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pathways (letters)

14 December 1997

Dear Margaret,

Thank you for your letter and essay on Dr Johnson and the stone, for units 12 — 15 of The Ultimate Nature of Things. I'll deal with that in a minute!

I was hoping that with the extracts from the first units of each programme (and more so with the extracts from other units included on the Pathways Web site) prospective students would gain a fair idea of what they are letting themselves in for. Although the metaphysics is my favourite out of the six, it has had the fewest enrolments. Currently, there is just one, Gregory Markish in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, a maths graduate who is finishing the philosophy of language programme and is just starting metaphysics. He is now applying for a place on a philosophy post-graduate programme. The Possible World Machine has proved the most popular of the programmes, closely followed by Searching for the Soul (which is actually a lot harder than it looks)...

Pathways courses are for intelligent people, prepared to make the effort to grapple with sometimes difficult material. You are right that (apart from the Introduction to Philosophy) they would not be classified as 'Introductions' on the shelf. What makes the difference is the close supervision. Help is available every step of the way.

I have discovered my vocation as a philosophy teacher very late in my career. I have always thought of myself as someone who had set out to push forward the boundaries of the subject. My approach has been uncompromising insofar as each programme (including The Possible World Machine) represents the results of my own research, rather than an attempt to survey the ground from a neutral standpoint. I think students do learn something doing philosophy this way. More may get frightened off, but less get bored.

Re the question of 'answers in the text', I recently received quite a telling off from a student who also did the philosophy of language programme and has just started the philosophy of mind. She complained that in an essay she wrote the answer was not in the text! — In setting the essay questions, I have tried to give students the choice. I agree that some of the questions are overly technical, and that is one of the first things I am going to revise...

Your story about the four year old was wonderful. I noticed that you did not say that in realising that 'There isn't a last number!' he had grasped the concept of infinity. Don't you want to say that? (If your interested, there's a good book by Adrian Moore, a Routledge paperback entitled The Infinite.)

Well, let's get to work:

In your second paragraph you mention two bad arguments by Berkeley. The first is the attack on the 'under-propping' conception of material substance which Locke had satirised with his story of the tortoise. The second is the argument that, contra Locke, there is no logical distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

The first is bad because, in technical terms, it is an 'ignoratio elenchi'. It assumes that the proponent of matter is committed to a view of the substance-attribute relation according to which substance remains an unknowable 'I know not what' hidden behind its attributes. This confusion is aided by the conflation of the notion of an attribute (being red, being six feet tall, weighing fifty pounds) with the notion of an experience, such as the experience of red, or the experience of seeing someone six foot tall, or lifting a fifty pound sack of potatoes — both of which, in empiricist language, would be termed 'ideas'.

The second argument is better than the version you give. The term 'relative' is far too slippery here. Obviously 'small' and 'large' are relative terms. But how about 'square' and 'triangular'? A better argument is that it is impossible to form the notion of such primary qualities without the addition of secondary qualities. Picture a triangle: what colour is it? Grey? But still the argument is a bad one because it assumes that in order to conceive something you have to picture it.

The version of Berkeley's argument I give in the text does not rest on either of these confusions.

It is a pity that I only came across the original account of the stone-kicking incident quite recently. I had always imagined the stone to be sufficiently small to be propelled by the kick (though sufficiently large to be painful). At least, that is how I tell the story in Dr Johnson's Boots in the introduction to philosophy programme. The original is better. Matter resists us.

'That is just like Dr Johnson kicking the stone' was actually voiced by no less a philosopher than P.F. Strawson, in response to an essay on Kant I had just read out to him. My views on matter and agency were just forming then. I fumbled my reply! (An observer might say I have been trying to make up for it ever since. There are certain key moments in our lives that we re-live again and again. That tutorial at least is well up in the second league of key incidents.)

When you mention Leibniz and Hume, I would have expected a nod in the direction of the fact that Leibniz's monadism puts him well into the immaterialist camp. Hume's 'on scepticism with regard to the senses' is an object lesson in what happens to Berkeley's account if you remove God. (Hume was a fine one to talk. His only solution in the Treatise was to go off and play a game of backgammon.) — But thanks for the nugget about Swift!

I don't know whether Dr Johnson was consciously setting out to make a philosophical point or not. Imagine if he and Boswell had witnessed two the reaction of someone totally ignorant of philosophy to Berkeley's sermon, 'Look, objects are real not just ideas in the mind. I can prove it!' Dr Johnson would have applauded the man's common sense, but in a condescending way. In his naive reaction, there is something the man has not grasped.

With the pragmatists and existentialists we are on to the meat of the question. It is important to realise that to refuse to engage in a particular line of argument is a dialectical move. The refusal, backed up with reasons, amounts to a philosophical argument, but one which rejects the currently accepted terms of reference. Philosophers are trying to do this all the time: it is not always easy to judge when real progress has been made and when its just a cheap trick — throwing sand in the opponent's face. Every new form of argument breeds new forms of fallacy. — I would applaud what the pragmatists and existentialists did; but their arguments are not good enough as they stand. At a certain point you have to make a leap. I'm looking to plug that gap.

Thank you for reminding me that Ryle talks about the 'epistemology of the passive observer'. No, he doesn't (so far as I recall) come up with the vital argument. He is attacking the props of dualism and idealism, but never grasps the central nerve of the dialectic. His diagnosis is at best only partially correct.

Are we ever passive observers? Of course! But then 'it all depends what you mean by' a passive observer. In traditional epistemology, the idea is that to be a subject of knowledge and experience does not require a body, let alone an active body. It is enough that occupies a point of view. The result is that our essential 'I' or self is defined as a passive observer within our active bodies. The essential 'I' is always there in the background, overlooking my performances, even when my conscious attention is focused elsewhere.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner