Philosophy as Conceptual Border Patrol

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Peter Hacker does not abide nonsense. In his January article "Why Philosophy" Hacker puts in his cross-hairs ideas taken seriously by politicians, scientists, and the intelligentsia in general. Let’s get to the specifics in a minute – the general outline is relevant to anyone hoping to grok the never-ending attempt to define philosophy. Perhaps this attempt never ends because there’s no exhaustive definition available, or perhaps the activity is perpetual because of distinct approaches and traditions even within the “Eurocentric” philosophical tradition (see Rian Mitch's post on the Analytic/Continental Divide).

The preoccupation with defining philosophy does not only manifest itself in introductory contexts; it's a scholarly endeavor as well (see here, here, and here). No matter which tradition we hail from, the “meta” nature of philosophy seems to inevitably lead us back to deciding what it is we’re up to when doing the thing we've been doing all along. Hacker’s contribution to the discipline’s introspection is very much a part of the academic niche he fills, namely as an inheritor of the philosophy (or, as some would call it, the anti-philosophy) of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

To get to those aforementioned specifics, Hacker attacks the idea so prevalent in the cognitive sciences today that the mind is nothing but the brain. Hackers assures us that showing how confused the notion is would take more time and space than his article allows, but in the face of claims of mind-brain identity from scientists, Hacker advises us not declare “how interesting!,” but to skeptically ask “does my brain have political opinions,” “does it speak English,” etc. Hacker believes that the brain, even if it’s necessary, is not sufficient for possessing things like political opinions or a spoken language.

If philosophy is, as it's commonly claimed, about providing conceptual clarity, precision, and coherence where it would otherwise be lacking, then a philosopher might celebrate Hacker for rounding up invading forces from science, but he also dismisses as “foolishness” many of the philosophical views settled upon in an attempt to answer the questions philosophers have traditionally grappled with – examples including the unreality of time and the proposition that we cannot know the thoughts of another, which Hacker calls paradoxical, and absurd. But it’s not only out-of-vogue philosophical views Hacker attacks; the postulate of “necessary truths,” illustrated by the formulation “water=H2O in all possible universes” also receives no quarter, the view that helped revitalize the long dormant meta-physical doctrine of Essentialism in contemporary philosophy – this was no small development.

Hacker’s impatience with so much of academic philosophy is consistent with his role as an heir of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein set about to unwind what he thought were conceptual confusions in the history of philosophy, confusions which lead to philosophical “mysteries” (which in turn lead to the many proposed ways of dealing with the supposed mysteries). He proposed in its stead a kind of therapy, in which those engaged in philosophical reflection can see the error of their ways (i.e. that the traditional questions of philosophy are not answerable on their own terms, and only seem legitimate because of deep conceptual confusions).

The therapy offered by Wittgenstein and Hacker is not one of positive affirmation. To pursue Hacker’s metaphor further, this therapy turns into downright law enforcement, as philosophy's role is in acting as a kind of border patrol. Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense, says Hacker, and he tells us that philosophy’s special role is in detecting this nonsense, assuring that with philosophy on the lookout, we can be safe from nonsense advanced not only by physical scientists, but by economists, churchmen, and ideologues in general. Reading from Hacker’s own charges, however, we can see that philosophy is guilty of nonsense as well, which was arguably Wittgenstein’s central and most important thesis.

So Hacker gives a common defense of the role of philosophy, namely that it provides clarity, precision, and coherence where it’s sorely needed. But the irony is that philosophy itself, in an article promoting the discipline, doesn't evade the long arm of the law. Indeed we can imagine many philosophers rounded up by Hacker’s border patrol. And in witnessing this hypothetical event, we have to wonder what it is that makes these philosophers characteristically “philosophical.” It’s likely that Hacker’s defense of philosophy will turn too many philosophers into outlaws who've run afoul of the discipline, rather than the standard bearers we imagine many of them to be. And so the attempt to find a satisfactory definition of philosophy continues, in perpetuity. Wittgenstein would likely have been annoyed at all this fascination with definition. Notice Hacker chose not to title his article “What is Philosophy?”

Jay Jeffers


  1. Nate Johnson says

    Reading Hacker’s article, I am thoroughly unconvinced. My overall impression is that hacker has a (rather dubious) definition of what philosophy is and what it can and cannot due. I feel like he’s setting philosophy (other than the kind he prefers) up as a sort of straw man to take down.
    He says “For many reasons, this reply is unconvincing. For one thing, if it were so, it would need a great deal of explaining to vindicate philosophy. For while physics has produced libraries of well established results (and chemistry and biology yet more libraries), we can look in vain for trustworthy books entitled Established Truths of Metaphysics or A Handbook of Philosophical Facts.” He might be interested in trustworthy books of established truths, but I’m not, and I’m not certain philosophy as a discipline is either. I rather think that most people are satisfied with interesting questions and problematic solutions. Well I suppose ‘satisfied’ is the wrong word; ‘pleasantly unsatisfied’ works better.
    His examples are worse still. About the brain he asks a number of strange questions, which he seems to think make the idea of the brain as the mind sound ridiculous. I don’t know what his actual opinions are about the matter but it appears to me that if a person genuinely thought that the mind was merely the brain and that everything was physical, questions like “Does my brain hold political opinions?” would be answered with a resounding ‘Yes! End of Story!’ Does Hacker intend for us to think these questions nonsense? Certain answers to these questions nonsense? Is he performing an experiment in irony?
    And regarding his Mozart example, either I am missing his point entirely, or he’s made another straw man argument out of Mozart’s (forged) letter. He seems to imply that either a ‘flash’ means that the sound would be so jumbled that it would be impossible to discern each note from the next or therefore nonsense again. Or that fake-Mozart was using a euphemism for a creative breakthrough, that he was exaggerating. The latter of these two options seems more likely than taking the letter at face value, but I don’t see how letting all the air out of a thought experiment does anything but prove that Hacker is smarter than Roger Penrose.
    Later in the article he does seem to mellow and admit more usefulness for philosophy than his opening would suggest, only to turn around a make philosophy the hall monitors for the sciences. He seems to be saying ‘woe be to the scientist who asks a question that cannot be tested experimentally.’ Now, to be fair, I’m not sure if he’s saying that scientists should never do such things, or merely that they should, but when they do, they become philosophers. If it’s the second, I whole-heartedly agree.
    I also tend to agree when Hacker states “It teaches us not to rush to affirm or deny assertions, but to raise questions about them.” I just wonder if he’s agreeing with himself.
    (I found myself become less and less charitable towards Hacker the more I read.)

    • Nate Johnson says

      p.s. The comments on the original article (there are only two as of this writing, by freeyourmindinsc and TOoT) are just as worthwhile to read as the original article, and indeed some of my complaints are more eloquently handled there.

  2. dmf says

    Philosophers have pursued truth, and many have placed truth at the centre of their account of meaning. But might this be a mistake? Could error be at the heart of language, and adventure, rather than truth, be the matter in hand? In the first of three events on the theme, Hilary Lawson argues for a radical reappraisal of the importance of error. This lecture is the first of a three-part series entitled Error, Lies and Adventure:

  3. Profile photo of Tom McDonald says

    This approach to philosophy sounds a lot like the conclusion Kant came to: after the critique of metaphysics and the transcendental paradoxes created by reason, all that is left for philosophy to do is to become Critical, i.e., reason learning to recognize how it is constantly compelled to create sense where it cannot really create sense; thus The Critical Philosophy of Kant.

  4. Profile photo of Tom McDonald says

    This approach to philosophy sounds a lot like the conclusion Kant came to: after the critique of metaphysics and the transcendental paradoxes created by reason, all that is left for philosophy to do is to become Critical, i.e., reason learning to recognize how it is constantly compelled to create sense where it cannot really create sense; thus The Critical Philosophy of Kant.

    But perhaps our only hope for a way out of this ‘anti-philosophy’ of Kant and Wittgenstein is something like what Hegel attempted, to negate-the-negation of anti-philosophy by showing that conceptual thinking itself is negativity and freedom in itself. This doesn’t really get us out of the Kantian or Wittgensteinian end to philosophy-as-metaphysics, but what Hegel does is open up a different idea of what philosophy must become after Western metaphysics: creative-destructive thinking as the ongoing freedom, fluidity, and movement of the concept (or spirit in his technical terminology).

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