The concerns of academic philosophy are to some degree the concerns of everybody. At the same time, they often appear to plain pre-philosophical men and women - including those perhaps not so plain persons who are professors of English or History or Physics - as vaguely ludicrous. On the one hand, academic philosophy is centrally concerned with such all-pervasive concepts as those of truth, rationality and goodness: and who, whether in other academic disciplines or in the transactions of everyday life, can disown an implicit commitment, at the very least, to some view of what rational justification consists in, and of what constitutes sound evidence for a belief, and who, consequently, can avoid admitting to a certain vulnerability to the conclusions of professional philosophers on these matters? Yet, on the other hand, the level at which academic philosophers treat these questions often appears to outsiders - including some philosophers themselves in their off-duty moments - as disturbingly abstract and unrealistic. So that outsiders tend to oscillate between a reluctant admission of the philospher's status as universal legislator and an irritated dismissal of philosophy as unworldly and irrelevant. Philosophers themselves all too often respond by alternating between an ingrown professionalism in which they conceal themselves behind thickets of technicality and an equally self-indulgent form of popularisation in which the proportion of rhetoric to argument is unduly high. It is, then, something of an event when a book appears in which the central task which laymen demand of the philosopher - that of providing a clear and forceful statement of what conclusions of general importance emerge from the tangled encounters of professional argument - is discharged without sacrificing the requirements of detailed and rigorous argument.
LRB 5 June 1980 | PDF Download