Avoiding the Fate of Yugoslavia

January-February 1994By Philip E. Devine

Philip E. Devine teaches philosophy and Western civilization at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is the author of The Ethics of Homicide and Relativism, Nihilism, and God.

Renewing Philosophy.  By Hilary Putnam. Harvard University Press. 234 pages. No price given.

After a career as a proponent of scientific materialism (including two Marxist periods), Harvard's Hilary Putnam now defines himself, in his recent Gifford Lectures published here, as a practicing Jew. Moreover, he does not keep his religion in an isolated compartment. At the same time, he is a liberal of an entirely conventional sort (in Realism With a Human Face, he defends Roe v. Wade).

Putnam begins with technical answers to the questions, "How does the content of our minds represent reality?" and "How does our language hook up with the world?" He effectively refutes Bernard Williams's attempt to defend the possibility of an "absolute" -- i.e., value-free -- scientific conception of the world, despite the entanglement of fact and value that Williams himself has shown. Putnam argues that attempts to explain human knowing in naturalistic terms presuppose normative and evaluative principles that naturalists are unable adequately to explain. In short, our purposes and conceptions of what is reasonable permeate our understanding of both the natural and social world.

The picture of knowledge that underlies Putnam's proposed renewal of philosophy goes somewhat as follows. The idea that there is a "ready-made world" out there is untenable. Whenever we attempt to understand the world, and even more so when we attempt to understand one another, our perspective as valuing creatures is never absent. We are always asking what interpretation of our situation, including another's utterances, is most reasonable, and our answer will be shaped by our background understanding of what is good and right. As Putnam puts it in Realism With a Human Face, "Not only is interpretation a highly informal activity, guided by few, if any, settled rules or methods, but it…involves our imagination, our feelings -- in short our full sensibility." Nonetheless, Putnam holds that it is insane to suppose that we, whether as individuals or as a society, create the world, or that we can do without the concept of truth.

Putnam's arguments for his position are not always true to his best insights, and at one point he stoops to calling David Lewis a "throwback to the Middle Ages." Yet his case is convincing, and it leads to a number of serious questions. What judgments of value should we allow to shape our theorizing? How are we to escape the chaos of conflicting intuitions?

At this point Putnam's answers become less satisfactory. He begins with a reading of Wittgenstein's Lectures and Conversations, drawing therefrom the idea that a religious person is one who uses a picture to regulate the whole of his life (including his thought). This seems like a promising line of reasoning, so long as we follow Putnam and carefully avoid the idea that science tells us about the way the world "really is," and that religious doctrines are consequently projections. But it also raises the problem of relativism, since different human beings use different pictures.

Putnam then seeks light from the philosophy of John Dewey. As Dewey himself very likely would have done, he treats the views of Allan Bloom and Alasdair MacIntyre as if they were interchangeable, and summarily rejects them both on the grounds that "the politics which such views can justify are nothing less than appalling." But both Bloom and MacIntyre are addressing the issue, what is the source of the contempt for the evaluative that permeates so much contemporary philosophy? Bloom asks why we find it so hard to make serious judgments of value, MacIntyre why our attempts to discuss them turn so easily into shouting matches: Both of them identify conditions that can dissolve even the best constructed political and economic institutions. It would thus seem that both writers -- or at least MacIntyre -- require a more careful reading than Putnam gives them.

Furthermore, Dewey's stress on social experimentation as a way of settling normative issues faces powerful objections which Putnam does not consider. Since social experiments alter the pattern of expectation prevailing in society, they cannot simply be called off if they fail to work out as planned. And we urgently require, when the subjects of our experiments are human beings, moral constraints toward which we take a nonpragmatic attitude.

Concerning those personal ("existential") decisions that are essential to morality, politics, and religion, and on Putnam's showing to science, he turns for help to William James. Existential choices are "‘warranted,' though not by evidence" -- whatever exactly this means. Putnam is aware of the dangers of "fanaticism, idolatry, superstition, and sorcery" which such formulations create, but is unable to offer anything but a political solution to the problem of distinguishing fanaticism from legitimate zeal.

Thus, Putnam thinks that the formula "live and let live" is sufficient to resolve all the problems that arise when people of different outlooks inhabit the same social world. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, the most important Victorian critic of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (which Putnam follows James in quoting with approval), knew better. Obviously, even the most brilliant and perceptive minds can be strongly influenced by ideology, Massachusetts liberalism in Putnam's case. Even when an ideology is relatively benign, it blinds us to questions we need to consider, and tempts us to dismiss those who pose and press them as politically incorrect.

Putnam and MacIntyre should be read together. They raise issues that must be faced if we are to avoid the fate of Yugoslavia and continue our dialogue about the good life.

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