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by Martin Benjamin
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D. on Jun 6th 2003

Philosophy and This Actual World

In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding David Hume says, "The mere philosopher is a character, which is commonly but little acceptable in the world, as being supposed to contribute nothing either to the advantage or pleasure of society; while he lives remote from communication with mankind, and is wrapped up in principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension."  Martin Benjamin is equally annoyed with this conception of philosophers and has dedicated his professional life to demonstrating the relevance of philosophical thinking to real human problems.

I met Martin Benjamin twenty-five years ago when I was assigned to be his teaching assistant in his biomedical ethics course.  I found him to be a masterful teacher because the explanations he presented to his inexperienced students were clear and he made the relevance of philosophical thinking to real problems of life and death and human interaction obvious.  These qualities are evident on every page of his new book, Philosophy and This Actual World.  Consider this typical comment from Benjamin's Introduction, "A pragmatic temperament…acknowledges that genuine philosophical questions are not a matter of intellect alone.  They are raised by the whole person and involve both the street…and the classroom" (3).  The spirits of William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein figure prominently in the book.

The book, characterized by clearly written prose throughout and designed to speak to the "general reader" (xii), is divided into eights chapters of approximately equal length.  The first chapter deals primarily with method and perspective and each subsequent chapter addresses an important philosophical problem or related group of problems, such as the nature of truth, the nature of reality, the problem of free will, whether ethical thinking yields real answers, policies regarding physician-assisted suicide in a democratic society, the definition of death, and the question of life's meaning.

Benjamin is justifiably dissatisfied with how modern philosophy has dealt with a number of perennial problems.  Interestingly, it is the way that modern philosophy, taking its method form Descartes, conceives of these problems that contributes to their apparent intractability.  That is, once one adopts the perspective of the Cartesian subject, a disembodied spectator outside of space and time, one is faced with irresolvable conflicts.  Conceiving, instead, "the subject of inquiry as pragmatic (an embodied social agent)…results in different philosophical questions about knowledge, reality, mind, freedom, and ethics" and allows resolution of those conflicts "for all practical purposes" (20).  It is in the ensuing chapters where this insight is most directly applied to some of the classic problems of philosophy.

In Chapter Two, "Language, Meaning, and Truth," Benjamin highlights the importance of getting clear on the concepts of language, meaning, and truth because "we raise philosophical questions in…words and then "try to determine which of a possible variety of answers is true" (28).  A Cartesian subject implies that language is both self-taught and private.  But in a very clear exposition of some of Wittgenstein's most famous insights, Benjamin shows how these Cartesian implications are mistaken and misleading.  We know that "normal human beings do not develop their genetic capacities for language apart from interactions with members of a linguistic community" (34), and "[r]ecent work in cognitive science and early child development shows that the playful, embodied interactions between parents and children and the world result in a child's readily solving a number of traditional philosophical problems…" (36), such as whether there really is a world outside of our minds, whether and how our words match up with that reality, and whether there are any minds other than our own.

Similarly, in Chapter Three, "Knowledge and Reality," Benjamin shows that much philosophical worry can be dissipated once we abandon our unattainable search for absolute certainty and redefine that notion in practical or pragmatic terms (61).  In Chapter Four, "Mind and Will," a chapter that may be of particular interest to those in the mental health field, Benjamin addresses two classic philosophical issues, the nature of the relationship between minds and brains and the issue of whether or not human beings have free will.  Once again, by applying the pragmatic insights outlined in the first chapter, Benjamin's analysis yields new, more useful, perspectives on these old problems.

Chapter Five, "Ethics," concerns the nature and justification of ethics.  Here Benjamin enters into the so-called nature versus nurture debate and shows how perspectives on this debate have serious implications for our understanding of the nature of morality.  Once again, rejecting the idea of a Cartesian disembodied rational agent in favor of an embodied social agent "leads to a new and more promising understanding of the origins of ethics and the sources of moral motivation: evolutionary biology" (104).  Evolutionary biology in turn supports the notion of social, embodied subjects and the idea that interpersonal moral sensitivities are simply part of the human biological organism that evolve and impact our behavior in much the same way as do our bodies.  This does not rule out a role for ethical decision-making.  But it may well alter our conception of it.  Again, the pragmatic point of view understands the concept of certainty differently from absolute Cartesian certainty, emphasizing what Benjamin calls "personal and interpersonal coherence" (122).  Can we make moral judgments with the confidence we find with mathematical certainty?  Clearly not.  But all is not lost.  As Benjamin explains it, "[a]s each part of a ship is subject to repair and replacement, no aspect of a moral framework is, in principle, immune to correction or improvement.  On the open sea, however, an imperfect ship is better than no ship at all."  (112)

In Chapter Six, "Democratic Pluralism," Benjamin continues the discussion of the previous chapter and confronts what might be called the Enlightenment myth, perhaps fueled by the Cartesian perspective, that the consistent application of reason to human affairs will ultimately result in harmony.  On the contrary, claims Benjamin, "[s]o long as individuals…enjoy a certain amount of freedom to think and act for themselves, there will be conflicts between good and important moral values and principles that cannot be resolved by reason.  This is a fact about ethics—the fact of moral pluralism…. (124).  As in the previous chapter, the conclusion here is not a reason to despair.  It is an impetus to refine our understanding of what it is to live in a community, adopting a "democratic temperament," and to align our methods and expectations accordingly.  In this chapter, Benjamin applies insights from some of his earlier work on "integrity preserving compromise" and explores the contentious public policy debate surrounding the issue of physician-assisted suicide, once again demonstrating the "usefulness" of clear philosophical reflection.

In Chapter Seven, "Determining Death," he takes a similar approach using the debates about the appropriate definition of death as a fruitful illustration. And in Chapter Eight, "Meaningful Lives," he shows that a one can construct a meaningful life with or without the notion of a god or God.  This is not another pedantic or abstract philosophical exercise.  Benjamin's conclusions here could not be more timely and they are worth remembering.  "Pragmatists will, insofar as possible, respect and politically accommodate individuals holding fundamentalist and other nonpragmatist beliefs, even if they think they are mistaken.  The only restriction is that such beliefs must not be harmful to or forced upon those who do not willingly share them" (183).

This book is an easy read, not because it is entertaining in a simplistic way, but because it is intellectually engaging on a level that most readers, regardless of the level of their philosophical sophistication, can grasp.  The prose is clear and not cluttered with footnotes and attempts to prove its academic merit.  Benjamin includes a helpful bibliographic essay at the end of the book for those who may want some guidance in finding sources or suggestions for further reading.  I would use the book in college-level introductory philosophy courses, I would recommend it to me peers both inside as well as outside academia.  Most importantly, this book is an illustration of the lesson I learned in my own relationship with Martin Benjamin, that when done well, "[p]hilosophical inquiry and understanding can…make significant contributions to a democratically pluralistic society and to the lives of its members" (178).

 

© 2003 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Division of Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.