Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ? & Is the End in Sight ....? - Revisited

Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ?

Zak Van Straaten

Inaugural lecture as professor of philosophy in the University of Cape Town, delivered on 19 August, 1981.
Published by the University of Cape town in the Inaugural Lecture Series / New Series No. 73, 1981.

I published this lecture (with additional material) to a wider audience, at the request of the editor of the South African Journal of Philosophy, as:
Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ? : Revisited, Van Straaten, Zak,
South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8 No 2, May 1989, pp. 66-76.

A copy of the additional material is appended to this lecture.

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by Zak Van Straaten

In this lecture I would like to examine a question about the nature and scope of philosophical knowledge. The question is, ‘Is the end in sight for philosophical knowledge?’ I think that on reflection most of us will admit that the question is interesting in itself. A discussion of the question will also give us an excuse to look at some branches and schools of philosophy, especially those which have flourished in the 20th century.


(i) Theoretical Physics

A similar question has been asked about theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking, the Lucasian professor of mathematics in the University of Cambridge delivered an inaugural lecture last year entitled ‘Is the end in sight for theoretical physics?” In this he asked whether by the end of this century ‘we might have a complete, consistent and unified theory of the physical interactions which would describe all possible observations.’1. The question is possible about physics because of some assumptions made in the search for a so-called Grand Unified Theory. It is supposed that there are just four forces in the universe: the electromagnetic, strong nuclear, weak nuclear and gravitational; and the search is on for the particles (except the photon) which carry these interactions. Three of the missing ones have been designated W, W and Z, and it is thought that a Grand Unified Theory will be possible once these particles have been discovered and investigated.

Physicists and applied mathematicians enliven their teatime conversations by talk of the hunt for the ‘Gang of Four’. With a Grand Unified Theory in hand it is thought that a significant step will have been taken toward the construction of a complete unified theory. In that sense the end of theoretical physics, as we know it today, will have been reached.

(ii) Logical Empiricism

The matter is more complicated in philosophy. The reason is that there is no common agreement as to the nature and scope of philosophical knowledge. One conception of philosophy, due to the Logical Empiricists, held that it was the main task of philosophy to try to find the foundations for knowledge-in-general. Epistemology was at the heart of the Logical Empiricists’ enterprise of establishing a ‘common commensurating ground shared by all scientific theories in all areas of science – that is, a set of universal standards of rationality and objectivity,’2 which would be valid for all knowledge. One way to realise the project was thought to consist of the constructions of a purified language with the aid of logic and set theory and then to translate all knowledge statements into the ideal language, where their logical and syntactic form on the one hand and their empirical content on the other would be transparently displayed. In the 1930’s when Rudolf Carnap and others were working on this programme, we could have asked whether the end was in sight for philosophical knowledge conceived in this way. We would have been asking whether a complete, consistent and unified theory of knowledge which could describe all possible observations was in sight. It was because this hope was real for many philosophers in the 1930’s and 40’s that the Encyclopaedia of Unified Knowledge was founded in Chicago. The encyclopaedia was charged with publishing the results of the enterprise.

(iii) Four contexts prompt the question

We can see how the question could have arisen for Logical Empiricists, but how does it arise for us? In what context is the question being asked?


, one puts the question to oneself. What should a modern philosophy department in a competitive university be teaching? Is its task merely to prepare students so that they can read the major Anglo-American journals in the field with some facility or should we ensure that students are exposed to the writings and teachings of the major authorities as accepted in so called Western culture? Should we emulate the Swedish example and train students in a strict and regimented mathematico-logical method principally in the philosophy as the Queen of the Humanities and see our task as being cultural overseers of the subject matter of the social sciences?


, Richard Rorty, a respected figure in contemporary American analytical philosophy, has claimed in a recent book that philosophy, as we have known it since Immanual Kant has ended. At the last annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in December 1980, one of the principal symposia was devoted to Rorty’s thesis. The symposiasts were Ian Hacking and Jaegwon Kim with Rorty as the principal respondent. 3


, one is reminded of how an eminent philosopher like Wittgenstein gave up philosophy after he had written the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus because he was firmly convinced that he had solved all of philosophy’s problems. As we all know, Wittgenstein was soon producing voluminous notebooks on various philosophical issues which continued to puzzle and intrigue him until the last period of his life when he began to view philosophy as a kind of therapy. The therapy which consisted of doing philosophy was thought by the older Wittgenstein to be able to cure philosophers of the desire to do philosophy.


, the major philosophy journals currently publish philosophical work which falls under differing philosophical schools. In some journals papers in the framework of Linguistic Analysis exist side by side with papaers in the Continental Hermeneutical tradition, and work in Foundationalism (a successor subject to Logical Empiricism which tries to establish secure foundations for objective and rational knowledge of any kind), exists side by side with Neo-Marxist critiques of society. These schools are basicall incompatible in their view of the nature of philosophical knowledge, And the question arises as to what attitude one ought to adopt to schools other than the one within which one carries out one’s own research. I think I have said enough to indicate how the kind of question I am asking tonight can arise.


(i) The Great Tradition

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty argues that our philosophical tradition originated with the Greeks and was amended by Descartes and Kant. 4 Although this tradition can be analysed into many different theses, Rorty thinks that three ideas dominate it. The first is the generally realistic view of truth and knowledge which conceives of truth as some form of correspondence between thought and nature. Knowledge is generally thought of as consisting in the possession of ideas or concepts or representations which accurately mirror nature. Rorty attributes this idea to the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato. He therefore thinks of this tradition as thinking of man as a kind of mirror of nature.

Rorty claims that the second principal strand of philosophy was contributed when Descartes ‘mentalised’ the platonic doctrine of knowledge and truth. Descartes invited us to think of the mind as a logically private interior stage on which cognitive dramas are interacted. Knowledge now becomes an interior representation of objective reality and the mirror becomes an inner mirror. Rorty thinks that Descartes bequeathed yo us the problematic concept of consciousness, or the so called mind/body problem. In the American Philosophical Association Symposium last December, Kim pointed out that the ‘mental turn’ taken by Descartes led to discussions of that which could be ‘incorrigibly known’; but necessarily also gave rise to skeptical queries about whether there was any reason for thinking that there was an outer and objective reality which corresponded to the inner representations, and all the problems that arise in connection with questions about the accuracy of the interior mirror. 5

The third thesis was contributed by Kant who thought that it was the task of philosophy to examine the foundations of the sciences and humanities and of the moral life. Philosophy was required to produce universal standards of rational judgment not only for actual claims to knowledge but for all future claims. There is a sense here in which the philosopher is a kind of cognitive adjudicator and overseer, concerned with the various presuppositions and methods of the different sciences and humanities. Rorty alleges that these three basic conceptions of knowledge and philosophy define the Western philosophical tradition. And he sees this tradition as having branched into Anglo-American Analytical philosophy and Continental philosophy. However, as Kim points out, Rorty thinks that these two branches have been loyal heirs to the dominant image of man as a mirror of nature.

(ii) Why Rorty rejects the tradition

Why does Rorty want us to reject this conception of Philosophy? First Rorty argues that this traditional conception of philosophy presupposes that we can engage in the sort of foundationalist enterprise which Kant among others has urged. But this kind of foundationalism, which incorporates both the construction of foundations for knowledge and the evaluation of the foundations presupposed by non-philosophical subjects, assumes that a rational and objective method is to hand for reaching agreement about truth and legitimation. Rorty thinks that Kuhn’s work in the philosophy of science has shown that this kind of rationality and objectivity is a cultural myth which is not available to philosophers or, indeed anyone else. If so, philosophers cannot be required to perform an impossible task. Secondly, Rorty believes that the idea of ‘correspondence’ is at the base of the doctrines of Platonic and Kantian realism which forms the orthodoxy in Western tradition. Rorty thinks that it is not possible to give a clear and non-metaphysical account of the idea of ‘correspondence’. Rorty writes ‘The trouble with Platonic notions is not that they are “wrong” but that there is not a great deal to be said about them-specifically there is no way to “neutralise” them or otherwise connect them to the rest of enquiry or culture or life.’ 6 Thirdly, Rorty thinks that there is not any way available to us in which we can present arguments on whether to impose a Kantian type of ‘grid’ on experience or to set it aside in favour of some other successor subject. He thinks this because he believes that there is no ‘normal’ philosophical discourse or standard netral paradigm which could provide a common ground between the sciences and the humanites or between the different philosophical paradigms and schools which exist in 20th Century

In general the Great Tradition sees philosophy as a meta-science. The Queen of the sciences must herself be a type of science, otherwise she could not be a guardian of knowledge, objectivity, rationality and truth. However the Platonic – Cartesian – Kantian grid cannot do what is required of it because of the nature of its generalizations. For example, it can produce a theory of truth as correspondence between sentences and nature, but the very generality of the theory will prevent it from having any direct bearing on a specifiable scientific problem. Philosophical generalizations about truth will thus not be falsifiable in the same way as scientific generalisations are, and hence philosophy cannot act as a truth claim adjudicator in any one particular science. By a similar argument, philosophy cannot be a cognitive claim adjudicator in the realm of first order knowledge claims. So Rorty thinks that the Platonic – Cartesian – Kantian grid is manifestly incapable of carrying within itself the commensurating ground required for the fulfillment of the Queenly role. It is not only the Great Tradition which fails to be an objective, rational ground, but all of its 20th Century descendents inherit the illusion of being rational, objective problem solving activity. As I do not wish to provide a book review ofPhilosophy and the Mirror of Nature, I shall be content with the foregoing as an account of what Rorty thinks the great tradition is and why he wishes to reject it.


(i) Two senses of the question

So far we have two interpretations of our question. The first arose in connection with the Logical Empiricists when we asked in effect, given a Logical Empiricist’s view of philosophical knowledge, ‘Is the end in sight?’ The answer to that was that the end could have come into sight when the requisite foundations were built and when the translations from the various sciences into the purified language had been achieved. So, although the end could logically have been in sight at some time, the fact of the matter is that the enterprise was abandoned. This first interpretation of the question is: given the way a particular school of philosophy see its aims and goals, could it realise them, and so end? In the first interpretation, the question is exactly like the question in theoretical physics. The second interpretation interpretation is the end of Western philosophy as seen from Rorty’s vantage point at Princeton. For him the end has in fact been reached because philosophy which was meant to be the Queen of Sciences and Humanities cannot do the impossible. It is meant to be a subject which discusses the eternal truths but it can only ‘eternalise’ the linguistic conventions of one speech community.

(ii) Linguistic Analysis

Taking the first interpretation of our question, let us put it to the various schools and see what result we reach. Linguistic Analysis dominated Oxford and Cambridge after the Second World War until the end of the 1960’s. The father of Linguistic philosophy was the later Wittgenstein and notable exponents were Austin, Strawson and Ryle. This school of philosophy never published a manifesto but we can glean an overview of its aims from the way in which Austin conceived them and from the attacks launched on this school by Bertrand Russell and Ernest Gellner. Linguistic philosophers saw themselves analyzing, in their ordinary language context, a variety of terms like ‘true’, ‘good’, ‘cause’, ‘free’ and ‘sensation’. They were understandably suspicious of post-Kantian metaphysics and in particular of the presuppositions made by the metaphysical systems. They thought too that by analyzing how philosophical words were used in ordinary diction and in non-philosophical speech it would be possible to arrive at a logic of these terms which in turn could be used in the construction of philosophical theories about freedom, mind, perception and knowledge. With the possible exceptions of Gilbert Ryle’s book , The Concept of Mind, in which a theory of mind is hypothesized and defended and of Strawson’s book, Individuals, An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics, in which the Linguistic Philosophy equivalent to a Kantian grid is developed, Linguistic philosophers did not get to the theory construction phase of their enterprise. From a logical point of view Linguistic Analysis could have gained a view of the end but the fact of the matter is that the project was abandoned because of pressures from North American philosophers. At the start of the 60’s most Oxford graduate students were busy on research projects within Linguistic Analysis but by the beginning of the 70’s they were concerned with projects that originated from American philosophers like Quine, Davidson and others. The impact of Kuhn’s book on the book on the structure of scientific revolutions was also beginning to make itself evident. So the short answer to our question is that as Gellner and Russell predicted, Linguistic Philosophy was an intellectual foolishness which would never realise the aims incorporated in its unwritten manifesto.

(iii) Anglo American Analytical Philosophy

There are, of course, many different views and movements which travel under this name. I shall arbitrarily look at two: the philosophy of Quine and the school known as Foundationalism. This is no more arbitrary than that it occurred to God on the second day of Creation that chickens would be formed inside of an egg.8

(a) Quine:

Quine proposed a holistic theory of knowledge in ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ 9 and advertised his debt to Dewey in respect of a pragmatist perspective on the sciences and language, including the language of logic. The sciences and logic are tools for predicting and controlling experience.

‘The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most
casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of
atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is man-made
fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to
change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary
conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery
occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have
to be distributed over some of our statements…(T)he total filed is
so under-determined by its boundary conditions, experience, that
there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re evaluate in
the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences
are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field,
except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the
field as a whole.
If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of
an individual statement – especially if it is a statement at all remote
from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore it becomes
folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold
contingently on experience and analytical statements, which hold come
what may. Any statement which can be held to be true come what may,
if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement
very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of a recalcitrant
experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain
statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same
token, no statement is immune to revision. Revision even of the logical
law of the excluded middle has been proposed as a means of
simplifying quantum mechanics; and what difference is there in
principle between such a shift and the shift whereby Kepler superseded
Ptolomy, or Einstein Newton or Darwin Aristotle?’ 10

In his very influential ‘Epistemology Naturalised’ and in The Roots of Reference 12
Quine suggests that the theory of Knowledge should be psychologised,
that is, that a great deal of the task which was formerly entrusted
to epitemologists should be treated less a prioristically and more scientifically.
‘Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter
of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural
phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is
accorded a certain experimentally controlled input – certain patterns
of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance – and in the
fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the
three-dimensional world and its history. The relation
between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that
we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always
prompted epistemology; namely, in order to see how evidence relates
to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any
available evidence.’13

What would have to happen for the end to be in sight for Quine’s philosophy? The scientific content of the holistic web of belief, as understood by a speech community or an individual thinker, say Quine himself, would somehow have to stop evolving. It would have to become static. But as there is no reason to expect this to happen, the answer to our question here is that the end is not in sight.

(b) Foundationalism:

Foundationalism in its typical form may be identified with Carnap’s attempt to construct systemically the foundation of empirical knowledge. Other Foundationalists were Russell and Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica, the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico Philosphicus, and Frege in his attempt to construct the foundations of arithmetic. Foundationalism in epistemology is no longer conceived of in such a grand way as before the Second World War.

In its contemporary form Foundationalism has generally come to be known as the view that if we are to have knowledge at all, then some parts of this knowledge, which we might come to possess, will have a special status. 14 It is occupied by discussion and justification of the special status either by the actual construction of foundations as in Carnap’s work, or by exhaustive analysis of the special character of the privileged status. Foundationalists typically view epistemology as a normative discipline which they claim is not concerned not simply with how reasoning actually proceeds but with how reasoning ought to proceed; they further allege that philosophers can deliver well-founded judgements about how reasoning ought to take place, which are independent of actual psychological and other empirical investigations of how reasoning actually take place. There are, of course, many different kinds of foundationalist theory, but these tend to divide into two camps on the issue of knowledge: one camp believes that knowledge is some kind of justified true belief and is often largely concerned with accurate accounts of the way beliefs are presented and handled, that is, in the form of sentences, statements, propositions or some other chosen unit. This camp is also concerned with the notion of justification and tries to show what the general conditions for justification are for those beliefs which have a privileged status. The causal theorists of knowledge belong in the second camp; they believe that knowledge is reliably produced true belief. They do not wish to negate the idea of knowledge as justified true belief; but merely have what they think of as a better idea: belief is justified on condition that it is caused by a reliable process. I cannot enter into the complexities of the debate on whether foundationalism is a viable perspective. I shall note however, that both Hacking and Kim are suspicious of foundationalism, and although Hacking is neither sympathetic to Rorty’s analysis of the history of philosophy nor to his prescriptions, he shares Rorty’s belief that foundationalism has thus far proved an inadequate answer to the questions it is meant to investigate. Two points can be made against the foundationalist enterprise. The first is that there are no sentences or statements which have a content that guarantees anyone who believes them to be justified in believing them; that is, in the knowledge game there are no special status sentences. The second point is historical and suggests that there is a moral to be drawn from the failure of so many attempts at constructing foundations in the past. And here we recall the attempts by Frege, Russell and Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Carnap and Nelson Goodman in his book, The Structure of Appearance. 15

It is difficult to answer our question about the end in relation to the less grand version of foundationalism. It is much easier if we look back on the grand constructions which have failed and been abandoned. What we need to do in relation to any current proposed constructions is to look at the framework within which they are to be erected and examine the presuppositions inherent in the framework. So we can’t say in advance and a priori that the newer kind of foundationalist enterprises must end. However, the way in which these enterprises were conceived in the past always suggested that at least in theory if not practice the end could have been in sight for some particular foundationalist work. The most vivid example is again Wittgenstein who consistently gave up philosophy after he has produces a foundationalist text in the form of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

(iv) Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is one of the 20th century branches of philosophy that does not see itself as standing in the great tradition of Plato, Descartes, Locke and Kant. Hermeneutic philosophers think that philosophy is a kind of radical ‘conversation; whose aim is not problem solving as in the sciences but ‘an expression of hope that cultural space left by the demise of epistemology will not be filled’^16 Enquiry inside of hermeneutics is a kind of generalised conversation about problems of a general nature in the human condition and in what has been called by Charles Taylor the discipline of ‘human understanding’.
It is possible to isolate at least three main debates in contemporary hermeneutics: (i) Hermeneutical theory, (ii) critical hermeneutics. Hermeneutical theory is concerned with the range of issues which arise in the attempt to construct a general theory of interpretation as the dominant method for the humanities. Some authors try to include the subject mater of the social sciences in the data for which a methodology is sought and analyse the idea of ‘verstehen’ as a way of rethinking the author’s idea and context in the wider discipline of the Geisteswissenschaften. Hermeneutical philosophy rejects the idea of constructing a system which will allegedly yield objective knowledge about the human condition and attempts to understand how the theorist and object are linked within the so-called ‘pre-understanding’ (the pre-existing background knowledge) and the holistic cultural tradition within which the understanding is sought. ‘Critical Hermeneutics’ is a sceptically based enterprise which challenges some of the central assumptions in the rest of hermeneutics. While recognising that it is itself hermeneutics it attempts to challenge some of the central presuppositions of established hermeneutics. This is very much like being an ophiophagous snake.
It should be clear that there is no reason to think of hermeneutics ending. The end could only be in sight for hermeneutics if conversation of a philosophical but non-foundational nature somehow dried up. And there is no reason to expect that this will happen. Charles Taylor points out that within the hermeneutic tradition it is quite possible to produce different conceptual frameworks that are incommensurable with each other. This is because he thinks that:
‘…man is a self-defining animal. With changes in his self-definition go changes in what man is, such that he has to be understood in different terms. But the conceptual mutations in human history can and frequently do produce conceptual webs which are incommensurable, that is, where the terms can’t be defined in relation to a common stratum of expression.’^18

(v) Classical Marxism

I now want to put the question to Classical Marxism. If you will forgive me I shall dispense with a thumbnail sketch of Marxism before putting the question. The reason is that we really need much more time in which to give an interpretation of historical Marxism or of one of the contemporary schools of Marxist theory which we might wish to prefer. However, putting the question to some classical version of Marxist theory, it might seem that the answer would be that, as in the case of theoretical physical, the general framework in Marxism philosophy. However, when we come to 20th century versions of Marxism the matter is much more complicated. The continuously evolving rival interpretations of Marxist theory conjoined to some model of science, history economics or labour which happens to be preferred as in the case of Lenin, Marcus or Althusser, say suggest that man, the infinitely ingenious self-defining animal, can continue to reinterpret aspects of Marxist theory or agreed upon observation sentences to ensure that the end could not only come sight for an anthropological or historical reason and not for logical one.

(vi) Karl Popper

Karl Popper has laid claim to be the father of modern philosophy of science, and in my view it is not going to be easy for rival claimants to dislodge him. Popper’s account of the growth of scientific knowledge is relatively well-known. ^19 He believes that what scientists actually do and what they ought to do come to the same thing. Scientists propose hypotheses or theory which they then attempt to falsify by experiment or further theory. Popper thinks of the growth of scientific knowledge as dependent on the right of scientist not to record a falsification of a theory by an agreed upon observation statement unless there is a rival theory in which the agreed upon observation statement can be turned into a successful prediction. All those falsifications of hypotheses and theories which do not succeed become corroborated of the theories in question. And Popper thinks of the increase in corroborated empirical content as one rejects one theory in favour of another as an increase in truth-likeness or verisimilitude. This aspect of Popper’s philosophy is concerned with the nature of scientific theories, their growth, falsification, corroboration, genesis and abandonment. Could the end be in sight for Popper’s philosophy? The answer must be ‘yes’ because the whole framework for knowledge both science and philosophy is known; it is merely the details which have to be worked out.


I now wish to ask whether we should think of philosophy as the kind of discipline which has a specific message. I hope it will become clear that this question is closely related to our question about the end. The term ‘message’ is deliberately vague and uninterpreted. If we decided that a particular school of philosophy did have a specific message then ‘message’ would just be a placeholder or variable which could take a variety of different referring expressions ranging from the descriptive to the prescriptive. An examination of aspects of the history of philosophy and of some of the schools we have mentioned tonight suggests that indeed some specific philosophies are closely identified with specifiable messages. Alternatively, Linguistic Philosophy, Hermeneutics and later Quine’s philosophy yield not determinable message.
There are at least two responses to our question. If we say ‘no’, philosophy is never meant to have a determinate message, then we are suggesting, I think that philosophy is radically different from an ideology, is meant to be value-free, and is perhaps so conceived that it could never be specific enough to have a message. I think we might be forced to say that school that there is no logical or conceptual reason why the end should ever be in sight for it.
If we had to answer the question positively and admit that there is good reason to suspect that some schools of philosophy will have a determinate message, then it would seem reasonable to expect it to be conceptually possible, but not historically inevitable, that the end could be in sight for all these schools. So, for example, if we determined the message of one particular interpretation of Zen Buddhism, then there is a sharp sense in which, just as in the case of theoretical physics, the end would be reached for that interpretation of Zen Buddhism.


I think that Rorty is correct in suggesting that philosophers have great difficulty in reaching any sort of agreement, on what is to count as agreement, on whether a philosophical problem has been solved, and whether the solution is acceptable. Rorty’s idea is to apply Kuhn’s analysis of scientific knowledge in terms of major paradigms to philosophy. Differing schools of philosophy are seen as differing paradigms of philosophical knowledge which exist in the absence of a ‘normal’ paradigm within which everyone agrees on what to count as a philosophical problem or solution. For example, I don’t think we could get any 10 philosophers chosen at random to agree on the specification or prospects of Foundationalism, or on the truths, if any, in extentialism or on the need for principle of bivalence.

(i) Rorty’s view is paradoxical

However, even if we suppose that Rorty is correct in his analyses of the defects of orthodox mainstream philosophy, we do not have to follow his prescriptions. He wants philosophy to cease to be enquiry and become the informal conversation of mankind. Rorty’s new style philosopher is an ‘informed dilettante,’…a…‘polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic thinkers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices. Disagreements between disciplines and discourses of compromised or transcended in the course of conversation.’ ^20 Paradoxically Rorty is trying to substitute a view of philosophy which holds that objective enquiry is not the point of philosophy, that man when he is wearing his philosophical hat, is not a mirror-like ‘glassy essence’, and that he should avoid having systematic views in the field of philosophical knowledge. Here I am reminded of Pascal’s aphorism, ‘To ridicule philosophy is really to philosophise.’ It seems hugely ironic that Rorty should have to produce a view of systematic philosophical knowledge in order to warn us of the impossibility of a systematic philosophical view of things. And as Jonathan Lieberson points out, ‘it is somewhat conversation about the mind and knowledge, a defence of philosophy as keeping the “conversation” of man going.’^21

(ii) Fails to close off the Handmaiden of Science view

We could accept Rorty’s analysis and still have at least one viable conception of philosophy as suggested by Kim in the A.P.A symposium:
‘There is another conception of philosophy, equally venerable and in fact commonplace, which views philosophy as the Handmaiden of Science. It views philosophy as an essentially intra-paradigmatic inquiry concerning the conceptual, foundational, and regulative aspects of a given paradigm. The assumptions and methodologies of a paradigm are often only implicit in the practice of its adherents, and we cannot expect always to expect always to expect them to be internally coherent and consistent. When a paradigm turns self reflective, as any sufficiently mature and comprehensive paradigm should, it becomes important for the self-knowledge of its practitioners to undertake the kind of intra-paradigmatic inquiry would necessarily be self-serving on the contrary, it could generate effective self-criticisms. It seems to me that this is one perfectly good traditional sense of philosophy, a sense that does not assume a “neutral matrix” outside any and all paradigms.’ ^22

(iii) ‘Paradigm’ does not apply to some schools

Rorty’s application of the concept ‘paradigm’ might aptly to the philosophical school that we have suggested have determinable messages, and for which the end could be in sight, that is, for schools such as Linguistic Analysis, Logical Empiricism and Classical Marxism. But it seems to me that there is no proper application of Kuhn’s concept of a ‘paradigm’ to those schools which don’t have determinable message and for which we claim that the end could not be in sight. Take Quine’s philosophy in the light of Kuhn’s idea of disciplinary matrix. Quine doesn’t tell you what methods to use to solve problems inside his proposed framework. There isn’t even agreement as to whether certain doctrines, for example, bivalence, are to be held true if one adopts a Quinean framework. Certainly, there are general attitudes and principles that Quineans adopt and there is some agreement as to method, but not in any sense comparable to that found in the sciences. It is precisely the lack of agreement on a range of issues inside the framework which makes the Quinean philosophical enterprise relatively endless. It is this feature which makes the concept of a paradigm inapplicable to Quine’s philosophy.


(i) If there is no law against it, it will probably happen.

(ii) Quine’s philosophy.

Rorty’s view that there can be no ‘normal discourse’ in philosophy relative to which all other paradigms are defined and judged makes system building possible. For any new system will just be one among many and will have to be judged on its merits. Quine has such a system. It is perfectly consistent with the various sciences.
It is, as we have seen, based on a naturalised epistemology, and develops a holistic and pragmatic theory of philosophic and scientific knowledge.
Quine is not the only philosopher to have a system. The proper attitude to system of philosophy is to let a hundred flowers bloom. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t be critical. On the contrary, there is a tradition of rational and hypercritical dissent from prevailing orthodoxy which is as old as philosophy itself. To many people this is the most attractive feature of philosophic debate. The outcome of the clash between a multiplicity of systems and unrelenting criticism is a process of natural selection. The fittest systems survive. Aspects of Quine’s philosophy will still be part of every undergraduate’s diet long after the message in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been forgotten.

(iii) Popper

Even though we agreed that Popper’s philosophy could end, I think his is a view which will require periodic re-examination. And there are bound to be re-interpretations and expansions. This show that debates about the end, although illuminating on some times, cannot close off philosophical development and expansion. Popper’s philosophy is, of course, only one example of the Handmaiden of science which we mentioned in section 5 above.

(iv) Hermeneutics

It will be interesting to see what impact the Anglo American Analytic philosophers have on Hermeneutics. Charles Taylor has had a foot in both camps for some time and he is firmly convinced that there are a number of very interesting questions whose solution will be bound to influence the issue of methodology in the social sciences. In a recent three-cornered debate with Rorty and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Taylor claimed that claimed that one of these issues was how to draw the distinction between the natural sciences and social sciences; or whether there are two kinds of understanding – scientific and human. He said,
‘…there is a serious issue about the distinction between natural and human science, substantially the one that theorists of hermeneutical science have been raising since the turn of the century. It can be defined as the issue whether the requirement of absoluteness ought to be imposed on the sciences of man. There are prima faciestrong reasons on both sides. For the distinction, there is the seemingly indispensable role of human understanding in any valid science of human action. Against the distinction, weighs the sacrifice of universal agreement free from interpretive dispute, and also of value-freedom, hence of the requirement of intersubjective consensus.

The case against the distinction shows that it is not a trivial one, that, if valid, it would mark a crucial difference between the two kinds of science. Some of the most basic ground rules of one would not apply to the other. I think the distinction in fact holds, but whether this is so or not, it must be clear that this issue has in no way been laid to rest by the well-deserved demise of old-style logical empiricism.’^23

It is relatively easy to sneer at Hermeneutics from within Anglo American Analytic philosophy, but it is much more difficult to plunge into its sometimes turgid prose, as Taylor has done, and try to understand the inner workings of a wholly different philosophical movement.

(v) Berlin

Isaiah Berlin suggested a general classification of human thought which gives a role to philosophy unlike any we have so far considered. He says,
‘The history of systematic human thought is largely a sustained effort to formulate all the questions that occur to mankind in such a way that the answers to them will fall into one another or other of two great baskets: the empirical, i.e. questions whose answers depend on pure calculation, untrammeled by factual knowledge. This dichotomy is a drastically over simple formulation; empirical and formal elements are not so easily disentangled; but it contains enough truth not to be seriously misleading.’ ^24

But he goes on to say,
‘Yet there are certain questions that do not fit easily into this simple classification… “What is time?”, “What is a number?”, “What is the purpose of human life on earth?”’ ^25

Such questions are distinguished in that there is no clue in them as to where we should look for answers. And related to this feature is another, namely, that those who seriously consider these questions are faced wit perplexity and bafflement from the beginning. Sir Isaiah suggests that such questions are ‘philosophical’.
‘There are no dictionaries, encyclopaedias… no experts, no orthodoxies which can be referred to with confidence as possessing unquestionable authority or knowledge in these matters…’ (and) ‘Ordinary men regard them with contempt or awe or suspicion, according to their temperaments.’ ^26

He thinks that the history of human knowledge is largely an attempt to move questions (and answers) from this third basket into the other two baskets. Now some of the questions in the third basket will be much closer to the ordinary concerns of daily experience than others. Some till be concerned with the ideas we live by and the goals we set ourselves. When philosophers criticize practices which seem harmful to them, their activities (in the form of words alone) can become socially dangerous. Russell was outspoken about the senseless killing on both sides during the First World War. He was deprived of his lectureship at Trinity and jailed for six months. He tells us something of his state of mind before he became involved with the No Conscription Fellowship.
‘I became filled with despairing tenderness towards the young men who were to be slaughtered, and with rage against all the statesman of Europe. For several weeks I felt that if I should happen to meet Asquith or Grey I should be unable to refrain from murder. Gradually, however, these personal feelings disappeared. They were swallowed up by the magnitude of the tragedy, and by the realization of the popular forces which the statesmen had merely let loose.
In the midst of this, I was myself tortured by patriotism. The successes of the Germans before the Battle of the Marne were horrible to me. I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel. Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess, and in appearing to set it aside at such a moment, I was making a very difficult renunciation. Nevertheless, I never had a moment’s doubt as to what I must do. I have times been paralysed by scepticism, at times I have been cynical, at other times indifferent, but when the War came I felt as if I heard the voice of God. I knew that it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be. My whole nature was involved. As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent nations sickened me, the return to barbarism appalled me. As a man of thwarted parental feeling, the massacre of the young rung my heart. I hardly supposed that much good would come of opposing the War, but I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm.’ ^27

Chomsky protested against the Vietnam. He was not made to suffer for his views as Russell was, but in 1969 when he refused to pay his Federal Taxes on grounds of conscience, the US Internal Revenue Service started an investigation onto his tax history. I don’t think of Chomsky as a major American philosopher in a technical sense, but I do think of him as a brave man and a philosopher who spoke out against the war long before it became a popular thing to do.

Alexander Solzehenitsyn in his Nobel speech on literature in 1970 had a philosophical hat on when he defended individual freedom against violence and repressive actions. He called our attention to the fact that ‘in Russia the most popular proverbs are about truth. They express the not inconsiderable and bitter experience of the people, sometimes with astonishing force. One word of truth outweighs the whole world.’ ^28 This is what philosophical activity is about. To quote Sir Isaiah Berlin again: it is ‘intellectually difficult, often agonising and thankless, but always important… the goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly in the dark.’ ^29 It is the search for that one word of truth that outweighs the whole world, that has brought us here tonight.


1. Hawking, S. ‘Is the end in sight for theoretical physics?’ CUP, Cambridge, 1980, p.1.

2. Kim, J. ‘Rorty on the Possibility of Philosophy’. Journal of Philosophy, Vol LXXVVII No 10, October 1980, p.571.

3. (a) Hacking, I. ‘Is the end in sight for epistemology?’ Journal of Philosophy, Vol LXXVVII No 10, October 1980, p.579.
(b) see Reference 2. above
(c) see Reference 3. (a) above footnote (*) regarding Rorty’s response.

4. Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Blackwell, Oxford 1980, pp.129 ff.

5. Kim, J. op. cit. p.589.

6. Rorty, R. op. cit. p.311.

7. Rorty, R. op. cit. pp.364-365.

8. Marquez, G., A Hundred Years of Solitude, Picador, London 1978, p.155.

9. Quine, W.V., ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ in From a Logical Point of View, Harper, New York 1953,

10. Quine, W.V. ibid, p.42 ff.

11. Quine, W.V. ‘Epistemology Naturalised’ in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, Columbia University Press, New York 1970.

12. Quine, W.V. The Roots of Reference, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois 1974.

13. Quine, W.V. ‘Epistemology Naturalised’, op. cit. pp.82-83.

14. Kornblith, H. ‘Beyond Foundationalism and the Coherence Theory’, Journal of Philosophy, Vol LXXVVII No 10, October 1980, p.597 ff.

15. Goodman, N. The Structure of Appearance, Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1966 (2nd edition).

16. Rorty, R. op. cit, p.315.

17. Bleicher, J. Contemporary Hermeneutics, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1980 p.27 ff.

18. Taylor, C. ‘Interpretation and the Sciences of Man’ Review of Metaphysics (25) 1971, p.28.

19. Popper, K. Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1972.

20. Rorty, R. op. cit. p.317

21. Lieberson, J. Review of Rorty, R. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in Philosophy of Science, September 1980, pp.657-659.

22. Kim, J. op. cit. pp.595-596.

23. Taylor, C. ‘Understanding in Human Science’ was the title of Taylor’s paper in the debate on ‘Holism and Hermeneutics’ with R Rorty and Hubert L Dreyfus in The Review of Metaphysics (34) September, 1980. The quotation is from page p.38.

24. Berlin, I. The Purpose of Philosophy’ in Concepts and Categories, OUP Oxford 1980, p.2.

25. Berlin, I. op. cit. p.2.

26. Berlin, I. op. cit. p.4.

27. Russell, B. Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, George Allen and Unwin, London 1975, pp.240-241.

28. Solzhenitsyn, A. ‘One Word of Truth’: The Nobel Speech, The Bodley Head, London 1972, p.27.

29. Berlin, I. op. cit. p.11.

& & & &

I published the above lecture (with additional material) to a wider audience, at the request of the editor of the South African Journal of Philosophy, as:
“Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ? : Revisited”, Van Straaten, Zak,
South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8 No 2, May 1989, pp. 66-76.

The text below has to be added to the end of section 5: What is wrong with Rorty’s view? of the above lecture; Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ? to get the full text of;
Is the End in Sight for Philosophical Knowledge ?; Revisited

What I did was to propose that Popper's method for science be adopted as the method for philosophy.
If so, this would imply that Richard Rorty, who claimed in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that there was no method in philosophy, would be falsified. That incidentally also explains why the additional material was added to the end of section 5: What is wrong with Rorty’s view?


from: The South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8 No 2 pp. 66 – 76.

The correct method for philosophy
I think that those who claim that there is no method in philosophy are mistaken. There is a method which is proper to philosophy. It is a method of conjecture and refutation. The method is deductivist and rationalist. My claim is that the method works or can be made to work in those fields of philosophy that deal with theories and hypothesis that have truth conditions and truth values. It is effective in epistemology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language. Exactly those areas where Rorty says there is no method.
What is required would be to show that for any genuine philosophical theory of hypothesis we can know what would falsify it. And to be able to identify and distinguish those philosophical theses, which, although apparently irrefutable, we nevertheless wish to regard as an important part of philosophy. These will be co-extensive with the set of metaphysical theses.
Philosophical theories/hypotheses/basic statements are falsified in various different ways. The most obvious is by counter-example. The example is either drawn from the actual world or from a possible world. This method occurs frequently in philosophical discussion.
Another type of refutation is to show that the proposed theory or hypothesis is incompatible with currently accepted scientific knowledge. For example, Aristotle’s idea of substance and accident is incompatible with our knowledge of physics and the quantum mechanical description of objects. It is however unlikely that a single experiment could falsify a philosophical theory.
A theory or hypothesis could be incompatible with logical principles, or other as yet unfalsified philosophical theories or basic statements, or theoretical considerations including unproblematic background knowledge, which we have no reason to suspect as problematic. Or a theory could be incompatible with our ‘intuitions’ but which accounts for all the cases which the disputed theory does.
We should note here that scientific generalizations can be falsified by events, or a combination of event and theory; whereas philosophical theories are falsified by counter-examples, or scientific theories, or a combination of events and theory.
Someone might object that I am merely proposing what is in effect Popper’s idea. It is true that I am proposing to apply Popper’s idea of the correct method for science to philosophy. However, it is not true that Popper had any confidence in this method when applied to philosophy. This claim is supported by reference to his thesis in the preface to The logic of scientific discovery that there if no method peculiar to philosophy; and to section 2 of Chapter 8 of Conjecture and refutations, titled ‘The problem of the irrefutability of philosophical theories’ in which he argues that philosophical theories’ in which he argues that philosophical theories are irrefutable, he nevertheless believes to be false!, he (1972:197) asks: ‘If philosophical theories are all irrefutable, how can we ever distinguish between true and false philosophical theories? This is the serious problem which arises from the irrefutability of philosophical theories.’
Let us recall the hypothetico-deductive method as proposed by Popper for science, and as modified by the debates on falsification and fallibilism since 1970. Popper takes Hume’s view of the failure of the inductive method theory seriously. Universal generalizations based upon induction cannot ever have their truth guaranteed by appeal to the positive instances which confirm or support them. But there is an asymmetry between the potential truth and the falsity of generalization. We can never know that a generalization over an infinite set is true, but we can definitely know when a generalization has been falsified. One negative case is sufficient.
In Popperian method if a theory emerges unscathed from severe tests of what it predicts and forbids (i.e. the attempted falsifications) then it is said to be ‘corroborated’. The more severely it is tested the more highly it is corroborated, and is then said to have ‘verisimilitude’. All those attempted falsifications which do not succeed become corroborations and so increase the degree of verisimilitude of theory. Growth takes place by rejecting one theory in favour of a rival, since the rival theory has increased empirical content, hence greater corroboration, and since corroboration is an indication of truth-likeness or verisimilitude, greater verisimilitude.
The sophisticated methodological falsificationist separates rejection from refutation, and feels free to retain and defend an apparently refuted theory, by use of ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses, or by attacking the theoretical basis of the experiment which allegedly provided the refutation. Popper and the sophisticated falsificationist thinks of the growth of science as partly dependent on the policy of not counting a particular theory as falsified by an agreed upon observation, or basic statement, or experiment, unless there is a rival theory in which the observation statement or experiment can be turned into successful prediction.
For Popper, all the as yet unfalsified, basic statements, hypotheses, and theories, are part of public objective knowledge and are members of the Third World. Also important is the demarcation of those theories, hypotheses and ideologies which are not amenable to even potential falsification. This is the realm of non-science or metaphysics, and these objects (with some exceptions) are not members of the Third World.

Call the Popperian method as applied to philosophy PM.

Let us suppose that the hypothesis:
(H) that PM is a correct method in philosophy generating the non-false, well corroborated, high-verisimilitude, philosophical theories/hypotheses/basic statements is itself well corroborated.

What should we expect?
Since PM is both normative and descriptive, both of these types of features will be part of (H). Our expectations should therefore be about both normative and descriptive contexts.
Some of the implications of the non-falsity of (H) would be that:

(a) The hypothetico-deductivism of PM would characterize the context of formalization of a philosophical theory/hypothesis/basic statement.² The strategies of PM would also apply to the context of discovery.
(b) We should expect in both the context of formalization and discovery of a theory/hypothesis/basic statement that a great deal of time is devoted to attempted falsifications. Staff seminars and international conferences should be characterized by many frequent attempts at falsifications.
(c) We could not find many philosophers painstakingly lining up hundreds of inductive cases so as to be able to form a generalization based upon them. We ought to find philosophers in their chairs framing hypotheses and theories without resort to inductions.
(d) The claims of linguistic philosophy that there are no real problems in philosophy, and hence that there is no method except the method of analysing ordinary discourse would be refuted and rejected.
(e) The history of philosophy would be littered with refuted and rejected theories. It would also be extremely unlikely from the ancient or medieval philosophers would survive unfalsified in the form and philosophical language in which they first saw the light of day.
(f) Richard Rorty would be refuted. Philosophy just like science would have a method adequate for producing philosophical theory/hypothesis/basic statements. Philosophy would no longer be the cultural overseer of the humanities but it would make a distinctive contribution to the Third World because of the theoretical interest and vast scope of philosophical generalizations in epistemology and the philosophy of science.
(g) We should be able to demarcate philosophy from non-philosophy. Most of the, in principle, unfalsifiable theory/hypothesis/basic statements would not count as philosophy, or be members of Popper’s Third World.

The above list contains only some of the implications of the non-falsified. And hence that (H) is a correct hypothesis (Zak Van Straaten, Philosophical Method, The South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8 No 1 1989, pp. 1 – 7. ).
I shall now give two examples of theories in philosophy where we know what would falsify them. In the case of Davidson’s theory we know what would falsify it, but I would argue that it has not yet been falsified. In the case of Kant’s theory we know what would falsify it, and I claim it has been falsified.

Davidson’s theory of anomalous monism

According to Davidson the anomalous monist believes that all events are physical, but rejects the (materialist) claim that mental events can be given purely physical explanations. The theory allows that (i) possibly not all events are mental, and (ii) all events are physical are both true. This depends on Davidson’s ingenious way of reconciling the three apparently incompatible principles: (a) at least some mental events interact causally with physical events; (b) where there is causality there must be a law; and, (c) there are no strict deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained (Davidson 1980:208). The anomalous monist in not a reductionist because of (1) the holism of the mental, (2) the anomalousness of mental descriptions, and (3) the absence of psycho-physical laws. This theory would be falsified if it turned out that (c) is false, and that it could be demonstrated that all mental predicated or mental terms could be reduced to physical terms.

Kant’s Copernican revolution

Kant understood the advances which Newton’s theory made over Aristotle. Newton had produced real, and repeatably demonstrable knowledge. It was objective. Anyone could carry out the calculations for the shift of the perihelion of Mercury, and would now arrive at 9 arc-minutes per 100 years.
However Hume had showed Kant that inductivism could not produce reliable knowledge. Kant’s problem in the Critique of pure reasonn was ‘How is pure natural science (i.e. Newton’s undoubtedly true theory) possible?’ That Kant had Newton in mind (he wrote the first Critique 78 years after the Principia) becomes clearer when one looks at the Metaphysical foundations of natural science, where there is an attempted a priori deduction of Newton’s theory.
Pure natural science is possible because the human mind prescriptively imposes its laws, concepts and categories on Nature. Newton’s knowledge of the world is therefore the necessary result of Newton’s mental apparatus applied to the world (Popper 1972:95ff.). If the acquisition of true Kantian knowledge is to be explained by the prescriptive and legislative role of the intellect, then knowledge is not merely contingent upon the legislative intellect. It is necessary result. As Popper pointed out the problem for Kant after the Critiqu e is to explain not how Newton could have made his discovery, but how others who had thought about the problem could have failed to make the same discovery.
Kant’s theory of knowledge is embarrassing because it proves too much. A less embarrassing theory like Russell’s, Quine’s, Davidson’s, Popper’s would be preferable.
The theory of the Critique was falsified by the discovery of non-Euclidean geometrics; that causation was inapplicable to quantum mechanics; by Einstein’s theory of time which has nothing to do with the mysteries of inner sense; by the discovery that methodological falsificationism, the epistemological system of conjecture and refutation could account for the acquisition of knowledge in pure natural science.
I hope I have said enough in the foregoing section on method in philosophy to give the reader some idea of how the method of conjecture and refutation would work in philosophy. These and other arguments on method in philosophy are pursued in my article ‘Philosophical method’ (1989).

(Zak Van Straaten, Philosophical Method, The South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 8 No 1, 1989 pp. 1 – 7. )