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Philosophy is an almost invisible part of contemporary intellectual life. Most people outside of philosophy departments have no clear idea of what philosophy professors are supposed to contribute to culture. Few think it worth the trouble to inquire.

The lack of attention that our discipline receives is sometimes attributed to the technicality of the issues currently being discussed. But that is not a good explanation. Debates between today’s philosophers of language and mind are no more tiresomely technical than were those between interpreters and critics of Kant in the 1790’s.

The problem is not the style in which philosophy is currently being done in the English-speaking world. It is rather that many of the issues discussed by Descartes, Hume and Kant had cultural resonance only as long as a significant portion of the educated classes still resisted the secularization of moral and political life.[1] The claim that human beings are alone in the universe, and that they should not look for help from supernatural agencies, went hand-in-hand with the admission that Democritus and Epicurus had been largely right about how the universe works. The canonically great modern philosophers performed a useful service by suggesting ways of dealing with the triumph of mechanistic materialism.

As what Lecky called “the warfare between science and theology” gradually tapered off, there was less and less useful work for philosophers to do. Just as medieval scholasticism became tedious once Christian doctrine had been synthesized with Greek philosophy, so a great deal of modern philosophy began to seem pointless after most intellectuals either abandoned their religious faith or found ways of rendering it compatible with modern natural science. Although rabble-rousers can still raise doubts about Darwin among the masses, the intellectuals—the only people on whom philosophy books have any impact—have no such doubts. They do not require either a sophisticated metaphysics or a fancy theory of reference to convince them that there are no spooks.

After the intellectuals had become convinced that empirical science, rather than metaphysics, told us how things work, philosophy had a choice between two alternatives. One was to follow Hegel’s lead and to become a combination of intellectual history and cultural criticism—the sort of thing offered by Heidegger and Dewey, as well as by such people as Adorno, Strauss, Arendt, Berlin, Blumenberg, and Habermas. This way of doing philosophy flourishes mainly in the non-Anglophone philosophical world, but it is also exemplified by the work of American philosophers like Robert Pippin.

The other alternative was to imitate Kant by developing an armchair research program, thereby helping philosophy win a place in universities as an autonomous academic discipline. What was needed was a program that resembled Kant’s in having no place for observation, experiment or historical knowledge. German neo-Kantians and British empiricists agreed that the core of philosophy was inquiry into something something called “Experience” or “Consciousness”. An alternative program was launched by Frege and Peirce, this one purporting to investigate something called “Language” or “the Sign”.

Both programs assumed that, just as matter can be broken down into atoms, so can experience and language. The first sort of atoms include Lockean simple ideas, Kantian unsynthesized intuitions, sense-data, and the objects of Husserlian Wesenschau. The second include Fregean senses, Peircean signs, and Tractarian linguistic pictures. By insisting that questions concerning the relation of such immaterial atoms to physical particles were at the core of their discipline, philosophers in Anglophone countries shoved social philosophy, intellectual history, culture criticism, and Hegel out to the periphery.

Yet there have always been holists—philosophers who were dubious about the existence of either atoms of consciousness or atoms of significance. Holists often become skeptics about the existence of shadowy surrogates for Reality such as “Experience”, “Consciousness” and “Language”. Wittgenstein, the most celebrated of these skeptics, came close to suggesting that the so-called “core” areas of philosophy serve no function save to keep an academic discipline in business.

Skepticism of this sort has come to be labeled “quietism”. Brian Leiter, in his introduction to a recently-published collection titled The Future for Philosophy, divides the Anglophone philosophical world into “naturalists” and “Wittgensteinian quietists”. The latter, he says, think of philosophy as “a kind of therapy, dissolving philosophical problems rather than solving them”. [2] They are, Leiter is glad to report, in the miority, having the upper hand in only four major graduate departments (Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago and Pittsburgh). “Unlike the Wittgensteinians,” Leiter writes, “the naturalists believe that the problems that have worried philosophers (about the nature of the mind, knowledge, action, reality, morality, and so on) are indeed real”.[3]

I think Leiter’s account of the stand-off between these two camps is largely accurate. He has identified the deepest and most intractable difference of opinion within contemporary Anglophone philosophy. But his account is misleading in one respect. Most people who think of themselves in the quietist camp, as I do, would hesitate to say that the problems studied by our activist colleagues are unreal. They do not divide philosophical problems into the real and the illusory, but rather into those that retain some relevance to cultural politics and those that do not. Quietists, at least those of my sect, think that such relevance needs to be demonstrated before a problem is taken seriously. This view is a corollary of the maxim that what does not make a difference to practice should not make a difference to philosophers.

From this point of view, questions about the place of values in a world of fact are no more unreal than questions about how the Eucharistic blood and wine can embody the divine substance, or about how many sacraments Christ instituted. Neither of the latter problems are problems for everybody, but their parochial character does not render them illusory. For what one finds problematic is a function of what one thinks important. One’s sense of importance is in large part dependent on the vocabulary one employs. So cultural politics is often a struggle between those who urge that a familiar vocabulary be eschewed and those who defend the old ways of speaking.

Consider Leiter’s assertion that “Neuroscientists tell us about the brain, and philosophers try to figure out how to square our best neuroscience with the ability of our minds to represent what the world is like”.[4] The quietist response is to ask whether we really want to hold on to the notion of “representing what the world is like”. Perhaps, they suggest, it is time to give up the notion of “the world”, and of shadowy entities called “the mind” or “language” that contain representations of the world. Study of the history of culture helps us understand why these notions gained currency, just as it shows why certain theological notions became as important as they did. But such study also suggests that many of the central ideas of modern philosophy, like many topics in Christian theology, have become more trouble than they are worth.

Philip Pettit, in his contribution to The Future for Philosophy, gives an account of the naturalists’ metaphilosophical outlook that is somewhat fuller than Leiter’s. Philosophy, he says, is an attempt to reconcile “the manifest image of how things are”, and the “ideas that come to us with our spontaneous everyday practices” with “fidelity to the intellectual image of how things are”.[5] In our culture, Petit says, the intellectual image is the one provided by physical science. He sums up by saying that “a naturalistic, more or less mechanical image of the universe is imposed on us by cumulative developments in physics, biology and neuroscience, and this challenges us to look for where in that world there can be room for phenomena that remain as vivid as ever in the manifest image: consciousness, freedom, responsibility, goodness, virtue and the like.”[6]

Despite my veneration for Wilfrid Sellars, who originated this talk of a manifest and scientific images, I would like to jettison these visual metaphors. We should not be held captive by the world-picture picture. We do not need a synoptic view of something called “the world”. At most, we need is a synoptic narrative of how we came to talk as we do. We should stop trying for a unified picture, and for a master vocabulary. We should confine ourselves to making sure that we are not burdened with obsolete ways of speaking, and then insuring that those vocabularies that are still useful stay out of each other’s way.

Narratives that recount how these various vocabularies came into existence helps us see that terminologies we employ for some purposes need not link up in any clear way with those we employ for other purposes--that we can simply let two linguistic practices co-exist peaceably, side by side. This is what Hume suggested we do with the vocabulary of prediction and that of assignment of responsibility. The lesson the pragmatists drew from Hume was that philosophers should not scratch where it does not itch. When there is no longer an audience outside the discipline that displays interest in a philosophical problem, that problem should be viewed with suspicion.

Naturalists like Pettit and Leiter may respond that they are interested in philosophical truth rather than in catering to the taste of the day. This is the same rhetorical strategy that was used by seventeenth-century Aristotelians trying to fend off Hobbes and Descartes. Hobbes responded that those who were still sweating away in what he called “the hothouses of vain philosophy” were in the grip of a obsolete terminology, one that made the problems they discussed seem urgent. Contemporary quietists think the same about their activist opponents. They believe that the vocabulary of representationalism is as shopworn and as dubious as that of hylomorphism.

This anti-representationalist view can be found in several contributions to a recent collection of essays titled Naturalism in Question, edited by Mario de Caro and David Macarthur. It is most explicit in Huw Price’s essay, “Naturalism without representationalism”. Price makes a very helpful distinction between object naturalism and subject naturalism. Object naturalism is “the view that in some important sense, all there is is the world studied by science”.[7] Subject naturalism, on the other hand, simply says that “we humans are natural creatures, and if the claims and ambitions of philosophy conflict with this view, then philosophy needs to give way.”

Whereas object naturalists worry about the place of non-particles in a world of particles. Price says, subject naturalists view these “placement problems” as “problems about human linguistic behavior”.[8] Object naturalists worry about how non-particles are related to particles because, in Price’s words, they take for granted that “substantial ‘word-world’ semantic relations are a part of the best scientific account of our use of the relevant terms”.[9] Subject naturalists are semantic deflationists: they see no need for such relations—and, in particular, for that of “being made true by”. They think once we have explained the uses of the relevant terms, there is no further problem about the relation of those uses to the world.

Bjorn Ramberg, in an article called “Naturalizing Idealizations”, uses “pragmatic naturalism” to designate the same approach to philosophical problems that Price labels “subject naturalism”. Ramberg writes as follows:

Reduction, says the pragmatist, is a meta-tool of science; a way of systematically extending the domain of some set of tools for handling the explanatory tasks that scientists confront. Naturalization, by contrast, is a goal of philosophy: it is the elimination of metaphysical gaps between the characteristic features by which we deal with agents and thinkers, on the one hand, and the characteristic features by reference to which we empirically generalize over the causal relations between objects and events, on the other. It is only in the context of a certain metaphysics that the scientific tool becomes a philosophical one, an instrument of legislative ontology.[10]

Pragmatic naturalism, Ramberg continues, “treats the gap itself, that which transforms reduction into a philosophical project, as a symptom of dysfunction in our philosophical vocabulary”. The cure for this dysfunction, in Ramberg’s words, is to provide “alternatives to what begins to look like conceptual hang-ups and fixed ideas…[and to explain] how our practice might change if we were to describe things…in altered vocabularies”.[11]

Frank Jackson’s book From Metaphysics to Ethics is a paradigm of object naturalism. Jackson says that “serious metaphysics… continually faces the location problem.” The nature of this problem is explained in the following passage:

Because the ingredients are limited, some putative features of the world are not going to appear explicitly in some more basic account….There are inevitably a host of putative features of our world which we must either eliminate or locate.[12]

Subject naturalists, by contrast, have no use for the notion of “merely putative feature of the world”, unless this is taken to mean something like “topic not worth talking about”. Their question is not “What features does the world really have?” but “What topics are worth discussing?” Subject naturalists may think that the culture as a whole would be better off if a certain language-game were no longer played, but they do not argue that some of the words deployed in that practice signify unreal entities. Nor do they urge that some sentences be understood as about something quite different from what they are putatively about.

For Jackson, the method of what he calls “serious metaphysics” is conceptual analysis, for the following reason:

Serious metaphysics requires us to address when matters described in one vocabulary are made true by matters described in another vocabulary. But how could we possibly address this question in the absence of a consideration of when it is right to describe matters in the terms of the various vocabularies?…And to do that…is to do conceptual analysis.[13]

But conceptual analysis does not tell the serious metaphysician which matters make which statements about other matters true. He already knows that. As Jackson goes on to say, “Conceptual analysis is not being given a role in determining the fundamental nature of the world; it is, rather, being given a central role in determining what to say in less fundamental terms given an account of the world stated in more fundamental terms”.[14]

As I have already emphasized, subject naturalists have no use for Jackson’s key notion—that of “being made true by”. They are content, Price says, with “a use-explanatory account of semantic terms, while saying nothing of theoretical weight about whether these terms ‘refer’ or ‘have truth-conditions’.”[15] The subject naturalist’s basic task, he continues, is “to account for the uses of various terms—among them, the semantic terms themselves--in the lives of natural creatures in a natural environment.”

If you think that there is such a relation as “being made true by” then you can still hope, as Jackson does, to correct the linguistic practices of your day on theoretical grounds, rather than merely cultural-political ones. For your apriori knowledge of what makes sentences true permits you to evaluate the relation between the culture of your day and the intrinsic nature of reality itself. But subject naturalists like Price can criticize culture only by arguing that a proposed alternative culture would better serve our larger purposes.

Price confronts Jackson with the following question: “[if we can explain] why natural creatures in a natural environment come to talk in these plural ways—of ‘truth’, ‘value’, ‘meaning’, ‘causation’, all the rest—what puzzle remains? What debt does philosophy now owe to science?”[16] That question can be expanded along the following lines: If you know not only how words are used, but what purposes are and are not served by so using them, what more could philosophy hope to tell you?

If you want to know about the relation between language and reality, the quietist continues, consider how the early hominids might have started using marks and noises to coordinate their actions. Then consult the anthropologists and the intellectual historians. These are the people who can tell you how our species progressed from organizing searches for food to building cities and writing books. Given narratives such as these, what purpose is served by tacking on an account of the relation of these achievements to the behavior of physical particles?

Both Jackson and Price pride themselves on being naturalists, but different things come to their minds when they speak of “nature”. When Jackson uses that word he thinks of particles. A subject naturalist like Price thinks instead of organisms coping with, and improving, their environment. The object naturalist expresses his fear of spooks by insisting that everything be tied in, somehow, with the movements of the atoms through the void. The subject naturalist expresses his fear of spooks by insisting that our stories about how evolution led from the protozoa to the Renaissance should contain no sudden discontinuities—that it be a story of gradually increasingly complexity of physiological structure facilitating increasingly complex behavior.

For the subject naturalist, the import of Price’s dictum that “we are natural creatures in a natural environment” is that we should be wary of drawing lines between kinds of organisms in non-behavioral and non-physiological terms. This means that we should not use terms such as “intentionality”, or “consciousness” or “representation” unless we can specify, at least roughly, what sort of behavior suffices to show the presence of the referents of these terms.

For example, if we want to say that squids have intentionality but paramecia do not, or that there is something it is like to be a bat but nothing it is like to be an earthworm, or that insects represent their environment whereas plants merely respond to it, we should be prepared to explain how we can tell—to specify what behavioral or physiological facts are relevant to this claim. If we cannot do that, we are kicking up dust and then complaining that we cannot see. We are inventing spooks in order to make work for ghost-busters.

This emphasis on behavioral criteria is reminiscent of the positivists’ verificationism. But it differs in that it is not the product of a general theory about the nature of meaning, one that enables us to distinguish sense from nonsense. The subject naturalist can cheerfully admit that any expression will have a sense if you give it one. It is rather that traditional philosophical distinctions complicate narratives of biological evolution to no good purpose. In the same spirit, liberal theologians argue that questions about the number of the sacraments, though perfectly intelligible, are distractions from the Christian message.

Fundamentalist Catholics, of course, insist that such questions are still very important. Object naturalists are equally insistent that it is important to ask, for example, how collocations of physical particles manage to display moral virtue. Quietist Christians think that the questions insisted on by these Catholics are relics of a relatively primitive period in the reception of Christ’s message. Quietist philosophers think that the questions still being posed by their activist colleagues were, in the seventeenth century, reasonable enough. They were a predictable product of the shock produced by the New Science. By now, however, they have become irrelevant to intellectual life. Christian faith without sacramentalism and what Price calls “naturalism without representationalism” are both cultural-political initiatives.


So far I have been painting the object naturalist vs. subject naturalist opposition with a fairly broad brush. In the time that remains I shalll try to show the relevance of this opposition to a couple of current philosophical controversies.

The first of these is a disagreement between Timothy Williamson and John McDowell. The anthology edited by Brian Leiter to which I have already referred includes a lively polemical essay by Williamson titled “Past the linguistic turn?”, Williamson starts off by attacking a view that John McDowell takes over from Hegel, Wittgenstein and Sellars: viz., “Since the world is everything that is the case….there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world”. Williamson paraphrases this as the claim that “the conceptual has no outer boundary beyond which lies unconceptualized reality” and again as the thesis that “any object can be thought of”.[17]

Williamson says that “…for all that McDowell has shown, there may be necessary limitations on all possible thinkers. We do not know whether there are elusive objects. It is unclear what would motivate the claim that there are none, if not some form of idealism. We should adopt no conception of philosophy that on methodological grounds excludes elusive objects”.[18]

I think that McDowell, a self-professed quietist, might respond by saying that we should indeed adopt a conception of philosophy that excludes elusive objects. We should do so for reasons of cultural politics. We should say that cultures that worry about unanswerable questions like “Are there necessary limitations on all possible thinkers?”, “Could God change the truths of arithmetic?” Am I dreaming now?” and “Is my color spectrum the inverse of yours?’ are less advanced than those which respect Peirce’s pragmatic maxim. Superior cultures have no use for what Peirce called “make-believe doubt”.

Williamson is wrong to suggest that only idealism could motivate McDowell’s thesis. The difference between idealism and pragmatism is that between metaphysical or epistemological arguments for the claim that any object can be thought of and cultural-political arguments for it. Pragmatists think that the idea of necessary limitations on all possible thinkers is as weird as Augustine’s thesis about the inevitability of sin—non posse non peccare. Neither can be refuted, but healthy-mindedness requires that both be dismissed out of hand.[19]

The clash of opinion between McDowell and Williamson epitomizes the opposition between two recent lines of thought within analytic philosophy. One runs from Wittgenstein through Sellars and Davidson to McDowell and Brandom. The other is associated with what Williamson calls “the revival of metaphysical theorizing, realist in spirit…associated with Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Kit Fine, Peter van Inwagen, David Armstrong and many others.”[20] The goal of such attempts to get past the linguistic turn is, Williamson says, “to discover what fundamental kind of things there are, and what properties and relations they have, not how we represent them”. [21] The contrast between these two lines of thought will become vivid to anyone who flips back and forth between the two collections of articles from which I have been quoting—Leiter’s The future for philosophy and De Caro’s and MacArthur’s Naturalism in question.

Quietists think that no kind of thing is more fundamental than any other kind of thing. The fact that, as Jackson puts it, you cannot change anything without changing the motions or positions of elementary physical particles, does nothing to show that there is a problem about how these particles leave room for non-particles. It is no more philosophically pregnant than the fact that you cannot mess with the particles without simultaneously messing with a great many other things. Such expressions as “the nature of reality” or “the world as it really is”, have in the past, quietists admit, played a role in producing desirable cultural change. But so have many other ladders which we would be well advised to throw away.

Quietists who have no use for the notion of ‘the world as it is apart from our ways of representing it” will balk at Williamson’s thesis that “What there is determines what there is for us to mean”. But they will also balk at the idealists’ claim that what we mean determines what there is. They want to get beyond realism and idealism by ceasing to contrast a represented world with our ways of representing it. This means giving up on the notion of linguistic representations of the world except insofar as it can be reconstructed within an inferentialist semantics. Such a semantics abjures what Price calls “substantial word-world relations” in favor of descriptions of the interaction of language-using organisms with other such organisms and with their environment.


The controversy about inferentialist semantics is the second of the two I want briefly to discuss. The best-known objection to Brandom’s inferentialism is Fodor’s. The clash between Fodor and Brandom epitomizes not only the difference between representationalist and inferentialist semantics but the larger atomist-holist conflict to which I referred earlier. Fodor thinks that philosophy can team up with cognitive science to find out how the mechanisms of mind and language work. Brandom is skeptical about the idea that there are any such mechanisms.

Brandom takes Davidsonian holism to the limit. As Davidson did in “A nice derangement of epitaphs”, he repudiates the idea that there is something called “a language”—something that splits up into bits called “meanings” or “linguistic representations” which can then be correlated with bits of the physical world. He tries to carry through on the Quine-Davidson hope for, as Kenneth Taylor has put it, “a theory of meaning in which meanings play no role”.[22] So he abandons the notion of a sentence having a “cognitive content” that remains constant in all the assertions it is used to make. Brandom cheerfully coasts down what Fodor derisively describes as “a well-greased and well-traveled slippery slope” at the bottom of which lies the view that “no two people ever mean the same thing by what they say”.[23]

Brandom does this because he wants to dismiss the idea that I get what is in my head—a cognitive content, a candidate for accurate representation of reality—into your head by making noises that effectuate this transmission. He hopes to replace it with an account of what he calls “doxastic scorekeeping”. I keep score in order to use the noise that emerge from your lips as indications of what motions those lips, and other portions of you body, are likely to make in various circumstances. Keeping track of these indications enables me to predict your responses to motions that I myself may wish to make.

This pattern of behavior is, of course, one we share with many other animals. We humans go one step further. We develop social norms that let us gang up on people who, having made noises such as “I promise to pay you back”, or “I will join the hunt”, make no move to do so. The same goes for people who, having uttered “p” and “if p then q”, obstinately refuse to assent to “q”. We, unlike the brutes, can play what Brandom calls the “game of giving and asking for reasons”. Our ability to play this game is what made it possible for us to assume lordship over the other animals. We cannot explain this ability on the basis of our acquisition of an extra added representationalist apparatus called “mind”. For saying that we, unlike the brutes, have minds is just another way of saying that we, but not they, play that game. Fodor to the contrary, finding out how the brain works will not help us find out how the mind works.[24] For the mind is not an apparatus, but rather a set of social practices.

Brandom does not call himself a “naturalist”, perhaps because he thinks the term might as well be handed over to the fans of elementary particles. But the whole point of his attempt to replace representationalist with inferentialist semantics is to tell a story about cultural evolution—the evolution of linguistic practices—that focuses on how these practices gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Unless one is convinced that particles somehow enjoy an ontological status superior to that of organisms, that will seem as naturalistic as a story can get.

Brandom cheerfully admits that “A word—‘dog’, ‘stupid’, ‘Republican’—has a different significance in my mouth that it does in yours, because and insofar as what follows from its being applicable, its consequences of application, differ for me, in virtue of my different collateral beliefs”.[25] But this difference is not a problem for anybody except philosophers who, like Fodor, take the notion of “cognitive content” seriously.

We are likely to look for substantive word-world relations as long as we ask Fregean questions about little atoms of linguistic significance such as “Does the assertion that the morning star is the evening star have the same cognitive content as the assertion that the thing we call the morning star is the same thing as the one we call the evening star?” If “same cognitive content” just means “will do as well for most purposes”, then the answer is yes. But Fregeans, invoking Church’s Translation Test, brush aside the fact that either sentence can usually be used to get the job done. The real question, they say, is not about uses but about senses, meanings, intensions. Sense, these philosophers say, determines reference in the same way that the marks on the map determine which slice of reality the map maps. Meanings cannot be the same thing as uses, for there is a difference between semantics and pragmatics. It is semantics that determines sameness and difference of cognitive content.

But we shall have a use for the notion of “same cognitive content” only if we try to hold belief and meaning apart, as Frege thought we should and Quine told us we should not. If we continue on along the path that Quine and Davidson cleared, we shall come to agree with Brandom that “particular linguistic phenomena can no longer be distinguished as ‘pragmatic’ or ‘semantic’”.[26] Brandom has no more use for a distinction between these two disciplines than Davidson did for a distinction between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally.


So much for the two controversies on which I wanted to comment. I hope that my discussion of the disagreements between McDowell and Williamson and between Brandom and Fodor has helped make clear why I think that Price’s distinction between two forms of naturalism is so useful. Subject naturalists like Price, Ramberg and I urge our activist colleagues to stop talking about great big things like Experience or Language, the shadow entities that Locke Kant, and Frege invented to replace Reality as the subject-matter of philosophy. This amounts to urging that we evacuate the so-called “core areas” of philosophy. Object naturalists like Jackson, Leiter, Petit, and Fodor fear that philosophy might not survive if it purged itself in this way. But subject naturalists who are also quietists suspect that the only thing our discipline would lose would be its insularity.

Richard Rorty
September 11, 2005


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