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Of ‘isms’free

  • Edward Craig


The majority of philosophical ‘ism’ words are quite broad terms designating a certain general type of doctrine. The danger is that they might say more than they actually do. ‘Of ‘isms’’ examines a number of philosophical ‘isms’ including idealism, dualism, materialism, empiricism, and rationalism. The former three belong to metaphysics, which is about what sort of things there are. The latter two belong to the field of epistemology, which asks: how do we know? In many ways we all make a distinction between perceiving and thinking. Empiricism is a general word for doctrines that favour perceiving over thinking, and it is a general word for seeing things the other way around.

From football to gardening and back via cookery, mountaineering, and population genetics, every subject has its own terminology. Philosophy certainly does, most of it fortunately not nearly as frightening as it looks. In Chapter 4 we saw ‘metaphysics’, meaning the study of (or opinions about) what reality is like in its most general features. In Chapter 5 we encountered ‘consequentialism’, the blanket word for theories that see the value of anything in its consequences rather than in its own nature and its history; then ‘epistemology’, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, belief, and closely related notions like reasons and justification. Now let's look at some more words, all of them ending in ‘ism’. This isn't a matter of swotting up vocabulary – rather of finding out more about philosophy as you learn more of the jargon.

Most philosophical ‘ism’ words are (like ‘consequentialism’) quite broad terms designating a certain general type of doctrine. Their breadth makes them very flexible, and ensures that they are in constant use, but it also brings dangers, principally that of taking them to say more than they really do. Never think that you have got a philosopher sorted out just because you can say what ‘ism’ he represents. The philosophy of George Berkeley (1685–1752) is a form of Idealism, and so is that of Hegel (1770–1831); but I have never heard it suggested that having read either would be any help in understanding the other – their thought is p. 62miles apart. Karl Marx (1818–83), on the other hand, certainly wasn't an Idealist (which is actually a term of abuse in the Marxist vocabulary), but he is in many respects extremely Hegelian, and that a student should get to know something of Hegel before reading Marx seems the most obvious advice imaginable.

With that warning uttered and illustrated, let us begin with dualism. It can be used of any view which recognizes (exactly) two contrasting forces or entities, so that a theology which posits two basic powers in conflict, one good and one evil, is said to be dualistic. But by far its most common meaning is a doctrine according to which reality consists of two very different kinds of thing or stuff, namely mind and matter; a human being consists of a bit of each. Perhaps the most famous exponent of dualism in this sense is the Frenchman René Descartes (some of whose work we shall be looking at in the next chapter). In fact, some enemies of dualism, and there are plenty of them nowadays, seem to want to blame it all on him. (That is historically dubious, to say the least – Descartes was merely trying to give cogent proof of a doctrine that is very much older.)

Dualism certainly has its problems, especially if it is to be combined with modern scientific theory. One tricky question is: what does the dualist's mental stuff actually do? We naturally suppose that what we think, what we feel, what we are aware of, affects our behaviour. If I think that the train leaves in ten minutes, want to catch it, and see a signpost saying ‘Railway Station’, I will go in the direction I believe the signpost points. This means that my (physical) body goes somewhere it wouldn't otherwise have gone. But doesn't scientific theory suggest that all physical events have other physical events as their causes? In which case how can there be room for something else, of a non‐physical kind, to cause my body to move? Dualists may just have to grit their teeth and say that science is plain wrong about that. For if they agree that science is right on that point, and if they agree (and it would be weird not to) that what we think, feel, etc. affects what we do, then the consequence p. 63is that thinking, feeling, awareness, and so on must be physical processes. In which case the question comes round again: what does this non‐physical stuff of theirs, this ‘mind’, actually do? But dualists can't just say that science is wrong about all physical events having physical causes. That won't convince anyone who wasn't convinced to start with. They will need some reason for saying that there is something about us which cannot be physical. When we come to Descartes we'll see something of what a dualist might have to offer on that score.

So, you may be thinking, if dualism is the view that there are two ultimate sorts of stuff, mind and matter, probably we also find a doctrine that says there is only matter, and another that holds that there is nothing but mind. And you're quite right. The first is called materialism, the second idealism (not mentalism), and both have plenty of history.

The earliest materialism of which we have clear record is that of the Indian Lokāyatas, often known as Cārvākas after one of their most eminent thinkers (incidentally, pronounce ‘c’ in these Sanskrit words as ‘ch’). Remember them if you find yourself slipping into the common error of imagining that all Indian philosophy is mystical, religious, and ascetic. Only perception confers knowledge, and what you can't perceive doesn't exist, they reckoned. The eternal soul that, as the Brahmins suppose, passes on from life to life, is a fiction. You have one life and one only – try to enjoy it. The movement appears to have survived for over a thousand years; unfortunately, just about all we now know of it comes from reports written by its opponents.

In Greece Democritus – a fairly close contemporary of Socrates – propounded a theory which, until twentieth‐century physics changed the picture, sounded very modern: the universe consists of myriads of very small material particles moving in a vacuum or void. These little things are called ‘atoms’ (from the Greek for uncuttable or indivisible); p. 64they and the void they move through are literally everything there is. This rather good guess was taken over by Epicurus (we've seen him already) and his school, but the easiest place to read about it is in a famous work by Lucretius, a Roman admirer of Epicurus, called ‘Of the Nature of Things’ (or ‘Of the Nature of the Universe’ – depending on which translation you have got hold of).

You might expect materialism to be completely incompatible with any sort of religious belief – as the case of the Lokāyatas appears to confirm. But watch out for surprises! The Epicureans believed in gods, but then held (as consistency demanded) that they had bodies made of a very refined type of matter. (They live somewhere a very long way from here in a state of divine bliss and untroubled happiness – paying not a wink of attention to human life. Opponents said this was just a way of being atheists without admitting it.)

The word ‘materialism’ as it occurs in everyday usage is rather different. A ‘material girl’ isn't a girl who consists of matter only – though if philosophical materialists are right that is all she consists of, and so does the material world she lives in. But the everyday ‘materialism’ which some bemoan and others just enjoy isn't wholly unrelated to the philosophers’ sort. Madonna's material girl derives her pleasures mostly from material objects – their ownership and consumption – in preference to the pleasures of the mind. Everyday materialism is the attachment to what is – now in the philosophers’ sense – material, as opposed to what is spiritual or intellectual. The philosophy of Marx came to be called dialectical materialism, not so much because he held that there is literally nothing but matter as because he held that the most important underlying causes in human life are material: economic facts about the way in which a society produces its material goods. (What ‘dialectical’ meant we shall see in Chapter 7 when we encounter Hegel, below, p. 81ff.)

Idealism is also a word with an everyday as well as a technical meaning. p. 65At the technical end it is applied to views that deny the existence of matter and hold that everything there is is mental or spiritual, like that of the Irish bishop George Berkeley, whom we mentioned earlier. Someone who tells us that had better explain, in the next breath, what then are these things like chairs and mountains that we keep bumping into and falling off. When he heard it said that Berkeley could not be refuted, the celebrated man of letters Dr Johnson is reputed to have answered: ‘I refute him thus’, and kicked a stone. But refuting Berkeley isn't that easy. (I use the word ‘refute’ to mean showing that something is wrong, not just saying that it is wrong – which of course is very easy indeed and can be done by anyone, especially someone like Dr Johnson, who was rarely short either of an opinion or of a memorable way of expressing it.)

Perhaps Berkeley can be refuted, but only if we can somehow overcome the following well‐worn line of thought. What I am really aware of when I look at a table is not the table itself but how the table looks to me. ‘How it looks to me’ describes not the table, but my mind – it is the state of consciousness which the object, whatever it is, produces in me when I look at it. And this goes on being true however closely, or from however many angles, I look at the table; and it goes on being true if I touch the table – except that then the object (whatever it is) produces a different kind of state of consciousness in me, tactual sensations as opposed to visual. If I kick the table (or Dr Johnson's stone) and it hurts, that is yet another state of my consciousness. Admittedly, these states of consciousness fit together very nicely; we quickly learn from a very few of them to predict quite accurately what the rest are going to be like – one glance, and we know pretty much what to expect. But the table itself, the physical table, isn't so much an established fact as a hypothesis that explains all these states of perceptual consciousness. So it might be wrong – some other hypothesis might be the truth. Berkeley himself thought precisely that, though partly because he believed he had proved that the very idea of a non‐mental existent was incoherent. (I'm not going p. 66to trouble you with his supposed proof here.) Believing as he did in a benevolent and all‐powerful god, he made His will the direct cause of our states of consciousness and declared matter redundant – as well as incoherent.

Hume – again – made a nice comment. Berkeley's arguments, he said ‘admit of no answer and produce no conviction’. However impossible we may find it to believe Berkeley's denial of matter, a convincing proof that he just couldn't be right has been extremely elusive. I myself don't believe that there is one – though neither, you won't be surprised to hear, do I believe Berkeley.

Some philosophical systems (like Hegel's) qualify as idealism not because they deny the very existence of matter but because they regard it as subordinate to the mental or spiritual, which is what really determines the nature of reality and gives it purpose. This use of ‘idealism’ parallels the use of ‘materialism’ we noticed above, in its application to the philosophy of Karl Marx. But when we come to the everyday notion of idealism the parallel with ‘materialism’ fails. A materialist's attention is fixed on material goods as opposed to mental, spiritual, or intellectual ones; whereas an idealist is not someone always focused on the latter rather than the former, but someone committed to ideals. And ideals are essentially things of the mind, because they are the thoughts of circumstances not in fact found in reality, but which we can strive to approach as nearly as the conditions of life permit. The mental nature of ideals makes the connection between the everyday usage of the word and the technical one.

Two more ‘isms’ of which one hears a lot, and which tend to occur together as a pair of supposed opposites, are ‘empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’. Whereas ‘dualism’, ‘materialism’, and ‘idealism’ belong to metaphysics (what sorts of thing are there?), this pair belongs squarely to epistemology (how do we know?).

p. 67

10. Every subject talks its own talk.

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In a rough and ready way we all make a distinction between perceiving and thinking. It is one thing to see the objects on your table, notice that one is a pen and one a computer; it is another thing to think about them, wonder if they still work, or what to do if they don't. And we are used to the idea that astronomers spend long hours looking at the sky, whereas mathematicians just seem to sit there working things out, feeling no need to look at anything at all except what they themselves have written down. So here, on the face of it, are two quite different ways of acquiring knowledge. Some philosophers have favoured one of them at the expense of the other: ‘empiricism’ is a very general word for doctrines that favour perceiving over thinking, ‘rationalism’ for doctrines that favour thinking over perceiving.

There may have been philosophers who held that only what could be perceived could be known, so allowing no cognitive powers at all to thought, inference and reason. Something of much that kind is reported of the Lokāyatas, whom we met above in connection with materialism. p. 68According to some reports of their thinking they went even further, saying that only what can be perceived exists. If so (but remember that all the reports we have were written by their opponents!), they surely overreached themselves. Nobody who thinks that knowledge is only of what you have perceived can claim to know that nothing imperceptible exists, since that isn't something you could possibly perceive. (It would make as much sense as claiming to be able to hear that nothing inaudible exists.)

An empiricist who holds that only perception yields knowledge need not be saying that the process of perception itself involves no thought whatever, so that we can have as it were pure perception untainted by any thinking. Even to look at my table and see that there is a pen on it requires more of me than just passively registering the light patterns that enter my eyes. I need to know a little about pens, at the very least about what they look like, and then bring this knowledge to bear, otherwise I shall no more see a pen than does the camera with which we photograph the pen. Perception is interpretative, whereas cameras merely record patterns of light. So a less crude empiricism will allow that classification, thought, inference, and reason all have their legitimate role. But it will take its stand on the point that they cannot generate a single item of knowledge on their own. It may be true that there is no thought‐free perception; but it is also true that there is no perception‐free knowledge. All claims to knowledge answer, in the end, to perception; it may be possible for them to go beyond perception, but they must start from it.

The empiricist can offer a powerful argument for this view; any would‐be rationalist must have an answer ready. In perception we are in some kind of contact with objects around us; they have an effect on our senses. But if we try to think in complete independence of perception, where is the link between us and the objects we are trying to think about? For if there is no such link, then there is the world, and p. 69here are we thinking away to ourselves. That sounds like a recipe for pure fantasy, perhaps interspersed with the very occasional lucky guess. Let us take a quick look at how three philosophers of strongly rationalist tendencies, Plato, Kant, and Hegel, responded to this challenge.

What reason can tell us, according to Plato, is not directly about the world of the senses at all, but about eternal, transcendent entities called Ideas or Forms: the Good, the Just, the Equal, the Beautiful. Things we perceive with the senses are good, equal, and so on just in so far as they ‘participate’ in these Forms or approximate to the standards set by them. But how does Reason get its knowledge of the Forms? Plato (as you will know by now if you took my advice to read his Phaedo as a follow‐up to Crito) made use of a belief far from unknown to ancient Greek thought. The soul has existed before it entered its present body. In that existence it encountered – Plato hints obscurely at something analogous to perception – the Forms, and in rational thought it is now brought to remember what it then learnt of them.

Kant, who was happy to concede far more to empiricism than Plato or Hegel, met the challenge in a novel and radical way. Reason cannot tell us anything about things imperceptible – it can only tell us what, in general terms, our experience is bound to be like. And it can do this only because our experience is shaped by our own minds. Reason, operating on its own, is really only telling us how our minds work – which is why it can do what it does without needing to draw on our perceptions of the rest of the world.

Hegel's response is not unlike Plato's, in that he begins with a system of thoughts or universals which he collectively calls ‘The Idea’. This is the driving force which structures the whole of reality, which includes our minds and the categories in which we think, as well as the rest of reality which is what we are thinking about. That is why we can expect our p. 70reason, even when used on its own independently of perception, to be in tune with the world. The reasoning subject and its object share a structure, that of the Idea.

These three examples show us that the opposition between empiricism and rationalism is not a minor skirmish. Those who begin by taking opposite sides at this point can end up worlds apart, metaphysically speaking. But I do not mean to suggest that only rationalism faces difficulties and empiricism is problem‐free. Not so, as we shall soon find out.

Another much‐used ‘ism’ is scepticism. One can be sceptical, of course, about specific things like the probity of the Olympic Committee, the existence of UFOs, or the value of a low‐fat diet, but when ‘scepticism’ occurs in philosophical texts it usually refers to something much more general: the rejection of a wide range of claims to knowledge, or doubts about a large class of beliefs. It isn't just their number, of course. Any scepticism worthy of a place in the history books must be aimed at beliefs that are actually held, and are held to be important – no medals are awarded for shelling the desert.

This means that there can be plenty of thought which was sceptical in its own time, but now reads differently. A good example would be Quod Nihil Scitur (‘That Nothing is Known’), by the Portuguese philosopher/medic Francisco Sanchez (1551–1623). A more sceptical‐sounding title it would be hard to find, but what follows seems to us not so much scepticism as a vigorous attack on Aristotelianism, then prevalent but now long since discredited. When sceptics succeed they cease to look like sceptics; they look like critics who were right.

Other forms of scepticism have a longer shelf‐life. These are the ones whose targets are perennial human beliefs, or everyday beliefs, or what is often called common sense. The most famous example of modern times occurs at the beginning of Descartes's Meditations, where we are p. 71threatened with the possibility that the senses cannot be relied upon to tell us anything whatever about the world, not even that there is one. But Descartes is on the programme for the next chapter, so let us here look back instead to the school of Pyrrho (roughly: 365–275 bc), source of the most developed sceptical philosophy we know. It can all be found in a single book, Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus. Sextus, in his prime around ad 200, here reports in loving detail the aims, arguments, and conclusions of the system. Happy the movement that finds a chronicler like him.

The early pyrrhonists had worked hard. They had catalogued ten ‘tropes’, or ways of arguing for their sceptical conclusion that we have no sufficient grounds for any conviction as to what things are really like, as opposed to how they appear to us. Faced with a ‘dogmatist’ – one of the politer names they called people like Aristotelians and Stoics who claimed to know such things – their favourite strategy was to find some animal to which things would appear differently, or other human beings to whom they appeared differently, or circumstances under which they would appear differently to the claimants themselves, and then to argue that there was no way of resolving the disagreement without arbitrarily favouring one viewpoint over the rest. In one passage Sextus argues that there is no reason to privilege the way something seems to a dogmatist over the way it seems to a dog. Readers will occasionally catch him arguing from premisses which a sceptic might be expected to find untrustworthy. Perhaps he, and the pyrrhonists, were not always speaking to eternity, but to their contemporaries – and felt that what they accepted could legitimately be used against them.

Nowadays one often hears it asked what the point of a comprehensive scepticism could be – asked rhetorically, with the implication that it can have no point whatever. But the pyrrhonists certainly thought that their scepticism had a point: the achievement of tranquillity of mind, untroubledness, ataraxia. They knew a thing or two about p. 72peace of mind. If you want to insist on the truth of your point of view, remember that there is a cost: life is going to be a perpetual intellectual brawl. And if the brawl stays intellectual, you'll have been lucky; especially in religion and politics, these things have been known to end in bombs and burnings. I think they knew something else as well: moving from how things immediately appear to our senses to what they are really like is a much slower, more hazardous and laborious enterprise than many of their contemporaries realized.

The pyrrhonists’ favourite sceptical manœuvre was to remind us that how a thing appears does not just depend on the thing: it depends on the condition of the person to whom it appears, and the medium through which it appears. Which ushers in our final ‘ism’: relativism. Relativism is not a specific doctrine, but a type of doctrine – I might add, a type much in vogue with intellectuals at the moment. The general idea is easy to grasp. A moral relativist will hold that there is no such thing as good (pure and simple), rather there is good‐in‐this‐society, good‐in‐that‐society. An aesthetic relativist rejects the idea that an object might simply be beautiful; we always have to ask ‘Beautiful for whom, in whose eyes?’ A ‘gastronomic relativist’ won't be interested in the question whether pineapple tastes nice – it has to be ‘tastes nice to whom, when, and in combination with what?’ A literary relativist doesn't believe that texts have meanings – except at best in the sense that they have a variety of meanings for a variety of readers, and probably even for one reader at different times. A relativist about rationality will say that what is rational is relative to cultures, with the consequence (for instance) that it is illegitimate to apply ‘western’ scientific standards to traditional African beliefs about witchcraft and pronounce them irrational.

That bunch of examples illustrates a number of points about relativism. One is that the initial plausibility of different cases of relativism varies widely. Many people will find aesthetic relativism easily acceptable, and p. 73some will think that what I have called ‘gastronomic relativism’ is obviously true. That rationality is culture‐relative is a much more difficult doctrine, as is relativism about moral values. These doctrines do not say, remember, that different beliefs are accounted rational in different societies, and different moral values avowed, for this nobody doubts. They say that what these really are can differ from society to society, and that is about as far from obvious as you can get. So if you hear someone going on about relativism without saying relativism about what, give a badly concealed yawn.

The examples illustrate another important point. It isn't just what the particular relativism is about, it is also what it relativizes to: the individual, a society, a culture (there are plenty of multicultural societies), a historical epoch, or what. Those forms of relativism, like the ‘gastronomic’, which can plausibly focus on the individual, have a big advantage: unlike societies, cultures, and epochs, it is clear where an individual begins and ends. If Europeans shouldn't bring their scientific standards to bear on African beliefs in witchcraft, may they properly bring them to bear on European beliefs in witchcraft? Or only on contemporary European beliefs in witchcraft? Imagine yourself living intermingled with a people who, routinely and without moral qualms, abandon unwanted babies and leave them to die. (Such societies have existed.) Could you just say ‘Oh, fine. That's what they think, that's their moral culture, ours is different’, as if it were like ‘They speak French and we speak English’? Bitter experience suggests that many people are unlikely to find it that easy.

I would be a bad guide if I left you with the impression that a short paragraph can dispose of moral and intellectual relativism, just like that. Be aware, though, that in several areas relativism is in for a rough ride. The ride is rough theoretically, because of the difficulty of stating clearly just what relativism does and doesn't say; and it is rough practically, because of the difficulty of standing by it when the crunch comes.