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The Nature and Future of Philosophy

Michael Dummett

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Paper, 160 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15053-8
$21.95 / £14.95

April, 2010
Cloth, 160 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-15052-1
$69.50 / £48.00

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1: Philosophy as an Academic Subject

Practically every university throughout the world deems it as essential to have a philosophy department as to have a history department or a chemistry department. This is certainly a very lucky thing for philosophers. Historians can teach in schools and advise on television programs and films; the minority gifted with the ability to write popular books can subsist on their incomes as authors. Chemists can work for industry; if they are lucky, they may even be paid by their companies to do research. By contrast, only in a few countries is philosophy taught as a subject in the schools; philosophy books will never become best-sellers; no commercial enterprise will pay for original work in this field. Until recently, professional philosophers would have been unemployable had it not been for the universities. Some who specialize in ethics have obtained positions advising on bioethics, that is, on moral problems arising out of or within the practice of medicine; but of course this is an application of only one specialized branch of the subject. In the modern world, scarcely anyone can live without being employed or profitably self-employed. Philosophers not engaged in applied ethics must count themselves extremely fortunate that the state, which funds many of the universities, is willing to pay that they may devote themselves to the pursuit of their subject.

It is by no means obvious that universities, and thus ultimately the state, should support philosophy but for historical precedent. If universities had been an invention of the second half of the twentieth century, would anyone have thought to include philosophy among the subjects that they taught and studied? It seems very doubtful. But the history of Western universities goes back 900 years—that of Islamic universities even further—and philosophy has always been one of the subjects taught and studied in them. It just does not occur to anyone not to include a philosophy department among those composing a university.

It would be easy to conclude that this is an anachronism. When the first Western universities came into being, intellectual pursuits were classiWed differently. Philosophy was not sharply differentiated from what we call "natural science": indeed, Oxford still has a Chair of Experimental Philosophy, which would nowadays be called a Chair of Physics. Aristotle drew no firm line between physics and metaphysics, and despite the advance of natural science from the beginning of the seventeenth century onward, the same general attitude persisted well into the eighteenth century. For the Greeks, and for almost everyone else before the nineteenth century, the quest for truth was a single activity, contrasted with the arts and the practical skills such as that of healing, but not differentiated into several diverse lines of inquiry. Different topics required diVerent techniques and different sources of data, but there was no large-scale classification of intellectual disciplines into the sciences and the humanities. Not only for Aristotle, but still for Galileo—indeed for Einstein—physics required reasoning as well as observation and experiment, and so did not appear markedly different from those speculations based on ratiocination alone.

It was only very gradually that the experimental method came to be seen as marking a radical difference between one mode of theoretical inquiry and another. Indeed, even after the distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities came to be universally recognized, the principle of distinction has not been consistently applied. Mathematics is almost always classified with the natural sciences, under the general head of Science; but it is patently not one of the natural sciences. Its epistemic base is rationalist, not empiricist: there are no mathematical laboratories, no mathematical instruments (if we accept the slide rule), no mathematical observations, no mathematical predictions the falsification of which will overturn a mathematical theory. It is classified with the natural sciences because the natural sciences (like some of the social sciences, such as economics) make extensive use of it and to a great extent formulate their theories in its terms. But, however useful it may be to the sciences, in its intrinsic nature it is something very different from them.

Furthermore, even after the distinction between philosophy and the natural sciences came to be generally admitted, the ground of differentiation between philosophy and science still did not guide the boundary lines drawn around the discipline of philosophy. Psychology, as a scientific discipline, was born in the nineteenth century within the philosophy departments of universities; after all, psychology, pursued by rational methods alone, was already solidly established as a branch of philosophy. Only gradually did experimental psychology disentangle itself from philosophy. And the process has continued: philosophy has budded off yet other subjects that have declared their independence from it. Logic was formerly regarded as a branch of philosophy, but with the new logic of Frege, Peano, Russell, and Hilbert, it deWned itself as mathematical logic and sought a home within mathematics, which was not at Wrst very eager to welcome it. General linguistics, likewise, parted company with philosophy, which had nurtured it, and largely took over the independent subject of philology. In yet more recent times, cognitive science has raided philosophical territory and set itself up as a science in its own right.

No practicing philosopher would explain the value of the subject merely as a matrix out of which new disciplines could develop. But what is it? What is left when the disciplines to which it gave birth have left the parental home? What remains is a discipline that makes no observations, conducts no experiments, and needs no input from experience: an armchair subject, requiring only thought. An empiricist outlook induces skepticism about whether there can be such a subject: surely all knowledge derives from experience. A ready retort would be to ask, "What experience gives you that piece of knowledge?" but the retort would probably not impress the skeptic. What does impress him is the existence and success of another armchair discipline: mathematics. Mathematics likewise needs no input from experience: it is the product of thought alone. Its achievements would be astonishing even if it were of no use, but it is dubious whether those achievements, rather than its uses, guaranteed that it should continue to be an integral ingredient of university studies. Some mathematicians disdain the applications of mathematics: G. H. Hardy rejoiced in the thought that nothing he had ever accomplished in the subject could be of any use to nonmathematicians. This, however, has by no means been the attitude of philosophers of mathematics. Frege, whose own work in mathematics was highly abstract, wrote that "It is applicability alone that raises arithmetic from the rank of a game to that of a science"; he included analysis—the theory of real and complex numbers—under "arithmetic" and did not mean by "a science" one of the "natural sciences," but simply "a sector in the systematic quest for truth." Whether he was right or not to say this, it is the fact that mathematics is essential to science that makes it an indispensable component of university research and teaching.

The example of mathematics benefits philosophy, despite their very different methodologies, by proving that thought, without any specialized input from experience, can advance knowledge in unexpected directions. But mathematics shares with philosophy a difficulty in saying what it is about. Mathematicians do not concern themselves to find any general answer to this question: it is for philosophers to say not only what, in general, philosophy is about, but also what, in general, mathematics is about.

2: What Is a Philosophical Question?

What, then, is philosophy about? For Quine and some other contemporary American philosophers, philosophy is simply the most abstract part of science. It does not, indeed, make any observations or conduct any experiments of its own; but it may, and should, incorporate the discoveries of the sciences to build a naturalized theory of knowledge and of the mind. Properly speaking, therefore, it ought to be classified with the natural sciences. Wittgenstein held the very opposite opinion. For him, philosophy stands in complete contrast with science: its methods wholly diverge from those of science, and its objective differs to an equal extent. Probably most philosophers practicing today would agree with this, and would add that the results of philosophy differ fundamentally in character from those of the sciences. Wittgenstein was more radical. He did not think that philosophy has any results, in the form of statable propositions it has discovered to be true; philosophy merely casts light on what we already know from other sources, enabling us to see it with eyes unclouded by intellectual confusion.

The best way to judge this disagreement, and say what philosophy is about and by what means it proceeds, is to contemplate a sample philosophical problem. For the reasons explained in the preceding chapter, it was not until the nineteenth century that it made sense to ask for an example of a philosophical problem, as opposed to a problem of some other kind; even now there could easily be disputes over whether one or another particular problem was genuinely a philosophical one or not. But there are paradigm cases of problems that everyone would agree are philosophical in character. One is this: Does time really pass? Some may say that it evidently does: the world changes as new events occur; these events formerly lay in the future, and will in due time be over and recede into the past. But some deny that time passes in this sense. There are temporal relations between events—certain events temporally precede others—but this is all there is to time: its being a dimension on which events have diVerent locations.

This is plainly a philosophical disagreement. It is indeed a metaphysical disagreement: it concerns the nature, not of the human mind or human behavior, but of external reality. Faced with such a disagreement, how does a philosopher proceed? He may begin by asking the believers in the passage of time to clarify their view. What, he may ask, do they think that there is? Some may reply that what is yet to be is not, and that what has ceased to be is not: all there is is what exists now. Does this mean, he inquires, that statements about what will happen or about how things formerly were are neither true nor false? For, he urges, a statement can be true only if there is something in virtue of which it is true: so, if all there is is what exists now, no statement about the future or about the past can be true. Some may enthusiastically agree. Reality, they say, is ever-changing. The only true statements are those that represent reality as it is, that is, as it is now; there can be no truths about how it will be or how it was.

Other believers in the passage of time may give a more temperate response. They may urge that the philosopher is forgetting that the verb "to be" has tenses. If it be asked what there is, in the present tense, the answer must be restricted to the present moment; but there are also answers to the questions of what there will be and what there has been. The principle that a statement can be true only if there is something in virtue of which it is true overlooks the tensed nature of the verb "to be": it should be true "only if there is, will be, or has been something in virtue of which it is true." What, then, diVerentiates such a view from that of those who deny the passage of time? the philosopher asks. Those people leave out of their description of reality an essential fact, he is told, namely, that certain of the events ordered by temporal sequence are occurring now.

The skeptic replies that the question "Which event is happening now?" merely asks which event is simultaneous with the asking of the question, which is itself just another event. No, his opponent answers. When a painful experience has ceased and I exclaim, "Thank God that’s over," I am not rejoicing in a mere relation of temporal precedence, he says, for I knew in advance that I should say, "Thank God that’s over," and that my saying it would take place only after the experience had come to an end. All that means, the opponent of temporal passage retorts, is that your feeling of relief followed, rather than preceded, the end of the painful experience: it is still just a matter of temporal sequence.

The believer in the passage of time may now object that his opponent is spatializing time, treating it as just one more dimension in addition to the three of space. That, he says, abolishes time, since it does not allow the reality of changes, whereas change is of the essence of time. His opponent replies that he does recognize change: there is change whenever a true proposition is converted into a false one by replacing some temporal speciWcation occurring in it with a different one. "That’s just what I mean," the defender of the passage of time may exclaim: "you could define ‘spatial change’ by substituting ‘specification of place’ for ‘temporal specification’; but the fact that there is grass at this place and none a kilometer away does not involve that any change has occurred or is occurring." "That is contrary to the way we talk," it may be retorted; we say such things as "The terrain changes to the east of the spot." "Only because we imagine ourselves traveling in that direction," the other replies.

We need not follow the debate over this well-known philosophical dispute any further; taken only so far, it adequately illustrates the character of the philosophical argument. The dispute certainly concerns reality: according to the view anyone takes concerning it, he will conceive of the world in one way or the other. But the matter is not one to be settled by empirical means: scientific theory may bear on it—for example, it is relevant that, according to special relativity, simultaneity is relative to a frame of reference. But science could not resolve the dispute: no observation could establish that one or the other side was right. A philosopher will seek either to show that one of the disputants is right and the other wrong, perhaps after some further clarification of the two views, or else to dissolve the dispute by showing both sides to be victims of some conceptual confusion. Philosophy is indeed concerned with reality, but not to discover new facts about it: it seeks to improve our understanding of what we already know. It does not seek to observe more, but to clarify our vision of what we see. Its aim is, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, to help us to see the world aright.

Whether the philosopher claims to have solved a problem or to have dissolved it as a pseudo-problem, he will proceed by rational argument. Philosophy shares with mathematics the peculiarity that it does not appeal to any new sources of information, but relies solely upon reasoning on the basis of what we already know. It differs from mathematics in that it prefers muddy territory. Mathematicians have sometimes to engage in conceptual analysis, seeking definitions of concepts such as numerical equivalence, continuity, and dimension. But their aims differ from those of philosophers. They care little whether the definitions they arrive at capture the concept as we implicitly understand it in ordinary life: they are concerned only to formulate a precise concept under which it may be reasonably claimed that every case determinately either falls or does not fall. Having done so, their argumentation will proceed within the boundaries of the definitions they have adopted. The philosopher’s reasoning takes place on the basis of our existing implicit understanding; it appeals to that understanding and hence is not carried out, as the mathematician’s is, within a framework of concepts already made precise.

Thus the philosopher’s only resource is the analysis of concepts we already possess, but about which we are confused; he seeks to remove that confusion. Whether he strives to do so by an analysis of expressions of our language or by some other means is a matter of his philosophical methodology; methodological differences may be sharp, but the aim is the same. In the sample philosophical dispute we examined, the philosopher cannot argue on the basis of the primitive apprehension of temporal succession that may be attributed to an infant. The question that was at issue can arise only for an adult to whom our ways of speaking about time in language are known. It is thus sterile to ask whether philosophy is about reality, about the concepts in terms of which we think about reality, or about the linguistic means we use to express those concepts. It concerns our view of reality by seeking to clarify the concepts in terms of which we conceive of it, and hence the linguistic expressions by means of which we formulate our conception.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted © 2010 by Michael Dummett. The Nature and Future of Philosophy was first published in Italian translation by Il Nuovo Melangolo. Copyright © 2001 Il Nuovo Melangolo. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail us or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

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About the Author

Michael Dummett was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University until his retirement in 1992. He has taught at Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Bologna, the University of Ghana, and Harvard University, and is the author of numerous volumes, including Truth and the Past, The Seas of Language, and Origins of Analytical Philosophy.

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