Monday, April 5, 2004

Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) on the Role of Philosophy

There are many branches of methodical inquiry into the different departments of the world. There are the mathematical sciences, the several natural sciences, and there are the humane or human studies of anthropology, jurisprudence, philosophy, the linguistic and literary studies, and history, which last embraces in one way or another most of the others. There are also many disciplines which teach not truths but arts and skills, such as agriculture, tactics, music, architecture, painting, games, navigation, inference, and scientific method. All theories apply their own several principles and canons of inquiry and all disciplines apply their own several principles and canons of practice. These principles were called by Professor [Robin George] Collingwood [1889-1943] their 'presuppositions'. In other words, all employ their own standards or criteria by which their particular exercises are judged successful or unsuccessful. Now it is one thing intelligently to apply principles; it is quite another thing to step back to consider them. A scientist who ceases for a moment to try to solve his questions in order to inquire instead why he poses them or whether they are the right questions to pose ceases for the time to be a scientist and becomes a philosopher. This duality of interests may, as history shows, make him both a good philosopher and a better scientist. The best philosophical theories of mathematics have come from mathematicians who have been forced to try to resolve internal puzzles about the principles of their study, a philosophical exercise which has sometimes led to the origination of new mathematical methods and has often led to the origination of illuminating philosophical views. Every genius is the inventor of new methods and he must therefore be some sort of a critic of principles of method. Professor Collingwood [Ryle's predecessor as Waynflete Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University] was an historian who was puzzled about the canons of historical research. He wanted not only to explain certain historical processes and events but also to elucidate what sort of a thing a good historical explanation would be. Nor was this a purely domestic or technological interest. For to see what is an historical explanation, is, among other things, to see how it differs from a chemical, mechanical, biological, anthropological, or psychological theory. The philosopher may, perhaps, begin by wondering about the categories constituting the framework of a single theory or discipline, but he cannot stop there. He must try to co-ordinate the categories of all theories and disciplines. The problem of 'Man's place in Nature' is, roughly, the problem of coordinating the questions which govern laboratory researches with the questions governing the researches prosecuted in libraries. And this co-ordination is done neither in libraries nor in laboratories but in the philosopher's head. Professor Collingwood saw more clearly, I think, than did his most eminent predecessors in the philosophy of history that the appearance of a feud or antithesis between Nature and Spirit, that is to say, between the objectives of the natural sciences and those of the human studies, is an illusion. These branches of inquiry are not giving rival answers to the same questions about the same world; nor are they giving separate answers to the same questions about rival worlds; they are giving their own answers to different questions about the same world. Just as physics is neither the foe nor the handmaid of geometry, so history, jurisprudence and literary studies are neither hostile nor ancillary to the laboratory sciences. Their categories, that is, their questions, methods and canons are different. In my predecessor's word, they work with different presuppositions. (Gilbert Ryle, Philosophical Arguments [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945], 3-4 [this essay is Ryle's Inaugural Lecture as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy, delivered before the University of Oxford on 30 October 1945]) Ambrose Bierce Edible, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, c. 1911) Greenie Watch Dr John J. Ray ("You can call me Ray; you can call me J.; you can call me R. J.; you can call me J. Ray"), my polymathic friend Down Under, has a new blog devoted to the politicization of the environmental movement. See here. (I've also added a permanent link to the left, in, fittingly, the green area.) Sadly, science often takes a back seat to politics when it comes to understanding and protecting the natural environment. John is a no-nonsense defender of science and common sense. Please visit his new blog. He says he will post to it daily. John's main blog, of course, is Dissecting Leftism. Your day is not complete without a liberal dose of the conservative Dr Ray. From the Mailbag Dr. Carrier might wish to provide a citation for his philosopher dream story [see here], as the original author probably deserves credit. It comes from Raymond Smullyan's 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies (St. Martin's Press, 1983). The story is "A Universal Philosophical Refutation." You can find it here. I found the book to be an interesting and funny read. By the way, another nice dodge of the issue by Carrier. Matthew @ Ektopos

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