- Response to Danielle Macbeth, "The Place of Philosophy"
Danielle Macbeth has two principal goals in "The Place of Philosophy": to diagnose the plight of contemporary Western—and especially analytic—philosophy, and to argue for an alternative conception of philosophy's role, according to which engagement with its history and with the philosophies of other cultures becomes crucial. I have a great deal of sympathy with both halves of her project, and feel I have learned a considerable amount from her essay. As Macbeth herself emphasizes, though, the a priori and dialectical nature of philosophy urges readers to see for themselves whether a given work of philosophy is fully convincing, and if not, then to engage in constructive criticism. In that spirit, I propose that we consider whether Macbeth's "humanistic" conception of philosophy as aimed at "natural truth" might itself be insufficiently human-centered, still in thrall to the idea of a single truth.
At the core of Macbeth's account is the distinction, based on but distinct from a related distinction defended by Bernard Williams, between an absolute conception of reality and a human conception of reality. The former concerns "reality as it is disclosed to any rational being, regardless of its biological and sociocultural form of life, through the medium of the purely rational mathematical languages we have developed over nearly three millennia." The latter concerns "reality as it is disclosed in our everyday lives through the medium of the natural languages we speak." This "human" reality, she says, is crucially mediated by our "biological and sociocultural form of life." Nonetheless, Macbeth insists that our profound shaping by acculturation does not lead to relativism, because some truths are "valid for (available to) all human beings, all rational beings with our sort of body and form of sensibility." These are the "natural truths," according to which "all human beings ought to perceive and think about at least some aspects of the sensibly perceptible world in some one, true way."
I propose we consider two examples as aids in understanding what natural truths may (or may not) be about, and how to go about discovering them. The first is Macbeth's: she says that "one and the same person can learn to see a thing, say, some fish in a pond, both more (say) atomistically, as someone appropriately acculturated will tend to see it, and also more holistically and relationally, as someone differently acculturated might." The second example derives from Owen Flanagan's recent The Geography of Morals, which spends three chapters considering whether or not it makes sense to strive to extirpate anger, as both Buddhists and Stoics have argued. Is there a natural truth about how to see fish, or about whether to rid oneself of anger?
Macbeth is not committed to all matters of everyday living being amenable to natural truth; she explicitly distinguishes it from matters of taste, in which one person [End Page 986] simply experiences things differently from another (her example concerns ice cream flavors). When it is possible to learn to experience things one way or the other, though, Macbeth proposes that we turn to philosophy, whose proper role is to assess which way of seeing is best. As she puts it for her own example, philosophy should tell us "how rational animals like us ought rationally to perceive and think about fish." She fleshes out this process in the following way:
Perhaps, for example, the atomistic conception is merely an appearance to be explained by appeal to the sociocultural and intellectual forces that were in play already in ancient Greece and would eventually reach their full flowering in early modern science. Perhaps that is a good way to think about fish on the way to realizing modern science, but nonetheless altogether wrong if one wants to understand the nature of the fish themselves. If so, one will discover this only by reflecting on the rise of modern science and its roots in the distinctive intellectual culture that was ancient Greece.
Macbeth's essay is methodological, so she does not pursue further the question of how we ought to see fish, other than to reiterate that the philosophical investigation...