Susan Haack


Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences
Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Law
University of Miami, FL, USA

Formal Philosophy? A Plea for Pluralism
© 2005  Susan Haack

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:

We build for ourselves artificial hands, tools for particular purposes, which work with more accuracy than the hand can provide. And how is this accuracy possible? Through the very stiffness and inflexibility of parts the lack of which makes the hand so dextrous.

 Hot on its heels came this shrewd observation of Nietzsche's:

In his heart every man knows very well that being unique, he will be in the world only once, and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together in a unity so strangely variegat­ed an assortment as he is.

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,[3] 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.

Read the remaining part of Susan Haack's interview in the book Formal Philosophy

ISBN-10    87-991013-1-9    hardcopy
ISBN-10    87-991013-0-0    paperback
Published by Automatic Press ● VIP, 2005

Order now from Amazon!    US    UK    CA     DE