Philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart—when long-held and widely-cherished beliefs are threatened.At such periods, intellectuals reinterpret the past in terms of an imagined future. They offer suggestions about what can be preserved and what must be discarded.The ones whose suggestion have been most influential win a place on the list of “great philosophers”. For example, when prayer and priestcraft began to be viewed with suspicion, Plato and Aristotle found ways for us to hold on to the idea that human beings, unlike the beasts that perish,have a special relation to the ruling powers of the universe.When Copernicus and Galileo erased the world-picture that had comforted Aquinas and Dante,Spinoza and Kant taught Europe how to replace love of God with love of Truth, and how to replace obedience to the divine will with moral purity. When the democratic revolutions and industrialization forced us to rethink the nature of the social bond, Marx and Mill stepped forward with some useful suggestions.
In the course of the twentieth century there were no crises that called forth new philosophical ideas.There was no intellectual struggle comparable in scale to the one that Lecky famously described as the warfare between science and theology. Nor were there any social convulsions that rendered either Mill’s or Marx’s suggestions irrelevant.As high culture became more thoroughly secularized, the educated classes of Europe and the Americas became complacently materialist in their understandingof how things work. In the battle between Plato and Democritus—the one Plato described as waged between the gods and the giants—they have come down, once and for all, on the side of the giants. They also become complacently utilitarian and experimentalist in their evaluations of proposed social and political initiatives.They came to share the same utopian vision: a global commonwealth in which human rights are respected, equality of opportunity assured, and the chances of human happiness are thereby increased. Political argument nowadays is about how this goal might best be reached.
This consensus among the intellectuals has moved philosophy to the margins of culture. Such controversies as those between Russell andBergson,Heidegger and Cassirer,Carnap and Quine,Ayer and Austin,Habermas and Gadamer,and Fodor and Davidson, have had noresonance outside the borders of philosophy departments. Philosophers’ explanations of how the mind is related to the brain, or of how there can be a place for value in a world of fact, or of how free will and mechanism might be reconciled, do not intrigue most contemporary intellectuals. These problems, preserved in amber as the textbook “problems of philosophy”, still capture the imagination of some bright students. Butno one would claim that discussion of them is central to intellectual life. Solving those very problems was all-important for contemporaries of Spinoza, but when today’s philosophy professors insist that that they are “perennial”, or that theyremain “fundamental”,nobody listens. Most intellectuals of our day brush aside claims that our social practices require philosophical foundations with the same impatience as when similar claims are made for religion.
But even though the struggle between the gods and the giants has is over, two other controversies that Plato described are still alive. The first is the quarrel between philosophy and poetry—a quarrel that was revitalized by the Romantic Movement, and now takes the form of tension between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures”.This quarrel is about whether human beings are at their best—realize their special powers to the fullest--when they use reason to discover how things really are, or when they use imagination to transform themselves. The second is the quarrel that Plato described as between the philosophers and the sophists. This one is between those who think there is an important virtue called “the love of truth” and those who do not.
The standoff between Nietzsche and Plato that dominates a great deal of recent philosophical writing epitomizes both quarrels. That opposition, unlike any of the more parochial ones that I listed earlier, is still capable of gripping the imagination of intellectuals who are common-sensical materialists and utilitarians. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is at the center of contemporary, but certainly the best way for us philosophy professors to get the attention of people outside our own discipline is to raise the question of whether Plato was right that humans beings can transcend contingency by searching for truth,or whether Nietzsche was right to treat both Platonism and religion as escapist fantasies.
The quarrel that the philosophers have with the poets is not the same as their quarrel with the sophists, for reasons that I shall come to shortly.But the poets and the sophists have a lot in common—especially their doubts about the claim that natural science should serve as a model for the rest of high culture. Both are suspicious of what I shall call “universalistic grandeur”—the sort of grandeur attained by mathematics and mathematical physics.
Both numbers and elementary particles display the imperturbabilitytraditionally attributed to the divine. The study of both produces structures of great beauty, structures that are godlike in their aloofness, their indifference to human concerns. The same impulse that led Plato to think that what he called “the really real” must be more like a number than like a lump of dirt has led many recent philosophers to take modern physical science as the over-arching framework within which philosophical inquiry is to be conducted.Thus we find Quine identifying the question “is there a fact of the matter” with the question “does it make a difference to the elementary particles”. Davidson has suggested that the particles are the only true locus of causality, since they are the only entities whose behavior is regulated by “strict, exceptionless laws”.A host of other philosophers have devoted themselves to “naturalizing epistemology” and “naturalizing semantics”. These are attempts to describe mind and language in terms which allow for the fact that what is thought and what is meant are supervenient on the behavior of physical particles. Whereas intellectuals in general are happy to agree that physical science tells you how things work, many contemporary philosophers are still Platonist enough to think that it does more than that. They think it tells you what is really real.
Philosophers of this sort often describe the battle they wage against colleagues whom they describe as“irrationalists”,“deniers of truth”,or “sophists” is often described as a defense of science against its enemies. Many of these philosophers think of natural science as pre-Galilean intellectuals thought of religion—as the area of culture in which human beings are at their best, because most willing to acknowledge the claims of something transcends the human. Hostility to science is, in their view, a form of spiritual degradation. Thus Bertrand Russell, at the beginning of the last century, reacted against the line of thought that William James called “pragmatism” and that his Oxford friend F. C. S. Schiller called “humanism”, by writing as follows:
…greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by domination,, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we f ind in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made….This view…is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value…The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears…calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge—knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain.
In our own day, Thomas Nagel shares Russell’s contempt for those who believe that, as William James put it, “the trail of the human serpent is over all”.Nagel describes what he calls “the outermost framework of all thoughts” as “a conception of what is objectively the case—what is the case without subjective or relative qualification”. (LW, 16)In response to pragmatists and historicists who argue that all justification is by our lights—the lights of a particular time and place—Nagel replies that
claims to the effect that a type of judgment expresses a local point of view are inherently objective in intent. They suggest a picture of the true sources of those judgments that places them in an unconditional context. The judgment of relativity or conditionality cannot be applied to the judgment of relativity itself…There may be some subjectivists, perhaps calling themselves pragmatists, who present subjectivism as applying even to itself. But then what they say does not call for a reply, since it is just a report of what the subjectivist finds it agreeable to say. (LW, 14-15)
Russell and Nagel share Plato’s taste for universalist grandeur. They also share his conviction that in the end there is no middle way between acknowledging the claims of the unconditional outermost framework of thought and simply saying whatever you findagreeable to say. Like Plato they see human beings as facing a choice between striving for the universal and unconditional and giving free rein to unjustifiable, idiosyncratic, desires. So the pragmatists’ suggestion that mathematics and physics be thought of simply as useful for the improvement of man’s estate,as tools for coping with our environment, strikes both Russell and Nagel as a symptom of moral slackness as well as of intellectual error.
In the past, I have attempted to defend James’ replies to Russell, andto restate the defense of Protagoras mounted by Schiller, by aligning pragmatism with romanticism. In particular, I have tried to firm up the alliance between the sophists and the poetsby emphasizing the debt that both Dewey and Nietzsche owed to Emerson. But lately I have come to think it better to distinguish more sharply between the romantics, who tend to buy in on the Platonic reason-passion distinction and then exalt passion at the expense of reason, and the pragmatists, who have little use for either the reason-passion or the objective-subjective distinction. So in this lecture I am going to stress the contrast between the two quarrels I have been discussing: the one between philosophy and poetry and that between neo-Platonists such as Russell and Nagel and neo-sophists like myself.
To bring out the difference, I shall invoke two distinctions that Juergen Habermas drew in his book THE PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE OF MODERNITY--distinctionsI have found invaluable in trying to tell a story about the history of modern philosophy. The first is the one Habermas makes between what he calls “subject-centered reason” and “communicative reason”.Subject-centered reason is a Platonic invention: it consists in a purported connaturality between the mind of each human being and the nature of things. Plato described this connaturality in terms of the soul’s pre-existence in an immaterial world. Descartes, Russell and Nagel presuppose it when they claim that all we have to do to reach a transcultural and ahistorical outermost framwork of thought is to substitute conceptual clarity for conceptual confusion.
What Habermas calls “communicative rationality”, on the other hand, is not a natural human endowment, but a set of social practices. It is found, in some measure, wherever people are willing to hear the other side, to talk things over, to argue until areas of agreement are found, and to abide by the resulting agreements. To think of reason as subject-centered is to believe that human beings possess a faculty that enables them to circumvent conversation—to side-step opinion and head straight for knowledge. To replace subject-centered reason with communicative rationality is to see truth as what is likely to emerge from free and imaginative conversation. It is to think of knowledge as the achievement of consensus rather than as a mental state that enjoys a closer relation to reality than does opinion.
To agree with Habermas that reason is communicative and dialogical rather than subject-centered and monological is to substitute responsibility to other human beings for responsibility to a non-human standard. It is to lower our sights from the unconditional above us to the community around us. This substitution enables us to accept with equanimity Kuhn’s suggestion scientists are better thought of as solving puzzles than as gradually disclosing the true nature of things. It helps us limit ourselves to hopes hope for small, finite, fleeting, successes, and to give up the hope of participation in enduring grandeur.
So much for Habermas’ first distinction. His second is between remaining loyal to rationality and seeking what he calls “an other to reason”. Habermas uses the latter term to characterize such things as mystic insight, poetic inspiration, religious faith, imaginative power, and authentic self-expression—sources of conviction that have been put forward as superior to reason.
Like Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas, each of these others to reason is put forward as a short cut around conversation that will take you straight to truth. If you are in touch with such an other, you do not need to converse with other human beings.If you have something like what Kierkegaard called “faith”, or if you can engage in what Heidegger called “Denken”, it will not matter to you whether or not other people can be persuaded to share your beliefs. It would debase the relevant “other to reason” to force those belief into the conversational arena, to make them compete in the market-place of ideas.
Habermas has suggested that I go too far when I deny that universal validity is a goal of inquiry He thinks of my repudiation of this goal, and my enthusiasm for what Heidegger called Welterschliessung—world-disclosure—as unfortunate concessions to romanticism, and as putting me in bad company. But I regard Habermas’ insistence that we retain the ideal of universal validity as an unfortunate concession to Platonism. By hanging on to it, it seems to me, Habermas remains in thrall to the philosophical tradition that burdened us with the idea of reason as a human faculty that is somehow attunded to the really real.
Going all the way with Habermas’ project of replacing a subject-centered conception of reason with a communicative conception would, it seems to me, leave us without any need or any use for the notion of universal validity. For it would let one think of rational inquiry as having no higher goal than solving the transitory problems of the day. As I see it, thinking of inquiry in those quasi-Deweyan terms stands to communicative reason as universalism stands to subject-centered reason, and as romanticism stands to the various others to reason.Habermas and I both distrust metaphysics. But whereas he thinks that we must find a metaphysics-free interpretation of the notion of universal validity in order to avoid the seductions of romanticism, I think that that notion and metaphysics stand or fall together.
One way to express our disagreement is to say that I cast Habermas in the role in which he casts Hegel—as someone who almost reaches the correct philosophical position but fails to take the last crucial step.One of the central points Habermas makes in THE PHILOSPHICAL DISCOURSE OF MODERNITY is that Hegel almost, but not quite broke the hold of subject-centered conceptions of rationality, He came very close to replacing it, once and for all, with what Terry Pinkard has called “the doctrine of the sociality of reason”. That doctrine holds thatan individual human being cannot be rational all by herself, for the same reasons that she cannot use language all by herself. For unless and until we take part in what Robert Brandom calls “the game of giving and asking for reasons”, we remain unthinking brutes.
Habermas thinks that if Hegel had managed to carry through on this proto-Wittgensteinian line of thought we might have been spared the aggressive post-Hegelian anti-rationalisms of Kierkegaard, Bergson, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault and others. But for Hegel to have taken the plunge he would have had to drop the idea of absolute knowledgeHe would have had to turn his back on Parmenides, Plato, and the quest for the kind of grandeur that becomes possible only when doubt is eliminated, when no participant in the conversation has anything left to say, and so history—and perhaps time as well—can come to an end.To do that, Hegel would have had to give up the confluence of the divine and the human at which his System aimed. He would have had to rest content with the thought the idea that the conversation of humankind would go its unpredictable way for as long as our species lasts--solving particular problems as they happen to arise, and, by working through the consequences of those solutions, generating new problems.
One way to follow up on Habermas’ criticism of Hegel is to say that Hegel took on the impossible task of reconciling the romantic idea that the human future might become unimaginably different, and unimaginably richer, than the human past, with the Greek idea that time, history and diversity are distractions from an eternal oneness. As with Goethe, much of Hegel’s greatness lies in his having heightened the tensions between the temporal and the eternal, and between the classic and the romantic, rather than in his success at synthesizing them.It is as if the cunning of reason used Hegel to intensify this tension, thereby warning us against attempting any such synthesis.
John Dewey, the greatest of the Left Hegelians, heeded this warning.Dewey had no use either for theodicy or for the ideal of absolute knowledge. He was interested only in helping people solve problems, and had no wish for either grandeur or profundity. His abandonment of both goals has resulted in him being dismissed as a bourgeois bore, which was pretty much the way Russell regarded him.Both Russell and Heidegger thought incapable of rising to the spiritual level on which philosophy should be conducted.
One reason that Dewey is my philosophical hero is that I think it would be a good idea for philosophers to bougeoisify themselves, to stop trying to rise to the spiritual level at which Plato and Nietzsche confront each other.Indeed, it would be best if they would stop thinking in terms of levels altogether, cease to imagine themselves ascending to heights or plumbing depths.In order to develop this point, I turn now from the universalist metaphor of ascent to an overarching framework that transcends the merely human to the romantic metaphor of descent to the very bottom of the human soul.
One of Dewey’s most trenchant critics, Arthur Lovejoy, was also a distinguished historian of ideas. In the latter capacity, he urged that it was time to put aside the hackneyed opposition between classicism and romanticism—to treat it as an overused, worn out, historiographical device. In a celebrated essay, Lovejoy listed a large number of intellectual movements that had been labeled “romanticism”, and showed not only that nothing bound them together, but that some of them stood in direct opposition to one another.
Isaiah Berlin is one of the few historians of ideas who have had the courage to challenge Lovejoy on this own ground and to insist that he was“in this instance mistaken”.“There was a romantic movement,” Berlin says, “it did have something that was central to it; it did create a great revolution in consciousness, and it is important to discover what this is”. (RR, 20) Berlin revivifies the notion of romanticism by opposing it not to classicism but to universalism. He thereby transforms it into one term of a philosophical, rather than a literary, contrast. He calls universalism the “backbone of the main Western tradition”, and says that it was that backbone that romanticism “cracked”. (RR, 21) Romanticism, Berlin says, was “the deepest and most long lasting of all changes in the life of the West.” (RR, xiii).
Prior to the late eighteenth century, Berlin claims, Western thinkers were pretty much agreed on three doctrines: First, all genuine questions can be answered. Second, all these answers can be discovered by public means--means which, as Berlin says, “can be learnt and taught to other persons”. Third, all these answers are compatible with one another. They all fit together into One Truth. As Berlin nicely puts it, Western thinkers viewed human life as the attempt to solve a jigsaw puzzle. He describes what I have called theirobsession with univeralist grandeur as follows:
There must be some way of putting the pieces together. The all-wise being, the omniscient being, whether God or an omniscient earthly creature—whichever way you like to conceive of it—is in principle capable of fitting all the pieces together into one coherent pattern. Anyone who does this will know what the world is like: what things are, what they have been, what they will be, what the laws are the govern them, what man is, what the relation of man is to things, and therefore what man needs, what he desires, and how to obtain it. (RR, 23)
Berlin’s own philosophical writings are built around his conviction that the pieces will not, in fact, fit together. The theme of his best-known essay, “Two concepts of liberty”, is that some goods are incompatible with one another. Nomatter what socio-political setup we agree on, something will be lost. Somebody will get hurt. This is a view with which Dewey would have entirely agreed.
As Berlin tells the story, the French Revolution forced us to face up to incompability.The unity of Truth cannot be reconciled with the fact that “Danton…a sincere revolutionary who committed certain errors, did not deserve to die, and yet Robespierre was perfectly right to put him to death.” (RR13) The romantic reaction to this paradox, Berlin says, was to attach the highest importance to such values as “integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to some ideal for which it is worth both living and dying.” (RR, 8)Seen from a Platonist point of view, this amounted to giving passion supremacy over rationality, authenticity over conversability.
Berlin sums up the romantic reaction against the assumption that there is always one right answer to the question “what is to be done” by saying that what Hegel called “the collision of good with good” is “due not to error, but to some kind of conflict of an unavoidable kind, of loose elements wandering about the earth, of values which cannot be reconciled. What matters is that people should dedicate themselves to these values with all that is in them.” (RR, 13)
Pragmatism differs from romanticism in taking seriously the collision of good with good while remaining dubious abouttotal dedication and passionate commitment. Pragmatists think that Danton and Robespieere—and, for that matter, Antigone and Creon--should have tried harder to make some sort of deal,been more willing to compromise.The Platonist tradition insists that there collisions of good with good are always illusory, because there is always one right thing to do. Pieces of the puzzle that obstinately refuse to fit are to be discarded as mere appearance. But for pragmatists intellectual and moral conflict is typically a matter of beliefs that have been acquired in the attempt to serve one good purpose getting in the way of beliefs that were developed in the course of serving another good purpose. The thing to do, they say, is not to figure out what is real and what is merely apparent, but tp make a deal--find some compromise that will let both sides achieve at least some of the good they originally hoped for. This usually means redescribing the situation that gave rise to the various problems, finding a way of thinking about it that both sides might be able to live with. Since pragmatists agree with James that the true is the good in the way of belief, and since they take the conflict of good with good as inevitable, they do not think that univeralist grandeur and finality will ever be attained. Ingenious compromises between old goods will produce new sets of aspirations and new projects, and new collisions between those aspirations and projects, forever.We shall never escape what Hegel called “the struggle and labor of the negative”, but that is merely to say that we shall remain finite creatures, the children of specific times and specific places.
Plato’s idea that “the Good” is the name of a something perfectly unified, something like the Parmenidean One, helped him see all the goods he cherished as compatible with one another. The author of both love poems andand mathematical proofs, he wanted to see both as serving a single purpose. If we put the Phaedrus together with the Republic, we can see Plato as trying to fit his attraction to the young men to whom he dedicated his poems, his love for Socrates, and his hopes for a just city, together with his passion for demonstrative certainty. By, as Nietzsche put it, insisting that only the rational can be beautiful, and by identifying ture beauty with ultimate reality, he succeeded in convincing himself that the ugly collision of good with good could be set aside as mere appearance.
On Berlin’s account, the imperturbable grandeur of the new and radiant world that Plato claimed to have discerned dominated the imagination of the West up until the romantic movement.Thanks to the thinkers of philosophy’s heroic age, such as Spinoza and Kant, the ideal of universalist grandeur was able to survive the secularization of high culture. For these philosophers suggested ways of retaining the jig saw puzzle view of inquiry going even after we had become Democriteans in our understanding of how things work. They suggested ways in which Truth might remain One, how it could might still be regarded both as an appropriate object of erotic striving and as an invulnerable ally.
The romantic movement did its best to break apart what Plato thought he had fitted together. It mocked Plato’s attempt to synthesize mathematical certainty and erotic ecstasy.It refused to think of the particular person orcity or book one loves with all one’s heart and soul and mind is simply a temporary disguise adopted by something eternal and infinite, something not itself subject to contingency or defeat. It abandoned the idea of an overarching framework which was connatural with human reason, and which would eventually reveal itself to all who tried hard to think objectively. To quote Berlin again:
What romanticism did was to undermine the notion that in matters of value, politics, morals, aesthetics there are such things as objective criteria which operate between human beings, such that anyone who does not use these criteria is simply either a liar or a madman, which is true of mathematics and physics. (RR, 140)
Romanticism, in other words, undermined the assumption common to Plato, Kant, and Habermas: that there is such a thing as “the better argument”—better not by reference to its ability to convince some particular audience, butbecause it possesses universal validity. The idea that there is one right thing to do or to believe, no matter who you are, and the idea that arguments have intrinsic goodness or badness, no matter who is asked to evaluate them, go hand in hand. Pragmatists discard both ideas. My basic disagreement with Habermas concerns his attempt to retain the notion of the intrinsically better argument while adopting a theory of the sociality of reason. These two seem to me, as I think they did to Dewey, like oil and water.
If we agree with Berlin that romantics succeeded in breaking the back of the jigsaw puzzle view of inquiry, then we become willing to admit that inquiry need have no higher goal than the solving of problems when and as they arise.But Berlin, like Dewey, recognized that the Platonist hope of speaking with an authority that is not merely that of a certain time and place had survived within the bosom of romanticism, and engendered what Habermas calls “others to reason”.Berlin’s treatment of the universalism-romanticism contrast helps us see that one of the most important ideas the romantics took over from the onto-theological tradition was that of “the infinite”.
“Infinite” is an ambiguous term that univeralists and romantics use in different ways. Universalism’s idea of the infinite is of something that encompasses everything else, and thus something against which nothing else has any power.To say that God is infinite is to say that nothing outside him can affect him, much less deter him from his purposes. Romanticism’s idea of infinity is different. It is the essentially reactive idea of removing all constraints, and in particular all the limitations imposed by the human past, all those which are built into the ways we currently talk and think. The romantic idea of infinity has more to do with the figure of Prometheus than with that of Socrates. It is the idea of perfect freedom decoupled from that of perfect knowledge and of affiliation with the invulnerable.
Berlin uses the terms “depth” and “profundity” to describe the romantic version of the infinite. Here is a passage in whichhe expatiates on the sense that the romantics gave these terms:
When I say that Pascal is more profound than Descartes

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