The nature of philosophy: Scruton vs Williamson edition

Roger Scruton (left) and Timothy Williamson (right)

As some readers may recall, last year I published serially a whole book on this blog on the nature of philosophy (available here as a single volume). This sort of thing is an exercise in meta-philosophy, i.e., philosophizing about the very nature of the discipline. It needs to be done from time to time, but not too often, as it tends to approximate the sort of navel gazing that philosophy is (unjustly, in my opinion) infamous for.

Apparently, one of those times is now, taking inspiration from a recent debate organized by The Times of London Literary Supplement between two eminent British philosophers, Roger Scruton and Timothy Williamson. I don’t think either got it exactly right, but Scruton came much closer, in my view, than Williamson. Regardless, there was much to be learned from the three rounds of the exchange, which is why I’m bringing it to the attention of my readers and will comment on it here, focusing on the first round only.

Let’s start, then, with Scruton’s take, which opens The Times’ debate. He begins by telling us that when he attended Cambridge in the 1960s, he was immediately disabused of the naive notion that studying philosophy would tell him something abut the meaning of life. Ethics was instead dominated by the likes of G.E. Moore, who spent endless time debating the exact meaning of “good,” “right,” and “ought.” As he puts it:

“Ethics came to rest in the study of dilemmas, like that of the man who must visit his aunt in hospital on the very same day as his child is competing in the long-jump at school. The manifest facts that modern people are living in a state of spiritual anxiety, that the world has become strange to us and frightening, that we lack and need a conception of our own existence — such facts were either un­noticed or dismissed as yet more leftovers from the mental disease called religion.”

I must say Scruton is right on target here. A significant portion (though, thankfully, not all) of academic philosophy has become irrelevant to pretty much anyone else outside of academic philosophy departments (the same, to be fair, holds for English literature, or the natural sciences, but that’s another story). The damage done by so-called analytic philosophy to ethics is indeed a perfect example. We don’t learn much, if anything, from increasingly convoluted versions of the trolley dilemma, as “fun” as those riddles can be for someone who thinks such things qualify as fun.

Scruton then rejects Locke’s contention that philosophy should be a “handmaiden to the sciences”:

“Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite religion, politics, music­ology, architecture, literary criticism and art history as branches of evolutionary psycho­logy (or still worse, branches of applied neuro­science) are destined to fail.”

So Scruton sees a major task of contemporary philosophy to contrast scientism, the ideological attitude that declares (on no scientific grounds) that only scientific questions are worth being considered, and only the methods of science (often conveniently and arbitrarily expanded to encompass all ways of human reasoning) are valid sources of knowledge and understanding. Together with my friend and colleague Maarten Boudry I have put together a collection of essays — due on December 26 from Chicago Press — on the challenges posed by scientism, and readers of this blog know why I’m very sympathetic to Scruton’s perspective (not everyone contributed to our volume is, by the way — it’s a discussion, not a monologue).

He goes on to explain that the reason evolutionary psychology’s attempt to “reduce” the humanities fails is because science is in the business of (and is very good at) providing answers couched in a third-person perspective, focused on the causality of observable phenomena. But the world of the humanities is what Wilfred Sellars (remember him?) called “the space of reasons,” and reasons (or prescriptive statements) just don’t show up in an fMRI scan.

Let it be clear that Scruton is not anti-science. He explains that this failure of science is not the result of the existence of some other, magical, realm of existence. It is simply that science isn’t in the business of doing what the humanities do. It is one tool among many at our disposal to understand the world — not just the physical and biological world, but also the world of human relations and meaning. It shouldn’t be necessary, but I hasten to add that Scruton seems to be perfectly aware that human beings are also biological beings made of physical stuff. He is not claiming that there is no place for science in studying humans and their societies. He is just reiterating the famous, and very useful, distinction that Sellars himself made between the scientific and manifest images of the world.

Scruton ends his first round by bringing up David Hume and his idea that the human mind has a capacity to “spread itself upon objects.” While this capacity is, obviously, the result of biological evolution and it is made possible by our neural apparatus, biology and neuroscience tells us comparatively little of value about what happens when we engage in such Humean activity. as Scruton puts it:

“The case is no different from the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us in the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.”

2nd Avenue subway’s (New York) artwork by Sarah Sze

Let’s now turn to Williamson’s initial response. He doesn’t start too well, as he deploys a rather cheap rhetorical trick, accusing Scruton of thinking that history is not part of the empirical world, which he smugly says “may come as news to historians.” Williamson then immediately retreats from this over the top criticism by acknowledging that Scruton has a particular — Sellars-informed — meaning of the term “empirical world” in mind, which Williamson apparently willfully misunderstood.

But the next paragraph doesn’t improve things, because, says Williamson, according to Scruton mathematics is not a science either, which it certainly is, in his opinion:

“Before proclaiming limits to science, perhaps one should get clearer on what it is. Mathematics, though a science, is not a natural science like physics, chemistry and biology. It supports its results by deductive proofs rather than experiments, but is at least as rigorous, systematic and reliable a search for knowledge.”

That’s exactly right, we should be a bit more clear on what science is, but Williamson’s approach isn’t very helpful. To begin with, there is a good argument to be made that mathematics is not a science, although it is, of course, very useful to the sciences. Williamson himself acknowledges that math is different from the natural sciences, largely using different tools, and — I will add — producing results that are not dependent on empirical observation and experiment (setting aside so-called “experimental mathematics,” which is not experimental at all, but based on brute force computer simulations).

Indeed, my detailed analysis of the nature of progress in mathematics (here, here, here, and here) suggests that it works in a fashion much more similar to logic than to science, and not even Williamson has gone so far as to suggest that logic is a science in any meaningful sense of the term. So, if by “science” we mean the natural sciences (such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology) as they have historically and socioculturally developed from the 17th century on — and I don’t see any reason why one would want to mean anything else by that word — than Williamson is way off base in his criticism of Scruton.

In fact, Williamson goes on and on talking right past Scruton, attempting to convince him that historical research is based on empirical evidence, something that I’m pretty willing to bet Scruton knows very well. Let me try to explain where exactly Williamson misses the point by way of an example that took place a couple of years ago, when I was teaching a class on epistemology across the curriculum. We were exploring claims to knowledge and understanding made by varied disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities, including, of course, history. I had a number of guest lecturers from different departments, and one of my colleagues delivered a particularly clear explanation of what, I think, Scruton is trying to get at. My colleague did not use Sellars’ distinction between the scientific and manifest images, but he may as well have done that.

My colleague works in the social sciences, and specifically on Colonialism. He told our students that of course he uses some of the tools of the natural sciences, from the collection of systematic observations to statistical analyses. But, he also immediately added, the picture emerging from those methods alone would be woefully incomplete. For instance, he also studies books — including works of fiction — and other testimonials written by people who have experienced Colonialism firsthand, on either side of it. These human artifacts are qualitative in nature, not really amenable to statistical and systematic analyses. But they provide exactly what Sellars was talking about as far as the human sphere is concerned: reasons. Not in the sense of “good” or objective reasons, necessarily, but in the sense of a glimpse into the human condition, into why people do things, or how they tell themselves why they do things. My colleague concluded that research areas like his are, as a result, at the borderlands between the sciences and the humanities. They certainly benefit from deploying the methods of science, but they have to use also those of the humanities, on penalty of missing large chunks of the picture. He may as well have been talking about history in the sense clearly intended by Scruton and so distorted by Williamson.

If Williamson’s definition of science is a “rigorous, systematic and reliable search for knowledge,” then almost anything human beings do qualifies. History does, and so do all the other humanities, including literary criticism and art history. Philosophy too qualifies. And that’s the problem: so many activities fit the bill that the very term “science” begins to lose meaning. Now why would anyone want that, unless he is trying to define everything else out of existence by a single, well placed sleight of hand?

Williamson becomes even more deaf to Scruton’s arguments when he brings up, of all things, semantics and logical empiricism (the American offshoot of logical positivism):

“Again, even if Scruton is right that perspectival words like ‘here,’ ‘now’ and ‘I’ do not belong in the language of scientific theorizing, the rigorous scientific investigation of their meaning was led by philosophers such as Hans Reichenbach and David Kaplan [the latter is the Hans Reichenbach Professor of “scientific” philosophy at UCLA]. They showed how to theorize points of view in semantics.”

But, again, Scruton knows and understands this very well (as it is clear also from his response after the first round). It is very telling that Williamson should bring up a philosophical approach whose zenith has passed almost a century ago, and whose major failure was precisely to attempt to do philosophy as if it were a science.

So what, in the end, is the work of a philosopher? I think philosophy is a strange discipline, by its (historical) nature at the interface of pretty much every other human endeavor. The classical core sub-disciplines of philosophy tell much of the story: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic. And the remainder of the story is told by the onset, beginning in the early 20th century, of a panoply of “philosophies of,” i.e., (critical, in the positive sense) philosophical analysis and commentary of the very same disciplines that used to be part of philosophy and eventually spun out into self-sufficiency: physics (16th-17th centuries), biology (19th century), psychology (19th century), linguistics (20th century), and so forth.

Philosophy can be, and is, done badly, with little understanding of other disciplines, or while ignoring those disciplines’ contributions, or by adopting an arrogant posture that is both unjustified and counterproductive. But the same can be told of a lot of other human endeavors, including first and foremost science itself. (What do you say? You’ve never encountered an arrogant scientist who blubbered incessantly about things he does not understand? Well, lucky you.)

But when it is done well, philosophy is nobody’s handmaiden, pace both Locke and Scruton. She is the connective tissue that holds together the sciences and the humanities, reminding the first of their own limits and the second of just how much they can benefit from science. It is, to use again Wilfred Sellars’ felicitous turn of phrase, the bridge between the scientific and the manifest images of the world. That’s an important job, well worth pursuing seriously and humbly.

88 thoughts on “The nature of philosophy: Scruton vs Williamson edition

  1. Robin Herbert

    I doubt that I am in a minority of one of people who don’t know what it means for life to have meaning and don’t know what the problem is with their lives not having meaning.

    But that is not really the point, because questions don’t need to just have one answer for everybody.

    It may be that someone else can ask those same questions and get different answers. They might find that they know exactly what it means for life to have meaning. They might see exactly what the problem is with life having no meaning.

    If so then they would be well on their way to finding what they seek. So either way, an analytic approach is useful, at least as part of answering the question.


  2. brodix


    Meaning is somewhat static, so possibly a better term would be purpose and the most valuable purpose in life is what we find ourselves.
    The problem for philosophy is that it is always trying to deconstruct everything, more so than appreciate it holistically. So purpose seems transient, yet life is the journey, not the destination.
    It’s a bit like a sentence. The end is just punctuation. Its value is how well it adds to the flow of the story.


  3. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure what you mean when you say you don’t know what it means for your life to have meaning. If by that you mean a cosmic meaning or plan of sorts, yeah, no such thing, category mistake.

    But surely you find your chosen activities meaningful, your family and friends relations meaningful, and even — possibly — reading and commenting on this blog meaningful. That’s where meaning in life comes from: we construct it out of our choices.

    “These seem to me to be very practical approaches and fall loosely on the analytical approach.”

    No, I don’t think so, unless one goes very loose. Much contemporary analytical philosophy simply does not deal, ahem, meaningfully, with those questions. In fact — and I say this as an analytically trained philosopher — continental authors do a much better job, at least at staying on topic.

    There are exceptions, of course, like John Rawls, or Peter Singer, but I don’t really think he would consider themselves analytic philosophers.

    Indeed, if you re-read my section on analytic vs continental philosophy in the book series on the nature of philosophy ( you’ll see that I hope we can move to a blend of analytic rigor (lacking in a lot of continental writings) and continental relevance (lacking in a lot of analytical writings).


    “I suspect meaning has something to do with platonic ideals.”

    No, it doesn’t. I don’t know why you would say that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. brodix


    As I implied, I was hesitant in the comparison. I would tend to consider your description to Robin as more purpose, in the sense of it being more of a dynamic relationship and network that we grow into.
    So my sense of meaning is more a way to frame and objectify that connection to the larger reality.
    This is how our mind functions, to quantify the concept, but the problem it raises in this particular context is that very process of distillation isolates the premise from the connectivity on which it is based.
    It goes to the map versus territory relationship and why meaning doesn’t seem to make sense when examined closely, as Robin’s questions exemplify.


  5. valariansteel

    Re meaning:

    I think I might understand what Robin means when he says that he doesn’t know what a meaningful life is.

    Not trying to sound like Bill Clinton here (who once declared, “it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is), but Robin is asking what is the meaning of (life having) meaning, and why must life be “meaningful” to be worth living.

    And if you substitute “purpose” for meaning, the question remains “why must life have purpose to have meaning.” How about a non-teological approach to life in general?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. SocraticGadfly

    To riff on Valerian, at a minimum, from a secularist POV (including New Ageism among various non-secularisms), any meaning, or purpose, to life is one we craft for ourselves. It has to be.

    Good old Albert, beneath his pea jacket and behind his cigarette, of course knew that.

    (Counterfactual philosophical history — had he lived longer, would he have dipped a toe, at least, in structuralism or some other philosophy? In terms of political science and sociology, what might have he said after Algeria was lost? Or about the summer of 68?)


  7. Robin Herbert


    But surely you find your chosen activities meaningful, your family and friends relations meaningful, and even — possibly — reading and commenting on this blog meaningful.

    I neither find them meaningful nor meaningless because I don’t understand what this quality of “meaningfulness” is.

    Do you mean that I find them enjoyable or interesting? That I can understand. There are other activities that I don’t enjoy or find boring. These are perfectly good ways of classifying them.

    But “meaningful” just seems an empty category to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo Post author


    “if you substitute “purpose” for meaning, the question remains “why must life have purpose to have meaning.” How about a non-teological approach to life in general?”

    The answer there is psychological. Turns out that human beings, normally, need to have teleological projects in order to find life worth living. There is a large philosophical and empirical literature on this. Pleasure by itself ain’t gonna do it. We need to be engaged in projects, and relationships, that we find meaningful, which means important to us, that give us reasons to get out of bed and get shit done.


    “Do you mean that I find them enjoyable or interesting? That I can understand. There are other activities that I don’t enjoy or find boring. These are perfectly good ways of classifying them. But “meaningful” just seems an empty category to me.”

    Well, I hate to pull the “then it’s just semantics” card, but here is one definition of meaningful:

    “full of significance, purpose, or value”

    That’s not just enjoyable or interesting. It isn’t, again, about pleasure. It’s about feeling one is making a difference, as Captain Kirk explained to Picard in “Generations.” (Sorry, just got out of teaching a Philosophy and Science Fiction class.)


  9. Daniel Kaufman

    I continue to find the expressed puzzlement incomprehensible. Normally, I’d be suspicious that people are being contrarian just for its own sake, given the ubiquity of the concept, across both civilizations and time. If I was that out of step with such an enormous percentage of humanity, the first thing that I would think is that I was very odd, not the concept that I am failing to grasp. But here are a few stray thoughts nonetheless.

    –Given that human action is teleological, I don’t see how one could have a human life without purpose.

    –As common as the idea of a meaningful life is the idea of a meaningful death. Surely, one can see the sense in which a soldier dying trying to defeat Nazi Germany is meaningful in a way that a 16 year old dying in a traffic accident, because he didn’t wear a seat belt is not.

    –To speak of a life as being worth living or not presupposes some conception of purpose and meaningfulness. It is unintelligible without them.

    –It is my view (and the view of much of philosophy, not to mention psychology and anthropology) that people conceive of their lives in the manner of a narrative, which means that one has a conception of meaningfulness and significance in one’s life, as this is presupposed in the concept of a narrative.

    –People survive and even thrive through extraordinary suffering and pain. It is a loss of the sense of meaning and significance in one’s life that is responsible for the deepest levels of despair.

    Of course, humanity is billions in number, and none of these are true of everyone: Those who suffer certain kind of personality disorders, mental conditions, and the like may not be conscious of them. And certainly there are many among the less reflective for whom the things I am talking about are more tacit than explicitly conscious. My father is among the latter sort of person — as are many of his generation — but one nonetheless can see the extent to which — and it is a great extent — he lives his life in a purposeful manner that clearly has underlying it a very powerful sense of meaning and purpose.

    As already mentioned, so ubiquitous, so common is this that every civilization for all of recorded history has produced arts and literature and religion and philosophy, whose purpose is to address it. That demonstrates as well as anything can that exists. One can think otherwise, but it makes one a fringe outlier, which, of course, is just fine. But the existence of such outliers tell us nothing about what is real or not in this regard.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. SocraticGadfly

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide analytical a priori and a posteriori extremist screeds.”

    More seriously yet, if one thinks not only does one’s own life not have a teleological something, but ALSO thinks it does NOT have a non-teleological something, I suppose more serious reflection on Camus’ actual comment might be warranted.


    Cousin, on Hume and his “spread,” yes, that’s right. Causation, and of course, ultimately, the problem of induction.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. brodix


    To second Massimo, my experience is that life is like riding a bicycle. You need to keep moving forward, or you fall over. By and large, we tend to fall apart, both mentally and physically, when there is no reasonably compelling motivation to our lives. We did not evolve to be couch potatoes.

    The point I keep making though, is that it is the fact of our desire that drives us, rather than the objects of our desire. A bit like we are ultimately compelled to eat by our appetite, rather than the food. The confusion is that our mental focus is on the objects, rather than the source of that focus.


  12. brodix


    While I agree with most of what you say;

    “–It is my view (and the view of much of philosophy, not to mention psychology and anthropology) that people conceive of their lives in the manner of a narrative, which means that one has a conception of meaningfulness and significance in one’s life, as this is presupposed in the concept of a narrative.”

    I would argue most people, maybe not academics, see themselves as rooted in a network and that is what gives them strength. Yes, having some narrative arc can be inspiring, but since most people learn to accept their ordinariness, it is the basic, everyday connections that matter most.


  13. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: I don’t see what ordinariness has to do with whether or not one conceives of one’s life as a narrative. Certainly, it is one that includes other people. We are, after all, social animals.


  14. brodix


    I would say leaders and others who are generally on a mission think the narrative, direction and goals are what give their lives meaning, while the rest of us, who pretty much go along, to get along, find it is the bonds that make us part of the larger whole, that give us the sense of being part of something larger and thus purposeful and meaningful.

    What is said by soldiers in war, that they do what they do for their buddies.


  15. saphsin


    I think what Robin is saying that how the term “meaning” has metaphysical connotations that he doesn’t like when it’s much simpler and less problematic to discuss life satisfaction and happiness. It’s similar to how you and Dan dislike the term “free will” and prefer volition, agency, or some other term. And I tend to agree with Robin, even when I talk to other atheists about “meaning in life”, there’s always some sort of Platonic reference that’s hard to avoid.

    Btw, you say that the trolley problem says very little or nothing but I remember reading a piece of yours on the subject from a while back on neuroscientists doing experiments on subjects responding to the dilemma. Did you change your mind about that or did you always hold this understanding?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. synred

    The Trolley problem seems silly. In real life you don’t know the effects of your actions with a reasonable degree of certainty. The fat guy might land sideways with only legs on the tracks, lose his legs and not stop the trolley

    It would not seem to have much to do with the ‘meaning of life’ anyway.

    I’d be thinking about what to do too long to take any effective action…which is all to the good…


  17. synred

    Suicide is Painless

    This song creeped me out when I saw ‘MASH[‘. Hawkeye et al., seem to be encouraging the dentist to commit suicide. As there is often the case an undercurrent of cruelty to the humor.


  18. Robin Herbert

    I sm surprised that people are making a fuss about this.

    You know what it means for life to have meaning, you want your lives to have meaning and apparently your lives have meaning and so there is no problem for you.

    I, on the other hand, don’t know what it means, don’t know what the problem is if my life doesn’t have meaning and so for me there is no problem.

    No problem all round.

    But if you find it incomprehensible that I don’t know what it means for life to have meaning then try this:

    Clearly describe what it means for life to have a meaning.

    Clearly describe the problem in a life having no meaning.

    I couldn’t fo either, can anyone else?


  19. Robin Herbert


    I think what Robin is saying that how the term “meaning” has metaphysical connotations that he doesn’t like…

    No, it is just as I say. I just don’t kniw what it means to say a life has meaning.

    If someone were to ask me to explain what it means for life to have meaning, I wouldn’t know where to begin.


  20. Massimo Post author


    I made clear in my previous comments that I too think that any metaphysical interpretation of “meaning of life” is a category mistake. But now Robin has clarified that that’s not the problem.


    I’ll drop it, but at this point it is I who don’t understand what you mean. Several people have very clearly explained what they mean when they talk about meaning of life. You may reasonably disagree with anyone’s take, but to say you don’t understand what we mean seems somewhat bizarre.


  21. Robin Herbert


    “full of significance, purpose, or value”

    Is that what is meant by a meaningful life? Then it is no problem for me, I have those things in my life, in fact they would seem to be awfully difficult things to avoid.

    If there are people who are worried that they don’t have significance, purpose and value in their lives then first they need a good therapist or psychologist to help them see what is already there that they haven’t noticed or appreciated.


  22. Massimo Post author


    I find your latest comment to be more than a bit condescending. Yes, there are people who go through existential crises, some because of events in their lives, some because of mental issues. And they need help. Some find it in philosophical counseling, many in psychology or psychiatry. No need to berate them. Good for you that you don’t fall into that category.


  23. Robin Herbert


    Several people have very clearly explained what they mean when they talk about meaning of life.

    Well, no. People have used the word and said that people want it and that a lot of people have written about it over quite a long time and that they can’t understand me when I say I don’t know what it means.

    All I have got is your definition “full of significance, purpose and value”. If that is what it means then fine. I am happy to go with that.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Robin Herbert


    No need to berate them.

    Where did I berate anyone?

    I said that if people felt that they were people who felt that their lives lacked significance, purpose of value that they should seek help from a psychologist or therapist to help them notice what is already there.

    How is that berating?


  25. Massimo Post author


    I took “to help them see what is already there and they haven’t noticed or appreciated” as berating. I’m sure that was not your intention, but it comes across that way.

    As for “is that all you mean by that?” well yes, what else did you expect? And why is it such a strange concept to wrap one’s mind around?


  26. Robin Herbert

    If someone were feeling that their life lacked significance, purpose and value then I would have thought it very practical and caring to help them to see that their life did have all these things.


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