Saturday, November 06, 2004

David Stove, Anti-Philosopher

"Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet." (From the long-haul trucker anthem, Willin’)

Anti-philosophy is briefly characterized in my preliminary draft,
Philosophy Under Attack.

It is time to settle accounts with David Stove in what may turn out to be a series of posts. I’ll lay my cards on the table. This guy is a philistine with no understanding of philosophy whatsoever. No doubt he is clever, erudite, logically sharp, and scientifically informed. He has read plenty of philosophical texts; but knowledge of texts does not a philosopher make, any more than long beard and shabby cloak. He is a provocative writer, interesting to read. Indeed, he is worth reading in the same way that anyone who goes off the rails in a provocative way is worth reading. But he has no philosophical aptitude, no feel for a philosophical problem, no appreciation of the nature of a philosophical theory. He is a self-admitted positivist, and these incapacities are indeed just what positivism consists in. So I don’t call Stove a philosopher, but an anti-philosopher: he occupies himself with philosophy, but only to undermine it.

My focus will be on The Plato Cult (Basil Blackwell, 1991), and for now mainly the preface thereto. Stove tells us that "the few pages of this preface will be sufficient to make clear what my view is, and even, I believe, to justify it." (p. vii) His view is "best called positivistic." (Ibid.) The "basic proposition of Positivism" is that "there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories." (P. xi, italics in original) Stove claims to "prove" this thesis. (Ibid. Italics in original) From Stove’s perspective, "what a spectacle of nightmare-irrationality is the history of philosophy!" (p. xi)

We are all familiar with A. N. Whitehead’s remark that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." (Process and Reality, p. 39). Whitehead meant this in praise of Plato. For Stove, however, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Berkeley, and a host of other philosophers deemed great, are "dangerous lunatics." (P. 184) They espouse views that cannot be taken seriously by any sane person. Let us consider what Stove has to say about Berkeley:

Berkeley held that there are no physical objects: that there was no right hand behind his ideas of his left hand, no wig behind his ideas of his wig, and so on. Indeed, he said, there is nothing at all behind any of our ideas of physical objects, except the will of God that we should have those ideas when we do. Yet Berkeley was a physical object himself, after all – born of a certain woman, author of certain printed books, and so forth – and he knew it. (P. ix)

Stove’s misunderstanding is so deep that it takes the breath away. Berkeley did not hold that there are no physical objects; what he gave us was a theory of their ontological constitution. That there are physical objects is self-evident, a datum, a starting point; what they are, and how they exist, however, are questions open to dispute. To deny the existence of physical objects would of course be lunacy. But to give an analysis of them in terms of ideas, an analysis that identifies them with clusters of coherent ideas, is not a lunatic project. It is no more a lunatic endeavor than that of analyzing thoughts (and mental states generally) in terms of brain states.

Suppose we explore this comparison a bit. It is prima facie reasonable to hold that our thoughts are identical with complex states of our brains. (I don’t think this is true, but the reasonable and the true are two, not one.) Accordingly, my thinking about Kerry is a state of my brain. Suppose a philosopher propounds the following theory: Every (token) mental state is numerically identical to some (token) brain state. Someone who holds such a token-token identity theory is obviously not denying the existence of mental states; what he is doing is presupposing their existence and giving us a theory of what they are in ultimate reality. What he is saying is that these mental states of which we are introspectively aware are really just brain states; they are not states of an immaterial thinking substance.

Now if the project of reducing the mental to the physical avoids lunacy, then the same goes for the reduction in the opposite direction. If it is not ‘loony’ to say that the perceiving of a coffee cup is a state of my brain, why is it ‘loony’ to say that the coffee cup perceived is a bundle or cluster of ideas (to be precise: accusatives of mental acts)? Either both of these views belong in the lunatic asylum or neither do.

Note also that if one cannot analyze the physical in terms of the mental, or the mental in terms of the physical, on pain of going insane, then one also cannot analyze the universal in terms of the particular, or the particular in terms of the universal. And yet philosophers do this all the time without seeming to lose their grip on reality.

Take the obvious fact that things have properties. These two tomatoes are both (the same shade of) red. That things have properties is a datum; what properties are, however, and how they exist, is not a datum but a problem. It appears that our two tomatoes have something in common, namely, their being red. This suggests that redness is a universal, an entity repeated in each of the tomatoes. Some philosophers resist this suggestion by maintaining that, although both tomatoes are red, each has its own redness. They then analyze the seeming commonality of redness in some other way, say, as deriving from a mental act of abstraction.

Metaphysical reductions (of the mental to the physical, the physical to the mental, the universal to the particular, the particular to the universal, the modal to the nonmodal, etc.) seem to be as meaningful as scientific reductions. The identification of lightning with an atmospheric electrical discharge; of a puddle of water with a collection of H20 molecules; of a light beam with a stream of photons – none of these identifications are intended by their proponents as lunatic denials of the phenomena to be reduced. There are of course interesting questions about when identifications collapse into eliminations; but the point here is that no denial of existence is intended.

Philosophers, like scientists, are not in the business of denying obvious facts; they are out to understand them. The project of understanding aims at the reality behind the appearance. Stove cannot seem to wrap his mind around this simple notion.

I’ll have more to say about Stove later. He is dangerous enough to be worth taking apart piece by piece. One good thing about him, though: he seems to be politically conservative.