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“Philosopher in Meditation” by Rembrandt, 1632

But is it science?
ROGER SCRUTON & TIMOTHY WILLIAMSON

Introduction
Tim Crane, Philosophy Editor, TLS

Philosophy aims to outline the most general nature of things – and if you understand
“things” in the most general possible sense too, then philosophy itself is one of the
“things” that philosophy attempts to outline. This inevitably means that philosophers
will tend to disagree about the nature of philosophy as they disagree about time, mind,
meaning, value and so on. This should not be a matter for regret – despite how some of
the more megalomaniac philosophers like to see things – but rather falls out from the
nature of philosophical inquiry itself. For suppose – as would actually be impossible –
that philosophers came to agree on a method to solve all their problems. Then inevitably
someone else would come along and question whether this was the best method for the
problems in hand – and we would have to start all over again. If there is a discipline that
investigates the conceptual frameworks which we use, then the various possible
frameworks of that discipline itself should also fall under its scope.
The TLS philosophy shelves have recently been weighed down with new books on the
nature and proper practice of philosophy. And the TLS Online has had some punchy
contributions on this subject from David Papineau and Carlos Fraenkel. So we thought
it might be time to have a debate on this subject in the Philosophy issue of the paper.
Two of the UK’s leading philosophers, Roger Scruton and Timothy Williamson, agreed
to participate. What emerges are two very different views of the terrain.

Scruton’s vision, in the spirit of Hegel and Husserl, is of something which aims to
recover meaning in the world by articulating the conditions of our own subjectivity, our
experience of the world. Our subjectivity is not just another “object” in the world,
alongside all other objects; it is something more like a condition or a limit of the world
itself, it is what makes it possible for us to have a world at all. It is as subjects that we
experience beauty, grace, purity, the sacred. Therefore, Scruton argues, it cannot be
investigated through the objectifying lens of natural science.

Timothy Williamson agrees with Scruton that philosophy is not a natural science, and
that its job should not just restricted to commentary on what the natural sciences
produce (this was the view of the American philosopher W. V. Quine: “philosophy of
science is philosophy enough”). But the agreement pretty much ends there. Williamson
sees philosophy as a fact-discovering enterprise, or a science in its own right. He argues
that history, too, may be a science – in the sense that its aim is the discovery and
explanation of facts – and he argues that this is inconsistent with Scruton’s vision of the
humanities. Williamson argues that linguistic theories about the meanings of indexical
pronouns (“I”, “you” etc.) can shed light on the phenomenon of points of view that
Scruton takes to be so fundamental.

One thing that is striking about the disagreement between these two philosophers is not
just their positive claims, but also their differing styles. Scruton starts with a large
claim, and draws on complex phenomena – our experience of art, music and social life –
to illuminate it. Williamson, by contrast, approaches questions by breaking them down
into tractable chunks, on the grounds that “it is reasonable to start with easier cases and
analyse them more deeply before building up to harder cases later”. In this he
epitomizes the approach of what is generally known as analytic philosophy, whose
typical style is to analyse problems into distinct sub-problems. In this sense, then,
Scruton’s approach works by “synthesis” rather than “analysis”. As the debate unfolds,
we encounter two very different and not wholly compatible views of the discipline of
philosophy.
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The Work of the Philosopher


Roger Scruton

When I read philosophy in Cambridge in the 1960s, the subject was called “moral
sciences”. The prevailing view was that the term “philosophy” had a pretentious and
Continental air, and would mislead students into believing that they would learn about
the meaning of life. The word “moral” was taken seriously, nevertheless. But ethics, as
we studied it, was shaped by G. E. Moore and his followers, who questioned endlessly
the meaning of “good”, “right” and “ought”, while confining their examples to such
trivia of everyday life as would neutralize all desire for an answer. 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.

This detachment from the questions of the moment is not altogether a bad thing, and in
any case has deep historical roots. John Locke saw philosophy as “handmaiden to the
sciences”. At the time there was much to be said for that idea: the scientific revolution
was in its infancy and the fields of scientific inquiry were uncertainly defined. The task
identified by Locke endures today. In areas like the philosophy of mathematics and the
philosophy of language our discipline continues to contribute to scientific advance, and
absorbs from the associated sciences a distinct intellectual polish. However, there is
another and in my view more important task for the philosopher, which is to distinguish
genuine science from mere scientism. 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. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world
from the order of nature, and the concepts through which we understand appearances
from those used in explaining them. It is for this reason that I believe aesthetics to be
central to philosophy, being the branch of philosophy that deals directly with our most
studied attempts to create and discern what is truly meaningful.

When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal
laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does
not contain words like “here”, “now” and “I”; and while it is meant to explain the way
things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object
only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view. The subject is in principle
unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part
of the empirical world. It lies on the edge of things, like a horizon, and could never be
grasped “from the other side”, the side of subjectivity itself. If I look for it in the world
of objects I shall never find it. But without my nature as a subject nothing for me is real.
If I am to care for my world, then I must first care for this thing, without which I have
no world – the perspective from which my world is seen. That is the message of art, or
at least of the art that matters. And that is why philosophy is fundamental to humane
education. Philosophy shows what self-consciousness is, and explores the many ways in
which the point of view of the subject shapes and is shaped by the human world.
German-speakers are right to refer to the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften: for
Geist, self-consciousness, is what they are all about.

The human world – what Edmund Husserl called the Lebenswelt and Wilfred Sellars the
“space of reasons” – is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from the
scientific description of nature. Such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy,
elegance and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how
the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they
drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them.

Given this, a hard-nosed empiricist will say that those qualities on which our human
relations, our religious sentiments and our aesthetic experience all depend, are not part
of the natural order. We “read them into” the world: they are part of how the world
appears to us, but not part of how it truly is. They stem, as Hume put it, from the mind’s
capacity to “spread itself upon objects”. But they have no objective basis, and our belief
in them can be explained by theories that do not suppose them to be features of the
underlying reality. 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.

This response is imbued with the metaphors that it seeks to discard. It tells us that there
is an “underlying” reality, that the mind “spreads itself” on things, that we “read” things
into the world, and so on. It is through and through saturated with the image of a world
that we know “objectively” through science, but colour “subjectively” by projecting
features of our point of view. But it contains no independent argument for thinking that
the “scientific image” (as Sellars dubbed it) is an image of all that matters. The greatest
task of philosophy in our time, it seems to me, is to uncover the rest of what matters,
and to show why it matters far more.

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Science and Points of View


Timothy Williamson

Roger Scruton wants philosophy to protect the humanities from overweening science.
The humanities aim to understand human subjects, who have points of view; Scruton
announces that “the subject is in principle unobservable to science” because “it is not
part of the empirical world”.

History is one of the humanities if anything is. Historians study human subjects, whose
points of view they try to understand. Consequently, on Scruton’s view, the subject
matter of history is not part of the empirical world. This may come as news to
historians.

To be fair to Scruton, we might try interpreting his phrase “the empirical world” very
narrowly. Then he should not count mathematics as a science, for it studies numbers,
sets and the like, which are not part of the empirical world, narrowly understood, to
which he confines science. But mathematics is a science if anything is, and the other
sciences rely on it. Indeed, Scruton himself concedes that the philosophy of
mathematics contributes to scientific advance. 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. On this broader
conception, many parts of the humanities have a good claim to be scientific. If you want
to understand the causes of the English Civil War, what better methodology is available
than using the sorts of evidence historians use, and assessing its bearings in the ways
they do? Since most of the relevant evidence is documentary, that requires very
different specific methods from those of the natural sciences, but there is nothing
unscientific about adapting one’s methods to the nature of the problem and the available
evidence. It would not be more scientific to ignore the points of view of Charles I, John
Hampden, and their contemporaries, and rely instead on speculative evolutionary
psychology and anatomical analyses of skeletons from the 1640s; it would just be
stupid.

Scruton concedes that the philosophy of language “continues to contribute to scientific


advance”. This suggests that linguistics is, as well as a humanity, a science too, which it
surely is, not only because phonologists experiment in acoustic laboratories.
Philosophers of language have paid close attention to subjects’ points of view. For
instance, Paul Grice’s work on tacit principles underlying conversation has been
seminal for linguistics; he analysed subtle interactions between speakers’ and hearers’
points of view. Part of his scientific contribution was to show how to take account of
these points of view. 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. They showed how to theorize points of view in
semantics. Scruton’s schematic opposition between science and points of view does no
justice to the complexity and interrelatedness of actual inquiry.

There are many other examples of the scientific study of points of view. The
psychology of perception concerns points of view in both the most literal spatial sense
and the cognitive sense of the limited information available to the subject from vision or
another modality. Mathematical decision theory starts from the agent’s preferences and
beliefs. Naturally, such representations do not capture the full richness of an individual
human’s subjectivity, as it might be depicted in a novel, but that is because it is
reasonable to start with easier cases and analyse them more deeply before building up to
harder cases later. Points of view are not off-limits to scientific understanding.

The equivocation between “science” as natural science and “science” as rigorous


inquiry is often exploited for purposes which both Scruton and I would deplore. “We
must take a scientific approach to this problem” may sound plausible when interpreted
broadly, but is then used to justify applying the specific methods of natural science to
problems where they are unhelpful. There is nothing scientific about making
unsupported reductionist assumptions into dogmas. Natural science does not tell us that
every genuine question is a question in natural science; only bad philosophy does.
Defending the humanities requires making those distinctions. What does not help the
humanities is to contrast them falsely with science, and thereby obscure the ways in
which they provide genuine knowledge.

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The Work of the Philosopher (2)


Roger Scruton

Tim Williamson takes me to task for implying that “points of view” are not part of the
objective world, and not objects of empirical inquiry. But he understands that phrase in
a way that I did not intend. Of course, if you mean by a “point of view” the store of a
person’s attitudes and beliefs, then points of view are essential data to the students of
history, sociology and political science. What I had in mind, however, was the
standpoint from which self-conscious beings address the world, what Hegel called the
Fürsichsein, and Jean-Paul Sartre the pour-soi.

Self-conscious beings relate to each other and to their shared world (their Lebenswelt) in
a way that depends critically on their existence as subjects. In addressing you, I make
myself available to you in the words that call you to account to me. This would not be
possible without the first-person awareness that comes to me with the use of I. But that
use would in turn not be possible without the dialogue through which we fit together in
communities of mutual interest. And from this dialogue emerge the concepts and
conceptions that confer meaning on our world, and which provide the true subject
matter of the humanities.
I have the greatest respect for the work of Reichenbach and Kaplan on the semantics of
indexicals. But how do their studies of self-reference help us to understand the features
of self-consciousness that prove so puzzling to philosophers and so natural to the rest of
us? How do they contribute to an understanding of shame, guilt, desire, love and hatred,
of looking, kissing and blushing, of singing a serenade or painting a portrait? What is
certain is that philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer have not needed
a theory of indexicals in order to describe the unique position of the self-conscious
subject. And what they write offers foundations to humane education of a kind that
could never be offered by the natural sciences of the human condition.

The “I to You” encounter is central to our understanding of the human world. This fact
was noticed, under a different terminology, by Wilhelm Dilthey, who distinguished
scientific explanation from the “understanding” (Verstehen) that seeks for meanings.
True, Dilthey did not give a pellucid theory of Verstehen, or show exactly how it differs
from the reasoning exhibited by the natural sciences. But he suggested a role for
philosophy that later thinkers, including Husserl, Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas and
Max Scheler have, in their various ways, tried to adopt: philosophy as the seamstress of
the Lebenswelt, rather than the handmaiden of the sciences.

Of course, the humanities, as currently practised, often contain first steps towards causal
explanations and scientific theories. Nevertheless, I wish to reflect a little on
Williamson’s assertion that “history is one of the humanities if anything is”. For history
is more than one thing, and exemplifies the very danger that philosophy should
diagnose and warn against: the danger of “scientism”. It is true that historians collect
facts, including facts about the opinions and emotions of people. But they also try to
understand societies, civilizations and epochs “from within”, in terms of the spirit that
prevails in them, the “what it was like”, and the sense of value and meaning that held a
community together. In other words they set out to understand past communities in the
way we set out to understand present persons. Such is the history presented in Jacob
Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), and in my view
historians of art and civilization who have followed Burckhardt’s example – Heinrich
Wölfflin, Rudolf Wittkower, yes and Friedrich Nietzsche too – have established their
kind of history at the centre of our modern self-understanding.

Moreover it is precisely their kind of history that has suffered most from the incursions
of pseudo-science. Marx’s “science”, which purports to identify the “laws of motion” of
history, sees Geist as an epiphenomenon, the by-product of economic processes, and
describes those processes in terms that wipe away the face of human communities, so as
to show “the skull beneath the skin”. History, in the Marxist view, is not a matter of
individual decisions, communal understanding, morality, religion, law and the day-to-
day relations of accountability whereby people come to understand each other as
subjects. It is not what it appears to itself to be, since there is a hidden reality that
explains how it appears. The underlying reality of modern communities is class war, the
division of people into bourgeoisie and proletariat, the relation of “wage slavery”.

Pseudo-science of that kind has a potent charm; it offers to provide an objective


explanation of what we are, while dismissing what we think we are. It offers to liberate
us from the bonds of moral accountability, by exposing them as ideological illusions. It
is, in my view, no accident that politicians inspired by the Marxist theory of history
have had so little compunction in treating human beings as objects, to be disposed of as
the “forces of production” require.

And this takes me back to my original point, which is that philosophy has a role to play
in protecting the human world from the growing assaults of pseudo-science. There are
concepts that play an organizing role in our experience but which belong to no scientific
theory, because they divide the world into the wrong kinds of kind – concepts like those
of ornament, melody, duty, freedom, purity, which divide up the world in a way that no
natural science could countenance. Consider the concept of melody. Science tells us a
lot about the properties of pitched sounds; but it tells us nothing about melodies. A
melody is not an acoustical but a musical object. And musical objects belong to the
purely intentional realm: they are sounds heard under a musical description. That
means, sounds as we self-conscious beings hear them, under concepts that have no place
in the science of sounds. No sound could rise from the depths as the E-flat major
arpeggio rises from the depths at the start of Das Rheingold.

The concept of the person, I believe, is in this respect like the concept of a melody. It
features in our way of perceiving and relating to each other; but it does not “carry over”
into the science of what we are. This does not mean that there are no persons, but only
that a scientific theory of persons will classify them with other things – for example,
with apes or mammals – and will not be a scientific theory of every kind of person. In
other words the kind to which we fundamentally belong is defined through a concept
that does not feature in the science of our nature.

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Science and Points of View (2)


Timothy Williamson

As first presented by Roger Scruton, the humanities concern subjects with “a distinctive
point of view”, a “perspective” from which they see the world. If the visual metaphor is
taken seriously, it implies that different subjects see the world from different points of
view. Scruton now insists that by “point of view” he meant nothing so vulgar as that.
Rather, what he had in mind “was the standpoint from which self-conscious beings
address the world”: one standpoint for many self-conscious beings. In Scruton’s sense,
apparently, we all have the same point of view. It is not obvious that such an
indiscriminate one-size-fits-all conception will be of much use to the humanities.

In elaborating his view, Scruton gave the first-personal pronoun “I” as an example of
the sort of indexical word out of place in a scientific theory. In response, I noted that
those who have contributed most to analysing the semantics of “I” are philosophers of
language such as Reichenbach and Kaplan, working in a scientific spirit. While
acknowledging their achievements, Scruton suggests that they do not help us understand
the puzzling features of self-consciousness: “What is certain is that philosophers like
Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer have not needed a theory of indexicals in order
to describe the unique position of the self-conscious subject”.

Although a good semantic account of “I” is not sufficient for understanding the nature
of self-consciousness, it may still be necessary. To take one of Scruton’s examples,
brilliantly suggestive though Hegel’s discussion of the first person in The
Phenomenology of Spirit is, it is plausible that it involves a confusion between what
Kaplan distinguished as character and content, as Alberto Voltolini has argued
forcefully. Roughly, the character of “I” is the general rule that, as used in a given
context with its standard meaning in English, “I” refers to its user in that context. That
rule is constant across contexts. By contrast, the content of “I” varies across contexts; as
used in a given context, it is the referent of “I” in that context, the very person who uses
it. You and I use the word “I” with the same character but different contents. The
distinction may seem elementary once made, yet numerous discussions go wrong
because they neglect it. In particular, abstract talk of “the I” tends to muddle just that
point.

One might think that the semantics of “I” just has to do with language, while the nature
of self-consciousness is a non-linguistic question. But our understanding of self-
consciousness depends on our understanding of “I”. Imagine that in a palace of
confusion I am looking at myself in a mirror, but mistakenly think that I am looking at
someone else through a window. There is a sword dangling above my head, which I see
only in the mirror. I think: “He is standing under a sword”. I do not think: “I am
standing under a sword”. Although I am aware of someone who is in fact me standing
under a sword, it is not self-consciousness in a full sense, because in that awareness I
am not aware of myself as “I” but only as “he”. The best available way to put one’s
finger on what is missing is to say: the “I” way of thinking. Yet what is most distinctive
in the use of “I” is its reliance on Kaplan’s character of “I”, the rule of reference that
applies across all speakers of English. This may help make sense of Scruton’s obscure
remark that the use of “I” would “not be possible without the dialogue through which
we fit together in communities of mutual interest”.

None of this implies that once we have a good theoretical analysis of the meaning of
“I”, nothing more is needed to understand the nature of self-consciousness. But if we
lack such an analysis, our arguments about self-consciousness are liable to go wrong
from the start, and we shall never understand its nature. The place to look for such an
analysis is in semantics as a branch of linguistics and the philosophy of language, of a
broadly scientific kind.

In calling those disciplines sciences, I do not mean that they are natural sciences. As I
have already made clear, not all science is natural science. A disappointing feature of
Scruton’s response is that he continues to ignore the distinction, using the terms
“science” and “natural science” as if they were equivalent.

One consequence of Scruton’s narrow understanding of “science” is that when he comes


to discuss whether history is a science, he merely attacks the fatuous view that history is
a natural science like physics and chemistry. He engages only with anonymous straw
men. Mainly, he fulminates against the sort of pseudo-scientific vulgar Marxist history
produced by Communist Party hacks in the Stalinist period, but provides no evidence
that reputable contemporary historians are similarly benighted. When he names
historians who write in the spirit of which he approves, their average date of birth is
1857. He shows no interest in what contemporary historians are actually doing. That is a
shaky basis on which to tell them what they ought to be doing.

The Work of the Philosopher (3)


Roger Scruton
My aim has been to remind philosophers that their subject, whether or not “handmaiden
to the sciences”, ought to be handmaiden also to the humanities, which are in constant
danger of losing sight of the distinctive nature of inter-personal understanding and
succumbing to fashionable forms of scientism. History is part of the humanities of
course, but my point was not to tell historians what they ought to do, only to suggest
that history, too, can be vulnerable to scientistic misunderstanding, and this can have
significant effects on the humanities. For this reason, I disagree with Williamson’s
suggestion that it is only vulgar Marxists of the Stalin era who wish to dismiss inter-
personal understanding as mere “ideology”, to be explained, and explained away, by the
underlying “class struggle”. Perhaps the most influential work of historical analysis in
recent times has been Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses, the thesis of which is that the
concepts and classifications through which we understand our social condition are parts
of the episteme of the ruling class, to be understood as instruments of “bourgeois”
domination, due to be replaced as the underlying historical forces reshape the human
world. The habit of setting aside what is merely “subjective” in favour of the
“objective” history of class conflict is there in Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson,
Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill and many more, and among Marxist historians only
E. P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, stopped to remind his
readers that history emerges from the self-conception of rational subjects, who may be
influenced by the “material” forces of production, but cannot be reduced to them. For
that observation Thompson has never been forgiven.

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Science and Points of View (3)


Timothy Willamson

Philosophy is no one’s handmaiden. Like every other intellectual discipline, it has its
own questions: about the nature and structure of necessity, morality, knowledge . . . . Its
theories concern all possible instances of their subject matter, not just those that happen
to have evolved in our species or on our planet. It has its own ways of answering its
questions, for example by imaginative thought experiments and by mathematically
rigorous formal models. Despite underlying similarities, it cannot be reduced to other
disciplines – mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, linguistics, history – though it
can learn from them all and at times has also contributed to them.

When non-philosophers make philosophical mistakes, philosophers can lecture them on


it. But how much credibility has a philosopher telling physicists (or historians) that they
are doing physics (or history) the wrong way? Methodologies are judged by their fruits,
not by transcendental deduction. If philosophy establishes that “history emerges from
the self-conception of rational subjects”, it is only in a broad sense compatible with
many different historiographical methodologies, inspired by different theoretical
perspectives, some from the Left, some from the Right, some from neither. Quite how
rational the self-conceiving subjects of history are, recent events make one wonder.