*  ESSAY *

Bryan Magee on Modern Philosophy

Extracts from

Confessions of a Philosopher

Reviewed here

Bryan Magee first experienced academic philosophy at Oxford during the 1950s. This was a dark age of philosophy when the early enthusiasm for Logical Positivism (inspired by Wittgenstein in his first phase) had been largely replaced in Oxbridge by various forms of “linguistic analysis” (inspired by Wittgenstein in his second phase) and in the US by logical empiricism.

Magee noted that the founding fathers of logical positivism who launched the movement in the 1920s and 1930s,  were native German speakers, educated in science and maths. Their mission was to purge philosophy of the metaphysical nonsense of Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and their followers, which they saw as the dominant influence in German philosophy and as the moral enemy of science and reason.

“The central concern of the logical positivists was to find a criterion of demarcation between sense and non-sense”.

Their weapon in this crusade was the verification principle, according to which there are two categories of meaningful statements:

1.Statements that can be verified by observation.
2.Statements in maths and logic which are true by definition.

According to the logical positivists, philosophy had to abandon its traditional aspiration to be the queen of the sciences and settle for a secondary role. Philosophers would leave science and the description of the world to scientists, and they would be “underlabourers”, concerned with the clarification (explication) of scientific concepts, and also housekeeping to maintain standards of meaning to keep the metaphysicians at bay.

Magee wrote of logical positivism “Rather like Marxism, it had seductive appeal and therefore enormous vogue because it was clear-cut, easy to grasp, and provided all the answers. Like Marxism too, it constituted a ready-to-hand instrument of intellectual terrorism.

A couple of examples to support Magee’s mention of intellectual terrorism. Manning Clark, the Australian historian, recorded the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.

“The first time I sat down in the 'caf' at Melbourne University I asked politely 'Would you please pass the salt?' My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. 'I don't know what you mean.' I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word 'tautology': that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase 'non sequitur'. I was often asked: 'Is that a verifiable proposition?'”

In a similar vein Priestley wrote in Literature and Western Man:

“The dismissal of metaphysics as mere fancy, ethics as a waste of words, left a vacuum, not to be filled by philosophy reduced to a narrow edge and its ally, science. It may be objected that logical positivism is highly technical and difficult, not for the general public. But any doctrine - and especially one that is new, original, and as irreverent and ruthlessly intolerant as any undergraduate would wish it to be - cannot be brilliantly expounded to some of the brightest young men in twenty or thirty universities without having some effect both inside and outside those universities. A certain atmosphere was created...that seemed to narrow and chill the mind.”

Magee reported that this position was so negative that it soon ran out of steam in its pure form.

“People began to realise that this glittering new scalpel was, in one operation after another, killing the patient. In every case it destroyed too much. There was a period in which several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all”.

This was because hardly anything could be verified. Metaphysics of all kinds, religious discourse and moral principles went by the board. But the principle of verification itself is problematic. How can it be verified? And if not, what can be done to save it?

Worse still, the laws of science, cast in the form of universal statements  of the form “all planets move in elipses” cannot be verified because we can never observe all the planets in the universe to check that they are all moving in the proper path.

This created an insoluble dilemma for the logical positivists which was resolved in Britain by moving on to follow Wittgenstein and Austin into various forms of analysis of language.

Magee pointed out that this was an almost comical example of the parochial nature of British philosophy, especially Oxford philosophy, because there had been an effective demolition of logical positivism, and an alternative solution to their major concerns in the philosophy of science, published (in German) many years before, even before the most influential book in English was written! A J Ayer went to Vienna in the early 1930s and returned to Oxford to write Language, Truth and Logic which became the bible of logical positivism in England.

“In 1934, in Vienna, a book had appeared called Logik der Forschung, by Karl Popper…In it there were many criticisms of logical positivism…and the most devastating one was that logical positivism claimed to be first and foremost a (indeed the) scientific view of the world, and yet its central tenet, the Verification Principle, wiped out the whole of science. This criticism, if clinched – and few people today would deny that Popper’s book pretty well clinched it – spelt total shipwreck for logical positivism”. (57)

In Britain the philosophical vogue shifted in the direction of language analysis in various forms and in the US logical positivism morphed into logical empiricism. [It has been claimed, for example by Alex Rosenberg, that positivism in the US died by the hand to the positivists and logical empiricism emerged as a better and more progressive movement to became the mainstream of the philosophy of science. This claim can only be sustained by keeping Popper’s ideas out of sight, or by translating them into the terms of debate that concerned the positivists and in so doing, distorting and misrepresenting Popper’s ideas so that their depth and problem-solving capacity are rendered invisible.]

“Fully to understand Popper it is essential to realise that he was not following the same line of inquiry as the logical positivists and arriving at different conclusions from them [that is to say, simply substituting falsification in place of verification]. He was on a different path altogether. They were in search of a criterion of meaningfulness, a criterion of demarcation of sense from non-sense. Popper always held that this, the search for a criterion of meaningfulness, was a mistake.”

Popper was concerned with the search for truth, for theories with depth, explanatory power, the capacity to unify different fields of research, and the capacity to stand up to various kinds of criticism, or checks, of which four can be discerned:

First, the check on the problem; what is the problem and does the theory solve it? (2) the check of logic; is it internally consistent? (3) coherence; is it consistent with other well-tested theories? (4) the test of evidence; has it stood up to experimental or observational tests?

Later in life Popper advanced a fifth form of criticism, the test of metaphysics, which of course flies in the face of the program to purge philosophy of metaphysical contamination.

He did not see meaning as a philosophical problem, though of course he went to immense pains to communicate the meaning - the relevance, implications and problem-solving capacity - of his ideas as clearly as possible. He considered that conceptual analysis which was supposed to be the new function of philosophy is not necessary or  helpful beyond the point of getting clear about the problem that we are talking about, which means using “shorthand” definitions of terms for working purposes, without any suggestion that progress can be made by extended analysis or “explication” of concepts.    

Magee went on to explain what Popper learned from Einstein’s challenge to Newtonian physics. For 200 years it was a settled belief that Newton had reached the final truth, so the Terminus Theory of Truth was exemplified by the ongoing success of his theory, despite some persisting anomalies. It was assumed that these would be sorted out by further discoveries or development of the theory, as had happened in the past, like the discovery of Uranus which explained some wobbles in the orbit of Neptune.

Not only did Newton’s theory represent a victory of science, it was also regarded as a victory of the inductive method of science, whereby the truth emerges from the accumulating weight of confirming evidence, without need for metaphysical speculation or guessing (as Newton famously proclaimed “I feign no hypothesis”).

“Popper saw in this situation the paradigm of knowledge as such; and also of the way, and why, it grows. The world exists independently of us, but our knowledge of the world does not and cannot exist independently of us, for it is we who form it…It is intrinsically conjectural, and can always be refuted or corrected by reality in the form of new experiences, new observations, new discoveries – and then replaced by a more accurate or informative theory. For although we never have grounds for regarding the truth of a theory as definitely established, we can have good grounds for discarding one theory in favour of a better one.” (65)

That is why I often use the words “critical preference” and Popper wrote that we cannot justify a theory (in the way that traditional philosophers want justification) but we can often justify a preference for one theory rather than another.

“These arguments constituted a wholesale demolition not just of the logical positivists’ doctrines but of their entire programme and agenda. But for a long time the positivists themselves did not understand this. What they did – as people nearly always do with any approach which is radically at variance with their own – was to see it in terms of their own already existing categories and commitments, and therefore to interpret it in terms of what they themselves are currently doing; and thus to misunderstand it.” (65-66)

Because Popper kept arguing with them, unlike the linguistic philosophers who he simply ignored, they persisted in the view that he was indeed engaged on the same task – the quest for a criterion of meaning – but with “an ingenious twist to the ball”, that is, falsifiability instead of verification.

“For many years their references to him, including the one in A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, embodied this misunderstanding. It also lay behind Neurath’s nicknaming him ‘the Official Opposition’. In taking this attitude towards him they gave themselves full marks for giving him full marks for cleverness on a single point. The knee-jerk reaction to the name ‘Popper’ became ‘falsifiability’.”

This is why I don’t like Popper’s epistemology to be labeled “falsificationism” and I like to draw attention to at least four advances or “turns” by Popper that make his work so different from the positivists and other schools. First, as noted by Magee, the “conjectural turn” which dates from 1935 with the original German version of The Logic of  Scientific Discovery. Second, the “objectivist turn” to break with the obsession with the justification of beliefs and instead to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of  theories that are stated in a public, inter-subjective or “objective” form. That was spelled out in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972). Third, the “social turn” to examine the function of institutions, traditions, conventions and “rules of the game” in science and society. That can be found in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies and is spelled out more fully in a book by Ian Jarvie (Jarvie, 2000). And the “metaphysical turn” to the Aristotelian concept of  “a world of propensities” , a theory that only emerged a fully articulated form in 1982 as the  Epilogue to the third volume of the long-delayed Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery

Magee moved on to describe “the real twist” in “the annals of this misunderstanding”. When Popper tried to explain that he did not intend falsifiability to be a criterion of meaning, just between science and non-science, the positivists insisted that it amounts to the same thing. They assumed that the only forms of meaningful statements about the world were those of science (and maybe common sense), and so a demarcation between science and non-science is inevitably, at the same time, a criterion of demarcation between sense and non-sense.

There are many objections to that position. Magee noted Popper’s arguments that science emerged from non-science as myths and speculations are controlled by observations and critical thinking, that such things as moral principles, myths and metaphysics are not intrinsically meaningless (indeed such things give purpose to the lives that we live) and we cannot avoid holding metaphysical beliefs about the world, even if we refuse to be aware of them and submit them to criticism. 

The result of that criterion of meaning is to consign whole array of important principles, topics, theories and discourses to the rubbish bin of "meaningless nonsense".  In this bin we find ethical, moral and political principles, that is, the principles that determine the way we live our lives and attempt to organise our social and political arrangements. We also find the principles of method or (in more learned language) "methodology" - the spoken and unspoken maxims of procedure and protocol in scholarship and research.  And we also find, at a deeper level, the metaphors, themes and presuppositions which dictate the questions that we ask about our subject matter and what sort of theories and explanations are acceptable as possible answers to those questions (as Popper articulated in his theory of metaphysical research programs).

It would seem that civilised life, including scientific research, would be unlikely to thrive if all the above matters are ruled out of court as "meaningless".  Most people did not adopt the tenets of positivism, and of course the positivists themselves had to find some way around their own doctrines. However, anyone who tried to obtain sustenance from what was supposed to be the latest in rigorous philosophical thinking at that time, could only be confused and frustrated by their efforts to make sense out of the doctrines of the positivists.

“All this fell on deaf ears. The logical positivists continued to regard him as an offshoot of themselves in spite of the fact that in his published work he had torn up and burnt their roots. And because they and their work remained in the forefront of philosophical debate [mostly in the form of logical empiricism in the US], their assumptions about him were widely propagated.” (67)

Magee pointed out that some of the leading Marxists took up that theme for polemic purposes during the 1960s, notably in the debate between Adorno and Popper and the ensuing arguments between their respective champions, Habermas and Albert. Because logical positivism was generally regarded as a spent force by then, it was convenient for Popper to be regarded as a positivist so he could be dismissed without serious attention to his case for the role of the social sciences.

“When anyone refers to Popper as any sort of positivist it is a sure sign that the person in question has little serious acquaintance with his work”. (68)

Frank Kermode invited Magee to contribute to the Fontana Modern Masters Series. He expressed interest in Freud and Schopenhauer but these were taken. As an afterthought he suggested Popper and Kermode agreed. At that time four of Popper’s books were in print: The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), The Poverty of Historicism (1957), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) and Conjectures and Refutations (1963). While he worked on the Popper book Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach appeared in 1973.  As Magee discussed the Popper project with his friends and associates, he found that Popper’s books were “a good deal more known about than known, especially among professional philosophers.”

“Many who claimed to have read The Logic of Scientific Discovery voiced to me what were elementary misunderstandings of its proposals about falsifiability, and did not seem to realise that Popper had anticipated these misunderstandings and corrected them in the book itself…with the consequence they now needed were arguments against Popper’s answers [to criticisms and misunderstandings], or, or course, in the absence of these, new objections. People who said they  had read The Open Society and its Enemies often seemed unaware of the book’s central arguments”. (422)

Magee came to understand why Popper had become notorious for his impatience with criticism because Magee himself found that most of the criticisms were at such a low intellectual level that they were hardly worth serious discussion. Mage formed the opinion that his contemporaries in the English-speaking philosophical world were so out of touch with science (and among the younger ones, the serious history of ideas) that they could not engage with him on equal terms and,  more remarkably, saw little need to do so. Because Popper did not hide his impatience with positivism and his dismissal of linguistic philosophy he was completely out of fashion and so he was little read and even less understood. Due to the positive reception of his ideas among scientists (Einstein, Medawar, Eccles and Monod to mention only the most famous) he could not be completely forgotten, especially among the educated public but he could be ignored all the same in the academic literature..

“A sort of corporate attitude towards him developed on the part of the rest of the profession. He was looked upon as someone who had made an important contribution to philosophy a long time ago [even if they could not say what it was] but whom the history of the subject had now passed by. This enabled them to acknowledge him as a substantial figure without taking any notice of his work”. (423)

Magee described a common reaction if he encountered an Oxbridge philosopher at a social function, and asked a more or less direct question about the content of Popper’s philosophy. The person would put on a somewhat distracted expression, look over his shoulder and then change the subject and as soon as possible drift away to talk to someone else. This reminded me of the time I visited an Australian friend who was taking a higher degree in philosophy at Oxbridge. We discussed many things apart from philosophy, and the one time I asked him seriously if he had read The Open Society I was dumbfounded when he looked distantly over my shoulder and said I in a deep and thoughtful tone of voice “Have you ever wondered if the universe is a gigantic mind?”

They had picked up impressions of his ideas by a kind of cultural osmosis and so without reading his books they knew that he stood for certain things – falsifiability, anti-inductivism, the noisy dismissal of Plato and Marx, without noting his respect and admiration for them, alongside his criticism of selected aspects of their works.

“and everybody knew that his formulations on these positions were mistaken. And of course what everyone knew could be asserted with confidence, because everybody knew it. I was constantly struck by the assurance with which people who had clearly not read the work made assertions about it, based on a generally accurate assumption that none of their colleagues would challenge what they were saying. When an attitude of this sort towards an individual is firmly entrenched it becomes difficult to break it down because the holders of it have a vested interest in sustaining it. Constant repetition makes it so familiar that it gains a kind of acceptance that makes it difficult for them to distinguish it from truth. Only over comparatively long stretches of time do such group evaluations chance, usually when changes of intellectual fashion occur between generations.” (424)

A decade and a half has passed elapsed since Magee was writing this book and it is clearly not time for the generational change yet!

“I expect Popper’s work to live when that of all but a small number of twentieth-century philosophers faded…He addresses himself always to a problem…which he perceives as being important. He analyses it in a way that expands his reader’s view of it, and then considers the possible solutions that have been proposed by other thinkers…The use of this method means that his writing always has an aim in view, is rich in argument and the range of its references, and progresses beyond the most interesting work already done in the field by others…so all his published work contained new thinking about the problems with which it dealt; and these included many of the fundamental problems in philosophy. And in addition to these he believed that a serious philosopher had a social obligation to address himself to the major problems of his own time, problems under which his fellow humans suffered, and to make his contribution as accessible as he could by writing as clearly as possible”.

“In consequence the problems he writes about range from probability theory to modern wars, and embraces democracy, socialism, language, music, sociology, history, the mind-body problem, the origins of life, Darwinian evolution, quantum theory, relativity, methodology of science, theory of knowledge, mathematics, logic and a great many other things besides…About all of them he has fresh, interesting, and sometimes profoundly interesting things to say. If I had to choose a single word to describe Popper’s work it would be ‘rich’. It is rich in subject matter, ideas, argument, suggestion, reference, and scholarly resources. And it is written in clear, vigorous English that is a pleasure to read”. (425)

“But most of it, at the time these words are being written in the late 1990s, remains unknown to most professional philosophers in the English-speaking world, who do not now even pretend to have read it” .

Magee and Others on Analytical Philosophy

Magee devoted a chapter of his Confessions to “The Main Split in Contemporary Philosophy”, between the loosely labeled analytical schools versus “Continental philosophy”.

He recapitulated the story that Moore and Russell broke from the neo-Hegelian idealism in which they are brought up and then developed the analytical approach to the point where it was accepted as the way to do philosophy. So clarification and justification of beliefs and arguments became the common feature of all the schools and fashions in the analytical (mainstream) of philosophy. The rise of logical positivism took the same themes into the philosophy of science which became a new specialty which was thoroughly professionalised by the logical positivists and their descendants, the logical empiricists, with all the downside of specialisation and professionalisation. Russell did not fully endorse those developments, unlike Moore he had wide interests, but Moore’s narrowness was supported by Wittgenstein in his second phase and by Austin.

By World War 2 Russell was yesterday’s man in academic philosophy and the serious books that he wrote from that time - Human Knowledge and An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth scarcely raised a flicker of interest in the profession. During this time philosophy became bogged down until eventually the linguistic turn became unsustainable. No doubt  Gellner’s polemics in Words and Things assisted in the process and Russell took Gellner’s side in the public debate that ensued, as recounted in a charming manner by Ved Mehta in Fly and Flybottle.

“It [analytical philosophy] was judged to be footling even by a number of professionals within the subject. At the same time it brought disapproval from outside, of unprecedented strength. During this period, more than any other, intelligent young people were put off philosophy by its own practitioners…Unfortunately the reaction, when it came, did not go far enough. The desirable thing would have been for the analytic approach itself to be abandoned. If people then felt in need of some sort of model of what to do instead, one that lay ready to hand was the work of Karl Popper.” (533)

However neither the establishment nor the younger philosophers turned in that direction. A generation earlier the positivists did not take his critique seriously and nor did the next wave of philosophers.

“In both periods the unregenerate hung on to the intellectual leadership of Wittgenstein; the earlier generation to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, the later to the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations. In a crude way philosophy’s tragedy can be summed up by saying that the profession in general took its lead when it would have done better to take it from Popper. Even when finally it did  move forward out of the trenches, it took its analytic impedimentia with it.” (534)

Mulligan, Simons and Barry Smith in 2009 posted up a fascinating paper What's Wrong With Contemporary Philosophy which indicates that the concerns expressed by Magee are still valid.

"Analytic Philosophy, although it comes in many varieties, has four striking properties. First, it is cultivated with every appearance of theoretical rigour. Second, its practitioners do not, by and large, believe that philosophy is or can be a science, i.e., they do not believe that it can add to the stock of positive human knowledge. Third, the philosophers who until very recently were the most influential models in the pursuit of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise – Chisholm, Davidson, Armstrong, Putnam, Kripke, Searle… – have no obvious successors. Finally, AP has succeeded in the institutional task of turning out increasing numbers of highly trained, articulate and intelligent young philosophers."

Magee pointed out that many areas of investigation were pursued - intentionality, identity, the philosophy of mind – and all manner of social issues and causes. Philosophers who had been ignored such as Hegel and Nietzsche enjoyed a new lease of life. But still something was missing from the work of the highly trained, articulate and intelligent young philosophers.

“But what all such activities still had in common was an analytical approach. And this would have been enough to make them unsatisfactory, regardless of other defects. Analysis can clarify a problem, and this may facilitate its solution, but clarification cannot itself be the solution – not if the problem has any substance to it.” (535)

What is required is a determined and relentless, critical and imaginative problem-solving approach. And as Popper pointed out in one of his essays in Conjectures and Refutations, most of the important, interesting and enduring philosophical problems originated in fields outside philosophy, and when the outside sources  are not tapped, then philosophical inbreeding results, as observed in the case of the analytical philosophers, with important exceptions who do not fit the mould such as Barry Smith.

“But analytical philosophers of all and every stripe are condemned to the view that philosophical problems as such can be problems of analysis only…not problems in achieving solutions…A solution to a problem needs to involve some sort of explanation, and an explanation that really does explain…which is testable and which impressively survives tests.”

Magee pointed out that one of the central errors of linguistic philosophy, conceded later by Bernard Williams who was of the leading practitioners, was a lack of interest in theories which provide the source of ideas for problem-solving, and the source of problems as well, when testing and other forms of criticism reveal that they are  defective or incomplete.

Williams, in conversation with Magee said “I think that its basic limitation was that it underestimated the importance of theory…inside philosophy [and] in other subjects as well. I don’t think it had a very clear idea about the importance of theory even in the sciences” (537).

Mulligan et al made a similar point.

“Philosophers, for their part, occupy themselves with in-house puzzles, ignorant of the damage their neglect is wreaking in the wider world. This kind of philosophy encourages introspection  and relative isolation because philosophy is not seen as directly relevant to the scientific concerns which prevail in the wider world. As a result, once the main options have been explored, which takes between two and ten years, it becomes hard to base a new career on contributing to the debate, and so interest shifts elsewhere, on to the next trend.”

They list some of the puzzles that have been mooted, flared up as trends, attracted numbers of graduate students, then die down - paradigms, rules, family resemblance, criteria, ‘gavagai’, Gettier, rigid designation, natural kinds, functionalism, eliminativism, truth-minimalism, narrow vs wide content, possible worlds, externalism vs internalism, vagueness, four-dimensionalism, presentism.

“The result is a trail of unresolved problems. The problems are not unsolvable, nor are they unimportant, but the attempts to solve them are insufficiently constrained by matters outside philosophy conceived in a narrow and incestuous way. They are insufficiently constrained, too, by any attempt to build a synoptic system through sustained, collaborative efforts, in which philosophical theses about substance, matter, qualities, science, meaning, value, etc. would hang together in a coherent way. In positive science results are expected. In analytic philosophy everyone waits for the next new puzzle. Like the braintwisters holidaymakers take onto the beach, philosophical puzzles divert from life’s hardships. They doubtless have their place in a flourishing theoretical culture. But AP is at its core a culture driven by puzzles, rather than by large-scale, systematic theoretical goals.”

Back to Magee.

“Unlike Russell and Popper, most analytical philosophers have not regarded themselves as primarily engaged in an attempt to understand the world…Their usual reaction when confronted by an explanatory theory of a philosophical nature has always been, and still is, not to look at it eagerly, sympathetically and with hope, in case it might deepen their understanding, but to examine its plumbing.” (538)

They do not consider the problems that it addresses, which requires background knowledge in the appropriate field, and the new problems that it creates, the linkage between fields, how it might be extended, applied and tested, but whether it is conceptually well formulated and logically watertight, and that kind of investigation is the task of philosophy in their estimation.

“One of the things that most commends analytical philosophy to its practitioners is that it can be done by anyone who is intelligent and interested in doing it – whereas what I am tempted to call real philosophy can be done only by people with ideas. For that very reason, of course, it would not be possible to have a whole profession of real philosophers, because people with ideas are thin on the ground.  ” (539).

IndexFull Index of Papers