Author Archives: BLS Nelson

Portraits of Philosophers


Bolinger’s Quine, done Salvador Dali style.

Renee Bolinger (USC) has painted portraits of some great philosophers.

I found them completely charming. Especially (see right).

Against warranted deference

There are two popular ways of responding to criticism you dislike. One is to smile serenely and say, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” This utterance often produces the sense that all parties are faultless in their disagreement, and that no-one is rationally obligated to defer to anyone else. Another is deny that your critic is has any entitlement to their opinion since they are in the wrong social position to make a justifiable assertion about some matters of fact (either because they occupy a position of relative privilege or a position of relative deprivation). Strong versions of this approach teach us that it is rational to defer to people just by looking at their social position.

A third, more plausible view is that if we want to make for productive debate, then we should talk about what it generally takes to get along. e.g., perhaps we should obey norms of respect and kindness towards each other, even when we disagree (else run the risk of descending into babel). But even this can’t be right, since mere disagreement with someone when it comes to their vital projects (that is, the things they identify with) shall always count as disrespect. If someone has adopted a belief in young earth creationism as a vital life project, and I offer a decisive challenge to that view, and they do not regard this as disrespectful, then they have not understood what has been said. (I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.) Hence, while it is good to be kind and respectful, and I may even have a peculiar kind of duty to be kind and respectful to the extent that it is within my powers and purposes. But people who have adopted vital life projects of that kind have no right to demand respect from me insofar as I offer a challenge to their beliefs, and hence to them as practical agents. Hence the norm of respectfulness can’t guide us, since it is unreasonable to defer in such cases. At least on a surface level, it looks like we have to have a theory of warranted deference in order to explain how that is.

For what it’s worth, I have experience with combative politics, both in the form of the politics of a radically democratic academic union and as a participant/observer of the online skeptic community. These experiences have given me ample — and sometimes, intimate — reasons to believe that these norms have the effect of trivializing debate. I think that productive debate on serious issues is an important thing, and when done right it is both the friend and ally of morality and equity (albeit almost always the enemy of expedient decision making, as reflected amusingly in the title of Francesca Polletta’s linked monograph).


A few months ago, one of TPM’s bloggers developed a theory which he referred to as a theory of warranted deference. The aim of the theory was to state the general conditions when we are justified in believing that we are rationally obligated to defer to others. The central point of the original article was to argue that our rational norms ought to be governed by the principle of dignity. By the principle of dignity, the author meant the following Kant-inspired maxim: “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.” One might add that treating someone as worthy of consideration also entails treating them as worthy of compassion.

Without belaboring the details, the upshot of the theory is that you are rational in believing that you have a [general] obligation to defer to the opinions of a group as a whole only when you’re trying to understand the terms of their vocabulary. And one important term that the group gets to define for themselves is the membership of the group itself. According to the theory, you have to defer to the group as a whole when you’re trying to figure out who counts as an insider.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a non-physicist. Bob understands the word ‘physicist’ to mean someone who has a positive relationship to the study of physics. Now Bob is introduced to Joe, who is a brilliant amateur who does physics, and who self-identifies as a physicist. The question is: what is Joe, and how can Bob tell? Well, the approach from dignity tells us that Bob is not well-placed to say that Joe is a physicist. Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.


I wrote that essay. In subsequent months, a colleague suggested to me that the theory is subject to a mature and crippling challenge. It now seems to me that the reach of the theory has exceeded its grasp.

If you assume, as I did, that any theory of warranted deference must also provide guidance on when you ought to defer on moral grounds, then the theory forces you to consider the dignity of immoral persons. e.g., if a restaurant refuses to serve potential customers who are of a certain ethnicity, then the theory says that the potential customer is rationally obligated to defer to the will of the restaurant.

But actually, it seems more plausible to say that nobody is rationally obligated to defer to the restaurant, for the following reason. If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds. In that situation, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer to the restaurant owners on the relevant issue; if anything, there are moral obligations to defy them on that issue, and one cannot defer to someone on something when they are in a state of defiance on that issue. Finally, if you think that moral duties provide overriding reasons for action in this case, then any deference to the restaurant is unwarranted.

Unfortunately, the principle of dignity tells you the opposite. Hence, the principle of dignity can be irrational. And hence, it is not a good candidate as a general theory of rational deference.

So perhaps, as some commenters (e.g., Ron Murphy) have suggested, the whole project is misguided.

It now occurs to me that instead of trying to lay out the conditions where people are warranted to defer, I ought to have been thinking about the conditions under which it is unwarranted to do so. It seems that the cases I find most interesting all deal with unwarranted deference: we are not warranted in deferring to Joe about who counts as a physicist, and the Young Earth Creationist is not warranted in demanding that I defer to them about Creationism.

Athens (and what I saw there)

The World Congress of Philosophy concluded this past Saturday in Athens. This year’s theme was Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life. It’s a theme that is tailored to the strengths of the event. For any who are interested in seeing how philosophy is a living and global practice, the Congress is essential. This year’s Congress was also host of a significant number of Big Name Philosophers, and hence was also an attraction for philosophers whose interests are more provincially-minded.

While there were plenty of interesting talks that are worth reporting on (both good and not so good), I would prefer to take a moment to make a few personal remarks about what I saw in Athens. [Hat tip to commenters at Feminist Philosophers for the idea and encouragement.]


I arrive on Saturday. It is hot and arid. Looking out of my hotel window, I am at first startled by the view. The landscape looks like an overexposed photograph. The buildings are crumbling and saturated with graffiti.

Greek society is in turmoil, their government put under administration. An unhinged neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn is gaining power and popularity. I make friends with one of my fellow speakers. He fills me in on the details behind Operation Zeus, a heavy-handed effort to jail ostensibly undocumented migrants at detention centres. Heavily armed officers are stationed near tourist havens and government buildings.


I decide to take a walk. It’s not until I am a few blocks away from my hotel that I notice the barking. I turn around and see that a dog has followed me all the way along my journey. The dog looks as though she is barking at any pedestrians who get too close to me. When I turn to go back to the hotel, the dog races back to reassume her place across the road, presumably to keep watch. My little protector.

The week is beautiful. The hotel is nice, and I feel reasonably safe. The people of Greece are down-to-earth, and Athens glows at night. I see the Acropolis and the temple of Apollo up close. I swallow salt water from the Aegean Sea and wash it down with iced coffee. I am genuinely happy.

Somewhere along the way, I overhear a little girl say, “It’s hot and like a dream.” I know what she means.


But even the best of dreams have a nightmarish quality to them. The people of Greece are understandably angry, and self-aware about their anger. Most cab drivers have harsh things to say about Germany and Angela Merkel. There is also no shortage of acrimony about their own Euro-imposed government, and plenty reserved for the socialist government that led them into the collapse. (As one cab driver who spoke virtually no English memorably repeated: “Boo to Papandreou“.) The people suffer and depend on tourists with Euros.


Friday evening. About forty professional philosophers were traipsing merrily around the ruins of the Lyceum. While moseying around the ruins my eye caught a hold of a black rock. I picked it up and cleaned off the grass and dirt. It was thin, long, with a concave blackened surface. The edge had the colour of clay. A shard of ancient pottery.


We should not have been allowed to walk in the pit. There should have been velvet ropes and armed guards and signs, but for whatever reason — and whatever the consequences — we were allowed to walk the grounds.

Standing there in the 34 degree heat, in the dust, listening to cicadas and sprinklers and the bustling of Athens in the background. Eventually, my new Greek friend forces me to return it to the dirt. But for a moment I was immobile, transfixed. It felt right to hold onto that little bit of history as long as I could.

The sound of an exasperated voice over the speaker system is enough to break my from the reverie. ”Please don’t step on the ancient wall,” a droll voice says to some naughty wanderer.



Does anyone know what this might be?

I get out of the cab into the heat, clad in a white Canadian hat and a World Congress of Philosophy lanyard around my neck. I look up at the impassive but modern-looking government building — the Kentrikou detention centre. It appears deserted. A few towels hang from the windows, but otherwise it is devoid of life.

Then I pull out my camera and start taking pictures of the empty exterior. At that point a policeman appears out of nowhere and asks me what I’m doing.

I tell him I’m interested in seeing the migrants in the facility. I say I’m writing a story about how Greece is handling the austerity crisis. The guard smiles. “Greece is on fire,” he says. I’m not sure he is referring to the weather.

He radios up and asks permission to let me in, and I am denied entry.

Just then, I look up and see some arms moving in one of the windows. I carefully step back into the street, onto public space, and snap some photos. In the first photo, it looks as though a detainee is showing me a card of some kind. Two faces emerge from behind bars, both visibly happy for my attention.

The fact that I have taken photos of actual detainees seems to have changed the parameters of the situation. At that point, the guard says: “Wait just a moment. Someone is coming to see you to take you upstairs.”
Sure enough, a burly Greek comes down. His hand is on the butt of his pistol. He exchanges words with the guard. Eventually they decide that I’m not a terrorist, and I’m told to follow the burly Greek. I’m led inside. I pull out my camera to take some interior shots, and am immediately told to put it away: “This is a military facility.”

Inside, I meet some bureaucrats who are watching television. I notice little things: a shitty photocopier, a pile of traffic cones. They ask me for my papers. I give them my Canadian driver’s license.

While they decide what to do with me, I’m led into a dirty white room. The room is bare, apart from a table, some benches, and a desk for the cop in charge. There is measuring tape on the wall and handprints all over the wall behind me. I figure that it is the processing area where migrants have their fingerprints taken.

Not liking the direction in which matters were headed, I quietly removed the microchip from my digital camera and hid it in my pocket. Just in case they decide to start confiscating my things.

Eventually I am led back to the bureaucrats. I am told that I need an appointment in order to interview any migrants. I am given a number to call to arrange an appointment. Then I am invited to leave.

I suppose I picked the right place to visit. Later that day, on the other side of the city, the Amygdaleza detention centre broke into a riot.


I saw my protector dog again that day. This time it was up close. Her eyes are bloodshot to the point where they look like they are bleeding. She lay in the street baking in the hot sun. I pour some water for her, and she doesn’t move. I worry that she might be dying.

Philosophically vicious

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit, McGinn on Mindfucking, and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

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The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These insults mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.*

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)


Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.


What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method – if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician– then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.


* Notice: this lesson only applies when it comes to exchanges between institutional peers. It is quite a different story if there are differences in power-relations, as John Kerry learned in 2004.

Philosophers: philosophical, proper, and professional

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophicalbeing a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to be philosophical about some characteristically general subjects, for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to be philosophical without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. [It is seldom claimed that] Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates; in contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

In philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

The merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their philosophical traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. Professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen; indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to. At best, it is assumed (with some justification) that the professional desiderata will overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. At worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession.

[Edit: In comments, Phillip points us to this video on the rise of professional philosophy. It helps to give you a sense of the difference between 'being philosophical' and 'being a professional philosopher'.]

[Edit 2: I also recommend reading comments in this thread, which touch on similar themes but from a different view.]

Philosopher’s Carnival at Siris

Hey all, this month’s Philosopher’s Carnival (#152) is now online! This month it is hosted over at Siris, one of the better philosophy blogs out there. Brandon has come up with something quite special this month, and it’s well worth a gander.

On warranted deference

By their nature, skeptics have a hard time deferring. And they should. One of the classic (currently undervalued) selling points for any course in critical thinking is that it grants people an ability to ratchet down the level of trust that they place in others when it is necessary. However, conservative opinion to the contrary, critical thinkers like trust just fine. We only ask that our trust should be grounded in good reasons in cooperative conversation.

Here are two maxims related to deference that are consistent with critical thinking:

(a) The meanings of words are fixed by authorities who are well informed about a subject. e.g., we defer to the international community of astronomers to tell us what a particular nebula is called, and we defer to them if they should like to redefine their terms of art. On matters of definition, we owe authorities our deference.

(b) An individual’s membership in the group grants them prime facie authority to speak truthfully about the affairs of that group. e.g., if I am speaking to physicists about their experiences as physicists, then all other things equal I will provisionally assume that they are better placed to know about their subject than I am. The physicist may, for all I know, be a complete buffoon. (S)he is a physicist all the same.

These norms strike me as overwhelmingly reasonable. Both follow directly from the assumption that your interlocutor, whoever they are, deserve to be treated with dignity. People should be respected as much as is possible without doing violence to the facts.

Here is what I take to be a banal conclusion:

(c) Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on matters relating to how group (y) is defined. For example, if a philosopher of science tells the scientist what counts as science, then it is time to stop trusting the philosopher.

It should be clear enough that (c) is a direct consequence of (a) and (b).

Here is a claim which is a logical instantiation of (c):

(c’) Members of privileged groups ought to defer to marginalized groups on matters relating to how the marginalized group is defined. For example, if a man gives a woman a lecture on what counts as being womanly, then the man is acting in an absurd way, and the conversation ought to end there.

As it turns out, (c’) is either a controversial claim, or is a claim that is so close to being controversial that it will reliably provoke ire from some sorts of people.

But it should not be controversial when it is understood properly. The trouble, I think, is that (c) and (c’) are close to a different kind of claim, which is genuinely specious:

(d) Members of group (x) ought to defer to group (y) on any matters relating to group (y).

Plainly, (d) is a crap standard. I ought to trust a female doctor to tell me more about my health as a man than I trust myself, or my male barber. The difference between (d) and (c) is that (c) is about definitions (‘what counts as so-and-so’), while (d) is about any old claim whatsoever. Dignity has a central place when it comes to a discussion about what counts as what — but in a discussion of bare facts, there is no substitute for knowledge.


Hopefully you’ve agreed with me so far. If so, then maybe I can convince you of a few more things. There are ways that people (including skeptics) are liable to screw up the conversation about warranted deference.

First, unless you are in command of a small army, it is pointless to command silence from people who distrust you. e.g., if Bob thinks I am a complete fool, then while I may say that “Bob should shut up and listen”, I should not expect Bob to listen. I might as well give orders to my cat for all the good it will do.

Second, if somebody is not listening to you, that does not necessarily mean you are being silenced. It only means you are not in a position to have a cooperative conversation with them at that time. To be silenced is to be prevented from speaking, or to be prevented from being heard on the basis of perverse non-reasons (e.g., prejudice and stereotyping).

Third, while intentionally shutting your ears to somebody else is not in itself silencing, it is not characteristically rational either. The strongest dogmatists are the quietest ones. So a critical thinker should still listen to their interlocutors whenever practically possible (except, of course, in cases where they face irrational abuse from the speaker).

Fourth, it is a bad move to reject the idea that other people have any claim to authority, when you are only licensed to point out that their authority is narrowly circumscribed. e.g., if Joe has a degree in organic chemistry, and he makes claims about zoology, then it is fine to point out the limits of his credentials, and not fine to say “Joe has no expertise”. And if Petra is a member of a marginalized group, it is no good to say that Petra has no knowledge of what counts as being part of that group. As a critical thinker, it is better to defer.

[Edit: be sure to check the comments thread for great discussion!]

Philosophy Carnival #151

Is now online, over at Camels with Hammers. Check it out here.

The science-philosophy connection

In this article published in the Guardian, the theoretical physicist Michael Krämer says all the right things about the connection between science and philosophy. Here’s a brief summary. He points out that, up until the middle of the twentieth century or so, scientists profited from philosophy. He also points out that post-war physicists do not find much to gain from philosophy, presumably referring to philosophy of science and its cognates. (Actually, this point is not exactly right. e.g., It is difficult to imagine Bohm‘s research project unmoored from his holistic ontological convictions. But I digress.)

From this, one might be tempted to heap scorn on philosophy. One might say we ought to just stop doing theoretical philosophy, since what it gets right is not distinctively philosophical, and what is distinctively philosophical is not right.

Refreshingly, Krämer does not travel this route. He acknowledges that philosophy crafts its arguments around certain general kinds of questions, and hence enjoys a degree of disciplinary autonomy — but also that it is ultimately studying the very same universe that the physicists are, and hence that it overlaps significantly with science. Krämer’s conclusion is even-handed. He concludes that the physicists can benefit from listening to the philosophers only so long as the philosophers keep focused on providing a critical understanding how the actual scientific methods are used. In contrast, if philosophers spend their time making armchair pronouncements about what counts as science, they ought not be listened to.

Like I said, I think Krämer’s got it right, and I think he said it well. And, I might add: my goodness, do philosophers need to hear it. Many of my colleagues and mentors are both actively involved in philosophy and in specialized sciences. They are, to a person, well acquainted with how things go on both sides of the fence, equally comfortable in graduate courses in cognitive science as they are in courses on philosophy of mind, or in courses on anti-realism as they are on theoretical physics. Yet I am heartbroken to hear that their work is often dismissed by reviewers in philosophy journals who have a simplistic normative conception of ‘how science works’. Instead of researching the diversity of methods that scientists actually use, many commentators working in the philosophy of science are interested in policing the boundaries of science through normative fiat. As a result, my colleagues have their papers accepted in top-notch science journals, and turned down by ostensibly top-notch philosophy journals.

One day, the philosophy of science may turn out to be of great importance to science. But that day will not come until philosophers prove themselves willing and able to read the contents of a bibliography.

Though I think Krämer has got most of it right, I do think that he has got one thing wrong. The fact is, the quips offered by theoretical physicists do not, by themselves, tell us anything about the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. It may be agreed that physics is the most developed among the sciences, and it may also be the case that all sciences will need to cash themselves out in physicalist terms. But even having admitted that much, it should also be agreed that physics is not the spokesperson of all the sciences — natural or otherwise. Even if it were true, you cannot conclude from the fact that ‘physicists don’t need theoretical philosophy quite so much anymore’ that ‘science doesn’t need theoretical philosophy quite so much anymore’. Mind you, it may indeed be the case that philosophy has nothing to say to any of the sciences. My point is that this inference needs to be demonstrated, and cannot be inferred from a single exceptional and arbitrarily selected historical period.

Losing your illusions

Analytic philosophy has been enormously influential in part because it has been an enormous philosophical success. Consider the following example. Suppose it were argued that God must exist, because we can meaningfully refer to Him, and reference can only work so long as a person refers to something real. Once upon a time, something like that argument struck people as a pretty powerful argument. But today, the analytic philosopher may answer: “We have been misled by our language. When we speak of God, we are merely asserting that some thing fits a certain description, and not actually referring to anything.” That is the upshot of Russell’s theory of descriptions, and it did its part in helping to disarm a potent metaphysical illusion.

Sometimes progress in philosophy occurs in something like this way. Questions are not resolutely answered, once and for all — instead, sometimes an answer is proposed which is sufficiently motivating that good-faith informed parties stop asking the incipient question. Consider, for instance, the old paradox, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, does it make a sound?” If you make a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, then the answer is plainly “No”: for while sounds are observer-dependent facts, the vibration of molecules would happen whether or not anyone was present. If you rephrase the question in terms of the primary qualities (“If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around, do air molecules vibrate?”), then the answer is an obvious “yes”. A new distinction has helped us to resolve an old problem. It is a dead (falsidical) paradox: something that seems internally inconsistent, but which just turns into a flat-out absurdity when put under close scrutiny.

Interesting as those examples are, it is also possible that linguistic analysis can help us resolve perceptual illusions. Consider the image below (the Muller Lyer illusion, taken from the Institut Nicod‘s great Cognition and Culture lab). Now answer: “Which line is longer?”


Fig. 1. Which line is longer?

Most participants will agree that the top line appears longer than the bottom one, despite the fact that they are ostensibly the same length. It is an illusion.

Illusions are supposed to be irresolvable conflicts between how things seem to you. For example, a mirage is an illusion, because if you stand in one place, then no matter how you present the stimuli to yourself, it will look as though a cloudy water puddle is hovering there somewhere in the distance. The mirage will persist regardless of how you examine it or think about it. There is no linguistic-mental switch you can flip inside your brain to make the mirage go away. Analytic philosophers can’t help you with that. (Similarly, I hold out no hopes that an analytic philosopher’s armchair musings will help to figure out the direction of spin for this restless ballerina.)

However, as a matter of linguistic analysis, it is not unambiguously true that the lines are the same length in the Muller-Lyer illusion. Oftentimes, the concept of a “line” is not operationally defined. Is a line just whatever sits horizontally? Or is a line whatever is distinctively horizontal (i.e., whatever is horizontal, such that it is segmented away from the arrowhead on each end)? Let’s call the former a “whole line”, and the latter a “line segment”. Of the two construals, it seems to me that it is best to interpret a line as meaning “the whole line”, because that is just the simplest reading (i.e., it doesn’t rely on arbitrary judgments about “what counts as distinctive”). But at the end of the day, both of those interpretations are plausible readings of the meaning of ‘line’, but we’re not told which definition we ought to be looking for.

I don’t know about you, but when I concentrate on framing the question in terms of whole lines, the perceptual illusion outright disappears. When asked, “Is one horizontal-line longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the white space between the horizontal lines, and my mind frames the two lines as a vibrant ‘equals sign’ that happens to be bookended by some arrowheads in my peripheral vision. So the answer to the question is a clear “No”. By contrast, when asked, “Is one line-segment longer than the other?”, my eyes focus on the points at the intersection of each arrowhead, and compare them. And the answer is a modest “Yes, they seem to be different lengths” — which is consistent with the illusion as it has been commonly represented.

Now for the interesting part.

Out of curiosity, I measured both lines according to both definitions (as whole lines and as line segments). In the picture below, the innermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the ends of the line segments, while the outermost vertical blue guidelines map onto the edges of the bottom line:

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 6.12.15 PM

Fig 2. Line segments identical, whole lines different.

Once I did this, I came up with a disturbing realization: the whole lines in the picture I took from the Institut Nicod really are different lengths! As you can see, the very tips of the bottom whole line fail to align with the inner corner of the top arrow.

As a matter of fact, the bottom whole line is longer than the top whole line. This is bizarre, since the take-home message of the illusion is usually supposed to be that the lines are equal in length. But even when I was concentrating on the whole lines (looking at the white space between them, manifesting an image of the equals sign), I didn’t detect that the bottom line was longer, and probably would not have even noticed it had it not been for the fact that I had drawn vertical blue guidelines in (Fig.2). Still, when people bring up the Muller Lyer illusion, this is not the kind of illusion that they have in mind.

(As an aside: this is not just a problem with the image chosen from Institut Nicod. Many iterations of the illusion face the same or similar infelicities. For example, in the three bottom arrows image on this Wikipedia image, you will see that a vertical dotted guideline is drawn which compares whole lines to line segments. This can be demonstrated by looking at the blue guidelines I superimposed on the image here.)

Can the illusion be redrawn, such that it avoids the linguistic confusion? Maybe. At the moment, though, I’m not entirely sure. Here is an unsatisfying reconstruction of the Nicod image, where both line segment and whole line are of identical length for both the top arrow and the bottom one:


Fig 3. Now the two lines are truly equal (both as whole lines and as segments).

Unfortunately, when it comes to Fig. 3., I find that I’m no longer able to confidently state that one line looks longer than the other. At least at the moment, the illusion has disappeared.

Part of the problem may be that I had to thicken the arrowheads of the topmost line in order to keep them equal, both as segments and as wholes. Unfortunately, the line thickening may have muddied the illusion. Another part of the problem is that, at this point, I’ve stared at Muller-Lyer illusions for so long today that I am starting to question my own objectivity in being able to judge lines properly.

[Edit 4/30: Suppose that other people are like me, and do not detect any illusion in (Fig. 3). One might naturally wonder why that might be.

Of course, there are scientific explanations of the phenomenon that don't rely on anything quite like analytic philosophy. (e.g., you might reasonably think that the difference is that our eyes are primed to see in three dimensions, and that since the thicker arrows appear to be closer to the eye than the thin ones, it disposes the mind to interpret the top line as visually equal to the bottom one. No linguistic analysis there.) But another possibility is that our vision of the line segment is perceptually contaminated by our vision of the whole line, owing to the gestalt properties of visual perception. This idea, or something like it, already exists in the literature in the form of assimilation theory. If so, then we observers really do profit from making an analytic distinction between whole lines and line segments in order to help diagnose the causal mechanisms responsible for this particular illusion -- albeit, not to make it disappear.

Anyway. If this were a perfect post, I would conclude by saying that linguistic analysis can help us shed light on at least some perceptual illusions, and not just dismantle paradoxes. Mind you, at the moment, I don't know if this conclusion is actually true. (It does not bode well that the assimilation theory does not seem very useful in diagnosing any other illusions.) But if it did, it would be just one more sense in which analytic philosophy can help us to cope with our illusions, if not lose them outright.]