Monday, October 5, 2009

Greatness and the Absence of Footnotes

Let's call call "Searle's Principle" the belief that "philosophical quality varies inversely with the number of bibliographical references, and that no great work of philosophy ever contained a lot of footnotes."[1]

It appears that Searle came to hold this belief on the basis of "reading books by Wittgenstein, Austin, Strawson, Ryle, Hare, etc." Ryle's book, at least by this criterion, is the best just because it has none. It's just as easy as counting calories, and, as everyone knows, the fewer the calories, the better the quality of the food.

Never mind either that footnotes are a relatively recent phenomenon because it seems that nothing before Wittgenstein counts anyway. Kant, who, of course, does not show up in the Index, would be less than great, as there are several footnotes in most of his works.[2] Hume would not make the list of first-rate philosophical authors either.

Searle's principle seems to me just an expression of the kind of unthinking hubris philosophy can do without.

1. John R. Searle, (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge: MIT University Press, 1992), p. xiv.

2. But an Index is not important either, or so it may seem. On p. 17, we find, for instance, "... Kant's commonsense distinction between the appearances of things and things in themselves eventually led to the extremes of absolute idealism ..." Call me a stickler for details, but what may seem to us as a commonsense distinction was for Kant anything but ... and whether Kant's distinction straightforwardly "led to" the extremes of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel is at least an open question.

1 comment:

PB said...

Searle's attitude is reflected in his teaching as well: a student will come away with a clear account of Searle's view (and his view of other positions in the field), but generally not with a broad understanding of the key arguments that shape the field.

Searle thinks that paying too much attention to other philosophers (footnotes) will tend to cloud rather than clarify the problem (and he tells his students as much). He believes he has resolved many prominent philosophical issues more or less on his own, by ignoring the confusions of those who have gone before.

Is it surprising that few philosophers agree with him?