Tuesday, March 01, 2011

A Quote from J. R. Lucas

The philosophical climate in which I grew up in Oxford was one of extreme aridity. The ability not to be convinced was the most powerful part of a young Philosopher’s armory: a competent tutor could disbelieve any proposition, no matter how true it was, and the more sophisticated could not even understand the meaning of what was being asserted. In consequence, concern was concentrated
on the basic questions of epistemology almost to the exclusion of other questions of larger import but less easy to argue in black and white terms. The undergraduate who wanted to write essays on the meaning of existence was told to confine himself to the logical grammar of ‘is,’ and was not even allowed to ask what truth was, or how one ought to live one’s life.-

J. R. Lucas 


Tim said...

This is a lovely quotation. Lucas is quite brilliant. In my judgment, he is one of those thinkers whose work will be appreciated more in future generations than it is at present.

Landon Hedrick said...

I remember struggling with his book Treatise on and Time and Space in one of my classes as an undergraduate. Tough stuff, but rewarding.

That's an interesting quote.

Michael Baldwin said...

I'm at Oxford right now but I haven't found this to be true at all- not yet anyway.
At the moment in philosophy we are doing ethics, in particular looking at utilitarianism.
We are doing 8 weeks just on utilitarianism, its proof, whether it preserves integrity, whether it accounts for punishment properly, whether it delivers true justice etc.
By the end of the last tutorial all of us had been convinced of a retributivist theory of punishment at the expense of consequentialist thinking. I don't know about you but I was pretty happy with that!

Victor Reppert said...

It's been a few decades since Lucas wrote that, and he was writing about the 1950s when Ayer's influence was still considerable.

Gimli 4 the West said...

Is this the way philosophers approach their studies? I went into science (other than the hope of economic returns) because what was taught in lecture could be proven in a lab. However, I found I was more of a sponge than a critic. I was lucky if I had time to prove 5% of what was taught in lectures. At some point you have to accept authority with the hope that others went through the same rigorous process of proving the other 95% (you could read about how they did so).

Actually doing science, not just studying it, is another matter. I synthesized molecules (chalkones) for tests against the AIDS virus. The work was tedious, required intense concentration on minute details and then required long laborious reports on how the synthesis and purification of the samples was accomplished. A second long laborious report was then written on the spectrographic evidence that the sample is the molecule I set out to synthesize. The sample was sent away for some other scientist to test against the virus.

I later took a more lucrative job doing things like studying foreign food laws so I could design a fruit wax for peach farmers to sell their crop in foreign countries. Perhaps I was just doing the grunt work of science so it is hard for me to understand all the philosophical debates surrounding such tedious and unglamorous work. I understand even less how any scientist involved in the industry can make a pronouncement about whether or not I should beat my wife or whether or not Christ rose from the dead. For that, I am thankful to folks like Victor.

Michael Baldwin said...

Victor- yeah I guess that does make quite a big difference. Quite a few of the more contemporary philosophers of the last century that we've read have been more in favour of a virtue ethic, in a kind of reaction against the more reductive, formal principle/rule like structure of utilitarian and deontological thinking. A lot of them seemed disillusioned with the kind of abstract, impersonal principles coming before action- they seem to think it compromises on personhood and identity.

I have to say I find it intriguing that so many did react in that way, and as Christians this does fit in with the idea of spiritual need for intimacy etc. Virtue ethics also seems to correspond better to "make imitators of christ", striving for the telos/ultimate end of being like Christ- which is essentially character moulding rather than following abstract rules.

Michael Baldwin said...

And interesting comment, Gimli

B. Prokop said...

Test message with new Blogger account.

David B Marshall said...

Hmmn. Wasn't that the era in which a young Bill Clinton was not inhaling at the Turf pub? Did he do any essays on the meanin of "is?"

Steve Lovell said...

My experiences at the University of Sheffield (from 1995 to 2003) were quite similar to those of Michael at Oxford.

However, I found that when one goes beyond normative ethics to meta-ethics things get much more hazy. People wanted to be ethical realists without ontological commitments. Unfortunately, unless you can make the Kantian project succeed, that looks to be impossible. The result is that as meaningfully as my lecturers could discuss things "within" ethics, they had little constructive to say "about" ethics, and when they turned their attention there the results were not encouraging.

Witness the work of former Sheffield lecturer Richard Joyce. He has a book whose title says nearly all you may wish to know: "The Myth of Morality". Nice chap though.