Thursday, December 7, 2017

Doyle on Anscombe

I knew James Doyle slightly in graduate school, but wasn't aware then of any interest on his part in Wittgenstein and Anscombe. Now he's got a very interesting looking book on Anscombe coming out. I haven't seen the book yet, but it looks as though you can get a taste of it from this paper on "Modern Moral Philosophy."

Strikingly, he says early on in his paper that Anscombe's paper "has not been properly understood, at all." (I'm not sure when the paper was written, but it cites a paper from 2014, so it's at least fairly recent.) Reassuringly, he later qualifies this claim by saying that "only the few authors who are sympathetic to Anscombe's overall view avoid more or less basic misconstruals of" Anscombe's second thesis in MMP, which he takes to be "both fundamental to the structure of 'MMP' and what makes the paper especially profound (if it is)." These few authors include Cora Diamond and Candace Vogler. This still leaves the possibility that he thinks even they have misconstrued Anscombe's argument, thereby failing to properly understand it. Indeed, I think his belief in this failure is implied by what he says. Which makes his claim a bold one.

It's not bold in the sense of stupid though. Doyle points out some inconsistencies in what Anscombe says, and then makes the best sense he can of what she has written. This involves ignoring some of her claims, or writing them off as slips. Near the end he concludes:
In short, the parts of Anscombe's view that really matter fit together much less awkwardly if we simply drop any supposedly deep distinction between law-based and virtue-based conceptions of ethics. At least, I cannot see what is lost, except gratuitous confusion, if we suppose that all conceptions are ultimately virtue-based, that all of these will involve exceptionless norms, and that an important species of these is distinguished by the norms being commandments of God, this species alone comprising all and only the various versions of the law conception, so that the search for a secular law conception has no interest in it.
This is an interesting view, but it doesn't sound (as Doyle recognizes) like Anscombe's view. So maybe no one has really understood her properly yet. Or, at least, there is more work to be done, such as fully explaining what Anscombe really meant (which I suppose is the point of Doyle's book) or else explaining where he goes wrong.

Shorter version: if you're interested in Anscombe or questions about the nature of morality and what reason there is to be moral then I recommend the paper linked to above. [Warning: it's the time of the semester when I spend all my time grading papers, so I might be slow to respond to any comments.] 

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