‘The use of philosophy’, wrote J.M.E. McTaggart (1866-1925), ‘lies not in being deeper than science, but in being truer than theology—not in its bearing on action, but in its bearing on religion. It does not give us guidance. It gives us hope.’
It’s hard to think of a sentiment more alien to the conventional wisdom of contemporary philosophers. A more recent philosopher, W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000), declared that ‘The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway, since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him.’ Most of my colleagues would, I think, agree. But the fact that McTaggart wrote those words almost exactly a hundred years ago shows us how quickly and dramatically notions about the use of philosophy can change.
For most contemporary philosophers, the use of philosophy lies in a correct understanding of reality. The utility lies in scratching the itch of intellectual curiosity. But is this not already covered by the natural and social sciences? Philosophers struggle to carve out a niche for themselves in the modern context. Some philosophers reply that, unlike scientists, they pursue a very general understanding. McTaggart proposed something different: an understanding of what he called the ultimate nature of reality. The philosopher as generalist can hope at best to add ornaments around the edifice constructed by the sciences, or perhaps to shore up its foundations (though scientists never ask for their help). McTaggart found in the ultimate reality something entirely inconsistent with that edifice. In his ultimate reality there is no time and no material universe, only a collection of immaterial spirits constituted through their relations of mutual and eternal love. I can’t resist quoting Elizabeth Anscombe’s characteristically terse review of his entire body of work:
Like Zeno, who argued that there was no such thing as motion, he has inspired many to refute him, but there is little agreement between the refuters. He was an atheist and his general view of things was that we—human persons— are all enjoying an eternal life of love and mutual knowledge without realizing this. In short, he thought that we were all gods, though he would not have put it like that. He wrote in a very good prose style.
If McTaggart’s philosophy contains anything correct, it contains truths undiscovered by natural science. But since, by his own admission, we live our ordinary lives outside his ultimate reality, the use in knowing it must be a matter of hope and not guidance. McTaggart claimed to have made his discoveries by a method different from that of the sciences. He reflected on his innate ideas of existence, reality, substance, quality, relation, and so on. He allowed himself few experiments, and these were of the introspective kind. For instance, he tried to have the thought that nothing exists at all and found that when he did this he couldn’t help but notice an existing thing. His philosophy was thus in the great tradition of the Early Modern Rationalists (unlike some historians I don’t object to the term). I study the philosophers in this tradition because they are the most fun to read, and they produce visions of sumptuous beauty. But they have a bad rap among contemporary philosophers. David Stove called the movement of British Idealism— the culmination of the Rationalist tradition, to which McTaggart belonged—‘a Victorian Horror-Story’. Stove was at least open about the source of his hostility. The British Idealists produced a form of philosophy that was all too close to religion. And Stove had an odium theologicum against religion: ‘Religious beliefs are discreditable … the beliefs are irrational, and the emotion from which they spring is bad.’ The motive is less explicit in many contemporary philosophers, but I still think it’s there. It is very troublesome to try to explain, as so many contemporary philosophers of mind do, how subjective inner experiences are really observable chemical changes in the brain. But these philosophers worry that failing to provide such an explanation will license us to countenance things beyond the ken of natural science. And this triggers traumatic Sunday School memories of ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen realities’ (Heb 11:1 – I quote David Bentley Hart’s excellent new translation). To use pure reason as ‘the eyes of the mind’, as Spinoza put it, a philosopher risks apprehending things that rigorous science can’t see. And perhaps the scientifically minded philosopher, having extracted herself from religion by strenuous effort, doesn’t trust herself not to then give in to some residual sentimentality and populate the ultimate reality of the rational vision with objects of wishful fantasy. Better to close the eyes of the mind altogether, although philosophers have never adequately explained why, as Ruth Lydia Saw asked, the state we are in when we open our eyes should be called knowledge but not the state we are in when we think. Interestingly, Laurence Bonjour, in his In Defence of Pure Reason, moves for the admission of a faculty of rational insight with the assurance that, used properly, it will never justify anything like a McTaggartian vision. This, to me, is like convincing someone to buy a piano with the reassurance that properly played it will produce no music.
I’m only a historian of philosophy and not qualified to pronounce on things like the correct philosophical method. But I have it on the authority of A.N. Whitehead that systems of philosophy are only ever abandoned, not refuted. And causes of abandonment certainly fall within the historian’s purview. I continue to believe that the abandonment of Rationalism has something to do with the prevalence of an attitude like Stove’s—a certain pride in having such muscularity of intellect as to be immune from what he calls ‘the religious demand for the universe to be reassuring or consoling’.
I’m not entirely sure why contemporary philosophers are so keen to appear hardheaded. They might be afraid that scientists will make fun of them. This fear is well-grounded. When Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ (although an engineer) was asked for advice by a young fan considering a philosophy degree, his response was a giggling suggestion for the fan to drop a hammer on his foot and see if it was real. It’s not surprising then that contemporary philosophy should want to secrete the legacy of the Rationalists; they were the sort of philosophers who denied the existence of hammers. But what does it matter? Their systems were beautiful works of extraordinary genius. I wouldn’t expect Bill Nye to understand, nor Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking. I can’t understand their equations either, but there’s room enough for us all in this world.
For all that, I don’t think Stove was wrong in diagnosing the motivation behind some of British Idealism as a hope that some might call religious; we saw McTaggart, although an atheist, declaring so explicitly. The same motivation might have moved many Rationalists in general. Spinoza’s earliest work declared as his primary motive the pursuit of a true good that could give him joy to eternity. Descartes, by contrast, claimed at the start of the Meditations to be in pursuit of something stable and lasting in the sciences, but then he declared a very different and much more religious motive to the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. Stove never says what’s wrong with having a motive like that, and anyway it isn’t true that every Rationalist philosopher ends up with a consoling vision. Philosophers have, as May Sinclair wrote, ‘created very strange Absolutes and have seen God as the parish beadle, as the President of the Ethical Society, as a mathematician geometrizing eternally, as a company of snow-white categories’. F.H. Bradley’s ultimate reality always seemed to me a hopeless and ugly place; it’s just as well McTaggart’s arguments are so much better.
But suppose a philosopher’s motivation in striving to glimpse an ultimate reality beyond appearance—rather than merely zooming out to some maximum level of general apparentness—is to find comfort in the vision. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that. McTaggart lived what seems to me a happy life, and he died in the hope of knowing face to face the ocean of love that in life he had seen only through a glass darkly. Stove and others might find this all too religious. Perhaps they suffered under organised religion; haven’t we all? But organised religion is a very specific thing—a set of ritual practices and hierarchies of power. It has much more in common with capitalism and the modern state than with the noble visions and meticulous logic of the great Rationalist philosophers. The blighted bagatelle of ordinary life contains more than enough to make us hard-headed and cautious in our hopes. There is no need for philosophy to join the party, and I choose to spend my time with the philosophers who don’t. Alexander Douglas is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of St. Andrew’s. He has written on Spinoza, the concept of debt, and why Jordan Peterson is so confused: axdouglas.com