it has a desire, not because it accepts a further premise, and this is the moral of the story. It is probably my favourite amongst all the papers I have written.

3:AM: In your book on Plato’s Republic you ask the question whether books and ideas can shake the world. Hegelians and Marxists suggest ideas are inert and futile – food, land, guns, and money shake the word. You disagree don’t you? So why should we engage with Plato, and more broadly, why should anyone heed the philosophers and their books?

SB: My claim is that it is peoples’ ideas, for instance about what they are owed, what matters, what it is worth fighting for, that determine who gets the food, land, guns, or money. The criticism and testing of those ideas is philosophy. It doesn’t have to be done by professionals calling themselves philosophers, but that is what it is. Practical people who think of themselves as ‘having no time for’ ideas are inevitably in the grip of all kinds of ideas, and if those are never brought out into the open, they can do untold damage. Just think of the ‘idea’ that greed is good, or that everybody is economically rational, and the damage it has done in the last forty years as deregulated free markets gradually went out of control.

3:AM: An interesting comment you make about Plato is that although he is often contrasted with Aristotle as being otherworldly in his focus, he hasn’t only been the philosopher for poets and mystics but rather one for educators and reformers. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?

SB: I suppose the central metaphor everyone remembers from Plato is the myth of the cave, and the narrative of ascent from the cave. And that metaphor can be used to promote the idea of a spiritual journey, perhaps with a religious or mystical goal, but it can also be used as a metaphor for any kind of enlightenment or education. So there isn’t really a contradiction. Plato himself insists on a massive education for his eventual ‘guardians’, or wise governors.

3:AM: You’re a member of a Humanist Association. You protested a Pope visit to the UK. Are you against all religions or is it just this particular Pope who you find repulsive? And what would you say to fellow atheists, like Brian Leiter, who argue that religions should be tolerated just like other legal sensitivities of conscience?

SB: I think I am an equal opportunities dissident when it comes to Popes. I am not a fan of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, which I think are responsible for a great deal of evil in the world, particularly where women are concerned. I find opposition to birth control incomprehensible, for example. However, respect is a different matter. The problem here is that the notion is very elastic.

I can respect someone’s activity just by letting them get on with it, or I can respect it in a much more meaty sense by admiring it, or wanting to imitate it, or trying to get the government to encourage it. When religionists ask for more respect what they often seem to want is the right to take over other peoples’ lives, and that I oppose. To take a simple example, I think everyone should have the right to carefully controlled physician-assisted suicide, but the churches muscle in and oppose this right tooth-and-claw. This is what I mean by trying to take over.

3:AM: And what would you say to those who see in a Humanist Association a kind of substitute religion and so ever so slightly contradictory and possibly species-biased? Some will say that just like denying father xmas doesn’t commit you to any other beliefs about the world, nor does denying there are gods. So in being part of a Humanist Association are you wanting to assert a positive rather than just a negative? If so, what?

SB: I quite agree that denying the existence of gods commits nobody to any positive beliefs. But what Humanists are concerned with is the takeover I mentioned above. If morality, politics,and education are being unduly influenced by groundless dogmas deriving from half-understood ancient texts, then surely concerned citizens need to find a voice to oppose the results.

3:AM: You’re rare in that you write tough, genuine and popular philosophy books for a smart reading public as well as just fellow philosophers. So what is the purpose of the public intellectual? How do you see yourself in this role? And what would you say to someone who doesn’t think its bad to have public intellectuals discussing stuff in itself, but worries that only issues appealing to the public, or easy to digest without training, will be prioritised. This might distort what a discipline is really doing.

SB: I don’t really think of myself as a public intellectual. The books I have written have been infused with the wish to bring people to philosophy, to stop them from being frightened or dismissive or bewildered by some of the most interesting questions humanity faces. I love doing that, and I hate being described as “popularising” philosophy, with the implication of dumbing down. I want to bring people up to philosophy, not philosophy down to people. But I have always been careful to keep up a disciplinary presence, writing for my peers as well as for a wide audience.

3:AM: Are there writers or musicians or film-makers or artists who have been inspirational or enlightening outside of philosophy to you? Is there a role for the creative imagination in philosophy or should it all be reason?

SB: Oh, golly, yes to imagination. I am very mistrustful of ‘reason’ as a category. There is certainly such a thing as good or bad inference and there is such a thing as good or bad use of evidence and theory. So in that sense, reason is important. But without imagination it wouldn’t get us very far. Imagination is involved in all discovery, all insight, all the things that give us a large and full sense of the world and of human beings.

3:AM: And finally are there five books (other than your own which of course we’ll be dashing out to read straight after this) you’d recommend to the smart readers here at 3:AM?

SB: If your readers have not done so, they have a treat in store if they get hold of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which is perhaps the only genuinely funny philosophical book ever written. That and Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding form a great introduction to philosophy. If you want to see a superb example of a philosopher clarifying and straightening out a confused area, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s recent book Darwinian Populations is marvellous, and for a hilarious and thought-provoking description of the ways in which science can be misused, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender fits the bill. Finally, Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity is a fine example of a deep and imaginative exploration of the similarities and differences between ourselves and the classical world.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 3rd, 2012.