Philosophy and Thought

Philosophy and Thought

It is often said that philosophy is, or ought to be, concerned with thought. It is then contended, by some, that it should be concerned with language, since language provides our only access to thought.[1] Hence, the linguistic turn. A contrast is thereby presupposed: between science and philosophy. Science deals with external reality by using its proprietary methods, while philosophy deals with thought by using its proprietary methods (whatever these may be). Science deals with reference, philosophy with sense, to put it Frege’s way. I think this is an unhelpful way to think—in fact, I think it is completely wrong, except perhaps under an implausibly charitable interpretation (which we will come to). In the first place, it makes philosophy into a branch of psychology: the study of a mental phenomenon. Maybe it is philosophical psychology, but it is still psychology. Would we want to say the same about logic and mathematics—that they are about logical and mathematical thought not reality? Wouldn’t that be a brand of psychologism? At the least, we would need to know what aspects of thought qualify as philosophically relevant; then it is about those aspects. Not the empirical facts of thought, presumably: not the psychological laws of thought, or its relation to emotion, say. Is philosophy being identified with cognitive psychology (or a department of it)? Second, do we mean thought singular, as a general category, or thoughts plural? Do we mean the faculty of thought as opposed to other mental faculties (memory, perception, conation, etc.), or do we mean the many different thoughts that we have along with their specific content? Not the first, because that would limit philosophy to very general questions about cognition (we surely would want to investigate ethical thoughts, aesthetic thoughts, epistemic thoughts, logical thoughts, etc.); but not the second, if that means the full range of thoughts, including such thoughts as that I need to go and buy milk. Should we study false thoughts as well as true thoughts? Or silly thoughts as well as sound thoughts? Presumably not. Clearly, we need to know what thoughts to study and why. The answer to that will have to include the following obvious consideration: we need to study the thoughts relevant to the problems of philosophy. But what are they? The proposal so far says nothing about this—it just says we should study thoughts (perhaps via sentences). The main question is thus roundly begged. Clearly, philosophy should study philosophical problems, but the recommendation to study thoughts makes no mention of this and is much too inclusive. Should we then say that philosophy is concerned with thoughts about philosophical problems? No, it should study the problems not thoughts about them (that would be meta-philosophy). Third, why thought and not belief and other propositional attitudes? What is it about thinking in particular that makes it the proper object of philosophical study? Isn’t thought chosen because it is where concepts occur, but concepts occur in other mental environments too. Many philosophers have urged that philosophy is concerned with concepts, but they don’t limit concepts to thoughts. They may say that philosophy is about our conceptual scheme, but not about thinking specifically—we also have concept-endowed beliefs, intentions, desires, etc. We are concerned with the concept of knowledge, say, but not specifically with thoughts about knowledge. Why not say we are concerned with propositions about knowledge (i.e., the contents of thoughts, which can be shared with other propositional attitudes)? And what about the idea that philosophy in general is concerned with human knowledge (its nature, scope, and limits) not human thought? That would overcome the problem of false thoughts (why study them?), and knowledge is correlative with concepts. This suggestion has the drawback of confining philosophy to the epistemological, though that domain can easily open up into ontology. That would return us to Descartes, possibly with the addendum that knowledge is best understood via language about knowledge (the Cartesian linguistic turn). But at least this is a recognizably philosophical concern, unlike a wish to study thoughts in general; and knowledge is plausibly regarded as integral to concept possession—to have the concept of an F you need to know what an F is. The truth, though, is that none of these proposals works very well: they tend to be too restricted and too psychologically oriented; in particular, they don’t bring reality into the picture clearly enough. Here I will repeat what I have argued elsewhere: philosophy is about logical reality[2]. Only in so far as thought, belief, language, concepts, and knowledge provide a way of representing reality are they of methodological interest to philosophy. Philosophical problems, according to this view, are logical problems (in a wide sense), so we seek to understand logical reality. I think conceptual analysis is the best way to access logical reality,[3] but this is not restricted to a particular class of mental capacities—certainly not to thoughts specifically. Philosophy, however, is not about concepts, as opposed to reality (sense not reference); it is about reality, via concepts. In fact, I hold that philosophy is the science of logical reality, so I don’t make the kind of distinction between science and philosophy that motivates the turn to thought and language. Philosophy is no more about concepts (its main source of data) than physics is about meter readings (or perceptions thereof). But that is another story; my point here is that it is quite wrong to equate philosophy with the study of thought specifically and as such. For example, ethics is about the nature of right and wrong not about thoughts of right and wrong (still less the words “right” and “wrong”): thoughts only come into the picture as one possible means of discovering the nature of right and wrong. There is much about thoughts that is completely irrelevant to the philosophical question—their ontogenesis, phylogenesis, causal powers, brain implementation, interactions with desires, conscious manifestation, etc. Only in a very limited respect are they philosophically relevant, namely that they contain concepts that can be analyzed so as to reveal (perhaps only partially) the nature of the reality they denote. Nothing about their being thoughts (the psychological type) is relevant to their philosophical significance. The psychology of thought is of no philosophical relevance, even when the psychology is philosophical (e.g., that thoughts are subject to the will, referentially opaque, possible without language, etc.): for that has no bearing on their ability to shed light on moral value and other subjects of philosophical interest. So, what in some circles is treated as axiomatic is completely mistaken, i.e., the thesis that philosophy is about human thought (whether directly or via language). True, there can be a philosophy of thought, as there can be a philosophy of many things (necessity, causation, time, space, etc.); but philosophy generally is not the study (solely) of thought. Thought is not its subject matter, its focus of interest.[4]

[1] Michael Dummett says this a lot, but many others subscribe to the same view. His book On the Origins of Analytical Philosophy(1993) insists on the idea throughout, using it to promote the linguistic turn.

[2] See my papers, “Philosophy Defined” and “Philosophy as Logical Analysis” on this blog.

[3] See my Truth by Analysis (2012).

[4] Of course, I am using “thought” in its usual psychological sense not in Frege’s non-psychological sense, but even in that latter sense it is hopeless as a definition of philosophy: philosophy is not confined in its interests to a supposed realm of objective mind-independent abstract entities. Nor does Dummett use“thought” in this sense; he means to speak of psychological entities. From my reading, he never seems to spell out precisely why thought is the royal road to solving philosophical problems; he seems to take it as obvious. He is mainly concerned to show that thought has to be understood via language. How any of this would help with the mind-body problem, say, is never explained: is the solution hidden somewhere in the thoughts we have? Why is philosophy so hard if thought contains all the answers? These are obvious questions, left unaddressed.

5 replies
  1. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    “I hold that philosophy is the /science/ of logical reality, so I don’t make the kind of distinction between science and philosophy that motivates the turn to thought and language.”

    You write (in your blog article “Defining Philosophy”) that “logical reality consists of all the relations of entailment, consistency, and inconsistency that exist.”

    Philosophy cannot properly be called a science of anything unless it can produce knowledge or information about its subject matter in the form of established facts. What established facts about logical reality are there (apart from principles of formal logic such as (p & q) –> p)? What do we actually know about it?
    To use one of your examples, do we know whether the mind entails the body? This is not a matter of formal logic, but of “onto-logic”. We have formal-logical knowledge, but do we also have onto-logical knowledge about onto-logical relations of entailment or necessitation? I doubt we do. For instance, I’m convinced that the existence of properties necessitates the existence of things having them; but do I know it does? I don’t think so. Is this an established fact like the scientific one that the existence of water entails the existence of H2O molecules? I don’t think so. How can we possibly acquire onto-logical, i.e. not just formal-logical, knowledge of “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”? (W. Sellars) Pure reason as a source of such knowledge has failed us, hasn’t it?

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      It’s easy to produce many examples of indisputable entailments apart from standard logical systems: any analytic truth will do. I don’t think it’s true that any science must produce “established facts”, whatever “established” means. Where are the established facts of psychology? What about scientific theories that aren’t established facts? Aren’t they still part of science? Philosophy has some indisputable propositions: the use-mention distinction, the type-token distinction, the many counterexamples to putative definitions, Leibniz’s law, the singular-general distinction, the distinctness of sense and reference for definite descriptions, and many others. I have discussed these kinds of questions in my book Truth by Analysis and my article “The Science of Philosophy” and elsewhere.

    • Oliver S.
      Oliver S. says:

      “It is an established fact, a piece of information, that the continents are in motion. We call the latter fact “established” because anyone who does not agree that the continents are in motion either does not fully appreciate the data and arguments a geologist could put forward in support of that thesis or is intellectually perverse.”

      (Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015. p. 21n4)


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