“The Lives they Lived” from the NY Times

The NY Times has a collection of remembrances of some people who died in 2010.  One remarkable fact is that it includes two philosophers.  Even more remarkably, both are women.  Let us celebrate their recognition separately.  We will look at their piece on Mary Daly next week.  For now, it is Philippa Foot.

The articles captures both some of the originality of Foot’s thought, and the interesting progression of her thought:

Incrementally, over many decades, first at Oxford and then at U.C.L.A., Foot shaped an alternative moral vision. In the late 1950s, she questioned whether you can have a recognizably moral attitude about just any set of facts. (Can you really believe that it is immoral to look at hedgehogs in the light of the moon?) By the ’70s … In the ’80s, after considering how we evaluate what is “good” for plants and animals, she developed the argument, presented in “Natural Goodness,” that vice is a defect in humans in the same way that poor roots are a defect in an oak tree or poor vision a defect in an owl: the latter two assessments have clear normative implications (“oughts”), yet are entirely factual.

Looking back, she seemed to appreciate the connection between her distinctive talents and the long arc of her career. “I’m a dreadfully slow thinker, really,” she said. “But I do have a good nose for what is important.”

Her final book, Natural Goodness, was published in 2003.   The earlier Virtues and Vices is a collection of her essays. 

The article captures a style of interacting in philosophy in Somerville College that perhaps was once common, but which seems to me to have becomes quite uncommon.  Here is a bit of it:

In the wake of the news of the concentration camps, Foot was haunted by the notion that there was no way to rationally overcome a moral standoff with a Nazi. She wanted to argue that moral evaluation (“It is wrong to kill innocent people”) is not fundamentally different from factual evaluation (“It is incorrect that the earth is flat”). … It was Anscombe, a devoted Catholic, who liberated Foot, a lifelong atheist, to dare to think in this outmoded fashion. Foot had been speaking of the conventional contrast of “ought” and “is,” and Anscombe feigned confusion. “She said: ‘Of what? What?’ ” Foot recalled. “And I thought, My God, so one doesn’t have to accept that distinction! One can say, ‘What?’!”

Fresh from the APA, I’m inclined to wonder whether this style has completely disappeared.  I can certainly easily imagine Anscombe, adjusting her glasses and drawing on a cigar, saying “Really, come, come.  You think there are these things in the brain that you call “mental representations,” which refer to things outside our heads.  I do know that philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries said something similar, but on the face of it, it is a very stupid opinion.”

(That philosophers held a position was a good reason to think it was suspect, but Anscome would certainly have reasons for saying this, which she was happy to share.)

It is a challenge to reexamine, with a view to rejecting, basic assumptions current in one’s philosophical society.  Terribly impractical, of course.  I do know Philippa worried seriously that such approaches did not prepare her students for academic life as it is now conceived.

But I wonder if our field has so configured itself that today the fact that philosophers think something is a reason to take it very seriously indeed.   Despite Kuhn, I think one could make a good case for saying that something similar is true of many science fields.  But do we think philosophy is the same?  Should we?  Or is it just too easy to question everyone else’s assumptions?

What do you think?

15 thoughts on ““The Lives they Lived” from the NY Times

  1. For what it’s worth, I think the position Foot argued for is _Natural Goodness_ was pretty much destroyed by Phillip Kitcher in his article “Essence and Perfection” that was in _Ethics_, perhaps even before NG was published, though I can’t be bothered to look up the dates right now. Foot was a good philosopher, to be sure, but that position was a wrong one, I’m quite sure. (Kitcher didn’t have her in in that article, but did indicate, rightly, I think, that his argument applied quite clearly to her position in some of his later work.)

  2. Matt, you remind me that even if the negativity in philosophy is not directed, as Anscombe’s, Foot’s and others’ once was, at the assumed foundations, it is certainly alive and well. And perhaps Kitcher does indeed sees himself as questioning foundations. I need to advance two caveats before I say anything more: Ethics is not my field; I tend to get in trouble when I try to go very far in talking about it. Secondly, I just skimmed through parts of Kitcher’s article. However, that said, I don’t think he is really addressing the core notions of Natural Goodness in attacking conceptions of essences. Foot talks instead about Aristotelian Categoricals. I think they are a species of what other philosophers have called generics. If so, then an example might be: kidneys remove waste from the blood. This is not a statement about essences, but it does imply (perhaps with more added in) that if one now has a kidney that isn’t able to do that, something is amiss. (An aside: I think that there are strong reasons for thinking the statement about kidneys can’t be understood in Millican terms employing evolution. Or at least we need a way of understanding it that is independent of evolution, for various reasons.)

  3. It’s been a while since I read it, but my recollection is that Hurka, the main target of Kitcher’s article, also says he’s grounding his account in Aristotle, and that Kitcher’s argument is that, after Darwin, the Aristotilian account can’t get off the ground. I think that’s right, but again, it’s been a while since I read Kitcher’s article or Foot’s book. Anyway, it’s not meant to distract from the claim that she was an important philosopher worth remembering, just to suggest that this seems like a dead-end to me rather than a new beginning.

  4. Yes, but not all accounts influenced at some point by Aristotle are disabled by Darwin. I think that employing what most philosophers would call “generics” she’s quite far from something challenged by Darwin.

    Again, I’m hesitant to say much because I have little scholarly knowledge of ethical theory. However, it seems to me that the following two sentences are correct and are at least a sort of fact-norm link that does not depends on anything questionable about species:

    Kidneys remove waste from the blood; therefore, when a kidney doesn’t do that something is amiss.

    This illustrates, I think, an interesting fact-norm link. Foot wants ethics to be more substantive than one can get here, and so she’s bringing in other considerations, but I take it that Kitcher thinks one won’t get a fact-norm like she wants after Darwin and that seems wrong.
    Please do note my hesitation here, since, as I said, I usually get in trouble when I say much about ethical theory.

  5. J.J.:

    What are generics? I googled the word, but got nothing related to philosophy. A very very brief answer will do.

    I ask because I am a fan of Aristotle’s ethics myself.

    Thank you.

  6. I’m glad you asked, Amos. I now have the chance to repeat that Foot’s usage was “Aristotelian Categoricals,” and she is borrowing from Michael Thompson. Here’s an article that gives you an idea of the interest philosophers have in generics:

    Generics: Cognition and Acquisition
    Leslie, Sarah-jane
    Philosophical Review, vol. 117, no. 1, pp. 1-47, January 2008

    Generics are statements about a kind or class that do not have any of what we call quantifiers; to use my example of “Kidneys remove waste from the blood,” that statement does not mean the same things as “All K’s rB” or “Most K’s rB,” and so on. Furthermore, the first can be true and the others false.

  7. Do generics imply normative claims? That’s not clear to me. Especially since some generics are true even though very few instances of the kind in question have the feature “attributed”, as in:

    “Mosquitos carry malaria”.

    That’s a true generic, even though few mosquitos carry malaria. I don’t see how anything obviously normative follows from the claim though.

  8. “The proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle or at least not without it” is a generic?

    (Ethics 1, 7)

  9. Amos, I don’t think so, but “Human beings are rational animals” is, I think. I was introduced to generics via their grammatical form. It turns out Leslie has an encyclopedia article, which looks very helpful.

    mm: I did say that Aristotelian Categoricals are a species of generics; I agree that not all generics have normative implications. The description “is a species of” might also not be quite right. The article I mentioned (which can be downloaded from her webpage at Princeton) gives an account of what they mean and I am not sure whether, if that’s right, the two kinds share any overlap.

  10. Just an additional comment on the implications of Kitcher’s article for Foot’s approach to ethical theory. Kitcher says that if we want to use a species essence to determine the human good we need an analogue to an atomic number. (p.6) But this way of thinking about essence (i.e. as structural) is not the way that Aristotle or Foot (on my reading) think of the human essence. For Aristotle the human essence is comprised of a set of functional features within a teleological framework. Kitcher is careful to note that he is not making a claim about Aristotle, and I think it is fair to say that his argument also would not directly engage Foot.

  11. I didn’t quite get around to finishing Kitcher’s article yesterday, but it seems like the use of `generics’ is a central issue in that debate. The Aristotelean wants to say things like `humans are rational animals’; Kitcher’s sort of response is to give examples of humans who are not rational, eg, are developing fetuses or have severe cognitive impairments (or would have them in certain environments but not others). If talk of `essences’ is about generics rather than necessary-universals, Kitcher’s response is much weaker.

  12. Having just taught the Hurka-Kitcher exchange, I’ve been recently puzzling over this very question – to what extent the concerns Kitcher raises (drawing on Hull’s excellent paper “On Human Nature”, among other works) apply to the kind of neo-Aristotelian ethics that Foot and Thompson develop. But my expertise is in philosophy of biology rather than ethics, so I don’t feel confident about my understanding of what Foot and Thompson are up to. JJ, Charolette and Dan seem right to me, though – there are important differences between what Hurka is up to compared to Foot and Thompson. It would be interesting to see someone examine the details here.

    Incidentally, William Casebeer has a book, Natural Ethical Facts, that tries to explicitly engage with and get around Kitcher’s criticisms in developing a neo-Aristotelian approach. Of course, it is not nearly as well written as Foot’s stuff, and he is trying to use a notion of function that is based in evolutionary biology (whereas Foot is not, as JJ notes), but he does try to explicitly engage the Kitcher worries.

    Well, I’m sort of rambling here, but I think it is clear that Foot is not trying to base her approach to human nature in evolutionary theory, the way that Hurka (and Casebeer) say they are. So I think to make a critique along Kitcher’s lines work, it would have to be modified a lot. Of course, one might still have doubts about whatever it is (“Aristotelian Categoricals”) that Foot does rely on to ground human nature, but I think it’ll require a separate argument from Kitcher’s to show this is problematic.

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