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berlin and magee talk philosophy

Excerpt from "Talking Philosophy" by Bryan Magee

This e-mail was sent in response to a claim that philosophy is "the art and science of careful and systematic reasoning," and that logic is "the stock and trade of this science," ideas I heartily disagree with as they limit philosophy overmuch in my view and chop off its larger purpose: to speculate on topics reason and logic can't touch.

The following exchange is taken from the section, "An Introduction to Philosophy: Dialogue with Isaiah Berlin." Headings indicate a leap ahead and change of topic.


MAGEE: What reason can you give someone for taking an interest in philosophy if he hasn’t already done so of his own accord or been led to it by the education system?

BERLIN: Well, to begin with, philosophical questions are interesting in themselves. They often deal with assumptions on which a great many normal beliefs rest. People don’t want their assumptions examined overmuch — they begin to feel uncomfortable when they are made to look into what their beliefs really rest on — but in fact the presuppositions of a great many ordinary common-sense beliefs are matters for philosophical analysis. … Philosophers, by examining them, increase self-knowledge.

MAGEE: As you say, we’re all of us made uncomfortable by having our presuppositions probed beyond a certain point, and beyond that point we all resist it. Why are we like that?

BERLIN: Partly, I suppose because people don’t like being over-analyzed — having their roots laid bare and closely inspected — and partly because the need for action itself precludes this kind of thing. If you are actively engaged in some form of life, then it is inhibiting and, perhaps, even in the end paralyzing. … Too much of this daunts people or irritates them, undermines their self-confidence and naturally creates resistance. … Yet if presuppositions are not examined, and left to lie fallow, societies become ossified; beliefs become dogma, the imagination is warped, the intellect becomes sterile. … Men and ideas advance in part by parricide, by which the children kill … the beliefs of their fathers and arrive at new beliefs.


BERLIN: There are two great classes of issues … one is the class of ordinary empirical questions about what there is in the world, the sort of thing ordinary observation and the sciences deal with. … Then there is another type of question — the sort which mathematicians or logicians ask. There you accept certain definitions and rules … this gives you no information about the world at all. I am referring to formal disciplines, which seem to be entirely divorced from questions of fact: mathematics, logic, game theories, heraldry. You don’t discover the answer by looking out the window, or at a dial, or through a telescope, or in the cupboard. …

Between these two great classes of questions there are other questions which cannot be answered in either fashion. There are many such questions, and they include philosophical questions. One of the prima facie hallmarks of a philosophical question seems to be to be this: that you do not know where to look for the answer (not out the window or at a dial). …

MAGEE: You’ve brought us now to something fundamental, so much so that I’d like to consolidate the position we’ve reached before we take any further steps forward. What you are saying is that in their search for knowledge human beings have asked, most commonly, two kinds of question. In the first place there are questions about the world — man is all the time trying to find out about and master his environment, or perhaps if you like, just cope with his environment. These questions about the world can be answered only, in the end, by looking at it: by investigation, observation, testing, experiment and so on. Such questions are factual — or as philosophers say, empirical; that is to say they are matters of experience.

The second kind of question is of a more abstract or formal kind — for instance, questions in mathematics or logic; or as you just mentioned, games or heraldry. Questions of this kind concern the interrelationships between entities within formal systems, and therefore we can’t get answers to them by looking at the world. To say this however is not to at all say that they are remote from our ordinary concerns …

So there are two great classes of questions, which we know how to deal with successfully: empirical questions, which involve looking at facts, and formal questions, which involve relating one thing to another inside a formal system. Nearly all questions and therefore nearly all knowledge fall into one of these two baskets. But philosophical questions don’t: almost the hallmark of a philosophical question is that it falls in neither basket. A question like "What is right?" can be answered neither by looking out a window nor by examining the internal coherence of a formal system. So you don’t know how to go about finding an answer. Possession of a nagging question without any clear understanding of how to look for the answer is, you’re saying, where philosophy begins.

BERLIN: You’ve put it far better than I have. Much more clearly.


MAGEE: A lot of people come to philosophy wanting to be told how to live — or wanting to be given an explanation of the world, and with it an explanation of life — but it seems to me that to have at least the former desire is to want to abnegate personal responsibility. One shouldn’t want to be told how to live. And therefore, one shouldn’t come to philosophy looking for definitive answers.

BERLIN: It is a painful thing that you are saying — but, unlike most moralists, I agree with it. Most people do want to be given answers. Turgenev once said that one of the troubles about his novels — one reason why they irritated some of his readers — was that the Russian reader in his time (and, indeed, we may add, until today) wanted to be told how to live. He wanted to be quite clear about who were the heroes, who the villains.

Turgenev refused to tell them this. … It is not the business of the moral philosopher, any more than it is the business of the novelist, to guide people in their lives. His business is to face them with the issues, with the range of possible courses of action, to explain to them what they could be choosing and why. … He should show, moreover, how the opening of one door may lead to the opening or shutting of other doors … to point out the loss and gain involved in an action or an entire way of life.


MAGEE: It is questionable whether we can think at all without the use of models, yet they influence, shape and limit our thoughts in all sorts of ways of which we are mostly unaware. Now, one of the functions of philosophy is, is it not, to reveal the models which provide the often hidden structure of our thoughts, and to criticize them?

BERLIN: Yes, this seems to be true. … I have for a long time thought the history of political philosophy is largely the history of changing models, and that examining these models is an important philosophical task. … Greek philosophers conceived of mathematics as the paradigm of knowledge … Aristotle preferred a biological model of development and fulfillment. … The Judeo-Christian tradition uses the notion of kinship … in the seventeenth century people tried to explain the nature of society in terms of legal models …

MAGEE: It seems extraordinary that so many people who like to think of themselves as plain, down-to-earth, practical men should dismiss the critical examination of models as an unpractical activity. If you don’t drag out into the light the presuppositions of your thinking you remain simply the prisoner of whatever the reigning orthodoxy … thus the model of your age, or the model of your day, becomes your cage without your even realizing it.

BERLIN: Indeed.


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb