Friday, 28 November 2008

Off the beat?

Whilst running yesterday I played the podcast of a recent In Our Time programme on neuroscience which included on the panel the Kings College philosopher David Papineau. Later in the evening I went to hear to Zutons play at Carlisle (living where I do, I have to seize such opportunities).

In the ordinary sense of the word, Papineau wasn’t dogmatic. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was obviously a little frustrated for the first half of the programme because the notes he had submitted in advance were obviously much more forthright than Papineau himself initially was. He conceded, for example, the naturalness of a dualist position against his own ‘died in the wool materialism’ (though I’m not sure it is really a natural position; the assumption it is calls for questioning). But when urged, he did outline a standard physicalist account of the mind-brain relation.

But whilst David Papineau wasn’t dogmatic in any pejorative sense, the account he offered was dogmatic in this sense. It comprised a set of positive but philosophical claims thus making me wonder: on what premises had it been based (if it were philosophical as opposed to empirical but likely to be true)? But that is too blunt a question to be happy with. Ultimately, no positive philosophical account would escape it and the only alternative lies in Wittgenstein’s comment: I destroy, I destroy, I destroy!

But later at the Zutons, the following association struck me. A few years ago I played their first album throughout the autumn as a gently upbeat mildly funky cd to, eg., drive to. But I hadn’t thought of them amplified to gig level volume, presenting a wall of sound. For the first few moments they sounded a bit like, and made me wish I were hearing, Seamonsters era Wedding Present. But what redeemed things was that, although they slipped weirdly into channelling first Thin Lizzy and ultimately early Pink Floyd, most of the time the Zutons’ music is syncopated (it also has two saxophones, a flute, self-conscious drum solos and other quirks). It is often nicely off the beat. As a result, although it climaxed with a standard four-four thrash, this seemed a destination justified because achieved only once they had travelled a circuitous route.

This made me realise what seems so odd about philosophy in the style of David Papineau. Recall Michael Dummett’s (pictured) remark at the start of The Logical Basis of Metaphysics. He’s had a plumbing disaster after trying to make some alterations himself with hammer and chisel (perhaps, my memory is dim). The emergency plumber comes to rescue him and when queried about whether all is lost says no, it is a straight-forward job providing that one does not go about it, as Dummett has, ‘bald-headedly’. (I really will have to check this memory!) So equally, suggests Dummett, philosophy should not be attempted head on like Papineau, but via a principled route through, for example, the philosophy of language, to set some ground rules. Philosophy should be, so to speak, off the beat. That’s what’s wrong with dogmatic philosophy. It is merely on the beat.