For Love of the Argument

Blackboard of Mathematician
Photo by Jessica Wynne

For Love of the Argument

I first met Bryan Magee when he was visiting Sidney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.  My then husband was teaching there and I had been granted a nice little niche as “Research Affiliate.”

We had Magee over to dinner at our flat, where he commended the meal, especially “this fish.”

“This fish,” I grinned haplessly, “is chicken.”

So I’m not a natural chef.  So better I should know it now.

In the British set-up, only one person in a department gets to be the professor.  At Trad and Mod, David M. Armstrong, the celebrated “Australian materialist,” was the Professor.  (The term “materialist” designates the metaphysical claim that only physical stuff is real; it does not refer to a person’s fixation on things like food, clothes or money.)

As is the wont of Aussie hosts, Armstrong invited Magee to go with him on a reduced-scale bushwalk.  Magee, an urban type, was soon crimson and perspiring.

“How anyone can think of this as pleasure … baffles me,” he commented when the mid-life fraternity initiation was finally over.

He’d been an M.P.,  a Member of Parliament, and was a worldly man with plenty of stories to tell.  Since I never saw him engage in contests of conceptual agility with the colleagues at Trad and Mod,  I never pegged him for a philosopher precisely.  But he was.

These nights, I’ve been reading Magee’s paperback book titled Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy.  It records dialogues he held with 15 leading Anglo-American philosophers, originally a highly successful BBC television series.  It came out in the 1980’s but, despite changes in fashion, I doubt that the shape of its own cutting edge has been much sharpened or sanded down since then.

He spoke with 14 men and one woman, each very distinct thinkers.  If you suppose it would be easy to get each one to encapsulate his or her philosophic views and then respond to precise and searching questions … well you probably never did imagine doing that would be easy.  Bet your boots it’s not easy.

Did you want to know the difference between the early and late Wittgenstein?  Here is Anthony Quinton, Trinity College, Oxford, to explain.  The early Wittgenstein held that meaning consists in the naming of objects in the world.  A fact is a certain arrangement of objects in the world and a meaningful sentence would be an arrangement of the names of those objects so as to picture — or have a form corresponding to — that external arrangement.  Nothing could be clearer.  The only trouble was that most of our communications don’t exhibit that kind of clarity.  When we say, for example, “he really knows how to behave” or “that’s morally (or aesthetically) unacceptable,” we have something in view not captured by early Wittgenstein.

And the late Ludwig?  He does a complete about-face.  I don’t know of anything like it in the whole history of philosophy.  Now he holds that meaning arises within the particular context where we speak.  So we look for the specifics of the situation in which language is actually used.  The great philosophers raised scaffolds of abstract theory, on which their views of meaning were hung.  So the job of today’s philosopher would be to dismantle the tradition’s scaffolding and recover the circumstances where the philosopher’s displaced terms are used in their everyday sense.

Do you wonder why you never read the novels or philosophic work of Iris Murdoch — only her husband’s pathetic account of her last decline?  Well never mind all that.

Magee’s interview with Murdoch in her heyday focuses on the difference between writing novels and writing philosophy, as she sees it, having done both.  She turns out to have a very elegant mind and to explain that difference with great assurance.  Philosophic writing has to be utterly clear in defining its problems, its terms, methods and how its resolutions would look.  Whereas novels dwell in the half-light, where life retains its mysteries, ambiguities and surprises.  Even its resolutions are never complete or definitive.

My goodness, I thought, imagine having so definite a view of these differences and yet being able to do both!  It’s like going on a workmanlike hike and also, with the same body, engaging in a flying trapeze act in roughly the same time span!   I can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat!  Formidable!

Do you wonder what Noam Chomsky is about, aside from his torrentially flawed anti-Israel polemics?  Well, glad you asked.  It seems that, prior to Chomsky, childrens’ acquisition of language had been explained by B. F. Skinner.  The child sees a red ball.  The ball is the stimulus.  She is told to call it “red.” The word “red” is the response.  Eventually, she acquires the habit of saying “red” whenever she sees the red ball.  This is called “Behaviorism” and it dominated the field of linguistics before Chomsky.

What Chomsky noticed was the child’s skill in putting newly-acquired sounds together, assembling them according to grammatical rules that were not acquired in this way, or even taught at all at the age when complex speech patterns first show themselves.  To try, on the stimulus/response model, to explain the syntactical rules that children master without being taught them, would be like explaining the complex guidelines to which bees conform in their beehives, on the Skinnerian model.  Obviously, what bees know, they know innately.  They don’t have to be taught.  Similarly, human beings are born knowing a good deal about how to speak.

So here are three philosophers lifted out of Magee’s 15.  Their differences are evident, but what do they have in common?

They come alive in argument.  They live in that inner space where the reasoning process lives.  They recognize each other as citizens within that realm.

Long ago Socrates warned against the hatred of reason.  He said that newcomers to philosophy meet with a few bad arguments and rush to the judgment that no argument can lead one toward truth.  But that’s analogous to someone who, disappointed by his earliest friends, decides that no human being is any good.

In fact, says Socrates, few among us are outstandingly good and few are outstandingly bad.  Most are somewhere in between.  And it’s the same with arguments.  So, we should avoid

misology, the hatred of reason —

since it resembles misanthropy, the hatred of human beings.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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