Saturday, February 28, 2009

J. L. Austin and conservatism

Given my recent posts on tradition and on the early modern philosophers’ transformation of traditional philosophical vocabulary, it seems appropriate to reprint this February 2005 piece from the now defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog. Readers of chapter 6 of The Last Superstition will find the critique of eliminative materialism briefly hinted at here developed there in detail.

I have no idea whether J.L. Austin’s political views were conservative or not. A kind of conservatism did underlie his approach to philosophical questions, however, and in particular his commitment to paying careful attention to the nuances of ordinary language. The following passages from his classic essay “A Plea for Excuses” exemplify this conservatism:

“[O]ur common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon – the most favoured alternative method.”

“Certainly ordinary language has no claim to be the last word, if there is such a thing. It embodies, indeed, something better than the metaphysics of the Stone Age, namely, as was said, the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. But then, that acumen has been concentrated primarily upon the practical business of life. If a distinction works well for practical purposes in ordinary life (no mean feat, for even ordinary life is full of hard cases), then there is sure to be something in it, it will not mark nothing: yet this is likely enough to be not the best way of arranging things if our interests are more extensive or intellectual than the ordinary. And again, that experience has been derived only from the sources available to ordinary men throughout most of civilized history: it has not been fed from the resources of the microscope and its successors. And it must be added too, that superstition and error and fantasy of all kinds do become incorporated in ordinary language and even sometimes stand up to the survival test (only, when they do, why should we not detect it?). Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle it can everywhere be supplemented and improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word.”

(From pages 182 and 185 of Austin’s Philosophical Papers, Third edition (Oxford University Press, 1979))

Antony Flew cites these passages in his book David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science as evidence of a Humean conservatism in Austin’s method. They seem no less Burkean and Hayekian in spirit (maybe Hayekian especially, given the reference to natural selection). Nor does the similarity to Burke and Hayek lie merely in the respect for convention that these passages exhibit. It is evident also in Austin’s openness to departing from convention under certain circumstances (an openness conservatives generally exhibit, contrary to the usual caricature), and in the way those circumstances are understood. Like Burke and Hayek, Austin takes the deliverances of tradition, and not armchair speculation, to be the proper starting point for inquiry. Also like them, he considers convention most valuable and likely to reflect reality precisely where it touches on matters of everyday human concern. He is less explicit about what criteria he thinks ought to guide us in departing from convention when it concerns such matters, but it is not hard to see that his method would seem to imply that our approach ought to be piecemeal and tentative, and guided by the principle that the departure should leave as much of convention intact as possible.

(One important difference between kinds of conservatism is a difference in the specific criteria they would recommend for determining what counts as an acceptable change to tradition. All conservatives, it seems to me, are open to some kinds of change, though all conservatives would also put the burden of proof on the innovator. But conservatives whose position is grounded in a non-naturalistic metaphysics – Thomistic natural law conservatives, for example – would probably regard that burden as more difficult to meet than conservatives who are metaphysical naturalists would. The former sort of conservative is more likely to regard certain elements of tradition as having a deeper basis in human nature, and might therefore be more inclined to treat them as “non-negotiable.” If you think some element of tradition reflects something metaphysically essential to human nature, you are going to fight for it to the last breath. If instead you regard it as merely central to a certain historically contingent cultural framework, then however valuable you find that framework, you will be more likely to give up the fight for it if you think it is a lost cause. An interesting question is which of these attitudes will be taken by the conservative who thinks of the relevant element of tradition as biologically essential – not essential in some deeper metaphysical way, but not a mere cultural artifact either – especially if he thinks genetic engineering might some day upset the biological status quo. But this takes us far away from Austin…)

Austin’s concerns are language and the concepts we bring to bear on the analysis of philosophical problems, and while what he says surely has implications for political philosophy, it is important to consider what sort of conservatism it might imply where epistemology and metaphysics are concerned. My own view is that anyone sensitive to the considerations Austin raises should be very suspicious indeed of metaphysical programs that are radically revisionist in what they say about human nature. Eliminative materialism, which holds that our conception of ourselves as thinking, hoping, believing, desiring, feeling, reasoning beings is radically false, would be only the most obvious and extreme example of a metaphysical program of this sort.

In an earlier post I noted that Quine, despite his political conservatism, was an eliminativist of sorts, and suggested that this fact is a curious one. Quine in one way, and Austin in another, raise for us the issues of what sort of relationship tends to hold, and ought to hold, between a philosopher’s political and moral commitments on the one hand and his metaphysical commitments on the other.

(Some Quine/Austin trivia: Those familiar with Austin’s classic Sense and Sensibilia probably realize that the title is a takeoff of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Quine says in Pursuit of Truth that he gave his Kant Lectures at Stanford the title “Science and Sensibilia” as a “takeoff of John Austin’s takeoff.”)

1 comment:

  1. On the relationship between various committments, there may be a generation effect. For example most secular humanists grew up with religion and they tended to persist with traditional moral standards while they expounded atheism and agnosticism. But the next generation did not grow up with any religion and that is when the problem of moral drift became apparent. So academics like Quine who have an intellectual committment to eliminative reductionism may still have a residual or "gut" attachment to a richer metaphysics.