Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences
Formal Philosophy? A Plea for Pluralism
As I mulled over the questions put to me, what came first to mind was Frege's illuminating metaphor for the differences between formal and natural languages:
Hot on its heels came this shrewd observation of Nietzsche's:
Let me explain.
I was educated, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first at Oxford and then in Cambridge - largely in the then-dominant linguistic-conceptual-analytical style. Quite early on, someone or something led me to Quine, who led me to Carnap and Peirce, who led me to the other classical Pragmatists. Over time, it has been Peirce's work that has come to influence me the most: his formal fluency and logical innovations, of course, but also his distrust of easy dichotomies, his idea of the growth of meaning, his attractively naturalistic theory of inquiry, his constructive reconception of metaphysics and its role -- not to mention his penchant for neologisms. James hasn't been as strong an influence, but his observation that Pragmatism "'unstiffens' our theories" resonates with me;for Pragmatism opened my eyes to a conception of philosophy broader and more flexible than, as Tony Quinton puts it, the "lexicographical needlework" of pure linguistic analysis.
Over several decades, I have worked in logic and philosophy of logic; in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science; on questions of culture and society; and most recently on issues at the interface of epistemology and the law of evidence -- and, of late, on the epistemological novel. So you shouldn't be surprised to hear that I think of philosophy, not as a sharply delineated and tightly specialized discipline, but as a loose federation of inquiries into a characteristic, though constantly evolving, class of questions -- some of which are also of interest to inquirers in other fields. I see, for example, no bright line separating metaphysical questions about the nature, origin, and evolution of physical laws from questions in physical cosmology, or questions in philosophy of logic from questions in semiotics or theoretical linguistics, or questions in epistemology or ethics from questions in the jurisprudence of evidence or of culpability -- and so on.
So naturally I think there are many different talents useful to a philosopher, among them "logical acumen, textual sensitivity, creative imagination, analytic rigor, conceptual subtlety and penetration, etc."; and many different legitimate ways of tackling the rich variety of questions within the purview of philosophy. The various members of the loose-knit family of approaches and techniques vaguely indicated by the phrase "formal methods" -- which may refer, quite narrowly, to the syntactic methods of formal logic, but may also include Tarskian methods of extensional formal semantics, "Montague grammar," applications of the mathematical calculus of probability, etc., etc.; and which, at its broadest, encompasses any and every use of any and every kind of symbolic apparatus -- are just a few among those "many legitimate ways."
Formal methods can be, and sometimes have been, very useful in philosophy; but I don't believe they are the only useful methods, or even that they enjoy any special privilege. Sometimes a formal approach is just what is needed; but sometimes it is inappropriate to the task at hand, sometimes it obliges us artificially to restrict the scope of our questions or the depth of our analysis -- and sometimes it is little more than decoration, a superficially mathematical or scientific gloss on weak or woolly thinking (as the statistical apparatus deployed by social scientists sometimes is). Frege had it just about exactly right: for certain purposes the symbolism of modern logic is more powerful and more precise than natural language; but it is also less flexible and less versatile.
These days, however, with philosophy increasingly professionalized, increasingly self-conscious about its status as a discipline, and increasingly splintered into sub-specialisms, it seems that many philosophers seek to define themselves professionally by their allegiance to a specialized sub-field or to a specialized method of philosophizing. Of course, there is quite a long tradition of Continental philosophers scoffing at the persnickety logic-chopping of their analytic counterparts, and analytic philosophers scoffing, in return, at the pretentious vagueness of their Continental colleagues; and now even within neo-analytic philosophy there are internecine disputes about the relative importance of formal-logical tools, of close attention to ordinary language, to conceptual "intuition," or to the findings of this or that area of science. Worse yet, in the culture of boosterism and self-promotion that now pervades the universities, many are tempted to tout whatever philosophical questions most interest them as the most important or critical issues, and whatever way of going about philosophy best suits their temperament or talents as the most fruitful, the most rigorous, the most up-to-date, the most scientific, etc., method.