reviewed by Nathaniel Branden
Both reason as a source of knowledge and rationality as a practical ideal are today under attack. Indeed there has been no period in the past two thousand years when they have undergone a bombardment so varied, so competent, so massive and sustained as in the last half-century.
This statement is made by Brand Blanshard in the opening pages of Reason and Analysis. There is only one word in the statement that I would challenge: the word “competent.” And I offer, in support of my disagreement, Professor Blanshard’s own brilliant critique: when one has finished reading his analysis of the irrationalist movement in contemporary philosophy, “competent” is a word that scarcely seems applicable to those whose doctrines he so lucidly and devastatingly exposes.
His critique is directed specifically at “logical positivism and the linguistic philosophies that have succeeded it.” (For a critical analysis of pragmatist epistemology, see his The Nature of Thought, Vol. 1, Macmillan, 1939.) He traces the development of positivism and linguistic analysis from their roots in Hume, sets forth their main contentions, and then proceeds to subject their arguments and conclusions to a scrutiny that is dispassionate, courteous, meticulous—and deadly.
As he observes, “the task of the expositor is a baffling one. He has no sooner, with some effort, mastered a particular position and matured his estimate of it than he is told that this position was abandoned some years or some weeks ago, and that he is therefore flogging dead horses.” The movement “has been kaleidoscopic in the quickness of its changes, which have followed each other at such a pace that the writing and printing of books could not keep up with it and it has had to register its changes in a bewildering profusion of notes and articles.”
These difficulties notwithstanding, one of the most impressive features of Reason and Analysis is the clarity of its exposition; Professor Blanshard exhibits a remarkable ability to impart intelligibility to positions not conspicuous for that attribute.
His historical account is superb. He discusses: the early positivism of Mach, with Mach’s assertion that all scientific laws must merely describe relationships among our percepts, with the implicit dismissal of conceptual explanation as mythology or “metaphysics”—the conventionalism of Poincaré, with its announcement that the laws and definitions of mathematics say nothing about the real world, but merely express “conventions” adopted on the grounds of “convenience”—Russell’s Principia Mathematica and the theory of logical atomism, with the banishment of necessity from logic and the assertion that no fact of reality necessarily entails any other—the verifiability theory of meaning of the Vienna Circle, which seeks to divorce “meaning” from consciousness or concepts, and which has, at various stages, dismissed as “meaningless” statements about the self, the minds of other men, the past, the future, electrons, moral values, and the nature of reality—the declaration of the logical positivists that no proposition known to be necessarily true refers to the facts of reality and no proposition that refers to the facts of reality can be known with certainty to be true—the linguistic analysis of Wittgenstein, with its pronouncement that the task of philosophy is not to solve philosophical problems, but to “dissolve” them, by “teasing out” the confusions in philosopher’ use of language. And thus Professor Blanshard traces the main steps of modern philosophy’s descent into a nightmare blend of neo-mysticism and unutterable triviality.
One of the most interesting chapters in his book is devoted to the verifiability theory of meaning. This is the much-touted doctrine that promised to bring an unprecedented precision and clarity to philosophical discourse. Unfortunately, the theory itself—as Professor Blanshard shows—is a masterpiece of unclarity and ambiguity. Cast in its most general form, it asserts that the meaning of any factual statement is the observations that would verify it. But what exactly does this mean? That, as it turns out, is the problem. There is not one “verifiability theory of meaning,” but many—as attempt after attempt has been made, and reformulation after reformulation has been offered, in the vain effort to endow the theory with consistency, intelligibility, applicability, value or meaning. Professor Blanshard leads the reader through the main stages of these attempts, quietly dissecting and unmasking version after version, with the patience of a saint and the skill of a surgeon.
In For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand observes that the dominant trend of modern philosophy has been a concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty. While Professor Blanshard does not draw this conclusion explicitly, his analysis provides ample evidence in support of Miss Rand’s statement. From his presentation, one can see in what manner the central thrust of the verifiability doctrine, in all its stages, is in the direction of by-passing the conceptual form of cognition and reducing man’s consciousness to the animal level of sensory perception.
One of the clearest instances of the subjectivism of positivist epistemology is its assertion that the laws of logic and mathematics are merely “conventions”—arbitrary rules of discourse, of the use of terms—that indicate nothing about the facts of reality. “The principles of logic and mathematics,” A. J. Ayer informs us, “are true universally simply because we never allow them to be anything else.” (I cannot refrain from observing that if a man were to make such a statement using the first person singular pronoun, his problem would surely be regarded as psychiatric; it is curious to note what men permit themselves when hiding behind the plural pronoun.)
Professor Blanshard analyzes the conventionalist or linguistic theory of logic and mathematics in exhaustive detail, exposing the almost endless series of contradictions which it engenders.
To deny the law [of contradiction] means to say that it is false rather than true, that its being false excludes its being true. But this is the very thing that is supposedly denied. One cannot deny the law of contradiction without presupposing its validity in the act of denying it. We accept the law and must accept it, because “nature has said it.” If we hold that a thing cannot at once have a property and not have it, it is because we see that it cannot. The law of contradiction is at once the statement of a logical requirement and the statement of an ontological truth.
In reversing the actual order of things, and declaring that our view of reality reflects our use of language, rather than vice versa, the positivists, Professor Blanshard observes, “are telling us in effect that the only reason why the Rocky Mountains do not appear in the Great Lakes is that the map forbids them to.”
One of the dominant themes in twentieth-century philosophy is a profound hostility to metaphysics, to any comprehensive view of reality or any inquiry concerning the nature of things. Philosophers are conducting an impassioned crusade for myopia as the highest intellectual virtue—for the progressive shrinking of man’s vision and the progressive divorcement of thought from reality. This trend has reached its apogee in that curious movement known as linguistic analysis.
The animus toward any sort of general principles extends to the linguistic analysts’ view of their own activity. Nothing is more futile than the attempt to extract from a linguistic analyst an intelligible statement of what linguistic analysis is. To quote Professor Blanshard: the attempt to define this movement “is complicated…by the notorious reluctance of these philosophers to talk about what they are doing in general terms; if they are asked what philosophy means for them, they are apt to say, ‘it is the sort of thing I am doing now,’ and return to their work.”
It is safe to say, however, that one of the chief contentions of the linguistic school is that earlier philosophers had misconceived the task of philosophy: they had falsely imagined that their task was to discover basic truths about existence, about man and the universe about how man should conduct his life. The actual mission of philosophy, linguistic analysts tell us, is to explicate the usage of words, to identify the sort of “work” words to in “ordinary language,” and, by analyzing deviations from this usage, to cure those “mental cramps” which the uninitiated think of as philosophical problems. The concept of philosophical problems as “mental cramps” is Wittgenstein’s: what he proposes to offer, in place of philosophical answers, is linguistic therapy.
(In reading the various doctrines and versions of linguistic analysis, one is irresistibly reminded of a statement made by Hugh Akston in Atlas Shrugged: “People would not employ a plumber who’d attempt to prove his professional excellence by asserting that there’s no such thing as plumbing—but, apparently, the same standards of caution are not considered necessary in regard to philosophy.”)
Professor Blanshard writes: “The discussion of words in philosophy is prefatory and preparatory only. How expressions are used is not a philosophical problem. How they ought to be used is a philosophical problem, but not primarily one about words at all, but about the character and relations of the objects talked about.”
In bringing to light the underlying irrationalism of the analytic movement, Professor Blanshard may be said to have administered some admirable philosophical “therapy” of his own, but not of the linguistic variety; his treatment is an unqualified success: the patient died—but philosophy survived.
It is necessary to mention that many of Professor Blanshard’s own philosophical premises are deeply at variance with those of Objectivism. He is a representative of the Absolute Idealist school of thought, and there is much in his book with which an Objectivist cannot agree: for instance, his views concerning the nature of universals and the relation of thought to reality.
One may take issue with any of Professor Blanshard’s own philosophical views, however, and still appreciate the enormous value of his book. No honest man can read it through to the end and retain any serious regard for the philosophical schools at which his critique is directed. Since these schools are currently dominant, it is scarcely to be expected that the book will receive the justice it deserves from the philosophical profession. The real beneficiaries of the book, and its most significant readers, will be the younger generation, the college students who are to be the writers, the teachers, the intellectuals of tomorrow. Struggling in the dense jungle of today’s epistemological nihilism, they will find in Reason and Analysis a powerful weapon to help them cut their way through to a clearer view of the proper nature of philosophy.
[This review first appeared in the February 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and was posted to Objectivist Living with the reviewer's permission on Tuesday, August 29, 2006. Comments and questions are welcome.]