June 23, 2008

The Truth of Lord Hailsham

Iain Dale's new total politics site has a really interesting feature- which I recomend exploring- a collection of old good political speeches. Amongst those I was casually scanning this afternoon thinking of writing a blogpost about is a speech by Lord Hailsham, Tory Cabinet Minister, candidate to be Prime Minister in the 1960s, father of another cabinet minister and Conservative intellectual, made in 1992. Being neither a conservative nor a christian (though sympathetic to both streams of thought) I do not want to comment on their relationship. But I was seized immediatly by the fact that Hailsham identified a major enemy- nihilism and postulated a coherent philosophical view against that nihilism.

Hailsham argues that there are two ways of thinking about the world- one is experiential and experimental but Hailsham suggests that the experimental view of the world collapses after its encounter with the problem of induction, he proposes an alternative view of the world. He suggests that

There is, I believe, no answer to this argument unless, of course, we have what, in discussing the nature of human understanding, Locke called an 'innate idea', at least in the field of the observable, that things make some sort of sense, and that at least to some limited extent our reason can achieve it. In the field which is open to observation, measurement, and repeated experimentation we can readily accept this. It is indeed the hypothesis upon which the whole dramatic development of the physical sciences is based.
Now this is a reversion to a kind of theory of ideas- a Platonic sense that a word describes exactly the idea behind it and that idea is reflected in the world. It is interesting that Hailsham comes to argue this because the position he advocates is easily refuted and as problematic as any naive support for induction.

Such an argument for instance neglects the facts that we do not use these words to always embody the same ideas. There is a problem in that there is no way for example to say that the English are right to define Peppermint Tea as being part of Tea as a class, whereas the French define it as a Tizane. There is no particular reason to prefer one arrangement or another. There is no essential teaness to which both might be related. The relationship of words to the reality they refer to is not simple- nor is it in any way determined, rather it is socially constructed. Think of it simply in terms of the way that we describe social position- middle class might mean one thing to you, another to me- to argue that one perception is right and one is wrong is nonsensical. That doesn't mean at all that there is no reality, merely that our languages for describing it, our ideas that constitute it are unstable and socially constructed. There is ultimately no such thing as a river- but you'll get wet if you jump in one.

Hailsham is a Platonist- and the rest of his talk depends on the assertion that our words about the world are stable. He needs to know that our ways of describing the world are the only and best for the rest of his talk to work. It is an interesting problem- because he is ultimately wrong about that- words do not automatically map onto the world in such an easy way, nor do ideas. Rather we classify things as we need to use them: we do classify them in 'real' ways but those classifications are arbitrary. That does not mean that there is no truth- more it means that there is no true pattern of words to describe that truth with. There are false patterns of words, false patterns of numbers, but no uniquely true conception of the world and definitely no intrinsic ideas which relate to words and concepts in our minds. Hailsham wants to ground his philosophy on one set of rigid ideas, but in truth he is wrong- he is wrong because there is not merely one set of ideas that describe the world, there is an infinite set of terms, defined only by its relationship to reality which describe the world. Everything is a collective noun ultimately for a collection of phenomena- so long as I do not map inconsistantly I am speaking truth, but there are an infinity of ways to express what I see as reality.


The Organic Viking said...

Very interesting. The problem with the theories concerning the social construction of language seems to me to be the distinction that must be drawn between the fluidity of word with relation to thing in theory, and the restrictions in practice. 'You' as an individual do have have an infinity of ways to express an idea, because your language has been constructed for you for centuries, and you can but tweak it a bit. Otherwise you might end up writing like Derrida, and that wouldn't be pretty. Hence the temptations of platonism, I suppose.
PS congrats again with the PhD. It was lovely to see you from our window, however briefly!

gracchi said...

Thanks for the congrats.

Yes there is always the danger of ending up like Derrida who is someone I think who goes totally down the wrong way. But I think you have to acknowledge that language is socially constructed otherwise you slip into Platonism which I think leads you into even bigger problems.

My own feeling is that we have to stress that there is a reality, just that our description of it is only an approximation to it, it both reflects reality and does not.