I am not a great fan of futurology. We live in times of stress, so it is not even wise to predict that there will be a future that is in any sense a recognisable extrapolation from the past. One thing we can be sure about it is that much will change: technologically, socially, politically, scientifically, and the changes threaten to be losses as much as gains. Since philosophy is at least in part a response to such elements of the environment, we can be sure that it will change as well. Some philosophy may not change much. In the Introduction to his landmark book, Individuals Peter Strawson talked of the “massive central core” of human thinking that has no history … categories and concepts which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all”. This raises the question whether philosophy concerned with that central core might come to an end, but Strawson responded that, as regards that central core, “the critical and analytical idiom of philosophy changes constantly”. He did not seem worried by the next thought that occurs, which is that we may just be finding new words for old problems and old solutions to them.
Strawson’s central core revolved around the need for us to identify persistent objects in a unified framework of space and time. He was not troubled that with the arrival of special and general relativity our concepts of space and time had changed, nor that our concept of middle-sized dry goods had changed to accommodate what we suppose to be their constitution by quantum particles. Others of us may be more troubled by such changes. Eddington’s notorious worries about the solidity of everyday objects may have been unnecessary, but it was an understandable response to the discoveries of physics.
The nineteen-fifties were a decade when Strawson, Ryle, Wittgenstein, and Sellars were independently attacking the Cartesian framework of the previous three centuries. Instead of starting inside the mind and wondering about it relation to the external world, we were to start with the external world (the one world) and our dealings with it, and mental vocabulary, far from describing a second, internal world, simply provided adjectives or even adverbs, qualifying the ways we dealt with the world. I find it extraordinary that Cartesian dualism, with all its horrid problems, fought back so influentially in the subsequent decades, vulgarly rebadged as “the hard problem”. It is as if the new generation, with their huge new armouries of scanners and probes, were staggered at finding nothing but a brain inside the skull, but too certain of their superiority to previous generations to think of looking anywhere else. The story shows us how fragile and temporary advances in philosophy might be, and reinforces Strawson’s warning that each generation has to rediscover the past, retracing in its own idiom the paths its ancestors travelled. As with literature, drama, poetry, and art everything has to be new, but nothing may really be new.