Vitriol in Philosophy (Part n of a continuing series)

The concluding paragraph of P.M.S. Hacker’s review of Timothy Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy, taken from the latest Philosophical Quarterly.

The Philosophy of Philosophy fails to characterize the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy. It fails to explain why many of the greatest analytic philosophers thought philosophy to be a conceptual investigation. It does not explain what a conceptual truth is or was taken to be, but mistakenly assimilates conceptual truths to analytic ones. It holds that philosophy can discover truths about reality by reflection alone, but does not explain how. It holds that some philosophical truths are confirmable by experiments, but does not say which. It misrepresents the methodology of the empirical sciences and the differences between the sciences and philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to say about most branches of philosophy. But it does provide an adequate ‘self-image’ of the way Williamson does philosophy.

I’ll hopefully have a chance to return to some of the substantive points Hacker makes, or tries to make, here. It’s interesting to think about what conceptual truth might be if not analytic truth. (Is the distribution of primes a conceptual truth that’s synthetic? What about geometric facts? What about moral facts? These seem to be interesting questions.) But this post is largely about the rhetoric.

On the one hand, being this over the top in one’s negativity seems counter-productive. On the other, this is a relatively specific bill of charges, certainly relative to most negative reviews. (And each sentence is the conclusion of something that is argued for, with differing degrees of success, in the body of the review.) On the third hand, I don’t think I’ve seen a review this negative by someone at the same university as the reviewee for many a long year.

5 Replies to “Vitriol in Philosophy (Part n of a continuing series)”

  1. It’s not really fair to call them colleagues; the Oxford system permits (without perhaps encouraging) very little contact between folks at different colleges.

    And anyway, surely one might reserve one’s harshest criticisms for one’s colleagues, if you think they are leading your own department and students away from the true path? Who said departmental politics must be confined to department meetings?

  2. a) One precedent (though not a recent one) might be Michael Dummett’s review of Baker and Hacker’s ‘Frege: Logical Excavations’. (also a review of a colleague, of course, and also in the Phil Quarterly)

    b) The tome might be unusual for a review of a colleague, but my memory is that Hacker is a very polemical writer in general. See for example, ‘Language Sense and Nonsense.’, which is possible the rudest book on philosophy of language I’ve ever read.

    c)He’s also a fairly polemical teacher, or was when I was an undergraduate. He may have mellowed with age.

    d) It probably makes a difference that they are both English. A Turkish colleague of mine once suggested that the English regarded rudeness as a form of recreation. This struck me as plausible.

    e) I susopect that lots of Wittgenteinians are also rude on principle. (perhaps because, on principle, they have no arguments), So perhaps the decline of this sort of rudeness is a side effect of the decline of Wittgenstein’s influence.

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