Draft of the preface of the book to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2018/1
Niemand weiß noch, wer künftig in jenem Gehäuse wohnen wird und ob am Ende dieser ungeheuren Entwicklung ganz neue Propheten oder eine mächtige Wiedergeburt alter Gedanken und Ideale stehen werden, oder aber – wenn keins von beiden – mechanisierte Versteinerung, mit einer Art von krampfhaftem sich wichtig nehmen verbrämt. Dann allerdings könnte für die “letzten Menschen” dieser Kulturentwicklung das Wort zur Wahrheit werden: “Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genußmenschen ohne Herz: dies Nichts bildet sich ein, eine nie vorher erreichte Stufe des Menschentums erstiegen zu haben.”
[No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the ‘last man’ of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialist without spirit, sensualist without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity never before achieved.’]
The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.
Making empty is the result of making small.
Science (mainly applied science) rises, while culture (artistic, religious, philosophical) falls. Whereas culture was once a source of values, today science and technology have made cultural values seem superfluous.
The critical theory of society has offered some explanations for this, drawing on Max Weber’s basic idea of the disenchantment of the world (Entzauberung der Welt). According to him, Western society has undergone a long and seemingly irreversible process of rationalization, in which a scientific-technological society, characterized by increasing bureaucratic rationality, gradually becomes alienated from the values, traditions and sentiments of older forms of social thinking and acting, without having developed suitable resources to fill the void left behind.
As a result, in a scientifically oriented society, instrumental reason tends to prevail over valuing reason, furthering science and technology at the expense of any sufficiently adequate substitute for the traditional aesthetic, mystical and humanistic cultural practices, which science could not replace and as such have proved not to be sufficient to fulfill their roles – a society that demands cultural alienation to feed itself. Sociologists have used terms like ‘anomia,’ ‘alienation,’ and ‘nihilism’ to designate the negative individual and social effects of this mismatch between science and humanistic thinking. Mass culture is a poor attempt to fill the gap; another is scientism.
Given the pressure of modern social forms resulting from rapidly spreading disenchantment, we should not wonder that a kind of philosophy prevails that all too often materially and institutionally simulates the methods and aims of particular scientific fields. In fact, it often emulates the sciences in a manner suggesting the way much of continental philosophy has emulated rhetorical-literary forms, that is, taking over the place of the most proper forms of philosophical argumentation with the effect of losing much of its relation to truth. Moreover, a scientistic attempt to ‘disenchant philosophy’ is actually incoherent because science in a wide sense must be ‘consensualizable public knowledge’ (John Ziman), opposed in this way from the inevitably non-consensualizable philosophical activity, turning itsef into a mix of pseudo-science and bad philosophy. Hence, a scientistic attempt to disenchant philosophy is in fact a thinly veiled attempt at ‘re-enchantment,’ a deficient one insofar as the epistemic place of philosophy in its central domains is by intrinsic necessity deeply ingrained in older forms of a conjectural argumentative endeavour aiming comprehensiveness, which cannot be reduced to the domain of a particular science without being severely mutilated.
We can feel this tension in praxis: by taking into account only the discussions of recent years, as science does, one might pretend that the philosophical community is going through the same linear development as science, only to find itself some time later lost in a confusing variety of foreseeable culs-de-sac. But an inevitably segmented ‘minute philosophy’ of the ‘last novelty’ made for ‘immediate consumption’ by and for small self-protective cliques of specialists and related scientists no longer seems, as in the tradition, to be an independent conjectural undertaking making balanced use of whatever new scientific knowledge can serve its purposes. More often, it seems a busy handmaiden of science suffering from loss of identity and self-esteem; a forcefully particularized pseudo-scientific guesswork, an atomized conjectural endeavor that does not look beyond its own narrow interests and scarcely touches the central philosophical problems inherited from the philosophical tradition, or touches them in a way that is irrecognizably deformed by their own particularizing branching perspective that mimics the particularizing branching of sciences. They seem unprepared to see that in its most central domains philosophy should absorb science instead of being absorbed by science.
In pointing to this, I am far from embracing Manichaeism. I am not claiming that for science to exert great influence on philosophy is inevitably specious and unfruitful. There are many useful limited ways of doing philosophy. Often, particularized philosophy furthers the development of particular sciences or develops into a new field that approaches science, as it was the case with the speech acts theory. Moreover, there are felicitous cases, like the rapid proliferation of speculative theories of consciousness over the last five decades, which serves as a striking example of fruitful philosophical work very closely associated with the development of empirical science that has deepened the field of investigation. And these are only a few cases among many.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this same intellectual movement can easily become an ideologically motivated agenda if it tempts the theoretical philosopher to import new knowledge from particular sciences – formal or empirical – in ways that cause him to lose sight of the vast and plural scope of the philosophical landscape. A possible consequence of this is what some have aptly labeled expansionist scientism: an effort to forcibly reduce some wide domain of philosophy to the scope of investigative strategies and views derived from a new, more or less established particular science. In order to achieve this aim, the particular (formal or empirical) scientific field must be expanded in order to answer questions belonging to some more central domain of philosophy, using a reductionist strategy that underestimates philosophy’s encompassing and multifaceted character. An earlier example of expansionist scientism was in my view Pythagoreanism, which unsuccessfully tried to find answers to the problems of life using the newly developed science of numbers and their applications. Today’s modal logic has also generated a fair amount of expansionist scientism. The price one must pay for this may be that persistent, distinctive philosophical difficulties which cannot be accommodated within the new particularizing model must be minimized if not quietly swept under the carpet.
A chief inconsistency of scientism arises from the fact that while sciences are in various ways all particular, philosophy is most properly ‘holistic’: As Wittgenstein once wrote, the difficult of philosophy is that its problems are so interconnected that it is impossible to solve any one philosophical problem without first having solved all the others. Insofar as his claim is true, it means that a persistent difficulty of the central philosophical problems is that we need a proper grasp of the whole to be able to evaluate and answer them properly. Indeed, this is what can make philosophical understanding so unbearably complex and multifarious. And the lack of this kind of comprehensiveness is what can make fragmented contemporary analytic philosophy often appear like a headless turkey running around aimlessly. Nonetheless, taking account of parts as belonging to a whole, trying to see things sub specie totius, is what the great systems of classical philosophy – such as those of Aristotle, Kant and Hegel – strove to achieve, even if paying a price that we are now better able to appreciate as unavoidably high in terms of misleading and aporetic speculation. And there is no good reason to think that true comprehensiveness is no longer a fundamental desideratum of philosophy (Wittgenstein was well aware of this when he called for more ‘Übersichtlichkeit’).
There is also an internal reason for the narrowness and fragmentation of much of our present linguistic-analytical philosophy that can be explained as follows. The new Anglo-American philosophy – from W. V-O. Quine to Donald Davidson, and from Saul Kripke to Hilary Putnam and Timothy Williamson – has challenged a great variety of inherited commonsense starting points and challenged them in often undeniably insightful and imaginative ways, although in my view with ultimately unsustainable results. Because of this, a large part of theoretical philosophy has increasingly lost touch with its intuitive commonsense grounding in the way things prima facie seem to be and for the most part really are.
Take, for instance, the concept of meaning: the word ‘meaning’ was challenged by Quine as too vague a noise to be reasonably investigated. But an approach is inevitably limited if it, moved by contentious arguments, starts from a kind of positivist-reductionist perspective that denies or ignores commonsense certainties, like the undeniable fact that meanings exist and demand appropriate explanation. Indeed, using the strategy of skeptically questioning all kinds of deeply ingrained truisms, scientistically oriented philosophers have sawed off the branches they were sitting on. The reason for this is that the result of the adopted strategy couldn’t be other than replacing true comprehensiveness with a superficializing positivistic fragmentation of inevitably misleadingly-grounded philosophical concerns, which ends by plunging philosophy into what Scott Soames confidently called the ‘age of specialization,’ while Susan Haack with a healthy touch of pessimism would call it ‘a disastrous age of fragmentation.’
Admittedly, this fragmentation can be regarded as dividing to conquer; but it may also be a matter of dividing to subjugate; and what is here to be subjugated is more often the philosophical intellect. Indeed, by focusing too much on the trees, we may lose sight of the philosophical forest and thereby even of where the trees are and how to compare them. Without the well-reasoned assumption of some deep commonsense truisms, no proper descriptive metaphysics, to use P. F. Strawson’s expression, remains possible. And without this, the only path left for originality in philosophy of language, after rigorous training in techniques of argumentation, may turn out to be the use of new formalistic pyrotechnics of unknown value or the production of intellectual artificialities of scarce intelligibility and suspicious deepth. This would have the end-effect of blocking paths of inquiry, disarming adequate philosophical analysis and increasing the risk that the whole enterprise will degenerate into a sort of scholastic, fragmented, vacuous intellectual Glasperlenspiel.
It may be that practitioners of reductive scientistic philosophy are aware of the problem, but they have found plausible excuses for neglecting to deal with it. Some have suggested that any attempt to do philosophy on a comprehensive level would not suffice to meet the present standards of scholarly adequacy demanded by the academic community. But in saying this they forget that philosophy does not need to be pursued as if it were too close on the heels of new advances in the sciences, which are continually producing and handing down new authoritative developments. Philosophy largely remains an autonomous cultural enterprise: it is inherently conjectural and dependent on indispensable metaphorical elements indispensable to its pursuit of comprehensiveness (Aristotle, calling his first philosophy ‘the searched for science’ was well-aware of this). Indeed, most of philosophy remains a relatively free cultural enterprise with a right to controlled speculation, experimentation and even transgression, though most properly done in the pursuit of truth.
Others have concluded that today it is impossible to develop a truly encompassing theoretical philosophy. For them this kind of philosophy cannot succeed because of the difficulties imposed by the overwhelming amount of information required, putting the task far beyond the cognitive capacity of individual human minds. We are – to borrow Colin McGinn’s original metaphor – cognitively closed to finding decisive solutions for the great traditional problems of philosophy: In our efforts to do ambitious comprehensive philosophy, we are like chimps trying to develop the theory of relativity. Just as they lack sufficient mental capacity to solve the problems of relativistic mechanics, we lack sufficient mental capacity to develop comprehensive philosophy and will therefore never succeed! Hence, if we wish to make progress, we should shift our efforts to easier tasks...
This last answer seems specious and borders on defeatism. The very ability to initiate the discussion of broadly-inclusive philosophy suggests that we might also be able to accomplish our task. As Wittgenstein once wrote, if we are able to pose an appropriate question, it is because we are also in principle able to find its answer. In contrast to human thinkers, one indication that chimps could never develop a theory of relativity is that they are unable to even pose questions such as what would happen if they could move at the speed of light as Einstein did. Moreover, even if the total amount of scientific knowledge available to us has increased immensely, it may well be that the amount of really essential information needed to answer any given question is sufficiently limited for us to grasp and apply. As Bertrand Russell once wrote, very often the science needed to do philosophy can be limited to very general findings. Furthermore, not all philosophical approaches need to be taken into account, since they are often superimposed or displaced. The main difficulty may reside in the circumstances, strategies and authenticity of attempts, in limits on the context of discovery, rather than in the sheer impossibility of progress. In any case, it is a fact that in the so-called philosophy of linguistic analysis true comprehensiveness has almost disappeared in the recent years. However, my guess is that the main reason isn’t impossibility in principle, but rather loss of the suitable cultural soil in which a more comprehensive philosophy could flourish.
In this book, I begin by arguing that more fruitful soil can be found if we start with a better reasoned and more affirmative appreciation of commonsense truisms, combined with a more pluralistic approach, always prepared to incorporate the relevant – formal and empirical – results of science. Perhaps it is precisely against the uncomfortable return of a broader pluralistic approach that much of the mainstream of our present philosophy of language secretly struggles. This is often obscured by some sort of dense, nearly scholastic scientistic atmosphere, so thick that seasoned practitioners barely notice it surrounding them. The intellectual climate sometimes recalls the Middle Ages, when philosophical investigation was allowed, providing it left unchallenged established religious dogmas. I even entertain the suspicion that in some quarters the attempt to advance any plausible comprehensive philosophy of language against the institutional power of reductive scientism runs the risk of being ideologically discouraged as a project and silenced as a fact.
Ernst Tugendhat, who (together with Jürgen Habermas) attempted with considerable success to develop comprehensive philosophy in the seventies, seems to have hoisted the white flag by admitting that the heyday of philosophy is past. The problem is in my view aggravated because we live in a time of widespread indifference concerning high culture, as I pointed out at the beginning, heavily influenced by a steady, almost exponential development of science and technology that minimizes the role of valuing reason. Though quite indispensable from the viewpoint of instrumental reason, our scientifically biased age tends to impose a compartmentalized form of alienation on philosophical research that works against more broadly oriented attempts to understand reality.
In the present book, I insist on swimming against the tide. My main task here – a risky one – is to establish the foundations of a more comprehensive philosophy of meaning and reference, while arguing against some main reductionist-scientistic approaches that are blocking the most promising paths of inquiry. Hence, it is an attempt to restore its deserved integrity to the analytic philosophy of language, without offending either common sense or science; an effort to give a balanced, systematic and sufficiently plausible overview of meaning and the mechanisms of reference, using bridges laboriously constructed between certain summits of philosophical thought. In this way, I hope to realize something of the old philosophical ambition of a comprehensive synthesis, insofar as this still sounds like a reasonable undertaking.