Transcript: Interview with MSCA scholars Silvia Caprioglio Panizza and Olli Lagerspetz

INTRODUCTION: The Marie Sklodowska Curie Action and the Centre for Ethics.

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Olli, your project is called Philosophy as Cultural Self-Knowledge: R. G. Collingwood, Peter Winch and the Human Sciences. Who were R.G. Collingwood and Peter Winch and why you are writing about them?

R. G. Collinwood and Peter Winch were two British philosophers of the 20 Century. Collingwood died in 1942 and Winch died in 1997. Both are mostly known for their contributions to the philosophy of the human sciences. Collingwood’s book The Idea of History was published posthumously in 1946, and Winch’s the idea of a Social Science was published in 1958, i.e. when he was still quite a young man. They were quite important in the debate then, and they still are.

Both proposed, each in their own way, that the humanities and social sciences are quite different from natural science, because they involve a kind of understanding “from the inside” of the phenomena they are looking at. In let’s say, nuclear physics, the physicist who looks at elementary particles, would not be asking the particles why they behave in one way and not the other. But in history and social science, you don’t really get anywhere unless you are prepared to ask those questions from the people you are investigating.

It’s not just that you’d miss essential information. More radically, Collingwood and Winch argued that the idea of meaningful agency is constitutive of any knowledge of history and society. In other words, if you do history or social science at all, you will accept, as your starting point that your inquiry has a certain form; namely, one where you look for reasons that people themselves have for their actions.

We can understand agents in the past, or agents in other situations than our own, because we can actually think the same thoughts as they did. We should try to figure out what questions, or problems they were facing: Why they saw things exactly the way they did, and why they believed that something they did was an adequate answer in that situation.

In other words, to understand action is very much about looking for logical connections between things. Not causal connections in the sense of, you know, one thing pushing or pulling at another and making things happen.

This means that we understand what makes sense to others because we understand how it might make sense to us. We can analyse culture from the inside and not just from the outside.

So, this connects with the other thing you mention in the project title: Cultural self-knowledge. Tell me about that. Why is it relevant today, you think?

There are two major things. One is that these views are still controversial. You often still hear complaints that the human sciences have not found their unifying Grand Theory, and that they should turn to things like brain science or evolutionary theory to find that.

The other thing, which is more interesting philosophically, is this: Both Collingwood and Winch obviously wrote loads of other things in philosophy besides this question. My idea here is that you don’t really see the full import of their arguments even here unless you look at the general vision of philosophy that they put forward. Because they had an underlying idea of what knowledge is, and what logic is, and what it means to make meaningful statements in language.

Philosophy, too, is a kind of exercise in human cultural self-knowledge, where you must pay attention to the cultural context. Philosophy is not eternal or universal truths, but it concerns our possibilities to gain a deeper understanding in the context of our present culture.

Now this common philosophical backdrop that Winch and Collingwood shared, is much easier to see today than it was a few decades ago, because there is now much more material available from these two thinkers. Winch of course wrote new stuff after 1958, lots of it. And: Starting with the 1990s, there has been a steady flow of new material about Collingwood coming out. Collingwood was a copious writer, and there is a lot of posthumous material, which is now gradually being published.

In your project, you also paid visits to archives in Oxford and London to look at unpublished stuff by Collingwood and Winch. What did you find there?

That’s right. In May this year, my friend Jonas Ahlskog and I paid a visit first to the Collingwood archives in Oxford and then the next week I went to the Winch Collection in London. This was also part of my EU project. There is still a lot of unpublished and publishable stuff in both archives. (I am not involved in publishing the Collingwood material, but I am to some extent part of the Winch publishing project, so I also scanned the archives with a view of identifying publishable material. Michael Campbell, previously of Pardubice University, is active in this enterprise.)

I did find some additional stuff in the Winch collection, which confirms that Winch read Collingwood carefully, so there was a direct influence. But what chiefly interested me was what these two thinkers wrote about two topics: The status of logic and meaningful language, and how that connects to philosophical realism and idealism.

Collingwood had views on logic, which developed over time. A constant feature there was the emphasis on context. You don’t really say anything meaningful simply by putting together sentences. What you say must connect to something. Collingwood put this by saying that every meaningful sentence must be an answer to a question. To understand what someone is saying, is to see how it would be an answer to a question that they were asking, or someone might reasonably have asked.

This means that knowledge is not something that we cobble together from discrete pieces of information. Knowledge is an ongoing inquiry, or part of that inquiry.

Your knowledge is not simply a list of all the things you know, as in an encyclopaedia, but rather it is the result of targeted inquiries. That’s why – as Wittgenstein has said – you would actually never be able to produce a complete list of all the things you know. Because, you could never predict all the questions that might crop up and require answers from you.

Winch had very similar views. In the archives, he also has stuff on argument and persuasion. While Collingwood concentrated on the role of logic in history and scientific research methods, Winch connected questions of logic with ethics. If you want to understand an argument, it is not enough that you should see, in the abstract, that A follows from B. You must also see why the argument would be relevant. You’d have to consider whether something is a real argument, and not just a kind of verbal exercise. Otherwise, if someone tells you that A follows from B, you might just answer, ‘Why should I care’? Winch pointed out that an argument is primarily something that someone puts forward in their own name, because they mean it and believe it.

An important aspect of your project, as you say, is looking at the role of philosophy among the sciences. Of course, philosophy has a long history of being originally not clearly distinct from the sciences, including natural science. What role exactly do you think philosophy has now in relation to science, and what role do you think it should have?

Philosophy is not one of the sciences, but it is what Collingwood called ‘second-order inquiry’. It is not about what the truth is, but it concerns the question what it means to have access to truth – that is: how the search for truth plays out in our different areas of action and inquiry.

You can have scientific truth, historical truth, religious truth, ethical truth and so on. Specifically what truths they will be (if any), is not a concern for philosophy. It is not the business of philosophy to demonstrate that God exists or doesn’t exist; but it should try to make clear what kind of a question it is. The philosophical question is, What conditions must be fulfilled if we are even to start thinking about these questions? What is the place of nature, the past, supernatural and ethical meaning, in human life? What places can they have?  

Your project is deeply engaged with cultural debates which are currently also political debates, so it may be a natural development that you will offer a way to bring philosophy into public discourse more. Currently, philosophers are not often present in mainstream public debate. Why do you think that is the case? And if philosophers were to be more included, how would you negotiate philosophy’s detailed and specialised nature with the need for accessibility on the other?

I’m not sure it is true that philosophers are less visible than other academics. There are rather few professional philosophers in the world, and of course, a lot of our time is taken up by teaching and research. There are some well-known public philosophers – regardless of what you’d otherwise think of them – like Slavoj Zizek, Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer. You find lots of philosophy programmes on YouTube.

On the other hand, there would certainly be even more demand for philosophy in the public sphere. One thing that strikes me, are these scientists like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and earlier, people like Einstein, who made their academic contribution in science, but who then went on, to express philosophical opinions left and right. Very often, it was quite an old-fashioned and ordinary philosophy – but people like to hear them talking, because these are questions that interest people.

The humanities as a whole have a responsibility towards the public, quite different from the situation for the natural sciences. The ‘product’, if you like, consists in the increase of cultural self-understanding and self-knowledge. The humanities will typically not produce applications or gadgets. We should be available to the public because that is, in the end, the point of having humanities in the first place.

Anyway, I don’t think the answer is that philosophers should latch on to every debate that there is in the public agenda. We should have the stamina to create our own agendas and not go along with the crowd. But philosophers, and the humanities generally, should be more prepared to connect the dots so that they can show the general importance of their research.

For instance: Today people, of course, pay much attention to the Ukraine war – and rightly so. But I don’t think philosophers should start a lot of research projects on The Philosophy of the Ukraine War – even if perhaps someone should do it. But on the other hand: the philosophy of history is incredibly relevant here, because if you look at the debate, historical arguments and justifications just crop up left and right. A persistent idea here is memory politics – for instance, competing ideas of historical victimhood. People think of history as collective memory, which is just wrong. History is research, asking your targeted questions to the material. It is not just a question of preserving collective memories of past injustices. As historian Timothy Snyder has put it (referring to Ukraine and Russia), we need more history and less memory.

A final point here: If you look at dictatorships, usually in those countries there is quite a severe repression of philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences; while dictatorships still allow a lot of leeway for science and technology. This shows, I think, that the human sciences are relevant to people in quite a different way. They shape our collective self-understanding. And of course, in a dictatorship, that is not allowed to happen, because the government wants to monopolise the agenda. This just goes to show how important the human sciences would be for a functioning civil society.

What other research paths or new topics can your project open up?

As you see, there is a lot of stuff here, and many avenues for further development. The main thing for me would be to go beyond just scholarship on these two thinkers and carry on just with the questions they brought up, not merely spelling out what they have said – but continuing on that trajectory of thought independently of them.


The title of your project is Moral Impossibility, which sounds strange because usually the idea of impossibility has a place in physical impossibility but not in ethics. If I want to go to the mailbox around the corner, I can’t fly there, I must walk. But ethics seems to be about things that, in some sense at least, I can do. – Is there really a meaning of impossibility in ethics?

I think these are exciting times for ethics precisely because there are increasingly new ways, in academic philosophy, not just to solve problems, but to think about ethics as such. The model of ethics as making a choice among a number of possibilities that are just there, available to you and everyone else, is one model, and currently the traditional one, especially in the analytic tradition in which I am working.

Iris Murdoch brilliantly described this model as going to a shop, surveying the items, and them making a decision about what to buy. And, as Murdoch stresses, that’s not the only way in which moral thinking and living works. Sometimes it’s like that. More often, I think, it’s not. Murdoch said that we don’t always live in the same worlds, meaning that our perception of facts, but also which facts make it into our field of vision, their salience, and their role in our choices, is not determined impersonally and empirically.

That means that moral thinking does not only operate at the level of choices and ‘ought’, but also at the level of determining the meaning of the courses of action, and, importantly, among which possibilities we can choose.

So a moral possibility, or possibility, needs to be perceived as such by the agent, or subject. In this sense, moral impossibilities refer to everything that does not make it into our range of perceived possibilities – and that does not make it into that range for moral reasons. If you think about it, that restriction of possibilities happens all the time. There is always some empirically available possibility that we do not consider for reasons that are not just empirical. And so it’s important to know why some possibilities are part of our range and which ones are not.

So some courses of actions lie outside our range of possibilities: That does not make them impossible in the empirical or logical sense, but it means we cannot choose them. Sometimes we don’t even think about them. I call this the category of the unconceived. Sometimes we think about them in an abstract way, but cannot take them seriously as possibilities. That’s what’s unthinkable. And sometimes, we cannot act to realise those possibilities. That’s known as moral incapacity, and that’s closer to the traditional meaning of impossibility, because you experience an obstacle to performing that action that feels as strong as a physically insurmountable obstacle, or even stronger.

How did you come to think of this topic?

It actually started with the other research line that I care about, the more ‘applied’ one if you like, in animal ethics. At the time, which was probably three or four years ago, I was part of a research ethics committee evaluating experiments done on non-human animals in a medical school in England. And I was struck by how often the language of necessity and impossibility was used for what, to me, were plainly choices, and wrong choices too. There wasn’t much actual ethical debate in those meetings, unfortunately, and most of the discussion was on how to minimise the duration, intensity of the pain, and the number of animals used. I was never able to engage the other members in a discussion about whether they were justified in doing these things to these animals. Partly the young philosopher was a bother to most of them, but partly I realised that for them not experimenting on animals was not a possibility that they’d taken seriously. And they expressed that thought, perhaps unwittingly, by saying that it was necessary to use and kill animals. (One of them said ‘terminating them is just what we do, shouldn’t you know?’).

So of course there was no physical or logical necessity there. The necessity only became intelligible if a) you have some goal, here finding out some facts about the human body, in order to prevent of cure diseases, and this goal overrides other moral considerations; and b) You cannot, or will not, take seriously other options which would be even more effective, such as doing these experiments on unconsenting or non-consenting humans.

These are both moral questions. And the second one brings in precisely the kind of moral impossibility that I, on the other hand, perceived also in relation to inflicting pain and killing other animals for our own purposes.

So I realised that, if we want to have debates about these and other issues and we really understand each other, we need to disclose these hidden assumptions and commitments. That will be more truthful and also give us a better chance of finding real common ground.

I’m reminded of the fact that Winch also wrote moral philosophy. Several times, he suggested something a bit similar to what you are saying. He thinks we should approach ethical dilemmas from the ‘inside’ of how people are thinking – those people who are faced with those dilemmas or decisions. He has an essay on the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan found this man lying in a ditch and rescued him. Winch imagines him telling to himself: ‘I just can’t leave him there to die …’ – So this looks like moral impossibility.

That’s exactly right, and he makes the marvellous point, turning conventional thinking on its head, that physical differences here would have been irrelevant ones to explain what is happening.

He writes something like this:

When the Samaritan says ‘I can’t just leave him here to die’ his companion could respond: Of course you can, you don’t have a broken leg, do you’?

And if he replied like that, he would not be meeting the Samaritan’s point, but making a tasteless joke. And that would show precisely the irrelevance of impossibility in the physical context, not in the moral one.

So the idea that Winch is suggesting here is also a broader one, namely that an account of a moral situation in merely naturalistic terms would miss the point of what that situation actually is. Coming back to the initial discussion and Murdoch’s alternative to the traditional moral outlook, Winch is also telling us that we cannot rely solely on naturalistic descriptions to understand what moral issues are about. This is what Cora Diamond has called ‘anti-dictationism’ of the natural sciences to humanities: natural sciences are of great importance and they interact with say, morality, in meaningful ways, but that does not have to be the way of fixing what is possible and what is there, and then ethics comes and evaluates. There’s more fundamental work for ethics to do.

Winch comes back to this point in another essay, ‘The Universalizability of Moral Judgment’, where he talks about Melville’s Billy Budd, and how Captain Vere saw no other option but to condemn Billy to death, while Winch himself would have found it impossible to do so.

Here we also have an idea of how moral impossibilities can be perceived differently by different people, in different context, and different times. And that what is impossible for me may not be impossible for you, and vice versa.

How do you know if the ‘impossibility’ you are perceiving, is a ‘good’ one or a ‘bad’ one? In other words, can’t you just be mistaken about what kinds of thing ought to be morally possible or impossible? What about this: Someone like Putin is telling himself, and telling everyone else, that he had no other choice but to invade Ukraine. But everyone else (or let’s say, reasonable people) would say he made a choice. – So, is there a risk that the talk about moral impossibility turns into a kind of self-justifying jargon. You do terrible things and then you say you had no choice?

Yes, we can always misuse moral language, and that’s true of the language of impossibility as it’s true of the language of ought and should. There are two different explanations that we can invoke here.

On the one hand, even if we take someone’s avowed impossibility prima facie at face value, there’s always the possibility that one can be deceived about one’s own moral perceptions and motivations. That’s true of other moral phenomena. Think about the problem of akrasia, or weakness of will, for instance. One way to explain it would be to say that I don’t really think the best thing to do overall is what I say I should do, but I end up not doing. Perhaps I was mistaken about my own overall judgment.

Sometimes, too, the language of impossibility is a useful rhetorical tool. I don’t know how self-deceived Putin is, but if he’s not entirely blind to his own motives, this may be what is going on in a case such as this. Of course a moral impossibility is not just stronger than a ‘ought not’, it takes us to a different level of morality. And that can make an impression, and can be used consciously, but it crumbles when subject to scrutiny.

This kind of scrutiny could be something like this. We can take as a starting point what I believe to be the main driver of moral impossibility, that is a fundamental commitment to a specific value. If, for instance, we are committed to the value of our friendship with someone, we will be unable to perform actions that will significantly erode that friendship. So the other side of moral impossibility is the value that we need to preserve. Now we can ask, what value is Putin trying to preserve, which gives him no choice but to invade Ukraine, destroy the country, and slaughter its people? Is there any value that can be preserved by this action, and that would be destroyed if he refrained from this action? I think we already see that there cannot be. He may, of course, say that there is, and that’s the value of protecting the Russian people from Ukrainian attacks. Here empirical facts are fundamental, because that is simply not true.

What more do you think will be left to do after you complete this project in terms of studying moral impossibility?

There’s a lot of work to do! This is the kind of project that can never be completed in two years, because it speaks to what ethics and morality are in themselves and because it can be applied to countless problems and situations. So I’m going to continue this work, and hope to develop it further along two lines, which are also two lines in which I’d like to engage in more interdisciplinary collaboration.

On the one hand, I’d like to keep digging to find out the varieties of moral impossibility, how best to understand them, what causes them, and this can include a fruitful collaboration with psychologists.

On the other, I’d like to see more specifically how moral impossibility can be used as a lens to look at conflictual situations, to propose a different paradigm than the ‘disagreement’ one, and here a collaboration with sociologists and anthropologists would help.

In both cases, it would be both exciting and helpful if we could look at the design of the empirical tools together, because it’s true that we live in a liberal society where choice and freedom – or a particular understanding of these concepts – are elevated above other values, and that means that scientist too can be biased towards this model, taking it for granted, and by doing so they determine their results. (This is roughly a point made by sociologist Gabriel Abend in relation to his discipline). So it would be good to collaborate from the start, to see where we go with experiments and studies designed in a way that allows for moral impossibility and a less choice-based view of morality.