Monday, December 20, 2010

Stephen Mulhall, part II

Over at Practice and History of Philosophy, j. is in the process of answering my question, Who is Stephen Mulhall? (My post is here, j.'s answer so far is here and here.) Mulhall provides a description of what he is doing at the end of his book Faith & Reason.

Here he writes:
And what of philosophy in all this? In what sense can this and the preceding chapter be thought of as philosophical investigations, as opposed to poor attempts at edification or the unwitting provision of ample grounds for taking offence? Is there really room here for an exercise of reason that is not an employment of it on one side or another of the existential choice with which Christianity faces us?

Only if the following distinction can be made and observed: the distinction between a description and a defence of (or an attack upon) a form of life. [...] [P]hilosophy can spell out the central features of the forms of life that face one another across the divide between religious and other modes of human existence [...] But it neither can, nor should, attempt to engage in those arguments with, let alone to make that choice for, it readers.
He is not saying that people should not engage in such arguments. What he is saying is that this should not be done in the name of philosophy, as if philosophy or logical argument could spare anyone the need to make existential choices. What he says here sounds right to me, but I wonder whether the distinction he identifies between description and defense (or attack) can be made and observed.

It is worth noting also that Faith & Reason is a relatively old book. It came out in 1994, and Mulhall has published much else since then. His Inheritance and Originality came out in 2001 and ends with a "Concluding Dogmatic Postscript." Presumably the Mulhall of 1994 would not have considered anything dogmatic as philosophy. Perhaps the 2001 Mulhall doesn't either, but I always wonder what exactly it is that he takes himself to be doing. And I think he does too. The last sentence of Inheritance and Originality (before the acknowledgements, bibliography, and index) asks: "But can philosophy acknowledge religion and still have faith in itself?" I don't think the answer is meant to be obvious.

Then in 2002 there appeared an interview with Mulhall in New British Philosophy. Here he describes "a sense that there's some kind of open border between philosophy and literature" as the direction he finds interesting in philosophy. (This is a thought that I am trying to have articulately.) He also says, "My concern was that it is very difficult to see how to go on with and from Wittgenstein without your own voice being completely submerged." Cavell provided a model of how to do this, but he doesn't want to be a sort of ersatz Cavell. He wants to be himself, to speak with his own voice. And, "The trouble with philosophy is that philosophers seem to have an almost inveterate tendency to forget that they're human beings too."

So Mulhall seems to have struggled with the questions of what philosophy (generally) ought to be, or how it ought to be done after Wittgenstein (and after Cavell), and of how he (in particular) ought to speak or write (or think?). This interests me because I have similar questions. But also because I often wonder to what extent he is speaking for himself. In 1994 he seemed to think it was possible to be neutral. Does he still think that? Does he ever still try merely to describe (in his book on private language, for instance)? And if not, then with what authority does he write? In short, I think what I'm trying to say is that his work raises the questions: 1. What is the relation between philosophy and literature?, and 2. What is the authority of literature (and of the kind of philosophy that exists along that open border)? Perhaps there is something wrong with that second question though. And that interests me too.


  1. oh, those two sources are very helpful. i think i've read the interview but had forgotten he was so forthright in it. and the 'faith and reason' volume i was saving until i had time to learn about… faith and reason.

    how nice would it be to have a david lewis-style view of philosophy instead, huh? 'i just think about what follows from stuff.' 'what stuff?' 'oh, whatever stuff follows from.'

  2. I didn't remember what was in the interview either, but it all seemed familiar when I re-read it. It must have made quite an impression on me the first time around.

    And, yes, it would be sort of nice to have a different conception of the subject. But the grass is always greener...

  3. ok, i've finally read 'faith and reason'—it seems really quite good to me. (a lot better than most kierkegaard books i've glanced at, or better for example than the conant articles mulhall cites.)

    i do share your impression that the end of 'inheritance and originality' amounts to a change, although as i recall offhand he does still voice some of the philosophical neutrality (philosophy is one thing, other things are other things) that's given a more blunt statement at the end of 'faith and reason'. it would seem that his adjustment—fuller appropriation—of what he counts as philosophy made the other change possible.

  4. Yes, I think there is an adjustment like that, although I also sense (or guess) that these are still live issues for him.