Back to big thinking

Ideas still matter, says Hilary Lawson, director of the Institute of Art and Ideas. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

An editorial in one of the nation’s broadsheets is not the natural place to look for comment on the state of philosophy. But there it was. The Guardian, June 4th. Headed “Philosophy: Back to Big Thinking”.

“Stephen Hawking may have insisted that ‘philosophy is dead’ but the numbers queuing up for the HowTheLightGetsIn festival currently on at Hay-on-wye, suggest this isn’t a statement based on observable evidence”, the Guardian piece began. It continued in combative mode. “Throughout the 20th century Anglo Saxon analytic philosophers focused attention down on an increasingly narrow set of conceptual problems that often had all the imaginative range of a car manual.” Given the evidence of the week’s discussions at HowTheLightGetsIn the editorial concluded “the new mood in British philosophy is that the time has come for a more expansive role. Indeed, even the word ‘metaphysics’ is making something of a comeback.”

We were pleased of course. It was good to have an editorial about us and what we were up to. And good to be making an impact. When was the last editorial in a national newspaper about philosophy? It was only four years since the founding of IAI, the Institute of Art and Ideas, and three since we had put on our first philosophy festival: HowTheLightGetsIn. What a strange trip it had been.

When we began people asked how we were going to get anyone to come to a philosophy festival. In the popular mind philosophy was more typically associated with the Monty Python football match than anything one might take seriously. One of the aims of IAI was to change this perception and make philosophy relevant to people’s lives and more broadly to change our cultural space. Although when we started we were not rash enough to think it possible. Philosophy in France had achieved such a status – why could it not do so in Britain? More immediately, how were we to overcome the perception of philosophy as irrelevant technical nit-picking, a subject of comedic derision, and get people to come to an event with real philosophical conversation and debate? My answer was that all of us are concerned with philosophy whether we like it or not, though some only find out on their deathbed. So the thinking went, all we had to do was cast the net broadly and engage with what it is to be alive. It has to be said I wasn’t entirely convinced it was going to work.

Over the five days of our first HowTheLightGetsIn and a Herculean effort by the IAI festival team we put on thirty-five events and rather remarkably had three thousand people visit. More telling was that we had some great debates and passionate disputes. The most successful were those that made no concessions to popularisation but simply insisted on clarity of position and viewpoint.

Three years later we had added a nought to our numbers. Four hundred events and 30,000 visitors to the festival, making HowTheLightGetsIn by a substantial margin the world’s largest philosophy event.

It seems to me that it is not implausible to suggest that one can already detect a shifting of broader cultural attitudes. Philosophy is perhaps not quite as laughable. Other festivals incorporate philosophy events. The BBC seems more open to philosophical topics and series. Of course we’ve certainly not been alone in encouraging this shift. For a long time tpm has played an important role, along with others such as The School of Life, and the podcast Philosophy Bites. But shift it is, as the Guardian identified.

Why had philosophy become marginalised and what had made it such a figure of fun? It is tempting to suppose that philosophy is somehow un-British. That as a nation we have a natural inclination to the practical and down to earth, and a suspicion of airy fairy theorising and wild conjecture. No doubt a nation that was home to Newton and the world’s first industrial revolution has in its soul an attachment to science and practical endeavour. It seems implausible though to propose that the ridicule of philosophy is written into our cultural genes.

So how did it come about? The Guardian editorial lays the blame at the door of analytic philosophy. At the outset analytic philosophy was certainly no joke. It was a radical and powerful departure. It provided an attack on the Hegelianism of the preceding decades. It was a breath of fresh air in an intellectual milieu that was stymied in its own impenetrable jargon, talk of “being” and “the absolute”. Russell turned the insights of Frege and G E Moore into a new vision that would take philosophy out of the dark ages and into a science, making piecemeal but assured advance through the application of logical analysis. It was exciting, challenging and of the moment.

Russell was an undoubtedly brilliant mathematician, with a determination for clarity and directness in his philosophical writing. He was a controversial figure, but influential and taken seriously outside of the academy. Wittgenstein added an alternative and in some respects contrary perspective but cemented what we now see as the linguistic turn that placed language at the centre of philosophical concern.

But this was all nearly a hundred years ago. In the intervening time what came to be known as analytic philosophy developed its own arcane character and its own impenetrable terminology. In the process it has gradually walled itself in to its own ivory tower. At the outset the philosophy of logical analysis set out to provide the framework for others to do their thinking. It was to be the under-labourer clearing the ground. No grand theories here, just solid work aimed at making life more effective for other disciplines.

The very project of course in some sense demeaned philosophy – although it may have appealed to a British sense of understatement. Gone were the goals of a grand metaphysical vision. Instead, a limited role lay ahead. This would have been well if it had succeeded. If the clarifications it offered had indeed proved valuable to other disciplines and if other disciplines had taken its insights as a basis for their own investigations.

The reality has been rather more prosaic. A century of analytic philosophy is hard pushed to find a single clarification that has been of any real value to another discipline. Not least perhaps because such advances relied on the emergence of agreement amongst philosophical enquirers. How could other disciplines make use of the new insights if philosophers themselves were still in dispute? Philosophers in the public mind actually outpace economists or politicians in this respect as the philosophical joke currently doing the rounds neatly identifies: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on how you define “change”.

The application of logic to language never lived up to Russell’s dream. Having demonstrated that logic could describe mathematics, or so he believed, he understandably wished to extend this to language, thereby providing a perfect medium, free of error, for all to use. It was a great idea. It has motivated generations of philosophers and philosophy departments. The problem though is that the dream is impossible – as Wittgenstein thought he had demonstrated in the Tractatus, almost at the outset of the project.

Philosophy has not turned into a science. The twentieth century desire to do so can now be seen as a wide-eyed scientism, the response of a culture that was so enamoured with the success of science that it sought to replicate it in every field. A century on the idea seems far-fetched. Under-labourers are all very well but not so effective if each is challenging the others work. Logic was meant to cut through dispute and provide definitive conclusions. Unsurprisingly it failed to do so. Is there anyone who seriously believes that philosophy is closer to definitive conclusions today than it was a century ago?

There is though a further twist to this tale. Alongside the goal of turning philosophy into a science was the notion that metaphysics could be eradicated. Philosophically speaking I grew up at Oxford, the heartland of analytic philosophy and early on remember reading A J Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic and being excited by its attack on metaphysics, and the potential for a thorough going rationalism to sweep away the prejudices of the past.

Metaphysics however is not so easily eradicated. At its most elementary the denial of metaphysics is itself metaphysical. Ayer encountered a version of this paradox in the self-referential breakdown of his primary thesis. Ayer sought to eradicate metaphysics by arguing that, aside from tautological claims, only empirically verifiable statements had meaning. The paradox was acute because this claim, central to his entire philosophy, is itself not verifiable and therefore meaningless.

A more subtle version of this paradox applies both to Wittgenstein and Derrida. In very different contexts, and for different reasons, both philosophers conclude that an overall account of language and meaning is not possible and seek to avoid putting one forward. As if it might be possible to evade altogether the big question about the nature of language and its relation to the world. The paradox is that in order to understand their philosophies we have to impute to them an overall account, even though such an overall account is explicitly denied.

We might for example understand Wittgenstein’s Investigations as proposing that we are at play in a language game. Or make sense of Derrida’s philosophy as an attack on the possibility of decidable meaning using the methodology of deconstruction. Without an overall account of some sort the reader cannot make sense of the texts. The reader may of course engage in their own self-destruction of the account they have initially used to understand the texts, but if the destruction was fully carried through the text would become meaningless. We provide meaning to these texts at each and every reading by providing an overall metaphysics by which to understand them, and by doing so we therefore misunderstand them.

Metaphysics cannot be escaped. Big thinking is unavoidable. Even at those points when metaphysics is denied. The claim “metaphysics is over” carries within it an overall account of the world that is itself metaphysical, namely the supposition that the world can be described fully by a theory, and there be nothing left unsaid or that remains unsayable.

That’s why on a personal level I have felt that there is no philosophical choice but to address our inability to provide an overall account of language, and the subsequent paradox of relativism and postmodernism head on. Truth cannot be denied without self-referential chaos, nor metaphysics. I agree with Putnam that attempts to solve problems of self-reference with Russell’s theory of types or Tarski’s hierarchy of languages are little more than sophistry. The essential self-referential puzzle remains and has to be addressed.

My own attempt at a response to the problem has been to propose a non-realist metaphysics. This offers an account of the world in which the world is not seen as a thing that we might describe correctly or incorrectly. Instead I have proposed that we regard the world as open, and it is we who close that openness. I have set out to describe in some detail the process of closure by which this is achieved.

In proposing this way of going about things I am not claiming to have uncovered the truth – how could I do such a thing? Instead I offer a story about where we are which I hope enables us to make sense of our predicament and which helps us intervene effectively in the world. There will be other accounts and other ways to understand where we are, but for the moment it seems to me that the story of openness and closure is a powerful one capable of empirical application and improvement.

Which brings me back to the Institute of Art and Ideas and the HowTheLightGetsIn festival. IAI is not a vehicle for continental philosophy, or analytic philosophy, or for that matter my own particular brand of non-realist philosophy. What it sets out to do is to create a space where the very framework of our thought can be discussed and challenged. Where there are no off limit views, no correct positions, no authority that cannot be undermined. IAI events seek to stand at the edge of thought in each discipline and ask those troubling deep questions about our current theories, beliefs and direction that traditionally went by the description “philosophy”. As a consequence big thinking and metaphysics is at our core. We ask the questions that may not be capable of a final answer but which require an answer nevertheless because that answer, however temporary and limited, determines how we think about ourselves and our world.

At the outset people said to us that we would have to make the complex ideas that we were to debate palatable to a “lay” audience. That in effect we would have to dumb down and popularise the subject of philosophy. To our amazement and it has to be said also to our delight the reverse has proved the case. The most theoretical and most challenging debates have proved to be our most widely watched and appreciated. We have increasingly encouraged our speakers and participants to abandon concern that they should modify their mode of speaking for the public. Instead what we encourage is genuine conversation with other leading thinkers in the field. We have, it has to be said no time for obfuscation and pretension. Sadly too many academic discussions hide the emptiness of their thinking behind the appearance of depth provided by obtuse terminology.

Early in my career I was a speaker at a philosophical conference at the ICA and standing at the back with Richard Rorty listening to one of the lecturers. I found the talk unintelligible. As seemingly erudite questions were asked from the floor I turned to Rorty saying, “I didn’t understand any of that.” He responded, “I didn’t understand any of it either.” And then with his deadpan dry East coast humour added in hushed tones, “you know Hilary in the thirty years I’ve been attending philosophy conferences I’ve hardly ever understood any of the papers.”

It is understandable of course that in pursuit of the approbation of colleagues we are tempted to sound intelligent when we have nothing to say. But there should be no truck with this playground game if we are to make progress with the big intellectual issues.

At IAI events like the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, and online at IAI tv, we make no concessions to the audience. Unlike TED we insist on debate and challenge. We do not ask our speakers to moderate their language to encourage engagement. The aim of our speakers should simply be to convey their views cogently to their interlocutors. As Russell and Feynman demonstrated, you don’t have to be obtuse to be intelligent. Rather the reverse. As a result the speakers and audiences at our events leave enriched by the experience, excited by the conversations they have had and the challenges they have faced, and exhilarated by the notion that ideas are alive and matter in a world that so often appears to have abandoned them.

For all of these reasons we were encouraged by that Guardian piece. Big is back. And may it stay that way.

Hilary Lawson is director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, a non-realist philosopher, and author of Closure (Routledge, 2001).

  1. One of the better posts on TPM.

    Hilary, thank you for that. A lot of what you say resonates strongly with my own humble cogitations. I will instantly purchase your tome, and see if it advances the cause.

  2. In my view, the situation is far worse than Hilary Lawson indicates. Here is my own recently published summary of what I think is wrong with so much of academic analytic philosophy: see N. Maxwell, “Reply to to Comments on Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom” (Philosophia, Vol. 38, Issue 4, 2010, pp. 667-690)

    Analytic philosophy, in my view, has never recovered from the disastrous idea that the proper basic task of philosophy is to analyse concepts. This is a recipe for intellectual sterility at best, intellectual dishonesty at worst. Built into the meaning of the kind of words philosophers are interested in – mind, knowledge, consciousness, justice, freedom, explanation, reason, and so on – there are various kinds of often highly problematic assumptions, factual, theoretical, metaphysical, evaluative. Instead of imaginatively articulating and critically assessing such assumptions directly, philosophical analysis seeks to arrive at definitive meanings for these concepts as if this can be done in a way which is free of problematic factual and evaluative doctrines. This is a recipe for sterility and dishonesty for, in arriving at such definitive meanings, problematic factual and evaluative doctrines are implicitly decided, but without explicit discussion of these doctrines, and without consideration and critical assessment of alternatives. The whole process is, in other words, profoundly irrational. The classic example of all this is Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind, which claims merely to analyse the meaning of mental concepts but which thereby, implicitly, espouses behaviourism even though this is explicitly denied.
    It may be objected that analytic philosophy has long moved on from this Rylean conception of its task, and no longer confines itself to conceptual analysis. Maybe so, but my point is that contemporary philosophy has not repudiated fully its analytic past, and is still crippled by it. As a result, it still engages in “puzzle solving”, as Vicente attests, and fails lamentably to take up its proper task.
    The proper basic task of philosophy is to articulate our most fundamental, general and urgent problems, make clear that there are answers to these problems implicit in much of what we do and think – implicit in science, politics, art, the law, education and so on – these answers often being inadequate and having adverse consequences for life and thought in various ways as a result. Philosophy should also try to improve our attempted solutions to our fundamental problems, by imaginatively proposing and critically assessing possible solutions, all the time making clear, where relevant, that different possible solutions have different implications for diverse aspects of life. Analytic philosophy does almost the exact opposite of this. Instead of articulating our fundamental problems and proposing and critically assessing possible solutions, it obscures the urgent need for this activity behind a smokescreen of conceptual analysis or “puzzle solving”. Analytic philosophy – contemporary philosophy “in the analytic tradition” – is anti-philosophy. It serves to conceal the urgent need for sustained imaginative and critical exploration of our fundamental problems, and our world suffers as result. We live, as a result, in a profoundly unphilosophical age (despite – or even because of – the busy activity of academic philosophers). Bad ideas have bad affects on our lives, on our world, and these ideas are not even acknowledged, let alone critically discussed, let alone subjected to the attempt to improve them.
    If an example is required, I would cite my own work on academia. Our world suffers from a damagingly irrational philosophy of inquiry – knowledge-inquiry – which we have inherited from the past and which still dominates academia today. As a result of being built into the institutional structure of academic inquiry, and because of its gross irrationality, knowledge-inquiry is in part responsible for the development of our current grave global crises, and responsible for our incapacity to cope with them, humanely, intelligently and effectively. In order to learn how to solve these global crises, and thus make progress towards as good a world as feasible, we need institutions of learning rationally devoted to that task. We need what I call wisdom-inquiry. Our long-standing failure to put wisdom-inquiry into practice has had untold damaging consequences for our world.
    Here, then, is an example of a bad philosophical idea (knowledge-inquiry) which, as a result of being taken for granted in an important area of human life (our institutions of learning and research), and as a result of its bad character (its irrationality), has multifarious bad consequences for our lives (our current incapacity to learn how to tackle our current grave global problems effectively, intelligently and humanely) – global warming, population growth, the lethal character of modern war, and ultimately the avoidable suffering and death of millions of people being the outcome.
    This is a philosophical argument. What emerges is a proposed solution to a profoundly important philosophical problem, namely: What kind of inquiry can best help us make progress towards a genuinely civilized, good, wise, enlightened world? It has been in the literature for over thirty years. And yet academic philosophers, busy with their puzzle solving, have – aside from a few notable exceptions – ignored it entirely. Few philosophers have even heard of the argument, or of wisdom-inquiry. And without the support – or rather, without even the interest or awareness – of my fellow philosophers, it has proved very difficult indeed to get others to take note: scientists, university administrators, politicians, environmental campaigners, the media, the general public (although there are signs that this may be about to change,).

  3. Nicholas: I hear you loud and clear. Nothing to say but YES.

    I am partway through Hilary’s book, and whilst I can see exactly where he is going, and am applauding it, the actual means of getting there seems unbelievably tortuous.

    Hilary: If you are reading this, I have the same thing to say to you as a philosopher friend sad to me ‘the concepts you need are in the realms of philosophy: study it. Its not hard’ Or in your case ‘the abstract concepts you need to describe the mechanism of what you call ‘closure’, are in the fields of mathematics and engineering’ In short I could probably write the whole of a chapter of yours in terms of 2-3 equations. And avoid the issues of wondering how a ‘biological system’ could create the ‘concept of a biological system’ which is exactly he self referential statement you warned us about!


    Mathematics is the language of pure relationship: It makes no statement about the nature of the entities it relates: merely about how changes in them are reflected in each other. Three is always defined greater than two, whether its apples oranges, black swans or independent variables in an arbitrary dimension..

    AS an engineer, the concept of information theory is also hugely useful as a way of expressing the ‘materiality’ and ‘texture’ of closure. Vlakto Vidral and Lawrence Krauss are well along that path.

    Computer technology also gives us some handy concepts: Making material out of texture – the whole ‘closure’ process – is absolutely analogous to ‘algorithmic compression’.,, that is routinely applied to audio and video systems to reduce bandwidth and storage needs by eliminating what is adjudged to be ‘irrelevant’ information and tagging areas of information with ‘shortform descriptions’ ..

    I wish there was some cross disciplinary think tank to work on this. It seems many people have a piece of the description, but all are handicapped by lack of knowledge of the other persons area of expertise.

    And if there is one thing we agree on, this isn’t a rarefied academic exercise, its got deep implications in the way we adfress and solve – or fail to solve – problems.

  4. Nicholas: after 3 months one can say that your thesis is proven. Only two of us have even seen fit to comment.

    That speaks volumes about the state of philosophy today.

    I came to philosophy looking for basic answers to a basic question: Is there a way to assign some notion of quality to the concepts we use internally to map the world we find ourselves in? and is there ‘one true map’?

    Only to find that the majority of philosophers are not even aware that they are dealing, not with reality itself, but with a map of it.

    “We are all Realists, now” it seems.

    I read one of Penrose’s mighty tomes. He veers towards the solution, but at the last moment he cannot make the final leap, to consider the proposition that the physical world he addresses, is not primary, but a product of both the mind and ‘whatever is the case’ – and yet this simple shift solves the conscioussness problem immediately.

    In short the proposition that ‘material reality as it is experienced by us is an emergent property of mind’ rather than the reverse, is a glaringly obvious solution to the problem of the transition of quantum events from ‘phase space’ to ‘classical physics’.

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