Here comes another of my occasional conversations with my colleague Dan Kaufman of Missouri State University. (Incidentally, he and two other former collaborators to my now archived Scientia Salon webzine have just started an excellent new project, The Electric Agora.)
This time we simply each picked one philosopher that was highly influential in our careers, or who has somehow shaped our way of thinking about philosophy, and chatted about it for a bit. I think the episode is worth checking out, it came out much better than the above somewhat lame description may suggest.
I began by recalling how I randomly picked up Russell’s autobiography from my father’s library, one boring Sunday afternoon (he was listening to soccer on the radio, at the time I wasn’t into it…). I became mesmerized by this larger-than-life character, a philosopher who had been arrested for opposing wars (both WWI and, much later, the Vietnam one), who had married multiple times, had been fired by City College in New York (where I now work) because a misguided local Judge had declared that he wasn’t fit to teach moral philosophy, and by the way had also found the time to make major contributions to logic and mathematics. (Accordingly, he is the protagonist of one of my favorite graphic novels, Logicomix.)
At the time I was also in the process of abandoning my (never strong, really) Catholic faith, and so what a delight it was to discover Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, which was originally a talk given by him back in 1927. Some of my own thoughts and embryonic arguments were expressed so much more cogently and organically by Russell, and he quickly became one of my reference points on philosophy and religion.
Russell the technical (as opposed to popular) philosopher actually had far less influence on me, since my area is philosophy of science, not logic or philosophy of mathematics. But there still is no question that he is one of the towering figures of 20th century philosophy, for instance because he was one of the leaders of what became known as “analytic” philosophy (see his famous booklet, Problems of Philosophy). Just because nowadays analytic philosophy has become a caricature of itself, and we need to find new ways to philosophize that are more relevant to real life, it doesn’t diminish the contribution to the profession made by Russell and his contemporaries (on this point, I disagree with Dan, who has a more negative view of Russell’s legacy).
Dan then explained how Ryle had a big impact on him, first of all by turning him away from Platonism! (I too have flirted with that idea for some time, in the realm of mathematics, at the least, but quickly moved on.)
Ryle is perhaps best known for his idea of “category mistakes.” Suppose you ask me to show you the City College of New York. I bring you to campus, indicate the various buildings, point out the students, the faculty, the administrators, and so forth. At the end of the tour you are puzzled, and somewhat hesitantly you ask me: “yes, yes, but where is City College?” You are making a category mistake in the sense that you are applying a category, “City College” to an abstract entity to which it doesn’t apply: City College just is the ensemble of grounds, buildings, people, and so forth that I have shown you. Another example, to which my students usually respond well, is this: suppose we are talking about the properties of triangles, including the internal sum of the angles, the Pythagorean theorem, and so forth. At the end of the discussion you ask: “okay, I get it, but what’s the smell of triangles?” “Smell” is a category that simply does’t apply to geometrical figures, including triangles. To ask about it is to commit a special kind of error.
Ryle was also influential because of his introduction of a distinction between different types of knowledge, particularly the difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that.” Listen to Dan’s explanation in the video for the full picture.
At the end of the conversation, Dan and I talk about why in philosophy, unlike in science, the history of ideas is crucial. This isn’t because science makes progress and philosophy doesn’t (a common misconception, about which I’ve written a whole book, to be published next year by Chicago Press). It is, however, indicative of the different natures of the two fields that modern biologists can do their work without having ever read Darwin (though, for the sake of their own literacy, they should!), while no philosopher, pretty much regardless of her field of scholarship, can really do without having read Plato. (Because, as you know, all Western philosophy is a footnote to…)