"You find yourself sitting next to strangers on a train for several hours: a chance for a long talk," says Professor Williamson
"You find yourself sitting next to strangers on a train for several hours: a chance for a long talk," says Professor Williamson

Dave Fayram (Flickr)

Philosophy on a train

Matt Pickles

An Oxford philosopher has continued a tradition going back to Plato by using a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth, falsity, knowledge and belief in a new book published this month. But unlike Plato, his book is set on a train.

Timothy Williamson, the Wykeham Professor at Logic at Oxford University, has written Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong, in which four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train. At the start of the journey each is convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in.

In an interview with Arts Blog, Professor Williamson explains his hope that Tetralogue will give a wider audience an insight into the academic philosophy..

Q: What is the aim of the book?

A: Its starting point is the occurrence of radical disagreement, about science, religion, politics, morality, art, whatever. In contemporary society, many people are reluctant to apply ideas of truth and falsity, or knowledge and ignorance, to such clashes in point of view, because they are afraid of being dogmatic and intolerant. But can one really abstain from such distinctions without losing one's own point of view altogether? In a light-hearted way, the book aims to provide readers with the means to think more carefully and critically about such matters, and to avoid common traps and confusions.

Q: Who is your target audience?

A: The book is aimed primarily at people who haven’t studied philosophy academically, but who are interested in philosophical issues like those just mentioned. It might be someone who has been led to worry about them through personal experience of such clashes, or who has trouble handling them in their own research or teaching, or a teenager wondering what it would be like to study philosophy at university. I hope that even academic philosophers may find something to amuse them in it.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?

A: I’d like them to take away a nose for when certain fallacies are being committed or certain glib, problematic assumptions are being made. More constructively, I’d like to have empowered them to reason more logically about the sort of difficult issue I’ve mentioned. I also hope that they will have gained a sharper sense of the cut-and-thrust of philosophical argument, but also of the limited power of reason to force anyone to change their mind.

Q: Was it difficult to present philosophical concepts in ordinary dialogue on a train?

A: You find yourself sitting next to strangers on a train for several hours: a chance for a long talk. If Hitchcock is directing the film, the conversation turns to murder. If I’m writing the book, it turns to philosophy. Both are dangerous subjects with roots in ordinary life. Both need to be introduced carefully, because you can’t take much for granted about your audience. You have to start from the beginning. I must admit, when I’m on a train, I rarely speak to strangers, but I often listen in to their conversations. I’d love to hear them discuss murder, or philosophy.

Oxford University Press is publishing the book and will be holding Q&A sessions on Twitter in March. OUP has released an extract of the book, which we have reproduced below.

Sarah: It’s pointless arguing with you. Nothing will shake your faith in witchcraft!

Bob: Will anything shake your faith in modern science?

Zac: Excuse me, folks, for butting in: sitting here, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You both seem to be getting quite upset. Perhaps I can help. If I may say so, each of you is taking the superior attitude ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ toward the other.

Sarah: But I am right and he is wrong.

Bob: No. I’m right and she’s wrong.

Zac: There, you see: deadlock. My guess is, it’s becom­ing obvious to both of you that neither of you can definitively prove the other wrong.

Sarah: Maybe not right here and now on this train, but just wait and see how science develops—people who try to put limits to what it can achieve usually end up with egg on their face.

Bob: Just you wait and see what it’s like to be the vic­tim of a spell. People who try to put limits to what witchcraft can do end up with much worse than egg on their face.

Zac: But isn’t each of you quite right, from your own point of view? What you—

Sarah: Sarah.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Sarah. I’m Zac, by the way. What Sarah is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of modern science. And what you—

Bob: Bob.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Bob. What Bob is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of traditional witchcraft. Modern science and traditional witch­craft are different points of view, but each of them is valid on its own terms. They are equally intelligible.

Sarah: They may be equally intelligible, but they aren’t equally true.

Zac: ‘True’: that’s a very dangerous word, Sarah. When you are enjoying the view of the lovely countryside through this window, do you insist that you are see­ing right, and people looking through the windows on the other side of the train are seeing wrong?

Sarah: Of course not, but it’s not a fair comparison.

Zac: Why not, Sarah?

Sarah: We see different things through the windows because we are looking in different directions. But modern science and traditional witchcraft ideas are looking at the same world and say incompatible things about it, for instance about what caused Bob’s wall to col­lapse. If one side is right, the other is wrong.

Zac: Sarah, it’s you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and some­one must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over every­one else. But we are all just human beings. We can’t make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.

Sarah: But aren’t you, Zac, saying that Bob and I were both wrong to assume there are right and wrong answers on modern science versus witchcraft, and that you are right to say there are no such right and wrong answers? In fact, aren’t you contradicting yourself?