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This book is a spirited riposte to the view that says that the history of ideas is 'interesting, but irrelevant to the practice of philosophy itself.' Edward Craig makes clear that the proper understanding of philosophical texts requires an appreciation of the intellectual context in which they were written, and the assumptions that informed their author's thoughts. He also develops a more subversive argument to the effect that we too, in the sophisticated world of twentieth-century professional philosophy, live and work in an intellectual atmosphere that assumes things without proper argument. It is not just that what philosophers have tacitly assumed has changed through time, it is also that even those who aim to identify and criticize tacit assumptions in others, still make use of them themselves.
Take Hegel for example: "Why, we may ask, did a man spend so much of his life, so much intellectual and emotional energy, on the invention of such bad argument? And given that, why these bad arguments rather than another set? Why was thought of such prima facie obscurity so enthusiastically received, and how did it come to its incalculable historical influence?" (p. 220). Irreverent questions, as Craig himself admits, but important questions nevertheless. Craig's answers are also important for they form a central part of the argument of his book:
"From the old and comfortingly familiar, [Hegel's work] picked up one of the most important threads, the idea of rational insight into the real, and so worked it as to keep the thesis of man's divine nature, our similarity to God, well to the fore. At the same time, and in fact as part of the same doctrine, it offered the taste of the new and exciting, linking arms with the up-and-coming stress on practice and creativity by making man the major participant in an active process that unfolded his, and the world's destiny, and even the destiny of God." (p. 221).
Hegel, according to Craig, was the man whose philosophy, more than any other, spoke about the great issues and influences of his age. This, then, explains both its popularity at the time and also the tendency for Hegel himself, and his audience, to be blind to the intellectual weaknesses of his work. It is only persons of another age, ourselves for example, who are sufficiently distant from the work, to see how well it captures the Romantic Zeitgeist, and how unconvincing its major theses are.
Hegel is not an isolated instance. Craig's claim is that there is a relationship between the two senses of the word 'philosophy'. There is the formal, rigorous discipline practised in the universities, and there is the vague outlook on life that is inclined to detachment from the everyday rush of existence. There are people who study philosophy and there are people who are philosophical about life. The relationship lies in the fact that the most dominant picture, or conception, of reality that a society or a culture has, its Weltbild, forms the context in which professional philosophers do their work. Moreover, it influences the way they think about the world, the concepts they use, and the types of argument they find persuasive. Much of what passes for philosophy in the first sense is therefore an articulation of the vague and general ideas that constitute philosophy in the second sense.
When we have understood this relationship we can see a number of things that previously were not clear. First, in terms of the famous texts of philosophy, we can see why what appears to us a bad argument might have appeared to the author a good argument. Perhaps the author made use of a suppressed premise that was part of the Weltbild of their day, and it is only because we no longer share the Weltbild that we see the need for the unacknowledged premise. Perhaps certain concepts attracted an aura in particular periods of philosophy that protected them from counter-argument; when the aura faded the counter-arguments demolished the initial position. In our own time, Craig argues, the centrality of the concept of human agency - we make the world ourselves - might be one such example. Thus, while they may be thought to display wide discrepancies of style and attitude, in reality Sartre's ethics, Popper's theory of scientific enquiry, conventionalism in meaning and value, and recent pronouncements by Anglican bishops all share a common commitment to the importance of human activity and decision.
Second, we can see among otherwise diverse thinkers some common themes that unite a period. Even those who are at odds with their immediate contemporaries can be seen as challenging the established view, and thus in some respect remaining in its orbit. Hume, Craig argues, is best understood as an opponent of the dominant Weltbild of his own day - the view that humans were basically made in the image of God, and in particular that our ability to know anything was an imitation of God's ability to know. This in contrast to Hegel who, as we have seen already, is the person who most explicitly expresses the Weltbild of the Romantic Era.
Craig's book identifies two dominant Weltbilder in modern philosophy: the Similarity Thesis of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which postulated the resemblance of our minds to that of God, and the Agency Thesis of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which emphasises the activity of persons in making and understanding the world. Between the two, as a hybrid form, lies the Romantic era. Of course, not everyone who has 'done' some philosophy since the time of Descartes fits neatly into this scheme. But many thinkers do, if Craig is to be believed; and the structure of interpretation he provides allows new and interesting reading of familiar texts, as well as fruitful juxtapositions of otherwise disparate works.
This is a book that raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, the term Weltbild itself requires some clarification: is it only a general picture of reality or does it require some propositional content to it? Further, is it possible that, however we understand the nature of the Weltbild, there could be more than one distinct set of philosophical arguments that might be thought to give articulation to it? If this were the case, how would we differentiate between two distinct accounts of one 'picture' on the one hand, and accounts of two distinct 'pictures' on the other?
The plurality of attempts to articulate a Weltbild suggests that either we find a set of criteria for classifying those which truly articulate the Weltbild and those which do not; or that we describe the Weltbild at a level of such generality that the many separate attempts at articulation can be subsumed under the one heading. In our own age such a choice leads either to the admission of several different Weltbilder, with little in common, or (and this is Craig's favoured alternative) with a Weltbild that is sufficiently abstract to include nearly all the diverse strands of modern philosophy. If we accept Craig's choice it would seem that our next task would be to explain how it is that different articulations of one Weltbild can be so dissimilar: is it a consequence of the vagueness of the Weltbild or the inarticulateness of the philosophers?
Leaving aside the more detailed questions about the nature of the concepts Craig employs, there are also questions about the overall thrust of the book. If philosophers are trapped inside the Weltbild of their day, are we not condemned to inescapable relativist conclusions? Might there not be, as Craig acknowledges in his Introduction, a temptation to give up professional philosophy? If we are not in pursuit of the truth but merely filling in the details of a broad cultural canvas, is the subject as worthwhile as we once thought? In years to come will other philosophers say of us, "Well of course in those days they believed lots of strange things such as ..."?
Well, perhaps. But what if there is not simply a changing of Weltbilder, but an improvement? Perhaps there is progress in philosophy, and the ideas of agency, now current, are great advances upon the ideas that we find in Leibniz and Co, Maybe, by filling in the details of the Weltbild we discover whether or not it is a picture we like, and are happy to live with in preference to its predecessors. Or, if the details prove unpalatable, perhaps by highlighting them we hasten the demise of the Weltbild itself.
These are not new questions. Nor is the thought that philosophy is the articulation of the worldview of the day a new one:
.... since philosophy is the exploration of the rational, it is for that very reason the apprehension of the present and the actual....
....every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thought.
To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, that is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual ...
G W F Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Preface.
Whereas once those who dissented from the dominant Weltbild of the day were said, simply, to be wrong, now we are not even sure if the question, "What is reality like?" has a correct answer; there are just so many guesses and some are better than others. This in itself, Craig might well reply, is symptomatic of the age in which we live. If so, then clearly it is only in a time such as ours that this most enjoyable book could have been written.