As I’ve mentioned before, the professional side of philosophy can and often does engender an anti-philosophical spirit of partiality.
A good philosophical spirit need not always be impartial, of course. In fact, it should be partial—partial to the truth, but also partial to the virtues that attend pursuing truth, such as intellectual humility, open-mindedness, charity, etc. The anti-philosophical spirit of partiality that opposes these virtues encourages irrational dogmatism (there can be rational forms of dogmatism, but that’s another topic), pressure to conform to intellectual faddism, undue hero adulation, obsession with novelty (within the confines of dogma, mind you), and other metaphysical pathea.
Few of us cave-dwellers will be able to ascend without some myopia; but there are those who have seen the light and are noble enough to descend back into the cave. We would do well to listen to them carefully, not mock them, as some shadow watchers do. While it is not my place to say who I think are philosophonies (there might be a few offenders so bad that they merit exception), this post begins a series on who I think—in my limited knowledge and experience—are some of today’s real deal, genuine article, test-all-things-and-hold-fast-to-what-is-good, legit, bona fide philosophical junzi—philosophers who aren’t afraid to flow with the current of reason and resist the anti-philosophical zeitgeist. My first example is the late Antony Flew.
- Antony Flew (1923-2010)
Flew carried Bertrand Russell’s British torch of atheism, effectively making atheism not only intellectually respectable but status quo in much of academia (Flew’s contributions to philosophy of religion are vastly superior to the embarrassingly simplistic contributions of Russell, which are unbecoming of an otherwise brilliant philosopher). Flew’s career was shaped by the Socratic principle “follow the argument wherever it leads.” His genuine commitment to the principle showed early on when, contrary to what one might expect, he rejected the fashionable “Ayerian heresy of logical positivism” and its associated verification principle. Flew’s rejection of the heresy is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it was born and thrived within the philosophical community with which he most closely identified; and second, the heresy would only reinforce his own skepticism about the meaningfulness of theological language. Nevertheless, Flew delivered what he took to be decisive arguments against logical positivism and thereafter saw the “sacrosanct verification principle …curiously maintained as a secular revelation.” Flew was not afraid to recognize the strength of arguments for views not his own (he called N. T. Wright’s historical case for the resurrection “absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful”), and held in close company those who had maintained them (witness his deep friendship with Christian philosopher Gary Habermas). Curiously, few philosophers seem to ever change views on major questions in their field of expertise, something Flew was not shy to do. Once a stalwart Marxist and compatibilist, later a stalwart critic of both. Lastly, by embracing theism—solely because of the evidence for it—at the tail end of a career marked by defending atheism, Flew’s philosophical integrity can be doubted only by those who can’t themselves embrace the free-thinking spirit of good philosophy. I close with a lengthy quote on the subject of progress in philosophy from Flew’s intellectual biography:
Certainly some of the practitioners of the new philosophy, even if only very few, were devoted to trivial, esoteric, and pointless inquiries. I reacted against such apparent triviality and pointlessness with a paper I wrote and read to the B.Phil. Club entitled “Matter That Matters.” I argued that it was both possible and desirable to concentrate on problems that even philosophically uninstructed laypersons could perceive as interesting and important, instead of wasting time and effort in philosophical shadowboxing (and this I said without abandoning—indeed, while positively profiting from—insights obtained at Oxford).
I came to see, as I would write in An Introduction to Western Philosophy, that there can be progress in philosophy despite the general absence of consensus. The lack of consensus in philosophy is not an independently sufficient demonstration that the subject does not make progress. The attempt to show that there is no philosophical knowledge by simply urging that there is always someone who can be relied on to remain unconvinced is a common fallacy made even by a distinguished philosopher like Bertrand Russell. I called it the But-there-is-always-some-one-who-will-never-agree Diversion. Then there is the charge that in philosophy it is never possible to prove to someone that you are right and he or she is wrong. But the missing piece in this argument is the distinction between producing a proof and persuading a person. A person can be persuaded by an abominable argument and remain unconvinced by one that ought to be accepted.
Progress in philosophy is different from progress in science, but that does not mean it is therefore impossible. In philosophy you spotlight the essential nature of deductive argument; you distinguish between questions about the validity or invalidity of arguments and questions about the truth or falsity of their premises or conclusion; you indicate the strict usage of the term fallacy; and you identify and elucidate such fallacies as the But-there-is-always-someone-who-will-never-agree Diversion. To the extent that these things are accomplished with better reasoning and greater effectiveness, progress will be seen—even as consensus and persuasion remain elusive and incomplete. (from Flew, There is a God, pp. 40-41).