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The Inaugural lecture: Sir Anthony Kenny: Aristotle and Wittgenstein

November 7, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

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Report by Dr John Preston

The Society's inaugural lecture, on 'Aristotle and Wittgenstein', was given by Sir Anthony Kenny on Friday November 7th at the University of Hertfordshire. Sir Anthony argued that despite their very different reputations the work of Aristotle, the great metaphysician, and that of Wittgenstein, the great anti-metaphysician, have some deep underlying similarities. Wittgenstein, as well as seeing metaphysics of certain sorts as dissoluble, was himself a metaphysician of another kind. In his own philosophy of mind, for example, he stressed the importance of different kinds of actuality and potentiality. But Wittgenstein attacked the kind of metaphysics that masquerades as the search for essences, and which stems from the inappropriate use of a quasi-scientific method in philosophy. In particular, he resisted the metaphysical impulses which tempt us in the philosophy of mind, the temptations to postulate spiritual substances and processes. But his attack on metaphysics took the form of a careful disentangling of questions and problems, rather than the use of a blunt instrument like the 'verification principle'.

Wittgenstein's 'private language argument' destroys not only the metaphysics of Descartes, but also that of the British empiricists, and the Logical Positivists, insofar as they thought that what is public could be constructed out of what is private. But some of the assumptions of Cartesian metaphysics, especially about consciousness, are now taken up by cognitive scientists.
There are two kinds of metaphysics in Aristotle: first philosophy (the study of being qua being), and the detailed determination of actualities and potentialities, which amounts to a dynamic metaphysics. Descartes mocked just this dynamic metaphysics. But its study is vital. It is vital, for example, to respect the distinctions between powers and abilities, their exercises, and their vehicles. To fail to do so in the philosophy of mind is to fall into one or another kind of misplaced reductionism: either the reduction of mind to behaviour, or the reduction of mind to brain.

Wittgenstein successfully avoided both, but contemporary cognitive scientists often fall prey to the latter kind of reductionism. They are convinced that there must be a parallelism between mental and physical events. (Some of Wittgenstein's comments on this issue, though, suggest that he did not think that every mental ability must have a physical vehicle of any kind. That supposition, which science has set itself against since the time of Galileo, may be problematic. We still need to know when it is reasonable for science to give up the quest for a vehicle).

About Anthony Kenny

Sir Anthony Kenny is one of Britain's most distinguished academic figures. He has been Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Chairman of the Board of the British Library, President of the British Academy, and a Trustee of Wittgenstein's copyrights.

Kenny is a much acclaimed expert in classical philosophy and takes a keen interest in the nature of human action and free will, having also published extensively on the philosophy of religion. He has written scholarly works on Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Frege and Wittgenstein, and several 'histories' of philosophy. In October 2006, Sir Anthony Kenny was awarded the American Catholic Philosophical Association's Aquinas Medal for his significant contributions to philosophy.

Amongst Kenny’s numerous books on philosophical matters are:

Action, Emotion and Will
Aquinas on Mind
Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy
Faith and Reason
Freewill and Responsibility
An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy
Metaphysics of Mind
The Oxford History of Western Philosophy
Philosophy in the Modern World: A New History of Western Philosophy, vol. 4
Reason and Religion
The Rise of Modern Philosophy
The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays
What I Believe
What is Faith?


November 7, 2008
5:30 pm
Event Category:


University of Hertfordshire
Department of Philosophy
University of Herfordshire, Hatfield AL10 9AB United Kingdom


Daniele Moyal Sharrock