Consensus has never come easily in philosophy. It is said that there was only a single occasion when three of the most famous philosophers of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, were in the same room. Very soon an argument arose and Wittgenstein waved a poker in Popper’s face defying him to name one moral rule. Popper replied “Not to threaten visiting speakers with pokers.” At that, Russell told his former student to put down the poker, and Wittgenstein stormed out.

No doubt this was a better outcome than a poke in the eye, but it is suggestive of something deeply dysfunctional in modern philosophy!

True to form, philosophers were also in fundamental disagreement at the “Persons and their Brains” conference that I attended at Oxford recently. I went there seeking to hear truths about the nature of man but the conference failed to deliver any coherent message. Much of the discussion was a defence of the concept of ‘human person’. However, the proceedings testify to some major problems in contemporary philosophy and its inability to refute decisively the reductionist view that man is no more than matter. 

Among the heavy hitters present were Roger Scruton, Simon Blackburn, Peter Hacker, Raymond Tallis, Tim Chappell and David Papineau.  The conference was convoked, under the auspices of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, to re-evaluate the determinism that has dominated philosophy of mind and particularly neuroscience over the past two decades.

Unlike Wittgenstein, these philosophers were eminently approachable. Roger Scruton is a wondrously gifted thinker with a focus on philosophy of beauty and music. He impressed everyone with his capacity to deliver profound messages in attractive packages. Tim Chappell was another most likeable character. An amateur mountaineer, amongst his writings is a philosophical dissection of the imminence of death inspired by the experience of being swept off a mountain in an avalanche. In the conference he argued outstandingly that our relations to others define us as persons.  

Another luminary, Raymond Tallis, covered enormous ground in his lectures drawing on his cross disciplinary expertise. He is has been voted one of the world’s genuine polymaths: author, thinker and researcher, who somehow reconciles the roles of geriatrician with advocate for assisted suicide!

All the speakers gave their time generously and the thought crossed my mind that there could not possibly be a more courteous philosopher than Peter Hacker.  All drew, some more heavily than others, on the analytic tradition that has dominated philosophy in the English speaking world for the last 70 or 80 years, a tradition established by the brilliant, incisive, but abrasive and poker-wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Analytic philosophy is an extensive 20th century philosophic tradition characterised by logic and clarity of thinking, analysis of propositions, precision of language and avoidance of presuppositions. The work of Frege and Bertrand Russell prepared the ground for Wittgenstein. Analytic philosophy has been very important because it represents a back-to-basics movement, a search for truth and certainty in some form or other. However, in its rarefied forms, analytic philosophy has been preoccupied with how language shapes and distorts meaning itself — and not much else.

It was the young Wittgenstein who insisted that philosophy cannot speak about metaphysical questions, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This very view was proposed forcefully at the conference by Peter Hacker and stood uncontested.  

Disarmed of metaphysics, the defence of the person was founded on the ultimately illogical assertion that rationality and freedom emerge from the determinism of matter. As a result, analytical philosophy seems to have painted itself into a corner.

This gathering of aristocrats of the English tradition of thought was unable to reach a consensus on that most fundamental of questions: “what is man?”.  When asked whether a better understanding of matter was needed if they were to answer the challenge of determinism, the experts descended into good-natured, unconvincing, bickering. 

* * * * *

My pilgrimage however introduced me to one of Oxford’s greatest daughters, Elizabeth Anscombe, Wittgenstein’s straight-talking pupil. In contrast to some in her profession she proclaimed, ‘Philosophy is thinking about the most difficult and ultimate questions.’ As a Catholic convert and mother of seven, she was a woman of courage and conviction.

Stories of her eccentricity are legion. She once entered a posh restaurant in Boston where she was told that ladies in trousers were not admitted. She proceeded to remove them. For years she was a chain-smoker, but when her second son fell seriously ill, she made a vow to God to give up cigarettes if he recovered — which he did. But later on, when she felt an urge to smoke, she realised that her vow had not mentioned cigars or pipes. So she took those up instead. 

But Anscombe single-handedly sparked a resurgence in Aristotelian ethics and in justification of personal responsibility and is regarded as “one of the most gifted philosophers of the twentieth century”. Her coherence and her fine-grained arguments demonstrate that the view of man as mere matter is by no means a necessary consequence of analytic approaches. 

On my return home I have delved into Elizabeth Anscombe and I believe she can lead us out of the current cul-de-sac of determinism.

(1) Philosophy must rediscover the connection between truth and personal virtue. Anscombe argued in her ground breaking 1958 paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ that, without a notion of human flourishing founded on virtue, ethics is wasted effort. She said we must ‘stop doing moral philosophy until we get our psychology straight’.

She was no shrinking violet. She risked her reputation and a criminal record for her outspoken defence of the unborn, for her attack on Harry Truman for authorising the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for her opposition to contraception. Her last paper was entitled ‘Doing the truth’.  

Anscombe was a direct descendent of Socrates. She is attractive because of the grand coherence of her life and teachings. In contrast, indulgent, self-important philosophers are unconvincing. She even won over her misogynist teacher and sowed in his spirit a certain fondness for religion. Her prayers consoled him in his final hours. Humility trumps hubris every time. 

(2) Forget the ghost in the machine, the famous summary of Descartes’ view of how a human being works. Philosophy must once and for all discard Cartesian ways of thinking about matter. Anscombe insisted, ‘The divide between matter and mind was drawn differently by the ancients and medievals from the way it is drawn in modern times. So far as I know, the source of the new way of drawing the line is Descartes…’ She goes on to nominate the very passage where the mistake was made in his Second Meditation.

While Peter Hacker and Raymond Tallis denounce the ‘crypto-cartesianism’ of authors who separate mind and matter, they advocate little better than a ‘closet cartesianism’ where there is only matter; instead of throwing out the view of matter and spirit are stand alone substances, they assert that matter is the only substance. Far more subtly, Anscombe wrote of the ‘metaphysics of the spirituality of man’s nature’; observation of man’s freedom leads to the logical conclusion that the human person is ensouled matter, a completely different proposition from mere matter, and that this ensoulment comes from beyond matter.  

Anscombe’s reading of the mature Wittgenstein is enlightening: ‘Does Wittgenstein … believe that mental events are material events? No. (Does he) believe that events are taking place in a immaterial substance? Certainly not.’ Yet the error of separating matter from spirit, ‘the Cartesian assumption of determinism’, still pervades both neuroscience and neuroethics.  

(3) Philosophy must avoid a priori atheism and materialism. Anscombe wrote, “Analytic philosophy is about styles of argument and investigation, and is compatible with belief in God, and Christian belief in God.” In this light it seems ironic that Peter Hacker, Simon Blackburn, Raymond Tallis and David Papineau appear to have opted for a priori atheism, when an a priori stance at its heart is non-analytic. 

(4) Analytic philosophy must concern itself to seek truth wherever it is to be found. By her life’s work Anscombe demonstrated that it is possible for analytic philosophy to build bridges to Aristotelian realism and to ethics. Together with her philosopher- husband Peter Geach she is credited with giving inspiration to the field of study known as Analytic Thomism.

It is said that Anscombe silenced C.S. Lewis in debate, leading him to radically reassess his writing. From that point his allegorical fiction flourished. May a re-encounter with Anscombe guide analytic philosophy to its own fruitful renaissance.

Andrew Mullins is Headmaster of Wollemi College in Sydney and author of Parenting for Character (Finch, 2007).

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...