Two Conceptions of Philosophy: Williamson vs Scruton (Part 2)

In his response to Roger Scruton’s conception of philosophy, published in The Times Literary Supplement, dated 3 November 2017, Professor Williamson adopts a measured and rigorous approach, expected of a logician and philosopher of language. He first finds fault with his colleague’s assumption that the subject of experience ‘is not part of the empirical world’. What of the study of historical agents whose motivations can, indeed, be analysed scientifically by ‘adapting one’s methods to the nature of the problem (at hand) and the available evidence’? Williamson also reminds Scruton of the important role played by linguistics in one’s understanding of ‘speakers’ and the very construction of the subject.

In his turn, Scruton draws a clear distinction between history as the attempt to grasp and understand societies and epochs ‘from within’ as opposed to ‘historical science’ as embodied in a Marxist reading of past events through a unique grid of ideological and economic criteria, such as ‘class war’ or ‘worker’s exploitation’. For this reason, ‘Philosophy has a role to play in protecting the human world from the growing assaults of pseudo-science.’ Human nature can simply not be reduced to any scientific clarification and therefore simplification. 

Williamson reiterates his doubts about Scrutin’s contention that every subject, understood in its Cartesian dimension, holds ‘a distinctive point of view’ constituting his unique self-conscious place in the world. He rightly points out that our linguistic understanding of the ‘I’ is not to be confused with the non-linguistic question of the nature and working of self-consciousness. Williamson refers to David Kaplan’s definition of the ‘I’ with reference to a specific linguistic context (English, Arabic, Chinese etc …) within which a proper name and consequently a unique identity evolves and interplays with other ‘names’ and ‘identities’.

While Scruton recovers from Williamson’s criticism of his narrow-minded interpretation of history, ‘engaging only with anonymous straw men’, his opponent is given the last word in this penned philosophical exchange: philosophy, like any other discipline, ‘sets its own questions’ and has ‘its own ways of answering them, for example, by imaginative thought experiments and by mathematically rigorous formal models.’ It can be helped by other disciplines such as psychology, linguistics or history in the way it brings its own reciprocal contribution to well-established scientific domains. However, there is, for the logician, a clear limit to philosophy’s involvement in any scientific endeavour: ‘when non-philosophers make philosophical mistakes, philosophers can lecture them on it. But how much credibility has a philosopher telling physicists or historians that they are doing physics or history the wrong way. 

Reading this stimulating article, it seems that Scruton dismisses too casually the important contributions of a scientific method towards a better understanding of ‘identity’ while Williamson’s reductionist prejudice against philosophy in general fails to take into account the works of thinkers like Richard Rorty for whom philosophy is not a quest towards so-called ‘transcendental’ or ‘scientific’ truths but, instead, the more pragmatic acquisition of habits of thought enabling us to cope with new realities and new challenges.

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