Discussion: Soames on empiricism [Book Review]

Philosophical Studies 129 (3):619 - 626 (2006)
Abstract
Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century by Scott Soames reminds me of nothing so much as Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. Both are works that arose immediately out of the needs of undergraduate teaching, yet each manages to say much of significance to knowledgeable professionals. Each indirectly provides an outline of the history of its field, through a presentation of selected major works, taken in chronological order and including items that are generally recognized as marking decisive turning points. Yet neither Soames’s work nor Nabokov’s is a history in any conventional sense, both being immediately disqualified from that category by the general absence of coverage of minor and middling works and writers. The emphasis is pedagogical rather than historiographical: the emphasis is on introducing the student to the field through very close examination of the limited number of key texts selected for inclusion. The author’s distinctive personality is also apparent in both works. Each writer has a favorite theme he repeatedly sounds: for Soames, the danger of conflating the analytic, the a priori, and the necessary; for Nabokov, the philistinism of expecting an uplifting “message” from works of literary art. Each also includes some quirky, individual selections: The Right and the Good, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Few others would have taken R. L. Stevenson to be up there with Dickens, Flaubert, and Proust, or W. D. Ross with Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine. Each also sets aside for separate treatment elsewhere a major body of work one might have expected to be covered. Nabokov reserves Russian literature for a companion volume, while Soames gives only slight coverage to what he describes as “work in logic, the foundations of logic, and the application of logical techniques to the study of language” — a category that in practice turns out to include the bulk of the relevant material (by such writers as Frege, Carnap, and Tarski) that published originally in German without simultaneous English translation..
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