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American Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Uncorrected Papers: Diverse Philosophical Dissents by Wallace Matson (Humanity Books) These incisive, witty, and completely accessible essays on a wide range of topics by historian of philosophy Wallace Matson admirably demonstrate that philosophy can still be based on careful reasoning and presented with clarity of expression. Against fashionable contemporary views, Matson asserts that philosophy is "the most important subject in the college curriculum," because it is the investigation into what rationality is. Getting the answer wrong to the question "What does it mean to be reasonable?" is the most catastrophic of errors. The motivation for most of the essays in this collection is his perception that this error is being widely committed and that received opinion on many topics is dead wrong.

Accordingly, he takes issue with the following beliefs: bodily resurrection is possible, zombies are logically possible (as David Chalmers claims), John Rawls wrote a book on justice, religion is an aid to morality, Zeno and Parmenides tried to prove that nothing really moves, the actual world is only one out of an infinity of possible worlds, and much more. Also included are two essays on Matson’s distinctions between high and low beliefs, four essays on Spinoza, and, in conclusion, "The Study of Philosophy as a Prophylactic against Bullshit."

Excerpt: Philosophy, the most important subject in the college curriculum, . . ." I wrote at the beginning of A New History of Phi­losophy (1987). The editor queried it as exaggeration. "Stet," I replied. Philosophy is the investigation into what rationality is, whether in belief or in judgment or in action. It follows that philosophy is the most dangerous subject, for getting the answer wrong to the question "What is it to be reasonable?" is the most catastrophic of errors. Nowadays there are more and more philosophy (and English and anthro and socio and psych, etc.) classes where you will be told the wrong answer and be required to memorize it for the final exam. For instance, that reason is only one among an infinity of "perspectives" among which people should be free to choose whatever suits them; that it is no more than the arbitrary rules governing the "conversation" which happens to be going on at a particular time and place; that it is only another male or upper-class or European weapon for oppressing females or the poor or the third world.

I think these global put-downs of rationality can be countered without begging the question, that is, without assuming that reason is a good thing in order to prove that it is. I am trying to do so in the book I am now working on, tentatively titled The Evolution of Belief. Sneak previews of the strategy will be found in the papers numbered 1, 10, and 22 in this volume.

Meantime I have "assumed," if you like, that contrary to the most fashionable contemporary views, there really are "objectively right and wrong" interpretations of texts; accounts of how things stand in the world; descriptions of a basic human nature that changes, if at all, only with evolutionary slowness; and—in some cases at least—valid infer­ences from that nature to conclusions about what it is better or worse for such creatures to do with their lives.

Nowadays a philosopher—or a teacher of philosophy, as I prefer to call myself—who presumes to treat of all the subjects implied in these "assumptions" is likely to be regarded with suspicion. One should have one's "field" and stick to it. But the fact is, I never acquired a specialty, as is expected of a proper academic. Over the five decades spanned by these papers I have butted into almost all the recognized areas of phi­losophy: theory of knowledge (or at least philosophy of science), ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, logic (the fringes anyway), philos­ophy of religion, mind, language, action—even a minimal sally into aesthetics.

The unifying thread of these papers, such as it is, lies not in any common theme but in their motivation. What usually gets me writing is a perception that received opinion on some topic or other is dead wrong—that according to Zeno, Achilles can't catch the tortoise; or that John Rawls wrote a book about justice—and a feeling of being called upon to set it right. Alas, I cannot say that these services have won effusive thanks from very many "professional philosophers," as they are pleased to call themselves. They have taken little notice of these yawps, even to expose their errors (hence the title of the collection). Orthodoxy moves onward—whether with the majesty of the proverbial caravan, or the fatuity of Hans Christian Andersen's emperor, must be decided by posterity, if, as is unlikely, posterity can be bothered.

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