C. D. Broad:
The Default Philosopher of the Century

Andrew Chrucky

Aug. 12, 1998

Charlie Dunbar Broad is one of the most important philosophers of this century. I know that this may sound like a very irresponsible -- even whimsical -- thing to say; so I better make a strong case for this assertion. Right away, philosophers who share other sympathies may start listing more famous philosophers as prima facie evidence against my apparently rash opinion.

To guard myself from this quick onslaught, I will defend myself by saying that my claim is elliptical, and that the critic should pause to hear me out as I fill in the ellipsis. My claim is elliptical because importance is to be measured in some respect by some criteria. Until this is done, it is premature to critique.

So in what respects and by what criteria do we estimate importance? I think that the first thing that comes to mind is the fame and influence of a philospher in contemporary writings and debates. And the criterion of this is the quantity of times the philosopher is mentioned. According to my statistical study, Broad ranks 202nd. Broad has, comparatively speaking, minimal influence. In fact, contemporary encyclopedias which appear on the internet, don't even have an entry for Broad!

This is not surprising at all. View this as the democratic way of selecting philosophers, and compare it to the democratic way of electing politicians. The choices are equally dismal. The choices are made on the basis of exposure, associations with a name, physical appearances of the candidate, and, of course, by the amount of self-promotional and public relations work the candidate is able to do.

But there are other economic and sociological factors tending to conceal the merits of ideal philosophical candidates. This comes through by reflecting on the slogan of "publish or perish!" In the pursuit of publication two interconnected factors are involved: ease and quantity. The easiest paper to write in philosophy is one in which an interpretation is made. An interpretation is easier the more obscure the writing to be interpreted. Moreover if one can impute to an author some implausible thesis or fallacious line of reasoning, then critique becomes easy as well. So I think that there is a likelihood of a correlation between the popularity of a writer with the obscurity of his mode of writing.

Other philosophers become famous and fashionable because of getting a reputation for being iconoclastic in some sense. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty are of this nature. They warn us, like the ancient Hebrew prophets, that the times are out of joint -- and cry out for a reform to the very marrow of our being.

Dialectical System Builders

By contrast to fame and fashion, I am looking for a different kind of importance -- an importance which is paradigmatically exemplified by Aristotle, who was regarded as "The" Philosopher in both the Arabic and European Medieval world. His only distant rivals were Plato and Plotinus. Previous philosophers were system builders -- but Aristotle was the only dialectical system builder. So what is a dialectical system builder? First, a system builder, tersely put, is someone who, as Stephen Pepper would say, hits upon a suitable root metaphor and interprets experience systematically on that basis. Such a philosopher can be said to have found a vision, and there are, as William Montague expressed it, "Great Visions of Philosophy." Most famous philosophers have been, in this sense, visionary system builders.

A dialectical systematic philosopher, by contrast, is immersed in examing the logical and historical possible positions. He is not satisfied with a vision, he wants to know what were the other visions: all of them -- and what are the comparative merits of each.

After Aristotle, we find such a philosopher in Peter Abelard with his dialectical Sic et Non, and then in Thomas Aquinas, in which alternative answers are meticulously listed and examined. After that we find such a philosopher in Kant, but more so in Hegel.

In the twentieth century, there are a few writers who come to mind. I find William Montague's Ways of Knowing to exhibit a dialectical mode, as does the work of Arthur Lovejoy's Revolt Against Dualism. Mortimer Adler is another of the few philosopher who explicitly extol and practice a dialectical method, especially in his The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes. Others could be mentioned. But these works, though having the right intention, seem to lack an appropriate categorial framework, sophistication, and the analytic depth and sweep.

In my view, any philosopher writing in this century -- to even be considered a candidate as an important dialectical philosopher -- must have assimilated the teachings of the Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead. So which philosophers satisfy this augmented requirement? Many philosophers come to mind -- but my final choices would be limited to Bertrand Russell, A. N. Whitehead, C. D. Broad, and Wilfrid Sellars.

Although Russell and Whitehead were definitely the geniuses, Broad absorbed Russell's and Whitehead's work into his dialectical scheme, while Sellars was absorbing and extending the Broadian framework into a nominalistic program. Here we have a situation of giants standing on giants.

Default Philosopher

I find it hard to select between these and other philosophers without some additional considerations. So what I need is a new category by which to gauge importance. I call this new category Default Philosopher. I base this idea on the default settings of word processing programs, which come with preset margins, fonts, line-spacing, and such. In other words you start out with these settings, and then modify them as the situation warrants. I have an analogous role in mind for what I am calling a Default Philosopher.

The paradigm of a Default Philosopher is Aristotle. He is the philosopher who was studied, mastered, and commented on. This does not mean that the default philosopher is right on all points or that he cannot be improved upon -- rather he is a philosopher who has a prima facie dialectical sweep, clarity, and verisimilitude. A default philosopher, in my sense, is someone who should be mastered, and discussion should proceed from a commentary on his philosophy. And because of his dialectical command and sophistication, he is the philosopher who should be assumed to be correct, and the burden of proof of showing that he is not should fall on his opponent.

I propose that Broad be regarded as the default philosopher of this century. And the only major philosopher who saw him in this light, I think, was Wilfrid Sellars.

Philosophical Alternatives

Broad's writings have two criterial merits. The first is that he tried his best to classify all the logical and historical philosophical alternative solutions to various philosophical problems, with their accompanying arguments. Without any conscious biases, he tried to present these arguments in their strongest forms. The second merit of Broad's writing is, as Brand Blanshard noted, its extreme clear-headedness. Ever mindful of ambiguity and vagueness, Broad meticulously makes distinctions and marks them with a technical vocabulary, which he either invents or borrows (especially from Johnson's Logic). His writings are paradigms of a reflective alertness for both soundness and strength of arguments, and of an equal alertness for various fallacies.

These two features of his writing are a great service to anyone who wishes to make any advances in those areas covered by Broad. Such a person does not have to reinvent the wheel -- as so many philosophers do by writing in a vacuum or in a historically or geographically provincial context. In addition, such a person has the benefit of work which is so clearly stated that its faults (if it has faults) are manifest. Alternatives not dreamed of in Broad's philosophy suggest themselves if one dwells long enough on the alternatives which Broad did dream of.

One way to approach Broad's alternatives is to work one's way backward -- i.e., start with the alternatives which he presents, and work one's way to a mastery of his technical vocabulary and arguments.

In the case of the mind-body problem, one could start with the classification of the 17 alternatives presented in Chapter 14 of Mind and Its Place in Nature and work backwards in figuring out the rationale of this classification and the vocabulary in which it is expressed. I have tried to make his work a bit more accessible by placing the 17 alternatives in a table.

In ethics, Broad regarded Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics to be the most sophisticated dialectical presentation to date, and he tried to improve upon him in the classification of alternatives in his Five Types of Ethical Theory (last two chapters). Contemporary classifications of ethics are, I think, unacknowledged assimilations of Sidgwick and Broad.

In epistemology, Broad, as in other areas, tried to push empiricism to the hilt -- but found it wanting, and adopted a rationalistic stance in which a priori concepts are posited. His epistemological foundations are clearly presented in the course of his dialectical examination of McTaggart's Nature of Existence in The Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy. It is also enlightening to juxtapose Sellars' myth of the given with Broad's theory of prehensions.

In the philosophy of religion, Broad wrote only a few essays -- but these are as argumentatively packed as are Aquinas' Five Ways.

Because Broad placed great stress on causality and law, his interest naturally veered towards problems of induction. To appreciate Broad's contribution, it suffices here to quote the opening passage of G. H. von Wright's essay, "Broad on Induction and Probability" in the Philosophy of C. D. Broad (Library of Living Philosophers):

"If I had to name the most important contributions to inductive logic from the period between the two great wars, I should without hesitation mention the following ones: Keynes' A Treatise on Probability (1921), Nicod's Le Probleme Logique de l'Induction (1923), the chapters on induction and causality in the second and third volumes of Johnson's Logic (1922, 24), and Broad's papers, "Induction and Probability" (I-II, 1918, 20), "The Principles of Problematic Induction" (1927), and "The Principles of Demonstrative Induction" (I-II, 1930). To these might be added F. P. Ramsey's posthumous essay "Truth and Probability" and R. A. Fisher's criticism, in various publications, of the Bayes-Laplacean doctrine of so-called inverse probability. I believe that few informed people would disagree with the choice."

The only serious prima facie ill-repute of Broad may come from his medling with parapsychology. On the contrary, I think his interest in parapschology is admirable. Broad, though a very analytical philosopher, was also a synoptic and synthesizing philosopher who had an eye on all areas of experience -- especially the abnormal and the supernormal. Although he did in fact believe that the experimental data warranted a belief in a "psychic factor", he couched his conclusions in hypothetical forms: e.g., if there is psychic factor, then _______; if there is no psychic factor, then _____________. Putting matters in this way simply increases the range of alternatives covered.

From these considerations (and there are many others), it is clear to me that anyone wishing to master the dialectics of philosophical alternatives should start with Broad, and for this reason I consider him to be the most important default philosopher of this century.

Philosophical Alternatives from C. D. Broad