Banville and Fodor on Frayn

It’s amusing to compare John Banville’s review of Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch with that of Jerry Fodor. Frayn is a novelist with a philosophical background, Banville is a novelist, Fodor is a philosopher.

Banville is keen.

In his opening “Prospectus” he modestly insists that, although he has studied philosophy, his book is not an attempt to do philosophy – “I shouldn’t have the courage to make any such claim” – but then goes on to take a sly dig at the extreme specialisation and technicality of much of modern-day philosophical research…From his acquaintance with philosophy and his readings in the work of physicists such as Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr…he has got hold of a simple fact about the world, which is its indeterminacy. What you see is not what you get, and Frayn is here to tell us how it is not…But Frayn is concerned with far more than physics. In his vast overview of this anomalous universe in which we find ourselves thrown, he takes a good-humoured crack at a broad range of our certainties, from the laws of nature – or “the laws of nature” – through the chimera of free will, the dubious status of truth and the ambiguousness of language, to, at the close, the question of the self itself. The breadth of his reading is awesome and he is fearless in interpreting, and in some cases attacking, the philosophical or scientific dogmas of this or that revered savant. Everywhere he is eminently sensible, especially when he is making nonsense of our illusory certainties.

Fodor not so much.

For one thing, it’s clear at a glance that this is no joke; it’s a book of philosophy, not a book on philosophy, and I can’t imagine an author who is more in earnest. It’s also clear that the thing is much too long. These days nobody writes philosophy in chunks of four hundred pages (plus notes). Partly that’s just fashion; partly it’s tenure politics; but mostly it’s because the problems philosophers work on have turned out to be much more subtle than we used to suppose them, and much more idiosyncratic. You have to do them one at a time, and the progress you make is generally inch by inch…Frayn, however, doesn’t approve of all that picking of nits…the range of issues Frayn takes on is staggering…And these topics are not treated narrowly: one gets a whole spectrum, from Frayn on quantum mechanics to Frayn on the psychology of perception, to Frayn on the ontology of numbers, to Frayn on Chomskian linguistics, to Frayn on personal identity, to Frayn on the phenomenology of dreaming, with many, many intermediate stops. Could anybody conceivably have views worth hearing on all those topics?…The basic idea is to undermine the authority of science (and, indeed, the authority of common sense) by launching a general attack on the notions of truth and knowledge. What a Copernican astronomy taketh away, a relativist epistemology giveth back…And finally, with a flourish: ‘The story is the paradigm. Factual statements are specialised derivatives of fictitious ones.’

To which Fodor replies, crisply, ‘Piffle.’ In between, where all those elipses are, he says why it’s piffle, but I didn’t need all that to illustrate the difference in tone. Wondering awe from the novelist, amused irritation from the philosopher. There’s making nonsense of our illusory certainties for you.

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