More disappointing philosophy books

Two  reviewed on Amazon.  Sosa and  Okasha.

And another, not listed on Amazon US

David E. Cooper, World Philosophies: An Historical Introduction. Blackwell, Oxford, 1996.  530 pp

This is a very ambitious book, large enough to provide potentially useful information about philosophies from India, China and Greece to modern times, including non-Western philosophies. The author noted that such a venture would be very rash without the assistance of critically-minded friends and he acknowledged several people who commented on individual chapters.

“My greatest debt, however, is to Robert L. Arrington and Anthony O’Hear,  both of whom…devoured ‘the whole damn thing’. In return, their comments, detailed and meticulous, have provided me with much food for thought, converted into revisions which have made the final product a good deal better than the original one.”

Anthony O’Hear is a serious Popper scholar and the author of one of the first books devoted to Popper’s work (1980), so any references to Popper in this book should be especially informative and accurate. In view of the “turns” that Popper introduced, the reader approaches the chapter on Twentieth-century Western Philosophies with great expectations.

The chapter begins with “Philosophies of life” (12 pages) treating the vitalism of Bergson, the process philosophy of Whitehead and some reactions to science and technology by Dilthey and Spengler. Then “Phenomenology, Hermeneutics and Existentialism” (14 pages) with Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Gadamer. Next is “Logical Atomist and Logical Positivism”(16 pages) covering Russell, Wittgenstein of The Tractatus, Logical Positivism and then Philosophy, Ethics and Religion treated in the light of positivism. The final two sections are “Naturalisms” (17 pages) and “Postmodernism” (14 pages).

Logical Positivism took the story up to the war and the author noted that after the war it became much harder to identify dominant movements due to the collapse of positivism and the huge increase in the amount of work in progress. He reported that his 1993 Directory of American Philosophers listed some 11,000 teachers, 150 societies and 140 journals. Under “Naturalisms” he looked at Quine and Wittgenstein as the leading representatives of two very different forms of naturalism, both groups quite different from the other, and heterogeneous, but united in opposition to the Cartesian and Platonic heritages of western philosophy. The sub-sections are ‘Scientific Semantics’, ‘Language Games’, Knowledge, Mind and Moral Naturalism. In Postmodernism the sub-sections are Postmodernism and its Heroes, Genealogy and ‘Bio-Power’, Writing and Differance, ‘The Fall of the Self’, and finally Liberation and Alienation.

The concluding paragraphs of the book refer to Wittgenstein, Heidegger and the closeness of his views to the utterances of the ancient sages such as the Buddha and Lao Tzu. Does that mean that Wittgenstein and Heidegger are the emblematic philosophers of the 20th century? Indeed he wrote “It is sometimes remarked that philosophy has not ‘progressed’ over 2,500 years” but we went on  “That is clearly wrong if it means that bad arguments have never been weeded out”. (478).

With that  mention of weeding out bad arguments, we return to Logical Positivism and page 442 to locate Popper’s contribution. The author noted that the verification criterion of meaning did not work very well.

“A major problem was to formulate the principle of verifiability in a way that would not cast some respectable statements of natural science into the same pit as metaphysics. Consider an open generalization, like ‘All ravens are black’. This cannot be conclusively verified by observation, since maybe in the infinite future there will be a green raven. Another Austrian, Karl Popper (1902-94) suggested that its scientific credentials resided in its being conclusively falsifiable by observation of a non-black raven. [Ref to LSD, no page number]. But then the problem shifts to the status of a statement like ‘There exists a green raven’ which cannot be falsified by a finite number of observations. One rather desperate suggestion, Schlick’s, was that since ‘All ravens are black’ is meaningful, yet unverifiable, it cannot be a statement or proposition, but a rule or piece of advice: ‘When you come across a raven, expect it to be black!’.”

So much for Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science.

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One Response to More disappointing philosophy books

  1. Z says:

    Actually, Wittgenstein and Heidegger were the most fashionable philosophers of the 20th century and they have to sell the book…

    Apart from this however, I find it very interesting that both W & H tried to come up with truly genuine philosophies that would render all judeo-christian western knowledge (almost) obsolete, yet what the problems they managed to come up with was very similar to those realism-relativism debates I can find in the dialogues of Plato.
    It’s also very interesting to me how their thoughts are handled in the real world. There are the basic books (Being and Time, Tractatus, PI) and there are the actual problems/concepts discussed in the academic circles (the problems of contextualism, originality, mood, etc.). Yet the themes in the books are sometimes so mystical that the actual interpretations of the problems have very little to do with them. This whole activity reminds me of interpreting the Bible.

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