In response to:
Human Prospecting from the March 22, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
Peter Singer in his review of John W. Miller’s The Paradox of Cause and Other Essays (NYR, March 22) has the dubious distinction of being the first philosopher to criticize another philosopher by making irrelevant, snide remarks about his photograph on the book jacket. No wonder Singer misses Miller’s point by complaining that he demands too much of causality and should settle for an area of ignorance. Miller himself argues that causes “occur in the finding of them,” not as a feature of an “impersonal and finished world,” but rather as the “adventuresome enlargement of a finite point of view.” Hence accidents and ignorance are also inescapable.
One is reminded by Mr. Singer’s ad hominem tactic of how far we have come from William James’s wisdom: “Place yourself…at the centre of a man’s philosophical vision and you understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say. But…try to build the philosophy up out of the single phrases…and of course you fail. You crawl over the thing like a myopic out over a building, tumbling into every microscopic crack or fissure, finding nothing but inconsistencies, and never suspecting that a centre exists.”
Incidentally, the book jacket’s rather dim photograph of a man who died this year at 83 naturally cannot begin to suggest the vigor, alertness, and eloquence of the philosopher’s prime when he was developing a highly original blend of existentialist and idealistic thought, which students like myself found especially challenging in the 1940s when so much of American philosophy was under the spell of Dewey’s pragmatism or various forms of positivism. I hope Mr. Singer will someday venture beyond the jacket flap and a single sentence in evaluating an original thinker.
Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters
Ithaca, New York
Peter Singer replies:
Perhaps my joke about the jacket photograph was a little snide; but it arose from the irritation I felt after having struggled to read right through Miller’s book. I cannot say what William James would have made of Miller’s philosophy. There is, however, a sharp contrast between James’s own writings, which never leave the reader in any doubt about the claims being defended, and Miller’s meandering essays. No doubt Miller was an impressive teacher thirty years ago. I was reviewing the book, not the man.
Professor Strout suggests, through his quotation from James, that one should not try to build up a person’s philosophy from single phrases. He nevertheless quotes phrases from Miller to support his claim that I missed Miller’s point. Since he has quoted them, he can scarcely object to my asking what we are supposed to make of them. What, for instance, can we make of the claim that causes “occur in the finding of them”? What exactly is it that we find, then? A cause? Hardly, because then causes would be occurring in the “impersonal” world. But if not a cause, what else could it be that we find? I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether any additional enlightenment is obtained by reference to the “adventuresome enlargement of a finite point of view.”
May 3, 1979