In the Valentine’s edition of The New Yorker, there was a rather nice portrait by Larissa MacFarquhar of Paul and Pat Churchland, connubial philosophers of the mind-body problem at UC San Diego. For years they have been basically decrying in the wilderness against the way that philosophy of mind was being done without any regard for the experimental data being produced by studies in neurophysiology. In the article, Pat Churchland says this prevalent approach was the result of Anglo-American common language philosophy, which holds that the object of philosophy is to clarify our ideas by analyizing language. The problem, as she sees it, is that clarifying incorrect notions about the relationship between mind and body does not get us to truth, but rather leads us simply to have sophisticated bad ideas. The mind-body problem had become a problematic (to borrow from Foucault), when the evidence from neurophysiology was very clear — there is the brain and that’s it. Everything else is language games.
The article continues on a disappointed note:
The common language philosophy that Pat Churchland critisizes has its roots in german philosophy and the general post-Kantian diminishing of the relevance of Metaphysics. The deathknell for metaphysics in the 20th century may have arrived with Wittgenstein’s pronouncement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “[w]ovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” There are different ways to take this, of course, one of which is to say that, as with the dove-tailing of Kant’s first and second critiques, it delimits metaphysics in order to make room for faith (or occultism, or theosophy, or whatever).
The other is that it states what is already well known, that Metaphysic is dead, and there is nothing more to say about her. But if philosophers can no longer talk about metaphysics, then what shall they talk about? For years in Anglo-American philosophy, they talked about language. Instead of the relation between appearance and reality in the world, they talked about appearance and meaning in language instead. What the Churchlands found disturbing about this was that this seemed simply to be a way to practice metaphysics underground. Philosophers could dismiss metaphysics on the one hand, but then reintroduce it in their conversations about language instead — though insisting that all they were doing was discussing how we talk about metaphysical notions, not metaphysics itself. Like vampire hunters to the rescue (though under-appreciated, as indicated above) the Churchlands moved in and reapplied Wittgenstein’s dictum to this underground metaphysics. I like to think of them as latter day versions of Maximus the Confessor, pointing out that the compromise monothelite christology was in fact simply the monophysite heresy under a new guise. Claiming that Christ has two natures but one will is no better than claiming that he has one nature. Claiming that mind and body are the same in the world but separated in language is no better than claiming that they are different in the world, also.
The natural endpoint for the Churchlands is, then, to make our language conform to the world, in order to remove these errors of thought.
But if we cannot do metaphysics, and we should not even talk of it anymore, what should philosophers do with themselves? Open Court Press may have found an answer with their Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Not all the books listed below are from their press, but they do emphasize the point that if we cannot speak of metaphysics, that is if we cannot use philosophy to go beyond what we already know, then we ought to use her instead to explore those things that we are familiar with. We should practice the perennial philosophy.