Reason and Practice

Jim Farmelant
Book Title: 
Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy
Book Author: 
Kai Nielson

Early last June, I found in a used bookstore Kai Nielsen's 1971 philosophy textbook Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy.  As far as I can tell the 1971 edition is the only one ever published.

The book itself is probably the best introductory philosophy textbook that I have ever run across.  It is clearly and lucidly written, and does not talk down to the reader.  Although it starts out by presenting arguments that are fairly easy to comprehend, as the reader proceeds through the book, she will find herself confronted with increasingly sophisticated argumentation and analysis.  Nielsen writes as an analytical philosopher, and finds nothing to be ashamed about on that score.  In the first part of the book he takes on what else, but the issue of free will versus determinism.  Nielsen, as he himself makes clear, is a determinist and a compatibilist.  But in the book he approaches the issue in a Socratic manner, first presenting Holbach's case for hard determinism, then in the following chapter presents Dostoyevsky's case for free will as irrational choice, then in the chapter after that William James' case for free will.  In the following chapters, Nielsen argues that determinism, while not conclusively demonstrable, constitutes a genuine hypothesis (that is, it is in principle falsifiable) and states why he considers it to be a reasonable hypothesis.  He argues for compatibilism, and uses that to defeat some standard objections to determinism.  He discusses the implications of determinism for issues concerning responsibility, including implications for criminal justice. 

Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to assessing the implications of determinism for criminal justice, titled appropriately enough “Crime and Responsibility in a Deterministic World.”  There, he mounts a defense of a “soft determinism,” in which it is argued that a coherent concept of moral responsibility can be developed which is consistent with determinism.  He takes as his starting point Moritz Schlick’s classic statement of a soft determinist conception of responsibility, then presents C.A. Campbell’s famous critique of Schlick, and then develops a refined version of Schlick’s conception which he believes can withstand what Nielsen, himself, describes as Campbell’s powerful criticisms.  Schlick’s conception of responsibility, in the final analysis, equated responsibility with the alterability of one’s behavior through blame and punishment.  People’s whose behavior cannot be altered by such means are quite properly not held responsible for their actions (for instance young children, insane people, or people who are severely mentally handicapped).  As Nielsen notes, for Schlick moral responsibility and moral freedom were not only consistent with determinism, but they actually require determinism.  People are free to the extent that their behavior is not compelled or coerced.  To say that behavior is free is not to assert that it is uncaused. 

Now Campbell offered a strong critique of Schlick’s position, from the standpoint of indeterminism.  First of all, he contended that if determinism is true then it would be meaningless to speak of people as being capable of doing other than what they do.  Campbell admits that in a deterministic world, it still would be the case, if I choose to or if I want to or if I will it, I could under certain circumstances, do something different from what I in fact do.  But since the very wanting or willing is causally determined, then it is in a quite significant sense out of our hands.  Therefore, contrary to soft determinism, there will be a very significant sense in which we will not be free in a deterministic world.  Furthermore, Campbell finds Schlick’s conception of responsibility to be inadequate on several grounds.  By equating responsibility with the alterability of behavior via punishment, Schlick, in fact, commits himself to holding that babies and animals can be held responsible for their behavior, to the extent that it can be shown that their behavior is modifiable by punishment, contrary to our intuition, that it does not make sense to hold babies and animals responsible for their actions.  Likewise, Schlick’s conception of responsibility also implies that we cannot impute responsibility to dead people, for instance, since they can hardly be said to be punishable.  And yet, we do in fact often impute responsibility to people who are deceased.  Thus, historians will often seek to assign responsibility for acts to people who have long been dead.

Nielsen draws upon Sidney Hook to answer Campbell’s objections to soft determinism.  Hook offered a refined version of Schlick’s soft determinism, in which the conditions for imputing responsibility to an agent include not only that the person’s behavior be modifiable via punishment but also that the person’s behavior exhibit some degree of rationality, involving the capacity for foreseeing the consequences, including especially the undesirable consequences of one’s actions.  Thus, the rationale for not holding children and animals responsible for their conduct would be that they are lacking in rationality and foresight, so they are unable to anticipate the consequences of their actions.  Likewise, according to this conception of responsibility we can quite properly impute responsibility to the deceased for their actions, providing that we can show they were in a rational frame of mind at the time of the actions in question, they knew what they were doing when they acted, and if they had been punished for their actions, they would have altered their behavior.  Using this conception of responsibility, Nielsen maintains that we would have criteria for assessing degrees of responsibility, even when people respond similarly to punishment or the threat of punishment.

In other chapters Nielsen continues his defense of soft determinism, answering not only the arguments of the defenders of libertarian free will but also the arguments of hard determinists like John Hospers.  And Nielsen also devotes a chapter to a consideration of free will and determinism in light of psychoanalysis.

He devotes another whole section of the book to the philosophy of religion, or rather whether or not a rational case can be made for religion.  He examines the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and finds them all wanting.  He discusses the ontological argument, and after presenting the standard Kantian refutation of it as assuming existence to be a predicate, goes on to discuss Norman Malcolm's presentation of St. Anselm's ontological argument, which Malcolm maintained did not presuppose existence to be a predicate.  However, while Nielsen finds this argument to be very subtly presented, and very instructive concerning concepts of God, he nevertheless, finds it to be unsound.  All Malcolm's argument can show is that if an eternal being exists, it exists eternally, or as other critics of Malcom have put it, if a necessary being exists, it exists necessarily, but that leaves open as a contingent matter, whether in fact such a being exists, so the argument remains inconclusive.  Nielsen also takes on Aquinas's five ways of proving the existence of God, the argument from design, the arguments from religious experiences, and William James' defense of the will to believe.

He ends the section on religion with a discussion of whether or not religious language is cognitively meaningful.  Like the logical positivists, and Antony Flew, Nielsen finds theological language to be cognitively meaningless, and advances a verificationist understanding of religious language.  In a later section of the book he returns to the issue of verificationism, and argues that the logical positivists were essentially on the right track in embracing verificationism and in rejecting theology and speculative metaphysics, despite the deficiencies in their theory of meaning.   He also discusses in that section the resurgence of metaphysics among analytical philosophers in the 1960s as represented by Strawson's Individuals and Quine's Word and Object and points out that that sort of metaphysics was quite different from the sort of speculative metaphysics that the positivists had rejected.  Quine’s sort of metaphysics Nielsen finds to be acceptable since it avoids the fallacy of asserting synthetic a priori statements about the world and instead attempts to pursue the analysis of our basic concepts at a very high level of generality, so as to provide us with a synoptic account of man and his place in the world.

In connection with this, Nielsen provides a discussion of existentialism and continental philosophy.  He finds much of continental philosophy, especially that of Heidegger and Jaspers, to display most of the same faults as traditional speculative metaphysics.  He seems sympathetic to the idea that Heidegger may have been a clever fraud, but nevertheless Nielsen finds in existentialism an attempt to deal with important aspects of human experience, which cannot be and should not be ignored by philosophers.  He holds existentialist literature in higher esteem than he does formal existentialist philosophy.  That is, he perceives more value in the novels and plays that Sartre wrote than his formal philosophical writings such as Being and Nothingness.  Nielsen does consider both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to have been very profound philosophers, from whom much can be learned by analytical philosophers.

In another section of the book, Nielsen discusses the philosophy of mind, and after reviewing the main theories from dualism to epiphenomenalism, to Ryle's logical behaviorism etc., he finally opts for a reductive materialism as the most defensible view of mind, the one most consistent with the picture of man that modern science provides.

Thus in the end, while providing discussions of a wide range of worldviews, Nielsen opts for one that is empiricist, naturalistic, determinist, and which embraces a reductive materialism in regards to mind.  He defends atheism, and in terms of his moral and political values he opts not just for humanism but for a socialist humanism.

The question for me is why this book, after more than thirty years, hasn’t been revised and reissued in new editions.  If Nielsen were to revise it to take into account the philosophical developments (including his own) of the last thirty years, it might well find a place in the academic market as a book that skillfully introduces modern philosophy and its methods.

©  Jim Farmelant, 4/2003