The present book grew out of the Gifford Lectures, which I delivered at the University of St. Andrews in the Fall of 1990, and, with one exception, its chapters are quite close to the lectures as given. (Chapter 5 has been very substantially rewritten. In addition, there was an opening lecture in which, perhaps perversely, I chose to deal with the present situation in quantum mechanics and its philosophical significance, which I decided did not really belong with the others.)
At first blush, the topics with which the lectures dealt may seem to have little relation to one another: I spoke of reference and realism and religion and even of the foundations of democratic politics. Yet my choice of these topics was not an arbitrary one. I was guided, of course, by my own past areas of concern, since it would have been foolish to lecture on topics on which I had not done serious thinking and writing in the past, but beyond that I was guided by a conviction that the present situation in philosophy is one that calls for a revitalization, a renewal, of the subject. Thus this book, in addition to addressing several topics individually, offers a diagnosis of the present situation in philosophy as a whole and suggests the directions in which we might look for such a renewal. That suggestion does not take the form of a manifesto, however, but rather takes the form of a series of reflections on various philosophical ideas.
Analytic philosophy has become increasingly dominated by the idea that science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective. To be sure, there are within analytic philosophy important figures who combat this scientism: one has only to mention Peter Strawson, or Saul Kripke, or John McDowell, or Michael Dummett. Nevertheless, the idea that science leaves no room for an independent philosophical enterprise has reached the point at which leading practitioners sometimes suggest that all that is left for philosophy is to try to anticipate what the presumed scientific solutions to all metaphysical problems will eventually look like. (This is accompanied by the weird belief that one can anticipate that on the basis of present-day science!) The first three chapters in this volume are concerned to show that there is extremely little to this idea. I begin with a look at some of the ways in which philosophers have suggested that modern science explains the link between language and the world. The first chapter discusses the decidedly premature enthusiasm that some philosophers feel for “Artificial Intelligence”. The second chapter takes on the idea that evolutionary theory is the key to the phenomenon of representation, while the third chapter subjects to close scrutiny a contemporary philosopher's claim that one can define reference in terms of causality. I try to show that these ideas lack scientific and philosophical substance, while gaining prestige from the general philosophical climate of deference to the supposed metaphysical significance of science.
Perhaps the most impressive case for the view that one should look to present-day science, and especially to physics, for at least a very good sketch of an adequate metaphysics has been made by the British philosopher Bernard Williams, and after a chapter which deals with some of the problems faced by both relativistic and materialistic metaphysicians, I devote a chapter to a close examination of his views.
Not all present-day philosophers are overawed by science, however, and some of the philosophers who are not—philosophers like Derrida, or, in the English-speaking world, Nelson Goodman or Richard Rorty—have reacted to the difficulty of making sense of our cognitive relation to the world by denying that we do have a cognitive relation to extralinguistic reality. In my sixth chapter, I criticize these thinkers for throwing away the baby with the bathwater. In the seventh and eighth chapters, I examine Wittgenstein's “Lectures on Religious Belief”, arguing that those lectures demonstrate how a philosopher can lead us to see our various forms of life differently without being either scientistic or irresponsibly metaphysical, while in the concluding chapter I try to show how John Dewey's political philosophy exhibits the same possibility in a very different way.
The two months that I spent at St. Andrews giving these lectures were a sheer delight, and I profited more than I can say from the companionship and the philosophical conversation of the remarkable group of brilliant and dedicated philosophers there, particularly Peter Clark, Bob Hale, John Haldane, Stephen Read, Leslie Stevenson, John Skorupski, and Crispin Wright. As always in recent years, many of the ideas in these chapters were first tried out in conversation with Jim Conant, and Chapter 5, in particular, owes a great deal to those conversations. Chapter 9 first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Southern California Law Review 63 (1990): 1671–97, and is reprinted here with that journal's permission. I am also grateful to Bengt Molander of the University of Uppsala and to BenAmi Sharfstein of the University of Tel Aviv, both of whom read earlier versions and made valuable suggestions. At a very late stage, excellent suggestions were also made by the referees for the Harvard University Press, not all of which I could take up without changing the character of the work, but some of which I have responded to, and some of which will show their effect in my future writing. The most valuable suggestions of all were made by Ruth Anna Putnam, who provided not only the affection and support which mean so much, but whose close reading and fine criticism certainly made this a much better book.