Author Archives: BLS Nelson - Page 2

Metaphors for philosophical people [Updated]

Recently I argued that philosophers aspire to possess four virtues: rigor in argument, reason-responsiveness in dialogue, humility in commitment, and insight in belief. [*] In all things philosophical, the philosopher tries to avoid being like King Lear — i.e., someone who asserts without argument, responds to reasons with evasions, is incapable of intellectual change, and believes only in what is expedient or socialized into them. In a subsequent post, I argued that you could build a taxonomy of philosophical archetypes by classifying the philosopher according to the virtues they exemplify.

Those posts attempted to think about the ideal character types of some excellent philosophers. I did not make many specific references to the contemporary institution of philosophy, or to the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world. But, actually, it is misleading to characterize a discipline by showcasing its best members; not every golfer is Tiger Woods. Philosophy is not just a scholastic curio bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead icons. Philosophy is a living practice, performed by real people, and done for a point. The point of philosophy is personal growth — to try to become wiser, and to live better lives.

So I would like to start to set the record straight, just in case the record needed straightening. I’d like to use the ‘four virtues’ framework to talk about the self-image of philosophers in general, both professional and otherwise. In particular, I would like to articulate some of the different ways that philosophers have thought that their education helped to affect their development as persons. In this, my aim is both critical and reverential. Each metaphor describes a disposition or skill-set that is evenly balanced between virtues and vices. [**]

The point can be made clearest by drawing analogies to people and practices that we are already acquainted. In this post, I examine four metaphors for philosophers as people: you can think of philosophers as intellectual detectives, as rational therapists, as curious children, or as devil’s advocates. I might examine other metaphors in a future post, assuming readers do not heave this post overboard as they would a dead sailor at sea.

pirates

I think I can see why Wittgenstein loved detective stories. On some occasions, I am tempted to think of the philosopher as a kind of intellectual detective. Like storybook gumshoes, the philosopher has a problem to solve, and has to rely primarily on their wit and sense of reason to come to a solution. Like the detective, the philosopher needs to have a healthy acquaintance with forms of reasoning in order to try to resolve their problems — namely, the use of deduction and inference to the best explanation.

Although he never explicitly compares the philosopher to a detective, I think the following passage from Barry Stroud [***] gives expression to the general idea:

“The philosophers I admire most possess [a] kind of acute sensitivity to philosophical difficulties. They are open to potential philosophical riches, and they find them, in what look to most of the rest of us like very unpromising places. And, what is equally important, those philosophers I admire most know how to keep searching when they know they haven’t really found the right thing yet. This is not the only kind of philosophical ability there is… but for me, those I most admire have a firm foothold in reality and a “nose” or feel for real problems, along with the patience to unfold the detail of what has to be overcome to achieve the kind of understanding that can mean the most to us.”

This analogy gains strength when we think about how some epistemologists think in earnest about philosophical problems. The philosophical detective has a few intuitive questions — a few real hum-dingers, a pocket full of paradoxes — and she believes that any philosopher that is not attempting to find the correct answer to these questions is not doing philosophy at all. The detective wants to actually get to the bottom of philosophical worries, and not just settle for a lingering sense of satisfaction with basking in the aura of the big questions. And many of the greatest philosophers of our time have arrived at systems of intuitions which indicate that finally, at long last, the great questions have either been solved or mooted.

The detective metaphor is a healthy source of motivation for the independent thinker. If you think you have good reasons to believe you have arrived at the truth, then there is usually no fault in saying so. The truth is out there and sometimes the truth is frickin’ awesome.

But, that having been said, the metaphor of the intellectual detective is sometimes misused when it only serves as a smokescreen for dogmatism. The author linked [here] is right when he makes just this narrow point. On occasion, students of philosophy will sometimes treat the informal fallacies as if they were falsity-detectors, divining rods which lead the philosopher to strike pay-dirt. But actually, any competent teacher of logic will tell you that a skill for critical thinking does not by itself confer the expertise to determine which conclusions are true and which are false. Rather, part of the value of critical thinking is that it helps the good-faith reader and listener to figure out for themselves how they stand in relation to arguments put before them.

***

When I lived in Toronto, the subway commute was generally unpleasant. The Toronto subway was decorated with advertisements for a sketchy new-age institute that branded itself as a school of Philosophy. I experience similar feelings of grouchitude when I walk into a bookstore and notice that the Philosophy section is invariably bookended by sections on Religion and Spirituality. Any student of analytic philosophy will reliably try to avert their eyes when exposed to commercial efforts that conflate philosophy and spirituality, else be forced to suffer through the minor indignity of being audience to false advertising.

Well, whatever. To some extent, the philosophical tradition has it coming. One of the worst kept secrets in analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, is that part of the point of learning philosophy is to learn how to cope with living. When conceived in this way, the philosopher functions as a kind of rational therapistwho attempts to persuade people to accept palliative insights. With few exceptions, modern professional philosophers are generally quite lousy at providing such consolations. (It is instructive that De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy ended with two 19th century philosophers, both of whom were by reputation inconsolable.)

But even so, this is not a reason to disbelieve that many philosophers throughout history have done what they do in order to learn how to live in the right kind of way. And on some occasions, the enterprise can be productive. After you read Nietzsche, Arendt, Russell, Nussbaum, or JS Mill, you may come away a different kind of person. Anyone who receives a philosophical education without reading and reacting to any of these figures is someone who has received an education unfulfilled. Certain strains of philosophy have been influential as vehicles that help to live the everyday life: for example, according to its adherents, the technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy owes a debt to the writings of the Stoics.

This is not necessarily to suggest that even the best rational therapists are always good at it. I might as well share a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. We all have difficult times in our lives, moments where we look for guidance and for wisdom. One night, after a stressful day, I laid in bed, shivering from melancholy. Thinking he could help, I plucked a copy of Meister Eckhart‘s writings from the shelf. Eckhart was a Dominican philosopher with a (mostly deserved) reputation for deep, probing insight. I am not much of a believer in the divine, but occasionally Eckhart is able to pin down an idea with such honesty that it is difficult not to admire him.

So I opened the book to a random page. I read this passage:

All that [perfect detachment] wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that — this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all.

…and then I threw the book across the room and opted for sleep. I’m sure the contradiction in that passage can be resolved, but the only time you should try is in the light of day.

***

Increasingly, professional philosophers will try to paint themselves as expert reasoners, capable of handling difficult problems using sophisticated logical techniques. But this is a feature of the modern academy. In the past, it was more often said that the philosopher is like a curious child, constantly engaged in dialogue, asking questions that others think too obvious to contemplate.

Consider: Why is there something rather than nothing? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, why is there evil? These are highly general, entirely reasonable questions, and you do not need any special authority to ask them. All you need is humility, and to seek to persuade others to be humble in kind. Socrates is maybe the most obvious example of someone who pretended to be a curious child, a patient rational inquirer who was given to constant self-effacement when interrogated. The Socratic Method is also meant to be intellectually egalitarian: hence, the intuitions of Socrates and the slave child Meno are supposed to be on the very same level.

There is nothing wrong with approaching a subject afresh, as if you were the first Martian anthropologist put in charge of understanding the people of Earth. Actually, there is quite a lot that is right with this approach.

But the trouble with innocence is that there is only a finite supply. When the would-be philosopher has thought about some subject matter for a significant length of time, they must either claim that they have found a special form of expertise, or else persist in assuming a pretence of innocence and hope no-one will see behind the ruse. Nietzsche may have been a mean old man, but he puts the point in an amusing way: “What’s attractive about looking at all philosophers in part suspiciously and in part mockingly is not that we find again and again how innocent they are… but that they are not honest enough in what they do, while, as a group, they make huge, virtuous noises as soon as the problem of truthfulness is touched on, even remotely.”

To think through difficult issues philosophically often means making an attempt to dump one’s prejudices as far as it is possible, and to let inquiry guide you to the right solution. But the elimination of prejudice must not come at too high a cost. The elimination of prejudice should not be used as grounds for undermining a capacity for good judgment.

***

[Updated 4/14]

Finally, I’d like to consider the likeness that some philosophers have to devil’s advocates.

When we hear that term, the position sounds, well, devilish and contrarian. But actually, it is not so simple as all that. The devil’s advocate is a colloquial term used to describe the position of being appointed by the Catholic Church to argue a case against the canonization of would-be saints. For a long time, the official title of the devil’s advocate was “Promoter of the Faith”. The task of the devil’s advocate is not to formulate a consensus opinion, or even to speak from honest conviction. Instead, the devil’s advocate is supposed to cast doubt on the proffered argument in a rigorous way.

Devil’s advocates are intellectual attorneys at heart. They are people who are annoyed by salespeople who only give one side to the story, and who want to hear the other side before coming to judgment. In their way, they are motivated by a kind of charity: they want to hear the strongest case that can be made for the other team, so that the final synthesis does not end up being dull and short-sighted. Devil’s advocates are not as interested in getting at the facts of the matter (like the intellectual detective), or exploring the mystery of life (like curious children), as much they are interested in getting an alternative point of view out there. Like the contrarian, the devil’s advocate is motivated in reaction to other peoples’ arguments. But unlike the contrarian, the devil’s advocate actually has an intellectual spine. They can put forward an argument that holds together on its own merits.

The devil’s advocate is, at the end of the day, a kind of sophist. In principle, the sophist is the arch-enemy of the philosopher, and the accusation of a would-be philosopher of “sophistry” is supposed to be a slap in the face. Hence I would wager that consensus opinion in professional philosophy would have it that the metaphor of ‘devil’s advocate’ is a truly degenerate metaphor. The worry is that if we accept that the devil’s advocate is doing philosophy, then it would signal that the discipline is hopelessly corrupt.

But it would seem that professional philosophy does not practice what it preaches. The fact of the matter is that many undergraduate philosophy programs primarily teach their students to be able to think on either side of an issue, and to argue for it in a critical way. Moreover, the ability to think of opposing arguments is exactly one of the skill-sets that are used to sell students on the practical value of an education in philosophy. So, to the extent that one believes that the value of philosophy consists in its ability to produce a supple mind that is able to think around curves, one is saying that the value of philosophy is in its value of teaching how to be a devil’s advocate. If philosophers are to be more honest, and more coherent, they must be able to come to terms with the fact that the devil’s advocate is not necessarily doing bad philosophy.

I do think that there is a problem with this kind of sophistry, but the problem is not that the position of devil’s advocate is essentially corrupt or degenerate. Rather, I think one ought not be satisfied with advocating for the devil, unless it is as a means of first advocating something that really matters — for the truth, or for the good, or whatever. In other words: anyone who is satisfied with a life of being a devil’s advocate, is someone who is settling for philosophical mediocrity. But while the charge of mediocrity is a potent one, it does not uniquely belong to the devil’s advocate. After all, as a matter of fact, I have already shown that the accusation of mediocrity can be levelled against every single one of the metaphors in this post. For a good enough definition of ‘mediocrity’ is, “Someone who is split equally between virtues and vices” — as they all are.

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[*] The first post received a welcome debugging from Eli Horowitz over at Rust Belt, whose focused attention forced me to think about how I can improve the presentation of the argument I’m trying to make. Still, whatever its faults, I think the basic thrust of the first post was defensible. And the second post received attention from diverse quarters, so I guess I got something right (or at least got something wrong in an interesting sort of way).

[**] It is easy to sell philosophy by characterizing it in terms of one kind of trope or another, or to mock philosophers for their ostensibly unearned pretentions. By looking closely at each metaphor, and finding the imperfections of each, we are in a position to appreciate the best philosophers as ones who cannot easily fit into a caricature.

[**] Hat-tip to my friend and colleague Olivia Sultanescu for the quote.

New Philosopher’s Carnival: #149

It’s up. Check out some of the other blogs in the philosophy blogoverse.

(Then come back here, obviously.)

New philosopher’s carnival

Is online. Check it out here.

To thine own self be

Daniel Little leads double-life as one of the world’s most prolific philosophers of social science and author of one of the snazziest blogs on my browser start-up menu. Recently, he wrote a very interesting post on the subject of authenticity and personhood.

In that post, Little argues that the very idea of authenticity is grounded in the idea of a ‘real self’. “When we talk about authenticity, we are presupposing that a person has a real, though unobservable, inner nature, and we are asserting that he/she acts authentically when actions derive from or reflect that inner nature.” For Little, without the assumption that people have “real selves” (i.e., a set of deep characteristics that are part of a person’s inner constitution), “the idea of authenticity doesn’t have traction”. In other words: Little is saying that if we have authentic actions, then those actions must issue from our real selves.

However, Little does not think that the real self is the source of the person’s actions. “…it is plausible that an actor’s choices derive both from features of the self and the situation of action and the interplay of the actions of others. So script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action.”

So, by modus tollens, Little must not think there is any such thing as authentic actions.

But —- gaaah! That can’t be right! It sure looks like there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. When a homophobic evangelical turns out to be a repressed homosexual, we are right to say that their homophobia was inauthentic. When someone pretends to be an expert on something they know nothing about, they are not being authentic. When a bad actor is just playing their part, Goffman-style: not authentic.

So one of the premises has to go. For my part, I would like to take issue with Little’s assertion that the idea of authenticity “has no traction” if there is no real self. I’d like to make a strong claim: I’d like to agree that the idea of a ‘real self’ is an absurdity, a non-starter, but that all the same, there is a difference between authentic and inauthentic actions. Authenticity isn’t grounded in a ‘real (psychological) self’ — instead, it’s grounded in a core self, which is both social and psychological.

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If you ever have a chance to wander into the Philosophy section at your local bookstore you’ll find no shortage of books that make claims about the Real Self. A whole subgenre of the philosophy of the ‘true self’ is influenced by the psychodynamic tradition in psychology, tracing back to the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott.

For the Freudians, the psyche is structured by the libido (id), which generates the self-centred ego and the sociable superego. When reading some of the works that were inspired by this tradition, I occasionally get the impression that the ‘real self’ is supposed to be a secret inner beast that lies within you, waiting to surface when the right moment comes. That ‘real self’ could be either the id, or the ego.

On one simplistic reading of Freud, the id was that inner monstrosity, and the ego was akin to the ‘false self’.* On many readings, Freud would like to reduce us all to a constellation of repressed urges. Needless to say (I hope), this reductionism is batty. You have to be cursed with a comically retrograde orientation to social life to think that people are ultimately just little Oedipal machines.

Other theorists (more plausibly) seem to want to say that the ego is hidden beneath the superego — as if the conscience were a polite mask, and the ego were your horrible true face. But I doubt that the ego counts as your ‘real self’, understood in that way. I don’t think that the selfish instincts operate in a quasi-autonomous way from the social ones, and I don’t think we have enough reason to think that the selfish instincts are developmentally prior to the selfish ones. Recent research done by Michael Tomasello has suggested that our pro-social instincts are just as basic and natural as the selfish ones. If that is right, then we can’t say that the ego is the ‘real self’, and the superego is the facade.

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All the same, we ought to think that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic self’. After all, it looks as though we all have fixed characteristics that are relatively stable over time, and that these characteristics reliably ground our actions in a predictable way. I think it can be useful, and commonsensical, to understand some of these personality traits as authentic parts of a person’s character.

On an intuitive level, there seem to be two criteria for authenticity which distinguish it from inauthentic action. First, drawing on work by Harry Frankfurt, we expect that authenticity should involve wholeheartedness — which is a sense of complacency with certain kinds of actions, beliefs, and orientation towards states of affairs. Second, those traits should be presented honestly, and in line with the actual beliefs that the actor has about the traits and where they come from. And notice that both of these ideas, wholeheartedness and honesty, make little or no allusion to Freudian psychology, or to a mysterious inner nature.

So the very idea of authenticity is both a social thing and a psychological thing, not either one in isolation. It makes no sense to talk about authentic real self, hidden in the miasma of the psyche. The idea is that being authentic involves doing justice to the way you’re putting yourself forward in social presentation as much as it involves introspective meditation on what you want and what you like.

By assuming that the authentic self is robustly non-social (e.g., something set apart from “responses” to others), we actually lose a grip on the very idea of authenticity. The fact is, you can’t even try to show good faith in putting things forward at face value unless you first assume that there is somebody else around to see it. Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, cannot act ‘authentically’ or ‘inauthentically’. He can only act, period.

So when Little says that “script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action”, I think he is saying something true, but which does not bear on the question of whether or not some action is authentic. To act authentically is to engage in a kind of social cognition. Authenticity is a social gambit, an ongoing project of putting yourself forward as a truth-teller, which is both responsive to others and grounded in projects that are central to your concern.

In this sense, even scripted actions can be authentic. “I love you” is a trope, but it’s not necessarily pretence to say it. [This possibility is mentioned at the closing of Little’s essay, of course. I would like to say, though: it’s more than just possible, it’s how things really are.]

* This sentence was substantially altered after posting. Commenter JMRC, below, pointed out that it is probably not so easy to portray Freud in caricature.

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Gun Rights & Tyranny: A Coda

I’d like to present a quick little philosophical coda to Mike’s latest post on gun rights and tyranny by outlining a difficult puzzle.

Consider the following propositions:

1. A state is any organization that successfully upholds the possession of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

2. It is legitimate to defend against tyranny by the use of force.

Both premises look to be pretty plausible. The first is Max Weber’s definition of the state, which is widely influential. The second is a commonsense construal of the Second Amendment, once you formulate it in a way that is consistent with the Constitution [and other founding documents].

But what follows from these two premises? Well, anyone who makes a legitimate claim to the use of force, and who is not a part of the government or acting as a party to its laws, cannot help but be seeking to disrupt the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Hence, those who recognize the validity of this commonsense reading of second amendment are de facto advocates of vigilantism. Even if you are a centrist or left-libertarian who advocates gun control, so long as you recognize (2) is a plausible reading of the constitution, you are stuck moonlighting as an advocate for vigilantism. This is remarkable.

Obviously, many of us do not want to come to that conclusion. So there must be something wrong with one or both of these premises. Perhaps (1) is a vulgar statist formulation which pretends that ‘legitimacy’ equals morally rightness. So you might think that the difference between (1) and (2) trades on an ambiguity in the meaning of the term ‘legitimate’. But this critique does not seem destined for success. ‘Legitimacy’ seems to be a non-moral normative phrase, meaning something like, ‘is commonly recognized to hold a certain status’.

It’s a distressing and difficult puzzle, made all the more frustrating by the fact that it is so easy to formulate. Needless to say, quite a bit rides on the answer to the question. But whatever the answer is, the first step in a good conversation is for everybody to recognize a problem as a problem.

Philosopher’s Carnival No. 146

Hello new friends, philosophers, and likeminded internet creatures. This month TPM is hosting the Philosopher’s Carnival.

Something feels wrong with the state of philosophy today. From whence hast this sense of ill-boding come?

For this month’s Carnival, we shall survey a selection of recent posts that are loosely arranged around the theme of existential threats to contemporary philosophy. I focus on four. Pre-theoretic intuitions seem a little less credible as sources of evidence. Talk about possible worlds seems just a bit less scientific. The very idea of rationality looks as though it is being taken over by cognate disciplines, like cognitive science and psychology. And some of the most talented philosophers of the last generation have taken up arms against a scientific theory that enjoys a strong consensus. Some of these threats are disturbing, while others are eminently solvable. All of them deserve wider attention.

1. Philosophical intuitions

Over at Psychology TodayPaul Thagard argued that armchair philosophy is dogmatic. He lists eleven unwritten rules that he believes are a part of the culture of analytic philosophy. Accompanying each of these dogmas he proposes a remedy, ostensibly from the point of view of the sciences. [Full disclosure: Paul and I know each other well, and often work together.]

Paul’s list is successful in capturing some of the worries that are sometimes expressed about contemporary analytic philosophy. It acts as a bellwether, a succinct statement of defiance. Unfortunately, I do not believe that most of the items on the list hit their target. But I do think that two points in particular cut close to the bone:

3. [Analytic philosophers believe that] People’s intuitions are evidence for philosophical conclusions. Natural alternative: evaluate intuitions critically to determine their psychological causes, which are often more tied to prejudices and errors than truth. Don’t trust your intuitions.

4. [Analytic philosophers believe that] Thought experiments are a good way of generating intuitive evidence. Natural alternative: use thought experiments only as a way of generating hypotheses, and evaluate hypotheses objectively by considering evidence derived from systematic observations and controlled experiments.

From what I understand, Paul is not arguing against the classics in analytic philosophy. (e.g., Carnap was not an intuition-monger.) He’s also obviously not arguing against the influential strain of analytic philosophers that are descendants of Quine — indeed, he is one of those philosophers. Rather, I think Paul is worried that contemporary analytic philosophers have gotten a bit too comfortable in trusting their pre-theoretic intuitions when they are prompted to respond to cases for the purpose of delineating concepts.

As Catarina Dutilh Novaes points out, some recent commentators have argued that no prominent philosophers have ever treated pre-theoretic intuitions as a source of evidence. If that’s true, then it would turn out that Paul is entirely off base about the role of intuition in philosophy.

Unfortunately, there is persuasive evidence that some influential philosophers have treated some pre-theoretic intuitions as being a source of evidence about the structure of concepts. For example, Saul Kripke (in Naming & Necessity, 1972:p.42) explained that intuitiveness is the reason why there is a distinction between necessity and contingency in the first place: “Some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of it, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking”.

2. Philosophical necessity

Let’s consider another item from Paul’s list of dogmas:

8. There are necessary truths that apply to all possible worlds. Natural alternative: recognize that it is hard enough to figure out what is true in this world, and there is no reliable way of establishing what is true in all possible worlds, so abandon the concept of necessity.

In this passage Paul makes a radical claim. He argues that we should do away with the very idea of necessity. What might he be worried about?

To make a claim about the necessity of something is to make a claim about its truth across all possible worlds. Granted, our talk about possible worlds sounds kind of spooky, but [arguably] it is really just a pragmatic intellectual device, a harmless way of speaking. If you like, you could replace the idea of a ‘possible world’ with a ‘state-space’. When computer scientists at Waterloo learn modal logic, they replace one idiom with another — seemingly without incident.

If possible worlds semantics is just a way of speaking, then it would not be objectionable. Indeed, the language of possible worlds seems to be cooked into the way we reason about things. Consider counterfactual claims, like “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve.” These claims are easy to make and come naturally to us. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to talk about how things could have been, you just need some knowledge of a language and an active imagination.

But when you slow down and take a closer look at what has been said there, you will see that the counterfactual claim involves discussion of a possible (imaginary) world where Kennedy had not been shot. We seem to be talking about what that possible world looks like. Does that mean that this other possible world is real — that we’re making reference to this other universe, in roughly the same way we might refer to the sun or the sky? Well, if so, then that sounds like it would be a turn toward spooky metaphysics.

Hence, some philosophers seem to have gone a bit too far in their enthusiasm for the metaphysics of possible worlds. As Ross Cameron reminds us, David K. Lewis argued that possible worlds are real:

For Lewis, a world at which there are blue swans is a world with blue swans as parts, and so a world with round squares is a world with round squares as parts.  And so, to believe in the latter world is to believe in round squares.  And this is to raise a metaphysical problem, for now one must admit into one’s ontology objects which could not exist.  In brief, impossible worlds for Lewis are problematic because of how he thinks worlds represent: they represent something being the case by being that way, whereas his opponents think worlds represent in some indirect manner, by describing things to be that way, or picturing them to be that way, or etc.

And to make matters worse, some people even argue that impossible worlds are real, ostensibly for similar reasons. Some people…

…like Lewis’s account of possibilia but are impressed by the arguments for the need for impossibilia, so want to extend Lewis’s ontology to include impossible worlds.

Much like the Red Queen, proponents of this view want to do impossible things before breakfast. The only difference is that they evidently want to keep at it all day long.

Cameron argues that there is a difference between different kinds of impossibility, and that at least one form of impossibility cannot be part of our ontology. If you’re feeling dangerous, you can posit impossible concrete things, e.g., round squares. But you cannot say that there are worlds where “2+2=5” and still call yourself a friend of Lewis:

For Lewis, ‘2+2=4’ is necessary not because there’s a number system that is a part of each world and which behaves the same way at each world; rather it’s necessary that 2+2=4 because the numbers are not part of any world – they stand beyond the realm of the concreta, and so varying what happens from one portion of concrete reality to another cannot result in variation as to whether 2+2 is 4.

While Cameron presents us with a cogent rebuttal to the impossibilist, his objection still leaves open the possibility that there are impossible worlds — at least, so long as the impossible worlds involve exotic concrete entities like the square circle and not incoherent abstracta.

So what we need is a scientifically credible account of necessity and possibility. In a whirlwind of a post over at LessWrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that when we reason using counterfactuals, we are making a mixed reference which involves reference to both logical laws and the actual world.

[I]n one sense, “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve” is a fact; it’s a mixed reference that starts with the causal model of the actual universe where [Oswald was a lone agent], and proceeds from there to the logical operation of counterfactual surgery to yield an answer which, like ‘six’ for the product of apples on the table, is not actually present anywhere in the universe.

Yudkowsky argues that this is part of what he calls the ‘great reductionist project’ in scientific explanation. For Yudkowsky, counterfactual reasoning is quite important to the project and prospects of a certain form of science. Moreover, claims about counterfactuals can even be true. But unlike Lewis, Yudkowsky doesn’t need to argue that counterfactuals (or counterpossibles) are really real. This puts Yudkowsky on some pretty strong footing. If he is right, then it is hardly any problem for science (cognitive or otherwise) if we make use of a semantics of possible worlds.

Notice, for Yudkowski’s project to work, there has to be such a thing as a distinction between abstracta and concreta in the first place, such that both are the sorts of things we’re able to refer to. But what, exactly, does the distinction between abstract and concrete mean? Is it perhaps just another way of upsetting Quine by talking about the analytic and the synthetic?

In a two-part analysis of reference [here, then here], Tristan Haze at Sprachlogik suggests that we can understand referring activity as contact between nodes belonging to distinct language-systems. In his vernacular, reference to abstract propositions involves the direct comparison of two language-systems, while reference to concrete propositions involves the coordination of systems in terms of a particular object. But I worry that unless we learn more about the causal and representational underpinnings of a ‘language-system‘, there is no principled reason that stops us from inferring that his theory of reference is actually just a comparison of languages. And if so, then it would be well-trod territory.

3. Philosophical rationality

But let’s get back to Paul’s list. Paul seems to think that philosophy has drifted too far away from contemporary cognitive science. He worries that philosophical expertise is potentially cramped by cognitive biases.

Similarly, at LessWrong, Lukeprog worries that philosophers are not taking psychology very seriously.

Because it tackles so many questions that can’t be answered by masses of evidence or definitive experiments, philosophy needs to trust your rationality even though it shouldn’t: we generally are as “stupid and self-deceiving” as science assumes we are. We’re “predictably irrational” and all that.

But hey! Maybe philosophers are prepared for this. Since philosophy is so much more demanding of one’s rationality, perhaps the field has built top-notch rationality training into the standard philosophy curriculum?

Alas, it doesn’t seem so. I don’t see much Kahneman & Tversky in philosophy syllabi — just light-weight “critical thinking” classes and lists of informal fallacies. But even classes in human bias might not improve things much due to the sophistication effect: someone with a sophisticated knowledge of fallacies and biases might just have more ammunition with which to attack views they don’t like. So what’s really needed is regular habits training for genuine curiositymotivated cognition mitigation, and so on.

In some sense or other, Luke is surely correct. Philosophers really should be paying close attention to the antecedents of (ir)rationality, and really should be training their students to do exactly that. Awareness of cognitive illusions must be a part of the philosopher’s toolkit.

But does that mean that cognitive science should be a part of the epistemologist’s domain of research? The answers looks controversial. Prompted by a post by Leah LebrescoEli Horowitz at Rust Belt Philosophy argues that we also need to take care that we don’t just conflate cognitive biases with fallacies. Instead, Horowitz argues that we ought to make a careful distinction between cognitive psychology and epistemology. In a discussion of a cognitive bias that Lebresco calls the ‘ugh field’, Horowitz writes:

On its face, this sort of thing looks as though it’s relevant to epistemology or reasoning: it identifies a flaw in human cognition, supports the proposed flaw with (allusions to) fairly solid cognitive psychology, and then proceeds to offer solutions. In reality, however, the problem is not one of reasoning as such and the solutions aren’t at all epistemological in nature… it’s something that’s relevant to producing a good reasoning environmentreviewing a reasoning process, or some such thing, not something that’s relevant to reasoning itself.

In principle, Eli’s point is sound. There is, after all, at least a superficial difference between dispositions to (in)correctness, and actual facts about (in)correctness. But even if you think he is making an important distinction, Leah seems to be making a useful practical point about how philosophers can benefit from a change in pedagogy. Knowledge of cognitive biases really should be a part of the introductory curriculum. Development of the proper reasoning environment is, for all practical purposes, of major methodological interest to those who teach how to reason effectively. So it seems that in order to do better philosophy, philosophers must be prepared to do some psychology.

4. Philosophical anti-Darwinism

The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel recently published a critique of Darwinian accounts of evolution through natural selection. In this effort, Nagel joins Jerry Fodor and Alvin Plantiga, who have also published philosophical worries about Darwinism. The works in this subgenre have by and large been thought to be lacking in empirical and scholarly rigor. This trend has caused a great disturbance in the profession, as philosophical epistemologists and philosophers of science are especially sensitive to ridicule they face from scientists who write in the popular press.

Enter Mohan Matthen. Writing at NewAPPS, Mohan worries that some of the leading lights of the profession are not living up to expectations.

Why exactly are Alvin Plantinga and Tom Nagel reviewing each other? And could we have expected a more dismal intellectual result than Plantinga on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in the New Republic? When two self-perceived victims get together, you get a chorus of hurt: For recommending an Intelligent Design manifesto as Book of the Year, Plantinga moans, “Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.”

My heart goes out to anybody who utters such a wail, knowing that he is himself held in precisely the same low esteem. My mind, however, remains steely and cold.

Plantinga writes, “Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of [life evolving by natural selection] in the time available is extremely low.” And this, he says, is “right on target.” This is an extremely substantive scientific claim—and given Plantinga’s mention of “genetic mutation”, “time available,” etc., it would seem that he recognizes this. So you might hope that he and Nagel had examined the scientific evidence in some detail, for nothing else would justify their assertions on this point. Sadly, neither produces anything resembling an argument for their venturesome conclusion, nor even any substantial citation of the scientific evidence. They seem to think that the estimation of such probabilities is well within the domain of a priori philosophical thought. (Just to be clear: it isn’t.)

Coda

Pre-theoretic intuitions are here to stay, so we have to moderate how we think about their evidential role. The metaphysics of modality cannot be dismissed out of hand — we need necessity. But we also need for the idea of necessity to be tempered by our best scientific practices.

The year is at its nadir. November was purgatory, as all Novembers are. But now December has arrived, and the nights have crowded out the days. And an accompanying darkness has descended upon philosophy. Though the wind howls and the winter continues unabated, we can find comfort in patience. Spring cannot be far off.

Issue No.147 of the Philosopher’s Carnival will be hosted by Philosophy & Polity. See you next year.

About the author

Of Morals and Philosorabbits

Andrei and Leila were on a walk when they came upon a sign.

When the rabbits stopped for pause, Andrei was ready to opine:

“I do not know who made this ugly thing”, said Andrei (with quite a fuss).

“Who says we ought not walk on the grass? How come the grass is not for us?”

“I do not know,” Leila said, ready at his wing.

“I suppose that we could go ahead and ask the author of the thing.

…But I do not know the author’s name, address, or anything even close.

For all I know, the author may have been a god, a man, or maybe even ghost.”

“That I doubt,” said Andrei. “And perhaps we do not even need to know,

who it was that wrote this sign and put it up for show.

The only thing we need is to know what makes it true.

And I say that — if the sign’s advice is correct — it is good for me and you.

Perhaps the grass is where the farmer hides his bombs and dynamite.

The sign is there to decrease our harm and increase in our delight.”

Satisfied, the rabbits continued walking, and got further down the way.

As they walked, a brand new sign was by the road, looming large in the mid-day.

But lurking below the sign was a low-down dirty thief,

Eavesdropping upon the rabbits, prepared to give them grief.

“Consolation for my victims, yes — and hence, these signs are true;

they are well suited for the credulous, for idiots, and for buffoons.

But I am no fool, so I will keep acting in whatever way I think is best,

So I will ignore these quaint suggestions, and let loose upon the rest.”

“It is plain enough,” said Leila, “That your victims suffer.

They lose the things that they once had, and this makes their lives much tougher.”

Leila wavered then, haunted by his words.

“But I see your point — why should anyone be moral if being moral is for the birds?”

“Ah,” says Andrei, “Well, I guess it depends on who you are.

If you are an anti-social goon, these signs will not take you very far.

So whenever a psycho nutter says, “What is morality to me?”

They do not have a need for trust, so no answer can be gleaned.

But if our new friend has a social bent, we say another thing:

‘Your reason to not steal is that you are a social be-ing.'”

“Hmm,” said the thief. “Alright, I admit that there’s some reason not to steal.

I just don’t know why you believe reasons obscure less than they reveal.

But perhaps, to see my point, you’d best follow me further up the hill,

To meet a friend of mine, whose name is Jack-Bill.”

On and up the hill they went, the three marched all in a line,

And at the top they met a creature that made the rabbits want to hide.

The thing they met was an abomination, a fluffy monster with two heads,

And either head spoke the contrary of what its neighbor said.

Said the thief to the creature: “Hullo, Jack-Bill — what say you to stealing?”

“It makes me giddy,” said the head of Bill. “No! Never!,” said Jack, “It leaves me reeling!”

“So you see,” said the thief, turning back to the troupe.

“All your talk of reason-this and reason-that? It’s just a lot of goop.

Despite their frightening looks, Jack-Bill is very nice.

We can call him “moral”, “pro-social”, or whatever you would like.

So moral claims aren’t really ‘true’ or ‘false’ when you get down to the brass tacks.

When we say a thing is moral we mean “hooray,” and when immoral, “boo to that”.

“Alright,” said Leila. “There’s no need to get too pensive —

Jack-Bill is incoherent, his capriciousness offensive.”

“Well, look,” said the thief, increasingly distressive.

“Like I said before, in words which you did not find impressive:

for me to say a moral claim is true, is to say to it that I consent.

For otherwise, I would have to defer to those whose brains are daft and bent.”

Andrei was quiet for a time, as if he were imitating mice:

and said, “That’s just fine, my new friend — but would you go to them for advice?

If not — if their lack of due deliberation makes for over-wrought demands —

Then they are not to be trusted, they can give you no commands.

So you trust yourself as final arbiter, when in the company of fools,

But that is only reason to make sensible friends, not to abandon all the rules.”

At this point, Jack-Bill roared as loud as seven oceans.

“I have ears, you know,” Bill said. “You hurt my emotions!”

Just then, the thief looked at Jack, waiting patient with a smirk.

Unexpectedly, Jack stared their way and said, “Actually, I agree with Bill — you’re all jerks.”

With that, they both breathed fireballs, and the other rabbits ran away.

Though later on, something happened in the coldest hours of the day…

Jack-Bill talked more to himself, exploring his sense of rational will,

And by degrees Jack-Bill split into two, creating Jack and Bill.

While before they had been united, when both indulged their inclinations,

Now, they found that talk in reasons made for healthier relations.

As time went on, it was not so hard for each to have their own perspectives,

Where earlier each were caught providing in rudderless correctives.

The trio ran and ran, into the forest deep,

and along the way, as they ran, Andrei and Leila lost the thief.

Andrei was bewildered at the canopy, and shivered at spooky sounds,

While Leila (made of sturdy stuff) offered to look around.

Alas, getting lost herself, the dark and dank surrounded,

The owls screeched out in hoots of despair, her direction was confounded.

She looked to and fro, and everywhere, the world looked all the same,

On the left there was little light; and to the right, the same.

Presently, however, she glimpsed a burning light:

A fairy, bright and blue, kept darting in and out of sight.

“Psst,” said the fairy, with a no-nonsense business sense.

If morals are just good advice, it only works when between friends.

But out here in the darkness, the forest is unkind,

It picks off little strangers who are lost, unwary, and blind.

If moral claims are true, they would not be much good,

They would apply to your relations with your friend, but mean nothing in these woods.”

“Help me, then!” cried Leila. “We could really use a hand!”

“I would be glad to help,” the fairy replied. “My services are in high demand.”

“Indeed, for a low price of nine dollars and thirty cents,

My associates and I can get you out of this predicament.

So would you like to pay by cash, or cheque, or credit card?

Keep in mind, the offer is limited, so be sure to think fast and hard.”

“But I have no funds,” said Leila. “We’re lost and all alone!

Can’t, from the kindness of your heart, you just direct me to a phone?”

But no: the fairy receded back

into the inky black.

And Leila was left there waiting in the cold canopy,

And the leaves twisted back and forth, as if a dark conspiracy.

The dusk settled upon the land,

And two wayward rabbits sat alone, each waited for the end.

And whatever happened next,

depends mostly on you.

What makes the fairy wrong?

What can the rabbits say or do?

So you want to be a moral error theorist

Inspired by the conversation with Russell in his thread on error theory, I’ve written a sordid little dialogue on the subject, and put it in the form of a Prezi presentation. I hope you like it, or at least don’t hate it completely.

Four kinds of philosophical people

We’ll begin this post where I ended the last. The ideal philosopher lives up to her name by striving for wisdom. In practice, the pursuit of wisdom involves developing a sense of good judgment when tackling very hard questions. I think there are four skills involved in the achievement of good judgment: self-insight, humility, rigor, and cooperativeness.

Even so, it isn’t obvious how the philosophical ideal is supposed to model actual philosophers. Even as I was writing the last post, I had the nagging feeling that I was playing the role of publicist for philosophy. A critic might say that I set out to talk about how philosophers were people, but only ended up stating some immodest proposals about the Platonic ideal of the philosopher. The critic might ask: Why should we think that it has any pull on real philosophers? Do the best professional philosophers really conceive of themselves in this way? If I have no serious answer to these questions, then I have done nothing more than indulged in a bit of cheerleading on behalf of my beloved discipline. So I want to start to address that accusation by looking at the reputations of real philosophers.

Each individual philosopher will have their own ideas about which virtues are worth investing in and which are worth disregarding. Even the best working philosophers end up neglecting some of the virtues over the others: e.g., some philosophers might find it relatively less important to write in order to achieve consensus among their peers, and instead put accent on virtues like self-insight, humility, and rigour. Hence, we should expect philosophical genius to be correlated with predictable quirks of character which can be described using the ‘four virtues’ model. And if that is true, then we should be able to see how major figures in the history of philosophy measure up to the philosophical ideal. If the greatest philosophers can be described in light of the ideal, we should be able to say we’ve learned something about the philosophers as people.

And then I shall sing to the Austrian mountains in my best Julie Andrews vibrato: “public relations, this is not“.

—-

In my experience, many skilled philosophers who work in the Anglo-American tradition will tend to have a feverish streak. They will tend to find a research program which conforms with their intuitions (some of which may be treated as “foundational” or givens), and then hold onto that program for dear life. This kind of philosopher will change her mind only on rare occasions, and even then only on minor quibbles that do not threaten her central programme. We might call this kind of philosopher a “programmist” or “anti-skeptic, since the programmist downplays the importance of humility, and is more interested in characterizing herself in terms of the other virtues like philosophical rigour.

You could name a great many philosophers who seem to hold this character. Patricia and Paul Churchland come to mind: both have long held the view that the progress of neuroscience will require the radical reformation of our folk psychological vocabulary. However, when I try to think of a modern exemplar of this tradition, I tend to think of W.V.O. Quine, who held fast to most of his doctrinal commitments throughout his lifetime: his epistemological naturalism and holism, to take two examples. This is just to say that Quine thought that the interesting metaphysical questions were answerable by science. Refutation of the deeper forms of skepticism was not very high on Quine’s agenda; if there is a Cartesian demon, he waits in vain for the naturalist’s attention. The most attractive spin on the programmist’s way of doing things is by saying they have raised philosophy to the level of a craft, if not a science.

—-

Programmists are common among philosophers today. But if I were to take you into a time machine and introduced you to the elder philosophers, then it would be easy to lose all sense of how the moderns compare with their predecessors. The first philosophers lived in a world where science was young, if not absent altogether; there was no end of mystery to how the universe got on. For many of them, there was no denying that skepticism deserved a place at the table. From what we can tell from what they left behind, many ancient philosophers (save Aristotle and Pythagoras) did not possess the quality that we now think of as analytic rigour. The focus was, instead, of developing the right kind of life, and then — well, living it.

We might think of this as a wholly different approach to being a philosopher than our modern friend the programmist. These philosophers were self-confident and autonomous, yet had plenty to say to the skeptic. For lack of a better term, we might call this sort of philosopher a “guru” or “informalist“. The informalist trudges forward, not necessarily with the light of reason and explicit argument, but of insight and association, often expressed in aphorisms. To modern professional philosophers and academic puzzle-solvers, the guru may seem like a specialist in woo and mysticism, a peddler of non-sequiturs. Many an undergraduate in philosophy will aspire to be a guru, and endure the scorn from their peers  (often, rightly administered).

Be that as it may, some gurus end up having a vital place in the history of modern philosophy. Whenever I think of the ‘guru’ type of philosopher, I tend to think of Frederich Nietzsche — and I feel justified in saying that in part because I guess that he would have accepted the title. For Nietzsche, insight was the single most important feature of the philosopher, and the single trait which he felt was altogether lacking in his peers.

Nietzsche was a man of passion, which is the reason why he is so easily misunderstood. Also, for a variety of reasons, Nietzsche was a man who suffered from intense loneliness. (In all likelihood, the fact that he was a rampant misogynist didn’t help in that department.) But he was also a preacher’s son, his rhetoric electric, his sermons brimming with insight and even weird lapses into latent self-deprecation. Moreover, he is a man who wrote in order to be read, and who was excited by the promise of new philosophers coming out to replace old canons. In the long run, he got what he wanted; as Walter Kaufman wrote, “Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure”.

—-

“He has the pride of Lucifer.” — Russell on Wittgenstein

Some philosophers prefer to strike out on their own, paving an intellectual path by way of sheer stamina and force of will. We might call them the “lone wolves“. The lone wolf will often appear as a kind of contrarian with a distinctive personality. However the lone wolf is set apart from a mere devil’s advocate by virtue of the fact that she needs to pump unusually deep wellsprings of creativity and cleverness into her craft. Because she needs to strike off alone, the wolf has to be prepared to chew bullets for breakfast: there is no controversial position she is incapable of endorsing, so long as those positions qualify as valid moves in the game of giving and taking of reasons. She is out for adventure, to prove herself capable of working on her own. More than anything else, the lone wolf despises philosophical yes-men and yes-women. She has no time for the people who are satisfied by conventional wisdom — people who revere the ongoing dialectic as a sacred activity, a Great Conversation between the ages. The lone wolf says: the hell with this! These are problems, and problems are meant to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a lone wolf, in the sense that nobody could quite refute Wittgenstein except for Wittgenstein. The philosophical monograph which made him famous, the Tractatus, began with an admission of idiosyncracy: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts.—So it is not a textbook.—Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.” He was a private man, who published very little while alive, and whose positions were sometimes unclear even to his students. He was an intense man, reputed to have wielded a hot poker at one of his contemporaries. And he had an oracular style of writing — the Tractatus resembles an overlong Powerpoint presentation, while the Investigations was a free-wheeling screed. These qualities conspired to give the man himself an almost mythical quality. As Ernest Nagel wrote in 1936 (quoting a Viennese friend): “in certain circles the existence of Wittgenstein is debated with as much ingenuity as the historicity of Christ has been disputed in others”.

Wittgenstein’s work has lasting significance. His anti-private language argument is a genuine philosophical innovation, and widely celebrated as such. As such, he is the kind of philosopher that everybody has to know at least something about. But none of this came about by the power of idiosyncrasy alone. Wittgenstein achieved notoriety by demonstrating that he had a penetrating ability to go about the whole game of giving and taking reasons.

—-

“Synthesizers are necessarily dedicated to a vision of an overarching truth, and display a generosity of spirit towards at least wide swaths of the intellectual community. Each contributes partial views of reality, Aristotle emphasizes; so does Plotinus, and Proclus even more widely…” Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies

Some philosophers are skilled at combining the positions and ideas that are alive in the ongoing conversation and weaving them into an overall picture. This is a kind of philosopher that we might call the “syncretist“. Much like the lone wolf, the syncretist despises unchallenged dogmatism; but unlike the lone wolf, this is not because she enjoys the prospect of throwing down the gauntlet. Rather, the syncretist enjoys the murmur of people getting along, engaged in a productive conversation. Hence, the syncretist is driven to reconcile opposing doctrines, so long as those doctrines are plausible. When she is at her best, the syncretist is able to generate a powerful synthesis out of many different puzzle pieces, allowing the conversation to become both more abstract without also becoming unintelligible. They do not just say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” — instead, they demonstrate how the blooming of one flower only happens when in the company of others.

The only philosopher that I have met who absolutely exemplifies the spirit of the syncretist, and persuasively presents the syncretist as a virtuous standpoint in philosophy, is the Stanford philosopher Helen Longino. In my view, her book The Fate of Knowledge is a revelation.

A more infamous [example] of the syncretist, however, is Jurgen Habermas. Habermas is an under-appreciated philosopher, a figure who is widely neglected in Anglo-American philosophy departments and (for a time) was widely scorned in certain parts of Europe. True, Habermas is a difficult philosopher to read. And, in fairness, one sometimes gets the sense that his stuff is a bit too ecumenical to be motivated on its own terms. But part of what makes Habermas close to an ideal philosopher is that he is an intellectual who has read just about everything — he has partaken in wider conversations, attempting to reconcile the analytic tradition with themes that stretch far beyond its remit. Habermas also has a prodigious output: he has written on a countless variety of subjects, including speech act theory, the ethics of assertion, political legitimation, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, collective action, critical theory and the theory of ideology, social identity, normativity, truth, justification, civilization, argumentation theory, and doubtless many other things. If a dozen people carved up his bibliography and each staked a claim to part of it, you’d end up with a dozen successful academic careers.

For some intellectuals, syncretism is hard to digest. Just as both mothers in the court of King Solomon might have felt equally betrayed, the unwilling subjects of the syncretist’s analysis may respond with ill tempers. In particular, the syncretist grates on the nerves of those who aspire to achieve the status of lone wolf intellectuals. Take two examples, mentioned by Dr. Finlayson (Sussex). On the one hand, Marxist intellectuals will sometimes like to accuse Habermas of “selling out” — for instance, because Habermas has abandoned the usual rhythms of dialectical philosophy by trying his hand at analytic philosophy. On the other hand, those in analytic philosophy are not always very happy to recognize Habermas as a precursor to the shape of analytic philosophy today. John Searle explains in an uncompromising review: “Habermas has no theory of social ontology. He has something he calls the theory of communicative action. He says that the “purpose” of language is communicative action. This is wrong. The purpose of language is to perform speech acts. His concept of communicative action is to reach agreement by rational discussion. It has a certain irony, because Habermas grew up in the Third Reich, in which there was another theory: the “leadership principle”.” I suspect that Searle got Habermas wrong, but nobody said life as a philosopher was easy.

—-

Everything I’ve said above is a cartoon sketch of some philosophical archetypes. It is worth noting, of course, that none of the philosophers I have mentioned will fit into the neat little boxes I have made for them. The vagaries of the human personality resist being reduced to archetypes. Even in the above, I cheated a little: Nietzsche is arguably as much a lone wolf as he is a guru. I also don’t mean to suggest that all professional philosophers will fit into anything quite like these categories. Some are by reputation much too close to the philosophical ideal to fit into an archetype. (Hilary Putnam comes to mind.) And other professional philosophers are nowhere close to the ideal — there is no shortage of philosophers behaving badly. I mean only to say something about how you can use the ‘four virtues’ model of wisdom to say something interesting about philosophers themselves.

(BLS Nelson is the author of this article. For more information about him, click here.)

Seeing philosophers as people

“It is the profession of philosophers,” David K. Lewis writes, “to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice.” He adds that this is a dangerous profession, since “philosophers are more easily discredited than platitudes.” As it turns out, in addition to being a brilliant philosopher, Lewis was a master of understatement.

For some unwary souls, conversation with the philosopher can feel like an attack or assault. The philosopher’s favorite hobby is critical discussion, and this is almost guaranteed to be — shall we say — annoying. (Indeed, I am tempted to say that if it weren’t annoying, it would be a sign that something has gone wrong — that the conversation is becoming stale and irrelevant.) Ordinary folk, on the other hand, generally try to do what it takes to get along with others, which means being polite and trying to smooth over conflict, and it may seem as though the philosopher has terrible manners for asking too many uncomfortable questions. And the ordinary folk are sometimes quite right. Indeed, sometimes what passes for philosophy really is just a trivial bloodsport, a pointless game of denigration and insult with no productive bottom line that is disguised as disinterested inquiry (as illustrated by this hilarious spoof article).

The estrangement between philosophers and non-philosophers might owe to the fact that there is no strong consensus about what it means to be a philosopher. For one thing, philosophers are under external pressure to tell the world just who the hell they think they are. As funding is increasingly being diverted away from the humanities, the self-identity of the philosopher has started to be put under increased scrutiny. For another thing, the discipline is suffering from some internal strain. Analytic philosophy once had a strong mission statement: to clear up conceptual confusions by revealing how people were being fooled by grammar into committing to absurd theses. Unfortunately, over the past few decades the analytic philosopher’s confidence in their ability to do conceptual analysis has suffered. The tried and true philosophical reliance upon aprioristic reasoning has fallen increasingly out of favor, as greater awareness of insights from psychology and the social sciences have begun to undermine the credibility of distinctively philosophical inquiry. The harder that the social sciences encroach upon aprioristic terrain, the harder that rear-guard philosophers try to push back, and it is not at all obvious that they are winning the fight. It is against this background that Livengood et al. confess: “Many signs point to an identity crisis in contemporary philosophy. As a group, we philosophers are puzzled and conflicted about what exactly philosophy is.”

I don’t really think that philosophers should worry very much about their sense of identity, because there is a pretty straightforward way of characterizing the ideal philosopher. But in order to see why, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it means to be a philosopher: why it’s worth it, how non-philosophers can benefit from whatever the philosopher is up to, and how philosophers can figure out how to do their business better. We should start thinking more often about what the philosophical personality looks like, so that everyone can relate to philosophers as people.

A not-awful definition of philosophy could begin thus: “All philosophers are lovers — they are lovers of wisdom”. This gives due credit to the etymology of philosophy (which, of course, is commonly translated as ‘love of wisdom’.) But it also sounds a bit perverse. Indeed, when little Johnny comes back from Oxford after a year of study philosophy, and tells Mom that he has fallen in love with an abstract noun, one ought not be surprised if Mom frets for Johnny. So what I mean needs to be unpacked a little.

In the abstract, I would argue that wisdom involves at least four virtues: insight, prudence, reason, and fair-mindedness. In practice, I think, wisdom involves a degree of self-insight (the ability to articulate and weigh one’s intuitions), intellectual humility (the ability to actively poke at and potentially abandon those intuitions), intellectual rigor (the ability to reason through the implications of what one thinks), and cooperatively engaged (the ability to communicate one’s own convictions in a cooperative and illuminating way). That is the sort of person that the philosopher ought to be.

This is not to suggest that this ideal of the philosopher is one that every philosopher in every time in history would endorse. To choose a recent example, one prominent philosopher argued (tongue-in-cheek, I think) that contemporary philosophers just aren’t like that. He argues: “What is literally true is that we philosophers value knowledge, like our colleagues in other departments. Do we love knowledge? One might reasonably demur from such an emotive description.” Evidently, the working assumption is that the reader learning this information is better served if they lower their expectations of philosophy, instead of lowering their expectations of the people working in philosophy departments. I cannot think of any way to reasonably motivate this assumption.

But even if we thought that somehow the quoted author had it right, the history of the future would show him wrong. The greatest luminaries in philosophy, the great wise and dead, have a tendency to crowd out the loud and supercilious living. Their ability to command our attention owes to the fact that philosophical luminaries have always filled an essential cultural need: namely, they have helped to reinvent the idea of what it means to come to maturity, by striving to be insightful, humble, rigorous, and engaged. ‘The love of wisdom’ is not [just] a roundabout way of speaking about valuing knowledge — it is a way of talking about trying to be better as people. Philosophers ask us be at our best when they ask us to study wisdom for its own sake, because philosophy is as essential to adulthood as preschool is to the young.

This, I think, is a not-totally-unsatisfying way of looking at the ideal philosopher. But there is a lot missing. It doesn’t really capture the kind of energy that goes into doing philosophy, the nerdy thrill that goes into tackling the biggest questions you can think of. I have not given you any reason to think that the ideal of wisdom tells us anything about what real philosophers are like. I’m saving that for the next post.

[Substantial edit for clarity on Aug. 21]

(BLS Nelson is the author of this article. For more information about him, click here.)