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03/09/2013

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Matt DeStefano

This is a great paper, thank you for posting this here. I don't have any contributions to add just yet, but this approach to philosophy is fascinating.

Marcus Arvan

Really interesting paper, with lots of good stuff (amazing all of the examples from recent history Hajek gives to illustrate each heuristic!).

I would like to suggest two additional heuristics for philosophical creativity:

(1) After reading the literature on an issue, try to (a) work out the issue in question as much as you can entirely from the ground up, (b) in as simple and intuitive of a manner as possible, (c) explicitly ignoring literally everything people have written about the issue in the literature.

Allow me to explain this one. I think a big key to philosophical creativity is "not falling into how everyone else thinks" about a given issue. It's very easy to fall into conventional patterns of thinking if you just immerse yourself in the literature and think from within in it. Instead, read up on the literature -- but then, once you have a "feeling" that the literature has gone off the right track, try to set it aside *entirely* and just try to work out everything from the ground up in a way that you might try to put together an intuitive story for a smart undergraduate. My experience is that. when I do this -- when I set aside the literature and try look at a problem "with fresh eyes" -- I tend to come up with arguments and positions quite different than those already out there in the literature.

This isn't to say that the ideas are always (or even often) *good* ones. Sometimes (often!), the more I think through an unconventional idea I generate in this way, I find that the idea doesn't work, and conventional ways of thinking are more on the mark. Be that as it may, trying to work things out from the ground up is a great way to get "outside the box." And, I would add -- to put a twist on a familiar refrain -- the best way to have a good original idea is to simply have a lot of original ideas (for every 9 bad ones, you might just happen upon 1 good one).

(2) I also find it can be helpful to lay out on the table the assumptions that all parties to a particular philosophical debate accept in common. After all, if you really want to make a novel contribution to a debate, one obvious way to do it is to show that there's an assumption that *everyone* makes that isn't obviously defensible.

Two famous cases of this:

(A) Einstein. Everyone assumes space and time are absolute. But, Einstein reasons, the speed of light has been observed to be the same in every frame of reference -- in which case space and time can't be absolute. So, space and time aren't absolute.

(B) Kant. Just about everyone (from Plato and Aristotle on down) tacitly assumes an instrumental conception of normativity. But, ordinary moral commands appear categorical in structure. Thus, in order to vindicate ordinary moral discourse, we need to see if any good sense can be made of categorical normativity.

Now, of course, few (if any) of us can ever make contributions like these -- but surely they are not bad examples to follow!

Nick Smyth

I want to express some moderate reservations about this list. Many of these techniques are useful in certain areas of philosophy, especially those where formalization is both possible and fruitful. I do not for a moment doubt that they will be helpful to many. However, for a start, notice that the author does not recommend that we examine linguistic or social practices, delve into the history of various concepts, or try to link our philosophical observations to a well supported psychological theory. I take it that many people (in particular, those who follow either Hume or Wittgenstein) believe that these forms of inquiry are essential to responsible philosophical practice. Further, it is no accident that these forms of inquiry resist analogies to games of chess. This is because they involve staying in contact with reality, rather than seeking to plot one's next best dialectical "move".

I am quite sure that the author did not mean to express these biases, but I think that is what they are. If the first thing that you want to mention when providing a list of philosophical heuristics is the notion that we should imagine the most "extreme", far-fetched or otherwise remote cases that we can, then you are plainly aligning yourself with a certain meta-philosophical orientation, one which might well be labeled "scholastic".

T. Parent

I had a similar reaction as Nick's. Hájek (who is a terrifically bright fellow, btw) is right that his heuristics are not *antithetical* to depth. And yes, one can always set aside the heuristics. Still, we would expect them to *encourage* "scholasticism" to some degree, no?

Mark Alfano

Nick and T.: Do you think that there are no heuristics appropriate for "linguistic turn" and empirically-informed approaches?

I agree that Hájek's advice is best for certain kinds of philosophical thought, but that doesn't mean there isn't analogous advice for other styles of thought. Or does it?

Also, it seems to me that even his ahistorical approach might be fruitfully used by historically- and empirically-informed philosophers. For instance, consider the "look at the extremes" heuristic. One way to apply this in textual interpretation is to try to come up with the most extreme interpretation that doesn't falsify the text (presumably this is something like what Derrida was doing in his interpretation of Nietzsche is Spurs).

Or think about empirically-informed philosophy. One very common move there is to look only at modal results, and so to treat that fact that, say 60% of participants in condition C responded in way W as an indication that C causes W. But people like Don Loeb have made a point of emphasizing diversity, rather than modal results. Perhaps a good heuristic for empirically-informed philosophy would be to attend both to modal results and diversity, and to seek a unified explanation of both.

Dan Dennis

Whenever I seem to be getting stuck I remind myself to go back to the fundamental question of ethics and political philosophy (and I would argue all philosophy) – ‘What shall I do?’ If an idea or argument cannot help me answer this question then it is redundant.

Note that clarifying the options that are available to me – and thus clarifying the nature of the world and how it works – is part of answering this question.

T. Parent

Hi Mark,
I would endorse a lot of what Marcus says in his comment.(Perhaps I would de-emphasize his point (c). But the basic intent--to understand matters in your own terms--is certainly good.) Re: empirically-informed philosophy, I'm not sure what is meant by the modal results, but looking at data from different angles is undoubtedly beneficial.

I'm not against heuristics per se. It's just that the particular heuristics mentioned by Hájek assume that certain kinds of philosophy are worthwhile. (Not that I categorically reject that assumption, but I think we should not adopt it uncritically...)

Dan Dennis

An obvious one is : Ask ‘Why?’ – and whatever answer you get (or come up with for yourself), ask ‘Why?’ again.

Variations include ‘Why think that?’ ‘Why do that?’ ‘Why is that important?’

It can also be helpful to branch out into questions such as, ‘What is the point of that?’ ‘Is that any use?’ ‘Is that meaningful?’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What does that imply?’ ‘Are you serious?’

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