Philosophy is an Art

Still Life with White Jar, Orange and Book (1932-33) by Vilhelm Lundstrøm.Courtesy the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen

Peter West at Aeon: Philosophical theories are much more like good stories than scientific explanations.’ This provocative remark comes from the paper ‘Linguistic Philosophy and Perception’ (1953) by Margaret Macdonald. Macdonald was a figure at the institutional heart of British philosophy in the mid-20th century whose work, especially her views on the nature of philosophy itself, deserves to be better known.

Early proponents of the ‘analytic’ method in philosophy such as Bertrand Russell saw good philosophy as science-like and were dismissive of philosophy that was overly poetic or unscientific. Russell, for example, took issue with the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who was something of a bête-noire for early analytic philosophers. Bergson’s theorising (Russell thought) did not depend on argument but rather on expressing ‘truths’, so-called, arrived at by introspection. As Russell wrote in ‘The Philosophy of Bergson’ (1912):

His imaginative picture of the world, regarded as a poetic effort, is in the main not capable of either proof or disproof. Shakespeare says life’s but a walking shadow, Shelley says it is like a dome of many-colored glass, Bergson says it is a shell which burst into parts that are again shells. If you like Bergson’s image better, it is just as legitimate.

Russell places Bergson alongside William Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley and worries that there is no objective measure of whose worldview is more accurate. There’s no way of proving which is a better account of things, it’s simply a matter of which ‘image’ you like best. In other words, there’s no attempt to provide empirical evidence – evidence based on publicly observable data – in support of these views. For Russell, this was enough to show that what Bergson was doing was not really philosophy, at least not good philosophy, any more than Shakespeare’s plays and Shelley’s poetry were.

Russell’s view of what counts as good philosophy was not one that Macdonald shared. In her 1953 paper, she embraces comparisons between philosophy and literature, poetry and art. For Macdonald, philosophical theories are very much like ‘pictures’ or ‘stories’ and, perhaps even more controversially, she suggests that philosophical debates often come down to ‘temperamental differences’. For example, whether you are willing to believe (in accordance with thinkers like René Descartes) that we have an immaterial soul will come down to more than just the philosophical arguments you are presented with. Your view on this matter, Macdonald thinks, will more likely be determined by your own personal values, life experiences, religion and so on. In this way, she thinks, temperamental differences account for many philosophical disagreements.

However, unlike Bergson, Macdonald was not working in a different philosophical tradition from Russell. She was, to all appearances at least, just as much a part of analyticphilosophy as he was. In fact, institutionally, she was at the very centre of things. Macdonald studied at the University of London and her PhD was supervised by Susan Stebbing, the first woman in Britain to be appointed a full professor of philosophy. Along with Stebbing and others including Gilbert Ryle, Macdonald helped found Analysisthe academic journal of analytic philosophy – which she later edited after the Second World War. And throughout the 1930s and ’50s, she published many articles in venues like the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,the UK’s foremost philosophical society, and was an active member of Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Club.

So what happened? How did Macdonald end up with such a different view about what good philosophy looks like from Russell’s? And, if Macdonald was right, what does that imply about the value of philosophy?

More here.