Four Hot Questions in Philosophy

Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (The Woodbridge Lectures 1983)

by P.F. Strawson
Columbia University Press, 98 pp., $17.50

If one man were to be singled out as personifying Oxford analytic philosophy over the past thirty years, Sir Peter would be that person. In these four lectures, which he delivered at Columbia University in 1983, he weighs issues in four traditional arenas of philosophical contention. In one arena the existence of external objects is at stake, in another the grounds of morality, in a third the status of mentalistic language, and in a fourth the existence of abstract objects.

Skeptics have long challenged our evidence for the existence of external objects. In response Strawson toys first with a “transcendental argument,’ somewhat reminiscent of Kant, which purports to show that our very ability to entertain the question of the existence of external objects presupposes our belief in them. Dissatisfied, he rallies to the naturalism, as he calls it, of Hume and Wittgenstein. Their position is that belief in external objects is ingrained in human nature and is never really suspended, the skeptic’s pretensions notwithstanding. It is not open to doubt or, therefore, to substantiation.

If this dismissal of the problem is felt to be lame, I would suggest that the feeling can be relieved by taking a more fully naturalistic stance. Our words have no meaning beyond what they acquire through our learning of them, and all our learning of them goes back directly or indirectly to the association of utterances with concurrent sensory stimulation. The sentences of science, no matter how theoretical, acquire what meaning they have through a network of sentence-to-sentence links whose starting point is sensory stimulation. All evidence for the truth of a scientific theory, moreover, is drawn from sensory observation through that same network. The existence of external objects is itself just one among the tenets of our scientific theory, albeit a primordial one, and it is sustained to the degree that the theory as a whole conforms to observational data. The very meaning of the existence thesis lies no deeper.

The skeptic who challenges the existence of external objects, in that first arena, has in the moral arena a confederate who challenges the objectivity of moral judgments. Strawson seems to suggest that this challenge would be met if we could show that human action is not ultimately determined by external causes. This connection is not clear to me, but no matter, for Strawson recognizes that “no one has been able to state intelligibly what such a condition of freedom…would actually consist in.” Tentatively he opts rather, as in the first arena, for the strategy of what he calls naturalism: human nature is inescapably committed to moral values, and there is no scope for challenge or defense.

He distinguishes between this brand of naturalism, which he calls “liberal,” and another which he calls “reductive.” In dealing with the moral matter the reductive naturalist is at one, it seems, with the skeptic. Strawson is responsive to the claims of both the liberal and the reductive naturalist with regard to morality, and he seeks to reconcile…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.