The philosopher wants to know the best way of understanding these concepts. Can we devise some general theory of goodness or justice that ties all our particular moral judgments together? Do moral judgments simply reflect culture or upbring-ing? If so, why should we really respect them? Or is there some universal fact about people that Philosophy had failed? Perhaps what seemed interesting or even profound questions were unanswerable, not because they were deep but because they weren’t really meaningful to begin with.

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If so, what might that universal fact be? Here too, if you were to try to answer questions like these systematically, coherently, you would be practicing philosophy.

For the professional philosopher, of course, it is never quite that simple. The history of philosophy—all the previous answers to questions like these—exerts a powerful influence here. When judges write opinions on difficult topics, they try to answer previous arguments they disagree with; so it is with philosophers. Philosophers are always critically reflecting on the arguments put forth by the previous generation, trying to improve them when they are thought to be basically right, offering alter-natives when they are thought to be basically wrong. The result is that philoso– phical theories can change a great deal over time. Sometimes the combination of greatly talented individual philosophers and the general intellectual climate produces truly revolutionary changes.In Anglo-American philosophy the period that runs roughly from the 1940s to the present has seen just such a revolution. The changes over the past 40 years or so make one of the great cultural stories of our time.

Readers of this essay who were in college 40 years ago anywhere in the English -speaking world and had any exposure to the philosophy of that time are almost certain to recall the theory of logical positivism. Whatever such students may have thought they were going to get when they signed up for that philosophy course, A. J. Ayer’s “verification criterion” probably stands out in their memories more than anything else. Ayer was certainly the most accessible of the positivists. His Language, Truth and Logic (first published in 1936 when Ayer was only 26) is an absolute classic of unpretentious prose. Positivism was seductive because it seemed so breathtakingly pure. Philosophy, the positivist declared, had up till now simply failed. Intelligent people were still filling volumes with the same debates on the same old subjects. But resolving these philosophical puzzles seemed as unlikely now as when the debating all began 2,000 years ago.

But why should this be considered natural or inevitable? Perhaps the reason all this talk went on and on was that philosophers had not thought closely about the concepts they were so used to employing. Perhaps what seemed interesting or even profound questions were insoluble not because they were so deep, but for the diametrically opposite reason: because they weren’t really meaningful to begin with.


Sacred hot air

This was exactly what Ayer claimed. He and others argued that many of the most familiar, even seemingly sacred, questions of philosophy in fact turned out to be utter nonsense—just so much hot air, really—when regarded from the right point of view. Ayer argued that statements could be meaningful only in one of two ways. A state-ment might be what is called in philosophy “analytic.” This is a fancy term that means something very simple. An analytic statement is true simply because of the meanings of its words (by virtue of what an analysis of the words will tell you). Definitional claims like “A bachelor is an unmarried man” or “A triangle has three sides” are good examples.

A statement can be meaningful in a different way if it is what is called “synthetic.” Synthetic sentences are those that describe or attempt to describe how things in the world actually are. Consider a sentence like “No man weighs more than 2,000 pounds.” This statement is true not because of the meanings of its words, but because the words happen to match the facts. If any man did come to weigh enough, the statement would be false. What then are the claims of philosophy? They can t be analytic; definitions are for the dictionary Why not see them as informative and synthetic? This was where Ayer delivered his knockout blow. For a statement to qualify as a meaningful synthetic statement, it must meet what Ayer called the verification criterion; that is, we must be able to imagine, at least in theory what experience would decisively cause us to accept or reject the statement. If we cannot do that, if we cannot point to some imagined experience and say “Well, yes, if that would occur, of course I’d give the statement up,” then our statement really cannot claim to be about how things “happen to be”—it is meaningless. So consider a statement like “There are extraterrestrials.” We may never know if it is true. But because we can at least imagine which experiences would confirm or disconfirm it—we would go to every heavenly body and find no one—the statement passes the verification criterion and so is meaningful. But what about statements like “God exists” or “Man has a distinctive purpose” or “Abortion is wrong”? Here just the opposite is the case. Suppose I assert one of these statements and you assert its opposite. What possible experience could we point to that if it were to occur would resolve the issue?

Obviously, with statements like these no such relation to experience exists. Whatever we see, taste or feel, our argument goes on exactly as before. But this means, according to positivist thinking, that assertions like these don’t pass the verification criterion and so can’t be meaningful, can’t in fact be about anything after all. We may simply consign them to the rubbish bin and worry about them no more. The effect of this approach was extraordinary. Metaphysics, religion, aesthetics and ethics all ceased, virtually overnight, to be philosophically respectable. Since subjects like these simply throw around statements we can never verify, it’s no wonder progress is impossible. The disputes philosophers have fooled themselves into having in these fields were not in fact about anything to begin with.


As far as our moral life was concerned, the positivist admitted the following qualification: Moral terms were said to express emotional approval or disapproval That is why, even though strictly speaking they are meaningless in terms of cognitive content, there is a point to uttering them. They have emotive meaning So while “Lying is wrong” looks like a meaningful statement—it looks like we’re saying some property wrongness,” is true of the practice of lying—in fact what this statement means is simply “I disapprove of lying” or “Lying—ugh!” Statements claiming the presence or absence of moral qualities (“This is just “That is wrong”) mask what turns out to be no more than the expression of various subjective tastes and preferences.

Positivism’s legacy

Positivism was soon to come in for some very powerful and imaginative criticism—criticism that has changed the face of philosophy. But looking back, one can see in positivism the beginning of a certain orientation that these criticisms only carried further.

Above all, positivism expressed the idea that the deepest problems of philosophy could be solved if only we thought more closely about the nature of language. Instead of worrying about the “nature of absolute being,” for example, the positivist wanted to ask what function this expression could possibly have. Thus was born the picture of the philosopher as a self-conscious critic of the way language is used; that picture remains very much with us to this day. Second, positivism unabashedly looked to the language of science as a paradigm of what language, at its most clear, could be.

Naturally, positivism aroused a lot of anger among those who were not inclined to see their subjects dismissed as so much hot air. But interestingly enough it was not the groups that positivism scorned—moral philosophers or philosophers of religion, for example—that produced the great criticisms out of revenge. The important criticisms came instead from those wholly sympathetic to the picture of philosophy positivism presented. These critics also took it for granted that philosophical progress depended on getting clear about the nature of language, and thought of science as the best illustration of objective truth.

Such thinkers began to argue that language in general, and the language of science in particular, was in fact quite unlike what the positivists would have us believe. Many original and imaginative criticisms were made throughout the postwar years, but two philosophers in particular stand out as giants: Ludwig Wittgenstein of Cambridge and W. V. Quine of Harvard. Wittgenstein and Quine forced philoso-phers to think of the nature of language, the nature of science, and so the nature of truth, quite differently. In doing so, not only have they changed philosophy; they unquestionably have had enormous influence upon the general intellectual climate of our time.



Recall that Ayer’s argument rested on two seemingly undeniable claims: First, that every meaningful sentence is either analytic (true by virtue of the meanings of the words involved) or synthetic (true by virtue of how the world happens to be). Second, that every meaningful synthetic statement can be matched to some confirm-ing or disconfirming experience.

But Quine argued powerfully that both these claims were false: There is no clear distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and the reason for this also makes it impossible to speak of synthetic statements “matching” any particular part of the world in a determinate way.

The statements we are prepared to assert as true, Quine argued, must be thought of as forming a smoothly interrelated whole. Using an image that became quite popular, he described our science as forming a seamless “web of belief.” Particular observational claims (“There goes a streak of light”) lie on the outside of this web; general explanatory principles (“All matter is composed of subatomic particles”) are entrenched in the center. Now, if things do not go as our science leads us to expect, obviously something in this web has to be revised. But what? Quine argued there was nothing in the web intrinsically immune from revision. Pragmatically, it makes sense to try to revise as far from the center of the web as possible, since that way less of our science will be disturbed. But revolutions in science were just such revisions; terms like ‘‘energy,” ‘‘mass,” even “space” were redefined, were understood in new ways. What looked at one moment like untouchable definit-ions and so “analytically” true (“This is just what the concept ‘space’ means”) turned out to be quite revisable after all.

All that’s needed is for us to think our reasons to revise are good enough. Quine argued that this in principle-revisability is true of everything in the entire web of belief, even the most central statements of them all, the claims of logic. No statement is necessarily true—unless we decide to treat it that way. Nor is the web of belief fixed on the observational end. Our theory bleeds into even our most everyday remarks, and so determines our account of events on the most ordinary level. Quine argued convincingly that the same stimuli could with equal coherence be captured by incompatible conceptions—where you with your theory speak of seeing “rabbit,” I with mine might see “un-detached rabbit parts” or “rabbit

time slices.” Clearly we can’t point to what’s out there to settle this dispute—no neutral account of “what’s out there” exists!

The upshot is that we can no longer think of language as simply mirroring how the world is apart from language. Instead, our description of things— our science— must be thought of as expressing a particular orientation, reflecting interests we bring to the world.

And (recalling the earlier point) when things don’t go as we expect, which bits of our science we alter is also something not determined by the world, but rather by pragmatic considerations concerning which parts of the web it makes most sense to alter. “What is true” must now be thought of as “What is true relative to some theory.” And what is true in our theories must now be thought of as fluid; as significantly shaped by whichever parts of our theories we choose to hold fast.

Wittgenstein was concerned with language in a somewhat different, almost transcendental way. As a young man Wittgenstein had written a masterpiece of early positivism, his Tractatus, in which he defended an account of language as ultimately resting on primitive “atomic” statements. But in his later years (from the 1930s until his death in 1951) Wittgenstein repudiated his earlier project and began articulating an enormously subtle and powerful alternative picture of language.

Wittgenstein’s approach mixed in a truly striking way a behavioristic approach to language with an almost mystical feel for the subtlety of life. To understand what is meant by a concept, he declared, look at its use: Look at the interest persons express in using the concept as they do. Wittgenstein felt that the most fundamental fact about us is that we are creatures of interests and purposes. By uncovering our reasons for using a part of language as we do, we could dissolve the deepest problems of philosophy.

 Anyone who has ever seen children learn language has unknowingly encountered a perfect illustration of Wittgenstein’s view of language. Think of how children learn the meaning of “That was a joke!” for example. To learn the meaning of this expression is for them to learn their way around the “form of life” in which the expression has a point. In learning the statement’s meaning, they also acquire something else: They become able to have the sort of interests that saying “That was a joke!” expresses.

Thus when learning a language we take on the conventions that make up social understandings. These conventions are humanity’s and philosophy’s bedrock; when they have been dissected and displayed, philosophy has reached its endpoint and there is, for the Wittgensteinian, nothing left to say. It cannot make any sense to ask whether our most fundamental conventions are “really rational” or “really right.” In the Wittgensteinian view, what counts as rationality or rightness is inseparable from our simply being a certain way, from our finding it natural to follow a rule one way rather than another. Since the nature of rationality is found in our deepest habits, we cannot ask if our deepest habits are themselves really rational.

Positivism hoped to speak about the nature of language and meaning as something quite apart from the muddiness of life. From the Wittgensteinian viewpoint, philosophy, in having language as its central subject, must have all the mysteries of psychology and culture as its subjects as well. Philosophy remains terribly interested in, almost obsessed with, language. But Wittgenstein explored with great persistence and power the thought that language is always an artifact. We cannot think of it as passively determined by what the world is like apart from us. Rather we must see it as revealing, as expressing, the face of man at every turn.

Positivism depended on the distinction between “hard truth”—truth in the sciences—and “soft truth”—the claims we make elsewhere, as in art, religion, or moral life. When its picture of hard truth broke down, the contrast between hard and soft truth had to break down too. One of the more important consequences was that analytic philosophy was able to take up our evaluative life much more sympathetically. If all truth is relative to the best theory, then perhaps we can say moral truth is only what seems right within the best moral theory.

Moral philosophy has enjoyed a truly extraordinary resurgence since World War II that cannot be explained simply by the changes Quine and Wittgenstein brought about in our conception of language. At east two other factors have also played a role. To begin with, there are the changes this era has seen in our general political climate. It came to seem ridiculous to think that philosophy could have nothing to say about ongoing moral controversies when American political life was forcing all of us to think harder about such things than we ever had before.

Racial equality, fair opportunity, abortion, what rights people might have against corporations that injured them: Such topics were being argued every day in the courts, with all sorts of moral principles being invoked in all sorts of novel ways. It was only natural that the debate would be taken up in academia. But increased interest in moral and political philosophy had a purely philosophical source as well. Not all the great philosophical work of our time occurred in philosophy of language. John Rawls, also of Harvard, advanced in A Theory of Justice (1971) arguments widely acknowledged to be as original and as interesting as any seen in the history of moral and political thought.

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Rawls’ work was not directly concerned with any particular political controversy. Instead, he asked what the basic principles of society should be. And although he did say just what he thought these principles would be, it was his method of picking them out that caught everyone’s attention. Just principles, Rawls said, would be those that people would choose in a hypothetical position of fairness, under what he called “a veil of ignorance.” When under a veil of ignorance, we don’t know anything particular about ourselves. We don’t know our sex, our race, our talents, or our position in soci ety. We know the basic facts of life and we want to do as well for ourselves as we can. But if we don’t know who we will turn out to be when the veil is lifted, we will fashion principles we could accept regardless of who we turn out to be. Since these principles are chosen when no factor of bias has played a role, the principles alone would be fair. No one would accept principles that discrim-inated against women or minorities or prohibited certain religions. When under a veil of ignorance, we would insist for our own protection on an equal distribution of political rights and duties.

Of course the idea is absolutely hypothetical. But that was the whole point. By imagining an ideal contract, Rawls gave us a genuinely authoritative test for our real politics. If he was right, to ask whether a social arrangement is fair is to ask whether it would be accepted under a veil of ignorance. Also, by working out the idea of the veil of ignorance as he did, Rawls gave substance to one of the trickier ideas in the history of our political culture—the idea that persons are morally equal and equally entitled to equal consideration.


Finally, our era has seen a great deal of very exciting work in what is called “philosophy of mind.” Perhaps no other branch of philosophy is so closely iden- tified for the layman with philosophy itself, since philosophy of mind is concerned with the nature of thinking, how the concept of the mind is best understood, and other such questions.

The beginning of the postwar era saw the tremendous influence of Wittgenstein on this subject, and philosophers thought of mental concepts like “understanding” more or less behavioristically. In this view, to say, “Mary understands French” was just to say Mary could behave a certain way. Mary’s inner workings were held to be completely irrelevant. This approach had one terrific advantage: By saying mental life was just a certain kind of behavior, philosophers had freed themselves from having to say exactly what the mysterious thing called the mind was. But that was just the problem. Behaviorism left out the most important part: Mary’s performance or behavior can be called real understanding only if it is generated in the right way. The audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln figure in Disney World doesn’t un- derstand the Gettysburg Address it delivers perfectly. What did the flesh-and-blood Abraham Lincoln possess that his manmade double doesn’t?

Much as moral philosophers were influenced by the political events that occurred outside of philosophy, those in philosophy of mind began to be influenced by the groundbreaking work being done in computers and artificial intelligence. Drawing on these fields, philosophers nowadays often think of the mind in terms of “cognitive functions.” In this view, thinking is just the performance of various mental operations—which in turn can be described formally. What it is to have a mind is to manipulate meaningful symbols (language) in the right way according to the right rules when interacting with the outside world.

 The models of the mind that have been developed along these lines appear to have great explanatory power. One consequence of this approach, however, is that something very unlike a human brain could—in principle—be said to have a mind. Whether this idea makes sense is a very lively controversy. Philosophers today see themselves as being around during a rather exciting period. They still believe that careful attention to language, to the possibility of conceptual confusion, is crucial. But they no longer believe attention to language is enough. They now see that one really can’t attend to any part of language unless one also takes up and tries to be wise about the subject of that language. In pursuing philosophical questions like “What is truth?” or “What is the mind?” or “What is justice?” philosophers have had to become actively interested in science, linguistics, artificial intelligence and contemporary political culture.

Philosophy will always be special in its willingness to work out abstract answers to abstract puzzles. But today philosophers interested in saying something insightful about such questions will find themselves also taking a more active, aggressive interest in those bits of everyday life that lie just behind the questions. And this great shift in orientation is no mere change in intellectual fashion: It is rather the direct result of powerful arguments made within recent philosophy itself.


MM February-March 1990

For further reading:

Recent Philosophers, John Passmore (Open Court, 1985).

Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty

(Princeton University Press, 1979).

Web of Belief, W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian (Random House, 1978).

A Hundred Years of Philosophy, John Passmore (Basic Books, 1967).

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