Thoughts on a quote from Burton Dreben

Burton Dreben (1927-1999) was a Harvard professor whose influence upon academic philosophers has been great, despite a paucity of publications. Indeed, his influence has been so strong that some people refer to his students as being “Drebenized”, or molded in the form of the master. His main area of interest was logic, and the thought of Wittgenstein, Quine, Frege, and Carnap.

I heard Dreben lecture once – it was on Frege’s notes on Witggenstein’s Tractatus – and found him to be funny, smart, and captivating. He lectured simply, with only the texts before him, and he shared his unscripted thoughts with force and clarity. He easily defended himself against acute criticisms raised by my professors, whom I held in a kind of terrified reverence. An anecdote shared by another philosopher pretty much captures my recollection of Dreben’s style of repartee:

 [Michael Dummett] had just delivered a lecture on Wittgenstein on logical necessity. Dreben arose excitedly to disagree with the interpretation. “But Burt,” Dummett said, ”you think all this stuff is nonsense.” To which Dreben replied, “No, no, no, no, no! . . . Well, yes.”

I can easily see the allure of being Drebenized. What fun it must have been to learn from such a clever and funny man!

There has been a larger discussion of Dreben’s thought and influence some years ago on Leiter’s blog *here*, and I am certainly in no position to add to it. But I would like to reflect for my own purposes on the meaning and truth in one of Dreben’s more notorious declamations: “Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship.”

Philosophy is ridiculously hubristic. It is an attempt to get at the deepest meanings of things, to grasp that which ultimately and finally is, to comprehend not just what happens to be but what must be, and to draw from these grand truths a vision of how human life should proceed. Anyone trying to do this has to begin by presuming that there is some final account of things, and also that the human mind is capable of coming to know it. Both presumptions are unwarranted; and the implausibility of the second presumption undercuts any justification for believing the first one. Who are humans to presume to know such things? While we are so very clever at manipulating objects and forging tools and constructing strategies, there is little reason to think our brains have evolved for the purpose of understanding Ultimate Truth. Our brains have evolved for the simply purpose of getting by well enough to reproduce. That salutary end can be achieved with minds that are good only for small and local things. Even the notion that there is some Ultimate Truth could be completely misguided. There is no guarantee that the universe must obey what we convince ourselves to be logically necessary.

Even if I am wrong about this – if it turns out there is an Ultimate Truth, and humans in principle can come to know it – then it must be admitted at the very least that it is really, REALLY hard to get to that truth. Given our propensity to mess up in comparatively lower-level cognitive tasks (consider the reliability of operating systems, and the multitudinous failures of bureaucratic institutions), it should be no surprise that so far no one has really come up with a thoroughly compelling philosophy. David Hume provides a just observation:

 It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. (Enquiry, sec. 1)

Any confidence that, with careful enough thought, we can attain a vision of the True must be weighed against our track record of making the most elementary conceptual mistakes at the outset of any theorizing. We can place on top of that the ingenuity of other philosophers in coming up with compelling objections and devastating counterexamples to claims that might very well have been true. Even if we came across the truth, it would be a miracle if that genuine insight survived our very clever criticality. In the end, if in fact we have buried within us what philosophy would require, then that capacity is so tenuous and frail that the smart money is on humanity’s persistent failure in coming to know anything of metaphysical significance.

(I know I’m not presenting much of an argument here. It’s really only an expression of what Mickey’s father, in Hannah and her Sisters, says in fewer words: “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”)

But – for all that – I must confess that it is fun and instructive to read attempts by other philosophers to get at big truths. All right: it’s not fun and instructive for everyone. It’s a genre of literature (fiction? nonfiction?) that has its following. And these followers are improved in several ways by their enthusiasm. The literature of philosophy provides ample material for training critical reading and interpretation. Reading Carnap, and reading Quine, and tracing exactly how they talked past one another (as Dreben did) requires extraordinary care in reading, in forming apt diagnoses, in testing interpretations against one another, and in expressing with precision what is going on.

Moreover, as we try to place great historical philosophers in their times and cultures, we can learn in a general way how efforts at philosophy are shaped by circumstance. No one writes in a vacuum, of course, though Descartes and Spinoza tried. As we come to understand how each philosopher is rooted in some historical period, we come to understand how the philosophy that is generated is an existential reflection on that period. We see, that is, how humans have wrapped their minds around the universe in specific times and places. This in turn gives us more to think about as we craft our own responses to our own times and places. It is really the same insight one gains through travel: seeing how strange other places are helps us to see how strange our own place is. There is some self-knowledge in this, a kind of philosophical humbling, which I believe contributes to a deeper sympathy toward the thoughts of those with whom you disagree.

So, yes, philosophy is garbage. But the history of this garbage is something worth pursuing with scholastic intensity.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Thoughts on a quote from Burton Dreben

  1. bjdubbs says:

    I originally heard this quote attributed to Gerschom Scholem. It looks like somebody else heard the same thing, explanation may be that Dreben heard it from somebody who knew Scholem.

    It seems probable that Dreben heard the story and the pithy formulation from his father-in-law, admired the turn of phrase, and recycled it in relation to his own subject.


  2. Huenemann says:

    On a comment thread on Leiter’s blog, someone claimed that something similar (“Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship”) was said by Saul Lieberman in the 1940s – when he was introducing Gerschom Scholem. So, someone in there said something similar!


  3. Huenemann says:

    Ah! I wrote that before clicking the link you supplied.


  4. Matt1961 says:

    I read your discussion of Burton Dreben with some interest. I was a close student of Dreben’s throughout graduate school and miss him dearly to this day. There is certainly a lot I could say–all too much in fact!– about him and his approach to philosophy. But I will limit myself just to a few words about the famous quote you mention.

    The main thing I would emphasize is that, for Dreben, “nonsense” and “garbage” are NOT synonyms. Dreben would never say that philosophy is garbage. However, he certainly and enthusiastically did describe it as nonsense. But he meant that always in the sense that Wittgenstein uses the term. Glossing that is no simple matter (indeed the question of the nature of nonsense has been at the very heart of almost all scholarship on the Tractatus of the past 30 years), but in essence it means that philosophical claims are inherently misleading-that they involve subtle equivocations which ultimately fool us into supposing we are saying something we aren’t. Bringing out the nonsensicality of philosophical claims was never seen as a simple or straightforward matter for Dreben (or for Wittgenstein for that matter), but rather one that required a great deal of skill and philosophical insight.

    Dreben had the highest respect for the great philosophers of the tradition, especially the early analytic philosophers he focused on (the 4 you mentioned plus Russell) even as he mercilessly showed the emptiness of their questions. Far from casually dismissing the philosophical tradition as worthless garbage, he ceaselessly and energetically inquired into it for his entire life.


    • Huenemann says:

      Thanks so much for posting this comment! I wonder whether, even if honestly he didn’t think of the great works of philosophy as “garbage,” he was willing to let the term fill in for “nonsense” – for the sake of a more powerful quote.


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