PHILOSOPHERS OF OUR TIMES
ed. Ted Honderich
How is what it is like to be a bat related to the bat?
What are you really aware of in seeing?
Where did mind begin? With spiders?
Is there seeing without thinking?
Is there something you can call mental paint?
What is the intending in your acting?
Are there goods that are not goods for anyone?
What are reasons?
Is a fundamentalism about reasons in morality wrong?
What is natural and does it matter? At all?
Is the problem of free will a solved problem of consciousness but a remaining problem for neurobiology?
Are you a human being?
Is belief in God possibly false but nonetheless reasonable?
Are there simple, available and refuting truths about terrorism, justice, anticipatory self-defence, and more?
What about tolerance, religious tolerance, cultural rights, church bells and calls to prayer?
What are moral agents and what societies are against them?
What has philosophy in general been, and what should it be?
Is there less progress in philosophy than in science, and if so, why?
These questions and their answers, five groups of them, are the stuff of seventeen Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures and one paper that could have been a lecture that was not given. They are by Tom Nagel, Peter Strawson, Tyler Burge, Jerry Fodor, Ned Block, John McDowell, Christine Korsgaard, Tim Scanlon, Simon Blackburn, Mary Warnock, John Searle, Derek Parfit, Anthony Kenny, Noam Chomsky, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jurgen [desk editor: unlaut u] Habermas, Bernard Williams, and David Chalmers.
Mainstream philosophy in my view has been and is a greater concentration than that of science on the logic of ordinary intelligence -- on clarity, consistency and validity, completeness, and generality. These lectures are instances of the reality of this philosophy as it is in the Anglophone universities. They are, I say, about as good an introduction to and exemplification of the subject in these times as you are likely to lay hands on. They are not summaries of this or that great philosopher, not birds-eye's views of centuries or sectors of philosophy, not philosophy as journalism can convey it. They are the stuff of the study of philosophy -- the reading, the seminars, the commitments.
They have the extents of clarity that are to be expected in the work of leaders of the subject. But each is preceded by the editor's introduction that is a decent guide through what is to come. If reading mainstream philosophy is never like reading a novel, it is something you can be prepared for.
While waiting to go into prison for sponsoring an anti-war pamplet in 1916, Bertrand Russell gave his Lectures on Logical Atomism in a lecture room in Gordon Square London's Bloomsbury, a lecture room to be much used thereafter. Stanley Balfour, then Home Secretary in the government of the day, instructed that he should have writing materials in his cell for the book Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. Russell, Balfour, the liberal political theorist and sociologist L. T. Hobhouse, and the socialist political theorist and economist Harold Laski were the principal founders of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, in 1925.
The Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures, which began in 1998, are indeed by leaders of the subject in England and the United States. They were chosen by a democracy comparable to the democracies in which we live, limited but real, maybe a little less limited. Nominations were invited from members of the Council of the Royal Institute and from other outside philosophers as well as some editors in prominent publishers of the subject.
So this selection of lecturers, if still a selection made in the real world of enthusiasms, loyalties to problems, and human nature, was not the known method of quickly remembering pals, or of high principles to do with anticiptions of reciprocity in the future. Nor, although eminence by location in an ancient or other university will have played a role, was the selection a choosing by a minority -- geographical, from a favoured part or parts of a subject, guided by feminist or other high principle, or influenced by email cabals however confident.
The first of the five groups of questions is concerned with the philosophy of mind, the second with moral or value philosophy, the next group with the free-standing subjects of freedom and determinism, personal identity, and religion, the fourth group with political and social philosophy, and the last little group with philosophy in general. That the first group of questions is a little larger is perhaps owed to the prominence of the philosophy of mind in our times. Metaphysics, although certainly represented in the lectures in the philosophy of mind, is not as much to the fore as the philosophy of mind itself or moral philosophy.
Having listened to all the lectures as chairman, and spent time with them again for the writing of the little introductions, I commend them to you with all the confidence allowed by the scepticism natural to the discipline of philosophy. They contain truths, distinctions, acuteness, judgements on other judgements, arresting propositions, ingenuities, maybe some shocks, and a lot else, including sharp disagreement between lecturers in the morals and values section, and the last two philosophers being in different philosophical worlds.
Reading all the lectures is reading main philosophy, which is unlike reading a novel or anything else.The lectures have strengths and shortcomings not had by their counterparts in science, a fact that the very last lecture in a way contemplates. They demonstrate the falsehood, perhaps the hopeful falsehood, of the utterance of a noted scientist that philosophy is dead, a scientist unaware of the truth among others that philosophy has always buried its undertakers.
Most lectures in lecture rooms end with a question period. Certainly the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lectures as given ended with half an hour's questions from the audience, usually and properly enough out of different preoccupations of the questioners. The strongest philosophers, like the strongest philosophy, can be a little confused. They can be wrong -- at least usually in interesting ways. Remember that who wins in philosophy will be decided over time by those final judges, Logic and Fact. So you who read this book should also ask questions. By way of encouragement to the bashful, and indulgence in my portion of the philosophical ego, I will mention one or two or some of my own questions at the ends of my introductions.